Thursday, 27 June 2013

In Praise Of... African Football Ages

“Do you want my football age or my real age?”

A question that apparently is fairly standard in African football, where historically players have often claimed to be younger than they actually are to make themselves more valuable to potential clubs.  Not surprising when you consider the motivating factor is an escape from poverty and that forging of official documents is often as easy as getting them through the proper channels.  This led to thirty year olds playing in under 20 matches and allegedly grandfathers and grandsons in the same match.  Before implementing magnetic resonance scans on players’ wrists FIFA’s own figures estimated that a third of previous Under 17 international tournament players were older than they claimed (when the scans were announced before the 2010 World U17 competition Nigeria suddenly and without any further explanation dropped fifteen players from their original squad).  Yes it’s cheating and yes it completely goes against the point of youth football but it doesn’t half lead to some unbelievable claims about famous players’ ages.

The main rumours go as follows:

Nwankwo Kanu is nine years older than he claims.

Jay Jay Okocha is ten years older.

Obifemi Martins is six years older and on signing for Newcastle had three passports with three different years of birth.  He told them that the one that made him youngest was the correct one.

The reason John Mensah and Michael Essien keep getting injured is because they’re at least five years older than they claim (this came from the ex-Ghanaian team doctor).

Roger Milla doesn’t know how old he is.  He may be older than he thinks (which given that he was 42 at Italia 90 would be quite an achievement).

Taribo West finished playing in his fifties.

All of these are real claims, put forward mainly by Nigerian journalists (who believe that this is the main reason their country, which contains a fifth of Africa’s population, has struggled to dominate at international level).  Undoubtedly there’s some truth to these.  Evidently there’s also a healthy portion of bullshit.  More than anything though if any of those are halfway true you can’t help feeling impressed.  When Jay Jay was lighting up the Premier League he was apparently north of forty years old.  I thought that Taribo had lost his pace as he neared thirty.  Turns out it was because he had just turned fifty.  Kanu always looked about ten years older than he was.  Now we know why.  If anything proves that age is just a number it’s this.  Shame of it is that we’ll never know for sure just how old that generation of players where.  Which puts us in exactly the same position as Roger Milla.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

The Javi Martinez Interpretation of Defensive Midfield

Amidst all the (well earned) praise for Bayern Munich’s almost total dominance last season there hasn’t been nearly enough for the player who was the last piece of the jigsaw, the signing that turned a team that lost Champions League finals into one that won them.  Without Javi Martinez they wouldn’t have seemingly eclipsed Barcelona as the most formidable team in Europe.

‘It’s a lot of money for a water carrier.’
So said Uli Hoeness when they signed him, adding that he thought that at €40 million he was about €10 million too expensive.  Three trophies later it’s a safe bet he probably doesn’t still feel the same way.  In one sense you can see why Hoeness was reticent to spend the money, after all in Luis Gustavo they already had a defensive midfielder to slot alongside Schweinsteiger, one good enough to perform the same role for Brazil.  In Martinez though they have a defensive midfielder currently performing the role like no one else (in fact he’s as much of revelation as Toni Kroos is threatening to becoming further forward in the playmaker role or Thomas Muller as a self declared interpreter of space, it’s enough to make you wonder what if anything Guardiola will attempt to change).

On first impressions it’s easy enough to appreciate why Martinez is a good player.  Technically he’s excellent.  His long legs propel him across the ground quickly.  His distribution is as good as you’d expect from a young Spanish midfielder.  What makes him exceptional, and quite possibly currently unique, is his combining of this with the physical side of the game.  As football has allowed less and less contact the job of screening midfielders has become less about tackling and more about interceptions.  Javi Martinez is excellent at both.

It’s in his positioning that he’s truly exceptional.  It can be hardest thing to appreciate, watching on TV, of how hard it is to constantly be in the right place at the right time both with and without the ball.  Martinez has always been good at it.  In the early days of his career at Bilbao he would only very occasionally get caught out.  The arrival of Marcelo Biesla as manager and his temporary conversion to centre back as allowed him to fine tune his positioning even further.  For evidence of how important he is to systems played with an emphasis on pressing just look at what’s happened to Athletic without him (I also can’t help thinking that if Barcelona had signed him instead of Bayern he’d have spent time all season at centre back, an odd thought given that Pep will be managing him next year).  Previous models of defence midfield success in Europe have been pure water carriers like Claude Makelele or in England all action running midfielders like Roy Keane.  Martinez shows how much the game has moved on since then.  With importance placed on quick transitions goals are scored from moves with fewer and fewer phases.  Midfielders like Javi are able to win the ball quickly and cleanly and distribute it to dangerous areas.  What would have taken two players in the past he’s able to do by himself.

