Friday, 29 August 2014

Why Di Maria’s Fee Is All About Timing

The problem with the English transfer window remaining open three weeks after the season starts is that clubs seem to begin their campaigns in a holding pattern.  Teams are stuck in a kind of limbo as journalists and fans speculate about that one last minute player who can transform their club’s fortunes.
That this is rarely successful isn’t the point but it’s tough to think of one recent example where a last minute big money addition has made that much of an impact.  Mesut Ozil maybe? 
It remains far more common to work the other way.  A glance at the highest fees ever paid by a British club will shortly have Di Maria placed just above Fernando Torres and Andy Carroll, hardly the most auspicious of company.
That Di Maria is a fantastic player isn’t really up for debate.  For their reported £60 million Man Utd are getting someone who scored 36 goals and provided 72 assists in 190 games for Real.  Last season despite being moved further back into midfield to make way for Gareth Bale he was still the top assist provider in Spain.
Why then does this seem like a panic buy?  Partly it’s the fee, the general rule of thumb is that if PSG are pulling out of negotiations then you’re probably overpaying.  What hasn’t helped is the sense that Man Utd have pushed for this deal so hard because of their first two non-performances.
Van Gaal himself admitted after the disappointing 1-1 with Sunderland that his team had most let themselves down with their lack of midfield invention.  Di Maria will undoubtedly help with this.  Fixing it by himself is something else.
Also, given that this isn’t a new problem (it’s been evident since some time before Ferguson left) surely something could have been done to remedy it earlier?
Chelsea had two glaring problems with their team last year, a lack of goals from central midfield and not being able to call on a reliable central striker.  They signed Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa early and both are firing and already look settled.
Last season Man City had a plan, signed players early and won the league.  Man Utd ended the transfer window by enduring the disappointment of failing to land Ander Herrera and actually signing Marouane Fellaini.  This is a simplification of course but when you buy as much as who you buy is certainly a factor in their success.
In Germany business is normally done amicably (Dortmund and Bayern aside) and early.  When your club is being run as frugally as possible this is how it works.  Transfer deadline day in Germany now consists of watching the chaos unfolding in England with amazement.
Man Utd fans may well blame Van Gaal not being available until after the World Cup for the delay and there’d be some truth in this.  The two deals concluded early (for Luke Shaw and Herrera) were originally lined up by David Moyes.  Given that the problem was as bad last season under a different manager surely the blame has to lie with Vice-Chairman Ed Woodward?
There’s a sense that for whatever reason Woodward can’t get deals done.  Last year’s window ended with the club fighting the impression that they were panic buying.  This one has done little to alter that impression.

The problem with everything to do with Di Maria’s arrival is that it sums up what Man Utd are being forced to do to catch up on past mistakes.  He may well end up being a massive success (although you could argue they’re still two top class midfielders short).  The timing of it hasn’t helped anyone make that possible.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Premier League Preview

The Premier League is back.  Which of course suggests that it ever really went away.  The best and worst thing about it is that it’s always there, hovering over us at all times like a commercially mega successful Death Star looming over Alderaan.  This year more than most. We’ve already had a Premier League flavoured World Cup (in the early stages anyway) and the now traditional Premier League summer world tour.  Now at least the proper stuff starts again.

Given that last season was the most unpredictable in living memory it’s unlikely to quite reach those heights this again time.  When you’re still marketing yourself as the best league in the world this is impossible to ignore.  The richest?  Yes.  The most unpredictable major league?  Probably.  But the best?  Luis Suarez’s departure has further underlined it can no longer claim to be the home of the best players, the most exciting is their current mission statement.  And there’s truth in this.  The money pouring in from TV has enabled the clubs from the middle down to strengthen.  And mercifully, last season at least, the top teams all had something wrong with them.  Realistically though there won’t be any surprises finishers in the top seven.

At the top Chelsea look the most like they’ve fixed last season’s mistakes with their summer transfers, bringing in Fabregas and Diego Costa to bring goals to last season’s best defensive record.  Mourinho finally has the type of striker he believes in, leaving a manager used to bringing in trophies little excuse not to do so.  No wonder they’re favourites.  Their closest challengers will be Man City, who’ve reacted to conceding too many last season by spending most of their UEFA mandated FFP limit on Eliaquim Mangala.  They’ll never have a problem scoring goals with the strike-force they have.  Much will rest on the fitness of Aguero.  If he stays fit for the season they should win.  After their first trophy in nine years Arsenal will be confident of adding to it.  Decent summer business is headlined by Alexis Sanchez arriving.  Their failing last season was against the other members of the top four.  Sanchez up front offers a far more mobile option than Giroud (for all his strengths) does.  This should be enough for them to offer a better bet away from home in the biggest games. The likelihood is they’ll fall just short again.

Liverpool will hope that they haven’t done a Spurs and wasted their Suarez windfall on average players (although it’s worth remembering that before the start of last season most experts were praising the way they’d spent the Bale money).  It’s tough to think of even one example of a club selling their best player and improving.  Add in the added demands of Champions League football and it could be struggle for them to maintain their place in the top four.  With pretty much the same team Everton will be nice to watch but fall just short.  Pochettino trying to make Spurs start performing anything other than Spurs will likely take longer than a season to take hold.

