Mourinho’s Toughest Test

mou

via umaxit.com

As Graziano Pellé struck for Southampton in the 72nd minute to put the Saints ahead 3-1 at Stamford Bridge the Sky Sports commentator remarked, “This is turning from a blip into a full blown crisis for Chelsea.”

Southampton would win the match by that scoreline and keep Chelsea in 16th place in the table ahead of only West Brom, Aston Villa, Sunderland, and Newcastle.

The reigning Premier League champions have begun this season with only eight points from their first eight league matches, sitting 10 points behind league leaders Manchester City.  Even worse they have won only half their league games and only six of 12 in all competitions to begin the year.

After the match, Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho was asked by Sky Sports what he thought of his team’s performance in the loss.  He went on a seven minute rant that first started blaming the referees for his team’s troubles in this particular match and then spoke of the squad’s terrible start to the season.

“If the club wants to sack me, they have to sack me because I’m not running away from my responsibility, my team, my conviction,” Mourinho said. “If the club sacks me, they sack the best manager they ever had, and secondly the message is again the message of bad results the manager is guilty.”

Mourinho is a master at interviews and manipulating the media to deflect criticism from his team, but this was something new.  He appeared somber yet cocky and sneered at the camera.  After being asked a simple question he launched into a seven minute diatribe and said the “S” word, sack.

Who thought Chelsea would be here just five months removed from winning the 2014-15 Premier League title?  Just two months ago Mourinho was given a new four-year deal. After a history of leaving clubs after three seasons, this seemed to perhaps cement Mourinho as Chelsea’s long-time manager.  Maybe he could finally be what Sir Alex Ferguson was to Manchester United or Arsene Wenger is to Arsenal.

One man knew better though, The Guardian’s Barry Glendenning.

Last season Chelsea clinched the title with three matches remaining and finished eight points above Manchester City.  They began the year looking like a complete squad capable of playing team defense and also scoring goals with the potent combination of midfielder Cesc Fábregas supplying striker Diego Costa.

However, Fábregas — to no surprise of Arsenal or Barcelona fans — trailed off after the December holiday period and the Chelsea attack suffered as a result.  By the end of the season they had secured the title based on their healthy lead established earlier in the season while they were setting the pace.

While Chelsea claimed the title they did so by playing 11 first team players over 2,000 minutes total.  (In comparison the only team with more that I looked at was Real Madrid with 12 players total.)  This included 34-year-old John Terry and 31-year-old Branislav Ivanović playing every single minute of a 38-match Premier League season, while Eden Hazard wasn’t far behind with 3,379 minutes played.

Nemanja Matić was next on the list with 3,124 minutes played while Gary Cahill finished at 2,985. Fábregas was at 2,890 after being sent off in the second to last match of the season vs. West Brom, ending his season early.

Did Mourinho’s refusal to rotate his first-team last season have major effects?  Terry, Ivanovic and Fábregas have been Chelsea’s three worst players to begin this season. While Mourinho’s calling card was once a strong defense, this team looks lost both ends of the pitch.  Mix in an early season injury to starting goalkeeper Thibault Courtois and the results aren’t pretty.

“He’s tried everything so far, all his old tactics, coaching, confrontation, siege mentality, scorching words… nothing has seemed to work,” Sky Sports remarked on Mourinho during the match on Saturday, Oct. 3.

It’s certainly true.  Mourinho has tried everything in his bag of tricks from benching captain John Terry, to firing team physio Eva Caneiro (all of which is an entirely different matter), to leaving behind players during Champions League play.  He even substituted Matic at halftime on Saturday’s defeat only to sub him out at the 73rd minute mark for Löic Remy.  Now this has ended with Chelsea’s latest loss and the Portuguese manager daring owner Roman Abramovich to sack him.

Chelsea are in a dangerous position.  It is still early enough in the season for the team to build momentum and collect points, but is it too little too late?  Manchester City with a front four of Sergio Agüero, Kevin de Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, and David Silva haven’t even hit top form yet and are rolling, while Arsenal and Manchester United will most likely keep the pace behind them.

The Blues are in major trouble due to their lack of offensive output.  Diego Costa hasn’t been effective in months and he’s either continuously injured or suspended for behavioral problems.  When watching Chelsea vs. Southampton it seemed as though the Blues strategy was to give the ball to Hazard and have him try to create something out of nothing.

The Belgian was hailed by Mourinho as better than Real Madrid star, Cristiano Ronaldo in July, but has struggled to get off the mark so far.  The reigning PFA Player of the Year has only two assists and zero goals so far in the league.

You have to wonder how Chelsea would look with the likes of Mohamed Salah, Juan Cuadrado, Kevin de Bruyne, and André Schürrle, all former Blues that Mourinho decided to jettison out of the club due to a lack of defensive commitment.

oscar

via The Guardian

The only players that seem capable of producing an offensive spark are Hazard and Oscar, both of whom were curiously dropped from Chelsea’s Champions League squad on Matchday Two vs. Porto.  Hazard was relegated to the substitutes bench, while the Brazilian was left in London altogether.