Compared to other midfielders in Europe his stats in the Bundesliga for interceptions and tackles aren’t all that impressive.  This can be attributed to Bayern’s almost complete dominance of their league.  The more possession they have the less there is for him to win back.  And his arrival has allowed Bayern to maintain the second most possession in Europe.  Last season in the league Bayern averaged 65.7%, behind only Barcelona with 70%.  Martinez’s screening and physicality combined with his distribution has allowed Bayern to win the ball back more effectively and move it on to dangerous areas quickly. 

It’s in his partnership with Bastian Scheinsteiger that really makes Bayern tick.  In Bayern’s 4-2-3-1 they perform slightly different roles but have the ability to cover each other.  With that formation being so ubiquitous we’ve seen slightly varying interpretations with the two holding midfielders, the most common is to have one focussed more on screening and the other as a deep lying playmaker.  Broadly speaking this is what Martinez and Schiensteiger do.  Martinez’s ability to impose himself in the area in front of his back four has allowed Schiensteiger to dictate play more than he had previously (and with more freedom that he gets at international level with Sami Khedria alongside him).  What’s interesting about Bastian and Javi is that on occasion they’re not afraid to swap roles; Schiensteiger’s positioning is good enough to cover when Martinez strides forward and Javi’s distribution is good enough for him to influence play when his partner takes a step back. 

At 6 foot 3 and deceptively strong Martinez is imposing enough to use his physicality to influence matches.  With experience he’s learned to stay on the right side of using it without costing his team.  At Bilbao he was just on the other side of that line, amassing 58 yellows and 5 reds during his stay there.  This season at Bayern he’s kept it down to 7 yellows, probably judging it absolutely right on how close to the edge he could get.  His manner of being imposing while demonstrating technical excellence is probably closest to Patrick Viera of recent players.  If anything he’s even more of a complete player, demonstrated by his greater ability to read play and step back into defence.

It was against Barcelona in the Champions League semi finals that Javi demonstrated just how key he had become to the way Bayern can play.  For a team that was used to possession Bayern changed their tactics completely against the Catalans (as everybody does).  Across the two legs Bayern averaged 40% of the ball.  What they did without it was key.  In the first leg every player dropped deep to mark across the pitch, even Mario Gomez who was positionally the nominal front man.  This left Javi free to press across midfield.  He kept his basic position in front of the back four but was free to come out and chase the ball, harrying the Barca midfielders in a way that they haven’t had much experience of before.  Across the 180 minutes he made eight successful tackles and five interceptions, successfully breaking up Barca’s play and allowing his own team to launch their counterattacks.  His maturity was shown after he received his booking in the first leg.  He was still able to walk the fine line between making tackles but staying on the pitch.  It’s safe to say that without his pressing Bayern wouldn’t have been able to pick Barca off in the same way.

His long term chances of becoming a regular in the Spain team seem assured.  Even a country with such depth in midfield talent can’t ignore his talents forever (and it’s easy to forget that he’s only twenty four).  Del Bosque has described him in the past as the complete player.  He may have suffered from Sergio Busquets establishing himself as such a regular as it’s difficult to imagine them playing together, especially when normally so much of the team’s tempo comes from Xabi Alonso filling the other role at the base of the midfield.  Sooner or later they’ll have to find room for him.

