Monday, August 31, 2009

Diego and Sneijder: A tale of two 10s

The number 10 shirt has long been the most prized of all in Italian calcio. It’s generally handed to the chosen few with the creativity, vision and finesse to fulfil the role of play-maker. In Serie A, they even have a couple of special terms for the player who dictates play from the ‘hole’ behind the striker(s). These days the fantasista or trequartista might not actually wear the ‘10’ on his back (more likely 14, 23 or even 80, such as Ronaldinho), yet the role remains the same.

In the first game of the weekend’s early-season-defining double-header – Roma would entertain Juventus 24 hours later – Jose Mourinho’s Inter showcased their bright new hope on the most daunting stage imaginable. By happy fortune rather than contrivance, Wesley Sneijder arrived at the club within hours of the season’s opening Derby della Madonnina. After a summer spent frustratedly chasing old flame Deco, to no avail, Mourinho instead plumped for one of the countless Dutch cast-offs of the Real revolution. Already, it looks a wise move for both parties.

Listless in the opening day draw with top-flight returnees Bari, Inter were, this time, ruthless in their exploitation of fellow San Siro-sharers Milan’s numerous limitations. Sneijder – denied a spectacular debut goal by Marco Storari after only six minutes – provided the spark, while Dejan Stanković deputised for the stricken Esteban Cambiasso at the base of midfield.

Though Milan, under the stewardship of rookie coach Leonardo, took the early initiative, the pendulum had clearly swung Inter’s way when Thiago Motta benefitted from neat inter-play by new strike-partners Diego Milito and Samuel Eto’o to steer the ball comprehensively past Storari. Five minutes later, the irrepressible Eto’o (can he really be worth €40m less than Zlatan Ibrahimović?) charged clear of the inattentive Milan defence, and was haring menacingly in on goal when Rino Gattuso hauled him down. Milito slammed the resulting penalty high and hard into the centre of the goal.

Worse was to follow for Gattuso. Struggling with injury, the Milan captain tried to substitute himself by virtue of furious hand signals to the bench and sporting a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp. Sub Clarence Seedorf was not ready to take his skipper’s place – a critical error, as it turned out – as Gattuso received a merited second booking for a typically inelegant challenge on Sneijder. Down to ten men, the rossoneri capitulated. Brilliant Brazilian full-back Maicon danced his way through the gaps in the porous Milan defence to add a third goal on the stroke of half-time.

Either side of Inter’s fourth and final goal – a typical 30-yard thunderbolt from the boot of Stanković – Sneijder again missed out on a first Serie A goal by a matter of inches, then was withdrawn to an ovation from the already adoring Inter tifosi. The Dutchman’s opposite number, Ronaldinho, wore heavily the burden of replacing the irreplaceable Kaká in the Milan attack. Ronnie’s decline has been a sharp and unsightly one, and on this evidence the former Ballon D’Or winner may struggle to inspire his side out of a tricky Champions League group which also includes Real and Marseille.

So, while Nathan Tyson was busy waving a red flag at a crowd of white-shirted bulls in the aftermath of a characteristically boisterous East Midlands derby, Milan were listlessly offering a white flag in the direction of their bitter rivals. Given Milan’s current state of flux, it most likely lies with Juventus to provide Mourinho’s men with any kind of cogent title challenge.

Slowly returning to prominence following their brief flirtation with Serie B, Juve have gambled on the capabilities of Brazilian maestro Diego to add a little grace to their play; hoping to mirror the heady days when Brady, Platini or Baggio dominated all-comers on the Turin turf. There has been the feel of a guard-change around the bianconeri this summer: former captain Ciro Ferrara was installed as manager, while talisman Pavel Nedved finally retired. For the trip to the Stadio Olimpico, to face Roma, big names such as David Trezeguet, Mauro Camoranesi and Alex Del Piero were confined to the bench, while Diego and fellow Brazil international Felipe Melo (signed from Fiorentina) took up residency in the engine room.

