Inter’s unbeaten home run shattered by stylish Cagliari

Cagliari celebrate another goal as the hapless Vidic and Medel think about what could have been

If home form was what was going to carry Inter to success this year then Cagliari’s dominant victory over Inter at the San Siro should have the warning bells flashing. After watching the game one could have easily  believed that old Murphy had been sitting in the stands writing his law that ‘anything that can go wrong will go wrong’ because that is pretty much what happened to the Nerazzurri during this Sunday afternoons match..

First of all before looking at some episodes in this match, credit must be given to Cagliari, whose attackers showed Inter’s own attacking players what movement and persistence was. They continually harassed Inter’s defence, chased down every ball and never stopped running. The effect on Inter was obvious as the defence failed to deal with the masses of midfielders bursting through from the deep and the constant pressure when on the ball once it had been turned over. They also took their chances incredibly well. Despite the seemingly comprehensive score line and being a man down, Inter were not camped in their own half under siege for the bulk of the match, both teams had a similar number of chances, a similar number of attacks and similar possession stats. The difference was the determination and clinical finishing that Cagliari showed in front of goal. Where Inter hesitated, Cagliari drove on. Where Inter played deliberate football, Cagliari attacked in a frenzy of speed, movement and energy.

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No one wins in Palermo bore draw

Inter play out dour draw with Palermo
The frustration was evident on the faces of the misfiring Inter players.

One of the unfortunate things about destroying a team 7-0 is that generally expectations of the fans are raised to a point far above where they perhaps deserve to be. No doubt some of these expectations would have been tempered by the decidedly average 0-1 win over Dnipro midweek, but nevertheless, I must admit I had high hopes of a good performance against Palermo. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the efforts in the Ukraine, as well as in the other competitive away game against Torino where Vidic was forced to liven up proceedings by getting himself sent off in the dying seconds in fear of leaving the fans with nothing better to talk about than the weather upon the final whistle.

In Palermo the former United captain decided to try a different ploy. Why wait till the end for a moment of madness when you can do it right in the beginning? If his attempted back pass while being heavily pressed by the Palermo striker was an attempt to set the game alight, his efforts were sadly and greatly misplaced. What followed Vidic’s howler was perhaps the most abysmal 45 minutes in the top division of Italian football as Palermo and Inter went head to head in a challenge to see who could find the lowest depths of ineffective, pointless play. Passes missing targets by wide margins; check. Statue like movement across the park; check. Complete breakdown in communication; check. It seemed as it as if neither team were really sure how to play after a goal had been scored and both teams plans for a 0-0 had disappeared out the window. It was painful.

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Inter’s 7-0 win over Sassuolo sets the bar for the season

Icardi, Inter, Internazionale, Serie A
Icardi celebrates one of his three goals against Sassuolo. The Argentine will be a key player for Inter this season.

’History Never Repeats’, a classic song by New Zealand band Split Enz. After last season’s 0-7 white wash of Sassuolo on their own turf only the boldest of Inter supporters would have dared counter this statement. But repeat itself it did as Inter tore the Neroverdi apart from almost the word go in a display that lays down a marker for the rest of the season. Inter needed to come out hard at the San Siro and show that this was a place where opponents should fear to tread. That this is Nerazzurri ground. They made this statement and then some in a performance which will send a few shivers down the spines of those teams currently instilled as title favourites.

No doubt Sassuolo proved a willing accomplice in their own destruction, playing a high backline and a semi aggressive pressing game which left key playmaker Mateo Kovacic plenty of space to operate in and freeing Mateo Icardi from the shackles that held him against a defensive Torino. They cannot be criticized for at least attempting to play an open game but after this result it will be unlikely that too many other lower ranked teams will join them in their frivolous undertaking at the San Siro. The tactics of the opposition however, cannot take away from the display put on by Inter.

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When defense is the best form of attack.

Mkhitaryan slots home the first after the ball is won in a classic Dortmund press.

It is a familiar phrase, you know, attack being the best form of defense, a phrase that teams like Real Madrid have lived and died by in their madcap pursuit to outscore their opposition. After all, who cares how many they score as long as we score more! The reasoning has its grounding in general military principle. It is well known that the one who is on the front foot offensively, who forces his opponent to react to his movements, to keep him guessing as to where he will pop up next and who continually moves him backwards forcing re-organisation and restructuring will be in the dominant position, just ask the Germans as they plowed though Russia in 1941 and conversely the Russians who returned the favor a few years later. The exception to this rule is generally the rope a doper, those who sit back, taking the continual blows of their opponent like a super absorbent sponge before suddenly and without notice unleashing a counter that catches their tired opponents, leaving them in a dazed and surprised heap on the floor. It is a risky strategy because one defensive slip can leave you out of the match without ever being in it but it has a track record of working; just ask Jose Mourinho in the Champions League semi final in 2010/11 as he ‘parked the airplane’ in front of his goal to thwart the death by a million pin pricks of Barcelona.

