Thursday, May 15, 2014

Can Spain do the unimaginable?

Spain's achievements in winning back to back European Championships with a World Cup sandwiched in between beggars belief in the modern era.

Such are the margins these days that sustained periods of dominance are few and far between as shown in the constant failure by the best teams to retain the Champions League.

At International level it is even harder given that these major tournaments only come around once every two years (overlapping four year cycles) for those in Europe and South America.

Spain have won titles in '08, '10 and '12 surpassing France's recent back to back victories in '98 and '00 to become the outstanding team in Europe and probably the World in recent history.

The question is, could they do the unthinkable and win a second World Cup on the spin to cap it all?

The bookies are inclined to think not given that they only have the reigning champions as fourth favourites. The two South American powerhouses of Brazil and Argentina and the always dangerous Germany are ahead of them in the odds.

There are of course several reasons to suggest that Spain, as fine a team as they remain will not prosper for a fourth straight tournament.

The fact that the tournament is being held in South America is seen as a huge factor for the European teams. The fact that some bookies are offering better prices on Italy than on Colombia would bear this out.

Conditions are expected to be tough in many venues and with a couple of Spain's key players starting to slowly get on in years, it may be considered that Spain's high tempo possession game will be hard going for the team.

The other considerations are that nearly every football team completes a cycle and that Spain's current cycle has already lasted far longer than most.

Certainly, stalwarts such as Xavi Hernandez, Xabi Alonso, David Villa and even Andres Iniesta have seen better days. There are of course many plus factors for the Spanish also.

Spain have huge midfield talent to choose from with the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Sergio Busquets, Javi Martinez and David Silva all available. This gives Spain huge capacity to rotate even allowing for the sad withdrawl of Thiago Alcantara

The fact that Isco hasn't even made the provisional squad and that there are questions regarding Juan Mata making the final squad show the incredible depth that they have.

There are also fresher faces coming in up front. Diego Costa and Alvaro Negredo add a different option with considerably more brawn to go with the goals.

Fernando Torres has been a fading force for some time now but he remains an experienced tournament player if he manages to sneak on to the plane. David Villa also offers an old head and the Barca forward Pedro is always a reliable option.

At the back, if Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos remain fit and free of suspension they are formidable centre back paring.

Should Iker Casillas continue in goal after a season mainly on the sidelines they have a fine tournament hardened keeper with two excellent back up options. There are plenty of options at full back also with the likes of Jordi Alba and Carjaval.

Possibly more of a concern in people's minds is not Spain's personnel but more their style of play. The famed 'tiki taka' had previously seen all fall before it with the opposition dizzying themselves into submission following the ball helplessly as it pinballed around them.

However, in the past couple of seasons we have seen several results at the sharp end of things that have begun to imply that tactics are evolving further and that a solution to tiki taka has been found.

In this season's Champions League and last, we we have seen two teams playing this way systematically dismantled.

Firstly in 2013 Bayern Munich thrashed Barcelona 7-0 on aggregate simply blowing the Catalans away with a blend of pace, power and no little skill.

Pep Guardiola's arrival at Bayern duly saw them adopt this possession based method and they in turn were ironed out 5-0 on aggregate by a vastly superior Real Madrid who played a wonderful blend of stylish counter attacking football.

In addition to these two humblings, Brazil comfortably beat Spain 3-0 in the Confederations Cup Final. Now whilst the Conf Cup is nothing more than a glorified end of season World Cup warm up, it was indicative again that the system can now be combated effectively.

None of this is to say however that a canny operator such as Del Bosque cannot tweak Spain's tactics effectively. One of the problems with the tiki taka approach has been the lack of a plan B.

If both Diego Costa and Negredo are on the plane then there is a plan B right there and with players such as Busquets and Ramos in the squad, they are able to mix it with the best of them. They also have huge tournament nous.

Spain remain one of the class acts in the field but they are in a tough group and their face off against the Dutch in their opening clash will be key as even finishing second in the group (Chile will be tough opposition also) could mean a tough route through the tournament.

A fourth straight tournament win is probably a big ask for what has been one of the greatest teams in history but it will hopefully be fun and easy on the eye to watch them try - No Nonsense.


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Premiership Report Card

The season is finally over, it's time to mark the end of term report cards for the clubs (based on Premiership performance only).

