Friday, 9 November 2012

Sometimes it's Better to Look Closer To Home

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As much as you want it to, it's not going away and it probably never will until A) Sir Alex Ferguson reads this to compound his own current thinking or B) well there is no B. 'Why?' you may ask, 'Why is there no B?' well as you can see from the cyclical articles and blog posts about a weak midfield that's been going on for about 3 years now, you can see there is no other option but to understand better what is going on and that what you're asking for, will probably never happen however much you would like it to.

Manchester United's season, looking at it from the outside-in looks great. Top of the table in both of the leagues they're playing in and scoring a plethora of goals. What has papered over the cracks is the weakness in the team to actually be the better team on the day or just to keep a clean sheet (3 in 16 games so far). Outscoring the opposition has now become the norm and it's completely understandable when purchasing last season's best striker in the league for what now looks like bargain money. When you consider that Jordan Henderson was £20m it's completely compounded. Or, my favourite example,  £35m Andy Carroll who still hasn't scored and as they say, the rest is history.

The change in formation and the acquisition of Kagawa are probably the main factors here as well as a defence that doesn't look at all confident. Regardless of the improvement now and it is somewhat settled, goals are still being conceded. This could be down to lack of communication or concentration but the midfield that precedes it does not instil the latter unless Scholes or Rooney are playing. That, unfortunately is the fact here.

Reading about Manchester United of late and their 'over-reliance' on Robin Van Persie doesn't change anything at all. There isn't a team on this planet that wouldn't rely on such a clinical finisher. The problem here is not the 'over-reliance' on Van Persie but the option not to rely on a midfielder. Out of Carrick, Cleverley, Fletcher and Anderson it is pretty tough to think of them as the reason a game was won. The latter's exerts in the League cup aside, it's a mediocre foursome of players for a top of the table club; in England or in Europe. 

There is no need to write about Scholes and his effect on the team or the fact there isn't a new Scholes that a team could buy. This would be the reason Sir Alex Ferguson hasn't gone out there and spent money on a replacement. This would be the reason he tried and failed to buy Eden Hazard. Or Lucas Moura who opted for the cash cow that is PSG. Instead he went for the number two on his list: Shinji Kagawa. These three are final third players who link play and score goals. There was no talk of players of the ilk of Daniele De Rossi or Arturo Vidal for example, players that command the midfield single-handedly. 

Many called it a mistake to not buy the midfielder everyone wanted. Many others thought Kagawa would be the player to be the Scholes of old. The rest thought the reinforcements at hand would suffice. In a way, they're all correct. Kagawa is a player that is easy on the eye, somewhat a Japanese David Silva. Interpret that how you like but he has the talent and he will find his feet after a lot more games. The problem here is that he wasn't the world class signing that would move the club forward. Yet at the same time the problem was never a problem in the first place. The world class signing had already signed back in 2003. 

Wayne Rooney's potential as an all-round midfielder far outweighs his exploits as a striker thus far. Firstly for the need of Manchester United to possess that kind of midfield talent (more on that later) and secondly the ample and somewhat better strikers up front in Van Persie and Chicharito. Both better finishers with better movement and intelligence in and around the box. This could be down to nationality but it's quite clear that Rooney should play behind these two players or one of the two. 

Rooney's first foray into midfield was to compensate for the talent that was Cristiano Ronaldo and at first the English media chastised the club for 'wasting talent' on the left wing. This slowly moved to acceptance and then on to praise for finding out how effective a move it was. You should also remember that Carlos Tevez was the final member of that triumvirate; a very capable player but also moved out of position so you can see that Rooney was not alone in adapting. This season you have seen that Rooney has become that missing midfielder with ease and no talent is being wasted here at all. It's clear that it has only been beneficial as I'm not sure United would be sitting where they were for it not for his displays so far.

Everyone has seen Rooney's passing range, vision and tenacity. Three qualities reserved for a player that isn't a striker but a midfielder. When he completes a cross-field ball, which is above 90% of the time, you wonder why he hasn't played in midfield for longer to hone his talents. His touch can be a bit hit and miss at times though thankfully it's more often leaning towards the former. He has made more interceptions, touched the ball more which he himself has admitted is something he enjoys, made more tackles and just influenced games a player of his calibre should. 

If this is only a temporary solution then it's a round peg for a round hole and looking at it now, United are reaping the rewards. The younger members of the squad may well have a say too. Nick Powell being the stand out figure here as Cleverley is plainly not good enough. There was a moment against Arsenal where his first touch was so bad it looked like a pass. It's moments like this that are slightly worrisome and his departure in that game was a benefit come the end of 90 minutes. Powell looks a better player and is 5 years younger. That is something to be excited about and his involvement in the first team plus his first call up to the Under 21's can only be a good thing.

As much as this season has been a blessing to the midfield situation. It does still leave a lot to be decided with there not being someone to accompany Rooney's talents there. The four players mentioned much earlier are not in that quality and a lot is left to be desired to show if they ever will be. It's due to this that Rooney is dropping deeper and deeper to influence games and often make mistakes. This could be due to naivety in this role or his mentality as a player but either way he needs to hone his skills away from turning into a box-to-box midfielder. 

The top teams in the world have Yaya Toure and David Silva, Ramires and Juan Mata, Busquets and Xavi, Alonso and Ozil. We just need to find the someone and Rooney.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Another year of midfield mediocrity

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Eight games into the new season and Manchester United haven't fully got going, failed to purchase the midfielder they needed, leak goals at a startling rate and have kept just two clean sheets. Dissecting those two games, Wigan had ten men and Galatasaray could and should have scored at least 3. In simple terms, United have been due a beating and against Spurs, I'm not sure there are many that would think that the loss wasn't justified.

All season long the shortcomings from last season are still there but this time with the added complexity (thus hindering the team further) of incorporating a new attacking system of Kagawa and Van Persie. The inherent problem was always midfield. In a 4-4-2 the system looked okay and papered over many a crack however with a 4-2-3-1 it seems even worse than it was before; even with the extra midfielder. When all of this is put together, United look vulnerable and likely to concede in every game that they play, something which isn't too far from the truth at all.

Once again there is an over-reliance on Paul Scholes. Excuse the switch to the first person but I wrote about this last season and I'm unsure as to why it's still the case now, 6 months on. United are one of the richest most successful club teams in history yet still rely on needing a 37 year old to make the team click. That is not to the detriment of Scholes as he is a fantastic player. The problem is, with the wealth and power of a club like Manchester United, plus having Sir Alex Ferguson as the manager, shouldn't adequate replacements have been purchased over the summer so this reliance still doesn't apply? Paul Scholes is to United what Xavi is to Barcelona. Watching both teams play this season, when rested, the team look inept and incapable of asserting any dominance on the opposition. It's no wonder that each time the player is sent on as a substitute, the whole pattern of the game changes. That would be a good reason to rely on such a player but with money to spend, a midfielder was paramount whereas a striker was a luxury. 

The pairing of Giggs and Scholes against Tottenham looked like a mistake before kick off. With the power and speed of Spurs's midfield trio of Sandro, Dembele and Dempsey, they were always going to cause United's midfield problems. Watching Spurs's two goals in the first half was clear vindication of the mistake that was made: elsewhere on the internet it was being written that Giggs only completed 5 passes in that half and he was promptly substituted for Rooney which changed the game. On the topic of power and speed, against Newcastle in the Captial One Cup, the midfield of Cleverley, Anderson and Fletcher contained those attributes and United looked a completely different side to the one that has been playing in the league. Taking that positive into the next game against Spurs, all three were put on the bench regardless of the former two both scoring goals. In every game this season, the midfield has been dominated over the 90 minutes. Yes there are times when Scholes influences the game, but that's a given. Overall the opposition midfield tends to dominate United's which creates more scoring opportunities and leaves United with a lot of work to do against the likes of Fulham and Southampton.

