Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Chelsea in Need of a Tactical Overhaul

Chelsea under Luiz Felipe Scolari are suffering from tactical setbacks which need immediate attention if the Londoners are to mount a serious title challenge this season. Under the present set-up, more than half the job is complete if the opposition finds an effective way to stifle the attacking threat from Chelsea’s full backs. Relying upon full backs for width by itself isn’t the problem, but playing the system with a badly organized central midfield is a disaster waiting to happen. Chelsea have won only five of their eleven premier league games played at home and this evinces the tactical troubles that they are suffering from.

Chelsea’s present system of playing a cramped midfield five with John Obi Mikel acting as a defensive shield relies heavily on full backs Jose Bosingwa and Ashley Cole to provide the threat from wide areas. With inadequate width on offer in the final third, the likes of Lampard, Ballack and Deco are restricted to weaving pretty patterns in the middle without threatening the opposition with adequate creative vigour. The lone striker up front is easily countered by the opposition centre halves with the full backs tucking in to offset any attacking runs made from central midfield. Although Lampard, Ballack and Deco bring different skill sets to the team, their preference for playing in a similarly advanced central midfield role makes the area heavily congested and leads to the creation of space in other areas of the pitch for the opposition to exploit. Manchester United last week were able to effectively squeeze the trio into central areas and this allowed the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Park Ji Sung and Wayne Rooney to fashion their magic in the acres of space made available to them.

Football formations and systems require players to either move into space or into specific positions. Teams like Barcelona and Arsenal arrange their players to exploit space as opposed to positions although not to the same degree as was utilised during the Dutch total football days under Rinus Michels. Liverpool under Rafael Benitez and a lot of the Italian teams play a rigid system wherein players stick to positions and although the system tends to sacrifice fluidity in attack, it infuses tremendous discipline making the team hard to break down. Chelsea themselves under Jose Mourniho were organised in a similarly rigid manner. The difference under Mourinho though was that width came from traditional wingers such as Arjen Robben and Damien Duff which enabled the team to break quickly on attaining possession. The fundamental problem with the present Chelsea team is that they are not able to either exploit space or positions on the football pitch. When the team does get possession in midfield, they are unable to release their wide players swiftly enough to be able to put pressure on the opposition. The likes of Lampard, Ballack and Deco tend to take up positions from which they can neither create nor exploit the creativeness of other players on the pitch.

Chelsea’s problems also stem from the fact that Obi Mikel lacks the quality to play as a deep lying central midfielder. If Chelsea are intent on playing with only one player as a front sweeper, the player necessarily must be a capable passer of the football. Mikel when isolated in his own half lacks the ability to get out of the situation with any inventive success. Deco is evidently past his sell-by date and is unable to control the tempo of the game in the manner in which he once did. With Essien out injured, the Blues lack a player who can grab a game by the scruff of the neck and make things happen on the pitch.

In the absence of a player who can create from deep positions, the present system seems unviable. If Chelsea are to attain sustained success this season, it will require a significant tactical overhaul from Scolari, one which could however continue to involve the offering of width from the full backs as opposed to the midfielders. Scolari could consider using three central defenders or shifting to a Christmas tree formation (4-3-2-1), which requires great discipline from the three central midfielders. The other option is to play a diamond in the middle of midfield with Frank Lampard at its apex and both Anelka and Drogba as strikers. Scolari though is unconvinced about Anelka and Drogba as a partnership and is therefore unlikely to experiment with such a structure. The only option is therefore to play a rigid system involving three disciplined central midfielders which will ensure that Chelsea aren’t left exposed by their bombarding fullbacks. This will also require the two playing behind the lone striker to constanly make diagonal runs behind the opposition centre halves to ensure a greater variety in attack. With the quality and depth that Chelsea posses, if Scolari can get it tactically correct, the Blues can certainly mount a serious title challenge.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

ODIs, Rankings and Hayden

Considering the advent of twenty-twenty cricket and the status attached to test cricket, one would imagine that the fifty over format of the game isn’t here to stay. But if the ongoing series in Australia is anything to go by, one day internationals can make for enthralling viewing. The series is evenly balanced after Australia’s victory earlier today in the second ODI and with the recently introduced batting power play the game continues to provide tremendous scope for tactical innovations. ODIs over the last few years have however tended to be a bit predictable with teams unwilling to experiment and bring enough tactical originality into the contests. The format will therefore require the ICC to make suitable modifications and innovations which may include a possible reduction of the games to a forty over a side match to ensure its survival.  