Man Utd under Van Gaal have been gifted an easyish set of opening fixtures (in contrast to their ones from last season, David Moyes’ conspiracy theorists, if there are any, must be livid).  Van Gaal’s revolutions elsewhere have tended to take their time settling in though.  With a new 3-4-1-2 formation to bed in and players for the Iron Tulip to fall out it’s likely to be a transitional season.  Unless any major transfers are brought in before the deadline passes a top four place will be the best they can hope for.

At the other end of the table Crystal Palace post-Pulis must surely have entered the relegation conversation, something you wouldn’t have claimed if Tony had stayed.  With no money for signings, an owner looking for anyone to sell to and a seventeenth place finish last season Villa look doomed.  Unless new assistant manager Roy Keane can get a response out of them they could finally do what they’ve been threatening to do for the last few seasons and drop down a division.  If a newly progressive West Ham decide that Big Sam isn’t fulfilling his mandate to provide attacking football and sack him you could make an argument for them doing the same.  West Brom are another that might be sleepwalking towards the drop.  Stoke have bought well.  Joining them in mid-table should be the north east clubs who disappointingly look more stable than they have in years.  Whether that remains the case at the end of the season is harder to predict.

Out of the promoted teams Burnley provide the most fairytale of the stories (lacking either a Thai billionaire or Harry Redknapp).  They are sensibly run, have stuck with the players that got them promoted and already look down.   QPR look better equipped to survive, just that bit more streetwise.  Their summer transfers have brought in valuable experience, and not just with Rio Ferdinand either, Mauricio Isla should be an excellent signing.  It used to be said that winning the play offs was the worst preparation for a season in the division above.  For the last three years the play off winners have stayed up while the champions have gone down.  Leicester look well equipped to try and stop this stat continuing.  They have pace throughout their team and almost more importantly money to spend in January if needed to try and buy their way out of trouble.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Will It Be La Decima Or La Primera?

On the eve of the first ever European Cup final to feature anything resembling a derby it’s astonishing the difference in outlook between the two teams.  Real win their tenth European Cup and a twelve year long wait will be over, a period of time when they’ve managed to break the world record transfer fee three times and average a manager a season.  Their European obsession will be temporarily sated and their season a success.  Losing would be impossible to bear.  For Atleti a season that has already delivered an impossible league title will always be savoured as one of their greatest ever.  Winning the cup would be an incredible bonus.  How Real deal with the pressure will be key.

The two games in the league this season were played at an unbelievable intensity, due on no small part to the desire and spirit coursing through Simeone’s Atletico team.  Real struggled to get anywhere near matching them in the game at the Bernabeu, succumbing 0-1 to a Diego Costa goal.  The 2-2 scoreline in the reverse fixture was pretty fair, Atleti’s desire cancelled out by Real’s class.  The game Real are probably trying to focus on least is last year’s Copa del Rey final where an Atletico team inspired by a world class performance from Thibaut Courtois beat them 2-1 in extra time.  If Atletico perform like that again Real will have to be on top of their game to get close.

The two big players missing from either side (presuming Diego Costa doesn’t make it) will probably just about balance themselves out.  Xabi Alonso will be a loss in midfield for Real, their alternate options there not supplying the same mix of intelligent screening and physical presence.  Costa will be a big hole to fill for Simeone, not only for his goals but for the talismanic qualities he brings at the top of their side.  Earlier in the season in the win against Real it was the willing runs he made into the channels either side of centre backs as much as his goal that was key to their win.

The games they’ve played in cup competitions this season have actually both gone Real’s way, winning 0-5 on aggregate on their way to winning the Copa del Rey.  The difference in both those games was that Real were able to get themselves in front.  When Real have to take the initiative Atletico can hurt them.  This Real team are at the most lethal on the break.  Ronaldo, Bale and Di Maria are set up to tear teams apart on the counter (although with an average of 58% possession in the league, above even Barcelona).  Benzema is the unsung hero in this, his movement allowing Ronaldo in particular to exploit his vacated space.  When Real are forced to try and dictate play Atletico tuck their two wider midfielders in and swarm all over whoever has possession in concentrated waves.  So far this season unless they score early Real haven’t shown they can live with their pressure.

If Atletico can do it not only will they have something to hold over Real forever but given the budgets of the teams involved Simeone would be responsible for one of the best seasons for any club side in history.  Glances are understandably already being drawn his way from boardrooms all over Europe.  This Atletico team is so inexorably tied up in his vision you’d worry about their future if he leaves.  Diego Costa is already off at the end of the season.  That’s fine, they’re used to losing a striker a season.  Courtois might well be harder to replace.  Whether they win or lose change is on its way.  You wouldn’t bet against Real getting rid of Ancelotti either way.  Lose and he’ll probably be sacked before the medals have been handed out.  And why would they consider changing the philosophy now?  It’s won them nine European Cups already. 