Manchester City, A
Hard to give anything less to the Champions. Yes they made it harder for themselves than they needed to but the trophy is what counts. They have scored a hatful of goals and played some excellent football to boot.

City need to find a way to stamp their authority better in the big games but they remain a force simply too good for the vast majority. A successful first season for Pellegrini, we're just waiting now for Mancini to try to take the credit.

Liverpool, A
So nearly for the Reds only to stumble at the final few hurdles. This season was probably their best chance as next season will be far tougher. There will be the Champions League to deal with, higher expectations and no 'element of surprise' - you certainly won't see Chelsea loaning them players next season.

Regardless, Liverpool have done fantastically well and deserve many of the plaudits that have come their way even if the press became sickening in their fawning over them in the last weeks turning many neutrals off.

It is hard not to feel sorry for Steven Gerrard but Liverpool must look to the future and continue to build and strengthen primarily at the back. Raheem Sterling looks a fabulous talent, keeping Luis Suarez is a must. A fine season.

Chelsea, C+
Possibly a little harsh on my own club given that they mounted a legitimate challenge but Chelsea missed a huge opportunity to win the league. Home wins against Norwich and Sunderland would have seen Chelsea going into the final day in charge.

Ponderous performances and some overly cautious tactics ultimately cost them the league and some legitimate striking options must be a priority over the Summer. Not a bad season but there is much work for Mourinho to do.

Arsenal, C-
We keep hearing about Wenger's 'top four trophy' but the reality is that Arsenal are going nowhere. Lots of pretty football and title talk around the turn of the year followed by the inevitable implosion in the Spring.

Whilst Ozil gave the Arsenal fans a huge filip in the Summer, he ultimately flattered to deceive and Arsenal need steel, quality and numbers to be recruited this Summer (haven't we said this before?) if they are to be anything else other than Champions League qualifying also rans.

Everton, B+
Whilst I don't believe that Everton have made the sparkling progress under Martinez that many believe they have, there is no doubt that keeping Everton in 5th place is a fantastic achievement, it's just one that Davie Moyes managed several times also we shouldn't forget.

Both Everton's football and ambition have improved but they were found wanting towards the end of the season when CL qualification became a realistic proposition.

How Everton replicate their success in the loan market this Summer will dictate whether they can continue to occupy such a lofty position, regardless a fine season for the men from Goodison.

Spurs, C
It's hard to mark Spurs with any real conviction. They remain a top six club with lofty ambitions but little else. Regardless of their transfer outlay in the Summer, their net spend was neglible resulting in a bloated squad of similiar quality and the loss of their one true match winner.

Managerial issues have also hindered the men from White Hart Lane and their near perrenial glass ceiling of the Europa League looks to be their lot in life.

ManUtd, F
Rubbish, awful, terrible, where to start for the previous seasons' Champions? Following Ferguson was always going to be the impossible job but Moyes' effort was still poor.

Only De Gea, Jones (potentially), Mata, RVP, Rooney and Januzaj (potentially) look like players of the standard required to win titles. Much rebuilding required although it is hard to believe they will be worse next season.

Like Liverpool this season, they may benefit in the league from having no European football.

Southampton, B+
Whilst Southampton faded after their wonderful start, they finished the season a highly creditable eight place. They have rightly won plaudits for their fine football and should be very proud of their season.

The paradox of such success however is that the vultures are circling over both their prize playing assets and their manager. How Southampton conduct their business this Summer will give us a good indication as to their level of ambition and prospects from here.

Stoke, B+
The time honoured 'be careful what you wish for' was wheeled out when Stoke parted company with Tony Pulis. Analogies to when Charlton parted company with the long serving Alan Curbishley were offered up and Stoke were expected to struggle.

After a sticky start, Mark Hughes steered Stoke to their best ever Premiership finish. Whilst it's hard to see where Stoke can go from here they have again confounded the critics and are well deserving of their mid table stability.

Newcastle, D
It's hard to feel anything less than pity for the Toon Army who in many ways resemble a faithful puppy constantly kicked by their owner.

Brief glimpses of a bright future are continually dashed by the hierarchy presiding over St James Park (we shall not call it anything else). The sale of Johan Cabaye caused Newcastle's season to implode and should they begin the season in anything like the form they have showed since February then they are in deep trouble already.

Alan Pardew's antics have become increasingly erratic and with his relationship with Mike Ashley the subject of much speculation, it could be another Summer of discontent for the Toon.

