On The Brink: The Young Pretender.

Napoli: Another headache for AVB.
Similarly to ‘The Old Master’, things looked very different for Andre Villas-Boas one year ago. On the 4th March 2011 I described his unbelievable success story with table-topping Porto and how the Portuguese was destined for stardom. As predicted, Villas-Boas moved on to a bigger stage with Chelsea, following once again in the footsteps of the Special One.

However, the fairy tale move has not yet panned out. Struggling in the league, knocked out of the Carling Cup, held to a fifth-round FA Cup replay by Birmingham City, and comprehensively defeated in the first round of their Champions League last sixteen tie with Napoli, Villas-Boas is widely tipped as the next Premier League manager to leave his post, winning only two of the last eight games.

The recent run of bad results, including the throwing away of a 3-0 lead at home to Manchester United, is the reoccurrence of his side’s December form, a month in which they picked up nine of the possible eighteen points available, ending the yuletide in fifth place. The first time they have finished a calendar year outside the top four since 2001.

Villas-Boas’ team selection and transfer policy have indicated one thing since his arrival almost nine months ago; he is looking to usher in a new era at Stamford Bridge. The side selected to face Napoli last Tuesday was absent of players who have previously been pivotal to Chelsea success. Captain John Terry was sidelined through default, but the dropping of Lampard, Essien, Mikel, Kalou, and Cole was very much by design. As was the January sale of Nicolas Anelka.

Whilst Salamon Kalou, 26, and John Obi Mikel, 24, still have time on their side. The average age of Terry, Lampard, Essien and the departed Anelka, is a grand total of 31- the nine signings since his arrival have an average age of a decade younger, the eldest being 28 year old Raul Meireles.

Similarly to his north London rival Wenger, Villas-Boas’ has tied his hopes to youth. The folly of which has been all too evident in crucial games so far this season.

Senior players within the squad are rumoured to be circling the manager, and regular visits from Abramovich to the training ground signal a collapse of confidence from the owner. As each day passes, further revelations appear to surface surrounding the relationship between Villas-Boas’ and his employer. Most recently The Telegraph detailed how the former Porto boss was asked to explain his team selection versus Napoli to Abramovich via technical director Michael Emenalo. The questioning of the manager reiterates the owner’s worries, whilst the lack of direct communication appears to detail a strained relationship.

Villas-Boas is not the first manager to become embroiled in an internal battle at Chelsea. Senior players have been warranted with encouraging the expulsion of the club’s managers before- Avram Grant and Luiz Felipe Scolari both suffered at the hands of Drogba, Lampard and Terry during the Abramovich reign. The owner continues to take the opinion of his stars most seriously.

However, one thing that the owner takes more seriously than the views of his players is the Champions League, the one trophy which has eluded him since he bought the club for £140m in 2003. If Villas-Boas can make it to the return tie at Stamford Bridge, his side play Bolton, West Brom, and Stoke in the league, as well as the FA Cup replay with Birmingham City, before facing Napoli once again, he will have the opportunity of turning the tie and indeed his side’s season around. A loss before the second-leg on March 14th and he may not be so lucky.

Former Valencia and Liverpool manager, Rafael Benitez is rumoured to be in line to replace Villas-Boas should his side suffer a defeat in the coming weeks. The Spaniard’s experience is seen as the ideal antidote to AVB’s alleged naivety and many believe Benitez to be the man to reignite the faltering Fernando Torres.  The striker has found himself dropped in recent weeks following a period of backing from the manager and Abramovich is keen to see a return on the £50m paid for the forward prior to Villas-Boas’ arrival.

Unlike the signing of Torres, believed to be a direct action of the owner rather than former manager Carlo Ancelotti, the inclusion of Juan Mata and Gary Cahill by AVB to the squad has been widely lauded by fans. The £20m paid for Romelu Lukaku however has been the subject of increasing criticism- like Romeu, De Bruyne, Courtois and Bamford- the manager believes the fees will be justified in years to come.

If Villas-Boas is to oversee the growth of such players he must hope that those who take to the field in the coming weeks, whether old or new, can come together and provide the results necessary to climb back in to the top four and progress in both the FA Cup and Champions League. If they do not Abramovich will surely sack his sixth manager in nine years.

