Thursday, August 11, 2011



Aside from the usual questions, such as Who can stop Barcelona in Europe, and How long before Arsenals form utterly collapses, and Can Ibrahmovic win another League title this Season, many of the most intriguing stories in European football in the 2011-12 Season appear connected to big clubs recently given cash injections by big-money foreign purchasers. Then there are the risky transfers of young South American talent and the new Managerial appointments. Some clubs combine a few or all of these elements...

New money means a new project, new players and most startlingly, a new Coach. Spanish legend Luis Enrique, a fine player for both Real Madrid and Barcelona in his time, has been brought in to introduce some Barcelona-style magic to the Roman giants. He guided Barcelona B to third place in the Spanish Second Division in a role last occupied by one Pep Guardiola, playing football of similar style and tactical basis as that played by the European Champions.
The aim, then, will be to play beautiful possession football, and finish as high up as possible in a Serie A which looks wide open this Season. Champions Milan will start as favourites, but their weaknesses were exposed by Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League last Season, and late wobbles hurt Napoli and Udinese, who both could have increased the pressure on an awkwardly broken-backed, if talented, Milan side. This year Inter are in transition, Napoli and Udinese will have Champions League distractions, Lazio have strengthened and Juventus have a host of new signings to bed in.
Roma face the new Season with their established performers - the likes of Totti, Pizarro and DeRossi - ageing but still classy, a few high-maintenance, high-earners transferred out (Vucinic, Riise, Mexes) and some exciting young talent to debut in Serie A. Most obvious is the undoubted talent of Bojan Kirkjic, taken from Barca with much still to prove. Then there is Erik Lamela. The young Argentine prodigy was awesome for a struggling River Plate last Season, and he may find the rhythms of Serie A much to his liking, once he's settled in. More experience was added in the shape of the wily, cynical old Gabriel Heinze, from Marseille, and goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenberg, from Ajax. How Luis Enrique persuades such a group to trust his Catalan brand of passing football in such a radically different League should be fascinating...

Legendary Holland centre forward Ruud van Nistelrooy, who has scored goals at every club he has played for, on a free transfer, but with presumably huge wages. Diminutive wunderkind attacking midfielder Diego Buonanotte, from River Plate for €4.5M. Exciting Spanish International playmaker Santiago Cazorla, attacking lynchpin for the stylish Villarreal side of the last few years, for €21M. Wily, experienced French International holding midfielder Jeremy Toulalan from Lyon, for €11M. Joaquin, Spanish International winger, from Valencia for €4.2M. Isco, a 19 year old winger of dazzling ability and potential, from Valencia for €6M. Big centre half Sergio Sanchez, from Sevilla, for €2M. Spanish International left back Nacho Monreal, from Osasuna, for €6M. Cultured, vastly experienced Dutch centre-half Joris Mathijsen from Hamburg for €2.5M.
And with a single summer of purchases, Malaga have made themselves players in La Liga. Funded by their Qatari Owner Sheikh Abdullah Al Thani, and coached by the sage Manuel Pellegrini, who did so well with modest means at Villarreal before being mistreated at Real Madrid for the crime of not being able to dislodge Barcelona from the top of the table, their new signings address every department of the team. Already possessed of a couple of exciting attackers - Julio Baptista, whose late- season form in 2010/11 basically guaranteed them a mid-table finish and young Uruguayan Seba Fernandez and Venezuelan Rondon - the additions of Buonanotte, Isco and Cazorla in particular suggest that Malaga may be one of the venues in Spain this Season for exciting attacking football. The experience of Van Nistelrooy, Toulalan, Mathijsen and Joaquin should help everybody settle in and pre-Season form has been dazzling. If it doesn't work out, well, they can just go and buy ten more players...

Very much the sleeping giants of French, if not European football, PSG have been waking up and stretching their limbs over the last couple of Seasons after years of underachievement, serious crowd trouble and flirtation with relegation. More Middle Eastern investment has meant the return of hero Leonardo as a sort of smoother-than-smooth project director, and he has overseen the acquisition of lots of exciting new players, with young French talent like striker Kevin Gamiero (€11M from Lorient), winger Jeremy Menez (€8M from Roma) and defensive midfielder Blaise Matuidi (€10M from Saint Etienne) joined by, most notably the brilliant young Argentine playmaker Javier Pastore, who cost €43M from Palermo. Pastore is worthy of the hype surrounding him, and once he finds his feet and gels with his teammates, PSG will present a serious threat in France to the likes of Lille and Marseille. Whether the solid coach Antoine Kombouare will still be there when success comes is another matter. Once a teammate of Leonardo, and making slow but steady progress at the club before it was bought out, he is tactically rigid, and falls out with players. PSG want success, and the want it now. Slow and steady likely will not do.

