Roberto Baggio

Roberto Baggio
Il Divin Codino

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Talent Scout: Leon Goretzka

Leon Goretzka (Germany)
Club: Schalke 04
Position: Midfielder
Age: 18 (06.0.21995)
Previous club: VfL Buchum

Dubbed "the new Ballack" in certain German quarters, the teenage central midfielder is looking forward to continuing his education both on and off the pitch this season.

With just 12 months experience of second-tier football with Buchum under his belt, the rookie joined Ruhr rivals Schalke this summer after they activated a €2.75 million release clause in his contract and he will now look to combine a Bundesliga debut with the demands of his school-leaving exams next year.

On the radar of a host of bigger clubs - notably Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund - the youngster is as level-headed as he is unhurried.

"When such big clubs show an interest you have to be realistic," says Goretzka, who has been a key figure in German representative sides from under-16 and under-19 level. "I'm at a very early stage of my professional career, just a year in, and haven't played a single game in Bundesliga.
"A transfer to Real Madrid was not really worth considering."
"I weighed up all my options and decided Schalke was the club for me. This is the right place for the next step in my career.
"The quality of training will be higher, Schalke are an important club who are always in contention in the Bundesliga and play in Europe, and with Bochum and Gelsenkirchen quite close I can continue at my present school."

An exciting mix of vision, astute decision-making, confidence and maturity, he will initially find himself behind midfield pivots Jermaine Jones and Roman Neustädter in the Schalke pecking order, but his time will undoubtedly come.

"I've never seen a boy of his age with so much ability and desire.," says ex-Bochum director of sport Jens Todt. "He has a genuine shot at becoming one of the world's best.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Talent Scout: Álvaro Morata

Álvaro Morata (Spain)
Club: Real Madrid
Position: Forward
Age: 20 (23.10.1992)
Honours: 2013 Euro Under-21s, 2011 Euro Under-19s

Álvaro Morata, the top scorer for Spain as they won this summer's European Under-21 Championship in Israel, was the archetypal supersub. He scored four goals in five matches, leaving the bench for a spot of opportune end-of-game lock-picking to secure the points.

Whenever Julen Lopetegui's side needed the momentum to swing their way, the coach would turn swiftly to the Real Madrid frontman to help Spain retain their under-21 crown.

Top scorer with six goals when Spain won the Euro Under-19s in 2011, Morata was the essence of time and motion efficiency throughout Israel 2013.

In Spain's opener against Russia he headed home the only goal of the game less than 20 minutes after entering the fray. He then came off the bench against Germany and again scored the only goal of the game, securing all three points in the final four minutes. In the starting line-up for the last group game, versus Holland, he was on target once more in a 3-0 victory over Norway.

Because of his power in the air, his ability as an attacking pivot, good movement and sheer hunger for goals, Morata often has been compared to former Real Madrid and Spain centre-forward Fernando Morientes. But even more satisfying for the youngster are the clear similarities between his career and that of his boyhood hero: Madrid legend Raúl.

Both strikers passed through the Atlético Madrid academy, both made their Real Madrid senior debuts at Zaragoza's La Romareda stadium - Morata's La Liga bow coming back in December 2010 - and both have had the honour of being the top scorer at a European Under-21 final (Raúl finishing top of the competition's goal-grabbing charts in 1996).

Having joined Real from Getafe as a youth, in a perfect world he will become a fully fledged member of the club's first-team squad this season. To do so, he just has to hope that he does not suffer the perennial problems of all Bernabéu cantera (graduates): the big-name squeeze.

Monday, 5 August 2013

New Men, New Strategies

Managerial changes at the Premier League's top three clubs will make for a fascinating season.

In a world in which the rich are getting even richer and success seems increasingly the preserve of a select handful of clubs, this season's Premier League promises a rare openness, with the big three of Manchester City and Chelsea all changing manager. It is an instability that could just open the door for Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and, with a couple more signings, perhaps Liverpool.

For David Moyes, Manule Pellegrini and Jose Mourinho there are tactical issues to be addressed. And it says much for the globalised nature of the modern game that one whose approach seems most attuned to how his new side played last season in the one with no Premier League experience: Pellegrini. With Moyes, of course, the comparison isn't entirely fair, for it is not comparing like with like to look at how he played with Everton and imagine that approach mapped on to United. Moyes did wonders on a restricted budget at Goodison Park, and if his team's football was at times more rugged or more defensive than United fans would like even, at times, more than Everton fans were happy with- then the pragmatism was at least understandable in context.

