Thursday, 7 July 2011

The Sagas Must End

It has only been seven days. The transfer window has been open for seven days. Yet such is the soul-draining, spirit-crushing dearth of real news that it feels far, far longer. This isn’t simply a lack of interesting topics to be discussed but the relentless churning of stories about nothing. When well respected websites have “No developments in Fabregas saga” as a leading story it is hard not to feel that football fans collectively have reached something of a nadir. There is an insatiable demand for more transfer tattle. Bigger, better, stronger, quicker players. The fans insist on a continuous stream of “news” and the papers respond by filling page after page with grim mediocrity. Never in the history of football journalism has so much been written by so many about so little.

There are of course stories out there which need and deserve attention. It isn’t as though there haven’t been four major tournaments this summer (the Under 21’s championship, the Copa America, the Women’s World Cup and the Gold Cup) but for the most part these have been relegated to relative footnotes under the crushing weight of top four banalities. Transfer sagas have existed for years but increasingly it seems, in order to match the public’s need for gossip every transfer is becoming a saga. To name just a few this summer has seen Samir Nasri to Manchester United/Manchester City/Chelsea, Alexis Sanchez to damn near everyone and the wonderfully enthralling tale of where Neymar’s hairdresser will be relocating to along with his mohawked client. Two weeks ago the story that Sanchez had definitely signed for Barcelona broke late in the evening and there was a collective sigh of relief as at least one of the interminable zombie transfer stories had finally, mercifully had a bullet put through its irritating head. Of course it turned out that the Chilean had not signed yet and the zombie resurrected itself the very next day looking for more brains to turn into mental Swiss cheese.

Furthermore these one summer sagas are only the thin end of the wedge. As we all know by now, to be a proper saga the story must roll on for a minimum of two years as it the case with a proper vintage such as Cesc Fabregas to Barcelona which has replaced former favourite Cristiano Ronaldo to Madrid. It is one thing to report genuine developments such as a concrete offer or sale but earlier today the “news” that Dani Alves urged Fabregas to join him at Barcelona came through and was plugged as a top story by more than one major website. We know! We get it! Messi, Xavi, Alves, every man and his dog in Catalonia wants to see Fabregas return. It isn’t news anymore. It is stultifying dull.

However, even as I type this I can already the armies of keyboard warriors massing to scream J’accuse! at me for railing against the tidal wave of dross. “You’re just as guilty as the tabloids for writing articles about this! You’re buying into and prolonging the life of these rumours!” It must be said that this is true. Writing an article to complain about the rumours is just as bad as churning them out in the first place. But this is a call to arms, a rallying cry for football fans. Turn off Sky Sports. Shut down the computer. Ignore it all because it’s only going to be the exact same stuff tomorrow. It’ll still be here if we just all collectively walk away for the summer. Yes the Simpsons was probably right that TV radiation has left you withered and useless (and if any station was bound to do that it would certainly be Sky) so meaningful social interaction is probably beyond us. As we emerge, unshaved and blinking into the harsh light of the real world it will be scary not knowing how Charlie Adam’s medical is progressing or which Barcelona has most recently decided to try and tempt Fabregas to the Dark Side but we can weather the storm and exist without the 24/7 stream of bilge that is being thrown at us.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

What The Eck Were They Thinking?

After the failure of the Rafa Benitez regime at Inter Milan the Neazzuri turned to one Leonardo Nascimento de Araujo asking him to become the new manager. That’s Leonardo the former AC Milan legend. Indeed not just an Milan legend but a former manager of the Rossoneri. The move stunned many in England. Leonardo’s switch to Milan’s deadly rivals provoked much headshaking and a general consensus that such callous behaviour on the part of managers wasn’t something you’d find in the Premier League. You don’t just up sticks and accept the coin of your most hated rivals in good ole Blighty.

However, not only has the appointment of Alex McLeish by Aston Villa refuted the theory that such things wouldn’t happen in England* but it has also showed precisely what Aston Villa lack when compared to Inter Milan. Whereas Massimo Moratti knew exactly what he wanted from his new manager the Aston Villa board seem to have very little idea of what they wanted from their new man. Within the multitude of men linked with the Villa job the three which were given most attention were Mark Hughes, Roberto Martinez and Alex ‘Big Eck’ McLeish. To switch from Hughes to Martinez to McLeish shows an astonishing lack of thought about the style of play and direction of development that Villa hope for in moving forward.

While Martinez made his name at Swansea and then Wigan with an attractive, crowd-pleasing brand of football McLeish presided over football so dull and turgid he made Tony Pulis look like Marcelo Bielsa. Approaching one and then the other shows no sign of thought at boardroom level about how Villa recover from a fairly poor season under Gerard Houllier and attempt to challenge for the Champions League again. Having lost James Milner, their best player from last season, to Manchester City and the departures of Ashley Young and Stewart Downing also looking probable then it is obvious that this is a Villa side that requires long-term planning.

It is entirely plausible that after a long and very public search for a manager that Villa seized on McLeish just in order to end the embarrassment of being turned down by Martinez et al. Wanting to install a new man in order to give him the maximum time in the transfer market and establish relations with the players prior to the start of the season is fine. But the disregard for the fans clear feelings on the matter is utterly distasteful. It wasn’t as though McLeish was the only manager who was available. Indeed the reason that Hughes was not appointed was the Villa board’s concern about the way Sparky left his job at Fulham. Yet they seem to have no compunction about appointing a man who relegated his club twice in two and a half seasons and then resigned via e-mail. If the manner in which a coach leaves the club is no longer an issue then returning to Hughes would be the smart move. Yes it would involve a loss of face but the club would be getting a better and more acceptable manager in the eyes of fans. At Blackburn and Fulham Hughes showed an eye for a bargain in the market which McLeish’s rampant spending at Birmingham did not.

Even if we accept (which I do not) that McLeish was the best man for the job the feelings of the fans were made abundantly clear and should hold at least some sway in the board’s decision. It is all very well for Paul Hayward to claim that it is merely “lazy tribalism” which motivates their anger but tribalism is a key part of being a football fan. Derbies against the old enemy should be treasured as they add an edge to matches which cannot be found elsewhere. Had McLeish been the standout candidate and clearly the man to take Aston Villa to the next level then such a move could be understood as rationality prevailing over sectarianism. However this is hardly the case. As we’ve seen McLeish was at least the third choice for the Villa board and by a distance the most unpopular choice with fans.

So the sum total of the decision to bring in McLeish is that the fans are unhappy, the board has displayed little to no forethought about how the club intends to progress and McLeish himself knows that he was hardly the first choice. If there was a less encouraging sign of revival for Villa fans after a fairly unfortunate season it doesn’t spring to mind.

*Not to mention ‘Arry Redknapp going from Southampton to Portsmouth *Ahem*

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

The Failure Of The Arsenal Project

A recent piece for Football Friends attempted to explain why this summer has seen young British players are commanding fairly astronomical fees. The argument goes that Brits are far more likely to stay within their home nation rather than be tempted by Spain or Italy therefore clubs like Liverpool and Manchester United are hoping to secure a decade of service from the likes of Jordan Henderson and Phil Jones rather than being forced into selling to Barcelona or Real Madrid down the line. If there is one club that has most suffered from this problem in recent years it is Arsenal. At this very moment the cliché police are arriving to take away my “journalist” licence but Arsenal are in desperate need of British players. But recognising the problem and addressing it are two very different things. Whether youngsters will continue to have faith in Arsene Wenger’s project remains to be seen.

If the argument above is correct and there is a greater element of security or loyalty about the purchase of British players who are more inclined to stay at home than transfer abroad this would seem perfect for Arsenal given how many players Wenger has already lost to the European elite. In recent years alone Alexander Hleb and Thierry Henry have been sold to Barcelona while AC Milan poached Mathieu Flamini, not to mention the likes of Marc Overmars or Nicolas Anelka who’ve left to play for the Spanish duopoly before. Even now (and as ever FTW is first with the breaking news) Catalonia is paying a fair amount of homage to Cesc Fabregas in the safe knowledge that the wayward youth will return to the Nou Camp and resume his rightful place as a Barcelona man.

It should be made clear that the traditional “Arsenal need English players cos Johnny Foreigner ain’t got no backbone” argument is tired and offensive. The question is not one of determination or courage but of itchy feet. There is very little history of major transfers between domestic rivals in the English game. Aside from the gargantuan fee that sent Fernando Torres from Liverpool to Chelsea the level of movement between the likes of Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool is virtually nonexistent. If Arsene Wenger had managed to persuade Phil Jones to pick the Emirates over Old Trafford the likelihood is that the Gunners would have secured the services of one of the brightest prospects in English football for over a decade.

