Front and Centre

Suarez

Suarez, 9. Photo by Marc Puig i Perez http://www.flickr.com

Football, like many other things in life, is subject to shifting fashions, and I’m not just referring to the design of the multiple kits that teams deem necessary these days. There are tactical fashions too, many of which have been shaped by Barcelona over the last decade or so.

The Barcelona side built around Xavi and Messi set the template for fluid attacking football that has been much imitated but with rather sporadic success since those doing the imitating have been attempting to do so without the aforementioned superstars.

One consequence of the fashion to play tiki-taka has been a reduced influence for what we might call the traditional centre forward.

With Messi playing as a ‘false 9’ (something that Totti was already doing at Roma incidentally), Barcelona became one of the greatest sides of all time without much need for a true 9 – just ask Ibrahimovic.

But when Barcelona signed Suarez in 2014, it signified the end of the tiki-taka era and the introduction of a more direct style at the Camp Nou to take advantage of the fearsome Messi-Suarez-Neymar (MSN) frontline. Messi and Neymar would float around as fluidly as ever, while Suarez would be exactly where you would expect a number 9 to be: front and centre.

I’ve written before that Barcelona have shifted the focus of their game to the forward trio rather than the midfield trio, which (when led by Xavi) used to create the “passing carousel” that caused such anguish to Sir Alex.

The Catalans may not be quite as dominant as a few years ago but where they lead others remain inclined to follow. Look at the top of the Premier League: Chelsea (Costa), Tottenham (Kane), and Manchester City (Aguero). Number 9s (even if that’s not always the number on their back) are enjoying a renaissance.

Interestingly, the fourth placed team in the Premier League remain tactically closer to a tiki-taka style of play. Roberto Firmino is many things but he is not a centre forward. Nevertheless, he has played as the focal point of Liverpool’s attack (in a false-ish 9 position) for most of the season.

Sturridge has been a combination of injured (as usual) or out of form and in any case is not in the same class as Costa, Kane and Aguero. The best that can be said of Origi is that he remains a work in progress with unfulfilled potential.

It’s unclear as to whether Klopp does not sufficiently trust his centre forwards to play them regularly or if his preferred tactical set-up has little need for them. Firmino, Coutinho and Mane (plus Lallana to a lesser extent) are tasked with bringing both creativity and cutting edge to Liverpool’s attack.

They’ve done so very erratically – Liverpool have struggled to break down lesser teams but are still currently the highest scoring side in the league. The main problem at Anfield is not the particular style favoured by Klopp but the lack of variability and adaptability on days when it’s not proving effective.

The absence of a true 9 in many games has hampered Liverpool’s ability to play more directly and pose a different sort of challenge to defences that are both packed and deep. The Liverpool boss should prioritise the signing of a centre forward in the summer, especially with Sturridge seemingly poised to leave.

Further down the league, the role of world-class strikers cannot be understated. Most of the progress made by Manchester United under Mourinho is due to the signing of Ibrahimovic, he who Barcelona struggled to fit into their tiki-taka rhythm.

Similarly, where would Everton be without Lukaku? At the other end of the table, Sunderland would be in considerably more trouble without Defoe. Arsenal have laboured for years now without a truly exceptional number 9 (and a few other missing numbers); Giroud is unfairly scapegoated on occasion but he’s no Costa or Kane.

Barcelona’s tiki-taka influenced the game defensively as well as in an attacking sense. Many teams sought more defensive cover and rigidity to guard against the shape-shifting nature of Barca’s movement. Strikers were primarily tasked with being the first line of defence and one was judged to suffice for such a mission.

4-5-1 thus became a common formation – sometimes of a more attacking disposition, often less so. It could be subtle, even at times sophisticated, but it was rarely swashbuckling. It tended to be dull though, particularly when 4-5-1 lined up against 4-5-1.

There is, no doubt, an art to defending (really there is PSG) but the artistry in football is primarily to be found at the other end of the pitch. A player such as Mascherano can paint in broad brushes but those with the talent of Messi and Neymar produce the masterpieces.

As in art, fashions change and usually they hark back to something that’s come before. The return to fashion of the centre forward is worth celebrating; welcome back number 9, may you cease to be false.

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Make mine a treble: watching the Champions League final in a bar in Hong Kong

Champions League final

I was in Hong Kong last weekend for a romantic break with my wife. Remarkably, she did not consider going out at 2.30am to watch the Champions League final a romantic activity befitting of such a weekend. I was thus alone when I took my seat at the ‘Forever Lounge’ bar for the game.

