Saturday, July 21, 2012

United Midfield Musings

Copied and paste an article from Daniel Harris (who wrote On The Road ), an excellent read ..

In the first chapter of Genesis, God tells mankind (yes, I know) to go out and conquer the world, and ever since (yes, I know), we’ve been gripped by a paranoid, neurotic desire to understand everything. But however hard we try, it’s simply not possible: whether its spontaneous combustion, kicks in snooker, or red trousers, cardigans and fascinators, some things will forever lie beyond human comprehension.
There are some things, though – and then there’s Manchester United’s midfield. After signing Owen Hargreaves in July 2007, a player legendary knee-botherer Richard Steadman described as having the worst knobblies he’d ever seen, Alex Ferguson spent five whole years refusing to recruit reinforcements.
At times – painful, aggravating, despondent times – United’s eleven has interpreted the term “midfield” in the most literal possible sense, that being a lump of grass right in its very centre. Outsiders might say that United supporters are spoiled, insiders that it’s important to maintain standards. When I began my career, we had Norman Whiteside and Bryan Robson, who were irreplaceable – until they were replaced while still at the club by Paul Ince, who was irreplaceable – until he was replaced while still at the club by Roy Keane. Soon after, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt came through, and ten years ago yesterday, United augmented perhaps the finest foursome of all-time with Juan Sebastian Veron, to be later accused of possessing more genius than any team could reasonably accommodate. How far we done fell!

The problem in the first instance was the lack of obvious replacement for Keane. Praised for the ranting and intimidation usually euphemised as on-pitch leadership, this obscures the crucial element brought to the team by him and his direct predecessors: excellence that was shocking in its consistency.
So instead United made do, midfield composition regressing faster than Charlie Gordon. All of a sudden, it could contain up to any three of Fortune, Kleberson, Djemba-Djemba, Smith and Phil Neville, also evidencing a lack of managerial concentration – at least on things listed in the job description.
And all the while, the Paul Scholes problem grew. Now, before you spontaneously combust in outrage, let me explain the paradox (note: spontaneous combustion in humans is a myth, not something unexplained). Old Scholes is still better than almost everyone, so demands inclusion. And yet old Scholes also struggles to influence the biggest games, and deprives of a spot a player more likely to improve.
Anderson, for example, or Godot as he’s known in the dressing room. United’s equivalent of Arsenal, every coming season is definitely going to be his, until it isn’t. This isn’t actually all his fault. Aside from being inferior to Scholes, which is so of the overwhelming majority of players ever to have existed, he’s also suffered more than most at the hands of the Fergie selection tombola – almost every time he’s had a sustained run of games, he’s done well. But even so, when he and Cleverley were attracting praise at the start of last season – some of it legitimate – the manner in which opposition players sauntered between them didn’t indicate a viable partnership.
And then there are the Glazers, leeching fingers in our pockets at every turn; but even this doesn’t fully explain the situation. Ok, there’s no chance United’ll chuck however many dead presidents it takes to assuage Daniel Levy’s ego and make him look hard in front of Joe Lewis, but missing out on Luka Modric ain’t no thing – there’s something horribly inelegant about snatching a player developed elsewhere as soon as he reaches requisite standard. What’s really odd, though, is the number of players bought who either aren’t midfielders, aren’t that good, or weren’t that necessary.
After Ronaldo left, United signed Antonio Valencia, a decent player but not a star. No doubt that sentence is causing consternation, as he’s popular and seems nicer that your average ftbllr, but it’s true. Had United not bought him, I’m certain red teeth would’ve remained unnashed regardless of what he’d done elsewhere, and he doesn’t compare to the best wingers of the Fergie era. Also that summer, Gabriel Obertan and Mame Biram Diouf turned up.

The following January, United bought Chris Smalling, and Javier Hernandez, Bebe and Anders Lindergaard in the close-season. Smalling is already an exceptional defender, and Hernandez a similarly inspired purchase; fair enough; and our pooled imaginations probably couldn’t muster the wild to guess what Bebe was really about. Then, last summer, they signed Phil Jones, whose situation was similar to that of Smalling – a player wanted by a rival and deemed too talented to miss out on – David De Gea, and Ashley Young.
So United have spent in the region of £22.5m on goalkeepers and roughly £43.4m on wingers – or “wingers” – and decided that both were more important than the blokes most regularly involved in the game. Why?
Well, after the last raft of midfield signings, United ended up with a version of what tactics charmers call a broken team: some players defend and some try to score, but no one knits those two elements together, and there’s no discernible style. To an extent, United were a victim of circumstance: Hargreaves and Anderson, their best midfield combination, were frequently injured. They also had a reliable goalkeeper and three exceptional defenders, so didn’t concede many goals, and Ronaldo, who scored in almost every game. That being the case, Carrick and Scholes in midfield, or whoever in midfield, was pretty much good enough.
Except that it wasn’t, overrun at Anfield in consecutive and unable to muster a kick against Barcelona in 2009, in addition to other minor heres and theres. But generally, this only tended to happen against the better sides, against whom you tend to need better players.
So perhaps because they’re out of reach, instead, Fergie built a squad with attacking variety, complementary players with ability, though not outstanding, absolutely discernible. In addition, he knows that fitness – and form, in most cases – are unreliable, thus not spending the entirety of a limited budget on a single player makes some sort of sense, even if it doesn’t make for the most grooved, orgasmic football.

