Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Theo Walcott - one of english football's mysteries

Theo Walcott.

The young lad who had the option to join either Chelsea or Arsenal and chose Arsenal. This is probably why I never really liked the lad. Until recently I had an unexplained hatred of the Gunners, something I feel was indoctrinated into me by my teacher at school, who was an overtly smug Arsenal fan. But that's beside the point and I've learnt to appreciate the Football Arsenal and Wenger play.

Anyway, Theo Walcott this season has become a very good player. Yet for me he's still a winger who can't cross a ball properly, mainly due to how Arsenal play, but his finishing until this season was never anything to write home about and he only had one asset, his pace. This season he's worked on his ability to put the ball in the back of the net, and he's not just one of those wingers who only have one trick up their sleeve, their pace. No nowadays he's a much trickier customer.

I suppose one of the reasons why Walcott has become a better Footballer is experience more than anything. For a while at Arsenal he was beginning to look like the impact sub who only turned up for the little games. Whilst he's still not a regular starter this season, it seems like not going to South Africa has spurred him on to be even better at Arsenal to prove his worth for the National team.

Wingers these days also seem to be cutting inside the box from wider positions to greater effect. Possibly a sign of the times more than anything as we saw from Robben at the World Cup. Milner and David Silva for City are also tasked with a similar role at they've had success as well. Walcott however is better than those two at getting out wide, then cutting inside to create a pass or shooting opportunity. It's a style of play that the fans love and coaches are beginning to see just how effective it can be.

This style of play that Walcott has had to adopt whilst at Arsenal (joining them as a striker rather than a Wing Forward) is something that can very much be an asset to the England National Team. It's been a while since a genuinely different type of English Football player was developed in this country, but Walcott on the right, with possibly either Milner or Ashley Young on the left Wing, could give England that extra dimension they've lacked for some time. We could even play 4-3-3 if we stick Rooney or Defoe in the middle of those two to create a very fast paced attacking line.

Still, I feel it's very early doors for Walcott. He's coming to that age now were he really needs to show to Wenger he warrants a first team start nearly every game. For me he's better than Arshavin and more effective than Nasri in that attacking 3 Wenger plays (personally I feel Nasri is a much better Central midfielder alongside Fabregas).

So Theo Walcott. I can honestly say I was wrong.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Inter Milan v Tottenham Hotspur Match report

Inter Tottenham match report

Inter got off to an astonishing start against Tottenham on Wednesday Night in a Group A Champions League tie at the San Siro.

Zanetti got the hosts off to a flyer within 68 seconds after a brilliant flowing move from Samuel Eto’o put the left back through on goal who then slotted it past Tottenham goalkeeper Gomes.

Things got from bad to worse for the London side, who then saw Gomes sent off for a clumsy challenge on Maicon in the box. On came reserve keeper Carlo Cudicini and off came Luka Modric as Eto’o stood up to take the penalty and smashed it in the top left.

With Spurs down to ten men and already two goals down, Inter went further ahead after just 14 minutes, keeping tight possession of the ball until Dejan Stankovic, found space for a through ball and go on to score a third inside the first quarter of an hour.

However after conceding three Spurs seemed to find their feet a little bit as they began to find their rhythm, with lone striker Peter Crouch missing an excellent headed chance inside the 6 – yard box after Lennon whipped in a cross from the right. Gareth Bale on the left also gave the London outfit a much needed attacking mentality looking every bit as World Class as his opponents down the left wing.

It wasn’t meant to be a night for Spurs however as Coutinho found the ball in midfield and out classed the Spurs midfield and defence before putting Eto’o through on goal who poked the ball past Cudicini into the back of the net.

Trailing 4-0 to the Italians at half time then and a shellshocked Spurs looked down beat and trodden as they walked into the dressing room to a furious Harry Redknapp without a doubt.

After half time Spurs came out a different team with Gareth Bale leading the charge down the left wing from inside his own half all the way to the oppositions box before smashing low driving shot into past Cesar and into the bottom right hand corner of the net.

Tottenham behind then 4-1 and looking confident after Bale’s goal and Cudicini finally looked settled in after David Santon for Inter found the ball in midfield and cut inside from the left, past Alan Hutton a took a low driving shot only for Cudicini to deflect it out for a corner.

