Thursday, May 28, 2009

Guardiola's Oeuvre

Sport has a capacity to throw up the most wonderful stories from time to time and yesterday’s victory for Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team was one such story which is sure to have warmed the hearts of not just Barcelona fans but also the lovers of the beautiful game. Rarely does football transcend the division that exists between fans of opposing clubs, but Barcelona’s victory in the Champions League final last night, is one such moment when even ardent fans of Manchester United would have found it hard not to appreciate what was an extraordinary display of footballing supremacy from the Catalan Giants. It was indisputably an unimpressive performance from Manchester United, one that reeked of timidity and excessive respect for the opposition, especially when considering the nature of the occasion, the Champions League final, but that cannot take anything away from Barcelona. There are always going to be question marks over the tactics, when a team gets undone in the manner in which Untied were last night, but the focus for me shouldn’t be on the frailties of Manchester United that were so ingeniously exposed, but on a performance of rare polish and elegance from Barcelona. 

Champions League games often tend to be tense tactical battles and rarely bring out the attacking brilliance in teams, but last night’s performance at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome must surely rank alongside the most impressive of performances in a European Cup final. Pep Guardiola claimed that Barça know to play only in one way and many claimed that this may well prove to be their downfall in trying to conquer a superb Manchester United outfit, but as things panned out, Barcelona well and truly mesmerised a disorganised and weary United. Sir Alex Ferguson pointed out before the game, “I don't think Iniesta and Xavi have ever given the ball away in their lives, they get you on that carousel and they can leave you dizzy.” Iniesta and Xavi certainly got the Man United midfield on that carousel once Barça opened the scoring against the run of play and some of the superbly imaginative passing and movement from the midfield duo left even the audience gasping for breath.

When Iniesta is in the kind of form that he so wonderfully exhibited last night, it leaves me with no doubt that he is the best footballer in the world. Often unheralded and overshadowed, the shy lad from Albacete more than came to the fore in the biggest of occasions producing a performance of magnetic brilliance. Blessed with superlative footballing intelligence, Iniesta as I have opined in the past is certainly one of the most sublime footballers that the world has been privileged to witness in many a year. It was the pint sized magician who provided the first goal, darting past uncommitted tackles in midfield with consummate ease and laying the ball for Eto’o to finish. Lionel Messi was no doubt in magnificent form, scoring from a superbly athletic header and providing a constant threat with his movement, but it was in the midfield that the game was won and lost. Xavi and Iniesta did not let Carrick get anywhere near the ball and created one exquisite pattern after another and kept the Barcelona metronome ticking with minimum of fuss.

Manchester United could quite simply not respond to the supreme levels that Barça surpassed with such elegance and class and were unable to do much with the ball on the rare occasions when they got hold of it. Manchester United have proved their dominance over the last couple of seasons and it takes an exceptional performance to outdo the Reds, let alone embarrass them. Barça though provided not only an exceptional performance in terms of efficiency but also one that was crammed with such splendour and majesty that United were well and truly outclassed on the night. United though mustn’t be overly disheartened, for they have been marvellous over the last three seasons and with a few tweaks here and there, they can be back at the top of Europe. Barcelona on the other hand will be basking in the glory of a superb treble and their manager Pep Guardiola who has had a fantastic debut season will look to stick to the footballing philosophies indoctrinated in him by the great Johan Cruyff that have produced such outstanding results to go with the most gorgeous of football. 

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Europe's Best 'Johnny on the Spot'

I have often been unfair on Frank Lampard in the past and I have perhaps gone to the extent of deriding his talents, especially when comparing him with Steven Gerrard, but with Lampard having another cracking year in the middle of Chelsea’s midfield, I must admit I have warmed to the extraordinary skills that Lampard possesses. Over the last few years, Lampard has proven to be one of the most consistent players in Europe with his goals from midfield contributing immensely to Chelsea’s success. His goals may not be quite as spectacular as the ones that Gerrard conjures up, but he certainly has the unique ability to find space in the opposition’s box, which ensures that he enjoys one of the best goals to games ratio in Europe for a midfielder. Lampard has this outstanding ability to arrive late in the box and in the process find just the kind of space that can cause maximum damage. Lampard’s finishing may not be the best, but his undying work rate ensures that he constantly supplies his teams with the goals.  Always barraged by opposition fans, Lampard has managed to go about his football with minimum fuss and with magnanimity unknown to the majority of today’s stars.

I must state that it is no more than mere coincidence that I have managed to eulogise Lampard a few days after Sir Alex Ferguson has waxed lyrical about the Englishman. That apart, I believe it is time to recognise the supreme ability that Frank Lampard contains. A box to box midfielder, Lampard rarely gets into disciplinary trouble and is quietly dignified in his on-field behaviour, something which cannot be said about some of his teammates in the Chelsea line-up. I have always felt that Lampard falls short of Steven Gerrard, in terms of ability and that the two are incompatible with each other meaning that they cannot be picked to play together in the English team. I must admit though that Fabio Capello has proved many of the sceptics such as me wrong by implementing a system that is capable of utilising the talents of both Gerrard and Lampard.