Bayern’s success this season was derided by Jurgen Klopp as a Chinese system, meaning copying their style from other successful teams.  He was referring primarily to their wholehearted adoption of Dortmund’s pressing, something in the two previous season’s they were unable to cope with.  One of the main reasons this was achievable was the capture of Martinez.  There’s also a sense that Bayern have managed to co-opt some of the successful attributes of the Spanish system, as Javi optimises the excellent distribution and desire to win the ball back that is essential to their football.  With his physical style being ideally suited to the German league Bayern may well have found the player that gives them the best of both worlds.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

In Praise Of... Bayern Munich in the 90s

It takes a lot to break Giovanni Trapattoni.  The most successful Italian manager of all time has won titles in four countries and managed two international teams with great distinction.  It took the 90s Bayern team two years to reduce him to this:

You can see where he’s coming from (the translation is apparently accurate by the way, poor Giovanni got himself so wound up his grasp of grammar slipped further than it normally does).  No team has ever managed to combine success with so much self destruction either before or since.  In the 90s they won the Bundesliga and the DFB Cup four times and one UEFA Cup.  They had players of the calibre of Elber, Mehmet Scholl, Jurgen Klinsman, Lothar Matthaus, Stefan Effenberg and Mario Basler.  And also Carsten Janker.  They were often so busy trying to outdo each other off the pitch they forgot how to win football matches.  It would be impossible for anyone else to lose a UEFA Cup tie to Norwich in the same year they ran away with their domestic league.  For 90s Bayern it was merely an appetiser.

The FC Hollywood name has become a bit overused of late, used to illustrate the glitz and glamour of Bayern against the rest of the Bundesliga.  The 90s was when it first surfaced, an era when you had players calling up papers to plant stories about each other, fights in training, players getting thrown out of bars and the club hiring private investigators to trail their own players.  If we’re honest with ourselves doesn’t that sound much more entertaining than the togetherness and ruthless unity they’ve shown this season?

Lothar Matthaus kicked the decade off by being nicknamed the loudspeaker by the German press for his outbursts, his most famous being the time he told a Dutch journalist that ‘Hitler must have overlooked you.’  Which is pretty hard to top.  He also famously had a running battle with Jurgen Klinsmann.  They hated each other so much a live TV debate had to be stopped when they wouldn’t stop arguing.  This then led to Klinsmann demanding Lothar was left out of the Euro 1996 squad.  He got his way but Lothar ended up outlasting him at Bayern to make life awkward for everyone else.

Even in a squad lacking in self-discipline Mario Basler was exceptional.  ‘Super’ Mario’s opinion of things like professionalism and time keeping where that they were fine for other people.  He once cheerfully admitted that, ‘50% of players hate me.’  Presumably they were the 50% he played with (in mitigation its worth pointing out how talented Basler was, in 1994-95 he scored 20 goals from midfield in a 33 game season, including two direct from corners).  After the 1996 European Championship he told Playboy the best thing about the tournament was the fact the players were allowed to have sex during it.  That and the drinking and smoking he got on with anyway.  Bayern eventually got so tired of Basler that they hired a private investigator to follow him around, a fact that was plastered all over the front page of Bild soon afterwards.  Eventually he walked out after they caught him drinking before a game one too many times.  In the 1999 Champions League final he was the best player on the pitch by miles.  When they lost he shrugged his shoulders and drank so much they found him dancing on a table.

So to try and calm things down they decided to resign Stefan Effenberg.  The press quickly dubbed Effenberg, Basler and Matthaus Le Trio Infernal and started reporting on each of them badmouthing the others in the press (Effenberg saved his best stuff, particularly about Matthaus, for his autobiography).  Der Tiger has always had the air of someone killing time until his next fight.  He played football like he was painfully aware it was beneath him.  His seeming contempt for a game he was excellent at has never been bettered.  At Bayern he managed to amass more yellow cards (109) in the Bundesliga than anyone before or since.  He also was fined after assaulting a woman in a nightclub.  His crowning glory has to be stealing his teammate Thomas Strunz’s wife.  Predictably the press had a field day and Effenberg made sure everyone knew he genuinely didn’t care.

