From Satellites to Stars

Assifuah vs Chile

2 matches, 2 losses: Ghana’s start at this summer’s U-20 World Cup was far from ideal. The Class of 2009, triumphant at the first tournament to be held on African soil, loomed large over the Black Satellites. Within the camp there was “huge respect for what they achieved.” Ayew and company, exalted ever since as the benchmark that every subsequent group should aspire to reach, were meant to be the inspiration, the driving force for a repeat success this time out. Instead, expectation appeared to be getting the better of these young tyros, the pressure of emulating their predecessors seemingly permeating their every touch.

In a way, the two early losses – Ghana’s only group stage defeats at any U-20 World Cup – aided in channelling the squad’s focus. The defeats to France (1-3) and Spain (0-1), both pre-tournament favourites, meant that victory against the United States in the final game of the group was simply a must, and even if the desired result was achieved other scores would have to go their way to qualify as one of the four 3rd-best teams.

How refreshing it was, then, to see the ebullient adventure return to Ghana’s play. The shackles were well and truly cast aside as the Black Satellites poured forward in droves, overwhelming the opposition with 25 shots (17 of which were on target) and emerging 4-1 victors. The young Ghanaians had stared adversity square in the face and reacted in the best possible way. 48 hours later, with Egypt defeating England 2-0, progression to the Last 16 was finally confirmed. The first hurdle had been passed, but the tests would get no easier from here on in with that familiar foe adversity forever ready to rear its ugly head.

Portugal were to be Ghana’s next opponents, their main attraction Bruma already accumulating a host of scouting dossiers; impressing many with his electric brand of pace and trickery. His exploits certainly hadn’t escaped the notice of the Ghanaians who formulated a plan in an attempt to dampen the influence of the explosive winger. Captain Lawrence Lartey describes how they “tried to keep two players close to him, so that he couldn’t go for goal the way he likes.” Admittedly, the No.11 was still a threat to a porous defence that kept goalkeeper Eric Antwi more than occupied throughout the campaign, but with the match in its dying embers and extra-time looming Ghana were still very much in the mix with the score tied at 2 apiece. Then, a free-kick was won on the edge of the box, wide on the left, but a decent opportunity nonetheless to deliver what could be a telling cross.

Richmond Boakye-Yiadom – one of the few members of the squad already plying his trade in the football utopia that is Europe to most of these kids – had other ideas, however. The two-man wall that faced him was a minor barrier in his eyes. The Juventus youngster endured a rather indifferent tournament but this was as good a time as any to try his luck. And so he let fly, the pair in the wall cowardly parting as the ball careered past. It whistled by the inside of the near post; the net bulging despite a desperate dive from José Sá in the Portuguese goal. Fortune had favoured the brave. The Black Satellites were marching on to the Quarters.

"Take that, Adversity!"

“Take that, Adversity!”

There they would face Chile, whose mix of guile and potency was in no small part thanks to their devilish trio of Bryan Rabello, Nicolás Castillo and Ángelo Henríquez. They terrorized Ghana’s backline which had proved so resolute in the main stages of this year’s CAF U-20 Championship, with the impressive Antwi having to make yet more eye-catching saves. It was clear that the Ghanaians hadn’t heeded the warnings of previous matches. Rather, ‘fight fire with fire’ appeared to be the mantra that fuelled an incredible 41 shots over the 120 minutes of sweat and toil. Twice Ghana had been a goal down and twice they had cancelled the deficit; the mental resolve of the group so apparent once again.

So much so that it was barely a surprise when in stoppage time at the end of extra-time Ebenezer Assifuah leapt to meet a looping cross at the end of yet another forceful, driving run from Frank Acheampong. The header may have lacked power but that was more than made up for by the direction; the ball agonisingly squeezing in between the attempted clearances of Henríquez and Valber Huerta on La Roja’s line.

Another meeting with France was their reward for this timely comeback but sadly this would be a case of déjà vu rather than revanche for the Satellites. Bookings accrued over the tournament by centre-backs Lartey and Joseph Attamah, as well as composed midfielder Moses Odjer, the youngest of the squad at 16, would deprive Ghana of three of their key performers. The resulting reshuffle – which in part led to the mobile and diligent Seidu Salifu moving from his berth in front of the defence to right-back – weakened the spine and though things picked up after half-time the sprightly brilliance of Florian Thauvin was enough to mask the slightly laboured approach of his teammates. The momentum engendered by overcoming adversity time and again came to a shuddering halt. The benchmark of four years ago wouldn’t be reached. Not this time.

