Monday, 29 November 2010

Tactical Preview Of El Clasico

Side Lowe has described it as the biggest club of all time. The array of talent on show is simply staggering. Last year El Clasico might have laid claim to having more stars than any other game in history. Now Ibrahimovic has been replaced by Villa. Weak links in the Real Madrid squad such as Gago have been replaced by the likes of Ozil and Di Maria. Until the latter stages of the Champions League, this is the biggest game of the season.

Much of the game will depend on how Mourinho sets out his side. Given that Madrid already lead Barcelona in the table and that La Liga is decided on head to head results rather than goal difference, the Special One might be willing to settle for a draw and try and beat the Catalans in Madrid. On the other hand, beating Pep’s Golden Boys on their home soil is a prize too big to ignore. Last season with Inter, Mourinho set his side out to give the ball away and not concede. The difference here is that he will not have a two goal cushion from the first leg to rely on. The attention on Inter progressing has obscured the fact that Barcelona beat them in Camp Nou.

The Midfield

If Mourinho wants to match Barcelona then he is likely to stick with the same front four that he has for most of the season. Higuain as the focal point supported by Di Maria, Ronaldo and Ozil. This leaves Alonso and Khedira as the defensive screen, with Alonso also having a quarterback role, spraying passes forward for the others.

However Santapelota and Zonalmarking have suggested that Higuain will be dropped and Ozil will operate as a false number 9 in order to allow Lassana Diarra to come in alongside Khedira and Alonso. The advantage of the false number 9 has been discussed at length elsewhere, but the secondary benefit that dropping Higuain provides is that Barcelona would (if they played their normal trio) be a man short in midfield. With Alonso sitting deep alongside Khedira and Diarra the Barcelona midfielders will have to close down the space inside Madrid’s half so as to deny the Spaniard the space to pick out team mates all game while being conscious of Ozil dropping to dictate play as well. A balance between closing down the deep-lying playmaker and not giving the attackers space is a very tricky one indeed.

One solution for Guardiola is to play Mascherano as a proper holding player and Keita alongside Xavi higher up the pitch. Potentially this means that Iniesta is either dropped or pushed out to the wing where he is less effective in place of Pedro Rodriguez but it would mean more energy in the Barcelona centre.

The danger is that both sides are overly conscious of the others attacking threat and set out to nullify rather than threaten. Two deciding factors will be which side is more efficient in pressing the opposition and secondly, although linked, is whether Xavi or Alonso manages to dictate the play. In April Xavi ran the show and Madrid were incapable of disrupting his metronomic passing.

Ronaldo Vs. Alves

One of the most fascinating personal battles will be Ronaldo against Dani Alves. Alves is possibly the best right back in the world but Ronaldo is the second most dangerous player on the planet. The obvious question will be whether Alves can cope against Ronaldo but secondly whether Ronaldo will be willing to track back and help if Alves goes on the offensive. Expect Messi to be double or possibly triple marked but if Alves manages to provide effective support then the Argentine will still find room to threaten. Marcelo is not the best defensively and he will need help to prevent Messi causing problems. It will be much more surprising if Madrid commit their full backs than Barcelona and so Ronaldo should not expect the same overlapping help as Messi.


Overall it is likely that Barcelona will dominate the possession and Madrid will counter at speed but whether Barcelona will be able to effectively use the possession against deep-lying midfielders is the question. Sadly this game doesn’t look like a high scorer. Expect it to be decided by a single goal.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Bolton Fly High Under Coyle

As a group, football fans and journalists like their stereotypes. Arsenal? Yeah, they can do tappy-tappy stuff, but they don’t like it up ‘em. Stoke? Thugs to a man, long ball merchants. Diego Maradona? Utter lunatic who can’t manage (okay, just because it’s a stereotype, doesn’t mean it’s wrong). The point is that we always feel a little uncomfortable when our preconceptions are challenged.