Without tarnishing Giggs's name, he was poor against Liverpool so I'm not sure how it warranted a start against Spurs. Proving that point, again he was poor and the game passed him by. To say that he has no worth would be ridiculous but he needs to be used wisely. The same can be said for Rooney as his introduction at half time changed the game and Spurs's second half possession was just 18%. His role behind Van Persie and generally dictating the game in the final third was exactly what was needed in comparison to what Kagawa was offering up until the second half. This 45 minutes was proof that the three of them can play together and if they don't in the next game away to Newcastle then it would be a huge disappointment. As this is being written, Scholes, Giggs and Carrick have all been rested for the Champions League tie against Cluj which isn't what United fans probably wanted to hear. Unless it's to give game time to Anderson and Cleverley so they can get back in the league side, it is slightly puzzling.

The January transfer window is an opportunity to address the problems in midfield but it's not something that is likely given past transfer windows. For a club the size of Manchester United, the constant overlooking of the elephant in the room is as equally perplexing as it is frustrating and it begs the question: how much longer can it go on for?

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Masked by football: Spain's crumbling economy

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Don't be fooled by the title; I'm not about to go through Spain's fiscal issues. What I am going to talk about though is the current problems that are shielded from the average television viewer.

"The top division alone holds a combined debt of $4.61 billion through the 2010-11 season, with six of the teams in bankruptcy protection with payments due by June 30."

You did read that right, four point six one billion dollars. That was last year and I'm sure, if there aren't changes that by the end of this current season and with Spain's downturn not willing to see an upside, this number will have increased closer to $5bn. Looking at current Spanish Government assessments, clubs from the top two divisions owe $988m in unpaid taxes and over the last four years, that's nearly a $200m increase.

It may seem rosy in La Liga with viewers and pundits running out of superlatives but being rosy couldn't be further from the truth. How apt the term 'rose tinted goggles' now seems. To put it into perspective, Real Madrid's current debt stands at $773m, Barcelona's at $756m and Valencia's is $500m. When you speak of debt, you automatically think of Manchester United and contextually, their debt stands at $700m and that is something that is being serviced quite well considering. In terms of revenue, the top teams in Spain's debts far eclipse revenue figures and when you're touted as some of the richest sports teams (sports, not just football) on the planet, it seems the goggles are on pretty tight.

This whole matter is a double-edged sword in that the Government cannot expect these taxes to be paid straight away as it is impossible. Due to this teams will continue to delay tax payments and create a bigger all round debt figure. On the other hand, the Government can't use the force they're entitled to use as La Liga's image is growing exponentially and with that comes an incredible amount of commercial value.

Spanish football as a whole is pleasing to anyone that wants an education in how the actual sport should be played. Even the feigning of injuries and incessant surrounding of referees adds to the theatre of it. Using empathy, imagine England's economy was on the verge of needing a bailout and the only thing to take your mind off of a flagging economy was watching your favourite stars every weekend in the Premier League. What would you think if the Government then demanded most of the teams to put themselves into administration by demanding all debts to be paid within months. No Government wants to be the bad guy when football is such a healthy distraction and that's the problem right now in Spain. Unemployment is rising and the Government are already hated amongst the masses with the current austerity measures being put in place. Football is what the people need to get away from what scares them.

Government threats are in place and teams in La Liga are beginning to fear them. Firstly due to UEFA's Financial Fair Play system that is coming into force in the next few years and secondly from fear of not existing to even participate in FFP. In terms of 'living within your means' only Valencia, Atheltic Billbao and Osasuna would survive outside the top two teams according to a Financial and Economics Professor. 

When discussions are taking place about how best to tackle the monetary problems within La Liga, all discussions always come down to TV rights. We are all very much aware of the favouritism involved when TV money is handed out and I'm not going to focus on that as that's an exhausted subject. Using perspective again, the next team in line is Valencia. They receive $55m less than what Wigan get in the Premier League and this is a team that fights for relegation each season. Claims are made that La Liga is the best league in the world, but when you only pull in half of what the Premier League ($1.66bn) and two thirds of what Serie A ($1.198bn) make, it's clear there's something inherently wrong here.

I said before that clubs are beginning to take notice and that can be seen now the transfer window has closed. For the first time in decades, the total tax owed and what is owed to the social security system fell. The best example is the 65% decrease in summer spending by clubs. The largest transfers were Luka Modric to Real Madrid for €40m, Alex Song to Barcelona for €19m, after that Jordi Alba to the same club for €14m. Following those three there were no large expenditures. The stand out figure however is that clubs in Spain made €55m more from player sales than they did from strengthening their squads.

It is pleasing that clubs in Spain have finally seen the light in that they can only spend what they have invested or fear going bankrupt. Debts aside, this is a huge step in the right direction and I, for one, am glad they took the 'better late than never' approach.


Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Transfer Window Anomalies

The end of another transfer window and it's still another one that makes me constantly shake my head in shame at what has just happened. I say shame as I still can't believe it. Some of the money spent is just laughable and I can't see it happening anywhere else in the world to this extent except here. That's what is shameful as I'm sure other countries are looking on and are completely bemused  There's a weird curiosity about it and it's strange that I'm among a minority here.

I read an interesting piece on Rooney not so long ago and it questioned whether he would be worth £50m if he wasn't English. 'Finally' I thought, someone fairly high up in the sporting journalism world has seen sense. Of course he isn't worth £50m. Nobody really should be either. In reading that piece, it made me think of something I wrote last season after Kenny Dalglish spent some of the craziest/funniest amounts on three players. £75m nearly and where are they now? One is on loan to a newly promoted side. One is playing left back to cover injuries and the other can't even get in the side ahead of Jonjo Shelvey; a player that cost less than 1/10th of what was paid for him.

Now the window is closed, I don't think it was entirely Dalglish's fault. It's the culture in this country and the air of superiority factor which has hampered nearly everything from top to bottom. Inflated prices as well as massaged egos has created this monster and I don't believe it will ever change. Not even financial fair play will impact on the attitude or the valuations of some players in this country.

Is any English player really worth £50m? Especially one that smokes, tries his best not to be caught drinking and can't control his own weight? Yes he is probably England's best player but does £50m make sense when Falcao's buy out clause is only £45m. I know who the better player is and this is just a small example when laughable figures are brought into the mix. A better comparison would be to look at Matt Jarvis who cost West Ham ten million pounds. With only one cap to his name and relegated with Wolves, he commands a £10m figure. Capped once for his country and closer to 30 than 20, what makes him worth such an amount when Pablo Hernandez costs only £5m. Is Jarvis twice the player? Hernandez has been capped 4 times by his country and played for Valencia, not exactly a team that would be relegated. So this would lead many to believe the doubled price must be down to Premier League experience which is another flawed argument. Case in point, Michu, La Liga's top goalscoring midfielder last season (15) and cost an astounding £2m. Now he has had no problems at all adapting to the Premier League with 4 goals to his name already. Contrast that with Jordan Henderson who cost £20m and can't get a game let alone score. I find it hard to believe that he is 10 times the player Michu is as, if anything, it's the other way around. Another good example of the fabled adaptation argument can be used with Javier Hernandez. He scored 23 goals in his debut season for Manchester United yet only cost £6m. In comparison, Steven Fletcher who just signed for Sunderland for £12m and who, again, was relegated with wolves is not twice the player Hernandez is. Andy Carroll is not 6 times the player either. It's the Fletcher deal that is quite irksome though as I can't fathom how he costs more than Podolski who is a free-scoring German international and known all over Europe. Fletcher is in fact English but plays for Scotland due to his Mother. Call me pedantic but I'm wondering if he was actually Scottish would this have had an impact on his fee. 

