Tag Archives: Chelsea

The lion, the witch and the midfielder who doesn’t track back

4 Oct

Industrialist and long-time owner of Juventus, Gianni Agnelli, once caught a young Michel Platini enjoying a crafty cigarette in the dressing room before a game.  “That worries me,” Agnelli said to Platini.  The riposte was instant.  “You only need to worry if he starts smoking,” said Platini, pointing at Massimo Bonini, the tireless midfield ball-winner in that Juventus team.

Younger readers, who know him only as the president of UEFA, may be surprised to hear that, as a player, Platini relied on trickery and cunning rather than hard work and honest endeavour.  “Le Roi” wasn’t the only one, either.  History is riddled with number 10’s who leveraged their undoubted talents in order to get away with the minimum of effort.  Back in the day, you practically had to promise your playmaker time off in lieu in order to cajole the lazy so-and-so into his own half of the pitch.  A football would need to be primed with hors d’oeuvres before Matt Le Tissier even considered putting in a tackle.  One man’s artistry is another man’s lazybones.

The extent to which the modern game can indulge such work-shy fecklessness has been cast into the limelight by the recent goings-on at Stamford Bridge.  Juan Mata was one of football’s outstanding performers last season.  In many people’s eyes, the best midfielder in the English league.  Yet despite being in everyone’s team of the year last time round, Mata can’t even get his own first XI this semester.

The underlying problem

The problem stems from the fact that Jose Mourinho didn’t return to a very Mourinho-like team.  It says a lot about Mourinho’s sustained legacy that he could have taken over any Chelsea side up until 2012 (five years after he left) and he would have slipped back in like a glove[1].  But the arrival of Oscar and Eden Hazard in the summer of 2012 (with Mata already in situ) signalled that a fundamentally different Chelsea side had finally emerged from the Special One’s long shadow.  Chelsea had moved on.

Three attacking midfielders floating care-free behind a centre forward never looked like being part of a Mourinho team.  He could just about cope with one playmaker in the side.  Three of the buggers would be enough to give him kittens.  For an unrepentant pragmatist like Jose, there was always going to be an opportunity cost.

Mourinho teams are built with an iron rod running through the middle.  Players like Lampard, Makelele, Essien, Ballack, Mikel, Costinha, Thiago Motta, Cambiasso, Alonso, Khedira.  All strong.  All aware of their defensive duties.  All team players committed to the cause.  It wasn’t that you weren’t allowed skill.  It was just that you had damn well better work hard in a system before you thought about using it.

Nothing encapsulated the “Mourinho way” quite like the performance of his Inter Milan side in the 2010 ECL semi-final 2nd leg against Barcelona.  Reduced to ten men (unfairly), Inter were the very embodiment of team-work and an “all hands on deck” policy.  Strikers Milito and Eto’o worked their socks off as makeshift wide midfielders, dropping into the second bank of defence against the Catalan onslaught.  Together with Cambiasso and Chivu, they formed a wall on Inter’s defensive third.  Behind them, Walter Samuel and Lucio defended the penalty area as if they were two female elephants protecting their young.  There were no passengers, only warriors. 

Despite losing the game 1-0, it was enough for Inter to progress to the final and arguably remains to be Mourinho’s finest hour.  He is a coach very much wedded to what Brazilians call “futebol de resultados” rather than “futebol d’arte”.  Perhaps we should not be too surprised if there is no room for Mr Tumnus in Mourinho’s Narnia.

Square pegs

As Charles de Gualle once said, the graveyards are full of indispensable footballers who couldn’t fit a formation.

For five years at Old Trafford, Ruud Van Nistelrooy was more lethal than Dignitas.  However, as the team evolved, it became apparent that the need to accommodate his style of play was holding United back.  Ferguson packed him off to Real Madrid and the triple helix of Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez went on to win the European Cup.

Glen Hoddle was the nation’s most talented footballer for a generation.  He’s got less England caps than Phil Neville.

For all his excellence going forward, Juan Mata is not an all-round player.  In the very best teams, and Chelsea’s ambitions are to be the very best, attacking midfielders don’t ignore their defensive duties.  Wayne Rooney is never neglectful of his responsibilities when United don’t have the ball.  It was noticeable how much Frank Ribery tirelessly tracked back under Heynckes at the business end of last year’s Champions League run. 

Under Pep Guardiola, Barcelona’s philosophy was to press high and aim to win the ball back within six seconds of losing it.  This required the whole attacking unit to swarm opponents the moment possession was surrendered.  Juan Mata does not seem to possess the energy levels for high tempo pressing.  Vincente Del Bosque’s no fool, but he never starts Mata for Spain – even in friendlies.