It couldn’t last.  Ottmar Hitzfeld was brought in and eventually managed to calm it all down, mostly after Basler left and Matthaus and Effenberg retired.   And from that came the calm, thriving mega-franchise that we have today.  Even more successful but let’s face it, compared to the 90s, fucking boring.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

In Praise Of... Fernando Redondo

First of all, this:

Most great players get a season or a competition that gets to define them.  Fernando Redondo managed to distil everything that made him exceptional into one game.  In April 2000 in the second leg the a Champions League quarter final with Man Utd The Prince played in central midfield in what was closest to a 3-3-2-2 formation that doesn’t make anymore sense thirteen years down the line.  That Steve McManaman was the closest team mate to him should help explain just how on his own he was.  It shouldn’t have worked.  And with anyone but Fernando it wouldn’t have.  Fabio Capello once described him as the tactically perfect player.  He wasn’t wrong.  Alex Ferguson said afterwards that he’d never seen Roy Keane so outclassed.  Without Redondo that formation wouldn’t have held together.  He did it masterfully.  You don’t really get midfielders like The Prince anymore.  He could do anything.  Defensive or offensive depending on what the game in front of him demanded.  The assist for the third goal is as good as anything you’ll ever see.  Magnets in his boots reckoned Fergusson.  Injury after his move to Milan robbed us of seeing more of him in his prime, although the fact he refused to accept his salary while injured and even tried to return a house and car loaned him by the club should give you an idea of why he’s held in such esteem.  That he’s often regarded as not fulfilling his talent after winning two Champions Leagues and the Primera Division twice should tell you how good he was.

The Confederations Cup

Quick, what’s your favourite Confederations Cup moment?  Anyone?  Yeah, me neither.  It’s hard to love a competition that at its core seems to struggle just to convince that it should exist.  Given that it started as a way to get international teams to play in Saudi Arabia (only being brought under FIFA’s organisation the third time it was staged) it’s unsurprising that its reputation has been of a set of glorified exhibition games.  We have a competition to decide the best team between regional champions, it’s called the World Cup.  Anything else seems superfluous.  At least all the teams invited have started turning up (Germany and France have declined in the past).  This year’s may be the first when most of the teams could really do with winning it.

The real reason it exists (since 2005) has been as a dry run for hosting the World Cup.  As FIFA’s four year travelling nation state has grown larger and larger this has become more and more prevalent in their thinking.  With Brazil apparently falling behind on everything you get the feeling that they could do with a mini-tournament hosted without any major hitches more than FIFA could.  Sepp Blater’s every World Cup host country is chaos a year before the event speech won’t convince everyone.  Given that Brazil have effectively known they’d be hosting for nine years if they’re not halfway prepared now you wonder if they ever will be.

The sense of it being series of exhibition matches in all but name is cemented by the fact that Brazil have won it three times.  For a couple of decades they’ve been the undisputed kings of the far flung friendly, pitching up far from home to play anyone who’ll pay to have them.  This time they need success a lot more than in previous events.  Big Phil’s most recent stint is still in its infancy and he could do with gathering enough kudos to keep the public on his side until next summer.  They need games tough enough to challenge them.  If they don’t get them here they’ll be dangerously undercooked this time next year.  The dry run of the infrastructure could be as important.  They should find it confirmed that they have work to do.  Settling back into the Maracana could be the biggest challenge, a stadium in the past that’s been so demanding to its home team that in the past the Brazilian players have asked not to play there.  The ghosts of losing the final as hosts in 1950 need exorcising.  Do that and get more of an idea of their best team and they should consider it a success.

Challenging Brazil for the titles of friendly kings recently have been Spain; a game against Panama last November that the Spanish FA pocketed £4 million for and that Cesc Fabregas described as pointless being a particular highlight.  This has all added to the feeling that their best players are beginning to feel a bit jaded.  The Champions League semi finals certainly gave evidence to support that view.  After two European Championships and a World Cup there’s a sense of them as the football equivalent of Alexander, looking around and weeping with no more world’s left to conquer.  They’ve been careful to say publically that they want to win the Confederations Cup to complete the set.  You sense tiredness, mental as well as physical is the main factor against them.  On form they should still be the team to beat.  If they lose their momentum for next year could disappear.  The next couple of weeks should tell us if that group of players has one last hurrah left in them.