Sadly the disturbing truth is that the current pattern at Arsenal is for brilliant young foreign prospects come to the club and develop into footballers of the highest calibre before jumping ship to another club on the continent. The twin factors of how poorly English footballers tend to travel and the fact that they are more likely to see playing for Arsenal as a pinnacle of a career rather than a stepping stone to a Spanish or Italian club means that investing in British youngsters would allow Wenger to construct a team around a solid core instead of constantly fending off interest from other clubs as is the case with Fabregas.

The problem for Wenger is recognising and addressing a problem are two different things. We know that the Professor has been strongly linked with the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Phil Jones which shows a desire to bring in English talent to accompany Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere but Jones opted for Manchester United while Liverpool are also very much in the hunt for Oxlade-Chamberlain’s signature. The Arsenal project under Wenger has been to develop a young team into champions, an admirable idea but not easy at the best of times. If young starlets are looking at Arsenal as unattractive proposition to begin with and stars like Samir Nasri and Fabregas are openly talking about leaving then any pretence that the project can still succeed is dying.

This summer window is demonstrating two things for Arsenal. Firstly when competing with clubs like Manchester United and Chelsea they may be able to offer more in terms of game time and wages but not the chance of trophies which players crave. However unfair this accusation is, the media narrative has run stories on Arsenal’s trophy drought for so long that it becomes a subconscious fact in players minds that Arsenal are dramatically weak compared to their rivals in terms of winning trophies. Secondly that established players are willing to openly flirt with domestic rivals e.g. Nasri with Manchester United which further demonstrates that weakness. The idea of selling a key player to a domestic rival would be a humiliating admission of Arsenal’s comparative stature in the Premier League. Persuading the likes of Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jones to join the Arsenal project may cost rather a lot up front but over the course of a decade it’s cheaper to buy one player for £15m than four for £6m each. Somehow Wenger needs to start convincing players that they belong in London long term and the place to start might just be with British talent.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The Antipiphany Of Roman Abramovich

The English language has no antonym for the word epiphany but if one could imagine the opposite of a flash of inspiration it would be that unpleasant slow creeping realisation that you may have just done something incredibly foolish. It’s that feeling of trying to free one foot from a bog and seeing the other foot get slowly get sucked under in the attempt to escape. This newly coined “antipiphany” is probably worming its way through the Chelsea boardroom at this very moment as the various suits who serve Roman Abramovich’s ponder a very awkward question. The question of exactly what do we do if this next managerial appointment goes south?

The odds on Guus Hiddink being announced as the next manager of Chelsea have been dramatically slashed in recent days as both sides have made doe-eyed faces at each other through the media. The appointment is a fairly sensible one given that both Chelsea and Hiddink had a very positive experience during their time together and that the Dutchman has a reputation for being able to develop teams as well as being a tournament specialist, two things Chelsea desperately need.

Even ignoring the six months in which the man and club very publically fell for each other Hiddink’s CV is almost a perfect fit for Chelsea. The 1988 treble with PSV Eindhoven put that all important European Cup on his resume. There’s the fact he’s managed at the highest level (Netherlands, Real Madrid, Valencia etc) for decades and most importantly he’s proven that he is one of the best tournament managers going. The 1988 European Cup was followed by World Cup semi-finals with the Netherlands in 1998 and South Korea in 2002 not to mention guiding Australia to their first World Cup in 32 and their first knock-out stage ever.

With the possible exception of the Netherlands each one of those teams seriously over-achieved with Hiddink in charge. The spells with South Korea and Australia are particularly relevant to as they demonstrated just how good Hiddink is at maximising the potential of the resources at his disposal. Neither side was tipped to get anywhere near where they actually did prior to the tournament but the Dutchman installed a sense of unity and common purpose that served them very well. The 2002 and 2006 tournaments have elevated Hiddink to the level of national hero in both countries. For his services to Korean football Hiddink was granted citizenship, free flights on a Korean airline for life, an island villa and a stadium named in his honour.

So on the surface everything about the appointment of Hiddink is wonderful. A match made in heaven. However like so many managers that have taken the Russian’s rouble there is a feeling that Hiddink is unlikely to complete his contract at Stamford Bridge. Mr. Abramovich has developed a seriously itchy trigger finger since the departure of Jose Mourinho in 2007. Numerous managers have tried to fill the hole left by the Special One and none has lasted. Abramovich has hardly been hiring a procession of nobodies either. Avram Grant had a fairly minimal reputation in football when he took the job but it would be hard to name many coaches with the same pedigree as Luiz Felipe Scolari or Carlo Ancelotti.

Since the Abramovich take-over Chelsea have taken to hiring the elite of world management. Between them the five managers since 2004 had, at the time that they were hired, won two Portuguese leagues, one UEFA Cup, four Champions League, two Israeli championships, two Copa Libertadores, one World Cup, six Eredivisies, one Serie A and a FIFA World Club Cup trophy and that is only counting major honours. With the sole exception of Avram Grant, Abramovich has pretty much exclusively hired managers with an impressively long list of major honours to their name.

Yet his habit of getting shot of managers who’ve won league titles without giving them a chance to really make their mark on a squad is massively problematic on a number of counts. Firstly it inhibits the teams chances of winning that elusive Champions League trophy. Secondly the squad needs to be rebuilt and the constant hiring and firing allows for almost no continuity from year to year. But finally the problem is that if Abramovich keeps wanting the best managers in world football and then dropping them after a year or two, sooner or later there will be no more top class managers out there to take the job. This is the antipiphany currently creeping over the Chelsea board members. If Hiddink doesn’t turn out to be the solution, who is there left?

If Hiddink arrives and is subsequently fired for failing to win the Champions League within two years (a tough task at the best of times but with this Barcelona side around virtually impossible) then who can Abramovich replace him with? The number of truly great coaches around is dwindling rapidly. Managers like Sir Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger aren’t going to go to Chelsea. Pep Guardiola seems unlikely to want to switch as he is constantly making noises about taking a break from football. Mourinho and Ancelotti have both been disposed of already. Aside from Hiddink there is Fabio Capello or the ever erratic Louis van Gaal neither of whom would be ideal to work for the Russian billionaire. Capello won’t provide the samba football he craves and van Gaal’s combustible relationship with bosses is as well-publicised as Mourinho’s, an experience Abramovich will not care to repeat.

The appointment of Hiddink represents the last chance of vindication for Abramovich and his attitude towards managers. If Guus cannot provide the European glory he so badly craves there is virtually no world class managers left for him to employ and the squad is in need of serious renewal. The antipiphany of Chelsea is that the money spent over the last three seasons and combined talents of Scolari, Hiddink and Ancelotti have been unable to deliver the Champions League and that the team is actually further away from their goal than they were when Avram Grant was in charge. Guus Hiddink is the last possible roll of the dice before accepting that there need to be serious changes at Stamford Bridge.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Premier League Round-Up Pt.2

West Brom: West Brom were a poor man’s Chelsea this year. A wonderful start saw them rack up a lot of valuable points in the opening weeks and Peter Odemwinge in particular was highly impressive in front of goal. Yet it was deeply unfortunate that Roberto Di Matteo’s golden touch deserted him over the Christmas period and the Baggies looked set for another Boing Boing season until Roy Hodgson came in fresh from his magic spell at Liverpool. It’s hard to think of anyone in the game whose more of a gentleman than Uncle Woy and the rehabilitation of his reputation was great to see as West Brom finished comfortably mid-table.

Newcastle: After the car-crash season which saw the Toon relegated followed by a dominance of the Championship which bordered on the savage at times a season of relative stability was welcome at St. James’. On the pitch there were some great results and some extremely worrying ones but overall it will be regarded as a successful season. However the Andy Carroll money needs to be wisely invested to bring in some bona fide talent up front and the sacking of Chris Hughton looks as inexplicable now as it did then.

Stoke: They may not always be the most entertaining side to watch in the league but Stoke are now very firmly established as a top flight fixture thanks to the work of Tony Pulis. Contrasting their fortunes with that of say Hull City shows just how much of an achievement that is for a promoted club. They no longer need to worry about relegation and this season was brightened by a great, albeit ultimately disappointing, FA Cup run. Stoke are here to stay and look like one of the most stable clubs in the league.

Bolton: Zonal Marking recently contested the theory that Owen Coyle has turned Bolton into Barcelona but there is no doubt that at times this year they played some very pleasing stuff. The loss of Johan Elmander to Galatasaray is a bitter blow given that he had finally started to play for the club. The horrific injury to Stuart Holden is another. It may not all be roses yet but the Trotters look like a club on the up with Coyle at the helm. A disappointing end to the season shouldn’t obscure the fact that they looked rather tasty for most of the campaign.

Blackburn: Sam Allardyce may not be everyone’s cup of tea but sacking him mid-season was disastrous for Newcastle and it nearly proved to be so again for Blackburn. If they play an entire season in the manner that they played under Steve Kean’s management they’re a nailed on certainty for the drop next year. Deadwood infests the squad and Venky’s appear fairly clueless about running a football club. Next year could be a very bad one for Rovers fans unless a new manager and some investment comes along post haste.

