Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Man City: Contenders or Flip Floppers

Manchester City's 1-0 loss to Sunderland in round 11 of the premiership season, was not just the usual turning of the tables on a high profile team by one in relegation quagmire. It was more of an embarrassment for all connected with last season's runners up. It's the third of such kind, following earlier reversals to Cardiff and Aston Villa. Meaning of the four defeats suffered in the league, three have come from teams in the bottom half of the table.

If I were Sheikh Mansour, Manchester City owner, I'll be mad - really mad!! . Here we have one of the biggest spenders in the close season transfer window, investing in a £100 million worth of talent, humbled by a side whose transfer budget was one-tenth that of his Club.  I would be calling the director of football  Tixi Berguristan and chief executive Ferran Sorriano for an explanation. It was the machinations of the pair that led to the dismissal of ex manager, Roberto Mancini.

READ: Mancini takes the bait in City's smoke and mirrors

 It was interesting to read Jan Verthogen's recent comments ahead of Spurs' clash with Man City. The Belgian International spoke in that universal innuendo- of Man City being the strongest side in the league. That idea has been such a fallacy, I wonder if Verthogen is using it as flattery here, or he sees it as fact.

 Sorry, I am not sold on Man City's title chances. They have undoubtedly a galaxy of gifted players, but the core of the team is not as powerful as people may want to believe. Even after the £100 million investment on new players and a trainer, it's tentative at best, if these additions enhance Man City's core - It's what gives a team the calibre to be champions.

 Four defeats in the first eleven games by mid November: you' be hard pressed to find a side that won the premier league on that statistic. 

 New Manager, Chilean, Manuel Pellegrini is experienced enough to know from his Real Madrid flame-out, 3 years ago, that lofty goals, and hastily assembled super stars are not a guaranteed recipe for laurels. His championship credentials in Europe is not particularly attractive, and he needs time to get to grips with the nature of the Premier league, then weave a collection of stars into a proper fighting force to deal with the terrain in the real world of football matches. He asserts that "individual mistakes" rather than "tactical" matters are responsible for city's curious away form.

Here's the deal, their schizophrenic performances and results undermines their credibility to win any of the prizes commensurate with their billing. There are latent, as well as obvious causes to their flip-flop season so far: 

Try this for size: Man city do not have a reliable cover at centre back if especially Captain Vincent Kompany is unavailable. It's been a long standing issue, and the Club have been oblivious to it. Riches in attack, paupers in defence. That malaise is an indirect consequence on Joe Hart's recent unassured goalkeeping.

City have a habit ( or tactic ) of being pensive in their build up to an attack. There is a lack of crispness and quickness. I personally attribute that to Yaya Toure and David Silva who are the brains in attack. Yes, they scored seven against Norwich, and winger Navas has twinkle toes, but they lack that tactical incision, and lethal finishing to terrorise teams constantly. This has been carried over from last season.  Aguero has the potential, but does the pass arrive early?

The team also lacks  that street savvy, like Diego Simone has engendered at Atletico Madrid recently. Amid their opulence, there has been an under-investment in a player(s) of the defensive midfield genre. Nigel de Jong was effective at that in the title winning team. A position that Yaya Toure has to be encouraged to fill like he did in his Barcelona days, freeing up space for a more conventional attacking midfielder.

There is no doubt City will have their moments this season. They've shown that with their demolishing job of Newcatle, Man Utd, Everton, and the fact they are on the verge of qualifying for the champions league knock out stages, but I see their season as being one where there will be more questions than answers. 

The seeds of failure have been sown by frivolous expenditure and expectations. There is a need to coalesce, and solidify the core of the team. It's the hub on which championships are won. Dzeko, Aguero, Negredo, Jovetic: Multi million pound strikers, but the team badly need a rugged centre half. City are a  disparate, rather than homogenous outfit. Those banging on about their potential are misguided and exuberant.  Their means shall not be justified at the end of the season. Sheikh Mansour might well have paid expensively for a bunch of flip floppers, rather than title contenders.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Southampton on the radar

 In a week when Republic of Ireland's new manager Martin O'Neil referred to his immediate successor at Sunderland, Paulo Di Canio, as a "charlatan" for the Italian's uncomplimentary remarks over the "fitness" state of Sunderland players, back when he inherited the job in March this year. Many observers would be forgiven if they had a similar opinion of Mauricio Pochettino, Southampton's Argentine manager, when he took over at Saint Mary's at the beginning of the year.

