Category Archives: Football

FC Barcelona – change and continuity

Time for a little break from politics and a look at the changes in personnel at Barça over recent seasons. Last season was the club’s most successful since the glory years of Guardiola. To be the first club to win the prized triplete – league, cup and Champions League – for a second time, was a tremendous achievement.. The team has changed a lot since they managed this feat the first time around in 2009. How much as the squad changed since then? 2009 is a longish time ago, so perhaps a more relevant comparison is with the squad which last won the Champions League in 2011. The most striking difference is with the coaching team. Since Guardiola left the club in 2012 the team has had three different coaches, one for each season. Luis Enrique, a former player, took over at the beginning of last season and, after a bit of a shaky start, led the team to the three trophies. Luis Enrique is a very different person from Guardiola. He is less media friendly and seems to be even more stringent and demanding of the players than Guardiola. Whatever goes on behind the scenes, it certainly worked for last season. Repeating any kind of success is of course even more challenging, both for the coach and the players.

Though the current team has many similarities with Guardiola’s teams, there are some small but significant differences. In terms of playing style, this has not changed much, but the current team is a bit more direct at times and is not as secure at retaining possession as previous teams. This is probably due to other teams working out how Barça play and trying even harder to disrupt this possession. This probably explains why the team now counter attack more often. There is no point in over egging this change. It is only marginal as Barça still usually dominate possession and mostly try to play, sometimes overplay, their way to the opposition goal.

The biggest changes are to do with the players. In summary the team has fewer Spanish and Catalan players and fewer players have come through from the youth set-up, the famous cantera.  The team that started the 2011 Champions League final included seven Spanish players of whom four were from Catalunya. The 18 man squad for the final contained a further four Spanish nationals, of whom two were Catalans. By contrast for the 2015 final the figures were completely reversed when it came to nationality. Only four of the starting 11 were from Spain, though three of them were Catalans. Out of the 18 man squad, seven were Spanish, of whom five were Catalans. It is clear that the team and the larger squad has become progressively less Spanish and much more international. Though the number of Catalans in the team and squad has declined less so. In a sense the team is slightly more Catalan than Spanish, but overall it is more international. Below is a table showing a comparison of the two squads by nationality.

2011

2015

Starting 11
Spanish Iniesta Iniesta
Villa
Pedro
Catalan Valdés Piqué
Piqué Busquets
Busquets Alba
Xavi
Other Alves Ter-Stegen
Mascherano Alves
Abidal Mascherano
Messi Rakitić
Messi
Suarez
Neymar
Substitutes
Spanish Olazábal Pedro
Thiago
Catalan Puyol Bartra
Bojan Xavi
Other Adriano Bravo
Safely Adriano
Keita Mathieu
Rafinha

There is just as marked a difference when it comes to players who have progressed from the youth team to the first team. In 2011 the starting 11 included no fewer than seven players who had been formed in the youth team. One of these, Piqué, had left and returned, but the other six had been with the club for all of their careers. Some would leave after 2011, but at that time they had been with Barça for just about all of their professional career. A further four players from the youth team were included among the substitutes. By the 2015 there were fewer former youth team players in the starting team –  five instead of seven. These included Alba, another player who had left the youth team only to return. The substitutes included a further four players who had come through the youth team. Barcelona’s youth teams take in players from all over the world and the most famous of them all is from Argentina – Lionel Messi. However of the nine who were in the squad for the 2015 final, five were from Catalunya.

2011

2015

From Youth Team
Starting 11 Valdés Piqué
Piqué Alba
Busquets Busquets
Xavi Iniesta
Iniesta Messi
Messi
Pedro
Substitutes Puyol Xavi
Thiago Pedro
Bojan Rafinha
Olazábal Bartra

Looking ahead this trend is only likely to continue at least for the foreseeable future. It does not look like any of the current crop of youngsters is ready to make the jump to regular first team football. Rafinha, Sergi Roberto and the third goalkeeper, Masip, will continue to form part of the first team squad, but are unlikely to dislodge the current first choice players. Either Sandro or Munir may get a chance to join the first team squad, particularly if Pedro does finally decide to leave.  As the B team has just descended from the second to the third division its future is a bit uncertain, so it will probably take a few years before the youth team will produce any new future stars.

