Friday, 1 November 2013

Just How Good Is Oscar?

After a blistering start to the season the answer has to be even better than we thought.

At the height of all the #freeJuanMata brouhaha Jose would most often deal with the questions over why he dared to leave the Spaniard out with one simple response, Mata wasn’t playing because he had Oscar.  After the start to the season that they’ve had you have to say Jose’s already been proven right.

Last year, in his first season in England as pleasing on the eye as his play invariably was there was always a temptation to wonder exactly what he was for.  In an era where football is taken more seriously than ever and the strict adherence to prescribed formations is almost mandatory Oscar was one of those players who you couldn’t immediately see fitting in.  The fact he looks about fourteen didn’t help.  With the benefit of hindsight a slightly hit and miss debut season spent in apprenticeship on the wing and bench has both player and club now reaping the benefits.

It’s worth repeating that Oscar is their top scorer this season, netting four in nine games, already a third of his total for last season.  At no point in his career has he been unnoticed.  We’re talking about a player who scored a hat-trick in an Under 20 World Cup Final and moved to Chelsea aged only 20 for a reported £25 million.  His biggest achievement might be managing to not be overburdened with expectation since his move.  He possibly has Hazard to thank for that.  Eden signed at the same time as one of the most sought after young talents in Europe, tweeting hints about who he’d sign for like a social media focussed Lebron James.  In comparison Oscar snuck through the back door.  After both having last season to bed in it was always likely they’d improve this season.  In the case of Hazard he was many people’s dark horse for player of the year.  So far Oscar is easily outperforming him.

At 22 he already has the best of pedigrees.  He’s won the Europa League and Brazilian Championship.  He’s scored goals against the very best in the Premier League and a hall of famer against Juventus in the Champions League.  Playing as Brazil’s number 10 he’s already won the Confederation’s Cup.  He is flawless technically.  In short he should already have a bigger reputation than he has.  That he hasn’t is probably down to his nationality, Brazil have that many prodigies that the term next big thing for them is never owned, only ever borrowed.  Attention wise he probably owes Neymar about as much as he owes Hazard.

It’s amazing how instantly pivotal he’s been to Jose’s Chelsea 2.0.  In the three behind the striker he’s been first picked, notably ahead of Mata but also in front of Hazard.  Last season Benitez spoke publically about how it was impossible to fit Mata, Hazard and Oscar in the same team without sacrificing defensive solidarity.  For the big games Oscar was invariably the one to miss out.  Mourinho seems to have come to the same conclusion.  For him though the solution lies in dropping Mata.  From the start Oscar has been his first pick and always at 10.  In a squad that must have claim to more of them than any other that must have given him some boost in confidence.  As Jose says it’s not like Brazil are short of options there either. 

In the past he’s been compared in style with Mesut Ozil.  They interpret the 10 position in similar ways, although Oscar isn’t possessed of such a distinctive languid running style and doesn’t yet interpret the possibilities of space as well as the German.  But then does anyone?  Interestingly Mourinho had Ozil as his 10 throughout his time at Madrid.  Clearly he sees similarities, in result if not style.

It’s tempting to see Brazil’s victory over Spain this summer as proof that the idea of a team of rotating playmakers on a carousel is at an end.  Time and next summer will tell.  The reason Jose gives when pressed about his preference for Oscar over Mata is that the Brazilian will put in more running.  Key for pressing but just as importantly for the speed in which counterattacks can be launched.  At Real and this season with Chelsea the focus on hitting teams on the break is if not everything then pretty damn close.  The most effective way to do that is to move the ball as quickly as possible down the flanks, where the space has been left by the opposition (interestingly Brazil are also increasingly trying to play this way).  A player like Mata with their ability to run games through measured possession becomes less important when playing like this.  Whatever you think of the style, Oscar is unarguably better suited to it.

And maybe that’s why for a player as accomplished as he is he can still be said to be underappreciated, it’s tough to pin down exactly what makes him excellent.  He doesn’t dictate play with a hundred small passes.  He doesn’t rake probing balls the length of the pitch.  He doesn’t burn past full backs with his pace.  He’s merely able to find space and be precise when the ball arrives.  As such he’s close to how other new 10s interpret the game, a further forward Toni Kroos, a more compact Mesut Ozil, a less direct Thomas Muller (and it’s not an accident they’re all German, they’re currently producing more of them than any other country, including Spain).  As with them the proof in Oscar’s ability is how effective his team look with him in it. 

If proof was needed of how his reputation is growing English commentators have started changing how they say his name.  Instead of saying it like it had ‘the Grouch’ afterwards they’ve started breaking it up, Os-car with a gap in the middle.  No clue if this is more accurate but there’s a history of commentators only starting to do this when they’re sure the player in question will be going places.  Os-car has a bright future.

Ashley prefers the sound of silence
For a man apparently so set on never publically explaining his decisions Mike Ashley sure doesn’t like anyone else commenting on them.  Three local newspapers, the Chronicle, Journal and Sunday Sun are now banned from the Newcastle ground for covering a protest march before the Liverpool game.  This ban also apparently extends to away press conferences, as the press officer and Pardew refused to take questions from journalists from the three papers involved after the Sunderland defeat (a sequence of events that apparently had several South Korean journalists present questioning whether they were allowed to ask questions or not).  That Ashley (and other chairmen; Port Vale’s has recently banned their local paper the Stoke Sentinel) think that banning sections of the press will ultimately lead to more favourable coverage just shows the delusion that football can live under.  Wild comments about freedom of press aside, and there’s been some cracking coverage this week, it really does defy belief that Ashley thinks that banning papers is the best way to get his point across.  To contrast with an owner down the road who hasn’t been known for explaining his actions Ellis Short printed an apology in the pre-derby Sunderland program for some of the mistakes he’d made that have left his club in trouble.  Whatever you think of how Ashley is running his club it’s unarguable that more communication from him would be welcome from pretty much everyone.  The visit of an in form Chelsea team on Saturday is the last thing they need.  With Pardew apparently fighting to keep his job and almost certain to face questions about subjects non-football related the attention at Newcastle once again is everywhere it shouldn’t be. 