Things started to look brighter for Spurs still when Peter Crouch flicked on a header for Gareth Bale who controlled the ball with a nice bit of skill only to cut it back to Benoit Assou-Ekotto who blasted the ball way over the Inter goal.

A wasted opportunity for Spurs but they were soon on the attack again with Jenas running down the left wing only to be stopped abruptly by the Inter defence who cleared the ball out of danger.

Tottenham continued to create problems down the left as Bale surged forward with ball only to be taken down by Eto’o, who soon got the ball back up field to Coutinho who shot just outside the Spurs box only to see his effort go just wide past the far post.

After 65 minutes Harry Redknapp decided to change things, taken Crouch off for Robbie Keane, his first appearance this season but the Irishman failed to make an impact against the likes of the superstars at the San Siro.

Rafa Benitez also made a change, taking Chivu off for the attacker Goran Pandev only for it to back fire as Gareth Bale down the left yet again smashed in another brilliant goal after another surging run to score his second. Then seconds later Bale powered in his third for his hat-trick, beating Cesar for the third time in the dying seconds of the game in the bottom right hand corner.

Three goals all practically the same and Inter were forced to hang on as Spurs put in a brilliant second half performance.

You perhaps have to think, had Tottenham had all eleven men on the pitch, whether Inter would have dominated as they did. At the end of the 90 minutes however, Inter Milan lead Group A with Tottenham Hotspur in second place, thanks to a 1-1 draw in Holland.

An Incredible match and an incredible performance from perhaps the best left winger in the World at the minute.

Friday, 15 October 2010

The End of 4-4-2?

With greater pressures for teams to do well and not lose, has the traditional 4-4-2 formation been replaced with something more attacking?

This year's Champions league and the recent 2010 World Cup in South Africa saw a major shift in how tactics in football are evolving. The standard 4-4-2 with two wingers, two central midfielders and two attacking forwards, is no longer good enough on the World stage and clubs in Leagues all over Europe and in the Champions League especially, are finding better results with more open and free-form formations.

The 2010 World Cup in South Africa proved that a 4-4-2 formation isn't good enough to get to the latter stages of the tournament. The majority of successful teams this year used a fluid 4-2-3-1 attacking formation that provided width on the flanks, compact in the middle and can provide a decent goal threat with a talented playmaker behind the lone striker.

The two obvious examples at the World Cup were the Netherlands and Germany. It can be argued that Spain also used a similar system but with a midfield trio of Xavi, Iniesta and Alonso, with Villa, Torres and David Silva up front, it can be argued that Spain played a more fluid 4-3-3 system that reverted to a 4-5-1 when on the defensive.

Germany and the Netherlands however, used a more extensive system that provided width and an attacking danger as the likes of Thomas Muller and Arjen Robben would cut inside the area and attack the goal, a tactic that saw Muller win Top goal scorer. Up front, both teams had lethal centre forwards who knew how to hit the target in Miroslav Klose for Germany and Robin van Persie for the Netherlands.

However, the main issue that teams using different formations to the tried and tested 4-4-2 used by England and some of the other weaker teams in the competition, was the lack of options and possession the system offers. Without possession you lack goal scoring opportunities and the fact that England only managed 3 goals in the entire competition (Gerrard vs. USA, Defoe vs. Slovenia and Upson vs. Germany), not counting Lampard's disallowed effort, it seems the rest of the World agrees that a 4-4-2 can't get you very far.
In fact the only team to do well with a 4-4-2 formation, strangely enough was Uruguay, who played a much more rigid game then England, yet with that organisation, goals from Diego Forlan, player of the Tournament and Suarez's hand ball, the managed to get to the semi-finals before losing out and falling against Germany in the third place play off.

Now the advantages a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3 system have over the two banks of players in a traditional flat-line 4-4-2, is the all important “creation of passing triangles” (Jonathan Wilson for Guardian and writer of the brilliant 'Inverting the Pyramid'). Triangles, if you don't all ready know, are the most important shape in Football and will always beat out the passing in a flat line.