In his third season at Real Madrid — where he also won the league title the year previously — Mourinho encountered struggles like this and it turned into a full blown meltdown.  He had alienated his team so badly the Portuguese players were feuding with the Spanish ones and he accused legendary goalie Iker Casillas of leaking information to the press.

Chelsea fans should be concerned about the future of the club ahead of this season.  Things don’t look to be improving especially with the Caneiro situation potentially heading to court.  Fans should be worried of the lingering effects due to Mourinho.  Loyal players to the club were basically run into the ground by playing so many minutes last season and the young talented players could seek to leave to other clubs in the summer.

Hazard and Real Madrid are rumors that circulate on an annual basis, while Juventus was poking around for Oscar last summer.  It would be devastating to the club if those two key players decided to jump ship to greener pastures solely due to Mourinho’s impact.  For the manager who fancies himself as the world’s best, he has never been faced with a challenge quite like this in his career.

He has to do his best to patch up whatever relationships he has harmed in his locker room and swallow his own pride to grind out this season and try to earn results.  Even he is not untouchable.

“I want to carry on no doubt,” Mourinho told Sky Sports following the defeat on Oct. 3 to Southampton. “It’s time for everyone to carry on in their responsibilities.”

Mourinho needs to look in the mirror and realize that he is the major reason for Chelsea’s early season struggles and if he wants to live up to his reputation the club will only go as far as he takes it.

Posted in Champions League, English Premier League | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Myth of Mourinho

(caughtoffside.com)

(caughtoffside.com)

I remember the first time I watched a José Mourinho team, and I think that’s very much telling. Usually, you don’t really focus on the manager, no matter how good he is, when watching a game. Back then, managers were a presence that, while very much respected for their importance, weren’t the focus of the coverage, unless some controversy or special occasion arose around them. But with Porto in 2003, people rarely talked about the talent they had in Deco or Ricardo Carvalho. The focus of the broadcast at least in Poland (making it even more rare) was just this insanely young manager who was taking the UEFA Cup by storm.

Soon enough, he won it. And the next year he went on to win the Champions League, of which my lasting image is his passionate celebration as a last-minute goal pushed him past Sir Alex Ferguson’s United side. This was very much consistent with the Mourinho we saw on the sidelines for Porto. Flamboyant, engaged, aggressively emotive. Back then, in a world that hadn’t quite embraced managers as personalities, with only a few outspoken ones shining in post match interviews, in a world discovering that with a bunch of cameras on the stadium you can make a simple match look way more entertaining than it is, Mourinho became THE entertainment and THE personality.

His narrative was pretty unique in itself. Here he was, 40 years old, barely having played 100 games in his career – most of them for low-tier teams – managing a European giant, his narrative pretty similar to Arsene Wenger – with one difference. He was new, and he was storming through Europe, celebrating in the face of Sir Alex and winning everything he could’ve won on the way. Mourinho was the most exciting manager in Europe. He wasn’t an anecdote, or the guy on the sidelines, he outgrew his players (yes, even Deco) to become the symbol of that success, then he moved to Chelsea.

Mind you, a big part of the excitement around Mourinho was his personality. Understandably arrogant, he took over every room he was in. He knew he was special, and he embraced it, he rolled with it. As a young Chelsea fan (courtesy of my love for the colour blue and Gianfranco Zola) I must say that I was very excited about the prospect of the Special One of leading them to glory. Chelsea didn’t really have that much personality. It may have had a young Arjen Robben, a promising Didier Drogba, a great Claude Makélélé, but outside of Frank Lampard and John Terry it did not really have an electric, magnetic personality. Mourinho gave them one.

Despite his current reputation for defensive football, Mourinho’s Chelsea actually scored 72 goals in 2004-05, trumped only by Arsenal’s 87 that year. That’s almost two goals per game. Remind you of anything? Chelsea scored 73 goals last season, second only to City’s 83. At Mourinho’s peak, they don’t go below that mark, meaning that they attacked enough to score nearly 2 goals every game, which is pretty respectable in the ever-competitive (if not genuinely good) Premier League. At his best, Mourinho is a very balanced manager, whose teams are capable enough of scoring.

(Just look at the game against Everton at the start of last season, to see how entertaining Mourinho’s teams can be.)

Courtesy of Ronnie MacDonald

Courtesy of Ronnie MacDonald

So what happens in the dreaded Third Year of Mourinho’s second stint at Stamford Bridge? Why are Chelsea now on pace for 57 goals in a season? (and that’s boosted courtesy of teams like West Brom, Newcastle and HAHAHAHAHArsenal) Some will blame the team being dead tired (and that’s not a bad reason) others will blame John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic regressing to walking hunks, and Cesc Fabregas turning into a clueless joke of a midfielder (and that’s not a bad reason either). But the truth is, that despite all that, Chelsea has enough of a team to deal with it. Or at least they should have had one, weren’t it for the Special One, the master of deflecting blame and subtle trolling, who doesn’t see that the only thing stopping this team from prospering is his own fear of failure, his inability to commit to a more risky style of football that would be beneficial to his personnel.