The South Africa-Australia series has so far seen the deployment of interesting tactics as regards the use of the third power play which is a group of five overs selected by the batting team wherein only three fielders can be placed outside the thirty yard circle. The Proteas chose to use the power play as late as possible in the game and whilst it worked to their advantage in the first ODI, it certainly proved detrimental to their chances in the second match. No doubt, these innovations make for interesting viewing, but it’s important that the ICC maintains a sense of perspective when determining the extent of reforms that are required in the fifty over format. The bowlers must be provided with conditions that go beyond ensuring that their role is merely to stem the flow of runs. If all new innovations are garnered towards making sure that the batsmen get greater opportunities to score runs, ODIs are bound to face a possibly slow but certain death. 

Speaking of the ICC, their recently introduced rankings for all time great players is an appalling joke. A list which places Kumar Sangakarra, as fine a batsman as he may be, alongside Gary Sobers and ahead of Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar in the batting rankings and Derek Underwood ahead of Shane Warne in the bowlers rankings can hardly be considered with any level of seriousness. The exercise of coming up with such a ranking system by itself is steeped in stupidity as it makes little sense comparing players of different eras. Of course the hue and cry that it has raised in India has much to do with how much individual performance and ratings are valued in the country as opposed to collective team effort, but the ICC would have done well to stay away from this futile exercise and in the process could have avoided the media maelstrom that ensued. 

The rankings itself came to light due to the retirement of Matthew Hayden, which motivated certain tributes from different quarters including one from the ICC which had placed him in tenth position on the list of the world’s greatest ever batsmen. As ridiculous as the rankings may be, Hayden has been a magnificent batsmen over the years, one whom Australia are certain to miss in all forms of the game. Although, he has never been the most elegant of batsmen, he has unquestionably been one of the game’s most effective batsmen. When Michael Slater retired, the Australians were able to replace him with an equally ferocious player at the top of the order, one who could take the wind out of the opposition’s sails right from the go. Hayden’s fearless attacking approach to the game has in many ways epitomised the Australian way of playing cricket over the last decade or so. The value of having a match winner at the top of the order can never be overemphasised and Australia are unlikely to dominate world cricket as they once did unless they can find a player of Hayden’s authoritarian and brutal nature. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Great Team Effort

Manchester United’s defeat of Chelsea on Sunday was a team effort of the highest excellence. As Andy Gray aptly put it during commentary, ‘in grand slam terms, the victory was really a thumping’. Most felt that Sir Alex Ferguson was being tactically inane by picking runners over passers in the middle of midfield. Ferguson’s decision to go with a mere two in the middle by itself seemed unintelligent, but add to the mix the selection of Giggs and Fletcher over the passing maestros Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes, the selection seemed downright disastrous. The Scotsman though was fully vindicated in his selection as he saw his team inflict a severe dent on Chelsea’s title hopes. Luiz Felipe Scolari, the famed former Brazil manager has managed to consistently get his tactics wrong in the big games and against Man United, his decision to crowd the middle of midfield opened up spaces in other areas of the pitch, which the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Park Ji Sung exploited to full potential. 