Crystal Palace, A+
Arguably the most incredible turnaround since the inception of the Premiership. Ian Holloway's madcap Summer supermarket sweep had left Palace with one of the biggest squads in Europe's top leagues but also one of the worst.

Tony Pulis required a large degree of persuading to take the reins but once doing so he has done a phenomenal job scoring points for the Eagles at near Europa League pace.

An outstanding job giving Palace the opportunity to cease their yo-yo habit.

Swansea, C
The fact that mid table obscurity is marked so low shows how far the Welsh club have come. It was however a season where managerial upheaval and an inability to cope with the rigours of European football badly affected their league form.

Swansea badly need to regroup this Summer and get back to being the tidy well run club they were previously.

West Ham, C
Many Hammers fans would probably argue for an 'F' but the reality is that West Ham's history dictates that mid table safety is not a bad outcome.

The natives are highly restless however with Allardyce's tactics and team selections and it is unlikely that he will last the Summer. The squad looks sub standard and a tricky period awaits the club.

Sunderland, D
It is probably more appropriate to mark three quarters of the season as an 'F' followed by an 'A+' but the reality is that it has been a poor season for the Wearsiders mainly of their own doing.

Di Canio was never the right appointment and there are rumours that Gus Poyet is also unhappy. The club badly needs some stability if they are not to flirt with disaster again.

Aston Villa, D
Very nearly an 'F' for the Villians but they live to fight another day. It is hard to establish whether Lambert's lack of progress is solely down to Randy Lerner closing the cheque book or whether the Glaswegian is also going in the wrong direction.

A new owner may or not help but it could be another tough season at Villa Park if matters are not sorted out quickly and we suspect they won't be.

Hull, B-
37 points is hardly anything to get excited about but merely staying up is a cracking result for Hull. They have at times played some good football and look to be building a capable squad slowly but surely.

Second season syndrome will have to be avoided if they wish to build on this term but there are reasons to be cheerful for the City fans.

West Brom, D
The Baggies were seriously threatening to lose their tag as a yo yo club but it has been a poor season at the Hawthorns. Unable to replace Lukaku's goals, Steve Clarke was prematurely jettisoned only for the slightly bizarre appointment of Pepe Mel seen as the answer.

With Shane Long also moved on, West Brom continued to struggle. A sound managerial appointment this Summer is a must if they are to have a better season next time around.

Norwich, F
The Canaries appeared to almost autopilot towards relegation this season. Poor transfer signings and an inability by Chris Hughton to find a tactical solution that worked saw them dragged remorselessly into the relegation mire.

Ricky Van Wolfswinkel must rival for the poorest signing of the season and wages in the Championship will now be a burden for the team.

Fulham, F
Mohammed Fayed was an often eccentric owner but he gave Fulham remarkable stability. Shahid Khan has shown little understanding of football since he has taken over.

The sacking of Martin Jol was party understandable but the appointment of Rene Meulensteen and allowing him to break the bank for Kostas Mitroglou was far more questionable. Having then backed him in the transfer market, Khan then dispensed with him swiftly.

The 'emergency break glass' solution of Felix Magath failed to save the Cottagers and Mitroglou must be left wondering how he has gone in six months from scoring Champions League hat tricks to playing in the Championship and pushing Van Wolfswinkel for the worst signing of the season.

Cardiff, F
Like a bad soap opera, Cardiff's very public implosion has been painful to watch. Vincent Tan appears to be yet another owner with not the faintest idea how to run a football club. Whilst there are no doubt two sides to the Malky MacKay story, sacking him clearly did the club no favours.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's acceptance of the job seems a slightly bizarre one given how highly rated he was but the lure of the Premiership is great.

Unfortunately he is now in the Championship and what he requires is an owner to leave him to work without interference if they are to have any hope of returning to the top tier.

No Nonsense.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Chelsea end of season report

In previous weeks, two excellent defensive displays in Madrid and at Anfield gave Chelsea renewed hope in both the Champions League and Premiership.

However, Chelsea's season was ultimately meekly extinguished over the next two home games with Mourinho's early season proclamations that the team was not at the correct level proving accurate.

Chelsea were soundly beaten at home by a very good Atletico team before any lingering Championship hopes were snuffed out by a woeful performance against Norwich. So where do their achievements sit this season?