Diego – free-scoring in the Bundesliga last year – took only 25 minutes to make an indelible mark on the game. Dispossessing the sluggish Marco Cassetti in the centre circle, Diego used all of his significant powers of power, touch and composure to hold off Phillipe Mexes’ challenge; poking the ball firmly past Roma’s goalkeeping debutant, Júlio Sérgio. Such brilliant opportunism, however, was matched by Daniele de Rossi ten minutes later. The heartbeat of the Roma team slammed an unstoppable pile-driver past ashen-faced Gigi Buffon, as the Juve defence dallied while David Pizzaro took a quick free-kick.

At the end of a fractious opening period – in which six bookings were issued – Diego rolled another chance against the base of the post, while an off-colour Francesco Totti spurned the opportunity to give the home side an unmerited lead: Buffon’s desperate point-blank save from the Roma skipper rescuing his inattentive back four. Juventus’ domination grew stronger as the game wore on – lively strikers Amauri and Vincenzo Iaquinta could easily have notched two goals apiece before Diego clinically claimed the a 2-1 lead for his side by again bamboozling Mexès with a dextrous shuffle of feet, burying the ball beyond Buffon.

When timid Roma eventually threw on Montenegrin forward Mirko Vucinic to support a floundering Totti, the change had an immediate effect, as both Vučinić and Jérémy Menez went close to an equalising goal. Totti then rattled the post from the kind of self-crafted opportunity he has dealt in for so many years. But, just beating the final whistle, it was Juventus that instead sealed the deal by virtue of a charging Felipe Melo run and shot which Julio Sergio could only glance at as it zipped, low and hard, into his net.

So, the boys from Brazil proved to be the decisive factor in the game between two sides which have often been scudetto rivals during the past decade. In 09/10, however, it is unlikely that Roma can keep pace with Juve or Inter, as De Rossi has more or less admitted to the press. When Serie A returns after the international break, much interest will lie in the fortunes of calcio’s two new playmakers par excellence; Sneijder and Diego.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

A tactical revolution? How the Big Four have changed

Much has been made of the many comings and goings at the ‘Big Four’ clubs throughout a summer full of signings and speculation. The Premier League title is destined, however, for the team which makes the most of their resources, whether massive or relatively meagre. Personnel, motivation – and luck – are all important factors, of course, but countless points will be won and lost on the pre-game chalkboard.

The relative importance of tactical systems is debated long and hard by so-called students of the game, and, from Harry Redknapp’s successful “keep it simple and enjoy your football” mantra to Arsene Wenger’s relentlessly analytical approach, the pros differ wildly in their methods too. It’s undeniable, though, that there has been a significant tactical shift at the top table of English football between this season and last.

Starting with the defending champions, whose hand has been forced by the much-hyped loss of their free-scoring talisman, Cristiano Ronaldo, early season outings have seen Manchester United reclaim their beloved (but long-estranged) formation: the classic 4-4-2. Ronnie’s departure, allied to that of Carlos Tévez, has necessitated a switch from Sir Alex’s patented ‘strikerless’ set-up to a more orthodox approach. United often exhilarated spectators and overwhelmed lesser opposition, during their golden run of the past three years, with a fluid forward line of Rooney, Ronaldo and A.N.Other. Michael Owen’s arrival means that the manager will, more often than not, adopt a flattish midfield four incorporating two wingers from Nani, Valencia, Park, and, in due course, Obertan and Tošić.

Wayne Rooney, therefore, will shoulder the burden of responsibility for both goalscoring and goalmaking, alongside Owen or Berbatov. The evidence so far suggests that reining-in the multi-talented forward’s excessive workrate outwith his new penalty-box remit will be more difficult than first considered.

It is, these days, something of an anomaly to operate a simple two-man central midfield partnership too. Can Carrick and co. still influence games in the same way as before, especially when taking into account the continuing physical decline of old stagers Giggs and Scholes? All told, it is difficult to see United, barring late investment in the squad, dictating to the Premier League minions in quite the same manner as before.

