Wednesday, September 24, 2008

No need for Makeleles

Previously, I had written about the demise of the ‘trequartista’ in England, a player who pulls strings from the hole between the midfield and the defense of the opposition. A position, however which is very much alive and kicking in England is that of a holding midfielder, a player who is deployed between the back four and the conventional central midfield arrangement of the team. The position has attained such enormous craze that it is sometimes described as the ‘Makelele role’. I for one despise the role and wouldn’t disagree with Cantona’s description of Didier Deschamps as the water carrier of the French national team. I fail to find the logic in statements that trophies cannot be won without a spoiler in the middle of midfield. Manchester United have won silverware for years now without having a single defensive midfielder in their team. Even Owen Hargreaves who was signed last season to offer greater solidity to the team has more often than not been deployed in wide areas to ensure greater discipline. Of course I wouldn’t dispute the presence of a 'Makelele' when the rest of the team is brimming with pure attacking flair and a great deal of defensive indiscipline to go with it, like the last great Real Madrid team did. A manager should however as far as possible be looking to build a team with all round abilities rather than a team with five players possesing glittering attacking talent and one player who spoils and is only of passing the ball five yards to his left or right.

The great Manchester United and Arsenal teams of the 90s did not possess a single spoiler in them and this is testimony to Ferguson and Wenger’s philosophy of building teams that look to win rather than destroy. No doubt the Arsenal versus Man United games witnessed fantastic physical battles between Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane, but both of these players in their prime possessed immense stamina which enabled them to contribute tremendously to the attacking causes of their teams. Keane for me was the most complete player, the Premier League has ever seen. He was never the most naturally gifted, but he could tackle, pass, head, finish and over and above these qualities, he had the sort of commitment that saw him bully many a midfield battle over the years. Players like Keane, no doubt aren’t exactly a dime a dozen, but there are several players who can play from deeper positions in midfield and at the same time contribute to the team from an attacking perspective. Unquestionably, with the rigidity of the everyday back four, managers can seldom sacrifice on the defensive aspect of their central midfielders, but that’s no reason for insisting on one-dimensional players like a Gattuso or a Mascherano in your line-up.

I am not for one moment suggesting that managers should do away with holding midfielders. In fact there is no greater joy than watching the likes of Andrea Pirlo and Xabi Alonso bossing the middle of midfield with their bright passing abilities. I am just not one for having a spoiler. The need for such a player has in my mind arisen largely because of the persistence of managers with a four man back four which requires a shield in front of the centre backs to avoid being unlocked with consummate ease by players who drift into the hole between the midfield and the defense of the opposition. In my opinion though this job of acting as a lock in front of the defense can be easily performed by players who are equally adept at creating cross field balls of the most supreme level and therefore there is no real necessity to have someone in your team sheet who can do nothing but ruin the opposition’s play. Spain’s recent triumph at the European Championships is indicative of the fact that success can be earned without installing a player as a spoiler in the middle of midfield. Marcos Senna who anchored the midfield for Spain was equally effective with his distribution as he was with his defensive duties. Fernando Gago of Real Madrid, Daniele De Rossi of Roma and Michael Carrick of Manchester United are all players who can act as an effective lock and at the same time display outstanding attacking attributes. Gago is much like Fernando Redondo in so far as his style of play is concerned. Redondo who anchored Real Madrid to their Champions League victory in 1998, their first since 1966 was a player of the highest calibre who owned supreme passing skills and fine football intelligence leading him to being described by Fabio Capello as a ‘tactically perfect’ player.