On The Brink: The Old Master.

The spotlight is on Wenger
One year ago Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal closed the gap at the top of the Premier League table to within one point of Manchester United. Four days later they would narrowly miss out on their first trophy since 2005, going on to be knocked out of the Champions League and dramatically fade away in the title race, winning only two of their eleven remaining league games.

A fourth placed finish and sixth season without a trophy spelled the end of the Fabregas-to-Barcelona saga as the talismanic Catalonian returned to his hometown club. Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy also left the club heading north to Manchester City.

The months between February and August 2011 were some of the most painful of Arsene Wenger’s reign. A Carling Cup final defeat to Birmingham City was quickly followed by Champions League exit and a slide from grace at the top of the table. The misery surrounding the transfer of the club’s two best players, and lack of adequate replacement, was cemented with an 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford. The BBC’s Chief football writer, Phil McNulty, said of the result “It was a performance, or lack of one, that proved the folly of his [Wenger’s] summer of transfer inaction”.

Although improvements have been visible, the players brought in to the replace Fabregas, Nasri, and Clichy, have so far failed to match the early promise of last season’s squad, crashing out of both the Carling and FA Cup, embarrassed in the San Siro and embroiled in a four way battle for the remaining Champions League position. Wenger’s position as Supreme Leader of Arsenal has never been so strained.

Since his appointment sixteen years ago, the former Nancy-Lorraine, Monaco, and Nagoya Grampus Eight manager has won three Premier League titles and four FA Cups with Arsenal, as well as various runners-up medals, including a UEFA Cup and Champions League. Simply, the Frenchman represents the most successful modern period of Arsenal Football Club.

However, the six, and more likely, seven seasons which have followed the club’s 2005 FA Cup win represent a period of stagnation for supporters. A period they believed would build them a team capable of challenging for major honours once again.

Following the dispersal of Wenger’s ‘Invincibles’ it was widely appreciated by fans that he was to oversee a period of renewal within his squad as youth replaced the ageing experts. Eight years on from the extraordinary achievements of Lehmann, Campbell, Toure, Cole, Vieira, Pires, Bergkamp and Henry, and following the departure of Fabregas- Wojciech Szczesny, Kierna Gibbs, Francis Coquelin , Jacks Wilshere, Johan Djourou, Henri Lansbury, and Emmanuel Frimpong, are the remainder of Arsene’s in-house youth experiment. An experiment which has seemingly produced too few players capable of walking in the shoes of the aforementioned giants.  

With many of his young pretenders failing to make the grade, Wenger has continually dipped in and out of the transfer market to bolster his squad with the quality necessary to pose a title challenge, as they did for much of last season. Since 2004 he has signed a total of 46 players, and although this includes success stories such as Samir Nasri, Thomas Vermaelen and Bacary Sagna for a combined fee of £31.8m (Robin Van Persie was signed in 2003 for £2.75m), it has been a chequered task. Good players have been bought, such as Emmanuel Adebayor, Eduardo, Alexander Song, Aaron Ramsey, Lauren Koscielny and most recently Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. But many more have severely underwhelmed, Jose Antonio Reyes, Phillipe Senderos, Tomas Rosicky, Andrei Arshavin and Theo Walcott have never lived up to expectations, whilst Alexander Hleb, Abou Diaby, and Maroune Chamakh, have all suffered similarly.

Up until August 2011 much of Arsenal’s shortcomings were masked by Wenger’s greatest success since the league title of 2004; Cesc Fabregas. The young man, acquired for nothing, became the centre piece which his manager built his side around. The degree to which Fabregas carried the team around him was subject to much debate in the years up to his exit; following the defeat at Old Trafford it was rife.

The tale end collapse of the 2010-11 season, teamed with the exit of Fabregas and Nasri led fans to call for a new rebuilding phase. One supported by the £70.7m acquired by the club through transfers that summer. Wenger did indeed go back into the transfer market. Everton’s Mikel Arteta, Ivorian international Gervinho, and Southampton youngster Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were seen as adequate midfield replacement for the departed, whilst Andre Santos and Per Mertasacker bolstered a defence which had crumbled in the close of the title race months earlier.  In total Wenger spent £53m in 2011.