Something I should mention here is that many clubs in Spain are in a lot of debt so it makes sense Michael Laudrup is going there to find some holiday bargains in Michu and Pablo Hernandez but I'm not sold on the fact that clubs here aren't in debt either. Yes TV money is apportioned better here and clubs are run better but it still stands to reason that the figures compared above are, in essence, without merit. 

Managers and club owners alike all complain about agent fees and how Chelsea/Manchester City have ruined the transfer market but an English mentality towards valuations of home-grown talent far outweighs what those two aforementioned clubs have done. Logically you'd have thought after Andy Carroll turned up in the top ten all time transfers on Earth that something would have changed and these inflated prices would take a tumble. On  the contrary, it has snowballed out of control and I can't see an end to it now or any time in the near future. Clubs will continue to be held to ransom and mediocre players will continue to be worth tens of millions more than is warranted and that is a crying shame.


Friday, 24 August 2012

New season, New start.... oh...

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So the new season begins with every Manchester United and Everton fan having to wait a day longer than everyone else to see what's in store. Much of the pre-match talk was about new singing Robin Van Persie which detracted away from Manchester United's defensive 'crisis'. I put that in quotes as it's become so repetitive that it can't be called a crisis but more of a foregone conclusion. This would make it the third season in a row that there is a make-shift back four and to be honest, I'm at a loss to see how it can keep happening. Some may call it bad luck, others might see it as the defenders being made of glass (yes Rio, all eyes are on you when it comes to that). I just see it as inevitable. If it had not been for Vidic, who was surely not 100% fit, then who knows what could have been.

After the 4-4 draw last season this was never going to be an easy game. I remember the 3-3 at Goodison not so long ago and Everton have since been a thorn in Manchester United's side. You'd have thought lessons would have been learnt from that game at Old Trafford last season: Fellaini ran the show, Jelavic is a competent player and David Moyes knows how to set a team up to soak up pressure. So after the game the same thoughts are still in everyone's head. Regardless of the new signings, Manchester United looked inept in front of goal and that's probably the only difference to the 4-4 draw. Possession stats are nothing if you can't score, ask any Arsenal fan. How Carrick is left to mark a player who single-handedly destroyed United last season at a corner is beyond me. Fellaini was a beast on Monday night and he overshadowed a midfield three of Cleverley, Scholes and Kagawa all on his own.

Same old story

All United fans have been told of the importance of Cleverley and at times I can see it but he needs to relax. From what I saw on Monday, he's that guy you play football with that passes the ball too hard just to test your touch. I lost count of the amount of times I saw him ping the ball with excessive force at a colleague that it was just a matter of time before he over-hit one. His potential is there to see but this looks like another season of him trying to fulfil it rather than fulfilling it.

Nani was again frustrating. Many fans are calling for his head but when he's on his game, he's one of the best attacking players United have. It's unfortunate that Valencia was hindered by playing in defence but this was Nani's chance to show he can match the Ecuadorian on the right wing and that's something he failed to do. His early booking only showed us the petulant side everyone knows he has and it's a shame. How he can be brilliant in one game then disappear in others doesn't make sense. The same goes for his crossing as sometimes he can beat the first man and most of the time he can't. Highly frustrating but isn't everyone used to it now?

Rooney looked overweight and unfit. Reading the post-match articles with many writers claiming his first touch was off but in my personal opinion, he's never really had a good first touch. There's more games I can count where his touch was off than games where it wasn't and that speaks volumes. His shirt was completely soaked about 20 minutes into the game and for a player to have Robin Van Persie breathing down his neck, he needs to have a reality check. Van Persie just turned 29 and there's not an ounce of fat to be seen, the mark of a true professional. So less time on the golf course Wayne and more time doing some cardio might help everyone, including yourself. He should take Anderson along with him as he's just getting bigger and bigger and not in a good way either. He recently spoke of his love of pies, the less said, the better.

Welbeck has matured from his stint at the Euros but I don't believe that merits a first-team spot, especially when it's on the left wing. Rafael and Young were on the bench and surely it made sense to have two orthodox wingers playing as United looked disjointed with no real cohesion. I've never enjoyed a striker playing on the wing and at times it makes sense if you're good enough and right now, Welbeck isn't that player. Rooney can do it as he's someone that could play anywhere but he was only forced out wide due to the remarkable Cristiano Ronaldo. Welbeck, however, is only effective in the centre and the 4-2-3-1 formation played on Monday didn't suit him at all. This change in formation is to incorporate a new type of player that hasn't been seen at Old Trafford for a while and his importance is paramount.

Shinji Kagawa was the shining light on Monday and I can see a big future for him. Over 90 minutes I haven't seen someone in a United shirt since Ronaldo ask for the ball so much or find space to receive it. My personal opinion is that he will be key to to Manchester United's title push.

This may sound completely negative but United have started this season the way that last season ended. Defensive injuries, an unfit Rooney and a lack of cutting edge. It was pure luck and the maturity of De Gea that stopped this being a complete rout by Everton. Yes Everton away is a tough game, but it's rare to be completely outplayed by them in terms of goal scoring opportunities. Tim Howard wasn't really tested and when there is an attack consisting of Rooney, Van Persie, Nani, Young and Kagawa you would expect a bit more in front of goal. Things need to change pretty quickly otherwise Manchester City and Chelsea will be out of sight leaving United with a mountain to climb.

Here's hoping that Fulham at Old Trafford is a different story.

Monday, 30 April 2012


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I always look forward to the media haranguing the following morning of a football match. Regardless of what occurred, the losing manager more often than not gets hung out to dry and it can't be comfortable reading. Barcelona, the team on everyone's lips at the moment were the team of choice for the past couple of days and the snippets that I have perused over are just ridiculous. To quote Alan Shearer on Al Jazeera after the game: "Barcelona don't have a plan B. Why don't they lump it up into the centre with 10 minutes to go. This intricate passing is all well and good but when you need to win games you need to be direct". Glenn Hoddle on Sky Sports: "They need overlapping players, where's the runs and the diagonal balls over the top?" Jamie 'I know nothing' Redknapp: "Messi was poor"I'm not about to get into a Lionel Messi love-in, as 63 goals in a season speaks for itself, however I am flabbergasted at how such people are employed to judge footballers and create a furore among common-folk just who just repeat the same old dross that they heard post-match. 

Three games stick in my mind which contained so called anti-football against Barcelona. It started in 2008 with Manchester United, 2010 with Inter and 2012 with Chelsea. I may be a Manchester United fan, however I am still a football purist and I've never enjoyed the manner in which it can be defeated by doing the opposite of playing football. Much like 99% of the population despise Stoke's style of play and will freely admit it, many around the country will be praising the 'spirit' of the Chelsea 'performance'. Now I do understand that football is about winning but it is the way in which victories, whether one-legged or two legged, occur to stifle not just a footballing style but an entire philosophy.

