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.