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.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Argentina B

Tonight Diego Maradona announced his Provisional Squad of 30 players for the 2010 World Cup. And its mildly shocking reading.
Earlier today, Dunga announced his Brazilian squad, leaving out both Ronaldinho and Adriano. But that fits with the systems Dunga has always played by, as depressing as they are. Maradona's list, in contrast, doesn't fit into any tactical pattern, excludes players in vital positions, includes a couple of bizarrely whimsical choices, and seems to indulge the coaches desire to select as many Argentina-based players as possible to the detriment of the talent available in the squad in South Africa.

Instead of listing the squad - which you can easily find out by googling it - I'm just going to list some of the players Maradona has ignored. This is without even considering the case of Juan Roman Riquelme, who declared himself unavailable for selection more or less as soon as Maradona took over.

Juan Pablo Aimar

Probably the leading contender for the role of playmaker, or Enganche, as Argentines call it, Aimar has just won the Portuguese title with Benfica, where he played a vital role in a thrillingly attractive and versatile side, contributing goals and assists. He played for Maradona's team in the vital final sequence of Qualifiers, made a goal for Higuain, and has been ignored despite fine form. Obviously, he's a beautiful little player - contributing quick-thinking, excellent passing, dribbling ability and an eye for goal. In his position, Maradona has instead selected Javier Pastore, probably the future holder of the position, and Sebastian Blanco, a real surprise for the young player from Lanus. Aimar would have been the better option.

Luis "Lucho" Gonzalez

Porto fans called him "El Comandante" due to his leadership on the field, and he was a great favourite of Argentina's Coach at the last World Cup, Pekarman. He was injured for much of the first half of his first Season with Marseille (after winning the League title for each of the last four Seasons in Portugal) but when he regained fitness and found form, he was an awesome sight; an almost faultless passing machine who made a big difference in both attack and defense, became the teams de facto leader and dictated the tempo of every game. Result: Marseille won the French league. Maradona picked him and he scored a goal against Bolivia in last years shock 6-1 hammering. The coach seemed to blame him, to some extent, for that result, as he hasn't been picked since. His versatility means that he could have played more or less anywhere across Argentina's midfield. But he'll be watching on TV instead.

Esteban Cambiasso

Anyone who watched Inter Milan's heroically defiant, tactically brilliant performance against Barcelina at Camp Nou a few weeks ago will be able to tell you why Cambiasso would probably walk into most teams at the World Cup, never mind squads. More than just a defensive midfielder, hes simply a great footballer, amazingly hardworking, intelligent in his movement and passing, committed and possessed of deceptive skills. Maradona presumably decided that Javier Mascherano is better, which may be true. But Mario Bolatti, the alternative selection in that position, is not yet at the level of Cambiasso or Mascherano.

Lisandro Lopez

49 goals in 106 games for Porto. 14 in 26 this Season for his new club, Lyon, where he was also voted Player of the Year in France. He scores headers, long-distance drives, neat close range finishes, from dribbles, volleys - hes a goalscorer, the type who can tie up an opposition defence on his own. Of course, Argentina have arguably teh greatest line-up of strikers in teh World in their squad - Messi, Tevez, Higuain, Aguero, Milito. But surely Lisandro is a better bet than Martin Palermo, a 37 year old who has never really shown he can cut it at International level?

Ever Banega

The real star of a Valencia team who will finish third in Spain this Season - "first" behind the financial muscle of Real Madrid and Barcelona, the player with the second most assists in Spain this Season (after Lionel Messi), part-playmaker, part holding player, he should be the future of the Argentina midfield. And it looks like Maradona wants it to stay that way.

Fernando Gago

He was one of Maradona's untouchables. But he fell out of favour at Madrid - favour he has since regained, forming a formidable central midfield partnership with Xabi Alonso over the last two months - and, allegedly, his terrible relationship with clubmate Gonzalo Higuain may have cost him a place in the National Squad. But here is a player who once formed a great duo with Mascherano, who maintains the Argentine ideal of short passing from deep midfield at every moment in every game, who works tirelessly and has grown up playing alongside Messi, Aguero et al. Maradona is fickle...

Javier Zanetti

Unequivocally, undoubtedly, truly one of the greatest Argentine players of all time. Hes 36, hes got 136 caps, hes won lots of trophies. And yet hes still the best option Maradona has at right-back. He prowls the flank for Inter - where he is Captain - like an 20 year old, driving up and down, pushing forward yet never relinquishing his defensive duties.
Instead, he has chosen two journeymen to fill in at right back if and when his patented "Four Central Defenders" system malfunctions. Clemente Rodriguez and ariel Garce are both dependable players. Neither is even worthy of comparison with Javier Zanetti.

