Friday, 7 October 2011

Clairefontaine, La Masia and...Burton?

Spain has La Masia, France has the Clairefontaine Academy and soon England will have St. George’s Park to churn out future talent to help them lift a future World Cup.

Formerly known as the Burton National Football Centre, St. George’s Park aims to be the home of English Football Development, bringing together all of the England Senior and Junior football teams under one roof.

The complex will work in a similar way to that of the Clairefontaine Academy which was founded by the France Football Federation in 1988 and developed stars such as Zinedine Zidane, Patrick Vieira, David Trezeguet and Thierry Henry.

However the French football complex has come under criticism for France’s recent failures at International tournaments as well as the outdated methods being taught to future coaches. Then of course there was the racism scandal that embroiled the FFF after it was revealed they secretly put in place a race-quota system in order to limit the number of dual-nationality players in its national academies.

The FA has promised though that St. George’s Park will not be a copy of other national football centres and has received backing from England manager, Fabio Capello, who said: "The venue will be an inspirational site, a place for coaches and players to work, learn and develop.”

Head of NFC Development, David Sheepshanks, said:” Every single leading European country has a national football centre - even Bulgaria - and we are the only leading European country that does not. Every country that has won the World Cup has one apart from us.”

England will hope that within St. George’s Park the FA can develop a team with the same calibre as the Spanish National team, most of which trained at Barcelona’s La Masia football Academy. In the 2010 World Cup final against Holland, Spain’s starting XI had six graduates from the La Masia Academy, including Gerard Piqué, Carles Puyol, Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández, Sergio Busquets, and Pedro Rodríguez.

Spain could be facing real competition from England then when it comes to International football with St. George’s Park looking to create an England side with real World Cup winning potential and as it was revealed earlier this week, Manchester City have released images for their rival to Barcelona’s La Masia Youth Academy.

It seems with The FA and Manchester City looking to develop for the future, it could be quite sometime before England sees the benefits of these multi-million pound projects, but if the successes of Clairefontaine and La Masia are anything to go by, the future looks bright.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Arsenal v Liverpool Post Match Analysis

The new season’s first meeting between two top sides produced a mixed encounter of at times fantastic passages of play combined with scrappy and physical moments. Liverpool played Arsenal away at the Emirates stadium in a tight match between the two sides. Arsenal had to deal with suspensions to Alex Song and Gervinho as well as injuries to key players like Jack Wilshere. Liverpool on the other hand were still introducing four new players into the side and had to deal without Suarez for most of the match.

Honours were even for the most part with only Liverpool really looking to threaten the score, it took Emmanuel Frimpong being sent off in the 70th minute and the introduction of Suarez and Meireles before the score line was changed. Even then it took a freak own goal from Aaron Ramsey to get Liverpool started before Suarez killed the game off.

Pass and Move is the Liverpool Groove

Both sides had changes to their starting XI due to differing reasons. Suspensions for Arsenal saw Emmanuel Frimpong enter the side alongside Ramsey and Nasri in midfield, whilst new boy Carl Jenkinson played at right-back as Bacary Sagna was moved across to left-back. An early injury to Laurent Koscielny meant another new boy, Ignasi Miquel stepped into Arsenal’s standard 4-3-3 formation.

Liverpool only made two changes in comparison, switching Martin Kelly in for John Flanagan after his mistake at Sunderland and Dirk Kuyt started over Suarez for fitness reasons, with Liverpool matching Arsenal in a 4-3-3 formation with Carroll as the target man up front.

With Arsenal struggling for experience in the midfield, the Liverpool trio of Jordan Henderson, Lucas Leiva and Charlie Adam were able to knock the ball round with ease but played a much more direct game to Arsenal, getting the ball to the flanks quickly for Downing and Kuyt to cross into Carroll. This proved somewhat effective for Liverpool especially down their left flank, with the inexperienced Jenkinson finding it difficult to deal with the skill of Downing and the pace of Liverpool left-back Jose Enrique. Both swung in good crosses, first for Carroll who was denied by Wojciech Szczęsny, and the second for Henderson who couldn’t direct it away from the Arsenal Keeper. At times Liverpool were superb with the ball and even made Arsenal look second best at the Emirates

When Arsenal had the ball it was left to Nasri to be the team’s only real driving force, testing Liverpool’s Pepe Reina from afar several times and linking up with Arsharvin effectively. However Liverpool’s pressing was particularly effective, with Lucas continuing to break up the attack in midfield and having to deal with a personal battle with Emmanuel Frimpong all match. Arsenal’s lack of experience at the back and in the central midfield meant they struggled to create fluidity at the Emirates and only really tested Liverpool with long distance efforts.

Key Moment

With the deadlock going into the second half a 0-0 could have been likely, but the 70th minute proved to be the changing point in the game for Liverpool.

With Emmanuel Frimpong’s challenge on Lucas blown for a foul he saw a second yellow and Luis Suarez was introduced for Carroll whilst Raul Meireles came on for Kuyt. Until this point Liverpool had been one dimensional but with Suarez and Meireles Liverpool had some much needed creativity and flair to the side and it only took 8 minutes with the two on the pith before they helped to create the Ramsey own goal.

With Arsenal a man down and a goal down, they seemed lost. Frimpong had been a unit in midfield, winning the ball back and driving the team forward whilst marshalling the defence from a defensive midfield position. For Liverpool’s second goal the midfield advantage took the game away from Arsenal as Liverpool linked up outside Arsenal’s 18 yard box to create a wonderful move that left Suarez with an easy tap in to secure the 3 points.

