Monday, December 21, 2009

Forever and Ever

Its always uniquely satisfying to see a young player whose talent you have admired from early in his career blossom and start to fulfil some of his potential. That strange sense of ownership a fan can have with a player is unavoidable and only sharpens the pleasure of seeing him do well.

Tomorrow night Argentina play the Johan Cruyff managed-Catalonia National team (which counts such stars as Carlos Puyol, Victor Valdes, Bojan, Xavi, Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique amongst its ranks) in a friendly in Barcelona. Argentine Coach Diego Maradona is currently suspended from any public football-related activities by FIFA due to his foul-mouthed tirade at the press in the immediate aftermath of his sides win over Uruguay and qualification for the World Cup, but he did pick the squad for the game, and as is now-habitual, he named a couple of players he hasn't used before (one of the startling features of Maradona's reign so far has been the sheer quantity of players selected and used, if only briefly). Wonderboy playmaker Javier Pastore has been a firm favourite of the Argentine press for the last year due to his elegant, incisive performances for Huracan, but Maradona had previously ignored him. His summer transfer to Palermo and recent good form seem to have altered this and he has received his first call-up. But the player whose selection is most satisfying to me is Ever Banega.

Banega came up through the youth teams at Boca Juniors and made his senior debut in February 2007 at just 18. Replacing a Real Madrid-bound Fernando Gago in the traditional Number 5 position in defensive midfield he distinguished himself to such an extent that some Boca fans were upset that the return of former Boca legend Juan Roman Riquelme to the club might harm Banega's development. Instead, Banega and Riquelme dovetailed beautifully as Boca won the Copa Libertadores - South America's equivalent to the Champions League - in 2007. After less than a year as a regular in Boca's first team, Banega was transferred to Valencia for €18 million. But he arrived at a club on the brink of disaster, riven with financial difficulties and internal politics. He didn't help himself with a widely circulated internet chatroom sex video and his early performances weren't good enough to help him break into a team with a lot of competition for places in midfield. After only half a Season, he went on loan to Atletico Madrid, where again he was unable to establish himself in the first team, generally making appearances from the bench and contributing little.

A return to Valencia in the summer meant that he was at the centre of much transfer speculation. He was linked to a host of British clubs - Everton were seemingly closest - but new Valencia coach Unai Emery seems to rate Banega more highly than his predecessors did, and he has arguably been the side's midfield lynchpin so far this Season, finally recapturing his Boca form in Europe and earning his International recall. He has previously played twice for the Senior National team after winning caps at every single youth level, playing in the Olympic Gold Medal-winning team and captaining the Under 21 team in the tournament at that level in Toulon in May. The prospect of him linking up in central midfield with Pastore, or indeed with Angel Di Maria or Mario Bolatti, could prove an exciting glimpse into the future for Argentine football fans.

Banega's most obvious quality is his passing ability, evident from his Boca debut. He is admirably two-footed, though he favours his right, possesses great touch and control, and is adept at mixing up his game with a variety of long and short balls. He never seemed a classical Number 5 at Boca, surging from deep with the ball (he is deceptively pacy) more than a Mascherano or Redondo would and obviously fond of the playmaker role behind the forwards, from where he can inflict real damage with his vision and precise, incisive through-balls. Currently he alternates at Valencia, carrying much of the creative threat from midfield (especially in the recent absence of David Silva) but also doing his share of defensive work. His positional sense is perhaps a weakness, but he compensates with his pace and a nice ability to time a clean tackle. He formed such an effective duo with Riquelme because he knew when to time his runs forward, and when to hold and because he could always deliver the ball accurately to the Playmaker, often first time. Like Riquelme, he is capable of utterly dictating the pace of a game, and when he is playing well, everything goes through him. Another slight weakness may be a slightly immature need to always attempt the perfect defence-splitting pass, but then who can blame him when he is so evidently capable of doing just that?
But he is the best sort of Argentine midfielder - always open and hungry for possession, generally aware of what he wants to do with the ball before he receives it, blessed with the technical ability to execute his intent, and driven by a fierce competitive spirit which means that he is usually in the thick of the battle.

His recent rejuvenation at Valencia doesn't really surprise me. He was always plainly a great talent, and it was just a question of when he would prove that. Hopefully Maradona will let him start tomorrow night and he will prove it in the National shirt too.

A few YouTube highlights:

A general compilation of flicks and tricks:

Banega showing his class, and range of passing, for Boca against Milan in the World Club championship final:

Nothing quite as lovely as a nicely done nutmeg, and there is one at 1:46 in this video, which is otherwise a selection of some perfect through-balls and nice short pass and move play:

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Danish Dynamite

The Denmark National team of the mid-80s was one of the teams that defined the way I see football. I was 11 during the 1986 World Cup, when they played some of the best football I had ever seen and were easily the best team of the tournaments opening phase. I was aware of how good they were - they had pulverized Ireland 4-1 at Lansdowne Road in a group game and been a mite unlucky to go out of Euro 84 in the semis to a decent Spanish side (who would again prove their undoing in Mexico in 86).
But watching them destroy Uruguay (6-1!) and West Germany in the so-called 'Group of Death' was a different experience entirely. They had some amazing players - Laudrup, Elkjaer, Olsen, Olsen, Lerby, Arnesen, Molby - and they played a sort of 'total football' of a type I'd never seen before. They also had a magnificent kit, which was no small thing to an 11 year old football fan. And my club, Manchester United, soon had two Danish internationals on its books - Jesper Olsen and John Sivebaek. i wished it was Laudrup - my favourite player in the world after Maradona - but they weren't bad substitutes.
The legacy that team has had in my view of football is probably evident in the fact that I've written two profiles of players from its ranks on this blog - Laudrup and Molby.