Moyes played 4-4-2 or 4-4-1 (the difference between which is often in the eye of the beholder) in the vast majority of his games in charge of Everton. It's not a huge leap from that to the 4-2-3-1 United played most of last season-and in many games United played a 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 hybrid with Wayne Rooney advanced of the two wide creators.

At Everton, Moyes, was flexible enough that at times-admittedly, usually because of injury-he would play Tim Cahill as a false nine. His side often played quite narrow through the midfield, with Steven Pienaar tucked in on the left to allow Leighton Baines to overlap, with either Kevin Mirallas, Steven Naismith or, occasionally, Leon Osman on the right - all of them players who naturally drift infield.

At United, Moyes' wide options- Antonio Valencia, Nani, Ashley Young, Danny Welbeck and Shinji Kagawa - are all more inclined to stay high and wide, so that will require an adjustment on Moyes' part.

More significant than the shape, though, is the style. Only Newcastle United and Fulham played more long balls per game than the 64 that Everton recorded last season, while only Manchester City, Arsenal and Southampton played fewer than the 59 per game recorded by United. Everton come under pressure and have to clear their lines quickly more often than United, and their midfield is not as technically accomplished. But that is just another adjustment Moyes will have to make. And that, in a sense, is the problem of appointing a manager who has experience of the Premier League but not of working at a club that expects to win every game and whose fans demand that their side takes the initiative.

Pellegrini has the opposite problem. He has coached regularly in the Champions League- and achieved remarkable results with Villarreal and Málaga- but has no experience of the Premier League.  History is not exactly awash with 59-year-old who have moved into a new culture and prospered, but English football is less idiosyncratic now than it was, say, the 54-year-old Slovak coach Jozef Vengloš took over at Aston Villa for one miserable season in 1990.

Pellegrini takes charge of a well-balanced squad with a rare mix of physical and technical attributes that has undergone sensible remodelling over the summer. The arrival of Fernandinho should lessen the burden on Yaya Touré as the more progressive of the two midfield holders, while Jesús Navas offers pace and penetration wide. City chief executive Ferran Soriano had promised three or four big-name signings, insisting that the focus this term would be on making the squad better rather than bigger-an acknowledgement that the transfer dealing of last summer had the transfer dealing of last summer had been flawed. So far he was delivered on that, with centre-forward Álvaro Negredo the third signing, and Stevan Jovetić being lined up from Fiorentina.

There was much mockery of City's hierarchy for explaining that Roberto Mancini had been sacked because they wanted a more "holistic" approach, although it's hard to know why. It surely makes sense for every section of a club to be puling in the same direction, and the appointment of Pellegrini is part of that. At Málaga, his preferred system was a 4-2-3-1, while at Villarreal he tended to use a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1 with two holding players. City's squad seems ideally suited to playing that way, with two of Gareth Barry, Touré, Javi Garcia, Fernandinho and Jack Rodwell sitting, and two of Samir Nasri, James Milner, David Silva and Navas wide.

Mourinho is unusual in offering both top-level Champions League and Premier League experience. Instead, the issue surrounding him, as so often at Chelsea where owner Roman Abramovich has consistently eschewed anything resembling a holistic or consistent policy, is that the players in the squad don't necessarily fit with his preferred style of play. The 4-2-3-1 shape the squad lends itself to is the same as the one he employed at Real Madrid - even if he did prefer a 4-3-3 in his previous stint at the club.

Interim boss Rafa Benítez did instil a certain discipline at Chelsea last season-in some ways transforming Eden Hazard into a player who tracked back-and Oscar is as a hard-working a central creator as there is, but this is still a squad made up primarily of neat, technical players rather than the more muscular figures Mourinho has traditionally preferred. Certainly if John Obi Mikel leaves, there is desperate need of an enforcer at the back of midfield.

And the really is the fascination of this season of the three arrivals on the benches of the big clubs, Pellegrini seems the new manager best suited to his squad, yet he is also the one least familiar with English football.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Carlo Ancelotti Will Be Like a Breath of Fresh Air at Real Madrid

The Italian's easygoing nature extends to tactics – from Parma to PSG he has learned to change according to circumstance.

