Tuesday
Sep162014

Prem Week 04: Same old Arsenal; Chelsea could walk it

Big game of the weekend was at the Emirates where Arsenal squandered their chance to beat Chelsea’s only realistic threat to the title, Manchester City.

Despite starting the game better and scoring two brilliant goals, Arsenal’s frailties remain all too obvious and Pellegrini’s men were unlucky not to claim victory in the end after hitting the woodwork twice and being denied a blatant penalty following Jack Wilshere’s handball in the box.

Ultimately, however, 2-2 was probably a fair result. Best players on the pitch were Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere and Alexis Sanchez, while Jesus Navas tortured Nacho Monreal. City’s Fernandinho made another big impression, making his opposite number Mathieu Flamini look like a footballing relic from a previous generation.

Dud of the match was Mesut Ozil, a colossal waste of money that has so far failed dismally to integrate into the Premier League. When you pay £42.5m for a player, you expect game-changing quality almost week in, week out, not the pitiful performances Ozil has delivered.

My final observation on that match is that Vincent Kompany needs a suitable partner. If the Belgian gets a long-term injury, City’s defence will struggle badly, which could damage their title bid. It’s a good time to be a centre back in European football, as even the most average can earn big money moves in the current climate where there is a dearth of quality available.

Meanwhile, despite a good start to the game, Chelsea’s battering ram Diego Costa scored just before half time then went on to plunder a hattrick during the home side’s 4-2 demolition of high-flying Swansea. Even at this early stage, the title looks a formality for Jose Mourinho’s side.

Despite playing well, Fabregas looks uncomfortable in Chelsea’s blue and white, struggling to celebrate with conviction. We all know where he wants to be, and should be, but he can at least placate himself by knowing he’s at a team that can compete for major honours.

Southampton fans are back to loving life after a worrying summer. Despite the departure of key players, Mauricio Pochettino’s influence remains embedded in the club’s psyche. They battered Newcastle 4-0 on Saturday and left Alan Pardew staring down the barrel. Few managers could be more worthy of the sack; a charmless and thoroughly dislikeable individual, Pardew’s days are numbered.

Defeat of the week came at Anfield as Liverpool lost 1-0 at home to Aston Villa. With Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling both absent – and Luis Suarez gone, canny gamblers will have laid money on this upset having taken into consideration Villa’s already excellent start to the campaign.

Elsewhere, Everton earned a much-needed clean sheet following a 2-0 win at West Brom, while Tottenham will need to tighten up if they’re serious about Champions League qualification after conceding a comedy late goal in their 2-2 draw against lucky Sunderland.

At Old Trafford, Man Utd thumped QPR 4-0. The Hoops were blown away by Utd’s abundance of attacking talent, but this is no yardstick from which to measure the improvement of Louis Van Gaal’s lop-sided team. Looks like they’re going to try and pummel their way to Champions League qualification; a bit like Liverpool did last season with an equally dismal defence.

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Wednesday
Sep032014

‘Deadline Day’, what's all the fuss?

And so the transfer window deadline, rebranded by Sky Sports as ‘Deadline Day’, closed on Monday evening in somewhat anti-climactic fashion.

Premier League clubs spent £835m in transfers this summer, a new record – although the fact that the outlay was only £165m more than six years ago tends to abate notions of some alarming upward trend. Spending could increase again next season when a new Champions League TV deal sees income double for those clubs taking part.

There has been a lot of talk about the so-called spectacle that is Deadline Day, mostly in the form of complaints by overzealous do-gooders that seem to have forgotten that football is part of the entertainment industry. One absurd article I read today compared Deadline Day to FA Cup Final day.

I suspect that, in reality, supporters are mildly entertained by events surrounding the closing of the transfer window, but no more than that – basically it’s something to do on a Monday night, if you’re bored. Of course, the media will try to fan the flames and make it appear a bigger event than it actually is, but that’s their job because they’re… in the entertainment industry.

The rising cost of transfers in England shows only one thing, an extremely healthy sport bursting at the seams in cash. Football’s massive influx of sponsorship and TV money has raised interest and competitiveness in the sport to new heights – and we all benefit from that as viewers, otherwise we wouldn’t be excited by it, spend oodles of money on it or watch it in our droves.

