Monday, August 29, 2011

Chaos at Arsenal - Part 2

So, who or what is the cause for the team doing so badly?

I think the senior players for one have found if difficult to keep motivated and have looked at the way the club being run and they are not stupid, they know it's going downhill and see no investment coming in. Kind of reminds me of Rooney not so long ago, he clearly was trying to force a move last year because he saw what Man City were doing, and he knew he needed to move to win trophies unless United started to seriously invest. Luckily for United, Rooney was high profile and good enough to force something like that. And the club have invested heavily, although they still had success last year. I do wonder though, was it all Rooney's doing, did he think all that all for himself, did he really want to leave or was it a bluff? Or, rather, was it a concerted bluff and scare tactic by ol' willy fox Ferguson and Rooney to scare the board and force their hand? One things is for sure, they, Man U, board and manager, convinced him to stay and have invested by buying the best English talent available in the land. Could Arsenal do the same financially?

I wrote a post a few days ago about the financial implications of a new stadium and I stand by that. But I have researched the financial situation at Arsenal a bit more and it's all all that clear. The stadium seems to be by and large now pretty much generating enough revenue and the club self-sufficient. It seems that since 2006/2007 the club and the new stadium's revenues are enough to cope with the clubs debts and mortgage repayments, with a net profit that year of about £37 million. So clearly, this is not the whole story.

That year the senior team's net transfer was -£836K and the following season £24.8M. Making money in the transfer market. Great, if you want to increase the club's revenues. But what about performances on the pitch? Well, Arsenal were doing well enough, there had been a couple of years with no trophies but too early to worry about it. Please see below Net transfer Spending over the next few years in comparison to the closest competitors Manchester United and Chelsea:
07/08 -£24.8M (profit)
08/09  £14.4M
09/10 -£31.4M (profit)
10/11  £12.4M
11/12 -£37M (profit)

Man U
07/08  £52.0M
08/09  £33.2M
09/10 -£67.8M (Ronaldo's freak transfer of £80M)
10/11  £9.8M
11/12  £40.3M


07/08  £14.0M

08/09  - £11.9M (profit)

09/10  £21.7M

10/11  £96.8M

11/12  £41.9M

A lot of profit there for sure, but is the team good enough? Well, no, and everyone knows this, but in Arséne we trust. And you know what, so we should, because let's be honest and clear about this, for a team to have done that well and stay competitive is a massive feat. One may go as far as say that they have over-performed, well and above their capabilities. Similarly to Everton, a lot of credit has to be given to the manager to ahve done as well as they did with the resources they have. But, and this is the clincher, like a an elastic band, you can stretch and stretch and if you are careful and really good stretch some more, but eventually it will invariably break.

Arsenal's tether has broken. In the most spectacular fashion yesterday.

So, when Fabregas said he wanted to leave last year, Wenger managed to persuade him to stay, and to be fair Arsenal did ok, but the squad was just not good enough to cope with  four competitions. When this Summer come around everyone knew that Fabregas would go, it was a case of waiting for Barcelona to come in with an offer, clearly with their new chairman they were less inclined to pay £40M plus. So why wasn't Favregas swayed this time around? And why did Nasri suddenly decided to move? And Clichy? Why didn't Arsene persuade his players to stay? Couldn't Arsenal do the same as United and Ferguson did with Rooney financially? Or wouldn't? I think the net transfer spending tells you that Arsenal have not spent big on any players, but why wouldn't they spend to keep their best players?

Well, an interesting development this week, a blog suggested that it had information from a source inside the club that the club's board and the manager were at loggerheads over the wage structure. Which was promptly denied by an email from the club.

The fact remains, why doesn't Arsenal spend money on players? Is the official line of developing, and not going crazy and get over-priced players the reality? Or just part of the story? Even if that were true why are players wanting to leave? Worse still, why can't they be persuaded to stay? Suddenly wages seem to start making a whole lot of sense. Arsenal can and could afford the fee for Mata, yet he goes to Chelsea, where he's wasted not time showing how good he is and will be. So why? Chelsea are more likely to win the title yes, but Arsenal were after him for weeks and much before Chelsea showed any interest, and yet as soon as you heard that they were interested he had signed for them already. Was he simply offered a better contract from the off?

Now you can say all you want about player power and the obscene amounts they get paid, but at the end of the day, this is the game, it comes down to whether you want to play it or not. You want the best players you have to pay for them, either in fees or wages or both. Sometimes you don't have to spend insane amounts but sometimes you have to invest to get a return. It seems that for years Arsene Wenger has refused to play the game, and I always thought that the man has a philosophy and a degree in Economy he knows what he is doing. But I now start to wonder if everything has gone exactly as he wanted over the last few years. I start to wonder how much of this "philosophy" is his or the boards. He knows football he knows he needs players, better than anyone, I think he has hidden the fact that he as been constrained all these years.

