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.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Has Pep already failed at Bayern?

(Or of course not but let’s pretend he has anyway)

It was the meeting of the world’s best team and the most in demand manager, how could it be anything but an unmitigated success?  Two games into the Bundesliga season are the signs already there that Pep’s era will be unsuccessful?

It’s more a feeling that anything at this point, a sense that Bayern aren’t as harmonious as they managed to be last season.  In a sense this is inevitable.  Of all of the achievements of the treble winning team under Jupp Heynckes their main one was in never succumbing to the in-fighting and whining that Bayern specialise in.  Without the memories of a season spent as runners up to motivate them Bayern were always likely to return to their natural state.  Already there’s been murmurs from players not happy with their lack of involvement.  Robben’s already mentioned not playing enough.  Pep spent (a very successful) preseason picking strikerless formations and having to endure Mandzukic staring at him from the bench.  It can only be a matter of time before the next dummy is spat out.

The only thing that hasn’t been predictable about the Pep backlash has been the speed of it.  When anything’s presented with that much hype it’s only a matter of time, especially when most of the country is minded to naturally hate you anyway.  After a season when the shear excellence of your football earned them a reprieve this was always going to the season that Anyone But Bayern made a comeback.  Pep hasn’t helped himself though.  The signing of Thiago would have had the whiff of nepotism about it at the best of times, the fact is agent is Pep’s brother Per has been the subject of whispers.  Then there were his comments about Barca’s treatment of him since he left, principally over his failure to visit his old assistant manager Tito in hospital during his year off in New York.  Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation it left a bad taste.

You would think part of the reason to sign Pep is to project a holier-than-thou image, that’s kind of the point.  You get a great manager who delivers success while preaching about how no other team understands football like you do.  At Barca they turned it into an art form.  Bayern were winning everything anyway, the only possible improvement was to do it with an urbane sense of sophistication and a half concealed smirk.  If he can’t come across as the man who saved football from itself then what good is he?

There’s a sense of going back to the future with Pep, that after last season’s dominance showed Bayern and their turning of football into a ‘game of sprints’ (copyright Joachim Low) had the beating of Barca’s short passing game they’ve turned back to a master proponent of a fading style.  The signings of two more creative midfielders when it was already a well stocked area hasn’t done anything to dispel this feeling (even with the Gotze deal being announced before Pep arrived Uli Hoeness was very keen to add that Pep had specifically asked for him).  Javi Martinez has been used back in defence after a season in which he was one of if not the most influential central midfielder in Europe, which after Pep’s time at Barca spent unsuccessfully trying to convert midfielders into centre backs should ring alarm bells.  Although good enough to fill that role Javi seems wasted back there.  Then there’s the question of where Pep sees Schwiensteiger playing.  In pre-season he had Thiago playing holding midfield.  It already seems like there are parts of the team that aren’t clicking.

In fairness to Pep the early signs are that he’ll be more flexible than that.  The first two Bundesliga games have seen him start with Mandukic and what was essentially the Jupp Hykness team.  The injuries to his two signings mean we can’t be sure what shape his ideal team will take.  Pre-season would suggest that he saw it as one stacked with creative midfielders with Thomas Muller free to roam at the top.  That of course was before the Dortmund defeat in the Super Cup.

If they’d lost their first competitive match to any other team there wouldn’t have been the same importance to it.  But it was Dortmund.  In a Bundesliga that realistically over the last two seasons has become a duopoly any defeat to your closest rivals is going to feel defining, especially to a club you haven’t beaten in the league for three seasons.  The match itself was settled by Bayern’s shocking defensive openness.  Thomas Muller told reporters afterwards that at one point he looked around and had no idea where his teammates were meant to be playing.  The two league games since then have seen them revert to the shape of last season and record tight wins.  Its early days but some of the fluency and ruthlessness of last season seems to have been lost.

It is of course far too early to make judgements on Pep’s reign.  The whispers from Bavaria are of comparisions with another ex-Barca visionary who struggled to impose his ideals on FC Hollywood.  Louie van Gaal tried to change too much too soon and found a squad full of already successful players who had no interest in changing to suit his methods.  Bayern overcame Dortmund last season by managing to match their togetherness and hunger.  Its early days for Pep but the signs are that after a season spent winning everything in sight that desire may prove impossible to maintain.

Is Danny Wellbeck the English Thomas Muller?

After his two very different finishes at the weekend can we now start to hope that Wellbeck might start emulating the Bayern man? 

That's meant as a compliment by the way. And if you don't know that you've not been watching Thomas Muller often enough. Quietly and without fanfare he's become one of the most important players at the best club in Europe.  If Wellbeck wants an example to follow he could do worse than look at Thomas.  

There's enough similarities in their games to start comparing the two. Both of them have come up through the youth systems of the dominant clubs in their countries. Both represented their countries at an early age and have become key figures. And they both have a an athletic skinny frame with spindly limbs together with the same kind of uniform technical excellence. They're both players geared towards the current ubiquitous 4-2-3-1, able at a push to play any position in the front four (often at club level to Wellbeck's detriment, his engine and diligence in tracking back leaving him unable to be positioned further forward in big games). They both have the ability to fill many positions but never be defined by one, the same sort of not quite winger/not quite striker/ not quite number 10/inside right. They're both tailor made for football as a game of sprints, a never ending pull and push of movement as they race to either cover for or join in with a counter attack.  