Marcelo "El Loco" Bielsa makes a long-awaited return to European Club Football after his brief stay at Espanyol in 1998, when he left to take over the Argentina National team after just three games. This time he's at Athletic Bilbao, a club with it's own philosophy and an academy to rival that of Barcelona, and indeed, Bielsa has one of the most exciting young squads in Spain at his disposal, containing the likes of the classy holding player Javier Martinez and towering centre-forward Fernando Llorente (both part of the World Cup winning squad), tricky, aggressive little forward/winger Iker Muniain, and new signing Ander Herrera, an imaginative, technical playmaker with vision and a work ethic. As he showed with Chile, Bielsa works well with young, flexible players, who are open to his methods and have the stamina for the hard work required, and he is already drilling Athletic in his attacking play, using Martinez as a centre back and attacking midfielder DeMarcos as a wing-back of sorts. Bilbao face Mourinho's Real Madrd in their first game, a fascinating clash of football thinkers which should be great to watch. But then, I would expect to say that of all Bielsa's Athletic Bilbao games this season. It's good to have him back in Europe. Let's hope it lasts.

Another exciting Football Thinker, Andre Villa-Boas doesn't duck any challenges. Having led Porto through an incredible Season where they went unbeaten in their domestic League, won both it and the Portugeuse Cup, then added the Europa League for good measure, he might have been tempted to stay put and see how his exciting team would do in the Champions League. But instead he accepted the poison chalice of trying to please Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, where only a League Title and/or Champions League triumph will be deemed acceptable. All that and he has to deal with the abhorrent personality of John "I quite fancy being Chelsea manager some day" Terry and the ageing legs and huge egos of Lampard, Drogba, Cole and Malouda, while trying to retrieve Fernando Torres from the depths of himself and give youthful prospects like Josh McEachran and exciting signings like Lukaku a chance to settle and play. And he only has to see off the might of the two Manchester clubs, a resurgent Liverpool and a still-dangerous Tottenham and Arsenal.
But he is the real deal. A great talker, an expert motivator, his Porto team blew teams away all last Season, and he seemed to know exactly when to tweak personnel and or formation. If anybody can do all of the above, AVB, as the Englsh Press already appear to have named him, he can.

Sporting have had a difficult last ten years. After winning the Portugeuse Championship in 2000, they have had to watch in the years since as the other two members of the "Big Three", Porto and Benfica, have swallowed up all of the titles. In the last few years, little Braga have overtaken them with a second place finish and a Europa League Final appearance. They have to console themselves with the manner in which graduates of the Sporting academy and youth systems dominate the National team (Ronaldo, Nani and Moutinho, most notably) while hoping for the return of good times. Well, this Summer there were big changes in the hope of making those changes happen. Domingos Paciência, the Coach who brought Braga to second place and that Europa League final, has been hired, and virtually an entire team of new players purchased. Some of those many signings are extremely exciting: Fabián Rinaudo, a tough, savvy defensive midfielder from Gimnasia in Argentina, Ricky van Wolfswinkel, the lanky, prolific young Dutch centre forward from FC Utrecht, Diego Capel, the unpredictable Spanish winger, from Sevilla, Diego Rubio, the exciting Chilean wunderkind striker, from Colo Colo and Jeffren, the young forward/ winger, from Barcelona.
Paciência is plainly a capable Coach, but it will take a monumental effort to overtake both the Porto team still in place and Benfica, strengthened with some astute summer signings.


Maxi Moralez to Atalanta
Arguably the best player in Argentina over the last two years or so, the little playmaker has played in Europe before. A 2008 move from Racing Club to FC Moscow lasted 6 months and 8 games and possibly came too early. His return to Argentina led to Velez Sarsfield and a crucial role in two title triumphs. How good is Moralez? So good that he was perhaps the best player in the 2007 U-20 World Cup winning side that also starred the likes of Aguero, DiMaria, Banega, DiSanto and Zarate. Small but pacy, blessed with vision and the technical ability to exploit it, a skilled dribbler with the ability to score from distance, he can dictate games but also decide them, and if he performs to his potential at Atalanta, then it won't be long before a bigger club comes in for him.

Steven Defour to Porto
The Belgian midfielder moved from Standard Liege alongside his club mate, the young French centre-half Eliaquim Mangala, after years of persistent links to Manchester United. An all-round midfielder, he has a great engine, good range of passing, tackles well and seems to think tactically. He has left his homeland at a good stage in his development, and this Season will be crucial if he is to fulfil his potential. First up, making himself a fixture in a talented Porto midfield, where he will compete with Moutinho, Belluschi,and Guarin for a place..

Gokhan Inler to Napoli
This transfer had been mooted for the last two Seasons. The one thing Napoli's impressive team lacked last Season was a truly commanding midfielder, and Inler is just that. He might be the final piece in the puzzle, and the key to a title Season by the Neapolitan giants.

Arturo Vidal to Juventus
Juve got Vidal - a versatile, industrious, dominant midfielder or defender - from Bayern Leverkusen right out from under the noses of Bayern Munich who had been linked to him for much of last Season. He is one of the transfers of the summer and Serie A should be a doodle for him.

Djibril Cisse/ Miroslav Klose to Lazio
Voila, Lazio buy themselves a new, prolific, incredibly experienced strike force in Just a few weeks. Already scoring in pre-Season and the Europa League Qualifiers, they will play in front of the awesome Brazilian playmaker Hernanes, who sometimes seemed to single-handedly keep Lazio in last seasons title race. He will notch up lots and lots of assists, and they will score lots and lots of goals, I fancy...