Wigan: If there was an award for the most schizophrenic club in the league it would have to be a straight shoot-out between Arsenal and Wigan. On their day both clubs are capable of playing wonderful football and crushing anyone. Yet when they’re not on song it makes for very grim viewing. However there is still reason for Wigan fans to be hopeful. It may just be that Roberto Martinez has clicked with his squad and that he has them playing the way he wants. If so then next season could well be a much more enjoyable affair than the relegation tension of recent campaigns.

Wolves: On the one hand Wolves have suffered a series of bad injuries to key men and have managed to record some amazing results, not least ending Manchester United’s 29 game unbeaten run. On the other hand they’ve been very poor against the sides around them, epitomised by the final day defeat to Blackburn, a match Wolves were firm favourites to win. Yes they have been unlucky and have played well for much of the season. But relying on results against the big sides is not the best way to stay up long-term. Next year they need to make more of their six-pointers.

Birmingham: The debate over whether it is better win a trophy and go down or not has raged for weeks on Birmingham forums but ultimately it shouldn’t have been a question. Birmingham’s squad was good enough to stay up but the fighting spirit which Alex McLeish tries to install seems to have evaporated. The Carling Cup victory over Arsenal was a fantastic day for the club and ended a massive trophy drought but afterwards they limped to the finish rather than take heart from it. They were negative and disappointing and they’ve paid the price for this attitude.

Blackpool: It seems incredibly harsh to criticise a team who brought so much to the top flight but if their season was summed up by one game it would be the home match against Manchester United. The Seasiders took a fully deserved two-goal lead and were well on their way to a famous victory but with twenty minutes to go the full-backs were still bombing forward searching for another rather than hold what they had. Within nineteen minutes United had bagged three and held on to their lead. There is a line between playing attack football and playing suicide football and Blackpool crossed it. They were great to watch but a little more brains would have kept them up.

West Ham: A season summed up by the loss of two separate two goal leads. Firstly the one against Manchester United, just when the Hammers seemed to be building up some momentum rocked the club back and ended their hopes at a crucial time. The second was the loss against Wigan after scoring twice. With so little time to go left in the season and relegation at stake giving away a lead like that is unforgivable. Aside from the excellent Scott Parker West Ham were limp and insipid. A major squad overhaul is needed for next season.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Premier League Round-Up Pt.1

In a desperate bid to avoid engaging with others or actually being productive FTW will be doing a full round-up of the Premier League followed by reviews of major leagues around Europe:

Manchester United: If you’d asked most United fans at the start of the season whether a nineteenth title and a Champions League final would be acceptable you’d have been crushed in the stampede. The team rarely sparkled but the tactical flexibility and a blend of youth and knowhow saw Ferguson’s lot come up trumps again. Even the final against Barcelona holds no shame for they lost to one of the greatest sides in football history. Three finals in four years also suggests they may get another crack sooner than they think. However the loss of Edwin van der Sar, Paul Scholes, Owen Hargreaves and Gary Neville means it could be quite a different United side next year. Losing all that experience would be a blow to any side.

Chelsea: Oh but for that defeat at Sunderland. The Chelsea juggernaut started the season like scoring goals was going out of fashion and their end of season form was also outstanding. Whatever happened during the ten game “difficult moment” may never be known but it cost Carlo Ancelotti his job and Chelsea their title. A combination of constant managerial flux and an aging squad hardly bodes well for recapturing it next year. The team also look much further away from that Champions League Roman Abramovich craves so much than they did circa 2008.

Manchester City: Although Roberto Mancini was roundly pilloried for his tactics at the start of the season he has taken City to their best finish in a long, long time as well as breaking a 35 year trophy drought on the way. His job is still not 100% secure but this will undoubtedly be remembered as the season that Manchester City truly arrived as a legitimate European force. The squad has gelled nicely and a title next year is certainly not beyond them. If Mario Balotelli settles fully they could be utterly lethal.

Arsenal: As has been pointed out elsewhere only Arsenal could contrive to finish fourth in a two horse race. The collapse was as dramatic as it was unsurprising. The real frustration must be that the Gunners aren’t far from being a title winning side. For so much of the season they matched United step-for-step but too many slip ups at crucial times cost them dearly. Next season is a real conundrum. They could just as easily win the title as slip out of the top four entirely. It’s likely that all their competitors will strengthen so it’s vital Arsene Wenger buys wisely this summer.

Tottenham: Delightful and infuriating in equal measure. Spurs were involved in some of the best games of the season (Inter x2 and the 3-3 draw with Arsenal to name just a few) and at times they were so much fun it bordered on the ridiculous. Yet their soft underbelly was a criminal lack of ruthlessness. Their run of games against the bottom four in the second half of the season yielded one point. Had they managed to take a very reasonable nine from that sequence they would even now have Champions League football at the expense of Arsenal no less and the summer would look very different. What price that weakness?

Liverpool: Something of a Jekyll and Hyde season and that would be putting it mildly. Six months under Hodgson might just qualify as the worst period for the club in decades. A perfect storm of a managerial problems, insane and incompetent owners and star players wanting away. Yet the arrival of Kenny Dalglish has revitalised the entire club. A very busy January window also saw the club strengthened as Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll seem far more committed than Fernando Torres by the end. There is a long way still to go but the rot has been emphatically stopped at Anfield.

Everton: A season not unlike their rivals Liverpool except without the excuses. A dreadful first four months followed by a much, much better end to the season. Yet this isn’t a blip. Yes there were injuries and other problems but these poor starts are becoming chronic and David Moyes might just finally be feeling that a parting of ways is coming. Financially Everton punch way above their weight but these poor starts cannot continue. Something has to change and sadly it might just be the manager. Moyes and Everton have been a wonderful partnership but we may be nearing the end.

Fulham: After he stopped sniping at Manchester City for sacking him Mark Hughes has started to do rather a good job with Fulham. Another top half finish and the Europa League again, albeit through the Fair Play league. Money is tight but the squad is packed with excellent players from Brede Hangeland to Clint Dempsey. A season with a fully fit Bobby Zamora will also be a massive boost for the club as well. As ever, the summer will need to be used very wisely to strengthen on limited funds but the future is quite rosy at the Cottage.

Aston Villa: How Aston Villa have ended the year in the top half is quite a mystery. Even a few weeks before the end of the season and the club was still being haunted by relegation concerns. Manager Gerard Houllier has been unpopular from day one and has already been eased out of the door on health grounds. Wingers Ashley Young and Stewart Downing look set to leave. The days of hoping for Champions League football are firmly over and there is a big rebuilding project needed at Villa Park. The new manager will certainly have his work cut out for him.

Sunderland: A topsy-turvy season which has foxed many. Until Christmas Sunderland were hoping for Europa League football and served up that phenomenal 3-0 thrashing of Chelsea. Then things started to go pear-shaped after January. The loss of Darren Bent coincided with a severe loss of form for the whole team. Recovered nicely towards the end but still a disappointing final position given the early season promise. Steve Bruce will keep his job but needs to start spending more prudently this summer.

Part 2 tomorrow...

Saturday, 28 May 2011

The Big Interview: Michael Cox Of Zonal Marking

Despite fears that exposure to such brainpower might just highlight the comparative paucity of insight in our own little corner of the internet FTW thought that an interview with an actual expert would be a good finisher to the season. So, in the comfort of the Johnny Haynes Cafe at Craven Cottage and as a special pre-Champions League final treat, we managed to grab an interview with renowned tactical expert Michael Cox aka Zonal Marking:

Michael Cox on Michael Cox

FTW: Let’s start with where it all began. What about your first ever football match? Can you tell us about that?

MC: Yeah, I remember the first ever game I saw live was Arsenal vs. Manchester United back in 1995. Arsenal won 1-0 and Dennis Bergkamp scored the winner as I recall. I mean it wasn’t quite when Arsenal were challenging for the title but it was Bergkamp’s first season at the club.

FTW: And playing? How much did you play when you were younger? Do you find time to play the game much these days?

MC: I played from about 8 until about 18 every Sunday but when I started at university it was harder to find the time because I was often covering matches for the student paper and things like that. Now ironically my job means I don’t have the time to play on weekends because I have to spend so much time watching games. I still play a 5-a-side thing sometimes on a Monday night though.

FTW: Would it be too clichéd to suggest that you played as a False number nine when you played?

MC: Actually I was generally used as a right midfielder. I would have preferred to have been a central midfielder but I was never as physical as some players. In fact I think one of the reasons I love Michael Carrick is that if my ability was anywhere near that level, that’s the type of player I’d have been. He’s not the most physical but he reads the game so well. Unfortunately, I was normally shunted out to the right instead.

FTW: Speaking of your commitments to watching games, how many live games do you get to see these days?