That was in no small part down to attitudes towards defending. As Attamah lamented during the tournament “it’s a little bit tough to be a defender in Ghana. Everyone back home always says that we just need strikers but we need to put the accent on defence too. As well as scoring goals, we need to defend well too.” The gaps that continually emerged as the players’ eagerness got the better of them are testament to this view. There was a lack of discipline at key times with the group short of the desire to function as exactly that; one group willing to attack and defend.

Coach Sellas Tetteh offered up the oft-used line that “we can battle and we’re passionate, but sometimes I get the impression that African players don’t have the same tactical instincts [as their European or South American counterparts].” Undoubtedly that’s a rather generalising statement although there is a touch of truth in his words. In all honesty, such a topic deserves an article all to itself but it seems the hint of overbearing individualism that frequents the ‘African game’ is hard to shake.

Sellas Tetteh looks on, proudly sporting his lucky shirt.

Sellas Tetteh proudly sporting his lucky shirt

Possession was also a factor when considering agents of the Black Satellites’ demise. According to FIFA.com, in no match did Ghana see more of the ball than the opposition, a fact not lost on forward Kennedy Ashia: “We need to work on keeping possession and putting our opponents under more pressure when we have the ball. Our coach always tells us that in modern football you win games if you know how to keep hold of the ball.”

Unfortunately, these good intentions didn’t wholly manifest into any sustained reality, though it must be said that some margins throughout the tournament were negligible. More important was the resulting pressure lost possession heaped upon an already creaking defence. It wasn’t just the backline that suffered, though; a lack of patience in attacking positions led to quite an astounding number of hopeful shots from outside the box when a more measured approach may have fashioned more presentable opportunities. This will be nothing new for those that follow Ghana, be it Stars or Satellites, but there comes a time when this inanely optimistic shoot-on-sight policy when within a 30 yard radius of the goal must cease.

Of course, it’s not all bad if you reach the semi-finals of a World Cup and Ghana can take a lot of heart from their performances this tournament, bouncing back from the devastating second loss to France to claim 3rd place, defeating a weary Iraq 3-0. The aforementioned resolve was present by the bucketload, spirit and stamina ensuring late goals remained a common theme in their quest for a common objective. There was an additional purpose, however; a by-product, if you will, of their determined exploits in Turkey. A tournament of such magnitude is a prime arena in which to showcase one’s talents and the chance of a move to Europe lay firmly in the forefront of the home-based Satellites’ minds.

Assifuah certainly did his chances no harm, claiming the Golden Boot with six goals. His tireless performances saw him endlessly chasing hopeful balls down channels, his pace posing a threat beyond opposition defences. He also displayed a willingness and capacity to drop deep at times, holding the ball up with his back to goal and linking with the midfield before spinning into action once more. Never shy to try his luck from any angle, defences could seldom rest with Ebenezer around but the sheer rawness in his game can’t be overlooked. Sure, it’s to be expected in a 20-year-old but calls for him to be called into the senior squad seem wildly premature. Fans only have to look at Dominic Adiyiah, for example, to see that goals and promise at this level are far from confirmation of future success.

The left flank duo of Rahman Baba and Acheampong combined well throughout the campaign. The former provided continuous thrust from full-back, motoring forward at every opportunity and displaying an intelligent sense of awareness and timing in both his runs and passing. As ever, going the other way there were some less good moments – a tendency to get too tight to his opposite man and dive in unnecessarily is something that will have to be ironed out as he develops – but supporters of the Black Stars will be hopeful that Baba may eventually be the one to solve the perpetual left-back debate once and for all.

Acheampong, meanwhile, was a constant livewire; a 5’6 bundle of trickery and dynamism. This guy only plays at one speed: fast. It was almost too fast at times and that may be his main weakness at present, with the unwillingness to slow the pace of the game meaning that shots were often taken when off-balance and better chances in counter-attacks missed as a result of a desire to go solo. His directness and ability in one-on-one situations were a constant source of chances, however, and more than anything his perseverance – no better illustrated than that run and cross against Chile – exemplified the Ghanaians’ never-say-die attitude.