No doubt some clubs have chased that success to their own cost with debt and wages spiralling out of control, but I have no problem with that whatsoever. Businesses go into administration every day, so I don’t see why football clubs should be any different – they are businesses after all. Besides, if you analyse how many football clubs have actually gone into administration through overspend, it’s relatively few – and they usually survive, most businesses that go bankrupt don’t survive.

Notable recent victims have included Leeds United, who now suffer the ignominy of playing in the Championship (roll eyes) and Glasgow Rangers, but I doubt the rest of the SPL is embittered at having the genuine option of being able to challenge for Europa League football – a chance previously stymied by two clubs that have come first and second at the top of the SPL since time immemorial. Meanwhile, QPR and Leicester City are once again enjoying the financial fruits of the Premier League after near bankruptcy, yet neither seemed to have suffered much in exile.

Many clubs run a tight ship and still drop divisions, and for every club that fails – for whatever reason, the door opens for another that might previously never have had the chance to move up the football association pyramid.

Are vast sums of money being thrown away? Yes, certainly, but vast sums of money are thrown away in every sector of the entertainment industry. No one seems to care if Arnold Schwarzenegger or Leonardo Dicaprio is paid $30m to rehearse a script, yet there’s furore when a footballer gets £200k a week. The fact of the matter is, it’s about supply and demand, and people stop spending when you stop giving them value for money. Like any business, you live and die by the quality of the product you’re selling.

When it comes to morals in sport, I say, what morals? As well all know, football’s governing bodies are corrupt and by allowing that to continue unabated society is, in itself, morally bankrupt. If you don’t like the way the sport is run, vote with your feet and bail out – yes that’s right, stop going to games, stop writing about football and stop watching it on TV. Are you prepared to do that? If not, quit whining.

Another common complaint that seems to spring up is that big clubs sign all the big stars thus stifling young talent. This philosophy is absolutely ludicrous. All the players at the top of the football pyramid were young once and, quite obviously, today’s young players will fill those positions in equal number once they mature. Besides, what’s the rush? Thanks to all the money swilling around, most footballers are paid a king’s ransom even when plying their trade in League 1. And who says supporters want to see young players playing for their team? Methinks, given the opportunity, they want to see the best players, not young players, and so do the clubs who are under pressure to live up to supporter expectations – pressure we all enjoy watching and talking about.

Apart from all but the most exceptional, leave the young players to clubs that are financially constrained, they do a perfectly good job preparing kids for the next step in their careers and future riches. If anything, we see too many young players grossly overpaid before their time, often ending up disinterested and arrogant with a distorted sense of self-entitlement.

Finally, the timing of the transfer deadline itself. Some question whether there should be a transfer deadline one month into the start of the season, yet nobody seems to complain about the January transfer window slap bang in the middle of the season.

I suspect one of the reasons to have a transfer window late August is to allow clubs a small preparation period to bed in new signings etc. before making some final tactical adjustments and also to compensate for any serious injuries that players might receive in pre-season or few opening weeks of a season. This seems an entirely sensible way to approach things.

If you had the transfer deadline on the 31th July, Sky would simply move “Deadline Day” to 31st July instead and turn that into a big event, so does it really matter?

Most clubs want to do their business early and will do their business early – for obvious reasons. Only those that are badly organised or suffer late squad injuries will make a late entry into the market, and this year’s deadline cut-off appears to endorse that with only £80m in transfer fees exchanging hands by all clubs combined in England and Scotland.

Indeed, there were only two notable signings in the Premier League, strikers Radamel Falcao (Monaco to Man Utd) and Danny Welbeck (Man Utd to Arsenal). And it was only because Robin Van Persie got injured that this double-deal took place at all, almost making ‘Deadline Day’ a completely redundant spectacle.

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Tuesday
Sep022014

Prem Week 03: Chelsea entertain shock; Balotelli thrown in

The third week of the Premier League season sees Chelsea share top spot with Swansea City after the Blues fought out an incredible nine-goal thriller at Goodison Park.

Everton continued exactly where they finished the previous week at Arsenal; conceding silly goals as Chelsea went 2-0 up within three minutes. Everton pulled one back via Kevin Mirallas just before half time, but a Seamus Coleman own goal saw the Toffees forced to overcommit resulting in an avalanche of goals at both ends of the pitch.

Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa impressed once again in a 6-3 victory, particularly Costa who looks better with every viewing.

