Death by philosophy and process

LVG pic

A short while ago Gary Neville declared that Arsene Wenger’s decision to not buy a holding midfielder was either ‘naive or arrogant’. Many heaped praise on the England coach and Sky Sports pundit for his assertion and it is true to say that when Francis Coquelin doesn’t play the Arsenal midfield looks significantly under protected.

That being said Neville would have been shocked to see Louis Van Gaal’s line up for the game against Arsenal with the Dutchman making some curious decisions that can only be described as either naive or arrogant. Ashley Young has been a stalwart for the former Barcelona and Bayern ‘trainer-coach’ but it was always going to be a tough ask playing at left back against Arsenal. The decision is all the more strange when you consider Blind can play at left back and Jones and McNair (the latter played at Stamford Bridge last year) were left on the bench.

Beyond that, Van Gaal chose to play both Schweinsteiger and Carrick in holding roles against a midfield of Coquelin, Cazorla, Ozil and Ramsey. Not only were the two thirty-somethings overrun in midfield, neither are genuine holding players. Both prefer the fashionable ‘quarterback’ role and to play both, away from home, against a rival smacked of luxury from the moment the teams were announced. Matteo Darmian started life at United well but without sufficient protection he looked horribly exposed by Sanchez’s pace and direct running.

At halftime and 3-0 down Van Gaal did finally make much needed changes matching Sanchez’s pace with the fresh legs of Valencia and switching from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3 to even up the midfield battle. At that stage it was too late and despite United dominating second half possession, it was easy for Arsenal to soak up pressure and hit their stunned opposition on the break.

The game at the Emirates has provided a wake up call for Manchester United who had found themselves on top of the table coming into the weekend. There is a time and a place for the extravagant side picked and away to Arsenal is neither. The dutchman has thus far been happy to let players and Ed Woodward take the flack for poor performances during his tenure at Old Trafford but there can be little doubt that his decision making left a lot to be desired in this instance.

Over the summer he embarrassed Ed Woodward, who is still getting to grips with the transfer market, by calling off a deal for Pedro at the eleventh hour. Woodward is a capable business man who has generated a huge amount of revenue for the club in order for the manager to identify the players he wants to purchase. Up till now he has also been happy to soak up criticism for any failures in the transfer market but it would be beyond arrogant for Van Gaal to presume that the Glazer’s man will allow that to continue. A clear out at United was needed this summer but the inability to attract world class talent to replace those that left has stifled a downsized squad.

The kind of football that is so successful to Bayern and Barcelona would be difficult for this current crop of United players to emulate in either the Bundesliga or La Liga but in the Premier League it is next to impossible. Whilst for the most part the team has kept good possession in games this season there is a serious lack of penetration and there are now a few examples of the philosophy crumbling under the pressure of teams who press high up the pitch.

In the recent past United teams had worked out a plan B for playing against the big teams away from home; Soak up the pressure and then hit sides on the counter. Van Gaal’s reluctance to shift from philosophy plan A, plays into the hands of opposition Managers who have very little work to do to win the battle of tactics. It would appear that only a calamitous first half display will provide the necessary jolt to change things and if Manchester United want any sort of success this season then that has to change.

Dimitri Payet: A nostalgic throwback to a bygone era.

As time goes on and memories start to fade (or at least become rose tinted) there is a danger nostalgia can cloud objectivity and glorify the past. That being said for the past few years the Premier League has lacked the excitement that was once attached to it. I can’t speak for everyone but amongst many I discuss football with that is the general consensus.

For the years between the late 90s and 2010 many would agree that foreign imports helped to improve nearly all sides who have represented the Premier League. They brought in a certain flair and class in quantities previously unseen in English top flight football and nearly every club had a talisman and cult hero born off the shores of the British Isles. Nowadays there is an argument to suggest that foreign imports do more harm the progress of academy players than they do to improve the quality of many squads in England. The heroes have become fewer and fewer and the product seems, to many, to be diluted by squad players.

