A couple of links to articles elsewhere

Just a couple of recent articles that have appeared elsewhere in recent days as (unfortunately) I haven’t posted on here in a while.

Backpage Football

The changing face of Frank Lampard

Swansea and Laudrup hoping for the best of de Guzman

Total Football

Where does Robin van Persie go from here?

 

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EURO 2012 Preview: Tough decisions for the managers of Germany, Holland & Italy.

Whilst England boss Roy Hodgson has come under scrutiny over his 23-man squad for Euro 2012 from just about everyone in the world of football, as well as those capable of summing up their feelings in 140 characters on Twitter, perhaps we should spare a thought for other international managers who have had to make difficult choices concerning their squads for the upcoming European Championships.

As Hodgson has had to decide whether to plump for a £20m winger with no goals or assists this season, an 18-year-old with only six Premier League starts, and a £35m striker with four league goals this season (instead of Peter Crouch and his 22 in 42 international record), some of his contemporaries have already made, and are preparing to make, some of the biggest decisions of their managerial careers.

Here’s a look at three of the questions currently on the mind of Hodgson’s peers:

Joachim Loew – Germany: Game time for Mario Gotze and to start Mario Gomez or Miroslav Klose

Head back six months and the question of whether Dortmund’s wonderkid Mario Gotze – widely hailed in his homeland, most notably by the German FA’s technical director Matthias Sammer who has called him “one of the best talents that we’ve ever had” – would be a part of Joachim Loew’s squad would be met with much nodding and definitive exclaimations of the 19-year-old’s attacking midfielder’s brilliance. Fast-forward to the present day, and following four months out with a hip injury, from which he only returned to first-team action on April 22nd and expectations for him to have a stellar impact in Poland/Ukraine have somewhat died down. How much trust Loew will have in the uber-talented youngster will be shown in this summer’s Group of Death.

Miroslav Klose

Two players guaranteed their spots in Loew’s squad are the Bayern Munich goal-machine Mario Gomez, on the back of a 40+ goals season, and the experienced frontman Miroslav Klose, with 63 international goals to his name and nine goals in Euro 2012 qualifying, despite making only six appearances. However, there isn’t space for both in the starting XI, with Loew’s favoured 4-2-3-1 formation meaning that one will be left on the substitutes bench. Klose has been the main striker for 10-years now, with 16 of his international goals coming at major international tournaments but Gomez, following another goal-laden season in the Bavarian capital, will unquestionably believe that now is the time for his ascension to Germany’s starting number 9.

Germany to win Euro 2012 & Miroslav Klose top scorer – 28/1
Mario Gomez to be Euro 2012 top scorer – 7/1

Bert van Marwijk – Holland: To start Robin van Persie or Klaas-Jan Huntelaar

Whilst Roy Hodgson has scratched around desperately for strikers who aren’t Wayne Rooney, he will have certainly shot jealous glances at Bert van Marwijk, the Dutch boss who has already had to tell Eredivisie top-scorer Bas Dost (32 in 34) that he wouldn’t be one of his three front-men this summer. Highly-rated FC Twente forward Luuk De Jong will head to Poland/Ukraine as third choice and van Marwijk’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation means that whilst Arsenal’s Robin van Persie and Schalke’s Klaas Jan Huntelaar have both had record-breaking season’s, one of them will be sitting on the bench when the Dutch kick off their tournament against Denmark in Kharkiv on June 9, van Marwijk having proclaimed earlier this month: “I’m not sure if [Huntelaar and Van Persie] will play together at the Euros.” Certainly, the 2-1 friendly defeat by Bulgaria, with both players starting – van Persie having been pushed to the right of the attacking midfield trio – ought to have been enough to dissuade van Marwijk from starting the tournament with such a strategy.

