Thursday, 30 January 2014

Say Cabaye to the Box-to-box Midfielder - (a.k.a. The Evolution of the Premiership Middle-men.)

Yohan Cabaye is dead. Well, not quite. He plays/ collects money in Ligue 1 now but for the 2 and a bit years he spent in the premier league he was a delight. A complete midfielder, able to pass, tackle and supply that little bit of magic with the odd wonder goal. But are players of his ilk a dying breed?  A box to box midfielder, someone expected to get forward but also track back. Is such a player a liability in these days of individual tactical responsibility and the battle for possession in the midfield now crucial.

In the UK at least, the notion of a general surgeon is long outdated. Surgeons are specialised. They do the same operation everyday and get damn good at it. Why would I trust a surgeon who hasn’t done this job for a couple of weeks when I can go to someone who did two yesterday? This idea of restricted freedom and duty is slowly being transferred into the world of Premier league midfielders.

Most teams now play a 4-2-3-1 formation, or some variation thereof. A defensive pivot of two defensive midfielders, and a number 10/trequartista to sit behind the striker. Think Carrick and Phil Jones behind Wayne Rooney. Or Flamini and Wilshere behind Özil. Or Lampard and Ramires behind Oscar... I could go on. Responsibility is distributed. This is most starkly seen in the Chelsea team, where the starting are separated in a back 7 and a front 4. The goalkeeper, 4 defenders and two midfielders rarely get involved in attacks. Whilst the front four, consisting of 3 attacking midfielders and a striker are left to go and try and score.

These new roles go hand in hand with the redefining of the full back. The days of the safe full back (your Gary Nevilles and Grahame Le Sauxs) are on the way out. Full backs seem to have less defensive responsibility than ever before and free reign to get forward and get involved with the attack. This leaves just the two centre halves as defensive cover from a counter attack, so it is only natural for one of two midfielders to drop back to fill the gaps to leave the team balanced. This is displayed well by Southampton with Luke Shaw and Clyne/Chambers often seen joining the cause up top with Victor Wanyama or Morgan Schneiderlin able to drop in on each respective side of the pitch.

SEE. Go through the top teams. How many box to box midfielders can you name. Oh. You think you’ve got some? Who?

Yaya Toure is perhaps the closest at Man City; but Dietmer Hamann (and I) would argue that he is purely attacking force nowadays. He loves to bomb forward. And I certainly wouldn’t argue that he is a defensive box to attacking box player. Great at making strides forwards. Turning defence into attack. But he is actually a bit of a liability when it comes to tracking back; more often than not it is left up to his partner Fernandinho to sweep up and hold fort at the back.

This certainly is a changing of the landscape of the premier. Most of the great premiership teams of recent years have had a clichē box to box midfield. Patrick Viera at Arsenal was the epitomē of one. Strong and well timed tackles, powerful runs forwards and decisive actions in the final third. Jose’s original Chelsea could be argued to have had two in Frank Lampard and Michael Essien. Manchester United had Paul Scholes, although he was much maligned for his tackling he had an exquisite ability to pick a pass and has a more than respectable scoring record.  

Whether this is a phase or a sign of things to come only time will tell. And in answer to your question; I do think of the title first and write an article to fit it. 

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Manchester United vs. Sunderland - League Cup Semi-Final.

Manchester United/ Moyes in crisis. Repeat ad nauseam. 14 points off the top of the league and in danger of crashing out of the league cup; it’s been quite a while since a league cup match felt quite so important for a Manchester United side. But the place in the final and a chance at a piece of silverware for two managers with zero major honours to their name is no to be sniffed at.

Story so far:

Sunderland 2-1 Manchester United.

Gus Poyet’s men carry a slender advantage with them to Old Trafford this evening. In the first leg, 15 days ago: a cheap Ryan Gigg’s own goal late in the first half gave Sunderland the lead. This was cancelled out by a towering header by Nemanja Vidic. Parity only lasted 13 minutes before Tom Cleverly gave away a dubious penalty against Adam Johnson. This was brilliantly dispatched by Borini. That was that. However, due to the away goal’s rule Moyes’ boys just need a one-nil win to put them through to the final. The reward of a game against Manchester City in said final may not seem too appetizing though...