In my recent research another fact emerges, and the timing of it is clear. I said and I thought that the stadium was a massive investment, which it is, and that was seven years ago, but clearly the club is making money, so what has happened since 2007? Any Arsenal supporter will tell you, David Dein has left the club. He seems to be somewhat of a controversial figure in football but it is undeniable that he has been a key man in shaping both Arsenal and English football, from the creation of the Premier League, to bringing Wenger to Arsenal, creating a self-sustained modern club with a new and expensive stadium. More fundamentally though seems to be his instrumental role is securing big name players for the club, something that has been sorely lacking for years now.

I have also found out that one of the main reasons for Henry's departure was David Dein's leaving the club. This was something I had not realised at the time, and I remember thinking at the time that he would never leave, not Thierry Henry and being completely dumbfounded and in disbelief when he did leave. apparently other players expressed their concern and going to the extremes of saying that the when he take away the foundations of a building it will eventually topple.

Has Dein's departure been the start of the erosion of the club's fundamental blocks? Did Arsene lose his main ally that day? The reason for his leaving are also both interesting and mysterious. Irreconcilable differences with the board, a strange reason for someone that had been so influential. Apparently he wanted Usmanov to invest in the club thereby allowing the club the necessary revenue to be able to invest the team and compete with the other big-spenders, after all the club was self-sufficient it was now time for some serious spending in the football players. He cannot fault his logic, but his was not what the board wanted, no, Arsenal could not become Chelsea, in essence, owned by a foreign investor. And so four years later, instead of Usmanov who had Dein and wanted to invest heavily in the club, the club's main shareholders sold the bulk of the club to another foreign owner, the American Kroenke who somehow managed to have the board on his side and convinced them he was the man for the job not Usmanov. The reason for this is unclear. Kroenke has business nous and is very rich, but Usmanov is one of the richest man on the planet, so why? In a further twist, by buying so many of Arsenal's shares, 66.1% he had to make an hostile bid for the remaining shares of 30% but Usmanov refused to sell, as he was caught completely in the dark by Kroenke's move and felt betrayed and that the board had conspired against him. I think that particular saga is not over and Usmanov is not a man to be taken lightly, he has been outmaneuvered and he last some influence, but he still owns 30% of the club.

Among the boardroom wars, poor Arsene Wenger has had to make do, and reportedly, wanted a bigger wage structure to both attract and keep the best players. He has not been allowed to do so but he has stoically kept positive and has tried to minimise the situation and has not blamed the board, but it became clear yesterday how bad things have got.

Wenger though, I think has to take some responsibility as well, for producing teams incapable of defending, being poor without the ball and dealing with set pieces. Mentally as well, he keeps talking how good the team is, because he knows how important it is, but surely he knows that they are in fact quiet weak and that's why he keeps talking about it, and I am surprised no one in the press has picked up on this.

There were key moment's in Arsenal's mental self-destruction: Eduardo's injury affected the team so badly that for at least two years they were shell-shocked and Gallas agony on the pitch who was supposed to be the captain was a symptom of the team's mental weakness. Even before that, with the great team of Invincibles, the following season, after they lost convincingly 4-2 to Manchester United they could not pick themselves up. Then last season, a make or break for Arsenal, and key for the continuance of Fabregas, the team mounted a spirited fightback since January and were in contention in four fronts, but the hapless Koscielny makes a mistake in the League Cup final that both he and the team failed to recover from, it was as if the bottom had fell out, and systematically they lost their chance in all competitions, a malaise that has transferred over to this year.

In summary, a host of reasons and protagonists, silent and otherwise, and maybe, a result yesterday that needed to happen. Maybe, just maybe, the club, the board, the manager and the players wake up in time to turn things around. We wait and see. Maybe Usmanov will decide that enough is enough and will buy out Kroenke and bring David Dein back. Or maybe the board will sack Arsene Wenger. Or Wenger will sign a handful of players but without addressing the deep-lying problems Arsenal will never recover in time to compete with the likes of United, City and Chelsea, and perhaps even Liverpool.

Chaos at Arsenal - Part 1

Well, let's start with the game, and then move to the causes, and the people responsible.

Arsenal lost 8-2 at Old Trafford yesterday. It was much worse than I thought it would be, I knew it would be hard, even though I harboured a secret hope Wenger and the Gunners might pull something out of the bag, and that more than the result it would be the performance that would be key. If the team performed like they did against Udinese then fine regardless of the result.