Javier Saviola

Like Aimar, Saviola has enjoyed a great Season with Benfica, scoring 11 goals in 24 games and setting up Oscar Cardozo, his strike partner, for many others. Hes got undoubted classand perhaps offers something slightly different to the others upfront. Maradona has never picked him, however.

Gabriel Milito

A defender of undoubted style and class, Milito had been out for a year with a serious injury, but his recent return for Barcelona has shown that, while rusty, he has lost none of his pace, ability on the ball, or footballing intelligence. He would have been a good insurance policy for the Coach to have in case of injury to one of his first choice defenders.

Andrés D'Alessandro

He has wandered across clubs and continents and never really, you feel, fulfilled his enormous talent. But what a player. Currently wowing fans of Internacional in Porto Allegre, Brazil, he can play as the enganche or on the left wing. He has issues with temperament and discipline, but he is a constant threat to the opposition. He hasn't played for Argentina since before the last World Cup, and Maradona was never likely to change that.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


Yugoslavia may well have won the 1992 European Championship. They had qualified, they were dark horses, before the War in the country intervened, and they were excluded from the tournament. Their replacements, Denmark, came and won in their absence. That was a tournament without an outstanding team, remember, and that unremarkable Denmark side were far from the best team in Europe at the time. Yugoslavia, back then, before the country had divided into its original form - the nations of Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzogovnia, Macedonia and Slovenia - had a magnificent squad full of the talent that would eventually enable Croatia to thrive on the international stage.
At that tournament, Yugoslavia could have chosen from a squad containing Robert Prosinecki, Zvonimir Boban, Dejan Savićević, Predrag Mijatović, Darko Pancev, Robert Jarni, Siniša Mihajlović, Dragan Stojković, Alen Bokšić, Davor Šuker, Zlatko Zahovič and Savo Milošević, among others. That midfield, in particular, sounds fearsome, combining some of the greatest attacking talents in world football at the time (Prosinecki, Savicevic) with a wily toughness typical of football in the Balkans.

But it wasn't to be. Yugoslavia will be remembered for some lovely football (another country in a long line called "the Brazil of Europe"), and for never winning anything. They came fourth in the World Cups of 1930 and 1962, and were runners up in the European Championships of 1960 and 68. Their youth teams were famously formidable.

Nowadays, each of the Nations listed above has its own National side. Croatia, Slovenia and Serbia have enjoyed notable success since the dissolution of Yugoslavia. I can't help thinking, though, of what a team Yugoslavia would maintain if the country still existed.

From Serbia, noted for their defensive solidity, Nemana Vidic would be a certainty, as would the experienced, tough Ivica Dragutinović, who plays for Sevilla, and Chelsea's Branislav Ivanović. Serbia produces defenders of breathtaking calibre, enjoyng outstanding defensive records in their last two qualification campaigns, and even the young Neven Subotić of Borussia Dortmund would be in with a good chance of making this squad. In midfield, the class and experience of Inter Milan's Dejan Stanković - creative but combative, a midfield all-rounder - would be supported by Miloš Krasić and Liverpool-bound Milan Jovanović on the wings, while Ajax's Marko Pantelić poaches upfront.

From Croatia, only Hoffenheim's Josep "three yellow cards" Simunic would challenge for a place in such a strong defence. But Croatia produces creative players of great skill and vision, as Tottenham's Luka Modric and Shaktar Donetsk's Darijo Srna attest. Both hard-working midfielders, both capable of defence-splitting passing, both technically brilliant, they would be an asset to most national Teams. As would Tottenham's Niko Krancjar, a more direct, "luxury" player than the other two, but one capable of turning a game with a moment of magic. Croatia would supply the back-up forwards for this team: Ivica Olić (Bayern Munich) and Mladen Petrić (Hamburg). Talented players with great work ethics, but, like Serbia and Valencia's Nikola Žigić, men lacking the magic associated with the strikers who would undoubtedly be first choice in this squad.

They would both come from tiny Montenegro: Stevan Jovetić of Fiorentina and Mirko Vučinić of Roma. Vučinić is a talismanic player - Montenegro's Captain, a versatile attacker capable of playing as centre-forward, support striker or winger, blessed with lovely dribbling abilities and explosive shooting. Jovetić is something of a golden boy; a prodigiously gifted 20 year old whose range of talents resemble his older countryman in both depth and dimension.

