Thursday, January 29, 2009

Phil's Notebook: Barca, Bargains and Beckham

Following a good reception for my first post in this series, "A few notes from the week", I've decided to make the now-rebranded series, "Phil's Notebook", a regular fixture.

This Piqué-d my interest
Sold back to boyhood club Barcelona by Manchester United for £7million this past summer, Gerard Piqué (22 on Monday) has quietly established himself as a top class defender back in Catalonia, starting regularly alongside Carles Puyol. Gabriel Milito, brought in last year under Frank Rijkaard, cost three times more and failed to make a real impact. Pep Guardiola has managed this team flawlessly.

Bargain buys
Aston Villa winning the signature of Emile Heskey for only £3.5million may be the most decisive transfer of this window. Aston Villa's odds of a top four finish are very, very good at the moment.

Incidentally, Robin van Persie is on his longest injury-free stretch in some time and has quietly found his way back amongst the top two or three strikers (on quality) in the Premier League. He assisted or scored almost every Arsenal goal in January. Having come in the summer of 2004 for £2.75million, he stands out as a bargain worth remembering.

From Blackburn to Olympiakos
Matt Derbyshire, Blackburn's young prospect and perpetual substitute, has gone on loan to Greek side Olympiakos for the rest of the season. Such broadening of footballing horizons will only improve his game and his character. While Matt Derbyshire will probably never be a great footballer, one suspects that England might have lifted a trophy by now if its most promising players (you know the ones) had gained the crucial extra 5% by leaving their narrow English comfort zones.

Everton's 4-6-0
It's only partly accurate to call it that. It's more of a 4-4-1-1 with midfielders Fellaini and Cahill up front. The kind of 4-6-0 pedants like me enjoy involves a bit more fluidity and movement when attacking or regaining possession - something which Everton will probably gain over the coming weeks of playing like this.

Andriy Arshavin
It's quite popular to slag the guy off at the moment, but he does possess a great deal of quality and is a far better player than Roman Pavlyuchenko by most accounts. Arsenal were linked with him about a year before Euro 2008, let's not forget that either. I certainly don't think he's the player we needed most, but he can excel in England and I have a feeling he could make an instant impact.

What to watch for this weekend
If Arsenal fail to win against West Ham and Aston Villa beat Wigan, we can begin to talk about UEFA Cup/Europa League football for the Gunners.

Tottenham travel to Bolton in what must be a relegation six-pointer. I'm hoping Bolton lose.

If David Beckham plays well against Lazio on Sunday, look out for Milan hinting at a permanent deal. The MLS would want £8million, from what I understand.

Real Madrid travel to Numancia - can they close the gap on Barcelona? My feelings about Madrid are well-documented, but they do show extraordinary spirit and the acquisition of Lassana Diarra has been a rare masterstroke on their part.

Premier League Punditry returns on Sunday at Sporting Madness.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Double pivot keeps Giggs evergreen

To say that Manchester United have dominated the Premier League era sounds like a statement of the obvious, but it is important to remember the tremendous potential this team has to reinvent itself. Chelsea were recently beyond all doubt the strongest team in England, but only from 2004 to 2007; Arsenal had this title in their own right between 2001 and 2004. However, with United on track for an unprecedented hat-trick of Premier League titles this season, I look at one small facet of how the team has managed to keep itself evergreen and entrench itself as England's natural champions.

Ryan Giggs, 35, had considered retiring from football at the end of the season, the (formerly) pacy winger being British football's most decorated player. Thanks perhaps a tactical masterstroke by Sir Alex Ferguson (or a pragmatic response to a long injury list) Giggs now stands ahead of United's legions of young central midfielders, with a new contract about to be penned. Why this change?

To pronounce the death of the strict 4-4-2 is now a favourite pastime of football pundits, who prefer to talk about strikerless 4-6-0 formations. The way United lined up against West Brom last night (see diagram) suggests that the "double pivot" aspect of the 4-4-2 formation is still very much alive. The term double pivot is from the Spanish doble pivote, which invokes the shared responsibilities of the central midfielders in a 4-4-2. I have written about the the solid midfield base Michael Carrick provides, a man to whom Ryan Giggs provides the perfect foil: sitting in front of the back four at times, but making runs and key final passes to United's fluid attackers.