Two big name signings have been made, though neither can play until next January, due to the FIFA ban. Aleix Vidal is a Catalan who has signed from Sevilla. He is likely to be the long term replacement for Dani Alves at right back. Arda Turan is a Turkish international who has come from Atletico Madrid. Not quite sure where he will fit in. He seems most similar to Iniesta, but he has a good few years left in him at the top level. We will all find out from January onwards.

In the meantime the immediate future will rest will the same players who achieved the treble last season. Minus Xavi who has left for the Gulf. This leaves an opening for either Rafinha or Sergi Roberto, at least until January. Vermaelen seems to have recovered from his injury and if he stays fit will offer extra cover for the defence. Roll on the start of the season!

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The All new Barça – A winning team?

The new La Liga seasons starts this weekend and Barcelona play their first match this evening. So time for a bit of reflection on the summer’s transfer activity.  It is not quite all change at the club, but this time around they have gone for more of a revolution than evolution. Luis Enrique, the new head coach, does have extensive Barcelona connections as a player and as B team coach. However he has been brought in to oversee some radical changes. Not so much in the way the team plays, which is expected to only show slight changes from previous years, but more in terms of discipline and fitness.

As regards the squad this had changed significantly, with a high turnover of comings and goings. Starting with the goalkeeper, both Valdés and his deputy José Manuel Pinto, have left the club. Two new keepers have been signed, Marc-André Ter Stegen and Claudio Bravo, while Jordi Masip has been promoted from the B team. Barça now have three very good goalkeepers, but we will have to wait to see if any of the three can reach the consistently high standard set by Valdés.

Finally we get to see some new faces in the centre of the defence. Two experienced and tall centre backs have been signed – Jeremy Mathieu and Thomas Vermaelen. The team now has four recognised centre backs, the two newcomers plus Piqué and Bartra. This may turn out to be five as Javier Mascherano has played in defence in most of the pre-season matches. Mathieu and Vermaelen will add much needed experience and solidity to the defence. But it has to be doubted whether either can reach the levels of commitment and leadership of the sadly departed Carles Puyol.

In midfield at first sight it looks like a straight swap of Ivan Rakitic for Cesc Fàbregas. But as Cesc was more often used in attack it looks like Rakitic has come to replace Xavi in the first team. At one stage it looked like Xavi was going to leave the club during the summer, but he has decided to stay and fight for a place in the first team. Presumably Rakitic has been bought to add a bit of physical presence to the midfield as well as his undoubted skill. Still it will be a very different Barça without Xavi controlling the midfield. Sergi Roberto is the fourth midfielder, but he as yet has shown little sign that he can become a first choice player. Sergi Busquets remains the first choice for the defensive midfield organiser. Everyone assumed that Alexandre Song would leave the club and that Mascherano would offer competition to Busquets in this role, but as yet this has not happened.

Quite a few changes in attack for this season. Alexis has gone to Arsenal, while Luis Suarez has come in. If he keeps his cool, Suarez with his prolific scoring record should provide Barça with a potent attacking trio, alongside Messi and Neymar. However Suarez is not available for another two months, which should provide another opportunity for Pedro to shine. Luis Enrique welcomed back two loan players, Deulofeu and Rafinha. Somewhat surprisingly Deulofeu has already been loaned out again, this time to Sevilla. Rafinha, the younger brother of Thiago Alcántara looks likely to become the fifth option for the attack. The biggest surprise of the pre-season has probably been the youngster Munir, who ended up the leading goal scorer. He is also likely get an opportunity or two to demonstrate his talents.

All in all, the squad has gained in experience and solidity compared to last season. Once Suarez is available the attack looks very exciting. However both Neymar and Messi missed lots of matches last season due to injury. If either or both succumb again, the cover is not very deep. The midfield should be at least as good as recent years, with Rakitic to provide fresh legs and Xavi still around to provide that extra touch of class. The defence including the goalkeeper is where most uncertainty lies. We do not as yet know who will be first choice either as keeper or as the two centre backs. This is the area of the team that most needs continuity of selection to build up the mutual understanding that is crucial to any title winning team.