Suarez’s injury

The most refreshing thing about the build up to this World Cup from anyone with even just a cursory interest in the England team was the for once realistic assessment of our chances.  After a decent but fairly uninspiring qualifying and a group draw that had the chairman of the FA contemplating suicide it promised to be a refreshingly sedate approach to the tournament.  The first sign of this all going out the window was reached as news of Luis Suarez’s injury broke.  All of a sudden we had a chance as long as the Liverpool striker doesn’t make it.

Just to be clear any South American team should start as favourites against a team as notoriously timid in the heat as England.  Although FIFA’s rankings are anything but perfect Uruguay’s position of 5th suggests they might be able to put a decent team without Suarez, as does their status as current Copa America champions.  Plus there’s the fact that Suarez and Caviani in the same team tends to lead to one of them sacrificing themselves for the greater good (normally the positionally versatile and willing Caviani).  After a couple of poor games against Chelsea in the Champions League Caviani seems to be have given the old Zlatan Ibrahimovic role, that of a player with a great reputation abroad who the English press refuse to rate due to him not doing it against the Premier League’s finest.  The odds are more than healthy that this will come back to bite us.  It might have been better for our reputation if we were getting beaten by a full strength team.

U17 European Championship Win

At the end of a couple of weeks that started with a report into the apparently rotten state of the development of young English players what the hell are we supposed to make of the Under 17s winning the European Championship?  This isn’t a one off either, it’s the second we’ve won in four years, beating countries undoubtedly proud of their youth development in the finals of both, Spain in 2010, Holland this year.  Clearly then elite young English players have some talent.  Greg Dyke and the FA would say that it’s the next stage in their progression that we struggle with.  There would seem to be some truth in this.  From the 2010 final sides Conor Wickham started up front for England, Jese for Spain.  While Jese (before his injury) has had a chance this season to make a place for himself in the Real Madrid side Conor Wickham had two spells this season on loan to Championship sides before being given a chance to play for a Sunderland side not overburdened with strikers.  This season the number of English players given a debut by last year’s Premier League top four stood at 0 until Ryan Giggs began his 5 game run as temporary manager.  The talent would seem to be there.  The culture that results in them getting the chance to play less so.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

West Ham’s Deal With The Devil

“It’s not if you win, it’s the way you win.” Johan Cruyff
“I don’t give a shite.” Sam Allardyce   
It’s always been an odd fit, Big Sam as West Ham boss, a Faustian contract the club signed at their lowest ebb.  Never mind about the aesthetics I’ll get you promoted he promised, and then delivered (just).  Now after two years of survival and little else the club is in a holding pattern while they wonder if just surviving is enough.
The most fascinating thing about the criticism of the rudimentary nature of his team’s playing style has been Allardyce’s utter distain for it.  To Big Sam any questioning of style over results seems completely alien.  It’s as if he can’t even get his head round the concept.  His job is determined solely through results, the table is there in black and white if anyone wants to question him.  And it says he’s done his job (his complaints about West Ham having an undeserved reputation for attacking, easy on the eye football have some truth to them, although just because they haven’t seen any for a while doesn’t mean they can’t expect to see their team at least attempt to do it).
Stoke of course were in this position a year ago.  Tony Pulis was delivering survival season on season with an increasingly expensively assembled squad and supporters progressively more frustrated by the style of play.  Mark Hughes was brought in with the brief of playing more attractive football and they’ve just finished the season with their highest ever points tally.  This isn’t to say it would work that way at West Ham.  It might just be as likely they’d plummet again without Big Sam’s sobering influence.  It’s a risk either way.
Looming in the background is the 2016 move to the refurbished Olympic Stadium.  When they’re calling that home they’ll have 54,000 seats to fill every week.  Tough to do with the functional football they’ve been playing, pretty much impossible to do outside of the Premier League.
Big Sam might rightly point out that his job thus far has just been to keep West Ham up, one he’s done comfortably.  He might get one more season to prove that he can do this while getting his team playing more football (in fairness to him at this point in his Bolton career he did bring more flair in, although this is relative).  More than likely he won’t care.
The most important factor in top level football is perception.  You’re either a club that’s going forwards or backwards.  The best you could argue for West Ham at the minute is that they’re a club standing still.  And with a stadium move to plan for and paying fans disgruntled that might just be enough to make a change.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Where Will Ivan Rakitic End Up?

For a player to make the step up from being ever so slightly under the radar to being considered world class can happen in a few ways.  They can have a season spent in the very best of form.  They can impose themselves on a competition.  Or they can come up with a defining moment of genius.  For Ivan Rakitic this contains all three:
If there’s a finer example of a backheeled chapeu (which I’m reliably informed is what they’re called) then it’s not easy found on Youtube.  Among the many, many amazing things Rakitic is up to in that clip it’s that by the time the ball has left his boot on the backheel he’s already moving to go past Pepe, certain that the defender has been beaten.  The touch he takes on the run to leave it perfectly in his path isn’t bad either.  To do all that and unleash the perfect pass into Carlos Bacca’s path takes supernatural composure.  To do it at 1-1 against a flying Real Madrid side is almost beyond belief.

