Sam Jose

Jose Mourinho

Jose Mourinho, photo by Aleksandr Osipov, http://www.flickr.com

It’s the year of the manager. Jose, Pep, Antonio, Jurgen and Claudio – reads rather like a Euro boy band – are set to be the real superstars of the Premier League season. Meanwhile, Big Sam has taken on the big job of attempting to restore England’s credibility at the international level.

The TV cameras will be trained on the dugouts more than ever as the aforementioned, plus Arsene, Slaven et al plot, scheme and tinker. The vast sums being paid by the broadcasters for their seat at the table means that the most important decisions the managers make will occur during the transfer windows. Take note Arsene.

Wenger must be getting a better interest rate than most in the UK who leave their money in the bank at the moment as he persists with his almost comical reluctance to invest. The joke is wearing thin for Arsenal fans though as they can see that in standing still, their side is sliding slowly but surely backwards.

If Wenger is waiting on the market cooling off he may have a long wait ahead and he’s likely to feel some considerable heat from his supporters before that happens. The start of the season should be a time of hope and expectation for fans but Arsenal fans know what to expect: top four (maybe, just), last 16 or quarter finals in the Champions League, and at least one decent domestic cup run.

One man who hasn’t hesitated to throw open the owner’s wallet is Mourinho. He’s spent extravagantly but wisely. Of course Pogba is not really worth all that in absolute terms but if Man U win the title, it will prove to be money well spent.

An even smarter decision that Jose’s made is snapping up Ibrahimovic. He’s a Cantona-esque signing: top-quality, a proven winner, and brings with him an unmistakable aura. I make United slight title favourites ahead of their Manchester neighbours based mostly on the Zlatan signing.

I foolishly left him out of my initial fantasy league selection; a mistake that I have now rectified.

City fans meanwhile are enjoying the long-held fantasy of having Pep in charge. As expected, he’s wasting little time in putting his stamp on the side and appears to have little love for Joe Hart. The squad still needs more of an overhaul and I’d be surprised if his summer spending has reached its conclusion.

Guardiola will probably want to avoid getting caught up in a sideshow with Mourinho but the Portuguese will relish it, stoke it, and embrace it. The first Manchester derby of the season should be worth a watch.  I’d be quite happy to watch a camera that only showed the two managers throughout – like that strange film they made a few years ago that focused solely on Zidane (‘A 21st Century Portrait’) for 90 minutes.

Conte must seek to make something of an omelette from the broken eggs that Jose left behind at Stamford Bridge and Chelsea fans will have been encouraged by what he was able to eke out of a modest Italian squad at Euro 2016.

It might not be pretty but it’s sure to be intense under the Italian. Chelsea will be very hard to beat, their work rate will be off the charts, and they will be tactically flexible. I don’t think they’ll be champions but I expect them to be the highest placed London club this season.

Two games in and I have almost no idea what to expect from my club, Liverpool. Triumph at Arsenal followed by disaster at Burnley suggests that one of those performances was an imposter but it’s hard to tell yet which one.

Klopp has declared the squad at Anfield his own and he knows that vast improvements on last season are required. In any of the last few seasons, Liverpool’s current squad under Klopp would be near-certainties for the top four but this is likely to be the most competitive season in a long time.

Klopp is as competitive as they come and he doesn’t lack ambition. His squad still lacks something though and a further addition or two could make a big difference for Liverpool.

Ranieri must be hugely relieved that his squad doesn’t now lack most of its best players. It’s a tremendous tribute to what Leicester achieved last season, and the way in which they did it, that almost everyone has opted to show loyalty and stay.

They surely cannot repeat the heroics of that fairy tale run but they will enjoy the experience of being champions and are unlikely to relinquish the crown meekly. Ranieri, once seen as something of a jester, has been enthroned as the Premier League’s managerial king. The loyal subjects at the King Power Stadium may never witness anything so remarkable again.

It is to be hoped that none of us ever have to witness Gary Lineker presenting in his pants again although whoever sold the garment in question may warrant investigation under the Trade Descriptions Act.

Whatever embarrassment Lineker may have felt was probably not as great as that of the England players who contrived to lose to Iceland in the Euros. That defeat – possibly the worst in the country’s history – brought to a close the rather farcical reign of Roy Hodgson.

Big Sam thus has small boots to fill.

England’s young and energetic side actually travelled to France having displayed some promise in the build-up to the tournament. Not unusually of late, it was a promise they failed to keep. Is Big Sam the man for the rebuilding job?