Giggs' deep, hard-tackling role in the recent 3-0 win against Chelsea was reminiscent of the Claude Makelele of old. Yesterday he took on a more active role and assisted four goals, frequently breaking forward from deep. Football is a funny old game: an ageing winger can be reborn and inspirational; a traditional formation like the double-pivot can be the innovation a team needs to win a third title in a row.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Super Week

The National Football League season will be completed with one of the more surprising match-ups in Super Bowl XLIII. If someone says they predicted this final, they are lying. No one in their right mind would have picked the Arizona Cardinals to make it to the Super Bowl. Then again, no one last year was saying that the Giants would make the Super Bowl, and then the pundits gave them little to no chance of knocking off the New England Patriots juggernaut.

For the next week, every possible angle of this game will be covered, from Arizona's head coach (Ken Whisenhunt) and his relationship with Pittsburgh QB, Ben Roethlisberger and the rest of the Pittsburgh Steelers, to the possible effect of Larry Fitzgerald Sr. trying to report the game with no bias toward his son, Arizona Wide Receiver Larry Fitzgerald Jr. They will be beaten into the ground.

Something that will probably be reported less is the fact that the Arizona Cardinals are doing a "disservice" to college football. The fact that they have made the finals even though they were 9-7 and demolished by 30+ points by an 11-5 New England team that did not make the playoffs is remarkable. In NCAA football, the Bowl Championship Series continues to come under fire, with many colleges (and President Obama) wanting the system to become a real playoff with a bracket and a single, unopposed champion. If Arizona pulls this out, it shows that playoffs do not work. College football is so competitive that every week there is an important game. USC being upset by Oregon State effectively ended their title run in October. This year especially in the NFL proved that the regular season means nothing. So what if the Titans and the Giants were the two best teams? Making he college system into a 4 or 8 team playoff would cheapen the regular season, and the college football regular season is a simply stunning masterpiece every year. The BCS may not work 100% of the time, but I would not trade it for something like the NFL system.

A couple of other things to watch for:
  • Larry Fitzgerald has emerged as one of best WRs in these playoffs. It is a wonder that he is not being triple or quadruple teamed.
  • Anquan Boldin and his announced intention to become a free agent after his contract runs 3 years time. Only in the NFL does this happen.
  • Pittsburgh Head Coach Mike Tomlin being mistaken for Omar Epps (seriously, they look the exact same)
  • No Joe Buck doing the announcing. Seriously, he is terrible.
  • Watching for which player will do something stupid the night before the game, like Nick Collins being stabbed in the knee by his wife before a playoff game 2 or 3 years back (Colts vs. Steelers), or Atlanta S Eugene Robinson offering $70 to an undercover police officer for oral sex and then getting burned the next day on two long plays. My money is it being Edgerrin James, RB for the Cardinals.
I'm not sure if my bias is showing, but I really really want the Cards to pull this one out because I hate the Steelers for the various things they have done to the Bills (namely the season finale of 2004, where the Bills needed to win to get into the playoffs and lost to the Steelers 2nd and 3rd stringers. That was a painful season). I think they can pull it out if they can establish the run early, get 2 or 3 great plays by Fitzgerald (entirely possible) and force turnovers on defense (which they have been doing all playoffs). I am most certainly in the minority, but I don't care, I really really hate the Steelers.

It should, however, be a fun game to watch no matter who wins.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Most Underrated: Defenders

This is the first of three instalments featuring many of the less recognised players in world football. The names are drawn from all European/South American leagues, and there is definitely no Premier League bias here - it is itself too often a cause of players being underrated in the first place.

We start with the defenders.

Jussi Jääskeläinen (33, Finnish, Bolton Wanderers): Typing his name is already hard enough, then comes the task of believing that he's been at Bolton for 12 years now. A tremendous influence on his team and a rock at the back, without him Bolton would not be in the top flight. Better defences ahead of him would have spared him a few blushes, and a move to a bigger club should probably have materialised some time ago.

Cristian Chivu (28, Romanian, Internazionale): Operating almost anywhere across the defence and in midfield for Romania, Chivu is a rarity in that he is a utility man of extremely high calibre. Defensively solid and neat in his passing but not as flashy as his colleague Maicon. And any left-back in Italy is in the shadow of a certain Paolo Maldini.

