Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Frankfurt's Wild Years

Is the Eintracht Frankfurt team that we have seen over the last two seasons the best since the early 90s side that came so close to winning the Bundesliga title? The club that, in recent years has struggled to stay in the top division and to develop an on-pitch identity, has bloomed into a young attacking, exciting team to watch. Last season, their exuberance was rewarded win the DFB Pokal against the mighty Bayern Munich.

However, this season promises even greater glory in the form of Champions League qualification either by finishing in fourth place in the Bundesliga or by winning the Europa League. To what extent the latter is a possibility really depends on how willing a participant Chelsea are in this story. However, with this Eintracht team there is the ability and the spirit to overcome high barriers in order to reach their goal. 

Last night’s second reversal of 4-2 deficit over Benfica lacked the VAR fueled chaos of the events in Manchester the evening before. However, it was a masterclass in how to contain a dangerous opponent looking to sneak a reassuring away goal while patiently probing for defensive weaknesses and waiting for a breakthrough. Once that breakthrough had been achieved, through a probably offside first-half opener by the tireless Serbian winger Filip Kostic and the unlikely but no less welcome thunderstrike from Eintracht’s unglamorous centre midfielder Sebastian Rode, Adi Hutter’s team held their nerve under increasing pressure from a desperate Benfica side who have lived under the burden of the Guttman Curse since the early 1960s. A curse that has seen them lose five European finals.

Eintracht are not regular participants in UEFA competitions and their fans have relished the trips abroad, selling out their allocations and embarrassing the home support in places like Milan and Roma. Seconds after the final whistle blew a huge number of their exuberant fans ran to the edge of the pitch and in their enthusiasm caused a section of advertising hoardings to collapse. In an act of remarkable, collective restraint and perhaps mindful of getting their club into trouble, they resisted the temptation to join their celebrating players on the pitch. Before the game, the fans created a stadium-wide choreo which was inspiring, even by German standards.

While the club celebrates and looks forward to a trip to London, the rest of us can reflect on what is truly a golden age of the club's history. Not since the 1979-80 season have Eintracht made it to a European semi-final. That was the UEFA Cup trophy that they went on to win by beating Borussia Mönchengladbach a two-legged final. The prospects of them repeating that feat are not unrealistic although the absence of the suspended Ante Rebić will be a blow. However, in Luka Jović, the German club’s have one of the most-watched strikers in Europe and in Filip Kostić a metronomic wingman capable of consistently high-quality crosses. Nor to mention the mercurial Danny Da Costa, a wide player so tricky that sometimes even he doesn't know where he’s going.

There are questions about how long this team can stay together. It should be said that Jović completed his transfer from Benfica (ironically) from who the striker was on loan and has agreed to a four-year contract. However, as sure as night follows day, bigger and richer clubs will be looking at the man who has scored 25 goals so far this season as well as Rebić and the currently injured Sebastian Halle and offering them considerable inducements to fly the nest of die Adler.

If Adi Hutter can see these players through to Europa League glory or at the very least a place in the top four of the Bundesliga then sporting director Bruno Hübner way yet be able to keep the team together at least until replacements can be signed or brought through the ranks. After all the pleasure they have brought to fans and neutral alike, it would be disappointing if there was no legacy created from this exciting and joyful football team.

Monday, 20 May 2019

Bayern keep the Bundesliga at bay

The more things change, the more they stay the same. This 2018/19 Bundesliga season saw a great deal of change but once again, Bayern Munich won the league even though they had to wait to the last day to claim their prize.

The record champions, Bayern, began the season as strong favourites despite hiring a relatively young coach in Nico Kovac and in the full knowledge that their squad was ageing and in need of regeneration.

When Kovac accepted the job towards the end of the 17/18 season with a DFB Pokal final still to play against his future employers, many, including myself thought that the former Eintracht Frankfurt boss was going to be a transitional coach for a transitional Bayern. Yet with the celebratory beer still drying on the Croatian coach's head, on Saturday, Kovac insisted that he would be the Bayern coach next season and few believe him.