Arsenal can be contenders
Watching Chelsea beat Arsenal this week was confirmation of what should have been fairly obvious, although their team is good enough to challenge for honours this season their squad isn’t.  While both teams rested players the quality of the players Chelsea brought in was a cut above their opponents.  Broadly it’s tough to see a team with Nicholas Bendtner at its point achieving anything.  And every time Giroud falls under a heavy challenge that what they’re facing.  Against Liverpool this weekend they’ll have their main players back and will probably keep their good run of league form going.  Over the course of the season though it’s no secret what will leave them short once again.

Dangerous times for Jol

For a club the size and position of Fulham the League Cup never assumes too much importance.  That’s the case right up until you get knocked out by a lower league team.  The last thing Martin Jol needed was a visit from a Manchester United team coming off two wins and still having to make up ground themselves.  With the likelihood of a defeat this weekend and tough games coming up he’ll be doing well to keep his job.  There’s also the newly occurring phenomenon of working for an owner that wasn’t responsible for hiring him.  Unfortunately it seems like something that isn’t going away anytime soon. 

Saturday, 5 October 2013

City Need To Get Back To Winning Ways

Nothing but a win will do against Evertonon Saturday lunchtime.

It’s a good job that David Moyes is attracting negative attention for his struggles across the city.  Moyes’ labours have allowed Manuel Pellegrini to escape undue pressure for away defeats to Cardiff and Aston Villa.  Any more early slipups and not even Man Utd’s struggles will be able to deflect the questions about another stagnating title bid.

The Everton game is one City have to win.  A performance would be a bonus but a win is essential.  Because of their away form nothing else will do.  At the moment City are a different prospect at the Etihad, close to unstoppable when the mood takes them.  The game against United is a case in point.  They scored from their first four shots on target.  They outran, outpassed and outplayed the champions.  The difference between the teams in performance, desire and ability was staggering.  And then the game after they somehow contrived to lose to a Villa team without their best player.  In a season that promises to be tighter than ever every win could be crucial.  City will have to sort out their away form to win the league.  If they want to have the chance to do that they have to keep winning their home games.

Doing so against the last unbeaten team in the league won’t be straightforward.  The game promises to be tighter than most would have predicted at the start of the season.  Gone are the days that this fixture had a grudge match feel to it, when the nouveau riche City signed Lescott despite Moyes’ objections over how it was handled and got thoroughly up Everton’s noses.  Financially the difference between the oil rich City and the poorest (comparatively) of the top teams is stark.  Everton have always come across as bitter and more than a little jealous about that.  In their most lucid moments they’d admit that they’d love for someone with megabucks to come and be their benefactor.  For whatever reason, it ain’t happening.

It should be fascinating on Saturday.  Both teams have started taking very good care of the ball.  After six Premier League games Everton are averaging 59.4% possession and Man City 54.7%, both comfortably in the top five.  Interestingly City average more possession away from home and the most they’ve had all season was in their 3-2 loss away to Cardiff, presumably due to ineffectively chasing the game.  In their 4-1 defeat of Man Utd they had only 45%.  They would appear to be more dangerous when they’re more direct.

Man City are still adjusting to the change in style implemented by Pellegrini, placing more emphasis on attack.  They play closer to 4-4-2 than anything else.  When it clicks it’s impressive.  When it doesn’t it looks terribly flat.  It trusts Fernandinho and Yaya Toure to dominate central midfield with little assistance.  A few games a season Yaya could do this on his own. A few times already this season he’s almost had to.  Fernandinho is taking time to settle.  Bluntly he currently does not look like a £30 million pound player.  In the system they play they can’t afford him to take time to settle.  Pellegrini is also getting used to the particular demands of the Premier League.  Their two defeats so far have come the weekend before Champions League games.  After their humbling by Bayern Munich they need a reaction.  And all eyes will be on Joe Hart.  After the last few games there’ll be a sharp intake of breath every time an effort trickles towards his near post.  It’ll be tense.

For Everton Gareth Barry will be a big loss (the terms of his loan from City mean he won’t play).  To get a player with his experience and desire to prove he still belongs at the top level for free was one of the signings of the window.  He was the best player on the pitch in their win against Chelsea and not just for his unbelievable block to stop Eto’o scoring.  In his place presumably Martinez will give James McCarthy a start.  How he clicks with young player of the season so far Ross Barkley will be key.  In their previous games Barkley has given Everton an extra dimension going forward.  His interplay with Lukaku on Monday against Newcastle was as if they’d been playing together for years.  His playing time so far this season far outstrips the last player to move between the clubs before Barry, Jack Rodwell.  So far Everton have undoubtedly got the better end of that deal.  With rumours of Barkley already being targeted by a bigger club you’d have to hope that he looks at what has happened to Rodwell and many others (cough, Scott Sinclair, cough) and decides to stay put.  He’s unlikely to find anyone who’ll give him as many chances as Martinez.