Full Time

Whilst there is an argument that Liverpool’s goals were offside, sometimes in football you need a bit of luck. Unfortunately for Arsene Wenger luck hasn’t been on his side recently and a result like this against Liverpool will hurt the Gunners, particularly when everyone’s tipping Liverpool to squeeze Arsenal out of the top four. Whilst Liverpool were fortuitous with the result, they had at times dominated the game and without Frimpong Arsenal couldn’t cope as Liverpool bolstered their attacking options. Without Suarez’s creativity there is an argument to suggest that Carroll on his own hasn’t got the technical ability needed to break teams like Arsenal down, but early on he looked busy against Arsenal and it might take time before Liverpool and Carroll adapt to a style that suits both the player and the team.

It must be said that this was the opportune moment to play Arsenal with all the problems they have in their first team squad. As a result Kenny picked a strong team and gave himself even better options on the bench which paid off when the perfect moment arrived.

Some people in the media have criticised the performances of both teams but in my opinion Liverpool looked confident throughout the game and played slightly better throughout the match. Sometimes you have to create your own luck in life and that’s certainly what Liverpool did against Arsenal at the Emirates.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Liverpool v Sunderland Post match: Reds must produce more

The 1-1 draw at home to Steve Bruce’s Sunderland wasn’t the result most Liverpool fans would have suspected before kick-off. Liverpool, a team that is supposed to be on the up and challenging for a top four finish versus Sunderland, a team that many have suspected of struggling this season.

The result seems a particularly bitter pill for Liverpool fans to swallow, considering the spell of dominance the team had in the first half. Liverpool looked assured on the ball and despite Suarez missing a penalty and Andy Carroll having a goal disallowed (perhaps unjustly), they dominated throughout the first 45 minutes, creating good movement on and off the ball, keeping the majority of possession and scoring a great goal through Charlie Adam’s cross.

It was unfortunate then to see Seb Larsson score a glorious volley past Reina in the second half. Any Liverpool fan would be forgiven for not seeing it coming, Sunderland snatching an equaliser at Anfield in a game were Liverpool looked like the only likely winners. But most football fans out there will know that Seb Larsson is certainly a dangerous player and when given that amount of freedom inside the opposition’s box, he’ll score goals. It was a pity then that John Flanagan and the rest of the Liverpool defence hadn’t been given that insider’s knowledge. However that is perhaps too harsh on the young right back, after all this was the first game of the season, the pressure was on and he’d be forgiven for thinking the opposition was Manchester United, what with Kieran Richardson, Wes Brown and Ferdinand all at the back (albeit, the less talented Ferdinand brother). Mistakes like that by young players will always be remembered too and he’ll learn. Thank God.

A better question is why did two Liverpool players allow such a fantastic cross into the area in the first place? If more talented opposition is given that sort of freedom on the wings Liverpool will find themselves leaking goals.

One of the other big talking points of the match I’m sure we’ll all hear over the next few days was the performance of Luis Suarez and more importantly, the decision to play him so soon after the Copa America. Considering he won the entire tournament on his own (if you believe what all the pundits say), you would have thought he deserved to miss a match, which on paper should have been 3 points. For me Suarez dropped too deep, and more often than not was found lurking around the right wing as Henderson tucked inside, leaving Carroll somewhat isolated which was a shame considering he won a great deal of the aerial challenges. Ignoring his shocking penalty, his goal from Charlie Adam’s superb cross was well deserved and he made up for his earlier mistake.

It must be noted though this wasn’t his best performance for Liverpool and his arrival back into the squad has probably come a week too soon. His substitution after an hour for Raul Meireles, was a good idea from Dalglish and was meant to give the Reds more strength in midfield. It was just a shame that even with the quality in the centre, Liverpool all too often lumped the ball up field for Carroll to knock down, bypassing the central players in the process.

It’s very easy to criticise Liverpool for not finishing the game off but a draw is one point better than a loss and if next week when they remain unbeaten after facing Arsenal, all could be forgiven. Liverpool fans and Kenny Dalglish have high hopes for this season and the manager hopes to challenge for the title too, but that ambition needs to be matched by the performances of players on the pitch.

From today’s performance it must be said that Kenny’s ambition is not being met by some of the players and that’s the biggest disappoint of the Sunderland match. Not the 1-1 score line.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Liverpool and the Midfield Puzzle

For The upcoming 2011/12 season Liverpool have been very active in the transfer market bringing in players like Charlie Adam, Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson to an already packed midfield that boasts some of Liverpool’s key players.

You could easily accuse the Reds of having a bloated midfield with Steven Gerrard, Lucas Leiva and Dirk Kuyt joined by Raul Meireles, Alberto Aquilani, and Maxi Rodriguez all pushing for a starting place. Then of course there’s the youngsters, Jay Spearing and Jonjo Shelvey, and fringe players Christian Poulsen and Joe Cole, all presumably behind Kenny’s newcomers. That’s 13 midfielders and wingers all together (with Milan Jovanovic sold to Anderlecht) that Kenny Dalglish must find a role for within his squad.

So with all these midfield players and two talented forwards in Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez to take into account when picking a starting XI, how does Dalglish solve a midfield Puzzle like the one at Liverpool FC?

Taking into account a lot of the deadwood within the team, Joe Cole and Poulsen in particularly will certainly have to impress in training to get a starting place in the team, with rumours circulating that Cole might even be shipped off to West Ham or QPR. Then we have the ‘will he won’t he leave’ saga surrounding Aquilani who certainly looks set to be a creative element in Liverpool’s midfield if pre-season is anything to go by.

However, even if Liverpool got rid of a few of these players, Dalglish will still struggle to find a role for all of these players. A 0-10-0 formation certainly isn’t possible and it will be very difficult to get the best midfielders like Downing, Gerrard, Kuyt, Aquilani, Meireles, Lucas, Adam and Henderson all into one giant midfield system.