However, not everyone in the team that clinched the title on an emotional afternoon at the Allianz on Saturday will be joining him next season. 
Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben have terrorised Bundesliga full-backs and centre-halves for 12 and 10 years respectively. Age has rendered them a touch slower but it's my view that their decline is one of the reasons why Bayern took so much time to get going this season. Kingsley Coman and Serge Gnabry are more than capable wing-men but they can only succeed "Ribery" and not replace them.

That both Bayern legends scored on their final appearance in a Bayern jersey is a true storybook ending to their magnificent achievements. 

The Bavarians began their seventh consecutive title defence strongly with wins over Hoffenheim, Stuttgart, Leverkusen and Schalke and established a two-point gap at the top of the table over the unlikely Hertha BSC in second. However, the capital club would be one of the three teams from the next eight matches to beat the Champions. the others being Borussias Mönchengladbach and Dortmund 3-0 and 3-2 respectively.

The latter victory was seen, inaccurately as it turned out, to be a turning point in the season. Firstly because it established daylight between Bayern and Dortmund and second because it exposed some real weakness in the Bayern backline, especially the German international Mats Hummels whose reduction in pace had not gone unnoticed before but was cruelly emphasised during this game.

These losses combined withdraws with Augsburg, Freiburg and Fortuna Düsseldorf left Bayern in fifth place and full crisis mode. Kovac was under real pressure and it is possible that were it not for the absence of a suitable replacement in November, he would have been replaced. There was talk of dressing room disharmony (there usually is in these situations) and reports that Columbian talisman, James Rodriguez was furious with the way he was being utilised by the coach.

Outsiders got a real insight as to the extent of the crisis when Club president, Uli Hoeness, CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic called a press conference to attack the press for what they considered to be unfair criticism of their players and to threaten them with legal action.

This was the sort of stunt that Bayern has played in years gone by with a very different media landscape but it backfired. Suddenly the club hierarchy looked foolish and out of step. Bayern looked like a club that was being run by has-beens and was in danger of losing their place among the clubs at the top table of European football.

But of course, the crisis passed. Bayern were, in truth never that bad and as it turned out Borussia Dortmund were never that good. Painful revenge was exacted on the pretenders to Bayern's crown in the shape of a 5-0 win in early April. While it was not straightforward and Dortmund kept them honest, few people were surprised when the champions successfully defended their title on Saturday. Seven days later, they may win the double if they overcome Leipzig in the DFB Pokal Final in Berlin.

In spite of the concerns about Thomas Müller, Mats Hummels, Jerome Boating and Manuel Neuer this Bayern team still has Joshua Kimmich, David Alaba, Leon Goretzka (who can only improve), Serge Gnabry, Kingsley Coman, Thiago and of course Robert Lewandowski who scored just the 35 goals this season.

There is, however, a cautionary bell that tolls for Bayern Munich. 

Already additions to the squad are on their way.  VfB Stuttgart's World Cup winner Benjamin Pavard will make up the new Bayern backline along with Lucas Hernandez from Atlético Madrid. However, Uli Hoeness said after the Eintracht game that Bayern will not be spending more than €80m on one player. In Bundesliga terms that still amounts to a sizable hill of beans. It's unlikely that even Dortmund will spend that much on a player (they don't have to).

However, when you add the Champions League into the question you have to wonder if the Rekordmeister need to shop at a more expensive marketplace to improve on their second-round showing this season. Where winning the domestic league is almost a given, true success for Bayern is measured by their European campaigns which have recently been disappointing.
Also, it must be pointed out that while Lewandowski seems to have put aside his ambitions to move to Real Madrid, the Polish international is 30 years old and only one man. Injury or a downturn in form are always possibilities and there is no one who can replace him. There is talk of Timo Werner making the move from Leipzig but I imagine that if the young German international's valuation by his club wasn't €80m before, it certainly is now. Even then, Werner is not Lewandowski. In fact, quite frankly no one is Lewandowski. Replacing or allowing for his absence will require time to develop young players or more realistically, a transfer fee of well over €100 million for a top level striker.