In recent times on the football pitch this theory of attack being the best form of defense has been turned on its head. It is now an odd case of defense being the best form of attack. The occurrence of the super press, the continual harassing and haranguing of ones opponent as soon as he dares take possession of the ball, has become the new flavor of the month. It was ruthlessly incorporated into the Barcelona game by Pep Guardiola who turned them from a team that could do more tricks than a Russian Cirque de Soleil artist but who all too often would struggle to regain possession once it had been conceded due to their lackadaisical defensive units, into a well oiled, million miles per hour, pressing machine. Opponents who managed to eventually prize the ball from their little dancing feet would suddenly find themselves surrounded by 3 or 4 pint sized wonders before he even had a chance to catch breath. It didn’t even matter which part of the pitch they found themselves on, there was no retreating back to a predefined position leaving a ponderous forward to charge around aimlessly to ‘pressure’ the opponents, as had been the norm previously. The Barcelona wizards would attack anyone and everyone who had the temerity to take the ball from them. And so they dominated, combining the marvel of their possession, lauded around the globe by football purists, crucified by those who wanted a fast paced open match; with the dedication, speed and aggression of their pressing. It almost reversed the accepted theory of the way the game be played. Barcelona were languid in possession, thoughtful to the point of nauseating as they recycled the ball, around, across, up and down waiting for the opponents to slip up. There was no mad running around, no unnecessary sprinting or reckless passing. It was all measured and calm. In defense however, they became pitbulls, speeding around the pitch to encircle the ball and closing down the space, the game would just shift until Barcelona won possession back and the careful recycling would start all over again. Possession was now as much a defensive play as it was offensive while the pressing, which could result in a turnover in an opportune part of the field was like the attacking phase, as the little Catalans fought to retrieve the precious ball.

Jurgen Klopp; a rocker with a passion for fast paced, high adrenalin football.

A few years down the road and this theory has been picked up by other clubs although few do it so well as German team Borussia Dortmund, managed by the eccentric Jurgen Klopp. Harnessing the natural power and athleticism of his charges, Klopp has turned his men into a group of super pressers whose sole obligation to the 6 ft 4 in (1.94m) manager is to run their socks off for the full ninety minutes. In the build up to this crunch match against Arsenal he admitted that he expected his team to run 10 km more than their opponents, pressing, harassing and hussling them into conceding possession. He also happily admits that celebrates in watching his players “press the ball (and) win a throw in” rather than admiring them engage in a bout of beautiful but ultimately pointless round of passing, as his counterpart Arsene Wenger may do. He thrives on the intensity of the game, pace passion and drama; not possession, triangles and tactical duels. His players are to go full throttle at their opponents, leaving them beaten and bedraggled as a result. Something Manchester City still surely have nightmarish memories of after their walloping at the hands of Klopp’s men last season. This philosophy espoused by Klopp, in the most aggressive sense, and Guardiola, in a more refined manner, is at the heart of making defense the best form of attack. By defending so aggressively and so high up the pitch, you give yourself the opportunity to win the ball back in not just an excellent position, but an excellent position when the opposition defensive lines are more than likely not going to be correctly established. The first Dortmund goal against Arsenal is a perfect example of this, Ramsay wins the ball on the edge of his box, Reus chases him down and aggressively tackles from behind, winning the ball which runs to Mkhitaryan in space, who slots it into the goal. Classic Dortmund. Arsenal did not lose the first game because Dortmund outplayed them in attack, it was their aggressive pressing in defense that turned the tide, not allowing them to get into their stride, particularly in the first half.

Bayern Munich celebrate another as despondent Barcelona players march back to half way. They lost the tie 7-0 on aggregate

So how do Arsenal defuse Klopp’s pressing strategy and beat Dortmund in their own patch. It is simple really. The key is to play extremely quickly, moving the ball away with one touch football as soon as possession is gained, thus escaping the encircling forces of  Dortmund’s pressing army, and reaching the wide open spaces. If they can do this Dortmund can find themselves exposed as they commit players forward to defend. The perfect example of this came from Dortmund’s nemesis, Bayern Munich when they annihilated Barcelona over two legs in last seasons Champions League semi finals. Perhaps they benefited from regularly facing the only team better than the Catalans at pressing and so were able to successfully use that experience to break the Barca noose and reach the space. Bayern utilized a mixture of quick passing and excellent dribbling ability to avoid the press and found a back line ill equipped to deal with Bayern’s attacking players. In doing so they were able to plunder goals as the Catalans struggled to contain the onslaught. Arsenal need to do the same thing against Dortmund. Their decision making must be near instantaneous to avoid being caught in possession in the seconds after regaining the ball; passing accuracy must be high and they must be prepared to take the opposition on if the opportunities present themselves. The spaces are there for Arsenal’s technically gifted players to find but they must play quickly and efficiently to find them, otherwise they will join the growing numbers of clubs who are discovering that the best way to attack, is in fact to defend!