I'm not alone in my fondness for this particular team. As this exceptional Guardian piece reports at some length, they came surprisingly high in World Soccer's list of the Greatest Ever Team, and if you grew up in that era and had any interest in International football, i guarantee you will remember them well too. So; please read the piece, follow every link (there are some awesome youtube clips at the end of many, especially the Elkjaer footage) and enjoy, then go here for access to streaming prints of all the official FIFA films up until 1986, and HERO, which features that Danish side quite prominently.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Stitch this

Martin Palermo, Boca legend, infamous taker of three missed penalties in a single game, ludicrously consistent goalscorer, nicknamed "el Loco", currently not speaking to fellow Boca teammate/legend Juan Roman Riquelme and expected to lead the line for Argentina in this weekend's crucial World Cup qualifier against Peru despite never having really made it at International level, scored the winning goal for Boca against champons Velez Sarsfeld at la Bombonera last night. With a header. Pelermo is good with his head, so that isn't a surprise, perhaps. But this was from 40 yards, literally:

Thursday, September 24, 2009

More Than A Club

This is the video Pep Guardiola had a friend of his at a Spanish TV station cut to be played for the Barcelona players in the dressing room before the Champions League Final against Man United in Rome. A bit obvious, maybe, but the Gladiator score is stirring, and who could fail to be inspired by footage of themselves excelling?

The players watched it in total darkness just before they stepped into the tunnel then out onto the pitch to destroy United. So, whatever its merits, it worked.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Magic Dragao

In perhaps the craziest Summer ever on the European transfer market, with Real Madrid buying everybody but Barack Obama, Manchester City front-loading a squad in a manner that recalls nothing so much as Ossie Ardiles' Tottenham Hotspur team; and just about everybody else (even the usually mighty likes of Manchester United, Chelsea, Juventus and AC Milan) wondering what exactly the suddenly tiny sum of £20 Million buys you nowadays, one club seems to me to have done great business in the transfer market. That club would be FC Porto.

How can that be? you say. Haven't they just sold their most influential player, their heartbeat, playmaker, captain and midfield general, Luis "Lucho" Gonzalez? Why, yes they have, to Marseille for €18 Million. And, and - haven't they also sold their buccaneering, ultra-prolific centre forward, Lisandro Lopez? Why, yes. To Lyon, for €24 Million. How then, you ask, can this be mistaken for 'great' business?

Well. This is the Porto model. They identify South American talent, (and not in the way Barcelona or Man Utd do, recruiting youth team players before they make their full debuts), they monitor its development, then they buy it. Not too cheaply, either, but never at an exorbitant price. They seem to have a great knack of picking players who will make the grade in Europe, where a lot of clubs recruit unknown quantities who don't have what it takes and go home after a Season or two, having discovered their actual level. Or perhaps they just handle those players well, shepherding them through a difficult cultural change and allowing them to find their form and way without rushing anything.
Then they make that talent work for them. Since the Mourinho era, Porto have won the League in six out of seven Seasons (the single unsuccessful year was the immediate post-Mourinho wobble) and established an iron-fisted dominance over the two big Lisbon clubs. They also regularly make the latter stages of the Champions League.
Then they sell these players, generally at a significant profit. And back they go to South america, to buy the next player...

Examples: Deco, who was playing for tiny Salgueiros in Portugal when Porto bought him, the unknown Brazilian had been brought to Portugal by Benfica but never given a start, instead being farmed out on loan. Porto bought him for a pittance, Mourinho made him the focal point of the team and he was one of the best players in the World for a few seasons after that; able to pass long and short, tackle, dribble and with a great tactical brain. They won the Portuguese League, the UEFA cup, then the Champions League, and then sold him to Barcelona for €12 Million and Ricardo Quaresma.
Quaresma himself - a dazzling talent for Sporting Lisbon, he had flopped horribly after a big-money (€6 Million) transfer to Barcelona. Porto rehabilitated him and he would be a key member of the squad that won two consecutive League titles before being sold to Internazionale for €18 Million.
Porto replaced Quaresma with Cristian Rodriguez, the young Uruguayan who had done well in a struggling Paris Saint Germain before being loaned to Benfica, where he thrived. Porto nipped him from under Benfica's noses, paying €7 Million for him, giving him the Number 10 shirt and playing him as a roaming left winger in a potent three-man attack.
One of the other members of that attack, Hulk, had been a revelation this season. Bought from Tokyo Verdy in Japan and accordingly absolutely off the radar for most of Europe's clubs, the young Brazilian cost only €6 Million and scored eight goals in his debut Season in Portugal.

Of course there have been players who didn't do quite so well. But Porto generally made a profit on them, too. Diego is a rare exception, joining for €7 Million from Santos and leaving for Werder Bremen, his reputation damaged by two seasons of underachievement, for €6 Million. Anderson is more representative - bought from Gremio for around €10 Million, a horrific broken leg (the result of a tackle) meant he played little for Porto, but Manchester United paid €18 Million for him anyway. As is Carlos Alberto, who played little but scored the crucial first goal in the Champions League final and was sold to Werder Bremen for €7.8 Million.

