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.