Wednesday, 7 October 2015

What Liverpool should and should not expect from Jürgen Klopp

When Jürgen Klopp arrived at Borussia Dortmund in 2008 the club were not exactly in a bad place emotionally. Despite a 13th place finish they had reached the German Cup Final the season before (which they lost to Bayern Munich) and had qualified for the UEFA Cup.

However, Borussia were still caught in the wake if the financial calamity, in 2005, which nearly finished them off for good.  The preceding coach Thomas Doll had introduced a particularly forgettable brand of football which was due, in part, to a lack of resources from an exhausted club.

In his first season Klopp steered BVB to sixth place, narrowly missing out on a European spot on the last day and then 5th in his second. In 2011 and 2012, he led the team to two successive Bundesliga titles. Only Dortmund and Hamburg have managed back to back titles, apart from Bayern, since the early 80s.

Under Klopp's leadership young players such as Mario Götze, Nuri Sahin, Sven Bender and of course Robert Lewandowski blossomed. Also, the central defensive partnership of Neven Subotic and Mats Hummels were imperious. As glorious as that team was to watch going forward they were hard as nails at the back.

Highlights of that period were the wins against Bayern including the 5-2 win in the 2012 German Cup Final in which Shinji Kagawa (watched by Sir Alex Ferguson in the stadium) and Lewandowski destroyed the Bavarians. Dortmund finished the next two season in second behind Bayern and of course had a great run to the Champions League Final in 2013 which included that extraordinary victory over Real Madrid.

Klopp's final season was mostly terrible. Lewandowski left and was not really replaced. His absence underlined how direct they'd become. It wasn't a disaster however, and his players rallied to a 7th placed finish and a German Cup Final which they lost to Wolfsburg.

Klopp brought a new dynamism to the dressing room and motivated his players to run through walls for him. Over time he developed the gegenpressing* style of which, while not unique, was a text book example. Klopp also finessed a style of play of rapid transition of all the outfield players which allowed them to very quickly turn defence into attack and back to defence. This plus a group of exceptionally talented players accounts for his success.

It is, however, worth pointing out that Bayern were in transition during those championship years. In fact it would not be unfair to say that most teams that finish a season ahead of Bayern do so when they are going through a lull. In my opinion the 2011-2013 Borussia Dortmund would probably have finished second to the current Bayern team as they did to Jupp Heynkes' 2013 treble winners. But the point is moot and Klopp's Dortmund were the best team and the most fun to watch during this time. Moreover in the subsequent two seasons, Borussia were worthy runners up and superb in the Champions League.

Also, Klopp was only one half of BVB’s recent success. Sporting director, Michael Zorc was the other. In fact even that is probably a simplification. It was Zorc who recruited players such as Kagawa and Lewandowski and it is he who determines the overall direction of the club. Klopp was largely concerned with the team. If Klopp is to succeed at Liverpool, it is vital that they have a good transfer policy and people further up the chain with good recruitment skills and the vision to lead the club. Klopp is not another Bill Shankly.

He's also got temper and got himself into bother with the German FA and UEFA for losing his shit with fourth officials. He's happy to take shots at opposition coaches. During Bayern Munich's treble winning season Klopp likened them to a knock off Chinese technology company. He is unlikely to shy away from mind games, once he gets more confident with his English. He won't take any crap from Mourinho, assuming by then the Chelsea boss hasn't moved on.

But perhaps as important as any other reason for bringing him to the club, Klopp will just get Liverpool FC. He'll understand the club's culture and probably find commonality between the Scouse and Ruhrpott mentality. He'll hear the Anfield Kop sing You'll Never Walk Alone before each match just as he heard the Südtribüne at the Westfalenstadion who sing the same song and no doubt feel at home.

The question as to whether or not he'll win the Premier League is more problematic. The fact is that at Dortmund he only had one or at a push, two clubs to get passed in order to claim the title. In England he'll have three or maybe four. Personally I think that success would be consistent Champions League qualification and a knock out trophy. Perhaps even a European Trophy.

If he accomplishes this then he should take his place among the great Liverpool managers. Moreover, he'll probably end up as the England manager. And wouldn't we all enjoy that?

*it's a bit like closing down.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

The Bundesliga doesn't have or need a 'Klassiker'

Bayern Munich's 5-1 victory over Borussia Dortmund on 4th October underlines not just the Bavarian's supremacy but the lack of wisdom in the promotion of "Der Klassiker".

This is the second time that Bayern have beaten their perceived championship rivals by 5-1 at home this season. However, the difference between the Dortmund win and that against Wolfsburg were like chalk and cheese.

Wolfsburg played well in the first half and were undone in a crazy 9 minutes of football at the start of the second from five goal Robert Lewandowski. Borussia in contrast were dreadful. Thomas Tuchel, in relegating, Ginter in favour of Lukasz Piszczek and recalling Bender as a makeshift centre half may have over thought his tactics. Dortmund fell foul of two long balls that you would expect a team of their calibre to defend and the goalkeeper had a 'mare.

That being said Bayern were and are excellent. Douglas Costa is a sensation down the flanks, Thiago is constantly reassuring, Müller is a force of nature and the team is masterminded by a coach who, unlike his less experienced opposite number usually gets it right for the big games. In my opinion, Bayern would have won the game even if Dortmund had been at their best.

It is difficult therefore not to arrive at the conclusion that Bayern are very much a class above the rest of the league. However, the tendency to overhype this particular fixture as a German classico, runs the risk of cheapening the Bundesliga as a whole by focussing too much attention on a single fixture when German football has so much more to offer.

A couple of hours before the Bayern v Dortmund game,  FC Köln provided a tactical masterclass in counterattacking football by beating Schalke away from home 3-0. It was a demonstration of the cleverness of their coach Peter Stöger and the tactical discipline of their players. Contrast this performance to a similar botched attempt by Tony Pulis’ West Bromwich Albion against Crystal Palace the day before in the much vaunted Premier League.