Why not? He has lots of experience, he excels at man management, and he’s more tactically astute than he’s often given credit for.

There are no quick fixes for England in terms of the fundamentals: players who are not as talented as they think they are, a squad that is tactically naïve, and a lack of opportunities for young players at many top clubs.

That said, he will select players who are in form (I don’t envisage many Allardyce ‘favourites’), instil a simple but consistent style of play that his squad is comfortable with, and attempt to create more of a club atmosphere for the national team.

None of these changes will turn England into Spain or France overnight (or even Portugal or Croatia) but they should suffice to avoid banana skins such as the Iceland debacle. For England then, as well as in the English Premier League, it’s the manager who looks set to take centre stage.

So put your clothes back on Gary, be careful of the bets that you make, and let’s see who turns out to be this season’s special one.

Advertisements

En France

France 2016

Euro 2016, France. Photo by Brigitte Djajasasmita, http://www.flickr.com

My favourite scene of all in Only Fools and Horses has the two Trotter brothers in their trusty van, driving through the French countryside. Del professes his love for duck a l’orange and asks Rodney: “how do you say duck in French bruv?” Rodney pauses then replies: “it’s canard Del.” Try saying it out loud if you don’t get it.

And so it is with predicting the winner of the European Championships which commence later tonight in France with the hosts taking on Romania. The French are many people’s favourites and that’s understandable given their strong and balanced squad plus home advantage.

Since hosts don’t have to qualify it’s always difficult to assess their form ahead of a tournament. The ease with which they beat Scotland last week told us more about our travails than French prospects of triumph.

We Scots have been looking on with envy as the rest of the home nations have crossed the Channel to do battle against Europe’s best. And Albania.

Indeed, the last time we made it to a major tournament was in France, the World Cup of ’98. I was still a teenager, with a Kurt Cobain poster on my wall, and had recently moved to England. The Scotland team did as usual: almost beat Brazil then exited meekly.

We had a tough qualifying group for France ’16 but we still should have edged out the Irish for a play-off spot. I expect most of the home nations to return home pretty quickly with the exception of England.

I don’t think they’ll win it (they don’t look like a squad who could handle the pressure of going all the way) but it wouldn’t surprise me to see them in the semi finals. England are suspect at the back, which is true of most teams in the competition, but they have considerable talent and options up front. Personally I wouldn’t start Rooney but Hodgson will and the balance of the side will be disrupted as a consequence.

I see some of the England fans have already been making friends and influencing people. They’ve been on the receiving end of some tear gas and more tears will surely follow when the inevitable defeat on penalties comes to pass.

Elsewhere, the Spanish and the Italians both arrive somewhat uncertain and potentially underestimated. Conte will squeeze every ounce of sweat out of his side but he lacks a really menacing goal scorer. The Spanish are trying to evolve their tiki-taka style in the absence of Xavi, the man around whom the whole system once revolved at both club and national level.

Belgium are ranked highly but I’m not convinced they’re ready to breakthrough and actually claim a title. My tip then is the Germans. Betting against Germany rarely pays dividends and I don’t recommend it on this occasion. They were poor against Scotland twice in qualifying but they have quality throughout the spine of their side and, more importantly, they know how to win.

It promises to be an exciting month and for those of us watching from afar, a tiring one. Many of the games kick-off at 3am Malaysian time. I’m much older than a teenager now, so I’ll have to pace myself.

Can England win Euro 2016?

England v France

England v France at Wembley. Photo by Ben Sutherland, http://www.flickr.com

If England were to be crowned European champions in France this summer it would come as something of a surprise to me. By then of course, Leicester may already be Premier League champions and an English triumph at the Euros wouldn’t be as big a shock as that. Still, England have never previously won the tournament nor, remarkably, ever even made the final.

Recent friendly matches were an opportunity to assess the form of Hodgson’s squad and their prospects when they cross the Channel in June. A 3-2 victory away in Germany was a significant statement of intent, subsequently tempered slightly by a 2-1 loss at home to the Netherlands a few days later.

What struck me most about these recent matches is the extent to which the England side has changed from the last major international tournament, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Let’s compare the starting line-ups from England’s crucial group game against Uruguay in 2014 with the team that took the field in Berlin last month.

Uruguay v England (19/06/14)

Hart, Johnson, Baines, Cahill, Jagielka, Sterling, Henderson, Gerrard, Sturridge, Rooney, Welbeck.