Acheampong: A constant menace

To be frank, Acheampong was a menace

Moses Odjer and Clifford Aboagye were two others to create interest; “create” being the operative word as the pair served up a host of chances for their teammates. Diminutive in stature, but certainly not in character, they defy the stereotypical African midfielder identikit – the physical and domineering presence of centrefield – showing deft feints and sleight of touch to slip past opponents, dropping into pockets of space and showing a selflessness not seen in many others. Perhaps this is due to their relative youth; after all, they are two of the youngest in the squad, but it’s possibly also attributable to an innate tactical understanding, the very type that Tetteh says is generally lacking.

Regardless of the reasoning it was gratifying to see how well they held their own on the pitch, whether that was in central positions or wide, and though their influences varied from game to game, with inevitable lulls dispersed amongst the buzz of imaginative activity, the subtlety that laces their games is such a welcome change from the norm. It can’t be stressed how important the next few years are for the duo who, like the rest of the group – the third youngest at this year’s tournament with an average age of 19 years and two months – need time to mature at their own pace in an environment suited to their own specific talents.

Though confusion reigns over his complete ownership, it’s no surprise to see Aboagye – who claimed the Bronze Ball for third best player at the tournament – on the books at Udinese, a club with a decent track record when it comes to giving youngsters of African descent a chance. He won’t have to go too far for guidance on how to avoid the obstacles that have stunted the development of many a promising talent. Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, a Zebrette man himself and a member of the victorious group of ’09, is one of seven players from that squad to have accumulated 10 or more caps for the seniors, with himself, Dédé Ayew and Samuel Inkoom racking up 40 or more in their relatively brief careers thus far.

This year’s squad went to Turkey with the hope of repeating the previous generation’s historic triumph. They may have fallen agonisingly short but the ultimate goal, their continued improvement on the laborious passage from Satellites to Stars, is far from accomplished. In fact, this is just the beginning.

@hazzaboy21

Ander takes the reins

Ander main image

In the centre he stands, arms outstretched beckoning the ball from teammates, head swivelling on its axis as he surveys his opposition, eyes scanning the field as he plots his next move. Give and go, collect and dictate; that’s Ander Herrera’s game. It’s a game based on immaculate technique, sprinkled with cheeky nutmegs and sharp, darting runs. Crowds marvel at his dainty flicks and pirouettes but these are not rolled out simply to entertain. Each deft touch has purpose; to evade yet another cynical lunge, to alter the game’s tempo, to direct play into a new promising avenue. Whether he’s orchestrating the next wave of attack or cajoling an extra ounce of effort from his fellow lions it’s abundantly clear that Ander runs the show.

When a match threatens to start a hurtling descent into chaos – and that’s an increasingly frequent occurrence when Athletic Club are concerned, with a confused game plan replacing the pre-existing frameworks that allowed a wonderful impulsivity – it’s invariably Ander that tries to quell the storm, taking little touches to prompt one-twos here or a rondo there that at least attempt to arrest the rapid turnover of possession. The Basque club are having to face up to life without El Rey León (Fernando Llorente, their Lion King) but Ander has shown he’s more than ready to take on the talismanic mantle.

He displayed some of this authority during the first season back in his hometown, though it sadly ended in frustrating circumstances – a persistent pubic bone injury hampering his movement through games near the season’s end, to such an extent that he was regularly hauled off before the hour mark once he had been wrung dry of what little creative juices he still possessed in that state. Then, he’d simply return to the medical room and start preparing to do it all again next Jornada, clearly in pain but determined to give everything he could muster for the cause.

Predictably, the absence of any real sufficient break from the weekly grind eventually wore Herrera down, with the injury keeping him out of the starting line-up for Athletic’s Copa del Rey final loss to Barcelona. Coming a fortnight after a hugely underwhelming performance in the Europa League final this was a tough pill for both Ander and the squad to swallow. A season in which they had made all of Europe sit up and take notice of their enterprising brand of slick interchanges had fizzled out at the most inopportune moment; their invigorating flame extinguished in an instant by the magnificence of Radamel Falcao.

So close, yet so far

So close, yet so far

Perhaps this trying period helped in hardening Ander’s will – perhaps not – but what is clear to regular onlookers is that behind the slight exterior lies a burning desire to win which fuelled immense leadership this campaign. Admittedly, this desire spilled over and clouded judgement at times leading to a couple of early baths that certainly did his side no favours, but these moments were the exception rather than rule. It’s commonly said that one discovers more about an individual in times of strife and that’s certainly been the case with Athletic’s No.21. In a poor season, one where Los Leones fell woefully short of the bar set in the last – certainly in the cups, while the turgid league displays seen last term became even more regular – Ander has been a constant point of reference to which others should aspire.