The Bundesliga is brimming with talented youngsters such as Max Meyer, Leroy Sane, Julian Draxler, Robin Knoche, Maxi Arnold, Julian Brandt, Julian Weigl and countless others. In spite of Bayern's dominance of the league, only five in the starting XI of Germany's World Cup winners were brought through the ranks by the Bavarians. Schalke, Werder Bremen, Bayer Leverkusen and even Kaiserslautern provided the starting point for players in that team and although Mats Hummels was a youngster at Bayern, he made his name at Dortmund.

Most weeks the league throws up exciting, high scoring matches and continues to engage its fans as the high attendances will testify. While it does not make as much money as the English Premier League it is by no means a cash poor league and is very much in rude health. Which makes this attempt to manufacture a traditional classico along the lines of the Real Madrid v Barcelona game or the Derby d'Italia is unnecessary.

Down the years, Bayern have enjoyed a healthy rivalry with a number of different clubs beside Dortmund. Borussia Mönchengladbach, Stuttgart, Werder Bremen and Hamburg among others have challenged Bayern throughout the history of the Bundesliga. However, only Bayern have remained at the top since their emergence as a force in the 1970s. Consequently there has not been a consistent challenger from which a traditional rivalry and in turn a classico did develop.

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The Bayern v Dotmund 'Der Klassiker' seems to be a recent construct based in the fact that for two seasons at the start of the decade, Borussia were a match for Bayern. The term seems only to be embraced by the small but growing international German football media and the Bundesliga itself. There is no perceived history or tradition to the fixture and not much evidence of its use in the wider German football lexicon. 

And while this false narrative may help foreign media provide a focus for the Bundesliga in terms of publicising and promoting the league, there is a risk that the Bundesliga could be cheapened by focussing too much on just Bayern and Dortmund. It could also backfire as it becomes clear that most of the time the same team (Bayern) is likely to keep winning. Potential new fans could be put off by its one sidedness and be left with the impression that Bayern are the only decent team in Germany, rather than the reality which is that there are plenty of good teams in Germany of which Bayern is the best.

The Bundesliga is a strong, progressive league with a plethora of great clubs with histories both long and short. It is also the home of the World Champions. It should concentrate on these qualities and does not need to manufacture rivalries to be successful.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Selected Weekend TV Preview 2 - 4 October

(All times UK)

Friday 2 October

Wolfsburg Women v SC Freiburg Women, Women's Bundesliga, 17:00, British Eurosport / British Eurosport HD

Eurosport have shown plenty of Champions league and international women's football but to my knowledge have not shown any Frauen Bundesliga. This is probably one of the strongest leagues in Europe and we can only hope that it finds an audience here in the UK. The season is only three weeks old and Wolfsburg are looking to bounce back after their narrow defeat to league leaders and Champions Bayern Munich. Freiburg got their first three points in the last matchday with a 6-1 win against Cologne.

Rotherham United v Burnley, Championship, 19:45, Sky Sports 5

Rotherham's form had improved, winning their last two games, before the departure of manager and convicted criminal Steve Evans. Conversely, Burnley had dropped points in their last two games and are down to seventh.

Saturday 3 October

Crystal Palace v West Brom, Premier League, 12:45, BT Sport 1

Just the one entry for Saturday on account of the sheer volume of tasty fixtures on Sunday. The Pulis Derby becomes the focus of attention. Truly this is a fixtures that only the fans could love. Albion's hilarious capitulation to Everton last Monday will focus the mind of Tony Pulis to the task of undoing his former club just as he did last season. But will it be a case of fool me once... for Alan Pardew and his men?

Sunday 4 October

Everton v Liverpool, Premier League, 13:30, Sky Sports 1

Both clubs are struggling for relevance in this new football age. Liverpool are still having trouble reconciling the fact that they are, for now at least, a second tier Premier league club. Everton seem a little more comfortable in their skin but you sense that there is an understandable frustration that the game has passed them by, at least until they extent or move to new stadiums. However, the Merseyside Derby remains a must watch fixture even for cynical eurosnobs such as the author.

Bayern Munich v Borussia Dortmund, Bundesliga, 16:30, BT Sport Europe

Top of the table clash that had it be on three weeks ago might have more potential for an upset (an upset being a Dortmund win). However, BVB have dropped points at Hoffenheim and inexplicably against Darmstadtat the   Westfelen last Sunday. Bayern in the meantime and improved and Robert Lewandowski will line up against his old club in terrifying  form having scored 10 (ten) goals in the last 3 (three) games.

Chelsea Ladies v Sunderland AFC Ladies , FA Women's Super League, 18:00, BT Sport 1

The climax of the WSL is upon us. With one matchday left it's all on Chelsea not to blow the title as they did last year. Beat a Sunderland team that have not won in their last four or risk being overtaken by Manchester City. In all likelihood BT will cut to the City v Notts County game if and when they take the lead. Could be a nail biter for Chelsea fans.

PSG v Marseille, Ligue 1, 20:00, BT Sport 2

This heavyweight clash is counterbalanced by the atrocious form of the away side. Their latest embarassement was a 2-1 home revese to Angers. Still there is something wrong with the world when a PSG v OM match is not worth observing even if it is on your tablet while concentrating on the Madrid derby on the other side.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Selected Weekend TV Preview 25 - 27 September 2015

One of the original graphics. Designed by Chris Oakley
Back in the days of football blogging where Some People and on the Pitch and the Football Fairground strode the Internet like titans, we did a thing called the Midweek and Weekend TV Preview.