And then there’s the others.  Uruguay might fancy reawakening the spirit of 1950 themselves.  Since finishing fourth in South Africa they’ve struggled to reach that form again, putting qualifying for 2014 in doubt (although a recent win against Venezuela has lifted some of the gloom).  They’ve got a generation coming to the end of the road together with doubts over who will replace them.  Forlan and Lugano in particular will do well to make it another year.  They still have to work out a way to get the best out of Cavani and Suarez simultaneously.  Anything beyond the semis will probably be beyond them.  Italy are in the midst of a rebuilding process that it taking slightly longer than they would have hoped for.  They could also do with Balotelli discovering both his Milan form and some discipline.  Good luck on either.  Nigeria have struggled badly since winning the Cup of Nations.  The Super Eagles can be dangerous but aren’t expected to do anything here.  Mexico are another team out of form.  Japan should perform admirably and lose more than they win.  And Tahiti get to have a nice holiday and hopefully don’t get embarrassed too much.

It’s tough to see beyond either Spain or with the benefit of home support, Brazil.  Almost the best that could happen is Spain beating Brazil in the final, leaving them in no doubt as to the amount of work to do before next year.  Ultimately the biggest question is how Brazil will cope with the pressure of being hosts, both on and off the field.  They should have concerns on both.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Benitez’s Chances At Napoli

As soon as Aurelio De Laurentiis said that he wasn’t talking to Rafa about becoming his new manager we should have known the contract was as good as signed.  For anyone who doesn’t know De Laurentiis’ previous proclamations (and they’re well worth a Google; Messi is a cretin and Lavezzi uses prostitutes are two highlights) he has a long history of saying whatever he wants to the press.  Not that he fooled anyone with this, right from the start Benitez seemed too good a fit to ignore.

For a guy who’s won a Champion’s League, two Europa League’s, a Spanish League Title and an FA Cup, it’s surprisingly easy to feel sorry for Rafa.  For the discerning English based football fan it always seems that he’s getting more abuse than he deserves, apparently hilarious though the Spanish waiter stuff is.  His time at Chelsea cemented his place as a skilled manager who once said some vaguely contentious things about a couple of clubs that he wasn’t managing at the time and has been paying for it ever since.  After doing a very good job in trying circumstances at Stamford Bridge his only option for further career redemption was to go abroad.  Somewhere they don’t make the fat waiter jokes preferably.

Last season Napoli were the best of the rest in Serie A, comfortably finishing second behind Juventus, six points clear of AC Milan in third.  A title challenge only briefly threatened to burst into life.  In truth there was probably more distance between them and Juve than the nine points suggest.  After the best part of four years Walter Mazzarri has left as manager to join Inter.  There are rumours (as there are every year) that Edinson Cavani will leave.  Rafa has issues to solve.  When he looks at the teams around him he’ll find reasons for optimism.  AC Milan are debating whether to sack their manager Allegri.  Fiorentina look likely to sell Stevan Jovetic.  Both Lazio and Roma look at least a few players short.  And Inter are coming off one of their worst seasons in living memory with Mazzarri being brought in to attempt to turn the club around.  Napoli are in a better position than most.

Replacing Cavani will likely be Rafa’s first order of business. It isn’t just his goals, although in finishing as top scorer with 29 in the league last season he scored close to 40% of his team’s total, that’s a difficult enough job by itself.  Cavani is also rightly feted for his all round play, in particular his ability to hold up the ball so effectively.  This role was crucial in the success of Mazzarri’s 3-4-3 system, allowing his team to keep the ball long enough to bring others into play.  Napoli dealt with Lavezzi leaving for PSG last season with apparently few issues.  From the outside Cavani looks impossible to replace.  Rafa will be hoping that if their one truly exceptional player leaves the rest of the squad will contribute enough to make up the shortfall (an argument can be made that this is what happened post-RVP at Arsenal this season, they lost a 30 goal a season striker and responded by spreading the goals out among the team, finishing only 2 goals down on the 2011-12 total with no one player scoring over Walcott’s 14).  Time will tell if Napoli can achieve this.

Rafa’s history at collecting trophies everywhere he’s been will be a welcome omen at a club still looking fondly back at the memory of Maradona making it look all too easy.  He’ll be hoping to go one better than Mazzarri’s 2011-12 Copa Italia.  After his Europa League success he has another Champions League to plan.  The biggest question mark against his appointment is his unhappy six months at Inter in 2010.  As with quite a few of the Inter managers not named Jose Mourinho you end up being surprised they lasted as long as they did.  Aside from the difficulty in following Jose Rafa had to deal with the player the team was built around, Wesley Sneijder, deciding he was only going to play in a position that no longer existed.  After issuing an ultimatum asking for new signings (something Rafa is prone to do, see Valencia and Liverpool) Moratti decided he rather wouldn’t and sacked him.  The actual style of the league seemed to fit.