The policy is, most likely, a product of the 2006/07 season. With a small squad and obvious first eleven, the team effectively picked itself, consistently producing thrilling beauty until February and intermittently until April – but ultimately, it limped over the line in the league, was decimated by injury by the European semi, and exhausted for the Cup final.
Much as I despise its opportunity cost, the consequent squad-building is exactly why United could stay with City last season – a selection of strikers with different abilities, and the same in wide positions. Take Ashley Young, for example; his arrival disappointed every Red I know, and even in that context, they were all still underwhelmed by his contribution. But it’s also the case that in a single crucial week, he first created an injury-time winner at Norwich, then provided another and scored a couple himself to arrange a scarcely believable larceny at Spurs, United’s embarrassing inferiority the precise consequence of a missing midfield.
Of course, the ruse fails when entire seasons come down to individual games against other decent outfits. The European losses to Barcelona could be almost ignored – theirs is possibly the best midfield of all-time, and comprises players contracted to them from a very young age. But the home defeat to Chelsea in 2010 and the collapse in the Bayern Munich games either side of it ought to have been easily avoided.

Which brings us to last season: in the three games that cost the title, the lack of proper midfield was decisive. At Wigan, the division’s form team, United were outrun and overrun for the full ninety minutes. Then, against Everton, though the defence was culpable for the late goals conceded, proper midfield protection would have prevented the opposition getting anywhere near.
And lastly, against City, a squad which suffered from problem the very opposite of United’s: an admittedly handy first eleven, with ropey replacements at the back and few attacking options. In the first derby of the season, United started relatively well, but a lack of midfield class and mobility left them unable to penetrate, despite territorial supremacy and a greater share of possession. A few months later, United spent the first ten minutes of the Cup game scarcely able to finagle a touch of the ball, before scoring on the break and benefitting from a red card immediately afterwards – and even then, they almost contrived to lose the advantage. Finally, and most glaringly of all, comes the return league fixture; the team Fergie felt compelled to select couldn’t have announced City’s midfield superiority any more submissively had it taken to the field in red, white and black gimp suits.
But looking forward to 2012/13, things might be changing. A midfielder has now been signed, and though Nick Powell probably won’t play much part, it remains a cause for celebration. Shinji Kagawa has arrived too, introduced yesterday as a support striking false ten trequartista. I say introduced because there’s always the possibility he’ll be deployed everywhere but there, but let’s just assume for a second.
That leaves Carrick and Cleverley as the two most likely to accompany him, the former in front of the back four in a role similar to that played by Busquets, and the other a prompting touch player, similar to Xavi. Obviously it’s the roles rather than the abilities that correlate, but the technique, vision and composure of all three might – might – supply the control that’s been so severely lacking. And, though heritage and sensibility tell us that it’s at least one hard bastard short, for the first time in a long time, I think I might just understand.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Football and Administration

Reading about the recent decline on Rangers FC into the lower tiers of Scottish football makes me sad.
True, I'm not a Celtic supporter but watching former European great (54 Scottish League titles, winning previous European Cup Winners Cup) decline into a club that is now asking for permission to play in the Scottish League is depressing.
Whther the other Scottish teams like it or not, Rangers have to stay in the SPL.
Why else would anyone watch the SPL if there are no more Old Firm derbies. The SPL is rubbish enough already ..
Figures of debt upto £134M are being quoted in recent papers and are now awaiting judgement from the SFL regarding their future status.

This is not a first time that famous club has gone into administration and liquidation, Southampton and Leeds in '08, Crystal Palace and Portsmouth in 2010 (after their FA Cup success) have all recently fallen into the taxman / banks hands when funds are not properly managed and spending far and beyond their means with the hope of retaining premier league / championship status.

Essentially, players are sold and moved on as assets and to remove high wage bills and clubs start prostituting themselves for a rich Arab oil merchant or a wealthy Malaysian business man to purchase the club in order to settle debts + preserve league status.
I find this debt and administration very hard to believe.
True, PL footballers are paid more than ever and costs of running a football club is high BUT if you consider parachute payments from TV rights (£35M) PLUS sponsorship / Barclays not to mention individual sponsorship, it is hard to fathom how the seasonal budget can be blown so drastically.

In the end, it is the fans that suffer. Footballers are mercenaries and will leave to the highest bidder as playing football is only a job to them. Fans are left with the tatters of a former great team or the memories of league status.

Bringing back football chat ..

Had a look at my last post more than 4 years (before EURO '08).

England still disappointed at a major international tournament ..
Some things never change.

Thought I'ld restart the Forever Football blog, AGAIN.

