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Fast Track Bullies: Young Managers Stumble

Where have Merseyside's managers gone wrong?

Where have Merseyside’s managers gone wrong?

Just over six months ago, on the evening of April 20th, Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool FC had just finished beating a soon-to-be relegated Norwich City, 2-3, in their typical manner that season: scoring more goals than they let in.

“It’s 96 goals we’re on,” said Rodgers in the post-match interview, “and our idea is to get to 100-plus for the season. That would be an incredible effort by this team. You know when I came in here 20 months ago, we scored 47 goals so it shows their attacking mentality and their organization within the game.”

The Reds were sitting top of the league, and had been for the past month. In fact, they had remained in the top two since March 1st. The Norwich win was their 11th league win in a row.

Back on Merseyside, Everton had just ended David Moyes’ Manchester United career by beating their old gaffer’s side 2-0 at Goodison Park.  Roberto Martinez had taken the Toffees to within a point of Arsenal and the elusive fourth Champions League spot.

But the next weekend was the beginning of a decline that would reverberate into the present season.   Liverpool lost THAT match to Chelsea, after Steven Gerrard’s now infamous error (something the rest of the league will never let him forget), and the Reds’ title challenge was over.   Meanwhile, Everton would lose at St. Mary’s and then to the eventual champions, Manchester City, compounding their cross-park rivals woes and dropping out of Champions League contention for good.

LFC has yet to recover from Chelsea loss

LFC has yet to recover from Chelsea loss

Fast forward to this past weekend: Liverpool have lost the same match, albeit by a smaller margin.  It was their third league match without a win, and they have only won one game in their last six.   Everton, meanwhile, squeaked a point against Sunderland after converting a penalty.  Everton and Liverpool sit 10th and 11th in the table, respectively, with all the mediocrity of any other mid-table club looming over both outfits.

What has become of the reputations of two of Europe’s most lauded young coaches? Last season, the media fawned over the two Merseyside managers as men who could handle their rapid rise to take charge of the two big English clubs.  But now those reputations, and the idea that one can move quickly with new ideas, is on the ropes.  What has happened?

Much ink has been spilled over the departure of Luis Suárez from LFC to Barcelona, and the repeated injuries to Daniel Sturridge, who has not played for Liverpool since the end of August.  The subtraction of 55 goals has not been replaced in any way, shape or form.  The club has spent £120 million to bring in nine players.  Their goal total so far? Six… and three of those were scored by defensive players (Alberto Moreno, Emre Can and Dejan Lovren).   Only one striker has scored a goal in the league, and that is the injured Sturridge.    It is shocking for a club of Liverpool’s size and reputation.  It is more than shocking: it is a disgrace.

Last season, the Reds scored a massive 101 goals in the league, which meant that it wasn’t just Suárez and Sturridge putting the ball in the back of the net.  Steven Gerrard — supposedly a deep-lying midfielder — contributed 13 of his own.  The emerging Raheem Sterling — so publicly embarrassed by Rodgers in a television documentary series the season before — scored nine; even Martin Skrtel scored seven of his own. (Bizarrely, the sixth-highest scorer on Liverpool was the mysterious player Own Goals).

Liverpool 2013-2014 Final
Goals Scored: 101 — 2nd in the BPL
Goals Conceded: 50 — 8th

Week 11 Cumulative – 2013-2014
Goals Scored:21 — 3rd
Goals Conceded: 10 — 6th

Week 11 Cumulative — 2014-2015
Goals Scored: 14 — 8th
Goals Conceded: 15 — 11th

By this point last season, Liverpool had already scored 21 goals, the league’s third-best offence.  This season they are down to only 14… a drop of 33% and good for only eighth.  The optimist will say those numbers are decent enough until Sturridge returns.  But Rodgers already knew that Suárez wanted out, and that Sturridge was prone to injury.  Yet no one of their calibre was brought in the summer transfer period.

But what is more worrying is the defensive errors that cost them last season’s title have not been addressed.   Liverpool conceded 50 goals by May, finishing eighth defensively.  At this point last season, they had conceded 10 goals, and were sitting sixth.  This season, they have already conceded 15… a 50% increase and making them 11th in the league defensively.  Skrtel’s skittishness at the back — along with his bizarre coverage decisions on set plays — is still there.  Lovren has not been the back-line general that he was at Southampton.  Javi Manquillo and Alberto Moreno have struggled to adjust, with both having lapses in concentration that have led to goals.  Glen Johnson, never the most defensive of fullbacks, has not covered himself in glory since his return from injury.

Liverpool have had trouble keeping the ball out of the net, but not so their derby rivals… at least not last season.   Despite the media portraying Martinez’ Everton as shaking off the stodginess of the Moyes era, the Toffees were still solid at the back.