MC: Not as many as I’d like to that’s for sure! I’m not really a regular at any club really. My local team is AFC Wimbledon or Kingstonian FC so I go to see them when I can. Premier League football is really very expensive but somehow I seem to end up spending more when I go see non-league football. In the Premier League, you get your ticket and that’s it, but when I go see AFC or someone then I’ll get some pints in before the game, maybe a pie and suddenly I’ve spent more than I would to go see West Ham or Fulham or someone. I’ve been around though, I used to go see Arsenal, Fulham plenty of clubs around the London when I was growing up.

I’d certainly like to go see more games next year. The first match I covered through press accreditation was the Europa League final this year in Dublin so hopefully I can get more chances like that. Problem is that I have to watch so much football on the weekends I don’t have the time to go see live games.

FTW: Anything in the way of international tournaments?

MC: In terms of seeing them live? Sadly not yet actually. Might well try to go to Poland/Ukraine next year. Obviously Brazil would be fantastic but I think I’m most looking forward to France 2016. For me the 1998 is still the best World Cup I’ve ever seen. It had absolutely everything an international tournament should have. I’m really looking forward to 2016.

FTW: How about your favourite stadiums? Any that you have particularly fond memories of?

MC: The old Wembley definitely. Really loved the old stadium. In fact I went to the first ever game at the new one, an Engand vs. Italy Under-21’s game. Giampaolo Pazzini scored the first after about 35 seconds. You could see him look up and think “I’d quite like the first ever goal at the new Wembley actually” so he just launched a rocket and it went it. But the atmosphere at the new Wembley seems slightly false? Slightly forced when compared to the old Wembley.

As for other stadiums, I quite like Villa Park. It’s a little old-fashioned, a little idiosyncratic. A bit like Highbury actually. Craven Cottage as well, very nice stadium.

FTW: What about a stadium that you haven’t been to? Which ground would you most like to go and watch a game at?

MC: Hmmmm...not sure. Estadio De Luz would be great to go and watch Benfica play. Always been a big fan of Portuguese football and Benfica are a huge club. It always annoys me a bit when people talk about Benfica or Porto players moving to a big club. A bigger league maybe but they’re already at big clubs. I think Benfica have the highest number of paying members in the world! Also the South American stadiums, the Maracana obviously, you know all the clichéd answers really.

Michael Cox on Zonal Marking and being a journalist

FTW: So how did it all begin? How did you get started writing about football?

Michael Cox: Well I started doing a lot of writing when I was at Bristol University, lots of student media stuff. Although the student population in Bristol wasn’t massively committed to football I never really wanted to do anything other than football journalism really. Actually my first love is cycling but I never really thought about writing about that full time. It’s a very specialist sport. Fundamentally football is a far easier sport to grasp, to play and to write about. Even from the 5-a-side stuff to the top flight, it’s essentially the same.

FTW: When it comes to your writing style you’re fairly minimalist it would be fair to say. Do you ever feel like letting loose a bit more like Sid Lowe or Tim Stannard maybe?

MC: [Laughs] Not really actually. Firstly I’m not sure I’m good enough to write like Sid Lowe or others but secondly Zonal Marking was conceived as fairly minimalist. The website is relatively plain, my name appears nowhere and its all designed to seem more objective and the writing style fits with that goal really. [Muses aloud] Minimalist, yeah that’s a good word. Sometimes I’d like to try out something different but it doesn’t fit so well with the website I guess.

FTW: And in terms of football writers who do you most respect or read avidly? You’re not allowed to say Jonathan Wilson by the way.

MC: I really like Jonathan Wilson, [FTW facepalms at this point] Andy Brassell as well. I’m a huge James Horncastle fan. He’s so very poetic in his writing compared to me. The introductions to his articles are fantastic. Pete Jenson from the Daily Mail as well, he does Spanish stuff and he’s excellent.

FTW: Now that we finally have a free summer, what can we expect to see coming up on Zonal Marking in terms of more long term pieces like your article on the role a central midfielder in 2010?

MC: Well obviously match reports are my bread and butter but there’s actually a disappointing lack of a gap this summer. The Copa America starts very soon and the Gold Cup in North America. Fulham begin their Europa League qualifying in less than a month! But hopefully there will be some more general articles soon although nothing concrete yet.

FTW: With regards to the website, at what point did you feel that you’d really made it? That things had really taken off and that you could do this professionally?

MC: Good question. I mean in terms of income I get more money from my freelance stuff but there wasn’t really one moment. There wasn’t a particular time that I could pinpoint but I really put a lot of effort into covering the World Cup I guess. Doing a preview of each team and stuff like that, maybe that would be it.

FTW: And now Zonal Marking is so big that you’re appearing on podcasts all over the place and doing lots of freelance work for others. What’s it like being on Football Weekly for instance? How much research do you have to do for going on a podcast like Football Weekly?

MC: Actually it’s not that much really. For each one it’s about an hour maybe? It’s more just long-term research, constantly learning new things and remembering players or games etc. I can’t really wing it through a podcast though. There are some people that just feel comfortable going in and chatting whereas I like to make sure I’ve seen all the games that week and I’ve thought about them. But the Guardian is great. Sean Ingle in particular is so helpful and friendly, he’s an absolute pleasure to work with.

FTW: And for all those aspiring young bloggers out there, any advice for them maybe? [Suspiciously loud cough]

MC: Well it’s very important to put your idea forward and make it different. If you end up re-hashing the old arguments it’s really rather dull. The articles that stick in the mind are ones that offer a new take on the matter really. Also it’s about building a reputation. Twitter is great. Most bloggers are on it but if you use it well and use it regularly then it can really make a difference. If you don’t have a unique selling point then you have to be a really fantastic writer. To be honest there is real market saturation so you have to be good or different to stand out. Same with podcasts. Gary Andrews from TwoFootedTackle? He’s doing a series on homophobia in football which is really good and different. Almost documentary style.

Michael Cox on television punditry

FTW: Do you feel there is an increasing market for your type of analysis? That at some point people will collectively reject the tyranny of Alan Shearer and that people like you will become more prominent in the media?

MC: [Laughs again] Maybe, maybe. But then the blogging world has opened up so much. I think that one of the reasons that my website has become so popular is because nobody else was really covering that niche. There’s a lot I don’t know about football for instance the financial side so I really admire Swiss Ramble who does it so well. I think there are so many interesting concepts out there that aren’t really covered. Take player fitness for instance. Why take Xavi off 15 minutes before the end but work him hard in training tomorrow? What sense does that make? I don’t know, maybe it does actually help but it’s not something that being covered.

FTW: Do you feel that maybe a programme like “Sunday Supplement” could be done with the likes of yourself, Jonathan Wilson, Chris Mann etc? Sitting around and just chewing the fat over whatever issues you want to talk about that week?

MC: Maybe. Not sure about that one. The problem is that the internet has changed how football is covered. Before it was just Match of the Day and that was it. There was nothing to really compare it to. I think MOTD has gotten worse but that might just be in comparison rather than in absolute terms given that it’s now competing with Football Weekly. It’s also difficult because, to be fair to MOTD, it has to appeal to 10 million people whereas I’m appealing to 20,000 but I don’t think it’s sustainable for it to be so bad.

FTW: Like Shearer not knowing who Hatem Ben Arfa is?

MC: Exactly! Exactly. That’s not about specialist football interests, that’s just doing your research. I made a point of watching at least two friendlies for each nation in the World Cup last year so I would be prepared but I don’t feel that Alan Hansen or the others knew a thing about teams like Algeria when they turned up and it’s disrespectful to the viewers. In fact if you look at the BBC tactics blog, its quality, it’s very good. I don’t know why the BBC is sidelining that when they have 90 minutes each week on TV. And the BBC also have the World Football Phone-In which is fantastic! Andy Brassell and Tim Vickery in particular, they’re just so knowledgeable. I mean Andy just knows so, so much but he’s never condescending or patronising which is a real skill.

Michael Cox on international football

FTW: Moving on to international football, what do you think of accusations that it’s falling behind club football? Lots of people think Spain were poor champions considering how few goals they scored, the tournament generally was defensive. Do you think international football is falling behind the club game and how do you see it developing from here?

MC: I think that sadly it is falling behind club football. I find it really disappointing actually, I love international football. I must be one of the few people who actually enjoy international friendlies as well. I like seeing how different groups of players come together and function. But I think the international game is becoming less relevant. There’s too much money in the club game.

Also it was really disappointing to see how negative teams were without the ball in South Africa. It was only really Chile and Spain that tried to press high up the pitch, everyone else just retreated to their half and waited. Germany were fantastically entertaining but they were still essentially based on a counter-attacking game. They got early goals against England and Argentina and battered them but when they didn’t get one against Spain it meant that Spain were comfortable to retain their shape and not leave the kind of gaps that England and Argentina did. Overall the technical quality of that game was fantastic. Both sides passed the ball so well throughout.

FTW: Do you feel that because Germany, Spain and the Netherlands all played 4-2-3-1 contributed to the feeling that the games were somewhat a war of attrition?