It’s been one of those years for Ivan.  12 goals and 10 assists only tell half the story of his importance to a Sevilla team rapidly becoming the fourth best in Spain (Bilbao fans will disagree with this).  Prior to this season he’s been criminally under the radar, even within his own club.  2013-14 has been his breakthrough album.  Before the season started £3 million would have apparently been enough to sign him.  Now his value must be ten times that. 

Part of his importance to his team is in his adaptability.  He can and has filled any position in midfield, although enjoys more influence when he plays central.  Although his most common position for Sevilla this season has been behind the striker his transfer value and probably long term future lies in his ability to operate as a deep lying playmaker.  With the current desire to have sitting midfielders be able to dictate play with their passing putting these players at a premium if he does move he’ll not be short of suitors. 

Rumours of him ending up at Real Madrid are hopefully based on the fact they’ve quite often not been shy about signing up players good enough to hurt them.  Given that playing for the national team his performance in tandem with Spain’s second best Croatian midfielder Luka Modric hasn’t always been successful it surely doesn’t make sense to recreate it at club level.  Outside of Los Blancos Rakitic would make sense for almost every other elite team on the planet.  Just in the Premier League he would walk into any of the Chelsea, Liverpool, Man Utd or Tottenham teams.  And he’d be at least as good as anyone at Man City or Arsenal.

Not that it’s a given he’ll be leaving Sevilla.  Even after being offered around at the start of this season its clear Sevilla realise what they have now.  He’s become far and away their most important player.  His wife and family are apparently very happy where they are.  It’s an exciting time for the club generally, they’re two games away from a Europa League final and hanging around for a possible crack at the Champions League would be apt.  What’s clear is that if he does leave that this time he won’t be undervalued.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Rage Against The Stream

There’s a lad I know, him and his group of mates share the log-in details for a streaming service offering flawless HD feeds of all Premier League matches.  One of them pays a PayPal account £4 per month for the privilege.  They’re all under instruction not to share the password with anyone, the logic being that the more people that access it the more likely it is to get shut down.  They know it will eventually though.  Just as they also know as soon as it is another one will pop right up to replace it.

That’s the world we’re living in.  And all it’ll take is for a host to base themselves in Sweden or one of the smaller island nations existing just for the privilege and there’ll end up being no practical way of shutting it down.  If things continue as they have been we’ll see the Pirate Bay of football streaming before too long.  If the history of the internet has taught us anything it’s that long term it will be pretty much impossible to stop the majority of people accessing supposedly copyrighted material.  And if football broadcasting has it’s that no matter how much you show people will watch it. 

The astonishing thing about the streaming debate is how little the powers that be seem to be doing to stop it.  Or perhaps more accurately how little they’re able to do.  On occasion you might see a press release when 30,000 streams get taken down in a year.  They might just be realising that in every stream they shut down there’s untold multitudes still up and at the fingertips of anyone with an internet connection.  In this they’re not only fighting against the future, they’re trying to hold back the present.

And that’s watching at home.  In pubs if anything it’s more engrained.  Irrespective of the complex verdict in the Portsmouth landlady trial if you want to watch any match this weekend odds are there’ll be a pub a short distance away showing it.  A couple of years ago my local used to tell you what games they had on with a nod and a wink.  Now they’ll be openly advertised in chalk on the sign outside. 

This, as with everything about modern football that we don’t particularly like, is the Premier League and Sky’s fault.  Thirty years ago they didn’t announce what game would have highlights featured on Match of the Day in the fear that no one would show up.  Now there’s at least four out of ten games shown in full each weekend.  It’s only going one way.

More than anything this is a symptom of a larger malaise.  There’s a generation of fans being lost to watching football live in this country.  The reasons for this are broad and complex but can mostly be attributed to cost.  With tickets so expensive is it really a surprise that the accepted way to follow your team at 3 o’clock on a Saturday is now to watch them via a foreign satellite stream in a pub.

The usual reason given for not allowing 3 o’clock live broadcasts on a Saturday is to protect lower league football, the idea being if fans could chose to watch Premier League games on TV then attendance down the leagues would suffer.  If this was true you would have expected to have seen a large drop in the last few years when streaming became widespread which simply isn’t happening. 

Of course the Germans are much more efficient.  Every match from the top two divisions is broadcast live on TV and at the same time their top division is the best attended in Europe.  What Germany also has a pricing structure and ethos built around attracting young fans to viewing matches live in its stadia.  If there’s no chance of stopping people streaming matches, and in a practical sense there’s not, surely it makes sense to offer the same service but regulated?  It shouldn’t be beyond copying what the Germans are doing to simultaneously bring more young fans through the gates while offering armchair fans the option to watch every Premier League game legally.  It shouldn’t but it probably is.

The unspoken criticism of this will be why with all the thudding near constant availability of modern football is even more needed.  This is a fair point.  But at some point in the last 20 years we crossed that particular Rubicon and kept on going forwards so we might as well keep going till the end now.  Rightly or wrongly a generation of fans (myself included) has grown up in a world where the next big match is a short walk to the pub away.  While protecting the atmosphere of the people lucky enough to be inside the stadium is important this shouldn’t preclude allowing fans to get more of what they’re used to getting.

