Monthly Archives: December 2013

A World Cup Without Them

zlatanWe are now 164 days away from the opening ceremony of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, and with almost every league hunkered down for a Christmas break (with the exception of the Barmy Brits… but that’s a discussion for another post), we can start to look towards June in what should be an epic tournament.

Why epic? When you look at the teams that have qualified for Brazil 2014, there isn’t a nation that makes you think, “They shouldn’t be there”.  Conversely, I can’t think of a team that, based on recent form, has been hard done by not qualifying.   That means that all the past champions will be going, all the heavy hitters and nearly men (Dutchies, I’m looking at you).

I was recently reminded that, despite appearing in three World Cups, the great Zico had never won the thing.  That’s gotta hurt, but he’s not alone.  In fact, the list of players who have never lifted the Jules Rimet trophy is extensive.  Think about it: Sindelar, Puskas, Di Stefano, Fontaine, Eusebio, Cruyff, Platini, Stoichkov, Baggio, Maldini, Figo… none of them have ever won the biggest tournament on the planet.   It’s probably as good as any argument that football is won and lost as a team, at least internationally.

But you can’t win the Coupe du Monde if you don’t get to go in the first place.  Some major marquee players won’t be appearing in Brazil because they and their compatriots couldn’t get it done.  Here are the top 10 players staying home in June:

Alaba: still only 21

Alaba: still only 21

10) David Alaba (AUT) — Is he a fullback? Is he a midfielder? All we know is that the Austrian wunderkind will be off the pitch, while  just about every other one of his Bayern Munich teammates will be in Brazil (except for Claudio Pizarro).  Austria actually held their own in qualifying , but were done in by double losses to Germany and then to Sweden on the penultimate match day.  No worries though, as Austria’s youngest-ever Player of the Year is only 21 years old, so he’ll have a few more shots at it.

Serbs have to sit out

Serbs have to sit out

9) Branislav Ivanovic (SER) — Speaking of fullbacks, pundits are calling Ivanovic the best right back in the world right now.   His is the first name on Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea team sheet, and he is a menace in attack and defence.  But after starting with a 1-1-3 record in qualifying, the Serbians were pretty much doomed, even though ultra-rivals Croatia finished with two losses.  The Croats went through, which has to sting more than a little.

Ta ra, Turan...

Ta ra, Turan…

8) Arda Turan (TUR) — There was a time when Turkey’s national football team was filled with German-born Bundesliga players who were considered too much Türken and not enough Deutsch.  The DFB has become far more progressive — look at Germany’s multicultural line-up now — and Turkish football has come into its own, with Turkish-born players staying in the Superlig.  The one notable exception is Arda Turan, the tough winger who has helped put Atlético Madrid in the running for its first Liga title in 18 years.  The good news for the Atleti?  Turan will be able to rest up this summer before they sell him off to a bigger club.  Hooray.

Trying to read the name on his kit…

7) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (GAB) — Like many African players, Aubameyang was born in France, but decided to represent the nation of his parents.   Too bad.  The young Gabonese had a high enough profile at St. Etienne, before lighting up the Bundesliga with Dortmund this season, to find a place on a troubled French squad.  Instead, he has become the African version of Dimitar Berbatov playing for Bulgaria, a great player on a team that will do nothing.   It’s just as well: that name is a nightmare for the kit makers.

DAMN YOU, ARMENIA!!!

DAMN YOU, ARMENIA!!!

6) Petr Cech (CZE) — Oh how the strong and steady goalkeeper must pine for the days of Koller, Baroš and Nedved, when his countrymen were qualifying for European semi-finals and actually appearing at the World Cup.  Alas, the veteran netminder (a 31-year-old who has looked 50 since he was 20) will have to settle for glory at Chelsea, where he and his club have won every major European and English title.

Hamsik

“Oh Mamma Mia, let me go!”

5) Marek Hamsik (SLO) — Slovakia did alright at South Africa 2010, their first major tournament since they split from the Czechs.  Hamsik captained his side to the Group of 16 by shocking the Italians 3-2, before losing to eventual finalists, Netherlands.  But when they tried to qualify for Brazil, they were outdone by a lack of adventure: only once did the Slovaks score more than one goal from open play.  Too bad… because Hamsik’s Mohawk/Kid n’ Play fade looks awesome streaking up the pitch.