Perhaps Carlo Ancelotti's greatest gift as a coach is his affability. He desperately wants to succeed but he recognises there are things in life other than football – such as food, even if he is rather slimmer now than he once was. His years at Milan under Silvio Berlusconi and at Chelsea under Roman Abramovich passed without ructions with owners noted for interfering. He even managed to cool a developing (on one side at least) feud with José Mourinho by suggesting they simply pack it in.

After the sulphurous reign of Mourinho, his breezy pleasantness will be a cleansing blast at the Bernabéu. Real Madrid can be a strange place politically but if there is any top manager equipped to handle the internal pressures, it is Ancelotti, a man seemingly able to face down most situations with a raise of his famous eyebrow (according to the journalist Sheridan Bird, the effect is the result of limited movement caused by an elbow in the face from Marco Tardelli).

His easygoing nature extends to tactics. Ancelotti may be inclined to the 4-3-2-1 on which he wrote his coaching dissertation at Coverciano but he will change according to circumstance – a lesson he learned at Parma, his first job in management. Then, he admits, he was too wedded to the 4-4-2 he had learned under Arrigo Sacchi at Milan. That he had learned it, even, said much for his character and his willingness to learn. Ancelotti arrived from Roma aged 28 and took time to adapt.

"He struggled at first," Sacchi said. "Berlusconi said we had an orchestra director who couldn't read sheet music. I told him I would teach him to sing in tune with our orchestra. Every day, I would make him come an hour before training with some kids from the youth team and we would go through everything. Eventually he sang in perfect tune."

At Parma, Ancelotti insisted on playing that way, even though that meant Gianfranco Zola playing on the left wing until he decided to move to Chelsea. It also meant he missed out on the chance to sign Roberto Baggio, who was keen to leave Milan, but wanted to play behind the front two rather than compete with Hernan Crespo and Enrico Chiesa for one of the two striking berths and so joined Bologna instead.

Now, Ancellotti insists, he would be more flexible, would find a way to accommodate a talent like Baggio's. "I lost a great opportunity to improve the team with the ability of Baggio," he said. "But that was a lack of experience. I had been a coach just two years. I didn't have the knowledge to know I could change things. And maybe I was a little bit scared to change because it was the start of my career."

He proved that in his second coaching job, at Juventus, where he switched to a back three, playing 3-4-1-2 to accommodate Zinedine Zidane behind a front two.

At Milan, it was fairly obvious Ancelotti wanted to play a 4-3-2-1 but when the order came from Berlusconi to use two central strikers, he demurred and ended up playing 4-3-1-2 slightly more than twice as often in Serie A as he did his preferred style.

At Chelsea, he tried to operate with a diamond in midfield but, realising that Frank Lampard is better with the ball in front of him than playing with his back to goal, soon adapted, using Deco or Joe Cole in the role before switching back to a shape that varied between 4-3-2-1 and 4-3-3.

In Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ancelotti found the idea front man for his 4-3-2-1 at Paris Saint-Germain, with Ezequiel Lavezzi, Jérémy Ménez, Nenê and Javier Pastore playing off him. Even then, he was prepared to change to 4-4-2 when the occasion demanded it.

It is hard to imagine Ancelotti changing much in his first weeks at Madrid – although much, of course, depends on who they sign. It's certainly possible to imagine a 4-3-2-1 with Karim Benzema at the peak, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Mesut Ozil tucked behind in what would effectively be free roles, and a three of Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira and Luka Modric providing the platform. Or perhaps Angel di María could be used a little deeper than previously – as Pastore was often used at PSG – as a creative player who starts deep and then advances.

More likely, especially with Isco set to join and another forward likely, is that the 4-2-3-1 will remain. It's a system that allows the use of four creative players, plus at least one attacking full-back and a player who can advance from deep and so fits a squad who are both heavy on attacking players, the inclinations of the president Florentino Pérez and the way Madrid need to play in a league in which they are expected to win the vast majority of their games.

The one problem is that Ancelotti has used a 4-2-3-1 in just 3% of the league games in which he has been coach since taking over at Juventus in 1999. For a manager so undogmatic it probably isn't an issue but it does seem he has been appointed more for his personality than because his natural tactical philosophy is a fit with the players in the squad.