Old rivals Arsenal, meanwhile, have made alterations with an eye on suffocating those opponents that stubbornly refuse to roll over upon mere sight of pretty passing football. In other words: Bolton and Blackburn. In order to turn over their Lancastrian nemeses (and other sides of their ilk), manager Arsène Wenger has in fact borrowed (just a little) from Gary Megson’s team.

Though he’d hardly admit it, the right-sided role that Wenger has thrust Nicklas Bendtner into of late echoes that of Bolton warhorse Kevin Davies – one of the league’s most quietly feared opponents – in seasons past. While the big Dane’s physicality is minimal by comparison with Davies, his presence in the new-look three-man Arsenal front-line draws defensive attention away from the mercurial talents of Robin van Persie and, particularly, Andrei Arshavin.

Wenger explains: “I want to play high up the pitch and bring the threat to the opponents half very early in the game. We are an attacking team and that gives us an opportunity to show our character.”

This plan worked to tremendous effect at Goodison Park last weekend, but doubts persist over whether the Alsatian’s slavish adherence to the beautiful game in its purest form can realistically yield a first league title since 2004. Much will depend on the consistency and continuing development of Cesc Fabregas’ midfield cohorts; Alexandre Song and Denilson. If that pair can form an effective shield in front of an already impressive Gallas-Vermaelen defensive axis, the Gunners might prove more than just also-rans this year.

To finish as relatively close runners-up last year was something of a breakthrough for Rafa Benítez’s Liverpool. To then lose one of their most consistent and able performers from that campaign might be considered careless if it weren’t for the sheer scale of Xabi Alonso’s new employers’ ruthless ambition. Thirty million big ones is an impressive haul, some would say, for a deep-lying midfielder with a shamefully weak goal/assist record. However, the technical prowess and vision offered by Real Madrid’s new no.22 was crucial in the delicate tactical balance which held together the 4-2-3-1 line-up favoured by Benitez.

Notwithstanding the possible impact of energetic Roman midfielder Alberto Aquilani on the Merseysiders’ fortunes, there’s no doubt that they have lost a significant dimension to their play. The over-reliance on Steven Gerrard’s freakish blend of athleticism and finesse, and on Fernando Torres as the point of attack (Andrii Voronin might have returned from a brilliant loan spell in Berlin with greater confidence, but still lacks a little star quality) means that Liverpool will inevitably struggle to maintain their momentum.

While a significant departure has placed Benítez in something of a tactical quandary, title rivals Chelsea will surely benefit from continuity of key personnel. The latest head coach along the Stamford Bridge production line, Carlo Ancelotti, has brought with him from Milan a narrow midfield structure; latterly used by a certain Jose Mourinho. The Blues’ abundance of able central midfield players lends itself to such a ‘diamond’ formation, it’s true. The absence of orthodox wingers from the XI, however, brings with it serious limitations.

One of the main beneficiaries of the switch, Michael Ballack has played the old “you can play any system with good players” card in recent interviews. Tellingly, the 32-year-old has conceded Ancelotti’s preferred option has as many cons as pros: “You gain a small advantage through the centre but there's more hard work for the four midfielders because they have a lot of work to do on and off the ball in this system,” said Ballack.

Quite where this approach will leave the likes of resurgent Florent Malouda, expensive new-boy Yuri Zhirkov and the returning Joe Cole is for Carletto to know and the King’s Road hordes to find out. At least the Premier League’s most frightening front two – Anelka and Drogba – can both be accommodated within the new framework. At the Stadium of Light this week, near-forgotten Deco was given a chance in support of Drogba, showing a certain flexibility in Ancelotti’s thinking. It is for this reason that Chelsea can produce their most cogent title push since the departure of their one-time tactical tsar, Mourinho.