However, once again, Wenger’s activity in the transfer market appears to have fallen short. The lack of quality supplied so far this season by his new signings, with the exclusion of Oxlade-Chamberlain, has amplified the glaring hole left by Fabregas. The long-term injury of Jack Wilshere, Wenger’s best hope of replacing Fabregas, has also added to the underperformance of players such as Andrei Arshavin and Theo Walcott.

Following the 4-0 defeat to AC Milan in the last 16 of the Champions League, former Arsenal manager George Graham described Wenger’s side as “a team in crisis” whilst Emmanuel Petit declared it the “worst moment of Arsene’s career with Arsenal”.

The pressure is undoubtedly mounting on Wenger. His supporters suggest that injuries and the departure of Fabregas were matters beyond his control and as such a fourth placed finish is all that can be expected. His critics call into question his handling of the squad; the youth which he put so much hope in has fallen short, as have many of the signings which he believed were capable of carrying the club forward.  The Frenchman still represents the club’s greatest successes; the problem appears to be that there aren’t many more on the horizon.



Roo can fill the void? And is Wayne's exclusion the answer to England's woes.

Following an un-aggravated assault in Montenegro, Wayne Rooney will miss England’s first three games of Euro 2012 next summer, leaving Fabio Capello with eight months to ponder who can replace the United hit-man and lead his side through the group stages in Poland and Ukraine.

With a clear lack of creativity at his disposal, Capello will surely be tempted to take his banned front man in reserve, should England qualify from the group stage. But the Italian will know Rooney’s record, 0 goals in his last two major tournaments and 3 goals in his last sixteen international games. Whilst he may provide a spark that few other English players are capable of, a top goal-scorer he has not proven to be.

This is perhaps due to the style of play under Fabio Capello. At United Rooney is able to play a centre-forward role safe in the knowledge that his team mates will afford him the opportunity to put the ball in the back of the net. When on England duty we continually see him becoming frustrated at the lack of goal scoring opportunities, dropping deeper and deeper to become involved in the play. This often creates a 4-6-0 formation, and whilst Roma have shown that such a formation is not untenable, unlike Spain or Germany, England do not have the players to conquer such a free flowing formation. Should Rooney be playing the deep lying attacking role of the 4-6-0 surrounded by Villa, Silva, and Xavi or Muller, Khedira, and Ozil, I suspect he would score goals, but he isn’t.

So like David Beckham ruling himself out of last year’s World Cup through injury, Rooney being unavailable may be a blessing in disguise for the manager, at least in terms of providing a shape to the side capable of scoring goals. England scored three in South Africa.  

The next best thing?
To compete next summer, England need a partnership, and for the last example of that, we need to look back a whole decade to the time surrounding the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan. Michael Owen and Emile Heskey were the last successful English striking partnership; the big man-little man combination that provided relative success in an England team including the likes of Danny Mills, Trevor Sinclair and Nicky Butt. There’s no question that playing consistently on both the domestic and international front together aided the pairing, but with several international friendlies between now and next summer, including Spain next month, Capello has an opportunity to piece together something that would outlast him with England.

So who’s in the running?

Darren Bent is without question a goal scorer. His 36 goals in 63 appearances for Sunderland and 11 in 23 at current club Aston Villa is testament to that. His 4 goals in 11 for England show that when given a chance, he scores goals.

Bent’s Villa teammate, Gabriel Agbonlahor has made a flying start to the season scoring 4 in 7 for his club so far this season. His international career has largely been halted in the years surpassing his under-21 call ups, with only 3 full caps to his name. However, his direct power, pace, and versatility is something offered by no other English centre forward. Should his excellent form continue, he will surely be in with a chance of making the trip next summer.

Had an achilles injury not prevented his selection, Bobby Zamora was a favourite to be included in Capello’s World Cup squad last year. However, only two senior squad call ups have been afforded to the Fulham striker, and if he is to stake a claim for his inclusion, he’ll need to hope for a chance in the upcoming friendlies.
Jermain Defoe was the only centre forward to score for England in South Africa last summer, and in the 46 appearances for his country he’s netted 15 times. His longevity, arguably the reason he’s had the nod on Darren Bent in recent years.