It is possible that Hoeness is bluffing and that Bayern Munich's transfer budget is higher. That would be as well for him because it is a matter of statistical fact that clubs need to keep spending to keep up and even tighter spending regulations from UEFA will not completely constrain their rivals in Spain, France and England from breaking the transfer record. In that regard, the German champions may need to reach deeper into their purse... if they can.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

Russia 2018 - The Non linear World Cup

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So many games, so little time. Yet time slows as though you are sat in class at half past two on a Friday afternoon in the Summer. Except in a good way because you savour every second. Does that make sense? I hope not because World Cups aren't supposed to make sense, this one most of all.

Adam Curtis in his documentarily HyperNormalisation tells us of non linear warfare as prosecuted by Putin's Russia. It's also called Hybrid warfare. Essentially it's the practice of waging war via propaganda, diplomacy foreign electoral intervention, cyberwarfare and, from time to time, guns and bombs. The objective being to keep your opponent in a state of disarray and confusion, unable to guess what's going to happen next and uncertain of existing realities that seemed immutable.

World Cups can have a similar effect and this World Cup has a distinct feeling of end of days. Fitting then that it should be held in Russia.

This World Cup, heralded the end of the Messi, Ronaldo era. Neither of these two players are finished. We have many more games to enjoy these two giants striding the Football landscape. Messi is 31 and CR7 is 33. However, the prospect of these two great players, who embody the who's side are you on mentality that dogs our age, leaving an indelible mark on a World Cup seems unlikely.

But nature abhors a vacuum and the rise of this youthful French team spearheaded by the 19 year old phenom, Kyllian M'Bappe have already begun to take their places on the walls of hopeful children, dreaming of scoring a goal in the World Cup final themselves one day. Elsewhere, Eden Hazard, at 27 has another World Cup in him and has signified his desire to move away from Chelsea. If the Belgian gets his wish and moves to Real Madrid then a bounty of club riches awaits him plus the kind of fame that he has not yet known. These are among the Ballon D'Or winners of the future.

This World Cup also sent a Balkan team to the final and not before time. This region of Europe has produced some beautiful players over the decades with little return. While not everyone in that part of the world was pleased to see them succeed, from a strictly football point of view, it was satisfying to see Luka Modrić, Ivan Rakitić, Mario Mandžukić et al perform on the greatest stage of all.

And speaking of the Balkans this World Cup also saw Switzerland in an interesting game, against Serbia. Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka "Eagle" celebrations got them into trouble but they also exemplified the raw emotion of that match. Plus, they told us something about the complexities and nuances of nationality and national identity.

This World Cup also saw a young man, backed by all his teammates in the Swedish national team stand up to racists. No one needed to tell Jimmy Durmaz' what conceding that last minutes free-kick to Germany meant to the outcome of that game and that an historic opportunity for a famous victory was missed. By standing up to the racists who abuse him on social media, they isolated them and said that whatever success the team would go onto achieve was not their success.

This World Cup also saw Iranian women attend football matches. A privilege denied them in their homeland. Perhaps some of those images made it back to Iran and serve as a catalyst for meaningful change.

And this World Cup gave us a decent England team that enjoyed the good fortune of squeezing passed a Columbia side shorn of James Rodriguez and finally winning a World Cup penalty shootout then comfortably beating Sweden before deservedly losing out to a superior Croatia. The "it's coming home" meme that irritated many non-English people, served to allow us a brief moment of unity before we all got back on our heads.

This World Cup saw the dubious first round exit of Senegal who fell foul of the tournament's rules whereby disciplinary points are used to separate teams on equal points and goal difference in the group stage. Many African commentators feel that this rule hurts the African team. This argument is base upon reports in other sports on racial bias towards black sportsmen by referees. I don't know if there is anything in this but given that racism exists in all other institutions it would be naïve to say it doesn't exist in football officiating. FIFA should review this rule as a matter of urgency.

If that weren't enough this World Cup final saw intervention, in the form of an on-pitch protest, from the protest art group, Pussy Riot. If Adam Curtis were watching, he might imagine that Putin allowed it as a demonstration of Russia's political plurality. In all seriousness this protest may well have great significance in the future and the courage of those protesters cannot be overstated. To embarrass the president in such a way and on such a stage is likely to be met with a severe penalties. It behoves the international press to keep a spotlight on proceedings and their treatment of these four women as they go to trial.