The suspicion is that the authorities are happy enough to bask in the glow of the latest record breaking TV deal and not worry about what the future holds.  For all the signs of a breaking point being reached they can point to that as evidence of the system working.  In their attempts to deal with the issue of streaming so far they’ve resembled the music and movie industries in the early 00s, struggling to understand the scale of the challenge they faced as their business model eroded beneath them.  There is a chance they could embrace providing a platform to allow fans to watch any game live by 2015 to be included with the next round of TV bidding.  With so much money still being made through TV rights alone (News International paid £30 million to show mobile PL highlights for the next three years compared to a combined £3 billion plus from Sky and BT for TV rights) it’s unlikely that any change will be considered until those figures change considerably.  As football’s fan base ages it’s only a matter of time before they’re forced to act. The suspicion is they’ll have missed an opportunity by the time they do.

The Southampton Hipster Club

The Premier League is a desolate place for the football hipster.  Everything about it is just too damn.. mainstream.  Where’s the joy in pledging allegiance to Arsenal say when even your Mum knows who Mesut Ozil is?  What you need is a team just left of centre enough to make following them cool while not being in any danger of actually winning anything (and no, Arsenal don’t count).  For this, Southampton are the only choice.

They’re perfect really.  Their current identity is based around them developing their own players and a bright young manager who insists on a style of football based around pressing the opposition.  They’re like Dortmund but without the reduction in cachet that actually winning stuff brings.  They’re just on the edge of being too mainstream, like a band just before their song is used on a Vodaphone advert. 

Manuel Pochettino’s commitment to making Southampton the league’s coolest club even stretches to insisting on still using a post-match interpreter when he can obviously speak excellent English (as opposed to Pepe Mel, who instantly ruined his air of Spanish mystery by proving he’d learnt our language).  Manuel knows that nothing removes your carefully cultivated aloofness faster than looking like you’re trying too hard.

Southampton stand out in a Premier League increasingly measured in money first and football second with their focus on bringing young players through.  Football hipsters love both developing youth and getting to complain when said youth is sold early for a profit.  Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale, Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain, Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, James Ward-Prowse and Calum Chambers are just some of the players to have come through their rightly lauded academy in the last ten years.  This is good news.  Follow them and you can smugly recount how different your club is; we make players, we don’t buy them you can say.  Now that Barcelona have turned evil we’re the only bastions of club morals left.

Their playing style could have been designed with appealing to a better quality of fan in mind.  Possession football is so 2009, never mind Pep Guardiola and his Bayern side’s attempts to bring it back.  Pressing the ball when out of possession is what’s in now, winning it high up the field and counteracting quickly, distilling football down into a game of sprints.  To the level they do it they’re unique in the Premier League.  There’s only Chelsea who get close to their pressure on the ball and they tend to do it about twenty metres closer to their own goal line.  And who cares because they’re Chelsea.

There’s a real catch them while they’re here feel about them.  Bigger clubs are actively circling their talent.  Lallana is in line to be in the first team for England at the World Cup.  Luke Shaw apparently has to choose between Man Utd and Chelsea.  Hipsters should rush to follow them now, before they sell out and move to one of the big boys.

Following Southampton also allows you to ponder the bigger questions of football fandom, namely what is a modern football club actually for?  If it’s to win things then Pochettino’s decision to rest players from an entirely winnable 5th Round FA Cup tie is indefensible.  If it’s to bring the kids through while finishing in the top half of the table then they’re golden.  You’ll be too busy coming across as cool and mysterious to care. 

Basically Southampton are really the only choice for a football hipster looking at English clubs.  And really isn’t all this following European teams becoming a bit passé?  Liking Dortmund was fine when no one had heard of Shinji Kagawa and Robert Lewandowski’s FIFA stats were stupidly low.  After the Champions League Final and people remembering the Bundesliga highlights isn’t it all a bit played?  Braver to pick the one English team cool enough then.  Unless Marcelo Bielsa ever gets a job over here.  Then hipsters worldwide will be frantically ordering shirts online before he even gets off the plane.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Christian Eriksen Central To Post-Sherwood Spurs