Key Clash:

Manchester United’s central midfield is much maligned this season. Typified by the abuse that follows Tom Cleverley and Marouane Fellani around and the constant speculation about other midfielders joining. But United have had periods of dominance in the majority of matches they have played this season (such as the opening twenty minutes against Chelsea on Sunday). However, far too often their forwards will miss a gilt-edge chance (such as Welbeck’s against Chelsea) and then their defence will hand the opposition a goal (such as Chelsea’s second and third on Sunday). The midfield is not doing too much different to last year, Carrick is still an excellent passer of the ball and the more combative Jones can still break up play. Whether there is a creative presence either in the number ten role or on the wings capable of creating enough opportunities to fire united through will be key. (See: key men). Sunderland’s central midfield is hardly celebrated for their creativity. Instead it is their industry which is noteworthy. If players like Lee Cattermole and Jack Colback can stop the link between Carrick and Adnan Januzaj then you feel this tie will be Sunderland’s.

Key Men:

Sunderland, Occasional maverick and one time alcoholic Adam Johnson is a man in form at the moment. Winning the penalty against united, followed by a well taken hat-trick against Fulham then a delightful equaliser Saturday lunchtime at Southampton. Call for a spot on the plane the Rio may be a bit premature but he certainly is a man who could have a big say in this cup tie. He is a rarity in this Sunderland squad, capable of moments of magic and will be crucial to a side likely to vent much of their attacking intent through counter attacks.

Manchester United,  “You’ll never win anything with Kids.” Well, to be fair with Aston Villa’s youthful exuberance firmly in mid-table and a side increasingly reliant on Adnan Januzaj looking more likely to join the mid-table scrap then the title push, Alan Hansen might have had a point. The 18 year old proud Kosovan has been a rare bright spark for united this season, and until Wayne Rooney or Robin Van Persie return (or a new signing is made) that looks likely to continue. He is fast maturing into quite the footballer, able to commit defenders, play a lovely through ball or finish with self assurance that belies his age. Maybe it’s the innocence or arrogance of youth; I’m not sure. But as long as it continues this is a player capable of causing Sunderland a lot of problems this evening.

Final Thoughts:

Years of conditioning have led me to not back against a United side whom only need a one-nil win at home against relegation fodder. Today will be no different. There surely has to be a backlash from this side, a statement of there’s still life in the old dog yet. There is enough quality in Welbeck/Januzaj/Valenica/Hernandez to score at least one goal against Wes Brown/John O’Shea. Whether one (or two) goals is enough will then come into play. Without Vidic due to suspension, Johnny Evans will likely start, his partner either Jones/Smalling. All talents capable of keeping Jozy “the human wall” Altidore quiet. (We’ll see if that catches on, he certainly displays about as much movement in between the lines as a wall).
This is there for united's taking, book their place in the final against Manchester City and Moyes’ and the articles of crisis will dry up for at 6 days until they lose play again. Respite.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Alternate World XI

The 13th of January saw the crowning of the FIFA/FIFPRO World XI. Chosen by over 5,000 professionals from the world of football it aims to recognise the best eleven footballers on the planet. But what do these professional footballers know, in between training in the morning, quad biking through the countryside in the afternoon and pressuring young women into choices they’ll regret in the evening there is no time for them to watch a decent amount of football. Always keen to belatedly jump on any bandwagon; here is my alternate World XI. Besides, I have nothing else going on in my life and have plenty of time to watch and compare the world’s best.

There was only one rule: There are no rules no repeat choices from the original eleven. (So that rules out: Manuel Neuer, Dani Alves, Thiago Silva, Sergio Ramos, Philipp Lahm, Franck Ribery, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Cristiano Ronaldo)

Right here goes. Formation. 4-1-2-3-1.