World cup winners

In the past Derby County could rely on Paulo Wanchope for both entertainment and goals whilst the Estonia international Mart Poom wore the gloves masterfully at the other end for the rams. Arsenal had the swagger and power of Vieira and Petit in midfield whilst the Dutch duo Overmars and Bergkamp provided pace and elegance for the Highbury faithful. Chelsea boasted World Cup winners Frank Leboeuf and Marcel Desailly at centre half and the Italian magician Gianfranco Zola up top. As for West Ham, who can forget Di Canio and that volley?

As a former cult hero Slaven Bilić’s return to West Ham as manager was always going to provide Hammers fans with a certain level of excitement that ‘Big’ Sam never could. In Dimitri Payet West Ham have a player who both excites and makes things happen on the pitch and that is something the fans have craved since the departure of Carlos Tevez. In his post match interview after their victory over Newcastle on Monday night Bilić waxed lyrical about his new signing and stated he had tried to sign him for Besiktas when he was manager of the Turkish side. Finally he has his man and on early evidence Payet looks every bit the player Premier League fans had grown accustomed to in the past. Given his statistics at previous club Marseille and the inflated prices clubs pay for players nowadays he looks a bargain at £11 million.

Picture from Sky Sports

Picture from Sky Sports

It should be stated that the league still boasts a host of fine foreign talent. Many of the top clubs have game changers in their midst and are significantly improved by their presence. This is not necessarily true for those clubs outside the top half of the table. The season is still in its infancy and lots of players have the opportunity to come good between now and the end of the Season but as Jamie Carragher suggested in his Monday Night Football coverage some use this as a failsafe and very few hit the ground running. Payet is the exception rather than the rule and as such he should be treasured and enjoyed.

The ‘ten’ obsession and decline in number nines

Sometime over the last ten years something clicked in the minds of those managing top flight football clubs in England. No longer could sides afford to play two up top and so the art of a ‘deadly duo’ or strike partnership has slowly waned. In his autobiography Gary Neville credits Carlos Queiroz for Manchester United’s deviation from English football’s most tried and tested formation as a way to counter European sides who were overrunning English midfields in the Champions League.

Gary_Neville_crop

The switch away from 4-4-2 has had a dramatic effect on three areas of the pitch. No matter which alternative is used the defensive unit is now afforded more protection in either a defensive midfielder or an extra centre half. Midfield options and shapes have changed to accommodate diamonds and Christmas trees which has lead to wide players being pushed either further forward as part of a front three or back as wing backs. Some teams abandon wide players altogether outside of the defence and therefore the onus is on the full backs on either flank to provide width. Arguably the biggest change has come in the pursuit of the perfect number ten.

The ten role has been around for almost as long as 11 a side football but the job of a ten has changed to suit the times. For a long time in England the number ten was merely a second striker, the little man to the burly number nine or vice versa as a hold up man. Either way they were expected to chip in with a decent strike tally but share that work load with someone else whose sole purpose was sticking the ball in the net. Nowadays some might argue not much has changed. A ten is still expected to provide goals in the shape of creativity, assists and good old fashioned goals but it would seem the position is used to harbor those seen as indispensable to the team. Roberto Mancini would rarely substitute Yaya Toure when under the cosh instead he would choose to push Toure further forward at the expense of a second striker, usually Dzeko. At Manchester United they have been through Shinji Kagawa, Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Adnan Januzaj and even Marouane Fellaini in the position in the last three years without mentioning Wayne Rooney. It is difficult to know what a number ten is expected to provide for the team nowadays apart from that ever elusive ‘x factor’.

Arguably the best to wear the ten shirt

Arguably the best to wear the ten shirt

A by product of this obsession (or possibly just a coincidence) is a serious decline in top quality centre forwards. Because of the Ronaldo and Messi effect teams are now expected to get large numbers of goals from other sources. For Chelsea Frank Lampard took the role of goalscoring midfielder to new heights in the Premier League but it must be remembered that we are exceptionally privileged to see the likes of Messi and Ronaldo in the same generation and looking for wingers and other forward minded players to chip in with 50 goals a season is fantasy beyond those two greats. The baton then must be picked up by those number nines the world over but where are they?