I think we all wanted Tim Sherwood to succeed at Spurs didn’t we?  What a shame it already looks doomed to failure.
Of the many mistakes he’s made since taking over; not seeing the point in holding midfielders, trying in vain to bring the gilet back, not standing by the side of the pitch when his team are losing, the worst must surely be shunting Christian Eriksen to the left.
Eriksen’s one of those players that it takes a while to appreciate just how good they are.  At first glance he doesn’t seem to have much that sets him apart, he’s not especially quick, isn’t that impressive physically and while technically accomplished isn’t hold your breath skilful.  What he does do better than almost anyone in his position is more often than not make the right decision.
The young Dane has been unquestionably the best signing of the seven brought in with the Gareth Bale money.  Even out on the left he’s been decent enough.  When he’s had his chance at ten either earlier in the season under AVB or on the odd occasion under Sherwood he at times has looked far and away Tottenham’s best player.  At 22 already with Champions League and International experience it’s frightening how good he could be.
He sums up a kind of Northern European footballing excellence does Christian, a no nonsense get the ball and pass it the place it most needs to go type of playmaker.  The importance of putting the ball where it most needs to go has been drilled into him from an early age, possibly as a result of the same type of futuristic advanced training area used by Ivan Drago in Rocky IV (which given that his footballing education was spent at Ajax can’t be too far away from reality).  At his best he takes the team where they need to go.
All of which makes you wonder why Sherwood is sticking him out of the on the left.  He’s not been doing too badly there (although he’s been caught out defensively a couple of times) it’s just that his potential to influence games has been so diminished.  When Tim took over and implemented a back to basics up and at them 4-4-2 it made sense to fit him in there, with two strikers already reducing control in midfield there’s no way you would get away with allowing him to drift.  Now though Spurs are set up in a formation with Erikson’s ideal position and still marginalising him.
And it’s not even as if the guy picked as a ten in his place is doing a decent job.  As a winger Nacer Chadli looks decent.  With a free role behind a striker he more often than not looks out of his depth.  Given the obviousness of swapping them I can only guess that this is Sherwood’s attempt at leftfield tactical flamboyance.  It’s enough to make you wonder just what game he’s watching from the stands.

This is just the most obvious part of Sherwood’s increasingly public breakdown.  White Hart Lane is increasingly looking like the setting for a recreation of Falling Down with Tim instead of Michael Douglas.  As shouts at everyone who’ll listen about how his players have lost their passion and that he’s been overcharged for a can of coke he must be aware that somewhere over his shoulder Daniel Levy is emailing Louie Van Gaal and telling him the job’s his if he wants it.  You’d have to think that the first thing he’d do when he takes over is put Eriksen back in the centre.

Van Persie And His Spaces

Never mind Moyes, are Man Utd better without Van Persie?

Van Persie’s absence through injury and a couple of decent Premier League performances in that time (out of three, Man City at home being the exception) have validated his complaints about other teammates running into his space on the pitch, albeit probably not in the way he thought. 

In his absence Man Utd have lined up in the same 4-2-3-1 formation that they would with him available, just with Rooney moving one position further forward to take his place as the main striker.  Whether this is now Rooney’s best position or not is a (lengthy) debate for another day.  What’s undeniable is in the three games without Van Persie in front of him Rooney has scored 4 goals, just under a third of his total for the season.  He can more than do the job there.  In an alternate footballing universe where Mourinho got his wish and Rooney had been playing for Chelsea this season this is undoubtedly the role that he had in mind for him.  Chelsea already had a squad stocked with tens.  They needed a striker.

With Rooney pushed forward Mata’s freed up from his position on the wing to come inside to undoubtedly his best position, floating behind the striker.  The difference in his performances in the two games he’s played there has been enormous (against City he was shifted out to the wing again to accommodate Tom Cleverly as an extra central midfielder).  He was the best player on the pitch against Villa, providing a goal and two assists.  More importantly he linked midfield and attack in a way that has been almost totally absent for the rest of the season.  Mata was also free to switch positions when required with Kagawa on the left (a position he regularly fills with distinction for Japan).  Rooney’s header against Villa is an illustration of this; Mata’s run through the middle draws defenders away from Rooney as Kagawa cuts in from the left to cross.  Without the movement and understanding from the three Rooney doesn’t score.

What Ferguson meant with the signing of Kagawa we’ll probably never know.  It’s fair to say that as the second biggest close season arrival (together with Van Persie) on what turned out to be his last ever summer in charge he was expecting more than watching him sit on the bench.  Taken together with him leaking Rooney’s transfer request it’s likely that Ferguson might even have planned for him to take Rooney’s place as the team’s ten.  Now though, with Mata signed and the three of them playing well together it looks like it should be a choice between Van Persie and Rooney rather than fitting them both in.

And it’s the lack of this that Van Persie was complaining about.  All season Man Utd have lacked cohesion more than anything.  The problem he’s got now is that in his absence Moyes has stumbled onto a solution.  Whether it should have taken this long to think about playing players in their preferred positions is just something else to beat a defenceless Moyes with.  He’s already tried to go more defensive against City (reverting to type and dropping Kagawa after a good performance) and seen it fail utterly.  You’d think for the sake of job preservation he’d stick with what was working.  And long term that could be bad news for Van Persie.

Even before this latest shift there’s been the odd piece of evidence that Man Utd have looked more threatening without him.  During his other injuries Van Persie’s place has normally been filled by Wellbeck, who has extra training or not done quite well.  When fit, and sometimes when not, Moyes has always found room for the Dutchman.  Given so far he’s shown an inability to make tough decisions it’s likely he’ll do the same when Van Persie returns.  To play Rooney and Van Persie together successfully has proven beyond him tactically so far.  It could well come down to picking one of them.  With his freshly minted £300,000 contract Rooney will be confident he would get the nod.  Van Persie brought attention to the problem early in the season.  It could be his bad lack that in his absence they’ve stumbled onto the solution.

Monday, 24 February 2014

But Where Will All The Glory Supporters Go?

