Sunday, 22 August 2010

Manchester City vs Liverpool - The battle to get back to basics

Tomorrow night, Liverpool visit the City of Manchester Stadium for both the visitors’ and the hosts’ second “season-defining” fixture in as many games. On paper the tie looks enticing, but those of us now familiar with Mancini’s 1990’s Italian style tactics may argue that we should prepare for a spectacle more akin to last seasons bore draw.

An undeniable fact, that will likely have football purists up in arms, is that this game will not, and perhaps could not, be won with a cavalier attacking attitude. However,  the spoils will not necessarily go the team who siply embraces most cautious approach. Tomorrow night, expect the victor to exemplify one quality over all others - organisation.

Last season, Hodgson’s Fulham side comprised a host of players who seemed to be playing above their natural level. The Cottager’s much praised defence contained the likes of Paul Konchesky, Aaron Hughes, Chris Baird and John Paintsil - players who have failed to perform at a range of clubs, yet looked like world beaters in black and white.. As Danny Murphy observed,

“The manager doesn't sprinkle magic dust on us… The manager and his staff work damn hard to make sure the lads know their jobs… He is a manager who organises his team well."

At Liverpool, Hodgson is working with, in majority, the same players that were available to his predecessor. However, as was hinted at against Arsenal, he will be attempting to mould them into an unrecognisable unit, first and foremost by instilling in each and every player the paramount importance of their own role in the team. Roy tends to promote organisation to the fore, and to create a uniform consolidated side who, as every visitor to Craven Cottage last year will testify, will be hard to break down. Hodgson‘s natural empahisis on neatness and rigidity is why his appointment at a side under such extreme financial pressure now seems so shrewd. He will not be heard to complain about his transfer kitty, any organisational failures must be ironed out on the training pitch, no matter the player’s apparent market value.

Both sides tomorrow night have potential match-winners in their squads, as teams like Liverpool and this nouveau riche City side always will. But, whereas a visiting Liverpool side last season tended to go out with only one thing in their mind - clean sheet - and regularly failed to achieve that goal, this season we should expect Hodgson to opt for a more balanced approach. Organisation will not come at the expense of all attacking guile. Under Benitez, Liverpool at times looked so cautious that they inadvertently increased the pressure on their own goal. Hodgson will be careful not to fall into that same trap, starting with Monday’s tricky opposition.

City, however, lined up for their first game of the season at White Hart Lane with the least ambitious starting XI one could imagine. Three defensive midfielders left them looking devoid of options, and happy with a point from the offset. This reflects the Italian Mancini, a man used to Serie A where an impeccable home record combined with consistent draws when playing away can be enough to win a title or two. What Roberto needs to work out, and quickly, is that this doesn’t cut it in the Premier League. Here, the required points total to be crowned champions is consistently higher than the Italian equivalent. Hopefully we will see a more adventurous team from Mancini on Monday night, although his pragmatic nature will prevent him from removing the reins on his new superstars completely.

An extremely exciting prospect is the first Premier League glimpse of the enigmatic Mario Balotelli. It is likely that in a game set to rely on nerve and concentration, one moment of magic will provide the difference. “Super Mario”, along with several others in this City side, is certainly a player capable of providing that. This is another example of the coach’s Italian influence, the classic theory of setting up not to concede and allowing your unplayable front man to grab the single goal that makes the difference. At Inter, Mancini tended to rely on Ibrahimovic, and with unquestionable success. It remains to be seen whether Tevez, Adebayor or indeed Balotelli will be able to provide this service with the consistency that the City faithful crave. The man who without doubt could have completed Mancini’s will feature tomorrow night, but will, to the delight of millions and the frustration of millions more, be wearing Liverpool’s number nine.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

The wisdom of Wenger and the homegrown rule.

“The new rules on squads are a disaster for this country. It’s ridiculous.

“The homegrown rule is all artificial. From 1966 to 1996 this country won absolutely nothing. England won nothing and they had not one foreign player. How has it changed?

"You cannot just close your eyes and say: ‘Let's kick the good players out’ and produce the same quality. I've been educating players since I was 25 and I know one rule. The first thing you do to develop a player is to put him with another good player.

"In my opinion if you are a great player, you want to play with great players. If you are a great musician, you want to play with an orchestra where you have the best musicians. If you offer the guy the chance to play in an orchestra with poor musicians, he will not be happy.

The words of ‘Man On!’, I hear you cry? Well, sadly not. 