Wenger turns the heat up on Moyes.

Arsene Wenger knows the value of a good line at a press conference. 

On the eve of the 2-0 win over Crystal Palace that maintained Arsenal’s place at the summit of the Premier League, Arsene Wenger sat in the standard pre-match press conference, answering the same questions he received week after week after week. How would his team perform against a weak Palace side? How would they bounce back after their loss to Dortmund? etc etc etc. For Wenger this was all too easy, he had been holding court like this since 1996 and knew what to say and when to say it. The media were looking for easily interpreted phrases or slogans they could paint across their headlines and earn their days pay. The questions rolled and answers followed, all with Wenger’s trademark considered patience. From somewhere in the back a hand was raised, Wenger caught the motion from the corner of his eye and nodded in its direction, signalling the one responsible to ask his question. He listened as the reporter queried Wenger on the release of his old nemisis, Sir Alex Ferguson’s, book, for which he was honored enough to get a full chapter in. Wenger paused for a moment, seemingly contemplating his famous battles both on and off the pitch with this greatest of managers. A half smile seemed almost to appear on his thin lips before he opened them to answer. He stated that he had not had the opportunity to read the book but thought it seemed as if Ferguson had written or at least recorded much of it whilst still managing. He then paused for a moment while a follow up was asked before cheekily throwing a juicy steak to the starving wolf pack. “Will Sir Alex ever come back?” the question was innocent and simple enough. The eyes of the room turned to the Arsenal boss who took in a breath before replying, leaving the room poised, waiting for his response. It had taken many years for him to truly appreciate these moments and to take full advantage of them but his experience now proved invaluable. “In six months we’ll know more about that. You cannot rule it out completely. Its difficult to take a drug for 30 years and suddenly get rid of it.” Wenger just threw it out there like it was just another answer but it wasn’t. He noted with immense pride the frantic scribbling going on as the reporters fought to record his every word for later publications. He knew that out of everything he had said that would be what caught the imagination of editors waiting for juicy stories in their offices. It was all too easy.

What is simple to dismiss as simply one manager putting forward an opinion about the future of his former, now retired, rival, is in fact a well worked piece of media management, designed to further increase the pressure of beleaguered colleague David Moyes. A manager who is still desperately searching for a way to escape the omnipresent shadow that Ferguson casts over Old Trafford and beyond. A shadow that has only loomed larger  with the release of his biography only a few days earlier. Wenger, a master of the arts of manipulation, knows the pressure that comes with being manager of a big club, knows the effect that negativity can have on a team, after all, prior to the signing of Mesut Özil his own team found themselves lambasted by all and sundry; and he was more than happy to keep the torch firmly on the Red Devils new man. Many managers would have refused to comment on the going ons at other clubs but Wenger, like Ferguson himself before hand, knows that when your opponent is down, do everything you can to keep him there.

David Moyes is still struggling to make his mark at Old Trafford.

With Man United winning, although again very unconvincingly, against Stoke the pressure valve at Old Trafford has been eased just a little bit. One can imagine that if Moyes can eke out a couple more wins the confidence and swagger may just return to Old Trafford and they could still push for another Premier League title, the season, as they say, has a long way to go. What will be an interesting byline however, is whether we are beginning to see the first seeds in a significant rivalry between Wenger and Moyes as they battle to gain the upper hand in the game of minds and media. Only time will tell.

Brazil 2014 suddenly looks far away for the land way under

The All Whites celebrating their historic draw against defending champions Italy in South Africa 2012

As the titans of world football played out the final chapters in their seemingly never-ending road to World Cup 2014 in Brazil a small, rather insignificant dot on the football world’s heel watched on. They had finished their initial qualifying campaign in March undefeated some 6 points clear of their nearest rivals with an equally impressive scoring record of plus 15, conceding only 2 goals in their six qualifying matches. Ordinarily this kind of record would make the footballing world stand up and take notice, particularly when talking about form coming into a World Cup but when the competition is the Solomon Islands (rank 169), Tahiti (rank 146) and New Caledonia (at a respectable 95 in the world) one has to take scoring records with a little more than a grain of salt. That said the conquest of the Oceania World Cup qualifying group for New Zealand was always just the first, smallest step on the road to reaching the holy grail of Brazil’s white sand, ahead lies far, far more daunting tasks.

