Tuesday, 17 July 2012

The death of the ‘water carrier’: the next step in modern football evolution.


Football, like all sports; and life, is in a constant state of evolution. We have seen the tactical evolution of central defenders from bald, toothless, aggressive thugs to finesse ball-players who are comfortable launching attacks from deep. Most world class clubs, with the possible exception of Manchester United, have all but abandoned the use of traditional touchline-hugging wingers. Another change has been the gradual disappearance of the traditional defensive midfielder, midfield destroyer, defensive shield or ‘water carrier’ as they were labeled in the ultra-defensive Italian culture of catenaccio of yester-year.

When one thinks of the traditional defensive midfielder, the mind automatically jumps to illustrious names like Gennaro Gattusso, Didier Deschamps, Carlos Dunga, Diego Simeone, the list goes on.  These players had but one role on their teams; break up their opponents’ attacks by any means necessary. If they managed that task, without fouling, they attempted to get the ball to their more gifted teammates to orchestrate attacks. They ran themselves into the ground, racked up the cards for the good of the team and didn’t get the plaudits that their more glamorous teams got. They rolled their sleeves, got mud on their socks and had all the bruises to show for it. They fought. Literally..

Gennaro G...
Rino Gatusso doesn't take kindly to being insulted

The Italian influence


For nearly two decades, from the 80s, through to the turn of the millennium, Italy ruled the roost of world football, especially at club level. Italy was where all the glamour and money was. And Italian success was built solid defensive and tactical discipline. The goal fests we’re enthralled by today were frowned upon by the likes of coach Arrigo Sacchi, whose Milan team won the Scudetto, in the late 80s, by beating nearly all their opponents 1-0, despite boasting stars like Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard. The Italian clubs employed one or two midfielders for the specific role of stifling the other team’s attacks. So, as always, everyone copied the winning formula. And that is the era that produced the Dessaillys and the Dungas.

The English get rich

All evolutions go through various phases. The next phase of the evolution came with the resurrection of the English club game. Around the turn of the millennium, the English League became the pre-eminent league in European football due its financial muscle.  Part of the Premier league’s appeal stemmed from the ‘exciting’, open, end- to- end high octane football on show; as opposed to the ponderous and rigid Italians.
With this brand of soccer came the need for fitter, athletic players; and it called for all midfielders to have a semblance of attacking prowess. Teams couldn’t afford to have the traditional ultra-defensive midfielders sitting around waiting to break up opponents attacks; yet they couldn’t compromise the defensive solidity of the team. Versatility and adaptability was key. In came the likes of Patrick Vieira, Roy Keane, Dennis Wise; and Luis Enrique and Edgar Davids on the continent. Players who performed their primary duty of fighting in the trenches but could contribute to the attack if afforded the space.

The Makelele role

Any discussion about defensive midfielders would not be complete without a mention of Claude Makelele. We remember him for his impeccable position and doing his job minimal fuss. He didn’t even get into much of the disciplinary trouble that comes with the position. Amazingly he seemed to do all this with a certain nonchalance that bordered on arrogance. He never seemed to break a sweat, yet he managed to get where he needed to be to disrupt play, cover his defenders and much more. He had that rare gift in sports of almost telepathically reading his opponents’ minds and preparing himself for their next move.

What most ignore is that he was the first truly transcendent player of his type. His passing range wasn’t expansive but his short passing game was as intelligent as they come. I recall a Chelsea game against Arsenal when Arsene Wenger(he may not be the greatest tactician but you don’t win 4 titles by being dumb) ordered the likes of Robert Pires and Freddy Ljungberg to ‘sit on’ Makelele to stop him launching Chelsea’s attacks from deep with his slick, underrated passing. Wenger had noticed that most opponents gave him time on the ball, and he punished them, albeit subtly and by proxy. Not to put too fine a point on it but Florentino Perez made probably the biggest mistake in his administrative life by letting Makelele leave Real Madrid for Chelsea in the summer of 2003, a decision that in my opinion, aided the return to prominence of Frank Rijkaard's Barca.

The Spanish revolution

Now that the Spanish are well and truly the masters of the world game, the emphasis has firmly shifted from defensive rigidity to attacking fluidity. Even if Spanish clubs, and to a lesser extent, the national had always been successful. The true breakout came with Pep Gurdiola’s Barcelona juggernaut that swept all before it. This team is also the spine of the all conquering Spanish national team. Gurdiola’s insistence on all his players being comfortable on the ball and being intelligent passers has taken football to the next level. It’s the new model of success.

 Perhaps the greatest example of this new breed of midfielder is Xabi Alonso. Just as comfortable playing deep as he is spraying the ball round the park with laser efficiency, he is the total package. The Italians, not to be left, behind have re-invented the regista position; a deep lying playmaker like the unimpeachable Andrea Pirlo who wrecked all sorts of havoc at Euro 2012. The Germans have Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos/Sami Khedira who are all extremely capable on the ball; and boss the game from the base of the midfield. 

The exclusively defensive midfielder is well and truly on the way out, and this change is also reflected at club level as well. Of  the Premier League Big Four/Five/Six(depending on who you ask), only Chelsea used a traditional ‘midfield shield’ (Obi Mikel), consistently last season. Even he temporarily lost his place under AVB, to the more technically gifted Raul Mereiles and Oriol Romeu.  Nigel de Jong lost his place at City, possibly because he offers nothing other than bone-crunching tackles and a touch of kung fu. With the likes Rino Gattuso and Massimo Ambrosini in the twilight of their careers, it is truly the end of an era.

"If you don't get the ball, get the man"- Ugandan saying

The future.

