Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Barcelona need Pedro

The reaction over the last week to Barcelona losing to Chelsea and Real Madrid has verged on the ludicrous at times. It appears almost beyond the comprehension of most that this glittering club could lose two such important games in such a short space of time.

There is no doubt that Barca are not quite right at the moment. Having witnessed their performance first hand last Wednesday at Stamford Bridge it is clear to see where and why. One of the keys to Barca’s unbelievable attacking play in recent years has been the explosive moment of their players between the opponent’s lines of midfield and defence. For many parts of this season this movement has been severely lacking and it is why they seem so impotent at the moment.

Movement between the lines makes it incredibly difficult for defenders to maintain their shape and to mark their opponent. Any sudden burst of movement will then have to be imitated in order to remain with the player moving towards goal. The next problem is that usually one of your team mates follows the movement too which then leaves a Barca player free.

Two of the key exponents of this type of movement have been missing for extended periods this season; Pedro and David Villa. Indeed the one player Barca are really missing at the moment is Pedro; his knowledge and understanding of Guardiola’s methods make him such an integral part of the squad. Although he may not be the most talented forward at the club his game is based almost entirely on this type of performance.

Another one of Barca’s key weapons is the ball played from inside their own half through the line between the centre backs and the full-backs. The pass is intended for the winger who has started his run on the touch line. When possession is gained the Barca player will run inwards and then dart between the full-back and the nearest centre back. A precise pass will then take out an entire defensive line and leave the forward bearing down on goal. Yet again, one of Pedro’s trade mark runs.

Messi has become too isolated in attack and it was only the introduction of Alexis Sanchez that gave him the extra space with which to work. Once Pedro too had been introduced hugging the right touchline Barcelona finally began to resemble the threat we know they can be.

The fact that Barcelona have won everything and the fact that Lionel Messi plays for them Pep Guardiola does not always get the credit he deserves. In the modern game you cannot win knock-out tournaments by having a couple of great players; you have to have a system. The system implemented and developed by Guardiola is what made them the force they have been and returning to that tonight will serve them well. What they also require is those that know, trust and excel in that system, and for tonight that means Pedro.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Is Modric the answer?

So far 2012 has not been Tottenham Hotspur’s year; they have lost their grip on a top four place in the English Premier League and now face a battle to ensure Champions League football next season. Since hammering Newcastle on 11th February they have played nine Premier League games and won only one. After impressing so much at the start of the season what has happened at the club to make them suddenly so ineffective?

The obvious answer is of course that Harry Redknapp has had his head turned by the England job. It is quite remarkable that in this media frenzied world a manager with his recent record is blameless in the national press. It is clear the press have decided who they want as the new national manager which leaves the players as the scapegoats. The players have clearly been deeply upset about the prospect of losing the ‘great’ Harry Redknapp and simply cannot continue to play at the same level. This is of course utter rubbish; the reason Spurs have imploded is that confidence has gone to certain player’s heads’ and others simply haven’t got close to the standards they set themselves earlier in the season.

One extenuating circumstance has been that Aaron Lennon has missed several games which clearly disrupted their balance. Normally Spurs employ two natural wingers, who, when aided by the over lapping full-backs created chaos for defences earlier in the season. Unfortunately for Spurs Gareth Bale’s form has dipped massively since he was granted freedom of the pitch and his continual presence on the right of the attack makes the team lopsided. Whilst there is no doubt Bale is an immensely talented player his ego appears to have grown disproportionally to his performance level. He is, and always will be a left winger who needs space to be most effective; until he remembers exactly where it was that he flourished his performances will continue to be below par.

However, there is one player at Spurs who continues to under deliver; Luka Modric. Last summer figures of £40 million were being branded around for the Croatian midfielder. Similarly to Bale there is no doubt that he is a wonderful player; brilliant first touch, lovely passer of the ball(his pass completion percentage currently stands at 87.5 in 32 games) and can beat people for fun. However, he doesn’t contribute enough in terms of assists and goals to command anywhere near that fee. In nearly four completed seasons at Spurs Modric has 12 goals and 15 assists in 121 league appearances. That is the kind of return you used to expect from Fabregas, Gerrard or Lampard in a single season, let alone four!

For a player of Modric’s ability those statistics are alarming. He is deployed in a central midfield partnership with Scott Parker where he is expected to be a combative, yet creative. This is simply not his game as his display of air tackles against Manchester City recently demonstrated. He needs to be given a platform further up the pitch where his creative attributes can come to the fore and be expressed as we have seen with Croatia.

Much of this will also lie with the manager. Redknapp has tinkered a little bit with formations this season but his midfield is incredibly ineffective defensively; Bale, Lennon and Modric are all luxury players to some extent. This has resulted in Scott Parker having a much greater workload than he should have had. Great defensive midfielders, it was always said, should be anonymous as Makelele was; why therefore is Parker always so noticeable?

If Spurs fail to qualify for the Champions League there is little doubt that we will see a repetition of last summer with the Modric will he/won’t he rumours coming round again. It should not be forgotten that in a poor Premier League season Spurs have been one of the few positives. However, they must now push on and secure a Champions League place or they could be rebuilding their side again over the summer. I feel they deserve a place in this season’s top four but at the moment they are not quite there and at this stage of the season the league table doesn’t lie.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Ronaldo to the rescue

On Wednesday night during a dramatic second half at the Vicente Calderon Cristiano Ronaldo single-handedly wrestled back the La Liga title for Real Madrid. It was a phenomenal performance from the Portuguese superstar when his side most needed it. Having dropped six points in recent weeks the title looked for a brief second to be within Barcelona’s clutches but Ronaldo quite clearly had other ideas.