Arsenal top scorer van Persie has been in blistering form for the Gunners, notching 30 goals in the Premier League this season, as well as being named the PFA Footballer of the Year, putting him in pole position but his recent record for his country isn’t nearly as impressive scoring in just one of their last nine internationals – and that against San Marino, when he scored four.

On the other hand, ‘The Hunter’, struck 48 times in just 47 games for the Bundesliga side this season, has six goals in his last eight appearances for the Oranje, and his overall international record, despite having never made a starting spot his own, currently stands at 31 goals in 50 apps. Whichever decision van Marwijk makes, for many, he can’t be wrong. For others, he can’t be right.

Holland to reach the Euro 2012 Final: 3/1
Robin van Persie to be Euro 2012 top scorer: 9/1

Cesare Prandelli – Italy: To start Antonio Cassano with Mario Balotelli or Antonio Di Natale

Antonio Cassano will be Cesare Prandelli’s main striker – But who will he partner?

When Antonio Cassano underwent surgery for a minor heart defect in November, it was believed that he wouldn’t return to competitive action until August at the earliest. However, the former enfant terrible of Italian football has made a quite staggering recovery, returning to play a part in AC Milan’s ultimately unsuccessful title challenge, and adding a major boost to Italy boss Prandelli in the process. Cassano scored six times in qualifying and his return is a big boost to what is an inexperienced Italian frontline in the squad (containing Roma’s former Swansea-loanee Fabio Borini.) Who will partner the Rossoneri forward is the main question, and the choice has been whittled down to two – Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli or Udinese poacher Antonio Di Natale.

Di Natale hadn’t been selected since the 2010 World Cup, but with 80 Serie A goals in the last three seasons, including two capocannoniere titles, the 34-year-old brings a huge amount of experience to the squad, and no shortage of quality.

His main rival for a starting spot is the mercurial talent that is Balotelli. With 17 goals in 32 appearances for the Premier League champions this season, and his physical presence, Balotelli is perhaps Prandelli’s main choice alongside the diminutive Cassano. However, the often-frustrating forward, who has been sent off four times in the past two seasons, could equally prove a divisive force and whilst he may bring huge reward, Prandelli must decide whether that outweighs the risk for the Azzurri.

Italy to qualify from Group C: 8/13
Mario Balotelli to be Euro 2012 top scorer: 25/1

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Dimitar Berbatov and Manchester United to part ways this summer

Dimitar-Berbatov-4-COS

The Manchester United career of £30.75m record signing Dimitar Berbatov will come to an end this summer, according to the players agent, Emil Danchev.

Earlier this week, United boss Sir Alex Ferguson had made no secret that Bulgaria’s all-time leading scorer could be set to leave this summer stating: “I understand he wants first-team football – It’s difficult for me to guarantee that so it could lead to him looking elsewhere.”

And now it seems certain that the player will leave Old Trafford. Speaking on Bulgarian television to “Channel 3″ Danchev said:

“I was pleased with United’s position as they said they’ll not oppose Berbatov’s move in the summer.”

“I had three meetings with Sir Alex Ferguson. From these meetings was pleased by his assessment of Berbatov. The position of the club is as follows: ‘We will not interfere, we are very well susceptible if the offer came for him will not make difficulties.”

Danchev continued that at this point in his career Berbatov does not have ambitions to head to the United States, citing that the striker wishes to “continue his career in another no less classy team than Manchester United.” As such a move to another major European league – La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga or Ligue 1 – is most likely

The Bulgarian striker arrived at Old Trafford in August 2008 from Tottenham Hotspur, after proving himself an outstanding Premier League performer at White Hart Lane. However, he has never really reached the heights expected of him during his time with the Red Devils.

Last season was arguably his best in a red shirt – finishing the 2010/11 Barclays Premier League campaign as the joint-top scorer, whilst endearing himself to the United faithful with a hat-trick in a 3-2 win over Liverpool.