Sylvain Distin (30, French, Portsmouth): He's certainly the best defender outside the English 'Top Four', and stands alongside Ricardo Carvalho and Nemanja Vidic as another foreign defender who makes his English partner (Sol Campbell in this case) look like twice the player he really is. Distin's still got one move left in him - and the fact that it's likely to be as a replacement for William Gallas at Arsenal(69 caps versus Distin's 0)says a lot.

Josip Šimunić (30, Croatian, Hertha Berlin): He's 6'5" and born in Australia, but why would anyone play cricket when they have the silky technique of this Croatian beast? His neat passing and ability to beat a man (usually an opposing striker!) makes the phrase "he's got a good touch for a big man" ring truer for Šimunić than for, say, Peter Crouch. His playing style is uncompromising and he epitomises the versatility we expect from Croatian players. That he hasn't been picked up by a Champions League club is surprising, but I don't think they'd know where to play the man anyway.

Wes Brown (29, English, Manchester United): England's favourite booing victim despite being what English fans seem to fetishise - hard work, modesty, loyalty to the club and respect. When has anyone ever heard of Wes Brown making trouble? He's got drive minus the negative attitude. He's won five leagues and two Champions League trophies at Old Trafford. Most fans don't rate him, but Fergie does - he's had a new contract this year and his return to what is currently an injury-racked defence is eagerly awaited. Another double for Wes? Don't discount it.

In the next instalment I look at the midfield corporals who should really be generals. Awful joke there, but you know it'll be a good read!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Kaka's future

Ramon Calderon stepped down as president of Real Madrid this week after a vote-rigging scandal was uncovered by (surprisingly) Real Madrid's mouthpiece newspaper Marca. Florentino Perez, who signed the galacticos Zidane, Beckham, Ronaldo etc. during his previous stint as president, is favourite to win the next elections scheduled for the summer.

This impacts Kaka's future to a great extent. Personally, I believe Perez will pick up from where he left off and sign another massive player (not Viduka massive, Kaka massive) and Real are certainly corrupt enough to weather the financial storm and afford it. Silvio Berlusconi has indicated a desire to do business for Kaka regardless of his public statements, and Milan certainly need the money if they are to reverse their slide. A Perez presidency would likely see a curt goodbye for Juande Ramos as well, with Jose Mourinho perhaps taking over after his rough time at Inter. That would lure Kaka far more than the promise of millions.

Many have praised Kaka for not being lured by Manchester City's money but it has more to do with their sporting plan than his principles. The boy wants success more than money, and a move to Real Madrid may be on the cards for a sum hilariously close to what City offered Milan just last week.

All this will be orchestrated by a Real Madrid president who, as is required by the club's rules, will have stumped up €60million of his own money as a deposit just to stand for the club presidency.

While Real Madrid may be a spectacularly poorly-run club at times, having a patch indicating 9 Champions Leagues on the sleeves of their jerseys (and a chairman whose dreams are achievable) continues to be a great pull.

A few notes from the week

I know the week isn't over yet...but...

FA Cup
Bayern Munich (in a tight title race), Barcelona (59 goals in 19 games) and AC Milan (Kaka? Beckham? Pato?) will be in league action this weekend, but why would anyone want to watch such small clubs, arrivistes if you will, when there's Watford on the telly? That's right, the FA Cup is back.

Live blogging
Premier League Punditry, our weekly live blog at Sporting Madness went rather well in its inaugural instalment. Amrit and Andrew will be liveblogging Manchester United's 7-7 draw with Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup this Saturday, so don't miss it.

Willy Sagnol
Bayern Munich and France right-back Willy Sagnol looks set to retire from football imminently, in large part due to an Achilles' tendon inj...WHO CARES?

Tactical nous lacking
On a tactical note - Jose Mourinho "organised" Inter in 4-3-3, 4-3-1-2 and 4-4-2 formations during the 3-1 defeat to Atalanta last weekend, perhaps as some bizarre tribute to each of the goals they conceded. La Repubblica later overheard Mourinho telling his squad "sei una squadra de merda" - "you're a shit team". I've been saying that for about seven years now, let me manage them.

Don't mess with the Yoann
Yoann Gourcuff, quite possibly the best French player at the moment, is having the time of his life on loan at Bordeaux from AC Milan. Having never broken into the squad at the San Siro, he's lived up to his title as the "new Zidane" better than others such as Samir Nasri and Hatem Ben Arfa ever have. The best part of it? AC Milan cared so little for him this summer that they gave Bordeaux first option to buy him for a pre-agreed €13million fee. Considering the fact that I (and Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United) rate him at around €20-25million at the moment, I suspect the suits in Milan are kicking themselves. With lovely Armani shoes, mind you.