It was another virtuoso performance from Ronaldo who is continuing to break all records as his remarkable career continues to flourish. He now has 40 goals in 32 games in the league this season with another 11 assists; the word phenomenal is usually sufficient in an example like this but in this instance it still doesn’t cover it.

Unfortunately for the Portuguese player he is playing at the same moment as one Lionel Messi who has won the last three Ballon d’Or titles ahead of him. If he had been playing in any other era he would be heralded as the greatest of his generation and certainly one of the best players of all time. Instead he is widely regarded as a amazing player but remains inferior to Messi in many people’s eyes. Certainly during his spell at Manchester United there were elements to his game that were selfish and a little immature but his development in the last three years at Madrid has turned him into the perfect modern day football player.

Standing at a little over six feet tall he is remarkably good in the air and is one of the biggest aerial threats in football. Playing in England during his late teens and early twenties has also toughened him up to the physical demands of the game and his strength on the ball is staggering. When you also throw in the fact that he is very competent on his wrong foot and is able to take free kicks with immense precision (his free-kick accuracy has been poor this season until a few weeks ago, he has since scored directly from three free-kicks) is surely enough to make him the world’s number one player?

Although many in England still dislike his arrogance and will never forgive him for winking at the TV cameras after getting Wayne Rooney sent off against England he must, and should be appreciated by any football fan, whatever your allegiance. He is said to be a very personable and amiable man off the pitch and clearly just loves playing the game. His talent was always noticeable, especially during his early years at Manchester United and it is wonderful to see that it has blossomed and developed into what it has today.

In a world obsessed with comparisons and rivalries it is a shame Ronaldo’s talent is not appreciated as much as it should be. He is a truly great player and is achieving things at Madrid that may well never be equalled. It is a great shame that the shadow of Messi looms over the Portuguese star at times and it is almost impossible to mention one without the other anymore. At this moment in time we have Messi and Ronaldo performing to levels not seen before and it should be enjoyed to the fullest.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Will Mancini last the summer?

There is no way to avoid it, Manchester City have literally fallen to pieces in recent weeks. The disastrous performance at the Emirates on Sunday summed up their fortunes since Christmas; there was no significant goal threat, their passing was laboured in midfield and without Yaya Toure (who was injured early on) or David Silva there was no thrust to their play. The side was screaming out for width and for their manager to make a tactical change that could have hurt Arsenal, neither happened and they lost.

Whilst much of the criticism has centred on Mario Balotelli’s controversial behaviour (yet again) a sizeable percentage of the blame must lie at Roberto Mancini’s door. A manager, it must be remembered, who enjoyed most of his managerial success in an almost unopposed Serie A following the Calciopoli scandal. There is nothing worse than a knee jerk reaction to sporting outcomes and Mancini is certainly a competent manager but there must now be serious doubts about his ability to revive City for next seasons’ challenges.

It has not been a straightforward season for the Italian manager; firstly he has had to deal with want away striker Carlos Tevez and then in recent weeks has attempted to control the troubled Mario Balotelli. I seemed to be one of the few people that genuinely believed the Tevez saga benefited Mancini and City; he had been outstanding the season before and at points had lead the club single-handedly to qualify for Champions League football. However, the rumblings of his unhappiness in Manchester etc had not gone away and it seemed almost inevitable that something would come to a head at some point. The situation would also help Mancini to deal with Balotelli who you could see snarling on the bench at the start of the season. With one striker less he was then able to play them all enough to ensure they remained content at the club.

However, dealing with Balotelli has proved to be one step too far for Mancini. He has an unbelievable knack of grabbing headlines for both the right and wrong reasons but it seems his luck has finally run out. With the threat of a long ban looming it may prove to be more beneficial for City to cut their losses and let Mario return to Italy; just imagine a front line at AC Milan of Balotelli, Cassano and Ibrahimovic – that would be worth watching and would certainly keep Massimiliano Allegri on his toes!

In all seriousness though these situations have been undermining Mancini and have resulted in Manchester City falling apart so dramatically. The early season form of David Silva has disappeared and the Spaniard has looked absolutely shattered in recent weeks and didn’t play at Arsenal on Sunday. He was sublime at the start of the season but Mancini did not protect him enough and also underplayed Samir Nasri which has slowed up his progression at his new club. When Nasri made the move last summer he appeared the obvious choice to step in for Silva if tired/injured but when you consider he has only started 21 league games this season the picture becomes clearer.

The loss of Yaya Toure to the African Cup of Nations and the injury/suspension to Vincent Kompany have also been key factors in City’s decline. However, the key decisions have still been with Mancini and it is why it seems unlikely he will be in charge next season. Some of his tactical decisions and game strategies have been puzzling to say the least; going to the Emirates for a point when Arsenal are there for the taking was foolish and underlined his negativity, his overuse of two defensive midfielders at various stages again this season has stifled the side and some of his substitutions have been simply odd; bringing on Kolarov to sure up the left was fine but why were his attacking options only introduced with minutes remaining. The game had been crying out for Tevez to make his introduction against an Arsenal defence that still gifts the opposition several clear cut chances a game but it came too late again.

One factor that may help Mancini is that Sir Alex Ferguson has been his counterpart; very few have got the better of him initially. He has seen off every manager the Premier League has thrown at him (apart from Jose Mourinho – but one feels that battle could restart in the not too distant future) in his 20 odd years at Old Trafford and his experience and nous is what will win United the title this time round. Despite what the inventors of modern day football (Sky) tell us this Premier league season has been unbelievably poor at points and City being unable to raise the bar has been a big letdown. It would be refreshing to see Mancini given time to correct his errors this year but it seems hard to believe at this stage.