Tag Archives: EPL

No Way (Without) Jose

Saturday saw the much anticipated game at Old Trafford between Manchester United and Chelsea, but the game was overshadowed by the shock departure of Blues manager Jose Mourinho earlier in the week. If the performance that the reigning champions turned in is anything to go by, Mourinho will be sorely missed.

Even without the dismissal of first Mikel Jon Obi in the 32nd minute, Chelsea never looked like they would trouble United – a team Mourinho’s Blues had lost to only once in eleven meetings. The breakthrough came with a late first half goal by former Hammer, Carlos Tevez and was added to by Louis Saha’s late penalty.

The goals were really immaterial. Chelsea played like 1o individuals – albeit extremely talented ones – but never as a team. Yes, they were missing stars like Lampard and Drogba, but this is a squad packed full of work-class players – players now in need of leadership.

The Chelsea defence was repeatedly sliced apart by Cristiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs and especially by Michael Carrick’s long through balls – and they seemed only capable of hoofing away the ball when pressured. The only stand out performance for Chelsea was Claude Makelele, who seemed to keep a cool head when even the likes of John Terry seemed to lose theirs.

It was only one game, but Avram Grant’s tenure at the helm may not be a long one if this is anything to go by.


Soccer Thoughts – A Mid-Year Review

If club and international competitions in some of best leagues and tournaments over the last few years have proven anything, it’s that the key to winning silverware is a stout distributor in midfield…

…And if you don’t believe me, just do the math…

There are two statistical facts that purists of “the beautiful game” – those old fogies who wistfully harken back to a day when the game was free-glowing, creative, and symphonic with flair and imagination, and numbers beyond the final score meant almost nothing – just can’t get away from no matter how hard they try. The first fact is that a vast majority of football – anywhere between 70% and 85% — is played between the penalty areas. The second is that time of possession is usually a very good indicator of who wins and who doesn’t (this is true of all team sports universally, but football has only recently and grudgingly realized this little factoid).

It is a given that the midfield controls pace, tempo, tactics and flow. For a vast majority of its history, football’s midfielders were defined by its creative magicians, the playmakers who made the attack going forward go. To a degree that is still true, but in recent years the guys who have been integral to winning have been either the stoppers in front of the backline, the holding midfielders who transition the team forward after regaining possession, or the distributors who link up with the attack going forward. And the teams with ambition that have lacked this have failed miserably.

Need proof?

Roman Abramovich’s riches can buy him any world-class player he wants – and Gawd knows it has – but it wasn’t until he got midfield linkup Frank Lampard and stopper Claude Makelele that Chelsea were winning Premier League and FA Cup championships and playing for European supremacy every year.

Arsenal were yearly winners of the FA Cup and the Premier League because Patrick Vieira was patrolling from penalty area to penalty area with his refuse-to-lose determination. No sooner does Arsenal lose him that they have had a hard time winning anything…

…And just to accentuate the point, Vieira’s one season in Juventus results in a Serie A championship, and his subsequent move one year later to Inter-Milan results in the same.

AC Milan have enjoyed unparalleled success in both Serie A and the Champion’s League over the last for years not because Francesco Totti is up front but because Genarro Gattuso is a bull in front of the backline to dispossess any opposition introducing an attack and Andrea Pirlo is in the middle to introduce the attack going forward as a linkup to the front men…

…And not coincidentally, both Gattuso and Pirlo were indispensable cogs in Italy’s World Cup victory.

Real Madrid won three European Championships in five years from 1998 to 2002. A lot of world-class players and “galacticos” have come and gone over the last ten years with varying degrees of success, but when they let both stopper Fernando Hierro and defensive midfielder Claude Makelele go after the 2002 season it took five years for Real to scratch their way back to silverware.

Barcelona has been the class of European football for three years now not because of Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o and Lionel Mess – they’ve been there all along – but because Frank Rijkaard had the clarity to get Deco and Maniche from Porto to control the center of the midfield –

— And lets not forget, Porto won its annual Portuguese championship, a UEFA Cup championship and an unlikely European Championship in back-to-back years because of Deco and Maniche. Once they left for greener pastures, Porto has struggled to maintain their Portuguese championship and hasn’t come close to vying for European hardware.