The Bilbao-born centrocampista is, quite literally, central to Athletic’s game; a fundamental cog without which life would be a lot harder still for the Basques. Infrequent viewers may look at the statistics columns, see his season total of 1 goal and 2 assists in La Liga and wonder what all the fuss is about. But delve deeper and one begins to contemplate why there isn’t more clamour for the artisan crafting inventive strokes on San Mamés’ fine canvas.

Ander completed the season in the league’s top ten for average number of passes per game with his tally of 66 (according to WhoScored.com) bettered only by a sextet of Barça tiki-takaholics and Rayo Vallecano’s Roberto Trashorras, predictably a product of La Masia. The top ten is his home when accurate through balls are concerned, too; his weight of pass reflecting the rest of his game – finely calibrated and majestic in form but with that intrinsic intention to drive the team forward forever apparent. And to top it all off his trickery and sheer willingness to assume responsibility made him the most fouled player in the league bar none.

Ander’s performance when Deportivo La Coruña came to town was typical of his role at the hub of this Athletic side, receiving the ball from all parts of the field before distributing with purpose, preferentially to the adventurous Andoni Iraola and Markel Susaeta on the right flank. He also attempts several through balls into the final third that, though mostly inaccurate on this occasion, show his intent in linking midfield and attack.

Ander - Passes received & attempted (all) vs Depor

His combative side is apparent in his work out of possession; constantly hounding the opposition to rack up the most tackles per game of any Athletic player, with many of them necessary, tactical fouls that aim to halt the progression of yet another fatal counter. In the same match Ander could be seen hurtling around, putting out fires all over the pitch, while his battling qualities and boundless desire saw him bound quite well here with the odds regularly overturned in the aerial duels stakes.

Ander - Tackles & Aerial Duels vs Depor

He aptly shares an apellido paterno (paternal surname) with Helenio Herrera, the inventor of catenaccio and revolutionary manager of la grande Inter of the 60s, who would pin motivational notes on the walls of his teams’ dressing rooms bearing such phrases as “He who plays for himself plays for the opposition. He who plays for the team, plays for himself.” You’d be hard pushed to find a more ardent proponent of this dictum than Ander. This is a player who leaves it all out on the pitch. It’s just a shame when the other lions of the pride consistently fail to roar with the same conviction.

That said, there were a few teammates who, at times, helped drag Athletic back away from the relegation mire. Fernando Llorente’s unwillingness to sign a new contract with the Zurigorri further sought to fracture his already tenuous relationship with manager Marcelo Bielsa and the latter clearly saw this as an opportunity to go down a different path, ostracising Fer to such an extent that he did not start in La Liga until the aforementioned Depor game in late November. Nevertheless, Aritz Aduriz, who returned to the club from Valencia in the summer, took full advantage, registering 14 goals in the league while displaying intelligent movement, link-up play and a terrifically potent heading ability.

Praise must also go to the 19 year old Aymeric Laporte who started the season playing in Segunda B for Bilbao Athletic (the Reserve team) as well as the NextGen Series but quickly became a part of El Loco’s plans, taking the No.4 shirt shortly after his debut. The tall Agen youngster, who moved to Athletic’s cantera in Lezama at 16, was able to pounce when a string of errors, contractual disputes and the inevitable suspension hit the impetuous Fernando Amorebieta. It’s a testament to the imposing teenager that the Venezuelan’s ball-playing ability wasn’t missed as Laporte’s ease on the ball and growing confidence translated to more adventurous driven diagonals out to the flanks as each game passed.

The most pleasing aspect of Aymeric’s introduction, however, was in his dedication to his primary duty: defending. He brings a more composed and reserved style to Athletic’s backline, playing at centre-half in both a back four and a defensive triumvirate in addition to showing his versatility with a couple of stints at left-back. His ability on the turn is improving and though his inexperience brought a couple of dismissals before his season was abruptly cut short by a torn meniscus, fans can be genuinely excited at the prospect of his further growth at the heart of the defence.

Laporte: A rare glint of hope amid defensive disarray

Laporte: A rare glint of hope amid defensive disarray (graphic courtesy of @Experimental361)

Ibai Gómez, too, should be commended for outshining the more vaunted Iker Muniain. Ibai’s mix of alacrity, threatening set-piece delivery and smattering of spectacular goals, including a terrific volley against the enemy from San Sebastián, provided rare elation for the San Mamés faithful who largely endured rather than enjoyed their last season at their beloved Catedral. Bart will be back though – his talent is surely too abundant for him not to return next time with the familiar vigour of old – but this campaign should serve as a warning to not solely rely on innate ability.