Once again we should see lots of goals from this team, but it may take more than one season to build a team that can win titles. Much will depend on whether the midfield and defence can settle into a pattern and how quickly this can be achieved. Whatever happens it will not be easy to win anything either in Spain or in Europe. Both Real and Atlético remain formidable teams, while the challenges from England and Germany are getting even stronger. Let the games begin!

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Brasil 2014 – the demise of the midfield maestro?

The World Cup in Brazil continues to provide us with some great football, entertainment and above all, great excitement. Five of the eight last 16 matches went to extra time and two of these were only decided by a penalty shoot-out. While Colombia comfortably beat Uruguay, the other two 90 minute matches were only won in the final minutes. Breathtaking, edge of your seat stuff, which confirms Brazil 2014 as one of the best World Cups ever.

Now that we have reached the quarter-finals a few tentative conclusions can be raised about the football.  Three developments stand out for me – the demise of the midfield maestro, the rise of the superstar striker and the heroics of some of the goalkeepers.  This has been a high scoring tournament so far, but we could be celebrating even more goals were it not for some truly outstanding goalkeeping performances. With one or two notable exceptions, goalkeepers have excelled themselves in Brazil. In part they have had to, due to the generally poor defensive performances of most teams. Even so, some of the stops have been breathtaking. Both of last night’s matches illustrated this point wonderfully well. Romero in the Argentina goal, almost single handedly kept his team in the competition with some incredible saves. In the other match Tim Howard made an amazing 15 saves for the USA, which helped take the match into extra time and kept everyone on tenterhooks until the final whistle. Other goalkeepers have performed equally well.

However the main development from my point of view has been the demise of the midfield general. The type of player who can control a game by his vision, passing and reading of the play. Players such as Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta of Spain and Andrea Pirlo of Italy are three of the greatest of this kind of midfield maestro. Their influence on matches goes a long way to explain why Spain won the World Cup in 2010 and Italy in 2006. Not this time though, as both Italy and Spain tumbled out of the tournament at the first hurdle. It is not that there are no first class midfield players around. Oscar from Brazil, Kroos from Germany, Sneider from the Netherlands and Pogba from France have all demonstrated great skill. Yet none of them has dominated a game in the way that Xavi and previously Pirlo were able to do.

On the whole the current generation of midfielders are more physical than their predecessors. The recent relative decline of FC Barcelona has been a harbinger of this development. The most successful teams, both at club level and at national level, try to move the ball as swiftly as possible from defence to attack. Often this is done by bypassing the midfield altogether. A long ball out wide to an attacking player has been one of the features of this tournament. The other notable feature has been the willingness of midfielders to run at the opposition and either force a way through or at least unsettle them and open up space for a rebound. All the teams left in the World Cup play more or less in a similar way. We seem to be returning to a more direct, running style of football.

Another feature of this World Cup is what might be termed the rise of the superstar striker. This development could with equal justice be described as dependency on a single, outstanding player. Both Portugal and Uruguay for example rely heavily on Ronaldo and Suárez respectively for goals and inspiration. it is very similar with at least three of the surviving teams to make the quarter-finals. Without Messi, Neymar or Robben it is hard to see how Argentina, Brazil or the Netherlands could have made it so far. All three teams seem to be excessively dependent on their superstar to score the goals as well as make them for others. James Rodríguez of Colombia may fall into this category. I haven’t seen enough of Colombia’s games to judge, but he certainly scores most of their goals.

It will be fascinating to see if one of these superstars can lead and inspire their team to the trophy. It has happened before. Argentina with Maradona in 1986, France with Zidane in 1998 and Brazil with Ronaldo in 2002 are recent examples where the winners were heavily, if not totally dependent on one exceptionally gifted player. However on the whole the winning team has tended to be a team with a more balanced squad. Neither Italy in 2006 nor Spain in 2010 had particularly gifted strikers. They did have well organized and balanced teams from defence forwards. France, Germany and Belgium are the teams which most fit this particular bill. Pretty strong all round with no dependency on any one player. Place your bets!  Whatever the outcome, the World Cup just promises to get better and better.