As you can see from the three above diagrams, the triangle patterns in both the 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 formations used by Holland/Germany and Spain respectively create a lot more passing options, which goes into creating more dangerous attacking options. The 4-4-2 on the other hand gives limited options for the strikers and attacking midfields and wide men. It also leaves a team quite unbalanced in terms of attacking and defensive balance. The greater passing options for a 4-4-2 come in a team’s own half, with each defender having two midfielders to pass the ball to whereas in the attacking half of the pitch, midfielders only have the two strikers up front, who can be left isolated without a link between attack and midfield.

This missing link was the key to the poor showing by England in the World Cup, especially when they have creative attacking midfielders in Joe Cole and Steven Gerrard who can happily fill that void. This however wasn’t a problem for the Dutch who had Wesley Sneider and Robben linking the attack in the middle or on the wing. Spain too had the perfect balance in midfield and attack with Xavi and Iniesta pushing forward to link up with the strikers and Xabi Alonso staying deep to cover the midfield in case the opposition break forward. A 4-4-2 system cannot really offer this sort of luxury and now this year club teams are seeing this clearer than ever before.

Barcelona have for a long time player the 4-3-3 system made famous by Johann Cruyff whilst he was Manager and is now implemented by the Spanish National team because the players are so used to the system. Arsenal too uses a system very similar to Barcelona, which gets the best out of players such as Cesc Fabregas and Sami Nasri (when he plays part of the midfield 3). Chelsea as well have three up front in Malouda, and Anelka playing on the wings with Drogba as a target man in the middle, with Frank Lampard linking midfield and attack as Essien keeps tight in front of the defence.

In fact the 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 formations are finding popularity all over Europe this year, with 20 of the 32 teams in the Champions League using a variation of one of the two. But should this surprise us really? The Champions League is for the top teams around Europe and to get to that stage you need to win matches and score goals, which a possession based system will give you. Of course there are teams like Manchester United who do well with a 4-4-2 system, but as we saw last year in the Champions League, they crashed out to Bayern Munich who outplayed them at the Allianz Arena to eventually go through to the final. Similarly Fulham in the Europa league had a lot of success with a 4-4-2, knocking out Shaktar Doneskt, Juventus and Hamburg before being beaten to an Athletico Madrid side playing 4-5-1 and led by that man, Diego Forlan.

So has the 4-4-2 had its day? Well, yes and no. It’s still a great formation for teams to use, who perhaps don’t possess the type of creative players that can push forward from midfield and link up the attack effectively. It’s also a staple tactic to use away from home in the league or in Europe, as it allows you to get players behind the ball and leave two attackers up front to nick a goal. A bit like Michael Owen used to do.

Then again saying that, Michael Owen recently said himself the 4-4-2 has had its day, which is a shame considering it’s the only formation he himself can play. A message then, from a striker whose career is long since passed perhaps about a formation that has perhaps passed its time.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

England 0 - 0 Montenegro - England look hopeless...

So England drew nil - nil with the Eastern European super power of Soccer that is Montenegro. Or more correctly, England but on a display so dismal and without hope for the future that it begs the question, why bother?

England's shortcomings at the World Cup and the shortcomings of some of our best players this season meant that Capello threw out a team that looked light on big names and caps. Granted the likes of Jolean Lescott returning at the back doesn't exactly install confidence, given his drop in form since his switch to Man City, but you know the lad can do a job against a Montenegro side. And a job he did helping returning Captain Rio Ferdinand and Joe Hart keep a clean sheet.

I would have liked to see some fresher faces at the back, such as Stoke's Ryan Shawcross or even Gary Cahill, surely either one of them could have stepped up to the plate? Then of course there's the question of why Capello keeps snubbing Joe Cole? Especially when he's playing with Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard who has been the only England player to prove his worth since the 4 - 1 caning by Germany in South Africa,

Of course the main story of the night goes to that of Kevin Davies, the Bolton hitman who bangs in the goals come Saturday's but never got picked for England. Presumably because he never hit the tabloids like the likes of Rooney, Terry and Beckham. Still the striker whose skill set defines what it means to be a Target man - physicality, heading, a nose for goals and most importantly strength and love of the game. He may have won his first tonight but he looked comfortable during the match and he looked assured before coming on.

It's unfortunate then that at 33, Davies has no real England future. Come the Euro Championship in 2012, the big man will be 35, surely too old to compete at International level?

What I would like to know however is why aren't we getting the injection of new blood into the England squad? Ashley Young and Adam Johnson are all well and good, but goals win you games and the service these two provided tonight was questionable.