The most impressive thing about Martinez’s start at Everton has been how consistent it’s been, which after his stint at Wigan precisely no one saw coming.  Losing to teams they should beat, yes.  Beating teams they should lose to, yes.  But unbeaten after six games, never.  If they get away from the Etihad with the record still intact a great start will become even better.  They’ve proven so far that they’re newly hard to beat.  They should prove a stern test for City’s title ambitions.

And that’s before we even start thinking about the main issue on Saturday, who out of Yaya and Leyton Baines will score the best free-kick?  In a league where free-kicks have suddenly started flying in the chance to see two of its finest proponents on the same pitch is too good to pass up.  That of course means they’ll get nowhere near shooting range for seventy minutes and then shank a couple into row Z.  That’s just how it works.

Who’s next?
Now that sacking season has officially begun you have to wonder who’ll be next?  Although given that Di Canio lasted six games they’re a little late in kicking it off this year.  Even in the Bundesliga, the nice, safe, sustainable, ethically sourced Bundesliga, two managers had been given the boot by the time PDC got his marching orders.  It’s either a sporadic outbreak of common sense or more likely everyone in the Premier League is about where they expect to be.  Bookmakers have Martin Jol the favourite to go next (mind you they also have Steve Bruce at the same odds as Arsene Wenger).  You’d think his collection of languid geniuses (and Darren Bent) need to click soon.  Next his Alan Pardew, who since Joe Kinnear took the big office up the hall has the air of a man constantly mentally filling in a constructive dismissal claim.  Newcastle also were forced to release a statement denying that he’d offered his resignation after the Everton defeat.  Watch this space.  Chris Houghton would have been in the mix before his team won at Stoke.  Really there’s been markedly less speculation than previous years, even counting all the #MoyesOut stuff.  It could be that managers are being given time, that after the mad dash to stay in touch with the increase in TV money last season that clubs have decided to give their bosses time.  Or we could get two or three this month.  For what it’s worth I’d have half an eye on Ian Holloway.  He’s coming across as madder than usual, was cracking up day one and managers have been sacked for the crime of getting promoted before.   Stick a fiver on Ollie and Pards.

Liverpool’s Formation
So Liverpool have begun to bravely break the ubiquity of the back four has over English football and started experimenting with 3-5-2.   Just as Wigan did last season to somewhat less acclaim.  The best thing about the coverage they’ve received is that this might end up helping to break up the hegemony of 4-2-3-1.  Any formation is only as good as the personnel you’ve got to fill it.  At the moment Liverpool’s best chance of getting the best out their players is with both Sturridge and Suarez as out and out strikers.  The only way to do that without sacrificing control in midfield is to play three at the back.  The only player it really doesn’t suit is Victor Moses.  Behind the strikers he doesn’t really have the room to use his pace.  With Liverpool sitting in second and Coutinho still to come back into his favourite position they might really click.

De Bruyne Questions Inevitable
It was always going to happen.  Jose can glare and stamp his feet and storm out over questions asked about players who don’t play as much as he wants, when you’ve got a squad as overstocked in certain areas as Chelsea’s is it’s inevitable that they’ll keep coming.  When you’ve got so many players not playing people will talk about them.  Normally Jose insists on a small squad with two players for every position on the basis that bigger ones are easy to lose control of.  In this and so many other things you can’t helping thinking that Jose 1.0 wouldn’t have let himself get in this position.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Why Jose Is Being More Like Jose Than Ever

Now that he’s settled back in to life at the bridge are we firmly in the era of Jose 3.0?

First there was Jose as the Special One during his first stint at Chelsea, riding into press conferences with the confidence of someone who gets to write his own headlines.  Then there was Jose the eye poker at Real Madrid, dropping legendary players to make a point and speaking to the press only to tell them he wouldn’t speak to them.  Chelsea fans may have thought they were getting version one.  They might have hoped that they weren’t getting the second.  Instead they’ve ended up with someone in between the two.

The attention ahead of their visit to Tottenham on Saturday has focussed on the supposed rivalry between Mourinho and Andre Villas Boas, one that apparently came into being after AVB stepped out from his mentor’s shadow.  Jose’s probably glad for the shift in focus.  Before the hype started for ‘The Master Vs The Apprentice’ questions were being asked with increasing frequency about Chelsea’s poor start (by their standards anyway; it’s worth remembering that they topped the Premier League for twenty four hours last weekend).  He’s brought the creative excuses that don’t really stand up to scrutiny with him from Madrid, blaming the age of his young eggs in the Champions League loss to Basel when the average age of the team he picked was twenty seven.  It sounded good though.

He’s moved on now to blaming the change in style he’s in the process of implementing.  It’s common knowledge, although never actually been confirmed, that Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich wants to have his club change to a more pleasing on the eye style.  Roman apparently of the opinion that an investment of over a billion pounds should buy you whatever you want.  Mourinho’s comments have been all but an admission that he’s been tasked to it.  Dealing with Jose on current form is like dealing with the secret service, every question just leads to another question.  For example, if he’s been tasked with developing a more aesthetically pleasing playing style what’s with his treatment of Juan Mata? 

Last season’s player of the year has been ostracised more than any other player, left to contemplate League Cup matches and little else.  As an on form Mata would walk into any team in the league it’s difficult to reason with Jose’s decision, especially to the extent to which he’s been left out in the cold.  Mouriho’s reasoning is that because he has Oscar (after all Brazil’s first choice at number 10 in a country that is blessed with them) he has no space for Mata.  This is based on Oscar covering more ground without the ball than Mata would.  There seems to be no chance of him trying to include both, as even as pragmatic a coach as Rafa Benitez did on many occasions last season.  What seems odd about it is that at Madrid Jose would always include Ozil as well as two other attacking midfield players like Di Maria or even further forward with Cristiano Ronaldo.  Either he believes that he could get away with it with the quality of the competition in the Spanish league or he’s making some other point that we can’t quite see yet.  Time will tell.