Of course there was so much more: VAR shenanigans: the humiliation of Robert Lewandowski; the debagging of Neymar. Not to mention Spain and Germany. Good grief what happened there?

Truly this was a World Cup that challenged the existing order and left us wondering what would be happening next. It was very much a non-linear World Cup in the home of non-liner warfare. No doubt Adam Curtis is cracking his knuckles in preparation for writing a script for another documentary.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Giroud scored a great goal but was a great goal scored?

The virtue of making your own luck is as axiomatic in life as it is in football. Arsenal's French striker Olivier Giroud's sensational scorpion kick goal had a fair slice of luck but his technique, imagination and sheer audacity earned him all the luck he needed in order to pull it off. The goal came in the first half of what was in truth a routine Arsenal win over a Crystal Palace team in a bad run of form and adjusting to a new manager. The move that led to the goal began with a misplaced pass from Palace's Jason Puncheon.

It was a sequence of events that started with a text book example of swift transition followed by an inaccurate cross compensated by a moment of brilliance. Giroud flicked the ball from behind him, over his head and passed a diving from Palace 'keeper Wayne Hennessy who was the definition of despairing. The striker acknowledged his good fortune with the finish after the match, referring to "maximum luck" but no reasonable person should deny him any congratulations he garners as a result.

However, the goal does allow us to consider the nature of what a truly great goal is and is not. Giroud's finish was sublime but the odds on making that kind of contact and making it work are tiny, even when executed by a top professional. Was there too high an element of fluke for it to be among the best goals you will see?

Despite the great skill from Giroud (and Henrickh Mkhitaryan of Manchester United who scored a goal just like it on Boxing Day) the variables involved in scoring this kind of goal are so great that there is too much luck for it to be classed as a proper worldy. The timing and placement of the cross and the inability of Giroud to see what he's doing make it shot in a million. It is unlikely that such moves are rehearsed on the training ground. There is far too much to go wrong.

It maybe gruff and churlish but I would not criticise Arsene Wenger for bemoaning the quality of Alexis Sanchez' cross and jeopardising a perfectly good goal-scoring opportunity from a blistering counter attack. By this way of thinking it can be argued that a true world class goal should demonstrate the talent of the individual players working in combination with their team to achieve what they set out to do. Improvised and inspired corrections of mistakes are not enough.

By that argument perhaps Alex Iwobi's goal to put Arsenal 2-0 up was a better goal. After all it came about after a period of sustained pressure on all parts of the Palace defence. This was a goal made by hours of drills, and match practice. It may not have been spectacular but certainly was not freaky.

Who of us want to live in that kind of a world? Surely the whole point of watching football, beyond partisanship, is to witness and celebrate goal like Giroud's goal. Yes he was lucky. Yes he may try it a hundred times again and miss every time but the beauty of football is its ability to fashion such moments. Moments that render all the hours spent on the training ground moot, albeit for a second. Let us hope that Alexis Sanchez continues to send his crosses behind the last man.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Euro 2016 Diary - England: What is to be done?

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It is fair to say that recent political events may lead to a change of relationship between a large number of English and their national team. As one of the many millions who were on the wrong end of the EU referendum on 23rd June I am reevaluating my feelings towards the country of my birth and its national football team.

Supporting England has always been problematic for me. I have never been comfortable with what I call the typical expression of English nationalism. Now that England is heading into a political direction to which I am fundamentally opposed I do not know if I will ever really be able to get behind England again. This is my choice and my problem. However, I do not believe I am alone.

That being said, were I to be more positive you could make a case for the national team unifying our divided nation either through success on the field or contempt for its dismal failures. Analysing their latest debagging at the hands of Iceland is difficult. Did they fail because the players just aren't good enough or was it because the manager got the tactics wrong? Are Iceland's players better than England's or better organised or both?

I believe that the mainstream consensus within the media and at the English FA is that the players are of sufficient quality that they, with proper management, can "punch their weight" as the FA's Chief Executive would put it. England's defeat has been put down to them freezing or being too scared to play to their maximum which, with the sort of conceit characteristic of the English, would have been enough to beat Iceland. This of course presupposes that Iceland's players are not as good as England's and that I suspect is a view against which you could strongly argue.