When Manchester United drew 0-0 at the Camp Nou in 2008, although I was happy that it didn't end in a defeat, I was still cornered by friends about the way in which it happened. It was that ever present cliché of 'parking the bus'. Other than the early missed penalty, there were only 3 shots from United. Barcelona had 73% possession over 90 minutes which evokes an air of relinquishing possession. I mean these are the best teams in Europe not coming out to play the game and that's disappointing. I wouldn't want to say that they should come out like Mourinho did in his first Clasico and lose 5-0, but you need to perform to some degree when it comes to football. The tactic most certainly should not be to wait and wait and foul and time-waste and then smash and grab. It's horrible viewing for the neutral and for people like me. In 2010 when Inter were drawn against Barcelona, they came from behind in the first leg at home to beat Barcelona 3-1. Their tactics weren't the best but hit Barcelona on the counter and Inter came away with a respectable victory. It was, however, the return leg that is completely mystifying. Let's just start by saying Inter did not have one shot. Not one. Yes Busquets acted like a complete pansy, however disgusting that is to see, it should not be the memorable moment of the game. 'Parking the bus' became a verb after this match and it was 'To Mourinho'. Piqué scoring in the 84th minute was a mere consolation as Barcelona struggled to get through a 4-5-0 formation that didn't come further than the edge of the centre-circle. It was of no surprise to note that Inter amassed 5 yellows and 1 red card.

The Chelsea match is still clear in the minds of many and I'll just start with the stats. This was by far the worst in terms of possession for an opposing team out of the three that I've mentioned. Barcelona had 82% of the ball. Eighty-two. That's ridiculous and a team that can go to the Champions League Final having 18% of the ball are not a team I have much time for. (Seems that Guardiola feels the same because as I write this he has confirmed he is leaving the club at the end of the season). 6 yellow cards and 1 red seems about right with the laughable John 'I'm not that type of player' Terry, brazen with his lies only to come out with his tail between his legs. I'll briefly mention the histrionics of one Didier Drogba in the first leg as well as the constant fouls not picked up by the inexperienced referee in the second. There was also the deliberate hand ball by Drogba that was neither seen by the referee or the television studios for some reason. It was things like this, coupled with the quality of the football that angered me that evening. You simply cannot ask for a plan B when you're from the continent and know you can't beat Chelsea at corners. It's beggars belief to assume that Messi couldn't dribble past 6 players and score. However, this is Chelsea remember and as much as I don't have time for the club in general they're still a decent side. It's not Getafé when it's possible to dribble from the half way line and score, it's a 4-6-0/5-5-0 formation which is nigh-on impossible to penetrate. It wasn't a case of Chelsea relinquishing possession, they just weren't good enough with it. They showed glimpses though and when you have 7 shots on goal, 3 on target but score 2 shows that there is ability there; just not an inkling to use it and that is a shame.

In Manchester United's 2009 final it was a rematch of the 2008 semi-final with a completely different outcome. An angry Barcelona came to the final displaying a ruthless style of football championed by their old number 4; Pep Guardiola. From what happened the previous year, I had a sense that this one would be tough. Having Fletcher or not would not have made a difference, as much as United fans would protest. Sometimes you have to take a step back and watch in awe. At times that is what I did, knowing that it was happening against the team I support was painful at first but that subsided as the match went on. Reason being is that Manchester United went there to play. They had 49% possession and this is against a team that can keep the ball for fun. No one tried to Mourinho anyone as this is how the game should be played. Each team having shots in double figures, not too many fouls/yellow cards. This was an enjoyable game for the neutral too. I would rather lose and play well than play in an uber-catenaccio style and win like Capello's Milan in '94.

Arsenal last season at The Emirates surprised everyone, even me, by beating Barcelona. You know what? I was supporting the Blaugrana that evening but had to applaud what Arsenal did. They actually went for it. The defensively weak Arsenal, including Arshavin, went out to play football against the team that are better than most at it. It worked and there are a few that say they were the better team that day. The fact that both teams played actual football that evening negates all of that. Let's be clear though, Barcelona had the better of the chances that game and most of the ball as usual however it's irrelevant as you know that's what is going to come. This was one of two occasions I've been proud of an 'English' team against Barcelona. The other occasion being last years final where United were humbled 3-1. This was the only time in my life I was prepared to lose knowing what had happened for the last three years. It sounds strange and I've been pilloried about it by 'hardcore' fans but it was my two favourite teams playing and I honestly didn't mind who won. I would have been happier if United lifted the trophy but I wasn't as upset as I was in 2009. No where near as upset in fact.

I won't go into details but Bilbao have played and been successful against Barcelona, Real in the Clasico's as well. Even in the Copa Del Rey they were unlucky. They played football but it wasn't suicidal. There are other ways to play against Barcelona than to sit and wait and make the game as annoying as someone refusing to blow their nose and rather sniff every 0.4 minutes. 

Something I learnt in 2008 from playing Pro Evolution Soccer was that you need to play the game not the system. It was back then that a friend of mine would rarely lose by playing the system, a flaw in the game which as much as it isn't, it was a version of cheating. Yet nothing can be done as it's entirely in the rules. You use what's available to you and Chelsea, Inter and Manchester United did. It doesn't feel right and it's all forgotten once a trophy is lifted. Maybe that's why Guardiola is leaving Barcelona at the end of the season. Maybe it's his opinion that he is at the end of a cycle; the most successful cycle Barcelona have had with 13 trophies won in 4 years. Either way, his legacy will be told to generations of children. I for one will be telling my son and he will definitely be telling his son. Sometimes Wikipedia just isn't enough.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Paul Scholes and Manchester United's over-reliance.

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January 8th 2012 was the day that opinions were divided amongst Manchester United fans. Some saw it as a psychological tactic by Sir Alex Ferguson to rally his troops before taking on Manchester City in the FA Cup. Many saw it as an act of desperation considering the Sniejder love-in over the summer that amounted to nothing with the lack of any high profile midfielder joining the ranks. Others, myself included, saw it as the best and only option available albeit I was nearly left with egg on my face considering a couple of lack-lustre moments in that game which brought a 10-man Manchester City within touching distance of a draw.

The beginning of the 2011/2012 season started well in a post-Scholes Manchester United, with the side keeping their faith in youth plus experience. A good pre-season which included beating a 7/10 Barcelona side and a customary comeback in the Charity shield was followed by wins against West Brom, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Bolton.

- Surprisingly the toughest test was against West Brom and United were lucky to come away with a win after De Gea's howler. Considering the opposition, a game such as this was not going to trouble United's midfield or make any observers aware of the seed that was planted upon Scholes hanging up his boots.

- Spurs were without Modric, King, Parker and Adebayor so once again, this was not a game that would have proved too tricky. All the goals did come in the second half but a midfield of Livermore and Kranjcar was never really going to trouble anyone at United, especially when their game changers (not including Bale) were not playing.

- Against Arsenal, regardless of the scoreline, cracks did appear. Maybe it was the way that Arsenal play but a team that looked extremely weak; Jenkinson (remember him?) and Traore as full backs and Coquelin in midfield still managed to score two plus miss a penalty. Looking at Arsenal's bench makes even worse reading when they have Giles Sunu and Oguzhan Ozyakup as backup. Proof that this was the best team available yet still managed some twenty shots at goal. Only five less than United.

- The Bolton game I have covered in a previous post but I shall surmise it by saying Bolton didn't deserve to lose 5-0. On the day, the better team won but five goals to no reply was flattering.

- When a real test came along at the Estadio Da Luz against Benfica, it became apparent that the lack of stern opposition had papered over the cracks. A very disappointing performance from United as they couldn't create anything and the lack of a player to dictate the play was discerning to say the least. For if it was not for a wonder strike by Ryan Giggs, this game would have changed the back pages the following morning.