So what does this mean then for Liverpool? No Europa League in the upcoming season means players like Shelvey and Spearing will find it harder to get first team experience, especially if Liverpool make a push for good League and FA Cup runs this year, they’ll need the best players to play week after week. However a lack of space on the pitch should, in theory spill over to a stronger bench, something Liverpool have lacked really since pre-Benitez era and it’s a problem that has persisted until now. Then you have to consider that so few places in the starting XI will surely create greater competition within the squad to for a starting place, which should result in stronger performances on match day that should mean better results.

If we look at the attacking midfielder role within Liverpool as an example, Steven Gerrard has been first choice for years with no-one in the squad really competing for his place. Now we have the likes of Meireles, Aquilani and Henderson all wanting to play in that role Gerrard has turned into his own. So we have to assume that anyone who is charged with the task of playing behind the striker and creating chances will be the best man for the job on that day, rather than just being selected due to reputation. Next season Liverpool fans could find that a player’s status within the club and to the fans will account for nothing when it comes to squad selection, which can only lead to good thing to come.

The hardest part of the midfield puzzle however will be the formation Kenny Dalglish uses to not only take advantage of his huge choice of midfielders, but also to take into account the striking partnership of Carroll and Suarez. It would be too easy to assume that Dalglish will go with a flat 4-4-2 formation just because that’s what he did last season and with past teams. Last season he didn’t have the central or wide midfield options he has now and it’s this tactical flexibility and the variety of different types of players that may prove to be Liverpool’s greatest solution to this puzzle.

Looking at this squad it would be easy for Liverpool to play any variety of 4-5-1 (i.e. 4-2-3-1, 4-3-2-1, flat 4-5-1, 4-1-4-1), or to utilise both Carroll and Suarez in a 4-4-2 variant (i.e. 4-1-3-2, 4-1-2-1-2, Diamond 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1). However it would be just as easy to adapt a Barcelona style 4-3-3 formation, making use of Lucas, Adam and Aquilani and their passing abilities in a midfield trio similar but not as good as, Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets, with Suarez playing on the right in the “Messi” role and Downing on the left, offering crosses for Carroll in the centre of a front three.

With an almost infinite amount of possibilities for tactical style and formation, the overflowing midfield selection will undoubtedly become Liverpool’s greatest asset next season, with a team for every occasion being more than possible. Counter-attacking? Go 4-2-3-1 with Lucas and Adam sitting deep. All out attack? Go 4-3-3. Want to limit the oppositions passing ability? Go 4-3-2-1 with Gerrard and Aquilani behind the striker. For every team and for every system that will be used against Liverpool, the sheer depth of the squad should allow them to have a counter-system in place to give them the best chance possible.

This midfield puzzle will perhaps still persist for awhile, certainly until January when the next transfer window opens and Liverpool have the opportunity to drop more deadwood or bring in more variety, because the bottom line is some of the players in the squad still aren’t good enough. The youngsters will improve and some of the newer and older players will adapt to new systems. The strength in depth Liverpool have for midfield may perhaps protect weaknesses at the back if our pre-season ‘form’ continues into the new Premier League season (however with Reina in goal as opposed to Doni, we should see more clean sheets than 0-3’s).

The best way to solve this midfield puzzle however looks to be a combination of squad selection and tactical system. If Liverpool can nail down that right system to play against the opposition and pick the correct players, what appears to be a bloated midfield choice could become Liverpool’s greatest strength.

After all, if Liverpool can’t be certain who they’re going to pick week in and week out, how can their opponents ever hope to feel suitably prepared?

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Have Brazil lost their Samba Spirit?

The 2011 Copa America was supposed to be the tournament where Brazil made up for their shortcomings at the World Cup in South Africa last year, a tournament they were once again favourites to win but ended up slumping to defeat to eventual runners-up Netherlands. It was a match that is probably best remembered for the freak goal the Dutch scored after Wesley Sneijder swung a cross into the box only for Felipe Melo and Julio Cesar to both flap it and end up in the back of the net.

This year’s Copa America would prove to be as equally disappointed, especially for a team renowned for its attacking flair. With only one win in the tournament against minnows Ecuador, and with three draws in the competition to the likes of Venezuela (0-0), Paraguay (2-2) and Paraguay again in the knockout stage (0-0), it was no surprise to see Brazil miss all four of their penalties after showing a lack of killer instinct in front of goal all tournament.

It seems then that the Selecao have lost that attacking flair, the Samba spirit that Brazil were once famed for in football tournaments. The Brazil of today is very different to previous squads we’ve seen in recent years and a far cry from the great Brazil squads of the 1970’s not just in personnel but in ideology as well. Brazil has taken a defensive shift in the way they approach their matches, something that happened under previous coach Dunga and from the results of the Copa America, something which current coach Mano Menezes looks to continue with.
Then again looking at the team in its current state can we surmise that Brazil has just not developed the attacking talent it once blossomed with? Garrincha, Pele, Romario, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho are all famed for their fantastic attacking instincts and the magic they produced on the ball, but they were all the best of their generations. Nowadays the best Brazilian footballers seem to be the defenders, Dani Alves, Lucio, Lusiao, Thiago Silva, Maicon and David Luiz are just a few of the top quality defenders Brazil has to offer and are all currently playing at top clubs around the World. As far as the attack goes the quality players are limited, with only Neymar, Alexandre Pato and the midfielder Ganso the standout players of the strike force. But even then Neymar is somewhat unproven outside Brazil and his team mate Paulo Henrique Ganso is exactly the same yet both are made the centre of Brazil’s attack and creativity.