This was a comprehensive guide to all the football games being transmitted on UK TV. The style of these previews was intended to be informative, brief and at time irreverent.  Some of us used them as a platform to espouse opinions that for one reason or another were not sufficiently developed or relevant to justify a full blog post.

At its peak their were four of us writing them and we covered every game that was on the telly.

Those days are over but today I and attempted to bring them back albeit in truncated form and only when I have time to do them.

So without further ado I bring the triumphant return of the Weekend TV Preview (selected).

(All kick off times UK)

Friday 25th September

FC Köln v FC Ingolstadt, Bundesliga, 19:30, BT Sport Europe

Seventh play eighth respectively. FCK are, possibly for the first time since the 1960s being run by a sensible management team who understand that clubs like Köln survive with conservative tactics and ambitions. Despite a defeat to a slowly resurgent Hertha, during the week, Cologne are set fair for another prosperous second season in the top flight.

Ingolstadt are a newly promoted teeny tiny club who are doing what another newly promoted teeny tiny club, Paderborn, did last season: surprise and embarrass a few clubs in the early rounds. If they can overcome resolute mid table clubs like Köln tonight and for the rest of the campaign they have a chance. Unless of course their patrons, Audi, get some disappointing results back from the lab.

Fulham v Queens Park Rangers, Football League Championship, 19:45, SKY Sports 1

London is not big enough for all its club to be in the Premier League (as I fear Crystal Palace will rediscover in due time) and west London really only has room for one, neither of with are Fulham or QPR. So both clubs may come to relish these derby games in the seasons to come and are well suited rivals. That is assuming one or both don't hit the rocks financially and end up in the Conference.

Fulham (16th) cannot boast much by way of a home record but they have score 11 goals so far this season and can claim to be on a run if they follow up their win against Blackburn with one tonight. QPR (8th) have had their moderately encouraging start back in the Championship curtailed by a couple of draws with Blackburn and Hull. Definitely a game for the atmosphere rather than the football.

Saturday 26th September 

Newcastle United v Chelsea, English Premier League, 17:30, SKY Sports 1

Oh the narrative. Steve McClaren's knack for hurling himself into red hot frying pans knows no bounds. Despite missing out on promotion, he'd assembled a Derby side to get behind. Even if he'd been given the boot he had surely restored his reputation. It's in severe jeopardy now after Newcastle's dismal start to the season and League Cup exit to a team from Sheffield.

But there is a light at the end of the tunnel and it comes in the shape of the blighted doctor botherer, Jose Mourinho.  The Chelsea boss has only a Champions League win and a win against Arsenal in his recent plus column, neither of which count for much frankly. The Champions League is not much more than a preliminary round for the likes of Chelsea and they always beat Arsenal.

Oh yes I forgot about West Brom. Can't forget that.

Napoli v Juventus, Serie A, 19:45, BT Sport Europe

An antidote to the egg chasing (which I'll confess to enjoying). The champions Juve are struggling in 13th just a place behind their opponents. It could have been rosier for the Old Lady were it not for the pesky Leonardo Blanchard equalising for Frosinone in the final minutes, last Wednesday. Both teams may be struggling with the mid week fixtures and may welcome the forthcoming international break.

That said there is plenty of quality in this game and no little drive to kick start their seasons from both sets of players. A mid table game but which the heart of a top of the table clash.

Montreal Impact v DC United, MLS Eastern Conference, 22:00, SKY Sports 5

It's worth getting across the MLS now because there is about a month to go before the post season and the play off births are getting settled. DC are fourth in the Eastern Conference but haven't won in five. They have hitherto owned this fixture this season by playing Impact twice and winning both. Montreal are in the sixth and final play off place four points ahead of Orlando (or should that be "Kaka's Orlando"?).

Sunday 27th September

Middlesbrough v Leeds United, Football League Championship, 13:15, SKY Sports 1 and SKY Sports 5

A chance to get a good look at Aitor Karanka's team that probably should be in the Premier League by now. The return of Stewart Downing seems to have had the desired effect and it would be of no surprise if Boro were to disappear over the horizon this season. That being said, this home fixture against Leeds is the ideal litmus test. United are still a shadow of their former selves but are improving. A full house and a thundersome derby atmosphere is in store.

Watford v Crystal Palace, Premier League, 16:00, SKY Sports 1

Hardly a blue ribbon fixture but a tasty sort of London Derby twixt two teams that have surprised a few since their respective returns to the Premier League. Palace need to find the net in the league. Losing 1-0 to City and Tottenham is kind of understandable but the lack of goals could be a concern for Pardew.

Watford's impressive wins against Newcastle and Swansea make them favourites to win this, in my eyes. Although I hope that puts the kybosh on them.

Liverpool Ladies v Chelsea Ladies, FA WSL 1, 19:00, BT Sport 1

Two games left and Chelsea are two points clear of Manchester City. However City could be top by the time this game kicks off if they beat Bristol earlier in the day. But if City lose and Chelsea win then the title goes to the blues. All to play for as they say.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Bundesliga Diary - What if Josuha Guilavogui had scored? (Bayern Munich 5 Wolfsburg 1)

Part of Manuel Neuer's charm is the sneaking feeling that he is not quite the Best Keeper In The World that most say he is (myself included). This heretical view is from time to timebacked up bu the odd coals that he adds to the furnace with what appear to be mental aberrations and general brain fartery.

The latest nugget came during the Bayern Munich's 5-1 destruction of Wolfsburg on Tuesday (22 September). Neuer tried to make an intervention in his self appointed capacity as libero which went horribly wrong. With Neuer taking the meaning of stranded to strange new places, the ball fell to Joshua Guilavogui, an otherwise admirable defensive midfielder who having spotted the keeper of the line (by several furlongs) took a punt at the goals from super long range.

The ball shaved the outside of the post. Half a foot to the right and Wolfsburg wold have entered the dressing room with a 2-0 lead at the Allianz and would have left Bayern coach Pep Guardiola with a heap of problems.