Sergio Canales to Valencia
A casualty of Real Madrid's stockpiling of talent - he competed with Kaka, Ozil and Granero for a single place in Mourinho's team - Valencia have bought Canales to be the player they have lacked since David Silva left for Manchester City: the schemer between the lines, the supplier of through-balls, the king of assists. They also nabbed the penetrators little Argentine winger Pablo Piatti from Almeria, and thus their attacking line-up looks rejuvenated and exciting again this year.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Latin Wonderkids 2

When I did my first "Latin Wonderkids" post a few years ago, all of the players I chose were playing in South America. In the months since, all of them bar one moved to Europe. The one who didn't had already been and returned before I wrote the piece. Young South American talent doesn't stay long in South America, and you can probably expect to see every one of the players listed below in European football over the next year or two.

Juan Manuel Iturbe of Cerro Poteno (Argentina)

Born in Argentina to Paraguayan parents, this tricky little forward has been dubbed the "Paraguayan Messi". An unfair comparison for any player, that, and yet from his appearances for Argentina in the South American U20 Championship and for Cerro Porteno in this years Copa Libertadores, it's almost understandable. Short and stocky yet with a brilliant ability to surge past players with a burst of sudden, unmatchable acceleration, the Messi comparisons stem from his habit of drifting in from the wing and combining clever one-twos with dribbles and feints. He can also finish off those moves, and his play is as reminiscent of Carlos Tevez as it is of Messi. The circumstances of his birth meant that he was eligible to play for either Argentina or Paraguay, and he opted for Argentina after appearing for different youth teams for each Country through his teens. European clubs have been sniffing around him for a couple of years, and he has already signed a pre-contract agreement with Porto, which means he officially becomes their player when he turns 18 in June. Any knowledge of Porto's transfer dealings with South America suggests that they know their business, and if that's not enough, here's some Iturbe in action:

Erik Lamela of River Plate (Argentina)

That the current River Plate first team is thriving and playing some sparkling, fluid attacking football is down mainly to the brilliance of the generation of players recently produced by the Clubs academy. Playmaker Manuel Lanzini, centre forward Gabriel Funes Mori and winger Roberto Pereyra all look to be potentially fantastic talents, but the undoubted star at the centre of this constellation is 19 year old Erik Lamela. He gained some noteriety when Barcelona tried to buy him as a 12 year old, forcing River's Chairman to offer his family financial incentives to remain in Buenos Aires. His emergence into the Senior squad has suggested Barcelona were wise to try to grab him early, as his value will only grow from now on. Possessed of an elegance and sweetness of movement which belies his lanky frame, Lamela can play on the left, but his most effective role appears to be as an enganche or playmaker. His long legs give him terrific pace, enabling him to drift effortlessly past tackles, and his left foot is a magic wand; he is already taking most of River's set-pieces and is the hub around which some lovely passing moves revolve, prompting and moving with intelligence and subtlety. River have already given him the Number 10 shirt formerly worn by such legends as Enzo Francescoli, Pablo Aimar and Ariel Ortega, which isn't bad company. But with a host of European clubs circling it seems unlikely he'll get to wear it for too long...

Lucas of Sao Paolo (Brazil)

His full name is Lucas Rodrigues Moura da Silva, so, ensuring maximum confusion when he shares a pitch with fellow Brazilian Lucas Leiva, of course he's called Lucas. He's an entirely different player, however, a stocky, quick little attacking midfielder who began his career at Corinthians before moving to Sao Paolo, where he has been compared to Kaka. That's more due to position than style, but he is as explosive as that Brazilian playmaker. He dazzled at the South American Under 20s, scoring a hat-trick in a dazzling 6-0 destruction of eventual Runners-Up Uruguay. He combines aggressive eruptions of dribbling with slide-rule passes, making him terrifying in the final third. Brazil's problem over the next decade may well be how to accomodate both him and the more widely known and equally gifted Ganso. Not a bad problem to have, admittedly.

Gio Moreno of Racing Club de Avellaneda (Colombia)

Colombian playmaker Moreno is a fantasy player, the sort who does unbelievable things, a luxury player who never bothers defending- never bothers with any of the "negative" aspects of the game - but the sort who can turn a Match in an instant. He's the kind of player who makes you remember why you love football. Elegant, technically perfect, athletic and gifted with superb imagination and vision, Colombia's National team ought to be built around him for the next ten years. His first Season with Racing Club in Argentina instantly confirmed his promise - here was a player seemingly worthy of comparison to the Leagues MVP, Juan Roman Riquelme, and bearing some similarities as a player - and he has been consistently linked with Porto among several big European clubs. A serious injury early in the Season has ruled him out for the remainder, severely damaging Racing's hopes but probably ensuring he stays in Argentina for another Season at least.

