Monday, June 30, 2008

The Best of the Lot

Euro 2008 produced some breathtaking football, and in the end proved to be a victory for attacking football with Spain deservedly being crowned champions. But for all the inventive brilliance that we have witnessed over the last month, the standout performance of the tournament belongs to Marcos Senna. The news of Xavi Hernández being voted as the player of the tournament by UEFA’s technical experts is just filtering through, but for my money, Senna was the player of the tournament by a good mile and a half. Whilst, Xavi’s tremendous input cannot be doubted, I feel that Senna’s overall contribution to the La Selección should have helped him pip Xavi to the prestigious honour.

Throughout the tournament, Senna went about his business with the minimum of fuss and acted as a strong shield to a somewhat vulnerable back four. But the finest ingredient in Senna’s game is his ability to play the role of a defensive midfielder with imperious splendor and pleasing panache and without acting merely as a front sweeper like Makelele or Gattusso do. He is more than just the average front sweeper in so far as he possesses an excellent right foot and has the ability to contribute to a team in an attacking sense without compromising on his defensive duties. Right through Euro 2008, his distribution has been immaculate and as hard as I have tried, I can’t remember a single instance where a pass from Senna had gone astray. The relative ineffectiveness of Arshavin in the semifinals and Ballack in the finals can be put down solely to Senna's exceptional marking abilities. He doesn’t possess the biggest of physiques, but the manner in which he has bullied the midfield for Spain has been stupendously admirable. Whilst he is always present to quell the attacking threat of the opposition, he can pass the ball around with equal efficacy and can strike an excellent dead ball when required. There is undoubtedly a lot more to come from the Brazilian born 32 year old. He has already been touted to replace Flamini at Arsenal and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit, if the midfield maestro does make a big money move this summer.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Mercurial Marat!

The word ‘genius’ is often overused when describing sportspersons and in fact some would go to the extent of saying that the word can be used only to describe a persons intellectual ability and hence should never be used in association with sportspersons. However the Compact Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as denoting exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability, which would mean that the word can be used to describe sportspersons, but only a very elite category can fit the bill. Even when used in its most restricted capacity, the tag of ‘genius’, rests with the greatest of ease on the broad shoulders of Marat Safin. On his day, he can beat whoever he wants to, in whatever manner that suits him.

Safin is without a shadow of doubt, the greatest talent that the tennis world has been privileged to witness over the last decade or so. He sent hearts racing when he burst on to the scene in the 1998 French Open by defeating Agassi in the first round and the defending champion Gustavo Keurten in the second round only to succumb in typical fashion to Cedric Pioline in the fourth round. The manner in which he despatched Pete Sampras in the finals of the 2000 U.S. Open to win the first of his two Grand Slams drew adulations from one and all and Sampras labelled him as the “tennis of the future”. But since then, Safin has on most occasions flattered to deceive, only to remind us whenever he deems fit of his unique talent. Yesterday was one such occasion. Novak Djokovic is a player who possesses the required special ability and fortitude to become one of the all time greats of the game, but he was no match for the mercurial talents of Safin. Djokovic was undeniably a tad weary and lethargic, but Safin was in the kind of form that he showcases when he beats the best in the world as though it was just a walk in the park. Of course, the dismal coverage on Star Sports meant that I only got to watch Safin stamp his class on the third and final set of the match, but then again when Safin is playing, even a glimpse of the game is worth beholding.

Some of Safin’s stroke play in the final set was reminiscent of the 2000 US Open final. The ‘jumping backhand’ (See picture) was very much on display as Safin brushed aside Djokovic’s awful attempts of putting up a fight. Djokovic doesn’t seem to move very well on grass, a problem which Safin himself professes to have, although it was anything but apparent last evening. The grass has gotten slower over the years and the bounce seems to be a lot more consistent, which means players like Safin can dominate the play without venturing near the net. On current form, would I back Safin to go all the way? Well, I wouldn't even bet against him losing to Andreas Seppi in the third round.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Russia v. Spain: A Great Tie in Prospect

Whilst I am not entirely looking forward to the first semifinal between Germany and Turkey, the second one between Russia and Spain, on recent evidence is a mouthwatering prospect to say the very least. Russia’s tactically perfect performance against the Dutch, who had played some swashbuckling football in the group stage, was amongst the best witnessed during the last few major international tournaments.