Both the physical and, more significantly perhaps, mental hangover acquired from last year’s marathon rollercoaster were too often visible throughout the squad, but in none more so than the precocious Muniain. Legs that previously whirred into a blur were slowed; an increasingly heavy weight of expectation, in addition to the sheer volume of miles clocked, hindering the asphyxiating pressing that was the hallmark of his and Athletic’s rise to the brink of success last term. The enterprising movement synonymous with a Bielsa side became stale while intelligent interplay was replaced by crude and lazy tactics. Passes that were once short, crisp and accurate became progressively longer, delayed and misplaced.

Bielsa is a famously stubborn coach; unmoved from his purist ideology no matter what. His stance is admirable, but the argument proffered throughout his career – that such an inherently inflexible mindset is flawed – is valid once again. Let’s be clear, “inflexible” here certainly doesn’t refer to his attitude regarding team shape. He’s quick to maintain the numerical advantage his centre-backs possess over the strikers they come up against, regularly employing a “number of strikers + 1” rule and in his time at the club he used a variety of formations: initially flirting with the idea of utilising his exhilarating 3-3-1-3 before settling predominantly on a fluid 4-2-3-1 but also reverting to 4-3-3 and even 3-4-3 on the odd occasion.

Rather, it is specifically his defensive philosophy, the work of his team when out of possession, that never alters. He’s a fierce advocate of fervent pressing but the synchronised waves now resemble a disjointed rabble. There comes a point when not only results, but performances too, merit at least a slight venture from such quixotic thinking.

Crouching Bielsa, Hidden Points

Crouching Bielsa, Hidden Points

It might be wise, for example, to join the rest of Europe in looking in on Germany for inspiration; at Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund to be specific. This is another side with pressing at its core leaving numerous opponents dizzied by the black and yellow swarms that buzz around them. Yet tweaks to their Gegenpressing – the concept of recovering possession as soon and as high up the pitch as possible – have enhanced the sting of the beast, at least in Europe’s premier competition. Following BVB’s exit from the Champions League at the group stage last year Klopp came to an interesting conclusion that changed his own previously unwavering judgement:

“I have learned a statistic. Teams that run too much lose, and teams that press reduce their chances of winning the game. Now I know why [the exit] happened. We ran more than our opponents and we pressed them all over, as high as possible.”

It should be noted that the amicable German manager didn’t ditch his beloved pressing altogether; instead employing a half-press with the emphasis now on putting the opposition under sufficient duress as one compact unit, thus conserving energy and minimising the emergence of exploitable holes within the team structure. Now, there’s no guarantee that such a shift in work off-the-ball would do the same trick for Athletic, but there can surely be more method to the madness of El Loco’s current standpoint.

Not that he’ll be around to make those changes. Only this past weekend Josu Urrutia, the Athletic President, announced that the board have decided against renewing the studious tactician’s contract after a turbulent season in which Bielsa fought with them regarding the redevelopment of Lezama, fell out with high-profile figures within the squad and was unable to discover the elusive quality that is consistency. Given these factors the decision was a rather predictable one, so much so that the departing Argentine has championed the case of Bilbao Athletic’s current coach José Ángel Ziganda in recent weeks, detailing how Cuco’s team play “attacking football with good treatment of the ball and dynamism,” while both he and Ander have praised the work of another former player – Ernesto Valverde who so ably reinvigorated Valencia this past season.

Whoever is in charge come Athletic’s first league game in their new home has a huge task on their hands to help the club rediscover the zestful exuberance seen in Bielsa’s first season at the helm. Replacing Llorente’s goals is surely high on the list of priorities; the hope, at least in part, being that Susaeta, Muniain, Ibai and even Óscar De Marcos – whose perpetual verticality constantly gets him into fantastic positions only for composure to escape him at the critical moment – can step up and make a definitive impression on the scoring charts.

This group have already shown that they have the ability to accomplish great things but for too long now the basics have been strewn on the wayside and a consistently high standard of play eluded their grasp. Only the three relegated teams ended up with a goal difference worse than Athletic’s which says it all really – There’s a lot of work that needs to be done in Bilbao and, as manfully as he tries, Ander can’t do it all. It’s time for Los Leones to roar as one again.