MC: Yeah, to an extent. Yes and no really because the strange thing about 4-2-3-1 and I suppose all formations is how different they can be. Spain had Xavi deep and a lop-sided front three which was quite similar to Brazil whereas Germany defended with two banks of four and it was much closer to 4-4-1-1 than Spain. I think the main problem was the defensive mindset of teams. Even Chile, who were really attack-minded were still involved in so many low-scoring games.

FTW: Do you feel that South Africa was a blip or that this is a longer term trend? That it’s easier to coach teams to defend well rather than attack when you only have a limited amount of time with the players?

MC: That is probably an issue. If you look at winners records in the knock-out stages of tournaments recently it’s insane. Spain conceded one goal in 2010, no goals in 2008. Italy conceded one goal in 2006 and ditto Greece in 2004. So yeah there is a big focus on defence. But then there is another way to look at it. Maybe international football is just getting less glamorous now. In the 1980’s, 1990’s we weren’t used to seeing Italian or Spanish players week in, week out. It was something really special. Nowadays I watch Leo Messi pretty much every week so there isn’t that much in the way of surprise when he plays for Argentina.

FTW: What are your thoughts on the current scandal engulfing FIFA with Mohammad bin Hammam and Jack Warner and Sepp Blatter all being charged?

MC: I actually don’t have much of a view on the matter. It’s obviously a complete farce and there need to be changes at the top level and in terms of how the top officials are elected but how we go about that I’m not sure. It’s hard to come up with your own viewpoint, but I’m a big admirer of David Conn’s work on the subject. What is disappointing is that this will be what non-football fans will think of about football rather than the good sides of the game.

Michael Cox on football and the future

FTW: Okay, including club football now, what do you see as the broader trends we can expect coming up in the next few seasons?

MC: I think that Barcelona are the ultimate example of this and we’ll see it more and more that players become more rounded and less specialist. More of a slightly total football vibe. The way they move between three and four at the back is fascinating. I mean [Marcelo] Bielsa and Otto Rehhagel always want a spare man at the back, they also want fluidity. It’s interesting to see how that will develop. Also I think that the language might need to change. We still think in terms of defender, midfielder, attacker but that’s not how players operate on the pitch. Of course it’s always difficult to predict future trends though.

FTW: David Winner has a theory that upbringing affects the way people perceive space. In “Brilliant Orange” he argues there is a common link between Dutch architecture, art and football. How do you see that?

MC: I think I believe it. I haven’t done the research really to know of course but it sounds a very viable theory. I do think that surroundings shape the way you perceive space and at the top level it’s all about the extra yard. It doesn’t sound like much but that’s how tight it is. Players are dealing with the closest spaces possible. I mean Barcelona and Villarreal in particular are great at dragging players and making space for themselves. I mean there are some really interesting differences between football from different areas of the world. Cesar Menotti has this theory that there is a left-wing football that is about creativity and attacking flair and a right-wing football that is more cynical, based on stopping the opposition. So there are lots of theories about how different styles evolve, some really great ideas.

FTW: Would you give us a few teams you’ve particularly enjoyed this year?

MC: Villarreal, sadly they fell away. Udinese are another. Actually its interesting how many teams failed to do it for a full season. Lazio started well and fell away. Napoli were great except against the big teams. [FTW points out Dortmund] Yeah they were great to watch weren’t they? Blackpool in England were great but the attacking at all costs attitude was stupid at times. Never fully got on board with that bandwagon. The same with Charlie Adam. He looks great in highlights but tends to give the ball away too much when you watch an entire match. Actually Spurs were also really strange how they fell away but they were really good. I don’t think van der Vaart suited any of their strikers really which was a real problem.

FTW: Finally if you could have one wish for next season what would it be?

MC: Hmmm...more equality in football would be nice but that’s never going to happen. Seeing title challenges from different teams. Also seeing the Portuguese, Greek and Dutch leagues rising again would be great. Between Ajax, Benfica and Celtic there are eight European cups. That’s unlikely to ever happen again really. Also I’d love to see teams like Villarreal and Dortmund stay together. That would be great.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

It's The FTW End Of Season Awards!

Wow. What a thrill-a-minute, seat-of-the-pants ride that season was eh? It was amazing to see the teams that have finished first and second for the past five seasons finish in first and second! Wasn’t it exciting how Manchester City finally broke into the top four after spending oodles of cash? The fun just never stops with the Premier League and Richard Scudamore is even now working for the good of fans everywhere in resurrecting the idea of the 39th game. All hail Richard the Great. May he live forever. Nevertheless, despite some astonishing predictability at the top end of the table and some routine incompetence from the FA and FIFA there was much to be enjoyed this year. So without further ado the FTW awards for the season will be handed out. All speeches must be kept to a maximum of 30 seconds and mini-statuettes will be mailed out within the week.

Player of the season: Lots of good contenders here and the choice of Scott Parker was certainly deserved but even his Herculean efforts weren’t able to keep West Ham up and so the award goes to the man who did more than anything else to secure Manchester United’s nineteenth title. Winner: Nemanja Vidic. Runner-Up: Scott Parker

Signing of the season: All common sense dictates that this should go to Mario Balotelli. Nobody has offered better value than Super Mario this season. From preventing bullying to wordlessly demanding womens’ phone numbers, Balotelli has been the most entertaining thing in the Premier League but sadly we’re going to go for two players who cost much less but contributed greatly to their respective teams. With 15 goals and costing only £2m Peter Odemwinge pips little Chicharito to the honour. Winner: Peter Odemwinge. Runner-Up: Javier Hernandez

Manager of the season: The man has won so many titles he’s using trophies as doorstops. It’s just impossible to look past Sir Alex Ferguson for the award. Owen Coyle, Roberto Di Matteo (for some of the season) and Roy Hodgson (ditto) all get honourable mentions. Kenny Dalglish and Mark Hughes also are in contention. But Ferguson’s phenomenal ability to renew his side is just beyond belief. Winner: Sir Alex Ferguson. Runner-Up: Kenny Dalglish

Team of the season: Nobody near the top of the table deserves this particular accolade. Seriously, nobody. And although they might still get relegated, there is no doubt that Blackpool have been a wonderful addition to the league this season. The Seasiders have been fun and attacking and add in the wackiness of Ian Holloway, the overall package has been just great. Spurs claim the runners up spot simply for their first half of the season performance. Winner: Blackpool. Runner-Up: Tottenham Hotspur

Quote of the season: Lets be serious. There was only ever one winner here. The question was more which Mario Balotelli quote is the best. Even Ian Holloway’s esoteric rants are no competition. Both quotes are from when the brilliant Italian won the Best European Under-21 Player award: Winner: "I'll look out for him next time we play against Arsenal. Maybe I'll show him the trophy and remind him that I'm the one who won it.” Runner-Up: "There is only one previous winner who is better than me - Lionel Messi. All the others stand behind me.

Best decision: There are a number different contenders for this award. Ferguson signing Hernandez could be one. Liverpool picking up Suarez is another. But the best decisions of the year have all taken place at board rather than bench level. Winner: Replacing Di Matteo with Hodgson. Not only saved West Brom’s season but they have finished in a very respectable position Runner-Up: Hiring Dalglish. People said he was past it, that he was an anachronism. Yes and that Pele kid was just lucky too.

Worst decision: Always a fun category. And made even more fun when Gold and Sullivan choice to keep on Avram on doesn’t manage to qualify as the worst decision of the year because there it’s fairly hard to argue the transfer of Fernando Torres to Chelsea was a pretty much unmitigated disaster for both parties. Winner: Spending £50m on an out of form player to ruin the re-emerging harmony of your squad prior to playing Manchester United in the Champions League Runner-Up: Oh Avram. Twice in a row. Has there ever been a more hands off manager?

Headline of the year: Normally there would be some excellent competition for this award but one headline is head and shoulders the winner here. Winner: “Ashley Cole Shoots Intern” Runner-Up: The runner-up award has not been given out because that would suggest anything could be nearly as good as Cole of Duty

Website: Depends what is being classed as a website here. Guardian Sport and Sports Illustrated are both great shouts but one is a paper the other a magazine. That is why they don’t win here. Winner: Run of Play. It’s elegant, graceful and aesthetically great. Just a pleasure Runner-Up: Football365. Funny, irreverent and necessary to puncture the egos of football people

Blog: There are a number of great football blogs but the best one is one that many people might see as boring but the incredible work of Swiss Ramble makes everyone elses job so much easier. And since it comes under the blog section of FourFourTwo the superbly irreverent LaLigaLoca takes the runner up spot. Winner: Swiss Ramble Runner-Up: LaLigaLoca

Football Writer: So many contenders. Most from the Guardian to be honest. Tim Stannard, Sid Lowe, Jonathan Wilson, Simon Kuper, Sheridan Bird the list goes on. But the two winners are slightly less well known. Winner: Brian Phillips of Run of Play is a fricking artist of football journalism. An absolute must read, every single piece. Runner-Up: Iain Macintosh does various different things but he’s clear, concise, intelligent and witty. Hard to ask more from anyone and he always delivers.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Nineteenth Crown Represents All That Is Best About Ferguson

After the dust has settled on yet another hard-fought league title for Sir Alex Ferguson and his side the question of just where this twelfth title comes in the pantheon. Each title is treasured of course but some are so much more fondly remembered by the fans. The 1993 title that ended the 26 year drought or the 1999 treble crown are both held up as more than just a title. The emotional context of the title makes it just that bit sweeter. It would be hard to deny that there isn’t something extremely sweet for United fans in finally pulling away from Liverpool with this 19th title. But there is a second reason for regarding this as one of the greatest triumphs of the Ferguson era. This campaign has demonstrated the full extent of the Scot’s managerial nous and brilliance.