However the Brazilian coaches should have seen this coming. With Ronaldo’s and Ronaldinho’s retirement from the national team, Luis Fabiano stepping up but then returning to Brazil and seemingly ending his club career at 30. Former World Player of the Year Kaka, looked an impressive prospect but has looked a shadow of his former self ever since leaving AC Milan. The attacking options have become limited as time goes on and the country can’t produce the strength in depth to make up for it.

One of the last few great attacking players left in the Brazil squad is Robinho. He performs well every time he wears the shirt but even consistent players like him haven’t been enough to lift the team and produce results on the pitch, he can’t do it all alone.

We can’t just blame a lack of quality in depth, in time Neymar and Ganso will become even better than they are now and new players will come along to fill the voids left by past players. Instead maybe the Brazilian coaches need to evaluate their approach. They haven’t helped the team in the past few years. Dunga and Menezes showed a tactical inconsistency flicking between three up front, to one solitary striker to even a narrow 4-2-2-2, all of which meant players didn’t get used to playing within a system as a team. Then of course there’s the overly defensive nature of Dunga and Menezes which in comparison to Carlos Alberto Parreira (1994 World Cup winning coach) and Luiz Felipe Scolari (2002 World Cup winner) is a total change from the attacking philosophy which won them two World Cups in eight years.

The real question at hand is how are Brazil going to recapture the Samba spirit that has won them five World Cups? A managerial change isn’t the answer, Menezes’ men have disappointed a nation at the Copa America but it would be unwise to get rid of him so hastily especially with Brazil hosting the next World Cup in 2014. As they aren’t participating in qualifiers it might give Menezes a chance to let his younger players develop within the squad and nail down a tactical system he and his team are happy with.
Brazil are in a very difficult situation and the squad, coaching staff and the nation as a whole are going to have to look deep within to find the solution. The World Cup in 2014 could turn out to be a huge lift to the team and the players may be inspired to produce performances on the pitch to match the expectation of a nation that has lost its spirit.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Three Years in the Making – Liverpool finally have the missing players to step into the roles left empty from previous campaigns.

It was only 3 years ago when Liverpool FC were pushing Manchester United all the way for their first title since 1990, however it wasn’t meant to be and the Merseysider’s finished an disappointing second place, their best ever finish in the Premier League and with only two losses all season, a 2-1 defeat to Tottenham away and an embarrassing 2-0 away defeat to Middlesbrough. In spite of those results Liverpool racked up an impressive 86 points which at the time was the highest ever points tally for 2nd place.

Nowadays that incredible season for Liverpool seems a distant memory compared to recent performances, in the 2009/10 season they crashed down to 7th in the League and last season Liverpool flirted with relegation under former manager Roy Hodgson before being lifted to 6th under the leadership of club legend Kenny Dalglish and ending the season with hope for next year.

Under Dalglish Liverpool were a team transformed, players were producing the performances fans had remembered from that title challenging season in 2008/09 only a few years ago. He’s also gone about rebuilding another team that can start competing for honours and get back into the Premier League top four and more importantly, Champions League football.

With the new arrivals in January and this summer Dalglish has built himself another competitive Liverpool squad that can again start to think about making an impact at the top of the table. Suarez and Carroll have given Liverpool variety upfront, Suarez being a player who can drift out wide as well as cut inside from the wings and Carroll, a strong centre forward who’s good with the ball in the air and possesses a powerful left footed shot. Both have shown early signs of a good strike partnership and if time keeps allowing both of them to play together they can terrorise defences the way Toshack and Keegan did for Liverpool back in the 70s.

Then of course we have the summer arrivals of Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam and Stewart Downing.

It is unknown what role Henderson will play at the club but for £16m it would be foolish to see the youngster stuck on the bench, not to mention a waste of money. He was an important player for former club Sunderland, creating 39 more scoring chances than any other of his team mates. However playing a similar role to Gerrard may limit the youngster’s chances, but perhaps he’ll be pushed out on the right as an alternative to Dirk Kuyt.

Charlie Adam has seemingly been brought in to finally replace Xabi Alonso as a Deep Lying playmaker with Lucas Leiva taking on the defensive midfield responsibilities. Whilst at Blackpool, Adam was instrumental in creating opportunities with his crosses from deep, which could come in handy with the likes of Carroll waiting inside the box. The newest arrival, Stewart Downing, is the perfect fit on the left wing and can compliment Adam in the centre of midfield providing floating crosses for Carroll to head into goal.

It will ultimately be down to Kenny Dalglish to get all his new signings as well players like Raul Meireles, who impressed fans a lot last season, to gel together and begin playing the fluid, flowing football a lot of old school Liverpool fans are used to. With the plethora of midfield options it would seem likely that Dalglish play some sort of 4-5-1 variant, whether it be two holding players in a 4-2-3-1 or a more compact 4-3-2-1, with Suarez and Gerrard behind Carroll as the lone striker, and either Lucas or Adam as the holding midfielder flanked by a couple of wide men.

Either way Liverpool have a much more rounded squad than ever and can have no real complaints as far as squad depth goes, with reserve and academy players like Jay Spearing and John Flanagan showing some real progression and promise under Kenny Dalglish last season. It’s too soon to start suggesting Liverpool can win the League, but breaking into the top four would be a good start along with some good cup runs to go with league performances. The Liverpool squad now is certainly looking its best since that successful of season 2008/09 when they finished second.

If Liverpool and the fans are patient then maybe their first league title since 1990 will eventually arrive, but we have to be realistic as there are no easy fixes in football and it will take some time before Liverpool can ever be expect to be crowned champions.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

What now for Owen Hargreaves?

Let’s make no mistake about it at the 2006 World Cup Owen Hargreaves was England’s best player. Spurred on by booing England fans, Hargreaves gave great performance after great performance to turn the fans opinion of him and by the end of the tournament he was one of the few England players to come out with an enhanced reputation, voted England Player of the Year by fans and later earned a £17 million transfer to Manchester United.