Ron and Mess

Arsene Wenger has taken some huge criticism for his lack of activity in the recent transfer window but the investment in huge scouting networks for all Premier League clubs means the days of finding talent no one else has spotted are long gone. The only alternative then is to ask (with huge sums of money) football’s biggest and richest to give up their rare talents.

In bygone years you could spend an entire evening discussing and reeling off the list of talented number nines in European and world football, that simply is no longer the case. According to the press Arsenal failed in their attempts to buy Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema, Barca have Suarez, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is 34 years old and German giants Bayern have Robert Lewandowski. In England Manchester City have Sergio Aguero and Chelsea have the time bomb that is Diego Costa. Outside of that list there are some good strikers but none are super stars. The lack of world class talent in that position has lead to the great Brazil playing with a chap upfront called Fred! Worse than that some sides have such a depth of talent in other positions they have experimented with not playing a striker at all. For both Barcelona and Spain Cesc Fabregas has been employed as a ‘false 9’, something up until recent years would have seemed impossible to contemplate. For the sake of the game a new crop of top strikers needs to emerge soon or that all important art of goalscoring might be left up to made up positions and the new Ronaldo and Messi. Long live the number the centre forward, striker, attacker. Whatever you call them they used to be the players most kids aspired to be. If we are not careful they might just turn into a nostalgic distant memory.

The art of deflection

There are very few football managers who master the dark arts of psychological warfare and even those who do can have their hard work undone by a poor performance or freak deflected goal. In his two stints in the Premier League Jose Mourinho has shown his worth when it comes to this craft, cleverly drawing media and press attention onto himself in times of defeat or a bad run of results. As journalists fall over themselves to lap up Jose’s flippant, often contradictory, headline grabbing comments, far less is written about potential frailties within his team.

Sunday’s community shield provided a prime example of this. Whilst the season’s curtain raiser is usually taken with a pinch of salt, it must be pointed out that Chelsea looked a shadow of the side that made the procession to the Premier League crown last term look embarrassingly comfortable. Instead of the majority of journalists pointing this out far more was written about handshakes (or the lack there of) and post match press conferences. Ordinarily after a performance as laboured as Chelsea’s on Sunday the press would be dissecting the club’s decision to bring the players back from their holiday late and have only a very short pre-season. Instead in the minutes, hours and days afterwards the papers, radio and tv news reporters are still trying to fathom what Jose meant by the backhanded compliments and handshakes delivered to the Arsenal team post match. As if all that wasn’t enough Mourinho pulled out his trump card and threw his runners up medal to a young Arsenal fan as he made his way down the Wembley tunnel. You would think that managers across the world would take note, especially those for whom Jose has worked under.   

There are very few clubs in the world who come under the sort of scrutiny and press attention that Manchester United do which was surely a contributing factor in the dismissal of David Moyes in April of 2014. Louis Van Gaal has managed some of the world’s finest clubs and as a result is used to the focus being attributed to his place of work although at times you wouldn’t know it. At the end of what was a spluttering and ‘bare minimum’ sort of season for United last year Louis Van Gaal celebrated with one too many at the end of season party and whilst many found his long (and at times incomprehensible speech) funny there were plenty of fans embarrassed by it. 

Louis Van Harsh?

Louis Van Harsh?

His press conferences at times have served to do the exact opposite of what Mourinho achieves with consummate ease. Whilst he gets people talking, too much of that focus is on specific players or units within the team. At the start of last season his famous ‘philosophy’ had the defence at sixes and sevens when all that was really needed was a settled back four. Injuries played their part in the side’s slow start to the season but the added pressure of being singled out in LVG’s pressers can’t have helped some of the players. 