This one is difficult. As Neuer is actually quite far ahead of his contenders. Thibaut Courtois seems as sensible a choice as any. Winner of the Ricardo Zamora Trophy (lowest goals to game ratio in spain) and crucial cog in the triumph in defensive oraganisation that was Aletico Madrid in 2013. Maker of fine saves and consistently impressive distribution Thibaut is fast looking the complete package. All this whilst on loan from Chelsea. Petr Cech beware.

Right Back.
Possibly the most uninspiring this category has been for years. Dani Alves most certainly is on the decline. Lahm is excellent but vouched for (and on Pep’s midfield duty). My vote goes for tenacious Argentine (is there any other kind?) Pablo Zabaleta. A rare bright spot in Mancini’s uninspiring title defence for Manchester City, a consummate professional who has added real attacking intent to his previous defensive competency. An excellent all rounder who would improve any squad.

Left Back.
A freighteningly ignorant omission from the World XI was surely David Alaba. With Lahm’s move into midfield he now has a decent case for calling himself the best full back plying his trade currently. A man who has it all, goal-line blocks, pace, attacking intent and a whirl at set-pieces. No brainer.

Centre backs.
The snub for a central defensive unit who kept a clean sheet over two legs against Barca in the champions league semi-final must not continue. To that end: Jerome Boateng. The less celebrated out of Boateng-Dante but in this humble bloggers opinion, the superior defender. The mere fact that Dante sits behind comedy defender David Luiz in his national team means he’s ineligible for this squad. To partner him Andrea Barzagli. Having a world XI without an Italian defender felt a bit wrong, but more than that, Barzagli is just a very good defender. Stong, tactically astute and able to steal the ball from under the nose of any striker. A real toss-up between him and Chiellini though at the heart of Juventus’ and Italy’s defence, with Andrea just edging it in my book. Surely he’s better then red card Magnet Mr. Ramos at least?

Defensive Midfielder.
Any team worth their salt employs a defensive midfielder nowadays. FIFPRO’s Xavi, Iniesta and Ribery would offer little protection in an actual game of football. Step up to the plate Bastian Schweinsteiger. Wining 2013 German player of the year, and being described as Jupp Heynckes as the best midfielder on the planet are good enough credentials to patrol in front of my defence. He really does have it all (except pace, but the extra yard’s in his head, he inherited it from Teddy Sheringham when he retired) power, technique and leadership. A real german machine.

Central Midfielder.
The next slot needs to be filled by a box to box midfield type. So, he’s got to have legs, an engine, defensive capabilities, be able to pick a pass and chip in with the occasional goal. 2013’s best exponent of these virtues was surely Arturo Vidal. Helping Juventus win the league at an absolute canter the tenacious Chilean (journalism 101 being discovered here: tenacious *insert south American nationality*) deserves his spot despite being completely overrun by Bayern’s midfield in the champions league *cough* it certainly didn’t rule out Iniesta/Xavi for the real XI *cough* Excuse me.

Attacking midfielder.
It being 2014 nowadays, no team should exist without a number 10, A trequartista, a playmaker. The type of people that make football fun to watch. If it was up to me this role would go to Juan Mata. The little Spanish magician really is a joy to watch. He provides assists and goals in equal measure and seems a genuinely lovely bloke to boot. What’s that?  It is up to me? He’s in then. His positional sense is outstanding. His technique; breathtaking. And his beard; adorable. His decline to Chelsea benchwarmer really is heartbreaking to watch. #freethespecialjuan.

Right Winger.
Arjen Robben. Scored the winner in the champions league final. Monkey off his back. The nearly man (THAT World cup final miss. Oh dear) became the main man. He really is just a brilliant footballer. Ferociously fast and superbly skilful. Occasionally shot happy, but always entertaining.

Left Winger.
Gareth Bale sold his soul this year; sacrificing his creative side to become a goal machine. But what a pleasantly functioning machine he was. The scorer of more wonder goals per minute then anyone in the premiership since a certain Ronaldo graced the league. A truely brilliant season, and he started life in Madrid in a similar fashion. (alright apart from a very convincing ghost impression in el clasico). Well done Gareth; do the valleys proud.

