Here’s installment number six of the “Things” column. Musings this week are brought to you as ever by Nik, Doron and Rob.
Some random observations from last week’s football (by Rob)
- A lot of last week’s games reminded me of the Chelsea-Barcelona tie from from 1999/2000. Feasts of thrilling, defensively shapeless football. Chelsea-Napoli was the most prominent of these, of course. In a sense, given the manner of the display and the key performers, Chelsea’s win could’ve set their transition back even more. The old guard stepped up, which means they could get another year in charge as a reward, and the club could end up even further from their long-term goals – assuming such things exist in the minds of people like Roman Abramovich. Fine by me, actually.
- Apart from the injury threat, why do some coaches refuse to make substitutions when their players are visibly tiring?
- Does anyone else find it strange how often United players go down with flu? My guess is that it’s something to do with Lancashire hotpot.
- Sporting Lisbon have a player called Carriço. Looks like Carrick in Portuguese, or something. *Like.*
- Has Sir Alex ever signed a German or Spanish (other than De Gea) player for United? My hunch is that he hasn’t, and if that’s the case, it does seem strange – especially these days when young players from those two countries are among the brightest in Europe. If my hunch is mistaken, do fill me in through the comments section.
- Michael Caine does a mean Michael Caine impression. And a decent Dudley Moore.
- Imagine if Marek Hamsik photobombed your wedding pics.
Watch out for… Sean Murray (by Doron)
If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll see almost weekly that I tweet about Sean Murray. Sean turned 18 in October and in the past 6 weeks has forced himself into Watford’s starting line-up. Predominantly playing wide, Sean’s made an incredible impact – assisting or scoring almost every game.
Sean Dyche has been understandably cautious – taking Murray off often around the hour mark. He’s a confident, fearless player but naturally tires whilst playing with older, stronger, fitter players.
From a young age, Watford have been excited about Murray – his penchant for the spectacular meant people naturally took note… this and this in particular. Sean’s come through Watford’s famed academy programme – so good that Britt Assombalonga recently became the 50th academy product to make his first team debut since 1998. For a club so reliant on producing their own, that’s unbelievable.
Murray’s a creator, a passer and mover – he sees things that other players his age don’t. In possession, he already doesn’t look out of place in the Championship – his form has coincided with Watford storming up the table and to (pretty much) safety. For a team on a very limited budget and with a small squad, it’s another year of over-achieving.
Sean was playing for Ireland’s U19s a year ago having just turned 17. There’s absolutely no doubt that this is yet another kid to come through Watford’s academy whose long-term future lies in the top two (probably the top) tiers of English football.
Eagles could give Chelsea the blues (by Rob)
Benfica have been my favourite team to watch this season, and I’ve got a huge soft spot for them. They play an expansive style, full of flair in the middle, fullbacks bombing down the flanks, and Pablo Aimar pulling the strings – my favourite player who never played for United. Their Estadio da Luz (the “Stadium of Light” – move over, Mackems) is a proper cauldron of noise and passion, and it will host the 2014 Champions League final. Their coach, Jorge Jesus, looks like a mad Rod Stewart with better hair. The club mascot is an eagle. Not some saddo dressed up as an eagle, either – a real-life friggin’ eagle. An eagle who smacked the Benfica president one time. This club is just ridiculously cool.
On the pitch, Benfica are a lovely unit, and they play some absolutely delightful football. Allied to their attractive approach play is a striker of the very highest quality – Oscar Cardozo. As United fans should know from our ill-fated Champions League campaign, Cardozo is an absolute beast. He’s strong, good in the air, intelligent with the ball, and an absolutely lethal finisher – he’s probably scored in every Benfica game I’ve seen this season, and I’ve seen quite a few.
The Eagles have played a number of brilliant matches against rivals FC Porto over the past few seasons, losing a fair few of them, but contributing fully more often than not. In fact, the clubs have played two fantastic games in the past month – one in the Liga Sagres, and one they won last Friday in the Portuguese League Cup semi-final. Not only do I think their game against Chelsea on Tuesday will be brilliant, I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see them get past the Blues over two legs. If Didier Drogba’s stupid, arrogant reaction to the draw is any indication of Chelsea’s preparations, England should prepare to see none of their clubs in the final four this year. A semifinal tie between Benfica and the winner Barcelona or Milan could be a real classic.