In three games Everton have already conceded a quarter of the goals they did the whole of last season. For a team that has aspirations of qualifying for the Champions League, such bad starts can be difficult to fully recover from.

Swansea, meanwhile, brushed West Brom aside 3-0 to move joint top, but something will have to give when they meet Chelsea at Stamford Bridge after the international break.

Shock of the week came at the Etihad Stadium, where Man City lost 1-0 at home to Stoke. Mame Biram Diouf ran the length of the pitch to net the winner, although Joe Hart was guilty of allowing his angled shot to fizz through his legs – is it me or does Hart simply not convince?

Three penalty shouts were turned down, one for each team – probably due to over-exaggerated dives, however, City should have definitely had a spot kick when Youssuf Mulumbu practically caught the ball in the penalty box.

Regardless, City should not be losing matches in this fashion. Last season, Chelsea dropped silly points but had the excuse of a dud strike force; City have no such excuse and it will be a worry for supporters if Manuel Pellegrini has to put in overtime to keep his players focused for every game.

At White Hart Lane, Spurs lost 3-0 to a Liverpool side that needed to bounce back following last week’s comprehensive defeat at City. Mario Balotelli made his debut but, perhaps understandably, lacked sharpness in the final third. Despite that, Brendan Rodgers team played the same brave attacking football as they did last season and got the result they deserved.

A goal down early in the game, Spurs had a harsh penalty awarded against them on 49 when Eric Dier touched, rather than tugged, Joe Allen in the box. Spurs never recovered as poor cameo roles from substitutes Moussa Dembele and Andros Townsend became an impediment rather than a route to achieving a fight back.

There were goals galore at St James’ Park where Newcastle shared a six-goal thriller with Crystal Palace, for whom old-school managerial legend Neil Warnock replaces Tony Pulis. His second spell at Palace, Warnock has now been employed 14 times since 1980.

Man Utd struggled again, this time at Burnley in a goalless draw. There was an early scare for Louis Van Galle’s men when the home side struck the woodwork early, otherwise neither side were much of a threat going forward. £60m debutant Angel Di Maria impressed in spells with his range of passing and willingness to get stuck in – he came off with cramp, otherwise Utd still look horribly disjointed.

Elsewhere, Aston Villa continued their fine start to the season with a 2-1 home win against Hull, with Steve Bruce moaning that the first half was one of the worst he’d witnessed in his two years at the club. Southampton beat Jekyll and Hyde West Ham 3-1 at Upton Park; discontent amongst the supporter base at the appointment and methods of Sam Allardyce continues to simmer like an Icelandic volcano.

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Tuesday
Aug262014

Prem Week 02: Man City coast Liverpool; Spurs impress

Match of the weekend, even though it took place last night, was unmistakeably Man City v Liverpool, but in the end it was a damp squib for the neutral. Throughout the 3-1 defeat, Liverpool still looked to be suffering the absence of Luis Suarez. Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Stirling suddenly seem all-too ordinary, but then it was a difficult match.

More worrying for Pool fans is their leaky defence. New signing Alberto Moreno did not cover himself in glory with his ludicrously lax attempt at a clearance which allowed Stevan Jovetic to nip in and score City’s opener. From then on it was a cruise for City, who never really needed to get out of second gear.

Attending the match was Mario Balotelli, who Liverpool are now expected to sign for £16m despite the concerns of manager Brendan Rodgers. Although Suarez was a bad boy he was never a problem off the pitch or in the dressing room and didn’t need motivating. Balotelli, however, is quite the opposite. Neither Jose Mourinho nor Roberto Mancini could withstand his lack of professionalism, and it seems AC Milan have also grown tired of his lackadaisical attitude, hence a cut-price deal.

Top four hopefuls Man Utd struggled again in their second game of the season away to Sunderland, where, despite a 1-1 draw, the disconnect between defence and attack looked even more apparent. Utd looked lost in the middle of the park with duo Tom Cleverley and Darren Fletcher both equally inept at shielding the defence or stimulating the attack.

Van Gaal appears to be toying with personnel and formations, and the big question is whether Utd panic buy over the next five days or allow the manager time for further analysis of the squad right up to Christmas. As I mentioned in my previous blog, Angel Di Maria looks destined for Old Trafford this week in a £60m move.