Diego Rubio of Colo Colo (Chile)

This 17 year old Chilean striker has goals in his blood. Son of former Colo-Colo forward Hugo Rubio, his brothers both play professionally in Chile and legendary striker Ivan Zamorano (ex-Real Madrid and Inter Milan) is his Godfather. So it's perhaps no surprise that he has scored five goals in his first three appearances for Colo Colo, and that there have already been calls for his selection for the Chilean squad. I've only seen highlights so can't really comment on his style as a player, but you can't argue with this impact or the finishing in this clip:

Ruben Botta of Tigre (Argentina)

This 21 year old attacking midfielder has risen to prominence this year back in Argentina at Tigre, after a baffling spell on-loan at FK Ventspils in Latvia. He came through the youth system at Boca Juniors, and can play both as playmaker and on the left side of midfield. He is exciting and inventive on the ball, with an eye for the spectacular and he seems to be growing into his talent, a good sign in a creative player:

Ivan Pillud of Racing Club de Avellaneda (Argentina)

Pressure? Try the Coach of your National Team invoking comparisons to a living legend and claiming that you can replace him. Thats what Argentina Coach Sergio Batista did when he discussed 24 year old Right Back Pillud in the same breath with Javier Zanetti. But watching Pillud for Racing Club this Season, the comparisons make sense. In a 3-4-3 formation which demands most from its wing-backs, he is a force of nature up and down the flank, displaying attacking threat, defensive sense and quite awesome stamina. He debuted at Tiro Federal in the Argentine Second Division, moved briefly to Newells Old Boys before a big transfer to Europe and Espanyol. There he barely played, and went back to Racing on loan last year. After early injury problems he has been a revelation, and is a contender for a spot in the Argentina Squad for the Copa America this Summer.

Raul Ruidiaz of Universitario (Peru)

Universitario Desportes are one of Lima's, and by extension Peru's big two alongside Allianza Lima, and their big homegrown success over the last few seasons has been 20 year old Ruidiaz, a forward heavily linked with Udinese, who probably see him as a replacement for bound-for-a-bigger-club Alexis Sanchez. The similarity there would be Ruidiaz's penetrative dribbling ability and recent nose for goal. Far from the finished article, he shows undoubted talent and promise, and a move to the right European club in a year or two might be just the thing for his development.

Bryan Carrasco of Audax Italiano (Chile)

Almost a Brazilian-style full-back in that he can play purely in defence, as a winger or as a marauding Wing-back, Chilean Carrasco has gained some notoriety of late due to a ridiculous simulation during a Chile-Ecuador U-20 Qualifying fixture a few months ago where he slapped himself in the face with an opponents hand then dived to the ground clutching himself. Vile as that behaviour may be, Carrasco is an exciting, enterprising defender, strong and fast, confident on the ball and hard in the tackle. Tottenham Hotspur have been consistently linked with him, but at 20, he's only been in the Audax Italiano Senior team since the start of this Season and perhaps needs a little more experience before he makes such a move.

Santiago Garcia of Nacional (Uruguay)

Stocky, explosive 20 year old Uruguayan striker Garcia has scored 39 goals in 69 games for Nacional of Montevideo as well as 5 in 9 for the Uruguayan U20 team. It's a matter of time before he is fighting for a place in the senior squad alongside Forlan, Suarez and Cavani, and probably only a matter of time before he's playing in Europe, too.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Magico Magico

Dept of Great Players You've Never Heard Of

Pity the ludicrously talented footballer not born in a traditional football power.

A short but telling list:
George Best (Northern Ireland), Ryan Giggs (Wales), Dejan Savicevic (Montenegro), Michael Laudrup (Denmark), Enzo Scifo (Belgium), Hugo Sanchez (Mexico), George Weah (Liberia), Gheorgi Hagi (Romania), Kenny Dalglish (Scotland), Teofilo Cubilas (Peru). I could go on and on.

But if those Gentlemen were somewhat unlucky to be denied the chance to ever earn the rank of undisputedly Great - I'm assuming Greatness comes through a combination of talent and achievement - by originating from Nations unlikely to ever contest a World Cup Final, at least most of them played at World Cups or for major Clubs, winning major honours, playing in Cup Finals, scoring legendary goals in famous games.

Fans of Cadiz, a smallish club from a lovely City in Andalucia in Southern Spain, still claim that the greatest player they ever saw came from an even smaller Football Nation, and never won a single major title in his career. His name was Jorge Alberto González Barillas. They shortened that to "Magico" Gonzalez. He came from El Salvador.

He would spend his peak years as a Footballer at Cadiz, playing there for almost a decade between 1982 and 1991, with only a brief and Ill-fated spell at Valladolid in 85/86 interrupting his time there. His problem, aside from his Salvadorean Nationality, was his love of nightlife, clubs and drinking, which meant he was sometimes in no condition to play in games. When he did play, he was a dazzling, Maradona-esque talent, his exquisite touch and dribbling combining with surging acceleration. Cadiz fans worshipped him, and he was similarly adored in Salvador, having led the National Team to their first World Cup a finals appearance in 1982. Don't believe the hype? Just take a look at him in action:

Another player revered by fans at his club but largely unknown to the rest of the world is Vassilis Hatzipanagis. Born to Greek Political Immigrants in Uzbekistan in the USSR in 1954, he played first for Pakhtakor of Tashkent before returning to his parents homeland to spend the next sixteen years of his career representing Iraklis of Salonica, for whom he played 281 times, scoring 62 goals. His long, curly hair and spectacular dribbling ability earned him Maradona comparisons, and such was his popularity with Iraklis supporters that the club were afraid to sell him despite interest from numerous sides from Europe's more glamorous leagues. He had represented the USSR at Under-21 level, and after choosing Greece as his senior International side and dazzling Athens in a solitary appearance in the white shirt in a friendly against Poland in 1976, FIFA informed him that he could no longer play for Greece.