Everton 2013-2014 Final
Goals Scored: 61 — 6th in the BPL
Goals Conceded: 39 — 3rd

Week 11 Cumulative – 2013-2014
Goals Scored: 14 — 10th
Goals Conceded: 10 — 6th

Week 11 Cumulative — 2014-2015
Goals Scored: 19 — 5th
Goals Conceded: 17 — 15th

However, that has been tossed out the window.  Everton is on pace to score more but they were shipping goals right up to their 3-0 win against Aston Villa.  Since then they have outscored their opponents 6-2, and have recorded two of their three clean sheets.   But they are clinging to the last place in the top half of the table, and have given no indication that they will improve on last season.

You get the sense that both clubs overachieved last season, overreaching in years that should have been transition periods.  For Liverpool — and Brendan Rodgers — the acquisition of Daniel Sturridge in January 2013 seemed to be the final piece of the puzzle, taking just seven minutes to score in his debut in the FA Cup tie against Mansfield Town, and eventually sparked several one-sided wins.  Everyone talks about how Liverpool misses Suárez, but Sturridge was a catalyst for the Uruguayan to go even further.

So with that much talent either leaving or on the sidelines, why didn’t Liverpool a) adequately replenish their strikeforce, and b) shore up their defence?  I imagine the club’s selection committee thought they were doing both of those things, but comments by Rodgers about Balotelli as a last-minute acquisition leads you to believe that the trio was trying to get a little too cute (and cheap?) in the transfer market.  Indeed, a list of Ian Ayre’s dealings since he took over in March 2011 do not read like a who’s who of football: so far, only Sturridge, Jordan Henderson, and Philippe Coutinho have made good… and those last two, not so much this season.  But yet the club has basically brought in a new starting XI and disrupted what was essentially a free-flowing team that had some problems at the back.

The signing of Ross Barkley was supposed to help continuity

The signing of Ross Barkley was supposed to help continuity

The opposite could be said of Martinez’ Everton.  The Spaniard managed to sign contracts with key loan players like Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry, and convinced youngsters Ross Barkley and John Stones to stay at the club.  It seemed like Everton would pick up in August where they left off in May.  While the goals have come — including three in seven games from aging superstar Samuel Eto’o — they were pummeled early and often.  The Toffees gave up 2-2 draws to newly-promoted Leicester and then Arsenal, before a 3-6 shellacking against Chelsea.  A 2-3 loss at home to Crystal Palace and a 3-0 loss at Swansea City compounded the image that Martinez was the manager who led Wigan to relegation, instead of the manager who led Wigan to an FA Cup.

Both men are very smart tacticians who love the wonkiness of football’s minutiae.  They are also men raised in the Spanish tradition; Martinez by birth and performance, Rodgers by coaches’ training.   But they are both trying to lay blueprints of systems that are out-of-vogue at the moment (see Spain’s performance at the World Cup), and that have never fully taken hold in the rough-and-tumble Premier League.   It’s no good to try and pass your way forward with possession, when you are being pushed off the ball at every opportunity.   Both teams also like to press high, with the fullbacks over-running the midfielders in front of them (and why wouldn’t you with Everton’s Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines?), the two centrebacks spreading out and the defensive midfielder dropping back to act as a third back, with the keeper playing sweeper.   But yet both teams have been caught out this season, time and time and time again.

Both managers also seem to be struggling with squad rotation, as they try to also compete in Europe.  But where Rodgers seems to have prioritized domestic football — look at the side he put out against Real Madrid last week — Martinez seems to putting a real effort into doing well in the Europa League.  It could be because winning that tournament is an easier route to next season’s Champions League than claiming a place in the Premier League’s top four.

Hubris and a political sense is almost necessary to survive in a league that has become as fickle towards its managers as Serie A.  So don’t expect either manager to vary from their game plans… not until they absolutely have to.  But this is not Swansea City (where both managers experienced success, and who sit several places above both Everton and Liverpool in the table) where expectations are marginally lower.  These are two of the Big Four of the Northwest, clubs whose winning traditions run deep, if not recent.

That means the pair must dig deep, and find ways to turn their fortunes around.  Otherwise both men will be used as examples of promoting too far, too fast… and that could be detrimental to the fortunes of young managers for years to come.

Brent Lanthier

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World Cup 2014 Preview: Groups C & D

England weepsDespite what the Germans, Portuguese, Americans and Ghanians believe, Group D is this World Cup’s real Group of Death.   But sometimes an equally balanced group of lower-ranked nations can also make it a challenge to predict how they’ll finish.  That would be Group C.

"Er, Falcao? No lo se..."

“Er, Falcao? No lo se…”

GROUP C
The loss of Radamel Falcao is significant for Colombia… but not unexpected.  His debut season for Monaco was truncated by injury, and even in January we knew that he might not make it. His goal-scoring will be missed, but it’s not a death blow to this talented team.  AC Milan midfielder (and Manchester United target) Cristián Zapata and team captain Mario Yepes will marshal a solid backline.  Meanwhile an offence featuring James Rodríguez, Juan Cuadrado, Fredy Guarín, Carlos Bacca and Adrián Ramos is nothing to scoff at.  Throw in a tournament in their home continent, and the Colombianos could go far.  QUARTER-FINALISTS

"You think your name's long?!?"