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World Cup 2014 – First Reflections

2014-brazil-world-cup-techThe World Cup has now reached its half way stage, with all the group matches completed. I haven’t watched all the matches but the ones I have seen have all been good and enjoyable. The overall impression from the TV coverage is that this is a well run tournament and all the fans in Brazil seem to be having a great time, whatever the results of their team. Compared to the last World Cup in South Africa, this is a much more open tournament with more goals and most teams at least trying to play attacking football.

As the tournament is in South America it is not surprising that South American teams have done very well. Not quite as well as four years ago, when all five teams progressed to the second round. This time there were six South American countries in the tournament and five are still in contention. Only Ecuador failed to progress. Not 100%, but still an exceptional 83% success rate. The North and Central American countries have also done exceptionally well. Three out of their four teams progressed, a very impressive 75% success rate. This is even better than in South Africa. Then come the relative failures, Europe and Africa. European countries have made no progress at all compared to four years ago. Once again only six of the 13 countries in the tournament have managed to progress, which represents a 46% success rate. African countries on the other hand, perhaps surprisingly, have improved on their showing in South Africa. This time two of the five countries have progressed, representing a success rate of 40%. The big losers this time around was Asia. Last time two of their four countries qualified for the second round. This time none did so. Very disappointing and on the whole their representatives played poorly.

As regards the football on offer, a marked improvement from four years ago, with more goals and more excitement. The usual quota of questionable refereeing decisions to add to the talking points. Unfortunately we have also had the unsavoury and most unsporting behaviour of Luis Suárez to contend with. Hopefully his vampire imitation will remain a one-off.  While goals are always welcome, it has to be said that some of the defending has been pretty woeful. In particular by Spain and Switzerland. Still it all adds to the excitement and unpredictability of the matches. Who would have predicted Spain, Italy, England, Portugal and Russia to all fall at the first hurdle?

A special word of praise must go to Costa Rica, who not only topped their group, but sent both Italy and England home early. Good play by the Central American team who richly deserved their success. The country I felt most sorry for was Ghana. As in South Africa the Ghanaians played some lovely football and were always looking to break forward. They were, unfortunately for them, in a very tough group, with Germany, Portugal and the USA. I will miss their brand of football.

Looking ahead, France have looked good, but in a very weak group and massively helped by an exceptionally poor performance by Switzerland. Not enough evidence to tell if France are really as good as they look. Nigeria will surely test them a bit more. The Netherlands have also played well, though again helped by atrocious defending, but they look well organized and in Arjen Robben clearly have a match winner. Germany are though the team that has looked the most impressive in the early matches. Strong, disciplined and as usual well organized. No stand out player, but just about everyone looks very good. Neither Brazil nor Argentina have fully convinced me so far. Both can be very good going forward, but both still seem a bit short on defensive organisation. Surprisingly neither country seems to have a really good creative midfield player, one who can read and control the game. Still, both should progress to the quarter-finals and then who knows.

It is worth remembering that in South Africa, though the countries from South and North America did exceptionally well in the group stages, by the semi-finals all but one, had been eliminated.  On the other hand, while only six European countries made it to the last 16, three went on to the semi-finals and the final of course was an all European affair. The way the draw has worked out this time, there will again be at least one South American country in the semi-finals. Four of the South American survivors are all in the same quarter of the draw. Brazil will be favourites to make it from this mini-group. There they are likely to face either Germany or France. The three North American survivors have not had it so lucky. Mexico face the Netherlands, though Costa Rica must have a very good chance of beating Greece. Alas, their reward is likely to be a match against the Netherlands, who will be favourites to reach another semi-final. Their opponents could be Argentina, who face Switzerland and then the winners of the Belgium v USA match.

We thus have the prospect of two very high profile semi-finals and perhaps the dream final – Brazil v Argentina. This if it were to happen, it would be the first all South American final since 1950. When as it happens, the World Cup was last held in Brazil. That final was Brazil v Uruguay and the surprising winners were Uruguay. All of this is just pure speculation at the moment. Football matches rarely go as expected, as the group stages can testify. Still some exciting matches to look forward to. Let the games begin!