Like Defoe, Peter Crouch has made over 40 appearances for England, however his goal per game ratio stands at better than a goal every other game, one of the best in the modern era. However, after being dropped from the squad to face Switzerland in June after initially being included, rumours surfaced that the robot dancing goal machine would not play for the manager again. Should he forgive Capello and find the form worthy of a recall at new club Stoke, Capello will know that Crouch’s form; both physical and goal scoring will have the potential to pose a threat to any defence in the Ukraine and Poland.

The new Alan Shearer?

And then there’s the new boys; Andy Carroll is the most expensive British player in history, with a total of only 3 caps for his country. There’s no doubt the Geordie hit man has a potentially bright international future ahead of him, but injury has plagued the start of his Liverpool career and subsequently lead to a lack of international involvement. Carroll will need to continue in the vein of goal scoring kicked off last weekend at Goodison Park if he is to lead the English line next year.

Danny Welbeck is another young player whom Capello has high hopes for. Persuaded to turn his back on his parent’s native Ghana, the twenty year old is thought to be the young player the England manager is pinning his highest hopes on.  So far this season Welbeck has outshone Rooney, Hernandez and Berbatov in United’s forward line bagging 5 goals in 8 appearances, earning him his first competitive appearance away in Montenegro earlier this month, his second senior cap.

Finally, Daniel Sturridge, the centre forward who came to prominence during a loan spell at Bolton last season, scoring 8 goals in 12 appearances for the Trotters. This season has been no different for the Birmingham born forward, like Welbeck, upstaging his fellow centre forwards Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba with 3 goals in 3 appearances. Sturridge is the only player listed to have not made a full England appearance, something that will surely change in the coming months.

Capello clearly has options. The classic big man-little man combination personified by the Owen and Heskey partnership of a decade ago has the potential to be reignited. Andy Carroll  and Peter Crouch  both have the physical attributes to provide the battering ram needed for a smaller nippier player to succeed. Darren Bent and Jermain Defoe offer proven goal scoring ability, whilst Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge provide a rawer, untamed talent.

Should the England manager opt for a striker-centre forward pair, Bobby Zamora and Gabriel Agbonlahor will feel their chances have increased, both players preferring to play off an advanced striker; Darren Bent’s ideal role.

Whatever Capello decides, one thing is for certain, for the first three games at least, it won’t involve Wayne Rooney.