English football used to be easy.  You played from August to May and at the end Man Utd won.  With that changing overnight (or close enough) who will the discerning glory supporter turn to now?

It’s the fans who decided to support Man Utd a year ago that I feel sorry for.  All those poor residents of Essex and Ireland and Asia and wherever the rest of the 500 million fans are based chose their team based on twenty years of unqualified success only to see it snatched from them.  Where will they turn now?

Across town is the probable answer.  Man City would be the logical choice, they’ve the money to be sure of being there or thereabouts for the foreseeable future and play a style of football just kamikaze enough to be able to claim you like them for aesthetic reasons.

Or there’s Chelsea.  For fans of mind games played loud enough to become essentially snarky white noise they’re irresistible.  And you can spend £40 million in a transfer window and still claim to be the underdogs.

It comes to something when Arsenal are viewed as the left field choice.  In a world where finishing third is viewed as underachievement the sensible glory hunter would surely balk at backing Arsenal’s boys?

The sad things is any Man Utd fan born from the early 80s onwards has never known anything like this.  They have no coping mechanism, no frame of reference.  A lifetime of being successful is all they’ve brought up to expect.

For the rest of us it’s amazing.  The delight in watching a formerly all-conquering team well and truly stack it is one of the best things about following football.  For Man Utd fans it’s terrible.  For everyone else it’s a dream come true.

If you’re watching the Bundesliga because the pressing is of a much higher standard and can’t understand why people are taking such delight in Man Utd’s failings you’re only half a football fan.  As only Germans can do they have their own word for this, schadenfreude or joy in someone else’s defeat (a word that could have been coined just for the rest of the country laughing at Bayern in the days when they used to implode). 

Not as much fun for Man Utd fans, glory hunting or not.  When the novelty wears off you’d imagine they’ll be left with a lot less than 500 million.  And what’ll gall them most is they’ll most probably turn their attentions across town.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Why The Bundesliga Is Already Over

With the Bundesliga about to return from a four week break you’d be hard-pressed to find a single person who believes that Bayern won’t again be champions.  And if this wasn’t bad enough they’ve managed to already destroy next year’s league by announcing the signing of Dortmund’s Robert Lewandowski on a free at the end of this season.  The continued dominance of the Wintermeister (winter champions) is predicted by everyone and has now gotten to the point where serious questions are being asked about how much this is harming the league.

Bayern are back to their old ways, buying up their closest challengers best players whether they want them to or not.  Putting ‘strengthen yourself, weaken your rivals’ into practice as often as possible.  They’re back to behaving like 90s era Vince McMahon, buying everyone else’s talent with the express aim of ruining their challengers.  In Germany in the last couple of years they’ve gone from being a more attractive option for a player looking to get paid and win titles to the only option.  Next year’s title is as good as their already.

Don’t believe me?  Look at the evidence.  They’ve lost one game in the Bundesliga in a season and a half.  They’ve already had their two hardest games this season (Dortmund away and Leverkusen away) and came away with four points from them.  Before this season started Bayern had already taken Mario Gotze, Dortmund’s beating heart, the player they’d attributed more hope to than any other.  Now they’ve signed Lewandowski, just the kind of strong, technical, mobile and prolific striker needed to make Dortmund’s formation work and the player that will probably prove harder to replace than any other.  Given that last season with both players in their team Dortmund finished 26 points behind them it’s hard to imagine them turning it around by next year.

Dortmund of course were the team meant to stop this from happening.  That they’ve become a spent force already is the surprising thing.  After the shock of having Gotze smuggled away to Bavaria against their wishes they had a great close season.  They signed players that seemed to fit their template and system and integrated them well.  They kept the rest of their coveted players for at least one more season.  They had the best start to a season in their history.  And then they ran themselves into the ground.  One theory doing the rounds is that Jurgen Klopp’s hard pressing style (the first stat he checks for after the match is if his team has run further than the opposition) is to blame for the amount of injuries they’ve had to contend with.  What’s clear is that unlike Bayern they don’t have the squad to cope, especially now as an established Champion’s League contender.  With both first choice elevens out they would run Bayern close.  This season they played them with an entire back four absent and lost 0-3.  Seeing if they’ve managed to recuperate after the physical and mental break winter has given them will be fascinating.

This applies to Klopp as much as the players.  In recent months he’s looked like he might be undergoing a slow burn mental breakdown as the boys from Bavaria delight in seeing how far they can push him before he snaps.  At the minute he’s starting to look like Michael Douglas halfway through Falling Down, after abandoning his car in traffic and just before a Korean shopkeeper asks him to pay over the odds for a can of coke.  You fear for fourth officials if things don’t turn around soon.  Arresting the slide permanently rests on him performing another close season rescue job.  Losing Lewandowski is their customary one star player a year.  Any more are tempted away and the improbable really will become impossible.

Leverkusen must be worried.  The last time they had a team this decent Bayern promptly nicked their two best players (Michael Ballack and Ze Roberto from the legendary runners up team of 2001-02).  This vintage is improving faster than most would have expected but in truth are still some distance off living with Bayern.  Outside of a period of 90s era self-destruction it’s hard to see anyone unseating them.