With Ryan Giggs in magnificent form and Darren Fletcher at his exuberant best, United maintained an excellent tempo throughout the game. Giggs at the grand old age of 35 epitomises all that is good with Manchester United. He hasn’t lost any of his appetite for the game in spite of being asked to don a more central role these days. Giggs is the first to admit that he cannot maraud down the wings as he once did, but he still brings a whole lot of quality on board through his supreme footballing intelligence and evergreen skill. He doesn’t seem to tire of winning trophies and his hunger and desire sets a fantastic example for budding footballers around the world. Against Chelsea on Sunday, Giggs put in a majestic performance, the full value of which will only be realized at the end of the season. Central midfielders are often measured in their approach to the game. Giggs though wasn’t afraid to dribble at the heart of Chelsea's midfield often taking two or three players with him and thereby creating open spaces in other areas of the pitch. His defensive awareness and incisive runs from the middle was perhaps the most telling of all contributions in what was a sensational team effort. 

With Rooney and Berbatov showing signs of establishing a potent partnership and Park being his effervescent self, Ronaldo played his best game of the season thus far. He was a threat every time he got the ball and his adept flick to set Evra free down the left wing leading up to the second goal was one of the highlights of the game. What was striking about Ronaldo’s contribution on Sunday though was his willingness to track back and help the full backs counter the attacking threat of Bosingwa and Ashely Cole. Ronaldo is usually reluctant with his defensive duties, but on Sunday his contribution to the team’s cause went beyond his customary attacking brilliance. 

A word of mention must also go to Jonny Evans who displayed a maturity and calmness unknown for a 21 year old centre half. Evans only played due to the back spasm suffered by Rio Ferdinand hours before the kick off, but in dealing splendidly with Didier Drogba, he showed the world exactly why Ferguson rates him so highly. Through clever positing and adroit tackling Evans ensured that Ferdinand was barely missed by the champions. If Manchester United can win their games on Wednesday and Saturday, Liverpool will play Everton knowing that they need to win to regain their position at the top of the table. The rout of Chelsea could well be the game which sets Manchester United’s season well and truly rolling.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Cracking Year In Prospect

Last year saw three different grand slam champions in the men’s arena in what was a fantastic season for the viewing public. The men’s tennis field has never been so open and crammed with excellence at the same time for many years now. Nadal’s domination, Djokovic’s realization of potential and Federer’s return to form post Wimbledon made for truly enthralling action on the courts. It is Andy Murray’s ascendancy though that was the most astounding of all achievements last year.

Murray always gave me the impression of someone who had the game but not the temperament and the strength to succeed at the highest level. Towards the latter part of last season though, the Scotsman well and truly established his qualities as a top class tennis player. In a statement of supreme intent, Murray defeated Federer and Nadal in consecutive matches to win the tournament at Abu Dhabi earlier this week, which in spite of being a mere exhibition event was played in highly competitive fashion. Murray’s attacking game has come on by leaps and bounds over the course of the last year and many believe that this may well be the year when he lifts his first grand slam title. Add to Murray’s ascendancy, Nadal’s valour, Federer’s brilliance and Djokovic’s magnificent all-round ability, the year is a ripper in prospect.

What tennis needs though is a bit more artistry at the very top. Agreed, Federer is one of the most splendid players to have ever graced the game, but the game would benefit if someone like Richard Gasquet, the Frenchman who boasts the most elegant of strokes can compete with the best players on the circuit. One of the most naturally gifted players on the ATP Tour, Gasquet has lacked the commitment and focus to produce quality tennis on a consistent basis. His game though is so attractive and pleasing to the eye that one can only wish that he finds the right attributes to challenge the best players.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Dream Football Team

I have put down several dream football teams over the years and I felt the beginning of the new year is probably a good time to let everyone know of my favourite players. Whenever one puts forward a team of this kind it is only natural that a certain element of bias creeps in, but to ensure that I remain fair to all the great footballers who have graced the game over the last decade or so I have named only two footballers who have played for Manchester United over an extended period of time in my eleven.

The team will play in my favoured 3-4-1-2 formation, which I believe will lend excellent balance and stability to my line-up. The formation is essentially a variation of the 3-4-3 formation with the primary difference being the fact that the width will come from the wingbacks as opposed to the forwards. A flat back four tends to kill creative midfielders and I believe by playing three centre halves and by getting my wingers to push up and down, I can provide a lot of freedom to my trequartista without compromising on the defensive aspects of the game. My insistence on playing this formation causes a lot of my favourite footballers to miss out, but then I am not one for accommodating players at the cost of my tactics.

