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Different tactical systems mean different duties for individual players

October 23rd, 2012 SB Tang No comments

Earlier tonight, I wrote during the second half of the Barcelona v Celtic Champions League group game at the Camp Nou:

Where was Song (Barca’s only nominal holding midfielder) in that 2 v 2 Celtic counter-attack which Wanyama fluffed!?

It was left to poor Xavi to hare back to support the two exposed Barca centre-backs. The man’s got enough on his mind, what with his symphony orchestra conducting duties and all …

In response, a gentleman named Dave Konopka emailed The Guardian to say:

I love how SB Tang apparently thinks that Song “holds” or otherwise plays defense. As a loyal Arsenal fan, I can tell you with absolute certainty that three things will happen whenever Alexandre Song plays. 1) He will play at least one incredibly incisive pass. 2) He will never be in position to break up a counter-attack. 3) He will commit a lot of fouls. This is why Arsenal are playing better defensively after selling Song, even if Arteta is far from a prototypical defensive midfielder.

Unfortunately, The Guardian didn’t have time to publish my response to Mr Konopka so here it is in full:

Dear Mr Konopka

Um, yeah mate, I reckon we’re in agreement — my point was that Song isn’t actually performing his function in this Barca side as the one and only holding midfielder, hence my reference to him as “Barca’s only nominal holding midfielder”.

Arsenal’s tactical system last season and this season is slightly different from Barca’s.

Arsenal typically play a midfield triangle with a deeper-lying two man base (last season it was any two of Arteta, Song, Ramsey, Frimpong or Coquelin) and only one more advanced creative midfielder (this season: Cazorla, Cazorla and, if Cazoral ever gets injured, a life-size cardboard cut-out of Happy Gilmore) supporting their lone striker, so Song could afford to lope forward and play his trade mark scoop passes for Van Persie to volley home. (As a Liverpool fan, Van Persie’s volley at Anfield still gives me cold sweats at night.)

By contrast, at Barca, Song is expected to play centre-back or function as the one and only nominal holding midfielder in their central midfield triangle which typically features two (you know who) playing high.

In short, different tactical systems mean different duties for individual players.

Cheers

SB

Michael Carrick: The Atypical English Regista

April 29th, 2012 SB Tang No comments

Last Sunday afternoon at Old Trafford, one Manchester United player was instrumental to the creation of three of United’s four goals against Everton.[1] Without him,[2] United would surely have lost a game they ended up drawing 4-4, and allowed second-placed Manchester City to cut the points gap to two, instead of three, ahead of their meeting at Eastlands this Monday night. However, that same player was singled out for criticism for his performance against Everton — for example, The Guardian’s Jamie Jackson posited that “one verdict is that [he] did not do enough to shape this afternoon for his team.

The player’s name is Michael Carrick and he will no doubt be used to such criticisms by now. Indeed, when, in March 2011, United announced that the Geordie had signed a new three-year deal keeping him at the club until the end of the 2013–14 season, the response from a significant segment of United fans was underwhelming to say the least.[3]

*****

Football, as we are so often told, is a team sport and the success of a professional career is measured primarily by reference to the number of championship medals won, not individual awards accrued. By this criterion, Carrick ought to be regarded as one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s best ever acquisitions.

Before Carrick arrived at Old Trafford from White Hart Lane in the summer of 2006 for a seemingly exorbitant fee in the region of £18.6m[4] as Sir Alex Ferguson’s solitary summer purchase, United had not won the Premier League for three seasons — their longest title drought of the Premier League era.[5]

In Europe, their performances had been even worse — United had not made a Champions League semi-final in four seasons; had not made a Champions League final in seven seasons; and crashed out in the group stages of the Champions League in the 2005–06 season, finishing bottom of their group with six points from six games. Even more alarming was the steady downward trend in their Champions League performances — from the 2001–02 season to the 2005–06 season United’s Champions League record read: semi-final; quarter-final; round of 16; round of 16; and group stage.

Meanwhile, in the preceding two seasons, Chelsea, with Jose Mourinho’s tactical guile and Roman Abramovich’s riches, had won two consecutive Premier League titles and reached the semi-finals of the Champions League. They looked set to dominate English and European football for the foreseeable future.

Since Carrick’s arrival at Old Trafford, United have won four of the last five Premier League titles and made three out of the last six Champions League finals (winning one). This sustained European success is particularly notable because it is something which both Sir Alex Ferguson’s first and second great United sides, for all their domestic dominance, conspicuously failed to achieve — in the first two decades of Ferguson’s reign, United reached one paltry Champions League final.[6]

Carrick has played an integral role in each and every one of United’s four Premier League title-winning seasons since his arrival. In each of those seasons, Carrick started at least 23 of United’s 38 Premier League games — the most of any United central midfielder in the 2006–07 and 2007–08 seasons and the second-most (by just one game behind Darren Fletcher) in the 2008–09 and 2010–11 seasons.[7] Indeed, in the only completed season since Carrick’s arrival in which United did not win the Premier League, Carrick notched up his lowest number of Premier League starts as a United player: 22 in the 2009–10 season.

In Europe, Carrick’s influence at United since his arrival has been even more pronounced. In each of the four seasons in which United made it at least as far as the semi-finals of the Champions League, Carrick started the most Champions League games of any of United’s central midfielders.[8]

*****

Why, then, has Carrick still not been fully embraced by United’s fans?

I suspect that the answer revolves around his style of play and tactical function.

Carrick isn’t the quickest, doesn’t rack up many assists and is a thinnishly-built, awkward-looking tackler. To top it all off, he displays roughly the same level of commitment to goal-scoring that the Lannister twins demonstrate to obeying society’s legal and moral prohibition of incest.[9]

As for his on-field demeanour, Carrick is quiet and undemonstrative — so, no red-faced shouting of directions at his teammates.[10] In this respect, as in his aforementioned relative lack of speed, thinnish build and ungainly-looking tackling, Carrick is the antithesis of the United legend whose number 16 shirt he inherited — Roy Keane, a combative, energetic, box-to-box midfield general famed for his forceful tackling and equally forceful on-field direction of his teammates. To some observers, it appeared, at first glance, that Sir Alex Ferguson had replaced a fearsome warrior with a lanky university student who’d gotten lost on his way to his cultural geography class.

However, Carrick’s playing style complements, and is arguably a product of, his very peculiar tactical function as a deep-lying playmaker. His job is to play between the lines of United’s defence and midfield, sweeping up in front of the back four whenever United lose the ball and starting plays when United have the ball. It is a role which he not only excels at, but one which no other British central midfielder of his generation is capable of performing to the same level.