They didn't. Let's talk about young players. United's team and players were younger than Arsenal's. They were better, on the day. Are they better overall? Only time will tell. One by one, Jenkinson is a decent player that will become good, he had no protection and no experience. Traoré exactly the same. Cocquelin in midfield I thought did really well, as had Frimpong in the previous games. Koscielny? No, even last year I thought he was poor, he's not to be trusted on his own, and since he caused that incident in the League Cup final the lad just has no belief. Djourou, not good enough, many years he's been at the club and he has never impressed, he's quick but deary me he cannot head the ball to save his life. So mixed, really, some young players, and as United's expensively assembled players showed, like Rooney once did, if you're good enough you're old enough. There's some great young players at Arsenal, some not so good, some that just need games.

No, Arsenal did not lose yesterday because of the younger players. Or rather not just because of them, their inexperience was certainly a factor, but that alone doesn't justify it. No, what was sad, as Phil McNulty said in his blog today was the lack of performance from the older players, you know the ones supposed to be helping and supporting the younger ones. It's all very well and good Rosicky talking to Cocquelin before the game, but you lead by example. Like Rooney. That's how you inspire belief and trust and teamwork. Rosicky was poor. Arshavin initially had a couple of good runs helping out Traoré, but as soon as the goal went in and van Persie missed the penalty he disappeared, he hid from the game, shocking from a man that is a shadow of the £16M signed player he was. Robin van Persie, for me the best player left at the club, supposedly, tried for a bit, not very hard, missed an incredible penalty in desultory fashion, hung his head, and he also disappeared from the game. Like Arshavin. Walcott, tried to stem the tide and had the arrogance of all good players that thinks he can solve things by himself and kept running into blind alleys, his argument with Jenkinson was painful and slightly unfair I thought but at least showed he cared. No defensive awareness though.

The trend, here, really, is this: Arsenal with the ball, fantastic team, without the ball, worse than a Sunday league team, no defensive awareness at all. This two facts have only got steadily worse and worse with each passing year. A lack of a credible goalkeeper since Lehmann was plain for everyone to see and Wenger got a cop out with the excellent Szczesny stepping up last year, but many points were lost in that area alone. There's been an outcry, from everyone, for a quality central defender for years. Ok, Vermaelen came in, but they let Gallas go, so after last year, everyone knew Vermaelen needed someone of equal quality next to him, because if he got injured there was no one good enough. As it has been proven. Still no replacement came in. Full backs are good enough Sagan and Gibbs, and the young guys will be good enough in a couple of years just not now. In central midfield the things aren't as bad as everyone picture them with the exception of the players already supposedly senior. Despite everyone asking for a defensive midfielder I think Song is good enough to do the role and by the look of things so is Frimpong. The problem is that Arsenal do not know how to press, how to defend high balls and to work as a team anymore. Some of this is due to quality at the heart of the defence (just get Samba for crying out loud!) or lack of work ethic in midfield. And Ramsay will be a great player, but the pressure to replace Fabregas is so great he's finding it difficult to cope with it and he's clearly affected, it would help if he wasn't the only one trying to play football.

Wenger does not want to buy players unless they are better than the ones he has at the club already or better than the potential he sees in his young players. Fair enough, but could those young players look better than they are because some of the senior players aren't all that good? Or don't want to play all that much?

What happened in the team? Why did Nasri want to leave? Clichy? Fabregas is a longer story and like Ronaldo inevitable, in fact more than Ronaldo, since Barcelona is his home city and his home club, I have no problem with that. What happened to Arshavin? Why is Rosicky given such importance when he is so clear past his best?

Not at all is lost this season, and I believe Arsenal still have enough good players to salvage the season and finish high up enough and do ok in the Champions League, possibly even one of the national cups. But fundamental problems must be addressed. The question is, what are they, where have they come from, and who's fault is it?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Can Belgium be a force in football again?

A slightly different post today, but after finding out that one of Arsenal's targets Eden Hazard is actually Belgian (I thought he was French, as most possibly would) I cast my mind to Porto and Benfica's recent signings and I start to wonder where have all these quality midfielders come from?

Looking closer at the Belgium National Team a lot of very interesting names jump at you, in all positions!
Goalkeepers: Belgium have had a good tradition with goalkeepers with Michel Preud’Homme and Jean-Marie Pfaff for Benfica and Bayern Munich respectively. Now they have Mignolet playing for Sunderland, a pretty decent player and Courtois signed by Chelsea but on loan to Atlético Madrid, not a bad club to go on loan but will he play? Regardless, pretty decent players both.
Defenders: With Van Buyten, and Kompany, and Vermaelen they have some great defenders. Vand Damme and Verthongen are decent players as well.
Midfielders: Besides Eden Hazard (fresh from a fantastic season with Lille) they count amongst their numbers Steven Defour and Alex Witsel, both recent arrivals in Portugal but very good technical players, Vanden Borre and Fellaini. A lot of strength in this area of the pitch.
Attackers: Not since Marc Degryse and Bart Goor have Belgium been known for their strikers but the recent "discovery" of has been hailed as the next Drogba, Romalu Lukaku supported by Dembele of Fulham and Camargo from Borussia Mönchengladbach they could prove to be a surprise to many defences.