“You think your name’s long?!?”

Greece‘s style of play is no mystery: defend, defend, defend.  But yet it is still tough to pick whether Ethniki will frustrate their way into the knockout rounds, or they will simply run out of ideas should they go down in the game.  Lots of familiar faces return, including elderly captain Giorgos Karagounis, who played a total of 14 games for Fulham this season; Kostas Mitroglu played a solitary game for the same club.  Of course, the star of the side is a defender: 25-year-old Sokratis Papastathopoulos.  But the Dortmund defender may not be sufficient to survive the pressure of a Colombia or Ivory Coast.  Even if they get everyone behind the ball and grind out three draws, it still won’t be enough.  THREE AND OUT

Last shot at love and glory for Drogba?

Last shot at love and glory for Drogba?

The Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire) is the anti-Greece, a team top-heavy with offensive talent but lacking a credible back line.  Like many other nations,  it has seen its golden generation shine and fade.  Most of the old faces are there.  Kolo Touré is back, but a forgettable season with Liverpool shows the depths of his decline.  Didier Zokora’s best days are also behind him.  Sol Bamba didn’t play a single game of competitive club football this season.  Up front shows more promise.  Cheick Tioté should provide defensive cover and Yaya Touré is coming off a blinder of a season… which may not matter if he arrives in Brazil nursing an injury.   Salomon Kalou and Gervinho will play up the wings, and the sole striker position should be filled by Les Éléphants‘ talisman, Didier Drogba.  But Wilfried Bony’s satisfying first season in the Prem may earn the Swansea City man the right to play up front instead.   This is a big physical team who will be able to push back against the stifling Greeks and the technically gifted, but smaller, Japanese side.   ROUND OF 16

Okazaki scored bunches for Mainz... can he do the same for country?

Okazaki scored bunches for Mainz… can he do the same for country?

Ah yes, the enigma that is Japan.  They made it to the knockout phase in South Africa, and lost on kicks to Paraguay, but detractors say their path was weak.  Both Keisuke Honda and Shinji Okazaki are back: Honda is fresh off his debut season in Europe, and Okazaki rewarded his new club, Mainz, with a 15 goals.  But too many questions remain on whether Japan can compete with the other nations in this group.  THREE AND OUT

Pirlo: the epitome of Italian cool... and Azzurri skill.

Pirlo: the epitome of Italian cool… and Azzurri skill.

GROUP D
Never, EVER, count Italy out… except in 2010 when they finished last in their group, drawing their first two games (in very Italian style) and then belatedly realizing that Slovenia weren’t a walk in the park.   That’s not going to happen this time.  Cesare Prandelli has built this team around Andrea Pirlo, including using Juventus-like tactics.  That includes Juve boss Antonio Conte’s favoured 3-5-2 formation, even using La Vecchia‘s three centre backs: Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci.   Daniele De Rossi will patrol the back field while PSG’s Thiago Motta will join Pirlo in the middle.  A front line could consist of new Dortmund signing Ciro Immobile, his former strike partner at Torino, Alessio Cerci, and of course, the irascible Mario Balotelli.  This isn’t your father’s Azzurri… and that’s alright.   QUARTER-FINALISTS

Whither Suarez?

Whither Suarez?

Here’s where things get tough. Anyone who says Luis Suárez didn’t have a season for the ages is lying or delusional.  Suárez is an influencer, a man whose temperament and skill can both influence matches in equal measure. He is also struggling with injury, desperately trying to get fit in time to play for Uruguay on South American soil. Despite being a semi-finalist in South Africa (albeit due to an extremely dodgy hand ball and subsequent missed penalty), this is a nation in decline, football-wise. Diego Godín is coming off a miracle season with Atlético Madrid, as is Cristían Rodriguez, and Maxi Pereira was outstanding in 2010.  But team captain Diego Lugano doesn’t even have a club (he was released by West Brom, for God’s sake), and Diego Forlán is plying his trade in the J-League.   Of course, Edinson Cavani is still in the side, and he is still a world class player.  But Suárez is Uruguay’s X-Factor.  HEALTHY SUÁREZ: ROUND OF 16; NO SUÁREZ: THREE AND OUT

England has nothing to lose... except three matches.

England has nothing to lose… except three matches.