It’ll be interesting to see how Rafa sets his Napoli team up.  In the past, whether it’s Valencia, Liverpool or Chelsea he’s favoured something like 4-2-3-1, with two holding midfielders allowing another further forward to dictate play.  Napoli’s strength has been in their midfield fluidity.  It seems likely he’ll move away from having three at the back.  Defensively they had the second best record in the league last season, suggesting there isn’t too much wrong.  They also scored the most goals.  Aside from improving their record in Europe and trying to get to the knockout stages of the Champions League, it will be a tough ask for Benitez to improve on this season’s stats (a sustained title challenge at the least is what he’ll be expecting).

Ultimately it will be the players brought in that’ll make or break Napoli’s season.  They’ve previously had great success in bringing in players from South America and working the Italian market.  With Rafa arriving they’ve been rumours Chelsea will swap Cavani for Torres plus £25 million.  If it’s the Europa League version of Torres they buy it may even end up as a good deal.  One consistent criticism of Rafa throughout his career has been that his transfer dealings haven’t been as successful as he would have hoped for (trying to sign Gareth Barry and sell Xabi Alonso will do that for you).  If the network and systems are already in place at Napoli, and indications are that they are, then Rafa could focus on being a more continental style coach.  Presumably he’s been given guarantees about how many of Cavani, Inler, Vargas and Hamsik will be sold.  Keep hold of three, invest wisely and they could well be Juventus’ main challengers again.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Dream Team Football In Monaco

There’s a higher class game of bluff than usual currently taking place in Monte Carlo.  This one involves a Russian billionaire and in the last two weeks alone over £100 million being wagered.  Dmitry Rybololev, Monaco’s majority owner, is betting that French football can’t do without the players and profile that his spending spree is threatening to bring.  He is in all probability absolutely right.

AS Monaco has always been a special case, their unique position in a principality allowing them to pay extremely low rates of tax (although historically this often only applied to foreign nationals).  It is only with their recent promotion back to Ligue 1 and Rybololev’s spending that this has been challenged.  In March French clubs took the unprecedented step of voting to restrict membership to clubs registered in France for tax purposes.  Monaco immediately appealed and are set to hear the verdict on June 20th.  They will argue that their tax status is enshrined in law (dating all their way back to 1869).  Their current spending levels should give some indication of their apparent confidence in the outcome.

That their current tax exemption gives them an unfair advantage is unarguable.  On the mainland it would cost a club three times as much before tax to pay a player the same wage that Monaco could.  Even for the Qatari backed PSG this is a concern.  When they signed Zlatan he negotiated a deal that would give him £13 million a year after tax.  Due to Hollande’s recent tax increases it costs PSG £47.5 million a year to maintain his wage.  This 75% rate above on any wage above a million Euro has done as much as anything to get the clubs questioning Monaco’s position.

Obviously Monaco are not anywhere near to complying with the same conditions as the clubs in the league they intend to join.  This may be a unique situation in a domestic league but across Europe clubs currently compete against each other with vastly differing standards of financial management.  When a Spanish team seemingly encouraged to maintain vast levels of often public debt comes up against a German team that has to exist with minimal losses the playing field is anything but level.  UEFA’s Financial Fair Play is so far the only attempt to deal with this (although quite what would be able to do about Monaco whose tax advantage is enshrined in law is unclear).

Monaco aren’t acting like a club wondering where they’ll be playing next year.  They’re currently involved in the sort of dream team building spree we’ve all fantasised about being in charge of at some point.  And they’re going about it like anyone would, focussing on attacking players first.  The £50 million capture of Falcao works as both a statement of financial muscle and footballing intent.  Being able to sign the best player in Spain not playing at the big two (and with their league apparently not even assured) is as much of a marker as the Zlatan signing was for PSG.  James Rodriguez and Joao Moutinho are players of great promise coming into their prime who undoubtedly both had offers from elsewhere.  To turn down the chance of playing in Europe at least for a season is a measure of the wages on offer but also shows the assurances they’ll have been given on how quickly the team will be contenders for trophies.  That their three big signings have come from outside France hasn’t gone unnoticed.  The theory is that Rybololev had intended on investing in home-grown players until they voted his club out the league.  Now they get to watch as the money flows away from them.