The best example of all is Manchester United. From the early Nineties to the early part of this decade United were competing and winning multiple trophies with either Paul Ince or Roy Keane (with the occasional assist from Nicky Butt) doing whatever needed to be done, whether that was making the hard tackle, intercepting the through ball, stopping the opposition attack before it got to the backline, introducing the attack, distributing the ball to the forward players, or trailing late into the penalty area themselves. It was under Keane that the Red Devils experienced their most successful run. Keane left after the 2003 season, their last Premier League championship, and even though they were still getting world-class play from Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and especially Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, they weren’t winning hardware any more. But, lo and behold, in the summer of 2006 Manchester United pried midfield holder Michael Carrick away from Tottenham, and guess what happens? A runaway league championship and a semi-final appearance in the Champion’s League…

…And the significance of that has not been lost on them this offseason. The Red Devils broke the bank on getting midfield linkup Owen Hargreaves.

It may be the creators and the finishers that get all the pub, the cheddar and the honeys, but it is the guys in the midfield that do all the things that need to be done – that do all the grunt work – that let the playmakers create with flair and the strikers finish. That clearly is the key to winning championships in the 21st Century.

Just where did Manchester United get all this money all of a sudden to splash on three world-class midfielders and a world-class forward? Aren’t the Glazers in hawk to creditors to the tune of $1.4 billion, making the Red Devils the most in-the-red sports entity in all of professional sports? This is the third year of the Glazer’s ownership of United, and in that time the most they’ve spent on transfers was the $32M they spent on Michael Carrick in the summer of 2006 – and they weren’t real happy about having to come off of that.

The only thing I can think of is that they got a large windfall from going deep into the Champion’s League – semi-finalists they were. There’s also a winners share of the EPL championship, but I’m sure that isn’t a huge windfall. I hear that they are getting an immense chunk of change from their new television deal. But does that really explain the $32M it cost to pry Brazilian playmaker Anderson from Lisbon, $32M it cost to acquire Portuguese midfielder Nani, also from Lisbon, $56M it cost to finally pry Owen Hargreaves from Bayern, and the reported $56M it is going to cost to obtain creative forward Carlos Tevez from West Ham?

That is $176M! The Glazers are notorious cheapskates – just ask the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While there is no salary cap in football like there is in the NFL, that’s a lot of dinero for an ownership group up to their eyeballs in red ink.

Still, I can’t see the British finance ministry or the European Union – as well as the FA and UEFA — signing off on any of this if it wasn’t on the up-and-up.

All that aside, Sir Alex Ferguson made good on his post-season goal of bringing in help. After arguably their most successful season since 1999, in which they won the EPL, were finalist in the FA Cup, and semi-finalists in the Champion’s League, Ferguson is getting ambitious and clearly wants more. The treble was attainable this past season and he clearly thinks it is attainable once again.

…But, Geez, that midfield is getting mighty crowded…

Ferguson ended last season with Carrick, Giggs, Scholes, and Ronaldo in midfield. Clearly Giggs and Scholes are going to get slowly weaned out. Carrick is obviously going to be inserted on a regular basis, but what about Nani and Anderson. Sixty-Four million dollars is a lot to spend on part-timers.

Ever since letting right-half David Beckham leave more than four years ago Ferguson has run a modified 4-5-1 formation, so if he continues to do that then there will be room for Carrick, Hargreaves, Anderson, Nani and Ronaldo on the pitch at the same time (my guess is that Carrick and Hargreaves would be the holding midfielders and linkup players, Anderson would be the creator in the center of midfielder, and Nani and Ronaldo would compliment each other on the flanks going forward playing a switching game). Problem with that, though, is that it would only leave room for one target man in the box, a role not suited for Rooney. Rooney is a forward and a damn good one with world-class skills, but he is not a classic target man and goal poacher. That is supposedly why they want Tevez. But still, are they going to spend $56M on a player who is not first choice, because I’m not envisioning Rooney sitting down for any reason.