In short, a collection of really good players, some with good potential, some with the potential to be great. A solid defence and the experience Georges Leekens in his second spell in charge of the Rode Duivels (Red Devils) could bring about the success of Belgium and the new generation of Belgian players.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Falcão finally leaves Porto

Regardless of opinion of how much of a loss Falcão will be to Porto the fact of the matter is that it's a great deal, you can't turn down an offer like that, bigger than the transfer of Coentrão, and much more than two of our best Portuguese players in the not too distant past, Rui Costa and Figo, gone are the days when when our clubs were paid peanuts for our players. Indeed, this transfer is the biggest ever transfer in Portugal, a huge amount of money, €40m plus €7 depending on other objectives.

What is strange about Falcão's as compared to Coentrão is that instead of Real Madrid he's gone to Atlético Madrid. Anyone, in the world, can understand the pull of Real, whether you are at Benfica (a great club in the past) or at Manchester United (one of the biggest clubs in the world, right now). But Atlético seems harder to comprehend. And of course Porto are in the Champions League and have a pretty good team capable of getting to the late stages of the competition this year.

Why then, did Falcão decide to leave? Indeed he said in the papers he wanted to leave so there's no great conspiracy theory about Porto wanting to sell, although I'm sure they did. It comes down to two things: money, Falcão will be on a millionaire contract, and the quality of the league. Everyone accepts that the Spanish league is currently one of the most competitive and attractive leagues to play in (although many in England would disagree with that assessment). Whilst the Portuguese league has improved in latter years you cannot compare it to the thrill of playing against the world's best players.

Porto will be weaker, but they still have Hulk, and he for me was absolute key last year, the extra edge if you wish, were he to go as well, then I would be worried if I was a Porto supporter.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Crazy Mourinho?

José has done it again!
No, not win a trophy, he didn't.
Cause a scene, yes he did, but that's not my point.

What he did do, as he has been doing for years, and only a handful of people seem to have clocked onto to it, is that he has protected his players.

The team did not win so there was nothing to celebrate. So he brings all the attention on himself and his persona, allowing him to praise his players (who will hear and appreciate it) whilst all the press and the media in general only want to talk about he did caring little for the performance on the pitch.

Oh, and also, he creates a siege mentality in his players, making them believe it's them against the world so they have something to prove, thereby bypassing the problem of egos, getting them to fight instead of moan.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Arsenal and the Emirates Stadium

I know I have written a lot about Arsenal recently but it's difficult to stay from the subject as a) it's been front page news for the last week or so and b) is the club I support in England. In an attempt to be more succinct and have less waffle, this shall be a fairly short post. 

Everyone from supporters to media to pundits to "experts" have been going on that Arsenal have not won anything for six years. That the team has thinned out, that there is a lack of quality players and investment. That Wenger does not want to spend money, or alternatively taht behind close doors the board won't allow it. With Nina Bracewell-Smith selling her shares to Stan Kroenke rather than to Alisher Usmanov he is not releasing the necessary funds that the manager needs to strengthen the squad. Everyone knows that Arsene Wenger prefers to invest in good young players and mould him to his team ethics and ethos.

What no one has mentioned yet, at least I have not seen it anywhere at all, is the fact and Wenger embarked, successfully, in the monstrous task of building a state of the art football stadium that ensures the club and the team and indeed its supporters have a modern venue to show and practice their football. This stadium was not cheap. The Emirates Stadium cost the best part of £500 million (770 million dollars according to Forbes) the most expensive stadium in the world, built by a football club. Indeed the third most expensive football stadium in the world behind only Wembley and the Stade de France built by their respective FA's, with the French one built specifically for the World Cup Final of 1998.

Is it really any wonder that the team's recent decline is directly linked to this? There is a direct correlation between the stadium's construction and the lack of silverware. Let us not forget also that Wenger has a degree in Economy, he knows how to manage money and how to work with the board to manage the club's finances and ensure the club grows. Arsena'ls turnover has increased immensely and I am sure its profits have as well. So it looks like I'm contradicting myself, if Arsenal is in profit why not spend the money? Well, Wenger will buy players if he thinks they are right but he will not allow himself and the club to be held to ransom and break the bank. In fact, over the last ten years Arsenal is the team in the Premier League that has spent the least money in new players, and that is all the clubs not just the top teams. Yet the team has finished regularly in the top four, progressed through the Champions League group stages, and even managed to be close to fighting for the title.