So for a long time the consensus has been that the only positive thing to come out of Bolton is a lying pet-shop owner with a dead parrot. However, Owen Coyle has been disrupting the natural order of things. His team have recorded three victories in their last four games but more importantly they’re playing a really attractive brand of football. Sam Allardyce might regard passing the ball on the ground as “sissy football” but Coyle has catapulted the northern club into the giddy heights of fourth place at the end of Saturday.

In the past month Bolton have emphatically dismantled both Spurs (albeit coming off the back of a midweek game) and Newcastle by a combined score line of 9-3. Newcastle may have only been promoted, but this season has proved that they are a very solid side while Spurs have media proclaimed Worlds Best Player Ever Gareth Bale. Only Manchester United at Old Trafford managed to inflict as harsh a defeat as Bolton. The run of form is unlikely to last and there are some tough fixtures games coming up (Man City, Sunderland, Chelsea and Liverpool). But if they can keep their form going at home with their next few games against Blackpool, Blackburn and West Brom they will be in an excellent position to push for a Europa League place by the end of the season.

Indeed finishing in the Europa League could become increasingly important. Bolton are on the pitch a very fine club to watch at the moment, but sadly off field the picture is much less rosy. The club is in £93m worth of debt. Record signing Elmander (8 goals in 14 games this season) could be allowed to leave on a bosman at the end of the season. The wage bill is way too high. The club is going to have to tighten its metaphorical belt in order to avoid financial difficulties. Given how much Coyle has done with the squad at his disposal, this is a real disappointment. It would be very interesting to see what he would be able to achieve with a modest Premiership budget as opposed to the funds that have been available at Burnley and later Bolton.

This has been a season of real twists and turns already. All three promoted clubs have acquitted themselves very well and, other than West Ham, there seems to be nobody destined for the drop. But if you had said at the start of the season that the top four in mid-November would be made up of Chelsea, United, Arsenal and Bolton the men in whiteA coats would have been called. For years Bolton have been the least sexy club in the league and with good reason but Coyle is dramatically reversing the image of this long maligned club.

Monday, 15 November 2010

AC Top Table While Benitez Struggles

In the world of bad analogies between football and music Manchester City would be Miley Cyrus. Doesn’t matter how much money you throw at it to make it better the product is still crap. Barcelona would be Michael Jackson. Brilliantly successful, everything is perfectly choreographed but you feel just a little nervous about their obsession with kids. And AC Milan would be the Rolling Stones. Fantastic pedigree but exactly how the hell are they still alive? Each year you think this must be their final tour/season but somehow Pippo “Mick Jagger” Inzaghi et al have managed get to the top of Serie A tonight with a 1-0 win over Inter.

Since Calciopoli Inter have won the title every season, often by huge margins. Not this season. Under Benitez the treble-winners are already six points behind their city rivals. In Europe they are facing the problematic prospect of finishing behind Spurs in the group and having to face a group winner such as Madrid, Barcelona or Chelsea. On the one hand, it must be said that Rafa has an unenviable job. Even if he were to win the treble again he is merely treading water with another man’s team (and Jose would make that point fairly clear) but failure to win everything shows that he just isn’t the manager Mourinho is. However already this season Benitez has come up short tactically. He failed to double up on Bale and Inter were unable to fashion one clear chance against Milan even with a man advantage for the last half hour. Given his phenomenal lack of man management skills, if he isn’t getting it right tactically exactly what is the point of Rafa Benitez?

Serie A has been the sick man of Europe since 2006 and it would benefit the entire country to have anyone other than Inter winning the title. Lazio have started very strongly and could mount a credible title challenge for the first time since Eriksson was manager and as said, AC currently are on top. But as refreshing as it would be to see another name on the trophy, the question is just what does Rafa think he is doing at Inter? They have managed a meagre five goals in their last eight league games and even the liberation of Samuel Eto’o has come at the cost of limiting Diego Milito.