Wales v Scotland

Air guitar…

4) Aaron Ramsey (WAL) — This one will elicit the most groans as undeserving,  but the young Taffy has been a revelation this season.  Arsene Wenger has kept faith in his midfielder, who has had trouble keeping off the treatment table.  But he has been Arsenal’s best player since August and has overshadowed teammates who are offensive threats in their own right.

"Will not let you go!"

“Will not let you go!”

3) Robert Lewandowski (POL) — Poland’s failure to qualify for even the playoffs is a case of a team’s parts being better than the team itself.  The squad has some great talent (with tricky names): Blaszczykowski, Piszczek, Boruc, Szczesny, and Dortmund’s highest scorer over the last three seasons, Lewandowski.  Last year, he was a goal away from the Bundesliga scoring title, and two away from being the Champions League’s top marksman.  He is among the top 10 strikers in the world, but unfortunately he will not be able to play with his peers in Brazil.

Bale hearts Wales... which means no World Cup

Bale hearts Wales… which means no World Cup

2) Gareth Bale (WAL) — Surely the world’s biggest tournament should feature the world’s most expensive player.  When Gareth Bale went to Real Madrid for €100M, most people thought that the whole affair was ridiculous.  But the spectacle of the transaction should not take away from a player who is starting to reach the height of his powers.  Nine goals in fifteen games for Madrid: he’s no Ronaldo, but he doesn’t need to be.  Unfortunately, he plays for a nation that has never fully embraced association football and may not qualify for a major tournament for some time.

1) Zlatan Ibrahimovic (SWE) — You could hear the collective groans around the soccer world when Sweden was paired with Portugal in the qualifying play-offs.  We knew that either Christiano Ronaldo or Zlatan Ibrahimovic would not be playing in this summer’s tournament.   That’s a shame because if there is ever a place for massive egos, it is the World Cup… and they don’t get much bigger than CR7 or Ibra.   In the end, it was a battle between two huge talents on otherwise mediocre teams.  After a tight first leg, it was left to the big striker to tie everything up on aggregate. Unfortunately for the Scandanavians, Ronaldo showed why he is better than everyone else… include Kung Fu Zlatan.  Still, we will miss the sound bites, the temper tantrums, and the awesome, awesome goals.  Ibra’s take on the loss: “One thing is for sure, a World Cup without me is nothing to watch.”

Brent Lanthier

No Ibra means none of this...

No Ibra means none of this…

... or this...

… or this…

... or this.

… or this.

 

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The Art of Moyes

david-Moyes

There are two kinds of football fans: Manchester United fans… and everyone else.  The United fan has become ubiquitous over the last 20 years, as the hardcore ranks of the Red Army fans swelled, many of them young people who wanted to support a winner (not unlike Liverpool fans in the 70’s and 80’s, and Chelsea fans over the last decade).   Winning begets winning, both in the trophy case and on the balance sheet, and Manchester United has rode their success to the top of the football world.

However, the inevitable consequence of United’s prolonged success has been envy.  The club’s double-decade dominance of the Premier League has given their rivals a generation to sharpen their knives and bide their time.  So when Sir Alex Ferguson’s announced his retirement this past spring, the rest of the soccer world sensed that United’s hegemony would begin to diminish.    Fans were sick of Ferguson’s mind games, his badgering and bullying of officials, alng with the club’s contribution to the gross inflation of players’ wages and the normalization of leveraged-to-the-hilt spending.  Supporters of “other” clubs have been waiting for United to stumble and fall.

That David Moyes would be under the cosh from the start was thus undeniable.  There is only one Alex Ferguson, a man who willed, cajoled and frightened his team to victory while speaking and moving as a larger-than-life figure.  One can only imagine that, when the legend finally passes, a film version of his remarkable life will hit theatres sooner rather than later.  It should come as no surprise then, that someone like Moyes — an admitted stats geek who is more likely to have a quiet word with a player than give him the “hairdryer treatment” — was bound to underwhelm.

Fellaini calls for a taxi...

Fellaini calls for a taxi…

Initially, Moyes did not help his own cause.   The former Everton manager needed to make a splash in the summer transfer market, both to settle down the naysayers and to fill some very real deficiencies in United’s spine.   When the window closed, Moyes’ only acquisition was his midfield anchor at Everton, Marouane Fellaini.  It wasn’t exactly a marquee signing: £27.5 million for a player that has only appeared eleven times for the Red Devils, only seven as a starter.   The squad was already weak (by United’s standards) but now the holes have been laid bare for all to see.