England, on the other hand, have no such game changer, nor do they have many expectations… despite what they say in public.  The English press and supporters famously make hand-wringing into an art form, and this time should be no different.  But despite having a squad based entirely in the Premier League (save Celtic keeper Fraser Forster), this is not a squad of superstars.  It is a roster of talented young players assembled by Roy Hodgson who barely have the burden of reputation to contend with.  Yes, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard are there.   But some of the Prem’s most exciting youngsters will get a run out; some of them will even start.   Expect The Three Lions to play like Liverpool 2.0:  pacey and pass-y going forward, but a little bit suspect at the back.  They could do really well, or they could go home after four-and-half hours.  Much will depend on how the other teams in this group react to them.   SEE ABOVE: ROUND OF 16, OR THREE AND OUT

Sing when you're winning

Sing when you’re winning

Costa Rica: No Bryan Oviedo, Bryan Ruiz had a season to forget, and young Joel Campbell spent the year on the football equivalent of a caravan trip around Europe.   Most of the other squad members ply their trade in lesser leagues in Europe and North America.   The bookies have the Ticos dead last for odds on winning the World Cup.  THREE AND OUT

Brent P. Lanthier

Up Next: Groups E & F

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Premier League Starting XI – 2013-2014

Luis_Suarez_Liverpool-377452

Many pints have been bought/drunk/spilled while friends/strangers/adversaries debate the Premier League’s best players.  In my list, I’ve tried to avoid hype and reputation… but that’s not to say it’s all about the stats.  I’ve also been liberal with the positions, using a 4-1-3-2 but frankly putting players in to fit.   For example, Steven Gerrard was praised for his reinvention as a defensive midfielder, but let’s face it, he mostly played the same as he always has… he just had farther to run.

Here then are my Starting XI:

Mannone of the season for Sunderland

Mannone of the season for Sunderland

Goalkeeper
Vito Mannone (SUN) – There was a reason for Vito Mannone’s switch from the bright lights of the Emirates to the ironically-named Stadium of Light.   Like almost every other professional athlete, he probably expected to start.  So it must have been disappointing when Paolo di Canio went with Keiran Westwood, a man who had spent most of his career in the lower leagues.  The Black Cats’ start to the season was dismal — going  2-1-6 — with Westwood letting in almost one out of every two shots on goal.  Mannone got his chance when Westwood got injured, and the Mackems improved, finishing a stronger 10-7-11 with 11 of those games finishing in a clean sheet for Sunderland.  In fact, Mannone faced more shots on goal than any other keeper in the league, despite missing a quarter of the season.  Quite rightly, he was named Sunderland’s Player of the Season.

Bench: Petr Cech (CHE), Tim Howard (EVE)

Coleman, Baines were lethal from the back this season.

Coleman, Baines were lethal from the back this season.

Fullbacks
(LB) Leighton Baines, (RB) Seamus Coleman (EVE) – The Toffees seem to have an embarrassment of riches at the fullback position.  Under Roberto Martinez, Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman act as virtual wingers in an already offence-friendly side.  The pair fly in with crosses, complementing the Mirallas/Barkley/Osman contingent on the wings.  That leaves the two centre backs, along with a resurgent Gareth Barry and GK Tim Howard, to worry about any defensive issues.  It seemed to work: Everton had the third-best defensive record in the Prem, while the Scouser and the Irishman both scored as many goals as their colleagues in midfield.

Bench – Patrice Evra (LB), Bacary Sagna (RB)

Skrtel, Koscielny saw both highs and lows this season

Skrtel, Koscielny saw both highs and lows this season

Centrebacks
Martin Skrtel (LIV), Laurent Koscielny (ARS) – I can hear the howls of protests already.  Why not players from Chelsea or City or even Everton? How can you pick one player who set a record for own goals in a season, and another with a propensity to self-destruct?  Because the game-in, game-out stats tell a different story.  In a league where goals are up across the board, both players were on sides built to throw everything forward in attractive — but dangerous — football.  Martin Skrtel led the league in clearances and was tied for fourth in block shots.  Think back to the images of him racing back to clear the ball, because Brendan Rodgers had his team playing such a high line.  (Don’t forget Skrtel scored seven goals… he’s a centre back!).  Meanwhile, Laurent Koscielny was in the league’s top ten for both interceptions and offsides won, and he was in the top 20 for blocked shots.

Bench – John Terry (CHE), Per Mertesacker (ARS)

Jedinak might be the hardest man in the Prem.

Jedinak might be the hardest man in the Prem.

Defensive Midfield
Mile Jedinak (CRY) – Crikey! Mile Jedinak has maintained the fearsome reputation of Aussie footballers in the Premier League — Messrs. Emerton, Neill and Cahill come to mind (like a prog-rock band! Ha!).  The Palace player led the league in interceptions per game, and was 2nd in tackles per game.  That’s all the more impressive when you realize he started every single game.  A big reason why the Eagles had the league’s sixth-best Goals-Against.

On the bench – Gareth Barry (EVE)

Ramsey was one of the league's best midfielders, despite injuries

Ramsey was one of the league’s best midfielders, despite injuries

Right Wing
Aaron Ramsey (ARS) – Mr. Arsenal this season, Aaron Ramsey set the league on fire in the season’s first half, before he was twice sidelined by injury. He was Arsenal’s second-biggest goal-scorer in the league, and tied for third in assists, despite playing in only 60% of the Gunners’ matches.