There are several mitigating factors in Inter’s decline. Injuries to big players such as Cambiasso, Balotelli’s departure and Wesley Sneijder’s lack of form have taken their toll. Furthermore Mourinho seems to have this magical hold over all his former players. Maicon expressly stated before the transfer window closed that he wanted to join his former manager at Madrid and others grumbled more circumspectly. Benitez has to contend with the same sullen “you’re not Jose” factor that ended Avram Grant’s unfairly maligned reign at Chelsea. But at the end of the day Inter have gone from dull, machine-like efficiency to merely dull. Seeing them end the season trophyless would hardly be surprising, stymied by the fact that their Spaniard seems determined to be more Italian than the Italians.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

The Curious Case Of Manchester City

A brief check of the odds show that Roberto Mancini is the bookies second favourite to be given the sack after Avram Grant whose West Ham side is rock bottom. On the surface, this is bizarre. Manchester City are in fourth place, five points ahead of Spurs and Liverpool (technically still rivals for fourth place). They have beaten Chelsea and Liverpool, drawn with Spurs and United. Out of their direct rivals at the top of the table, they have only lost to Arsenal and that was after Boyata was sent off after five minutes.

On the other hand, there is the sheer level of investment that Mancini has been given by Sheik Mansour. The arrivals of Silva, Milner, Toure etc. were supposed to amount to more than one goal against the other top three, being dominated by Arsenal and United. City have picked up only four points from their last five games. Critics claim that the side is too defensive and that without Tevez they lack any real cutting edge.

Much has been made of the fact that Hughes had more points this time last season than Mancini has accumulated. In addition, if Mancini had managed to deliver the same points to games ratio that Hughes did City would be in the Champions League this season. This doesn’t mean that Mansour was wrong to sack Hughes. The results weren’t good enough and there were some terrible purchases (£17m for Santa Cruz was just staggering) but statistically speaking Hughes was a better manager than Mancini.

Defensively Mancini has been a vast improvement. Players like Lescott, Toure and Richards were patently going backwards under Hughes. But the insistence on three fairly defensive midfielders is costing the team. Against United nobody was willing to overlap and get beyond Tevez in the way that limited the team. Spending half a billion and getting an English-style catenaccio is hardly inspiring stuff.

Given the money that has been available and the recent run of results, Mancini is, according to the media, fighting for his job. However sacking the Italian would be a surprising move by Sheikh Mansour. The billionaire doesn’t seem to be in the Abramovich mould, interfering and changing managers regularly. Hughes was given a full season and a half before getting the chop and that was only after drawing seven games on the spin. Mansour actually seems to be willing to give his managers time and money to get “the project” working. A cynical observer could suggest that this is because the amount he has invested into the club is totally negligible for a man of his resources but this would be unfair.

Overall, neither manager has been good enough to match the level of investment poured into the club. However Mansour seems unlikely to sack Mancini, given how long Hughes got in the job, the lack of credible alternatives and the fact that Manchester City are on course for a Champions League place. Mancini should be grateful for these factors as he is just not good enough at this level.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Chelsea Homesick, Drogba Just Sick

The headlines will scream that Torres is back and that Hodgson’s reign begins here. The truth is that, so far this season Chelsea have been poor away from home. Frighteningly dominant at home, the clubs travels have taken them to three top half sides (Manchester City, Villa and Liverpool) and have failed to even score against all three. This is not to say that the champions are not still easy favourites to reclaim their title but it is an issue that Ancelotti must address.

The reason that the away form of Chelsea is so interesting is the sheer dominance they exhibit in all their other games. Coming into this game their form was W W W W W L W D W W. F 27 A 3. By any standards that is terrifying. Yet City, Villa and Liverpool were all well worth their points on the day. Liverpool had a game plan, executed it well and deserved the win.