The Neymar Problem

Brazil''s young susperstar lived up the hype at the Confederations Cup - but there was still cause for concren

The Cristiano Ronaldo problem has become the Neymar problem. That both are superb players is not in doubt; both are supremely skilful, capable of a sudden and devastating acceleration, and both can turn games in an instant. But they can also be negligent of their defensive duties and allow the opposing full-back to get forward untended.

Ronaldo and Neymar may be match winners far more often than they are match losers, but both create tactical issues that have proved almost insoluble. Neither, it's probably fair to say, is helped by having Marcelo, the least defensive of left-backs, playing behind them.

Last October, in a friendly against Japan in Poland, Brazil coach Mano Menezes found an innovative solution and used Neymar as a false nine in a 4-2-3-1 set-up. Hulk, who operated on the right, is no more inclined to track back than Neymar, but the deployment of Kaká and Oscar in the line of three offered energy and discipline. The result was a highly impressive 4-0 win - similar in scoreline but far more impressive than the 3-0 win in the Confederations Cup - but with the return of Luiz Felipe Scolari that experiment has passed into history.

Perhaps, particularly given the industry of Oscar, Brazil could get away with Neymar if they had a more solid full-back behind him or more defensive presence on the other flank - at Real Madrid, for instance, Angel di María's diligence provides a useful counterweight to Ronaldo. With Marcelo tearing forward at every opportunity, though, and Hulk and Dani Alves presenting exactly the same issue on the right, Brazil are vulnerable to angled ball out to the flanks. There will be times - as in that breathtaking opening quarter of an hour against Mexico - when teams find themselves taking a pummelling capable of nothing beyond desperately clinging on. But, equally, it's easy to imagine Brazil being shredded by a smart side playing on the counter-attack with rapid wingers.

Vital Attributes
Of course, Alves or Marcelo are not bad players and both have almost precisely the attributes their clubs need most in a full-back. Alves, certainly, has been vital in the past four of five years. Barcelona regularly face messed defences and having a fill-back who is quick, gifted tactically and blessed with prodigious stamina is hugely valuable - not only for the width he offers on the overlap, but for the depth he gives to the attack.

Such is Barcelona's control of possession that it hardly matters if Alves leaves space behind him. And even if he does, Gerard Piqué is adept at stepping across, with Sergio Busquets filling in as an auxiliary central defender. It's not complicated, but takes practice to get right and Brazil have not achieved it yet.

It's been an ongoing problem for them and one of the reasons Alves, ostensibly a better player, has so often been left out by Brazil for the more defensively reliable Maicon. His problems, perhaps, reached their height at the Copa América in 2011 when Paraguay's Marcelo Estigarribia attached him with such gusto and effectiveness that he earned himself a wholly implausible move to Juventus. Brazil weren't quite that vulnerable in the Confederations Cup, but equally there were major reasons for concern.

Scolari's thinking, presumably, is that the two holding players - Paulinho and Luiz Gustavo  in the Confederations Cup - can move out to the flanks to cover. That is how the 4-2-2-2 that has been the Brazilian default for three decades or so is supposed to function, with the two anchors and the two creators pulling out of the centre as necessary to create width or deny it to the opposition as the full-backs - or "laterals" to give the Brazilian name, which gives no indication of defensive responsibility - rattle up and down the flank.

The stereotype of Brazilian football as almost pathologically attacking hasn't even been close to true for 30 years or so. Very few teams have a better defensive record than Brazil and World Cups, and when they won in 1994, and again under Scolari in 2002, the real strength was their defensive midfield pairing: Dunga and Mauro Silva in the USA, and Gilberto Silva and Kleberson in 2002 (albeit with a back three). As the full-backs, Jorginho and Branco in 1994, Cafú and Roberto Carlos in 2002 - pushced on, the midfield duo provided solidity, either dropping in as additional centre-backs or pulling wide into the space vacated by the forward surge.

Brazil are well-equipped at the back of midfield - Jean and Fernando offered back-up in the Confederations Cup, while Ramires and Lucas Leiva weren't even selected - but there is little sign yet of this pairing offering the levels of backing required by the adventurous flanks. There must be concerns about how Paulinho so regularly seems to get dragged forward, which in turn exposes a back four made susceptible by what is essentially a man-to-man system that means enforcing an offside trap is all but impossible.

