Category Archives: Football

The Perez paradox

Rafa out, Zidane in. It seems strange that Benitez was allowed to limp on for a few weeks after the mauling at the hands of Barcelona. Perhaps he was meant to get the sack immediately, but Zizou wasn’t quite ready to take the reins. He probably still isn’t; it’s easy to point to Pep as evidence that a club legend managing the B can come through, with little experience, and achieve success. It’s probably a bad comparison, though. Pep is a remarkable individual, a supremely talented manager who should be considered an extreme case, not the norm.

Perhaps – as former Real President Ramon Calderon insists – Florentino Perez had tried to appoint others, but nobody particularly wanted to sip from his poisoned chalice. After Perez’s ill treatment of the popular and talented Ancelotti, sacking him a year on from a Champion’s League win for essentially no reason beyond “we’re Real”, it’s clear that no manager will have any notion of job security.

On top of that, they clearly don’t have much control over the transfer kitty and it seems that Perez leans heavily on the managers in terms of team selection. In short, a manager faces this situation: they have 12 months from starting to win the Champion’s League, and must do so with a fundamentally unbalanced squad while also favouring Perez’s vanity signings when it comes to team selection and then follow that up with a La Liga or CL title the next year too.

Additionally, in order to control the rampant egos of Madrid – looking at you Ronaldo – and pacify the unrelentingly demanding fans, they have to be a big enough name to command respect. In short, this sets up what I call the Perez paradox: any manager talented enough to succeed in this situation will be clever enough to avoid it like the plague.

Pelligrini, the first manager of Perez’s current tenure, put it this way: “I didn’t have a voice or a vote at Madrid. They sign the best players, but not the best players needed in a certain position. It’s no good having an orchestra with the 10 best guitarists if I don’t have a pianist. Real Madrid have the best guitarists, but if I ask them to play the piano they won’t be able to do it so well. He [Pérez] sold players that I considered important. We didn’t win the Champions League because we didn’t have a squad properly structured to be able to win it.” Pretty damning.

With a situation like that in place, it’s not hard to see why the best managers aren’t available to such a huge club. With the best managers off the table, Rafa Benitez stepped into the breach. On paper, he has an excellent CV, but the two stellar achievements – his duopoly-breaking Valencia and CL-winning Liverpool – were over a decade ago. It’s hard to imagine that Madrid faced off fierce competition from Europe’s top sides for his signature. With no recent success, Benitez lacked authority and with his aloof style he couldn’t inspire loyalty. Combine that with the Perez straitjacket of an unbalanced squad, and the failure was predictable.

Now we come to the Zidane appointment, and with the Perez paradox in mind, the appointment makes more sense. After the 0-4 rout, Perez called around. Mourinho picked up, and shouted something about referees, physios and the end of days. Pellegrini rejected his call three times. Ancelotti picked up and told him a polite “no”, Pep picked up and just laughed. No manager “big enough” for Madrid considered this job a career step-up, and Perez was increasingly desperate.

In steps Zizou – a unique solution to the Perez paradox. He has no managerial career that can be wrecked by a disastrous spell with Madrid, yet his obvious ability as a player and footballing intelligence will ensure that the players at least listen to him. He’s familiar with the squad already, and the fans love him enough that they won’t mind him getting the job. The appointment could turn out with Guardiola-like results, but it doesn’t need that to be considered a success. Right now, Madrid need some discipline and stability. Zidane – the legend more than the man – might just be the one to bring it.

In the long term, however, this is not a viable solution to the Perez paradox. Unless Zidane can start a dynasty, the same problem will occur, but this time there won’t be a club legend waiting in the wings to pick up the pieces. Even if Zidane does remarkably well, a dynasty would be hard to set up – eventually Florentino will grow angry at Zidane’s refusal to reply to his daily email extolling the benefits of the 2-0-8 formation, and sack him. In the long term, getting rid of Perez is the only Real option.

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The Beginning of the End for Galacticos 2.0?

Madrid 0 – 4 Barcelona

After Madrid’s humiliating 0-4 defeat at home to Barcelona, Benitez has been given the “full support” of Madrid president Florentino Perez – never a good sign for a football manager. Even without Messi, Barcelona had already beaten Madrid comfortably with Suarez and Neymar running riot, and Andres Iniesta majestic behind them.

Benitez opted for surprise with his formation – an attacking line-up featuring Modric and Kroos as the deep-lying midfielders, with an attacking diamond ahead of them consisting of James Rodriguez, Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. Even his own players were surprised, allegedly learning of the line-up just hours before kick-off. Casemiro, a young defensive midfielder who might have expected to start his first Clasico, was forced to look on from the bench.

After each goal, the cameras cut to an increasingly distraught Ronaldo, as Barcelona’s attackers overran an unbalanced Madrid team time and time again. It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that those 6 players are simply not meant to play together, that the need to incorporate the president’s star signings is perhaps eclipsing the need to put out a balanced, competitive side. As the match drew to its conclusion, Madrid’s fans called for the president to go.