And what would a dream team be without someone signing Ricardo Carvalho?  From Chelsea to Real Madrid he’s been there.  Monaco allows him a last chance to collect a big wage and tell his team mates what was expected elsewhere.  Carlos Tevez, Victor Valdes, Diego Costa and Nicolas N’Koulou may well join him.  After the transfers in the last couple of weeks almost nothing would be surprising.

So what is it about Monaco that appeals?   Apart from the money, lifestyle, casinos, yachts, cars and the chance to bump shoulders with the superrich that is?  The weather?  That helicopter that takes players from Nice airport and lands right outside the stadium?  It’s not as if it’s a new phenomenon.  After all Monaco have always been able to punch above their standing in attacking players (Stade Louis II Capacity: 18523).  Vladimir Jugovic, Jurgen Klinsman, Sonny Anderson, George Weah and Glenn Hoddle are just some of the players they’ve attracted over the years.  They were in the Champion’s League final nine years ago.  They do have history.

Rybololev’s intention is to take advantage of Monaco’s tax status to try and guarantee his club a place in the Champions League.  Either accidently or by design he’s doing this at a time when 90% of the other clubs in Ligue 1 are struggling to deal with new measures limiting their spending powers further (through tax).  With the players they’ve signed you’d have to back them to make the top three this year.  After that, with further signings likely, it looks like they could be the main challengers to PSG in the immediate future.  Marseille and their 20 million fans could have a say in that (especially if FFP comes into account) but beyond that it’s difficult to make an argument for anyone else getting close.  In an odd way FFP could be responsible for this.  If the influence of outside investment is negated then clubs will look to other advantages to sustain success.  PSG’s owners recently made a big deal of the size of their catchment area for possible future youth prospects.  Manchester City have begun talking of the investment and possible reliance on their academy.  Without a large area to draw on or a sizable average attendance to contribute to their coffers Monaco’s tax situation could be theirs.

Presuming that the ruling on June 20th goes their way (and there’s every indication to say it will) Claudio Raneri has plenty to ponder before the Ligue 1 season gets underway.  Other teams have had success after such massive investment but if events at Man City, Chelsea and PSG have taught us anything it’s that often it takes time to build a team strong enough to compete for the top honours.  The way things are going at Monaco you wouldn’t be surprised if they spent another £100 million trying to jump the queue.  The question French football has to ask itself is if it can do without them.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

What Will Happen to Dortmund Post Gotze?

Bayern Munich have always signed the best young players in Germany.  It’s in their DNA.  They wait for a player to prove themselves elsewhere in the Bundesliga then move in to both strengthen themselves and weaken their rivals.  Sometimes it works out (Michael Ballack, Manuel Neuer) and others it doesn’t (Lukas Podolski).  It has been a fact accepted by the majority in Germany for a long time that this is just the way things are.  Which is why it was so important that Dortmund signed Marco Reus last season and Bayern signed Mario Gotze at the end of this one.

Coming back from the Champions League final defeat and losing their Bundesliga title would have been difficult enough with him.  Without Gotze you sense challenging Bayern may well be impossible.  This is no slight on Dortmund, on current form Bayern look far and away Europe’s best club.  Even before they signed Gotze their squad looked stronger than anyone else on the continent.  Away from Gotze’s importance to Dortmund on the pitch (more of which later) the transfer has highlighted what we already knew, that Bayern are playing in a different league to the remainder of the Bundesliga.  Their operating budget is twice that of Dortmund’s.  Over the last three years they have spent £116 million net to Dortmund’s £2 million.  Bayern lost a Champions League final, finished second in the league and in response spent £40 million on a single player (Javi Martinez).  Even if they wanted to it would seem that Dortmund couldn’t follow suit.