It’s a shame then that since that move to Manchester United, Hargreaves has been blighted with injury problems that has restricted him to just six minutes of play against Wolves in the past two seasons for United. After seeing specialist after specialist and suffering setback after setback in training and reserves games, it seems the most promising holding midfielder to come out of England since the early days of Paul Scholes, will soon be without a club in the summer and unlikely to find anyone to take him on long term.

Once upon a time in an England shirt Hargreaves looked like a young talent, hidden away by the Germans of Bayern Munich, able to keep possession of the ball, command a midfield and pick out a pass as well as pick his runs at goal. In Germany at the 2006 World Cup, Hargreaves turned the opinions of all England fans when he showcased his talents and the reason why then manager Sven-Goran Eriksson selected this unknown entity to play for his country.

His arrival to the Premier League as a United player was supposed to only further Hargreaves’ brilliance, only for it to end up as a tragic series of unfortunate injuries, a list so long in fact that Hargreaves has been restricted to just 26 appearances since joining in 2007, meaning Hargreaves has cost United over 650k per appearance. A hefty price to pay for any player, never mind one that was still unproven playing in England.

When you look at United’s squad now, a player like Owen Hargreaves could have made a real difference. Right now United look lost without the likes of Giggs and Scholes playing in the centre of midfield, with Carrick having seemingly lost all the abilities United bought him for, Fletcher sidelined and Gibson inconsistent. United have craved a technical and creative midfielder all season long, a player exactly like the Hargreaves of England at the 2006 World Cup, unfortunately for Ferguson then, that the Hargreaves situation has turned out the way it has.

The question remains however, what next for Owen Hargreaves? Manchester United looks unlikely to give him a contract extension. In fact they’d be mad to give it to Hargreaves another chance knowing full well how injury prone the player is. For United it would be better to cut their costs this summer when Hargreaves’ contract runs out. However where can he go? The old adage is that no-one who leaves United goes on to do well. Knowing that for Hargreaves it might be best to take a leaf out of Dean Ashton’s book and retire early and go into coaching or something. I would be very surprised if any club worth the player’s time offered him a long term contract, especially knowing his medical history. He’s been out of the game for nearly two seasons and even the best of players will show signs of lack of match practice and not to mention fitness.

Only time will tell where and when Owen Hargreaves, former England player of the Year and perhaps the last of the truly great English holding midfielders, finally ends his traumatic time at Old Trafford and Manchester.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Capello's England Revolution

The game against Ghana last Tuesday night was supposed to be Capello’s “9-1 Revolution” which turned out to be nothing more than a realisation that Joleon Lescott couldn’t mark the far post, never mind Asamoah Gyan in the area. The City defender was so rigid inside the box it’s ironic he was a part of a 4-3-3 attacking formation concocted by Capello, a man known for his use of a rigid 4-4-2 formation.

Looking at the positives from England’s International’s against Wales and Ghana, the new 4-3-3 formation looks dangerous on the attack and tidy when out of possession and on the defensive. Ashley Young proved to be the real star against Ghana, cutting inside from the left wing a looking a real threat with his long range shots and crosses. Truthfully he should have scored in the first half and thoroughly deserved a goal when it looked like England would struggle to break through the Ghanaian defence. But thankfully Carroll burst through and got his name on the score sheet for the first time in an England shirt.

No one can really argue that the Ghana game wasn’t entertaining, but it seems that even with a new tactical system in place, England still look like a jaded side, still recovering from their World Cup beating.

The new system should in theory offer a new depth to the attack, after all three attackers are better than two. However with Carroll up front the England team got too comfortable hoofing the ball into the box, hoping he’d get a touch. There were some genuine moments of flowing football when Stuart Downing managed to free Andy Carroll space in the box for him to strike it clean for England’s goal.

Milner and Wilshere worked a treat as part of the midfield trio, with Wilshere playing that holding role Capello is so fond of, linking the defence and midfield whilst at the same time joining in on the attack. Man City’s James Milner also managed to play a few decent crosses and passes but didn’t look his best and was slightly anonymous in an unfamiliar role compared to playing for club.

The main strength to Capello’s new 4-3-3 is the flexibility and creativity the system offers, especially compared to the rigid 4-4-2 he was so desperate to use in South Africa. With creative players such as Wilshere, Gerrard and Ashley Young in your squad, you would expect more fluency to an England side. Fabio Capello stifled that creativity during the World Cup but seems to have had a change of minds, much like with the Captaincy and unleashed the flair players England actually has at its disposal. With the potential of a front attacking 3 including the likes Young, Walcott and any one of Rooney, Bent or Defoe, there’s plenty of flair, pace and attacking creativity available to Capello that could not be unleashed whilst constrained in such a disciplined system.

The problem is however, when you don’t have the flair players at your disposal, England will struggle under this new formation and thankfully Capello recognised that last night at changed to his trusty 4-4-2 half way into the second half, keeping the width and attacking pace yet allowing Ashley Young and free roaming role behind Defoe, keeping a flair element to the team. It was at this time when England switched formation however, that Ghana really started to press forward and the 2 in the middle of England’s midfield proved not to be enough when Gyan finally managed to break through the England lines.

For Capello and England the 4-3-3 formation has proved to be a success, with Jack Wilshere looking comfortable and playing as good for England as he does for Arsenal, and the pace of Young and Bent being unleashed in the attack. It would be interesting if Capello continues on playing the formation when it comes to the big games if we qualify for the Euro Cup in 2012, considering how conservative he can be when it comes to the big games. Before the Ghana game, Capello called his new system the “9-1 Revolution,” implying the whole team offers service to the solitary striker. Based on the past two performances, this revolution hasn’t quite succeeded yet.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Is David Moyes losing Patience?