Makelele and the Galacticos

Galacticos 1.0 had Claude Makelele for that balance. With Roberto Carlos bombing down the wing past him and a truly disgusting amount of attacking talent ahead of him in Zidane, Figo, Raul, Ronaldo and Morientes, Makelele was the glue that held the giant, gold-plated behemoth together. That behemoth was the brainchild of Perez.

He arrived in 2000 and for 4 years in a row, Madrid had made headlines with blockbuster transfers. Madrid bought Figo in 2000 for a then-world record £42 million, Zidane in 2001 for £51 million, Ronaldo in 2002 for £32 million and Beckham in 2003 for £26 million. In the 3 years in which Madrid bought Zidane, Ronaldo and Beckham, they did not sign a single other player.

2003 was the summer that bought the team to a grinding halt. Fernando Hierro – one of the finest centre backs of his generation – was entering his twilight years and left at the end of his contract. Makelele was sold to new kids on the block Chelsea after a contract dispute with Perez. A supremely intelligent player, Makelele didn’t possess glittering technique, strength or athleticism.

His game relied quietly being right in the space opposition players wanted to run into, making sure the centre backs don’t get dragged out of position, covering attacking full backs, making interceptions and playing simple balls out. Perez wouldn’t budge, and Makelele went on to help Chelsea win back-to-back titles during Mourinho’s first spell at the club.

Deja vu

Fast forward 12 years, from 2003 to 2015, and not much has changed for Madrid. They are several years into a Perez presidency, who left in 2006 only to return in 2009 to implement his vision once more. They have the world’s two most expensive players in their squad. They have a wealth of other attacking talents which they struggle to fit into a cohesive team.

In 2003 Luis Figo played centrally to accommodate Beckham, this time around they have simply forgone a defensive midfielder to accommodate James. They lack a proven defensive midfielder, yet lost one the summer before over a pay dispute, after failing to agree terms with Khedira as they did Makelele. In Casemiro, also, they have a promising talent in that position, just as they did with a young Esteban Cambiasso in 2003, who left on a free just a year later.

That defensive midfield position is essential to the modern game. Without the cover of a defensive player, the attacking talents of the fullbacks are suppressed, as they can’t roam forward at will. For Madrid, Marcelo, possibly the best attacking left back in the world over the last few years, and Danilo, this year’s blockbuster signing, are shackled. The lack of a true defensive midfield player forces both central players – Kroos and Modric – back a bit to cover.

Against weaker opposition this is a strength – Madrid expect to be called upon to break down an opponent, meaning that having two high-calibre distributors in the centre helps them. The sheer quality of Madrid’s attack overwhelms defences, with the fullbacks sucked into the game by deep defending, allowing them to show their talents. Against world class opposition, it is no strength at all. Required to defend much more, not only do their defensive limitations show, but their attacking talents are wasted.

Most importantly, having both central midfielders and both fullbacks pinned back creates a huge gulf of space between them and the attacking quartet, making it extremely difficult to move the ball up the field efficiently. When Madrid are barely defending and teams are sitting back, the problem of bringing the ball out of defence is reduced – they don’t have to do it so much, and teams essentially let them bring it up to the halfway line. Against high pressing teams like Barcelona, the defence is forced backwards, creating an even bigger gap between the attacking quartet and the rest.

The contrast with Barcelona could not be starker. For years, Sergio Busquets has quietly filled that defensive midfield role, giving the attacking talent around him the freedom to shine. Ahead of him, Rakitic and Iniesta have the freedom to move forward at will, and beside him Alba and Alves do the same. Those 4 players are then free to unleash possibly the best frontline ever seen, but without Busquets, none of it could happen.

Benitez and the future

That Rafa’s team is struggling shouldn’t really be a surprise – he hardly has a 5-star CV. The one standout achievement – that Champion’s League win – came with a team largely built by another manager, and relied on many a moment of magic from Gerrard, while Liverpool were generally disappointing in the league under Benitez, never truly threatening the title race. Gerrard’s penchant for the spectacular could win a cup tie, but over 38 games he needed more help.

Benitez went on to have forgettable time at Inter; a few months after taking over a treble winning side, he demanded money for transfers and in response was dismissed before he even reached his first window. Then there was a caretaker gig at Chelsea, where he lead them to an unspectacular but solid 3rd place, followed by a fairly ordinary 2 years at Napoli, where he failed to mount a title challenge despite a strong squad featuring the likes of Higuain and Hamsik, the club captain and talisman who was woefully mismanaged by the Spaniard.

His appointment was certainly not ambitious – he is neither an exciting young coach nor one with a stellar track record a la Louis van Gaal. It seems more as though Benitez has been picked as a safe pair of hands to implement the will of the president, than as a coach valued for his own ideas, while Perez waits for the man he really wants. It all leaves Benitez looking a bit like a supply teacher, unable to control pupils who know they aren’t going to have to deal with him next week.

