Archive for the ‘Football’ Category

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As an Englishman I want to see my country lift the world cup once more. I know that the chances to do so this year are severely limited, but sometimes when you’ve been written off that’s when the time is right to achieve something.

England line up today against Uruguay in a must-win game to keep their hopes alive of getting out of the group stage of the tournament. Unlike in previous campaigns, this do or die matchup has not been brought about because of underperforming. No, in this instance it’s been brought about by bad luck and brilliant Italy defending.

In the opening game Italy took a one goal lead early in the second half. For the next 40 minutes England attacked. With each attack more Italy players joined their defense and formed a barrier around their goal. They dropped deeper and deeper to ride the pressure England was sustaining. It was truly a masterful display of defending from an Italian team doing so well what we’ve seen for so many years – protecting a one goal lead like their lives were on the line.

A little luck of the roll here, a slip by an Italian defender and it would have been 2-2 and the momentum would have swung England’s way and taken some of the pressure off today’s game. That, however was not the case and now England must win against a Uruguay team who are looking to bounce back from an unlikely loss in their opening matchup against Costa Rica.

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After looking at the upcoming Uruguay game there are some sweeping changes that England need to make from the Italy game, in spite of how encouraging their play was in that game.

Against Italy, England went with a 4-2-3-1 formation. The forward line in this formation was packed with pace and instructed to run at the Italy defense. Over the years, in spite of the wonderful abilities of Italian defenders, pace was something they were not known for. The difference between the two teams in terms of the pace of the English attackers vs. the Italian defenders was telling all night long. Sterling in particular had the heels of every defender, and even Welbeck and Sturridge managed to get in behind their man a few times.

Uruguay, however, are not Italy. Pace is something that isn’t lacking in any area of their team. England will not terrify Uruguay with pace and need a different approach to the game.

Football, like any sport, is about taking your opponents advantage from them and forcing them to alter their normal style of play. Uruguay love to attack with pace down the wings. In fact, it’s very common to see one of their main strikers in Luis Suarez or Edinson Cavani spin out to a wide position during attacks while the remaining striker moves to a central position to attack when the ball comes in.

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This is the most important factor of the game for England to counter. They need to take the wing play away from Uruguay. Force them to play through the center of the pitch where there will be more traffic and fewer spaces to exploit.

How do they do this? Altering their formation and personnel is essential. The 4-2-3-1 used against Italy left the England full backs extremely exposed to wide play. Luckily for England this isn’t a huge part of Italy’s game as they look more often to come inside and build their attack through Pirlo’s distribution.

England need a formation that will still allow them to attack, but that will provide cover for the full backs. With essentially four men committed to attacking in the formation we’ve already seen there no room for wide cover defensively and there’s a lack of bodies in the middle even if they could force play inside. England would be overrun in both areas by Uruguay.

This is why there have been 23 of the best players from the country selected to play in this tournament. There are games in which formations need to be changed, and this is one of those games.

The best formation for me is to play a 4-4-2 with a narrow diamond. This essentially fields 4 central midfield players, 2 of whom will be a little wider than normal to cover defensive duties on the flanks, but not wide enough to be wingers or traditional wide midfielders. The other two midfielders would comprise of a deep lying midfielder protecting the defenders and an attacking midfielder to link play behind the attacking duo.

For this formation to work the two midfielders who are deployed in the widest aspects of the diamond need to be comfortable central midfielders with the ability to take the ball out wide and beat a man.

A change in formation like this will require a change in several starters from the last game simply because there will be better suited players for the different positions. This doesn’t mean the other players’ world cups are over; it doesn’t mean they are being punished for anything. It simply means that a change of formation, tactics and lineup was essential for this specific matchup.

We’ve seen just yesterday with Spain what loyalty can bring. Spain manager Vicente Del Bosque stayed rigid and inflexible with his lineup. Showed incredible loyalty to a number of players who either form or ability to handle the opposition should have led to being dropped. The result was the holders already out of the tournament before the final group game has even been played. England need to avoid that kind of behaviour and be adaptable. Shape and alter their team to meet the unique challenge brought by the next opponents.

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I’ve already said I feel a diamond shaped 4-4-2 is required, but who should play? Here’s what I feel would be the best lineup for England to face Uruguay with.

GK – Hart

RB – P. Jones

CB’s – G. Cahill, P. Jagielka

LB – L. Baines

DM – S. Gerrard

RCM – J. Wilshere

LCM – R. Barkley

AM – A.    Lallana

FW – W. Rooney

ST – R. Lambert

As you can see there are several changes to the Italy lineup, all are required to give England the best chance for success, not only in this game but also in the Costa Rica game that could prove to be just as important as today’s Uruguay game.