Not that victory in the Oceania group was guaranteed for the men who proudly, and with no racial overtones intended, call themselves the All Whites. After all the wake up call had been received loud and clear as recently as 2012 when New Zealand, as clear tournament favorites stumbled through the round robin stage of the Oceania Cup of Nations before succumbing the the irresistibly smooth play of the powerhouse New Caledonians in the semi finals 2-0. They would go on secure third spot with a hard fought 4-3 epic against a robust Solomon Islands team, but it was a victory that did not quench the thirst of the fans back on the Land of the Long White Cloud. Despite several of their star players being away, the All Whites were charged with gross underachievement in the tournament and some pundits even questioned their ability to make it out of the Oceania group at all for the fast approaching World Cup qualifying campaign. For a team that could proudly boast exiting South Africa, 2010 with the only unbeaten record, 3 games, 3 draws (including one against defending champions Italy), the thought of failing to make it out of a group boasting only one team other than New Zealand themselves (at number 67) in the top 100 was not even worth thinking about.

With this in mind the All Whites set out with a renewed determination to show that the effort of 2012 was just a lonely bump on the road to greater things, a Keith Richards overdose in the constant battle for sobriety. They vowed as they watched Tahiti, eventual winners of that infamous Oceania Cup of Nations, claim their roll as the ‘feel good team’ or ‘everybody’s second team’ at the Confederations Cup in Brazil whilst being handed a 24 – 1 aggregate score over their three matches, including a memorable and heroic goal in their 1-6 defeat to Nigeria, that they would be back on the big stage as the representatives of Oceania. It is a promise that they were able to keep.

Man United Striker Javier Hernandez will be keen to prove himself after a tough few months.

Following their success in Oceania, New Zealand waited impatiently with their half ticket to the finals for their final opponent. Fate had given the second half of this prize to the Confederation of the North, Central American and Caribbean, or CONCACAF), rather than the AFC as it was in 2010 and who now would face half a South American team; and it was expected that Panama, Costa Rica and Honduras would be fighting it out for the two spots after the USA and Mexico sealed theirs as was the norm. Unfortunately for the All Whites fate decided to intervene. Mexico, longtime regional powerhouse, had decided they would do their best to  appear as it if they had only been introduced to the game and began a improbable spell of abysmal football. After coasting through their group, which incidentally contained Costa Rica, with a New Zealand like six wins from six and a goal difference of plus 13, they entered the final round of qualifying, or the business end, full of confidence. Somewhere in between however, the wheels didn’t just come off but fell off, were stolen by a street gang and eventually sold for scrap never to be seen again. Although undefeated for their first six games they only won one, against lowly Jamaica at home, with the other five draws. They then conspired to lose their next two against Hondurus and the USA before finally claiming a second victory, a must win against Panama, their biggest rivals for forth spot, on the 15th of October 2013. This result left them needing just a point to achieve the spot in the play off. In the end however, they couldn’t even achieve this. A 2-1 loss to Costa Rica away left them nervously praying for the Americans to hold Panama in their own patch to secure Mexico’s position. In the end their northern neighbors withheld this particular favor until the final moment scoring the two winning goals in second half stoppage time and it is fair to say that perspiration records were comfortably broken as nervous Mexicans pondered a summer away from international football.

All Whites captain Winston Reid will have a challenge on his hands against the quality Mexican attack.

For the All Whites the news couldn’t have been much worse. For all their toiling in qualifying Mexico boasts a team full of talent and experience at the highest level. They have a proven track record in major tournaments and will be looking at the playoffs as a way to get back some of the momentum lost in their horrific qualifying run. Mexico will host the first leg on the 13th of November, while the All Whites will be hoping they have something to show the Mexicans other than used Lord of the Rings sets when they arrive down under on the 20th. It will be an encounter which makes the David and Goliath’s biblical battles seem rather evenly matched. The All Whites will need to show all their defensive tenacity, spearheaded by West Ham’s Winston Reid, if they are to keep a Mexican attack led by Manchester United’s goal magnet Javier Hernandez, at bay.  The odds however, are firmly against them. For all their famous determination and effort New Zealand are a very limited side, physically strong but technically weak. They have only a small pool of professional players to chose from and only boast one fully professional team in the country, the Wellington Phoenix, who play in the Australian A League. It would have been an massive challenge had the All Whites been forced to play Panama but one wonders whether, over two legs, the challenge of Mexico will be a too big for the plucky Kiwis to overcome. 

Time for Moyes to change up Man Utd.

It hasn’t been the smoothest of starts for Moyes at United, but he will be given time.

It became something of a trademark under Ferguson; flying wingers, clinging to the thin white line allowing their team to utilize the entire width of the field and launch lightening counter blows against teams that were unprepared for the speed and efficiency of the comnig attack. They would whip in crosses from the byline, draw opposing widemen to create space through the middle for United’s daunting list of strikers and offer a demonstration of explosive speed and dribbling ability. Names such as Ryan Giggs, Christiano Ronaldo and Nani jump out as creators who can make things happen and win matches through individual moments of shear brilliance. The utilization of wide men in United’s team is something that bought an incredible amount of success to the club and is perhaps one of the key signatures of Ferguson’s tactical approach. But it is not an easy tactical system to employ successfully. Except for those at the very top of their game such as the Ronaldos, Riberys, Robbans and Bales of this world, wingers are not generally regarded as goal scorers, particularly those inclined to hug their line, indeed it is rare to find many who score more than 10 goals per season. Utilizing formations with wingers also makes defensive organisation more difficult due to the spread of the team, with many of these mercurial talents also dis-inclined to track their defensive responsibilities as they hold their gaze firmly toward the opposition half of the pitch . So while they can offer a decisive tactical advantage when employed in a correct and disciplined format, they can also be a liability, not tracking back enough to help defenses out, losing the ball too often in poor positions whilst trying outrageous dribbles and all too often disappearing in games when the midfield is packed and space at a premium.