This is why the protests are against Perez, more than Benitez. Perez was the man who fired Ancelotti, the manager who had delivered a Champion’s League win not 12 months earlier. Perez is perceived to be the one who wants to crowbar all manner of attacking riches into a single line-up, and the one who hired a coach who would perhaps let him do that. As dissatisfaction builds, all that can reduce it now is results – and they don’t look like coming. Could this be the end for Galacticos 2.0?

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Houllier’s strange defence of Messi’s award.

FIFA’s 2014 World Cup awards managed to raise a few eyebrows. At least two – my own – have been confirmed as raised, thought it is likely that others have been too. The decision to award Lionel Messi the best player award received a lot of criticism, but that award is far less odd than the team of the tournament, which contains a few rather surprising entries.

Gerard Houllier, the former Liverpool manager, and a member of FIFA’s technical study group (which decides upon the winner) rather unsurprisingly defended the decision to hand Messi the award. Houllier points out a number of reasons which – in isolation – each constitute a reasonable defence of the decision.

Houllier’s defence of the decision is somewhat self-contradictory, however. He starts out by emphasising Messi’s appearance in the final. Natural, given the importance of the final to the tournament as a whole. However, the extra importance of the final seems only to count when it works in Messi’s favour.

Later, however, when discussing why Messi’s relatively light impact on the business end of the competition, he made much of the fact that each game was weighted equally. This was then contradicted once again as he attempted to defend Messi’s prize against James Rodriguez and Angel di Maria. The pair, he explained, had both stopped too soon. It seems a little unfair to Rodriguez in particular who lead a relatively unfancied Colombia squad deep into the tournament.

Houllier was willing to go to some lengths to justify the decision, stooping so low as to bring up Messi’s taking the first penalty in the semi-final shoot-out. Furthermore, he claimed that Messi captained a united side. The penalty is laughably irrelevant, and quite how the technical study group were able to determine Messi as the source of Argentine unity is beyond me. Javier Mascherano, their finest defensive player and by all appearances a more natural leader, would seem a far more likely candidate for that accolade.

Arjen Robben was criticised by Houllier for not impacting much upon the latter stages. Somehow Robben’s leading role in demolishing the reigning championscan be discounted, yet Messi’s showings against Iran, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Nigeria cannot.

Robben and Germany’s Thomas Mueller were further criticised for not being as integral to their team’s performance. Of course it is hard to separate the performance of team and individual, but that strikes me as basically the point of a technical study group. To discount Robben and Mueller simply because others on their team were playing well is grossly unfair.

All in all, it seems that at every turn, the award seems to basically reward what Messi does and punish what his rivals do. The team must be strong enough to reach the final stages, but not so strong as to overshadow the candidate’s performance. They must perform well in the final stages if they aren’t Messi, but if they are then every match is weighted equally.

Of course, this is a slightly meaningless award, but it need not necessarily be that way. Individual awards are highly regarded in American sports. FIFA must recognise its own lack of credibility and either hand power back to sports journalists or set out well-defined criteria if it wants this to look like anything other than a “Sepp’s favourite player” award.

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World Cup review: Spain

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After a period of dominance that would be the envy of any national side, the Spanish team leave Brazil humbled and humiliated. The reluctance of Villa, Torres and Mata to even celebrate their goals against Australia demonstrates just how much this Spanish team is hurting from the result. Such pain is only natural, but it would be easy to overstate how much trouble the Spanish side are in. The end of an era it may be, but this Spanish side have hit such tremendous heights that even a large fall from grace leaves them above most.

Losing to lady luck

One thing that cannot be ignored is the sheer strength of the Spanish group. In the Netherlands and Chile, Spain ran straight into what look like two of the strongest sides in this tournament. Both are organised and disciplined for the most part, van Gaal and Sampaoli having constructed their respective sides extremely well. Both managers also benefit from having players such as Robben and Sanchez who have that special something capable of turning a good team into a great one.

Had the Spanish been drawn in the place of, say, Argentina, it is very possible that they could have taken 9 points from the group, beaten Switzerland in the round of sixteen and Belgium in the quarter-finals to make it to the semis. Had they done that, the legacy of this Spanish side would be still be intact, and anyone prophesising the doom of Spanish football would rightly be laughed at. In many ways, the final chapter in the tale of this Spanish side was written not in the Maracanã, but in the Costa do Sauípe Resort, where the draw was held; how terrible for all those officials to have to travel all the way to the beach for the draw, no doubt at the expense of the Brazilian people.

Despite their tough group, Spain still put up a good fight. Against Chile, they had 9 shots on target to 4 from the South Americans. Finishing is of course a part of football, but with the quality that Spain have, one might expect them to have converted a few more of those chances on another day. It is also worth pointing out that Chile, while in the lead, were understandably less willing to pour players forward and so probably ended with less shots than they would have done had they not taken an early lead.

Victims of their own success

To an extent, this Spanish side may have suffered somewhat from their overwhelming dominance of the world game. In the six years since tiki-taka tactics have burst onto the scene, some of the finest minds in football have presumably spend many long days pondering the question of how to stop Spain and Barcelona. This is a fairly natural progression for any radical tactical innovation, and was to be expected sooner or later; the (relative) struggles of Barcelona are also evidence of this.