Arsenal is still a team that is competitive and as good as any other in this country, despite spending little money and having great players and more potential than anyone else. And last year was very very close, the team buckled under the pressure and there were players that could have done better. Of course, six years is a long time, and the squad is reaching a tipping point. Arsene needs to rebuilt the squad. Unlike Manchester United who added a couple of players, Arsenal needs a overhaul, under performing players need to go, players that are only interested in money need to go, and new players that want to win need to come in. And who else but Wenger knows this better than anyone else, is better positioned to act and is capable of turning it around? With the exception of perhaps Ferguson and Mourinho there is no one in world football better than Arsene Wenger.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Football is back!! Analysis of the big games this weekend

Finally, after what seems like forever, football is back, a Summer without and international is always a long-hard slog.

Anyways, to this weekend's games, I was fortunate enough to watch the big four contenders in England from London and Manchester and the first El Clasico of the season. Without further ado here's my thoughts on how each team performed in their games, in timeline order:

Newcastle 0 - ARSENAL 0
With all the Arsenal related news over the past week concentrating on off the field activities I was interested to see how Arsenal would perform, especially how Ramsay would slot in that midfield and how Gervinho would perform.
The truth is that nothing much has changed play wise for the gunners, plenty of possession but no great attack threat, at least not in the way of clear cut chances. Several times you saw play develop and players get in positions ideal to shoot and you just wanted to scream "for crying out loud just have pop!" There always a pass too many, Gervinho in particular suffered from this. I thought that Ramsay did ok but didn't impress majorly but his work rate was good to watch, Rosicky actually was the best player in the first half and you would be forgiven to forget there were certain players missing from the midfield. In the second half though Rosicky tired, he clearly has not got the stamina and of course the squad was desperately short and there was no one that could come in to replace him effectively.
Whilst Arsenal played well enough there was no cutting edge and van Persie cut at times a lonely figure, particularly in the second half. It was no surprise to see Walcott coming in for Arshavin, the surprise was that he didn't start instead of him, the Russian is looking a shadow of his former self. However, Walcott is a quick player that needs space, personally I don't think the team's style suits him. I would like to see Wenger revert to the Henry-Bergkamp days, but with Walcott-vanPersie playing their respective roles, Walcott would be so much more dangerous and Robin could act more as the playmaker he can be rather than the lone striker he isn't.
In short, not a great game, not a lot learnt, nothing new to see here.

Stoke 0 - CHELSEA 0
The main interest in this game was to see how the newly signed and much discussed André Villas-Boas set up his team and how different would it be. Well, no great surprise that Chelsea line up in a familiar 4-3-3 formation, the surprise coming from a courageous decision to leave Drogba and Anelka on the bench, Villas-Boas clearly not afraid of big decisions.
The game proved him right though because Torres was a revelation, back to his old self. He worked hard and was very involved in the game, and was ultimately unlucky not to get a penalty. However, Stoke played with three centre backs and very narrow in defence. You would think in a 4-3-3 formation with full backs like Cole and Bosingwa that Chelsea would explore the flanks better than did, and indeed they played very high up, the problem for the blues was two fold though: Kallou rarely went wide and Malouda found space his delivery was poor, and they both drifted inwards which played into Stoke's hands. The team from North London did improve in the second half and pressed harder but there was still a lack of creativity in midfield and whenever Torres was forced to come wide to get into space to get the ball there was no one filling in for him in the centre, you would normally expect Lampard to be making his usual forward runs but you saw little of that, when he did Anelka nearly scored. Lampard is a quality player, can pass the ball well and can score from outside the box and is an expert on forward runs, but when there's little space he's not the player to take people on and create something out of nothing, they are desperately lacking in creativity in midfield.
In essence, more of the same from Chelsea, but you know they will do well, their defence was well and truly tested and they prove to be excellent. Key for them will be Lampard's fitness and will Villas-Boas get the balance of their wing-play right, Chelsea do not currently have the equivalent of a Hulk-type figure, if there is one in world football at all, and of course will they sign a creative midfield player.

West Brom 1 - Manchester United 2
There's been all this talk of United rebuilding a team but really what has happened is that Alex Ferguson has added more quality and more options to an already well-oiled machine. Young and hungry players that can do very well for them.
Indeed Ashley Young, who I have been praising for years now, has slotted in marvelously and he looks like he's been a Man U player for years. His link-up with Rooney is already first class, as is normally the way with intelligent players. United for 30 minutes were very very good, and whilst it wasn't a Barcelona tiki-taka sort of football they did take some lessons from the Spaniards penchant for playing without a recognised fixed striker. Despite lining up 4-4-2 with Rooney and Wellbeck up front, they both dropped deep all the time and interchanged, with Young and Nani appearing in the centre. Rooney especially could be found at times near the half-way line or deep on the left. It meant a very fluid and mobile attack and the goal came naturally. Then for no reason apparent United dropped the pace (fitness perhaps?) and to give credit to Hodgson West Brom actually played some good football and Tchoyi in particular grew into the game.
Second half United could never re-capture the more fluid moments of the first thirty minutes and Tchoyi and Long caused a lot of problems, and when Vidic and then Ferdinand came off injured the players seem to lack a bit of confidence. West Brom scored a decent goal and De Gea could have done better, indeed he is a favourite target for the media in England, but I actually think he saw it late, a minor error nonetheless.
As is the way with United every single season they never give up and Young's persistence was rewarded with a deflected goal.
What is new about Manchester United is the new and the returned from loan players. They gave the team an injection of energy and they look very strong, Cleverley looks ready and Wellbeck strong and quick, but it is Young that has made the biggest impact. The team to beat.