The flaw is not only worrying for Brazil, but also intriguing for Neymar's prospects at Barcelona.

It's probably true that no team has ever pressed so well as Barça at their peak under Pep Guardiola, and that requires extreme fitness, discipline and tactical intelligence. If Neymar is capable of that, he hasn't shown it yet. It may be that, as a designated superstar, Brazil's pretender to Lionel Messi's crown, he has been indulged at home, but at Barça he will be forced to conform.

It may go against the grain to say it, but it's plausible that by tempering Neymar's natural flair, and inspiring a greater sense of defensive responsibility, Barcelona may make him more likely to be a World Cup winner with Brazil.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Farewell to the Misunderstood Maverick

Tony Pulis was disliked for his methods at Stoke City, but it is unfair to compare his side with 1980s Wimbledon.

Amid the flurry of farewells that characterised the end of the Premier League season, there were two that went by with such a lack of fanfare it almost felt poignant: Tony Pulis and Michael Owen.

It feels strange, even now, to link the furious Welsh baseball-capped pragmatist with the lost boy, frozen forever in the memory of celebrating his wonder goal against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup. Yet they ended up together at Stoke, left behind by the tactical evolution of the game.

Perhaps that is a little unfair on Pulis. He took them from the third tier to the second in his first spell at the club and then, in his second, into the Premier League. Next season will be Stoke's sixth in a row in the top flight, their longest stint at that level since they were relegated in 1977. His achievement, though, always seemed undervalued because of the perception that he was nothing but a long-ball merchant.

The obvious contrast is with a man who, having kept his side in the Premier League for an unexpected period of this season: Roberto Martínez. He, of course, won the FA Cup with a Wigan Athletic side that played tactically interesting, attractive football and he was working on a more limited budget than Pulis. But there still seems something strange that of the two, it is the one whose side were relegated who was more in demand this summer. Pulis seems doomed to faint praise because of the general dislike for direct football - a view enhanced by the importance of TV in the modern game.

The influence of a mass audience is something which was touched on by Real Madrid general manager Jorge Valdano when he said: "I heard [the boxer] Carlos Monzón's trainer, Amílcar Brusa, explain that when a boxer fights on television, it's crucial he throws away many punches, regardless of where they land. That's because TV demands activity."

Valdano was lamenting what he sees as the needless haste of the modern game, the loss of "la pausa" - but the likes of Stoke have also suffered. Direct football leads to aerial challenges and they often lead to free-kicks - which is why Niall Quinn and Kevin Davies regularly used to commit more fouls than anybody else in the top flight. It's no surprise that Stoke committed 12.8 fouls per Premier League game last season, more than anybody else, as it's a function of a direct approach rather than a sign of dirtiness. And free-kicks mean a break in play and a loss of the fluidity that makes the game watchable.

There could be a visceral thrill in watching Stoke play, particularly if they won a string of corners against a theoretically more glamorous side and were able to discomfort them with the energy and physicality of their approach, but there was rarely much aesthetic pleasure. Initially Stoke fans seemed happy enough with their status as the underdog scrappers - even adopting "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", a song more usually heard at Twickenham than in football grounds, in response to claims they played something  more akin to rugby than football. But more recently the drip-drip criticism and the slog of watching unappealing football every week has brought grumbling.

Keeping it tight

This, after all, is the great problem of the Premier League: there is a very clear ceiling for the majority of clubs, the top five (perhaps six) operating on such a different financial plane to the rest that two-thirds of the league can aspire to no more than mid-table mediocrity. Eventually that begins to pall - particularly if the football itself produces so little in the way of thrills.

At Christmas, Stoke had conceded just 13 goals in 18 games. - one of the best defensive records in Europe - but for what? To finish 13th. The days of fielding a back four compromised entirely of centre-backs may have gone. but Marc Wilson and Ryan Shotton aren't exactly the most attacking or skilful of full-backs.

And yet there must be a caveat. Stoke may have been defensive and direct, they may have favoured work ethic over technical skill, but they were never nihilistic in the way that the Wimbledon side of the 1980s was. Managers who spoke of being outmuscled by Stoke seemed to be playing on referee's preconceptions rather than looking at the reality. Stoke only committed 0.4 fouls per game more than Manchester City this season. They never spoiled or engaged in the overt intimidation of Wimbledon - a fairy story let down by the cynical reality.