Traditionally David Moyes has not been inclined to use wingers in his play. His team at Everton was solid through the middle and gained width from wing backs such as Leighton Baines who would charge forward  when the opportunity arose to help out in the attack. Obviously the Everton team under Moyes was much more workmen like than the flair and brilliance of the players now under Moyes but the new United manager must be careful of falling into the trap of trying to play the game Ferguson’s way instead of putting his own stamp on the team.

Christiano Ronaldo was the epitomy of Ferguson’s wingers, quick, skillful with an eye for goal.

With the slow start United have had and the unconvincing nature of not just the losing performances, but also the winning ones, which has been marked by moments of individual brilliance rather than a solid team performance, one wonders whether it is time for Moyes to consider moving away from Ferguson’s wing based counter punching game to a more traditional style where the play is made with wide attacking midfielders supported by wing backs who add width, rather than out and out wingers. The use of attacking midfielders is probably the most common style for most big sides in Europe with Chelsea, Man City and Real Madrid to name but a few of the teams who use fleet footed creators in a 4-2-3-1 formation to break down defenses and control games. The formation is stronger defensively as it is more compact and would offer more support to United’s recently wobbly defensive line as well as offering Moyes a system that he is more comfortable with. The introduction of boy wonder Adnan Januzaj highlighted the possible formation transition for United, starting the game on the left but more often than not drifting inside rather than hugging the touch line. This worked well in tandem with Nani who seemed more comfortable being able to roam a little more, and exchanging passes with men inside rather than being told to stay as wide as possible so as to maintain the width of the team.

The two goals scored by Januzaj also highlights another potential gain for Moyes and United. Where the goal return from the United wingers has been frankly woeful, some 2 goals in 80 odd appearances, allowing the wide men the freedom to roam a little more centrally, created both chances for Januzaj to score. One goal was scored through the middle, only slightly to the left of the penalty spot where you would normally expect a central midfielder or deep lying striker to pop up while the other was from the left hand corner of the box. In both instances it was the movement off the wing that allowed Januzaj the space to be able to put the ball in the net, a freedom that is normally not allowed in the strict United playing structure.

United also have the players to be able to pull the change off. While it may put a couple of players jobs at risk, most have shown the tactical flexibility to make the adjustment, some may even thrive in a different system. Playing a 4-2-3-1, players like Rooney can slot in behind van Persie, like Aguero does at neighboring City; Januzaj and Nani have both shown they are smart enough in their movement to move across the forward line, forcing defenses to work harder to track them, and United enigma Kagawa would undoubtedly be more comfortable in this roll as the formation is much closer to that which he shone so brightly with at Dortmund. Valencia has shown he can play deeper in a wing back roll, while the introduction of Fellaini, will provide Carrick with support, as well as offering up a player who can join in the attack from the deep.

United’s future? Adnan Januzaj caught the eye with his two goals against Sunderland, but he is far from an out and out winger.

Another option could be switching it up completely to a 4-3-2-1 or 4-3-1-2 formation allowing the forward three players, the freedom to move and switch position at will while still ensuring their is plenty of support behind to ensure defensive strength. In this formation the wing backs, who at United are already of a particularly offensive nature, can offer the width while the midfield will be shored up by the extra body. This formation may even suit players like Anderson whose original attacking mindset has been dulled by the strict tactical wing based formation. In a central three he would be given more freedom to get forward and use his natural attacking talents when the opportunity arose.

David Moyes will no doubt be allowed plenty of time to settle in at United, it is a club based on patience and support for their managers, so unless things go woefully wrong for him he will still be there at the end of the season. That said however, it appears that he, like so many managers, is simply not comfortable with the use of out and out wingers in the style that Ferguson so successfully implemented. This in itself is no shame on the new United manager, many great managers in the past have tried unsuccessfully to use this style only to struggle with the enigma of ensuring defensive strength while getting real effective use out of their wide men, Jose Mourinho’s failure to implement this at the start of his ultimately successful career at Inter Milan is evidence of this, his genius was to recognize early enough that it wasn’t working and change his tactical approach. It is therefore worth Moyes considering the option of bringing an end to the cycle of out and out wingers at United and putting his own stamp on the team..

Is Mourinho scared of Benitez’s Chelsea?