Germany v England (26/03/16)

Butland, Clyne, Rose, Cahill, Smalling, Dier, Henderson, Lallana, Alli, Welbeck, Kane.

Only three players – Cahill, Henderson, and Welbeck – appear in both line-ups. Several others who played against Uruguay may also start England’s first match in Euro 2016 against Russia with Hart, Rooney, and Sturridge probably the most likely among them.

Nevertheless, it’s a significant overhaul of his side that Hodgson has undertaken. No bad thing that in all likelihood given the fact that the ‘golden generation’ scarcely got anywhere near bronze.  So is the 2016 vintage better?

Defensively I don’t think it is. England are a team that leak goals against decent opposition and there’s quite a lot of inexperience at the back. Clyne is average in my view and Rose has a lot to learn before he can consider himself a master of international football. Smalling is a link in the chain that opposition sides will regard as vulnerable.

The emergence of Alli provides some real dynamism and vigour in midfield, of the sort that Sterling briefly promised at the World Cup but has failed to deliver this season at Manchester City. Lallana, after failing to convince me in his early days at Liverpool, seems to be growing in confidence and influence. Henderson is no Steven Gerrard, for club or country (I suspect Klopp may be inclined to let him leave in the summer).

Up front things get particularly interesting and, as has been the case for rather a while now, the biggest dilemma concerns Rooney. The Manchester United striker is more often found splitting opinion than splitting defences these days.

One school of thought maintains that Rooney is still England’s most important player and should be the first name added to the team sheet. A dissenting school contends that peak Rooney was reached quite a long time ago and while he might retain a place in the squad, he should not feature in the starting eleven.

Hodgson is a cautious manager by nature and thus I suspect that Rooney (if he’s fit) will start in the game against Russia. Personally, I would pair Kane and Sturridge up front although Vardy certainly deserves consideration for the extraordinary season that he’s having.

There are goals in the current England side and they look like a much more threatening proposition than the team that limped so meekly out of the World Cup with just two goals in three games.

The recent round of friendly fixtures point to an open championship coming up and England are far from alone in carrying defensive frailties into the tournament. It should make for entertaining viewing.

Scotland, sadly, won’t be in France this summer but will be facing England in World Cup qualifying later in the year. After our recent friendly in Prague, Gordon Strachan observed: “we are not a great side but we can turn ourselves into a decent side by working hard.” That’s a fair summary of our current state and I think it also describes where England are at the moment as well (although they undoubtedly have a lot more quality).

Roy Hodgson justifiably claimed that the win in Berlin was his best night as England boss but went on to acknowledge that: “we have got an awful long way to go before we can claim to be anything like Germany with all they have achieved.”

Hodgson has been a master of expectations management since taking charge. The hype and hysteria that used to carry England teams into tournament battle has largely dissipated with more sober assessments being made of a squad that is good but lacking in greatness.

How much greatness is there elsewhere though? The Germans looked quite ordinary in qualifying (Scotland were unlucky to lose to them twice); the Spanish have lost more than a little swagger of late; the Italians are hardworking but not exactly inspired under Chelsea-bound Conte; the French face the pressure of playing at home (something that worked for them in 1998 but could easily go against them); while the Belgians will rightly travel in hope but I’m not convinced they yet have the expectation of victory.

The UK referendum on leaving the EU falls between the end of the group stages and the start of the knockout phase. England have a favourable group so there shouldn’t be any Engxit before a potential Brexit.

So, can England win it?  Yes, given how open it looks to be and the shortcomings elsewhere. But I don’t think they will. Hodgson is a realist and his assessment is correct: it’s only a short journey to France, but his squad still has a long way to go.

Scottish football’s cold harsh winter in Europe

Barcelona v Celtic

Barcelona v Celtic in the Champions League Photo: Marc Puig i Perez http://www.flickr.com

Celtic’s rather dismal failure to qualify for the Champions League group stage has heaped pressure on manager Ronny Deila and prompted the now annual round of introspection in the Scottish game that follows such results.

The Scottish champions were careless in the first leg against Malmo and, by their own admission, scarcely turned up in the second. Deila suggested that his players underperformed on account of “wanting it too much.” Scott Brown admitted to being “ashamed” afterwards; an honest assessment from an honest player.

So, just how bad have we become in Europe? The honest truth is that the performance of most Scottish clubs in European competition has been less than impressive for quite a long time now and not much has changed this season.