There is the spine: Serbian defense, Croatian midfield, Montenegran attack. Some wild cards come from the other Nations. Bosnia and Herzegovina supply perhaps the key creative midfielder for the team: Wolfsburg's old-fashioned playmaker, Zvjezdan Misimović, who, with his exquisite technique, controls tempo, creates chances and rarely gives the ball away. His heir, Lyon's Miralem Pjanić, would also feature in the squad, alongside Misimović's Wolfsburg teammate Edin Džeko, a commanding, prolific goalscorer.
Macedonia would be represented by Internazionale's Goran Pandev, another attacker able to switch between the centre and the wings, while Slovenia donate goalkeeper Samir Handanovič of Udinese.

So here is a possible XI, in a 3-5-2:




Jovetić- Vučinić

Subs: Dzeko/Simunic/Jovanovic/Pantelic/Pjanic/Pandev

A team capable of winning the World Cup? Maybe not, but certainly as talented a group of players as will be at the tournament, worthy of comparison with the likes of Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Portugal and Holland. As good as that Yugoslavia team that never quite was, with Boban, Suker, Savicevic and Pancev? Well, maybe not. But not all that many teams would be...

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Its Not You, Its Me Part 1

Club signs player. It looks a great fit. And it doesn't work out.
Happens all the time.
Sometimes its understandable, often baffling.
Here are some that remain, well, regrettable:

Juan Roman Riquelme - Barcelona
You look at Barcelona, look at the way they play football, the ceaseless economy and beauty of that passing carousel, and its difficult to imagine any player could improve such a team. But Riquelme, the most talented Argentine footballer between Maradona and Messi, is perhaps the best passer of the ball of his generation from anywhere in the world, an unerring magician with vision and wonderful technique and an understanding of tempo and space even Xavi, for all his undoubted gifts, cannot replicate. Riquelme also scores goals and takes set pieces. He was signed in a blaze of publicity, another "new Maradona", the heartbeat of an all-conquering Boca Juniors side who had beaten Real Madrid to be crowned Club World Cup Champions inspired by an impeccable Riquelme performance which had made Zinedine Zidane look positively ordinary. But it never worked out for him. Bought in 2002 for €11 million, his transfer was overshadowed by the kidnapping of his brother just before he left Boca, where his departure had been controversial due to his refusal to sign a new contract over a long few months. Coach Louis Van Gaal didn't want him, wasn't shy about saying so (he famously called him a"a political signing"), and kept his new Number 10 mainly on the bench, playing him on the wing when he played him at all, and then in Cup matches and dead rubber European ties. That didn't work and Barcelona struggled. Another post-Van Gaal season with multiple coaches, a squad made up of many talents but no real identity, and big failures in the League and Europe made Riquelme something of a scapegoat among Barca fans, who had expected him to turn around their club. He was loaned to Villarreal when Ronaldinho was signed. The Brazilian, alongside Messi, would spark the Barcelona revival that continues to this day. As Riquelme could have, given the chance. As it was, he was instrumental in guiding Villarreal to unprecedented League success and a Champions League Semi-Final, and won Boca Juniors the Copa Libertadores upon his return to his beloved hometown club. But I can still see him, picking out Messi runs with those casually perfect passes. In reality, he scored 3 goals in 30 games for Barcelona, mainly as a substitute. He wouldn't quite fit with the ethos of the modern Barca - his talent is restricted to a single role and is best expressed when he is the fulcrum of a teams entire attacking dimension, but he had the talent to succeed when he did play there. Its just a shame that he was never really given the chance.

Diego Forlan - Manchester United
If, in August 2004, when Man Utd sold Forlan to Villarreal, you had told a Man Utd fan that he would twice win the European Golden Boot over the next five seasons, they would have laughed at you. The Uruguayan striker had been bought from Argentina's Independiente for £6.9 million in 2002, and it took him 27 games to score his first goal, making him another in a rich heritage of failed strikers at United - precedents include Garry Birtles, Nigel Davenport, Dion Dublin and Alan Brazil. He had averaged nearly a goal every two games for Independiente as they twice won the league but he took a while to settle and adjust to the pace of the game in England. One of his problems was playing alongside Ruud Van Nistelrooy - an awesome poacher and goalscorer, but also a player who needs an entire team's play to revolve around his game (which is one reason Sir Alex Ferguson sold him once it became clear Rooney and Ronaldo were the players he should build a team around). Forlan then was more of an old-fashioned inside right; with the ability to take the ball off the midfield and run at defences, able to shoot with either foot and slip passes to other attackers. He worked hard to make himself more of a European striker and improved his movement in the box. In the Championship winning year of 2002-03 he scored some crucial goals and earned himself a lifelong place in United cult fandom by scoring two against Liverpool at Anfield. But United's purchase of Rooney made him surplus to requirements, having scored only 10 goals in 63 games. For Villarreal, he would notch 54 in 106, and for Atletico Madrid, 64 in 97, suggesting that we never quite saw the best of him in England, though United fans could always see that he was a class act; just not the right class act at that time.