Season aspirations, achievements and reality
Mourinho's assertions of course that Chelsea were not title challengers was purely for the press and everyone knew it. With the league lacking an outstanding team there was always a chance.

The Premiership has been an odd place the last two seasons. Last year United simply put their hand up and took the title whilst everyone else looked on.

This season again, there has been a door ajar for anyone who wanted it and only Liverpool have mounted the kind of run that has shown the hunger to win it even if they ultimately fail as their evening at Selhurst suggests.

Chelsea have taken 16 of 18 points from the other top four teams this season so the reason for their not winning the title is a plethora of dropped points against teams from the bottom half of the table.

Results such as those at home to Sunderland and results at Villa and Stoke have killed momentum and lost vital points at crucial times.

Barring goal scoring feats of biblical proportions, Chelsea have secured automatic entry to the group stage of the CL again next season by finishing at least 3rd. That was probably the absolute minimum required.

Winning or challenging for the CL this season was to anyone's mind probably several steps too far. Not one of the English sides looks like a genuine contender in Europe right now. That Chelsea again proved the most capable was commendable and another semi final is a great return for the club.

The squad
Chelsea' squad is a little bizarre right now, The slightly eccentric hue it has taken on is probably a result of poor planning over the past few seasons with zero continuity in the managerial chair.

Different managers with different plans, philosophies and wishes and an owner dreaming of the promised land of Guardiola had led to a hodgepodge of square pegs in round holes and Mourinho attempting to find a tactical solution to the entirely unbalanced smorgasbord of talent he was presented with.

The defensive unit looks ultimately sound as they have shown in several tough away fixtures but the midfield looks very unbalanced.

Matic, Oscar, Hazard and Willian all look fine players who fit with the profile but the likes of the box to box Ramires and the slightly lost looking Schurrle don't seem to gel with the current tactics.

Other than fine tuning the defence, Mourinho's tactics have reflected this jumble this season resulting in too many ponderous performances such as against Sunderland, Norwich and Swansea. He needs to fix on a formation he believes will work and decide which players fit with that system.

It is quite possible that none of the three strikers at the club will be there come August and the recruitment of new talent and what to do with Romelu Lukaku will take up a lot of column inches this Summer.

Whilst I remain a huge David Luiz fan, he doesn't seem to fit with Mourinho's strongest team or indeed his style of player and it may well be that given FFP considerations that he is sold to help to fund the new talent required upfront.

I for one would be sorry to see him go. Tomas Kalas however looks like he is more than ready for more game time at the back.

What to do with the old guard?
Terry, Lampard and Ashley Cole all looked a bit teary eyed after the Norwich game. If both the aspirations of salaries and performance are measured, both Terry and Lampard are worth keeping for another season.

If Chelsea do go and buy a new left back then it may be time for Ashley Cole to move on. He was a favoured son of Mourinho the first time around but the Arsenal players' Christmas party put paid to that this time around. He remains a highly capable left back however.

Possibly more controversially, I would be prepared to sell Petr Cech. He remains a loyal lieutenant to Mourinho and for that reason I don't think it will happen this season.

I do think however that Thibot Courtois is already a better goalkeeper - Cech has never been quite the same since his head injury - and Chelsea risk losing the player permanently unless he is taken into the fold. He has been performing magnificently for Atletico for 3 seasons now.

Cech would still fetch a good transfer sum and in the days of FFP this should be considered. Petr Cech, Fernando Torres and a cash top up for Diego Costa with Courtois coming to the Bridge would make perfect sense to me. It would also give the squad a fresher complexion

Transfer targets
Firstly, as mentioned above, I would bring both Lukaku and Courtois into the first team squad, they are both good enough and ready. I firmly believe Chelsea would have more Premiership points this season had they retained Lukaku.

Conversly there are strong rumours that rather than integrate him into the squad, that Lukaku will be sold. We will wait and see.

I'm a little bit 50/50 on Diego Costa I have to say. Up until this season, his record is patchy at best and Chelsea can ill afford to make another mistake of Schevchenko or Torres proportions.

In terms of striking options, it is of course highly complex to secure the right players given that the big teams are mainly unwilling to sell players and also with wages a big consideration in these times of FFP

Edison Cavani remains a wonderful player but his availability may depend on Chelsea's willingness to sell Eden Hazard.