The run up of 23 games from that Benfica game up until the end of 2011 yielded 13 wins, 5 draws and 5 losses. That's not the mark of champions when you dissect it like I will. Discounting cup wins over Leeds and Aldershot, the Chelsea game was a surprise result with a few refereeing decisions going against them. United didn't control the game as you would expect and I haven't seen an end-to-end game like that against a top side that wasn't Arsenal in a while. De Gea had a good game and Chelsea had good chances (the Torres miss included) to put this game away. It's an unfortunate place to be when a midfield that contains Frank Lampard can dominate, and that's what occurred against Fletcher and Anderson. The former clearly not fit and the latter just disappointing once again. This isn't to say that United should have lost as only one side took their chances whereas Chelsea were profligate. In the next few games there were draws against Stoke, Basle and Liverpool a tough win over Otelul Galati and the 6-1 embarrassment against City. In all of those games, there was no one to take the game to the opposition. A midfield shorn of an 8/10 player was becoming clearer and clearer and a lack thereof exposing a weak defence in front of a pubescent goalkeeper.

Going forward from those games, United were embarrassed at home by Crystal Palace, couldn't beat Benfica once again, failed to put away the chances against Newcastle and were outplayed away to Basle. My personal opinion was that it was this game that made Ferguson speak to Scholes and convince him to make a U-turn on his retirement only 6 months prior. In and around those games there were wins against Everton, Sunderland, Swansea , Otelul Galati (another struggle) and Aston Villa. In all of the league games mentioned, they were only won by a single goal. I won't go and say the games were undeserved wins as that's not fair on the efforts of the players. What I will say is that bar the Aston Villa game, United did not dominate as they should and would have done in years gone by. A smash and grab against Everton, an own goal against Sunderland and a tough win over Swansea is not a nice place to be when you are reigning champions.

It seemed like business as usual against Wolves, QPR and Fulham as not one of the teams really tested United with a goals ratio of 11 for and 1 against proving as such. The home game against Wigan contained the controversial sending off of Connor Sammon and the 5-0 win most probably wouldn't have been as such considering United were only 1-0 up until the sending off (on 40 mins). Also of note was that during this time Carrick and Valencia were both in defence due to injuries to Ferdinand, Vidic and Evans. Fitting that in the away tie against the same opposition did United look like the team from November/December, however we shall come to that. Reason being as I need to mention the games against Blackburn at home and Newcastle away. In both of these games United were dominated by their opposition. A weakened team was put out against Blackburn and even on paper it looked wrong. An oversight was Carrick/Jones against Yakubu as he would overpower both with ease, something he actually did. Rafael in midfield was another anomaly considering Anderson and the apparent talent Pogba were warming the bench. De Gea's beginning of the season jitters came back to haunt him and he was subsequently dropped after this match after failing to handle a corner for Blackburn's winner. Another oversight considering his poor build against a powerful side such as Blackburn. 

The Newcastle game is the most poignant for many when the midfield was completely outclassed. I'm sure Scholes had already re-signed at this point and he was needed now more than ever. Everything I have said above stems from having a mediocre centre of the midfield. Bereft of such a thing starves the goalscorers in the team and also exposes the back line. It is no secret that United were conceding more shots on goal than anyone in the league and the midfield was nowhere to be seen when it came to Cabaye and Tioté. They dominated the game and United have never cried out more for someone to keep the ball and distribute with aplomb. 

Scholes's return was announced prior to kick off for the Manchester City game in the FA Cup which was a timely boost coming off the back of two successive and humiliating defeats. Considering what happened at Old Trafford against the same opposition, this could have been another banana skin on the road to retaining the title. Yet United took the lead before Kompany was sent off. The game finished 3-2 with Scholes entering the fray on 60 minutes and helping United keep their lead; something they had been missing all season. He may have made a few stray passes but you can't put the blame just on one man for allowing Manchester City back into the game.
From this game up until Wednesday's match against Wigan, United won every single game bar 1 that Scholes started in. United only dropped points to Liverpool in the FA Cup when he had already gone off, the 3-3 draw against Chelsea and the fleeting appearance against Ajax. Patrick Vieira called United desperate in recalling Scholes to the side and however effective his appearances have been, desperation is still a word that can be used as long as the end product is victory. 
Against Wigan, United haven't looked that bad since Scholes wasn't playing and ironically he wasn't. They couldn't control the game, there was no one to take the ball and make a telling pass. I won't take away from the fact that Wigan were excellent throughout and stifled United in possession. However that happens nearly every week so it is not an excuse. This game reminded me of Basle away. Giggs starting in centre midfield has always worried me and he made a 90+% passing completion player look mediocre. Yes, Carrick had nothing to offer without Scholes by his side and that's testament to the talent that Scholes possesses. 

He is the figurative player I have mentioned throughout; the player that plays the 60 yard passes to our wingers, the player that takes it away from Ferdinand/Evans before they make their trademark hollywood pass that never reaches it's intended destination, and more importantly, the player who helps Wayne Rooney get goals. These tasks are not taken care of by any of his understudies and it's a telling problem that Sir Alex Ferguson is living with on a daily basis. There is no way that he can play every game and he was rested against Wigan for the reason of 3 games in a week. It's an issue that will continue to remain when a 37 year old is United's most important current player. The hole he leaves behind when not playing is more of a gorge than a hole and how long can it go on that a team of Manchester United's stature can rely on such a player? You have to remember that he will eventually retire properly and even if he carries on for another year or so, how good will he continue to be? Something needs to be done come the end of the season and whatever that may be this is an awkward situation to be in when there is such a reliance on a player who shouldn't even be playing.


Monday, 2 April 2012

Fabrice Muamba: Bringing the football world together for all the wrong reasons

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I'll always remember the moment I heard the news. In my hotel room on my brother's stag in Marbella my Uncle walks in and says "have you heard about the Spurs game?" Now I've heard quips like that many times in my life and naturally my answer was "no, what's happened?" automatically thinking that someone is losing by a large amount of goals. His next words were "Fabrice Muamba...." and at that exact moment not one ounce of me was ready for what would be said next. My subconscious went through the usual process of elimination in my head by first coming up with a list of options: goal from the halfway line, own goal, bicycle kick, sent off etc but I was not prepared for the tail-end of my Uncle's sentence: "....collapsed on the pitch and the game has been abandoned". My heart sank and I still can't recall what was being said prior to these words being uttered. In an instant my mind cast back to 2003 when Marc Vivien-Foe succumbed to the same fate. Difference being, I was actually watching that game and I've only felt that weird sensation when learning of a relative passing away. To see someone fighting for their life is one thing, but to watch them pretty much pass away is horrible viewing. I'll never forget that match against Columbia.

Muamba's path was different to Foe's, he survived for one thing and it's being hailed as a 'miracle' and you're not wrong. He saw the light and effectively died multiple times, only for the perseverance of the medical teams is he still allowed to be on Earth with us. In an odd way, the man to thank for this is Petr Cech. In 2006 Cech received a terrible head injury and changed the game for emergency services within football forever: a classic case of being reactive rather than proactive. When Cech had been tended to by the physios present, he had to wait for 30 minutes for an ambulance. Only after multiple complaints did he eventually get to an emergency room for them to find out he'd smashed his skull. It was clear there is only so much a physio can do in these circumstances and this was the catalyst to the abundance of medical options at football matches now. Doctors at football matches are now trained in how to diagnose much faster and find a solution just as fast as it is this quick thinking that can save lives. Also a reason why difibrillators are now commonplace at stadiums  However this does begs the question: "If that level of medical help was available in 2003, would Foe still be around?".