Not that the ex-Argentine International made any derogatory comments about the players he took over, but his name recognition level was dismally low in England. Pochettino had a relatively obscure playing career; mostly known in his native Argentina; Spain where he played and managed Barcelona's poor relations, Epanyol. His stint as a player in France with PSG and Bordeaux was unremarkable. In his relatively short management spell in the Premiership, he has been self-effacing, and chosen to do interviews through an interpreter, even if it's widely believed he has a grasp of English language.
Adam Lallana slotted home Southampton's third just before half-time
There was consternation when his predecessor, Nigel Adkins was sacked by Southampton after guiding the South coast club to the premier league. After a turbulent start, had started to turn the corner with a string of impressive results at the tail end of 2012. Even Southampton Legend Matt Letissier criticised the sacking of Nigel Adkings for Mauricio Pochettino.

The 41 year old former centre half has wasted no time in impressing his doubters, by consolidating Southampton's fine form when he took charge, and actually enhancing. There was no bigger stage for the new Southampton boss to announce himself to the premier league, than at Old Trafford at the end of January, when his team terrorised Manchester United, despite a 2-1 loss,  prompting the ex- United manager, Alex Ferguson to confess:

'In the second half Southampton produced the best performance anyone has done here this season,
'They pushed right on top of us and didn't give us time to settle.
'But my experience of this club, when you are going for championships, is that there are always games where you can say we were a bit lucky.
'This was one of those nights.'

I suppose Fergie's comments were a foreshadow of events to come under Southampton's new chief. Pochettino has transformed Saints from a side with just potential, to one with tactical aptitude and consistency in his first full season. They close down opponents high-up the pitch with their 4-2-3-1 formation, score goals, and have become harder to break down. The Club owners were confident to back Pochettino with no less than £35 million for the signings of Pablo Osvaldo; Victor Wanyama; and Dejan Loveren in the summer, adding quality to the squad.

It's little wonder England manager, Roy Hodgson called up three Southampton players ( Ricky Lambert; Jay Rodriguez; and Adam Lallana) in his latest squad to face Chile and Germany. Southampton have a precedent for unearthing major talent, but three exciting players in the England squad is a breath of fresh air, and thanks to Pochettino in no small measure.

Southampton have climbed up to third place in the premier league table, after 11 rounds. This no doubt their best start to a premier league season. Mauricio Pochettino won the manager of the month award for October; he has won 12 of his 30 games in charge, losing only 7.  Maybe people did not heed the warning when they beat Liverpool 1-0 at Anfield in September.

Sadly, with the publicity they have enjoyed since the call up of three of their players to the England squad, comes greater expectations. Southampton and their manager can no longer expect to fly below raider detection anymore.Teams are going to get better prepared, and games shall get tougher henceforth, then we'll know conclusively what they are made of. But i am willing to bet they will finish in the top seven position this season, and that would be a monumental achievement for the club, it's fans, and their talented manager Mauricio Pochettino.    

 The News that BT bid over £900 Million to win exclusive coverage of champions league football from 2015 - 2018 is an outrage in my opinion. 

 I suppose you'd say it's an independent company, responsible to its share holders. But that's not the point: Their quest to pose a counterweight to SKY's dominance of football coverage is going to trigger the unintended consequence of customers paying more on subscription charges on either, or both platforms

 If BT have to Fork out £2billion for rights to screen premiership and champions league games; plus their coverage of the Bundesliga, Lique 1, and Serie A, that seems like they are overreaching themselves, and surely, when the smoke clears, customers will be asked to pay more.

 It's reprehensible on two levels. 

 First, SKY and ITV have an existing deal which cost both £400 Million to air champions league games till 2015. A deal that encapsulates the interests of everyone, and makes a lot of sense to those on pay TV and those not. Why does BT want exclusive rights? would it not make sense to share a deal with SKY or ITV, and bring down costs for itself and it's subscribers? Is it not an axiom in economics that competition brings down costs? Well, it seems football broadcasting runs contrary to smart economics! How reprehensible is that!

