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.

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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.

Xavi, master of the tika-taka

Photo by: Marc Puig i Perez www.flickr.com

Photo by: Marc Puig i Perez
http://www.flickr.com

The great Xavi Hernandez recently gave an interview to the BBC (you can find it here http://www.bbc.com/sport/0/football/30058904) in which he spoke about his style of play and his favourite British players among other things.

Perhaps more than anyone else, Xavi has become synonymous with the so-called tika-taka style, based on short passes, constant movement and understanding of space, that Barcelona have made famous in his time at the club.

I’ve been privileged to watch Barcelona live three times (two of those games were competitive league fixtures). When I’m telling the grandkids about it someday they’ll likely be awed by the fact that I saw the magnificent Messi, and rightly so, but every time I’ve seen Barcelona Xavi has been the most important player on the park.

If Messi is the virtuoso violinist in the Barca orchestra then Xavi is the conductor. He sets the tempo and the pace and can vary it at will. It’s an extraordinary skill and incredible to watch. If genius exists primarily in simplicity (and I think that’s by and large true) then Xavi is the smartest player on the planet.

“I’ve been a passer since a young age,” he tells the BBC and it shows. Schooled at Barcelona’s La Masia academy since the age of 11, he learned his lessons well. The first time I saw him live I think he gave the ball away once in the entire ninety minutes. To do that while playing simple passes to your full backs is one thing (and he does some of that) but to do it while playing all kinds of inventive ones such as Xavi also does is something else altogether.

He’s been quoted before as saying: “Think quickly, look for spaces. That’s what I do: look for spaces. All day. I’m always looking. All day, all day. Here? No. There? No. People who haven’t played don’t always realise how hard that is. Space, space, space.”

He looks for space more than any other player I’ve ever seen. He has an extraordinary awareness of space and he finds it more regularly than seems possible. He does it all with remarkable composure, seemingly never hurried.

It was recently revealed that Pep Guardiola had practically disowned tika-taka, or at least certain interpretations of it. He said: “I loathe all that passing for the sake of it, all that tika-taka. It’s so much rubbish and has no purpose. You have to pass the ball with a clear intention, with the aim of making it into the opposition’s goal.”

I don’t think Xavi has ever made a pass just for the sake of it. It’s always been with the intention of finding space, to clear a path to goal. If he can’t find the space he’s looking for he’ll aim to keep the ball – perhaps by playing back to one of his defenders – and then move and demand it back to resume his search.

Alex Ferguson had the best description of Barcelona’s passing style: “they get you on that carousel and they leave you dizzy.” That’s what they did to Ferguson’s team in the 2009 Champions League final in Rome. The sides met again in the final two years later at Wembley. Before the game Ferguson claimed that he’d figured out how to stop the carousel but if anything his players came off even dizzier than in 2009. Xavi is the man that makes the carousel spin.

He’s done it for Spain and for Barcelona, winning every honour in the game. Messi is justifiably hailed as the best player in the world and arguably the greatest of all time but Xavi has surely been the most influential footballer of the last decade.

In the BBC interview he says that his favourite British players when he was growing up were Barnes, Gascoigne, and Le Tissier. Each of them had incredible awareness and each of them knew where to find space on a football pitch.

None of them found it as instinctively as Xavi though. He’s 34 now and retirement probably isn’t too far off. When he does leave the field for the last time, he’ll leave behind a space that will be almost impossible to fill.

Which is the best league in the world?

Photo by: Will Morley www.flickr.com

Photo by: Will Morley
http://www.flickr.com

I raise this question today since David Moyes proclaimed the Spanish La Liga as the best league in the world at his first press conference as manager of Real Sociedad. His reasons were simple: “La Liga has the finest players and great coaches and I want to test myself against the best.” So, is Moyes right? Is the Spanish league the best in the world?

There aren’t actually that many competitors for this title. I don’t think it’s too controversial to restrict this search to Europe. There’s a lot of great football played outside Europe (in terms of current growth and future potential, the MLS in America is hugely exciting) but it remains the case that the best players, the best coaches, and the biggest teams are overwhelmingly concentrated in a select few European leagues.

After careful consideration I took the decision to rule out the Scottish Premiership.

The big four leagues in Europe are the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga, Italy’s Serie A, and La Liga in Spain (the French might make a case for being included over the Italians but I think Serie A remains stronger than Ligue 1 overall). As I’ve written before, I love Italian football even with all its present travails but there’s no doubt that the Serie A is not at the level of the other three right now. It could be thought of as the Andy Murray of the big four.