Amid the furore of Muamba's situation, there did seem to be an air of sensationalism. People just using the '#prayforMuamba' hashtag in order to get followers or for someone famous person to retweet them was just ridiculous. Somewhat odd behaviour when another human being is dying and you're asking for twitter love. This was merely a slight downside when compared to the 'trolls' out there. In fairness, the term 'troll' never looked right but after this it couldn't be more apt. Enter Liam Stacey, a boy that openly mocked Muamba's collapse and followed up with racial slurs. Once he had been exposed, his first reaction was to claim that his account had been hacked. Only to weep like a child in court as he was jailed for 56 days for being a complete and utter imbecile. I'm pretty sure that's the fastest I've seen a member of the public be tried and subsequently jailed and it's a great option to have. Lessons can be learned here for all that bring hate to twitter as even I have been accustomed to the occasional Piers Morgan jibe.

When the footballing world in this country was going through a bad time with racism being the ball and chain clamped around its ankle, it took a moment of genuine shock to change everything. Ever since the Evra/Suarez and Terry/Ferdinand debacles there has been some form of racism-related news story accompanying the back pages every single week. From ex-footballers to current footballers all receiving some sort of abuse it can only be described as embarrassing. First a laughing stock on the pitch, now matters off it are even more prevalent in the news. I'm of the belief that racism will always exist, however minor it may be and the optimists among you may disagree but remember that someone can not like the colour of your skin either.

So it's ironic that the colour of Muamba's skin had nothing to do with the collective support everyone had. It didn't matter that he was the same colour as the footballers and pundits getting abused. All that was of concern was that a fellow peer/person needed help and that's exactly what he got. It took a player to come close to death for the majority of fans in this country to come together and it was a sight to behold. It didn't even affect people just from England as fans from across the globe added their tributes along with many footballers in foreign lands. It's just a shame that it takes something of this magnitude to peel away the stupid-ness of footballing life in order to reveal that it is just a game. We're euphoric in victory and dejected in defeat however it's a case of going on to the next one. So do not fret as there will always be another game, another match to hold on to the hope of scoring one more than the opposition. Make no mistake, there will always be people with sub-human levels of I.Q but that's what sets you apart, that's why you can view them as imbecilic and that's why you're better than them. That's why I believe we can get past this.

Football is now in a better place in this country. Confidence hasn't been completely restored but it's a great way in order for everyone to move on. Well, until John Terry gets tried and everyone forgets how, for a brief moment, Muamba changed everything.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Chelsea: The hardest managerial post on Earth.


So Villas-Boas has been sacked. The guillotine above the man's head has inevitably fallen and is anyone really that surprised? Abramovich has always exuded his monarchist attitude among his employees and eventually each one is cast out as Judas.

- Jose Mourinho sacked - won titles and trophies and usurped Manchester United.
- Carlo Ancelotti sacked - won the double in his first season and were runners up the following.
- Avram Grant sacked - reached the Champions League Final and only lost out on the League on the final day of the season

It makes awkward reading when you're a manager lined up next to take the reins of one of the most destabilised top tier clubs in European football. What is a guy to do in order to see out his contract? Now my thoughts on this are two-fold:

1. Ambramovich is a very difficult man to please
2. AVB lost before he even arrived

Number 1 is outlined above and it pangs of Abramovich's search for that elusive Champions League trophy. You'd think Avram Grant would've kept his job seeing as though he got them the closest. Now this was four years ago when this 'ageing' squad was in its prime so another run the following year could've worked in their favour just by tweaking parts of the system/clientèle. Let's not stick on that though as it's common-knowledge that no manager is safe when the Oligarch's axe constantly wielded.

Villas-Boas's record as the Chelsea manager is the worst out of his predecessors. 19 wins in 40 games equals a 47% win record. Even Scolari, who lasted only 36 games, had a win percentage of 56%. Now it's easy to blame the manager when you're looking at such statistics. Many forget the 'past their best' squad that he had at his disposal when he took over and jump on the bandwagon when the current senior players speak up. His refusal to play Kalou and freeze out Alex and Anelka looked like moves of a decisive man once they handed in transfer requests. However it's not worked out as he wanted and the team have regressed. Is it the player's fault? In short, probably. Though the players he has bought, one of which is incredible can't be blamed. Juan Mata has the potential to be one of the best in the league yet having one stand-out player isn't enough. Unless you're Arsenal.

AVB is not a footballer, he's a man that had great one-season success at Portugal's richest and most current successful side. He became hot managerial property after winning a league and cup double plus claiming the Europa league with an exciting style of football where his players were given the unpredictability of freedom. Falcao and Hulk scored 74 goals between them using these tactics. He came to Chelsea with a mentality of change and wanted to make these changes wherever he could to turn this team into a dominant force again. Now he's a man that knew the club inside out having worked as Mourinho's chief opposition scout so it should not have been such a hard task. However his previous employer said it was too soon for him to join a big club and he was somewhat right. At many times during the season he's looked lonely and completely out of depth. Carlo Ancelotti came out in the press and said that he tried to change too much too quickly and in a way he's also right. The style of play changed, the squad rotation changed, the tactics changed and the personnel changed all at the same time and it would take any number of games for all of it to come to fruition. Unfortunately it was tiime that was not available and he was naive to think that it was. Regardless of the £13m spent to break his Porto contract, he should have realised that money is no object and to discount himself from any favouritism. Proof of which can be seen in the £40m needed to pay AVB off upon being sacked.

Now not being a footballer and only a few of years older than the senior 'elite' members of the squad is an issue that's very current. Many are blaming them and even more are blaming the manager. Now the manager is to blame for not being able to handle them, however does he have the backing of the hierarchy in his attempts? However the players are to blame for not conforming, not accepting that he is the manager regardless of age and that they're not bigger than the brand. Putting it into context, imagine your manager at work was only 2 years older than you yet gave you the jobs no one wants all the time. You'd be preaching to your peers about how he's not that much older so how can he do such a thing. He can because he's the decision maker, the guy that's been tasked with providing an end product, he's the Manager. Regardless of circumstance, it isn't his fault he's now your boss but you have to respect him and he got very little; especially from the English based contingent.

I read an interesting piece that the three of them plus Drogba should be player managers and see how well they do. In all seriousness it would never happen however the thought of it is brilliant. Let's see how they deal with prima donnas. The bum chumming of Terry and Lampard would soon come to an end and Roman would see he's been loyal to the wrong entity. That would be the only way for the owner to realise he's made a mistake, something that isn't befitting of him in his stint as owner. My opinion on this whole matter is the senior players coupled with the naivety of AVB ultimately cost him his job. As I said before, he made decisions that even baffled me and I've been a supporter of his approach. Since Ancelotti played such 'boring' football, his high defensive line and quick passing brought excitement back to Stamford Bridge however at times they were suicidal tactics. The losses to Manchester United and Arsenal are examples of both sides of his tactical naivety. The game at Old Trafford - Exciting -  was not a one-sided affair and AVB was unlucky to come away with a loss. However given the loss of form for former footballer Fernando Torres and their profligacy in front of goal, it was inevitable. The new - Suicidal - tactics he enforced were also apparent against Arsenal and despite scoring 3, they conceded 5 which was unheard of and the question marks arose again.

Many are concerned with Lampard being 'dropped' was the reason for Chelsea's demise, however the well-versed among us know that not playing him is better for the team; Chelsea fans included. Yet he played 23 out of 27 league games and started 20 of them. Now he was also playing when Chelsea were at their worst when castigated in the press so to claim anything about his non-playing is nonsense.Yet when he was put on the subs bench for a total of 7 (SEVEN) games this season, he claimed it as 'not ideal'. Yet any professional at any other club would understand that they need to adapt and get on with it. A quick glance at the elder statesmen at Manchester United and Liverpool are obvious examples. Lampard is the darling of the English media, as annoying as it is, and much like his cousin Jamie Redknapp, are punching above their weight given their talent or lack thereof. He has never been one to shy away from the press and it's all too telling given the amount he supposedly leaked.