Jose Mourinho had to wield the big stick at half-time to enable a lacklustre Chelsea to raise their game and beat Leicester 2-0. This was not before an almighty scare as goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois raced out of his box to prevent David Nugent putting the away side 1-0 up.

Diego Costa seems like the goal poacher that Chelsea needs. Nothing flash, just good movement and positional awareness in the box, and no-fuss execution of anything played into his path.

Meanwhile, Arsenal looked the same old tactical mess at Everton. The Gunners started the game with Alexis Sanchez playing up front as a lone striker, but, along with his team mates, ran around like headless chickens for 45 minutes. Sanchez was replaced at half-time by Olivier Giroud.

Everton picked off Wenger’s men, led 2-0 by half time and looked comfortable throughout, but collapsed in the last 7 minutes conceding two appalling goals. Credit to Arsenal for sticking with it, but if Everton are to make further progress under Roberto Martinez then you would expect him to be more critical of his team, who looked sloppy and over-confident rather than “mentally fatigued” - not a quality you would associate with Everton in recent years.

For Tottenham, it all seems to be coming together quickly for Mauricio Pochettino. After the board blew £100m on players that struggled to integrate last season, suddenly the likes of Nacer Chadli and Erik Lamela are having an impact.

I mentioned last week that centre back Erik Dier was one to look out for, and he scored in successive matches as Spurs routed QPR 4-0.

Elsewhere, Aston Villa looked surprisingly solid again earning a 0-0 draw at home to Newcastle, Swansea dispatched Burnley 1-0 to record back-to-back wins, and West Ham played surprisingly good football to comfortably beat Crystal Palace 3-1.

The transfer window, rebranded by Sky Sports as “Deadline Day” closes at 11pm on Monday. Most teams look quite settled having done their business early this summer, but you would expect Man Utd to be busy, and perhaps Southampton, who must have a bulging wallet having spent the last three months selling their crown jewels.

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Friday
Aug222014

Fabregas the answer to solving Mourinho's attacking rigidity



Cesc Fabregas joined Arsenal in September 2003 - aged just 16, and was thrust into the first team by Arsene Wenger within two months of his arrival to become Arsenal’s youngest ever first team debutant.

By the age of 21, Fabregas had been made Arsenal’s captain and the Spanish youngster spent eight years at the club in total. His technical brilliance, allied to his agile, light frame created a ticking metronome at the heart of Arsenal’s midfield. An assist machine, with a steely determination to win, he soon become one of the Premier League’s hottest imports and most sought after talents in European football.

Arsenal had repeatedly rejected advances for Fabregas to rejoin his boyhood club, but the Spanish club’s unsettling tactics, combined with Fabregas’ clear desire to move, resulted in a bid of approximately £30m being accepted by Arsenal in August 2011.

When Fabregas joined Barcelona, the assumption was that he would be on the bench acting as understudy to Xavi before gradually taking over his role in the first team. However, Pep Guardiola had other ideas. Despite 212 appearances in the Premier League and 61 in Europe, and although Fabregas was considered by Pep Guardiola to be far from the finished article, the plan was to convert Fabregas into a ‘False 9’ striker - not to replace Lionel Messi, but to give the manager another option.

For those unfamiliar with the term, ‘False 9’, the role is similar to that of the central attacking midfielder, but perhaps more difficult to fulfill. The idea is that the False 9 acts primarily as a lone striker but drops deep into midfield where defenders can be dragged out of position, allowing the exploitation of space in behind via through balls to onrushing wingers or late runners from midfield. However, apart from having to be able to create in an instant, the False 9 also has to have the adaptability to be assertive in the final third, and be able to score goals too. Successfully adapting to the position requires tactical intelligence; intelligence that Guardiola believed Fabregas either possessed or could be honed to possess.

Having broken his tibia and with little hope of participating in the 2011/12 season, David Villa’s loss was Fabregas’ gain, with Guardiola deeming the Spaniard ready to fulfil the False 9 role – albeit ahead of time. Alexis Sanchez was recruited to play on the left flank, with Lionel Messi on the right and Fabregas rotating in-between. 

Few people really understand the level of detail, intelligence, focus and exertion required for a manager like Guardiola to create his brand of attacking football. Every run and movement has to be strategised and tirelessly rehearsed in training. There is a reason that Guardiola has become one of the most revered, successful and tactically disciplined managers of his era – and, like all managers, it stems from detailed work on the training ground.