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Mini revolution at FC Barcelona

Now for something completely different. It’s midsummer and we’re well into the World Cup in Brazil, so time to take stock of what is happening at Can Barça. And this summer it looks like a mini revolution is in the making. Starting at the top, with Luis Enrique installed as the new coach. This will be Barça’s fourth coach in as many years. Luis Enrique comes with years of experience of playing for Barcelona and some useful experience as a coach. However he is untested at this level, as was Guardiola of course. He seems to be a very confident and determined person with his own ideas of how he wants the team to play. We wish him well.

As regards the team itself, it looks like there will be significant changes in every line. Beginning with the goalkeeper, where there have been two new signings – Marc Ter Stegen from Borussia Mönchengladbach and Chilean international Claudio Bravo who has signed from Real Sociedad. It will be fascinating to see who ends up as the first choice keeper. Whoever it is, he will have a hard job to match the record of Victor Valdés, who has left the club of his own volition. Still recovering from a serious injury, Valdés’ own future is very uncertain.

The centre of the defence is the one area where everyone has been expecting major change for the past three seasons. Perhaps this time, there will be new faces in the defence. Carles Puyol has finally had to admit defeat in his attempts to overcome his injury problems. It also seems that Javier Mascherano will revert to playing in midfield as cover for Busquets. This leaves the team with just two central defenders – Gerard Piqué and Marc Bartra. Hence all the talk about the need to sign not just one, but two central defenders. The usual suspects are bandied about, Marquinhos from PSG and Mathieu from Valencia, to name just two, but as yet no deal has been done for anyone. The other possible change in the defence is at right back. The future of Dani Alves is once again a topic for newspaper columns. Central defenders seems to be more of a priority right now.

Midfield is another line that will definitely see major changes. Cesc Fàbregas has already left, bound for Chelsea, while Xavi has all but confirmed his departure from the club for a season or two in Qatar. Ivan Rakitic, the Croatian international has already been signed from Sevilla. He will add some much needed physical presence to the midfield as well as a good technique. Whether he can replace Xavi is less certain. He seems more in the mold of a Seydou Keita type player, someone who played an essential part in the successes of the Guardiola team. The player the club would like to take over from Xavi appears to be Koke, the Spanish international from Atlético Madrid. Koke though will not come cheap, €40-50 million seems to be the minimum that Atlético will demand. Assuming the player wants to leave anyway. He is an Atlético fan and may not want to leave, at least not just now, as Atlético get another chance at the Champions League. There will be one another new player in midfield for next season, Rafa Alcántara. Rafinha, as he is known, is the younger brother of former Barça hope, Thiago. Rafinha of course is just coming home, after a year on loan with Celta Vigo, where his coach was none other than Luis Enrique. Can Rafinha fill the hole left by Xavi? The other midfielder from last season is Sergi Roberto, who has never quite made it into the first team as a regular. If Barcelona do sign Koke or someone similar, it is hard to see much of a future for Sergi Roberto at the club.

Up front there will be at least one new arrival in the shape of Gerard Deulofeu, another product of Barcelona’s famous youth system. Deulofeu spent last season on loan at Everton, where he did OK, but never secured a regular starting place. Everyone at the Camp Nou expects great things from Deulofeu, but he will find it no easier to break through at Barcelona than at Everton. Most commentators reckon that Christian Tello, who only made sporadic appearances for the team last season, will leave during the summer. Messi and Neymar will remain as the stars of the team. The big question for Luis Enrique is, do Barça need a different type of forward to add variety to their attacking options. This has been a bit of a perennial topic for Barça fans, along with who will be the next central defender. No one knows for certain what Luis Enrique thinks of this, but the press is full of all kinds of names of possible reinforcements for the attack. The latest name to appear was Luis Suárez, the Uruguayan striker at Liverpool. He of course would cost a fortune, assuming Liverpool would sell their star asset. This is where the other Barcelona strikers appear. Both Pedro and Alexis Sánchez are deemed to be transferable if the price is right. The Luis Suárez story has Alexis going in the opposite direction to Liverpool, thus reducing the cost to Barcelona.

It all sounds a bit fanciful, but the alleged coming and goings of footballs is all part and parcel of the summer fun for fans everywhere. And stranger things have happened in the world of football. Looks like a good forward line though – Messi, Neymar and Suárez!

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