New tactics burst onto the scene in an extreme variant. The new innovation is generally designed to exploit a common weakness within mainstream tactics, and so is deployed to nearly its logical conclusion. Over time, opposition managers begin to devise ways of countering the new tactics and exploiting the weaknesses that the overextension of this tactic opened up. As the ways of countering the extreme variant of this new way of playing become common knowledge, it becomes progressively less effective.

Some ideas and methods from this new variant are incorporated into mainstream tactical thinking in order to exploit the weaknesses that were originally identified; others are discarded for opening up too many weaknesses that can in turn be exploited by the opposition. The days of the “pure” version of each tactic thus slowly fade into footballing mythology. Just as we never see Total Football played now, in 40 years we may reminisce about the days of tiki-taka; perhaps one day a Spanish side will play roughly in a World Cup final and be criticised for betraying their footballing heritage.

Class is permanent

Even if the current Spanish system is on its way out, there is no reason for Spanish football to panic. Plenty of Spanish players ply their trade in other teams with other systems; the Madrid players even play for a side set up – with its quick, powerful counter-attacks – to beat the tiki-taka style of play. An extremely high line, along with an emphasis on ball-playing centre backs, leaves the tiki-taka style vulnerable to counter-attacking football.

With a midfield that can leave out the likes of Jesus Navas – who would surely be a starter on the right for England – and an attack that can afford to leave his clubmate Alvaro Negredo at home, Spain would do well not to panic just yet. A manager who was to organise the players at their disposal into a fairly traditional 4-3-3 with Spain would already have a fearsome side on their hands.

With David de Gea in goal, Raúl Albiol and Sergio Ramos in the centre of defence, Jordi Alba and César Azpilicueta as the fullbacks, Javí Martinez, Koke and Cesc Fabregas in the middle, Pedro and David Silva on the flanks and a healthy Diego Costa up front, Spain would boast a side more than capable of beating any team in the world. As well, they would still be leaving out players who might walk into other strong sides.

A point to prove

Spain will thus head into Euro 2016 with a point to prove. The days of pure tiki-taka might be over, but Spain still possess enough quality players with enough knowledge of other systems to thrive all the same. Every member of the side outlined above bar Pedro has played outside the Barcelona system, and more importantly, every member will be 30 or under at the next Euros. As well as these players, many other Spanish starlets look set to break through in the next few years. Spain might be out, but they will certainly be back.

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The case for Colombia and Chile

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This is one of the most open World Cups in recent memory. Seven sides have won both of their first two group games: the Netherlands, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, France, Argentina and Belgium. Picking apart those records, however, leaves few sides which are looking like they can genuinely take on anybody. Other pre-tournament favourites such as Germany and Brazil faltered in their second group games. Former winners England and defending champions Spain are out already, Uruguay and Italy head into a vital game to decide qualification from group D while 2010 darlings Ghana and Ronaldo’s Portugal teeter on the brink of elimination over in Group G.

Netherlands

The opener between the Netherlands and Spain will go down as one of the most famous matches of this World Cup. A sweet revenge for the humiliation of 2010, the scoreline may flatter the Netherlands a bit. Mistakes from Iker Casillas and Spain’s willingness to continue attacking rather than salvage their pride by limiting the damage allowed the Oranje to rack up the goals. A nervy encounter with Australia confirmed that, while strong, the Dutch are by no means invincible.

Costa Rica

It is easy to become enthralled by the fairy tale of the underdog. Costa Rica performed admirably against Italy and Uruguay, but they will still struggle to make it past the round of 16. If Mario Balotelli had showed slightly more composure or Andrea Pirlo had been replaced by a player who can actually run, the Italy game could have gone very differently. Likewise, the Uruguay that fell to Costa Rica was a different team to the Uruguay that felled England; the first did not have Luis Suarez, the second did.

France

France are one of the few sides to come through two matches with few question marks over their heads. Bar one moment from Paul Pogba, they kept their cool against a Honduras side who appear to spend their free time practising martial arts, far easier said than done. A demolition of a decent Swiss side followed. Two late goals give some cause of concern, but France can be forgiven for a lapse in concentration when they were than far ahead. The only reason to doubt this France side at the moment is the absence of a game against one of the true favourites. Given a likely round of 16 opponent of Nigeria or Iran, that is unlikely to happen before a prospective quarter final with Germany.

Argentina

Argentina lack balance behind one of the best forward lines in history. While the likes of Messi, Aguero, Higuain, Lavezzi and Di Maria offer a wealth of attacking options, Argentina can barely boast a single defender or midfielder of that quality. Consequently, they have struggled in their first two games. Bosnia and Herzegovina continually threatened in the opener, and it took a moment of Messi magic to unlock a dogged Iran, who have done their manager Carlos Quieroz proud.

Belgium

Belgium’s team, while strong on paper, is also struggling. Lacking true fullbacks has forced the Belgians to field a towering wall of centre backs. Against Algeria and Russia, this has restricted their attacking options going forward. Against a team with top class wingers, they could come unstuck. Going forward too, they lack ideas or any semblance of a coherent team identity or vision. No player seems quite sure what to do with the ball, and even less sure where his teammates are.

