Tuesday, 13 September 2011

David Silva – best player in the Premiership?

The Premier League has only just begun but already the leading candidate for player of the season has emerged at Manchester City, David Silva. The Spaniard, who is only starting his second season in England, is emerging as one of the best players not just in the league but in the whole of Europe.

The diminutive midfielder has been the most outstanding player thus far in my mind. Although his team-mate Sergio Aguero has stolen many of the headlines it is Silva, whose guile and technical ability is really something to behold. He is not a new player to have suddenly been unearthed though; his talent and ability has been honed and encouraged at Valencia where he played since he was 14. He became a first team regular in 2007 and it is almost unbelievable that Barcelona or Real Madrid did not sign him.

Thankfully for fans of Manchester City and the Premier League we will get to see him and his phenomenal left foot for the foreseeable future. He has the remarkable ability that many of the current Spanish players appear to have innately – the ability to find space. The way he glides around opponent’s penalty areas must give opposition managers heart failure as he drifts into yet another opening. He struggled initially with the physical demands of the league but is now fully acclimatised.

It is staggering that he is still not a regular starter for Spain but when you consider his rivals in those positions it suddenly becomes more apparent. However, a couple of years ago there was a case for suggesting that he was inferior to Fabregas, Iniesta and Xavi but now the gap is nowhere near as big. He would walk into any team in the world on current form and that includes the current Barcelona squad; he is simply too good not to pick.

Last season he became too isolated with Mancini opting to play too many defensive midfielders. He and Carlos Tevez had to create most of the chances and finish them; however, this season, with the new signings the side are playing with far more freedom. Indeed, last season Silva created 75% more chances for City than any other player at the club. The relationship between City’s front players is something to admire already and will only continue to improve. The likes of Aguero, Dzeko, Johnson, Nasri and Tevez just make the side so dangerous and with class like that they don’t need many chances.

It appeared that the Premier League was in a little trouble when it lost two of its World Class players to La Liga in recent years – Cristiano Ronaldo and Fabregas – but with Silva around the quality remains. Everyone is waiting for City to slip up and implode but with Silva in this form anything is possible this season. They begin their Champions League journey tomorrow night and it will be fascinating to see how they get on.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Casillas to break all records

By the time Spain have completed their qualification for the European Championships goalkeeper Iker Casillas will have equalled Andoni Zubizarreta’s record for Spanish caps – an astonishing 126. What is even more incredible is that Casillas is still only 30 and could reach 200 International appearances before he retires.

It seems almost inconceivable that Real Madrid or Spain could not have Casillas in goal; he became the number one for Madrid in 1999/2000 aged just 19 years old. After the recent domination by Spain he has now won every major honour in the game but his hunger and desire remains. He is the captain of both club and country and remains one of the elite keepers in world football.

This remarkable career began in 1999 when he made his La Liga debut in a 2-2 draw with Athletic Bilbao; he had replaced the German goalkeeper Bodo Illgner. By the following season he had established himself as Madrid’s number one keeper and helped his side win the Champions League title that season. However, within two years he had been dropped after a run of poor performances but like true greats he responded in emphatic style.

He was named amongst the substitutes in the 2001/2 Champions League final at Hampden Park against Bayer Leverkusen with Cesar starting in goal. After 68 minutes his chance arrived after Cesar picked up an injury, the young Madridista grabbed his opportunity and produced a fabulous display in the remaining minutes of the game to win his second Champions League title. Since that day he has remained ever present as Madrid’s number one.

It is not simply his shot stopping that separates him from his rivals; it is his powers on concentration that put him above his nearest rivals. Playing for Madrid and Spain the goalkeeper is never going to have lots of work to do as both sides dominate possession for long periods. It is his ability to pull off a crucial save in the dying minutes of games that really distinguish him. Although not the most elegant keeper he has a remarkable knack of getting a body part in the way at the right time; his reflexes are extraordinary. He is also incredibly good at one on ones; in fact if I was to select a goalkeeper for that role there would be no competition.

Competition for the Spanish national side is growing ever fiercer; David de Gea, Pepe Reina and Victor Valdez are all waiting in the wings but the Spanish captain will not be relinquishing his role any time soon. When you consider he has 124 caps in 10 years so far he should easily complete another 76 in the next seven/eight years. The current record for most caps is held jointly by Mohamed Al-Deayea of Saudi Arabia and Claudio Suarez of Mexico who have played 178 times for their country. It will not be long until Iker Casillas becomes the most capped player in the history of the game and few deserve the accolade as much as he does.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Young’s confidence ensures promising start

The transfer of Ashley Young to Manchester United this summer is one that I found particularly strange. Sure, he had looked promising since his move to Aston Villa from Watford in 2007 but to me he lacked the drive to kick on at England’s most successful club. How wrong I was. He has begun his career at United brilliantly and he has managed to replicate his form at International level.