It was May of 2010. Jose Mourinho stood cradled by the walls of the mighty Santiago Bernabeu after his side Inter Milan had stormed to victory in the UEFA Champions League against an outfought and out played Bayern Munich side. The victory capped off a remarkable season for Mourinho’s group of veterans as they had also recently secured the Italian Serie A and Coppa Italia to wrap up an historic treble. The side was at their peak but with the average age hovering ever closer to 30 most recognized that this may have been the end of their cycle. Indeed only a few days after taking the club to unimaginable success Mourinho announced his interest in another challenge had been piqued by the club whose ground they won their crowning achievement, Real Madrid. He left behind a squad fat with the tastings of successes enjoyed, well drilled in the art of counter punching and in need of some renewal to retain its freshness. The template was in place and required only small adjustments.

Following the emotional departure of the ‘Special One’ there was left the small task of finding another manager to take a team bound together by success but now wavering under weight of its creaking bones. The answer to this call came in the form of Kop idol and former Mourinho nemesis Rafa Benitez. The appointment bought some murmurs of discontent among sections of the supporters who had watch the glory of Liverpool FC ebb away under his watch, as he fumed and fought a battle for hearts and minds with the clubs owners. Despite earlier winning the Champions League with them his final seasons were marked by infighting, disputes and poor results on the field, as well as what seemed to be a general depletion in the quality of the playing squad. The fact that he had also had something of a fractious relationship with Mourinho also left many fans more than mildly concerned by his appointment.

The first signs of trouble came when Inter froze in the transfer market. Despite some significant offers coming in for some of the treble winning players, many of whom were over 30 and unlikely to replicate the form that had gotten them this far, the club decided to keep the team together for one more season. Players who had played some 60 games the previous season, then faced up to a World Cup straight afterwards returned to the club fatigued and seemingly lacking motivation after winning everything the previous season. With all this stress on the players bodies the injuries started to mount and the form dipped with the results. But player fatigue and injuries were not the only issue crippling the Nerazzurri under Benitez’s ultimately ill-fated reign. The manager had decided to throw away the modus operandi that have proven so successful under Mourinho and press ahead with the implementation of a possession based game, despite it appearing like sticking a ballerina into a rugby match when it came to the players individual strengths. The formerly imperious Champions League winners appeared lost as they plodded around the pitch trying to figure out where they were supposed to be, heads dropped and shoulders slumped, something unseen since the days before Mancini’s first title with the club began the cycle of success. The fans began to question Benitez, why had he changed tactics when those employed by Mourinho fit the squad perfectly, why did the players appear so unmotivated and why was there suddenly so many injuries? Benitez, as he has been known to do, fired back aggressively, criticizing the club for not backing him in the transfer market and demanding unconditional support from owner Massimo Moratti.

As time went by things only got worse as reports of dressing room disputes were leaked, players were not happy with their manager’s apparent aloofness, and his seeming determination to wipe away all memory of the previous year and the man who had led them to so much glory. It was as if the disputes between Benitez and Mourinho in the Premier League had been carried over to Inter when the new manager wanted to do everything in his power to distance himself from his predecessor. This only seemed to be confirmed when club stalwart Marco Materazzi later came out claiming that Benitez ordered pictures of the players celebrating previous success with Mourinho be stripped from lockers and walls. Whether this was because he wanted the players to focus on the future instead of the past, or to remove the shadow of Mourinho from his head or simply isn’t true is a matter of conjecture. The reign of Benitiz ended at the Italian champions on December 23rd, 2010 after winning only six of fifteen league games in charge, there were not many Nerazzurri fans who felt sad to see him go.

With this in mind it is interesting to see Mourinho follow Benitez into the roll of Chelsea manager. Obviously there are a number of major differences, perhaps the most obvious being the fact that Mourinho is hailed as a god at Stamford Bridge, while Benitiz was mistrusted from the start at Inter, but there also seems to be a number of startling similarities to the early days of the Spaniards ill-fated first Italian adventure. While Mourinho was greeted as returning hero at Chelsea the story has not, thus far, followed imagined script. Chelsea has looked disjointed, disconnected and somewhat sloppy in their first set of games. Chances have been at a premium and many players have appeared out of sorts. Perhaps most controversially the teams star player over the last two seasons, Juan Mata, was left out of the starting line up, and on occasion the squad, for most of the opening matches, in favor of talented youngster Oscar. The reason for all this has been Mourinho’s continued claim that he was overhauling the team style to be more fluent and attractive as he, and apparently the club, did not like its previous incarnation. Although seemingly an innocuous statement it is easy to believe that Mourinho is taking a dig at the style and culture his nemesis Benitez bought to the fore, despite it eventually reaping the reward of the Europa League and third place in the League.