Or would it?

Whether the Bavarians were 1 or 7 goals behind, Pep would have set them up exactly the same way for the second half. That was to step up the pressing and go on the attack. Bayern striker Robert Lewandowski would still have come off the bench and would still have scored those five goals in 9 minutes even if Guilavogui had doubled Wolfsburg's lead.

Or would he?

The mindset of players is the hardest to read for anyone watching the game. No one really knows if the extra goal deficit would somehow have adjusted the player's mental approach to the second half. Burdened by the two goal lead the Champions may have been a touch more rash and undisciplined, making just enough mistakes to prevent the 9 minute blood bath that ended with Lewandowski suddenly five goals better off this season and no doubt the holder of a few new records.

We'll never know, of course, but goals change the course of games and as Wolfsburg coach Dieter Hecking ponders the result on the long journey home he may allow himself to wonder what might have been had the loose ball fell to Draxler rather that Guilavogui.

Spare a thought also for Wolfsburg's Dante. The defender who, up until August, was a Bayern player had a decent game for the most part. As the goals rained in no one would have blamed the Brazilian for suffering flashbacks to Bela Horizonte and his debagging at the hands of the Germans in the 2014 World Cup.

At least, for Dante, it could have been worse.

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Sunday, 6 September 2015

Great Penalties: Peter Schmeichel saves against Dennis Bergkamp in the 1999 FA Cup semi final replay

The first of a very occasional series on great penalties features Dennis Bergkamp v Peter Schmeichel in the 1999 FA Cup semi final replay between Arsenal and Manchester United.


This match took place on 14 April 1999 and was televised live on Sky Sports. The commentator, Martin Tyler, made a barbed remark about the "European tail waging the domestic dog." He was referring to the fact that this match was to be the final FA Cup semi-final replay. From the following season all semis would be settled after one game, by penalties if required.

The reason for this was the Champions League which was putting the domestic fixtures under strain. Tyler's remark was a thinly veiled criticism of the decision. A few years later Sky would acquire the right to transmit the Champions League and stopped transmitting the FA Cup.

After a goalless draw the teams reconvened, again at Villa Park, to have another go. While the Reds were the dominant force in England in the 90s, Arsenal had won the Premier League and FA Cup double the season before.

There was a cigarette paper between the two teams in terms of quality and both were packed with quality outfield players including Giggs (who started this game from the bench), Roy Keane, David Beckham, Jaap Stam, Nicolas Anelka, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Viera and Emmanuel Petit.

That being said, United boss, Alex Ferguson, had rotated some players, mindful of their upcoming Champions League semi-final against Juventus. United would go on to win the Premier League, the FA Cup and the Champions League by the end of the season.

The Match

The result was decided in extra time by a sensational goal by Ryan Giggs. But part of what made that goal so dramatic was what had gone before.

The game finished 1-1 with two goals that would now be described as "thunderbastards". Beckham and Teddy Sheringham combined for the former to curl a long range shot from 22 yards. It was the first goal Arsenal had conceded in 690 minutes.

Bergkamp scored the equaliser from more or less the same range. But the Dutchman's strike was helped by a wicked deflection off Jaap Stam. Anelka was convinced he'd won the tie after latching onto a through pass and scoring a second. But after a brief confab, the referee David Elleray backed up the linesman's decision and ruled the goal out as offside.

Then disaster struck for United when Roy Keane was sent off for two yellow cards. The first was for a foul on Bergkamp, the second for another on substitute Marc Overmars.

United tried to keep the Gunners at bay but just as the game was set for extra time, Phil Neville made a puzzling decision and brought down Ray Parlour in the area. As Neville rose to his feet, convinced he'd blown his club's chance of a domestic and European treble, Dennis Bergkamp prepared himself to settle the game and move on, to the Final.

The Penalty

Among his many virtues, the United 'keeper Schmeichel was excellent at "making himself big" to use 90s commentator parlance. He had the frame and positional sense to provide a significant obstacle when one on one with an attacking player. Also,  in the intense bear pit that was Villa park under the floodlights and with so much at stake, the ball probably looked twice its size.

The big Dane stood in the middle of the goals, his eyes fixed on Bergkamp in an attempt to anticipate the Dutchman's next move. He succeeded. Bergkamp's shot may have been the proverbial "nice height" for a 'keeper but Schmeichel dived the right way and came the ball away to safety.

Allowing himself a brief moment of celebration Schmeichel ordered his team mates back into their positions. Characteristically, David Beckham was the only player to defy him and give him a quick hug. Lord Beckham was often the first to be their for the big moments.

That moment effectively decided the game. Arsenal fell to pieces and allowed Giggs to cut them open and score the winner in spectacular fashion. In fact it was Viera's cross field ball that set Giggs off on his run. If the Welshman had tried the same thing in normal time he'd have never got near the penalty area let alone the goal.

This match is rightly remembered for Gigg's wonder goal but it would not have happened without Schmeicel's penalty save. It forced extra time and destroyed the opposition's spirit.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

A big few weeks ahead for Borussia Mönchengladbach

As the bunting goes up celebrating the return of Borussia Dortmund as a force in the Bundelsiga this season, there are growing concerns regarding the other Borussia after they were so heavily defeated by Dortmund on Saturday.

It doesn't matter how much of a professional you are, when you are being humped 4-0 and you look up at the scoreboard to see there's 40 minutes left in the game, your legs are likely to stop working the way they should and you can't think straight.This was Borussia Mönchengladbach's state towards the back end of their defeat to Dortmund last Saturday.