Gives us a chance to rant and discuss football matters in this difficult period for football fans, EUROs just finished, Premier League more than 1 month away.
PLUS, gives Eric a chance to upload more recent photos of naked / topless MALE footballers and erection style celebration of Arsenal footballers, STEAM indeed ..

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Rafa Running Out Of Time ?

First things first, congratulations to Rafa Benitez and Liverpool for securing an improbable but convincing victory over the aristocrats of Italian football, Internazionale who has swept all before them in the Serie A. Tactical genius or very, very lucky? Credit has to be given when its due to Benitez whose side came out of the blocks early to harass and put pressure on the Serie A side who unashamedly were playing for draw.

Liverpool on Tuesday looked nothing like the side who were knocked out by Barnsley, displaying attacking intent and vigor and finding spaces for the midfield and the front two to attack. Replacing Babel with J. Pennant when Benayoun probably looked like the better option when it was still deadlocked at 0-0 with Inter a man short, I thought surely this tactical blunder was going to bite Rafa in the ass but little did I know (with my couch and Championship Manager knowledge) that Rafa knows best when Pennant set up both goals.

Benitez is a good man with some impeccable, even brilliant qualities, but there are also flaws which make it increasingly improbable that even that convincing victory, will do much more than prolong what is becoming an agony. Kudos to fans for making a stand against the Americans Gillett and Hicks and the 5000 club (where by every member would commit GBP $10,000) but I feel its only a matter of time before Rafa would be another high-profile casualty in the cruel world managing top-flight Premier League teams.

Certainly, Benitez should know better than most the folly of believing his Champions League triumph in Istanbul still bestows the job security of a senior civil servant. Yet still he clings to a remarkable but ageing victory, all the time failing to grasp that football, no more than any other competitive business, has the notion 'you are only as good as your last match in charge'.

No, the game will always be concerned with today and tomorrow, a truth the Liverpool manager ignored when he declared, on the day he lost to Barnsley: "I don't know too many managers who have won the European Cup." As a fellow Spaniard, he among all people should remember Vincente Del Bosque who even after winning the UEFA Champions League not once but TWICE was still sacked the following season.

The harsh truth is that Benitez, with ever diminishing success, appears to have been attempting to impose his own increasingly bizarre version of reality. The more emphatic he becomes in his self-belief, the further his team seems to slip away. But then let's be honest. Rafa is not building a team. What he has been quietly organizing is an assortment, a series of options. An endless jigsaw puzzle if you will.
Benitez believes in the ever shifting jigsaw game. He has made rotation a personal creed, supported by nothing more substantial than a belief in his own powers to play the master puppeteer. The result was shocking against Barnsley. It ran far deeper than the unrest of the fans. The body language of the team announced dismay even before Jamie Carragher, a bulwark of central defence who was recently asked to play at right-back, went public with his belief that the team is just not good enough to win the title.

Hearing the comments of the zealous Carragher brought a specially biting sadness for anyone who was around on that Istanbul dawn when Benitez so impressively outlined his plans for Liverpool's future.

This constant rotation and 'tinkering' has done nothing of which has encouraged the fundamental ambition of every great manager – a sense of growth.

Benitez's predecessor Bill Shankly never won a European Cup but he did lay down the principles of an empire which, at one point, gathered it in as though it was not a challenge but a right.

Shankly signed players like St John and Yeats and Hughes and nurtured players like Tommy Smith and made them gods. Benitez doesn't make gods – he makes squad members and bench warmers to be deployed when the fancy takes him.

He has been trying to win while ignoring the most basic aspect of building a winning team. However many winners of Europe's top prize Benitez does know, he has clearly failed to see an instinct that links them all, from Sir Matt Busby and Jock Stein to Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho..

The problem is increasingly plain. There has been no development. Some tactical triumphs, no doubt. But no evolution. Benitez juggles his players without the merest acknowledgement of another school of thought, which points out that every great team has thrived on familiarity and mutual respect in the dressing room.

When Sir Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles became the only Englishmen to win both the World Cup and European Cup (in the space of two years), they did it while playing more than 60 games a season, most often on pitches which the modern player would dismiss as so many ploughed fields. Shankly made a change in his team as a last resort rather than a first instinct. He won a title with only 13 players.

Yes, we know times change, along with diets and scientific input and equipment, but some things are eternal.

One of them is the need of a professional footballer to feel secure in his role – and his ability. That can only be reinforced by seeing his name on the team sheet. Fighters fight and footballers play football, even if they are rich beyond most dreams.

Liverpool now have to count the consequences. Most discouragingly, they include the breaking voice of Jamie Carragher and his manager's desperate belief that a great club once familiar with serial success can be sustained by not much more than an old deposit made in the bank of Istanbul.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

"A Gift from Heaven"

My goodness... this just has to be shared. They didn't show this game (along with all the other games this midweek) in Singapore. I read the match reports - all raving about that goal (direct link).

Truly. Amazed.

Link to a clearer version here.