Centre Forward.
Despite having his first trophy less season at Dortmund (and being a bit of a dick at following Götze to Bayern) Robert Lewandowski is an excellent footballer. He improved his all round game this year too, dropping deep in tough games and always linking up well with Judas Götze and Marco Reus. That and he scored a lot of excellent goals; and that’s what being a centre forward is all about.

So there you are. I reckon this team would give FIFPRO’s XI a right pasting. 

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Czech Republic vs. Portugal

So here we are, the quarter finals, the best eight teams in Europe go head to head; two mouth watering clashes and two which seem, on the face of it, fairly straightforward. Of course, this is football, so no guarantees exist.

Day by day I’ll preview the upcoming match, be sure to check back.

without further ado...

Czech Republic vs. Portugal.

Even though I was in the minority of people backing the Czechs to get through the group stages. ( I even put some money to that effect) I didn’t imagine they would be group winners, I doubt even the most blind Czech fans did. Their reward: facing Portugal, I must say I’ve received better presents.

Story so far:
Everyone will be labelling this as Cristiano versus the Czech Republic, I feel that is a little unfair and I’ll try to stay away from doing that. Portugal have looked a decent side, despite a sluggish start against the Germans. They very much finished that game in the ascendency and were unlucky not to equalise, follow this with a dogged yet wasteful display against Denmark, then against the Netherlands, the closest a 2-1 has ever been to a whitewash, they were very good.

As for the Czech’s journey, they went down 4-1 to a wasteful Russia, despite having some periods of threatening possession, that result should a have been a lot worse if not for the dire finishing of Kerzhakov. They bounced back though, within six minutes against Greece they we’re 2 goals up and essentially had the points. Cech didn’t little to enhance his reputation by gifting a goal to the Greeks but they looked solid. They then played the third game very intelligently. Initially only needing a draw they started by trying to give away as little terriority as possible and upon learning of a Greek goal they didn’t go in all guns blazing, but waited and took their chance well when it came to them.

Key clash:
Ronaldo is a very good footballer, certainly the best European footballer currently in the game. As such it seems Bento has just said, “I’ll start you on the left, but just go out and win the game for me.” Although I agree with giving Ronaldo a “free role” doing this at the expense of a left sided midfielder is risky, especially when the left-back is Coentrao, a man no stranger to bombing on. Every goal Portugal have conceded has come from down their left. The German and two Danish crosses and the Robben dart which lead to their goal. Ronaldo’s shirking of defensive responsibilities allows them to double up. This I see as the key area, as for me one of the Czech’s best players has been the adventurous right-back, Gebre Selassie. If Coentrao is able to cope with him and Jiracek then I see Portugal having enough to win.

Key men:
Portugal, of course Ronaldo is a given, if he shows up this could get embarrassing for Czech Republic, it wouldn’t be very interesting to say him so i’ll give a number two (also ruling out Coentrao who I’ve already mentioned). So, my deputy key man will be Luis Nani, there are fewer player who blow hot and cold as often as Nani.  However, as much as Ronaldo can pick up the ball deep and hit if from 30 yards, the majority of his chances come from being played in behind the defence, the man with the best final ball in this side is probably Nani or Meireles, I’m giving the nod to Nani as he can also provide a bit of magic himself or provide crosses for Postiga up-front.

Czech Republic, no apologies for going for the obvious here: Tomas Rosicky. The Arsenal man missed the Poland clash but has returned to training today. He is their most talented individual and helps to control the play and is deployed  as a number 10 style playmaker, a position he thrives in (rather than the slightly more water-carrier role he is usually given at Arsenal.) If he is allowed time on the ball, he will create chances. Brief mention must go to Petr Cech, he has to have a big game if his nation are to progress, the Chelsea number one must cut out the mistakes and soft goals he has been prone to concede in this tournament.

