Tuesday, 16 June 2015

CM - Constant Malaise

These days, in the post-Makelele era, all and sundry seem to agree that England’s path to success will be rooted in the ability to find a defensive midfielder. An organiser of men, a Petit/Makelele/Matic who will shout, ‘YOU SHALL NOT PASS’ and render our defence useless (funnily enough that bit has already happened). We tried it with an ageing Gerrard at the World Cup, but strangely being older and slower does not make you a good defensive midfielder.

Nemanja Matic, Chelsea's defensive midfielder.

More recently, England’s centre has become an almost transient entity. It cannot be defined. It is a constantly morphing substance which no-one seems able to pin down and label. This is its nature, and its problem. Hodgson must find a solution with what he has, and what he has is no classic defensive midfielders. Jack Wilshere is not a DM. Jordan Henderson is not a DM. Phil Jones is not a DM.

But maybe we don’t need a DM in that sense.

The most successful club in recent history is Barcelona. In the 1990s, under Cruyff's leadership, the player they played in that deep-lying role was Pep Guardiola. In his own words he was not big or strong. Neither was he particularly quick. He scored few goals, and admits as much. He was an architect.

Pep Guardiola, a very different type of CM

Guardiola would receive the ball, and like a conductor he would map out his side’s next move. He assessed his options and set the team on their way with a combination of quick thinking and excellent passing. He played to his strengths: intelligence and distribution, and used them to split defensive banks of players with a single pass. They called it the no.4 position.

More recently of course, Busquets did the same for Guardiola’s Barca, helped by the ably played false nine, Lionel Messi.

England’s own version would be Michael Carrick. His range of passing is exquisite, and he seems to possess maturity, calm and  intelligence. He is experienced, especially in winning big trophies and big games.

My suggestion would be to play Carrick as the no.4, with Henderson and Wilshere ahead of him. This way Carrick can focus on setting the play, much like a quarterback, and ahead of him two box to box midfielders in Jordan and Jack can defend Carrick from a more advanced position. Wilshere and Henderson are also accomplished in attack, making it a fluid midfield three, something England must attempt if they are to even think about future success.

Michael Carrick tries out his serious face - not bad Michael!

Thinking ahead to the future, it is a role someone like Jordan Henderson could take over. Jordan has proved a lot of people wrong by showing his ability on the ball, as well as an impressive passing range, but at a more fundamental level he is long-limbed, making him well-suited to intercepting the ball. He also has leadership potential, and where better to have your captain than right in the centre of the pitch?

The formation, an inverted triangle if you will, lends itself to England’s glut of promising attacking players as well. In front of Henderson/Carrick you could put any two of Wilshere, the two-footed Lallana, Oxlade-Chamberlain, James Ward-Prowse, Fabian Delph, or even Rooney. It can be defensive or offensive depending on the situation.

This all works very well theoretically, but essentially it is just an attempt to settle this formation problem England are having. Although undefeated this season, Hodgson needs to settle on a strategy with which to get the best out of England, or risk wasting the talents of a good group of attacking players. 

Fran-tastic Kirby Sets Up England Win

England survived a tense game on Saturday to overcome Mexico 2-1 in Moncton.

After a pallid first half, the game took off after the break, with Fran Kirby and substitute Karen Carney putting the sixth FIFA-ranked side two goals ahead, before Mexico’s Ibarra gave England a fright with a late consolation goal.

After a defensive style in their first game was affected, coach Mark Sampson’s team set up to attack Mexico. The first half was beset with nerves, both sides winless in their opening fixture, and the results were telling. Attacks were short-lived and error strewn, with neither side able to break free of the shackles of World Cup group stage pressure.

Fran Kirby's moment of magic set England on their way to victory.

Glimpses of England’s quality shone through, but never for long enough. Aluko looked to get on the ball regularly, but to little avail.

The second half however offered greater intensity, and England regained their composure, controlling more of the possession and linking together far more intricately with each other to put Mexico on the back foot. Chances began arriving, and it was only when it looked as if it mightn’t be England’s day, that Fran Kirby made sure it was.

Recycling the ball after an attack had broken down, Kirby arrived to collect possession on the edge of Mexico’s penalty area. One touch to take it away from the first defender, a second to take it away from the attempted block of another, and a third to poke the ball past the incoming goalkeeper Santiago made for a memorable World Cup moment.

Having gone ahead England’s dominance only increased, and it was nine minutes later that the two substitutes, Greenwood and Carney, combined to seal victory. Greenwood collected Duggan’s cutback, sent the ball curling into the penalty area, and Carney stooped to head past Santiago and double England’s advantage.

England’s forward-play had been vindicated, but they were given a timely reminder of the importance of an all-round effort of attack and defence at a World Cup.