It is because Carrick functions as a deep-lying playmaker stationed between United’s midfield and defensive lines that he doesn’t rack up many direct assists — he rarely makes the final pass for a goal because he is typically busy making the second-last, third-last or first pass in the move which led to the goal, as he did for three of United’s four goals against Everton last Sunday.[11]

His agile football brain more than compensates for his relative lack of straight line speed by enabling him to languidly position himself in the right place at the right time to break up opposition attacks, as well as know when to play a simple lateral five yard pass to his midfield partner, when to play a quick, low 20 yard pass into the feet of a deep-lying forward and when to attempt a 50 yard cross-field diagonal ball. This high football IQ, combined with his technical proficiency, allows him to find the space and time to calmly keep the ball and elegantly execute such passes.

*****

Over 200 years ago, Vice-Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson famously signalled the British fleet before the Battle of Trafalgar: “England expects that every man will do his duty”. The men of the Royal Navy did not let their country down, winning a famous victory which secured Britannia’s rule of the waves and laid the foundation for the largest empire the world has ever seen.

On the football pitch, England has been expecting, in vain, for close to half a century now.[12] At a broad level, it is reasonably clear what English fans expect — consistent international team success at European Championships and World Cups. However, English fans’ expectations with respect to individual positions within their club and international sides are a bit more culturally complicated than that.

As Scott Murray eloquently explained in issue zero of The Blizzard,[13] Roy of the Rovers, the enduringly popular English football comic first published in September 1976, embedded the most pernicious of stereotypes deep in the English psyche, namely, that of the all-action, goal-scoring superhero “thundering home one of his trademark Racey’s Rockets in the last minute to save the day.”[14] Consequently,

[w]hile little schemers from Italy dreamt of becoming fantasistas, conducting their team-mates to victory from the centre of the park, while South American youths honed their skills and picked up a few street-smarts in the dusty favelas, hoping to put it all together in a gambeta; thanks to Roy Race, English children spent their formative years sat on their arses being taught a very strange lesson: it doesn’t really matter what you do for 89 minutes, because a superhero will turn up eventually, welt the ball into the net, and you can all go home with your cups and medals.

Although Roy Race himself was a striker, Murray explains that the stereotype he unleashed applies equally to dynamic, box-to-box, goal-scoring central midfielders such as Steven Gerrard and Bryan Robson.[15] Indeed, Robson’s nickname, “Captain Marvel”, is that of a comic book superhero.[16]

So there we have the answer to the question posed earlier: Michael Carrick, a central midfielder whose value is defined by his specialised role within a tactical system, will invariably be undervalued and unloved by a generation of English fans instilled with “a disdain for tactics and organisation” and “a fear of progressive thought” by their upbringing in the comic book universe of Roverland.[17]

Carrick’s curse is that he is atypical for an English central midfielder — an understated orchestra conductor, rather than the all-action comic book hero English fans have been culturally conditioned to expect. Nonetheless, Carrick is typically English in one important respect — he belongs to a long and illustrious line of Geordie technicians, such as Paul Gascoigne, Chris Waddle and Peter Beardsley; but even they were predominantly final third of the pitch attackers, not centre-circle playmakers.

*****

Perhaps Carrick’s greatest misfortune as a footballer was to be born in England, rather than, say, Spain or Italy where the particular tactical position he occupies is not only recognised with special terminology (regista in Italy and pivote in Spain), but highly and widely prized.

In Spain, the pivote position has been filled with distinction by the likes of Pep Guardiola, Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso, whereas in Italy, over the past two decades, one player has towered above all others in the regista position — Andrea Pirlo. The diminutive Brescian spent the last decade guiding AC Milan to Champions League and Serie A titles and Italy to a World Cup; now 32 years of age, Pirlo is currently enjoying an Indian summer at Juventus, having led the Bianconeri to the brink of their first Serie A title since 2002–03.[18]

It should come as little surprise then that Spain’s World Cup- and European Championship-winning midfielders, such as Xavi and Xabi Alonso, frequently praise Carrick. In February 2011, Xavi described Carrick as a “player[] who treat[s] the ball well” and “tr[ies] to play.”

Similarly, in November 2011, Xabi Alonso explained that: “Michael Carrick … makes those around him better, regardless of the fact that he’s not the one who scores the most goals, or a great tackler.” Indeed, Alonso’s praise of Carrick echoed what Alonso’s first coach said of him as a 10 year old playing for his local club side Antiguoko in San Sebastián: “He makes others play”.

This subtle but indispensable virtue was certainly recognised by Carrick’s Dutch manager at Tottenham, Martin Jol: “Michael’s biggest quality is to move play from defence to attack and win the ball. Because of him, other players play better.[19]

*****

In the summer of 2010, as I stood in a north London pub with some English mates watching England struggle to a turgid 1-1 draw with the United States in the opening game of their 2010 World Cup campaign, I received the following four-word text message from an English mate watching the game in another pub: “Why can’t England pass?”

My very learned and well-travelled English friend — a Cambridge Classics graduate, polyglot, lifelong Spurs fan and true football connoisseur — correctly identified the problem which has plagued England sides for generations.

International football, with its slower pace and lower tempo, places much greater emphasis on ball possession and circulation in the middle third of the pitch than the English Premier League which, with its high-tempo and physicality, underlines the primacy of the two penalty boxes.

However, England struggle to adapt their tactics, playing style and team selection to the different demands of international football. Instead of picking the right team to play a different style of football, England typically staff their central midfield with their best individual players (namely, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, both of whom are box-to-box goal-scorers) and attempt to practise an English Premier League style and tactical system in major international tournaments. This is what Xabi Alonso alluded to when he observed: “Sometimes it seems the English don’t rate those who make the team work rather than standing out themselves. You shouldn’t necessarily pick the best players; you have to have a collective identity.”

So the answer to my English friend’s question — as he well knew when he sent me his flippant, semi-rhetorical text — is quite simple: England can’t pass because they don’t play with a deep-lying playmaker tasked with winning, retaining and circulating the ball; instead, they pack their central midfield with box-to-box goal-scorers. Meanwhile, Spain, the reigning World and European Champions, currently play with not one but two pivotes: Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets.

Carrick — the only Englishman of his generation to excel as a regista in the Champions League — would seem to offer the solution to England’s international woes. But, curiously, Carrick has never nailed down a spot in England’s starting XI — he was in the England squad for both the 2006 and 2010 World Cups but only made one appearance in Germany and never got off the bench in South Africa. He has not played for England since May 2010 and has only managed a total of 22 senior England caps over the course of an international career which started back in May 2001.

The Roy of the Rovers warping of Englishmen’s cultural expectations as to what central midfielders ought to be goes some way to explaining Carrick’s strangely stop-start England career. However, even when England have had an Italian manager in Fabio Capello, Carrick has barely got a look in — he was only capped seven times during Capello’s four year reign.