It’s an interesting problem to have; the kind most football managers wish they had…


Does Ferguson have the balls to switch to a three-man backline? Sir Alex’s entire career has been predicated on a flat-back four. A 3-5-2 formation, however, would satisfy everybody (except maybe Gary Neville and Patrice Evra) and get all $176M on the pitch at once.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens…

Let me be the first to give a big shout-out to the best football player over the last eight years: Thierry Henry. Despite his worldwide fame and world-class skills and finishing he has continually been overlooked for individual recognition in Europe and the world. There were more than a few occasions when somebody else won European and World Footballer of the Year – and he clearly was more deserving. If there ever was a better fit between player and team than there was with Henry and Arsenal then I can’t find it. Nobody was more integral to the success of their team than Henry was to the Gunners (even when Patrick Vieira left Arsenal had more than a chance as long as Henry was on the pitch). Arsenal has many world-class players and clearly a world-class manager in Arsene Wenger, but if anybody had any hope of beating them then they had no choice but to game plan for Henry. That is how indispensable his skill set is.

Henry begins a new chapter of his career with Barcelona, and it is hard to find a fit (aside from Arsenal) that is better. Manager Frank Rijkaard has the enviable “problem” of finding room on the pitch for Ronaldinho, Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto’o, Thiery Henry at the same time (Rijkaard has historically operated with just one target man, Eto’o, up front, so what happens this close season will be interesting; if Rijkaard is willing to, he can modify his tactics to a more creative 4-2-2-2 Brazilian style and get all of them along with Deco and Maniche on the pitch at the same time). But it is safe to say that the “galacticos” are no longer in Madrid – they are now on the Mediterranean.

As for Arsenal, you can now signal to the day that the Gunners went from a European power to a middle-of-the-pack side. You can’t get rid of arguably the two best players in the world at their positions (Vieira and Henry) and there not be repercussions. Cesc Fabregas and Alexandre Hleb are world-class players but neither is in that refuse-to-lose league that Vieira inhabited in midfield, and neither has the ability to impose their will in the midfield. And just who, pray tell, is going to be the go-to guy going forward? Emmanuel Adebayor? Puh-LEEZE!!! Wenger historically has been able to find these diamonds-in-the-rough; players with unrealized talent who didn’t cost a lot. But let’s not kid ourselves here; finding Vieira and Henry and giving them a chance to thrive into superstar champions was catching lightning in a bottle – twice. Wenger will still find talented players and they’ll continue to yearly challenge for a spot in Europe but the days of scaring anybody are gone.

YOU HEARD IT HERE FIRST: Sometime in the next three years Barcelona and Manchester United will be playing each other in some European capital on the fourth Wednesday in May.

Another big shout-out to Filippo Inzaghi, a goal-poacher who was marginalized by Italian football in general and Juventus and AC Milan in particular until recently. This was because people chose to dwell on what it is he doesn’t do rather than dwelling on what it is he does do – and at a world-class level at that.

What Inzaghi does – and always has done – is score goals. No matter what the competition, no matter how big or small, no matter the venue, Inzaghi has always scored goals. Everywhere he’s been – Udinese, Juventus or AC Milan; Serie A, Copa Italia or Champions League – he has scored goals and lots of them.

What has characterized his career, however, has been his attitude and his penchant for not being able to do much of anything else.

Inzaghi has been a notorious crybaby and diver, always complaining about encounters that never happened and phantom fouls. He has taken diving in the box to levels not even Cristiano Ronaldo could possibly attain. And when he has been substituted, he is a notorious pouter, like a little child having his toy taken from him.

What’s more, get him outside the penalty area and he is virtually useless. He has little movement off the ball and just stands around like a bored housewife when his team is not in possession, so asking him to contribute any kind of pressure up front is out of the question. When his team is in possession Inzaghi shows little interest in trying to contribute anything offensively outside of the box; he doesn’t track back to gain possession, when he has the ball he has no ball skills to speak of, no presence of mind to notice anybody helping out, no field vision, he isn’t a very good dribbler, and he certainly can’t pass to save his life.

Stated simply, if he doesn’t have the ball then it’s like you are playing with just ten men, but Gawd knows he is selfish as hell and wants the ball on his feet inside the penalty area. Terrell Owens could learn a few things from this guy.