But the players weren't helped by the one way tactics employed by coach Lucien Favre who favoured caution over attack. This was understandable. He would have had Dortmund scouted during their Europa League and German Cup games and got the strong sense that they were much improved under Tuchel. It was reasonable to think that the opposition would be straight out of the blocks on their first league game of the season and anxious to make up for their dismal campaign, last season.

Moreover with the changes to his starting XI brought about by transfers and injuiries the Swiss coach may have felt obliged to not over complicate matters.That being said, such was the gulf in quality between the two Borussias that Favre must have been tempted to encourage his players to swap shirts with the BVB players and player them in the Champions League instead.

Mönchengladbach's return to the European Cup since they finished runners up in 1977 is a great and merited acheivement and a triumph for Favre and sporting director, Max Eberl. Their success has happened through great football and sound rather than lavish recruitment.

The addition of Max Kruse from Freiburg in July 2013 was hugely influential to the 'Gladbach attack and knitted that front line together very effectively. Similarly, while the Marc Andre Ter Stegen's departure at the end on the 13/14 season was hardly felt as Yann Sommer as ably replaced him. Christophe Kramer's two year loan from Bayer Leverkusen proved profitable for both club and player as the German World Cup winner matured into one of the best centre midfielders of his day and he made a direct contribution to 'Gladbach qualification for the Champions League.

But fiscal frugality has it's downsides. To begin with it's harder to go looking for bargains when you're now a fully fledged group stage Champions League club. Also, there is no guarentee that players as good as Kruse and Kramer are available for cheap at the time you go into market. Both of those players left in the summer and the players thay have signed in their stead are not like for like replaecements. Nor should they expected to be.

Josip Drmić was filthy good at Nurnberg two seasons ago but struggled to find a role at Leverkusen, last season. Unlike Kruse, when he arrived from Freiburg, Drmic arrives short on form and probably confidence. However, the Swiss international can be explosive and should come good if he is given time. The dilemma being that at the level ‘Gladbach are playing this season, time is a luxury he does not have.

Lars Stindl was brought in from Hannover 96 as a sort of replacement for Kramer. But he played deeper than usual and struggled to keep position against Dortmund. The former H96 skipper was instrumental in his team’s sensational 4-2 comeback win at St Pauli in the cup a week earlier which suggests that he’ll settle in time.

Then there are injuries with which to contend. The new center back pairing on Marvin Schulz (20) and Andreas Christiansen (19) are being thrown in at the deep end after having to deputise for the injured Alvaro Dominguez and Martin Stranzl. A Bundesliga baptism of a resurgent Borussia Dortmund is far from ideal but Favre had little choice but to back his youngsters to learn from the experience and learn quickly.

It all ends up in to something of a mix and match and is hardly ideal prepartation for the start of what is in all likelhoood one on 'Gladbach's toughest ever seasons. In fact it's reminiscenmt of the start of the 2012/13 season where BMG tried to qualify for the group stage of the Champions League the season after having lost Reus, Dante and Neustadter in one summer.

Up next on Matchday 2 is Mainz, a team who are already asking themselves some tough questions following their 1-0 home reverse to newly promoted FC Ingolstadt. FCI, although backed by VW wedged are still a very small club and expected to be relegated. Three points will go some way in steadying the nerves at Borussia Park. Anything less could set the alarm bells ringing.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

The inevitably of the Premier League TV Schedules

To add to the list of peculiarities of modern football is the publication of the English Premier League's televised live matches. Much like the running order of Match Of The Day, the decision as to what team gets televised when and how, provokes the ire of some fans.

It is a fact that the Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool will get more airtime than Leicester, Stoke or Sunderland this season. And in turn those bigger clubs get more money for making more appearances. The inequity is clear and critics are right to ask, how can smaller clubs hope to catch up with the bigger clubs if the bigger clubs get more exposure and more money?

Were the broadcasters to answer this question it's likely that they would say that it is only reasonable to show the better teams with better players because that's more entertaining. They might also point out that bigger clubs have larger fan bases, many of whom subscribe to their sports channel so they are simply responding to a commercial imperative.

Of course to what extent that's truly an answer depends entirely upon your ideological approach to football. In any event, football clubs have, for better or worse, elected to enter into a partnership with broadcasters in order to earn lots of money. Far more money than they could hope to earn through the turnstiles.

The upside is the aforementioned wedge. The down side is the  biased coverage towards the bigger clubs and the loss of dignity in being used as a marketing tool between rival broadband suppliers, SKY and BT. A bit like Game of Thrones only with moderately less sex and violence.

Many people take issue with the scheduling of matches for the benefit of TV audiences. This is something that elicits sympathy and for good reason.

However, the shifting work patterns and social commitments in the UK means that an increasing number of people can't go to Premier League matches on Saturday afternoons. There are also other reasons for not being able to get to games, not least of which is the price of entry and inaccessibility for the disabled.

Shifting matches outside the Saturday afternoon embargo to accommodate TV coverage maybe commercially driven but it does give folk who can't get to games on a Saturday a chance to watch. Arguably, far more than the smaller number of away supporters who will miss out.

Looking at it that way you could argue that televised football is good for fans and that a balance has been struck between scheduling for TV and remaining faithful to the traditional kick off time of 3pm on a Saturday.

That is of course assuming people can afford the subscription prices and that they support a team that regularly appears on the telly. Supporters of Leicester, Stoke or Sunderland may not see much value in their SKY or BT subscription. Not to mention those who support non Premier League clubs.

Access to watch games has been an issue for supporters from the old days when kids would peer over the fence to today where people who are working, poor or  can't otherwise enter the ground. We live in a period of the game's story where we can watch more top class professional football than ever before. The pay off is that it's expensive and the scheduling and choice of matches is left largely to broadcasters and their narrow commercial needs.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Will the Lionesses give English football an extra bounce?

