Some random thoughts about “The Beautiful Game” from an
“Ugly American” outsider looking in
Well that was surprisingly easy…
Ever since he took over as manager of Chelsea in July, I’ve been waiting for Luis Felipe “Big Phil” Scolari to stamp his imprimatur on this side. The irascible, stone-cold stoic who refuses to lose, plays with a decided bad disposition, and doesn’t give a rat’s ass what anybody thinks of him, Scolari has instilled the same characteristics in every side he has ever headed, with supremely fantastic results. Everywhere he’s been his sides have won (his four year stint at the helm of the Portuguese national side resulted in a 4th-place finish at the 2006 Cup and a 2nd-place finish at Euro 2004).
Yet the Blues have played with a decided lack of all of the above.
I’ve talked about “street cred” when analyzing Premiership managers in the past. Former Blues manager Jose Mourinho, the self-described “Special One”, had it in spades. Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger has it too. For more than 23 years Sir Alex Fergusen has been the epitome of it in the English top flight, willing his charges at Manchester United to previously unfathomable heights. I was certain that Big Phil would bring it to Chelsea and give Sir Alex a challenge he’s never had before.
So far there is all evidence to the contrary.
This past Sunday Chelsea went into Old Trafford and were dismantled 3-0 in a manner that suggests they’ve lost their bite. Same world-class players as in past years when the side led by Mourinho would come in and pick the Red Devils apart, but with a vastly different dynamic.
After watching Chelsea for most of the season so far I’ve kind of gotten the impression that Scolari is confused about what he is trying to do tactically. The Blues are uncharacteristically disorganized in the back (Even with John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho partnering in the center of defense for the first time since November). Players, notably Deco and Michael Ballack, aren’t going forward with any continuity or confidence as in past years, and neither is certainly showing any kind of offensive invention (which supposedly is why they got both). Notably missing is that ever-important defense in front of the backline and distribution from the holding midfielder, where John Obi Mikel is commendable but has nowhere near the impact of Michael Essien, out for the rest of the season.
But most bewildering is what’s going on up front, where Didier Drogba continues to be the preferred target man up front even though Nikolas Anelka has been far and away the most consistent finisher. Even though Anelka leads the Premiership in goals (not coincidentally because Drogba spent over two months injured), it is Drogba who gets the first-team spot and the lion’s share of the playing time. Ever since Drogba’s return from injury in late November Anelka has been relegated to the substitute’s bench.
Sunday was no different. It wasn’t until Chelsea was down a goal that Scolari brought on Anelka to replace Deco, and while Anelka played in Deco’s place on the wings – a place he clearly is ill-suited – it had the affect of having two finisher on the pitch at the same time, with confusing results for the rest of the side. Compounding matters is the fact that Drogba hasn’t been in-form all season, evidenced by his poor shot selection in this fixture…
…Somebody want to tell me why they got rid of Avram Grant – let alone The Special One — if this was the way they were going to play?
This is not to imply that Manchester United has been perfect themselves (they haven’t been), but the Red Devils sure picked the right time to find their world-class form. Sir Alex continues to find the right combination of players at the most opportune times, all the while getting into his counterpart’s head. This time around, he moved Ryan Giggs, normally a winger, inside, which, coupled with the fact that Cristiano Ronaldo and Park Ji-Sung were also in the starting XI, confused Chelsea fullbacks Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa as to who to mark on the flanks. This freed up space for Giggs to make runs and create through-balls in the center. Its mismatches like this that have confounded Chelsea for two and a half years now, regardless of who manages them.
World-class center defender Rio Ferdinand was not available, forcing youngster Johnny Evans into the center of the United defense. That ordinarily would make one think that world-class finisher Drogba would have a decided advantage. But Evans was a rock, dispossessing Drogba at will, and making him take horrendously bad shots. Gary Neville is getting long in the tooth, losing pace and stamina after a long spell on the trainer’s table, but what he gives up in workrate he more than makes up for in cunning and guile, and he had his best game this season closing down Chelsea on the right side. Of course, it helped that the Red Devils had Patrice Evra back from a five-game suspension; right now he is probably the best wingback in England in terms of going forward and creating chances (as much as I like John O’Shea he just can’t do the things Evra does going forward)…
…And I’ll just put it out there right now: NEMANJA VIDIC IS THE BEST DEFENDER IN THE WORLD! This guy is a rock in front of goal, he will take on anybody and is absolutely fearless. Add to that the four goals he has scored off of headers from corners, including the first one this Sunday. His take-on-anybody mentality coupled with Ferdinand’s anticipation and reading of the game make them the best defensive duo in the world and is the primary reason United have not given up a Premiership goal since November.