Having said that, I do understand the necessity to play spoilers on the odd occasion, perhaps to nullify a truly phenomenal talent such as Kaka for instance, but I find no requirement for such a player day in and day out. The modern phenomenon of insistence on defense minded central midfielders is taking the fun out of the game and managers need to realize sooner rather than later that they can win football games without having a single-minded defensive midfielder in their team.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Tactical Blunder

Sir Alex Ferguson got it tactically wrong. It’s as simple as that. In my opinion, Ferguson pulled off a ‘Benitez’ yesterday by picking a team that was brimming with attacking talent and playing them in a system that somehow did not do justice to their abilities. When a team plays with conventionally central players such as Rooney and Anderson on the wings, it is of immense importance that the full-backs bomb down the wings to provide width to the team. Yesterday’s performance against Liverpool was very unlike Manchester United in both the manner of performance and in the manner in which the team was set-up. Anderson and Rooney were constantly tucking into the middle, leaving gaping holes on their respective touch lines which remained unfilled for almost the entirety of the match by Evra and Brown. The very presence of Brown as a full back itself in my view warrants the presence of a conventional right winger in the side, especially if a regulation 4-4-2 is employed. Unquestionably the team as a whole were dismal to say the very least, but I believe Ferguson needs to take a fair share of the blame for getting it surprisingly wrong on the day. 

It’s not often that Sir Alex gets outsmarted in a big BPL game, but that in my opinion is exactly what happened against Liverpool at Anfield. If Rooney, Tevez and Berbatov are to be picked in the same team, it’s of vital importance that a system whereby one of Rooney and Tevez is deployed in a role behind the other two is utilized. Using Rooney on the right side by itself isn’t disastrous, but when Wes Brown is playing at right full back, it’s nothing short of catastrophic. A 4-4-2 works best when you are either playing with traditional wide players or when the four in midfield are engaged as a diamond. On hearing the team line-up I felt Ferguson was installing a midfield diamond with Rooney at its apex, but sadly for Man United it was not to be. No doubt, the team at times defended worse than school boys do, but had Ferguson adopted an approach whereby the composition of the team could have better benefited, Man United might not have come away with nothing from the trip.

Rafael Benitez on the other hand, who was lambasted by critics before the game, got it right for the first time in a big game in the BPL. The pressuring high up the pitch, worked like magic for Liverpool. Dirk Kujt who has the worst first touch in the world, was at his unsurprising industrious best playing in his now familiar role of a defensive forward. Albert Riera the new signing from Espanyol enjoyed a superb debut and caused Brown more than a problem or two with his excellent burst of pace and clever movement. The system that Man United adopted allowed Carragher and Skrtel to both concentrate on Berbatov, with Tevez being hounded by his compatriot, Mascherano for almost the entire match barring the third minute when he failed to track Tevez’s run leading to the opening goal of the game. The defensive efforts of Mascherano permitted the stylish Xabi Alonso to pick up the pieces for Liverpool and run the game in whatsoever manner he deemed necessary, from the middle of midfield.  Overall, Bentiez got one better on Ferguson on the day and United need to sort their tactics out soon. With Ronaldo set to return, probably even for the midweek Champions League encounter, Ferguson I am sure will bring all his experience into moulding the wealth of attacking options that he has at his disposal and you can expect Manchester United to be back with a bang before too long. 

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Hick to Retire

Graeme Hick’s decision to retire from first class cricket at the end of the current season marks the end of an ignominious era in English cricket, an era typified by poor selection decisions and shameful handling of players. It’s highly pitiable that Hick, the man who could have easily been one of the world’s greatest batsmen lacked the adequate support from the backroom staff that his truly precocious talent more than deserved. It is not child’s play to plunder more than forty thousand runs in first class cricket, but that’s exactly what Hick made it look like. On his day, and it seemed like everyday was his, he made attacks look ordinary as he plundered one boundary after another. Hick was a monster of a batsman in the county circuit, but sadly for him and England he couldn’t replicate the same kind of form in the international circuit. I am of the opinion that the weight of expectations placed on him and the manner in which he was handled by the selectors are the prime causes for his failure at the highest level.