The senior members of this current side are an embarrassment. An embarrassment to this league and an embarrassment to themselves. They failed to adopt his methods in fear that they're incapable of adapting their games. It is clear that as the season went on, the team was beginning to play worse. Now I'm not one to say they were purposely playing badly, but I can say that they weren't conveying the managers messages from the training pitch to match day. He would obviously have told them to forget everything that Ancelotti told them (a manager with 16 years more experience) and learn his methods instead as they are what is best to make them succeed. As mentioned before, freedom was one of them and this would make a player have to think for themselves more rather than using Ancelotti's monotonous approach which removed the element of surprise. In turn, this leaves a player accountable if it goes wrong. Something that the senior players turned their nose up to. Added credence to this thought process is that the younger players, players that incidentally adhered to his methods, have succeeded in otherwise a poor season. Mata, Romeu, Ramires and Sturridge (only just) have had good seasons so far. However Ivanovic, Terry, Lampard, Drogba, Cole and Cech have had not one moment that comes to mind and the season ends in 2 months. The latter of those having the worst season I can remember and he's only a goalkeeper so has less to change. These players deemed themselves too important to take his methods on board and thus take the accountability.

The match against West Brom that ended AVB's season, it was these exact senior players that were terrible that day, Michael Essien included (I shall also include Terry for arguments sake). All players that are big dressing room personalities, all players that whined to the press upon not being in the team and ultimately became too big to drop. Having a player like Terry within the ranks is an isolated problem that is a disease that Chelsea have created. This guy took on Capello during the middle of a World Cup and is not afraid of mutiny. He placed himself on a pedestal and it's all too convenient that he's returned from 'injury' 2 days after AVB has been sacked.

So what next? Any manager on the shortlist will be completely put off with the debacle that just occurred. Finding a manager willing to deal with the cancerous players and an impatient employer are more than enough reasons to steer clear. No manner of things seem to work: from winning the league, getting to finals or trimming the squad of ageing players. You can be the best manager around or the hot shot youngster coming through the ranks yet you're not safe. Di Matteo is the interim First Team Coach until the end of the season and it is a laughable choice. He has no experience of managing a club of this size. His previous exploits include MK Dons and being sacked as the West Brom Manager despite finishing second in the Championship and he's supposed to get the respect that AVB didn't?

Good luck to you Roberto as you'll need it more than ever. Good luck to André Villas-Boas also, I'm sure you will find success in the future however enjoy your forty million pounds first.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Marcelo Bielsa; an enigma

This current season marked the return of Bielsa to club management and I, for one, am glad to see him back. Nicknamed 'El Loco' or 'Madman' in English, he employs tactics that many clubs are afraid to use and akin to his namesake. Here I take you through the philosophies of Marcelo Bielsa, the Madman of modern football.

The Early Days

Bielsa had a relatively short playing career as a defender in Argentina as can be seen by retiring at 25. He found that he was better suited to coaching and moved in to that department at Newell's Old Boys when he qualified as a P.E teacher. Much at the behest of his father as Bielsa shunned playing for Rosario Central, Newell's rivals. From there, he coached various youth teams before being the coach of the first team at the age of 35. During his few years in charge, he was relatively successful in winning a couple of tournaments. After brief stints at Mexican clubs, Espanyol came in for him only for Argentina to come knocking and wanting him to be the manager in 1998. Argentina won their qualifying group for the 2002 World Cup however their memorable performance for not getting past the first round won't be forgotten easily. To make amends, they were runners up at the 2004 Copa America and won the Gold Medal at the Olympics the same year. Following this, Bielsa resigned out of the blue; adding to his 'Madman' moniker.

It was when he became the manager of the Chilean national team after a 3 year hiatus did his philosophies become apparent. It was not sheer luck the stark improvement the side went under during his stewardship and a list of firsts can be compiled to corroborate:

  • First away point gained against Uruguay ever
  • First win over Argentina, causing Basile to resign
  • First away victory over Peru for 22 years
  • First away victory over Paraguay for 20 years
  • First ever away win over Colombia
  • Helped Chile qualify for the 2010 world cup after an 8 year absence

His willingness to play young players and fast track them to the first team was something held close to Bielsa. 
Also instilling a much more attacking mindset among his players, regardless of opposition and regardless of stadium. He would stick to the same style of play regardless of whether it was home or away. Reminds me of a certain Catalan team.

It was only when he became the manager of Athletic Bilbao did I get excited again as I felt he had done all he could with Chile. Similar to Raynald Denoueix in my post about Real Sociedad, Bielsa was not too dissimilar. Without offending anyone from the Basque region of Spain, Bielsa was a newcomer to La Liga, much like Denoueix. He also inherited a team with many highly talented individual players. Moving to the Basque country was a shrewd move for him as there was strong interest from Inter Milan. Shrewd in the sense that Bilbao were already a young, energetic team playing high-tempo football under the guidance of Joaquin Capparos, whereas Inter are very much the opposite; ageing, defending deep and playing a slow paced game.
The marriage of Bilbao to Bielsa seems like one that was meant to be as Bilbao are not your average club. Their insistence on bringing through youth players from the Basque region can only aid Bielsa who did not ask for new signings when he joined. Testament that he can make his methods work regardless of clientèle. His insistence on training and retraining players to cope with his style of play can be seen from his transition from Argentina to Chile. Both played a variation of 4-1-3-2/3-1-3-3 deploying a high tempo direct style of play that included aggressive pressing while off the ball. Such a style requires extreme fitness and it took a while for him to get Bilbao on his wavelength and such fitness can be seen by Guardiola's Barcelona. The main aim is to  win the ball as close to the opposition's goal as possible, attacking directly and at pace. He talks of the value in squeezing the game into a 25-metre area.

(image courtesy of

El Loco

It's his personality that draws you to him though. He's somewhat of an enigma and not understood by many. He sees no reason to be part of something and would rather create his own path. He has in the past refused to grant exclusive interviews to the press, taking the view that no single media outlet should receive preferential treatment: he's not wrong either. Then there is his famous ‘El Loco’ touchline persona which stems from his passion for his mindset and straying from that can be explosive. Finally his willingness to field every single question at press conferences which I think is brilliant but is a side-effect of his egalitarian approach to the press, which at times has led to three or four hour sessions with the press. His meticulous nature could very well be where Rafael Benitez learned to be so contrite. Bielsa has an obsessive collection of football videos which he has studied in depth and has derived his tactics due to this. There are even rumours he paces out the length of a pitch before a game to decide what formation to deploy.

False Start

It took a while for Bielsa to get a tune out of Bilbao. So much so, they went through their worst start to a league in 32 years after accumulating just 2 points from their first five games. It could have been six games had their match against Real not been postponed due to player strikes. It is common knowledge in La Liga that SociedadDeia. Here was a man with principles stauncher than most coming to team used to having one way of playing and attempting to change everything. 

The players didn't initially warm to Bielsa and for good reason, his methods were so meticulous that many didn't understand. He was labelled a 'smoke-seller' by a few and his opposition was growing stronger with each game they failed to win. It seemed as though his radicalisation of Bilbao was occurring at too fast a pace and the support was growing impatient. Remember this is a team that has Fernando Llorente, Iker Muniain, Andoni Iraola and Javi Martínez; three very gifted players.