 The other level this grates with me is the hypocrisy of UEFA and the European commission. UEFA talk about Financial Fair play rules for rich clubs, whilst gaming the unsuspecting British public with it's bidding process for Champions league screening rights. The European commission led calls for the de-monopolizastion of SKY's broadcasting rights, a few years back. I wonder if they are asleep or acquiesced to how UEFA have just sold broadcasting rights to a single entity, called BT. 

 There's no doubt UEFA have cashed in on the Maximalist and irresponsible position taken by SKY and BT to competing for broadcast rights. They'll be laughing all the way to the bank, and the British public are taken for suckers. I bet BT's so called "exclusive deal" is inordinate with what the media from other European countries got from UEFA. 

 SKY and BT ought to close ranks, and realise that this orgy they are embarking on creates undue inflationary pressure on their customers. Footballers will take home more pay; UEFA pay lip service, while the fans are left reaped off. If this precedent spirals, it will be a crying shame. I am sure the FA are plotting their share, and Alas, the vast majority of fans - working class people, toil!

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Dortmund Decrypted?

The formidable Borrusia Dortmund yellow and black machine abruptly jammed to the dismay of it's fervent followers at the Signal Iduna park on the evening of Wednesday, November 6th . It was Match Day Four in the champions league group stage, and London team, Arsenal were in town for the reverse fixture after losing themselves at home, 1-2.

Jurgen Klopp's men has stood toe-to-toe with arch rivals Bayern Munich and some of Europe's finest teams in the last one year. Who would forget their spectacular 4-1 win against Real Madrid in the first leg of last season's champions league semi final. That was the game that got everyone sitting up to take notice.

It was not only about the fact that Dortmund made it to the finals of the champions league last season that caught the eye, it was also about Dortmund's high energy pressing game; and their razor sharp counter attacking play. A lot of analysts have concluded the Gelsenkirchen outfit are "difficult" to play. I recall respected Bundesliga writer Rafael Honigstein saying "you know what Dortmund are going to do, but stopping them is another thing".
Aaron Ramsey: Living up to the potential, as predicted by Arsene Wenger

No doubt, Jurgen Klopp has built up an idiosyncratic team, and derives maximum efficiency from his young players. But the manner in which they defeated Arsenal two weeks ago had prompted this blogger to state  thus :

I really do not expect Dortmund to do the double over Arsenal despite their 6-1 demolition of Stuttgart in their last game , and lots of pundits concluding an easy win for Dortmund. They will be mistaken to underestimate Arsenal.  Remember Arsenal destroying Norwich 4-1 before the first leg?  Football is full of surprises, and I am predicting Arsenal to triumph in Germany to a lot of surprise!

Here's the thing with soccer: any successful team tends to carry an exaggerated potency, till demystified. Dortmund's swashbuckling tactical philosophy may well have been decrypted in their home defeat to Arsenal. Klopp's team have mastered the craft of exploiting space with speed, after ensnaring teams in their own half. But what Arsenal revealed in their win in Germany is that, perhaps the best way to play Dortmund is to circumvent their pressing by keeping the ball cautiously between your defence and midfield zones, where you have most of your players massed, thus protecting the ball better. Arsenal made lots of zigzag passes, taking the sting out of Dortmund's predatory instinct, and slowed down their running power. Arsenal's slowing the game down, watered Dortmund's renowned intensity, and by consequence their danger.

In other words, Dortmund are a more dangerous proposition when opponents attempt to play into their half. Bidding your time forces them to take the initiative in a  more pro-active sense than they would probably prefer. Having said that,  Dortmund did not really deserve to lose this game, as they made enough chances to win. Perhaps they did not deserve to win in London in the first place, so poetic justice was served.

Where to go for the Klopp and the Yellow machine? we'll know better after games against Wolfsburg and Bayern ( In the Bundesliga ) and Napoli ( champions league ) this month. I expect them to continue to ruffle feathers along the way. Gundogan, Hummels, Pisczek should soon return to boost Klopp's options. As long as Dortmund remain good to their playing ethos, soccer aficionados and scholars alike would at least unanimously rule their style innovative and exciting. A median way, at a time when the game is under the influence of Pep Guardiola's inspired tiki-taka ball retention, which some times can be monotonous and boring. The game needs the Dortmund approach, and whatever may have happened this week, I believe  they still have the wind in their sails  

Monday, 4 November 2013

The Media have their nose in Mourinho's backside!