Of course, it’s too early in the season to fully assess the impact (and longevity) of these changes, but it will be fascinating to see how events unfold on the chalkboard as the season develops.

To tinker with a winning formula exhibits bravery, for there’s the risk it can all go horribly wrong – witness Martin O’Neill’s switch to 4-4-2 spectacularly de-railing Aston Villa last term; beware Harry Redknapp, who has spoken of altering his hitherto winning formula by adding a third man to the Tottenham front-line.

For those who gamble and win? Well, they’ll be lionised as tactical geniuses forevermore. Well, at least until their next cock-up. 4-5-1 at home to Stoke!? What were you thinking?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Summer Signings: Six of the Best (so far)

Where did the sporting summer go? Federer’s grand-slam supremacy; Armstrong and Contador bickering their way through the Pyrenees; Watson holding back the years on the sun-kissed links of Turnberry. Like 10pm sunsets and long, hot afternoons (ok, long rainy afternoons) these glorious events have, already, been consigned to the annals for another year. But don’t despair – football’s back! Though it’s hardly been away and – for the love of God – the destiny of the Ashes is still in the balance, the English league season has kicked off once more.

As ever, through the barren months, wild transfer speculation has kept us all engaged, entertained and amused (Christian Vieri to Blackburn?? At 36, Big Bobo is surely in worse shape than Big Sam himself). Despite most of the guff which fills footy gossip columns lacking even the slightest thread of veracity, occasionally a juicy deal or two does, in fact, come to fruition. And – resisting the temptation to include broadcaster ESPN for their audacious signings of not only the English Premier League, but also Serie A, Ligue 1 and the Bundesliga – here are six of the best mid-summer moves (so far):

Diego (Werder Bremen to Juventus) – Erstwhile team-mate of Robinho and Elano in the 2002/03 Santos superteam, Diego has been a star attraction in the Bundesliga since moving to Bremen three years ago. Juve expect the diminutive playmaker will add a necessary dash of élan to their workmanlike engine-room; aiding the transition of rookie boss Ciro Ferrara’s men from Champions League also-rans into genuine contenders. With a healthy haul of 20 goals during his final season in Germany (six came in Werder’s run to the UEFA Cup Final) and a hatful of assists, the 24-year-old from São Paulo appears to be reaching a peak which looked like it might never arrive when he failed to flourish in the first post-Mourinho Porto side. With several big names deserting Serie A like a sinking ship, Diego now has a golden chance to become a Calcio superstar in their absence.

Anatoliy Tymoschuk (Zenit St Petersburg to Bayern Munich) – Bayern’s shambolic 08/09 campaign ended in bitter recrimination, as the fall-out from the all-too-brief Klinsmann era threatened to destabilise the German giants. However, the shrewd acquisitions of experienced coach Louis van Gaal, Hamburg’s workhorse forward Ivica Olić and – in particular – Ukrainian grafter Tymoschuk give an altogether more resolute sheen to the FC Hollywood starting eleven. The ultimate professional, ‘Tymo’ will filter out opposition attacks in front of a back four now shorn of inspirational Lúcio; feeding the ball quickly and accurately to front-men Franck Ribéry, Miro Klose and €30m man Mario Gómez. Having been the lynchpin behind Zenit’s recent continental successes (including a 4-1 humiliation of Bayern in the 2008 UEFA Cup semi-final), the Ukraine vice-captain now chances his arm at a genuine European football heavyweight.

Yuri Zhirkov (CSKA Moscow to Chelsea) – A summer of relative austerity for previously profligate Roman Abramovich, but at least Carlo Ancelotti has been allowed at least one exciting new plaything, by means of Zhirkov’s expensive acquisition. Given Joe Cole’s forthcoming return and Florent Malouda’s unexpected mid-season turnaround last term (...from disinterested to unstoppable in the eye-blink between Scolari’s dismissal and Hiddink’s appointment), the signing of a crafty, industrious left-footed winger will create intense competition for a starting place alongside Messrs Anelka and/or Drogba. Hiddink has used Zhirkov as a left-wing-back to great effect at international level, and the Blackburn Rovers fan (?) is certainly defensively capable. Causing havoc in the final third, though, is where Blues fans will see the costliest ever Russian footballer at his very best.