Jari Litmanen - Liverpool
It often seemed during the Evans and Houllier eras that Liverpool really needed a Cantona figure. Somebody to tie it all together, a genius to make the difference in the tightest games, that spark, something out of the ordinary. Preferably a foreigner, an unknown quantity in Britain. Litmanen was meant to be that player.
He had been one of the hottest players in World football after a magical spell at Ajax, where he wore the totemic Number 10 in Louis Van Gaal's European Cup winning team. He was a playmaker but a great goalscorer too, topping the Dutch scoring charts in the 93-94 season. He began moves with visionary passes and then arrived in the box to finish them off. Had he not been unfashionably Finnish, he would possibly have been voted World Player of the Year at that time. He was that devastating. He followed Van Gaal to Barcelona in 1999 but played little over two seasons as he was frequently injured, setting a pattern that would continue for much of his playing career. It certainly continued at Liverpool after he was signed by Houllier on a free transfer in 2001. He only lasted a season, playing 21 times, and it quickly seemed that even when he was fit Houllier didn't quite trust him or use him enough. He scored 5 goals and donated a few match-changing performances, but it wasn't quite enough, and having missed out (through injury, of course) on all three of the Finals Liverpool won at the climax of the 2000-2001 Season, he returned to Ajax in August 2002.

Andriy Shevchenko - Chelsea
In his pomp at Milan Shevchenko was unequivocally the greatest striker in European football. But at Chelsea, after Roman Abramovich had pursued him for years and spent a large amount of money to prise him away from Silvio Berlusconi, he looked a shadow of that player. He scored 127 goals in 208 games for AC Milan. He won a scudetto or two, a European Cup, and European Player of the Year. He was awesome and feared across the continent. He scored tap-ins and headers, thunderbolts from distance, placed finishes. Chelsea paid £30.8 for him in May 2006, and altough the goals never quite dried up, he was never the same. Overshadowed by Didier Drogba, seemingly not trusted by Jose Mourinho, and most crucially, lacking that burst of pace which had allowed him to arrive in the right pace at the right time more often that most strikers, he never seemed to settle at Chelsea. He scored here and there, even some significant goals, but he never shone the way the player from Milan had, was never the talisman his price-tag demanded he be. His second season was blighted by injury and after a third, he was loaned back to Milan and eventually sold back to Dynamo Kiev, the club where he had originally broken through.

Nelson Vivas - Arsenal
Arsene Wenger has never really had much of an eye for a defender. Attacking football is obviously never a problem. But defense? Consider that he arrived at Arsenal to find that legendary back four already in place and that over the next decade he attempted to replace them with the likes of Stepanovs, Luzhny, Cygan and Grimandi. His best defensive purchases have been lured from clubs right under his nose - Sol Campbell from Spurs and William Gallas from Chelsea. Then there is Nelson Vivas. He had a solid early career in Argentina - seven years with first Quilmes and then Boca Juniors, followed by a 1997 loan to Switzerland's AC Lugano. Arsenal bought him after only a Season there with a view to replacing Lee Dixon at right back. He played games that first Season, but was never quite a regular as Wenger juggled him between fullback positions and his struggle to cope with the Premier League's pace meant that he made a lot of late tackles and received sundry yellow cards. His willingness to attack also proved something of a weakness, given his inability to match the pace of the games around him.
His second season was affected by his injury problems and, altough he had a small cult among Arsenal fans for his strength and bravery, his fate was already sealed by the club's purchase of Luzhny. Here is a player who should have been to Arsenal what Gabriel Heinze would be to Manchester United - an Argentine Warrior-defender, committed, driving, courageous and technically adroit. Instead his career in England drifted away from him and he was sold to Inernazionale in 2001 after a Season's loan at Celta Vigo. He played 39 times for his country.
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