The insights of Arsène Wenger, a true innovator of English Football, are all too astute. There is a tendency to blame the ills of the English game, from simulation to predictably uninspiring international performances, on foreign imports and the cosmopolitan nature of the league. This is all too easy, and furthermore, it is startlingly inaccurate.

Wenger himself has oft been criticised for his reluctance to spend his transfer kitty on young English players. Sirs Trevor Brooking and Alex Ferguson have at times played the role of Wenger‘s judge and jury on this matter, and Alan Pardew, a man noticeably less credible than Wenger, remarkably claimed Arsenal were “losing the soul of British football”.

On this matter, “The Professor” feels no need to list the young English players he has gambled on, with varying levels of success*. Instead, the defence Arsène tends to offer is simple, English players offer poor value. Furthermore, it has been suggested that, in tandem with their inflated prices and pay slips, they bring inflated egos into the dressing room.

The latest instance of this, clear for all to see, is the welcome end to the longest-running transfer saga of the summer. Yesterday, James Milner, aged 24, moved from Aston Villa to Manchester City for a remarkable £26m. Mesut Özil, 21, moved but two days earlier for a fee believed to be around £12.4m. Of course, factors including contracts and the inevitable inflated prices paid by City play their part, but this is by no means an isolated example. Arsenal signed Thomas Vermaelen in the summer of 2009 for under £10m, at the time 23 years old and captain of his team, Ajax. Fast-forward 6 months, and Manchester United are shelling out a similar fee for Chris Smalling, admittedly four years younger than Vermaelen, but a player with 3 senior club appearances to his name.

Overpriced English players are a serious problem, and Milner and Smalling are merely the latest members of what is hardly an exclusive club. Joleon Lescott (£22m), Glen Johnson (£17.5m), David Bentley (£15m), Shaun Wright-Phillips (£21m) and Darren Bent (an astonishing, Thierry Henry-equalling, £16.5m) are but a few choice examples.

However, the story does not end there. What Wenger fails to observe in the aforementioned interview (perhaps as it is so obvious) is that the new squad rules are only raising the desirability of English players. The invisible hand of the market will rear its ugly fingers, and prices will inevitably rise. The ability of the likes of Manchester City to artificially inflate the prices of players such as Milner will also play its part, and the premium on young English talent will only accelerate. And, inevitably, always, Arsène Wenger will be proved right.

*Pennant, Bentley, Upson, Walcott, Wilshere, Simpson, Randall, Hoyte, Gibbs, Campbell, Jeffers, Wright, Cole,  - the list goes on.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

The Shift in Power?

As Benji kicks off the Man On season with a thoughtful and diligent precis on the weekend's action, I am left to write inspired only by an air of disillusionment and anger. News has broken today that Craig Bellamy will be playing his football in The Championship next season, presumably leaving many premier league fans as exasperated with the news as I am. Bellamy returns home to Wales, effectively ending his top flight career. However, as we all know, the 31 year old Welshman's move across the border is nothing to do with football and marks a significant moment in the development of the premier league. Manchester City's growing monopoly on the transfer market has taken a sour turn as they attempt to ruin the career of one of Britain's most talented forwards.

Many will point to Bellamy's affiliation with Cardiff as the reason for the move; however, make no mistake lads, Roberto Mancini has achieved exactly what he set out to do. Clearly, if what we read in the press is to be believed, Bellamy and Mancini's personal relationship has deteriorated. 'He hasn't spoken to me since February', Bellamy reported as he gave an insight into Mancini's somewhat flawed man management.

Mancini is not the first manager to sell a player on the basis of personal differences; nor is he the first to show Bellamy the door. The issue is about respect and professionalism; and never in all my time of observing football have I seen a player hung out to dry in this manner. Manchester City's quite vulgar financial prowess has left them in a position of ultimate power and has illustrated further a potential shift from the much maligned 'player power' to 'club power'.

Having decided that Bellamy was surplus to requirements, Roberto Mancini made him available for transfer. Naturally Bellamy had aquired a number of suitors and claimed he had 'never had so many top flight offers'. As Tottenham Manager Harry Redknapp swooped for Bellamy's signiture, the news broke that Bellamy would not be permitted to sign for any team considered, by Mancini, to be a rival. With the Italian running scared, this was deemed to rule out any of the interested premiership parties, a policy Redknapp himself described as 'ridiculous'.