Nevertheless, the FA have announced that full time psychologists will travel with England in the future for international tournaments. Dr Steve Peters is the author of best selling self help book The Chimp Paradox and has worked with Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton and Ronnie O'Sullivan. He has hitherto been engaged by England on a part time basis. Perhaps he or people like him can relieve the tension in the English legs.

But whether the players will ever be are good enough to go deep in international tournaments remains to be seen. The Elite Player Performance Plan  (EPPP) is still in it's infancy and we have yet to see if it will bear fruit. The plan has been strongly criticised for undermining local youth systems with may in turn produce fewer players. However, if it is successful then surely in time we'll see a broader pools of decent professionals with whom the England manager can choose.

EPPP is still in its infancy and it is too soon to determine as to whether or not they are a success. It is certainly not the time to be looking to restructure the system at this stage without at least giving it a chance to fail.

It should also be borne in mind that many of the current Wales squad learned their trade in England. This suggests that the English system is perfectly capable of producing players that, with the right management can succeed right now. If England can produce a team capable of getting to the semi final of the Euros then surely England can produce a team capable of getting to the semi final of the Euros?

As comforting as it may be for disgruntled and disenfranchised England fans, I am not quite willing to accept that the England players are rubbish. I look at the team and see a bunch of decent professionals who, given the right conditions, can manage what Iceland and Wales achieved and that is to get the best out of themselves. This is the lesson to be learned from the Iceland result and I believe that in some ways the defeat should to be as instructive to England as the 7-1 loss to Hungary in 1954.

Whether England will ever be good enough to win the World Cup or European Championships is not the point. What matters is that they give their best and depart with dignity Sadly they have failed to do so under Roy Hodgson. 

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Euro 2016 Diary: England draw again

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Unlike Wales, England are generally pretty good at qualifying for major international tournaments. However, also unlike Wales, England are not very good at playing in major international tournaments. Once again the England team succumbed to a draw despite on the opening day of a summer tournament. What makes this draw particularly frustrating for England fans is that for once, their team was involved in an enjoyable game which they really should have won.

In the mind of this Englishman before kick off a draw was a decent result. In Russia, England faced a fancied and traditionally strong football nation. With the exception of Roman Neustädter, the entire Russian squad play in the Russian League which is not available to most people in the UK. Any first hand knowledge of their players is restricted to Russophiles and those in the football media that watch Russian teams in the Champions League and the Euro 2016 qualifiers and it is likely that many of those correspondents do not report on the England team. It was therefore difficult to asses the challenge faced by Russia until the game was actually played.

To my eyes, it looked very much like England dominated most of the match. Certainly in the first half England enjoyed most of the possession and put it to good use by creating plenty of chances. According to the stats, Hodgson's team had over twice as many shots on goal and the Russian 'keeper Igor Akinfeev had to make four saves, one of which was from the top draw.

However, it would be wrong to suggest that Russia for dormant in this match. They out tackled England, made more pass interceptions and held a more solid back line which caught the English forwards offside five times. None of with takes away from the fact that they conceded enough chances to lose the game comfortably. Their last gasp equaliser came as a result of a horrific mis match between Danny Rose and Vasili Berezutski at the far post. This is a consequence of utilising attacking full backs who lack complete defensive attributes and poor organisation which comes from the pressure of of defending a one goal lead.

England should have been over the horizon by half time and that sadly for England is the difference between an average team and a good team.  It need hardly be emphasised that in a tournament in which you have three games to do your work you cannot afford to waste great goalscoring oppurtinities by shooting straight at the goalkeeper If you can't put your chances away then you need to be strong enough defensively to keep a clean sheet and England just do not roll that way (neither, I suspect, do most teams on this tournament). As encouraging as it was to watch some of England's build up play, particularly from Adam Lallana, they will not go deep in this tournament unless they adhere to that truism.