Despite this, Greeks still regard him as their greatest player of all time, and he was part of a World XI which played the New York Cosmos in 1984 alongside the likes of Keegan, Beckenbauer and Kempes, which gives some idea of the respect those in the know had for him. So, the "Greek Maradona"? Perhaps:

The player Chileans regard as their greatest of all time is a Central defender, Elias Figueroa. He was Captain of Chile for almost sixteen years, played in three World Cups (1966, 1974 and 1982), won numerous individual awards (South American Player of the Year Three years in a row from 1974 to 1976) and dozens of titles and cups with the likes of Penarol, Internacional of Porto Allegre and Palestino.

Most often compared to Franz Beckenbauer, he was a supremely modern defender: he read the game expertly, was hard in the tackle, dominant in the air, and superbly composed and skillful on the ball. Many South Americans rate him as perhaps the greatest South American Defender of All Time.
Defenders are harder to make montages for, but heres one anyway:

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Football in sun and shadow 7

- Department of great Argentine Players you've never heard of Number 1: Dario Conca
Somewhat predictably, Conca is a playmaker and classically Argentinean in his range of skills; short and pacy, he is a sublimely gifted dribbler on the ball, can pick virtually any type of pass due to his excellent technique, and has the vision to see things on the pitch before they've even happened. At the moment he is spearheading Fluminense's charge for the Brazilian title - he was named the best player in Brazil by much of that country's football media last season, no mean feat for an Argentine - and if anything, he has improved this year. He'll probably never play for his country, such is the range of talent in the queue ahead of his for his position, but he has impressed during spells at Chile's Universidad Catolica and Vasco Da Gama before Fluminense signed him in 2009 after a Season-long loan. He had initially emerged at River Plate, not the first brilliant little enganche that club has produced. He's also not alone as a foreign playmaker in the Brazilian League; it seems to be a position that Brazil has trouble filling these days. Promising Brazilians in the position are generally whisked off to Europe - Ederson and Diego are good examples - or are utilized in slightly different roles, like Hernanes or even Kaka. That leaves Big Brazilian clubs employing the likes of the Chilean Valdivia (Palmeiras), Serbian Petkovic (Flamengo) and Argentines D'allessandro (Internacionale) and Montillo (Cruzeiro) in the position linking midfield and the strikers. Conca is one of the best in the business:

- Speaking of attacking midfielders who emerged at River Plate, Fernando Belluschi has finally started living up to some of that potential at FC Porto this season, playing a crucial part in their dazzling attack, alongside Hulk, Moutinho, Varela and Falcao.
He's also done things like this piece of magic:

- One of the big mysteries of South American Football is Colombia's consistent underachievement. Aside from the great team of the mid-90s (Valderama, Rincon, Asprilla etc) which played some dazzling football on the way to a couple of World Cups before choking for various reasons (including death threats in one case), the Colombian National Team has never performed as well as you feel it should have done. Colombia is, after all, a football-mad Nation with the second biggest population in South America, some massive clubs and a steady stream of young talent emerging, if the Country's appearances at Youth tournaments are anything to go on. It should be the third Football Nation in South America. Yet in recent years, that position has been held by Colombia's neighbours and arch-rivals Ecuador, lowly Paraguay or the more traditionally powerful Uruguay, a country with a population one tenth the size of Colombia. At the moment Chile are also ranked above Colombia, leaving them above only Peru, Bolivia and Venezuala in the Continental stakes.
Aside from the obvious socio-political factors (Colombia remains a troubled Country in many different areas) it seems Colombia doesn't produce footballers with the same artistry and creative talent of a generation or so ago. Indeed, the only Colombians currently playing at the highest level in European Leagues are Luis Perea of Athletico Madrid, Mario Yepes of AC Milan, Juan Zuniga of Napoli and Ivan Cordoba of Inter Milan, all defenders, alongside Faryd Mondragón of FC Koln, a goalkeeper. There are also a couple of strikers: the exceptional Radamel Falcao of FC Porto and Hugo Rodalega of Wigan, and Freddy Guarin, Porto's defensive midfielder. Colombian players do generally tend to stay in South America, and many play in the big Leagues across the continent, in Argentina, Brazil and also in Mexico.
One young Colombian has been making waves in Argentina this Season, and he displays the kind of technique and imagination that recalls Valderama and Asprilla. 24 year old Giovanni Moreno, who plays either as an attacking midfielder or support striker, has put in a few breathtaking performances in a struggling side at Racing Club, and he has the potential to be a massive star.
This is him embarrassing some hapless Boca Juniors defenders a few weeks ago:

And scoring a lovely chip for Nacional in Colombia:

- Javier Pastore: I've written about him before, but the hype around his immense talent keeps growing, and he more than lives up to it. The idea that Argentina will be able to construct an attack around the talents of Pastore, Messi, Banega and DiMaria over the next decade is frankly mind-boggling. Recently, Pastore has performed wonders for Palermo. Firstly, this splendid hat-trick against Sicilian rivals Catania :

And this stunner against Bologna:

- El Superclasico: Having just sat through a pretty disappointing River Plate vs Boca Juniors match, time to revisit a Classic from that fixture. In 1981, Argentina were still World Champions, and young genius Diego Armando Maradona was still playing for his beloved Boca. Facing him for River was Mario Kempes, el Matador, hero of the 1978 World Cup. Except Maradona was at his unplayable best that night as Boca ran out 3-0 Winners:

Heres a map of the movement of the players from that game, fascinating if you're a tactics geek and from this Portuguese site.