Andrei Arshavin, the architect of Zenit’s victory in the finals of the UEFA Cup was outstanding against the Oranje. He waltzed past defenders with great aplomb and was behind most of Russia’s exceptional play. Arshavin seems destined to move to greener pastures with the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea said to be monitoring his situation. Another standout feature of Russia’s victory was the superb tactics employed by the perennial overachiever Guus Hiddink. Hiddink always seems to get the best out of the bunch of players he has at his disposal and once again his strategic planning was right on the mark. Employing Ivan Saenko on the right wing to counter the attacking threat of Wesley Sneijder was a tactical masterpiece by Hiddink, with the close marking of Van Nistelrooy by Kolodin being another prominent aspect of the Russian success. The outstanding link-up play between Arshavin, Zyrianov and Zhirkov, the buccaneering left back meant that the Dutch were on the back foot almost throughout the match.

Having said that, the Russians do seem somewhat vulnerable when defending set pieces, a flaw which Ruud van Nistelrooy exploited in typical fashion when he converted Sneijder’s wonderfully whipped in free-kick late in regulation time. But apart from the goal conceding instance, there were a couple of other occasions when Van der Vaart’s free kicks were narrowly missed by De Jong and van Nistelrooy, when it seemed easier to score. I am sure Hiddink will be hammering instructions into his players’ heads to make them overcome these shortcomings before the semifinal match against Spain.

Spain on the other hand were somewhat pedestrian against the Italians, but then again it is never easy to play against the Azzurri, particularly when they are in the kind of mood that they were in on Sunday. The Italians played for penalties and in the end paid the penalty for having done so. A midfield quartet of De Rossi, Ambrosini, Aquilani and Perrotta hardly inspired any confidence from an attacking point of view and the only purpose it served was what was intended by Roberto Donadoni, which was to negate Spain’s impressive midfield diamond. But in spite of the best efforts of the Azzurri, David Silva shone like a beacon in the night by cutting in from the right wing time and again and showcasing his supreme control over the football which has made him one of the most sought-after talents in Europe.

Donadoni’s tactics throughout the tournament have been woeful and very unlike an Italian coach. Preferring Gattuso to Aquilani in three out of the four games preceding the quarterfinals was a tactical blunder of gargantuan proportions for my money as Aquilani offers a sort of dynamism that most teams would love to have in their arsenal. Gattuso is a one-dimensional midfielder who does not merit a place alongside the likes of Pirlo and De Rossi. I am unable to understand claims by some experts that a team cannot play without one player adopting the ‘Makelele role’. A midfield trio of Aquliani, De Rossi and Pirlo would have offered enough defensive cover and at the same time would have opened up attacking options for the Azzurri. Another element of surprise was Donadoni’s unwillingness to remove the highly unproductive Toni who simply lacked any zest in front of the goal. Considering Toni’s dreadful display against the French, Fabio Quagliarella should have been given a chance against the Spaniards, but somehow Donadoni seemed to lack the nerve to make the big decisions when they mattered most.

A certain level of experience at club level is required before taking up the mantle of coaching a national team and the Donadoni’s and Van Basten’s for all the success they enjoyed during their playing days lack the tactical astuteness of a Hiddink or a Luis Aragones. Aragones’ intelligent use of his resources has without doubt helped mould Spain, the perennial underachievers into a mentally strong unit. The talent that the Spaniards possess is unquestionable but any doubts over their ability to perform under adversity were put to rest when David Villa scored late on against the Swedes to book their place in the quarters with a game to spare.

I for one am really looking forward to the battle between Russia and Spain, two attack minded teams who will no doubt have a go at each other. Xavi and Iniesta have both in my opinion failed to live up to their high expectations and I wouldn’t be surprised if Fabregas and the newcomer Cazorla, who have been terrific every time they have been on the field of play, start in their place. The Spanish backline though is yet to be suitably tested and the centre-halves Puyol and Marchena are both more than capable of dropping the odd clanger, which would certainly interest Pavlyuchenko and Arshavin. Having said that, I still believe the Spaniards are favourites to go through to the finals where they will in all probability face a dogged and boring German outfit.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Death of the 'Trequartista'

(Also see: - on the return of the trequartista)

Modern day formations such as the 4-4-2 and the 4-5-1 employed by most Barclays Premier League teams have brought forth the death of the ‘Trequartista’ or the ‘hole’ player as I like to call it. Trequartista, which means ‘three quarters’ in Italian is the position employed by the playmaker of the team, who invariably sports the Number 10 jersey. Most BPL teams tend to utilize a second striker, a position which in my opinion is distinct from that of a trequartista. Although a second striker is a player who attacks from deeper positions as compared to an old fashioned centre forward, his primary role is to score goals for his team, much like Carlos Tevez’s task at Manchester United. A trequartista on the other hand is a player who operates in the ‘hole’ between the defence and the midfield of the opposition and tries to utilize that space to create goal scoring opportunities for his team.