With two games in hand it looks like Manchester United are going to pip Chelsea for second place by this Saturday (they may even leap-frog Liverpool for first place by Sunday). This is normally the time of year when the Red Devils shift into fifth gear and go on one of their patented New Year tears. Not a good sign for Chelsea, where after getting only 10 points from their last seven Premiership fixtures there are rumblings that not unlike his predecessor Big Phil is losing the locker room and some quality players want out during this transfer window. If this keeps up and the Blues finish worse than second he probably lasts only one season in north London.
I was as surprised as anybody that David Beckham made his debut with AC Milan in the starting XI. Still rounding back into shape after an almost three month layoff from Major League Soccer, the England midfielder, signed on a three-month loan from the Los Angeles Galaxy, crossed the ball effectively on numerous occasions before being substituted two minutes from time.
Beckham was in the center of midfield, someplace he has always wanted to play, playing deep in front of the 4-man backline. As the game wore on he moved to his customary right side (he may want to play in the center but his game is best suited for the wings; I guess old habits die hard). Beckham was most effective on corners, where even his teammates weren’t prepared for his accurate in-swingers. But those long crosses and through-balls into the box that are the cornerstone of Beckham’s game are not very well suited to the personnel that Milan has right now.
What was most surprising was that an on-loan player, even Beckham, was going to pip Massimo Ambrosini and/or Mathieu Flamini in the first team. In the 4-3-2-1 that manager Carlo Anselotti employs Ambrosini and Flamini are better suited as providers in midfield with link-up man Andrea Pirlo behind the main two withdrawn forwards, Ronaldinho and Kaka’, with Alexandre Pato (who came up huge) as the target man up front.
Of course, we are talking about marketing machine that is David Beckham, arguably the most marketable athlete in the world not named Tiger Woods. Beckham’s public reason for the loan to Milan was to keep in form for the English national side’s qualifiers for the World Cup while his MLS side Los Angeles Galaxy were in their offseason until April. Of course, AC Milan was all over that; why pass up the chance to earn long dollar with Beckham, even if it is only for three months? Can you imagine how rare those David Beckham #32 AC Milan jerseys are going to be after April? And why would Beckham pass up the chance to play for one of the premier football clubs on the planet, with the kind of world-class talent they have? Especially after having to suffer through the middling players Becks has toiled with in the MLS, globally thought of as a minor league at best?
Which begs the question: Is Beckham going to go back to Los Angeles at the end of his loan spell?
YES, HE IS! Even at 32 years of age and yet to be in-form Beckham proved in his 89-minute debut with Milan against Roma that when it comes to crosses, through-balls and set pieces there is nobody on the planet better. So even though he has had to ply his trade in a “minor league” Becks isn’t losing any skill; obviously the problems with the Galaxy are somewhere else. However, even though a high level of competition is still uppermost in importance to Beckham, like Tiger he is a global brand unto himself. And nowhere is he going to capitalize on that more so than in Tinsel Town, where appearances and commercializing can earn him nine figures annually. Even the fashion Mecca that is Milan can’t do that for him…
…Besides, Posh and the children are still in L.A. If he were not going to stay then they would have been outta there by now.
See how Real Madrid now have three consecutive clean sheets in La Liga? What’s changed? Manager Berndt Schuster was replaced by Juande Ramos. This after Ramos spent the last five months failing miserably at Tottenham Hotspur.
Ramos was the wildly successful manager of Seville in La Liga, winning two consecutive UEFA Cups before heading to North London. Once there, he took over a lackluster side mired in the relegation zone, and in short order organized the backline while freeing up the wings to make runs going forward, thereby giving the front men the space to create their chances. In less than three months Tottenham got out of the relegation zone and made an impressive run to the Carling Cup, upsetting Chelsea in the final.
Not long afterwards, though, it went south for Ramos. Tottemham lost three key players to transfers, went back to their ineffective plodding style of play and not surprisingly back to the relegation zone this term. Ramos was gone by November…
…Which wasn’t enough to deter Real, whose attack was still as scary as ever but who couldn’t stop opponents from scoring to save their lives (that’s kinda what happens when you don’t have any defensive midfielders to speak of). Out with Schuster and in with Ramos.
I’ll say this for Ramos. His success with Seville notwithstanding, he clearly knows how to quickly turn a backline into a stifling unit. It is probably too late for Los Galacticos to catch Barcelona, who took advantage of Real Madrid’s poor defensive form and raced off to a 12-point lead. But if his previous stint in Tottenham is any indication, over the short-term Ramos’ defense may make life very miserable for everybody they face in the knockout stage of the Champions League.