This game week, we witnessed a Mourinho classic “the refs are against me, and I’m the best manager ever” moment, the moment where, knowing that he’s slowly approaching the abyss of another failed third year, he just has to make sure that the media, his current, and his future boss know that this is just the world against him. Just making sure he tells the world he’ll never become Sir Alex, the refs have a conspiracy against him, his players are failing him. But he, the Special One, is not to be denied. He has never made a wrong decision in his life, he has never even thought of making one.

And this, if anything, is the source of Mourinho’s biggest issue: his own myth, the myth of the greatest mind in football, whom everyone conspires against. Much like a FIFA player who goes out and complains about the game being scripted against him, his opponents being inferior despite clear evidence to the contrary, and finally, that he deserves better, his high-rated players didn’t deliver, and whatever other whiny reason he’ll find to blame anything but himself for his own losses, Mourinho seems convinced that it’s not his fault. He does everything right, it’s just Fabregas who doesn’t know how to play as a defensive midfielder. He does everything right but Eden Hazard can’t create anything when forced to play a very limited role and is double-teamed at every turn. A good manager would play around that or find some better-suited personnel.

(101greatgoals.com)

(101greatgoals.com)

Mourinho buys Pedro and John Stones Consolation Prize™ Papi Djilibodji, ignoring the gaping gap in the middle of the park, the dying Nemanja Matić, the ill-suited Fabregas, who I think we all can agree should be able to play further up the field to be any effective. Sure, there was a chase for Paul Pogba; Pogba wisely declined those advances.

Bad buys aren’t the end of it though. Mourinho actually managed to fill a need with one of them, Baba Rahman, a very promising left-back from Augsburg, a player that allows him to play Cesar Azpilicueta back on his more natural right side, and most importantly, get rid of Ivanović. Mourinho excuses himself, saying that the young one never learned the system, that he’s too short, that he’d be a liability on set-pieces. All of this when left wingers around the league have been turning Ivanović inside out at every turn, all while he lost every ounce of his offensive luster. He might still be a solid centre back. He’s no longer a fullback, and Mourinho has an excellent replacement rotting on the bench.

However, this refusal to incorporate new players into the team isn’t new by any stretch of the imagination. Sure, Diego Costa and Fabregas were brought right along right into the fray, but at the same time, the likes of Andre Schurrle, Kevin De Bruyne, Juan Cuadrado – all players that Chelsea needs to create right now – have been sent away for “low defensive work rate”, “doesn’t fit in” reasons. And this would be all fine and dandy, if they ever were given a chance to fit in. De Bruyne went to Wolfsburg, scored for fun, and got his ticket back to the PL courtesy of Manchester City. Cuadrado has been a catalyst for Juventus. Only Schurrle seems to have been floundering a bit (in a deep Wolfsburg team, to be fair) but with the lack of depth on the wings and at striker (I didn’t even mention Falcao in the transfer bit, because… Why would I?) he’d probably be of much more use to Chelsea than the 3-deep Wolfsburg.

But Mourinho’s successes have blinded him. Recently, Deco claimed that Mourinho is unable to trust his players the way he used to before he went to the cesspool of pressure that is Real Madrid, where he had one spat with a beloved captain already. Now, with another beloved captain being benched, you must feel like one universal Mourinho truth reveals itself.

His power must be absolute.

That’s why he did so well leading underdogs; underdogs are too hungry for success to question his power. But now that Chelsea know they should be top, and he’s still making bad moves, you kind of feel like his grasp is slipping. What seems to have slipped is Mourinho’s passion as well. I don’t think we’ll ever see him running towards his players in absolute joy, his emotions on the sidelines are slowly becoming limited to a selection of smirks. It’s no wonder that his teams seem to play with a similar, lacklustre attitude. Mourinho seems to feel that he has proven that he’s the best. And if you’ve proven everything you wanted to prove, you can’t really motivate the players to do the same.
Not by throwing excuse after excuse out you can’t.

Perhaps it’s time that Mourinho went back to a team where he can go around proving that he’s the best all over again. The Serie A is rife with teams that need his underdog Midas touch. Since this seems to be his comeback tour, why not Inter? He can go to Porto after three years there. Because every three years, his myth is going to die, and every next year, it will be reborn. Thus is Mourinho’s way, the man who outshines the competition on the pitch. The man who will not abide any credit being given to anyone but him, while he’ll always look to deflect blame. He comes, he conquers, and then he leaves as his attitude sours on everyone around him. Mourinho will stay in this vicious cycle, as long as there are teams that will indulge him in the rollercoaster of success and failure.

All the while, I find myself missing that passionate young manager running down the pitch, creating the moments that would ultimately manifest themselves in a self-destructive myth.

(ablueheart.com)

(ablueheart.com)

Posted in English Premier League, Features | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Costa Is Bayern’s Engine

douglas-costa-bayern-140815_tcxdngmi26091fymumezgxiqf

via goal.com

When Douglas Costa signed for Bayern Munich for €30 million this summer from Ukrainian champions, Shaktar Donetsk, many people questioned the deal including his former manager Mircea Lucescu.  Speaking to German newspaper, Bild, he remarked, “I think Costa is not yet strong enough for Bayern.  Ribéry and Robben are a different caliber.”