For all their cup success, Mata has been Chelsea’s player of the year in two of their worst seasons domestically for a decade (finishing 6th and 3rd). Winning league titles is the stamp of a great football team and Chelsea haven’t even challenged since he arrived.  Maybe Jose recognises this. 

Let’s not be too hasty in our judgment, though.  Great players achieve their status through humility and a willingness to work on all aspects of their game.  There’s plenty of season left for Mata to prove he can do all aspects of the job required. 

Mourinho isn’t likely to give up quickly on a player who is not only one of the best passers in the league, but also a genuine goal threat.  Mata scored a Lampard-esque 20 goals from midfield in all competitions last year.  That was more than Wayne Rooney.

Smoke and mirrors?

In any case, attacking midfield isn’t the position of concern for Chelsea.  As Too Good has twice tried to bring to Mourinho’s attention, having someone up front to convert their chances is the problem, not creating them.  The inclusion of Mata won’t solve this.  There’s a Chelsea striker who has scored 20 goals in his last 38 league games.  Unfortunately, none of the blue shirts Romelu Lukaku was wearing were embroidered with the Chelsea crest.  Maybe it suits Mourinho to have a bit of misdirection, creating a storm in a teacup around Juan Mata, while leaving the real problem out of focus?

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It would be nice if real football teams worked like their fantasy equivalents and you could just pick whoever you want.  A team of mercurial individuals forged by the brilliance of the man in charge.  But it never works when people try.  Where there’s a conflict in style of play, the manager should always be allowed to win out.  

Teams have to be moulded according to one man’s will.  Ultimately, Mourinho will pay the piper with his job if things go badly, so he should get to call the tune.  If a player can’t, or won’t, fit to the vision, they need to go.  Let’s hope this doesn’t prove to be the case with Mata – he would be a sad loss for both Chelsea and the league in general if it doesn’t work out.

Tummers needs to put a shift in.


[1] Andre Villas-Boas was actually assigned the task of overhauling the “Mourinho side” a year earlier (2011) but never actually achieved it.  He just benched Frank Lampard a lot. 

 

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New Season

16 Aug

The premier league is back and I, for one, am more excited than a badger at the start of mating season.  Summer distractions are just that.  Wimbledon, the Ashes, royal babies.  Great, but where is Luis Suarez going?  This is what the Great British public really wants to know.  Some things matter.

I’m like a coiled spring at this time of year.  All torque and potential energy; waiting for those sun-kissed opening games.  Soon the clouds will roll in but, for now, glistening green pitches will play host to new names, new kits and fresh hopes.  Bid your loved ones farewell until next May and settle in.

Football fans display an uncanny ability to overlook the obvious at this time of year in favour of a distinctly autumnal optimism.  Too Good has had its dreams of a brighter future dashed too many times before to be drawn in by this false hope.  Some things remain ever present and the sooner into the 2013-2014 season we recognise that Manchester United will win the bloody league again, the sooner we can make peace with our lot.

I’ve canvassed the opinion of several friends who are knowledgeable about football, as well as one or two Liverpool fans, on who they think will take home the spoils this year.  Everyone seems to think it will be either Chelsea or Manchester City.  The experts conclude similarly – not a single member of the Sky Sports panel plumped for the team from Old Trafford on their Season’s Preview show.  Manchester United seem to carry something of a “Germany in major tournaments” feel to them.  We turn up every single time doing our absolute best to rationalise why they won’t win the thing, which of course they then go on and do.  Sometimes the collective footballing consciousness needs to be shaken by the lapels.

Why it won’t be City…

Appropriately for a team hoping for a Second Coming of the premiership title, Manchester City have signed a player called Jesus.  Navas has almost as many tricks up his sleeve as his Nazareth counterpart. But, like Christ himself, Navas also has an Achilles’ Heel.  Christ’s shortcoming was an inability to fend off betrayal within the ranks of his disciples.  Navas’ is his inability to fend off a wobbly lip when he leaves his hometown of Los Palacios.  One hopes that grizzled premiership defenders don’t decide the best way to test the homesick Sevillan’s resolve is a succession of “welcome to the Premiership” tackles.