Speaking of Benitez Jose has been, taking any chance he can get to chip away at the reputation of his predecessor as Chelsea manager like it’s 2005 all over again, starting with taking Rafa to task for having the temerity to win a competition in the Europa League that they shouldn’t have entered in the first place.  Jose’s been doing this since he came back, running through his greatest hits in an attempt to get his lost mojo back, like a Fleetwood Mac reunion, dusting off that old material.  He’s gone back to some of his less successful newer stuff as well, rekindling his rivalry with Pep Guardiola before the European Super Cup Final then talking about how his whole career he’s been the victim of a UEFA conspiracy (which means he’s done pretty well to win two European Cups).  It can only be a matter of time before he starts looking around for more eyes to poke.

Jose used to only manage but create expectations.  He was a master at it.  His first press conference in England where he declared himself special is proof enough of that.  The first season at Chelsea he told the players before the season started that they’d win the league when they played Bolton away in April.  Then they did just that.  He used to be a master of bringing the pressure on himself to take it from his players.  Now he’s struggling to manage the increased expectation his return has brought and it’s showing in the way his team’s performing (for an example of someone managing it better look at Manuel Pellegrini at Manchester City, telling the press before the first game that he had the league’s best squad at his disposal and if they didn’t win it was his fault).  Jose used to have the press eating out of his hand.  Now it’s not that easy and you can see it rankling.  They’re like a separated couple that have gotten back together because they couldn’t remember why they broke up in the first place.  Now they’re at that awkward stage of not wanting to be the one who brings it up first.

Which brings us to AVB.  Ever since he came to England he’s been billed as a kind of Jose Mark II, Diet Jose, Jose The Next Generation.  They came up through the same clubs and were even both mentored by Bobby Robson.  Even the theory that they no longer get on is that they’re rooted in an Oedipal struggle to replace/subjugate each other.  The worsening of their relationship, although more has been made of it than should have been, has added an extra spice to a game that didn’t really need any.  At the start of the season Jose was already talking about Tottenham being one of the main challengers for not just the top four but for the title.  Chelsea gazumping Willian from under Tottenham’s noses when they plainly didn’t need him still needles (although given the form of the Brazilian since he signed Spurs may have gotten the better end of that deal).

AVB and Spurs should have more reason to complain about a new style bedding in.  Since bringing in their new signings and adjusting to the loss of a certain Welshman they’ve looked close to the real deal, more solid than they’ve been in living memory, reminiscent a little of Mourihno’s Chelsea, the first version.  They’ve only conceded once in five games and that was in a closely fought derby with Arsenal, the other league leaders.  In a league that promises to not have a runaway winner being defensively sound and efficient going forward may be enough to win it.  Right at this moment that sounds more like Tottenham than Chelsea.

It’s not inconceivable that Chelsea could finish fifth or below.  Someone out of last season’s top four and Spurs will have to and Chelsea finished sixth as recently as the season before.  The match on Saturday will go a long way to proving which is more likely out of these two teams to miss out.  With the pressure and attention being on the managers I’m going for a low scoring draw.  And for Spurs to finish ahead of Chelsea at the end of the season. 

Friday, 20 September 2013

Can Juventus Win The Champions League Playing 3-5-2?

The talk around Turin is that they need to change formation to have a chance of winning but manager Conte is downplaying their chances.

He’s probably right to.  After all, it’s only their second season in the Champions League since 2008-09 and after a 1-1 draw at Copenhagen it hasn’t gotten off to the most auspicious start.  And another season of departures from Serie A has no one proclaiming that Italy will produce another European Cup winner in the near future.  The consensus view is that although Juventus will be strong enough to get through to the knockout stages, they’ll not trouble any of the main contenders.  As a team they’re probably a few seasons away from getting enough experience anyway.  The question is whether they can do it with their current system.

It’s worth remembering how thoroughly Juventus have been dominating their league.  They’ve been champions for the last two years.  They were unbeaten for 49 consecutive league games, including all 38 across the 2011-12 season.  Playing 3-5-2 obviously works for them domestically.  Conte himself sees no reason for change and has said this publically.  In their unbeaten season they used to switch between formations depending on the games, switching from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 to 3-5-2 depending on who they were playing and the players they had available.  Since then they’ve seemed to settle into using just the one.  The transfer business in the summer had them signing two strikers in Tevez and Llorente and Angelo Ogbonna a young central defender from Torino.  If Conte had any plans to change to a back four he would have surely addressed the glaring absence of quality full backs in his squad (His best option as it stands would be to shift Chiellini to left back and move Lichtsteiner back on the right.  Not bad but not exactly frightening when compared to say Bayern’s Lahm and Alaba or Barca’s Alves and Jordi Alba).  It looks like Conte is serious when he says his team will stick to what they know.

Conte knows that his team’s strength is through the middle of midfield and in central defence and its weakness is down the flanks.  His chosen formation both confirms and provokes this.  In central midfield Vidal and Pirlo are as good as anyone.  Vidal in particular has improved over the last two seasons to become something approaching a force of nature when he’s in form.  The strength there has been a big factor in them dominating games.  At times last season Conte had Pogba alongside them and Machiso just further forward, fitting four central midfielders in the same team.  Conte also likes to have two strikers, either Vucinic or Llorente with Tevez working between the lines.  Having three at the back gives them the licence to include two of them without compromising in midfield.