Bringing me back to this summer, Lucho and Lopez. Porto obviously have been eyeing their replacements for some time. Lucho has been linked with various Spanish clubs for the last two summers (Valencia and Atletico Madrid, most prominently) and within a week of his transfer, Porto had begun negotiations to bring Fernando Belluschi in to replace him. Belluschi is another former River Plate creative midfielder, perhaps more imaginitive than Lucho, if less commanding, and after a solid (and occasionally inspired) first Season with Olympiakos he may be ready for a bigger League. This is business - Porto paid €11 Million for Lucho, sold him for €18 Million, and have bought Belluschi for €5 Million. They are also persistently linked with Lanus' Diego Valeri, an oustanding young playmaker, and their history with recruits from Argentina suggests he too could be a success.
As for Lisandro Lopez, he was bought from Racing Club in Argentina for €2.5 Million, giving Porto a €20 Million profit on his sale to Lyon. In his time at the club he doubled his goals-per-game tally and was a lethal spearpoint to their attack. They have acted quickly to replace him, paying River Plate €3.9 Million for the 23 year-old Columbian striker Falcao, a hot property over the last few Seasons, and as good a striker as there is in South America at the moment.

Man City, prepared to pay €40 Million for Emmanuel Adebayor, and Real Madrid, with the same fee for Xabi Alonso, could do worse than take a few notes. Though they would probably rather wait a Season or two, then offer €50 Million for Falcao...

Latin Wonderkids

South America has long exported its football talent to Europe.
In recent years, however, the talent drain has been beginning earlier as young players flee Economic and social uncertainty at home in Brazil or Argentina in order to live more comfortably, funded by their new European owners. Lionel Messi and his entire family left Rosario in Argentina because his boyhood club, Newells Old Boys, could not afford to pay for the hormonal treatments needed to stimulate his growth if "the flea" was ever to develop enough to give him a shot at a career as a professional. Barcelona could afford it, and afford to employ his father and put up the family in town. The Da Silva twins left Brazil before ever featuring for the first team at Fluminense. Manchester United had spotted them at an International Youth Tournament and moved quickly to sign them up.

This is increasingly common. And South America continues to produce great players, with new wonderkids appearing on the conveyer belt every season. They shuffle off to a mid-ranked European club, struggle with just about everything, go on loan, and finally return home, older and wiser, career more or less wasted. The odd exceptional talent - a Messi or a Kaka - thrives on or ahead of schedule. Many others take a few years to adapt to the weather, the rigours of the training ground, the physicality of the European game and the expectations upon their shoulders. Life must feel different once you're worth millions of dollars. Still, European Club football is full of South Americans. The latter stages of the Champions League positively teem with Brazilians and Argentines, alongside the occasional Uruguayan. And they keep coming. There will be more this summer, and in the January transfer window, and after the 2010 World Cup, when a few new talents have been unearthed.

I watch a lot of Argentinian football, and as much of the Copa Libertadores as I can. So I know a little about Uruguayan and Brazilian and Chilean football too. Enough to have spotted a few up and coming stars. It helps, too, that the media in those countries carefully monitors young talent in order to predict the next big thing as early as possible - many of these kids (none older than 22) have been persistently linked with the usual suspects (Man Utd, Liverpool, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Barca, Milan, Inter etc) for years, and its as if the local media wants them to leave and further weaken domestic leagues. Go figure. Anyway, a short primer of some names to watch out for over the next few years:

Nicolas Lodeiro of Nacional (Uruguay)

Lodeiro, 20, is always being compared with Lionel Messi, which suggests how highly he is rated in South America. There are similarities - he is short (5ft7in) and plays on the wing yet with a licence to drift inside and link up attacks. But his game is very different to Messi's. He is more old-fashioned in that his playmaking comes more through passing than through the penetrative dribbles which Messi favours. He reads the game well and has an eye for a killer ball, which he appears to have an eerie knack of seeing before it actually materialises. He scores fewer goals than Messi, altough this part of his game looks to be improving. He is also a hard worker, tracking back and ferreting for the ball and displaying some trademark Uruguayan grit when contesting possession. He really emerged at the South American U21 Championship in January, where he scored three goals in six games and ran the show for Uruguay, who qualified for the U21 World Cup as a result. Since then he has played a key role in Nacional's successful run to the semi-finals of the Libertadores for the first time in over a decade. Uruguayan football never holds onto its brightest stars for very long, and the odds are that he will be in Europe soon, and the loudest talk has been of a move to either Barcelona or Liverpool...

Javier Pastore of Huracan (Argentina)

The Argentine League has been quite topsy turvy of late. The traditional "Big Five" (Boca Juniors, River Plate, Independiente, Racing Club and San Lorenzo) have suffered through sales of young stars to Europe and financial crises brought on by mismanagement and concerted attempts at Libertadores success. River won the Clausura last year, then came bottom in the Apertura, and Boca are not too far off repeating that feat in this Season. Which means that the dominant sides at the moment are a lowlier trio of Buenos Aires clubs - Lanus, Velez Sarsfeld and Huracan. Huracan have a historical reputation for attractive, attacking football (which in a country as devoted to attacking football as Argentina is no small claim) and under current coach Angel Cappa, they more than live up to that reputation. they also feature a duo of young stars who are stealing headlines in Argentina and attracting attention in Europe. Matias De Federico is another half-pint dribbler, blessed with explosive acceleration and feet seemingly magnetic to the ball. Inevitably, he is continually compared with Messi. Javier Pastore, on the other hand, is a playmaker for whom the term "elegant" might have been coined. Graceful of movement and with a fine range of creative passing, Pastore is also a deceptively strong runner, covering lots of ground with his rangy 6ft1in frame. This allows him to arrive late in the box on a regular basis and has meant he has scored 8 goals this Season for Huracan, including two in a 4-0 hammering of River Plate (he provided an assist for another). He seems always calm and composed, and his use of the ball, given any space at all, is often sublime. His agent reported that Man Utd bid £8 Million for him a month or so ago, but at 19, he may need another Season or two in Argentina before a move really appeals. He also needs to impress his National Team Coach, who snubbed him when picking an entire squad of domestically based players for a recent friendly against Panama. De Federico was selected (and scored) and the suspicion stands that Pastore was excluded because Huracan would not release him for the U21 Championship. In the past, Maradona has similarly punished Gonzalo Higuain, so at least Pastore is in good company...