Indeed, Fabregas commented on his period of adaptation, “I was free to do whatever on the pitch at Arsenal, and I wasn't tactically good," he said. "I was playing wherever I wanted, up and down. Here I have to work much more for the team, individually, and think about the team tactically.”

This is not a position that any player could easily adapt to, and make no mistake, Fabregas did struggle to adapt. He no longer had the naive freedom offered to him at Arsenal, and his tendency to play a more direct style, which had almost become part of his DNA, tended to upset the fragile balance of Guardiola’s precise choreography.

As Barcelona lost grip of the title in 2011/12 to Real Madrid, Guardiola grew impatient and started to lose faith in Fabregas’ ability to fully adapt. Despite putting in some impressive performances, Fabregas struggled to fit convincingly into the manager’s jigsaw.

When Man Utd came forward with a £40m bid in the summer of 2013, Barcelona were keen to sell, but Fabregas was not keen to give up his dream so easily, or move to Manchester. However, two months later, a change of heart. In an interview with The Guardian, shortly after the dawn of a new season, Fabregas opened the door to a return to Arsenal with a thinly disguised patronage of his former club.

The interview also made interesting reading for another reason, with Fabregas offering a reasoned analysis of why it was easier for him to flourish in the Premier League, but not Spain. On English football, Fabregas stated: “It's much more crazy, out of control, everyone attacking, pouring forward” The crowd plays a part. The crowd roar and the full-back bombs forward and then the other full-back goes forward… sometimes in England it feels like you don't have time to think, but that's more a mental question; it's more about your own aggressive intuition, the atmosphere. It motivates you but it means you lose control.”

In England, the aggression and high tempo was not a detriment to Fabregas’ ability to spot a pass or control a game from midfield, but an asset. Unlike Spain, players get caught up in the atmosphere of a match, move out of position, lose possession easily in the searing pace, thus creating more space for the likes of Fabregas to operate, not less.

Fabregas continued: “In Spain, teams work much more on shape; they're more tactical, more positional. A Spanish-style footballer, like [David] Silva or Özil, if they can find two seconds to think, will see the pass because there'll be space. In Spain, you're up against a Mario Suárez or a Gabi and what a pain they are! In Spain, reducing space is worked on more.”

Real Madrid midfielder Xabi Alonso once mocked the English mentality towards aggressive football: 'Tackling is not really a quality, it's more something you are forced to resort to when you don't have the ball…I can't get into my head that footballing development would educate tackling as a quality.’’ Fabregas agreed, “That's how we tend to see it in Spain: defenders don't swallow the dummies as quickly. In England the attacker goes, ping! and the defender dives in quickly, flying by, wheeee! In Spain the defender stays on his feet longer. “

For all the criticism of Fabregas’ perceived failure to adapt to Spanish football – or the Barcelona way, in his final season, the Spaniard's stats as a creator were only bettered in the whole of Europe by Real Madrid’s Angel di Maria. It is true that Fabregas’ goalscoring did show a trend of dropping off towards the ends of each season, but 42 goals in 151 matches can hardly be described as a poor return. Indeed the ratio was far better than he managed at Arsenal.

Throughout 2013/14 Fabregas’ was Barcelona’s third most used player behind Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano – but then, for Barcelona it was never about goals scored and assists provided, but adapting to a philosophy where anything other than perfection was dissected. At Barcelona, if a cog has a blunt edge and cannot be quickly polished, it's just as quickly discarded. 

From a winning perspective, Fabregas’ time spent at Barcelona could not be considered a failure; he got the domestic trophies he wanted, including La Liga, plus the Copa Del Rey and two Spanish Supercups. With Fabregas feeling he was being forced out, and Barcelona keen to sell, it was Arsenal that had first refusal, yet Wenger declined, preferring to stand by Mesut Özil and the emerging Aaron Ramsey.

Instead, Fabregas made his return to the Premier League at Chelsea in June for £30m, where once again he is likely to find the space to terrorise defences as he had done at Arsenal three years earlier. He might not fit into Barcelona's system, but back in England it will be like hand in glove. Indeed, Fabregas is perhaps even more dangerous now than before, operating under one of the most tactically astute managers in Europe whilst still coveting Guardiola’s principles in his memory bank - Fabregas could be the key to unlocking Mourinho's Chelsea potential, particularly their stilted attack.

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