The games that started the debate over whether Juve’s formation might be limiting were the Champions League quarter final loses to Bayern, both of them 2-0.  In all honesty they didn’t ever get close to them over the two games.  If there was ever a team set up to cause Juve problems it’s the Bavarians, with their cadre of intelligent wingers and attacking full backs.  The Italians were outpressed and outrun more than anything, unable to live with their opponents ability to do everything with both precision and speed.  Apart from Dortmund (arguably) there wasn’t another team that could live with Bayern in Europe last season.  The suspicion remains though that Juventus were almost the perfect opponents for them.

Then there’s the argument that Barcelona have basically been playing 3-5-2 for years without ever doing the decent thing and coming out and admitting it.  In the last days of Pep in particular Busquets would often drop back between Pique and Puyol when the full backs pushed forward, often past midfield (especially Alves, who was playing most of the time as more of winger than a full back).  No one questioned the formation then.  The difference is that Juventus do it with three pure centre backs and Pirlo as the deepest lying midfielder.  Bluntly, Barcelona can hope to negate the opposition’s influence through pressing.  Juventus at the moment can not.

It would be such a shame for 3-5-2 if Juventus felt the need to change from it only a few short years after it came roaring back from a decade in the wilderness as the hipster formation de jour.  Napoli, the other major exponents of it, have recently moved to a back four under Benitez (although Mazzarri has brought it with him to his new Inter).  If Juventus fail to make an impact in Europe over the next few seasons it’ll be a blow for variety more than anything.  And with their domestic challengers getting stronger, and no one retaining Serie A three seasons in a row in sixty years, Europe is really the only place they can hope to make a new impact.

More than anything it bears repeating that Juventus are a young team in Champions League terms and are getting to be an older one in real terms.  It took Bayern years of disappointment and two losing finals before they were able to dominate Europe last season.  Juventus have a long way to go before they’re at that point.  There’s also the question of when their older players need replacing.  After the quarter final defeats to Bayern and the European Championship final loss to Spain it seems almost like sacrilege to say but Pirlo might be finally past running games at the very top level, even with Vidal to do his running for him.  Domestically they look set to be there or thereabouts for the foreseeable future.  Whether Conte wants to risk refreshing his team in the seasons to come will go a long way to decide whether they can make more of an impact in Europe.  That rather than their system will be the deciding factor.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

What is Hamburg’s problem?

With Torsten Fink leaving and the club starting another domestic season poorly will the sleeping giant of the Bundesliga ever be revived?

Last weekend Dortmund were awesome.  There’s no other word for it.  Some of the attacking lines their players ran would have any team struggling to cope with.  On counterattacks at times the player in possession had six or seven of his own players steaming past him.  But bloody hell were Hamburg awful.  And it’s just cost manager Torsten Fink his job.

This is something that Hamburg fans have had to live with in recent seasons and it shows no time of stopping anytime soon.  Fink has paid the price for succumbing to the disorganisation.  In that match alone they tried to line up as a 3-5-2 then 4-4-2 then 4-2-3-1.  It made no difference.  “The system was not to blame,” Fink said afterwards.  Tough to know which one he was referring to.  Five games into the season and with a team on four points might seem like sacking a manager too early.  In truth it was difficult to see where any improvement would come from.  With Hamburg as they are its hard to picture the next guy doing any different.

It’s the wasted potential that must grate.  Even with the mismanagement of the past decade or more Hamburg are still the fourth biggest in terms of revenue in Germany.  They’re the only Bundesliga team to have never been relegated.  For a while in the late seventies and early eighties they were one of the biggest clubs in Europe.  They won a European Cup and got to sign Kevin Keegan.  They should be one of their league’s leading lights.  Instead they’re its biggest disappointments.  They haven’t won the league since 1983.  Haven’t really challenged since finishing runner up in 1987 either.  They have the other underachieving Bundesliga teams beaten.  Stuggart won a Bundesliga in 2008.  At least Schalke and Leverkausen can comfort themselves with the Champions League.  When it comes to letting their fans down Hamburg can’t be beaten.

It’s not like they haven’t tried.  Fink’s is just the latest in a long line of false dawns.  Before that it was Frank Arnsen as a high profile sporting director and a new focus on youth.  Which would have been fine if it had been the right youth.  As a broad experiment in running a club like it was a game of Football Manager (buying boatloads of promising young players with good stats and throwing them in the team) it could be judged a success.  By any other measure it was a failure.  Six months after Arnsen left they’ve been left with nothing to show for his era but Michael Mancienne.

What grated with Hamburger fans the most about Arnsen’s expensive recruitment of young mainly foreign players was that it took place in an era when Bundesliga sides were increasingly developing their own.  Hamburg look like they have been thoroughly left behind.  In the current team there’s only Jansen, Adler and Westermann are established German players and not one came up through Hamburg’s youth system.  The stunning first goal scored by youth team graduate Lam Zhi Gin against Dortmund may be the way forward.  Arnsen used to give interviews asking for more time for his young players to settle in and bring success.  Dortmund themselves were always the example he gave of a team that did this.  They were of course lower when almost out of business in 2008 than Hamburg are now.  Emulating them and their successful integration of talented young players is easier said than done.