@hazzaboy21

Success, Loyalty and the Inherent Bias of Fandom

Robin van Persie’s statement last week conveying his decision to not extend his current deal created waves of discontent in the Arsenal community.  Naturally, the subject of loyalty and the direction of football were raised in the aftermath. Player-power has seemingly never held such a prominent role in the game as it does now.  These issues have weighed on my mind for some time and regardless of the eventual outcome of yet another summer transfer window saga in N5 I feel it’s time I met them head-on, so to speak. The cyclical nature of stars leaving for pastures new and the subsequent heartache endured by fans is hardly a novel occurrence but in this torrent of emotion the objective view is often discarded. The aim of this piece is to address that somewhat in rather general terms.

Strip down the beloved colours of whatever team it may be that you support and what is left? One man and his job. Footballers are human beings like you and I. They may enjoy a considerably more lavish lifestyle than us “norms” but they are still humans all the same. As the financial aspect of the game continues to reach frankly ridiculous levels, the perspective of both fans and players alike are stretched to the maximum. Whereas in the past there seemed to be a close bond between both groups, a real sense that obstacles were met as one, the continuing disparity in values has diminished that feeling. The overwhelming mood is one that football is losing, if it hasn’t already lost, its somewhat magical allure. Hopes and dreams that are slow cooked in life’s oven are burnt in an instant; Loyalty a value tossed by the wayside.

Football has changed, there’s no doubting that. What was once primarily a hobby, admittedly back in days of yore, is now a commercial cash cow with the sole aim of squeezing every last penny out of the very people who are the reason the game has such a standing in the first place. Football clubs have become businesses first and foremost with footballers their employees. Like in any profession it is natural, if one has an ambitious streak, to aim for the top. There are few feelings for a determined soul better than that of success. So, from a purely objective standpoint it makes perfect sense that an individual, especially a world class one in their field, should want to join an organization at the very top of their particular sector.

The money argument is an oft-used one and of course there have been numerous players in the past who have moved clubs simply to improve their wealth. I feel it’s important to stress, however, that these broad strokes shouldn’t be attributed to all players. Take Robin van Persie’s present situation. If indeed he does end up at Manchester City, yes, he will be increasing his wage by a hefty amount. Sure, the Sheikhs in Middle Eastlands have distorted the financial landscape of the game more than I imagined was possible only a few years ago but now, having benefitted from that injected wealth, City possess the “success” card too. It’s convenient that both monetary gain and success can be achieved at the Etihad now but it shows that these aspects don’t have to be mutually exclusive, contrary to the way they are often referred to in the modern day press. Bringing the situation back to the real world, one may love working in their present company but if a more successful company comes along offering you a better wage and a similar level of enjoyment I wouldn’t begrudge anyone from taking that option.

Of course, when emotions are involved it’s not always that simple. Our fandom brings with it an inherent bias; one that makes objectivity a difficult feat. We constantly demand that players show the same loyalty to the club we hold dear as we do ourselves, calling any player that doesn’t selfish. However, aren’t our own demands selfish in themselves?  The majority of fans are tied to the club of their choice for life. It’s a bond that is near impossible to break.  By default we bask in the glory days and wallow in the mire of failure. In contrast, a player’s sporting life near the top of their game lasts ten years maximum and that’s for the exceedingly fortunate. Yet we demand that they play out those years in our familiar dwelling rather than in the stadia of our rivals. We hold this desire regardless of the ability of our club to challenge for the silverware that many in the game crave. Again, this is merely natural human sentiment, but our own fanatical support can sometimes cloud the wider picture.

Contract duration: Life

“What of their contracts?” you may ask. “If they’ve agreed to stay for a certain time period shouldn’t they adhere to that?” A very valid question but an issue that is liable, once more, to bias. The fact is there are many occasions where the club can benefit from a contract just as much as the player. “Selling contracts” where a player signs for an extra year simply to give the club more leverage when entering transfer negotiations are rife and a clear example of this. A player signing a long contract may give them stability but it also gives the club a relative position of strength when facing bids from elsewhere.

Depending on a fan’s subjective opinion of a specific player they may or may not agree with the principles of their contract. Go back to the example of Robin van Persie for instance. A player whose standing in this present Arsenal team was immense before his statement. We, the fans, wanted nothing more than for him to prolong his stay in Arsenal colours, subsequently disagreeing when his own free will as a human being resulted in him coming to the opposite decision.