In 2013 when Munich won the Champions League title, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry were largely the reason.  During that season they were two of the most devastating attacking wingers in world football and shared the same locker room. Ribéry won the UEFA Best Player In Europe award in 2013 and finished third in that year’s Balon d’Or voting behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, the two best players in the world.

Last season Bayern were undone in the Champions League due to their injury problems. It was no coincidence they crashed out in the semi-final matchup vs. Barcelona as both Robben and Ribéry were unable to feature due to injury.  Bayern are arguably one of the best three clubs in the world and so it met with some skepticism when they signed Costa from the Ukraine.

Costa joined Shaktar from Brazilian side Grêmio for €6 million in 2010.  During his time at Shaktar he made 202 appearances while contributing 38 goals and 40 assists.  New players typically go through an adjustment period in a new league with a new team, but that has yet to happen with Costa in Germany.

In Bayern’s first match of the 2015-16 Bundesliga campaign they played HSV and won by a scoreline of 5-0.  This match perfectly encapsulated Costa’s value to the Munich machine. He was able to switch flawlessly from the left and right wings and terrorized defenders while contributing a goal and assist.  In his first Bundesliga match for Munich he received a rating of 9.5 and was named Man of the Match.

costaheatmap

People might dismiss his performance by saying HSV are  a solid candidate to be relegated from the Bundesliga, but Costa has not stopped and proved no matter what team he faces he will attack at will.  During the first international break of the season, Robben picked up a thigh injury playing for the Netherlands and was ruled out at least four weeks. Seeing as how the wheels fell off Bayern’s season last year due to injuries to their stars, this was bad news to begin the new campaign.

However, Costa has revolutionized Bayern’s attack in their matches and it no coincidence they have won their past 10 in a row while scoring 34 and allowing only four for a +30 goal differential.  Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Müller are the two most in-form strikers in the world at the moment, with Lewandowski scoring 16 goals in all competitions so far, and Müller adding eight.

After Munich’s 3-0 victory against Mainz on Sept. 26, Müller praised Costa’s ability. “Douglas is tailor-made for Lewy and me,” he said to German magazine, kicker.

Watching Costa it is funny to think he might struggle to fit into the Bavarian giants.  If anything his impact on the pitch has helped assert their offensive dominance.  Watching the Brazilian he has zero fear and lives to put opposing defenders on their heels.  With his potent combination of pace and a low center of gravity he dribbles at defenders and leaves them in the dust with his incredible step-overs and change of pace.

When opposing players try to defend Costa he makes them appear as their boots are filled with cement.  The crafty Brazilian was criticized by Robben earlier in this season as he attempted a fancy Lambreta maneuver as his team were up 3-0 in the 81st minute against Bayer Leverkusen.

When questioned about it, Costa was full of confidence and responded, “Robben criticized my Lambreta? I will continue to do it again and again. Guardiola gave me freedom.”

Speaking to media while on international duty with Brazil he also added, “Guardiola hired me for spectacular moves like that. He always tells me to go up, and do what I want. At Shakhtar I played on the right, but the Seleção now needs me on the left side. I will have to compete with Neymar.  Neymar is a great player but at Bayern I also compete with Robben & Ribéry. Let it be a healthy competition.”

The 25-year-old is confident and full of ability and the reason why Bayern’s attack has been so potent.  With his exceptional change of pace and commitment to his team the Munich offense has been ripping opponents to shreds in both the Bundesliga and Champions League.

In Bayern’s first two Champions League matches they have faced Olympiakos and Dinano Zagreb.  In Match Day One they beat the Greek side comfortably, 3-0, while Arsenal lost to Zagreb, 2-1.  In Match Day Two, Bayern tore the Croatian side apart, winning 5-0.  Costa added his first goal in the Champions League as he used his speed to beat his defender and quickly fired off a shot from the left side of the pitch.

Costa continues to answer the critics who thought he wasn’t good enough for Bayern. In all competitions so far this year the winger has contributed an outrageous 11 assists as well as two goals.

In the same interview after being asked about his Lambreta and play, Costa answered, “This has always been my football, and I will do it whenever I have the chance again. I won’t change my style for anyone.”

As you can tell from the annual Bayern Oktoberfest visit, Costa doesn’t need to change at all for Bayern. They have adapted perfectly to fit him.

costafest

via The Guardian

Posted in Bundesliga | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Philippe Coutinho: The Symbol of Liverpool’s Continued Devolution

The more time passes on the 2013-14 EPL season, the more we’ve learned just how much of a one year outlier that Liverpool side really was. Sure, we kind of already knew that when Luis Suarez left after the 2014 World Cup, but to the degree to which it’s hampered Liverpool as a club currently is pretty astounding.

That Liverpool side was the most entertaining and high octane EPL side since the Rooney/Ronaldo/Tevez trio that ran roughshed on European football in 2007-08, and today’s Liverpool are the furthest thing from that. In many ways, the 2013-14 Liverpool side are almost the opposite team that we would associate with a Brendan Rodgers side: a ridiculously direct, high pressing side that played at a pace reminiscent of Borussia Dortmund at their peak or the 2014-15 Marseille side led by Marcelo Bielsa.