Inevitably, blame falls on Roy Hodgson. The England manager does not enjoy the greatest popularity. Some think his tactics are boring, outdated or otherwise unsuitable. Others say that his tactics are boring, outdated or otherwise unsuitable to disguise to themselves and others that they do not like him. Hodgson's reputation as good coach exists outside England and it is likely that short of winning Euro 2016, it will remain so.

I think Hodgson understands that if England want to win Euro 2016 they will need to set up in more than one formation depending on the type of opposition. Unfortunately, England present the appearance of a coach that does not know his best formation. One thing we can be sure that he can be sure of is Wayne Rooney, whom he played in midfield to some affect against Russia, and Jack Wilshere with whom he replaced Rooney shortly after Eric Dier's goal. This was either a sensible move if you think that England should have pressed for the second goal or a disaster if you think England should have sat back and protected their lead.

For many England fans and commentators, substituting Rooney under any circumstances, is a terrible idea unless he is injured.  Irrespective of the wisdom of Hodgson's decision last night, this is a stupid point of view. The Manchester United captain is a fine player but is not and should not be regarded as a talisman.

Recriminations and robust defences of Hodgson are irrelevant unless you're trying to sell something. He is the England coach and if England build on this performance and beat Wales and/or Slovakia he will most likely stay that way. If this proves to be England's peak then Roy will be gone. After all, to get knocked out of one major tournament at the group stage may be regarded as a misfortune. To get knocked out of two seems more like carelessness.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Euro 2016: Slagging off Roy for fun and profit

As the countless expression of dismay from journalists, bookies, commentators and other folk on Twitter have demonstrated, getting angry with the England manager's squad selection is both fun an profitable. Roy Hodgson's final roster for Euro 2016 is no exception.

One of the principal sources of ire is that Leicester City's Danny Drinkwater was not selected for the final Finals squad, it seems in favour of the perennially injured Jack Wilshere. The two players play in the same position and in theory perform the same duties or at least they would if one of them did not spend more time on the treatment table than on the pitch. On paper, on grass, by the numbers and by common sense generally, Drinkwater is the in-form choice and from a certain perspective, the right choice. If you adopt that perspective then England coach, Roy Hodgson’s selection of Wilshere is counter-intuitive to say the least.

It is Hodgson's judgement that Wilshere is a better player that Drinkwater and he is not alone in this judgement. Wilshere, it is argued by his supporters, is one of the most technically skilled players in England. On a recent Sunday Supplement the consensus among those august journalists around the breakfast take was that if he Wilshere is fit, Roy will pick him. Just like Paul Gascoigne in his pomp who often got called up for England despite injury concerns. If you put Drinkwater against Wilshere based on those criteria, there is only one winner.

If this seems harsh then that’s probably because it is. But ultimately, the coach has to make a judgement call. If Hodgson thinks that Wilshere works better in his team then it is his right to pick him. Analysts may disagree and they may be proved right but it’s Roy’s cock on the block which makes it entirely his call.

Besides, I suspect that the truth is that Drinkwater wasn't dropped by Wilshere but for Marcus Rashford. Hodgson, for better or for worse chose to select all five strikers in Daniel Sturridge, Jamie Vardy, Wayne Rooney, Harry Kane and the painfully young Rashford and it is the latter who has effectively usurped Drinkwater. The real are of concern for commentators isn’t whether or not he’s bringing enough midfielder but why he has brought five strikers.

If I was to guess I’d say that England are playing a kind of front four in Euro 2016; with either two deep lying midfielders or Wilshere working in tandem with Rooney in the middle of the park, depending on how well or how badly England are doing. The England manager probably figures that he doesn’t need Drinkwater and would rather engage versatile strikers or attacking midfielders instead. This may explain why Ross Barkley made the cut.

Also, look at that midfield: Adam Lallana, Dele Alli, Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley. Eric Dier, Jack Wilshere and James Milner. This is pretty much the midfield that got England to the tournament. Had Wilshere been fit that would have been the midfield almost to a tee. Once he decided to take the Arsenal man there really was no one left to drop. Sadly for the Leicester man, he has arrived at the party a little too late. Given that 18 months ago no one would have imagined him in the team, Drinkwater has done brilliantly to reach the point where he is seen as the victim of a selection injustice.