Usually when a new star name is brought into a club there are afforded a little time to settle and the odd mediocre pre-season performance can be forgiven. Not for Van Gaal who told the world’s press that Bastian Schweinsteiger had ‘played bad’ in what was only his second 45 minutes of football for his new club. Criticism before the season has even started and with that comes pressure. Not for the first time a player had been singled out for not doing exactly as LVG would have liked. Last season most defeats or disappointing results were blamed on the players inability to buy into his philosophy and as a result several popular players have been put out to pasture and moved on from the club. 

If Manchester United’s players are to win trophies this season they will have to do so under intense scrutiny not only from the country’s journalists but their manager too. Other teams and managers will have their say too in the coming season but in the end it might come down to ‘the special one’ versus ‘the Philosophy’ where surely there can only be one winner. 

Football lite and begrudging admiration

This summer is one of those awful summers football fans across the world dread. A summer without a significant international tournament to stave off the Premier League cravings. The women’s World Cup provided some much needed entertainment but it feels like it ended a lifetime ago and pre season football just doesn’t cut the mustard.

I really dislike preseason for a number of reasons. I don’t like that a new signing might get injured before the campaign gets underway. I don’t like the ‘football lite’, as I like to call it, in the preseason matches. Even glamour ties like Manchester United versus Barcelona have a diluted feel to them which is not helped by the number of substitutions managers feel they need to make to give everyone playing time. Mostly though I hate how drawn out and laborious the transfer window is. I do not buy into the drama of so called ‘sagas’ and can just about put up with the spectacle that is deadline day.

One of the biggest reasons I get so frustrated this time of year, especially as a budding journalist, is the amount of speculation and nonsense written and reported about transfer targets. So many stories feel as though they a made up off the cuff because someone who works in the canteen at Anfield heard the youth coach talking about player x,y and z. As far as I can see it is the only form of journalism where bare faced lies can be used as headlines only for the story itself to contain nothing to back them up and borrowed waffle from a press conference in the far east or the US. If that wasn’t bad enough so called ITK (in the know) accounts have a field day on social media reporting newspapers and media outlets work as their own. If all the speculation is to be believed the Premier League will have to change their rules to allow squads to contain 60 players or more.

One consolation for me this summer is the Ashes series. I have always enjoyed cricket in a way that most of my friends haven’t and whilst I love the pace a big hitting of limited over cricket I am a bit of purist at heart and I love test matches. Cricket captured my imagination as a youngster and I have been lucky to grow up in a generation of real greats (all though it must be said very few of them have been English). I was lucky enough to catch the end of Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose’s blistering careers. I saw Alan Donald and Shaun Pollock devastate batting orders. I saw Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar score runs for fun but it was the Aussies that truly impressed me the most. As an Englishman it probably not the most popular of views but the standard of top quality players churned out by Cricket Australia is quite remarkable. As a (poor) left handed batsmen I always felt an affinity with those players most and the explosive Adam Gilchrist was a secret favourite of mine for years. I couldn’t help but sit back in admiration as he smashed England all over for the second fastest test hundred with Monty and Hoggard getting most of the punishment. Then they had the enigma that is Shane Warne who got the ball to turn so much he bamboozled batsmen for years. If that wasn’t enough they had probably the most consistent bowler ever in Glenn McGrath at the other end always looking to take out the top of off stump.

What a side?!

What a side?!

With the series currently tied at 1-1 I can’t wait to see how today’s crop of talent perform against our boys who need a big performance after the last test. I looked into getting tickets but as a skint student I am once again priced out of such events. My hope is that the batting line up can perform much better than it has thus far in the series particularly the top order which has really struggled. Fingers crossed and good luck England!

The English Enigma

Every now and again football fans in England are given a glimpse of something rare that makes them sit up and take notice. A handful of times in a generation, through skill or luck, the football clubs in this country produce an enigma. A footballer you cannot help but get excited about, a player whose traits are anything but typically English and more suited to the flare of South America or the Iberian nations.