Offensively, that Liverpool side was structured in a very good way. There were two shot producing monsters (Suarez, Sturridge), a creative winger with incredible pace (Sterling), an unorthodox #10 who could play as a central midfielder on occasion (Coutinho) and an underrated playmaking central midfielder (Henderson). There’s little substantial remnants remaining from that squad. Suarez is in Spain, Gerrard is in LA, Sturridge has been hurt for the majority of time post SAS, and Sterling is with Manchester City. Of the players who played major minutes in that offensive setup, only Coutinho and Jordan Henderson are still left.

It’s actually really hard to know what Liverpool are at the moment, another turn in the Brendan Rodgers era. It’s gone from wanting Liverpool to create some form of Swansea-lona football, to the English recreation of Dortmund, to a weird hybrid of the two last season, to whatever you would consider this iteration. One could say that it shows the flexibility of Rodgers to adapt on the fly, but the degree in which he’s flip flopped on his team’s identity is more an indicator of a man not knowing what he truly wants.

In many ways, Coutinho represents the Brendan Rodgers era in a nutshell. When Liverpool got both Coutinho and Sturridge in the January transfer window in 2013, the groundwork was being laid for the fearsome attack that followed. No one really could expect the heights that Liverpool touched both offensively and points wise, but Liverpool were much better in the second half of the 2012-13 season with the Coutinho/Sterling/Suarez/Sturridge core.

Coutinho’s role when SAS and Sterling were on board was perfect: he is a creative player in the right circumstances. He is a very good through-ball passer and his dribbling ability allows him to get into areas where he can play 1-2’s in any part of the midfield. What made Coutinho particularly unique back then was his ability to play as a faux central midfielder in diamond formations. He was brilliant against Arsenal in the 5-1 victory in 13-14 and the 4-0 win against Tottenham in April with his ability to make passes from deep and tackle (an underrated aspect of his game which allowed Liverpool to get away with Henderson and Coutinho as wide CM’s). His production mirrored a unusual but quite effective attacking midfielder download (49)

The further that time has moved on from 13-14 Liverpool, the more disjointed and confusing Coutinho has become. Last season was the beginnings of this, although there were still moments of class. The big storyline with Liverpool was their shift from a hybrid diamond formation to a 3-4-1-2/3-4-3. Without SAS, Sterling played a good number of minutes as a false striker and there were moments when Coutinho and Sterling found great chemistry. Coutinho had a real solid stretch in January and February, culminating in his winner versus Manchester City when City were at their peak downturn. It wasn’t the same Coutinho from SAS, but he was still effective enough deployed higher up the pitch that it got him a spot on the PFA Team of the year (he really didn’t deserve it if we’re being honest).

download (50)

Watching Coutinho so far this season has been one of the more weirder experiences you’ll see. Gone are the days of the swashbuckling midfielder who could find passes that not many could. Instead it’s been replaced by a shot hungry monster more interested in being the Brazilian Andros Townsend. So far he’s somehow dodged criticism even though he’s produced minimally outside the screamer versus Stoke. It’s a very small sample size but Coutinho has shot 6.3 times per 90 this season and only of those shots is on target per 90. He’s has taken 33% of Liverpool’s shots this season, a staggering amount of shots for a player who is at best an erratic shooter, and at worst Andros Townsend like. Since coming to Liverpool, Coutinho has always been a poor shooter that’s not afraid to shoot, but the potency of SAS covered that up quite a good deal.

Some of what’s happened to Coutinho’s game this season isn’t his fault but rather a combinations of things that have happened around him. For a club that used to have an abundance of pace and feed off of counter attacks, that’s mostly dissipated. Teams don’t really fear being countered on by Liverpool because there’s just not that much fluidity to their game. There have been moments (first half versus Arsenal, parts of their match versus Norwich) but the club as currently constructed is only good enough to have nothing more than fleeting moments. Coutinho and Firmino overlap skill wise, Jordon Ibe is the only true winger on the squad and he kind of sucks, Joe Gomez is not a LB (he isn’t – he’s a fricking CB that’s gamely played at LB) and offers no width to balance the inside runs Firmino and Coutinho love to make.

The failings that have surrounded Coutinho have enabled his worst traits and minimized his strengths. Again, Coutinho is a very creative passer in the right environment but when there are no runners available and the £32M striker (Benteke) is still not close to looking comfortable, you’re pretty much inviting him to take it upon himself and shoot and shoot some more.

Coutinho won’t average 6.3 shots per 90 this season and if he does, the apocalypse is upon us and humanity as we know will cease to exist. But even if the number crests around 4.5-5, that’s still a net negative for Liverpool. There’s not a lot of players in the world that I would feel comfortable taking 4.5-5 shots per 90 over 2500-3000 minutes, and Coutinho is far down the list.

An example of a Coutinho like player succeeding is Shinji Kagawa. Kagawa and Coutinho are pretty similar as players, and for attacking midfielders they can retreat and collect the ball pretty quickly from rather deep areas to start transition opportunities, with both being great dribblers. Coutinho’s passing abilities (again when he wants/can pass) are probably more expansive than Kagawa’s but he’s also a more harmful shooter. Look who Kagawa has as options: Marco Reus, the criminally underrated Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Those three are tailored made for a player like Kagawa and it has made him super successful once again in Dortmund (it also helps that Kagawa gets to play as a #10 again).