Take a player such as Sébastien Squillaci, however, and the call of the majority is to cut our ties as soon as possible. Fans who furiously demand loyalty of their favourites can be incredibly hypocritical when a player doesn’t take their fancy. On occasion, I’ve echoed similar sentiments so I’m certainly not in a position to condemn such behaviour. Unsurprisingly as fans, given the links to our club first and foremost, individuals of lesser quality are seen as surplus to requirements. In fact, that same stance is invariably shared by the club itself even though there are several occasions where the player in question may still have years left to run on their contract. The business-like nature of football makes this acceptable for most but again it highlights the two-faced nature of loyalty in the game.

Maldini, Giggs and Scholes: 3 names that are commonplace in any argument touching on loyalty in football and rightly so given their respective years of service to their clubs. These one-club men will go down in history and their performances on the pitch have been a credit to their profession. Despite this, it remains a fact that their careers either took place, or are still taking place in the case of the latter two, in a successful environment. The trophy cabinets at their clubs have been filled on a regular basis throughout their careers and for that very reason it’s difficult to attain a grasp of exactly how loyal they are. Would they have left for more successful clubs had silverware been more of a rarity? Any purist would like to think not but the hypothetical nature of the question leaves a lingering sense of doubt.

Loyalty isn’t simply black and white, though, it’s a spectrum. A sea of grey in which fans and players alike tread water. Every fan wishes they had a squad full of Matt Le Tissiers; players with their club truly at heart, willing to stay throughout the lows and spurning opportunities of potentially greater things elsewhere. The reality is that such loyalty is scarce but it’s a depressing reality that most should expect nowadays. After all, footballers are only human.

@hazzaboy21

Attack, Defence and the Quest for Balance

The 2011/12 Premier League season:  A season voted the best ever in the league’s 20 year history (in its current guise). While one may argue that the outright level of quality wasn’t at its highest this season, no-one can deny the sheer amount of excitement generated throughout culminating in an exhilarating end at the Etihad stadium. The moment the ball left Kun Agüero’s right foot and hit the back of the net encapsulated this in an instant. Mass euphoria for the blue half of Manchester. Heart-wrenching despair for the red half. Football at its dramatic best.

Some are fascinated by the minutiae of tactical changes over the course of a game while the heartbeats of others are raised by a good, old-fashioned crunching tackle. The staple diet of the majority, however, is goals and there were plenty this season. In fact, Agüero’s late effort was the 1065th goal of this remarkable campaign, a record for a 20-team Premier League season. As you’d expect on the back of that an exceptionally high 2.81 goals per game were scored, the highest ratio in the English top-flight since magic picture boxes were still showing black and white images (3.03 in 1967/68). Which begs the question, what were the defenders doing?

There’s no doubt, in my mind at least, that there are still players highly skilled in the art of defending playing in the Premier League. Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott formed an impressive pairing at the back for Manchester City and along with Joe Hart were a key reason for their title success this season. Other players once derided even by portions of their own fans, Jonny Evans and Laurent Koscielny, have shown fantastic improvement this season and become vital components in their respective teams’ defensive phase. In contrast to Liverpool’s woes in front of goal, Martin Skrtel has proved to be a rock in a defence that allowed the opposition the fewest shots on target of any Premier League club this season (132).

Fabricio Coloccini’s fine season was acknowledged with a place on the PFA Players’ Player Team of the Year, Pablo Zabaleta was his usual reliable self whenever called upon by Roberto Mancini while Younes Kaboul’s performances have resulted in him being Harry Redknapp’s first choice pick at the heart of his defence and being awarded a provisional place in the France squad for Euro 2012. I could go on listing skilled Premier League defenders as there are many more but, in short, my point is that the individual quality is certainly there.

What isn’t there, at least on a regular basis, is efficient collective organisation. Consider the following results: Manchester City (final position 1st) 6 Manchester United (2nd) 1, Manchester United 8 Arsenal (3rd) 2, Arsenal 5 Tottenham Hotspur (4th) 2, Tottenham Hotspur 5 Newcastle United (5th) 0. These are remarkable results between teams who weren’t separated by that much in the final reckoning (gap between 2nd and 3rd apart). Granted, there were mitigating circumstances for some of these scorelines but on the whole they show a rather naïve tactical approach either in the initial setup of the respective losing teams or during the carnage.