In current interim England manager[20] Stuart Pearce’s one match in charge thus far, a 3-2 defeat to Holland in a friendly at Wembley in February 2012, England switched from the 4-4-1-1 favoured by Capello to a 4-2-3-1 with newly-appointed England captain Scott Parker and Gareth Barry occupying the two holding central midfield berths.

A 4-2-3-1 system is well-suited to accommodating Carrick’s talents as a regista (being the same system in which Alonso has thrived at club level for Liverpool and Real Madrid and at international level for Spain at the 2010 World Cup) and Parker, with his speed, running and strong tackling, makes for a complementary partner in midfield. But, Carrick was not even selected in the squad for the February friendly against Holland.

Perhaps, an additional explanation for Carrick’s status as an international semi-exile is that he was born in the same year as Xabi Alonso — the finest regista in the world — and, as such, is frequently compared to the Basque maestro. Such comparisons are inevitable but utterly irrelevant — surely, the salient point is that Carrick is the best Englishman in the regista position and that should be sufficient to get him in England’s starting XI. If Alonso is the Rolls-Royce of registas and Carrick a mere Jaguar, then that still makes Carrick England’s best option in that position when the alternative is a souped-up Ford Focus.

*****

Whilst Carrick’s talents may go unappreciated by some United and England fans, they are certainly recognised by Sir Alex Ferguson who, last month, praised Carrick for his “absolutely superb” form and mental strength.

One thing which is certain is that if, indeed, United clinch a record 20th English league title on Monday night and move two clear of Liverpool on 18, then Carrick will play an important role, sitting in front of United’s back four and managing the tempo of the game with a minimum of fuss.


[1] For United’s first goal: Tony Hibbert’s headed clearance fell to Marouane Fellaini outside Everton’s box, but just as Fellaini was about to receive the ball, the United player in question nipped in and with one exquisite touch of his right boot, passed the ball to Patrice Evra who took a couple of touches before giving the ball to Nani on the left wing; Nani delivered a perfect in-swinging cross with his right foot which Wayne Rooney duly headed in. For United’s second goal: an Antonio Valencia cross from the right wing was only half-cleared by Leon Osman; the ball fell to the United player in question, positioned outside Everton’s box, who, with one touch of his left boot passed the ball to Nani on the left edge of Everton’s box; Nani attempted a pass into Everton’s box which Darron Gibson only managed to clear straight up in the air; Nani won the header against Phil Neville; the ball dropped to Danny Welbeck who sold John Heitinga the dummy and curled the ball into the top corner of Tim Howard’s goal with his right boot. For United’s third goal, the United player in question received a throw-in from Valencia on United’s right wing and exchanged passes with Rafael and Nani before playing a one-touch right-foot pass into the feet of Welbeck who, with his back to goal, played a one-touch right foot pass around the corner for Nani to run onto, take one touch and dink the ball over Tim Howard.

[2] He was not culpable for any of Everton’s four goals.

[3] See, eg, manutd.com message boards; Chris Wright, “Man Utd Hand Michael Carrick New Three-Year Contract”, Who Ate All The Pies, 3 March 2011 (see also the comments at the bottom of the article).

[4] The fact that Tottenham had purchased Carrick from West Ham at the Upton Park everything-must-go relegation fire sale in the summer of 2004 for the bargain basement price of £2.75m only exacerbated the perception that the £18.6m fee United paid two years later was inflated. Within days of Carrick completing his move to Old Trafford, United’s Chief Executive David Gill publicly defended the price United paid for him.

[5] It is easy to forget just how pessimistic many United fans were feeling at this point. Learned football writers, such as Rob Smyth, presented well-reasoned and well-evidenced arguments that United’s dominance of English football had reached an end and that the Ferguson era would end with a whimper. To the dismay of many United fans (who continued to chant his name), Ferguson had just flogged Ruud van Nistelrooy, scorer of 150 goals in just 219 appearances and United’s all-time top scorer in European competition, to Real Madrid for the meagre sum of £10.3m. Daniel Taylor’s This Is The One: Sir Alex Ferguson: The Uncut Story of a Football Genius (2008) brilliantly captures just how negative the mood around Old Trafford was during the 2005–06 season and the attendant enormity of Ferguson’s achievement in recapturing the Premier League title the very next season.

[6] United’s relative lack of European Cup/Champions League success both before and during Ferguson’s reign (at least until the maturation of Ferguson’s third great United side in the 2006–07 season) is the one blot on Ferguson’s otherwise impeccable copybook and still rankles the perfectionist Scot. As recently as April 2011, in the lead-up to the first leg of United’s Champions League semi-final against Schalke in Gelsenkirchen, Ferguson admitted: “we do get envious of the records of other clubs in Europe. We look at other teams’ records and we are trying to get parity with that. We look at clubs like Real Madrid, AC Milan, Ajax, Bayern Munich and Liverpool and we really need to progress quickly to get to that level.”

[7] I compared Carrick’s statistics with those of Paul Scholes, Anderson and Darren Fletcher. I excluded Ryan Giggs from the comparison because he is still sometimes deployed as a winger. Even if Giggs is included in the comparison, his Premier League games started only exceeded those of Carrick in one of United’s Premier League title-winning seasons since Carrick’s arrival: the 2007–08 season in which Giggs started 26 Premier League games to Carrick’s 24.

[8] I compared Carrick’s statistics with those of Paul Scholes, Anderson and Darren Fletcher. I excluded Ryan Giggs from the comparison because he is still sometimes deployed as a winger. In any event, the statement remains true even if Giggs is included in the comparison.

[9] His meagre goal tally of 19 in 270 appearances for United means that he averages a goal every 14.21 games. He has never scored more than six goals in a single season for United and he managed to go the entire victorious 2010–11 campaign without scoring, despite making 44 appearances for United across all competitions. His sweet strike for United’s second goal in their 2-0 league win over QPR at Loftus Road in December 2011 was his first goal in 70 games for United and his first in the Premier League in almost two years.

[10] Hence, the accusation that: “He has no passion”. His demeanour off-the-pitch is similarly unassuming — Ferguson describes him as a “a quiet lad” who is “not the type to trumpet his achievements”; his assistant manager at West Ham, Frank Lampard Senior, described him as “a nice, easy-going lad”; and he spent one summer working as a roadie for his brother-in-law’s rock band, Sound Ex.

[11] See above n 1.

[12] See, eg, James Corbett, England Expects: A History of the England Football Team (2010).

[13] The Blizzard is a quarterly football publication put together by a cooperative of journalists and authors, which features articles by the heavy-hitters of English language football writing (for example, Jonathan Wilson, Andy Brassell, Tim Vickery and Uli Hesse) about the stories that matter to them. The Blizzard contains, quite simply, the best English language football writing in the world and it is available on a pay-what-you-like basis. I urge you to check it out.