The similarities between the two

In contrast to a sluggish Belgium side, both Chile and Colombia boast very strong identities. Chile press hard, winning the ball high up the pitch and attacking with pace. Colombia sit deeper, drawing opponents in before, again, attacking with pace. Both sides can claim, unlike many of the sides here in Brazil, to be stronger than the sum of their parts. Each squad currently boasts one standout attacking player – Sanchez and Rodriguez respectively – ably supported by hardworking teammates.

Crucially, each side demonstrates a level of collective understanding that is rare in international football, and their managers deserve a lot of credit for fostering that. Having such clear team identities makes everyone’s job easier. Each player looks like they know where runners will be, which makes everyone’s job easier: they can look up once and play the pass, rather than having to check back and slow down the attack.

Colombia

It may even be beneficial for Colombia that Falcao is out. The absence of a world class centre forward forces the whole team to rally around, and encourages the team to play the best pass, rather than forcing it to their superstar. Portugal were guilty of this at times last night; the entire side seemed overly eager to give Ronaldo the ball. While this is natural, and getting the ball to Ronaldo eventually should be a cornerstone of the Portuguese strategy, the ball into the Madrid forward often looked forced. Rather than wait until Ronaldo was well-positioned, the Portuguese midfielder gave him the ball early, allowing an organised American defence to move to neutralise his threat each time. Had Ronaldo received the ball in more threatening positions, the ability of the Americans to close him down before he did anything might have been greatly diminished.

Leading the side in place of the Monaco striker is his clubmate James Rodriguez, my favourite player of the tournament so far. Rodriguez plays with level of class and maturity that one might expect from a player entering the twilight of their career, and yet he is only 22 years of age. It is Rodriguez who makes this team tick – his vision and technique make Colombia extremely threatening whenever they are in possession. Rodriguez combines the rare ability to see two or three passes ahead with speed, dribbling ability, composure and excellent passing and shooting.

Against Cote d’Ivoire, the organisation and teamwork of the Colombians was highlighted. At both ends of the field the generals of the African side – Yaya Toure and Didier Zokora – looked frustrated with their teammates, regularly marshalling players into position and berating them once the ball went out of play. At times, Yaya Toure looked almost disgusted with the lack of support he was receiving, and the Ivorians rarely looked snappy going forward. Their goal too contrasted with the Colombian side – a moment of magic from the talented yet frustrated Gervinho rather than crafted goals full of intelligent runs and quick passing.

Stopping Colombia will necessarily mean stopping Rodriguez. The other players in the Colombian attack have the pace and technique to threaten, but it is Rodriguez who is the architect, the brains of the operation. Should Colombia top their group, as expected, they will face Uruguay, Italy or Costa Rica in the round of 16. Uruguay might be the most dangerous – the prospect of Suarez and Cavani taking on the experienced and determined yet somewhat-over-the-hill Mario Yepes is not one that will fill Colombian hearts with joy. Italy’s struggles against Costa Rica suggest that they are vulnerable to counter-attacking football, and Colombia do that better than Costa Rica who, for all their effort in the first two games, are simply not quite as good as we want them to be.

While Colombia have, like France, yet to test their mettle against a true favourite, the game against Greece provides some indication of how their will face against top class defences. The Greek side – still haunted by the ghost of their Euro 2004 win – know only one way to play: defensively. They remained fairly tight at the back throughout against Colombia, and were never excessive risk-takers. It is the Colombian defence which is the worry here. They managed to largely contain Yaya Toure, but the few of the Ivorian midfielders came close to him – either in terms of positioning or quality. He lacked supporting runners much of the time, and when he had them they were not that useful.

Should Colombia top their group and win their round of 16 tie, they will face either the winners of group A (probably Brazil) or the runners up from group B (the Netherlands or Chile), which will no doubt be a tough game. However, World Cup quarter finals are not meant to be easy. If they face the Netherlands or Brazil, it is likely that the heavyweight side will feel the need to attack Colombia. The pace of the Colombians on the counter-attack could punish the extremely aggressive fullback pairing of Marcelo and Dani Alves, who are both likely to spend a lot of time camped in the Colombian half. For the Netherlands, some individual quality going forward and an organised side will be dangerous, and both defences could struggling to contain the attacking threats; a high-scoring tie is on the cards if the two meet.

Chile

The current Chile side is the brainchild of Argentinian coach Marcelo Bielsa. Formerly a manager of the Argentine national side as well, the potential of his Chile team first became apparent following a 1-0 over his native Argentina, Chile’s first in a competitive match against their neighbours. Prior to the Bielsa appointment in 2007, Chile had lingered between about 30 and 50 in the Elo rankings for a decade, and had featured in only two of the prior six World Cups. They come into this tournament ranked 9th in the world under Bielsa disciple Sampaoli, and look good value for it.