Bilbao and Bielsa: tradition vs revolution

After yesterday's article looked at the Basque-only policy at Athletic Bilbao, today Get the Mott and Buckett focus on the arduous task faced by new manager Marcelo Bielsa, as he tries to implement his own philosophy on one of Spain's most traditional clubs. 
The fascination when Marcelo Bielsa took the Athletic Bilbao job was always the extent to which he could shape the team to his philosophy. After all, this is a side that finished sixth last season; stripping it apart and starting again is far from necessary. Not that Athletic, with its Basque-only policy, is a club to which the usual rules of the transfer market apply; Bielsa is, to a large degree, stuck with what he's got.
More than that, Athletic is a club with a clearly defined style of its own. The bowler-hatted figure of Fred Pentland, the Englishman who coached them through the glory years of the 20s and early 30s, still looms over the club, as an exhibition in the museum at San Mames makes clear. He first instituted a direct approach, favouring a robust, "English-style" centre-forward, a tradition that endures in the shape of Fernando Llorente, a remarkable combination of finesse and muscularity.
That preference for vertical football – put simply, getting the ball forward quickly without necessarily resorting to aimless long balls – means there is a potential complementarity between the philosophies of Athletic and Bielsa, but it is not an exact match, and to an extent the football they play this season will always be a compromise between the two schools.
Bielsa's game, with both the Argentinian and Chilean national sides, was largely based on 3-3-1-3. He has tried that with Athletic, but in the past two games, which brought both his first home win (2-0 in the Europa League against PSG a fortnight ago) and his first win in La Liga (2-1 at Real Sociedad 12 days ago), he preferred a 4-2-3-1, in which Oscar de Marcos broke forward from deep positions and the highly exciting 18-year-old Iker Muniain dropped deep from the attacking trident.
There were spells against PSG, especially in the first half, in which Athletic were genuinely thrilling, when they seemed to produce a spectacular version of Bielsa's famed "vertical football". The ball was shifted rapidly from front to back, Javi Martínez and Muniain usually acting as the conduits, and had the delivery of the right-winger Markel Susaeta been better, Athletic could have had four or five before half-time.
As it was, they had to settle for two, both of them goals that encapsulated the Bielsa model. The first, in particular, was a thing of beauty: Javi Martínez played a typical low ball forward – a precise pass of maybe 30 yards; Muniain dummied, pivoted and sprinted on; Susaeta helped the ball on and Muniain crossed to the back post where the left-winger Igor Gabilondo hooked a volley into the top corner. The second also stemmed from the rapid transfer of the ball from front to back. This time it was the overlapping left-back Jon Aurtenetxe who crossed, and Susaeta turned in a half-volley at the back post.
Athletic's pressing, as you would expect from a Bielsa side, was exemplary in effort, if perhaps not yet in execution. There was one moment in the first half when Fernando Amorebieta, one of Athletic's centre-backs, paused with the ball, perhaps 20 yards inside his own half. The deeply disappointing Javier Pastore dawdled a few yards from him, as though nothing could be further from his mind than closing him down. When the ball was played forward, Llorente was caught offside. As Siaka Tiéné, the PSG left-back, knocked the ball into the centre for Sylvain Armand to take the free-kick, Llorente was on him immediately, instinctively pressing even as he realised the free-kick had not yet been taken.
The sending-off of Momo Sissoko seven minutes into the second half rather killed the game but, while Athletic were well worth the win, the weaknesses of the Bielsa method were also apparent. Hard-pressing is a gamble; if it breaks down, or if an opponent despite being under pressure can measure a pass over the top, the space behind a Bielsa defence can be exploited by a rapid forward. It happened twice in the first half: after 28 minutes when Clement Chantome's long diagonal pass turned the Athletic defence only for Mevlut Erdinc to snatch at his shot, and again two minutes later, when Athletic's goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz was lucky not to be sent off after charging from his area and handling as a simple ball over the top left Erdinc through again.
In the Basque Derby a few days later against Sociedad, Bielsa recalled the club captain, Carlos Gurpegui, to midfield, leaving out Borja Ekiza and pushing Javi Martínez, who captained Spain's Under-21 side to the European Championship in the summer, to centre-back. Bielsa has a habit of playing midfielders in defence, which makes sense in as much as their positioning often takes them high up the pitch into areas usually occupied by midfielders. The problem comes when the opposing side gets on top and Bielsa's team is forced to defend, and that was evident in San Sebastian.
What was especially significant was Matinez's positioning early on, as he kept breaking forward and running up against Sociedad's two holders in their 4-2-3-1, Asier Illarramendi and McDonald Mariga. The vulnerability of a 4-2-3-1 is often in that channel in front of the full-backs and to the side of the holders; Athletic exploited that as early as the second minute, Susaeta finding space there and sliding a pass through for Martinez, whose initial shot was saved, Muniain's follow-up being deflected against a post. When they probed there again, 11 minutes before half-time, Martinez overloading on that side and then crossing, they found the opener, Llorente turning superbly and prodding a deft finish past Claudio Bravo.
One of the features of a side that presses high up the pitch is that its goalkeeper must also be prepared to leave his line and often his box, sweeping up. Iraizoz did that against PSG effectively if fortuitously, but it does leave him susceptible to long-range lobs. As Johan Cruyff pointed out when he instituted the sweeper-keeper idea at Ajax, if the opposition are reduced to shooting from 60-70 yards, then you know you're on top. The problem is that, every now and again, those long-range efforts go in, as Inigo Martínez did after 61 minutes.
It followed a slightly odd series of events: Javi Martínez went down after an aerial clash and required treatment, but Iraizoz seemingly missed touch as he tried to put the ball out of play.
Sociedad put it out, Javi Martínez was attended to, and Athletic threw the ball back to Sociedad. They then seemed to stop, almost as if they thought Sociedad would then return the ball to Iraizoz, although there was no reason for them to do so. As a result, no pressure was applied to Inigo Martínez – showing exactly why pressing is a twofold process: not only must the line be high but the man in possession must be hounded precisely so he can't measure that kind of shot.
While the manner of the goal was freakish, it had been coming, Sociedad having spent the first quarter of an hour of the second half hammering on the door. Antoine Griezmann then hit a post before, quite unexpectedly, Llorente gave Athletic the winner, applying a jabbed volley to Amorebieta's long diagonal. Bielsa insisted the win was "just", but given Sociedad, as well as hitting the woodwork twice, could also have had a late penalty for handball, that was perhaps stretching things a little.
What is true, though, is that there are recent signs that a happy synthesis is beginning to develop between his ideas and the side he inherited. It will, of course, take time: nobody can adapt to Bielsa's idiosyncrasy overnight, and he himself has admitted to errors in his first couple of months in the job.
What is notable is the support he has had from fans and club, and the comparison to the reaction to Gian Piero Gasperini's radicalism at Internazionale. Bielsa's decision to turn down the Inter job in the summer looks increasingly wise, while his reign in Bilbao is becoming increasingly interesting.