St Johnstone lost to a team from Armenia (that’s quite shameful since Armenia are ranked 24 places below Scotland in UEFA’s coefficient rankings). Inverness Caley lost to Romanian opponents (a lot less shameful than St Johnstone’s effort since Romania are ranked nine places above us). Aberdeen deserve some credit for a decent run (including an excellent victory over my Croatian team, Rijeka)  but still passed up a good opportunity to reach the Europa League group stage by losing to a side from Kazakhstan (Kazakhstan currently sit just three places below us in the rankings).

The problems of Scottish football are well documented and there are no quick or easy fixes. Our current coefficient ranking is 24th out of 54 UEFA member organisations. That’s an interesting ranking, not least because next year’s European Championships will be contested by 24 nations for the first time. The coefficient ranking is based on the performance of club sides in European competition and it gives a good overall indication of the state of the game across Europe. We probably are around the 24th best footballing nation in Europe right now.

Will we therefore be one of the 24 qualifiers for Euro 2016 in France? Things were looking very positive on that front until Friday night’s inept display in Georgia. To be fair, it was the first such display under Gordon Strachan. Prior to that game, he was rightly raking in plaudits for the job he’s done as Scotland boss.

He didn’t initiate a revolution; he stuck by a core group of players that he trusts, gave them some confidence, added a dash of freedom to express themselves and we seemed at long last to find ourselves competitive in a qualifying group (and a pretty tough group at that).

I’ve looked at the last three rounds of fixtures in the group, starting with tonight’s game against Germany at Hampden, and predicted the results of all the teams still in with a chance of qualifying. By my estimates, Germany will comfortably finish top with Poland in second place while we will finish the group in third place, just marginally ahead of the Republic of Ireland. If I’m right, then a play-off would then await.

I’m predicting a 2-0 win for Germany tonight and partly for that reason I’m not intending to get up at 2:45am to watch the game. Nothing will be decided tonight, but with three qualifying games to go we are definitely entering what Sir Alex would refer to as ‘squeaky bum time.’ And trust me, bums don’t come much squeakier than those of the tartan army. If we can somehow squeak a point, I’ll be delighted with that.

Overall, Strachan has shown that solid (even, at times, entertaining) performances can be coached out of our current squad. His coaching ability is the single biggest difference that has made us more competitive in this qualifying campaign compared to almost any other in recent memory, at least since the famous double victory over France in our ultimately failed bid to reach Euro 2008.

Coaches are important then but the stark fact remains that we need better players, both in the national side and in our top club sides. Wales are on course to qualify for Euro 2016 thanks, in large part, to having a world class player in Gareth Bale leading their attack. Developing such players will take time, investment, and cultural change – all things we’ve known for a long time.

One thing that might also help would be a switch to summer football in Scotland, something that’s been much discussed but never gained too much momentum. I used to be a sceptic but I’ve changed my mind since I left Scotland to live in the tropics. I now go back once a year and in the last couple of years it has been for Christmas. I always go to a game when I’m back. At that time of year, it’s always freezing, usually wet, and the pitches look like beaches (but not of the tropical variety).

Those are not great conditions to play football in and they are not good conditions to watch football in either. So, buckets and spades at the ready, I’m advocating summer football in Scotland. Traditionalists be reassured, we won’t notice that much difference since “summer” in Scotland tends towards the cold and the wet anyway.

Summer football won’t happen in Scotland any time soon but let’s hope that at least some Scottish players are playing football next summer – in France.

Mibbes aye, mibbes naw

 

yes no

Photo by Tim Parker, http://www.flickr.com

On Thursday the people of Scotland will be asked one simple question: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ Well, I say the ‘people of Scotland’ – I consider myself part of that people; I was born there, lived there for 30 of the 33 years since my birth, and my two children were born there but I don’t get a vote as I moved overseas (to Malaysia) just over two years ago.

By the time Scotland lined up against the recently crowned world champions at the Westfalenstadion stadium in Dortmund on the evening of Sunday 7 September, the nation was in state of excitement, bewilderment, and agitation which had little to do with Gordon Strachan’s team selection. That morning, an opinion poll on the referendum had put the Yes campaign ahead for the first time: 51% – 49%.

A campaign that had lasted for almost two years, involved all manner of technical, emotional and not infrequently preposterous arguments was clearly coming down to mibbes aye, mibbes naw. For readers of this blog who are not Scottish, roughly translated that means maybe yes, maybe no. It makes me think we could have dispensed with the debates between Salmond and Darling and just asked a few questions of Kenny Dalglish instead.