Like Athletic Bilbao, Benfica has many players I covet as a United fan. Namely, almost all of their midfield and attack – Javi Garcia, Axel Witsel, Nico Gaitan, Cardozo and my ultimate football man-crush. But as is my feeling towards Athletic, I’d (very) slightly prefer to see Benfica’s team all stay together. Check them out this evening on ESPN 3, they play Olhanense in the Liga at 8:45 pm UK time.
England have too many right backs (by Doron)
Replacing Gary Neville was, for a little while, a huge problem. Christ, even Luke Young had a shot at that spot. And yet, today, England seem to be somewhat blessed with talent for the right back birth, albeit without one truly stand-out individual.
Glen Johnson had been the first choice, unchallenged, for too long. It’s fair to say that his undoubted potential hasn’t entirely been fulfilled. Good going forward, he’s something of a liability at the back. Nevertheless, it’s hardly a bad thing to have someone of Glen’s ability playing for you.
This season though has seen the emergence of no less than five alternatives to Glen. There’s the United pair of Smalling and Jones – neither are natural right backs but both have performed as if they were when playing in that role this season. So much so that they’ve represented England playing there.
Danny Simpson, a United academy graduate can consider himself unlucky not to have made an England squad this season. Incredibly, Danny’s never been capped at any level by his country but now at 25 he’s become ever so consistent and is an ever present for Newcastle. With some friendlies coming up, one wonders whether he’ll finally get a chance that he more than deserves.
Arguably the two players with the biggest claim to the right back spot though are Micah Richards and Kyle Walker. Richards peaked early and then suffered with form and hype, falling out of the Man City starting line up. This season though, aged 23 (feels like he’s been around forever), he’s reemerged as a crucial figure for City and recently was recalled into the England set-up. Walker, two years Richards’ junior, has been a revelation for Spurs. His energy, speed, strength and enthusiasm maybe give him the edge over all the candidates. Defensively he’s as naive as any 21 year old would be but that hasn’t really hindered him at club level.
Going into the Euros, who’d have thought that picking right backs would have been so hard?!
Left back on the wing (by Rob)
Here’s a question that should spark off a thousand Ph.D theses: how many left backs at top clubs started off as wingers? We’ve got our own Patrice Evra, who incidentally played in the same Monaco team as Maicon – have a bit of that bombing up your flanks. Chelsea have Ashley Cole of course, and Arsenal’s Kieran Gibbs started off on the wing (and in central midfield). City’s Aleksandr Kolarov certainly looks the part. Marcelo and Coentrão at Real Madrid too. The recently-lauded Jordi Alba of Valencia is a converted left midfielder*.
Of the left-backs who have emerged in recent years, quite a lot of them exhibit the same pattern: they look great going forward… not so much in behind. Given the position’s importance in modern football, it’s downright strange how few top-class left-backs have emerged in the past few years. Philip Lahm, Evra and Cole can still claim to be the top 3 in the position in the world, and this has been the case for at least the last 5 years or so. For all the debate and overblown doomsaying about Evra’s form this season, I can’t see (m)any from the emerging crop who could truly replace him.
*Jordi Alba’s situation is actually quite interesting – he was originally used at left wing, with the Frenchman Jeremy Mathieu as the left-back. But Valencia coach Unai Emery, ever the tactician, decided to switch the two around in a 2010 game against Barcelona, to counter the threat of Dani Alves and Leo Messi on the right. This worked very well, and Emery has continued to do this, not only against Barça (with mixed results), but against other teams as well. Alba’s conversion into a left-back is more or less complete, and he’s started 13 games there this season (only 8 in midfield). Despite the praise he’s received in the press, he is still very much number two to the underrated Mathieu.