Last weekend saw two teams managed by Glaswegians, Owen Coyle and David Moyes, unfortunately only one team turned up with the typical Scottish fight, pride and passion. That team was Bolton who smashed Everton 2-0 to force the Toffees into a potential relegation battle. One managed looked proud and inspired as his squad played a good looking game of Football for 90 minutes. The other looked a jaded character, fed up and ready for the coach trip home.

That man was David Moyes and after nearly nine years at Everton you have to wonder whether he can take a team that was once aspiring to European Football and a fourth place finish, any further. Without a doubt David Moyes has proved himself a more than competent manage with many Everton fans I’m sure, regarding him as World Class. Unfortunately for Moyes several cracks have begun to show around Goodison Park which has seen a traditionally competitive team slip down the table over the years. Now they sit just three points above the relegation zone in 13th.

It would be easy to blame David Moyes but a closer look at Everton’s team and the club setup tells a chilling tale which would suggest their manager is a miracle maker. Last weekend Moyes admitted "I've thought we were in a relegation battle since the third weekend of the season." When you take a look at the first team squad you can understand why.

With no funding available to him at the beginning of the season, the big signing for Everton and Moyes was Jermaine Beckford. The ex-Leeds hitman who banged in goal after goal to help Leeds soar up the table, then he hit a dreadful goal drought which saw the fans and players lose confidence and patience in the lad. This year it has clearly been a struggle for him to adapt to the Premier League after the colossal jump from League 1.

However Beckford was supposed to be the man to cover for the ever-so-fragile Louis Saha, another great goal scorer but you can’t guarantee his fitness from one week to the next and its hurt Everton in the one place they can’t afford to strengthen and that’s up front. This season Tim Cahill and Marouane Fellaini have been drafted in as makeshift strikers on so many occasions, it’s no surprise then that between them they’ve bagged 10 league goals, the same amount that Saha and Beckford have scored between them.

The squad however isn’t just in dire need of rebuilding up front, all over the pitch there are problems for Everton. Mikel Arleta looks like a shadow of his former self from last season, yes he’s had his injuries, but when he’s had a good run of games he hasn’t performed like everyone knows he can. It may just be that seeing Spain win the European Championship and the World Cup without him being involved, may just be getting to him a little this season, especially as the media have questioned his exclusion from the Spain squads and as a player he must be asking questions of himself as well.

Then of course there’s Jack Rodwell, the onetime future of England who seems to be fighting fitness at the moment as well as a regular place in the Everton midfield. In contrast to the rapid rise of Jack Wilshere this season it seems Rodwell isn’t improving as quickly as Moyes, and Everton, had hoped for. If anything he’s stalled and that big money move may be a while off just yet.

Whilst Everton may be seemingly suffering from a lack of squad depth at the moment they have found a hidden gem this season with Seamus Coleman, who’s made his way up the Everton ranks for a place at right back and occasionally as winger, smashing five league goals in along his way. But it will take a lot more than one really in form player to turn the sinking Merseyside outfit around.

Their next three games are crucial though, with Chelsea in the FA Cup this weekend a win could lift spirits for their upcoming league games. Everton then take on Sunderland at home, a game that ended up 2-2 at the Stadium of Light and since Sunderland have dipped a little form-wise, Everton can expect a hard slog. Then it’s a trip up to Newcastle who will be looking to definitely take all three points from Everton, especially after the 1-0 win for the Toon earlier this season, thanks to a Ben Arfa wonder strike. It’s a tough run of games for sure.

It will be very interesting to see where Everton end up at the end of the season, relegation would seem unlikely with the few quality players in the squad. There are certainly 7 worse teams below them in the league right now, but with Moyes losing faith in the squad and the club not giving funds to strengthen the team, it will be interesting to see if Moyes decides to stay on as manager at Everton. After all he has led them to a fourth place finish and the last four years he’s guided them to top half and UEFA Cup finishes. Either way Everton Chairman Bill Kenwright should do all within his power to keep Moyes on and provide them the funds he badly needs and wants to strengthen a squad that not too long ago was a constant threat to 4th place. But at the minute it seems unlikely with no new plans for a stadium and the stadium-share with Liverpool has been thrown out window for a long time.

It is a shame however to see a decent top-half of the table club struggle as much as Everton this season and with Liverpool slipping away as a powerhouse within English Football, it seems these days both Merseyside clubs have lost the standing within the Premier League as teams to be respected.

Fernando Torres we loved you so...

His armband said he was a red, Torres, Torres. You’ll never walk alone it said, Torres, Torres. The ever endearing song the Kop used to belt out at its much loved striking hero, Fernando Torres, for the best part of four years summed up everything the fans thought of this great Anfield legend and great Liverpool number 9.

The former Liverpool number 9 was once simply adored by the fans for all his time at the club despite the fact that for the last two and half years almost the Spanish striker has been badly out of form as the club’s position and stature in the Premier League has plummeted. It seemed that even the arrival of another Anfield legend in Kenny Dalglish couldn’t convince El Nino to stay on and play for the club he once confessed to loving as he grew up as a child.

Fernando Torres for a time was the badly needed striker that could win Liverpool the title. In his first season he scored over 20 goals for Liverpool, a feat many Kop strikers at the time were struggling to accomplish. He linked up fantastically with the likes of Gerrard, Xabi Alonso, Mascherano and even Dirk Kuyt. But as Alonso left for Real Madrid and Mascherano for Barcelona, Liverpool have looked like a shadow of their former selves and the “will he won’t he” sagas floating around Torres come every transfer window since his arrival seemed to test his seemingly unending loyalty to the club.