Philippe Coutinho is very talented but he’s also very talented in a specific way that has to be tailored correctly to make it successful both for him and the club. It’s happened before both for him and players similar to him. He’s not the type of guy where you can build an entire offense around, which is what Liverpool have kind of done through six games this season, because this is more or less what you get. Coutinho needs space and shot producing forwards to be successful. Benteke isn’t that, Sturridge is that but he’s constantly injured, and Firmino was at Hoffenheim but he also was the guy in Germany and never had to share the spotlight with a player who overlapped many of his best skills.

As Liverpool have crumbled, so has Coutinho’s overall game. There’s still loads of time to resurrect what was a fascinating career, but this iteration of Liverpool won’t be the ones to do it.

Posted in English Premier League, Features | Leave a comment

The Time Is Now Or Never For Isco

Isco-Real-Madrid

via 101greatgoals.com

Often seen as part of La Roja’s midfield for the foreseeable future, Francisco Román Alarcón Suárez – also known as Isco – faces a crucial season ahead of him at Real Madrid.  It is his third season at the Spanish giants after a €30 million move from Málaga in the summer of 2013.

Fresh off winning the Golden Boy award and a trip to the quarterfinals in the Champions League, Isco made a choice between following his former manager Manuel Pellegrini to Manchester City and the Premier League or staying in Spain and playing for Los Blancos. In the end he decided to stay in his home country.

The 2013 summer transfer window for Madrid was highlighted by the capture of Gareth Bale from Tottenham, but Real also scooped up Spanish talent like Dani Carvajal from Bayer Leverkusen (€6.5 million) and Asier Illarramendi from Real Sociedad (€32 million), while promoting Jesé Rodríguez, Alvaro Morata and Nacho Fernández from the Castilla.

This was thought to be a movement towards a more home-grown and Spanish oriented team, much in the same way that Barcelona’s stars had risen up through the ranks of La Masia.  In his debut season for Madrid, Isco made 32 appearances in the league, 23 of them being starts.  He scored 8 goals, while providing 6 assists in 1991 minutes total to cap off a fairly promising season.

The summer of 2014 was the World Cup in Brazil and a coming out party of sorts for Colombian international James Rodríguez.  The midfielder scored 6 goals and added 2 assists in just five matches.  This breakout performance was enough for Real Madrid to plunk out €80 million to secure his services from AS Monaco.  Despite the addition of Rodríguez, Isco appeared in 34 matches (26 starts) and played his third most minutes at the top level (2338).

squakagraph

When looking at Isco’s numbers compared to Rodríguez and other attacking midfielders there is cause for concern.  You can see on the per/90 numbers that Isco is lower in almost every category except for Juan Mata.  To be fair Mata was in his first full season at United under Louis van Gaal, who couldn’t decide where the Spaniard really fit in his starting XI.

When you play in a team that boasts the attacking talent and free flowing play of Real Madrid you would expect much higher assist numbers.  Isco is normally set up on the right side of the midfield and shares the pitch with Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale, three of the most lethal offensive players in the planet.  In comparison Mesut Özil contributed 13 assists and 9 goals in his final season at Madrid in only 23 starts and was frequently subbed off in the second half by Jose Mourinho.

As Madrid have begun the 2015 season under new manager Rafa Benítez it is clear that his first choice front four consists of Ronaldo, Benzema, Bale and Rodríguez.  Unfortunately over the international break, Rodríguez tore his thigh muscle while playing in a pointless friendly against Peru.  The Colombian is expected to be sidelined for at least a month, opening the door for Isco.

1996636_w2

via uefa.com

This is the perfect opportunity for the 23-year-old.  He needs to grab the reigns and show he is more than a beautiful dribbler capable of producing Vine highlights and that he can play for one of the biggest teams in the world.  In his first match in the starting XI for Madrid against Espanyol it should’ve been easy to shine.

Madrid played as if Espanyol was a junior varsity team and completely dominated them, winning 6-0 with Ronaldo scoring 5.  Despite Isco starting the match lined up on the right you wouldn’t even have noticed he was on the pitch.  Watching the bloodbath I didn’t even realize Isco was playing until he came up to congratulate Ronaldo after his three first half goals. These are the type of matches the young Spaniard needs to assert himself in and build confidence.

With Rodríguez injured he is automatically the first choice to start at that position and it is worrying if he can’t show he belongs.  Benítez has urged his young midfielder to have more of an eye for goal and he certainly can improve upon the measly 4 he netted last season. Hell, Ronaldo had 5 in just the last match!

This season is truly make or break for Isco.  He can prove he is an essential piece to the Real Madrid squad or become another Illarramendi, who left before the end of this summer’s transfer window back to Real Sociedad after failing to live up to the hype.  If you believe the papers both Arsenal and Manchester City are among the clubs interested in Isco; he might have to move on to truly capitalize on his potential.  For now the world will watch at how he adapts to the first XI at Madrid over the next month or so.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Gabonese Gas Pedal

Capture

It’s not a tragedy, but Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had a long, two-part uphill battle to show he’s one of the best strikers in the world.