All that said there is one thing, though: Get Inzaghi inside the box and the ball on his feet and he is a holy terror. It is hard to find anybody over the last ten years better at taking a sliver of space and finishing his chances with the ball in the back of the net. Eight years ago, when he was in Juventus and they were playing Manchester United in the Champion’s League semis, Gary Neville couldn’t have man-marked him any better; Inzaghi was covered like a white woman on an NBA player. Yet a cross went inside and the only body part of Inzaghi’s that was even remotely exposed was his right foot; Neville missed the cross by a hair and that was all Inzaghi needed – he one-touched it past Peter Schmeichel for the score. How the hell he found the space I’ll just never know.

So it was instructive to note that in AC Milan’s trek to the European Championship this past season, the increasingly marginalized Inzaghi was called upon to do what he does best: get in the box, get the ball serviced to him and finish his chances. Over the past five years Inzaghi had been pushed further and further down the Milan bench by first Andriy Shevchenko, then Alberto Gilardino, and lately the recently acquired Ronaldo. The two World Cup champions, though, weren’t scoring with any regularity in this big a club competition, so Milan called on the one person who scored more Champion’s League goals than anybody ever – Inzaghi. In the final against Liverpool, he came through with the only two goals of the match.

Look, I’m as much into the tactics and fundamentals as the next guy (I’m an American; we tend to dwell on that shit). But sometimes you have to look past a person’s shortcomings and see what it is that they do best that contributes to you being successful. Filippo Inzaghi doesn’t do a lot of things but the one thing he does do is what wins you games. In this case that is enough to get him on the pitch and keep him there.

Kudos to the United States for winning the Gold Cup, North America’s premier football competition. Establishing themselves as the best in that region — especially in beating Mexico, the one team in CONCACAF with an international pedigree – goes a long way towards them establishing a certain respect internationally…

…But it would have been more impressive if Mexico had not gone to South America three days later and knocked off Brazil in that continent’s premier football competition, the Copa America. The USA Gold Cup victory was further marginalized by Mexico’s win in confluence with three other things: (1) Brazil was the defending champion, (2) the USA, in the same competition, got bitch-slapped by Argentina, Paraguay and Columbia in finishing dead last in the entire competitions, while (3) Mexico also annihilated Ecuador and Paraguay on their way to a semi-final date with Argentina at the time of this writing…

…Just when we get to thinking we have supplanted the Mexicans as the football power here in North America, they go and do something like this to remind us all that they are the ones with the football pedigree and we are just pretenders until we accomplish something of note against the football powers of the world.

That said, I’m glad to see the USA getting into world-class international competitions like the Copa America – and because they won the Gold Cup, the USA gets an automatic place at the Confederations Cup in 2009. This is the only way that the USA is going to get the experience they need to compete successfully against the best on the planet. My hope is that the miserable failure they were at the Copa America will not keep them from accepting invitations to other international tournaments.

South American want the Copa America to be recognized as one of the three best international football tournaments, on par with the European Championship and just short of the World Cup.

Not that is doesn’t deserve it’s props, but it’s a little difficult to respect CONMEBOL’s continental tournament when a good portion of the national sides there consciously decided to bring less-than full-strength squads. Both Mexico and the United States, having just finished its own continental football tournament three days earlier, brought their second and third strings, respectively. Brazil brought mostly second stringers and Under-21 players.

This is hardly unusual. The last two times Argentina won it they brought sides made up entirely of their Under-21 squad. When Brazil won it three years ago they had nobody from either their previous World Cup qualifying teams or their World Cup champions from two seasons prior.

In contrast, the European Championships are exceedingly important to Europe, UEFA and it’s member countries. No national side would even consider fielding a team that was less than full strength even for a qualifier, let alone the quadrennial tournament itself. That would just be unheard of.

The fact is that we all know who the powers are in South American football: Brazil and Argentina. No regional tournament is going to change that anytime soon, so whoever wins it is no going to change the status quo down there. Both Brazil and Argentina consider the South American World Cup Qualifiers as more important than any tournament save the World Cup itself, and as long as they do they are going to consider the Copa America worthy or unworthy of their best on a whim. Quite frankly, it wouldn’t surprise me if most of the country’s football federations thought the same way.

If South America wants the Copa America to have the same respect as the European Championship and for the rest of the world to stop marginalizing it, then the national sides of its participants are going to have to stop marginalizing it themselves.

– daveydoug