And Pulis did try to change. Signing the likes of Matthew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant was an attempt to make their game more about crossing than long balls from back to front. Buying Tuncay Sanli, similarly, was supposed to add a creative edge, although Pulis never seemed to quite trust him. Even bringing Owen could be seen as an effort to change the image of the club.

Busted flush

The truth, though, is that Owen has been a busted flush for some time now, a player over-reliant on speed who lost his pace, and old-fashioned type of forward who needed a particular type of player. either target man or creator, alongside him. In Peter Crouch, Stoke seemed to have just such a foil, but even then Owen couldn't produce. let down by his body and failure to adapt his game.

He, and forwards of his ilk, really are the past. Pulis, though, has shown himself capable of imbuing a side with great defensive organisation, with a functional method that produces results. Admittedly, a lot of those results are 0-0 draws (six this season) but Stoke may still end up missing him.

And it would be a shame if direct play were to be lost altogether; one of the great joys of football is its variety. Pulis had his own method and it worked - it just wasn't to the taste of everybody.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Find Your Inner Fergie

His domination wasn't down to having the biggest budget. Daniele González looks at the motivational lessons we can learn from Sir Alex.

Sir Alex Ferguson has been called many things. Some are printable. But one thing that everyone who played under him would still call him is Boss. Even middle-aged men who are now managers themselves offer a subservient cower whenever his name comes up. For many of us at work, it's likely the only thing you have in common with Ferguson is a fondness for clockwatching but don't lose heart. Get motivated, put on your gruffest Glaswegian accent and prepare to inspire and terrify your way to the top.

Know your stuff

"People feed off knowledge," says Sir Andrew Likierman, dean at the London Business School. "Knowing your subject is key. It's not about arrogance or thinking you know it all, but imparting real knowledge about the field you are in."
In 1992, Manchester United's then-chief executive took a phone call from his Leeds United counterpart who wanted to sign Dennis Irwin. That was never going to happen but Ferguson quickly wrote on a piece of paper "Eric Cantona". An hour later, a deal was being struck to sign the Frenchman for a measly £1.1m. Ferguson knew Cantona wasn't getting on with his manager at Leeds and having spoken to his own players, knew Cantona had talent. "One of the most extraordinary periods in history of Manchester United was about to being," he said.

...and your limits

Ferguson would never try to pretend to be anything he wasn't. His playing days as a striker saw him peak at Glasgow Rangers, but he laughs at the notion that he could use his skills to teach a player such as Wayne Rooney. "Do you think he cares?" said Ferguson. "He'll laugh at me and say, 'Boss, it was a long time ago, and in Scotland.'"

Use the right words and the right time

At half-time in the Camp Nou, or Nou Camp as people in Britain call it - in 1999, Ferguson addressed his players. One-nil down to Bayern Munich he said, "When that cup is going to be presented, just remember that you can't even touch it if you're the losers - you'll be walking past it knowing someone behind you is going to lift it." An hour later United had won the Champions League.

Give bad news in person

Dropping players was always a tough part of the job. "I do it privately," said Ferguson. "It's not easy, but I do them all myself. I have been dropped from a cup final in Scotland as a player at 10 past two, so I know what it feels like."

Create a siege mentality to unite a team

In 2009, having been given a touchline ban for calling a referee a cheat, Ferguson was asked if United were victimised. "I don't even need to say that, but we'll use it," he said gruffly. "The players were brilliant. They're just defying everything." They went on to win the league.
"This can be very effective," says Bradley Busch, a registered sports psychologist. "You have 30 different personalities in a football club, so a manager will want to fill them with the notion that the group are all fighting a common and outside foe."

Don't be afraid to intimidate

"Fear can push people away but also drive people toward something," says Busch. "There has been a lot of research that shows home advantage doesn't come from players raising their performance but from referees and how the subconsciously behave. Everyone is human, and the sight of Ferguson tapping his watch or prowling the touchline would have affected refs, even if they were not aware of it."
So, was Ferguson aware of his 'influence' on officials? "All I do is point at my watch to help the referee make the right decisions," he shrugged.