As with Colombia, Chile are lead by an exciting forward at this World Cup. Alexis Sanchez, Barcelona’s fourth-choice forward, leads the line, and unlike some national superstars is more than willing to put in the effort required of him by the Bielsa-Sampaoli system. The pressing of the Chile side requires that each player closes down the ball quickly when the responsibility falls on them. If but one player begins to fail in their duty, the system falls apart, as it relies on each player trusting in their teammates to cover the whole they leave by pressing the next player on the ball.

So far Chile have been able to do that, but World Cups are won over seven games, not two, and a heavy schedule can begin to take its toll. Even at the end of the Spain game, Chile looked exhausted, and should a knockout tie played in a hot, humid arena go to extra time, Chile could fall apart completely. Chile have more than enough quality to win a tie in 90 minutes, with the marauding wingbacks, biting defence, tireless midfield and classy attack sufficient to give even the very best sides pause for thought.

Nowhere is the greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts nature of the Chile team highlighted more than in the goalscoring record of Eduoardo Vargas. When he signed for Napoli in 2012, some at the Italian club were convinced that they had signed the player to take them to the next level. Finally threatening the business end of Serie A for the first time since the departure of Maradona, Partenopei had an exciting young forward to enthuse over. In 19 league games for the Italian club, he has yet to score a goal. In his last 19 for the national side, over roughly the same period of time, he has 12. The goals are not merely being racked up in friendlies against poor opposition either; in two games against Spain – one last week and one friendly in 2013 – he has three goals. Likewise, Vargas netted in two 2013 friendlies against Brazil and bagged three goals in the last four games of the notoriously tough South American qualifying league, including strikes against Uruguay and Colombia.

Chile’s game against the Netherlands will be crucial in determining their fate. Lose, and it is a case of out of the frying pan into the fire for Sampaoli’s side. After surviving what is possibly the toughest group – only D and G come close – they would set up a tough tie with hosts Brazil. Should they make it through they, they will most likely see Colombia, Italy or Uruguay in the quarters. Win, and things look somewhat more promising. A round-of-16 tie with – in all likelihood – Mexico or Croatia would be set up. Chile look better than both, and should progress to face the winners of group D – Costa Rica, Italy or Uruguay – or the runners up of group C – most likely a poor Cote D’Ivoire side.

Uruguay would be a tough game, Cavani and Suarez are easily enough to trouble any side. Italy don’t look overly convincing, but of course have the quality to make a game of it. For Italy, the pace of the Chileans may simply be too much. Fullbacks Abate and Darmian have the legs to keep up with the Chilean counter-attack, but they may well be deployed far forward in an attempt to overload the wingbacks and create mismatches on the flanks. The centre backs and midfielders – Motta excluded – look sluggish in comparison. Costa Rica, despite prospering against a Suarez-less Uruguay and a wasteful Italy, would surely come unstuck here. Cote d’Ivoire lack the organisation to let their stars shine, and would likely be picked apart by Chile. A semi-final against France or Germany is on the cards.

Everything to play for

With the World Cup set up as it is, every side still mathematically able to qualify for the knockout phase must be dreaming of victory. While England and Spain are left wishing that the last two weeks were only a bad dream, Chile and Colombia rejoice. Perennial heavyweights Brazil and Germany both faltered in their second group games, which should give every team still in it hope. Reach the semi finals, and two moments of luck can change the course of footballing history. Should Chile or Colombia win in Brazil, the stars leading their sides will become genuine legends in their homelands, and the World Cup will have perhaps its greatest underdog story yet.

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World Cup review: England

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In the wake of England’s World Cup exit, it is natural that questions are asked and fingers are pointed. As commentators and pundits alike have pointed out ad nauseam, it is 60 years since England have departed a World Cup at the group stages. However, the usual sense of despair is perhaps not as sharp as the situation might suggest.

Indeed, the consensus certainly seems to be that, despite being dumped out of the tournament after just two games, England really haven’t played that badly. They have taken on two very strong sides and, had the winds of fate blown slightly differently, could easily be standing on 6 points. That luxury, however, is left to the surprise package Costa Rica.

The small Central American nation has done amazingly well. Drawn into a group with three sides which are not only historically strong, but quite capable right now, the Costa Ricans cannot be said to be topping the group on luck alone. Costa Rica are, in fact, the only team to face three former World Cup winners in their group; no other group contains more than one.

The luck of the draw

England’s first round exit sees quite a few parallels with that of another footballing heavyweight, albeit one with far more recent success: Spain. Both go back home with more questions than answers, and yet the reality is that had either been drawn into a group such as France’s or Belgium’s, they might well be looking at a quarter final, rather than an inglorious exit.

As this tournament has shown, however, such things cannot be taken for granted. As Italy-and-Uruguay-beating Costa Rica, Netherlands-bothering Australia, Brazil-thwarting Mexico, Argentina-frustrating Iran and Germany-troubling Ghana show, anyone appears to be able to beat anyone right now, making for a fascinating World Cup.