Lucho González (FC Porto to Marseille) – Few would have predicted that one of the Champions League’s most reliable, versatile and sought-after midfielders would switch to the Mediterranean coast, rather than to one of Italian or Spanish football’s big guns. El Comandante’s move, for a fee in the region of €18m, indicates the extent of OM’s ambition under new head coach Didier Deschamps. The former River Plate star will fill the gap in the Marseille midfield vacated by Sunderland’s new recruit (and former OM skipper) Lorik Cana, though he’ll offer far more offensive flair than the fiery Albanian ever did. With Gaby Heinze and Stéphane M’Bia among a number of impressive fellow arrivals, ‘Lucho’ will be confident that his new side is on an upward curve.

Nilmar (Internacional to Villarreal) – Though the Yellow Submarine’s general manager José Manuel Llaneza refers to the club’s new record signing as a “global superstar”, Nilmar has much to prove before he can truly substantiate such lofty acclaim. In a World Cup year, with his place in the final Brazilian squad still in the balance, it could be perceived as something of a risk for the 25-year-old to return to Europe. But now the time is right for the clever goal-poacher to atone for the aberration on his CV which was a short, unhappy spell at Lyon. With the talismanic Nihat Kahveci returned to Beşiktaş after seven productive years in La Liga, much of Villarreal’s attacking onus now falls upon the slender shoulders of their new star and his strike partner Giuseppe Rossi. The young duo are set to be one of the most scintillating in the Primera División.

Cristiano Ronaldo/Kaká/Xabi Alonso/Karim Benzema (all to Real Madrid) – There have been some exciting deals swilling around in football’s bottomless money pit of late, but for sheer arrogance, ambition and razzmatazz there’s simply no-one that can match the peerless profligacy of Florentino Perez. Even the greatest sceptics of his approach cannot wait to see how the second generation Galacticos ‘project’ pans out – both on and off the field. Let the fun begin...

Other great deals:

Top 3 young guns on the move

Fabian Delph (Leeds Utd to Aston Villa) – has enjoyed praise from quarters diverse as Steve Claridge, Steve Staunton and, perhaps more credibly, Fiorentina boss Claudio Prandelli. A left-footed English midfielder with authority, composure and great passing range: who needs Gareth Barry?

Radamel ‘Falcao’ Garcia (River Plate to FC Porto) – long-touted for a move to Europe (and already familiar to fans of certain football management games), the fleet-footed front-man has big boots to fill now that Lisandro Lopez has set sail for Lyons. Nonetheless, Porto’s new no.9 has all the raw talent to set the Champions League alight.

Marcus Berg – top-scoring at the under-21 Euros drew Premier League attention towards the Swedish striker, but the 22-year-old was instead destined for the Bundesliga, with Hamburg. If he can translate his scintillating Eredivisie form to one of Europe’s ‘Big Five’ leagues, Berg will soon replace Ivica Olić as the Hamburg fans-favourite.

Top 3 freebies (Bosmans/loans)

Aleksandr Hleb (Barcelona to Stuttgart [loan]) – turned down a season-long switch to Inter (as a makeweight in the megabucks Eto’o-Zlatan deal) to return to his old home. An excellent move for both parties.

Valeri Bojinov (Manchester City to Parma [loan]) – continuing his long, laborious return from serious injury with Serie A returnees Parma could be the ideal switch at this stage of the powerful striker’s stop-start career.

Michael Owen (Newcastle Utd to Manchester Utd) – what a move for the one-time Anfield hero, whom the press had prematurely consigned to the knackers yard, and what a bargain for wily old Sir Alex. Everyone’s a winner.