Beyond catching the odd game on BT Sport, I started watching the Women's World Cup with very little knowledge of the women’s game.  I have deliberately approached the tournament from the perspective of a newbie. That is eager to learn and slow to judge. As a consequence I've enjoy the football immensely and celebrate its differences from the men's game.

Not that there are too many. Women are as physical as men to my eye. I've detected somewhat less cynical play (glossing over Steph Houghton's penalty in the semi-final) but they players are certainly not frightened of leaving something on their opponents. The ball doesn't travel as far as it does in the men's game but that in itself can encourage passing football and a reluctance to play with a high defensive line which leaves more space.

And of course there has been England. Unfancied but improving England who had yet to win a knock out game in a World Cup. Thanks to coach Mark Sampson's tactics, squad rotation and a teeny blessing from the draw, the lionesses have done a good deal more than that. Also, with the BBC showing all the World Cup games live and the latter England games of the flagship BBC 1 channel, the nation has taken notice of their progress to the third place play off.

Back in England the FA Women's Super League clubs will be anxious to find if the Lionesses success on the 3G fields of Canada will translate into increased attendance figures at Manchester, Lincoln, Arsenal, Liverpool and the rest of the clubs that make up the 2 divisions of the WSL. The 2014 season recorded an average attendance of 728 (Source: The FA). This was a significant on the 562 in 2013 but is comparable to tier 6 in the men's game. The medium term aim must surely be to get attendances up to over 1000 for WSL 1 at least. Indeed some may find that to be a modest ambition.

The good news is that the WSL will be resuming their season almost immediately after the World Cup. The opportunity is there to strike while the iron is hot. The bean counters will be examining the attendance figures and TV ratings closely for a bump.

It will also be interesting to see how many, if any, professional men's clubs seek to increase investment  in their own women's teams or partner clubs on the back of England's success. How soon will it be before there is a clamour to expand the WSL to accommodate clubs eager to step up their commitments for their own commercial interests? How soon before Manchester United decide to launch their own women's football club? If and when they do they're hardly going to start from the bottom.

Were women's football to suddenly blossom then its administrators may find themselves confronted with some fresh challenges.  In turn they may have to make some difficult choices as new and more powerful interests become stakeholders.

You may recall when Doncaster Rover Belles were forcibly relegated in 2013 so as to accommodate Manchester City Women. City posted the highest average attendances in their debut season in 2014 suggesting that their place in the top tier is merited. This would be justification to bump smaller clubs out of the league for more well healed newcomers.

Get ready also for the misogyny.  The dinosaurs who think women should be serving pies rather then curling free kicks. Look out also for unflattering pictures of England players entering and leaving night clubs on click bait website anxious to judge them, not on the ability to play football but on their sexuality. Such is the burden that all women athletes must carry.

But let's not dwell on the negatives. Rather let's embrace what we hope will be a golden age of the women's game. In fact let's stop calling it 'women's football' and call it just football instead. After all the beautiful game should know no gender.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Di Santo's economy is vital if Werder want to go the distance

Last season, Werder Bremen managed on averaged just 12 crosses per game. Only Hertha Berlin managed less. It was a good job then that their top striker, Franco Di Santo needed so few chances to score.

The Argentine took a fraction over two shots per game during the 2013/14 season and collected 13 goals from his 26 appearances. Di Santo is right up there with Bas Dost, Shinji Okasaki, Patrick Herrmann and Max Kruse as Bundesliga strikers that don’t take many chances to score. It is no wonder that the player’s agent is playing it cool regarding his future and that at the moment Di Santo is holding off signing that new contract.

Werder are trying to restructure their squad on a shoestring budget. A series of unwise investments in the transfer market and the continued legacy of the redeveloped Weserstadion have forced the club to downgrade its expectations from being Champions League hopefuls to happy to settle for a place in the Bundesliga.

It is likely that Nils Petersen and Eljero Elia will be shunted off the wage bill this summer. The club also got as hefty transfer fee for the 20 year old Davie Selke who has moved to RB Leipzig. The transfer is both a loss and a win given how talented yet unproven is the German Under 20 international.

Since Thomas Schaaf left the club in 2013, Werder have appeared without purpose. In truth, this was the case before Schaaf left but his sheer longevity exuded a degree of certainty, much like the old man sat in his office meticulously preparing a ledger that, in truth could have been committed to spreadsheet years earlier.

While Schaaf's departure after 14 years as coach at the Weserstadion may have seemed like a necessary decision to rejuvenate the club, the opposite happened. Football under Schaaf's replacement, Robin Dutt, was moribund.

Dutt tried to change the playing style from the gung ho all out attack under Schaaf which was no longer appropriate for a club that lacked the attacking élan to pull it off. The result was a season of yawn stifling football as he tried to introduce a more defensive approach. After one season it was hoped that Werder would kick on with a new found sense of stability at the back. They didn't. In fact they were rubbish and Dutt was sacked in October 2014.

Under Viktor Skrypnyk, Werder have found some shape. They're hardly the swashbucklers of old but more pragmatic. Skrypnyk has been at the club since 1996 and he has developed a compact style of play. Clemens Fritz may not be at the peak of his powers but has responded to a more disciplined system of play. Fin Bartels who transferred from St Pauli last summer has taken full advantage of his opportunity to play in the first division and does so with great energy and vigour.

Then there is the jewel in the Werder midfield, Zlatko Junuzović. The Austrian had a breakthrough campaign, last season and his six goals and 12 assists have helped Werder keep away from the relegation trap door. The prodigious dead ball specialist has signed a new contract  and his set to be at the centre of the action next season.

But their best player is probably the January centre half signing, Jannick Vestergaard from TSG Hoffenheim. The occasionally error prone defender moved to Bremen with the intention that he would be a regular in the Werder back line. He has risen to the challenge and been a stand out player. The Dane is only 22 so has his best years ahead of him. He should make up the third in a triumvirate that can form the back bone of the Werder side, next season along with Junuzović and of course, Di Santo.