In recent matches it appears that Mourinho has grudgingly accepted Mata offers the creative genius that his team has been missing of late, but the questions must be asked; Is Jose Mourinho compromising the success of Chelsea FC purely to ensure any success he has does not reflect back to Benitez, like Benitez almost certainly tried, unsuccessfully to do at Inter?  Is this personal feud interfering with the decision making of one of the world’s top managers? And finally is Mourinho big enough to put aside his attempts to distance himself from Benitez’s reign in order to ensure Chelsea enjoy a successful season?

With much of the season still to be played out there is still ample time to see if Mourinho will follow the route Benitez took at Internazionale and be left ruing ever setting foot back into the pocket of Roman Abramovich, or whether he will set aside his differences with Benitez and forge another successful rule at Stamford Bridge cementing his status among the Chelsea faithful as a club legend.

Are Sunderland the worst run club in the Premier League?

di Canio was well known for his eccentric and often over the top gestures from the sideline.
di Canio was well known for his eccentric and often over the top gestures from the sideline.

What can you say about Paolo di Canio, or PDC if you wanna keep things short, that hasn’t been said already? Eccentric, egotistical, maniacal, innovative, determined, mad, demanding; there is no real shortage of adjectives such was the man’s personality, and in truth he didn’t even need to open his mouth to even demonstrate them as his fanatical series of gesticulations provide enough for two whole body language books. In the end though it came to nothing, like most things that are born of such wild tenancies. PDC had the carpet pulled from under him by his own players who felt they had suffered one, or perhaps one hundred, criticisms, insults and put downs too many. Such is the life of a manager, you live and die by the sword, paying the ultimate price for the clubs failures on the field.

Unlike with many managers however, PDC’s sacking had a sense of inevitability about it from the very first day. Even when he led the embattled Sunderland off the bottom of the table with a heroic win over hated rivals Newcastle, a game which saw him memorably charge exuberantly down the field before sliding joyously on his knees to celebrate, there was to most a sense that this was a fast burning flame that would soon extinguish. His abrasive style surely too much for the pomp and pampered players of the Premier League. And so it was.

The question however, must be asked why did Sunderland back this volatile and abrasive manager so strongly in the transfer window? The changes at Sunderland over the summer were immense with 14 players coming in with a similar number going out, virtually creating a new team based purely on the whims of this volcanic Italian. And this wasn’t the first time it had happened. Martin O’Neill bought in a new team of players when he arrived the previous year, and Steve Bruce the year before that, in fact if you go back to their promotion after the 06/07 season Sunderland have always had a tendency towards massive squad rotation over gradual squad improvement.

The famous di Canio run and slide as his team secured a vital win over fierce rivals Newcastle
The famous di Canio run and slide as his team secured a vital win over fierce rivals Newcastle

In those tumultuous post promotion days it may have been quite acceptable to continually overhaul your squad in the off season, many teams did, and Sunderland did enjoy some success finishing 10th as recently as the 10/11 season. Things have changed in the last few years in the Premier League however. Forward thinking clubs have been engaged in long term planning, something almost unheard of in the fast lane of the Premier League gamblers like Leeds and Portsmouth, establishing playing styles and strict budgetary measures. Managers are selected not based solely on results but also on playing style and how they fit the clubs ‘system’. European style Directors of Football have been bought in to ensure the teams have both stability and a structure in terms of who is bought in and what the long term needs are. The results are clear for all to see with teams like Southampton, Swansea, West Brom and Norwich all punching well above their weight. They have targeted two or three quality players who fit their established style of play and who can take the team to the next level, something Everton has also done successfully for some years now. Sunderland however, have gone the other way by leaving the keys to the candy store in the hands of temperamental managers who all have vastly different ideas about how the game should be played. There is no ‘Sunderland system’ as such and the club is now playing the price with poor results, no team spirit and a distinct lack of identity. For a club the size and as well supported as Sunderland this should be unacceptable.

What to do then? It seems there was no clear succession plan once di Canio was ousted but this in itself is not the biggest problem. Any manager coming into the club will have to deal with a squad of new players, still adjusting to the Premier League and each other as well as many sporting basketball sized bruises to their ego. They will almost definitely face a relegation battle come the blossoming of the Spring months but, despite this, the opportunity to manage a Premier League club will be to big for most to turn down. The biggest problem is for the board at Sunderland to reorganize the way the club in such as way that it can actual provide much needed continuity away from the decision over who will pick the match day squad. Establishing the way the club wants to play and long terms goals is a good first step, do they want to nurture youth and play fast passing football like so many seem to want nowadays or do they want a powerful, direct team that can be solid at the back and counter quickly? What is the Sunderland style? Once they have established a template they should look to bring in a recognised Director of Football who can help assess the current squads suitability for the style of football the club want, identify transfer targets for positions of weakness and work with the manager to bring in quality needed to lift the squad. Once this is in place the problem of the manager is more about who will best carry on the style, utilizing the resources in place rather than starting once more from scratch.

Things did not turn out so good for di Canio after a bright start.
Things did not turn out so good for di Canio after a bright start.