There are two schools of thought on the matter. On the one hand there is the argument that management is about building a great team to sweep aside everything in its path. While it is certainly admirable to watch a side like Mourinho’s Chelsea or Arsenal’s 2004 Invincibles, there is a limit to how much one can be given credit for brilliant management when you’re sending out a side packed with players that grind opponents into dog meat and dance on the remains. The better test of managerial competency is making the most of the limited resources that are at your disposal. Out of all the titles that Ferguson has won during his time at Old Trafford the 2011 victory will go down as an absolute master class in maximising the potential of a flawed squad.

Even if this United go on to win against Barcelona later this month it is highly unlikely that they will be mentioned in the same breath as the 1994 side, the 1999 vintage or the 2008 class. Yet by its very nature that slight shows just how well Ferguson has juggled multiple tournaments. Long term injuries to key players have been damaging, most notably Wayne Rooney, Antonio Valencia and Rio Ferdinand at certain points during the season (not to mention Owen Hargreaves, the only player held together entirely with elastic bands) yet others have filled in admirably.

This year Ferguson has had to deal with recalcitrant stars, defensive calamities and financial constraints yet nothing has fazed the champions. It is hard to imagine a more skilful way to handle the Rooney transfer saga. Ferguson simultaneously indicated that Rooney was in the wrong but that forgiveness was there should the striker make amends for his actions. United started the year with a petulant, out of sorts deadweight and ended it with one of the best trequartista’s on the planet.

Then there were the purchases. As has often been pointed out much of Rooney’s anger and sulkiness was fuelled by a feeling that Ferguson was bringing in unknown Mexicans rather than the new Cristiano Ronaldo. Yet Hernandez may well go down in United history one of the most astute purchases of Ferguson’s tenure alongside the likes of Cantona or Roy Keane.

Although it is almost a tradition that Ferguson always wins the title away from Old Trafford it was at home that the title really was won with an astonishing 52 points from 54 taken with one last game against Blackpool to come. Despite the injuries, the lack of stars, the sulking players and the dismal away form the Scot crafted a side able to take a record 19th crown. For all that this team may not be remembered as one of his best this season has represented an undeniable highpoint for his managerial abilities.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Borussia Dortmund: Staying Together For The Sake Of The Kids

There is something about the break-up of a brilliant band that epitomises tragedy. The greatest music is the stuff The Beatles never got to play as tensions, creative differences and Yoko Ono all did their bit to tear the Fab Four apart. Just as Fleetwood Mac were being ripped apart by the embittered ending of various relationships in the band they came up with “Rumours”. There is something in the realisation that whatever created that musical magic has passed away and isn’t coming back. The phenomenon also exists in football when the great teams drift apart and enter legend or nowadays Sky+. The break-up of the 1970’s Ajax team still hurts. The eternal “What Ifs” endlessly circle the brain as to what they could have achieved had they stayed together. How many more European Cups could Cruyff and co have delivered?

A 2-0 victory over Nurnburg put the seal on a fantastic season German side Borussia Dortmund as the yellow and black terrors lifted the Bundesliga trophy and they can now sit back to reflect on a wonderful campaign as well as look forward to a jaunt out in the Champions League next season. Except nobody around the Signal Iduna Park will be relaxed about anything at all because keeping this young team together is going to be a minor miracle. Already left-footed midfielder Nuri Sahin has been poached by Real Madrid, the news broken in Marca just before the semi-final second leg against Barcelona.

It’s hardly as bad as the break-up of The Beatles or that Ajax side but the loss of Sahin to Madrid feels like the first departure that might just spark a mass exodus. Dortmund have been one of the most entertaining and joyful teams to watch this season as their energetic youngsters have ripped through teams like a cyclone. The likes of Mat Hummels, Neven Subotic, Mario Gotze and Shinji Kagawa have set the Bundesliga alight under coach Jurgen Klopp, who is already being linked with moves to some of Europe’s biggest clubs. With Sahin already on the move and many, many clubs sniffing around Gotze and Kagawa the challenge of the summer is to retain rather than reinforce for Dortmund.

When marriages turn sour one of the most oft repeated clichés is that the couple try to stay together for the sake of the kids. That it would be better to pretend there are no problems in order to spare the emotions of the little ones. For the sake of the Dortmund fans lets hope that the kids stay together in this instance. After such a wonderful, exhilarating season the fans deserve one season of Champions League football as Klopp and his youthful charges take on Europe’s elite. It would be cruel in the extreme if this Dortmund side were to split without at least having one chance to answer the “What if” of how well they could do in Europe’s premier competition as a group. Buoyed by success and powered by fearlessness who knows how far this team could go if they are allowed at least one try as a group.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Champions League Final Preview

And then there were two. All other contenders and pretenders have fallen by the wayside. Inter Milan and Bayern Munich provided a cute diversion for twelve months or so but there once again we find ourselves with the two most dominant clubs in the two most dominant countries going head to head just like they did in 2009. Yes, Chelsea are currently the English champions and yes Real Madrid are much closer to Barcelona than they were in 2009. But Manchester United look poised to regain their crown and for all the Perez and Mourinho have closed the gap Barcelona still won in the league. Manchester United dumped their closest domestic rivals out in the quarter-finals, Barcelona disposed of theirs in the semi’s.

Unlike the 2009 final Barcelona will go into the tie as firm favourites. Two years ago United were defending their title and they had the Doomsday Option of deploying Rooney, Tevez, Ronaldo and Berbatov all at the same time. Barcelona had come within seconds of being dumped out by Chelsea who, although unsuccessful, provided the blueprint of how to combat the Catalan Fancy Dans. Moreover Guardiola was missing three quarters of his first choice back line. Pundits were firmly convinced that United could shut Barcelona down in the same way that Chelsea had while hitting their weakened defence on the counter in much the same way as they had disposed of Arsenal in the previous round.

Of course this was not the case. After Eto’o waltzed round Vidic and opened the scoring Ferguson’s side and Michael Carrick in particular wilted in from of a tiki-taka tirade. Instead of allowing Barcelona to weave pretty patterns in the first two thirds and packing the final third to deny space and time on the ball, Ferguson send his men out confident in the belief that they were as good a footballing side as Guardiola’s. The 90 minutes in Rome will have thoroughly disabused him of that notion and it would be a major surprise if Ferguson didn’t attempt to copy the Chelsea/Inter Milan blueprint at Wembley.

The key question for Ferguson is whether he opts for the 4-4-1-1 with Rooney dropping off Javier Hernandez which has been so successful in recent weeks or whether he goes with 4-3-3/4-5-1 with a midfield trio designed to frustrate and choke Barcelona’s play. Hernandez offers wonderful movement which would stretch the Barcelona back line but his inclusion would mean that Rooney would have defensive duties to attend to which he would otherwise be liberated from if played as the focal point of the attack. It seems more likely that Ferguson will opt for a trio of Carrick, Fletcher and Giggs in the middle of the park, flanked by Park and Valencia with Rooney up top.

As for Barcelona, one of the great strengths of this side is that they force opponents to adapt their game or be surgically sliced apart. United will certainly not play Barcelona like they played any opponent thus far in the tournament. For Barcelona the task is much more straightforward. The Catalan club won’t be altering the way it plays. They just have to compensate for a very small squad which has been pushed to the limits of endurance in the El Clasico-fest that has engulfed Spain for the past few weeks. The return of Eric Abidal is a huge boost but only serves to highlight just how paper-thin Barcelona’s strength in depth actually is.

Furthermore the sheer brilliance of Leo Messi, which borders on the freakish at times, is also covering deficiencies in David Villa’s game. The record Spanish striker remains a lethal threat but has only scored once in 14 games and has not offered a huge improvement over Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the man he replaced. Off the pitch, Villa fits in much better with the Barcelona squad and aids dressing room harmony but Barcelona fans are becoming increasingly nervous over this goal drought. Messi is playing at a level that is almost incomprehensibly high but as Real Madrid showed, even he is only as good as the service he gets.