Both Young and Johnson had good games to be fair, but their service was inconsistent at times. They can definitely do a job given time but tonight all we got was a lot of cutting inside and a lot of chances wasted from outside the box, mainly from Johnson on the set pieces. It seems to me that both of these wingers suffer the same problem as Theo Walcott, mainly being wingers who can't cross a ball.

Still my disdain for Walcott is an issue for another time. All that matters to night is England remain unbeaten in the 2010/11 season, remain uninspiring, remain hopeless, remain looking foolish after the World Cup shambles.

Still super striker 'J-Def' is yet to return. Maybe when he does he can show Rooney how to do his job, mainly sticking the ball in the back of the net.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Has an Influx of Foreign talent in the Premier League affected the Development of the National Football Teams of the other Home Nations?

Many will agree that England in South Africa for the 2010 World Cup were not great. In fact they were bloody awful. An embarrassment to the Nation? Perhaps, but shocking nonetheless.

People have quite rightly come out and criticised the players, Capello, the tactics, the lack of fight, the lack of spirit, the lack of ability and mostly the lack of form carried over from the Premier League season. Then others began to scratch the surface and see how deep-rooted the problems the England National Team actually go.

The major criticism was the coaching ability, or lack of coaching ability, found in this country among the most impressionable talents, the youngsters found in the school parks and in the Under 8’s Leagues. The future talent pool of English Footballers was taken a harsh look at by Sir Trevor Brooking, who made a comparison between World Cup Top goal scorer, Thomas Muller , 21 and Chelsea Reserve Daniel Sturridge 21. He made the comparison that Muller as a promising youngster in the Bayern Munich Squad, had cemented a secure spot in the First Team, getting regular action on the pitch and scoring goals, later became the top goal scorer at the 2010 World Cup, just a year later after getting regular first team football at high league level. Daniel Sturridge on the other hand made just over a handful of League appearance, mainly as a sub and his future potential is beginning to look questionable.

So as we can see the main problem seemed to be the inability to get promising youngsters regular first team football. The solution then, is the Premier League’s 25 man Squad registration system, which I’m all for, as a requirement is the team must have 8 registered Home-grown players, which have been playing in the English Football system for 4 years since under the age of 21. However criticism then begins when you realise foreign players like Cesc Fabregas of Arsenal, qualify under this rule too.

However in comparison to the other Home Nations, you have to say England did marvellous! Now this is in no way meant to be insulting to the National Teams of Scotland, Wales and both Ireland and Northern Ireland, but at least England qualified for the World Cup. The English performances at the World Cup and European Cup are actually quite good compared to the rest of the UK and Ireland.

So has an influx of foreign talent into the Premier League really affected how well England plays? Have the foreigners of the Premier League, who change the dynamics of the game, and force teams to be better, have they really hampered the abilities of our National Team? Or have the likes of Carlos Tevez, Didier Drogba, Ruud van Nistlerooy, Fernando Torres and Dennis Bergkamp, not actually forced our English players to play better week after week, year after year since the Premier League's beginning all the way back in 1992? The Premier League after all, is regarded as the best League in the World, and since the start of the Premier League in 1992 England have only failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, led by Graham Taylor and the 2008 European Cup led by Steve McClaren. Both of whom are now regarded as poor choices as manager.

That stat alone should go some way to show you that the foreign players of the Premier League have served the National team well, so well in fact that every World Cup England has been in since the creation of the Premier League, they've advanced past the group stage. Not too bad in retrospect really, when many say the League has too many foreign players. With 66 different individual countries represented in the Premier League, I'll let you be the judge if there's too many foreign players, but most cities have that many different nationalities represented within their respective area.

The main problem for me caused by the influx of foreign players in the Premier League is the detrimental affect it has had on the likes of the Scottish, Welsh and Irish national sides. Particularly the Republic of Ireland National Football team who in 1990 were a very good side, but today they struggle to qualify. What's gone wrong?