Transfer highs and lows

Best of the week: Wilson Palacios to Tottenham Hotspur (£14million, finally a Carrick replacement!)
Clanger of the week: Nigel de Jong to Manchester City (£19million, contract clause meant he would have cost only £2million in the summer)

Another not-real post

Hey guys!

So, sorry for the recent complete lackage of real posts. There'll be some stuff coming up about how every team I support is completely awful, but that's for later. Busy times, really.

At any rate, this is a heads up about two more upcoming live blogs.

On Saturday, Andrew and I will be liveblogging Manchester United v Tottenham, a match will (potentially hopefully not) foreshadow the upcoming Carling Cup final. That will be at Sporting Madness. Kickoff is (I think) at 12:30, so we'll get started around that point sometime.

Then, on Sunday, as always, Phil and I will be joining Andrew at Sporting Madness for Premier League Punditry at 1:30.

Like I said, real posts will be coming soon, I promise!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Upcoming liveblog!

As I said in the long preamble to our list of why 2008 was memorable, we will finally be taking part in a liveblog.

Yes, you heard right.

Tomorrow, around 1:30pm, Phil and myself will be joining Andrew at Sporting Madness for a roundtable called "Premier League Punditry" on this weekend's Premier League matches, and will be discussing this week's happenings in the world of football.

Like I said - 1:30 pm, at Sporting Madness.

Hope to see you there!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson

"In the beginning there was chaos, and football was without form"

The opening words of Jonathan Wilson's gripping book on the evolution of football and its tactics set the stage for his argument: that the game has not only become more organised and structured but, as the title suggests, progressively less reliant on a mass of forward players.

Tracing the development of football tactics across time, Wilson's arguments draw as much from sociology and history as from archived match reports to illustrate that football is more than twenty-two players kicking a ball around. The arrangement of the players, their movement and style of play draw from fascism, poverty, music and physics as they do from the imperative of simply putting the ball in the net. How the Austrian coffeehouses of the interwar period, Isaac Newton, and comedy-musicals all seem to make sense in footballing context is testament to the complexity of the game.

From the rugby-like anarchy of the early English game to the hustle and bustle of the Premier League, Wilson also searches for an English style of football. He finds a deep pragmatism but also the impact of re-imported foreign influences onto a game that England had originally exported to the world. Wilson tends to credit decisive matches for much of the game's evolution and shows how the supposedly "English" 4-4-2 was, more accurately, a Hungarian innovation, famously shown to the world in England's landmark 3-6 defeat to Hungary at Wembley in 1953. The English pragmatism is one of many responses to the ages-old debate between beauty and efficiency (a debate Wilson leaves wide open) which houses both the flowing Brazil team of 1972 and Helenio Herrera's catenaccio-playing Inter of the 1960s.

Not only has the game itself evolved, but the key figures in tactics increasingly became the managers themselves. Wilson sees Herbert Chapman, Arsenal manager from 1925-1934, as the first "modern" manager - with shirt numbers, floodlighting, and improved physical fitness as his contributions to the increasing professionalisation of the game. Valeriy Lobanovskyi's scientific mindset brought Dynamo Kyiv great success but clashed with the romaticism of Eduard Malofeev's Dinamo Minsk. Silvio Berlusconi's decision to bring in the unknown Arrigo Sacchi as manager thankfully killed off catenaccio once and for all with a European Cup-winning team containing Marco Van Basten, Carlo Ancelotti, Frank Rijkaard, Roberto Donadoni (all of which are now grey-haired managers) and Paolo Maldini (who somehow still starts for Milan). The names get progressively more familiar as the book goes on - which really shows that today's football is only a product of yesterday's.

As football becomes more organised and media more sophisticated, Wilson foresees less of the tactical surprises which drove the evolution of football. As 4-2-3-1 has become the new formation of choice in Western Europe, precision, fitness and flexibility may be the only new evolutions - but Wilson, sounding more and more like a historian, rightly warns against forecasting the end of progress.

Published by Orion Books, June 2008
ISBN 9780752889955
384 pages