If there was one tactical imperative that emerged from the series of games against Real Madrid it is that any side wishing to beat Barcelona must deny Xavi and Iniesta any time on the ball whatsoever. Until Pepe was dismissed for that foul on Dani Alves he had kept Xavi relatively quiet which in turn forced Messi to come foraging deeper in order to get the ball which limited his effectiveness. There were numerous differences in the second leg not least of which was the fact that Barcelona could sit on their two goal lead but the absence of Pepe and the inclusion of Iniesta meant that Madrid weren’t able to choke the game as they had in the first leg.

Overall the pattern of play will most likely focus around the midfield trio of United trying to prevent Xavi and Iniesta playing their natural game while Park will offer some protection against the rampaging Dani Alves on the flank. Barcelona will of course dominate possession and United will sit deep trying to counter at pace when possible.

Prediction: If there is one certainty about this game the it’s that it will determine which side can lay claim to being the most dominant club in Europe in recent history. In 2008 Manchester United beat Barcelona and won the Champions League. In 2009 we saw the reverse. Barcelona have built a legacy but a second victory in three years would certainly cement Manchester United as the biggest European side in the past five years. Overall Barcelona have to be favourites. There is no doubt that this is the greatest side since Sacchi’s Milan in the 1980’s. If they score first United will be in all sorts of trouble as Barcelona will just keep the ball and go for the kill when United commit men forward searching for that equaliser. United have a very good chance. They are not here by chance and they are probably the closest side to Barcelona in Europe. But they are still not as good as the Catalan club. Barcelona to win 2-0

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Aesthetics And Barcelona's Sense Of Superiority

“No object is so beautiful that, under certain conditions, it will not look ugly” – Oscar Wilde

If a quick perusal of Wikipedia is to be believed, aesthetics is a complex subject. The study of beauty is something that has evolved in different ways in all corners of the globe. Debates have raged over whether art can be intrinsically beautiful or merely subjectively so. Can it stand alone without making a wider point or must art stand for something? When it comes to Barcelona and their tiki-taka style what they claim to represent is obvious. Orchestra conductor Xavi Hernandez claims that “the result is an impostor in football...there’s something greater than the result, more lasting. A legacy.” Xavi’s claim to be creating a legacy is true, particularly of the 2009 Barcelona side. Jonathan Wilson has stated that one of the biggest indicators of how great any given side was is how many imitators they produce. It would not be surprising in the least if Guardiola’s Barcelona has the same sort of impact on the game as Michels Ajax side or Sacchi’s Milan. However there is a darker side to Barcelona’s play which has avoided scrutiny due to the sheer brilliance of Messi et al.

In her book “Thinking Past Terror” Susan Buck-Morss noted how the logic in the United States had shifted from an epistemological approach to human rights (because the U.S. doesn’t violate human rights it is a civilised nation) to an ontological one (because the U.S. is a civilised nation whatever it does to combat terrorism can’t be a human rights violation). Put another way, because the U.S. is a nation based on certain principles, whatever it does cannot violate those principles even if all evidence is to the contrary. The U.S. is inescapably bound up with its identity as a land of the free, leader of the free world. It’s acceptance of human rights violations should strike at the very core of its sense of self. Yet through the idea that anything is permissible as long as we’re the ones to do it because we’re the good guys, the logic of 2+2=5 was upheld.

Although the link between America and Barcelona initially seems tenuous, the ontological fallacy is being repeated again. While the U.S. deals with the rights of the individual against the state, Barcelona and their admirers have been dismissive of accusations that their pretty football and ethos is undermined by a darker side to their game. The Catalan club claim to be playing football “the right way” and building a legacy. They claim to be “Mes Que Un Club”. Such a stance is impossible to maintain when indulging in outrageous antics designed to get opponents sent off. Xavi said of Madrid’s performance in the first leg “I wouldn’t dream of playing that way and Barca cannot allow ourselves to play that way.” Except that Xavi’s puritanical streak doesn’t seem to stretch to Busquets or Pedro going down clutching their faces when they haven’t actually been touched there. The aggressive and negative tactics of Madrid are indefensible but for all their tiki-taka prowess this Barcelona team is in danger of being remembered for Busquets peek last season as Messi’s wonderful slaloming second goal. The inversion of the logic that occurred under the Bush administration seems to have happened at the Nou Camp. When Barcelona were a team based around metronomic passing and lethal attacking movement (which they still are in all fairness) they were hailed as the best team on the planet, playing football the right way. Since then the title has been so often repeated that Barcelona have begun to wallow in the title and regard any attempts to stop them almost as an affront. The cheating that they indulge in isn’t addressed because its them doing it and they’re the torch-bearers for all that is good in football therefore it isn’t wrong.

In each of the four Clasico’s we’ve had so far this season Real Madrid have had a player sent off. Sergio Ramos, Raul Albiol, Angel Di Maria and Pepe have all seen red against the Catalans so far. And while this could be attributed to poor discipline in the derby, it doesn’t explain why both Inter Milan (last season) and Arsenal (earlier this season) have also both been reduced by a man when against Guardiola’s side. It seems barely credible that six dismissals in six of the biggest games Barcelona have played in the past two years can all be put down to coincidence alone. The play-acting of Pedro and Sergio Busquets, the incessant tactical fouling of Andres Iniesta and the constant hounding of referees are all contributing factors in Barcelona enjoying a man advantage in important games.

Of course it isn’t all down to cynicism on the part of Barcelona. Their phenomenal ability to retain possession frustrates opponents and provokes reactions like Ramos in the 5-0 earlier this season or Pepe in the first leg of the semi-final. Red cards don’t happen in isolation, players earn them. When Mourinho complains about never being able to play Barcelona 11 vs. 11 he needs to take a good long look at some of his own players actions before commenting on Guardiola and his side. Ramos deserved his red card. Pepe arguably deserved his. But the never-ending hounding of referee Wolfgang Stark by Puyol and company certainly influenced his decision making over the course of the 90 minutes.

Of course many sides engage in underhand tactics and Barcelona are not the worst. Nor do their tactics result in broken limbs like the overly aggressive tactics of others. Nevertheless it is impossible to maintain a posture of being footballs saviours and use such cynical means to win. Before going after Real Madrid, Xavi might just want to have a look at his own camp before passing judgement.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Relegation Spells Huge Problems For Blackburn

There are two types of relegation. The easy kind, in which the club bounces back after a year or two and can even use the chance to clear out some deadwood and reorganise itself a la Newcastle last season. Then there the hard kind, the kind that sets of a slow but terminal decline in the standards of a club such as Coventry or Sheffield United. Sometimes which type of relegation a club is experiencing isn’t immediately apparent but nevertheless the majority of teams that drop down a division fall into one of the two categories.

When talking about Premier League winners, Blackburn are always the forgotten child. Along with Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea, they form part of an exclusive club of title winners since 1992. Sadly, it’s hard to see Blackburn as anything but the Ringo of the four. While John, Paul and George have all won multiple titles and established themselves among the European elite, Blackburn have become a mid-table side. Since their league title triumph in 1995 Blackburn haven’t finished in the top five. Relegated in the 1998/99 season the club spent two years in the Championship before returning. That was a fairly easy relegation as the club bounced back into the top flight with relatively little worry and resumed their place as a Premier League fixture.

However, throughout the past two decades the club have been able to fall back on the generosity of the Jack Walker fund, the steel magnate who bankrolled the 1995 title. Walker broke the British transfer record multiple times to bring in the likes of Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton. The difference this time is that the Walker Trust is no longer around to inject cash into the club. Should Blackburn suffer relegation this season, the outlook is far more grim that in 1999.

In 2008 the Trust discontinued support for the club saying that it saw no need to carry on investing. This assessment was pretty much correct based on the assumption that the club would be fully self-sufficient as long as it remained in the top flight and therefore party to that magical television money. However Venky’s had other ideas. Like Newcastle before them, the new owners decided that Sam Allardyce wasn’t the man they wanted running their club and replaced him with the inexperienced Steve Kean. It would not be unfair to say that the appointment has not been a success in any sense with the team taking a grand total of four points from their last ten games. The team is in freefall and looks the least likely of the relegation candidates to pick up any points aside from possibly Blackpool.

The reason that the Walkers Trust and the television money have been so important for Blackburn is that their match day revenue is appallingly low, the club earning less than £7m a year. Former chairman John Williams admitted that match day revenue was an area “where we find it difficult to compete.” The upshot of this shortfall is that revenue needs to come from elsewhere namely the Walker Trust and television. Without either of these two income streams, Blackburn may find life in the Championship much harder than before.