Clearly a very talented youngster it was Martin O’Neill who took the initial gamble when he signed him from Watford for £8 million plus ad-ons. He certainly seemed like a promising talent who had everything required to go on and become a very good player. However, after the Villa saga begun brightly his career had begun to slide in the midlands last year where he struggled to find consistent form.

I had raised eyebrows when United finally completed a deal for him this summer as I had never seen him look dominant in a game against better opposition. To use a cricketing phrase he seemed ‘like a flat track bully’ who would murder the poor sides but then struggled against better opponents. His performance against United in a two all draw could have persuaded Ferguson that he would be an ideal addition to his front line this season.

He tends to operate on the left hand side where he can drift in on his right foot and hurt the opposing defenders (and goalkeepers, as we saw against Arsenal last weekend). It appeared to be particularly harsh on Nani who had his best season for United and was indeed left out of the Champions League final. It remains to be seen whether these two will develop a good understanding and enable United to play with a flexible front three as they did when they had Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez.

The understanding he has developed with Wayne Rooney is probably what has aided his transition into the England and United side seamlessly. Good players are always able to play with others effortlessly and the understanding is already clear to see. These days Rooney tends to play a little deeper for United and with both having a good range of passing they are able to tease and worry defenders almost at ease. In his three games in the Premier League he already has two goals and four assists which will have delighted his new manager.

Although we are only at the beginning of September Young is already establishing himself as a key player at United and is starting to show his class on the International stage. At 26 years old he should be approaching the prime of his career and Ferguson could well have pulled off another transfer coup in securing his services. The United squad is well set up to dominate for many years to come and Young looks like he will be central to that success.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Guardiola doesn’t rest on his laurels

It appears that a week cannot pass at the moment without more praise of Barcelona FC; their style, technique and work rate is admired globally at the moment, and quite rightly so. They are the stand out team in European football at this moment in time and the side that every manager aspires to catch and supersede. The team is blessed with the best three players in world football; Iniesta, Messi and Xavi and have recently added Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez.

However, it is all very well having the best players but you have to have a coach who can orchestrate the players. In the summer of 2008 it emerged that Barcelona were to part company with the then manager Frank Rijkaard and that former Barca fans favourite Josep Guardiola would be succeeding him. It certainly raised a few eyebrows as his only previous experience had been coaching the Barcelona B team.

The first thing he did was to get rid of some of the side’s star players which again looked slightly controversial. Out went Deco, Edmilson, Eto’o, Ronaldinho and Zambrotta and in came Daniel Alves, Seydou Keita and Gerard Pique. He also promoted Busquets, Jeffren and Pedro to the first team after coaching them for a year in the B team. He ended the season winning the Champions League, the Copa del Rey and La Liga in his first season. Surely it was the players everyone said….how little they knew.

Success appears to have come naturally to the Catalan coach who has now guided his beloved Barca to 12 titles in just over three years. However, it is the ethos and style of football that has endeared them to many and made them so successful. He has made them the best pressing side I have ever seen; every player from right back to striker hounds, harries and tackles under possession is retained. Pep has also clearly told the players that their best form of defence is also to retain possession. It sounds like common sense to say but actually is very hard to do in practice, most of their games end with Barca having had 60%+ in terms of possession.

The side also benefits hugely from their youth training facility – La Masia. After the purchases this summer they are now capable of putting out a starting eleven that features only home grown players. This education they have received teaches them how to look after the ball, how to use it effectively and most importantly gives them the awareness to know what their teammates are doing too.

He is also responsible for deploying Messi in the new position ‘the deep lying’ striker. From here he is able to drop deep and pick up the ball and then really hurt the opposition. Barca appear to have developed an incredible knack of playing defence splitting passes from just inside their own half. The two wide players on either side are then able to make inside out runs which then put them through on goal – as shown against Madrid in the Super Cup.

Last weekend’s game at home to Villarreal was fascinating for a number of reasons. Firstly, they brushed aside the side that finished fourth 5-0 which just shows how far ahead they are of the competition. Secondly, Pep began the game with a 3-4-3 formation with Busquets and Mascherano playing as part of the three defenders alongside Abidal. Next there was Keita who was the defensive midfielder and then they deployed Fabregas, Iniesta and Thiago in a three in front.

Whenever one of the back three brought the ball forward Keita would simply drop back into the three as cover. It enabled the side to always have at least two options to pass to every time they got the ball which makes it almost impossible for the opposition to retain possession – especially when up against some of the best football players in the world. It was remarkable to see and is the closest example of total football I can remember seeing in my lifetime.

Barcelona are a joy to behold for any football fan at the moment due to their style of play. Whilst many fans and pundits are quick to say it’s mainly because they have Messi, much of the credit must lie at Guardiola’s door. He has transformed the club from a very good team into possibly the best club side in the history of the game. Football is cyclical and the gap between them and the rest will narrow as time goes on but it will be fascinating to see how Pep’s career develops from here. He will not remain at the Camp Nou forever and will surely fancy a new challenge in the not too distant future.