Final Thoughts:
It would take a brave man to bet against Portugal here, and I’m not that man. I don’t think there will be much in it, but the combined factors of a solid Portuguese defence, hard-working midfield in addition to two very talented wide men in Nani and Ronaldo should carry them over the line. Postiga looks out of place at times but the option of super-sub Nelson Oliveira should mean even if this game is tight Portugal have the options to mix-it up.
As for The Czechs, the creative midfield three of Rosicky, Pilar and Jiracek certainly have goals in them, unfortunately they are servicing a rather lacklustre Baros, who looks devoid of ideas and hasn’t been making any intelligent runs thus far. Hubschmann provides a solid anchor in midfield, he really has made a difference since coming into the side after the Russia game, additionally they look safer with Kadlec in the centre of defence.
Portugal like to play reactively, hitting teams on the counter attack, so expect the Czech midfield to see much of the ball but ultimately not quite having enough to break down the defence and Portugal’s game plan paying off.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Euro 2012: Television Cover-rage

To lighten the mood around here, decided to post a list of my top three pet peeves whilst I’ve been watching the championships, these are from Her Majesty’s BBC and Simon Cowell’s ITV1 in the United Kingdom.

Before that, I’ll give out a few honourable mentions. This article was very nearly called “Euro 2012: Tannoy-ances” the tannoy systems have provided two of the worst aspects of this tournament, the infuriating countdown to kick-off before every game. Just stop it. Then after each and every goal, music is played. Seven Nation Army to be precise. After. Every. Goal. What makes it worse is that “fans” appear to be dancing to the beat and shouting along. Don’t they realise the unified roar of a crowd is joy and can’t be manufactured. I didn’t include these though as it’s not really the BBC’s or ITV’s fault, but still needed to get it off my chest.

Along with this we have the BBC’s bizarre habit of cutting straight to the studio on the blow of the final whistle for the majority of the early games, something which someone clearly complained about as they have stopped doing it. I would much rather see Shevchenko run about and whip up the crowd then Alan Hansen being a bit miserable. If it was really that import to get his instant reaction, let him talk over the images.

Now onto the real ones, in no particular order

-There seems to be a bizarre pride or obsession over British officials and referees. This goes far beyond a simple name check at the start of the game. Seems like a desperate attempt to include ourselves in a party we’re not invited; talk about the footballers please. I mean if Howard Webb makes a terrible decision by all means make a quip about how he’s must be confused and think the team in red is from Manchester, but both he and his Scottish counterpart have had quiet games. Can’t help but remember the world cup final in 2010 which was officiated by Brits, Darren Cann the linesman got a mention each correct offside called, this is a trend which needs to stop.

-If I could of thought of a pun about referee’s I most certainly would have went with that, as they are the subject matter of bad commentary once again. The 5th and 6th official. Otherwise known as “those guys who stand behind the goal and make no decisions.” My response, which I tend to shout to my television every time this accusation is brought to them, they are wearing a headset and have an electronic “wand” to communicate with the Referee. Just because they don’t storm onto the pitch, point in someone’s face or wave their arms like mad men doesn’t mean they aren’t helping. Use some common sense and intelligence please.

-First of all, the premier league is a very good league and perhaps the best in the world, and we as a nation have every right to be proud of it. However, it does seem the commentators seem to forget that it isn’t the pinnacle of everyone’s ambition to play here and other leagues exist with a equal and possibly better standard (that’s an argument for another day however.) It seems to me that most players who have played in and left the premiership are being labelled as “having a point to prove.” Sorry to whom? You?
On the subject of ignorant clichés my all time favourite which has got a few outings with Messrs Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic, “ he has the hopes of a nation resting upon his shoulders.”  Only heard of one or two of the players in the team? Bring out this little guy and sound like you know what you’re talking about. Job Done.

That’s that. I’m also not as angry as reading this back made me seem. I’ll write something positive next time. Besides, the football thus far has been of a very high standard and made for a most enjoyable group stage despite the best efforts of the commentators.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Birth of the False Nine.