First of all in defense. Given that Uruguay love to attack down the wings it is important to have defensive cover there. The first line of defense has to be the full back, and Glen Johnson does not fill that defensive need. Against Italy I counted 4 occasions in which Johnson was the England player farthest up the field. This will leave too much ground to make up against a team like Uruguay, so a defender who doesn’t foray up the field with as much reckless abandon is needed.

As Hodgson decided against a second right back to Brazil given the versatility of Jones and Smalling this is the perfect game to use the defensive abilities of one or the other to provide a little more stability defensively at the full back spot. I chose Jones over Smalling as I feel he is the stronger of the two defensively, and the better with his positional sense.

Through midfield there have been several changes. With a narrow diamond you need players who can perform both centrally and out wide. Barkley has played central roles and wide roles for Everton and throughout his loan spells at other clubs. When he came on against Italy he was deployed down the left and showed some nice skills on the flank. He challenged down the line a couple of times and he also came inside to link up well. Those are essential abilities for a player in a wider role with the diamond. Barkley is also tall, strong and able to provide defensive cover for Baines, while at the same time blocking the line effectively to force Uruguay inside.

On the other side of the diamond I went with Wilshere. I considered simply dropping Sterling back to a more midfield than attacking role, which there’s no doubt he would perform well. The problem there, however, is the yellow card Sterling picked up against Italy. While Sterling will never shy away from a tackle, he’s a little ragged in his tackling ability and if you add the extra defensive duties to his role in a deeper position he will pick up a second yellow and I feel he’s needed more for Costa Rica than for Uruguay.

Wilshere can play anywhere. He’s shown with Arsenal that he has the ability to attack and beat a man, so he can venture down the wing. He’s naturally a more central midfielder, so he will likely drift inside a lot to get play linking up. This is fine because Lallana will be in the more advanced role midfield role and he can drift out when Wilshere comes in to keep cover out wide.

On to Lallana. He was unlucky to lose out to Welbeck in the starting lineup for the Italy game, and he did well when he came on. Lallana can play out wide, but is better in the middle as his incisive passing and drive will open up space for Lallana and those around him.

Up front the best option is a deep forward and an advanced striker. This is where the furor can begin. I have selected Wayne Rooney for deep and Lambert to spearhead the lineup – no Sturridge!

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Sturridge is a great player and dropping him is not a negative approach to this game. Sturridge, like many of the younger England forwards, brings speed and athleticism to the team. Against Italy that was perfect. Their defenders, while wonderfully adept defensively, are not very quick and Sturridge, Sterling and Welbeck brought pace to trouble them. Uruguay are not Italy and they have more pace throughout their squad. As a result they won’t be troubled to the same degree by Sturridge’s pace.

Instead, a two man strike force containing a physically strong player with great ball control for hold-up play is the perfect compliment to Rooney. It’s no coincidence that some of Rooney’s best football came when he was partnered with Emile Heskey. Heskey was the bull whose movement, holdup play and unselfish link-up play provided Rooney with the space to exploit. Lambert can do the same.

Many won’t agree with the changes I suggest, and Hodgson may simply decide to keep trying to overwhelm with speed and attack. I feel it would be better served to adapt to the opposition and alter style, shape and personnel. What do you think?

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Manchester United are struggling. Manchester United can’t win the title. Manchester United won’t make it to the Champions League next season.

Whatever the story is you’re reading about Manchester United’s fortunes, one of the three statements above will likely be made within the story, often all three. So, now that I’ve got the obligatory knocks on the team out of the way lets begin.

Manchester United are in a transitional period. People don’t like to hear it, but they are and it’s been going on longer than David Moyes has been with the club, it’s just become apparent now because Moyes is trying to address things and actually allow the transition to happen.

The transition I’m talking about is reshaping the Manchester United defense.

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Sir Alex Ferguson left Moyes with a championship winning team, minus Paul Scholes. It was widely assumed that there may be a blip or two in that transition, but that a team capable of winning the Premier League by 11 points the previous season should be able to at least maintain their status as a top four team.

The criticism being leveled at Moyes in the wake of up and down form by United is inevitable. After all, he followed a man who had been able to achieve and maintain success over three decades, a man who hand picked him for the role. The level of criticism he is facing, however, is unfair but the only way he can get out of it is to hit the formula he’s seeking. The other approach he could take is an absolute non-starter for Moyes and would be career suicide. So, since the United manager can’t say it I will.

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The shambolic defense Ferguson left Moyes with is the reason for the up and down form.