Even without a vote I proved my commitment to the Scottish cause by getting up at 2.40am for the Scotland – Germany game. As I assessed the Scottish line-up and tried to figure out how the midfield would operate, a very observant and politically astute friend of mine pointed out on Facebook that only one of Scotland’s starting 11 lives and plays in Scotland and thus is eligible to vote in the referendum. If things really are as close as they appear then Scotland’s future could be decided by Charlie Mulgrew.

In the opening 10 minutes it didn’t appear as though things would be very close between Scotland and Germany. I found myself wondering how many it would be – touches of the ball for the Scots that is. For much of the first half Neuer looked more comfortable on the ball than most of our players. He seemed to be playing the game closer to the half way line than his goal line.

After 18 minutes Germany took the lead that their dominance merited as Muller rose to nod a cross back across Marshall and into the far corner. The Scotland goalkeeper, who otherwise had a very good game, seemed at fault to me either in terms of his initial positioning or in being slightly flat-footed.

Going behind actually seemed to settle Scotland down and they produced a more assured display for the rest of the half, gradually growing in confidence. By half time they had done just enough to ensure that I wasn’t regretting my early rise.

I’m not entirely sure what was added to the Scotland team’s half time oranges but they came out in the second half a transformed side. Conviction had replaced hesitancy, confidence had elbowed doubt aside, and the various parts of the side formed a much more cohesive collective whole.

After a very positive opening ten minutes of the second half, Strachan made a bold double substitution. Darren Fletcher and Barry Bannan came off to be replaced by James McArthur and Steven Fletcher (two more English-based Scots without a vote on Thursday).

Darren Fletcher had played reasonably well and it’s wonderful to see him back after his long battle with illness. His status in the Scotland team is overly exalted however in my opinion and seems mostly to be based on the fact that he plays for Manchester United. He’s worth his place, and I don’t even much dispute his claim to the captaincy, but he broke through at a time when the national side was in a bad, bad way and his performances have tended to be quite good rather than really great.

McArthur and Fletcher added even more purpose and urgency to a Scottish performance that was improving by the minute. German manager Lowe may have been getting hot under the collar or perhaps was just not entirely happy with the look of his chosen shirt and jumper combination but whatever the issue was, his assistant was called upon to adjust the collar at the back.

With sartorial order restored Lowe could return his attention to the game just in time to witness a superb Scottish equaliser. The move started deep in our own half before the ball was played up to Steven Fletcher on the half way line. He controlled the ball instantly and swivelled as he did so to release a perfectly weighted pass in behind the German right back. Anya raced onto the through ball, steadied himself, and with clinical composure, slipped the ball past Neuer.

1-1 and the match was suddenly as close as the referendum. It really looked as though either side could win it. Scotland’s goal came after 65 minutes and hope was swelling to expectation among the tartan army. Less than five minutes later though it was Muller time again and the Germans were back in the lead.

It was, in truth, a terrible goal to concede. A less than dangerous ball into the box from a corner gave the Scottish defence two straightforward opportunities to clear. Both were met with what we call a ‘sclaff.’ Muller gratefully blasted the ball into the roof of the net from about four yards out.

It would have been understandable if that blow had floored Scotland. But Strachan has fashioned a side in his own image – tough, tenacious, full of energy and prepared to take risks to try and create chances. The Scots refused to take a step back and continued to put Germany under pressure.

Right to the very end it looked as though a point could still be salvaged and it wouldn’t have been undeserved. What was undeserved was the red card shown to Mulgrew in injury time for kicking the ball away as he fired off a shot just after the referee had blown his whistle for a foul.

It was one of several strange decisions by the ref including his final one which was to blow for full time just as Scotland had won a corner. A 2-1 defeat to the world champions was far from a disgrace though and the performance was hugely encouraging.

It was written up in the media as a typically brave performance and it was, but it was brave in the way that Strachan defines the term. I remember once reading a column he wrote in which he said bravery in football  is not about flying into tackles and running yourself into the ground; it’s about showing for the ball, being prepared to receive it in tight situations and being prepared to risk making a mistake in order to create something. The manager can be proud that his side was brave in all of those latter senses.

By the time we welcome Georgia to Ibrox on the 11th of October the referendum will be done and dusted. Charlie Mulgrew will have had his opportunity to vote. It’s a hugely important question but I can’t help thinking that a more important question is: will we make it to France in 2016?