It is a little known fact that on the 8th day God, already bored of the heavens and the Earth, decided to create the ideal number 9; the archetypal centre forward. His ingredients? Pace. Power. Height. Immaculate first touch. Superb eye for goal. Exotic sounding surname. Pretentious pony-tail. Extraordinarily high opinion of himself. If you haven’t guessed it yet, God created Zlatan Ibrahimovic. I am not as deluded as this opening paragraph may lead you to believe. Zlatan was indeed blessed with all the hardware and software to be one of the all time greats, but you get the feeling he’ll be remembered as a nearly man, which seems harsh.

He has scored goals wherever he has been, he has won titles and personal accolades wherever he has been. 8 titles in a row at various clubs, but the best centre forward on the market, who went for a hefty 69m €, didn’t work out at the best club in the world; Barcelona. This is a team which it would be no flattery to say has played high tempo, high pressure passing football better than any team in my life time, and probably ever. The one criticism thrown their way? No plan B. Although Barcelona’s plan A is so marvellous many purists would say lumping it up to the big man is simply not needed. But in Zlatan you get so much more than the 6 foot 5 inches, you get a technically gifted player, able to be involved in the approach play, happy and content with plan A. But, crucially, able to out-muscle and out-jump and put away that desperate injury time cross. It made perfect sense.

However, You are all perfectly aware that by Barcelona being stopped by Mourinho’s Inter that year (okay, Ibra was injured) and his subsequent move away after just one season they didn’t gel and weren’t the complete team many predicted. The reason’s it didn’t are grey and largely unknown, widely put down to a deteriorating relationship between Pep Guardiola and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Barcelona’s response was to buy David Villa, an excellent footballer, certainly a different species to Ibra. Villa never seems comfortable at the top of a formation, seen more as a supporting striker. Rather fortunately Barcelona have this player called Messi (slight understatement granted.) So our journey brings us to the popularisation of the false nine. Messi would to all intents and purposes be the front man, would he play there? Of course not. Given free license to drop deep, dragging centre-halves and allowing runners from midfield to exploit the space in behind. It can work a treat. When Barcelona lost Villa for the best part of the last season they lost their exploiter-in-chief. The man that barely needed one chance to score two goals, his finishing and conversion rate made the system work. Unfortunately, it seems teams have figured out a way to stop it; sit so deep that there isn’t any space to run in behind to, without someone as clinical as David Villa they could look blunt and subsequently lost out on both the title and champions league.

Wherever Barcelona go tactically, Spain are not too far tiki-tak-ing in their footsteps. Spain initially resisted due to having quality centre-forwards, however in Euro 2012, with Villa out, Torres rubbish (cue backlash) and Llorente tired Spain where short of world class options. So they opted for Fabregas, with the hope of Silva and Iniesta to provide the overlapping runs. This largely didn’t work, mainly because Cesc is no Messi. (but who is?) However, when David Silva was switched with Fabregas they created the cliche false 9 goal; which, should this false 9 thing catch on, will probably have a film written about it. Silva dropping deep, drawing the Italian defence with him before dastardly switching it to Fabregas running through to finish acutely.

The big question is, will this catch on? Is god’s own number nine a position of the past, too predictable in this modern game? Short answer: No. Barcelona and Spain are not the first team to experiment without a forward, David Moyes’ Everton would often play a variation of this theme with Tim Cahill attacking from midfield as the furthest man forward and Scotland have their infamous 6-4-0 formation. Though that was more anti-football than false nines. You need excellent movement and passing of pin-point accuracy to pull the false 9 off well, talents which few teams possess sufficiently, not having a focal point for crosses or to stretch the defence for through balls in behind also adds limitations to the system.

The other factor is we all love a number nine, let me tell you the tale of another pony-tailed centre forward, who once scored more than 10  premiership goals in one season. Imagine that? The country went mad. £35 m and 30 minutes of a decent performance in a F.A. cup final later the country has pretty much gotten over Andy Carroll. But mark my words, much like Michael Ricketts and Didier Drogba before him, he will not be the last classic centre forward to excite, score and lead a team to success.