Pellegrini did his business early in the summer.  Once Navas was prised from his mother’s apron strings, Fernandinho, Stefan Jovetic and Alvaro Negredo quickly followed to the Etihad.  A lot of talent has arrived along with the new manager.  Winning teams typically grow organically, though, rather than be thrown together.  And it’s uncertain what sort of formation will accommodate these players as well as the pre-existing high flyers.  With the exception of Navas, each, it could be argued, has a comparative or better player already in situ at the club (Fernandinho < Toure, Jovetic < Tevez (who will be a massive loss for City on the pitch), Negredo < Aguerro).  It’s not therefore especially clear how City have improved (other than in depth), despite having quality come through the door.  In any case, City fans better hope it gels quickly.  Title races can’t be won before Christmas, but they can certainly be lost.

Why it won’t be Chelsea…

Chelsea have strengthened primarily in the dugout.  The Mourinho Effect is certainly not a chimera, but nor does it tend to work without a hefty war-chest being put to good use.  As Jose himself once opined, in order to buy the best eggs, you need to shop in Waitrose.  While Abramovic’s munificence has surely been guaranteed to Mourinho, so far the cash register has barely rung.  £18m on Andre Schurrle may prove to be a good spend but it wasn’t the focal striker that Chelsea need.  Schurrle operates mainly from the wing or behind another striker.  What Chelsea require is a number 9 that will lead the attack.  Any of Falcao, Cavani, Lewandowski or Higuaín (or even Roberto Soldado, had an astute Daniel Levy not been on hand to whisk him off to the Lane) would have fitted the bill.   As it is, all of the above have signed elsewhere or re-committed to their current paymasters.  If Mourinho honestly thinks Fernando Torres can do the job after three years now in the wilderness, then he’s exhibiting a blind faith that would make Eileen Drewery blush.

Of course, this position all changes if a certain box-shaped Scouser heads down to London.  Wayne Rooney is no stranger to a transplant and, if he were to bed down quickly and effectively at Stamford Bridge, the complexion of Chelsea’s title challenge would change completely.

Which leaves us with…

Al Pacino’s character in Scarface was keen to point out the necessity of a villain of the piece (‘You need people like me so you can point your fingers and say, “That’s the bad guy”.’).  The redemptive quality of the film arrives when seeing the cocaine-fuelled Montana shot to pieces by a team of assassins.  Unfortunately, football isn’t a motion picture and the bad guys rarely get their comeuppance.  The premier league’s Tony Montana, Manchester United, seem to go home with the spoils year after year.  Yet, mysteriously, pundits and fans alike go into overdrive each pre-season trying to contrive reasons as to why it won’t be Manchester United’s year.

To recall, Manchester United won the league by eleven points last season.  By the end of March, they didn’t even need their foot on the pedal.  Putting this into perspective, no team has ever won the premier league by a wider margin and not retained it the following year[1].  In any case, United nab the title pretty much every year.  The red devils have won the premiership on 13 out of 21 occasions, comfortably the highest win percentage (62%) in any of the big European leagues over the same period[2].  You would be hard-pressed to find a dispassionate statistician conclude anything other than a Manchester United success being the most likely outcome.

United have the best striker in the Premiership who is in the form of his life.  They have a supply line to him that is never choked and, at the time of writing, they still have by far the best current English footballer.

Although United haven’t had a decent central midfield for over half a decade now, it doesn’t seem to bother them.  There’s no reason to assume it will suddenly now start to.  Their backline is looking a bit creaky, but then it did last year and United are unlikely to suffer as badly with injuries again.  Vidic has returned and will likely manage more than 19 games this season.  While Rio Ferdinand’s back is more and more resembling a game of Russian Roulette with intervertebral discs these days, there is the blossoming Phil Jones and the reliable Jonny Evans both very capable of picking up the slack.  Rafael is also a fantastic (and wildly underrated) player.

People want to exclaim Alex Ferguson’s retirement as the death knell to United’s dominance.  This may prove to be the case but I can’t see the players forgetting what he taught them overnight.  There might be a certain atrophy over time but I don’t think Ferguson re-invented the wheel each time he went into the dressing room.  He was responsible for putting together great teams at Old Trafford and he’s left one there now.

Things change, sure.  But less so than is often realised.  You’ll get taxed this year.  Christmas will be a bit underwhelming. People will cry on reality television and it’s going to rain on the bank holiday.  Manchester United, I’m afraid, will most likely win the league.


[1] Chelsea won the 2004-2005 title by 12 points and won again the following year with 8 points to spare.  United won the league in 1999-2000 by a colossal 18 points and won the next year by a comparatively modest 10 points.  In short, not only did both teams defend their league titles, they did so handsomely.

[2] Over the same period of time (21 seasons), Bayern Munich have won the Bundesliga 11 times, Barcelona have won La Liga 10 times,  Juventus have won Serie A seven times and Lyon have won Ligue 1 seven times.

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One more sleep, fellas.