I’m not exaggerating when I say ‘my seat.’ I had enquired at around 10pm if they were going to be showing the game and they said yes but there were only a few seats left and I would have to pay a deposit to reserve one. I handed over 100 Hong Kong dollars while my wife looked at me in bemusement. “It’s the Champions League final darling,” is all I could offer by way of explanation.

When the match kicked off, I gauged the bar to be reasonably evenly split in terms of support for the two teams. There were few replica tops on display (I only counted one Juve top and two Barcelona ones) and the opening goal for Barcelona seemed to excite roughly half of the patrons. It came as quite a surprise when the Juventus equaliser sparked celebrations that were wilder and more widespread.

But back to the opening goal. It was well crafted from Barcelona’s point of view but it was a disaster for Juve. Rakitic was given so much space just outside the six yard box and must have been amazed to be given such a simple opportunity to score after just three minutes. I had written previously that the Italians are ‘masters of denying space.’ Ah, the dangers of predictive punditry. Undeterred, I took to Facebook with a short update – ‘Prediction: game over.’ And I was right, sort of.

Barcelona should have had the game wrapped up by half time. The Rakitic goal was a prelude to a series of further clear cut chances. It was mostly the brilliance of Buffon in the Juve goal that ensured the game wasn’t over by the time the referee blew for the interval. I remained confident in my prediction but had just the tiniest amount of doubt.

At half time I had a chance to reflect on a few things that had struck me so far. The biggest surprise about the game was how open it was. Most of the credit for that goes to Juventus who had chosen to try and attack rather than sit in and seek to nullify Barcelona. I had expected more defensive tactics from the Italians and had anticipated (wrongly as it turned out) that they would start with only one man up front.

It was no surprise that Barca were dominant in terms of possession but their speed on the break was remarkable. Messi, Suarez, and Neymar are not actually the quickest front three but they move the ball incredibly fast and have developed an excellent understanding over the course of their first season playing together.

Another intriguing factor about the first half was that Juve’s 4-4-2 formation with a narrow midfield gave them a man advantage in the middle of the park but they were entirely unable to dominate the Barcelona midfield three. The hype that surrounds Pogba is not unjustified but he is not yet able to control a game at this level by himself.

A few other thoughts occurred to me at half time. Firstly, when did Messi acquire his tattoo sleeve? It was the first time that I’d spotted it and it seemed incongruous with his boyish image. On a related note, where do these players get their hair cut? The match was a parade of ridiculous hairstyles – Pogba, Neymar, and Alves chief among them. And why was Barca’s assistant manager dressed in denim? It’s the Champions League final, even the pundits put on their Sunday (or Saturday night) best for this game.

As I was pondering all of this a curious thing happened. Sat across from me was a group of three guys sharing a bucket of beer. They finished one bucket and the waitress promptly delivered another one. Upon its arrival, one of the guys took a bottle of beer out and proceeded to spend the next minute attempting to open it with his teeth. He eventually succeeded and spat out the bottle top triumphantly.

This display of machismo was rather undone however when he then took the bottle and shared it among the three small glasses that were on the table. It seemed like a lot of effort for a third of a bottle of beer.

The second half began with Barcelona looking to prove me right in my prediction. Neymar missed an excellent chance from a Messi cross and that was the first of three chances for his side in the opening ten minutes of the second period. Once again, the game could and should have been all over.

But then, all of a sudden, my prediction appeared in some jeopardy as Juventus found an equaliser. A low ball into the box was struck towards goal by a swivelling Tevez, the goalkeeper could only parry the ball out and Morata pounced to sweep the ball home. Having a second striker on hand to follow up and score from a rebound illustrated the benefit of playing with two up front (something for coaches to reflect on in an era that’s seen an increasing use of just a solitary striker).

This was clearly now the key moment in the game. Could Juve build some momentum behind their equaliser? Would Barcelona’s confidence start to ebb? Was I going to end up with egg on my face for predicting the winner a mere three minutes into the game?

It didn’t take long to realise that my face would remain egg free. Barcelona regained their rhythm almost immediately and while Juventus continued to pose a sporadic threat it was the Catalans who remained thoroughly in control. Juve did continue to try and press and take the initiative but in doing so they left themselves exposed on the break and it was thus that Suarez restored his side’s lead. Messi was the creator, running directly at and past several defenders before driving a shot that Buffon could only push into the path of a grateful Suarez.