Should the Argentine choose to stay then Werder have a platform. If not then sporting director Thomas Eichin will be on the look out for a replacement without a great deal to offer by way of compensation. If he fails then they may come to regret letting Selke go to Leipzig and Werder are in for a tough season.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Is it time to end the Bundesliga Relegation playoff?

Few neutrals who watched Hamburg’s last ditch Relegation playoff survival at Karlsruhe on Monday would argue that it was cracking stuff. It was drama that outstrips anything drafted by even the sharpest Hollywood writing team.

The end of season Bundesliga Relegation Playoff pits the third from bottom of the first division against that third placed second team in a two legged game to decide who plays in the 1st division next season. For the second year in a row, Hamburg were the top tier club and once again they prevailed, this time thanks to an extra time winner in the second leg at Karlsruhe.

But there was a controversial turning point in the second leg when the referee, Manual Grafe,  gave a free kick to Hamburg deep into injury time for a marginal handball. HSV consequently scored and forced the game into extra time.

The result left a bitter taste in the mouth for the KSC players and supporters who felt hard done by. Many neutrals (at least on my Twitter timeline) were also left frustrated that a team as consistently dismal as Hamburg are still in the top flight. As exciting as it was it's difficult to escape the feeling that this play off appears to be rewarded a bad football team.

There have been seven relegation playoffs since its return to the calendar in 2009. Five of those games have gone the way of the first division club. You could say that two of these clubs, TSG Hoffenheim and Borussia Mönchengladbach have gone on to make a significant contribution to the Bundesliga after their brush with death. Borussia have certainly produced a brilliant side that hopefully will grace the Champions League next season.
But the downside is that second division clubs are being prevented from progressing in the top tier. Of the five losing contenders, only Augsburg were able to bounce back from playoff defeat in 2010. Bochum, Kaiserslautern, Greuther Fürth and now Karlsruhe have worked hard and played well to earn their third place finish only to find all their good work undone by a two legged match.

Moreover, there is a danger that smaller clubs are being denied the experience of playing in the first division. KSC had a relatively young squad who, no doubt would have struggled had they been promoted but the experience would have been of great value to the players, coaches and the club. The same could be said for last season's losers, Greuther Fürth, who would have bounced back after one season down in the second division and might have made more of a fist of things second time around.

You may argue that the Bundesliga 2 teams should pull their finger out and win these game. And of course you would be right. But often these teams are made up of younger less experienced players than their Bundesliga 1 counterparts. It seems unreasonable to put their entire season on the line against more experienced professionals.

Besides, it seems unsporting to give bad teams another chance. HSV have been dogshit for the last two seasons and there's no reason to think that they won’t be just as bad next season. I think KSC deserved their chance and it’s a shame that their fantastic season was effectively decided by a questionable call from a referee.

So perhaps it's time the DFL did away with the playoff. As entertaining as they are for the neutral, they have often rewarded bad teams and bad football. The desire to extend the season for a little while longer is tempting but a four team second division playoff would be just as fun and more sporting. Especially if you seeded the higher placed teams at the end of the season. It also has the virtue of sending the crap teams down and not leaving them with the illusion that they have actually achieved something at the end of the season.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Sound of Football Extra: The Bundesliga First XI

Following on from my contribution to the Premier League XI for the imaginary World League Cup this summer, below is my Bundesliga XI which was also included in the Sound Of Football podcast.


Manual Neuer - FC Bayern Munich

I could easily have gone for Yann Sommer at Borussia Mönchengladbach, Roman Burki at Freiburg or Bernd Leno at Bayer Leverkusen. Praise for the German number 1 is not universal, particularly after getting chipped, nutmegged and beaten at the near post by Barcelona. However, for me he is still the top choice for this competition.

Full backs

Abdul Baba Rahman - FC Augsburg

Top class full-back and one of the success stories of FCA who finished fifth this season. Strong defensively and in attack, Baba is destined to play at the top of the club game.

David Alaba - FC Bayern Munich

This is a nominal position as Alaba can play across the back or in midfield. As much as Bayern missed Robben towards the end of the Bundesliga season, they arguably missed the Austrian more.

Central defenders

Juan Bernat - FC Bayern Munich

An outstanding season for Bayern. Composed and no-nonsense, Bernat would settle into a hastily arranged squad such as this.

Naldo - VfL Wolfsburg

An experienced and rangy Bundesliga centre-back with a penchant for goals. A vital component in the Wolves fantastic season.

Central Midfielders

Christophe Kramer - Borussia Mönchengladbach

Off to Bayer Leverkusen in the summer, Kramer has matured into one of the best holding midfielder's in the league.

Thiago Alcántara - FC Bayern Munich

Injured for much of the season, the Spaniard has an unerring eye for a pass and can score some spectacular goals.

Attacking Midfielders

Arjen Robben - FC Bayern Munich

Injuries not withstanding the Dutchman was sensational this last season. His crossing and inside play was the best we've seen from him all his career.

Kevin De Bruyne - VfL Wolfsburg

The Belgian has been sensational, gliding across the pitch, creating and scoring goals for the Wolves this season.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

Lightning fast and now quite capable of finding the back of the net, Aubameyang can get behind any defense in the world.


Robert Lewandowski - FC Bayern Munich

A ball magnate who can turn on a six pence. His technique and speed of thought makes him almost impossible to play against. Even the most telegraphed pass from deep can look like it was from Beckenbauer when played to the Pole, such is his ability to control the ball. Alex Meier may have finished top scorer but Lewandowski is the king.

Sound Of Football Extra: The Premier League First XI

On this week's Sound Of Football we selected the first XI for an imaginary World League Cup taking place in the summer somewhere in the middle east. The decision was a collective one but we all brought our own selections along and argued it out over the course of the podcast.