The Return of Mourinho

5 Jun

Parkinson. Take That. Liverpool in Istanbul. Peter Mandelson. Our proud nation has seen many great comebacks in its time.  This week, Roman Abramovic will be sacrificing a fatted calf to celebrate the return of his prodigal son.  Jose is back!

I’m flinging journalistic impartiality out of the window here and now.  I think Jose Mourinho is fantastic.  Ever since the young Porto manager went tearing down the touchline to celebrate a two-legged winner at Old Trafford, the Special One has had a special place in my heart.  Mourinho appearing on screen is like watching Gollum in Lord of the Rings; he’s the only bit worth paying attention to.  Housewives up and down the country won’t be the only ones going weak at the knees on his return.  Players, fans, journalists, other managers – Mourinho pretty much groomed the nation last time he was here.

Too Good has expressed its admiration for Jose’s managerial record before.  He’s the top dog.  The man from Setúbal had every right to call himself “a special one” (he never actually said “the special one”, but indefinite articles don’t carry quite the same quotability…).  Mourinho is a big game hunter and he has a glittering trophy cabinet.  Chelsea are the clear winners in the managerial merry-go-round.

Not dissimilar to goats being able to predict an earthquake, bookmakers usually have a feel for the seismic impact of an arrival at a football club.  Mourinho’s announcement has positioned Chelsea as near enough joint favourites for next year’s premiership (Chelsea are at 31%, United at 33% and City, remarkably, have their noses in front at 35%).  You wouldn’t want to bet against Jose repeating his previous trick of winning the league in his first year.  Don’t forget Chelsea are already a team that, aside from a horror show of 4 points in seven games in late autumn, were posting title-contending numbers for the majority of last season.

Are there any flies in the West London ointment?  Most worriment focuses on Mourinho’s longevity.  The accusation goes that Jose has all the matrimonial sticking power of Liz Taylor.  I think Mourinho’s reputation as a jilter is a bit unkind.  If anything, it would be fairer to characterise him as having a penchant for choosing to work with despotic lunatics.  Roman Abramovic and Florentino Pérez are to sound minds what I am to high fashion.  Neither of them have shown the ability to nurture a manager any longer than Lenny in Of Mice and Men was able to hold a mouse.  Only at Porto and Inter, where Mourhino was clearly getting a promotion of sorts (to Chelsea and Real Madrid, respectively), could he be said to be leaving clubs entirely of his own volition

I suspect Mourinho’s tenure will surprise people in its length.  Jose has made no secret of his desire to coach Portugal one day but this shouldn’t worry Chelsea fans.  National teams are the preserve of managerial dinosaurs these days.  A way of keeping your toe in once the demands of 38 games a season at the coal-face are no longer bearable.  A mere pup aged 50, Mourinho is at least a decade away from being at the helm of the Seleção.  

As for club teams likely to tempt him away, I’m not sure where else he would now go.  Manchester United don’t seem to want him, despite his gushing post-match press interview at Old Trafford in March (behaviour that was every inch him making eyes across the dance floor).  He hates Barcelona and he was practically chased out of Italy. He’s running out of options at the top-table.

Mourinho’s second reign will more likely depend on whether Abramovic can resist the urge to meddle.  The temptation is completely understandable, if unwise.  Roman has bought the chess set, so he wants to move the pieces.  But Jose will not take kindly to being lumbered with another Shevchenko.  If the restless Russian starts to rock the marital boat, Jose isn’t one to stick it out for the good of the children.

What should be of greater concern is whether Mourinho can recreate the same magic of his first visit.  Sequels are rarely as good as the original.  And, outside of a Champions League win, it’s hard to see how he can top his first visit.  Now’s the time for the job, though.  Between them, Villas Boas and Benitez have performed the gritty but necessary transition from the old guard.  Gone is the reliance on Drogba, Essien, Terry and Lampard.  Those that remain from Mourinho Mark One know they are no longer guaranteed starters.  At Jose’s disposal is a young, talented crop of players crying out to be steered to greatness.  In Mata, Oscar and Hazard, Chelsea have one of the finest attacking midfield trios in world football. 

Mourinho likes a war chest and Abramovich will indulge him.  He has presumably been assured he can buy at least one top-class striker, unless he’s bringing with him a defibrillator to use on Fernando Torres.  In the long haul, Lukaku shows a lot of promise (and physical strikers are often late developers).  You would think, though, that Roman will want to gift Jose with a welcome home present.  A fatted calf is one thing but someone who will snaffle 20-25 goals could easily make the difference in a tilt for the title.  Robin van Persie showed that.  If Chelsea can come up with some bona fide penalty box ammunition over the summer, Honest Too Good’s Unofficial Gambling Consultancy will be advising a crisp fiver on the title ending up at Stamford Bridge next year.