Unless they want to own a club on the slide Venky’s need to make good on promises of investment. Sadly, so far they have provided no indication that they have any expertise in football whatsoever. Talk of Kaka and Ronaldinho at Ewood Park just serves to make them look foolish. More than most of the clubs in the top flight, Blackburn’s business model requires top flight football. The new owners need to invest players to consolidate Rovers position as a solid mid-table, top flight club above all else. The second priority needs to be finding ways to boost match day income but this is dwarfed by the necessity to retain access to Sky’s television money. So far Venky’s have yet to make one decent, intelligent football-related decision. That needs to change and quickly otherwise Blackburn could be in real danger of dropping out of the top flight for a long time.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Shopping In Serie A This Summer

The end of another season approaches and with it comes the truly important stuff in football. Trophies and medals are all very nice but the real business happens in the transfer market as fans of all affiliations whip themselves into a collective mindless frenzy hoping to see mega bucks splashed out as marquee names arrive by the boatload. This summer, almost without exception the most fertile shopping ground is Serie A. Forget the fashion designers in Milan or sight-seeing in Rome, anybody travelling to Italy this summer with a wad of cash will be hoping to bring back a footballer. Aside from Lille’s Eden Hazard and Anderlecht’s Lukaku (billed as the next David Silva and Didier Drogba respectively) the bright new talents of Europe are currently plying their trade for the likes of Palermo, Napoli and Udinese.

No longer the powerhouse that it was in the 80’s and 90’s Italian football nevertheless has some genuinely exciting superstars emerging. The question is whether clubs can hold on to their prized lumps of meat as the big boys circle like piranhas. Napoli have been the obvious surprise package of the season and while a first Scudetto since 1990 looks increasingly less likely the trio of Edinson Cavani, Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi have all been hugely impressive. All three are relatively young, Lavezzi being the oldest at 25. Napoli will certainly exercise their buyout clause regarding Cavani who is still technically on loan from Palermo. Given that they will be playing in the Champions League next season they will certainly try to hang on to all three but if rumours of interest from Real Madrid, Manchester United and Chelsea are true then Napoli can expect to receive at least €20m for each. Any of the three would seem to offer excellent value. Lavezzi and Hamsik operate as schemers and creators while Cavani’s 25 goals so far this season testify to his lethal ability, making him the highest league scorer in a single season in Napoli’s history.

Outside of Napoli the talents at Udinese have been attracting attention all over Europe. The crown jewel of the Zebrette is undoubtedly the young Chilean Alexis Sanchez who can play across the board behind a striker. His partnership with Di Natale this season has been nothing short of exhilarating. Sanchez has the pace, power and technical ability to make it at any top club in Europe and his blossoming has hardly gone unnoticed by scouts. The likes of Antonio Di Natale, Gokhan Inler and Kwadwo Asamoah would all be excellent signings for a number of Premier League outfits as well. As Javier Hernandez and Cheick Tiote have proven, there is value in the market still and if any of those three are available at reasonable prices, they could prove remarkably astute acquisitions.

However if there is one shining jewel in the whole of Serie A that should be scooped up it would be the Argentine playmaker Javier Pastore of Palermo. Ironically the cream of the crop is the one not playing for a side that hasn’t mounted a challenge to get into Europe this season. Nevetheless, the former Huracan player is strong, tall and quick. Moreover he has a wonderful eye for a pass and the technical ability to pull it off. As Manchester United seek to replace an aging Paul Scholes their first stop should the office of Palermo President Maurizio Zamparini who claims to have already turned down a €50m offer for the Argentine.

It will be a test of the strength of Serie A as a league to see how many of the names mentioned above begin next season still plying their trade in Italy. There are numerous problems in the Italian game as it still struggles to overcome the shadows of Calciopoli and the decline is evident. How fast and how bad the decline is remains to be seen. But unless Italian clubs can hold on to players like Pastore, Sanchez and Cavani, any reversal in fortunes will remain a dream.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

The Weekend That Changed Everything

What with the Manchester derby in the FA Cup semi-final and the first game in the football World Series over in Spain, viewers could be forgiven for taking their eyes of the relegation race in the Premiership this weekend to focus on other matches. Nevertheless, it could be that this weekend marks the time when the bottom half of the table finally begins to take shape and serious relegation candidates emerge. We’ve been waiting for a long time but it finally looks like there are five serious candidates for the drop. Blackpool, Blackburn, Wigan, West Ham and Wolves all look like the real contenders for the drop. Sunderland are also on a horrific run of form but they should have enough points from the first half of the season to avoid the drop. Nevertheless they could still be sucked into the scrap if they don’t record a win soon. Indeed, it says a lot about Arsenal’s title challenge that the one place that both Sunderland and Blackburn have managed to pick up points in recent weeks is at the Emirates where both sides kept clean sheets.

Of course many teams have been mired in the relegation scrap for a long time now but before this weekend there was always the promise that even one victory could alter a team’s position fairly drastically. Blackpool have been the neutrals favourite side this year, not just because they came up via the playoffs which tends to endear fans to a club, but because they have really set out to attack team’s this year. However the sad fact is that this attitude may also be their downfall. Having gone two-nil up against Manchester United, the Seasiders didn’t attempt to sit back and defend their lead but try for a third. Seeing both full-backs bombing forward with fifteen minutes to go is certainly admirable but it is also suicidal against a team like United. Their defeat to Wigan might prove to be crucial. A win at home to the side bottom of the lead and they might have reversed their slide down the table. Now a return to the Championship looks very likely to the disappointment of everyone.

Along with Blackpool, Blackburn are in a wretched run of form and the decision to sack Sam Allardyce looks worse every week. Both teams will struggle to pick up many more points this season which is a problem because, as bad as West Ham, Wolves and Wigan have been at times this season they all have the ability to pick up points here and there. One of the three sides in the drop zone currently will almost certainly escape but which one remains to be seen. Wolves currently have a game in hand on their rivals but have the victims of rotten luck as much as poor form. Who will go down is still unclear but this weekend finally saw breathing space emerge between the teams in real trouble and the likes of Fulham or Aston Villa.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Champions League Semi-Final Predictions

So once again the Germans have ruined a clean sweep of predictions. Well I’ll get them and their little dog too. Raul and his Schalke team mates dumped Internazionale out with an aggregate score of 7-3 which just feels so old school. So before we move on to the World Series Of FootballTM lets have a look at their chances against Manchester United:

Schalke 04 vs. Manchester United: Schalke have already dumped Valencia and Inter out of the competition and Manchester United can hardly afford to take them likely, especially given their relatively poor record against German clubs. In the knock-out stages they’ve suffered against Borussia Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich during Ferguson’s reign.

On the other hand, this is a United side that is built to deal with these European encounters. Firstly there is vast experience of Ryan Giggs, Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes etc. Even Wayne Rooney has seven seasons worth of wisdom under his belt at 25. That reservoir of “been there, done that” is invaluable at the highest level. The ability to remain calm even when under the cosh as United will no doubt be for at least some portion of the tie will be crucial.

Secondly Ferguson has taken his time to learn how to play in Europe but there is absolutely no chance of Schalke putting seven past this United side who’ve only conceded three goals all campaign, compared to the 19 shipped by Inter.

Finally there is the fact that, with all due respect to Schalke, United have a better team. Jurado, Raul etc are by no means bad players but on paper they are not a match for Ferguson’s men. With the second leg at home, United will feel very confident of a third final in four years.

Prediction: Manchester United to win home and away without really pummelling the Germans.

Real Madrid vs. Barcelona: Even at their most meaningless the average El Clasico is more important than Armageddon. The fact there will be four in the space of two and a half weeks will have to involve some re-writing of the laws of physics in the Spanish press to allow for the sheer gravity of the situation. Mourinho vs. Guardiola. Messi vs. Ronaldo. Cantera vs. Cartera (Youth versus wallet).

The Golden Boys inflicted one of the most humiliating defeats in Clasico history earlier this season with a 5-0 manita. But if there is one thing that Jose Mourinho does rather well it’s learn from his mistakes. Plus the Portuguese tactician will have two “practise” Clasico’s with which to try out various formations. Furthermore Barcelona miss Eric Abidal and Carlos Puyol. Badly. Without the duo they are far more defensively vulnerable than they were before. Abidal will certainly miss the clash and doubts over Puyol go right up to kick-off.

Yet Madrid have not yet been moulded into a Mourinho side. The process is happening and next season with a few judicious acquisitions La Decima might be much more of a possibility but questions marks remain over how sturdy Madrid will be against Barcelona. The scars from the Nou Camp still hurt. Much will depend on the league and Copa Del Rey games. If Barcelona win both then it will take a super-human managerial effort to instil the required confidence in the Madrid players. However even one victory, preferably in the cup would have Madrid enter the tie on a high.

It will also be fascinating to see what tactics Mourinho uses to counter Guardiola in the two games running up to the Clasico. Even with less than two weeks to go, there are so many unforeseeable variables that predicting this clash is stupid.

Prediction: With that in mind, Barcelona still look ever so slightly more likely to reach the final. Last time this blog predicted a tight, edgy affair, settled by a single goal. So don’t, you know, rely on it.