I was relieved and very shortly thereafter my prediction seemed entirely safe when Neymar nodded home a cross. His celebrations were cut short though with the referee correctly ruling that Neymar had used not only head but also hand in the act of scoring. The ‘goal’ was disallowed. In truth Neymar had made a terrible mess of an easy chance.

The game still had a good flow to it and Juventus edged forward in search of a second goal of their own. Time and again however they left themselves short at the back and Barca were able to break with four or five players facing three Juve defenders. The Italians survived these breaks until the very end when Neymar did get his name on the score sheet from yet another incisive Catalan counter attack.

With that the European Cup was headed back to Barcelona and I was headed back to the hotel to get to bed at 5am.

Last season Barcelona didn’t win any trophies and many wondered if it was the end of an era at the Nou Camp or at least the beginning of the end. This season they have a treble to their name – La Liga, Spanish Cup and Champions League. They are without doubt the best club side of this century and the scary thought for rivals is that they may not even have fulfilled their full potential yet. Messi has been revitalised since the turn of the year and at his best he is close to unstoppable.

I’ll make an early prediction for next season’s Champions League: if anyone knocks out Barcelona they will win the tournament.

One final observation on my trip to Hong Kong, it was made in the gents. Over recent years there has been a worldwide move to improve men’s accuracy in the urinal. This has generally involved drawing a target on the point of the urinal that the authorities would prefer that we hit (sometimes it’s a fly, sometimes a frog, or sometimes just an X marks the spot).

In Hong Kong, several establishments have installed small goalposts in the urinal with a ball suspended on string from the crossbar. I think goal line technology would be required to determine whether or not my shot did in fact cross the line.

A cameo and a Classico

Photo by Ana Belen Ramon www.flickr.com

Photo by Ana Belen Ramon
http://www.flickr.com

Domestic football returns in Europe this weekend following the break for international fixtures. In the last round of games we got to assess two of the continent’s greatest leagues, and four of the biggest clubs in the world with plenty at stake – it truly was a Super Sunday (or Super Sunday/Mega Monday combo for those of us watching in the Far East) as Liverpool took on Manchester United before Barcelona squared off against Real Madrid.

El Classico is not only the biggest game in Spain but also the biggest game in the world these days and, in my view, Liverpool v Manchester United is the biggest game in England such is the stature, history and rivalry of the two clubs. Having both games played on the same day offered an interesting opportunity to compare two very different football cultures.

It may be the biggest game in England but this was no title decider. Both clubs are focused on a top four finish and qualification for the Champions League. United’s victory was a huge one in this particular race and Liverpool, despite excellent form in 2015, may have left their charge a little too late.

Van Gaal and his expensive acquisitions have found themselves under pressure all season with their stuttering and inconsistent form. The Dutchman speaks often of ‘philosophy’ and his team has mostly employed the Socratic method: posing many questions but providing precious few answers.

Things change rather quicker in football than philosophy however and victory at Anfield would prove to be a second assured display in a row from United following their convincing win over Spurs a week earlier.

Liverpool started the match as slight favourites but quickly found out how little that matters when Mata calmly stroked in the opening goal. Van Gaal was jubilant on the touchline but Giggs’ reaction to being embraced by the manager – stonier of face than Michelangelo’s David – did not exactly dispel rumours of a rift between the two.

Liverpool tried to counter but looked unusually flat and threatened only rarely in the first half. Sturridge briefly got confused and thought he was Marco Van Basten, attempting a volley from an audacious angle. De Gea wasn’t troubled by it but some supporters high up in the stand behind him may well have been.

Manchester United were dominating the game with Mata and Herrera pulling the strings in midfield and Rooney looking lively in his preferred position up front. Liverpool needed some inspiration: enter Steven Gerrard as a half time substitute.

38 seconds later Gerrard exited, rightly sent off for a stamp on Herrera. Captain marvel hadn’t even lasted a marvellous minute. It was an atrocious loss of control from a player of such experience. His subsequent apologies were swift and well made but the incident will leave a longer lasting mark on the end of Gerrard’s Liverpool career than it did on Herrera.

The remaining Liverpool players appeared to still be in shock when Mata scored his second of the game with an acrobatically elegant volley. It looked like game over at that point but Liverpool deserve a lot of credit for forcing their way back into the match. Sturridge scored with twenty minutes remaining but the unequal numbers were a factor in an equaliser remaining beyond them.