A very strange game, from multiple aspects. From the outset it was clear that Barça were treating this game as more of a run out and testing players almost like a semi-serious friendly. Mourinho, perhaps in a studied psychological move, lined up the exact same players that were beat 5-0 last season. I think he wanted to accomplish two things, one to show the world that the team is better now that he's in his second season (he has always lauded the fact his teams were better second season on) and two get his players to show some pride and he wouldn't have let them forget how comprehensively they were beaten that day.
And improved they were, with a high defensive line an much more aggressive pressing forcing the blaugrana to having to uncommonly kick the ball up field which favoured the Real defenders. For 35 minutes they were a different team, a Team in every sense of the word attacking and defending together and producing some real good football with the goal coming as no surprise. Remember though, that Barça had no Pique, no Puyol, no Busquets and no Xavi. Against the run of play and instants after Villa was marginally flagged offside Messi found Villa onside and he quickly turned onto his right foot (what was Ramos doing giving him so much time and space?!) and unleashed an unstoppable strike of beauty that ended in the back of the net. The Madrileños were shell-shocked and minutes later a quickly taken free kick got Messi near the area and with a bit luck thanks to a Khedira slight deflection taking the ball into his path, Messi who had been otherwise anonymous wrestled the ball off the defenders with balance and finished with usual grace. Somehow Barça were in front.
Same story in the second half, but Real did manage to score. The usual dance of substitutions followed and the game suffered, very fractured and the players looked tired. In the end a just result for the hosts' effort.
In summary, Real are going to be a lot more dangerous and already you can see that they seem to have the semblance of a team now. Barça looked by and large unfit, but they will have their usual season, like Manchester United, not a rebuild, but with the added new players in Fabregas and Sanchez they should be once again improved.

Initial thoughts on this one, Man City are not a team, they are a collection of individuals hyped up the press similarly to the England team. And the first 20 minutes of this game against the newly promoted team of Swansea did little to dissuade me from this view. But boy, was I proven wrong!
Swansea passed the ball well and assuredly if with little penetration, and their main striker Graham was poor not managing to hold the ball, and Dobbie in the hole supporting Graham found if very difficult against the powerhouses of Touré and de Jong being out muscled time and time again. In front of the defence Augustine and Britton were excellent and saw a lot of the ball but found it difficult to link with the attackers. Sinclair on the left tried hard and he's quick and smart but Richards was more than a match for him, on the other side Dyer similarly did well but he had little options and sometimes was the most advanced player on the pitch, Clichy was quick enough to keep up with him and force him inside where Dobbie was always well marked and invariably the ball went all the way back to the defenders and the goalkeeper, who by the way was excellent, Michal Vorm will be a name to remember.
Soon enough Mancini got his players to start pressing higher up the pitch and as they started winning the ball they found Silva in enough space to create problems and soon enough he started controlling the game creating opportunities. City care little for possession, but they are patient and strong, very very strong (Richards, Kompany, Lescott, de Jong, Toure, Dzeko is there a stronger group of players in the Premiership?) which means they can defend extremely well and then unleash their creative elements, and when you have someone as good as Silva and even Adam Johnson you are always in with a chance. The goal came from a wonderful  shot from Johnson and Vorm could not punch it far enough and it fell kindly for Dzeko.
Then, a whirlwind happened. One of those rare moments you live for to watch in football. A supposedly unfit Agüero was brought on, at that time probably more at the bequest of the press and the fans than anything but my word did he have an impact. A great burst of acceleration and he got in at the end of a cross after a good run from Richards into the box. The right back was ball watching and he finished with ease. Moments later he miscontrolled a pass from Dzeko but unlike like other players would he didn't give him up and chased the ball up to the line and crossed it back in where Silva arrived unmarked to slot it in the empty net. An impressive few minutes from the newcomer, a goal and an assist.
But the best was yet to come, a good interplay with Touré saw him umarked 20/25 yards from goal but unmarked he let fly a spectacular shot, as good as any as you are likely to see anywhere and an early contender for goal of the season. A shot destined only for those predestined to be great, outside of the reach of mere mortals, reminiscent of similar strikes from a certain Cristiano Ronaldo.
The press in England rarely notice football outside this island, and give little notice that if Man City paid £38m for Aguero there was a damned good reason for it, and whilst everyone was looking forward it I think few believed he was this good. A star is born it was claimed, well, a star he was already but he didn't lose anytime in showing his credentials. Rarely have I seen such an incredible debut.
To sum up Man City, a patient pragmatic side that play unspectacular at times but have spectacular players capable of moments of utter magic. If Mancini can convince Tevez to stay, you would have to agree that with a trio of players in Silva, Tevez and Agüero they can compete seriously in any competition.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Will Fabregas be amazing at Barcelona?