As Zonalmarking notes Chelsea looked much better with Drogba on the field (having failed to muster a single shot on target in the first half) and the second half was a case of Liverpool hanging in there. However without the Ivorian Chelsea looked disturbingly toothless. One possible explanation would be that Chelsea are missing Frank Lampard. Many people have commented how little Chelsea seem to be missing Lampard but his absence might be becoming a problem.

There was a notable lack of midfield runs which the Englishman provides. Zhirkov, Ramires and Mikel are all excellent players but don’t get up to support the strikers in the same was as Lampard or Essien. Against Liverpool they were actually dominated by the Gerrard, Lucas and Meireles triangle. Kuyt and Lucas in particular had superb games and Chelsea were missing Lampard and Essien as well has Drogba recovering from a bug but still for a squad with the depth of Chelsea this is a cause for concern.

As United proved in the 2008/9 season, it is possible to win the title and have a poor record against your direct rivals (although calling Liverpool and Villa direct rivals is charitable) but it doesn’t make the challenge any easier. United in 2008/9 finished bottom of the Top Four Mini-League but took 70 out of a possible 72 points against all the teams lower than 7th. This might be the way that Chelsea have to do it this season.

Chelsea is not a club in crisis. They are still top by two points and have gotten tricky away visits to Eastlands and Anfield out of the way, something title rivals United have yet to do. Three results can be put down to simply anomaly similar to United giving away a two goal lead on three occasions already this season. But Ancelotti might just feel a lot better at the sight of Lampard bombing forward forward from midfield in support.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

All Hail Bale!

Every year the Champions League group stage is criticised for being dull. That they are merely a procession, a prelude to the main event. Only the most hardened football follower can summon any excitement about Basel vs. CFR Cluj or Rangers vs. Bursaspor unless they actually support the teams involved. Particularly in this country, given the dominance of the Sky Four in Europe, the group stages are regarded as boring. Only twice since 2003/4 have English teams failed to progress. United in 2005/6 and Liverpool last season.

This sense of entitlement to the knock-out stages is in part what has made the group stages so tedious for the English. The feeling is that it is something to get out of the way. Win 1-0 in Russia/Turkey/Greece and its job done. No need to go crazy or be exciting. The brilliantly refreshing aspect of Spurs in the Champions League is that qualification has been far from assured, yet they play totally without fear. The entertainment value of the new boys rising to the challenge is much better that United beating Bursaspor or Chelsea taking on Zilina. Albeit Spurs’ group is the more interesting because they were third rather than first seeds as opposed to the other three teams. But last night seeing Bale and company embarrass the reigning champions was one of the best games the group stage has seen in a long time. Inter were unable to cope with the tempo and power of the Londoners.

Redknapp has had a sharp learning curve in Europe, shifting from his 4-4-2 against Young Boys to something closer to Inter’s 4-2-3-1 but despite altering his tactics has not lost his attacking instincts. Bale, Modric and van der Vaart wrecked havoc against Inter whereas a more cautious manager (Rafa Benitez perhaps) might have been inclined to sit deep and defend against the champions. ‘Arry didn’t and got his rewards. This result did not occur in isolation either. After Gomes was sent off in the San Siro and Spurs were down 3-0 after 14 minutes, they had the character to fight back. They didn’t get anything there but the Bale hat-trick certainly put the wind up Inter and Maicon. Last night they were unable to deal with the Welshman and played with a fear totally absent from Spurs. Anyone would have though that it was Inter who lost the first game. Had Redknapp not had the courage of his convictions to carry on trying to get something, the players might not have had the believe to go and stomp the holders so emphatically.

The seven games Tottenham have played in Europe this season have yielded 25 goals. Does anyone imagine that, had Manchester City snared 4th last season, they would have gotten similar results? Roberto “Three-Holding-Players” Mancini is hardly the type to let a side go and attack with abandon. Aside from the fact that it would break up the traditional four’s monopoly on Champions League football as well as showing money isn’t quite everything, there was a reason to cheer on Spurs last season. Spurs just play that much better football than either Liverpool or Manchester City. Enjoy it for it may not last long.