That they can’t compete financially is obvious.  Where Dortmund may have thought they had the edge is in the extraordinary team spirit Jurgen Klopp has been able to engineer.  Their back to back Bundesliga titles were won on the back of a small squad completely buying into the ethos of the club they represented.  They would press and run with a desire that at times bordered on superhuman because they had to.  The problem now is that Bayern seem to have recognised that this desire is now required to win titles.  Dortmund should be flattered, they have provoked Bayern into new standards, possibly higher than we’ll ever see again.  Dortmund set a points record of 81 in 2011-12.  This season Bayern beat it with three games left and finished on 91.  They had the fewest defeats ever, most home wins, most away wins, highest winning margin, biggest goal difference.  Just going on the stats it’s hard to see how Dortmund can hope to compete next year.

Klopp’s Dortmund have lost players before.  When Nuri Sahin left after their first title to go to Real Madrid they welcomed Shinji Kagawa back from injury and won the league the season after.  When Kagawa left to join Man Utd they signed Marco Reus (despite interest from Bayern) and slotted him into their system with no problems.  The difference this year is Gotze’s choice of destination.  At 20 he symbolised everything about what they wanted to be about.  Young, German, athletic, hard working, technically gifted, his almost telepathic relationship with Reus will now only be witnessed for the national team.  Gotze was the jewel in their crown, a player they’d nurtured through all their financial difficulties all the way back through to being champions again.  That this transfer may constitute a sea change will be felt all the more if as expected Robert Lewandowski manages to force through his own move to Bayern.  The worry then is that the much coveted Hummels, Reus, Subotic and Gundogan will be the next out the door.

There has undoubtedly also been interest in Klopp.  After the CL final he brushed away any speculation and has called Dortmund, “The most interesting football project in the world.”  He also was keen to shrug away any ill feeling over the Gotze transfer, promising that any departures would leave his team stronger.  That he will get his chance to manage with bigger budgets and exposure elsewhere is certain.  Luckily for Dortmund it seems he is in no rush to get there.

There is cautious optimism amongst the gloom.  Over the last few seasons games between the two clubs have been extremely tight.  Dortmund are unbeaten in the league against Bayern for three years.  They may have finished second in the Bundesliga last year but they did so comfortably.  None of the other contenders look as well placed as they do to challenge.  Hamburg are still looking for a period of stability (and could well face bids for Son amongst others), Bremen and Wolfsburg are struggling to get a decent team together, Leverkusen will be trying to cope without Andre Schurrle and Schalke are Schalke (even with the boost of keeping hold of Draxler).  Looking past Dortmund the ABB brigade (Anyone But Bayern) will find little to put their faith in.  Dortmund will be confident of being Bayern’s main challengers next season and far beyond.  The problem is that for the foreseeable future in the Bundesliga there looks to be Bayern Munich and then everyone else.  This could be the ultimate consequence of Financial Fair Play.  The Bundesliga forcing clubs to run within their budgets leaves Bayern able to compete on a different level because of their superior commercial power.  One super-club a country could become the norm.

As ever it will depend on who Dortmund target to replace the players they’ll lose.  Last season it was extraordinary that they got as far as they did with such a small squad.  With their best team out, man for man they aren’t too far away from Bayern, the problem is Bayern’s second team is almost as good as their first.  Dortmund are excellent when at their best, average when they’re not.  Last season they concentrated on the League at the expense of Europe, this season was the opposite.  With a squad that small there’s little option.  They appear to be targeting players that are technically gifted, young and industrious enough to fit into Klopp’s plans.  The signing of the strong defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos from Bremen is a good start.  Missing out on Draxler and De Bruyne shows their intentions further up the pitch.  The player marked to most directly replace Gotze seems to be Christian Eriksen.  After an apprenticeship spent at Ajax he should be ready to move up the gears on a bigger stage (winning the league and recently adding more goals to his game can’t hurt either).  Time will tell whether he can fulfil his potential.

Their sensible plan of gradual growth within their means is commendable but it’s difficult to see how they can challenge on more than one front unless they increase their squad size considerably.  On a game by game basis they should still be able to compete.  Over the course of a season however they may find finishing above Bayern beyond them.  On current form it’s tough to think of a club that wouldn’t. 

From their recent history on the verge of bankruptcy Dortmund have come an extraordinarily long way in a short space of time.  They may just find that staying there is even harder.