With the current Premier League season having just started it is not time to panic at the Stadium of Light, there are plenty of matches remaining to save their season and they have several quality players on their roster. What they need however, is more continuity in their playing style through the establishment of a general playing style and a director of football. With this in place, the club will be fully able to capitalize on their beautiful stadium and massive economic potential. The hiring of PDC for all its faults and shortsightedness did serve the purpose of keeping them in the Premier Division. It is now the place of those who run the club to ensure they are not put in the position again where they have to take such drastic measures.

Can Arsenal really win the Champions or Premier League?

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Arsenal’s new messiah Mesut Özil celebrates his assist with Olivier Giroud

Like the second coming of the son of God the arrival of Mesut Özil was greeted by supporters with jubilation, joy and sheer disbelief, and by the multitude of cynics, with fear, trepidation and grudging respect. Here was a player that was not potentially a star, not a work in progress or not even a panicked last minute Wenger buy but a true bonified world class star. A player who in a team of galaticos stood out as one who, rather than shrinking under the brightest, most demanding lights in football, actually grew brighter and reveled in the tag, and he was coming to Arsenal. When the news was announced Tottenham fans across the globe felt a sudden deflation, as if the joy of all of their big signings, of the team that they had put together which would virtually guarantee a top four finish if not a tilt at the title itself, and who would finally put the Arsenal hoodoo behind them, had been swept away in one foul swoop. The mood around Emirates, sullen and despondent prior to the Aston Villa match, as if news had just filtered through that Nicklas Bendtner had been offered a new luctrative contract; suddenly turned full circle. The fans got a spring in their step, pride returned to their voice, the club had finally emerged from the self imposed weight of the Emirates Stadium debt and into the light of the modern footballing world and the statement had been made.
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Will Arsenal fans be forced to endure some more classic Bendtner moments.

Media outlets across the globe hailed the signing, as did the bevy of Arsenal starlets, who wasted no time gushing over their new hero as if teenage girls tweeting about One Directions imminent arrival at their school for a private show. Arsenal it was said were now a genuine challenger, capable of winning not just the Premier League but also potentially the Champions League. The perceived turnaround was quite simply astonishing.

But for all the headlines and good will generated by the Özil signing, there remains serious concerns that the squad at Arsene Wengers disposal has been covered by the thinnest of papers.
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Mathieu Flamini was a perfect signing for bolstering the squads flagging numbers

Every year in the premiership it seems a team of plucky battlers fight their way into a position on the table where they have no right being in. They capture the imagination of the country and fill fantasy football teams with their cut price players. Miraculously these teams manage to squeeze into Europa League (or in Everton’s case a few years back, Champions League places) and leave their fans to dream of next season’s European adventures. Every year these teams are hailed by pundits for their daring play but also warned of the perils of European competition for those not prepared, the long flights, the challenging fixtures in faraway lands and the physical costs on squads of playing a game every three days. Almost every time the warnings turn out to be true. The plucky teams endeavor to battle on two fronts and soon find that themselves slipping down the table as the weight of injuries, fatigue and unsuitably qualified benches take their toll. This is the trap that Arsenal now find themselves facing on the day of their first Champions League fixture against Marseille.
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Players like Emmanuel Frimpong are simply not good enough for a team like Arsenal

In the off season Arsenal sold or loaned out some ten of their first team squad. Many or most of these were simply not good enough for a club of Arsenal’s stature but in terms of squad depth were considered essential to a team facing League, Champions League, FA Cup and League Cup matches. In their stead Wenger recruited four players, Özil, Mathieu Flamini, Emiliano Viviano and Yaya Sanogo, representing a rather large reduction in the size of their first team squad. This leaves Wenger a first team squad of around 29 players (taken from the Arsenal website), seemingly enough to travail the pitfalls of so many competitive fixtures. But is it. A quick look at the names and the positions reveal some alarming truths. Arsenal only have seven defenders in their first team squad, leaving a mere three reserves should the full complement be available and less should there be injuries. In the striker position, ably filled by a rejuvenated Olivier Giroud, the lack of depth is even more alarming, with a real possibility of catastrophically cocky Nicklas Bendtner being called into action in a crunch match should someone get injured. There is also concerns in the midfield department where, despite appearing well stocked, it is full of players who are just as accustomed to taking shots administered for various ailments as they are making tackles on the pitch.

While the Özil signing can be seen as the marker for a new era at Arsenal. An era where the club no longer sells its best players to keep the budget in the black but actually looks to bring in world class talent, the fact of the matter is that Wenger has allowed his squad to become perilously thin, particulaly considering the poor injury record at Emirates for the last few seasons.Arsenal do have a starting team capable of mixing it with the very best on their day but they will find they have a number of days where their best squad is not available and if those waiting in the wings are at least not close to the quality of those they are replacing then Arsenal will find themselves slipping out of competitions and sliding down the Premier League table before they have a chance to get the squad the improvements it needs.