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Tuesday, 25 January 2011

What's wrong with English football - Intro

Following the appointment of David Bernstein as the new chairman of the FA, I thought I would take a look at the job that lies ahead of him.  The BBC Sport article suggests that One of Bernstein's key roles over the coming months will be to appoint Fabio Capello's successor as England manager.  This seems to be the least of his worries in my opinion and over the next few weeks I will be giving my opinion on where English football has gone astray.

Perhaps I should start with the symptoms that lead me to believe there are problems.  The most obvious symptom is the performance of the England national team.  In the recent World Cup, held in South Africa, England reached the last 16, having qualified from their group consisting of USA (ranked 18th), Slovenia (ranked 17th) and Algeria (ranked 36th) with only one win (1-0 against Slovenia) and 2 draws.  In the second round, they were found sadly lacking as they lost 4-1 to Germany.  Prior to this, England failed to qualify for the 2008 European Championships, finishing behind Croatia and Russia in their qualifying group.  The last time England reached the final of a major tournament was when they won the World Cup in 1966.  Since then they have reached the semi-final on 3 occasions – the most recent being Euro ’96, where they again lost to Germany.  Results in themselves do not tell the full story.  The way the team performed during the 2010 World Cup was probably more disappointing, with fans’ reactions leading to Wayne Rooney’s ‘outburst’ after the 0-0 draw with Algeria.  Alongside this were all sorts of rumours of rift between players over personal issues, most highlighted by then England captain, John Terry and Wayne Bridge’s non-handshake.

The League Managers Association have criticised what they term ‘chronic short-termism’ amongst English clubs.  With high profile sackings of Sam Allardyce, Chris Hughton and Roy Hodgson in the Premier League, the latter after only 31 games (only losing 9), the pressures to win are far greater than ever before.  I’ve never played football to a high level – a bit of inter-college football at university is as good as it gets.  I am quite a competitive person – I’ve injured a few people in my over-exuberance – but generally I play/coach football for fun.  I definitely enjoy it more if I win, but putting that much pressure on players to win does take the fun out of it.  I work with ‘apprentice’ footballers and if you ask them why they want to become professionals, the majority will say for the money.  Even when they have money, players want more (allegedly!)– cue Rooney for the second time!  It is this financial pressure that causes club owners to prematurely sack managers in a desperate search for results.  Ironically, evidence suggests that clubs are worse off after changing a manager, particularly in the short term.  This same pressure means that young, home-grown players find it difficult to get a chance in any first team, particularly at a high level.  Managers can’t afford to give young players the time they might need to develop and instead will buy in a player, often from overseas.  At the start of the season, less than 40% of Premier League players were English, compared to over 75% of players in La Liga being Spanish.  No wonder the England team can’t play together, they aren’t used to playing alongside English players!

The sacking of Sky Sports presenter Andy Gray today highlights another flaw of English football.  It is possible that the comments made by Gray and fellow presenter, Richard Keys, were made in jest.  It’s a common occurrence in living rooms up and down the country of men being asked about the offside rule (p31) – usually during a vital game at a crucial point!  And surely the comments made about men’s inability to multi-task are equally as sexist, or equally playful?  However, just because something is commonplace, doesn’t make it right.  In the case of Andy Gray, there are two separate occasions where he makes this comment and he really should know better.  Football should be a driving force in improving society not merely a reflection of a somewhat miserable culture.  Football looks after its own and new people and new ideas are not usually welcomed.  Fifa have the right idea by awarding World Cups to ‘new’ nations (although that’s a whole other debate!), although don’t seem to be willing to seriously investigate better ways to officiate games, especially through the use of technology.  The FA seem equally backward in moving forward when it comes to supporting referees, with their best offering a Respect campaign that doesn’t seem to apply to the Premier League.  Examples in Europe and across the pond demonstrate much more progressive thinking, with ‘soccer’ one of the fastest growing sports in USA and nations like Spain stepping up a gear in terms of international performance.  In this country young footballers are still made to clean changing rooms and scrub showers – this should be a thing of the past and football in this country needs to move on.

To give it its due, English football does lead the way in some aspects.  Whilst English fans are still some of the most feared across the world (a reputation that isn’t so justified anymore), racism is a thing of the past.  We also have one of the best leagues in the world (despite the issues raised above), with this season being one of the most competitive ever.  We have high viewing figures, both at grounds up and down the country, and on TV, and we have some of the best stadia in the world to, with development happening all the time – Manchester City, Everton, Liverpool, West Ham, Tottenham all have designs on expanding or building, this after Arsenal recently built the Emirates Stadium and of course the new Wembley.  English league football has one of the longest histories and should be proud of that.  However it cannot rest on its laurels, attempts must be made to drive football forward, and thereby improve the whole of British society – something football has the power to do.