Juan Forlin of Boca Juniors (Argentina)

The Argentine National team, struggling somewhat under the guidance of Diego Maradona, have a few problem positions if they do reach the World Cup in South Africa. Chief amongst them is Centre Back. Since the retirement of Roberto Ayala and the long term injury to Gabriel Milito, nobody has satisfactorily made either of the central defensive positions definitively his own. Maradona has experimented with various different players and combinations there, with mixed results. Which explains why Juan Forlin was fast-tracked into the squad during his first full Season as a first team player at Boca. If he continues at his current rate of development, then he could well be first choice for his country by the time the World Cup rolls around. He is certainly good enough. At 5ft11in, he is short for a centre half, but he makes up for it with incredible anticipation, smooth, apparently effortless pace and clean, precise tackling. He makes many sliding challenges, yet rarely concedes a free kick, instead often emerging with the ball at his feet, his opponent baffled by this lightning ghost. His spring is good in partial compensation for his stature. And, in the Boca tradition, he is adept at passing the ball out from the heart of defence. Barecelona have been sniffing around...

Sebastian Blanco of Lanus (Argentina)

Over the last two or three years, Lanus have easily and consistently played the best football in Argentina. They won their first ever League title two years ago (Apertura 2007), a triumph for their inimitably Argentinean short passing style. They possess a surfeit of creative, positive midfielders. Diego Valeri, the most classical, old-fashioned playmaker to emerge from Argentina since Juan Roman Riquelme (but with pace and a better work ethic, even if he does lack Riquelme's genius), was their lynchpin when they won that League title. Since then both Eduardo Salvio and Sebastian Blanco have become fixtures in the team. Blanco has often been preferred to the out-of-form Valeri this season. A truly two-footed attacker, he can play either wing, as a support striker, or in the Playmaker role at the tip of midfield, which is where he seems best used. Beautifully balanced and with a quick turn, it is that ability to use either foot to deliver his passes which marks him out, and the way he has started to shape Lanus' attacks with changes of play and sudden slide rule balls which suggest he could have a very bright future indeed. Lanus have done a good job holding onto all of their their young talent so far, Blanco included, for fear of selling off all of their success, but sooner or later the money on offer will prove too good to resist...

Maxi Moralez of Velez Sarsfield (Argentina)

Maxi Moralez stands out on this list for having done it all already. Aged 22, he has already moved to Europe for a lot of money, already failed and returned with his tail between his legs. And somehow it seems to have improved him as a player. He built a great reputation for himself at Racing Club in his teens, his technique, link up play, quick passing and incisive runs all impressing observers. At the 2007 U-20 World Cup in Canada, he was the outstanding performer in the victorious Argentina side which also included Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria and Franco Di Santo. Moralez, clearly at home in the traditional Number 10 position in the hole behind Di Santo and Aguero, made his strikers look good with his clever prompting and numerous fine assists. FC Moscow promptly bought him for $5 Million. He didn't adapt well to Moscow, barely played, and was loaned back to Racing after 6 months, out of shape and in poor form. It took him around another 6 months to recover form, fitness and confidence, and by then it was unclear whether Racing actually wanted to keep him. So Moralez joined Velez Sarsfield instead, was given the Number 10 shirt and the responsibility to make things happen, and has driven the club to within one game of title success. He is the definition of a livewire - quick on his feet and with them, always looking for options, always a threat. at some point a return to Europe seems inevitable, perhaps in a more hospitable league than Russia's.

Douglas Costa of Gremio (Brazil)

A left-winger with a penchant for lots of step-overs and stunning swerves above the ball, Costa has already been compared to Ronaldinho, Robinho, and Cristiano Ronaldo in his native Brazil. One thing he definitely has in common with these players is an uncommon cockiness - he swaggers with belief in his own ability. Which does seem partly warranted by his undoubted potential. He has vision, astonishing pace and is a magnificent dribbler. His dead-ball ability also belies his youth (he is 19). But he is far from the finished article and above Brazilian ball wizards of his ilk always must loom the shadow of Denilson, who never came close to living up to the huge transfer fee which took him to Europe (he went to Real Betis for £21.5 Million in 1998). Douglas could do with at least one more Season in Brazil before his inevitable move materialises. He has been, unsurprisingly, most prominently linked with Man Utd as a Ronaldo replacement...

Gary Medel of Universidad Catolica (Chile)

His nickname: "El Pitbull" probably tells you all you need to know. A defensive midfielder in the Gattuso/Mascherano mould, Medel is a gritty competitor with fine footballing ability and a fantastic engine. Universidad Catolica are one of Chile's "Big Three", and for them he patrols the midfield, but Chilean National Coach Marcelo Bielsa usually uses him on the right side of a three-man defence, while encouraging him to forage forward, employing that amazing energy to burn his way through a match. In the recent 2-0 victory over Argentina in Santiago, Medel was probably Man of the Match, his drive and hunger for the ball and awesome sight. He will undoubtedly impress many at next year's World Cup, where Chile, who play a lovely high tempo passing game which is the most exciting, attractive sight in current South American football, could well be a surprise package. Independiente of Argentina seemed to have a move for him tied up a few months back, but that appears to have dissolved at the contractual stage. He will undoubtedly be anchoring the midfield of a major European club very soon, however...