Fabregas is an excellent player but he is not world-class. He played well at Arsenal and he will play well at Barcelona because they play the sort of football that suits him. But, is he great? No. Why? Because on his day he can spray passes around well, but if we are going to be bluntly honest, he does not score no way near enough goals from midfield, most games he does not even attempt to shoot on goal. He also does not defend very well nor does he work all that hard trying to win the ball back. He is not a great captain and he never seemed likely to inspire the team. Last year I thought he was pretty poor actually he only had a handful of good games, RVP and Nasri and even Song I think had much better seasons and were more influential.

As to where he will fit into Barcelona and the comparisons with Thiago. He will play in the Iniesta position, more advanced than Xavi, but he can play in the Xavi position also. It's obviously clear he's Xavi's replacement, and not he's not at his peak, he's 24! A couple more years with Xavi at 33, Fabregas at 26 will be his natural replacement. In that team and in that style it will suit him perfectly, but not just yet.

Is he better than Thiago? Difficult question. Right now yes. Does Thiago have more potential? Possibly, like someone else said, the problem with potential is that you never know how it's going to turn out. Look at Adriano in comparison to say Messi. Or Walcott and Rooney. Also, they are different players, Thiago is a guy that likes to take on players, plays much more closely to the strikers, to be fair he could very easily be more the next Messi than the next Xavi. I think Thiago will play and provide more relief to Pedro and Villa and Sanchez on the wings and upfront than in deep midfield.

So Fabregas may become very good for Barcelona, perhaps even great, but right now Barcelona is better for Fabregas, because Barcelona is the best team in the world and it's almost guaranteed they will trophies, besides it's his return home.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Start of the season in Portugal: Benfica's first test

The 2011/2012 season in Portugal opener sees Benfica play Gil Vicente, a traditionally difficult team to beat, but the reds should have a lot of local support on their side up north.

This game, and indeed this season is very important for Benfica and its manager Jorge Jesus, for several reasons. Let's start with the game, Benfica have not won the first game of the season for seven years which is an astonishing statistic, and they really need to start off with a win to banish the ghosts of last year, Porto's resounding win in the Portuguese Supercup last year saw Benfica stutter and compromise their entire season in the first four or five games, finding themselves having to play catch up early on.

Last season for Benfica was in stark contrast to the previous one, where in the first year Jorge Jesus produced a team capable of great games and spectacular results, creating an incredible support for the team even in away games so good was the football on show and the manner of the victories. That first season culminated with the conquest of the league, particularly emotional since last time Benfica had won was 2004/05 with Trappatoni a team that didn't fully excite but managed to win the title that had been so elusive for eleven years, and the passing of Miklos Feher on the pitch with the Benfica shirt on. Last year though, Porto saw the return to action of Hulk who had been banned the previous year, according to their supporters as farcical, and that prove to be the motivation for the hunger they demonstrated on their way to one of Porto's most successful ever seasons, whilst Benfica stunned by their convincing defeat in the Supercup and perhaps still drunk on excitement from the previous season were over-confident and lost several points early on.

The manager Jorge Jesus came under extreme criticism last year for failing to mount a credible title fight and for lacking ideas in the tactical department. Some criticism was justified, and certainly the beginning of the season was dreadful but Jesus did rally the troops and Benfica went on a sensational run of form without a loss for the best part of 18 games or so, with a tremendous win at Paris St. Germain away in the middle, where the Portuguese contingent in Paris was heard loud and clear in the Parc des Princes stadium. Even though Benfica did reach the semi-finals of the Europa League, the season was proven to end in disaster. By that time Porto was absolute winners of the league and the other semi-finalists in the other Europa League leg. Any other season getting to the semi-finals would have been extremely positive, but this is football and rarely rational. Of course, the fact that the team playing Benfica in the semi-final was Portuguese, and many thought that Benfica should be capable of beating Braga and reach the final. But Braga were having the season of their life, and their manager Paciência determined to do better than his predecessor, his opposite at Benfica, Jorge Jesus. Benfica lost, Braga progressed to the final, and Benfica's season ended as badly as it had begun, at least in the eyes of most people.