As I said at the beginning, I intend to look at some different elements of English football and outline what part I think these play in damaging our ‘Beautiful Game’.  I’d welcome any comments you may have (please keep it clean!).

Sunday, 23 January 2011

The most ridiculous question in football - Is Bent worth £24million?

Of course not - he's a footballer!!! I personally don't think a footballer is worth £1million.  Maybe a scientist with the cure for cancer, or a special politician with a soultion to this economic 'crisis' - hard to believe when £24million is spent on one player.

Ok, that's enough of the real world, back to football.  It's pretty hard to define what a player's 'value' is.  There's no such thing as 'market value' since the market is just too varied.  Would Chelsea or either Manchester club pay £24million for Bent - probably not.  In fact there probaly isn't a club in the world that would.  But if Villa had bid less (say £15million) would Sunderland have sold? Blackpool have rejected bids ranging from £2.5million to about £5million for Charlie Adam - Holloway wants £10million on top of that, but with his contract running out in the Summer surely they will accept less.  Added to the fact that Blackpool paid £500,000, what is he worth?

If Villa are prepared to pay £24million, surely that's what he is worth.  The question that needs to be asked is have Villa put all their eggs in one basket and is that basket going to be enough?

Of course by 'basket' I mean Darren Bent.  So will Bent help Villa move back up the table towards the 6th place they occupied at the end of last season, or will Villa prove that no squad is 'too good to go down'?

With his goal yesterday, Bent is now level with Rooney and Drogba on 82 Premier League goals in the last 3 seasons.  What Villa have lacked more than anything over the last 3 seasons is an out-and-out goalscorer.  Good match then?  His goal against Man City is exactly what Villa have bought Bent for - right place at the right time = goal.  More often than not, Bent will be in the right place at the right time and Villa might have just bought their first 20-goal a season striker for a long time (none of Angel, Yorke or Saunders scored 20 league goals in one season).  Will he get the chances?  With the likes of Young, Downing and Alrighton as suppliers, Bent should get opportunities, although there is still a lack of creativity in the heart of midfield (possibly why 3 bids have been made for Charlie Adam).  There is also some concern with the full-back areas - with Warnock not performing and Luke Young not naturally left-sided, young centre-back Ciaran Clark is filling in admirably.  Whilst Houllier has addressed the right back position with loan signing Kyle Walker, he does need to strengthen on the opposite flank.  So that's already 2 positions that need reinforcements and with Brad Friedel getting on, albeit still playing very well, a new goalkeeper will be needed in the Summer as well as some sort of replacement for those squad players touted to leave (Sidwell, Reo-coker, Carew, Davies, Beye).

So with £24million spent, what else can GH do?  Well he's got an excellent set of youth players coming through - already the likes of Delfouneso, Albrighton, Bannan, Clark, Hogg and Lichaj have made league appearances and there are still players like Delph, Gardner, Baker and Weimann who are highly rated.  But you don't win things with what else?  Well, despite appearing to be cautious with the transfers of Martin O'Neill (£90million spent in 3-4 seasons!?!), Randy Lerner has also sanctioned the purchase of Jean Makoun for £5-6million and bids for Charlie Adam.  Rumours are that more signings might happen before next weekend (Crouch for £10million the latest), demonstrating that money is not much of an issue.  Indeed, knowledge of the European market is surely one of the main reasons for hiring Gerrard Houllier in the first place.  It's exciting times at Villa, if not a little nervy!

I don't really want to talk about the politics of transfers, with both Steve Bruce and Ian Holloway deciding to vent their frustrations through the media.  I guess it is a symptom of the transfer window, but it wearing thin for me.  Houllier will do well to continue to avoid responding.

Only time will tell if Bent is a success at Villa, or Makoun for that matter, but already there seems to be a higher calibre of player being linked (and signed) by Villa than for a few seasons - long may it continue!

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Was O'Neill a genius?

Wherever he goes players, coaches and chairmen have loved Mr O'Neill.  He is definitely a very intelligent man, proved by his law degree and often evident in interviews.  He is also very principled an believes in a certain style of management - one that affords him as much control as possible at a football club.  In this regard, the influence of a certain Brian Clough is very apparent (despite having a pretty tough time whilst playing at Nottingham Forest).  I am not trying to write Martin O'Neill's biography (which is a good read by the way) but the question has been posed as to why Gerard Houllier, a successful manager himself, finds his Aston Villa team in the bottom 3, whereas his predecessor finished 6th with virtually the same team.