There, I said it. It isn’t Moyes’ fault, or Manchester United’s fault. Instead, the blame lay at the feed of the greatest manager of all time, Sir Alex Ferguson.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Ferguson was incapable of creating a solid defensive foundation to his teams. After all, the man brought us Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister (not to mention Dennis Irwin and Paul Parker). Ferguson was generally blessed with stability at the back early with the aforementioned Bruce, Pallister, Irwin and Parker. Parker moved on to pave the way for Gary Neville, who took the right back position almost all the way up to today. Some defenders, like Jaap Stam, came and went. Some, like Laurent Blanc, were brought in as stop gaps while younger defenders continued to develop. Then partnerships like Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic blossomed. With the long career of Neville, the emergence and longevity of Evra, and several solid years from Edwin van der Sar between the sticks, the United back line was as formidable at times as its front line.

Times change, however, and people age. Ferguson saw this and drafted in Chris Smalling and Phil Jones to hopefully usher in the new era alongside Jonny Evans. That transition depends upon a couple of factors, most important being the continued health and form of the veterans of the defensive lineup. This is where the shambolic mess Moyes was left with comes into play.

 

Ferguson saw the need to work on the next generation of the Manchester United defense and sought out the players who fit his mold. Defenders who are comfortable both on the ball and in the tackle. Defenders who are versatile enough to fill in when required in other positions. Defenders who could learn from Ferdinand and Vidic. What he failed to do was see that the writing was already on the wall with regard to Ferdinand and Vidic. Ferguson overlooked the fact that their days were done in terms of being world class defenders who would ease the youngsters into both life at the top and comfort in the Manchester United lineup.

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When Ferguson should have been seeking out a truly world class defender to play alongside the younger defenders as they continued their development he instead fixated himself with his offensive line. Like any true striker, Ferguson wanted to fill his squad with the type of attacking quality to strike fear into his opponents. It worked. With Robin Van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez, Ferguson had three world class strikers. Add into that mixture the versatile Danny Welbeck, Shinju Kagawa (fresh from being a revelation in Germany), the crossing ability of Antonio Valencia and the ever present Ryan Giggs and Ferguson had an attacking force to rival anyone.

The manner in which his front line pulled the team out of trouble and into winning positions time and time again papered over the fact that Manchester United were screaming for some established quality in defense. The younger defenders are still working on holes in their games and the veteran defenders are too far past their best to compete against the best of the best. Manchester United had no middle ground for defensive reliability, but Ferguson chose to do nothing. Whether this was because the team was such an offensive powerhouse that he didn’t notice the defensive frailties I sincerely doubt. I believe it was more a mixture of the loyalty he felt to the likes of Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra not to replace them coupled with his belief that Smalling, Jones, Evans and Rafael were the players to take the team forward and that they would develop quicker than they have.

What is still a factor is that these younger defenders have no world class leader to keep pulling them in. It’s all well and good for them to hear about what great defenders Ferdinand and Vidic were and how they can learn a lot from them, but when they see week in and week out that these defenders are being caught out by any top class players they face it negates that talk. They have needed at least one world class defender in his prime to enter the picture and show these youngsters the kind of stability, consistency and dedication to keep improving they need and that didn’t happen.

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Moyes is still the man to move Manchester United forward. The work he did with Everton’s defense is allowing his replacement, Roberto Martinez, to reap the benefits and plaudits of his attacking flair and free flowing football. However, what is often overlooked in the praise heaped upon the “revolution” at Everton is the fact that without Moyes none of the current plaudits for Martinez would be possible. Martinez is a good manager and is constantly improving, but his footballing philosophy is about attacking football, ball retention, passing and opening up opportunities through that mentality. At Everton it is working and at Wigan that same style had them in a relegation dogfight every year, culminating with relegation. It’s not a vast difference in the quality of the team he has that has made the change, but the fact that Moyes organized and schooled the Everton defenders to a degree that they arguably the most complete defense in the league. Martinez finally has the one thing missing from his teams – a defense. He wasn’t able to organize, build and school that defense and now has one ready made. He is an astute man who will allow his defenders to teach him rather than thinking it is all his doing, and when it is time to replace retiring defenders he will be versed enough to be able to continue the legacy Moyes left him with.

Moyes, on the other hand, has moved to a club with three decades worth of success who are reigning champions, but who defensively are two or three steps behind the level he had achieved with Everton. Not necessarily in terms of talent, but in terms of organization, positional and tactical knowhow, intuitive understanding and belief in themselves. Ferguson was right that Smalling, Evans and Jones can take United forward for another decade of success, but he wasn’t ready to let go of his “old guard” to allow a successful apprenticeship for these up and coming stars.

The secret for immediate improvement in the fortunes of Manchester United lie in the defensive organization of their new manager. Moyes is one of the better defensive tacticians in the management seats around the Premier League. He needs to not be afraid to ruffle a few feathers by pointing out to the veterans that their times have come to an end. A high caliber central defender and a quality left back will allow Moyes to be able to bring in his defensive philosophies to players whose bodies are still capable of making the adaption in style. This way he can bring the future stars forward in their development while correcting a porous defense.