On the bench – David Silva (MNC)

Yaya holds his birthday cake that's coincidentally shaped like a trophy

Yaya holds his birthday cake that’s coincidentally shaped like a trophy

Central Midfield
Yaya Touré (MNC) – What hasn’t already been said about Yaya Touré’s season?  The first midfielder since Frank Lampard to score 20 goals in a season, tied for fifth in assists, the Ivorian was Citeh’s talisman (an overused cliché, but in this case, true) and led the Citizens to their second title in three years.

On the bench – Steven Gerrard (LIV)

"Oh my God, I can't believe I made ATR's Starting XI!"

“Oh my God, I can’t believe I made ATR’s Starting XI!”

Left Wing
Eden Hazard (CHE) – José Mourinho had a rough relationship with his forwards this season, and sometimes played without a striker.  Enter the Belgian, Eden Hazard.  The attacking midfielder led his team in goals and assists, and was one of the league’s best passers.  An incredible player to watch (unless you’re a ball boy), Hazard will be a key part of Marc Wilmot’s plans in Brazil.

On the bench – Adam Lallana (SOU)

Suarez and Sturridge: 52 goals between the pair.

Suarez and Sturridge: 52 goals between the pair.

Strikers
Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge (LIV) – The picking of these two players was almost a no-brainer… almost.  Luis Suarez tied the Premier League record for goals in a 38-game season, despite missing the first five matches.  He was also second in the league for assists — just behind team mate Steven Gerrard — so it’s not like he was being selfish.  Love him or hate him, he had a brilliant season and propelled Liverpool into the most exciting title run in almost two decades.

Sergio Agüero was almost equally brilliant, scoring 17 in 23 appearances.  But injuries hampered an otherwise brilliant season, and young(ish) Daniel Sturridge found his own touch, scoring 21 of his own.   That’s why he would start in my XI.

On the bench – Sergio Aguero (MNC), Wayne Rooney (MNU)

Player of the Season: Luis Suarez

Brent P. Lanthier

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Best of the Prem 2014: Everton to Man City

"And then Moyes says, 'Boss, can I have my old job back?"...

“And then Moyes says, ‘Boss, can I have my old job back?”…

This edition features three players  who made the Top 10 of Premier League scorers and who are all headed for the World Cup.  The other two fought to keep their clubs above water… and only one was successful.

Lukaku back-handed Mourinho all season

Lukaku back-handed Mourinho all season

EVERTON
Romelu Lukaku (BEL) – David Who? Roberto Martinez’ reputation as the manager who won a trophy but lost a relegation battle is done.  Gone in a season.  The Spaniard’s brand of attacking football ensured that it wasn’t just the red side of Stanley Park that earned the city’s new nickname of “Liver-lona”.   The goals and the passing were a welcome change from Moyes’ cautious approach… and it was made possible with many of Moyes’ men.  But a trio of loan signings pushed the Toffees into overdrive:  Gerard Deulofeu from Barcelona, Gareth Barry from Manchester City… and Chelsea’s odd-man out, Romelu Lukaku.  Heads shook when José Mourinho let the big Belgian go out on loan again… and then poo-poo’ed his performance.  But surely Chelsea could have used him.  Lukaku scored 16 goals in 32 games, a rate of 50%.  Chelsea’s highest scorer — Eden Hazard — managed 17 in 55 matches.   Martinez will need to bring back Lukaku back to Goodison Park on a permanent basis… or he could go back to being known as the young manager from Wigan.

Sidwell's ginger superpowers couldn't save Fulham from the drop

Sidwell’s ginger superpowers couldn’t save Fulham from the drop

FULHAM 
Steve Sidwell (ENG) – Let’s just come right out with it:  Fulham were awful.  The Cottagers woefully capitulated, six seasons after Woy’s Great Escape in 2008. From 2009 to 2013, they finished no lower than 12th.  This was the little club that could.  But going through three managers in a season — the last being known as a touchline tyrant — and you have to think morale and attitude is going to suffer a wee bit.   However, Steve Sidwell held his head up and led the team in scoring, as well as fouls committed.  He gave his all in a losing effort, unlike £11m Kostas Mitroglou, who only played a single game.

Elmo: A Tiger on the wing

Elmo: A Tiger on the wing

HULL CITY
Ahmed Elmohamady (EGY)  – A Steve Bruce-managed team tends not to be a forward’s paradise.  Hull City did not break that mould… with no player scoring more than five goals.  But even though Ahmed Elmohamady only put two past England’s goalkeepers, Bruce remembered what ‘Elmo’ does from his time at Sunderland.  The Egyptian runs and cuts up the right side, stretching defenders’ lines while his team mates get into position.  Let’s see what he can do on Sunday at Wembley.