A new era

The fact of the matter is, however, than people have beaten England, and there is very little getting away from that. There is no doubt that English football is entering a new era. Lampard and Gerrard are the last of the so-called Golden Generation for English football. That generation, however, was only ever Golden on paper.

While it might be tempting to yearn for a side that boasted genuinely world class players in several positions, we must not forget that this was a side in which reputation – not usefulness to the team – reigned supreme. Of course, the likes of Ferdinand, Terry, Cole, Lampard and Gerrard in their prime are something any team would be glad to have, but the reality of that team was less sweet than the teamsheet suggests.

Young guns

As the Golden Generation exits, a new group of players is coming to the fore. England’s World Cup squad this time around has an average age of 25.7, compared to 28.1 in 2010. That combined with genuinely better performances (sadly against genuinely better opponents) should give England fans some encouragement.

At 23 years old, Aaron Lennon was the youngest face in a conservative South Africa selection from Fabio Capello. Raheem Stirling, aged just 19, has that honour this time around. In Stirling, Barkley, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Shaw, England have, for the first time, selected players for a World Cup born after the founding of the Premier League. In total, the England squad for Brazil boasts eight players – those four plus Wilshere, Henderson, Jones and Welbeck – who are all younger than Aaron Lennon was in South Africa.

What must be avoided, however, is placing the same unrealistic expectations on this group of players as we placed on the last. The English fans and media need to be realistic and accept that actually, reaching the quarter finals is pretty good. Coming in the top 8 of over 200 countries is, mathematically, not too dissimilar to finishing first in a league of 20 teams. Of course there are differences, but England are all-too-often guilty of forgetting how well we have done to even be in contention for a prize coveted by the entire world.

The case for Hodgson

A side anchored for a decade by one of the best centre back pairings in the world at the time – Terry and Ferdinand – now looks to the future without top-class options at that position. It is hard to argue that any of the current crop would even have made the 2006 squad ahead of the aforementioned duo plus Carragher and Campbell. Defenders usually peak later, however, so it is possible that the likes of Jones and Smalling could become England’s answers at centre half. Starting the United pair against Costa Rica could be a wise move by Hodgson.

It is in attack, however, that England’s future looks brightest, with a new, more technical generation of players coming through. Stirling, Barkley, Sturridge and co will not, however, form themselves into a cohesive attacking unit. A guiding hand is needed, and it this time it doesn’t look like Hodgson has done a bad enough job that the disruption caused by a change of manager would justify any potential gain.

An attacking line featuring Sturridge as a striker with Stirling, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Barkley behind with Wilshere or Henderson pulling the strings from midfield and perhaps the occasional cameo from a veteran Rooney is an exciting prospect, should all of them continue to progress. This is far from a certainty – Jack Wilshere has definitely stalled in his development, and many footballers struggle to find the electric form of their breakout seasons.

Hodgson is the person who has begun assembling this team, and there is little to suggest that he has done much wrong. Hodgson can no more turn Cahill and Jagielka into Terry and Ferdinand than he can turn water into wine. Taking 10 years off Rooney and Gerrard is similarly beyond his capabilities. What he has done is take the fear out of the England side. The defeats were disappointing, yes, but England looked like they at least believed in their ability, which is more than can be said for the timid sides of the McClaren and Capello eras.

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Manchester United and David Moyes: what went wrong?

The 10-month soap opera has drawn to an undignified end. David Moyes’s short reign at Manchester United is over, and the kings of English football for the last 2 decades look to the future with anticipation. The brand is still strong, the club is still rich and the legions of fans they have amassed the world over will stay, for a while at least. Missing out on Champion’s League football might make it harder to attract the class of players they need to reverse their fortunes, though.

However, with all signs pointing to a large turnover of players for United this summer, a lack of Champion’s League football might be something of a blessing come this time next year. While their rivals are likely to be involved at the sharp end of the Champion’s League, their stars can focus on the league, much as Liverpool have been able to do this year. They face a Chelsea side this weekend who have semi-final ties with Atletico Madrid either side of the weekend’s encounter. While Brendan Rodgers will pick his best team for Liverpool’s biggest challenge between now and the end of the season, José Mourinho faces an unenviable balancing act between domestic and European glory. Still, it is hard to view this season as anything but a failure for the club as a whole. Exactly where the blame for a disappointing season lies is less clear, and depends on a number of factors very few people outside of United really have any idea about. It’s hard to argue that Alex Ferguson left the team in good shape.

This post reviews the United squad, concluding that the defence and midfield are beset with problems. The best-case scenario for the defence is that at least two of Smalling, Jones and Evans make a step up to become world-class centre-halves, but this a long way from certain. In midfield, Januzaj and Mata are the only bright sparks, and Mata has yet to show the form that he did in his first two seasons with Chelsea.  None of this tells us why David Moyes’s year has been quite as painful as it’s turned out to be. There are several possible explanations – the truth is likely to be a combination of all of these.