With England going for a third goal instead of controlling their 2-0 lead, Mexico looked dangerous in the final stages of the game. The result was a goal on the counter-attack by Mexico, who ensured England a nervy final few minutes before the three points were secured, resulting in England sitting second in the group.


Mark Sampson's side improved as the game grew.

England will have to combine the defensive ability they showed against France with the second half performance against Mexico when they face group-topping Colombia. It will be a test of their big-stage mentality, but they can play safe in the knowledge that third-place does not necessarily end their tournament. The four best third-placed finishes will go through to the next round, but England would do well to send a message to the rest of the tournament by taking their chance to win this tricky group.

England play Colombia at 21:00 on Wednesday 17 June. The game is broadcast on BBC Three.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Art of Football: An Interview

Recently I caught up with the guys at Art of Football, who are bringing new meaning to the phrase 'The Beautiful Game'. 

Where did 'Art of Football' begin? What are its origins?
Art of Football is run by two brothers Luke (23) and Gabe (20).
It was after watching Man City’s crazy title-winning match that the
idea for these T-shirts came to me. The sudden transformation of
anguish, nerves and misery into pure, uncontrollable elation was
something of a spectacle. Now I’m not a City fan, nor is my club even
involved in the Premier League, but even I was bouncing off the walls
when Aguero finally broke through QPR’s defences. As an artist and
designer, I wanted to be able to immortalise that moment in a T-shirt
so that fans could wear it with pride (as they would usually do with a
replica shirt), and be forever reminded of it.

Sergio Aguero jabs the ball into the net to seal the most dramatic
Premier League title of all time.
What's the relationship between art and football? Why does it work?
There is so much emotion in football which is perfect to try and
embody in art. We try to emulate the beauty of those split second
moments, the moments you never forget, as we look to capture the
energy, passion and euphoria that erupts from that one magical kick of
a football.

Who designs your images and how?
Gabe is the artist and paints all the designs, but like a magician he
can't reveal all his tricks!

What is your favourite design?
Hard to choose! I love the "Scorpion Kick" design and also the "They
Think It's All Over".

Rene Higuita performs his unbelievable 'Scorpion Kick'.
What is the most popular design?

The design of Bobby Zamora's late winner for QPR in the play-off final
against Derby. People just got caught up in the euphoria of being
promoted in such a dramatic way and went crazy for the t-shirt!

Who is the most artistic player in Premier League right now?
It has to be David Silva, he has such beautiful vision and movement,
it's a joy to watch.

Who is the better artist on the pitch? Messi or Ronaldo?
Messi is an artist without a doubt. The way he moves the ball and the
effortless control he has of it is simply stunning. I do however
admire the work Ronaldo has obviously put in and how he has honed
his skill set so well.

Lionel Messi celebrates with Suarez and Neymar Jr.
Would you expand to other sports? Snooker might be difficult...
We have already started our expansion with the launch of our new site

England's greatest rugby moment, immortalised by Art of Rugby.
This was great fun to make as there is a lot more physicality and
power in the designs from the thunderous tackles.
Keep your eyes peeled for other sports coming soon.

What's the plan for the future?
We would love to have a collection of designs for every team in the
football league. No matter how big or small a team is they all have a
rich history of moments that the fans cherish so highly and we want to
do our best to do justice to all those moments.

They say a picture paints a thousand words. What three words best
describe 'Art of Football'?
Energy, Passion and Euphoria.
That's the best three to describe football and Art of Football.

You can view Luke and Gabe's work at www.art-of-football.com as well as www.art-of-rugby.com, and for updates, follow @Art_of_Rugby and @Art_of_Football

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Don't Cry For Me Premier League-a

In the Summer of 2014, a storm (metaphorically at least) approached Southampton, and it brought with it transfer speculation abound. Southampton’s promising 2013/14 campaign, resulting in 56 points and eighth place, had been one of the more eye-catching mid-table stories, and as comes with the territory, England’s elite were ready to take their pick of the upstanding club’s best individual performers.

Liverpool’s interest was undeniable, and the inevitable raid, totalling around £50 million, earned them Ricky Lambert, Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren. Neither Arsenal nor Manchester United could resist a perusal of Southampton’s shop window either, and left with shopping trolleys full of Calum Chambers and Luke Shaw for reported fees of £16 million and £27 million respectively.

Liverpool bought Lallana after a dazzling season with Southampton.

Poor old Southampton? Dispossessed of the core of a side which lifted the spirits of the neutral? Not a chance.

Much like pies, you pay a little more for local ingredients, and Southampton made no mistake in squeezing the big clubs of all their gravy.

The transfer market is much like a stock market. There is a time to buy and a time to sell. Southampton had a near-perfect summer in both regards. 