Unbelievable... for so many reasons

Unbelievable… for so many reasons

LIVERPOOL 
Luis Suarez (URU) – In Liverpool’s annus mirabilis, one man leads the way.  Love him or hate him (and there are many people in either camp), Luis Suarez is one of the top five players in the world right now.  What other player — who isn’t named Ronaldo or Messi — could miss the first six matches of the season, and then go on to tie the Premier League’s record for goals in a 38-game season?  If Steven Gerrard is the heart of the club, and Brendan Rodgers is its brains… then Suarez is the Liverpool FC’s cojones.

Toure puts "The Man" in Man City

Toure puts “The Man” in Man City

MANCHESTER CITY 
Yaya Touré (IVO) – On a side containing some of the most expensive players in the world, how does one pick the best? Actually, it wasn’t that hard.  This team was supposed to dominate in the post-Ferguson era of the Premier League — and it did in spots — but many personnel underperformed at times (losses to Villa and Cardiff, only one point off of Sunderland, failure to beat Chelsea).  Luckily for new manager Manuel Pellegrini, he had Yaya Touré.  The big Ivorian was the man in the middle, City’s version of Steven Gerrard who pulled his team up by the suspenders when it faltered.  Touré led his club in Premier League goals and is the first midfielder to score 20 since Frank Lampard.  He’s fun to watch… unless City are playing your team.

Brent P. Lanthier

Up Next: Manchester United to Stoke City

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Pieces of Eight: Why Spain is So Money and Other Euro Observations

Well that was fun.  Lots of goals, an upset or two, some behind-the-scenes drama… and for what? At the end of three weeks, the new Champions are the same as the old Champions.  The footballing universe is balanced and unsullied, and in six weeks, we can go back to watching club football.  In the meantime, enjoy my little observations about the highlight of the summer.  Don’t you dare mention the Olympics!!!

1) This Spanish side may be the best international side ever.  Duh.
Euro.  World Cup.  Euro.  Nineteen players in the side have now won both tournaments.  More than half of those players will still be under 30 by the time they reach Rio in two years time (not to mention next year’s Confederations Cup).  An average possession rate of at least 65%.  A side that has gone 646 minutes without conceding a goal in a knock-out match.  This is more than a “Golden Generation”;  this is utter and complete dominance.

2) Buffon and Pirlo are studs.
Despite every indication that they would do the opposite, the Italians (the Italians?) took the game to Spain, trying to play offensive and open-pitch football (seriously, the Italians?!?).  Prandelli’s tactics allowed the world to see Andrea Pirlo’s incredible play-making abilities. Pirlo is a big reason why Juventus won the Scudetto this season, and AC Milan (his old team) didn’t.   Meanwhile, Buffon faced a barrage of attempts, especially in the final’s second half. When the winners were getting their medals, Buffon was stoic in defeat.

Prandelli: “Balotelli has to learn to accept defeat.”

3) Balotelli needs to grow up.
He may have put on a clinic against ze Germans… but Mario is still a super baby.  He stormed off the pitch after Italy lost against the Spaniards and was the last person to receive his medal.  That’s too bad because he had an exemplary tournament.   Colourful players with heaps of talent have always made the game more interesting…. but Balotelli can be a detriment to his team(s).  Luckily for both Italy and Manchester City, his behaviour may mellow with time.  Witness another former petulant son in…

4) Cristiano Ronaldo.  He’s an incredible player… he just needs a team.
Like the Italians, the Portuguese weren’t expected to do much.   Critics assumed that Ronaldo would once again be unable to replicate his club form for A Seleccao.  But not only did Ronaldo have a great tournament, he showed tremendous un-Ronaldo-like restraint as teams gave him a kicking.   Old Ronaldo would have flopped around like a fish.   New Ronaldo recorded the most shots in the tournament.   Too bad that he also hit the wood work more than any other player… and let’s not even mention the penalty shot that never was.

5) The end of the Van Marwijk era means the end of the Van Bommel era, et al.  Praise Cheebus.
The Dutch gaffer opted for pretty much the same side as he used in the World Cup. Oops.

Before the tournament even began, the players exhibited symptoms of Dutch Disease: an in-fighting both in and out of the public spotlight that hobbled everyone. Their performance on the pitch reflected the lack of unity and tactics.  One hopes that it wasn’t nepotism that led Van Marwijk to start his over-the-hill son-in-law Mark Van Bommel.  The captain sums up all that’s wrong with the Oranje:  old, dirty, and petulant.  A mid-tournament rebellion in the dressing room, followed by an early exit,would make the Dutch this year’s France, except that…

6) France is this year’s France.
After a disastrous World Cup campaign in South Africa, you’d think Les Tricoloures would avoid their petty squabbles and unite under Laurent Blanc. Malheureusement, it was not to be. Reports of a dressing room bust-up after losing to Sweden in their final group-stage match was followed by Samir Nasri’s unseemly outburst towards a reporter. A tidy loss to the eventual champions meant the end of another tournament… and the dismissal of another manager.

Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité… Someone tell the French players.