Van der Vaart’s return after stopping off at Real Madrid and Tottenham hasn’t had the desired effect either.  Now captain, he’s shown his best form only in patches.  Helping to repeat the third place finish of his first stay looks impossible.  Last season their form fluctuated wildly and they ended up finishing a disappointing 7th in a tight league.  Bluntly, Van der Vaart is no longer the player he once was and influencing games on his own looks beyond him.  Outside of him Hamburg have a squad filled with decent players (Jansen, Adler, Rincon, Jiracek, Westermann, Badelj) with no real stardust.  There aren’t many players already there that you’d be comfortable building a team around.

Truth be told this season already looked like being written off before the events of this weekend.  The start they’ve had wasn’t so much disastrous as uninspiring (the 1-5 home loss to Hoffenheim aside).  At this point the club have been managed so poorly that they’ve got no hope of turning around without someone starting again from the ground up.  With their next game against a newly confident Weder Bremen team in the Nordderby they’ll want a new manager in as quickly as possible.  With the club in the state they’re in its difficult to know who’ll want the job.  It needs someone to come in and start again with enough energy to see the project through.  It might be worth them seeing if Jurgen Klopp’s available.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Daniel Sturridge And English Optimism

With the Liverpool man unable to become England’s newest immediate hero due to injury who can fire us to a tournament we now accept we have no hope of winning?

It’s been an odd international break for England.  With all the withdrawals, close up snaps of Wayne Rooney’s gash and the prospect of having to play Moldova the actual games have come across as an afterthought (or at least until results on Friday left tonight’s game against Ukraine billed as a kind of first place eliminator, ignoring the fact there’s still two games left and they could always say, draw).  It’s also been strange thanks to Greg Dyke admitting that even if we get there we have no chance of winning anyway.

Of course he’s right.  The fact this made news at all is more interesting than him deciding to say it.  I don’t think I know a single England fan who would disagree.  It was treated by even the most unhinged of the papers as a (relatively) sensible position to have taken.  When Roy Hodgson came out a day later and said he still believed they could win it everyone chuckled and it felt like an opportunity being missed.  Would we not all be happier crashing out if everyone had been on message telling us to expect defeat anyway?  Now in the future Roy might be in the unhappy position of being sacked for not doing what his boss says is impossible.

Greg Dyke’s blast of sensible thinking saved us from a week of fretting over Daniel Sturridge’s fitness.  He’s the latest in a very long list of players hyped before they’ve made any impact at international level, built up into exactly what England are missing before invariably not being able to make much of an impact at all.  Jack Wiltshire would be the last one.  If Ricky Lambert scores again tonight, thirty one or not he might be the next.

With all the noting of just thirty percent of the players in the first round of the Premier League being English it is easy to forget that the record of the national team has pretty much always been as it is now.  Outside of two occasions helped by home advantage England have been to one other semi final.  Previously our failings were explained by being too isolated from the rest of the world.  Now apparently our players aren’t isolated enough.  We’re good at getting there.  In qualification terms since the seventies we’ve only missed out on one World Cup and one European Championship.  In the last thirty competitive games we’ve only lost twice (penalty shoot outs aside).  Roy Hodgson has lost one since taking over and that was a friendly defeat to a Zlatan inspired Sweden.  We’re not doing that badly.

It’s moving up to that next level that seems further away than ever.  Decades of hyping players having a good season as the answer, or in Sturridge’s case about ten games in a row, has led us to where we are, simply a good international team.  The really successful teams tend to be built from the bottom up.  They start with an idea and then have the means to grow their teams from there.  It takes money, patience, desire and to be blunt a shit tonne of coaches to carry it out.  It’s unclear how many of those the FA have.  Spain started by making their coaches all live within forty miles of their facilities to better coordinate their ideas.  They developed a style for their senior team then had all age groups trained and drilled in it.  The German’s developed a new athletic attacking style for the senior team under Klinnsman then had their younger age groups playing it.  When players come from the under 21s they step into systems they already know.  If there is similar thinking with England there is little apparent evidence for it.  If we look just at UEFA registered coaches England with about 3000 is lagging behind Spain at more than 25,000 and Germany with over 35,000.  This isn’t news.  It’s been apparent for some time what needs to be done. 

Which is where we talk about how it’s the Premier League’s fault.  Which of course it is but at the same time the FA have to realise that there is no practical way to make them pick young English players over young foreign ones (does anyone really think that any talk of quotas will fly against the most powerful sporting competition in the world?).  Simply put the only way to get young English players onto the pitch is to get them good enough in the first place.  That takes coaches and time.  The only way to do it is to change the culture.  Admitting how far away we are is a useful first step.

Anyway it remains to be seen what an on form Sturridge can bring to England.  His transformation from a player at Chelsea who you could pretty much guarantee to do the wrong thing to one who has become successful while being even more selfish than ever has been impressive.  Given that he will be standing furthest forward in a team known for not being able to keep the ball should temper any expectations.  If England need a reminder of why Greg Dyke thinks they’ll come up short again they should get one in the surroundings of The Olympic Stadium tonight, a venue where the last time they played James Milner passed the ball successfully thirteen times in sixty one minutes.  If we need a great English hope we might as well continue to expect far too much from Jack Wiltshire, at least he’s got a hope of keeping the ball better (and looked good in partnership with Lampard and Gerard on Friday, albeit only against Moldova).  If the past is any judge we’ll get there somehow then come up against familiar problems again.  If Greg Dyke is serious about changing it a look elsewhere should leave him in no doubt about what is required.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Why Are Barcelona Still So Hateable?

We all know Barcelona are annoying but recently they’ve been taking their previously world class game to legendary status.  They passed being merely annoying sometime under Rijkaard, moved into being a team you actively wanted to fail under Pep and haven’t shifted since.  If they had a face you’d have dreams about punching them in the balls.  But how precisely are they pulling this off?