Firstly we can blame the poor quality of the Football Leagues in the other home nations. The Welsh League is regarded by many in England as the lowest professional tier in Football, very much akin to League to or even the Conference League. Just look at the Cardiff Football team, their Welsh League is so bad Cardiff want to play in England, and even then they're only a mid-table Championship side (although with Craig Bellamy at the helm that may change). The Irish League is almost a joke with no team ever qualifying for Champions League and the SPL is such a two-team league it may as well be called the Scottish La Liga.

This doesn't mean to sound disrespectful to the respected teams of each league or any fans, but these comments generally match the quality that each league represents. My biggest gripe however is the way that some of these leagues are set out, mainly the SPL.

For those that don't know the SPL uses a Split format, which ends up with every team playing certain teams 3 times, once home and possibly twice away. However all are not happy with this highly unusual format, in fact Rangers manager Walter Smith branded the format as "unfair" and called for an 18-team league to be considered. The SPL has defended the split format, however, and dismissed the possibility of expanding the league due to a lack of strong enough clubs within the Scottish Football League. It’s a sad state of affairs for Scottish Football when you can’t find 18 “strong” teams for your top flight.

It should also be noted that in the Scottish league, a large proportion of SPL clubs' squads are being made up of Scottish players (73% in 2004–05). The figure in England is much closer to around 40% which would suggest that despite a lower amount of top English players in English teams, the National Squad still does a lot better than Scotland’s National Football team.

In fact when you take a look at Scotland's National Football team, the majority of players are either playing at Championship Clubs (e.g. Middlesbrough) or SPL teams. Their best player in the Squad is arguably Darren Fletcher of United, who many see as a fringe player of the United Squad until recently. Then again had Owen Hargreaves not been out the squad for an extended period, would Fletcher still been selected as often?

The states of other National Teams from other Home Nations and Ireland aren’t much better. For a long period of time David Healy was N. Ireland’s best striker, a player who struggled to make an impact at just about any level of competitive Football in England. Of course before Healy there was George Best, but he never really bothered to play for the National Team, and whilst the man was very gifted at Club level, but we never really witnessed his true potential on the World’s finest stage. Now the Welsh National Football team possess some decent players such as Craig Bellamy (Now at Cardiff in the Championship), Gareth Bale, one of Tottenham’s star players and a quality left back, but after those two? Joe Ledly in the centre isn't a bad player but his lack of high level competitive Football really shows in the International games, and the team overall suffers from severe lack of depth.

It is perhaps the Republic of Ireland’s National Football Team taking the biggest dip in quality however. In the early 90’s, Rep. of Ireland lead by “Big” Jack Charlton was quite a force to be reckoned with. The achieved the quarter finals at Italia ’90 and even qualified for USA ’94. The team used to have some damn fine players as well, Roy Keane for one, former Liverpool striker John Aldridge, and a whole host of players from top Premier League Clubs, all of which were getting regular Football. Nowadays the ROI Football team lacks the many quality players required to mount a decent challenge in the competition. The only standard out players in their squad today, are arguably Robbie Keane, who can hardly be called “World Class” and Shay Given who’s Manchester City’s no.2 ‘Keeper now behind Joe Hart – an Englishman.

When we consider the impact of foreign players on the Premier League and the National Football teams of the Home Nations, the 2010 World Cup in South Africa gives us some interesting statistics. For example The Premier League was the best represented league at the tournament, with 108 players, while Italy's Serie A provides 75 names and Spain's La Liga 57. Along with Germany and holders Italy, England were the only country at the finals to have a squad chosen entirely from their domestic league, which goes dividends to show just how strong an asset the Premier League is for the National Team. The Germany squad had a very successful tournament and the Bundesliga has grown in popularity and technical ability and skill. Yet as a result, a lot of top foreign talent has moved into the German league this season, on top of the talented foreigners such as Ribery and Robben, who were already playing in Germany.

So whilst many bemoan the fact that the foreign players have hampered the England National Team, look at the other top football leagues of France, Germany, Italy and Spain and look at how well their National teams have done recently (less so Italy and France at this year’s World Cup) and in the past. Maybe those foreign players are actually helping the technical development of domestic players.

Just look at the next crop of young English talent, Connor Wickham, Jack Wilshere and Jack Rodwell – all fantastic prospects playing alongside the top foreign talent in their respective leagues, maybe the English Football Association needs to look at the coaching quality for youngsters in this country, rather than allowing the media and managers to lambast the amount of foreigners in the Premier League.