The other sad Mario…

7) Das Jahr der Schrecken for Bayern Munich players.
What a season for the eight men out who play for both the German national team and Bayern Munich.  Bayern suffered a double domestic loss to Borussia Dortmund in both the Bundesliga and the DKB-Pokal, followed by a baffling defeat at Chelsea’s hands at home in the Champions League.  Top that off with Germany’s semi-final loss to unfancied Italy and they face a tough summer staring into their schnitzel.  Mario Gomez even lost out on the Euro Golden Boot because he tied Fernando Torres in goals and assists, but took more minutes to do it!  Scheisse!

8) England, thanks for coming out.
Joe Hart and Steven Gerrard played well.  Surprisingly, so did John Terry.  Andy Carroll scored the same amount of goals as Wayne Rooney, but played 50 less minutes.  Theo Walcott had a game to remember.  Now let’s never mention this again.

Brent Lanthier

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England’s Unlikely Lads

“Help us, Oxlade-Chamberlain… you’re our only hope!”

For the first time in my living memory, England are not being trumpeted as a possible winner of a major tournament. No sane person, nor any insane ones, has England progressing past the quarter-finals.  In fact, most would consider it an achievement to get out of the group. So is there any way that England can possibly exceed expectations and actually win this thing?

Play like Greece

“Tell me more, tell me more, did they get very far?”

Well, yes they did. They won the whole bloody thing in 2004.

 “How?”

We’re not quite sure. But the Hellenic victory was built on a very solid defensive performance. They scraped through the group stages on goals scored, ahead of Spain. Then they scored a single goal and held on to win 1-0 against France in the quarters.  In the semis, they took the Czech Republic into extra time after a goalless 90 minutes and notched another 1-0 victory. And in the final — you guessed it — 1-0 against Portugal.

 “Er… can England do that?”

Why not, my curious friend? England’s strength is their solid defence.  Combine that with a world class goalkeeper in Joe Hart and tackling fiend Scott Parker protecting the back four, and you may have the Three Lions’ only chance.

“But weren’t Greece just lucky?”

Well yes, in a way.  But Italy have always based their game on a solid defence while nicking the odd goal, and they’ve not done too badly. Chelsea won the Champion’s League by parking the bus against Barcelona and Bayern and then riding their luck. Switzerland defeated Spain in the World Cup with a similar tactic.  So it’s not beyond reason.

Unleash the Ox

“Who is this Ox that you speak of?”

Well the Ox is a symbol of power, strength, resurrection, masculinity, fertility, fatherhood and kingship.  I know that sounds like John Terry describing a night on the town (or a tweet from Joey “I’ve swallowed Wikipedia” Barton), but in this case we are talking about Alexander Mark David Oxlade-Chamberlain.

“Is he any good?”

He has burst onto the scene similar to a young Wayne Rooney 10 years ago (yes, it was 10 years ago!).  He’s 18 years old, as strong as an… well, okay, an ox.  Plus he has electric speed and a cracking shot on him.

“He sounds great! What could go wrong?”

It’s England. We always have a player who will “win it all” for us and it never happens.  From Beckham to Owen to Rooney, we always seem to have somebody that we pin our hopes on. It’s like pinning the tail on the donkey… except that when you open your eyes, the donkeys are on the pitch.

“So how does England get the best out of him?”

It’s tempting to start him and then let him run at defences, scaring them half to death,  but I think in most people’s minds he’ll be an impact substitute. But do English fans really want to rely on the hope that AOC can change the game in the last 20 minutes? With Rooney’s absence in the first two games, it might be worth deploying the young Arsenal player from the start, using his youthful exuberance to give us a chance.  Roy Hodgson can always drag him off and put some other clueless wonder on.  Step forward, Mr. Walcott.

Wayne might be up for it

“Does Krakow have red light districts?”

Haha.. you cheeky scamp. We actually mean that, after a long season, Rooney will miss the first two games due to the red card he received against Macedonia.  After watching the sh!t show that is England stumble around for 180 minutes, Wayne will be chomping at the bit to get involved… and he just may be ready to take it out on the Ukraine and then be raring to go if we get to the knockout stage.

“Haven’t we been here before?”

Yes.  Sadly we have. Whether it’s the swish of red being shown, or a metatarsal snapping like a turkey wishbone, you can bet our hopes will be dashed upon the rocks like an Italian cruise ship. (Ed. Note: ATR takes no responsibility for this insensitive — and frankly, obvious — simile).

I’m holding out for a hero

“Is Bonny Tyler going to sing the half-time entertainment?”

No, but Martin Tyler might sing a ditty or two if we ask nicely.  What we actually mean is that we need someone to step up and grab this tournament by the scruff of the neck and drag us through to the finals.

“But who, good sir? Who can save us?”