Dean enjoying squeaky bum time (by Nik)
One thing we have learnt recently is that it isn’t just players and managers who have to cope well with the increased physical and mental demands of the ‘run-in’. A referee’s form too is fundamental at this crucial stage of the season; with just under 10 games to play, a missed incident; a poor flag or an incorrect penalty decision can have an untold effect at either end of the table. The best referees then prepare accordingly: staging their training regime; reading up on opponents; stats, tactical nuances, team strengths and weaknesses, player attributes etc. Here, Mike Dean has come to the fore, and his recent appointments reflect the trust in him – ‘6-pointer’ between QPR and Blackburn; the North London derby; the Tyne-Wear derby and of course Wednesday’s game between City and Chelsea. Dean’s approach was very different in the games at City and Arsenal than those at Newcastle and Blackburn, again showing a detail in preparation. In the latter games, with the emotions high, and the tempo of the game reaching raucous levels, Dean applied a stricter style of refereeing, using his whistle frequently, keeping his positioning tight and generally not allowing too many advantages (with tackles flying in, teams would much prefer the freekick, which also allows the referee to exert greater control with players). Despite showing 8 yellows and 2 reds in the North-East derby, Dean was widely praised, getting the big decisions (including the penalties) right. In the game involving the higher placed teams, particularly at the Etihad stadium, Dean adopted a more ‘fluent’ approach*. Gone were the whistles for minor infringements (technical rather than penal then); cautions (3) were only administered where there was a pull of the shirt or a reckless challenge, and generally he ‘let the game flow’ wherever possible, offering the advantage no less than 9 times. His instant decision on the Essien handball (aided by the same reaction of his far-side liner) encapsulated a confident and calm performance. The season thus far, has roughly followed a pattern whereby the best referees in the league have peaked at the right, if slightly different, times; early on, Webb, Clattenburg and Dowd were handed the bigger appointments; more latterly, we have seen Oliver (only his 2nd season at the top), Atkinson and Dean taking control. The big question on everybody’s lips though, is who will get the ‘decider’ in April? Watch this space for my prediction.
*This style of refereeing is increasingly becoming the preference at the very highest level. Not to be confused with the strict application of disciplinary sanctions in the Champions League (a necessary, if frustrating, tradition), allowing the game to ‘open up’, and encouraging the expression of skill, whilst at the same time applying law accurately is a skill that takes time to hone. Viktor Kasai and Damir Skomina are perhaps the best two examples of this exponent at present.
Lawro and Hansen prefer body language analysis to football analysis (by Nik)
On Wednesday evening we had a double dose of Balotelli hysteria yet again, which even as a United fan is starting to grate. Both Hansen (MOTD) and Lawro (radio) proclaimed their exasperation at Balotelli’s first half performance versus Chelsea, and with shades of their collective scapegoating of Berbatov early on in his United career (it always takes the British media at large a good 18 months to realise that headless chicken exertion is less a virtuous attribute than it first appears), ‘body language’ was yet again used as the principle lingua franca analyses. “How?” they asked, as if telepathically linked, “…can a striker playing at the world’s richest club, stroll around as if he doesn’t care in such a big game?” Hansen went on to castigate the Italian for missing the tough one on one that came his way, and declared, “..he certainly won’t start a game for City again this season”. Remarkable.
Tactical analysis? No. Balotelli wasn’t at his startling best for sure (and he can argue with himself in a darkened room), but Mancini correctly, in my view, replaced him with a central midfielder, Barry, in order to get control of the centre. With Nasri and Silva far too close together in the first half and a subsequent lack of genuine width, Barry’s presence allowed Toure to push further ahead in support of Aguero; and Nasri adopted a left-side position – the same side of the field where the winner was created.
Season-long analysis perhaps? No. The extroverted forward has scored crucial goals away at Chelsea and United, and at home in tight games versus Villa and Arsenal; in fact he ranks 4th in the league in terms of points ‘won’ – 12. His form prior to, and since Xmas, has been fantastic. Balotelli has superb hold-up play, pace, can use either foot and in a similar fashion to the aforementioned Berbatov, can position himself in the most dangerous area of the field with subtlety. Oh, and he is the league’s best penalty taker. You can always rely Hansen or Lawro to bring out the tired clichés, and have the forethought of the media relations department of Liverpool football club, but when it’s both of them together, it is pretty hard to take.