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.