It is important to note that David Moyes was not the only new face at United this year. In fact, surprisingly for a team that looked in need of an overhaul 10 months ago, there were more off-the-field changes than on-the-field changes. As well as the well-publicised retirement of manager Alex Ferguson, his brother and chief scout Martin Ferguson also retired, along with chief executive David Gill. In short, the three senior personnel responsible for player acquisition all departed at the end of last year. With a squad overhaul imminent, the wisdom of this surely has to questioned. Of course, the Gill and Martin Ferguson decisions are likely related to Alex Ferguson’s decision, but the situation is not the best for success.

A level of continuity would have benefited Moyes. Searching for the right players is not an easy process, especially not when the season is over. Moyes will have been relying on his evaluations of players from when he was at Everton and the evaluations of the United scouts. With all due respect to Everton, it’s unlikely that many players they were interested in turned up on the United radar. Completing a squad overhaul without the guidance of the former chief scout is a challenge that Moyes simply didn’t need. One also has to wonder whether, in the months prior to his retirement, Martin Ferguson will have been focused as single-mindedly on a squad overhaul as someone who knew they would be continuing with the club would do.

Similarly with the chief executive role, new man Ed Woodward has plenty of commercial experience, but not so much on the footballing side. With Moyes presumably spending most of his time frantically searching for the talent to renew his squad, the last thing he needed was any unnecessary complications in transfer negotiations. The bizarre Ander Herrera saga indicates that Woodward might have been less than the reliable presence Moyes needed. Any one of these hurdles might have been insignificant with two experienced hands to help them along, but the combination of all three proved problematic for United.

With some many holes in the squad to fill, United needed to move quickly to identify talent, bring it in at the right price and move on the improving other areas of the squad. Time after time – with Fabregas, Fellaini, Herrera, Baines and others – it was clear that the club were not operating with the fluidity and efficiency that we expect from top sides. Pursuing players who had no intention of joining, failing to take advantage of buyout clauses, non-existent offers and “insulting” offers were just some of the mistakes made by United over the summer; none of these are signs of a club operating competently in the transfer market.

When it comes to coaching, as well, there was a distinct lack of continuity. Gone were many of the experienced hands who had helped Ferguson, such as Mike Phelan and Rene Meulensteen, and in came Moyes’ own men, such as Steve Round and Phil Neville. We don’t know precisely why this happened, whether the likes of Phelan and Meulensteen left of their own volition or were pushed out by Moyes. Of course, Moyes wanted to put his own stamp on the team, but with a 6-year contract, there was more than enough time to do this without sacrificing continuity.

The rhetoric surrounding that contract contrasts, as we can see, with the off-the-pitch reality. While United emphasised the importance of stability, they simultaneously changed many things off the field. Exactly who drove this huge raft of changes should determine where the blame lies. If Moyes insisted on overhauling everything, then he must assume much of the blame. If the changes were beyond his control, then his sacking looks increasingly unfair. If they were beyond his control, we have to ask whether more effort could have been

Even so, Moyes has never seemed like a tactical genius of a football manager. At Everton, he seemed at his finest when forcing square pegs into round holes, improvising without a striker with Cahill playing off Fellaini. His sides never really excelled against the top teams nor played with the style of, say, Brendan Rodgers’ Swansea. Roberto Martinez has taken a very similar group of players and has them playing more attractively, more creatively and more successfully. Everton’s players have spoken about Martinez’s superior tactical ability, which is damning for Moyes.

As the top seven mini table shows, David Moyes’s struggles against top sides have followed him to United. A measly six points and and one win from 12 games against the top seven is far below where United need to be. Most notably, it compares incredibly unfavourably to Roberto Martinez’s record with Everton. These struggles can be interpreted as part of David Moyes’s lack of tactical inventiveness, and a creative deficit within the midfield. While United have the sheer quality to brush past lesser opponents, when faced with players of a higher quality who are tactically more organised, they have little to offer.

All in all, the decision to hire Moyes does not look like a good one. The conditions that Moyes had to work in were certainly not ideal. If those conditions were of his own creation, then he has no-one else to blame. It seems unlikely, however, that Moyes insisted on a complete behind-the-scenes overhaul. It’s likely, however, that other figures at the club are more than happy for the public to blame him rather than take responsibility themselves – Ed Woodward in particular. The reality is that no-one at United comes out of this season with much to celebrate. The higher-ups have looked both incompetent and inconsistent by hiring a tactically limited manager yet not even giving him the tools to succeed. They have preached stability and consistency with the 6-year contract offered to Moyes, yet with all the changes of the field and Moyes’ short reign, they have practised anything but.

Moyes himself has probably ruled himself out of an appointment of a similar calibre in the future, barring a roaring success with a smaller club. It is not the failure to qualify for the Champion’s League that has cost Moyes his job, it is the manner of that failure. Not only are the club a long way removed from the Champion’s League places, but they have never played like a team who are a few signings away from being competitive. Their record against the top sides speaks for itself, and Everton’s fantastic season under Roberto Martinez has done Moyes absolutely no favours at all. Manchester United have officially begun their search for a new manager, though I suspect that began a while ago in reality. The problems at the club go far deeper than who is at the helm though, and whoever the new manager is will need more of a chance to succeed than Moyes has been given.

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