Rooney had the chance to wrap up a more comfortable win for his side when Manchester United were awarded a late penalty after Can clumsily tangled with Blind in the box. It summed up a rather clumsy Liverpool performance overall. Rooney’s penalty was in the category marked tame and Mignolet was able to make a relatively straightforward save.

Liverpool quickly ran out of time to save themselves but there was still time for another expensive stamp as Skrtel left his foot in on De Gea. The referee took no action but Skrtel subsequently received a retrospective three match ban.

Manchester United left town with three precious points. I went to bed for about three hours sleep before the Classico kicked-off.

When it did, the two best forward lines in the world were lined up against each other: Neymar, Suarez, and Messi versus Bale, Benzema, and Ronaldo. This potentially packed more of a punch than Mayweather versus Pacquiao next month. As the players lined up, it was Bale who looked by far the most apprehensive even though he was playing away from the Bernabeu where the Madrid fans have given him such an unnecessarily hard time of late.

Modric was back in the Real midfield to set-up an interesting Croatian confrontation with his fellow countryman Rakitic. I’m not yet fully convinced of Luis Enrique’s managerial abilities but he has at least been smart enough to restore Mascherano to a midfield position. The Argentinean had a superb game, snapping Real’s midfield out of their stride and using the ball intelligently in possession. The only black mark against him was some pitiful playacting on more than one occasion.

The opening exchanges were cagey, there was more dancing around the ring than direct engagement. Then Messi decided enough was enough and whipped in a free-kick that invited Mathieu to nod it in to the net, an invitation he duly accepted. The two best strike forces in the world come together and the first goal is scored by a centre half.

It didn’t take long for Real to respond though. Modric found Benzema inside the box and his brilliant back-heel bemused the Barca defence and allowed Ronaldo to find a sliver of space to score. Ronaldo is apparently refusing to talk to the press until the end of the season; his bizarre outburst at the Ballon d’Or awards suggests that we’re perhaps not missing much.

Before half-time there was still time for Ronaldo to get booked for diving (I wish he would give that up, even just for lent), for Bale to have a ‘goal’ ruled out for offside and then miss a glorious chance from just six yards out. Ancelotti will have headed down the tunnel the happier of the two bosses.

Ten minutes into the second half though, Enrique was enlivened and leaping with delight as Suarez scored a goal of pure composure to put Barca back ahead. If anybody needed reminding, this game was no Messi versus Ronaldo. It was probably the best collection of football talent you are likely to see on a pitch anywhere in the world this year (consider the fact that Xavi was on the bench).

Real Madrid had the world club cup winner’s crest on their jerseys but there’s no doubt that this is the game that determines the world’s best. In the last Classico back in October, Real looked very much the best in the world with an utterly convincing 3-1 win.

Barcelona looked disjointed and uncertain in that game. This time round they were full of confidence and conviction. It was a bit like the Barcelona of a couple of seasons ago under Guardiola but with ‘quicker ball’ as they would say in rugby. The midfield three used to be the basis of Barcelona’s game, now it’s the front three.

And with that front three it’s hardly surprising. Tactics don’t have to be very complicated when you have the option to give the ball to Neymar, Suarez, and Messi, all of whom are very willing to constantly show for it.

At the final whistle Barcelona had three points to show for their efforts and a four point lead at the top of the league.

Two great games, four great teams, six great goals. If the four teams played in a mini league the two Spanish sides would finish at the top. They are the best two teams in the world with Bayern Munich not far behind. Liverpool and Manchester United are striving to close the gap but given that the former didn’t make it out of the Champions League group stage and the latter weren’t even in Europe this season, they still have a long way to go.

The English sides return this weekend to their battle to qualify for the Champions League. They know that if they get there they’ll find the world’s best waiting. Gerrard won’t be there, he’ll be in L.A. But like the rest of the world, he’ll be watching.

The Rodgers revolution

brendan-rodgers

Brendan Rodgers. Photo by Geoffrey Hammersley, http://www.flickr.com

Last week Liverpool returned to the Champions League after a five year absence so this feels like a reasonable point at which to assess the impact that Brendan Rodgers has had on the club. It’s been just over two years since Rodgers was appointed manager at Anfield and he’s used that time to instil his playing philosophy and construct a squad that is comfortable with it.