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Andy Reid & Stephen Ireland

"Football is a beautiful game, and it should be played beautifully" - Brian Clough, The Damned United

If you love football, it can be really depressing coming from a small country.
You don't qualify for most tournaments. When you do, you don't go very far. Because of this you get horrible seeding, which means you get awful draws in qualification groups, so ensuring that, yet again, you don't qualify. Each generation has a maximum of two top-class players, if you're lucky, and none if you aren't. This lack of quality encourages coaches to opt for percentage football - style is sacrificed. Results are paramount. The football is dire. Your club sides are terrible, the play unexciting, the best players swept off to bigger, more lucrative markets at a young age. You, like most lovers of football in this small country, look abroad for entertainment, for a team to care about. But you still love your national team. How could you not? Even though its an ugly beast. Its your ugly beast, dammit.

Ireland haven't qualified for a major tournament since the 2002 World Cup. Under Manager Brian Kerr we came very close. In a tough group with France and Israel, the team played nice, attractive football, but choked in the big games and narrowly missed out on qualification. Under his successor Steve Staunton Ireland hit a nadir - the worst results since the Charlton era, bad football, a lack of any tactical nous, and awful results. So Giovanni Trappatoni, legendary and incredibly experienced septegenarian Italian coach, was given a Big Money contract. Results immediately improved. Trappatoni knew exactly what he wanted and he knew how to get it. He placed two holding midfielders at the centre of his team, leaving the flair to the wingers and the forwards, knowing that his two midfielders provided security to the defence above all else.

In theory this is not an entirely bad idea. But it depends on the calibre of the playing staff for its success. A key player for Ireland in this system would be Blackburn midfielder Steven Reid. He is a good example of the modern central midfielder; strong, fast and incredibly fit, he has the stamina to run all game, to cover the entire pitch, to go ceaselessly from box to box. He is good at almost everything - he can tackle, run the ball, shoot from distance, his awareness is good, his passing varied, and he is fine in the air - but exceptional at nothing. He would work beside a journeyman destroyer in such a midfield, because his energy and pace would allow him to join the attack when required, and he can be a danger in the opposition half, but he would also so his share of defensive work. The destroyer could hold back all game, making Trappatoni happy.

But Reid is injury-prone, and he is suffering from a long-term injury at present. So Trappatoni has been forced to use lesser players in the midfield roles. Players like journeymen Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews. Or Darren Gibson, a Youth team player on the fringes of Manchester United's first team, who had played for Ireland at senior level before he ever played in a serious competitive match for his club. Or Liam Miller, who has consistently had to drop down a level to the Championship to find first-team football. None of these men is really fit to play in a midfield that has, over the years, been filled with the likes of Johnny Giles, Liam Brady, Ronnie Whelan and Roy Keane. Meanwhile, Ireland's two most creative Midfielders are absent from Trappatoni's Squads. Andy Reid and Stephen Ireland.

Lets start with Reid. Arguably the most creative Irish player of his generation, he is perhaps better known for suffering from recurrent weight problems than for having one of the best left feet in the Premier League. Not only that, but Reid knows how to use it, deploying a range of passing that seems more Latin in its variety than Northern European. Indeed, when he signed for Charlton Athletic a few years ago, a profile in a club match programme claimed that early in his career he was called the "Irish Maradona". I don't remember anybody ever being called anything so silly, but Reid's sheer talent has never really been questioned (and during his stint as Irish Assistant coach/Advisor, Bobby Robson echoed the sentiment by claiming that if Reid was Argentine, the media would rave about the purity of his technique). His first coach at Charlton, Les Reed, compared him to Ferenc Puskas. On a good day he has the kind of gift that inspires these sort of comparisons. He can pass accurately over distance or can play a rapid short game as well as anybody from these islands since Paul Scholes. He also takes a mean free kick, his control and touch is lovely, he has a few close control tricks in his arsenal, and his shooting is ferocious. That all makes him sound like a luxury player, a lightweight technician of the type the modern pragmatic Coach has little time for. But no, Irish football culture prizes effort as much as (if not more than) skill, and so Reid closes down, clatters into tackles and generally runs himself into the ground for his team.

The problem is his build. He is typically Irish - short and squat, barrel-chested and broad-shouldered. He would need to be super-fit to even look like he was moderately fit, and Reid generally looks a little out of shape. Paunchy. Carrying a half stone too much weight. Sometimes he obviously is out of shape, but the point is with his sort of build, he always looks tubby, no matter how hard he works or how much ground he covers. For Nottingham Forest and Spurs he usually played on the left-wing, and people expect wingers to look a certain way: whippet-thin, rangy, all angles and bones. They also expect wingers to operate using pace above all else. Reid was never about pace. As a winger his game resembled (to a certain extent) David Beckham's - he could send in a brilliant delivery with the minimum space. He could lose a full back with a trick and shoot from outside the box. The main comparison he endured was to Forest legend John Robertson. At Spurs, the crowd got on his back early, he struggled with his fitness, and despite securing a regular place in a team with far too many midfielders in its squad he never seemed to settle, and he was moved along relatively quickly. Charlton embraced his talent more enthusiastically, and he thrived once more in the Championship. Partly this was he was given more freedom in his role. He drifted infield in possession, his passing able to damage teams, his confidence increased by the trust placed in his creative ability. His form earned him a move to Sunderland, where he was a key player in keeping the club in the Premiership, as manager Roy Keane acknowledged. Reid had the ability to put his foot on the ball and use it intelligently, something missing in all too many struggling teams, who descend into panicked kick-and-rush. Take this Daryl Murphy goal against Wigan. Reid had just come on as substitute, and this is effectively his first touch:

Steve Staunton, for all of the horror and ineptitude of his stint as Ireland coach, placed similar faith in Reid's ability. He played Reid as playmaker - surely the position he was born to play - in a European championship Qualifier against Germany at Croke Park. Reid virtually ran the game, pinging first-time passes across the pitch throughout, fighting a strong German midfield for possession and holding his own, and setting up numerous chances for the strikers with his astute through-balls. But his development in the position was not enough and Staunton's replacement by Trappatoni sealed Reid's fate. Included in the first few squads selected by Trappatoni (presumably at the behest of Assistant coach Liam Brady, a confirmed fan of Reid) he went unused and had a screaming match with the Coach after a late-night singalong went on past curfew. He has not been selected since, altough Trappatoni says that this is because Reid does not fit in with the system he uses. He doesn't work hard enough, in other words, he is too creative, too much of a passenger. Setting aside the fact that this is not the case, games like the recent 1-1 draw with a 10-man Italy in Bari were crying out for a bit of creativity, for somebody - anybody - to put their foot on the ball, look up, and find the right pass. Instead, Ireland's 80th minute equalizer came from a long ball lumped upfield. without the injured Damien Duff, all of the other creative players were either stifled (Robbie Keane) or not creative enough (Stephen Hunt). Where was Reid?
At home, thats where.

As was Stephen Ireland. His case is more complex. Primarily, he is obviously a young man with some issues. In brief - he fell out with Irish Youth team Coach Brian Kerr over an incident with the Under-18 team after being dropped from two successive games. Kerr told him he would never again play for Ireland while Kerr was Coach. Kerr then became Coach of the Senior National team, and Ireland has claimed that at that point he considered declaring for England or Italy, for both of whom he has eligibility. However, Steve Staunton's appointment brought Ireland into the team, and he scored a couple of important goals and delivered some impressive performances in his first few games in an Irish shirt. Then, on an away trip to play the Czech Republic in a crucial european Championship Qualifier, Ireland spun a ridiculous web of lies in order to leave the team camp on compassionate leave. His girlfriend rang and informed the squad officials that Ireland's Grandmother had died. Ireland backed this claim and a private jet was chartered for him. However the Irish media soon discovered that this story was untrue. Confronted, Ireland claimed it was his other Grandmother. Again, the media disproved this story. Ireland now claimed it was a Step-Grandmother by Marriage before finally admitting that his girlfriend had suffered a miscarriage, and that he had hastily lied out of a stress-induced panic, believing that the Grandmother story would more easily provide the compassionate leave he sought. The Irish public and the rest of the squad was baffled, the team lost the game, Staunton was sacked, and Ireland has not played for his country since.

There have been rumours of bullying in the camp - Ireland is plainly a highly sensitive individual, and mockery of his hair (or lack of it) are alleged to have disturbed him enough that he is reluctant to return. But he is desperately needed. For, despite his stupidity in the Granny-Gate affair and his silly goal celebrations, he is an outstanding young footballer, an outside candidate for player of the season this year, and he seems already twice as effective as he was when last he played for Ireland. In my dream Irish line-up, he plays in a three-man midfield alongside the two Reids, with a front three of Keane in the centre with Duff and McGeady on the wings. Ireland is talented enough to make such a formation work. He is almost as gifted as Andy Reid in his passing, has a pleasing directness in possession, and is increasingly adept at nicking the ball from opposing players with quick challenges and hard running. His football brain is excellent, and the way he has linked up with the likes of Robinho and Elano at Manchester City in the last two seasons displays his true level.

Added to that is his habit for scoring insanely spectacular goals. Last minute volleys of balls crossing his body? No problem. He has a cavalier flair to his game that is balanced by his work ethic. Trappatoni has admitted he would love to have Ireland back in the team. He and Liam Brady have met the player, and were informed that he would come to them at such a time as he was ready. That has not happened yet, despite the comments from his fellow Irishmen in the Man CIty team.

To an Irish football fan, none of this is news. The absence of these two players has been the biggest story of the early portion of Trappatoni's stint as Ireland Manager. Irish football journalists want to see both of them in the team. Reid is highly rated at home, and Ireland's form is impossible to ignore. Pressed on the issue at a recent Press Conference, Liam Brady lost his temper and said "Have some pride in your country" in apparent reference to Stephen Ireland. Trappatoni, meanwhile, is unrepentant about the exclusion of Reid, and justifies his tactics with his results. He also claims that he doesn't believe Ireland will soon return to the national team, based on the players body language and attitude when they met.

Which means we will continue to play a plodding sort of low-risk football without any real beauty or imagination. We may qualify for the World Cup - we are big on fighting spirit, and sometimes that is enough, if a team is properly organised. But if we do get there, we will go out at the group stage. Or maybe in the first knockout round. We won't score many goals. We won't concede too many either. Ho hum.
If you love football, it can be really depressing coming from a small country.