Maintain control

"Steve Jobs was Apple. Sir Alex Ferguson is Manchester United," said chief executive David Gill. 
The morning after his historic Champions League triumph in 1999, Ferguson only allowed loyal local journalists into the press conference. Even on the most joyous moment of his career, Ferguson wanted to wield his power and 13 years later, when speaking at Harvard, he put it simply: "If anyone spets out of my control, that's them dead."
Ferguson always made sure that he was in control of more than just his players and staff. Referring to his post-match interviews, Ferguson knows how to play the game. "My response is long and doesn't give them anything that is critical. And I never discuss and individual player."

Take risks

Ferguson has shown the door to a 'who's who' of talent. Beckham, Stam and Van Nistelrooy were all asked to leave near their peak. "Good leadership is about understanding what risks you are taking and managing them," says Likierman.
Ferguson is aware when changes need to be made: "The hardest thing is to let go of a player who has been a great guy. But all the evidence is on the football field. If you see the change - the deterioration - you have to start asking yourself what it is going to be like two years ahead."

Use the element of surprise

Keeping the most successful people on their toes is vital to long-term achievement, and Ferguson has made sure even his most loyal employees cannot predict his actions. "You can never tell what he is going to say," said Ryan Giggs. "I remember we once lost to Southampton even though I had scored. We were expecting a tough post-game talk, but he just said, 'Ryan's goal might have just won you the league on goal difference.'"

Adapt to a changing landspace

He may be more prehistoric-school than old-school, but Ferguson has refused to dwell in the past - instead he makes changes appropriately. Sport science has been embraced, and with everything from GPS to vitamin D boots at the training ground demonstrate he's able to move with the times.
It is his ability to relate to footballers, though, that the most afforded him his longevity. "Players these days have lived more sheltered lives, so they are much more fragile than 25 years ago," he admits. "I was very aggressive all those years ago. I am passionate and want to win all the time. But today I'm more mellowed - age does that to you. And I can better handle those more fragile players now."

Show your softer side occasionally

"He could know which players needed a hug," says Gordon Strachan who played under him with Aberdeen, Scotland and Manchester United. "When it came to me, mind, the only place he puts his hands were around my neck."

Friday, 29 March 2013

Why Statistics Only Tell Half of the Story

It is unfortunate that statistics are only understood by mathematicians. Or so they tell us. Actually, they're wrong. I'm not so hot on the maths front, but I've mastered football statistics. I think. I see two types: game stats (goals scored, saves, corners) and technical stats, which are much more complicated - and those are the ones I'm not so sure about.

I also know enough to whoop with delight when I read that Tottenham Hotspur coach André Villas-Boas calls stats useless. No doubt he was talking about technical ones. I know' it's not the stats, they're just innocent, inactive numbers. It is the interpretation that causes all the problems. So, while still nursing the certainty that those damn numbers are trouble, let me tell you about the player who opened my eyes to the vagaries of interpretation.

You all remember Héctor Enrique, of course. He's my football statistics hero. He's the one...but what's this? You don't remember him? Well that's the point, really. In the 1986 World Cup he was the guy who prodded a short pass to Diego Maradona...and some 11 seconds and 50 yards later the England defence was in tatters and Maradona had scored one of the greatest goals of all time.
Enrique later joked about his assist. A good joke, and one that exposed the fallibility of stats. To give Enrique an assist for that goal would be ridiculous. But supposed he had trailed Maradona and, as he entered the penalty area, received a return pass and scored with a tap-in? In that case, Maradona's assist would be the vital, overriding but still unacknowledged stat.

The overall idea of keeping a record of assists is a good one, even though there is no convenient way of measuring their brilliance or otherwise. But the recognition that, thanks to interpretation, any category of football stats is likely to include both valuable and useless examples is worth bearing in mind.

The assist stat is useful information - if properly defined and interpreted, of course - and the word itself is a useful addition to the sport's vocabulary. It's not perfect and sometimes it may be necessary to give  two assists on goal. But why not if it acknowledges skill that would otherwise go unrecorded?

Assists are relatively harmless form of stats as they do not come into the category which coaches like to cull from computers then turn into training aids. Ground covered, pass completion, tackles missed, even physiological things like heart-rate, are veritable treasure trove of tempting stats. But these, I think, are the ones Villas-Boas finds of little use.

Stats can be downright misleading. Why are "clean sheets" added to a goalkeeper's stats as if he is solely responsible? The truth is he's more likely to be operating behind a great defence and had relatively little to do.