The Media love a darling. In this case, Chelsea coach, Jose Mourinho is the darling of the media. The ex-Real Madrid manager enjoys a cult following in the British media. They have characterised  him in lavish and romantic terms. It whiffs of servitude, obsequious and starry-eyed at the very least. Or to borrow Edgar Davids analogy, they ought to get their hooters out from where it's lodged down below.

A good chunk of the media have created a myth to the man and his coaching skills. Even after Chelsea's 2-0 defeat to Newcastle, November 2nd, the media pretend not to see the flaws in his team. He is portrayed as the embodiment of victory or success  to the game. You'd be forgiven for thinking Jose Mourinho invented all the tactical postulations  we have witnessed. His performance and utterances before the media, ties in with that narrative. He's got the media hexed, and they in turn milk the misconception he spouts for headlines.

Mourinho is presented as Chelsea's messiah. True he won two premier league titles for the club in 05 and 06.  On the back of record spending on new players, he constituted a formidable team back then, using charm, rhetoric, and audacity to launch Chelsea to the fore front front. It was self-evident Mourinho had a team grinders and grafters, rather than players of fantasy. Even after spells at Inter Milan and Real Madrid, Clubs that had the biggest budgets in their respective leagues, he never produced a team that the soccer world got fond of, like we did with Ajax, AC Milan, Barcelona, and most recently Bayern Munich. How come?

That's because Mourinho is first and foremost a counter-intuitive coach, rather than one who plays to the ideals of the game.  A character, rather a custodian of the values, and finest traditions of the game.  A master in the art of divide and rule, and a self serving junky.

Once he returned back to England in the summer, the bookies and the media installed Chelsea as the favourites to win the premiership. The Club spent over £50 million on Andre Schurlle from Bayer Leverkusen, and William, from Russian Club Anzhi; on top of pre-existing attacking talents in Eden Hazard, Oscar, Mata, de Brunye, and Victor Moses

Do I need to mention Mourinho also got striker Samuel Eto to join Torres; and that youngster Romelu Lukaku seemed on the verge of finally getting his chance at Chelsea. The Chelsea coach in his infinite wisdom sent  Lukaku out on loan, this time to Everton, and he now has five league goals to his credit. Eto and Torres: only one each. Mourinho has pivoted from calling his team "babies", to controversially de-selecting fans' favourite Mata; and then expending copious media attention in trying to define his philosophy, and how Oscar is his new number 10, usurping Mata, who does not "work hard" enough tracking back. I doubt the likes of Cryuff, Maradona, or Zidane were ever castigated so publicly as Mourinho did Mata!

The "happy one" tells us he has "never worked harder" than he has with Chelsea this season. He
cannot decide if to play  David Luis or not. The Brazilian International has been criticised, and dropped. After his perpetual tinkering of personnel, he has the impunity to claim the players are not heeding his instructions. Isn't Mourinho trying too hard to impress here? is this not narcissism? The media is rife with stories of him wielding the axe to players who are not adhering to his standards. Can you really back Chelsea to win the league with Mourinho's vindictive, shoot from the hip management style?

We saw his infantile behaviour in Chelsea's clash with Man City a week ago, when Torres got the fortuitous winner in the last minute: He celebrates over zealously, jumping into the crowd, with the excuse he wanted to celebrate with his son; and Chelsea are "to blame" for locating his son close to the opposition dug out! What a load of garbage! Man City's Manager Pellegrini  didn't find his tawdry behaviour funny.

Here's my take..... The media will soon understand their folly in jumping into bed with Mourinho again. They can give his excuses for being five points behind premiership leaders, Arsenal as much positive spin as they want. They can be enamoured by the drama of his press conferences; they can claim Chelsea are not "a Mourinho team yet"; they can dream on about Chelsea winning the tittle this year! In the end, they'll realise Mourinho and his dogma is a train wreck waiting to happen.