Classic modern day examples of a trequartista are Zinedine Zidane, Pablo Aimar and Manuel Rui Costa who are/were masters at pulling strings from their positions in the hole. Sir Alex Ferguson famously let go of the opportunity to sign Zidane from Bordeaux primarily because he was unsure of what position to play him in. The rigid approach of BPL managers over the years has meant that most line-ups have not had a place for a trequartista, the position that is home to many footballing geniuses. Roberto Baggio is another archetypical example of a trequartista as he very seldom fitted into a team formation, opting instead to move into positions of space offered by the opposition. I am not for one moment doubting the fact that a lot of inside-forwards (a term that is sometimes used to describe the second striker) can alternate as trequartistas (examples include Cantona, Zola and Bergkamp), but invariably these players have played as supporting strikers when playing for their clubs in England.

The Argentineans refer to the trequartista as the “enganche”, a position which was made famous by the great Diego Maradona. The midfield diamond that the Argentinean National Team often employs permits the presence of an enganche who is the creative fulcrum of the team. The enganche acts as the link between the midfield and the front line and has a celebrated place in Argentinean football culture. The breathtaking football that Argentina produced in the 2006 World Cup, with Riquelme playing as the enghance is I am sure permanently etched in most of our minds. The Spaniards have employed a similarly impressive formation in the ongoing European Championships with the brilliant David Silva and the cheeky Anders Iniesta drifting in from wide positions into spaces between the central midfield and defence of the opposition and in the process creating room for the full-backs, Ramos and Capdevilla to make attacking runs on the flanks. Netherlands have also made full use of the phenomenal talents of Wesley Sneijder by playing him as the trequartista. In my opinion, the presence of a trequartista is not a burden on the team as is believed by many managers as it opens up several tactical options to the team as has been seen with both the Spanish and the Dutch set up.

The absence of a place for a trequartista in most BPL line-ups has meant that hugely talented players like ‘Seba’ Veron have been unable to lay their mark in England. Veron much like Riquelme is at his best when employed as an enghance, but the BPL for all the excitement it generates has never quite produced tactics from managers that match with the best from the continent. Ferguson and Wenger, two of the foremost managers of the last decade have both been content to play a flat back four and at most times 2 traditional forwards. Unless variations in the back line are resorted to, it is difficult to play a trequartista without employing a diamond in midfield and in the process sacrificing on the wide players which is rarely seen in the BPL. Whilst there is no doubting the success of the English clubs, a lack of innovation in formations can at times be tedious for the viewers. Even a player like Joe Cole, who with his ingenious abilities can easily fit into the role of an orthodox number 10, is banished to the wings. The injuries to Robin Van Persie this past season had forced Wenger to use the talents of Hleb in the ‘hole’ on a fair few occasions and it certainly brought the best out of him.

The only BPL manager who has tried using a trequartista on a consistent basis has been Rafael Benitez, but sadly for Liverpool, I felt it was Benayoun who should have been deployed there rather than Steven Gerrard, who is much more at home when played as a conventional central midfielder. Maybe Scolari’s appointment at Chelsea will bring forth certain tactical changes and if he does sign Deco as is widely reported in the press, then there will almost certainly have to be adaptations in their team formation to allow Deco to play as the trequartista. The signing of Luka Modric by Jaunde Ramos, the Spurs’ manager, is similarly interesting as Modric is a player born to play in the ‘hole’. But even continental managers seem to get caught up with the rigidity of flat lines across the field the moment they set foot in England. The legendary Fabio Capello himself has been guilty of the offence as has been seen from the tactics used by England in their last few friendlies. Capello as England’s manager has so far failed to replicate the tactical astuteness he showed during his club management days. I would like to see England play in a 3-4-1-2 formation with Rio Ferdinand as the sweeper and either one of Rooney or Joe Cole as the trequartista.

I would equally love to see Ferguson make changes to his favoured formations to permit Rooney to play as the trequartista behind Carlos Tevez and another centre forward whom United would hopefully sign, especially if Cristiano Ronaldo leaves Old Trafford this season. I still think Ferguson hasn’t found Rooney’s best position and this is largely in my opinion due to the fact that he prefers playing a front two or a three in central midfield, thereby neglecting the ‘hole’ which would be the position where Rooney could thrive for Manchester United. Unless more innovation is brought forth by managers in England, the Premier League will never get to witness the best form of some of the most brilliant talents of world football.