I firmly believe Mourinho's admonishing of the player this week was a form of pep talk and I don't believe that Abramovich would countenance selling what is exactly the type of player he has so craved.

Mourinho after all has also been quite brisk when discussing Oscar's last few months and I can't think for a minute that they wish to sell him either having already dispensed with Juan Mata.

It is clear that in the same way that United need to replace Scholes and Liverpool will have to replace Gerrard that Chelsea need to replace Lampard.

Whilst not an exact like for like, I do believe that Oscar's work rate and defensive abilities mean he could play deeper for Chelsea especially with the man mountain of Matic alongside him. Luca Modric is excelling in that very role for Real Madrid right now.

Ross Barkley continues to get rave reviews and Chelsea will also effectively have a new player next season with the fit again Van Ginkel.

Luke Shaw looks a prized asset at left back and Chelsea will have a tough time fighting off Manchester United for his signature if the papers are to be believed.

Filipe Luis at Atletico is also rumoured to be a target at left back but he is already 28. Chelsea have seemingly moved on from their previous transfer bungles of buying mature players with little or no resale value but again, we shall have to wait and see.

The good, the bad and the ugly
Mourinho's tactics (as always) have come into focus this season. I for one will take far greater notice next season when the team will be 'his' rather than he working with a squad he is not completely happy with.

There have been occasions when they have looked like the Chelsea of old such as the wonderful 0-1 win at the Etihad this season, that was classic Mourinho.

There have been other excellent performances such as the home leg against PSG.

Wins such as the one at Liverpool were for me perfectly acceptable as the end justifies the means but I can understand the frustrations of others at the tactics employed.

There have been occasions when I too have felt frustrated at a lack of ambition such as at Old Trafford - granted it was early in the season and most had not grasped just how bad United actually were - and at the Emirates.

Recent performances in particular against Norwich, Swansea and Sunderland have shown Chelsea to be badly lacking in ideas and solutions when playing against teams employing tactics similar to their own.

New strikers will hopefully put an end to these types of displays and these are the games where my point about us having more points had the Plan B option (quite possibly plan A by now) of Lukaku been available.

The Mourinho effect
It is always said never go back and I for one experienced much trepidation about the return of a guy I unashamedly idolise.

Whilst the initial months of his return were relatively low key, he has slowly but surely upped the ante and we are now routinely treated to FA hearings and his unbridled assaults on all whom he deems to have wronged either he or his players.

He divides opinion like almost no other but there is no doubting that he is box office gold for the Premiership media train.

So what does Roman think?
The biggest problem with Chelsea's non speaking benefactor is that no one outside of a handful of people actually know. The rest of us are left to wait for the back page headlines after another manager is jettisoned.

Mourinho's exit the last time around was a fairly undignified affair but it was also widely telegraphed from that Summer with his discontent at a lack of transfer funds made abundantly clear.

The schism between the two men had been ever widening since the arrival of Andriy Shevchenko the year before.

Having returned to Mourinho, it must be assumed that Abramovich was prepared to compromise to some degree but one would also most certainly resume that Jose would have to do the same and possibly more, he remains the subordinate after all.

One must presume that in return for some kind of free rein on transfers and footballing matters there would have been a commitment to playing the type of football that Abramovich so craves.

Chelsea's football has over the course of the season become increasingly pragmatic (detractors would say negative). That is of course oft the way with Mourinho but it usually accompanied by silverware.

There have not been the slightest murmurs of discontent emanating from Stamford Bridge so one must assume that Jose had a free pass this season as long as minimum criteria such as CL qualification were met.

If however Mourinho gets the players he wants this Summer and Chelsea fail to develop next season and the football is at the same time shall we say, 'less than expansive' then one wonders whether Abramovich may be on the phone to Bayern asking whether they are bored with Pep yet.

Summing up, a season of progress or failure?
Overall, Chelsea fans should be happy but there is definitely a case for saying this was an opportunity missed.

The squad has a lot of promise with Hazard, Oscar and Willian in particular all capable of improving. Nemanda Matic has added balance to the midfield and with defensive stability still there, the adding of firepower upfront should make Chelsea a formidable prospect next season.

Compared to Bayern or the top 3 in Spain (although they look set to raid one of them) Chelsea look a level off in European terms but if Mourinho has not lost his touch and builds on this season then expectations next season should rightly be higher  - No Nonsense.