And, from the same year, a victory for Kempes and River in what looks like a cracking game:

Friday, July 9, 2010

Tiki-Taka & 4-2-3-1

Some Thoughts on the 2010 World Cup

1. Viva Espana
"Spain are boring". People I know, friends, actually said that to me with a straight face during the World Cup. It was briefly a big Twitter talking point, too. The argument runs something like "Oh yes, their passing is very pretty, but they don't create enough chances, there are too many sideways passes, nobody taking a chance or trying a moment of individual magic, not enough goals, not enough incident." To me, this is simply idiotic. If you're bored by Spain, then your conception of what football can and should be is fundamentally different from mine.
It should be entertainment. We probably agree on that much. And I find the beauty and perfect technique, the bravery and precision of the Spanish passing game inexhaustably entertaining. Exhilarating, even. Give me a 0-0 with Spain playing a decent counter-attacking side over a 4-3 between two limited teams who cannot defend and cannot keep the ball anyday.
Is this where this "boring" tag comes from? The generation who has grown up with Sky Sports and has been conditioned to expect drama from every game, who expects red cards and controversy and lots and lots of goals? This is part of football, of course, this manufactured spectacle, this natural drama. But it does not define it.
For me, Sport is about that search for perfection, and Spain are close to that at times. They play their game so well, nobody can really touch them, which is why their games may seem "boring" to some. Because everybody knows they will be outplayed if they try to play a possession game against the Spanish, and so nobody does. Everybody plays with bodies behind the ball and tries to counter quickly. But they seldom see much of the ball, and so they retreat and Spain painstakingly try to pick holes in tightly drilled defences. Usually, it works. Usually they wear down the opposition with the consistency of their possession and ball movement. But nobody really opens up and goes at them, Chile aside. Germany - outclassed and overwhelmed. Holland - reduced to the role of bully-boy. Portugal - playing a long-ball game. Spain make decent teams look bad.
This Spanish team against the Pekarman/Basile Argentina of 2005-2007, with Riquelme orchestrating a possession-based short passing Argentine game, that would be a match I would like to see, that would be "one for the Purist". Something which I have been very much surprised to find out I am.
An interview with the magnificent Xavi, from El Pais, summed up some of the difficulties inherent in the Spanish "tiki taka" style: "What did people think? That we were going to win every game 3-0? I can't believe what I am hearing sometimes. Do you not realize how hard it is? Teams aren't stupid; we're European champions. They all pressure us like wolves. There isn't a single meter, not a second on the pitch. We are passing faster and faster and faster. We're playing bloody brilliantly. Then there's the pitch and the ball -- I have spent the World Cup thinking, 'That's a good pass,' only to see the ball disappear off in a different direction."
So, who do people posit as an "exciting" team, if Spain are not one? Germany. More on that later.
As for Spain, they stand as the best National team in the World, and one of the best ever. The best team rarely wins the World Cup. This time they have.

2. On the Counter
This was the first World Cup since Italia 90 which saw negative tactics clearly hold sway. So many teams played not to lose, packing midfield and maintaining eight to ten men behind the ball at all times, only attacking on long, pacy counters. It worked on occasion - Switzerland memorably defeated Spain, albeit with a great deal of luck, and the likes of New Zealand and North Korea performed better than many had expected merely by holding off superior teams. Of the four Semi-finalists, all bar Spain played counter-attacking football.
That the prevalent formation of this tournament was 4-2-3-1 speaks volumes for the tactical approach of many of the coaches, favoring this set-up mainly for the defensive security it affords with two holding players in midfield. But then not every 4-2-3-1 is the same. Spain's "double-pivot" in defensive midfield was made up of the gifted, creative Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets, whereas Holland made do with the purely destructive, disruptive duo of Mark Van Bommel and Nigel De Jong. Not every team employing the formation had fullbacks as dynamic as the Brazilian Maicon or Spain's Sergio Ramos. And not every striker can play at the tip of such a spear.
Germany played this system as well as anyone throughout the World Cup. But all of the plaudits they have received have baffled me. They played a reactive game of counter-attacking and they got lucky in that the two giants of the International game they ran into both entered the ties with shambolic defenses. They undoubtedly have some gifted young players - Ozil and Muller, Schweinsteiger finally performing to his potential - and they stuck to their coaches game plan with skill and dedication, but I rarely saw any great football from them. Both England and Argentina dominated long spells of their respective games and had more efforts on goal. When the Germans broke forward, they were deadly. But they had been exposed earlier in the tournament by the energy and pressing of an equally young, hungry Ghana side who were unlucky to lose. They never had to carry the game to the opposition, which suited them. It will be interesting to see how they fare when teams enter games prepared for their style. Only Ozil and Kroos look capable of opening a tight defence, and I am sure that now their talent is out in the open, the Germans will find themselves facing many of those.
Meanwhile, Spain made them look pedestrian in their semi-final, denying them time, space and most crucially of all, possession. The 1-0 should have been 3-0 and Germany showed that when they cannot break, they cannot really attack, a problem common to many sides at this tournament.