Meanwhile, the strikes against the man from East Dumbartonshire started to add up.  A 1-0 loss at Anfield, a 4-1 loss to crosstown rivals City, and a 1-2 defeat at Old Trafford to dwindling  West Brom made for a terrible September.  Draws against Southampton, Real Sociedad, Cardiff and Tottenham piled it on, but it was successive losses at home against former club Everton and then Newcastle United that meant Moyes was officially “under pressure”.  It didn’t help that the travelling fans in both of those games sang about Moyes getting sacked in the morning.

Rio really shows all he can.

Rio really shows all he can.

The reality is that United are not the favourites to win this season’s Premier League title; they never were.  The holes in central midfield and centre back are glaring.  CB Phil Jones has deputized for Michael Carrick during times of injury, while the rest of the backline continues to look shaky.  You only have to look at Rio Ferdinand against Shakhtar Donetsk on December 10th.  Time after time, he was getting schooled by Alex Teixeira, leaving RF5 looking like John Terry in that World Cup match against Germany.  United won the game, but only after waking up at the half.  Meanwhile, former Premier League Player of the Year Nemanja Vidic has not been the same player since a knee injury two years ago.

Despite United’s mediocrity in defence (they’ve almost reached the total Goals Allowed average of their title runs from 2007-2009), they have kept pace with the rest of the league.  However, it’s goal scoring that has become a bigger issue.  They are 13 markers behind last season’s tally after 18 matches.  While Moyes has been criticized for importing his negative tactics from Goodison Park, the bigger culprit has been RVP’s reduced impact, through slump and then injury.

But the Dutchman’s woes are part of a bigger dynamic that Moyes will have to address in January and then July.   United have been on the decline for some time.  While Ferguson has always had a great eye for young talent, and the ability to develop said talent, you got the sense in the last few years that he was, well, slipping.  There is no way that a younger Sir Alex would have allowed Wayne Rooney to sulk himself into a new contract.   Meanwhile, the purchase of Robin Van Persie sealed Ferguson’s final league title, but only by covering up the rest of the team’s deficiencies through a barrage of game-winning goals.

In the next five weeks, Moyes will have to make his own mark in the transfer market.  No less than 11 key United players will be out of contract in the next 18 months.  Five of those players are done in July, with four of them —  Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Fabio — playing on United’s back line (the fifth, Ryan Giggs, will almost certainly join United’s staff full-time).  That leaves Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans, Jones and Alexander Büttner to fill their spots: not exactly a ringing endorsement for positions that favour men over boys.   On the flip side, Moyes is known for emulating his predecessor by signing youth over experience.  That could be bad news for Michael Carrick (32), or the illness-plagued Darren Fletcher (29).   Throw in Moyes’ low tolerance for petulance and out goes Nani, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young.   Most importantly, the team still has not found a meaningful and long-term replacement for Paul Scholes.  Shinji Kagawa has been pushed to the left, and Rooney has been playing somewhere between a second striker and an attacking midfielder… admirably so.  But contrast this with the midfield players at Manchester City and Chelsea, and the difference is embarrassing.

So the power of expectation — from both the pro- and anti- United camps — is such that Moyes was always going to be considered a failure, no matter what happened.  Yet despite United’s bad start, there are still a lot of positives and/or mitigators:

– They have won five games on the trot, including a comeback against Hull that was reminiscent of the “old” United

– One of Sir Alex Ferguson’s parting gifts to Wayne Rooney was to publicly expose the player’s demand for a transfer.  Moyes has had his troubles with the Scouser as well, suing Rooney for comments he made in his autobiography.  But despite all of that, the England international has remained a professional, stepping up in place of the injured (or disgruntled, or both, depending on whom you believe) Robin Van Persie.

– United are looking comfortable in cup competitions.  They open their FA Cup campaign at home against a struggling Swansea City, plus they play a semi-final League Cup match-up against bottom dwellers Sunderland. They also progressed comfortably through the Champions League group stages and will now face Olympiakos, the weakest opponent in the Round of 16.

– The club sits in 7th place with 31 points, but they are only eight points off the top and five points from a Champions League spot.  In such a topsy-turvy year, the season is not necessarily a write-off.