They Signed Neymar
The New World’s Greatest Player signed up by the World’s Greatest Team.  Maybe he was just sick of people who really should know better (Pele) saying he was already better than Messi and wanted to stand on the same pitch as him to make it easier for people to realise that he really isn’t.  Among all the other perfectly valid reasons to hate Neymar (his haircut, that celebration dance he does, the fact he’s quite often great at football) is the fact he spends more time trying to win free kicks than any player in history.  He’s worse than seventeen year old Cristiano Ronaldo.  It’s less winning free kicks as a consequence of good play, more as the desired end result of it.  And then Barca end up not scoring from most of them anyway.  Be a different equation if he played for Stoke.

They Play Football The Right Way
No you don’t.  The team who put eleven men behind the ball do, because at least they realise that you occasionally have to change your team’s set up to match the situation.  And repeatedly passing the ball short is as monotonous as doing it long.  The only thing that separates the two is that you’ve shown short passes can be more successful.  Also putting Gerard Pique up front in the last ten minutes of games is an admission that you’ve given up on the very principles you so piously exhorted in the first place.  This is why people laughed when Bayern beat you.

They’re Sponsored By Qatar
When Barcelona broke with an almost hundred year tradition and allowed Unicef to sponsor them free of charge seasoned observers pointed out that this obviously a tactic to allow them to move into paid sponsorship with less controversy.  And now they’ve got the highest shirt sponsorship deal in the world and Qatar plastered all over their (supposedly still representative of the Catalan nation) shirts.  You can sell out or you can remain pious about not doing so.  Pick one.  Which brings us on to…

It’s More Than A Club
No it’s not.  Might have been once with the Catalan dialect only being allowed to be spoken in the stadium and the General Franco stuff.  But now?  It’s just a football club, one of the two biggest in a league that’s allowing them to get further away from the rest of the poor shmucks but just a club all the same.  You lost the right to say any different a long time ago.  Doesn’t stop them claiming that though does it?  Say what you like about Real Madrid, least they’re honest.

They Wasted Zlatan
They had Zlatan for a year and all they did with him was to win a forgettable title and end up royally pissing him off.  He behaved himself for a bit, scored some good goals then had enough of it all and started shouting at people again.  We can debate the merits of Pep Guardiola’s management all you want but if you can’t find room in your side for Zlatan then you’re a dick.

We Build Players, Madrid Buy Them
Bollocks.  Alves, Sanchis, Song, Mascherano, Neymar and that’s just in the current team.  And that’s without counting Messi who they took from another country when he was fourteen but counts as a signing all the same and the ones they’ve brought back after other clubs have given them first team experience like Alba, Pique and Fabregas.  Yes they’ve got a good youth system but still rely on signings as much as anyone does.  And most of the time they’re shit at it.  They once signed Giovanni for ten million pounds because he looked good on video.  No one at the club had ever met him.

Sergio Busquets
The most annoying of them all.  I’ve made an effort to not hate Busquets.  Has a real claim to being the world’s best holding midfielder for both club and country.  And he can reasonably say that he’s underrated by most.  But this is because he’s a knob.  And the times you notice him the most are when he’s demonstrating this God given talent.  That Motta tackle roll on the floor holding his face alone should leave you with a desire to slap him hard if you ever met him.  Yes there are other players who do it but no one to the level Busquets does.  I’ve been all the way from disliking him, then making the effort to appreciate the talents only a purist could love then gone right back to disliking him again.  It’s for the best.

All of Messi’s Goals
Messi’s never ending excellence past his second season has been if we’re truly honest with ourselves, pretty boring.  The standards he’s maintaining are impressive, the statistics unarguable but there’s just something about the whole thing that leaves you colder than it should.  I think it’s because for some reason once you’ve seen let’s say ten of Messi’s goals you’ve pretty much seen them all.  The one where he runs past two players before a near post finish, the chip over a slow moving onrushing keeper, the one two with Inesta then first time shot and so on.  They all seem the same.  Might be because he scores so many but the feeling’s there.  And also if more keepers stood up when one on one with him they’d have (slightly) more of a chance.

They Refuse to Sign Defenders
It’s beyond a joke now.  And Martino has already been affected by it, telling reporters before the transfer window ended that they didn’t need to bring anyone in.  Just in case it needs repeating; Mascherano is not a defender, Song is not a defender, shit if we’re getting technical neither is Danny Alves.  It’s become so obvious that it’s gone past the point of parody.  Having the transfer policy of an eleven year old playing his first game of football manager and then acting surprised when it doesn’t pay off is not the way a football club should behave.

They’re Sore Losers
When they turned the sprinklers on Mourinho’s Inter after they were knocked out of the Champions League they forfeited any slick suited attempt to represent the spirit of football.  Chelsea have more of a claim.  At least they just got a massive Ivorian to fight the referee.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Things We Learnt From This Week's Transfer News

Ba and Cisse can apparently now play together
With Newcastle apparently trying to sign their old striker on loan Pardew must be pretty confident that he can solve a conundrum that he never quite got round to previously, namely how to fit Ba and Cisse in the same team.  Also they tended to score in spurts, Ba at the start of the season then Cisse at the end.  Prolific but only one at a time, nice enough to take turns.  Before Ba left for Chelsea seven months ago the feeling on Tyneside was that they were too similar to work well as a pair.  The Senegalese rarely play in the same team at international level for precisely that reason.  Also with Newcastle set up in a 4-4-2 with them at the top they can’t half come across as whatever the word for not fluid is.  And 4-3-3 with either of them wide negated their influence spectacularly.  Pardew has either a master plan up his sleeve like playing the one that’s in form with Remy or Joe Kinnear is getting that desperate to make signings that he’ll take anyone with a hint of quality.  In other words it might not be the right signing but at least it would be one.