Firstly, one major consideration is James Milner.  When Villa signed him I was delighted - I believed then, and perhaps still do, that he is the next Steven Gerard.  Man City aren't doing him any favours, but at Villa he was the main creative attacking force - something very lacking at the moment.  It's hard to say whether the sale of Milner was the reason O'Neill left - it seemed to be on the cards for a while - but what is clear is that Stephen Ireland isn't an adequate replacement.

O'Neill did have a knack for making average players look good, and good players look great.  Last season Dunne and Collins formed an excellent defensive partnership.  Dunne has been a solid performer in the Premiership, but Collins was barely getting a game at West Ham.  Agbonlahor and Young looked like star players last season, but the lack of England appearances perhaps show that they are not (yet?) able to perform to the highest level on a consistent basis.  So is Houllier unable to get the best out of players?  There have certainly been a lot of reports of unrest at Villa, particularly amongst 'senior' players.  There were 'bust-ups' with O'Neill though, Barry and Reo-coker most notably.  Perhaps these were dismissed because O'Neill was more established at the club.  When O'Neill left, several players talked about how boring training was and how they didn't really get on with O'Neill.  Young players in particular didn't seem to get much of a look in.  The younger players are apparently very happy under Houllier - they are getting plenty of match time, and often look very impressive.  Houllier also won several trophies at Liverpool - something Liverpool managers since have not been able to replicate.

Perhaps O'Neill was better tactically, or used subs better?  It is widely believed that whilst O'Neill is regarded as an excellent man-manager, tactically he doesn't always get it right.  Villa fans last season were often frustrated by a lack of flexibility or simply a lack of options used by O'Neill - in particular in the use of subs.  Indeed, Aston Villa used the fewest players last season and by March, a month without any points for 3 seasons under O'Neill, the team had been found out and early promise had faded.

It's not possible to compare transfer records yet.  Houllier has brought in just 2 players - Pires and Kyle Walker - but has already set up a more comprehensive scouting network.  O'Neill didn't ever seem to look abroad for players - over 90% of his transfers were from English or Scottish clubs.  I feel more confident in the players Houllier will be looking at - I just hope Villa are still in a position to attract these players to the club.

There's no real explanation for Villa's form at the moment - another terrible performance against Sunderland leaves them in real danger of relegation.  You would think that they have the players to stay up and Houllier might be able to further add to the squad this month.  There needs to be a change - in tactics, in personnel or in attitude.  Only time will tell whether Lerner's faith in Houllier will be repaid.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Cause to be optimistic?

Hard to say...

No doubt an improved performance on the previous few games and there were opportunities to score more goals.  However there are still a few basic things that need to improve.

Four centre backs looked very solid - Richard Dunne looked very sharp after his 'rest', and both Cuellar and Clark did a good job at full back, even venturing down the wings to support attacks.  Friedel was fantastic in goal - he didn't deserve to concede 3 but was rightly rewarded with the Man of Match award.  Emile Heskey was also a handful and Petrov and Reo-coker controlled midfield to a greater extent than any other central midfield pairing all season. 

Those that know me will wonder where this positive spin has come from, well here is concern:

Ball control.  Quite simply Villa cannot keep possession of the ball.  Too many times players were caught on the ball and on too many occasions the ball was given away by wayward passes.  Luckily, Chelsea were even more guilty of this and most of their second half possession was wasted.  Gabby on the wing was a good idea, and going forward he provided a bit more pace and direct running that has been seriously lacking.  However, he wasn't so good at tracking back and often left Clark (quickly becoming my favourite player) exposed at the back.  Ashley Young had a quiet game, but there wasn't too much of the diving and moaning that he's displayed at other points of the season.  Downing looked like he might have threatened, but a few shots straight at the keeper, followed by a couple of wayward shots seemed to knock his confidence.

That's all I have to complain about, and my overall assessment of the match is generally positive - a more solid defensive display (even with conceding 3!?!), a bit more constructiveness in going forward and excellent spirit.  A few players in this month a Villa can start looking up again.

Added to this the very positive article by Mat Kendrick (Birmingham Mail) about the overhaul to Villa's scouting system and we begin to see why Houllier was more than simply the 'best choice available'.

A busy Christmas/New Year has delayed my comments on the Queen's speech/World Cup decisions, but it should come soon.