When they really decide to cover teams and coaches that deserve  attention for sheer gravitas, I am sure Southampton and their Argentine manager Mauricio Pochettino would come under their spot light. Southampton are going great guns. I refer to them as the Borussia Dortmund of the premier league. Pochetinno has no less than five England International prospects in his team. They play the high pressing game; switch from defence to attack rapidly; create quick openings in the opposition's half, and are explosive in search of goals. Pochettino should be hailed for the tactical transformation of the south coast club.  Like Guardiola at Bayern Munich; Tata Martino at Barcelona; Rudi Garcia at AS Roma, coaches who have proved their worth at a new Club in a short spell.  Mourinho's  oratory is cheap!!!`

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Arsenal bolster their championship credentials

Early November, 28 rounds left in the Premier League, do not be fooled by anyone saying it's still early days yet.... The league table has had a fairly consistent shape for the last five weeks, and I do not envisage more than small changes in the standings of the top eight teams currently, when we hit 38 rounds. Any major shift will come from Man Utd, whom I believe would eventually gate crash the top four.

Significantly, I see Arsenal and Liverpool finishing in the top two positions. These two served us the best game in the premiership so far, when they clashed at The Emirates, November 2nd.  Not only was it a great advert for the Premier League, it showed that both sides are more settled tactically, and structure-wise, and as long as they handle the fluctuations and nuances in details of this turbulent league, correctly, they'll remain as they are.

I stand firm in my convictions Arsenal will win the premier League this season, and yesterday's performance proves they are the best team in the League. Contrary to most pundits' view, beating Liverpool 2-0 means they can handle the pressure, and won't choke at the top.

Liverpool are on a great run, and the mention of Suarez and Sturridge  gets opponents hyper-ventilating. Their Midfield has skill, invention, and protection from playing de facto five defenders. Brendan Rodgers' game plan was as expected - to press Arsenal high in midfield; with Suarez and Sturridge picking up the pieces from there. Arsenal did not play suckers twice. Yes, they fell for it against Borussia Dortmund in their 1-2 defeat to the German side in the champions League, not once again.

There were always going to be chances at both ends, but such was the tactical plot of this game, that the better midfield would inevitably produce the winning team. Liverpool had five to press - the wing backs Cissokoh, Flanagan; and midfielders Henderson, Gerrard, and Lucas. Arsenal pushed their defence high when in possession in their half; and the likes of Arteta, Ramsey, Carzola, Rosicky, out-manouvred Liverpool's midfield, and showed excellent technical ability to retain the ball; when they lost possession, their high-line defence, counter-pressed to regain possession. The midfield duel in this top of the table clash, was like two boxers in the ring with the knowledge that scoring points with jabs mattered more than seeking a knock-out with the big left hook.  Arsenal's success was built around their midfield flair and technique.

Arsenal have floundered in the last few seasons, and that's been in the main down to  manager Arsene Wenger's scorn at tactical defending and high work rate in midfield. Merely thinking the technical fluidity and brilliance of his team was good enough to win the league. He was mistaken. Wenger now brings on defenders when a lead needs protecting. He was so animated against Liverpool even when they were ahead; such has Arsenal evolved.

It must be stated that as much as anything else, having a relatively smaller group of players available has been helpful to Arsene Wenger. It's helped him get his message across, they have circled the wagons, and playing 14 or 15 players consistently means the team can focus better and  it's ethos better upheld. How about Aaron Ramsey? if he goes on like this till january, he'll be player of the season. Typically, the best player in the league tends to play for the eventual league champions. The signs are good for the North Londoners.

Arsenal deserve the encomiums, but Borrusia Dortmund on November 6th will be an interesting clash. Have Arsenal learnt their lessons? They conceded two careless goals in the first leg in London - losing possession on the edge of their box, and a sucker punch on the counter attack in the 85th minute. Overall, I do not think Arsenal dealt with Dortmund's intense pressing on the night; neither did they compete well enough in large spells. Playing Liverpool before Dortmund is a perfect dress rehearsal for the game at the Signal Iduna park. This time, the Gunners must out-compete Dortmund with a higher work rate in midfield, and like they did against Liverpool, counter-press. In a nut shell, the key to victory in that game is to give Dortmund a dose of their own medicine. I really do not expect Dortmund to do the double over Arsenal despite their 6-1 demolition of Stuttgart in their last game , and lots of pundits concluding an easy win for Dortmund. They will be mistaken to underestimate Arsenal.  Remember Arsenal destroying Norwich 4-1 before the first leg?  Football is full of surprises, and I am predicting Arsenal to triumph in Germany to a lot of surprise!