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“You know, Jose, I’ve always been a big fan of Raul…”

Manchester City v Chelsea, F.A. Cup Semi-Final (14 April, 2013)

21 Apr

The first warm day of the year was also one of the windiest.  A gale-force Manchester City whistled through Chelsea’s bones from the first blow of Chris Foy’s whistle.  Fired up for their only potential trophy of the year, City came out the blocks with the eagerness of an Anti-Thatcher mob poised to dance on the former premier’s grave.  With the Baroness due to be laid to rest later in the week, the other Chelsea pensioners, Lampard, Terry and Cole, were also rested in what history will remember as the Second Biggest Occasion of the Week.

Watching today’s game reminded me how much Andy Townsend sounds like the bald fella from Masterchef.  He’s all heavy vowels and misplaced self-confidence.  And although very little of human endeavour impresses the former Maidstone-borne Irish international, the directness of Ya Ya Toure’s burst towards the Chelsea goal had the colour commentator purring.  Aided by a fortunate deflection, Nasri was able to convert past Cech with all the casual ease of a Justin Bieber entry in the Anne Frank guestbook.

City could have been 2 or 3 goals up by the half were it not for Jamie Milner’s lack of tactility in the final third.  With the goal gaping for City strikers in the box, Milner managed to over hit two consecutive crosses.  His heavy-handed implementation reminiscent of the Poll Tax.  There was also an open goal that the hapless Milner cannoned into King Sergio’s thigh.  A poor day for the Yorkshire water carrier.

The half-time segments of orange provided little respite for the men from West London.  No sooner were they back on the pitch than Aguerro doubled City’s lead.  The lady might not have been for turning, but the Branislav certainly was as Sergio peeled off his man and dispatched the ball into the far corner.  Aguerro’s looping header all but sunk Chelsea’s hopes like a homing torpedo on a fleeing vessel.  A week of double celebration for him and Zabaleta, one suspects.

The hackneyed pre-game narrative was of City’s supposed Achilles’ heel being reserve goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon (who, before today, had conceded precisely zero goals as the Cup keeper).  Even at half-time, ITV persisted with the script that Costel was the weak link that could assist in Chelsea finding a way back in.  Yet despite the best effort of the Chelsea attacks, the beanpole Romanian stood strong.  The bearded chess piece that is Juan Mata continued to pull the strings and create chances, but Pantilimon was the white wizard and nought would pass.

Despite a long period of dominance, the Conservative leaderships of Thatcher and Major eventually yielded to a fresh-faced Tony Blair in ’97.  Benitez, similarly sensing the winds of change, sent on another striker and went for an attack-minded 4-4-2.  The masked Fernando Torres (so attired because of a loose Steaua Bucharest boot breaking his nose in the UEFA Cup) entered the fray on the hour mark.  Of course, the reality for poor Nando is he’s been conceptually wearing a mask ever since his arrival at Stamford Bridge.  However, the effect of his introduction today was immediate.  His diverting run on arrival to the pitch allowed for the Premiership’s best volleyer of a ball, Demba Ba, to crash home a smart finish which hinted at a royal blue revival.  Torres was a menace until the final whistle and, if Chelsea had been the victors, the credit for the revival would have been his.

Football, like politics, has its tense moments, and the climactic 20 minutes made for uncomfortable viewing for City fans.  On form, Chelsea have the best attacking pivot in English football.  So, by sitting back, City proffered a very dangerous invitation to Messrs Oscar, Hazard and Mr Tumnus.  In an effort to shore up victory, Mancini brought on City’s very own anti-Moneyball, the beautiful-yet-useless Javi Garcia.  The man to make way was Carlos Tevez.  Granted, Tevez was not having a vintage game, but breaking up the dream strike pairing of him and Aguerro seemed an odd way to see out a game which had potentially another 50 minutes to play (plus penalties, in which Carlitos would certainly have had a part to play).  City lost their calm retention of the football.  Thankfully, however, one man didn’t yield to the mayhem surrounding him.  Pablo Zabaleta proving once again that, deep down, he’s more British than the rest of us with perfectly timed interception after perfectly timed interception.  At one point even implementing a slide tackle with his head.

Chelsea eventually relented.  With United tramping the dirt down on any challengers to the Premiership title, a cup final against Wigan on May the 11th provides City’s last opportunity for any season-salvaging silverware.

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Juan Mata was a continual thorn in City’s side.