However his recent switch to the “Pride of London” Chelsea F.C. seems to reinforce what everyone thinks lately, that there’s no loyalty in football anymore. Many Liverpool supporters seemed to think Torres would never leave the club, that his contract was somehow like a marriage certificate, he couldn’t leave, it wouldn’t be allowed. The problem here lies in the notion of loyalty that hangs around Liverpool. The saying around Anfield is “no one is bigger than the club” and to ask for a transfer or go to a rival club is something that a Liverpool player simply does not do. Liverpool let’s go of you, not the other way round.

The truth is however, loyalty in Football probably doesn’t exist. The idea that Torres is a lifelong Liverpool fan has probably been taken too far by PR people and Liverpool fans. The sad, sad truth is that Torres’ heart probably never lied with Liverpool. His first love is and always will be Athletico Madrid and I’d dare say Torres still remains fiercely loyal to the club and probably the reason why he did not return to Spain to go to Real Madrid or Barcelona. Instead he chose Chelsea, and for a man who has won the European Cup and the World Cup, he’ll most likely want to win a League title at some point. With Chelsea it is more likely to happen unfortunately.

In reality Chelsea is the only club big enough and rich enough to afford El Nino and for Liverpool and for Torres himself, it was probably the right deal. To put it into context, Chelsea have paid £50million for a player that has been out of form for the past two years, injury prone and out of sorts. Torres will have to start scoring quickly and consistently for the London club otherwise he’ll quickly look like another expensive flop, another Shevchenko. Chelsea will also have to adapt their strategy for a striker who has expressed how he prefers to be the lone target man, in a team that combines the attacking trio of Drogba, Anelka and Malouda. Then of course there’s club captain, John Terry, who has a dislike for the Spaniard, which many Liverpool and Chelsea fans will know has a long history behind it.

As Torres leaves as Liverpool fans we have to look at the future. Luis Suarez made his debut against Stoke in good fashion, nicking a tidy goal, complete with nimble footwork and placement. Let’s ignore the fact it was unlucky the defender couldn’t clear it off the line quicker because even coming from the Dutch league, Suarez has more Van Nistelroy about him rather than another Afonso Alves. Then of course there’s the Andy Carroll, a true lad in every sense of the word, who jets off to Dubai to get over injury and gets smashed on 30 Jagerbombs only to aggravate his injury further by falling off a bar stool. His ability may be under scrutiny at the moment but at least the Liverpool Christmas parties will be significantly better.

At the end of the day Liverpool have lost one legend yet gained to promising talents, that potentially can link up together incredibly well and it will be the first time for a fair few years that the Merseyside club will have two damn good strikers in the team. Dalglish loves his striking duos and maybe just maybe, as Liverpool players we may finally see a striker play up front, rather than out wide and out of position. After all, that’s all we really want.

At the end of the day though, good luck to Torres at Chelsea, he may no longer be a Liverpool player but I’m sure he’ll receive a warm reception from Liverpool fans who still sing him a song: Fernando Torres! Terry’s bit on the side!

Are there enough English managers in Football’s Top Flight?

The number 4 is a very crucial number that sums up everything wrong about English football at the minute. Forget the influx of foreign players or even foreign owners that don’t know anything about the game or how to run a football club. Instead take some time to consider how many managers in the Premier League are actually English? The answer is of course just 4; Ian Holloway, Harry Redknapp, Steve Bruce and Alan Pardew. Of course there are plenty more in the lower leagues, but out of 20 Premier League clubs only 1/5 are actually English. This is a horrendous amount when put into perspective against the other major leagues of Italy – 18 Italian managers out of 20, Germany – 16 German managers out of 18 and Spain – 16 Spanish managers out of 20.

Some may argue that the amount of domestic managers is irrelevant when the Premier League is the best in the World; whilst I tend to agree you have to look at the evidence that suggests otherwise. The recent Ballon D’or award boiled down to a final three of Iniesta, Xavi and eventual winner Messi, all of whom play in the La Liga and play for Barcelona, managed by the Spaniard Pep Guardiola. The best manager of the year award went to Real Madrid’s Jose Mourinho and even the International Federation of Football History and Statistics, boasts that Spain has the best domestic league in the World, with the Premier League in second place.

It’s not just a lack of managers or coaches in the Premier League however, it’s a severe lack of coaches across the entirety of England. Before the World Cup only 2769 English coaches held a UEFA Pro Licence, which allows you to manage in the country’s top flight on a permanent basis and allows you to manage in the Champions League. Germany had 34,970, Italy 29,420, Spain 23,995, and even France had 17,000. The figures show a severe lack of depth within the English coaching system which affects the overall quality of a countries youth development and national team performance. The England National team for instance haven’t reached a final since 1966; Spain, Germany, France and Italy however, have been in a combined 8 finals since 1998 in the World Cup and Euro Cup.

With Fabio Capello to step down after the 2012 Euro Cup, the FA have already stated their intention to appoint an Englishman as manager of England, a wild idea considering the last one was Steve McClaren, but the past most successful England managers have been Sir Bobby Robson and Sir Alf Ramsey, both of which were English, one of the them won us the World Cup.

The question is however which current English managers in the Premier League would take the England job and who would have success? Harry Redknapp is the obvious candidate and many wanted his appointment after the World Cup in South Africa last year, but would he take it now Spurs are becoming a dominant force in the League? Have Ian Holloway and Steve Bruce got the credentials or experience to even warrant being considered? Is Alan Pardew even worth mentioning? Then of course there’s the unemployed Roy Hodgson, probably one the most successful English managers without a job at the minute, but would he be welcomed as the next England manager?

Whoever it ends up being, we should wish them success and give them our support. Because with the way the Premier League is going at its current rate, English managers are going to be as hard to come by as decent English players in an import heavy league.