 The nature of Wellbeck's goals on Saturday kick started the comparison. Both were ones that Muller would have found himself tucking away. The first, a close range tap in after Valencia had squared it owed much to the sense of positioning and intelligent forward movement that Muller has always seemed to naturally possess. The second, an improvised chip over the on rushing keeper was sublime in its creativity and execution. Wellbeck has history with this. Even though he's never been prolific the goals he has scored have been from finishes to savour. His back-heeled goal against Sweden in the European Championship was so good he had seasoned observers wondering if he'd meant it. The ability to fashion a finish when none looks likely is something he shares with Muller, who's goal when rounding the keeper from an impossible angle against Hanburg was one of the goals of the last Bundesliga season. 

So if they're so similar why are their records so different? Why did Wellbeck famously score 1 Premier League goal in 38 appearances last season while Muller scored 25?  

The key difference in them is what makes Muller already a great player. It takes a while to appreciate just how good he is at finding space. In an increasingly athletic sport with teams focussed on playing between the lines and always pressing space has become the one premium that teams can't do without. Muller is the best in the world at finding it. Without the ball he's peerless. He himself described his role as an interpreter of space and came up with the word Raumdeuter or space investigator to describe it. 

With this Thomas has made himself the man for the big occasion. Time and time again last season Muller scored or created goals when his side needed him. In the first leg of the Champions League semi against Barca it was Muller's two goals that established Bayern's dominance (he did this in what if any would be is his favoured position, roaming behind the main striker filling in for the injured Toni Kroos). He has managed to find a way to assert himself in games where Wellbeck so far has not. Whether this too can be learned is another issue.

Wellbeck's came at this season from a standing start, focussing on getting forward more and already reaping the benefits. He has everything he needs to be successful there. Whether he can ever copy Muller's ability to interpret space is something that might be beyond. England and Man Utd should hope not. 

Why Monaco Are Playing By The Rules On Financial Fair Play

When the rules to FFP were released a mate of mine wondered if a club would ever ignore them completely to try and win domestically (because it’s a UEFA measure there are no penalties for not adhering if clubs aren’t in European competition).  Monaco it appears were way ahead of us.  The only difference seems to be that everyone else is ignoring it too.

This was the summer when the impending FFP rules were to have Europe’s leading clubs turning over a newly sensible leaf.  Instead they’ve smiled and nodded sagely and spoke bravely about sticking to the rules then carried on exactly as they always had anyway.  In the case of Real Madrid, fresh from spending over £50 million on young Spanish talent, they’re having a serious go at breaking the world transfer record for the second time in four years.  And this for a player in Gareth Bale that everyone linked to the club seems to be lining up to describe as overpriced.  They couldn’t be clearer about not giving a shit if they tried.

Monaco though don’t even have to pretend to worry about meeting the targets until they get into Europe, presumably at the start of next season.  They have a few things going for them.  Firstly, players signed before you qualify for Europe don’t count in the regulations, so they can go as wild as they like before then as long as they’ve done most of their shopping this season.  Secondly, they’ve signed only young players with resale value, meaning if they had to sell to fund purchases later they’d be able to generate perfectly allowable capital that way.  Thirdly they don’t have to pay tax.  Which is a pretty good position to be in.

And this is part of the reason why FFP in its current form hasn’t a hope in hell of working.  Trying to apply the same criteria across European boundaries is impossible when it doesn’t take into account the widely differing financial circumstances that the clubs in different countries run under.  German teams are already held to trying to break even.  Clubs in Spain have previously been able to rack up enormous debts with Government support.  In France, within the same country, you have two clubs spending money with massively different financial rules imposed on them.  When an attempt to have Monaco’s privileged tax position is defeated in court how can UEFA hope to impose any sense of parity on clubs existing under different laws?

And that’s before you start thinking about a system that lets the bigger clubs continue to spend the most.  Real Madrid’s possible signing of Bale will probably be fine by the regulations when you consider he’d be joining the club with the highest turnover in the world.  Then there’s the sponsorship deals that the Arab state clubs have signed; after FFP was announced both Manchester City and PSG both suddenly discovered massive sponsorship deals from organisations linked to their owners.  There’s been talk of anything above market value being investigated but it sounds anything but a simple process.

It all comes down to whether or not UEFA could or would ban clubs from the Champions League for not adhering to it.  It only has a chance, and it’s a slim one, of being taken seriously.  And that’s if they throw the first one of the big boys taking the piss.  Real Madrid would make the best example.  Given that they play in a league when along with Barcelona they’ve managed to hoover up all the resources to such an extent that there’s no hope for any of the others (and that’s not an exaggeration, they’re the only two clubs in their division with a net transfer spend this summer).  I can’t see them even trying to make the regulations work.  They’re gambling on being such a part of the elite that the Champions League couldn’t do without them, a bet they’re sure to win.  Monaco, whose face isn’t quite as familiar and who at the minute are sticking exactly to the letter of the law, are far more likely to be made an example of.