The league wide headshaking over the extent of Bayern’s dominance has come just as the Bundesliga was finally ready for their big world tour.  Driving up undervalued overseas rights is the next logical step for a league on the up.  For this Bayern are both its biggest strength and weakness, especially when the Bundesliga is so associated with a level playing field.  Yes you can see the best team in Europe play weekly but as an overseas fan with no affinity to any club why would you bother watching a league where only one team would win?  Even in Spain there are two (three now with Atletico, a pointer to the kind of drive and luck with injuries that will be needed to even challenge).  The problem is as much about perception as anything.  Once everyone assumes that only one team can win it then that’s as much of a problem as it actually happening.

None of this is Bayern’s concern of course.  They would argue, quite rightly, that their success and profile brings attention outside Germany to a league that needs it.  And if we have anyone to blame for Bayern’s current excellence it’s Dortmund.  It was their two titles that drove Bayern to add their pressing and teamwork to their already formidable individual talents.  It’s the responsibility of the rest of the league to raise their efforts to reach up to Bayern, not to debate ways of trying to bring them down.  The question over whether any of them realistically can challenge Bayern long term mainly boils down to resources.  Financial fair play or not, when your richest club (Bayern) have twice the budget of the second richest (Dortmund) they’re likely to pull ahead of the rest.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Why Man Utd Not Qualifying For Europe Would Be Good For Them

There’s a freedom in failure, a licence to do what’s necessary to get back to success.  Long term it might just be best for Man Utd and David Moyes to properly experience it. 
The Glazers were granted an incredible gift after buying Man Utd when Alex Ferguson decided that his socialist background somehow didn’t mean he should object to the amount of debt placed on his football club (since the takeover close to a billion pounds has been paid out in fees and interest according to some estimates) and got on with the business of winning titles on a comparative shoestring.  This doesn’t bode well for David Moyes’ chances of carrying out the massive surgery on the squad needed to get them back to where they need to be.  With the Glazers’ history of doing just enough it’s easy to see a scenario where they sneak into fourth place and go through another transfer window failing to sign anyone of note.
Better then to fail completely, have a great big bush fire of a season.  Finish seventh and out of Europe completely.  Let the fans and media wail that the Empire of Old Trafford has reached its’ end.  Moyes can hold his six year contract in front of him like a shield and point out that the squad he inherited obviously wasn’t good enough.  With the fear of missing out on Champions League football for another season the Glazers would surely have to grant him the money his rebuilding needs.  Without the demands of Europe to worry about he could ship out the dead wood and replace it with fewer players of higher quality.  Going for the title the season after would be easier without the extra games, especially compared to nicking a Europa League spot and having to do the dreaded Thursday-Sunday schlep.  And it’s not like coming from seventh to win would be unprecedented.  In Italy Juventus’ current dominance was started from finishing seventh the season before their first league title.  Dortmund finished fifth then won the league twice and got to the Champions League final the year after.  They were both clubs in worse positions than Man Utd are now.  They used their failures as fuel for their revolutions.  Does anyone really think that Man Utd don’t have it in them to do the same?
The main question over whether this is possible has to be Moyes.  Dortmund and Juve had Jurgen Klopp and Antonio Conte respectively, coaches who are now seen as the equal of anyone in Europe.  When they took over they were seen as inexperienced and untested at the highest level, just like Moyes now.  After doing distinctly below average with the team he inherited from Ferguson Moyes should be given the chance to show what a Man Utd team built by him would look like.  Failing in his first season might perversely be his best chance of getting the chance to do it.
And does anyone really think that they’re ready to have a serious tilt at the Champions League anyway?  If Ferguson thought they were anywhere close he would have surely taken the chance to try and add his name to the list of managers to win it three times.  He looked at what was needed to turn the current squad into contenders and understandably decided he’d had enough.  The timing of it left Moyes with problems he had no chance of fixing right out of the gate, problems big enough to require a full scale rebuilding job, not a January top-up. 
Whether Moyes would get the opportunity to rebuild is anyone’s guess.  Man Utd made such a big deal of him being given time to build a legacy as Ferguson's anointed chosen one that it’s unlikely that they’d backtrack so completely now.  And to give the fans credit they’ve taken their first real taste of (mild) failure better than many would have predicted, with very few calling for Moyes to be given the boot.  Whether this good will extends to the Floridian billionaires who call the shots only time will tell.  It’s clear that taking the time and expense to float ten percent of the club on the New York Stock Exchange wasn’t with the intention of having the share price drop through the season often and low enough to make it onto the back pages.

Financially there should be no question that they could afford the hit of one season without Europe.  The commercial deals signed over the last ten years would be enough on their own to keep most Premier League clubs in the black.  And the lure of being Man Utd should be enough to attract high calibre players without being able to offer them Europe.  They would still be Man Utd.  The walls to Old Trafford would still stand.  They’d still be on TV every week.  Ferguson would still be in that odd position in the stands, just over Moyes shoulder.  Giggs would still be knocking about somewhere.  After twenty five years of not having to think about it, a season wasted might be the most worthwhile one they could have.