Spurs are considering fining Gareth Bale
For not turning up to training two days in a row.  You’d think there wasn’t a lot to consider here, if he’s not turned up to training twice just fine him.  What’s he going to do, demand a move?  Spurs have erred on the side of supporting their (quite obviously now) want-away player all summer.  Surely now there’s only so many statements from behind the scenes and conveniently timed injuries they can take?  Just fine him.  No one can blame Bale for wanting to leave but if he’s breached the terms of his contract he should be punished without having to debate it.  If the rumours about his new wages are true he can afford it.

Chelsea’s attacking midfield equation doesn’t make sense
Oscar, Hazard, De Bruyne, Mata, Marin, Schurrle, Moses, Ramirez.  And that was before they signed Willian.  Given that they were obviously overstocked there in a squad arguably needing investment in other areas the rumours immediately started flowing about them signing him just to stop Spurs having him (that Mourinho keeps talking about Tottenham being a threat this season not only for the top four but the title would seem to add credence to this claim).  Now that they’ve signed him for £32 million they must surely be intending on using him.  Makes you wonder who will make room for him in the team.  Mourinho’s talked about his desire once the dust has settled to get his squad down to the apparently perfect number of twenty four professionals.  That must surely mean players going out on loan somewhere.  Hazard will be safe.  Jose has talked about De Bryne becoming an influential player already.  Moses must be on borrowed time.  And Mata, as incredible as it sounds for a player who contributed goals and assists last season might follow him out the door.  Remember when Jose promised to deliver more flair and less bland efficiency this time around?  Don’t believe a word of it.

Rooney’s deadline came and went
Anyone notice?  We finished with this now?  Good.  Now that it appears no one wants to be the bad guy we all should prepare ourselves for a season of hand wringing over how much playing time he’s getting.  Or given that Man Utd haven’t signed that creative midfielder they wanted a season of him flourishing in the hole behind Van Persie.  It doesn’t look like Moyles is going to give Kagawa a run there.

Directors of football help business get done early
Tottenham, Man City and Sunderland.  All three have been on a rebuilding exercise this summer and all three got their major spending out the way before August began.  At City Txiki Begiristain made signings in a manner suggesting the lessons of a previous summer procrastinating before signing inferior targets had been learned.  Tottenham are spending in two stages, early for their major targets and then again when it became obvious Bale was going and needed replaced.  Sunderland may have had a more scattergun approach but have still brought in eleven players.  All three have demonstrated how having a strong director of football can make signings a lot smoother.  At Arsenal and Man Utd they’re doing the opposite.  The traditional English system of leaving a manager in sole charge of identifying targets for a chief executive to then sign doesn’t half look old fashioned.  Around Europe with three days of the window to go it looks a lot less frantic.  The main action seems to be English clubs putting in last minute bids for players they could have gone in for months ago.  Mind you the director of football system isn’t perfect.  Cough, Joe Kinnear, cough.

Sunderland need a ball playing midfielder
With all the business Sunderland and Paulo Di Canio have managed to do it’s astonishing that they haven’t managed to address the most glaring absence in their squad, of a midfielder with enough quality to control midfield.  The high tempo game that Di Canio wants to play relies on keeping the ball well while being able to launch counterattacks early.  No one at the club currently fits the bill.  Larson has the range but struggles with tempo.  Cattermole is apparently far enough down the list to be just above Bardsley on the ‘don’t consider for selection’ (and hasn’t demonstrated that he could be that type of player successfully anyway, although when motivated he’s got more quality than he’s often given credit for).  Cabral is learning a new league and may flourish alongside someone more experienced.  It’s a shame a move for Tom Huddlestone broke down.  He could have fit the bill nicely.  Michael Bradley of Roma and Zravko Kuzmanovic from Inter are reported targets.  Without signing one of them a season of struggle could be ahead.

Crystal Palace can’t sign anyone
No one sums up the frustrations of the transfer window quite like Palace.  When your most exciting signing has been Marouane Chamakh you know you’ve got problems.  They were linked with arrogance’s Nicholas Bendter this week (Which goes to show how far his stock has fallen, has anyone moved from Juventus to Palace before?  Lombardo did.  Balls.  Apart from Lombardo then?) a move that would probably make sense for both club and player but would in all probability stop short of breathing new life into either.  Simply put it’s tough to attract good players when everyone assumes you’ll only have a year stop off in the Premier League.  As the days tick over it’s a feeling that gets harder and harder to shift.  Just goes to show how well Hull did to get Livermore and Huddlestone.  No wonder Holloway’s already going nuts.

That Sky Advert’s Awful

I can’t think of a possible version for an advert promoting transfer deadline day on Sky Sports News that I’d like but Jesus they’ve pulled out all the stops to make us irate with this one.  Hyping a day’s TV that even at its most thrilling features men doing nothing standing in front of empty training grounds while thirteen year olds flick the Vs behind them is always a recipe for disaster.  Doing it in a style that Liberace might describe as a bit much is just asking for trouble when the biggest news on the day could be Bendter not signing for Palace.  And if there’s another financial crash around the corner I don’t think anyone would be surprised if Jim White turned out to be responsible somehow.  The warning signs were always there.