 I reckon teams are moving away from over-reliance on particular players as ball winners; and moving towards use constant ball pressure involving several players, as Gurdiola’s Barca did. The downside of this method being that it requires impeccable fitness and absolute comfort on the ball from most, if not all the players. Teams that don’t get with the program will find themselves country miles behind the Barcelonas and  Real Madrids of this world. 

I must say, one of the prime reasons, for England’s poor performances on the international stage is a failure to embrace modern trends in world football. They still feel most comfortable employing a traditional DM, a generic central midfielder, two wingers and two strikers; a system that is at least 10 years outdated elsewhere. The moral of the story is, “evolve or die”

Thanks, as always, for bearing with my rumblings.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The Silly season; my thoughts.

(Hello all. I’d like to apologize for the absence over the past few months; a combination of technological difficulties and creative deficiencies. I am working on it.)

Now that the European soccer season is when well and truly over, we’ve entered the period of time Sir Alex once described as ‘silly season’. This is a period when we are bombarded with transfer news and rumors, both real and imagined. I just thought I’d examine some of the transfer deals that have been done; those in the pipeline and of course the purely outrageous.

The Head scratchers.

Some moves, while brilliant on paper, don’t take team dynamics into consideration. It would seem that some clubs just chase players to indulge themselves. For example, Real Madrid’s pursuit of Luka Modric at £30m plus is baffling. There are only two players in Madrid’s midfield who are dispensable; Sami Khedira and Angel di Maria. The former is a defensive midfielder and the latter is a winger; not positions where Modric is comfortable, let alone accomplished. Let’s not forget they also have Nuri Sahin, Kaka etc fighting for midfield positions. Staying in Madrid, Kaka’s position isn’t yet clear. Apparently, he’s being hawked about for 25m. I don’t think, even PSG would fall for that con.

Robin van Persie’s PR machine goofed big time. My understanding of the situation is that he is fed up of Arsenal’s lack of ambition and what not. That’s his right. Why he had to come out this early and say it is beyond me. From his statement, it’s clear he wants to leave the club on good terms with the fans, which he has now made very difficult.

Considering RVP’s price tag and wages, I’d assume there are six clubs that can afford him; Chelsea, the Manchester clubs, Madrid, Barcelona and PSG. (Sorry Juventus fans, this is a different money league) Defecting to Manchester, and West London to a lesser extent, would make him a traitor, to the fans. Barca and Madrid don’t seem bothered; and the French league is small time for a star of RVP’s caliber... Let’s hope him and his boys know something we don’t. Realistically, he can only move to City; and the Gooners will not like it one bit.

The Intriguing.

One of the earliest moves of the transfer window was Man Utd’s signing of Japanese international Shinji Kagawa. I am very curious about how Kagawa is going to be deployed, given that United play two upfront, with Rooney as the deep lying forward. At Dortmund, one can argue that Kagawa’s best form came when he played as a deep lying forward, behind Robert Lewandowski. It’s intriguing to see if Fergie will want him to be Scholes’ long term replacement, and how he’ll adopt to playing a deeper role in a more physically demanding league.

Bayern Munich’s purchase of Mario Mandzukic is another head turner. The differences between him and the incumbent striker Mario Gomez are few; Bayern hasn’t played a two striker system in a decade and going by Gomez’ showing in the UCL final, and the latter stages of the Euros, I think everyone seems to have discovered that he and Andy Caroll are twins, separated at birth. Only his football education in Germany makes him technically better than dear old Andy. I can’t yet figure out Bayern’s thinking on this one. If all they wanted was a Mario-Mario striking duo, they should have gotten Balotelli.

I am also eager to see how the German Lucas Podolski fits in at Arsenal. I hate to be a pessimist but I don’t see how this will work out. Podolski has never really excelled, at the highest level, in club football(see his time at Bayern) He has always seemed to do his best work for the national team but his 2012 Euros’ performance didn’t inspire confidence. And if RVP leaves, the expectation will weigh even heavier.

The great signings.


Off the top of my head, the signings of Eden Hazard, Olivier Giroud and Jordi Alba by Chelsea, Arsenal and Barca are as sensible as they come. Hazard brings youth and creativity to an oft stagnant Chelsea outfit. In Giroud, Arsenal get a proven goal scorer who also possesses raw power, an attribute that has been severely lacking in Arsenal’s frontline for a while despite Chamakh’s best efforts. Jordi Alba fills the gap left by Eric Abidal, on the left side of FCB’s defence. His La Masia schooling also adds an extra level of comfort with ‘the Barca way’ of football.

Outrageous rumors

There’s none better than Andy Caroll’s rumored move to AC Milan. Silvio Berlusconi and Adriano Galliani maybe crazy; they let Pirlo go to Juve for free, but they aren’t that crazy. Pairing Caroll and Zlatan Ibrahimovic may have a certain symmetry to it; two pony-tailed behemoths, but that’s where the comparisons end. Besides the rumors were sparked off by Pier Silvio Berlusconi, one of the Milan president’s sons. And here is the kicker..Pier Silvio is more interested in fashion than he is in football. It, indeed, is silly season.

Just for laughs.

Argentine forward Ezequiel Lavezzi, on signing for oil rich Paris outfit PSG, claimed he was joining for footballing reasons. He got that quote straight out of the Samuel Eto’o playbook. Enough said.

Marouane Chamakh is supposedly over the moon because of the aforementioned van Persie transfer saga. I hear he feels like his time to shine will come as soon as RVP leaves. Still at The Emirates, Arsene Wenger is planning to unveil a new policy on captains; from next season, the most useless players will be made skipper so that Man City and co. can bid on them the subsequent transfer window. Chamakh, Fabianski and Djorou are running neck to neck

Thanks for reading.