3. Marcelo Bielsa is a Genius

Chile, on the other hand, always attack. Argentine Coach Marcelo Bielsa is obsessed with attacking football, and his side set out with a radical formation: 4-3-3, meaning that when they were in possession they attacked with at least 6 players. Their youth, energy, intricate one touch passing and willingness to take on a man made them the most entertaining, exciting team at the tournament and always a joy to watch, just as they had been in South American qualifying. This commitment to attack also benefited them in defence, since they tackled and hustled high up the pitch, always keen to win the ball back early, and only suffered when they played Spain (who they troubled more than any other team in the tournament managed to) and Brazil. Ironically, for such a ceaselessly attacking team, they scored too few goals in the group stage, meaning that they lost top spot to the Spanish and as a result played Brazil in the Second Round. The reason for this goal shortage mainly came down to the pre-Tournament injury to striker David Suazo, top scorer in that (incredibly competitive) South American Qualifying Group and the fulcrum around whom much of the team's attacking play usually revolves.
In his absence, Bielsa played both of his playmakers, Matias Fernandez (as the trequarista) and Jorge Valdivia (as the centre forward), which worked, but never with the fluidity of the first choice line-up.
What may have cost Chile against Brazil and Spain was their individual quality. For all that Fernandez, Valdivia, the often dazzling Alexis Sanchez, Gary Medel and Carlos Carmona appear World Class, one or two of the back up squad are not of the same calibre, and once suspensions (an unfortunate and common consequence of Chile's high-energy pressing game) and injuries took their toll, their performance level dropped. But Bielsa remained true to his philosophy throughout. When he had a man sent off against Spain, he made attacking substitution, and his team terrified the European Champions all game. When 3-0 down against Brazil, Chile kept right on attacking. There is something so admirable in his kamikaze commitment to offence.
Bielsa's last World Cup was as Coach of Argentina for their disastrous 2002 campaign, where he was undone by an aging Squad and some woeful luck. Its hard not to imagine that with the current pool of ridiculously talented Argentine Players and Bielsa as Coach, Argentina would have walked this World Cup.

Rooney, Ronaldo, Kaka, Torres, Gourcuff, Cannavaro, Drogba, etc etc etc.
Of the World's elite players, only Lionel Messi, Wesley Sneidjer, Arjen Robben and Messi's Spanish Barcelona colleagues really enjoyed good World Cups. But even Messi was finally overwhelmed by the demands placed upon him by Diego Maradona's tactics, after his early performances had clearly demonstrated why he is the best in the World. The reasons for the failures of the others are many and varied, and tired. Rooney, Drogba, Torres and Kaka all looked unfit. Ronaldo and Gourcuff were undermined by tactics and squad politics respectively. Cannavaro, like a few too many of his Italian teammates, looked as if this was one Tournament too far for him.
For me, Xavi was the player of the tournament, even as he fell slightly below the standards he regularly sets with Barcelona. Close behind him was Diego Forlan, confirming his quality and class on the biggest stage.
A World Cup needs its stars, and this one had many. But for the most part, the World's Greatest Players were not amongst them, which contributed to the undeniable sense of disappointment left by the tournament in general.

5. XI
In a 4-2-3-1, of course:

-------- Eduardo----------





6. Goals

A top three:

1. Quagliarella vs Slovakia

2. Suarez vs South Korea

3. Maicon vs North Korea

7. "Expert Analysis"