[14] Scott Murray, “How Roy Race Ruined English Football” (2011) 0 The Blizzard 43, 44.

[15] Ibid 45.

[16] A recent tribute in the Daily Mail described Bryan Robson as a player “who ranged from box to box as tough-tackling defender and deadly goalscorer”.

[17] Murray, above n 13, 45.

[18] At the time of writing, Juventus are three points clear of AC Milan with four games to play. Juventus were officially stripped of their 2004–05 and 2005–6 Series A titles by the Italian Football Federation as punishment for their part in the Calciopoli scandal. The official Juventus website still includes these two officially revoked Serie A titles in their total count of 29 Serie A titles on the front page of their online Trophy Room; however, their individual web pages for their 2004–05 and 2005–06 Serie A titles each include asterisked one-word footnotes which state: “Revoked”.

[19] (Emphasis added).

[20] The FA released a statement on Sunday 29 April 2012 stating that they have approached West Bromwich Albion’s manager Roy Hodgson regarding the position of England Manager.

Has Fernando Torres Got His Mojo Back?

November 20th, 2011 SB Tang No comments

From 31 January 2011, the date of his British record £50m transfer from Liverpool to Chelsea, to Wednesday 19 October 2011, Fernando Torres scored just 3 goals in 26 competitive appearances for Chelsea.

However, on Wednesday 19 October 2011, Torres scored twice against Genk in a Champions League group stage match at Stamford Bridge, exhibiting the pace, tactical intelligence, technique, strength and finishing ability which made him one of the most feared strikers in the world from 2007 to 2009 and perhaps the most revered player at Anfield since Kenny Dalglish.

The salient question then is — has Fernando Torres finally got his mojo back?

In order to answer that question, it will first be necessary to determine what caused his dramatic loss of form in the first place and whether those causal factors have now been ameliorated.

There are three possible causes for Torres’s 18 month form slump (taking the starting point as 18 April 2010, the date of the knee surgery which ended his 2009–10 season).

1. Burn-Out and Injuries

The first and most obvious explanation is a combination of burn-out and injuries. Torres has been playing first team football since the age of 17. His fitness record during his time at Atletico Madrid was impressive — from 2002–03 (the season Atletico returned to La Liga) to 2006–07 (Torres’s last season at Atletico), Torres averaged 35 league starts per season and suffered no serious injuries. As Torres explained in an interview with FourFourTwo early in his debut season in England after missing a couple of games through injury: “I think it was the first time I’ve ever been injured for more than a game and I really suffered.

Since Torres’s move to England in the summer of 2007, his fitness record has progressively deteriorated each season — he made 33 league appearances for Liverpool in his debut season in 2007–08, 24 in 2008–09, 22 in 2009–10 and although he managed a combined 37 league appearances for Liverpool and Chelsea in 2010–11, he looked a shadow of his former self.

In addition to the greater physical demands of English football, Torres’s body has had to cope with the rigours of international duty in three consecutive summers — Euro 2008, the 2009 Confederations Cup and the 2010 World Cup.

The frequency and severity of his injuries appear to have increased over time. In 2008–09, Torres suffered three hamstring injuries and an ankle injury. In 2009–10, he suffered a groin injury and his knee had to be operated on three times — the last of these operations on 18 April 2010 resulted in him missing the last three weeks of Liverpool’s disastrous 2009–10 season.

Unsurprisingly, at the World Cup in South Africa in the summer of 2010, Torres looked short of not only basic match fitness, but that extra yard of pace which had previously enabled him to slip effortlessly off the shoulder of the last defender to latch onto the through balls delivered by the likes of Gerrard, Alonso, Xavi, Iniesta and Silva. A miserable tournament for Torres individually — he was subbed off early in each of his four starts, he failed to score and he was dropped from the starting line-up for the semi-final against Germany and the final against the Netherlands — reached its denouement when he pulled up with a hamstring injury in the 121st minute of the final against the Netherlands, just 15 minutes after coming on as a late extra-time substitute.

It can be argued that, like other early starters before him, such as Michael Owen, Torres’s body, exposed to the constant rigours of senior football at a tender age, started breaking down commensurately early, namely, when he hit his mid-20s, precipitating a permanent, albeit steady, decline in performance through his late 20s as his body is shorn of the pace which characterised his earlier success.

The comparison with Owen proffers a cautionary tale. Both Torres and Owen made their senior club and international debuts as teenagers. Both function optimally as high-lying strikers who utilise their pace to make runs in behind the opposition’s defensive line. Both looked like world-beaters in their early 20s — Owen won the Ballon d’Or as a 22 year old in 2001 and, as a 24 year-old, Torres finished his first season in England in 2007–08 with 31 goals in all competitions, including 24 in the league to break Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record for most goals scored by a foreigner in their debut season in the English top flight, and was runner-up to Cristiano Ronaldo for the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year award. Both started suffering more injuries as they hit their mid-20s.

However, on balance, this argument, although persuasive, is not conclusive as Torres suffered no serious injuries from 15 August 2010, the date of his return from the hamstring injury picked up in the World Cup Final, to 31 January 2011, the date of his transfer to Chelsea. Indeed, although Torres started his final half-season at Liverpool slowly as he struggled to regain match fitness and sharpness following the succession of injuries which plagued the second half of his 2009–10 season and his 2010 World Cup, he looked to be well on his way back to his best in his final three weeks at Liverpool, notching up 3 goals in 4 league games after Kenny Dalglish returned to the Anfield managerial throne on 9 January 2011.

2. Incompatible Tactics

In Torres’s first half-season at Chelsea under Carlo Ancelotti, the incompatibility between Torres’s strengths and Chelsea’s tactics, personnel and style of play seemed obvious, even to the untrained eye — a pacy, off the shoulder of the last defender centre-forward being forced to feed off scraps from a midfield unit lacking the personnel to consistently deliver quality balls in behind the opposition’s defence.

In England, there seems to be a perception, probably derived from his approximate £20m price tag (a club record for Liverpool at the time), that Torres arrived at Liverpool in the summer of 2007 fully-formed and fully-proven as a European-class centre-forward.

The reality is that he was anything but — certainly, his potential was not in question but, at Atletico Madrid, Torres never scored more than 20 La Liga goals a season and he was unfairly stuck with the tag of overrated wunderkind because, in a distinctly average side, he was constantly forced to drop deep to pick up the ball and play with his back to goal. That’s not his game.

Rafa Benitez, to his credit, realised this and played Torres high up the pitch with two of the best passers in Europe threading balls in behind the defence from central midfield. The result: Torres finally fulfilled his potential and became one of the best centre-forwards in the world.