Athletic Bilbao: Basque-ing in glory.

Big Basque: Club legend Fernando Llorente

This Saturday, the two most successful teams in English footballing history meet at Anfield for the 12.45 kick off.

Record league title holders, Manchester United will make the forty-four mile trip with one player born in the club’s  local area;  Danny Welbeck. The home team Liverpool will field a maximum of five players from the local area; Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Jay Spearing, Martin Kelly and Jon Flanagan. The latter three with a combined total of only thirty-eight first team appearances.

Two days later and over seven hundred miles away, Athletic Bilbao will play hosts to Osasuna in La Liga’s Monday night fixture. Guests Osasuna will have six local players to choose from, and a further eighteen Spaniards.

Meanwhile, home side Bilbao will have a squad made exclusively of players born in, descended from, or raised in the Basque region of Spain and southern France, a tradition continued throughout their long history.  

Football was introduced to Bilbao in the late 19th century through British steel workers, and latterly through Basque students returning from Britain having experience the beautiful game on their travels.  Following the club’s inception in the first ever La Liga in 1928, Athletic Club Bilbao is the only other club aside from Real Madrid and Barcelona to have never left the top flight of Spanish football, winning the league on eight occasions, and all with a population only slightly larger than that of Greater Manchester.

However, having not won the league since 1984, and until last season remaining outside of the top six since 2004, what, if anything is to be taken from the Bilbao example?

It’s important to note that Spanish football, much like the nation itself, is much more politicised than the English game. Split into seventeen autonomous communities, these districts consider themselves in many respects independent.  An early Bilbao saying ‘Con cantera y afición, no hace falta importación’ essentially meaning ‘No need for imports’ typifies this view.
In response to the appraisal of Bilbao raising Basque talent through the youth team, many would suggest that the likes of Manchester United have done so much more effectively. However, whilst the likes of the Neville brothers and Paul Scholes provide high profile examples of successful local talent, the advantage of casting the net much wider is clear to see with such examples as David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, and more recently Darren Fletcher and Tom Cleverley. This of course does not include the separate matter of poaching young players from abroad, Federico Macheda for example.
The argument here is clearly not one to debate whether the likes of Manchester United or Liverpool would have encountered such success as they have done with only ‘local lads’, they wouldn’t have. The question is, would they have been able to maintain their position in the top flight of English football? Once again, the answer appears to be no. Liverpool spent eight seasons out of the First Division as recently as the sixties, and United spent the first forty years of the old-style football league, dipping in and out of divisions One and Two, all with players sourced from around the United Kingdom and further afield.
Since then, both United and Liverpool have gone on to be endlessly more successful than Athletic Bilbao, but that’s not the point. In an age when the only answer to footballing success appears to be throwing as much money at the problem as possible, it’s refreshing to see a side doing things differently, traditionally, and when considered, extraordinarily successfully.