The two gentlemen in question:

Friday, February 20, 2009

Cambiasso vs Serbia & Montenegro

There are great goals, and then there are immortal goals.
When Esteban Cambiasso connected with a Hernan Crespo backheel to drive the ball hard into the roof of the net in a world Cup Group Game between Argentina and Serbia & Montenegro on June 16th 2006 to put the Argentines 2-0 up, an instant classic was recognisable. An immortal goal. It came at the end of a sequence of 24 passes, involving eight players, in a classic move redolent of the purest aesthetic of Argentinean football - moving the ball on the ground quickly in a sweeping sequence of short passes, back and forth, dragging the opposition team all over the pitch until their defence leaves a gap which is then ruthlessly exploited. It was a breathtaking thing of beauty and a pleasure to behold. What was so beautiful? There are few instances of breathtaking skill, nothing really spectacular beyond a couple of truly superb touches. The beauty lies in the communal effort of a team, the combination of solid technique and hard work to create and exploit an opportunity. Pure football.

We'll begin almost halfway through the passage of play. Serbia had been attacking, an urgency evident in their need for an equalizer to Maxi Rodriguez's opening goal, just minutes before. Maxi had begun the match on the right wing, his usual position with Atletico Madrid and the National team, but Lucho Gonzalez had left the game early with an injury, replaced by Cambiasso. Maxi switched to the left with a licence to roam infield to support playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme. This World Cup would be the making of Maxi. He scored two fine goals in this game and probably the second best goal of the tournament in the first knockout round against Mexico with his chest-and-volley from distance into the top corner. He ended the tournament badly, however, banned for his part in the fighting at the end of Argentina's quarter-final with Germany. If he is best remembered for the sublime technique of that volley against Mexico, it is worth noting that Maxi is as much a grafter as he is a technician, and tracking back, he nipped in and won the ball deep in his own half with a sliding toe. It rolled to Gabriel Heinze, playing at Centre Back alongside the legendary veteran Roberto Ayala in a formidably cynical pairing. Heinze, with a directness borne either of his time in England playing for Manchester United or his relative lack of sparkling technique, passed it forward instantly and it was received by Javier Mascherano.

Having Mascherano and Cambiasso on the pitch together may seem a little redundant - both holding midfield "destroyers" who like to shield a defence. But Cambiasso is an intelligent and underrated player, clever enough to realize that his position as first-choice holding player had been usurped by the emergence of Mascherano as possibly the World's best in that role (Fernando Gago would push him back to third choice in the following year or two). So he showed he could be versatile. Lucho, the player he replaced, is a midfield all-rounder, good at everything, and for Argentina he played as the third point of a triangle with Riquelme and Mascherano. He tracked back, he supported the forwards, he kept chalk on his boots and he ferreted infield for possession. Cambiasso aped his teammate, his formidable engine driving him all game.

For the moment he loitered in right midfield. Perhaps loitered is the wrong term, for rewatching this goal is a lesson in good movement. All of the Argentines move constantly, running towards one another, away from each other in angled lines, slowing down and twisting away, a ballet of perpetual motion from all of the front six. Riquelme, in particular, is a master of slyly evading his markers and finding an empty patch of pitch in which to receive possession. In this passage of play, he, Mascherano, Captain Sorin and Maxi exchange a series of short passes in tightly congested areas, the ball zipping around between them in simple straight lines, Serbs turning and tracking them all the while. What is fascinating is their eagerness to play the simple ball. Riquelme, the most technically gifted player on the pitch, is never afraid of playing the ball first-time back the way it came. He knows that maintaining possession is more important than always seeking the killer ball, that even such a simple ball has meant an adjustment has been made by an opposition defender. And for Riquelme, such adjustments are opportunities. He is patient. He waits for an opportunity, confident that he will spot it when it comes.

Ayala plays an easy ball forward to Cambiasso, who has pushed infield to join the ceaselessly evolving passing triangles being worked by the others. Mascherano pushes forward into the Serbian half while Riquelme and Maxi make runs between Serbian players. Mascherano doesn't push forward often in a game. His tactical discipline is part of his brilliance. But he will surge upfield in an attempt to present a teammate with a better passing option, to drag opposition midfielders after him. His pace and fitness allow him to get back to cover any breakaways. No other player in modern top level football displays the same hunger to be first to the ball, the same shattering power in his tackling. But his distribution is excellent, too, his passing varied and accurate with either foot, his brain unhurried and calm.

Cambiasso sees him and plays an easy square ball. Easy passes are a funny thing. Part of the criticism of British football abroad - one of the reasons it gets branded overly simple and tactically naive - is the British instinct to attack. Players look to play the forward ball at every opportunity, the crowd demands it, the opposition has to press to prevent it, and so we have the helter-skelter pace of the average Premiership game, which is what makes the league so attractive to viewers worldwide. But possession is not quite the precious currency it is in some football cultures, because in the English game, a team always knows it will soon get the ball back. This leads to various players, from Ray Wilkins to Jamie Redknapp to Deco; getting nicknames like "the Crab" from ignorant fans because they only ever move sideways. But the aim is continual motion, the aim is misdirection. Every pass sideways or even backwards is a step towards a pass forwards. This Argentina team knew that very well. This move is full of simple, "easy" balls. But they add up, every one of them adding to the subtle shifts in the Serbian lines. Including Cambiasso's low, crisp ball over the ground to Mascherano.