Similarly, when he starred for Spain in the 2006 World Cup, Euro 2008 and the 2009 Confederations Cup, Torres received quality service from the likes of Alonso, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas and Silva and played up front either in partnership with David Villa, a second striker who dropped deep to collect the ball, run at defenders, create chances for Torres and give Torres the space and freedom to stay high on the shoulder of the last defender, or alone with support from a midfield five consisting of, at most, one player who would not be considered a world-class passer (Marcos Senna at the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2008, and Albert Riera in the 2009 Confederations Cup, both of whom are nonetheless technically adept passers).

We can deduce from the above analysis that Torres is a great striker but one who requires a peculiar tactical set-up to thrive — any system which gives him the freedom to play off the shoulder of the last defender and a midfield with the technical proficiency to supply quality balls on the carpet in behind the opposition’s defence.

The problem for both Chelsea and Torres when the latter arrived last season was that Chelsea did not have the personnel to execute such tactics. The Chelsea team was, understandably, set-up to suit Didier Drogba’s style of play. The Chelsea midfield played the ball to Drogba’s feet with his back to goal. Drogba then used his tremendous strength and power to turn the defender and bear down on goal himself, hold up the ball for the likes of Lampard, Essien and Ramires to get into the box or distribute it wide to Malouda or Anelka. It should come as no surprise then that Chelsea did not have central midfielders with the finesse to thread balls in behind the opposition’s defence — until now, that simply has not been the job required of a Chelsea midfielder.

Accordingly, for most of last season Torres, when he started for Chelsea, was forced to play up top in a 4-3-3 in front of a midfield three chosen from Lampard (an energetic box-to-box midfielder), Ramires (an energetic box-to-box midfielder), Essien (who functions either as a box-to-box midfielder or a holding midfielder) and Mikel (a pure stopper), but no genuine, creative midfield passer to supply the kind of balls from which Torres made his name. This problem was exacerbated when Chelsea started Torres alongside another out-and-out centre-forward in Drogba for the big games, either in a 4-3-3 (the Liverpool game at Stamford Bridge in early February, with a midfield three of Lampard, Essien and Mikel) or a 4-4-2 (the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final against Manchester United at Stamford Bridge in early April, with a midfield four of Lampard, Essien, Ramires and Zhirkov).

Whether or not the power to make such fundamental tactical decisions was actually within the ambit of Ancelotti’s political authority as manager is uncertain; what is certain is that the tactics chosen did not suit Torres’s style of play.

By contrast, this season, the incompatibility between Torres’s strengths and Chelsea’s tactics, personnel and style of play has been ameliorated by a change in tactics and manager and, crucially, the acquisitions of Juan Mata and Raul Meireles, two players with the technique and vision to play the passes in behind the defence on which Torres thrives. It was Mata who played the clever diagonal ball over the top for Torres’s opener against Swansea and it was Meireles who, in the 26th minute against Genk, made an intelligent run out to the right wing to curl in a teasing first-time cross (from a quick pass supplied by the deep-lying Anelka) for Torres to head home after making an astute horizontal run across Genk’s defensive line.

Indeed, Torres himself has, through his conduct, demonstrated both an awareness of the nature of the tactical problem which bedevilled him as well as a willingness to take active steps to ameliorate that problem. Firstly, Torres encouraged Mata to make the move to Stamford Bridge. Secondly, Torres’s remarks in a now infamous interview with the La Liga website in September 2011, although widely misconstrued in the English media as an attack on his Chelsea teammates for being “older” and “play[ing] very slow”, were in fact merely a cogent analysis of the unsuitable tactics which hampered his performances for Chelsea last season and the steps the club is taking this season to “redesign the team” (for example, acquiring Juan Mata who “is going to give another pace to the team”) and amend its tactics (that is, embrace André Villas-Boas’s ideas “about paced and vertical football”) to better suit his strengths.

This season Torres no longer has to play alongside Drogba in big games. New manager André Villas-Boas has bitten the bullet by adopting a general policy of picking one or the other in the starting XI, but rarely both. In the 13 competitive games Chelsea have played thus far this season, Drogba and Torres have only started together once — against Norwich at Stamford Bridge in late August, a match which Chelsea won 3-1, but neither Drogba nor Torres scored.

By contrast, last season, although Drogba and Torres only started together in four of Chelsea’s 19 competitive games following Torres’s January transfer, two of those four starts came in season-defining games — firstly, against Liverpool at Stamford Bridge in early February in Torres’s first game following his transfer and, secondly, against Manchester United at Stamford Bridge in April in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Chelsea lost both games 1-0 and neither Drogba nor Torres scored. Indeed, to date, neither Drogba nor Torres have scored in a match in which they started together.

When Villas-Boas has started Torres, he has allowed him to operate as the tip of the spear like he did for Spain and Liverpool, with any additional forwards playing off him. In this respect, Chelsea’s tactical shape at Stamford Bridge against Genk is notable. Although, as promised in pre-season, Villas-Boas stuck to the 4-3-3 formation which served him so well in his one season at Porto, Villas-Boas implemented the system in a manner which complemented Torres’s style of play, deploying him high up the pitch as the lone out-and-out centre-forward, with the two other forwards, Malouda and Anelka, tucked in deeper to help create chances for Torres through the middle of the pitch and the two attacking full-backs, Cole and Bosingwa, pushed up high and wide to ping in crosses for Torres — Torres should have completed his hat-trick in the 71st minute from a cross whipped in by the overlapping Bosingwa.

Moreover, in central midfield, although nominally one of the two anchors alongside Oriol Romeu, Meireles had licence to roam further up the pitch (with Romeu staying deep to cover) where his technique and passing ability enabled Torres to do what he does best — play high and utilise his pace and movement to profit from well-weighted passes delivered in behind the opposition defence. As early as the 6th minute, Meireles picked up the ball just forward of the centre circle, took one touch and played an inch-perfect ball over the top of the Genk defence, only for Torres to hit the post with his left-footed finish. It was the kind of ball Alonso used to routinely serve up for Torres when both were dressed in Liverpool colours; against Genk, Meireles looked every inch an Alonso with marginally inferior passing but superior mobility.

Indeed, Villas-Boas’s interpretation of the 4-3-3 bears some resemblance to the Benitez 4-2-3-1 in which Torres flourished at Liverpool with Gerrard and two of Kuyt, Riera, Benayoun and Babel in the bank of three just behind him and a deep-lying playmaker (Alonso) and a pure stopper (Mascherano) in the bank of two in front of the defence.

With David Luiz regularly stepping up out of defence to exhibit the impressive range and accuracy of his passing, Torres had a glut of quality balls to feast on. Even Lampard, the consummate box-to-box goalscorer, contributed to the great feast in the 10th minute by taking one touch then quickly sliding a crisp, short diagonal ball in behind the Genk defence for Torres to run onto in trade mark fashion and side foot around the keeper. As Michael Cox observed, Lampard is successfully adapting his game to survive under Villas-Boas, passing much more from deep, “rather than simply breaking towards goal from a centre-left midfield position.”