For all his malfunctions in the test arena, I still believe Hick had a lot to offer in ODIs, even well into the new millennium, a consideration which sadly never dawned on the English selectors. Hick’s average of 37.33 from 120 ODIs is better than the likes of Adam Gilchrist, Steve Waugh, Yuvraj Singh, Herschelle Gibbs and Mohammed Azharuddin to name a few, all of whom were/are fine ODI batsmen. Hick also possessed bucket like hands which helped him take catches in the slips with consummate ease earning plaudits from Graham Gooch who described him as one of the best slip catchers of all time. Steve Waugh is of the opinion that Hick is “as talented as any other player he had come across” and Shane Warne believes that Hick is “purely and simply a quality player”. Unfortunately for English cricket supporters, Hick’s inability to overcome the uncertainties thrust upon him by the selectors ensured that he was never quite able to showcase his phenomenal abilities at the very highest level.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Return of the 'Special One'

This past weekend, the Italian Serie A kicked off amidst far less fanfare and excitement than what the beginning of the Barclays Premier League attracted. In my opinion, the Serie A is miles ahead of the Spanish and the English league in terms of application of tactics and it comes as no surprise to me that the enterprising Jose Mourinho chose Inter Milan over the several other offers that he surely must have had from the crème de la crème of England and Spain, not to mention the English national team. In spite of all these promising options, I am convinced Mourinho made the choice that would best serve the furtherance of his resume. There is no place like Italy to learn the finer tactical nuances of the game and for all his managerial achievements, the stint at Inter Milan will do Mourinho a world of good.

In Italy as opposed to England, managers are always experimenting with tactics and formations in a bid to ensure that they get the right result for the team. In a day and age where managers are highly unwilling to move away from a pedantic four man back four, Italian managers, constantly think out of the box and use differing formations to suit diverse match situations. Gianluca Vialli in his book with Gabrielle Marcotti titled ‘The Italian Job’ compares the footballing ethos of England and Italy and makes several interesting points about how Serie A managers are never shy of playing three at the back with a conventional sweeper and two wing backs, thereby bringing about a certain level of fluidity to the team and permitting in the process the ‘number 10’ to pull the strings from whatsoever position he deems fit to take. Even a game between Lecce and Palermo generates greater tactical battles than one between Liverpool and Chelsea or one involving Arsenal and Manchester United. In England, we are used to witnessing man to man battles between a Jamie Carragher and a Didier Drogba, but we seldom see teams adapting differing tactical plans, in the manner in which the shrewd Italians do. To me, the greatest tragedy of the commercially colossal BPL has been the lack of adequate tactical combats.

Even though, Italy is the birthplace of the ill-acclaimed Catenaccio, the description of Italian football as boring and dull continues to baffle me. A fiercely contested Milan or Rome Derby will in the midst of all the excitement, generate exceptional tactical contests, the likes of which can be witnessed in no other league. Mourinho has always been more focused on the results that his side achieves as opposed to the manner of football played by them and whilst he was lambasted by most critics of the English game, he will be applauded for such an approach in Italy. Italian football fans for generations have been bothered about the result of the game as opposed to the manner of football played by their team. If the manager gets it tactically wrong, he will be crucified by one and all, but if the team nicks an early goal and defends the lead brilliantly, the manager will get all the applauses even if the team hadn’t managed a single attack of significance subsequent to the goal. Although such an attitude isn’t always healthy, it certainly pressurizes the managers to think more about the game and adjust to different match situations. In Italy the fans take pride in the fact that their team was compact enough to defend their lead magnificently or in the fact that their team outthought the opposition at a pure strategic level.

Mourinho however isn’t in my opinion going to find it all that easy in spite of the great wealth of talent that Inter Milan possesses. He would have to acclimatize quickly to the Italian game and get his tactics spot on if he wants to enjoy success in Italy. As expected he has taken extremely well to the glitz and glamour of the Italian league in so far as his handling of the media is concerned, but he has unexpectedly failed to make an early mark on his Inter team as they struggled to manage a draw away at Sampdoria. But then none of the big guns have started off too well, with last season’s runners-up Roma and Juventus both managing only a draw from their opening fixtures. Carlo Ancelotti, a genius of a manager continues to suffer from AC Milan’s bemusing dealings in the transfer window as he saw his side lose to Bologna of all teams at the San Siro on Sunday. I think we can certainly expect a hugely interesting season at Italy, with Fiorentina likely to join the Milan teams, Roma and Juventus as potential challengers for the Scudetto. But the big question remains whether the self proclaimed ‘Special One’ will be able to deliver the goods in Italy? Jose is a winner through and through and I for one would expect him to succeed sooner rather than later not merely in the Italian Serie A, but in the UEFA Champions League too.