Who needs to lead England to victory? This guy…

Good question. It’s about time Captain Hollywood — and by that we mean Stevie G — stepped up and played as well in an England shirt as he has for Liverpool. It’s his last hurrah as his career seems to be on the downward slope… so there it’s now or never. We’ll take a few Roy of the Rover moments.  A 30-yard screamer into the top corner as the Germans sink to the turf will do us just fine.

“Is he our only hope?”

No. Rooney is another player with the ability to put us on his back and crash us through the European defenses.  Maybe even Jordan Hend… what’s that? No! You said I had 30 minutes on the computer. It’s MY turn. I’m not taking those pills. You can’t make me. I don’t want to go to my room. Mother? Not mother? (Sounds of a struggle ensue, as the author’s screams reach a higher pitch.  This is followed by squeals of laughter as the author is tickled into submission.  How bizarre).

Kevin Hoggard is a frequent contributor to At The Rails about his miserable experiences as an England fan.

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Second Chances: Birmingham City

Big Eck has a GOB moment: "I've made a huge mistake..."

Oh Birmingham City, we’ve seen this before.  After a 16-season stint in the lower divisions, the Blues were promoted in 2002… and then finished three seasons mid-table, before enduring four more yo-yo years into the Championship and back.  Yet last season was supposed to be different. Under the guidance of Carson Yeung and Alex McLeish, Brum finished a respectable ninth in 2010 with a stingy defence and a young keeper on-loan.  Who cared if they couldn’t score? It was a new era.

Ugh. Fast forward 12 months.  Despite their first trophy in almost 50 years, and an appearance in the FA Cup semi-final, Brum rode a train of mediocrity into relegation.  Before their historic victory over Arsenal in the Carling Cup final, City were 6-12-9.  The 30 points weren’t great… but it left them only a handful of wins away from the magic safety zone of 40.  But after that,  Birmingham only won twice in their last 12 matches… including three straight losses at the end to send them down, allowing Wigan (ugh) and Wolves to remain.

Now McLeish’s defection to hated Aston Villa has fans on both sides of Birmingham screaming Blue murder.   But unlike other serious rivalries, the teams’ exposure to each other has been spotty over the years… while the Second City derby features a couple of key players that have swapped shades of  blue,  with a lot of claret thrown in.

Ridgewell can't believe McLeish left him at City. COME. ON.

One such player is the sensational Liam Ridgewell, who joined Birmingham from Aston Villa in 2007.    The left back scored as many goals as the club’s strikers this season, which is probably a statement on both Ridgewell’s talent and the dire situation in Birmingham’s attack.  Ridgewell signed a new contract last summer… but West Brom have come calling, offering £3 million.   City thinks he’s worth more,  and so does this writer.  The big clubs could do worse than pick up him up.

After 200 matches, Sebastian Larsson is set to leave the Blues, having declined a new contract with the relegated side.  His father says the right winger has signed at Sunderland for Steve Bruce… the man who brought the Swede to St. Andrews in the first place. 

England back-up keeper Ben Foster is no youngster… but has always seemed a star-in-waiting.  Foster performed admirably this season, replacing his contemporary Joe Hart in net with one of the league’s highest save percentages, while facing the second-most shots.  Foster is a Premier League keeper, plain and simple.  I will make a call and say this West Midlander will follow McLeish to Villa.

Roger Johnson and Scott Dann would have received England call-ups, had it not said “Birmingham City” on their badges.  Roger Johnson started almost every match for the Brummies, while Scott Dann had his season cut short by injuries.  Both will likely get a sniff from the big clubs, including Dann, a Scouser whose name is creating rumbles at Anfield.  Meanwhile, Johnson is tough and good in the air.  Both made it onto the score sheet… and neither are afraid of a booking now and then.

Birmingham’s skipper — Stephen Carr — is 34… kind of up there in football years.  But the right back was the lynch pin for the club’s excellent defence: the Irishman started almost as many games as Johnson.  It’s likely he will stay because a) he has extended his contract by a year, and b) his former coach at Spurs and Ireland — Chris Hughton — is the front runner to take McLeish’s place.  Still… Carr’s performance this year merits another kick at the Premiership can.

Do you know which Villa player led the club in fouls and yellow cards? Ashley Young (stop snickering!).  Now that the team’s “hard man” (uncontrollable guffawing) looks bound for Manchester United, and Nigel Reo-Coker (a man who actually would give us nightmares, were we would good enough to play Premier League football) has been released, the club needs some steel in the middle.  Cue Barry Ferguson

Gardner tries the old hand-over-the-badge trick...

Finally, we have Craig Gardner — Birmingham’s answer to Steven Gerrard, circa Istanbul.  Gardner led his team in both goals and infractions this past seaon.  In a Robbie Keane-like obfuscation, Gardner has claimed to be a lifelong Villa or City fan — depending where he’s playing.  Yet he could still return to Villa Park.  After the vitriol that’s greeted Big Eck, the move would likely have Lions fans foaming at the mouth.   However, he has been linked with a move to the Northeast, either Newcastle or Sunderland.

Brent Lanthier

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