3. A Guilty Mind

The third possible cause is psychological — more specifically, a young man’s awareness of his own moral culpability.

The whole world is familiar with the Liverpool fans’ Fernando Torres song which once reverberated around the great football cathedrals of Europe. What is less well-known are the historical origins of the opening line: “His armband proved he was a Red”. It refers to the historical fact that, even before his move to Liverpool in July 2007, Torres was photographed, whilst captaining Atletico Madrid in an away game against Real Sociedad in April 2007, wearing a captain’s armband with the words “We’ll Never Walk Alone” inscribed on the inside. Upon signing for Liverpool in July 2007, here is the explanation Torres himself gave for the armband (emphasis added): “A group of my mates and I are all Liverpool fans and we have been for some years. … [O]n my last birthday they gave me the present of the armband with it written on the underside.

From the moment he signed for Liverpool Football Club, Torres was not shy about broadcasting his knowledge and appreciation of the club’s illustrious history, telling the club’s official website just minutes after signing: “I’m aware of the history and how special this club is. The tragedies that have happened have made the bond between the fans and the club so strong.

During Torres’s three-and-a-half year stay at Anfield, he took every opportunity to not only reiterate this appreciation, but pledge his love of, and fealty to, the club and its fans.

In a January 2009 interview with The Daily Mail, Torres declared (emphases added):

Liverpool is a massive club in reputation, but as soon as I came here it felt like Atletico to me. … I had many offers in football, I had many big clubs to choose from, so I decided on something more than football.

The people here, the history, the way everybody comes together, I looked at that and I thought we have the chance to make this one of the greatest clubs in the world, again.

Now I feel Liverpool is my English club, the way Atletico is my Spanish club. I would not like to play for another English or Spanish club. This feeling is very important to me.

In October 2009, Torres told The Guardian (emphases added):

One of the reasons I chose to come to Liverpool was because of the mentality of the club. It’s a working club and a working city. I don’t know why but I feel like one of the people here.

It is so important for me to get my first club medal with Liverpool

Accordingly, it came as something of a surprise to hear Torres declare in a February 2011 press briefing following his transfer to Chelsea on 31 January 2011 (emphases added):

I was not a Liverpool fan or a Chelsea fan in Madrid. I was an Atletico fan. I still am. Maybe they’re the only badge I will kiss.

I see some players doing that [kissing the badge] when they join a club, but the romance in football has gone. It’s a different thing now. People [players] are coming and leaving. When you are joining a club you want to do the best for yourself and that club, and that’s all.

When asked in a November 2009 interview with The Telegraph whether he was at Anfield to stay, Torres replied: “Who knows. But for the next four years, yeah. Deffo.

For the avoidance of doubt, on 9 January 2011, Torres stated (emphasis added):

More than ever, we need to stick together. We must live in the present, from match to match.

We need to add more points, win matches and improve our standing in the table. That is our challenge and I demand the total help of our supporters in doing that.

My head is in Liverpool and on helping save our season. I am professional and I always fulfil my deals. I haven’t considered leaving, although in football that depends on the club.

However, less than three weeks later, he handed in a written transfer request and in a February 2011 press briefing following his transfer to Chelsea, Torres went so far as to say (emphases added):

I really wanted to leave Liverpool, so I told them straight. Everything was clear. At the end of the day, it’s about being fair and honest with everyone.

I explained my situation, my feelings, and was honest with everyone. I told everyone, face to face, my feelings and that I wanted to leave for Chelsea. They didn’t hear that in the press. They heard it from me. That was maybe 10 or 12 days before the window closed.

So, on or around 19 January 2011 (that is, approximately 12 days before the January transfer window closed), Torres told Liverpool that he “really wanted to leave”, despite publicly stating on 9 January 2011 that “I haven’t considered leaving” and “I am professional and I always fulfil my deals”.

Furthermore, in an interview with Marca in March 2011, Torres confessed (emphasis added): “[Leaving Liverpool] was a decision I had mulled over for a long time, even though it appeared to be taken very hastily. I had made up my mind a long time before. In the summer in which Xabi Alonso left [2009] I started to wonder.

It is difficult to reconcile this statement with what Torres said to The Telegraph in November 2009.

In the same March 2011 interview with Marca, Torres reiterated the assertions of honesty he made at his February 2011 press briefing (emphases added):

I wanted to be honest. If others haven’t been honest, that’s not my problem. Football is not a sport populated by honest people. You can’t tell the truth or be up front with people. It’s a business and no one is friends. I was honest. I know [the transfer] wasn’t [handled in] the best way but I was honest. If anyone used the press, it wasn’t me. I was straight and I have a clear conscience.

What then are we to make of all these inconsistent statements?

It is submitted that it is the sound of an intelligent but confused young man, who realises that he ought to be at the very peak of his professional career, striving and struggling to come to terms with a decision he made with the purpose of advancing his own career but with the full knowledge that it would not only hurt many innocent people who had shown him nothing but love and loyalty, but also breach promises and contradict statements he made to them.

In Torres’s repeated thinking-out-loud-style affirmations of his own personal honesty, one can detect a tone of plaintive moral self-justification. As Talleyrand said of Napoleon’s execution of the Duke d’Enghien: “It is worse than a crime; it is a mistake.”

In short, Torres’s behaviour bears all the hallmarks of a guilty mind; the deleterious effects of which it is impossible to ever underestimate.

However, time, not to mention an improvement in the suitability of one’s tactical environment and a commensurate improvement in one’s workplace performances, can heal such self-inflicted wounds.

The Answers

Returning to the two questions posed at the beginning of this article, it is submitted that the answers are, firstly, all three causes posited above — burn-out and injuries, incompatible tactics and a guilty conscience — contributed in varying degrees to Torres’s form slump, and since each of those causes has now been ameliorated, there is every reason to believe that Fernando Torres has finally got his mojo back.

Categories: Champions League, Premier League Tags:

The Least Worst of a Mediocre Bunch vs The Greatest of All-Time?

May 28th, 2011 SB Tang No comments

In a matter of hours, Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United will face a Barcelona side with legitimate claims to being the greatest club side in the history of the game. Since Pep Guardiola inherited the managerial reins in 2008, Barcelona have won three consecutive league titles, one Copa del Rey, the Supercopa de España, one UEFA Super Cup, the FIFA Club World Cup and one European Cup. Indeed, many Barcelona fans are adamant that, but for an ill-timed volcanic ash cloud late last season, they would be contesting their third consecutive European Cup final. And this comprehensive list of honours does not even include the two league titles and one European Cup won under Frank Rijkaard whose Barcelona team already featured current-day stalwarts Valdes, Puyol, Xavi and Iniesta — the former two as starters, the latter two as important squad members.