When he receives it, Mascherano, as usual, does things calmly, simply. He moves the ball along to Maxi, who has already been involved in this move three times, inbetween those touches roaming with intelligence and great awareness. Here he takes the ball and plays a high, bouncing ball out towards Sorin, on the left wing. It is the first pass of this move to leave the ground, and as such it seems almost decadent in its flight, too risky. Sorin is a most Brazilian of Argentine fullbacks, spending the entire game driving forward into the opposition half, joining the attack, then relentlessly tracking back down that line when the opposition gains possession. His drive and competitive spirit saw him made Captain for this tournament, and he seemed to thrive on the responsibility. He chests the ball up to trap it, takes a touch in the face of an onrushing defender, then moves the ball back to Maxi, who again has run around the ball's passage after he played it.

The Serbs are assiduous in their closing-down. They were, before this match at least, famed for a defensive meanness unparalleled elsewhere in the competition - in qualifying, they had conceded the fewest goals of any European side. But here they are missing the injured Nemanja Vidic, colossal centre half, and their defence is shakier than usual. Still they press whoever was on the ball. Maxi takes it and has to turn away from a Serb, then play a longish square ball to Cambiasso who has crossed the field from the right to help out.

It is around this point that the rhythm of the move changes. Cambiasso lays the ball off into the path of Riquelme, who, his back to goal and two defenders approaching, plays it first time sharply back to Mascherano, another easy ball. But the pace has been injected with Riquelme's instant touch, and it will only gather momentum over the next five passes. Riquelme's greatest gift is perhaps an ability to dictate the pace of a game, and here he has just done it. A great team moves as one to some extent, changing gears together, instantly, and in the next fifteen seconds or so this team moves up a gear and will have scored before their opponents have even noticed.

Mascherano picks up on the new pace instantly and hits a quick ball out to Sorin, still lingering on the wing. With three Serbs in close attendance, his options seemed limited. Javier Saviola gives him another. Saviola is the most baffling and frustrating of players. Anyone who saw anything of him as a youngster with River Plate in Argentina will remember the purity of his talent. He had pace, trickery, guile and imagination. He scored wonderful goals (44 in 86 games) and yet his game had more than just goalscoring to set him apart, in his ability to drop into the hole and create opportunities for others. He was Messi, Tevez and Aguero five years before they emerged, the seeming future of Argentinean football. But somewhere along the way it all went a bit wrong. He moved to Barcelona for £15 Million in 2001 and had a decent first season there under Louis Van Gaal, but his second Season was less thrilling and when Van Gaal was replaced by Radomir Antic and then Frank Rijkaard, he slipped down the pecking order and went out on loan to Monaco in 2004. That was followed by another loan, this time to Sevilla, in 2005. Finally, his reputation having taken something of a battering, he joined Real Madrid in 2007, where he remains, perhaps fifth in line for a start in a striking role and constantly linked with moves away. He has scored goals - albeit never as many as at River Plate - everywhere he has played, but has inarguably failed to live up to his massive potential. So it was something of a surprise to see that he was central to Pekarman's plans for this World Cup. Reportedly it was his understanding with Riquelme that convinced the coach, and this move would demonstrate that understanding at its best.

Saviola drifts out towards the wing, takes Sorin's pacy pass on one foot, spins around and moves infield, picking up speed. With Serb playmaker Djordevic advancing to tackle him, he prods the ball sideways to Riquelme, who has another Serb charging at him and Djordevic turning to cut off another avenue.

So again Riquelme ups the pace, flicking the ball first time off his outstep, perfectly over the raised leg of the onrushing defender and into Saviola's path. And there it is: two Serbian players eliminated from the game, their defence suddenly teetering with one single flick of the boot.

Here Saviola's technical ability comes into play, as he cushions the ball with his left on the move, then plays a volleyed pass towards Cambiasso, who is making a late run into the box from midfield. He plays the bouncing ball first time towards Hernan Crespo, darting around the penalty area in classic centre forward style.

Crespo is all about goals. He scores lots of tap ins and little dinks over despairing goalkeepers because his movement and anticipation are so good. So when he receives the ball on the edge of the six yard box, most educated observers would probably expect him to swivel and shoot. He's technically skilled enough that a goal will be the likely outcome. But it is as if the symmetry and team-play of the move up to that point have gotten to him, and Crespo instead pulls up and moves the ball back into Cambiasso's path with a curt little back-heel.

Cambiasso has no option but to hit it first time. There is a Serbian defender a fraction of a second away from smashing the ball into the stands and so he launches himself at it and, sliding almost as soon as he hits it, crashes it into the roof of the net.

Delirium from the Argentinian supporters, superlatives from the pundits. The team go a bit mental too, and will go on to score six goals in all, Riquelme running everything, the mercurial Saviola scoring one before substitutes Tevez and Messi will come on to snatch a goal each. Late on Kezman is sent off for Serbia and Montenegro for a wild lunge at Mascherano.

Argentina would go out to Germany in the knockout phase of the competition and yet, apart from Zidane's insane head butt on Marco Materazzi in the final, in this match they had created the most memorable moment of the tournament. And a sort of mission statement for how the game ought to be played. Two years later Spain would win the European Championship playing a similarly aesthetically pleasing brand of possession football, with Xavi Hernandez in the Riquelme role and David Villa as a sort of even better Saviola. The unlikely possibility of a final to the 2010 World Cup featuring Spain vs Argentina literally makes my mouth water.

So, the goal itself, with Martin Tyler commentary:

And a Mobile Phone film from the stand behind, which is interesting for the view it affords of the cluster of Serbs drawn towards the Riquelme-Sorin-Saviola triangle out on the left, leaving a hole in the centre, and also for the people all getting very happy after the ball goes in:

  • 101 Great Goals
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