Much of this new found compatibility has come from Lampard’s increased tactical awareness and ability to adapt to different systems of play. I didn’t think Lampard would be able to add an extra dimension of discipline to his midfield play, but over the last year or so, the Londoner has certainly managed to mould himself into one of the most complete midfielders of the world. In a day and age when teams are moving towards striker-less formations, goals from midfield could be more crucial than ever before and there is perhaps nobody better than Lampard at providing that. I opined in one of my earliest posts that Lampard and Gerrard are far too similar to play in the same team, but with Lampard adding a great deal of discipline to go with his terrific dynamism, as Capello has shown, there could well be a way to accommodate the talents of these two extraordinary footballers. Although this accommodation has seen Gerrard pushed to the left for England, come the World Cup, we could well see Rooney occupying the left wing with Gerrard supporting the centre-forward and Lampard holding in the centre along with either one of Carrick or Barry. Playing these magnificent footballers together could cause some of them to give up aspects of their play, but it will at least ensure that their supreme abilities are not put to complete waste.

In spite of Lampard’s absence from the PFA Player’s Player of the Year Award shortlist, I would agree with Lampard’s own assessment that this season has been his best thus far. He has always had the goals in him, but the current campaign has seen him mature into a more tactically aware footballer which is making him contribute to Chelsea in a range of manners. Managers have come and gone at Stamford Bridge, but Lampard continues to remain Chelsea’s metronome. Lampard’s relentless hunger and determination could prove crucial not only in Chelsea’s quest to regain dominance, but also in England’s mission to put up a performance of repute in next year’s World Cup. 

Friday, May 8, 2009

Far Too Defensive

With the advent of the offside law, catenaccio in its classical form, if I may be pardoned to call it that, may have become redundant, but tactics involving systems which are organised to spoil rather than create continue to play an important part in modern-day football. Although defence minded systems may be commonplace in today’s football, it was not until the 1950s that an arrangement shaped merely to spoil attained prominence. Nereo Rocco’s tactics with Triestina first and later with AC Milan was designed to ruin the attacking play of the opposition and was adopted with great success by Helenio Herrera at Inter Milan. The system involved a libero who helped sweep any loose balls that escaped the clutches of the centre-backs and hence the system was christened ‘catenaccio’ which literally means ‘door bolt’ in Italian. Chelsea’ tactics may not have been catenaccio in its famed form, but it certainly involved an exceedingly rigid defensive structure which gave little freedom to the midfielders to dictate play.

Chelsea’s approach over the two legs of their semi-final tie against Barcelona smacked of defensive diffidence and in the end brought about their own downfall. No doubt refereeing decisions in the second leg were more than merely questionable, but a better approach to the game could have well ensured Chelsea’s place in Rome, especially considering the problems that the Catalans had in the centre of their defence. Whilst it may well have been acceptable to play in the manner in which they did at the Camp Nou, the tactical ploy employed certainly acted as the prime cause for Chelsea’s demise at Stamford Bridge. Many have argued that playing in a flamboyant attacking manner is the correct and respectable way to play football, but one needs to look no further than the manner in which Arsenal capitulated to Manchester United to understand the need for pragmatism, especially at the European stage.

Chelsea’s approach at the Camp Nou in trying to quell Barcelona and deprive them of space was certainly prudent and ensured that they gave themselves a glorious opportunity to take another crack at the champions league final. Their downfall in my opinion stemmed almost entirely from their decision to adopt a similar tactical structure at Stamford Bridge. I don’t wish to maintain some sort of moral high ground by stating that Chelsea’s approach amounted to ‘anti-football’, but viewing from a pure tactical standpoint, they were unquestionably wrong in implementing an exceedingly defensive formation. At the European stage, there is nothing more important than maintaining possession. By playing Ballack and Lampard deeper than they are used to, Chelsea were never in a position to keep hold of the ball for consistent periods of time and in the end it ensured that they couldn’t take advantage even against a ten man Barcelona outfit.

Barcelona were at times worse than a sitting duck, waiting to be put to the sword. Chelsea though were unable to string passes together, which would have certainly knocked the wind out of Barcelona’s sails. Michael Essien after scoring the most wonderful goal hardly ventured into Barcelona’s half of the pitch. Ballack and Lampard were likewise keener on ensuring that Chelsea maintain their defensive discipline rather than taking advantage of Abidal’s sending off. There is no questioning the superb defensive display from Chelsea, but more than just that was required from the Londoners to wrap up the tie. Hiddink’s very rare tactical mistake has cost Chelsea a place in the finals and has provided the world with the most mouth-watering of football contests to look forward to.