But it is the style of football practised by Barcelona in constructing this astonishing record which has sent purists and pundits around the world into paroxysms of joy. It is a style which marries the technical proficiency of pass-and-move to the athleticism of a hunt-in-packs pressing game — Barcelona do not only keep the ball like no other, they work their socks off to win it back the moment they lose it. This latter virtue is often forgotten by people entranced by Barcelona’s intricate, one-touch, tiki-taka passing, but it is no less important to their success than the aesthetically-pleasing passing which it enables. By first denying their opponents the ball, then increasing the velocity of their collective circulation of the ball to dizzying levels (the “passing carousel” which Sir Alex Ferguson famously referred to in the lead-up to United’s last European Cup Final encounter with Barcelona), Barcelona, as a matter of logic, make it extremely difficult for their opponent to get a foothold in the game, much less score the goal required to win a football match.

This style is the ultimate modern evolution of the Ajax Total Football philosophy brought to Barcelona by Rinus Michels and the once-and-always Philosopher King of Catalonia-Netherlands, Johan Cruyff, all those years ago and faithfully passed down to latter day disciples such as Guardiola, Xavi and Iniesta via La Masia. The traditional virtues of technical and tactical proficiency are allied to the modern virtues of speed, endeavour, fitness and stamina.

Personally, I enjoy Barcelona’s style of play, but I certainly do not subscribe to the broadly disseminated totalitarian view that everyone must do likewise. The selection of a style of play is ultimately a matter of taste and opinion. Provided that no laws, bodily limbs or fundamental moral precepts are being broken, there is no strict demarcation between “right” and “wrong”, merely a broad spectrum of justifiable opinions and certain well-established schools of thought. Barcelona’s style is my cup of tea but it doesn’t have to be yours. There are plenty of different types of tea out there and people are perfectly free to choose which is their favourite. That’s the beauty of football — and liberal democracy for that matter. Indeed, you may even prefer a bitter cup of Italian espresso with the likes of Helenio Herrera and Luciano Moggi.

Facing up to Barcelona, is a United side which, despite sealing the club’s record 19th league title, is still widely seen as a less-than-vintage-crop. It’d be easy to dismiss this United side as merely Ferguson’s third great United side minus Ronaldo and Tevez — a work in progress, a version 3.5 which has overachieved in the face of underwhelming opposition within England and one of the easiest European Cup draws in Ferguson’s long reign. But this would be unfair.

In England, United have been the least worst of a mediocre bunch of contestants — this is a true fact and various expressions of it are routinely cited to support the argument that this United side are somehow not deserving league champions. However, when you turn your mind to it, any such argument is a fallacy because all comparisons and all competitions in sport (and, indeed, in life) are relative — after all, you can only beat the opponents that you’re presented with. United were competing in the 2010–11 English Premier League season, not some academic Greatest Football Team of All-Time Cup. So the fact that they were the least worst of an admittedly mediocre bunch of contestants logically means that they were the best team in the league and, therefore, thoroughly deserving champions of that particular competition in that particular season.

Surely, it is United’s domestic rivals who are to blame for their many and varied self-induced problems — a competent but geriatric Chelsea side could barely win a game in the middle third of the season after their benevolent owner inexplicably and suddenly sacked an assistant manager who had done no wrong, a perennially young and promising Arsenal side choked again when the trophy-deciding games arrived in the New Year, Tottenham got distracted from the bread-and-butter of the league by their swashbuckling run in the European Cup in their first appearance in almost 50 years, and Liverpool were in crisis for the first two-thirds of the season following the seventh place finish gifted by Rafael Benitez in his final season in charge — not United for having the basic professional competence to take advantage of such mediocrity. United’s competence in the face of their domestic opponents’ gross incompetence merits respect, if not outright praise.

Even if one broadens the comparison to include past league champions, Ferguson’s United version 3.5, whilst having a higher-than-average number of substantive flaws, including but not limited to an atrocious away record, an at times plodding midfield and a Scouse superstar with a messiah complex who was a passenger (and a whiny, troublesome one at that) for the first two-thirds of the season, also have many of the annoying virtues associated with Ferguson’s league champions of the past — the ability to steal three points in broad daylight when playing like rubbish early in the season, ruthless flat-track bullying at home, a deep squad where someone always steps up when needed to effectively ameliorate out-of-form teammates’ poor performances and, most importantly of all, the ability to go up a gear for the big, trophy-deciding matches.

When one examines the broader political and economic context in which Ferguson was operating, this side fares reasonably well compared with Ferguson’s earlier United sides. Ferguson’s net spend since the departures of Ronaldo and Tevez has been surprisingly low compared with the tens of millions of pounds he was splashing out in the late 90s and early 2000s on the likes of Stam, Cole, Yorke, Veron, van Nistelrooy, Ferdinand and Rooney. By contrast, over the same period, Chelsea and Manchester City have continued to spend like drunken sailors.

Turning to tonight’s match, everyone it seems has an opinion on how Ferguson should tactically set up his side. Rumour has it that Ferguson has a surprise up his sleeve for the Catalans. No less an authority than Kenny Dalglish was quoted as saying, “I am sure Fergie has recognised some chinks in their armour.”

Well then, here’s my worthless, amateur opinion. The last time United played Barcelona in a European Cup final in 2009 they were overrun in midfield as the in-form Darren Fletcher was suspended and Carrick and Anderson failed to sufficiently harry the Barcelona ball carriers — even today, the latter two’s reputations amongst United fans have yet to fully recover from that night in Rome. The first priority for United then, must be to win the ball. Accordingly, Ferguson should play five in midfield. In terms of the composition of that midfield five, the preference must be for fast, mobile midfielders capable of snapping at the heels of the opposition ball-carrier thereby denying them space and time on the ball.

This means that there is only room for, at most, one less-than-mobile foot-on-the-ball playmaker in that midfield five — on current form, that spot would have to go to Giggs over an unlucky Carrick. Assuming that everyone Ferguson has named in his squad is match fit, the other four spots should go to United’s two fastest and strongest central midfielders (Anderson and Fletcher) whose job will be to harry and chase Barcelona’s midfield maestros, and two quick and strong wingers (Valencia and Nani) whose job will be to use their pace, stamina and skill to not only attack Barcelona’s defensive weakness at full-back (Dani Alves loves to bomb forward at right back and Puyol will be playing out-of-position at left back), but track back wherever possible.

If Ferguson plays two of Giggs, Scholes and/or Carrick, whether it be in a midfield four or five, United will get overrun in midfield as they typically have every time such a midfield has been faced with an opponent fielding two or more quick, mobile, hardworking central midfielders over the past few seasons. The prime example would be Liverpool who, despite their terrible league position over the past two seasons, have comfortably beaten United at Anfield by fielding two of Lucas, Mascherano and/or Spearing in central midfield.