One final note on the subject comes from an article I read on UK Yahoo Eurosport, actually more a headline for an article. Moyes pleaded for the media to blame him and not the players for the clubs current poor form. I would like him to have worded that differently in order to take an indirect shot at the fact that he was left with a defense that had past and future but no present. I would like to have seen Moyes say “Blame the Manager”. While many would still read into that headline blame Moyes, the few who are looking at a broader scope could read into in the fact that he was left without a ready to go defense in spite of reputation and title credentials.

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Football is a fickle sport, and it could become even more so.

The brains behind the scenes within the European Football setting have devised the Financial Fair Play standard that goes into full effect next season. This standard is aimed at targeting out of control spending that has caused teams like Leeds and Portsmouth to go into free fall in recent years. It’s aimed at ensuring clubs like Rangers learn to live within their means. It’s also aimed at levelling the playing field somewhat given the influx of billionaire owners coming into the game and buying titles – yes, I’m looking at you Chelsea and Manchester City.

In theory this seems like a sensible set of rules. After all, if everyone in society has to learn how to balance a budget and live within their means why should a football club not have to do the same?

However, as many of us know well, theory and practice are often two different things. Having glanced over the Financial Fair Play Regulations, understanding very little within my take on it is as follows.

Teams must balance their books (really? How odd). Teams need to prove that they are bringing in as much, or more, than they are spending. Spending on things like player transfer fees, player salaries, staff salaries, club supplies, etc, etc. These expenditures are to be balanced by income from ticket revenue, merchandising, sponsorship deals, player sales, and so on and so forth. Like I said earlier, in theory it makes perfect sense. Here’s where I see a problem, however.

The majority of money coming into clubs is going to come from sponsorship deals. Sure, a nice full stadium is bringing in a good chunk of money, but the more bums in seats, the more security staff need paying, the more catering need to supply for, the more cleanup is needed between games. Need I go on? Butts in seats is to create an atmosphere, not generate the money needed to run a team.

So, back to sponsorship. Which teams are going to attract the best sponsors? Anyone? I see a hand in the back…no, it’s a hat! The answer is simple, the big teams with the largest global reach. As I’ve noted English Premier League teams so far, lets continue on that trend.

In England you have two clubs with a rich history that has led to a large global reach. Those teams are Manchester United and Liverpool. For those of you who are new to supporting the sport, Liverpool were the Manchester United of the day before Manchester United were Manchester United. Get it? Good. No, really – before Fergie turned Manchester United into the force they have been for the last 20 years it was Liverpool who were feared across the lands. They had the best players and were the team to beat each year.

As a result of past and current successes, these two clubs are well-known around the world and can get sponsorship deals many clubs would only dream about.

Next you have the current “darling buds” of Chelsea and Manchester City. Teams who have a less endearing history to the aforementioned two, but who have achieved great recent results on the back of huge a huge influx of finances from new owners. Their recent success has made waves and they too can attract big sponsors.

Finally you have Arsenal and Tottenham. Many people love a Cinderella story, and these two offer that. Neither team has close to the financial backing of a Chelsea or a Manchester City. While both teams have had their success, it is nothing compared to the past and present successes of a Liverpool or Manchester United. In spite of this these two teams are consistently on the fringes of success, even threatening right to the run in on occasion. This almost, but not quite from these guys will bring in money, but not as much as the four listed above.

To put it simply, everyone outside these six will struggle to bring in the type of revenue needed to break into the big time. Save an absolutely unexpected run of successful results, the other 14 teams in the top flight might as well give up and fight for survival.

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With Fair Play restrictions the lower ranked teams will have less money to invest in a player with potential and will suffer as a result. With fewer avenues to explore for sponsorship deals and fewer peripheral company funds to fall back on (such as Chelsea and their hotel), the lower teams will have a tougher time being able to bring in new players due to the ever-growing transfer fees, and will be less able to offer competitive wages as they have to be more structured with their pay scales to stay within the rules.

My fear for football is that we will slide back into the zone we have finally begun to dig ourselves out of – that of the six teams listed above being able to simply open up new sponsorship deals every time they want to get lavish while the rest struggle to keep pace.

After a season that, other than runaway leaders Man U, has seen teams on the fringes be closer than ever we are about to see the divide grow once more. After a miserable start to the campaign this time around, Liverpool can still mathematically make the Champions League. A few years ago that wouldn’t have been the case with a runaway top 4 every year.

Give Financial Fair Play 12 months and we’ll have a runaway top six in England followed by 14 teams embroiled in a relegation battle.

Financial Fair Play? Don’t make me laugh.