Goalkeeper - Iker Casillas: Without a shadow of doubt I can say that Casillas is the greatest shot stopper that I have ever seen play. Playing in a team that believes it is unlawful to defend, ‘Saint Iker’ as he is referred to by the Real Madrid faithful has at times single-handedly kept the opposition at bay. In spite of his inability to deal adequately with balls played into the box, Casillas will be my pick for the number one jersey.

Centre Half (Left) - Paolo Maldini: The iconic Maldini’s exemplary commitment and professionalism together with his supreme defensive abilities means that choosing him is a no-brainer. Maldini will add an element of class and splendour to my back line and I am sure he can marshal the defence to several clean sheets.

Centre Half (Centre) - Laurent Blanc: It’s not the job of central defenders to look pretty when defending, but Blanc was as elegant a footballer as one can hope to see. He made defending look ridiculously easy at times and although he had a somewhat forgettable time at Man United, he walks into my team courtesy his unbelievable ability to read a football game.

Centre Half (Right) - Alessandro Nesta: Sometimes a team needs a player who can defend dirty and Nesta is my candidate for the role. He will bring pace and athleticism to my back line and will act as a great foil for the graceful Maldini and the stylish Blanc. If not for his athleticism and swiftness, Nesta may have been pipped by Tony Adams to a place in my eleven.

Left Wingback - Gianluca Zambrotta: Zambrotta has the exceptional ability to play at right or left wingback and adds wonderful versatility to my eleven. Hard on the tackle and blessed with a good engine, the Italian will rampage down the wing all match long and will help provide the front men with the necessary support.

Right Wingback - Javier Zanetti: A fantastic leader, Zanetti’s qualities as a wingback are unquestionable. He possesses the requisite defensive attributes and at the same time he has the strength, skill and passing ability to contribute immensely from an attacking perspective.

Central Midfielder (Right) - Roy Keane: Keane epitomizes the sort of ideal commitment that all managers seek from their players. Keane was a monster of a player, one who could run up and down the pitch throughout the ninety minutes contributing thereby at both ends of the pitch. Being a born winner, Keane will captain my team and I am sure he will be able to inject the right sort of desire and aspiration in the other players.

Central Midfielder (Left) - Paul Scholes: Scholes' abilities are often undervalued and I believe in terms of pure footballing skill, he is up there with the very best. The ‘ginger genius’ as he is referred to by Jim White in his book on Manchester United possesses an astute positioning sense and remarkable finishing ability for a midfielder. It is his passing though that really sets him apart as a world class footballer. Scholes can go an entire game without giving the ball away with the outstanding aspect of it being that he doesn’t merely pass the ball backwards or sideways. Scholes along with Zidane and Bergkamp will act as the creative spark of my team.

Trequartista - Zinedine Zidane: Zizou’s close touch and control and his guile and athleticism together with his penchant for coming up with the goods in the biggest of stages made him in many people’s minds the greatest footballer of his generation. Goals in the finals of the World Cup and the Champions League are testament to his big match temperament. For all his ability though, Zidane seldom showboated. His tricks and flicks were always garnered towards ensuring results for the team and that in my opinion sets him apart from the likes of Ronaldinho and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Inside Forward - Dennis Bergkamp: Bergkamp is a player of rare ability who when in full flow was a sight to behold. He had the ability to conjure up moments of brilliance out of nothing and his goal against Newcastle United in my opinion ranks as the best goal ever scored in the Premier League. With Bergkamp’s intelligence and Ronaldo’s sheer natural talent, my team will take some stopping.

Centre Forward - Ronaldo: The ‘Brazilian Ronaldo’ as he is referred to these days was when in full flow a treat to watch. He possessed great pace, power and precision and could score goals that others couldn’t dream of. Ronaldo as Martin Tyler would probably put it is both a great goal scorer and a scorer of great goals. In his prime he could leave defenders with twisted blood and finish with the greatest of panache.