The rest of the United starting XI picks itself — Rooney as the lone striker; Evra, Ferdinand, Vidic and one of the da Silva twins as the back four; and Van der Sar in goal.

Personally, as a Liverpool fan, I sincerely hope that Ferguson’s rumoured tactical surprise will be to include Hernandez in a 4-4-2 (or 4-4-1-1, depending on how you characterise it) and deploy the same XI he used to beat Chelsea in the quarter-finals, with Giggs and Carrick in central midfield. Nineteen plus four in one season would just be too much to bear.

Barcelona would make for satisfying executioners because the mere mention of the word “Barcelona” is sufficient to trigger, in even the most intelligent and well-balanced United fan (yes Joseph, I’m looking at you), an epic rant laced with the kind of jealousy and resentment more typically associated with schoolgirls than grown men. The reason for this is that Barcelona seeks to, and, as a matter of fact, does, occupy the same moral-philosophical space in the footballing world that United fans see as their exclusive domain — that of the guardian of the sacred flame of aestheticism. This kind of messianic philosophy is inherently exceptionalist in nature — if you are messianic enough to see yourself as the light of the footballing world, then you probably also believe that you are the only true light.

Therefore, in the eyes of United fans, Barcelona with their tiki-taka style, are intruding into their exclusive philosophical domain by attempting to propagate the same set of aesthetic values to largely the same global audience. It is a simple case of two exceptionalists stepping on each other’s toes and, more specifically, one exceptionalist comprehensively surpassing another who was there first — not dissimilar really to the growth of anti-Americanism evident in France over the past century as the US has taken what the French intelligentsia see as France’s rightful place as the self-anointed light of the world.

Categories: Champions League, European Football Tags:

Sweetness and Light: Football as Popular Narrative

April 25th, 2010 Bartleby No comments

One week last February, potential members of the English national football team took us through a highly maudlin, yet entertaining, narrative arc. John Terry – England’s then captain – tacitly admitted to cheating on his wife with, feasible World Cup teammate, Wayne Bridge’s girlfriend. Bridge, in turn very publicly denied Terry a handshake at the beginning of a match between their two club teams, Man City and Chelsea, presumably communicating a message of “thanks but no thanks” to a position alongside Terry on the World Cup squad to English trainer Fabio Capello. And Ryan Shawcross of Sunderland cried on the pitch after breaking the leg of young Arsenal hopeful, Aaron Ramsey, the day before he, himself, was to be named as Bridge’s replacement on the national team. All the while, a slight, well-dressed, Portuguese man was preparing to go to London, where he would beat up on a team that he admitted to being his own and then, post-match, would make vague claims about being “the chosen one”.

Few could argue that things in football’s home country have not gotten weird. Even fewer could argue  with the fact that we are finding ways to entertain, and communicate with, ourselves through this medium that span well beyond the importance of the final score of a match or the current standings in league tables.

While the common perception of popular narrative’s evolution is that it shifted from oral culture to the written word with the invention of the Gutenberg Press and the later massification of literacy, and from the written word to new media with the popularization of the Internet and digital mediums, this column will create a forum for articles that point to football as a simultaneous medium of all of the above, as we preserve, and entertain ourselves with, classic, massive, and ludic tropes and themes through the global game.

Press roundup: Messi can lead to divorce, Cristiano Ronaldo “greater than Messi,” England looks to the “clásico;” Dani Alves on life and literature

April 9th, 2010 Joaquin Bueno No comments
  • According to Barcelona’s SPORT, the appropriately named Bigboy Cheverevere, a South African football fan rushing back home to watch the Barcelona-Arsenal match, caused quite the spat when he arrived to find his stepsons watching something other than football. The ensuing melee resulted in the channel being changed and the police being called by his wife, Grace, who is intent on divorcing her Messi-obsessed husband.
  • Cristiano Ronaldo has unsurprisingly claimed that he is bigger than Messi. Indeed, he admits, he is not only taller, but wider than him.
  • The English Imperial Press, much like its Spanish Nationalist Cousins, are wont to admit that the accomplishments of another nation’s league could usurp their own. Though when it comes to the “clásico,” they won’t miss a moment to do some reconnaissance on their lesser continental neighbors. From the Guardian to the Times, a smattering of paraphernalia in preparation for Saturday’s Big One.
  • A curiously compelling interview with Brazil and Barcelona’s Dani Alves from The Guardian’s Man in Spain Sid Lowe, in which they discuss greatness, literature, and Wayne Rooney.

Champions League Preview

September 2nd, 2009 Sebastian Fengler No comments

This year’s UEFA Champions League promises to be an interesting one. Media coverage will likely extend to even more places around the globe as the competition features 8 first-time participants among the 32 teams that qualified for the group stage. VfL Wolfsburg (Germany), Debreceni VSC (Hungary), Unirea Urziceni (Romania), APOEL Nikosia (Cyprus), FC Zürich (Switzerland), AZ Alkmaar (Netherlands), FC Rubin Kazan (Russia), and Standard de Liège (Belgium) are all competing for the first time on Europe’s biggest football stage. This is partly due to UEFA’s decision to allow more national champions from across Europe to qualify directly for the group stages. This change has already had a massive impact on little known Unirea Urziceni, who qualified without having to play a single qualification game by virtue of being the Romanian champions.

While it is obviously debateable whether the 32 teams could legitimately be described as the best of Europe, UEFA’s move to diversify the field reclaims some of the original character of the competition. And with 18 of the 32 teams being defending champions of their respective national leagues, the name Champions League actually makes some sense this year. For someone who watched Bayern Munich and Real Madrid play each other at least twice a year for the better half of this decade, this is quite a drastic change.

Once we get to the end of the season, nothing will change, of course. Although there are more teams from different places in the group stages, the last 8 will likely look something like this:

Barcelona, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Liverpool, Inter Milan,  Bayern, and Juventus.

And that’s only if we are lucky enough to see teams from 4 different countries in the quarterfinals. At least, I don’t expect 4 teams from the same country to make the semifinal this season; something the English teams have been threatening to achieve lately as a consequence of the Premier League’s all-out attempt at global football domination. Fortunately, there is still some way to go before the European version of the competition turns into the CONCACAF Champions League (where 3 Mexican teams make the semifinal almost every year).

On a personal note, I miss the days when a team like Rosenborg Trondheim could consistently compete for a few seasons at the highest level and beat teams like AC Milan with a collective of excellent team players (admittedly sometimes aided by playing December games near the polar circle in Norway). 

Maybe the rule changes in the competition allow for a similar team to emerge in the near future. Nice move, UEFA.