Hence the importance of getting down to a good start this year, tonight. The players brought in this year are of sufficient quality to ensure that Benfica will have a much stronger season and Jesus a lot more options to be able to change his formation should he need to. Still the detractors will say that Rui Costa the managing director and the president Luís Filipe Vieira bought quantity rather than quality but that's unfair, some players were brought in because they may prove to be good in the future as that is what Benfica has to do, to develop players so that their value rises ensuring the club can survive financially. There's a lot more options in midfield, the wings and upfront, my only concern would be the full backs position, especially right-back where there is no one to cover for Maxi Pereira, luckily the man is professional enough to guarantee consistent good performances.

My prediction for this game is that Benfica may win it but it will be a tough one, I think a single goal late on but the reds will come out with a win. I will admit though, my skill at predicting games is not the best!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Quote of the day

"There is no doubt they are top quality players and they will be missed, but it is important that supporters and everyone at the club remembers that the cannon on the chest is more important than anybody." 
Lee Dixon about the impending transfer of Fabregas and Nasri

Is Arsenal doomed without Fabregas and Nasri?

For the last four or so seasons Arsenal has been completely dismissed by the main pundits in England, especially prior to the start of the season. The story seems to fall a typical bell-shaped arc: pre-season, Arsenal haven't got a chance of the title and may finish fifth or lower; start of the season, if they keep playing like this they could prove contenders; half-way through the season, Arsenal look like they can really challenge the for the title; towards the end of the season, Arsenal has disappointed again, we all knew it wasn't going to happen.
If you live in England I'm sure you recognise this litany. And as is the case with such things both scenarios of doom are wide of the mark, and that really is missing the point. The fact of the matter is that time and again Arsenal has proven that it compete with the best teams in England and in reality play the best football in this country, and perhaps the world, short of Barcelona to whom, incidentally, their style most resemble.
It is without great controversy that everyone knows and understands that because of the level of football on show and getting so close Arsenal has, in the end, underperformed. The fact of finishing third or fourth is irrelevant because Arsenal have proven to be genuine contenders and to believe that Arsenal will finish below fourth is fanciful. One needn't remind that at the beginning of March the team was still in with a chance to win four trophies. For several different reasons the team has failed and has not managed that extra yard, last year at key moments.
But the talent of the team, the quality of the play cannot be questioned. The questions is has Arsene Wenger recruited the right people for the job, is the team balanced, do they need more destroyers?
I think with the exception of a stronger center-back the team is very good indeed. If anything I believe the team became over-reliant on Fabregas to the point where he would get the ball at times when there where better avenues and too many players were far in too much awe of him. Of course, luckily, Fabregas is a world-class player and invariably he did have a great contribution generally, but I would argue that last year already his performances have not been as good or as influential as in the past, ever since last Summer and the enticement of Barcelona and join the squad that is effectively the World-Champions.
Losing Nasri is for me a greater problem and I read somewhere that he is not a playmaker which I wholeheartedly disagree, in fact some of his best games came when Cesc was injured and he was filling in in the middle. At the end of the day if he wants to leave why keep him? Same as with Fabregas if they want to go, let them go.
Build a team around Wilshere who is going to be English player in many years to come. I truly believe that the midfield trio of Wilshere, Ramsay and Song will prove the best midfield in the league. Up front there is enough talent and with Gervinho coming in, enough diversity. Robin van Persie is as good a striker as any in England he really can do with an injury-free season to really fulfill his potential. At the back Vermaelen is an excellent defender, Sagna the best righ back in the country, and Gibbs will soon be the best at left-back. Undeniably though Vermaelen needs a good partner, Koscielny is a decent player but quite naive at times and without the Belgian the defense leaked goals all of last season, especially when both Song and Vermaelen didn't play.
So I don't think the team is doomed, and I think Arsenal's first eleven is more than capable of fighting for the league and challenging Manchester United and Chelsea, the only other real contenders. 
Is Arsenal a poorer squad without Fabregas and Nasri? Obviously, that goes without saying. But perhaps a bit more luck with injuries will prove key. Maybe other players will step up to the plate, Wenger may decide to keep the exciting talent of Lansbury in the first team in the same way he did with Fabregas years ago as a backup and slowly introducing to the first team. Not to forget that there are still more than two weeks to go to the end of the transfer season and £50 million will come in handy to invest in the two or three players that Arsenal may need. Personally, I would prefer someone like Samba coming in but in Wenger we trust.
One final word to remind everyone that Arsenal are the club that have spent the least in the last ten years, compared to everybody else, and it is to Wenger's credit that the team has managed to remain so competitive throughout, every single season, with a fairly young team that is getting better and better. 
The team is so close, it does not need much to prevail, maybe the sale of Fabregas and Nasri, and the manner of their exit as well as that of Clichy, will create a siege mentality and bring the group closer together with a desire to show what they can do despite adversities. I for one, believe it is possible, but the squad could do with three or four players to complement the first team.