First, the fact is Aubameyang is a very fast African player. His athletic greatness is something many of the world’s sports marvel at and demand more of. Yet there’s always been a snobby air around the phrase “he’s all pace.” There’s a pretentious presumption that a player who is simply fast lacks quality to play a game born of technical savvy.

As a footballing culture, we tend to underrate players when we can’t see their impact in dictating a game through their physical gifts. We also tend to underrate them when we percieve their impact as something solely born out of those same physical gifts. Since Aubameyang can simply outrun everyone, it’s easy to brush off any tactical knowledge of how and where he makes runs.

Another factor that plays against Pierre-Emerick is that he plays for the Gabon national team. There’s “doesn’t play for a world power” and there’s “completely off the map” in terms of international football. It’s already hard enough for many African players to get recognition when their transfer value is deflated for not not being part of a European FA (see: Lyon helping force Nabil Fekir’s hand in turning down the Algeria National Team for the much more prestigious and UEFA friendly France). It’s another thing when the nation you represent isn’t within smelling distance of the World Cup, largely African footballers only chance to star on the international stage.

So while the Toure’s, Drogba, and many other African footballers feel many of these pains, few experience them in the amount and variety of ways Aubameyang has. Spurning France himself in 2009 after only one appearance for the U21 side in favor of Gabon, he took the road less traveled to being a world class striker and the guy who puts the foot to the floor for Dortmund. And even then he’s hardly the first name people mention when it comes to the Borussians.

Aubameyang was French born to his father Pierre Francois. The elder was a staple of the Gabon national team and made his career playing as a journeyman center half in Ligue 1 until the early 2000’s. Through that career he put the younger Pierre and both of his older brothers through the Milan youth academy. Between the three brothers, they made a total of one appearance for the Rossoneri (and surprise, it wasn’t Pierre-Emerick). Catalina Aubameyang played mostly in Ligue 2 and lower level Italy before electing to play for the Gabonian club Sapins, while Willy’s most notable club was Kilmarock of the Scottish Premiership.

Pierre-Emerick was evidently the most talented of the three, making impressions in each of his four loan stints to France before being sold permanently to St. Etienne. While a member of The Greens, Aubameyang found a lot of success playing out wide to the right. His pace in combination with Ivorian Max Gradel made  for one of the most potent counter-attacking forces to be reckoned with scoring 16 goals with seven assists in his first season before scoring 19 goals and 9 assists in the second season.

This earned him his move to Dortmund, the world’s most notorious group of counter attackers. The fee never was disclosed, but rumors had it at €14 million at the time, which was hardly a lucrative sum for a 24-year-old who found the net 35 times in two seasons. His first year was solid, despite not receiving much fanfare. At St. Etienne, despite being classified as a winger, Aubameyang had much freedom to roam centrally on the quick counters and be individualistic. In his first season at Dortmund he did find the net 13 times, but was often times deployed more as a true winger with Lewandowski patrolling the middle and the current right winger Blaszczykowski hampered with injuries. His pace made him a solid enough substitute winger and while his ground crossing is good, he’s hardly one to whip in an aerial ball worth salivating over.

Lewandowski left that following summer, but instead of entrusting PEA in the role of striker, Dortmund looked to reshuffle at striker with Adrian Ramos and Ciro Immobile. Neither have still looked remotely close to add up to Lewandowski. Immobile is now off at Sevilla after a season where he seemingly didn’t fit off the field and Ramos has never looked like a fit on the field. However, Aubameyang was ready to step right into that place. Klopp was reluctant at times, still pushing Immobile and Ramos in the lineup in favor of deploying Aubameyang out wide, but when he was deployed centrally he looked special. His goal in the German Super Cup featured a smart run in the box, an amazing leap over the world-class Jerome Boateng, and a Spider-Man mask, showing that he’s much more than a dash and smash threat with the kind of poaching technique even Ruud Van Nistelrooy could appreciate.

He went on to score 16 goals that season, and not just powered by pace. Pierre-Emerick has the kind of nose for goal to make for one of the world’s very best, and he makes the kind of amazing off ball runs a slower, less physically gifted player makes. His chipped goals against Wolfsburg and FC Koln are just as impressive as his extravagant front-flip celebration. He’s even one of the most unselfish players in terms of squaring it to a teammate over trying to finish a one-on-one with a keeper. He even back heel flicked a pass, made a great run down the wing, and fired a pinpoint cross to Marco Reus against the titanic Bayern Munich. The pace is the mind killer, but he’s done more than enough to shed the “only pace” label many try to give him.

And in his first full season as an out-an-out striker he’s flourishing more now than ever. His last outing he may have scored two penalties without Marco Reus there to take the spot kicks, but his three goals in his first three appearances were all from open play. He’s even shown that willingness to pass setting up Henrikh Mikhitaryan. He’s Dortmund’s third banana, and The Black and Gold are more than happy to have a player of his quality in that role. He’s not mentioned in world class forwards now, but it’ll hard to imagine a conversation to not include him when the season ends.