These examples don’t even include Chelsea who themselves have been on different ends of cricket scores (albeit very low ones) in some of the ‘big’ games. Their 3-5 loss to Arsenal at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season was a prime example of excitement induced by kamikaze defending. Both sides gave master classes in how not to play a high defensive line. A lack of pressure higher up the field meant both defences were extremely vulnerable to even the most rudimentary long ball. The difference between the sides on that day, and where Arsenal won the match, was seeing this and making a change to rectify the initial error. The team in red dropped slightly deeper in the second half and weren’t as immediately susceptible to the long ball unlike their London rivals who were steadfast in their approach. André Villas-Boas was subjected to a lot of flak that day but his philosophy wasn’t the issue, it was more its implementation. Gradually, as he saw his squad weren’t willing to accept his methods, he adopted a more conservative approach but sadly for him the die had already been cast.

That away victory was one of many in the Premier League this season. 30.5% of games have ended in this fashion, higher than in any other Premier League season. It’s clear that managers have had a more offensive mindset when setting their team up which is another reason for the glut of goals this campaign. The rationale for this change in mentality is somewhat less clear-cut. It could be that the top teams seem, and in fact are, more vulnerable than they once were resulting in the ‘smaller’ clubs taking the handbrake off rather than travelling to the big grounds, parking the bus and waiting for the inevitable breakthrough.

Courtesy of The Independent

Premier League managers are also currently more progressive in their philosophy. The ambition of the ‘lesser’ clubs has meant an increase in attacking play throughout the league. There seems to be a greater number of teams adopting a certain ethos of playing, namely with the ball on the deck, and not altering that approach when they come up against sides they might traditionally expect to be battered by. Roberto Martinez’s Wigan, with their 3-4-3 and Brendan Rodgers’ Swansea with their 4-3-3 have both surprised opposition at times with their attacking transitions and technical quality on the ball. We’ve also seen this with other promoted teams in recent years.

Ian Holloway’s Blackpool devoted almost no time in their game to defending and though they paid for it in the end their attacking play brought them many plaudits and large scalps along the way. Paul Lambert’s Norwich are possibly an exception to this rule of sticking to one particular style. He’s a manager that often changes the shape of his team dependent on the opposition but the attacking intent generally remains. Despite only keeping 3 clean sheets all season, goals from all over the team helped them to reach the safe haven that is mid-table. The more success these types of teams have with this approach the more expansive styles will be integrated into the English game.

So, is Premier League defending dead? All the signs certainly point to it being in a lull at the moment. Gone are ‘the Mourinho years’ in which Chelsea’s defence was at its resolute best. Looking back it’s quite remarkable they only conceded 15 goals in the 2004/05 season. Mourinho’s success at Chelsea brought in a wave of cautious tactics across the league and a drop in the number of goals as a result. Managers adopted the thinking that it’s easier to destroy a masterpiece than create one and with José showing results could be gained with a controlled style why should they bother implementing a more open system? Of course, this generalises a bit. Mourinho’s Chelsea was hardly lacklustre. They were a well-drilled machine well capable of exploiting weaknesses in the opposition but what can’t be disputed is the fact that defence always came first.

This was something that Roberto Di Matteo grasped immediately when taking over the reins from Villas-Boas. Given the personnel at his disposal he decided the most logical approach, especially in high-profile games, was to instruct his team to sit deep and compact before springing to life on the counter-attack. Though this tactic didn’t help Chelsea climb the table in the league it did aid them in knockout competition where purity, and to some extents naivety, is often trumped by pragmatism. Of course, Bayern still had ample opportunities to triumph in Munich but Chelsea’s defensive display in the Camp Nou especially (where similarities with Mourinho’s Inter success were very apparent) was in stark contrast to those of most English teams throughout the season both in European competition and on their own shores.

Manchester City have this year won the league conceding 29 goals, almost double Chelsea’s record, and a tally higher than the average over the last 10 years (25.7) . Perhaps fittingly the newly-crowned Champions also scored the most goals yet the word ‘United’ rather than ‘City’ could well have been inscribed on the Premier League trophy had the red half of Manchester defended with a collective cohesion in the dying minutes at home to Everton. Nevertheless, in the end the trophy was won (or lost) on goal difference and for this reason it’s impossible to forget the 6-1 between the two sides earlier in the season. Had Manchester United not been so cavalier against City that day perhaps the ending of this tumultuous season might have been different.

Open, expansive football may conjure excitement but it doesn’t necessarily get results. As ever, a balance is needed. An ability to attack and defend as one. For most teams the elusive search for balance continues.

Many thanks to Opta (@OptaJoe) for their continued provision of stats galore.

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