Luke Shaw, at a reported £27 million has certainly lost market value since his move. Fitness questioned, appearances limited, Southampton look to have the better deal so far.

As for Liverpool’s acquisitions, Lallana at £25 million would be expected to be a midfielder with end product already apparent; Lambert at £4 million has become a rather expensive mantelpiece ornament; Lovren at £20 million, big money for a defensive installment, has come in for plenty of criticism from the stands and could arguably have halved in value. The stock Liverpool acquired has plummeted in value.

Calum Chambers at a reported £16 million has probably come closest to justifying his price tag, but it is easy to forget the value of the numbers involved. These figures become fairy dust in the football fan’s eyes, but £16 million for a largely unproven youth prospect builds a lot of training ground.  

Ryan Bertrand has gained more playing time in red and white this season.
Southampton went about their buying in much the same manner, recording successes with almost all of their notable signings. 

Dusan Tadic (10.9m) SUCCESS. Graziano Pelle (9m) SUCCESS. Fraser Forster (10m) SUCCESS. Sadio Mane (10m) SUCCESS. 
Ryan Bertrand (10m) SUCCESS. 

The club made a profit in the tens of millions from their transfer dealings, while securing arguably better and hungrier talent. It was like something right out of the Arsene Wenger circa 1999 school of transfer policy.

Fans will recall Wenger bought prodigy Nicolas Anelka for the nominal fee of around £500,000 only to sell him for the princely reported sum of £23 million, the profit of which went towards building state of the art training facilities. The zeroes do not simply line the pockets of the manager! In fact, so impressive was Wenger’s ability in the transfer market, he bought Overmars, Petit, Anelka and Vieira for a combined £12.5 million, got some great football out of them, and sold them on for a combined figure of around £66.7 million.

Southampton might well have found their own version though in the highly impressive Ronald Koeman, a man with impressive credentials.

Ronald Koeman, Dutch legend.
Eredivisie title 01/02, 03/04
KNVB Cup 01/02
Dutch Super Cup 2002

Portugese Super Cup 2005

Eredivisie title 06/07

Copa del Rey 07/08

Mr. Koeman, having successfully negotiated the transfer market last summer, also boasts an impressive collection of medals from his playing days, having won the European Cup with PSV and Barcelona, as well as Euro ’88 with the Netherlands, for whom he played 78 times. With pundits the country over cooing over poor old Southampton, entering St Mary’s looked to be arguably the Dutchman’s biggest challenge.

League Position
Goals Scored
Goals Conceded
Goal Difference

The statistics show that Koeman made league improvements across the board with the exception of goals scored, emulating Pochettino’s side of the previous season. This perhaps can be the only criticism of Ronald, whose side occasionally proved goal-shy.

However, a seventh-place finish, victories over the like of Arsenal and Manchester United, and draws against eventual champions Chelsea, tell the main story. Southampton, League One standard a few seasons ago, are about to grace Europe on behalf of England, and they do so with a manager who knows how to defend.

The early exits of Premier League sides in Europe over the last three seasons have followed a typical, and obvious, pattern. They cannot shut out big opposition over two legs. While sides such as Juventus and Atletico Madrid have broken into the last two finals with defensive intelligence, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester  United, Manchester City and Liverpool have all shown naivety at the back, with Arsenal and surprisingly Chelsea classic examples from this season.

Chelsea's usually outstanding defence crumbled against PSG.

Koeman however completed this season with an average 0.87 goals conceded per game, improving on Southampton’s average last season of 1.21 and 1.58 the season before. Had they found 30 more goals at the opposite end, such a defensive record could have graced a league-winning team. Koeman will require reinforcements this summer, but his is a talent which could thrive against the tricky nature of the Europa League marathon.

So Southampton bought and sold well, but it is perhaps their creation of stock which stands them in highest regard across the country. Their academy is an outstanding achievement of discipline and passion for the game’s virtues. Gareth Bale, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Luke Shaw and Theo Walcott are just some of the famous names to have been nurtured by the Saints’ academy, and the production line is as busy as ever, with the impressive James Ward-Prowse and Matt Targett two of the establishment’s latest hopes. The club discipline the players by restricting their game time should they misbehave, rather than fining them their wages. They talk of a 50% home grown first team in the future.

Southampton are a club in excellent shape. With Koeman at the helm, they are on the cusp of taking the next step in establishing themselves as a big name in world football. While some tipped them for relegation following what looked like an uncertain summer, the club proved itself to be shrewd, playing the transfer market perfectly. One thing’s for sure, nobody will be feeling sorry for them now. 

(All transfer fees mentioned in this article are reported, and are not necessarily entirely accurate).