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