Bellamy's performances and workrate last season won him countless plaudits, winning Player of the Month twice during Mancini's first 6 months at the helm. Having performed so well in any company, such abrasive treatment would leave anyone filing for unfair dismissal. But football's different; and City know it. Not even the £10 million Bellamy could attract would sway City. Therefore, Bellamy signed for his hometown club Cardiff on loan, wandering into the abyss in terms of top flight football. A club he has turned down his country for on numerous occasion has rewarded him with the sort of loyalty you expect when wandering into an oppostion trench. With the Welshman popular at Eastlands, and with a combative, but not creative, midfielder earning nearly £1 million per month, Mancini has little time to prove his methods.

Though the main question here is this: has 'player power' plateaued? With Bellamy left snookered, Fabregas still at Arsenal, Scott Parker going nowhere and even Mascherano turning out at Anfield on Sunday, it's food for thought.

As if we've never been away...

Man On, your number one source for football comment, debate and probably some conjecture, is back. Inspired by the glorious football on display at the World Cup (Ha!), the opening weekend of the Football Leagues and at long last the Premier League, it has been deemed time to resume hostilities, and re-focus efforts back on to all that is holy with a bumper season-opening edition. Football - its like you’ve never been away…

Today will be dedicated to England’s number one league, and what better place to start than the contrasting fortunes of the gang’s newest members. Blackpool surprised everyone with a 4-0 thrashing of an extremely lacklustre Wigan, who, it is fair to say, surprised no-one. Last season the Latics were far from good enough, and were perhaps saved by the virtue of the unusually low quality of the teams at the bottom of the league. The same could be said of West Ham, Wolves and Bolton, all of whom stayed up despite failing to reach the supposedly ‘magic’ 40 points mark. The Hammers struggled on Saturday, away at ’crisis club’ Aston Villa, but should stay up with the managerial prowess of Avram Grant and importantly the retention of midfield dynamo Scott Parker. Wolves, in contrast, started impressively, with a 2-1 home win over Stoke, a team admittedly prone to homesickness. Bolton managed to shut out Fulham on Mark Hughes’ debut, and, similarly to the Hammers, seem to have made a shrewd enough managerial appointment last term to guarantee safety in this.

The other newly promoted sides, West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle, suffered more predictable fates. Both faced extremely tough away trips, and both, unsurprisingly, capitulated, 6-0 to Chelsea and 3-0 to Manchester United respectively. The first weekend of the season is the worst time to make predictions, and I wouldn’t dream of writing anyone’s (even chronic relegation fodder WBA‘s) chances off yet, but both of these sides look like they will at least be in and around the relegation dogfight come the end of May, and don‘t be surprised if any number of West Ham, Wolves, Wigan, Bolton and Blackpool are down there with them. Looks like a good relegation battle at least!

Other results this weekend included Allardyce’s Blackburn continuing their impressive form at Ewood Park with a 1-0 win over perennial slow starters Everton and Birmingham’s comeback from 2-0 down away at Sunderland. Steve Bruce got the traditional managerial criticism of officials off to an impressively early start, with some misguided and misinformed comments about rookie referee Anthony Taylor:

“The referee put himself under pressure. We’re a team from a tough working class area, the fans want a team which mirrors that but I believe Lee is victimised… the referee was totally inadequate, absolutely awful, and its cost us.”

Cattermole is a persistent offender, albeit a very gifted player, and his manager will be asked to explain his comments, a good thing as Bruce’s excuses ring a hollow tone. Furthermore, his suggestion that Taylor was taking charge of his first top flight game are simply incorrect, and he spectacularly failed to acknowledge the ridiculous penalty decision that put his side 1-0 up in the first place.

Finally, a quick mention of the final two games this weekend. Spurs versus City was a wonderful opening tie, a truly fascinating 0-0. Tottenham’s failure to capitalise on their periods of dominance might have cost them on another day, but City were disastrously blunt. Three holding players is not a tactic that can win the title, and Mancini needs to learn this, presuming the money men at the Middle-Eastlands are as ambitious as their chequebook suggests. Tottenham, for their part, looked exciting, dynamic and altogether reminiscent of last season (unsurprisingly!). Last, but by no means least, Roy Hodgson’s first league outing as Liverpool supremo. Reina’s last minute howler aside, the Reds looked organised, dedicated and as a result tough to break down. Exactly what the Anfield faithful will want and expect from a Hodgson side. Arsenal, so often cited as the archetype of free-flowing, attacking football, saw a glimpse of what life would be without Fabregas. The conclusion? No Cesc and Arsenal appeared impotent.