Liverpool last won the league title in 1990. Thatcher was still in Downing Street, the Soviet Union was still intact, and Madonna was atop the charts with Vogue. Later that summer the number one slot would be held by New Order and the England squad with their Italia 90 anthem World in Motion featuring a rapping John Barnes. That’s right, Liverpool last won the league before Italia 90 (my formative World Cup at the age of 9).

Shortly after his appointment Rodgers said: “I find it all very inspiring, from the minute I drive through and walk through the door. You see the little bust of Bill Shankly, you walk in every day and walk past the European Cup.” Here was a man respectful of the traditions of the club and comfortable with its ambitions.

Rodgers was a young British manager given a shot at one of the country’s big clubs. A year later the same chance was afforded to David Moyes at Manchester United. The comparison is an interesting one. Both replaced club legends in Dalglish and Ferguson although there’s no doubt that the task facing Moyes was the more daunting.

Rodgers, inspired by Shankly and the sight of the European Cup, grew into the role, looked at ease, and as if he felt confident that he belonged at the level at which he’d arrived. Moyes however seemed to shrink before the sheer enormity of Manchester United. He looked uncomfortable and hesitant. In fact he looked a bit like Ed Miliband does now.

Miliband is intelligent, passionate (albeit in a slightly geeky sort of a way), and was politically savvy enough to win a leadership contest in which he was regarded by many as an outsider. One of the biggest challenges that he faces is that people really struggle to see him as Prime Minister. There’s something in the way that he carries himself that just doesn’t seem very prime ministerial. Similarly, there was something in the way that Moyes carried himself that just didn’t seem like the manager of Manchester United.

Rodgers does not appear to lack self belief which perhaps comes from serving part of his apprenticeship under Mourinho. The self-proclaimed ‘special one’ walks as though he believes not only that he could manage Manchester United or anyone else but that he should probably be Prime Minister as well.

Both Rodgers and Moyes made a mistake that is quite common with managers that move to bigger clubs, that of taking a player from their former club who’s not good enough to improve the 1st team at their new club. For Rodgers it was Joe Allen, for Moyes it was Marouane Fellaini. Neither has made much impact.

In fact, I must admit to being somewhat sceptical of Rodgers and his vision in the early days of his Liverpool reign. The signing of Allen made me wonder if he could really judge the quality of footballer that Liverpool would need to compete back at the top of the Premier League and while I greatly admired his passing principles there was a spell when his Liverpool side seemed to pass for the sake of making a pass rather than for any more adventurous purpose.

The first time that Rodgers took Liverpool to Old Trafford (in January 2013) was a case in point. Manchester United won the game 2-1 but were far more comfortable winners than the score line suggested. Allen had a nightmare, frequently giving away possession and he was not alone. Almost every time that Liverpool tried to play the ball out from the back – and that was pretty much every time they had the ball at the back – they put themselves under huge pressure.

It looked as though Rodgers was trying to recreate Barcelona but seemed not to have noticed that he lacked ball playing centre halves and Messi. Since then though, my admiration for his work has only grown. He has proved himself to be more tactically flexible than he first appeared, he has been lauded for his man management skills and under his direction youngsters such as Henderson and Sterling have been utterly transformed.

Last season he took Liverpool as close as they have come to winning the title since 1990. The fact that they came so close actually says more about shortcomings elsewhere than it does about the undoubted progress being made at Anfield but it was still a remarkable achievement.

Until very recently Rodgers also had to deal with the circus that is Luiz Suarez and mostly did a reasonable job of it. Perhaps he could have hired a lion tamer as well as a sports psychologist for dealing with the Uruguayan.

The Liverpool boss obviously likes a challenge, how else to explain the signing of Balotelli to replace Suarez. If Mario is the answer then it may be worth re-examining the question. To be fair, his debut at Spurs was impressive and if Rodgers can influence him in the way that he has been able to do with Sterling then it’s a gamble that could pay off spectacularly.

This season Liverpool have made a very inconsistent start. It’s not altogether surprising given the number of new arrivals over the summer after Suarez was sold. Consolidating a place in the top four will be considered a success given the improvements that have been made by other teams, most notably at Chelsea and belatedly at Manchester United.

It seems unlikely that the long title wait will end this year and the return to the Champions League is already proving to be a learning experience. A domestic cup is a real possibility however as is the prospect of Rodgers continuing to enhance his reputation as a bold and attacking coach. He clearly learned well under Mourinho but I’m glad that he appears to have been absent the day that Jose was delivering the lesson on parking the bus.