Let’s look at some evidence in order to give the impression of employing a scientific approach to ranking the three remaining contenders before arriving at the necessarily subjective conclusion.

I’ll start with the best players. The long list for FIFA’s Ballon d’Or was announced recently, comprising 23 players: Bale (La Liga), Benzema (La Liga), Costa (Premier League), Courtois (Premier League), Di Maria (Premier League), Goetze (Bundesliga), Hazard (Premier League), Ibrahimovic (Ligue 1), Iniesta (La Liga), Kroos (La Liga), Lahm (Bundesliga), Mascherano (La Liga), Messi (La Liga), Mueller (Bundesliga), Neuer (Bundesliga), Neymar (La Liga), Pogba (Serie A), Ramos (La Liga), Robben (Bundesliga), Rodriguez (La Liga), Ronaldo (La Liga), Schweinsteiger (Bundesliga), and Toure (Premier League).

Moyes would appear to be right about the best players then. 10 players on the list are based in Spain, six in Germany, five in England, and one each in Italy and France. Overall, the Spanish league does have more of the best players in the world and in Messi and Ronaldo it has the top two.

Photo by: Jan Solo www.flickr.com

Photo by: Jan Solo
http://www.flickr.com

It also has Suarez who is not included on the Ballon d’Or list. Some people are upset by that but the list is about players who have performed best over the year; Suarez has spent rather a lot of the year not playing at all on account of his disgraceful conduct. I have little sympathy regarding his absence.

How about coaches? There are ten contenders for Fifa’s coach of the year award: Ancelotti (La Liga), Conte (currently coach of the Italian national team), Guardiola (Bundesliga), Klinsmann (coach of the U.S. national team), Loew (coach of the German national team), Mourinho (Premier League), Pellegrini (Premier League), Sabella (coached Argentina at the World Cup), Simeone (La Liga), and Van Gaal (Premier League).

The Premier League comes out on top here with three, La Liga has two, and the Bundesliga one. It probably is true that most of the best coaches want to manage in England. I expect Guardiola to move to an English club at some point in the future.

Finally, let’s consider supporters since they are the lifeblood of the leagues. Earlier this year, the Sporting Intelligence website published average attendance figures for the leagues based on the 2012-2013 season (http://www.sportingintelligence.com/finance-biz/business-intelligence/global-attendances/). The Bundesliga’s average attendance was 41,914 (total attendance for the season was 12,825,684), while the Premier League’s average was 35,931 (but with a higher total attendance of 13,653,780), and La Liga’s average was 29,330 (with a total attendance of 11,145,277).

I’ve been to games in all three leagues and I would award victory to the Bundesliga in the supporters’ category. The combination of low ticket prices, superb atmosphere in the stadiums, and excellent German beer and sausage makes the Bundesliga a clear winner here.

Photo by: lackystrike www.flickr.com

Photo by: lackystrike
http://www.flickr.com

So where does that leave us? It seems that Spain is the place to be as a player, its England if you are a coach, and Germany if you are supporter.

The Spanish league is technically and tactically sophisticated, has the best players in the world and the two biggest clubs in Barcelona and Real Madrid (El Classico is the game in world football these days). Last season’s remarkable title triumph by Atletico Madrid aside however, the big two tend to overshadow the rest of the league in a way that’s not altogether healthy.

The Premier League is arguably the most competitive, has many world class players and many of the world’s best coaches. Ticket prices are generally too expensive though and the football can be of rather uneven quality.

The Bundesliga takes care of its supporters and offers an excellent quality of football but the increasing dominance of Bayern Munich is making it a bit less competitive than would be ideal. In the next few years, even Bayern may struggle to prevent more players following Kroos out of the Bundesliga.

Is Moyes right then? Has he just landed in the world’s best league? Has he just left it? Should he have opted for Germany?

It’s a tough call and a close one but for me, right now, I would still award the overall title of best league in the world to the Premier League. It’s the most exciting, the fan experience is not as great as in Germany but the atmosphere is still good, there are more than enough great players (including the likes of Aguero, Fabregas and Sterling who didn’t make the Ballon d’Or list) and some of the finest coaches.

England it is then by a whisker from Spain, followed by Germany. Do you agree?