It would perhaps be of benefit to the ‘English’ way of playing football if more Englishmen were given chance to manage the bigger clubs in England, instead of owners getting managers who’ve had success abroad. However before that happens there has to be a drastic improvement on the standard of coaching and that begins at youth level. The quality of youth coaching is detrimental to the development of our national team and the development of coaches themselves, just look at Germany for proof.

English coaches need to improve drastically in order to even stand a chance of getting a Premier League job and for the England team to stand a chance of winning another major tournament. It’s a necessity though to create coaches that think beyond hoofing the ball 60m up towards Peter Crouch or Wayne Rooney otherwise the England team is going to continue to suffer the embarrassment that met them in South Africa over and over again.

As of right now we’re nowhere near solving the problem. The FA are striving to improve their coaching systems and are currently looking for more people to step into football coaching, focusing on youth development and working their way upwards. But for now all we can do is hope that the number of English Premier League managers begins to grow, we’ve fallen way behind other countries and whilst our clubs may continue to do really way, we need to consider the future of our National team for our country’s pride which has taken a substantial hit over the years.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Can King Kenny stabilise Liverpool?

After a lot of pre-match hype following the sacking of Roy Hodgson and Anfield legend Kenny Dalglish stepping in to the end of the season, anticipation was high for the 3rd round FA Cup tie against North-West rivals Manchester United at Old Trafford, but the end result was nothing unexpected it seemed.

Whilst ‘King Kenny’ took charge of his first match as Liverpool manager since 1991, he could only look on in disbelief as two first-half decisions went against his team. Liverpool fans showed their anger as Howard Webb gave Man United a penalty inside the first minute that was converted by Ryan Giggs, but as much as they argue that it wasn’t a penalty, Daniel Agger shouldn’t be flicking his leg out at Berbatov whilst inside the box and Howard Webb was helpless to award a penalty. The second decision to give a red card to Steven Gerrard for his challenge on Michael Carrick after 31 minutes was duly deserved. You can’t go two footed into challenges in the modern game and whilst Gerrard isn’t the recklessly dangerous type, it isn’t the first two footed tackle he’s put in his career but as a captain he should be setting a better example when his side’s down 1-0, without further extending the handicap.

The second half Liverpool came out better, taking Meireles off for Shelvey who was prepared to work for the ball and proved to be one of the most dynamic players on the pitch along with Martin Kelly at Right Back. Both players put in extremely promising performances with Kelly looking good all down the right wing, overlapping with Dirk Kuyt to whip in a good cross to the near the post only for Babel to pull it wide. Shelvey continuously proved a nuisance to the United players, robbing Anderson in the midfield to start a good counter-attacking move, to then go on and pick Rafael’s pocket on the wing to set up Babel for a disappointing effort on goal.

Looking at Sunday’s performance against United though, it’s clear to see that Dalglish is almost immediately having a positive effect on the team. The switch from Roy Hodgson’s rigid 4-4-2 formation back to the fluid 4-2-3-1 system Liverpool used to play, with Gerrard behind the striker. It gave some much needed freedom to the skipper and some fluidity to the team’s attacking movement that was missing under Hodgson’s system. Some of the other players that hadn’t been given much of an opportunity under Roy seemed to shine with Dalglish at the helm, Ryan Babel in particular looked like a different player, providing a deft first touch on the left wing and constantly cutting inside to attack, only to often find himself dribbling into trouble against the United defence.

Other changes at Anfield, including the appointment of Steve Clarke, Jose Mourinho’s former assistant manager and new Liverpool First Team coach should be seen as encouraging news. During his first spell as Liverpool manager, Dalglish played attractive, attacking football and get the ball firmly on the ground. No one will be happier if Dalglish continues this tradition than Fernando Torres who looked a frustrated figure under Hodgson’s direct, long ball game. It has been a rough season for Torres so far, with poor performances at last year’s World Cup and he’s struggled to find consistent form all season for Liverpool, but hopefully the appointment of Dalglish will give the striker some hope. After all, Gerrard’s red card means he misses the next three league games, and with a lack of real stars in the squad at the moment, Dalglish will be looking to the Spaniard to motivate his squad into winning form.

With Liverpool now having no chance of winning any domestic silverware Dalglish will be looking towards the Premier League and securing a decent finish for next season, with the prospect of Champions League football looking out of the question, it leaves just Europa League to play for, which may not sound like much but not achieving any European football at all will be the biggest disappointment both for club moral and financial status.

If Dalglish is to achieve a decent League position however he must strengthen a woefully inadequate squad left behind by Rafa Benitez, and not sufficiently improved upon by Hodgson. Whilst Fabio Aurelio had a good time against United, the Brazilian’s frailties are well known, a general lack of pace and width however are the squad’s main problems and a striker of sufficient flair to match the ability of Fernando Torres would be a great benefit to Liverpool’s attacking threat. An adequate player to match the contribution that Xabi Alonso made is also still required, with Lucas Leiva’s ability on the ball still in doubt and Christian Poulsen failing to impress the Kop.

However the real question still remaining is who will take over on a permanent basis as the Liverpool manager. Anyone brave enough to take on the job will have to contend with an expectant fan base and boardroom that still remains an unknown quantity as far as financial freedom is concerned. It does seem however that with John W Henry as the new owner and Dalglish at the helm, some stability will return to a once great football club. But the future of Liverpool FC still remains in doubt, but there is hope which brings optimism. It will be Liverpool’s next match away at Blackpool however that may just define how the rest of Liverpool’s season goes.

Let’s just hope that all goes well for Dalglish and that his reputation as a great Anfield legend remains intact after what will most definitely prove to be his toughest job in football yet.

Michael Smith