The aim of this XI is to produce a team that will compete in a competition rather than picking a team of the season (although there is a lot of crossover).

My original selection is below.


David De Gea - Manchester United

It is no surprise that the 24 year old won the player of the season award for his club. United are resurgent under Louis van Gaal but they have needed their 'keeper in top form while they seek to resolve their defensive issues.In a hastily arranged team such as this with little time for training, a player with his concentration will help calm the nerves of an unfamiliar back four.

Full Backs

Nathaniel Clyne - Southampton

The former Palace player is pretty much the complete full back. Defensively astute and capable in attack. Really should be starting for England in my opinion.

Joel Ward - Crystal Palace

My line-up, my rules.Yes I know there are better fullbacks but Ward is consistent and conservative. Just what you need in a scratch back four.

Centre Half

John Terry - Chelsea 

You can't tell me that with his international career over, the Captain, Leader and Legend wouldn't relish the chance of getting stuck into another international tournament. A model of consistency on the pitch and seemingly uninjurable. Sign him up.

Gary Cahill - Chelsea

In for a penny, in for a pound. This is the centre back pairing that won the title. What's not to like?

Centre Midfield

Mile Jedinak - Crystal Palace

The Socceroo captain has not been as influential for his club since his return to Selhurst from the Asian Cup. Some people will argue that he would not get into the best Palace XI and they would probably be right. That being said Eagles' skipper is still a formidable presence in what is likely to be a tasty middle of the park. His very recent success in the Asian Cup makes him an ideal choice for this team.

Cesc Fabregas - Chelsea

Flawless all season. King of the assist makers. Didn't need any time to settle into the Blues team when he arrived and leaving him out of this side would be lunacy,

Attacking midfield

Yannick Bolasie - Crystal Palace 

Applauded of the field at Anfield, Bolasie is in red hot form and is likely to get better. The hard working Congolese international was at the Africa Cup Of Nations this year and an ideal choice to play in this new international tournament.

Alexis Sanchez - Arsenal

More on the basis of his form earlier in the season the Chilean may be knackered but can win games on his own. He can also turn top class defenders inside out. Once of the few genuine world class players in the Premier League,

Eden Hazard - Chelsea

See above only better. The Belgian has delivered week in and week out. 9 assists and 14 goals last season and and inspirational figure.


Glenn Murray - Crystal Palace

Sergio Agüero - Manchester City

26 goals and 8 assists. Kept his head in a team that often lost there's. Harry Kane would have made the cut in the team but the Argentine has the stats and the pedigree for me.

Find out our final selection  here.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Schalke - blood in the dressing room may lead to the front office

There is an old saying in English that warns of exposing your dirty washing in public. The smells emanating out of the Schalke 04 dressing room were such that it would have been best to keep the door firmly closed until laundry day.

Last Sunday’s malodorous display against FC Köln in which the Königsblauen were reduced to a smear has prompted Schalke’s sporting director (a man for whom the expression under fire barely does his position justice) to suspend three players, two for the duration of their contracts and another for a week.

Midfielder Kevin Prince-Boateng (above) and attacker, Sidney Sam are the two players placed on gardening leave for the duration of their contracts. Marco Höger is suspended for a week while the club judge his commitment to the team.

The Prince has never come across as a true blue and his suspension is the least surprising in what is a pretty unexpected turn of events. His performances have been inconsistent and at time he has genuinely appeared uninterested. The club has made it clear that he will not be returning.

Sidney Sam's expulsion is slightly harder to fathom. The German winger who joined last summer has contributed little but has spent much of the season on the treatment table. Presumably, this decision is based upon his impact in the dressing room. It certainly can't be on the basis of his on the field presence.

If this trio of players have created a bad smell in the team then it's quite appropriate to deal with them accordingly. It's not uncommon for players to be dropped or sent to the reserves or put on the transfer list before being quietly shuffled out of the club at the earliest opportunity.

But to go public with what is a matter of internal discipline is surprising to say the least. For one thing the value of these players in the transfer market is reduced drastically as potential buyers know there is a motivated seller. It also speaks to the insecurity at the top of the club, namely from their sporting director, Horst Heldt.

Heldt took over at Schalke in 2010. In his tenure he has seen head coaches Felix Magath, Ralf Rangnick, Huub Stevens, Jens Keller leave the Veltins Arena. As each coach departs the sense that the club's status has diminished, grows.

Heldt sacked Keller despite his respectable performance and qualification for the Champions League on two consecutive seasons. He was not seen as suitably inspirational which led Heldt to select a high profile coach in former Chelsea boss, Roberto Di Matteo in October of last year.

The change in management has not resulted in an improvement in the club's prospects. Despite the wealth of young talent bursting through the ranks, S04 are easily the most boring team to watch in the top half of the Bundesliga. They are lousy in transition and their cautious approach has cost them wins, especially against 10 man Bayern Munich in February.

Indeed, the Gelsenkirchen club have managed only one win in the last seven game and now sit in 6th place, the final Europa League qualifying spot. The Royal Blues are out of the Champions League which is a blow to their pride as well as their wallet.

Worse still, they have hated rivals Borussia Dortmund threatening to overtake them. This would be beyond the pale given the problems BVB have had this season.

Granted Schalke have lost key players such as Julian Draxler (above) and Klaas Jan Huntelaar through injury. But this doesn't appear to mitigate matters in the eyes of many supporters and Di Matteo's approach make him a deeply unpopular coach.

And now this latest affair which has led some fans to ask why, amidst all the player suspensions, Heldt himself should not be considering his position. From the outside, this looks like the final desperate act of a man who knows that if the team does not get six points from their last two games against relegation threatened Paderborn and Hamburg, nothing will save him or his coach.