He’s fast. He’s Gabonese. He’s a late bloomer. However he’s also a world class finisher and makes some of the best runs in all of Europe. And strangely enough is the missing link of French wide forwards turned world class strikers. Not only is Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang pacey, he’s the modern complete package of what you want up top.

Posted in Bundesliga | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Ross Barkley isn’t Good at Football

It’s really easy to make fun of English prospects, so much so that it could simply be classified as low hanging fruit. The way the English media and fans hype their own talent way above their actual production level is borderline farcical.

Saido Berahino was thought so highly of that Tottenham dedicated nearly a month to try and get him from West Brom, even though his career outlook is potentially the next Jermain Defoe. Jack Wilshere can barely string 3 games together yet Arsenal fans for the longest time couldn’t let go his 2010-11 season. Jordan Ibe is a ball dominant winger who can’t pass the ball if his life depended on it, yet he’s gotten playing time over Lazar Markovic who’s now on loan in Turkey.

Of course, there are English prospects that are about as good as the hype machine that’s generated for them. Raheem Sterling has a chance to be as good as Franck Ribery was at his peak (RIP Franck), and he’s given Manchester City some much needed dynamism out wide. While the “English Verratti” tag for Jonjo Shelvey is somewhat hyperbolic, he is a genuinely good passer and dictator in a double pivot formation alongside a destroyer type. Jordan Henderson is a very good playmaker as a forward venturing central midfielder and Harry Kane could be the remix version of Alan Shearer. For every 3-4 overrated and overhyped English talents, there are 1-2 genuine quality players.

Sadly for Everton fans, Ross Barkley is not one of those quality prospects. In fact, he’s much more the opposite. Ross Barkley made the English media take notice in 2013-14 when he was part of Everton’s attacking team that threatened to overtake Arsenal for 4th place. The pace of Barkley and the attacking play from Romelu Lukaku made the Merseyside club somewhat of a neutral’s favorite. His goal versus Newcastle was magnificent and the hype machine gained full steam, earning him a trip to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup. In many ways, Barkley was and still is the perfect “Match of the Day” player. All of this obscured the fact that Ross was really mediocre that season.

The following can’t be said strongly enough: Ross Barkley is talented, at least in the conventional way we judge talent with our eyes. Physically, he’s everything you want in a venturing attacking midfielder: he’s quick, fearless as a dribbler and on the counter attack, he can look like a real threat to do something beneficial. He is the type of player that managers give loads of time to, because the payoff could be enormous. He could be described as a very unfinished version of Kevin De Bruyne.

When you have a raw prospect that’s being allowed to make mistake after mistake on the ball, you get current Ross Barkley. If Mesut Ozil is on the suave and understated spectrum of #10’s (the part of the spectrum that we tend to underrate by a great degree), Barkley is the opposite. Ross Barkley is the football equivalent of mixing Mentos and Coke together then shaking it up and watching it explode. Paul Riley did an Everton preview and showed a graphic on the location of Barkley’s open play passes, and it’s not very flattering for a player Roberto Martinez has almost hitched his wagon to as Everton’s #10.

Barkley-successful-passes

Ross Barkley can look like a selfish individualist at work. He’s very reminiscent of what Andros Townsend and Jordan Ibe are as players, but in a central role.

Take his performance versus Chelsea yesterday. Ross Barkley’s best trait as a player is he knows how to position himself so when he gets the ball, he can have some space to set up a forward action of his choosing. For a guy who quite frankly sucks when he has to do something with the ball, he’s actually really good at this.

It’s the decision making that makes people (including me) scratch their heads. Yes, he registered an assist on Naismith’s hat-trick goal and it was a delightfully weighted pass that was David Silva esque, but that was more or less an isolated successful event in a series of unsuccessful events. There were moments where he would try and go 1v3 versus Chelsea and it went nowhere. This is perhaps the best encapsulation of Barkley’s poor decision making:

Barkley

Barkley 1 Barkley 3

Barkley 4

Nearly every game that Barkley plays, it features a lot of these instances. Ross could’ve easily just shifted to his right and play a ball to Lukaku which could’ve ended up in a goal. Instead he was so smitten with getting it to Kone that it was 2-3 steps too late. Lukaku might go the entire prime of his career playing with a #10 who only passes when he either feels like it or it’s somewhat of a last resort. No wonder his goal scoring record went down last season (Roberto Martinez also played him a lot on the flanks which also didn’t help things).

The best thing to say about Ross Barkley is he’s still only 21 years old despite this being his third season in the EPL, he’s very young. Every once in a while, Barkley seduces everyone into thinking that he’s starting to figure things out. He was really good against Southampton and his pass for Naismith’s third yesterday was a genuine piece of class. He also has produced only 5 assists and created 65 chances  in 4707 minutes of league play, a putrid return for a #10.

In five years, Ross Barkley could figure this all out and become a top notch #10, possibly in the mold of a Steven Gerrard. Ross Barkley could also turn out to be crap and not deviate from what he’s shown so far in his career. No one knows what Ross Barkley will turn out to be, but for now we can probably say that he’s not good at football.

Posted in English Premier League, Features | Leave a comment