Does anyone know what all those percentages labelled "possession" really mean? I doubt it. Anyway, we need more stats: possession in the opposing half, in the final third, that sort of thing. And wouldn't a stat of "defence-splitting passes" be more revealing?

For now, I'll stick with the simplicity of the assist type of stat - one not enlisted in to the pseudo-intellectual world of modern coaching, but which tells us something about the men who play the sport. Héctor Enrique missed out on being given a ludicrous assist, but his later good humour reminds us goalscoring usually involves more than one player. Sho why no a stat that enables the honours to be shared?

Monday, 18 March 2013

Riquelme Returns as Pride Triumphs Over Pesos

"Football is Roman-tic again" read the banner, greeting the return of the "Last Number 10". The hero and idol, the player who stood up to the board and sided with the fans, was back in blue and yellow, and leading the team oout. Seeing Juan Román Riquelme back at Boca Juniors was a victory for the supporters, who demanded his return at every opportunity. Now it is up to him to deliver their hopes on the pitch.
Eight months ago Riquelme was on the verge of a divorce from the club with which he won 10 titles, having entered contractual limbo, his pay "suspended". When Boca lost the Libertardoes Cup Final to Corinthians last June, Riquelme said he was leaving. "I'm empty, I can't give anything more to Boca," he said - which was even more damaging for the board than losing a continental final.

Riquelme had fought with coach Julio Falcioni over tactics, but more cruicially over influence and leadership of the squad. Falcioni, a disciplinarian hired in late 2009 to bring some order to Boca's house, rarely found space for Riquelme's type of player - the enganche. Riquelme complained he was player out of position, or simply left out, and resented the board's support of Falcioni, who in turn accused the squad of listening to the player more than him.

During the pair's cold war, Boca won the title in 2011 and were Libertadores finalists before the relationship reached breaking point. Yet with Riquelme gone, he was more present than ever at La Bombonera. The final match of last season ended with Boca fans demanding Falcioni go and Riquelme return.

With no alternative, president Daniel Angelici allowed Falcioni's contract to run down then pulled off a coup by persuading Carlos Bianchi to wake from his coaching slumber - "a siesta", as he himself put it. Riquelme seemed certain to also return with the man under whom he had won two Libertadores Cups and a Club World Cup.

Yet in early January, when the 34-year-old turned up for the first day of pre-season with Bianchi, he left barely minutes later. "I had to tell the president and the coach I am not going to play for Boca. Six months ago I made a decision and that is difficult to change," said Riquelme, before adding ominously: "I love this club, but I have my word."

Stumbling block
There was talk of him seeking a one-year extension on his deal which ends in 2014. Another issue was the exchange rate. As Argentinian clubs switch contracts from dollars to pesos, the current climate - there is 60 per cent difference between official exchange rate and the "parallel" rate for the dollar - makes for a significant stumbling block in talks. As Riquelme also said: "I had spoken to Bianchi about going to Chivas in the USA with him but then he took charge at Boca and everything changed."

With Riquelme more than happy to spend time with his family and friends, offers arrived. Brazil's Palmeiras claimed they had his verbal agreement to a move. Argentinos Juniors, where he started in the youth system before joining Boca aged 18, tried to find the means to pay the US$2.1 million stipulated in his suspended contract. Tigre, his local club, used their considerable political power to try to convince him. Yet what changed Riquelme's mind was pride, not pesos. He spoke to Bianchi after Boca lost a pre-season superclásico to River Plate. "I feel strongly about these colours and get angry when we lost the clásico," he said.

Bianchi opened door without hesitation, but another problem arose. Boca midfielder Leandro Somoza said: "A captain is important, but so is the group. It's not good having a captain and a group going in opposite directions."

Newspaper articles appeared about "who's friends with who" in the squad - and in the first match of the season against Quilmes, La Bombonera booed Somoza's every touch.

Riquelme's first game back proved a damp squib. At home to Unión de Santa Fe, who were without a win in 26 games - one of the longest runs in Argentinian football history - Boca were 2-0 down inside 35 minutes. The final result, 3-1, amply represented the ease in which Unión ruined the party.

"in 2007 I hadn't played for a long time either and that ended the best way possible," said Riquelme, referring to the club's most recent Libertadores success, for which he is credited as delivering almost single-handedly. That title, and his form, also came after he finally found a solution to a contract dispute.