The methodology is entirely different: the work is much more conceptual, theoretical and technical than it has ever been before, highly detailed stuff. Players are walked through moves without opponents, the areas that they should occupy are marked out on the turf. There has been just one 11-a-side game in training all season. As one player notes: there are actually explanations and instructions now. But those explanations have been hard to apply.
There have been different formations too, from three at the back, to four, to five. The game that Yoigo Pérez played was at left-back – which is not his position. Nor is it Oscar de Marcos's position – he is a  is a young winger/forward who wears the number ten shirt. – but he has played there too. Carlos Gurpegui has been all over the place. Javi Martínez, one of the finest central midfielders in the country, has been played at centre back – where, rather than brilliant, he is just very good. Martinez is naturally a holding midfielder, and has played for the national side in that position. Bielsa often used midfielders in the defensive line for Chile, believing they were more mobile than some of his centre-backs, and also better at starting moves. The shift for Martinez is perhaps not surprising, because Bielsa always wants a very defensive-minded holding midfielder. Martinez is more of a ball-player, and therefore, whilst it may seem strange to move a player into the defence because his strengths lie in playing the ball rather than winning it back, it’s not completely unexpected. At 6′3 he has the ability to challenge in the air so not all is lost.
When results did not arrive, those apparently bizarre, nonsensical decisions looked even worse.
The players needed to time to adopt his methods and increase their fitness and fitting that in all came to fruition during the Basque derby against Real Sociedad. In the previous game against PSG in the Europa league, Bielsa managed to get a tune out of his team. He had to evolve otherwise he would have ended up forgotten in Bilbao, tarnished even. Bielsa created a hybrid of Bilbao's system created over generations coupled with his own high tempo  style. Atlethic won 2-0 despite PSG's new found riches and Bielsa was a relieved man. This was the game that all his hard work came together and even the players, as could be seen, were revelling in this new style that presented them with the ball more often than not while retaining their direct approach to the game. After the win away to Sociedad, one of Spain's great derbies where opposing fans sit next to each other, Bilbao were looking like a tough side to beat. Martinez, of Sociedad, scored one of the best goals at the anoeta (according to former player Xabi Alonso). However this was the only way that Sociedad could score: spectacularly. Llorente scored the equaliser and the winner and these were his first 2 goals of the season. It lifted a weight off his shoulders.

'Out Barca' Barca

Pep Guardiola famously travelled through the night to Bielsa's remote residence outside Rosario to ask advice when he was considering becoming a coach. Along with bizzare facts, he was presented with a question: "Do you really like blood that much?" Guardiola said 'yes'. Besides, he had come to Bielsa to learn, and learn he would. Bielsa showed Guardiola the art of pressing, the art that all pundits are waxing lyrical about now. It is one thing to have the ball and embrace tiki-taka, it is another to win it back withing seconds of losing it. These were important stepping stones that Guardiola adopted in order to make Barcelona who they are today.
Fitting that the reason I wrote this is because of the recent match between the now seasoned Guardiola and Bielsa. Athletic Bilbao vs Barcelona at the San Mames. "A hymn to football" Guardiola called it after the game and he was not wrong. Before going on to the game, I need to mention the torrential downpour that was in full force when the players made their way on to the field. There was no relief either as by the end of the game, parts of the pitch were flooded. That hampered both teams but Barcelona more-so.

(image courtesy of

Bielsa is probably the only Manager who could have pulled off what he did due to how his team have trained and adapted over the season. Their fitness and intensity levels are pretty much unrivalled with the exception of Barcelona so it was fitting that the game ended 2-2. Bielsa went for a 4-3-3 formation, if you can call it that. The reason I say this is that the majority of his team marked Barcelona's players man-for-man. That's not something you see everyday and any other team would probably have come unstuck deploying such a tactic. Bilbao's pressing extremely high up the pitch forced Valdes into playing long balls which played into Bilbao's hands as Barcelona's front line were all small and rarely challenged for a header successfully. Llorente worked very hard trying to close down the centre backs, but wasn't joined by another. This was due to Bielsa wanting to retain a spare man at the back (something he has always stuck by as to not come overrun). He deployed a man marking system due to Barcelona's system of players swapping roles according to their Total Football mantra. Bilbao's centre backs were happy to come a long way out of defence to track Messi or Fabregas, sometimes even into the midfield. The full-backs would come infield, and on other occasions would find themselves in extremely wide positions, particularly Iraola while getting tight to stifle Adriano. There was always either Amorebieta or Martinez sweeping up at the back, usually covering a huge amount of space. Somehow, Bilbao rarely needed to make any last ditch challenges and credit for that goes down to this system. Even more credit is due when Iniesta and Xavi were both unable to make a mark on the game as they're used to. Susaeta and Muniain were both clever with Abidal and Alves respectively, Abidal looked like he was scared of Muniain and rarely pushed forward while Susaeta adopted a more conservative approach and was the assist maker for the opening goal. It was this directness in possession that helped Bilbao that evening. 

Athletic made clear their intentions to take the game to the defending champions and Susaeta had a good chance when Llorente laid the ball off for him to fire a piledriver goalwards, but it was straight at Victor Valdes.
The warning was not heeded by Barca, who fell behind in the 20th minute to a fine goal, with Susaeta driving down the wing before finding Herrera who curled the ball beyond the reach of Valdes. It was the first goal Barca had conceded in nine games which in itself is quite amazing. Added credence to Bilbao's play is that in order for Barcelona to equalise, they scored a goal that is uncharacteristic of them: a cross and a header. Abidal the former and Fabregas the latter. It was, however, not one way traffic as Barcelona began to take control, and Messi slipped a ball through for Iniesta but Iraizoz made a good save to deny him. But Athletic were still plugging away and a defence-splitting pass from Herrera released Muniain but he could not get his shot right. Fabregas then released Messi but Iraizoz denied him again as the weather made things more and more difficult for both sides to find a rhythm.
It was Athletic who took advantage of the disjointed game as they went back in front in the 80th minute thanks to a comical mix-up in the Barca defence, with Abidal's attempted clearance striking Pique and bobbling over the line. Cue Barcelona to barrage Bilbao's goal from here in the final moments of the game. Iniesta had a great chance to get Barca level again three minutes later when David Villa, on as a substitute, brilliantly controlled the ball and laid it off for Alexis Sanchez. The Chilean found Iniesta at the far post but he could only shoot into the side netting. But just when it appeared that Barca would suffer their first defeat, Messi fired in to snatch a point. A point that was deserved for both teams when taking everything into account.
Come the end of the game, you could see the relief in both managers. Guardiola, the once upon a time pupil had poignant words to say: “We’ve never played against a team who were so intense, so aggressive, and has denied us so much space” He and his players didn't really know how to react or adapt to let their technical quality shine through; they simply aren't used to facing a side like that. It is not a policy that is recommended for any team as more often than not they will be ripped apart. Few other sides would be able to play this way as easily as Athletic did – because this is close to the usual style Bielsa wants, they were able to adapt. Also there was an element of luck as well as nature which played it's hand so it's not a blueprint for other teams.

Bielsa has been a breath of fresh air to La Liga, even if he is a break from the norm. Sometimes it is what is needed to make others take notice. His philosophy to football is exuded throughout his team and it is paying dividends with reaching the semi-finals of the Copa Del Rey, 7th in La Liga and prior to their recent defeat by Real Madrid hadn't lost in 7 games. (12 if you don't include the Europa League) - only conceding 4 goals along the way For me, Bilbao are now right up there with the best of the rest and that's only a good thing.