If you live in the UK, then you probably watched the games on the BBC or ITV. In which case you were treated to some shockingly bad punditry. ITV is always bad. Its main pundit is Andy Townsend, who talks a lot at a fair old clip without ever saying anything that is not a cliche and not blindingly obvious. He has mastered a sort of rueful delivery, as if he hates to be cruel to the players, but somebody has to be, and it might as well be him. For this World Cup, ITV put him alongside Adrian Chiles as the presenter. His matey jokiness, so natural and suited to his old job on the BBC's "Match of the Day 2" proved insufficient on the grander stage. Instead of the gravitas that the big occasion deserves, Chiles proved himself capable of only gags. Mostly unfunny ones, at that. His cheerleading for Ghana once England had been eliminated was frankly embarrassing, reducing the coverage of the Ghana-Uruguay tie to a strangely old-fashioned example of anti-South American bias, The rest of the ITV team was at a similar level: Gareth Southgate did best, speaking the odd bit of charisma-free common sense. But Edgar Davids, Marcel Desailly, Patrick Vieira and Lucas Radebe all offered little insight. In the commentary box, Clive Tyldsley was as awful as ever, while Jim Beglin, who can read a game well, seems inhibited in his analysis, as if he has been told to tone down the "high-brow" tactical stuff.
It is the lack of any analysis - or seemingly even awareness - of tactics which really disturbs me when I watch this coverage. Formations are often called wrongly, players roles misunderstood, and movements in play not read. But then some of these men - all ex-Pros, of course - seem proud of their ignorance. On the BBC, the contempt and condescension shown to the "little" Nations was appalling. Colin Murray - whose smug smarminess is a poor replacement for Chiles as the comic relief on the BBC Sports Team - giggled his way through a preview of New Zealand versus Slovakia, the entire conceit being "who would want to watch that"? Alan Hansen mocked Lee Dixon (the best of the BBC's lot, for me) and Gary Lineker for having the temerity to mention Marek Hamsik by name, as if preparation for a game that didn't involve England was a silly or unlikely thing to do. Which just shows how unprepared he was, cruising through games on autopilot, as if being run by a random generator. These days, Hansen generally just spews adjectives: "Pace, power, precision" "Technique, skill, awareness." He doesn't bother with a conceptual or even linguistic framework. Why should he? Hes Alan Hansen.
He did roll back the years with a few nice deconstructions of error-strewn defences. Which is more than could be said for Alan Shearer, even more partial to a blindingly obvious cliche than Andy Townsend. Backing them up were Roy Hodgson (not bad), Harry Redknapp (ignorant & jingoistic), Clarence Seedorf (cheerful & relaxed), Jurgen Klinsmann (fantastic, but on too rarely) and Emmanuel Adebayor (his mobile phone rang mid-broadcast and he was famously unintelligable). When Danny Baker was brought on for the last five minutes of one show, his wit and energy put the entire panel to shame. And his love for the game and the tournament shone through, whereas the others often seemed bored by it all.
The BBC's commentary team is better than ITVs, at least, even if it is often marred by the presence of Mark Lawrenson, whose jokes get more tired by the year. Mick McCarthy's comedy Yorkshireman isn't much better, to be fair.
As it was, the best World Cup coverage I found was on Twitter, a rolling collection of observations, breaking news and jokes which massively enhanced my experience of what was otherwise a rather disappointing World Cup.

8. Diego

Maradona was the great character of the early weeks of the Tournament, but his team was an accident waiting to happen throughout, and it saddens me that he will stay on as Coach despite his seeming total disregard for coherent selection and tactical decisions. It saddens me a little too that he's become such a comedic figure, always good for a hilarious quote or an amusing training routine. The greatest player I have ever seen deserves better. I can't see him remaining Coach as long as the next World Cup, despite the seemingly inevitable new contract, but I can't feel unhappy about that, because the incredible generation of Argentine players who will be at their peak at that tournament - I mean Messi, Aguero, Tevez, Banega, Higuain, Pastore etc - themselves deserve the best possible chance to win it. And that means no Diego.

9. The new Hand of God
And so to the treatment of Luis Suarez after he handled the ball and denied Ghana a "certain" goal in the quarter final, which would have put them through and made them the first African side in the last four at a World Cup. Seemingly everybody wanted Ghana to win that game. They were the neutrals choice, and "An African World Cup needs and African team to do well" and they played such bright, positive football and....
I was supporting Uruguay. Because I love South American football. And Diego Forlan and Edison Cavani and Nicolas Lodiero and a dozen other players who have worn the Uruguayan shirt over the years.
Uruguay had the better of the match, for me, and were denied a certain penalty, while Ghana dominated extra time. But the tone of the coverage was entirely pro-Ghana. Uruguay still enjoy some of their old reputation for violent play, though it was little in evidence in this tournament, and it is easy for British commentators to trot out old cliches about South American football when they feel they need to justify some xenophobia.
Such as - "typical South American cheating" to sum up Suarez handling the ball on the line. It was undeniably cheating and too much has already been written about the morality and lawfulness of the act and its consequences. But yes, most other players would have done the same. No, that doesn't make it right. No, the rules should not be changed to allow for a "penalty goal".
One thing that went almost entirely without remark in the press coverage of the game was the fact that the goalmouth incident in which Suarez thwarted Ghana came from a freekick which should never have been given. And that from that freekick, a Ghana player headed the ball towards goal and two Ghana players were offside.

All of the ensuing scramble, shots and blocks should never have happened. It should have been a Uruguayan freekick, and the controversial incident would never have happened.
But the media - unsurprisingly starting with the host South African broadcasters - were far more interested in Suarez's celebrations at Gyan's missed penalty, and the story became the story of a single piece of cheating.
Far more interesting to me was the nerveless panenka-penalty taken by Sebastian Abreau to win the shootout which settled the tie, but you know, Ghana were busy crying all over the pitch after that, so again the media weren't really interested.
But in this game, a country with a Population of 3.3 Million had beaten a country with a Population of 23.3 Million to reach the last four. And I, for one, saw that as something worth celebrating.

10."Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"
The best single piece of journalism I read on the World Cup was by Tom Humphries, a great Irish Times Sports Writer. It is absolutely worth your time to read it. Please do so here.
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