 The players seem to be buying into Moyes’ leadership, and in return, the Scot seems to be abandoning the conservative football that he favoured at Everton.  But there will continue to be growing pains.  A cup or two seem to be reasonable goals this season.  That may not be enough to satisfy the average United fan that has only known winning.  It may also be fodder for opposing fans who enjoy the schadenfreude of a former champion struggling with a new identity.  That’s not to say they are going to push David Moyes out: it’s simply not the United way.  But the Sisyphean task of managing expectations on both sides of the divide may mean that Moyes faces a long journey in the wilderness of public opinion.

Brent P. Lanthier

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Newcastle’s Tactical Nous

AlanPardew9Top-flight English football has just finished a crazy week, with a mid-week match day squeezed in presumably to make room for FA Cup ties and this summer’s World Cup.   Some teams have done blazingly well, like Liverpool who scored nine goals in just two matches.  Other clubs are in genuine, if inflated, crisis.  This would be Manchester United and perhaps a schizophrenic Chelsea.

And then there is the enigma that is Newcastle United.  Are they the club that has won five of their last six games, including victories against Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United?  Or are they the overly cautious side that conceded a bizarre 3-0 loss to Swansea mid-week?  The Telegraph’s Luke Edwards has written how Alan Pardew has grown a rose out of a slag heap.   Edwards contends that Pardew has navigated crisis after crisis since the summer: the re-appointment of the megalomaniacal-delusional Joe Kinnear, the excess of hastily-signed French players in the January transfer window, the reconciliation with want-away Yohan Cabaye, the loan signing of Loïc Remy.

The Kinnear thing is just bizarre, but it’s a typical Mike Ashley move, so no surprises there.  As for the French players, they are indeed clicking and, as Edwards hypothesizes, they are probably jockeying for a spot on Didier Deschamps’ squad in Brazil (although presumably only Cabaye, Remy and Mathieu Debuchy will be going in any case).  Cabaye has definitely rediscovered his mojo: just watch his cheeky 10th minute goal attempt from just past the half-way line against Swansea, or his textbook goal against Manchester United.  Loïc Remy? He “only” has eight league goals this season.  That’s as many as Wayne Rooney and more than Robin Van Persie, good enough for fourth in the league.

Cabaye celebrates his goal against Man United

Cabaye celebrates his goal against Man United

But if I was a Newcastle fan, I’d be worried about tactics.  Alan Pardew says that the Magpies can win with different styles.  But Saturday’s match was the first time this season that Newcastle has won playing with a solitary striker, and that win came against a club that is in complete disarray.  The matches against Chelsea, Spurs, Norwich and West Brom all featured Remy partnered with Ameobi (although the goals in the Chelsea game came after Ameobi was subbed off for Gouffran).  The pair also started against Swansea, but then Ameobi was subbed off following the Debuchy own-goal, with Obertan (ugh) coming on, and Remy moving into a wide position.   That meant Pardew was switching from the oh-so-British 4-4-2 to the 4-5-1 that he had previously favoured in away games, with little success.

Why would Pardew do this? Was he giving up the game, even though there was still more than 20 minutes left to play?  Or did he think that this would cauterize the bleeding? (It didn’t).  It must have been a bit of a letdown for the Geordie faithful, considering that their side barely pressured Swansea and had trouble hanging onto the ball.  The move to the classic “away formation” hasn’t exactly been frustrating for opposing sides either: Newcastle has the fourth-worst away defense record in the league.

By this time next month, Alan Pardew will be the third-longest serving NUFC manager in the 3-point-win era, dating all the way back to the club’s promotion in 1984.  He has certainly skippered the most top-flight matches in the 10 years since Sir Bobby Robson was in charge.  In hindsight, the eight-year contract that Mike Ashley gave to Pardew looks less like a flashy publicity stunt, and more like a way to keep the club stable and growing. This is admirable, but a big club with a massive local fan base needs trophies.  Arsenal fans may think they have it tough, but try going 60 years without a major honour.

During the summer, I was very close to laying money on Newcastle to go down.  Their goal difference in the previous season was atrocious and the club was a cauldron of controversy.   But the manager seems to have ridden this out.  If Pardew can remain brave and can keep picking a team that is attack-minded and applies pressure, and if he can keep his side together for the rest of the season, the Geordies might be a surprise in a Premier League season already full of them.  But if this very English manager decides to revert to very English tactics,  things will start to get tough. Then Newcastle fans will be strapping themselves in for a ride towards the end of the season.

Brent P. Lanthier

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