Rarely however do these players go on to fulfil their early promise and the nations enormous expectations. There are of course a few exceptions. Whilst never breaking into the top tier of world footballs elite, Wayne Rooney has won plenty at club level including the Champions League and many regard ‘Gazza’ as the most talented player to don an England shirt. More often than not though these players fall by the wayside, after promising so much early on, few go on to achieve the hallowed ‘glittering’ career.

Joe Cole came through the ranks at West Ham and looked as though he could rule the world. This precocious youngster played the game his way, with barely a care in the world Cole showcased silky skills and the ability and talent to beat a player which is rarely shown by Englishmen.  After an impressive spell under Mourinho at Chelsea Cole’s career has since stuttered and he has faded into the famous ‘what if’ category so many English players do. 

Cole never quite realised his potential

Cole never quite realised his potential

Jack Wilshire signed for Arsenal in 2001 and had pundits studying youth football cooing almost immediately. Having broken into the first team in 2008 Wilshire has struggled with injuries and has never really had the run of games needed to fulfil his potential. Paul Scholes famously said that the Arsenal starlet had failed to improve between his debut and now.

Wilshire has shown a lot of promise

Wilshire has shown a lot of promise

Sir Alex Ferguson once stated that Ravel Morrison was the most impressive 14 year old he had ever seen; high praise from the man who nursed the career of ‘Fergie’s fledglings’ from the class of 92. A series of off the pitch misdemeanours led to Morrison first being booted out of United and then West Ham. At the age of 22 he is without a club but Lazio are said to be interested according to the Telegraph.

So far his career has been one of self destruction

So far his career has been one of self destruction

All of the above players have been in the press for the wrong reasons in the past which begs the question; are they being managed properly? There is a fine line between mischief in a fine player and over stepping the mark. When you look at the managers these players have and still play under it is hard to believe that they are being mismanaged. So why do we fail to get the best out of the most talented individuals in this country? Is it down to the workmanlike, team mentality which is encouraged in England or does it go deeper than that? Until we see one of these English enigmas flourish and succeed the answer will remain a mystery.

International Football at its best

Last night saw hosts Chile beat Ecuador 2-0 at the start of the 2015 Copa America, an international football tournament with a difference. Flare in this part of the world is a by-product of the expansive, quick game most sides in South America play. It isn’t thought of as unnecessary or an act of showboating, no flare in this part of the world is just another tool to get the ball in the back of the net.

Logo_Federación_de_Fútbol_de_Chile

Fans of Pep Guardiola style possession football might want to give this display of pacey, through the pitch football a miss though. The ideology of most sides in this tournament is to get the ball from back to front with blistering pace and no side in world football showcases a talent for the style more than the current Chile squad with Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez spearheading their attack.

The only drawback to feasting your eyes on such a spectacle of pacey, frenetic football is the time difference which means most games will be played at 00.30am at the earliest. If you are a night owl you are in for a very special treat.

Whilst the world cup offers a rare insight into many sides and players you would not always be able to see, it cannot offer the quality of games played in the Copa America. Every game, it would seem is played as though each side’s life depends on it. Absolutely nothing is left on the pitch.

As well as providing an opportunity to see established super stars such as the Barcelona front three playing for their respective countries, the tournament showcases future raw talent. Make no mistake Premier League sides will have sent their scouts here on mass and it would be no surprise to see some previously unheard of players lining up for sides across the country next season.

Despite their humiliation at the hands of Germany at last year’s World Cup, this tournament offers Brazil the chance of redemption. They can banish the awful memory of that semi-final defeat on home soil with a win here in Chile. Brazil will always attract viewing figures; they are a far more robust side under Dunga and still the samba kings whilst in Neymar they have a successor to Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Rivaldo’s crown.

Then there is Argentina and Messi. The little magician is back to his frightening best after finally overcoming his injury problems. He is due a big performance for his country and given how he finished the domestic season who would bet against that happening in Chile?

In spite of the late nights to come there is plenty to look forward to in this tournament over the next month. Your boss probably won’t thank you for it but missing out on a few hours of sleep has got to be well worth it. Let the football fiesta begin!