However, he has never made himself a definite first choice during his four-year spell; a fact highlighted by the two European Cup finals that United have reached during his time with the club – Berbatov was a substitute in the 2009 defeat to Barcelona, and didn’t even make the squad for the 2011 repeat.

The Bulgarians languid, low-tempo style has oft-been cited as a key reason for his struggles, and the 31-year-old has become even more marginalised this campaign.

According to Danchev, Ferguson is looking towards the future, and building a side around the technical skills of Wayne Rooney, and the speed of the likes of strikers Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez and wingers in Ashley Young, Nani and Luis Antonio Valencia.

“In the shape of Chicharito, Rooney and Welbeck he has talented forwards. The only thing they have little in more than Mitko, is speed. Berbatov is more technical.

“Sir Alex wants to change his style of play at United, to implement more speed.”

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The antics of Roger Johnson further add to Wolves supporters woes

After the humiliation suffered by Wolverhampton Wanderers in the 5-0 decimation by Fulham on Sunday, you could be forgiven for thinking that members of the sides defence would be keeping a low profile.

Roger Johnson - Struggled for form and acceptance from the Molineux faithful since his summer arrival

As Pavel Pogrebnyak helped himself to a hat-trick, Clint Dempsey a double, and their Fulham team-mates adopted a shoot-on-sight policy at Wolves unprotected ‘keeper Wayne Hennessey, the Old Gold defence capitulated.

Meanwhile, on the Wolves substitutes bench, for the second match running under caretaker boss Terry Connor, sat Roger Johnson.

Less than 24 hours later, after his sides Craven Cottage catastrophe, Johnson, 28, arrived at Wolves Compton training ground, reportedly ‘bleary-eyed’, and was sent to train with the development squad as Connor became aware that he was under the influence of alcohol.

Both manager and player have subsequently released statements as acts of appeasement to supporters, with the defender facing internal disciplinary action and a £50,000 fine, as Wolves continue their descent into being the Premier League’s laughing-stock.

Recent on-field hammerings by Fulham and local-rivals West Bromwich Albion, the sacking of manager Mick McCarthy, and the board’s subsequent failings in finding a suitable replacement, have seen Wanderers become the top-flight’s club-in-crisis.

This latest episode, involving a player who certainly hasn’t ingratiated himself to the clubs fans, will not help.

A £4.5m summer-signing – which the Wolves board pointed out towards the end of the summer transfer window, as they attempted to show just how clever they could be in the transfer market (it was previously speculated that the former Cardiff and Wycombe centre-back had cost £7m) – Johnson was quickly named club captain by then-manager Mick McCarthy, and painted as the man to shore up a defence that had been porous in its previous two Premier League campaigns.

However, far from being the solution, Johnson has simply added to the problems.

Although the Wanderers backline looked resolute in their opening unbeaten three matches, which dared supporters to think of a potentially comfortable season ahead, a run of defeats left fans unimpressed and venting their frustrations, leading to Johnson to call a section “disgusting”, for sarcastically cheering a decision to subsitute Karl Henry in the October home defeat by Newcastle United.

Continuing defensive problems within the side and poor individual performances from Johnson, lead to the Wolves skipper being dropped for a match with Sunderland in December, however an injury to replacement Jody Craddock saw Johnson’s spell out of the side run for a mere 60 minutes.

Since then he’s been a part of a Wolves side that produced some excellent backs-to-the-wall displays, most notably in the 1-1 draws away against both Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, but more indifferent form has followed, coming to a head in the 5-1 derby drubbing by West Brom, when Johnson poor-form came to a head with an insipid display.

Subesequently, Connor chose the step of dropping Johnson for his first two matches in charge, however, following the lack of leadership on show during the Fulham debacle, may have been ready to return Johnson to the Wolves starting XI.

Nevertheless, with this latest incident, at a time when Wolves look to mount a successful battle against the drop for a third successive season, one of their own has put his future in serious jeopardy and created a further chasm between an underachieving squad and embittered supporters.

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Andre Villas-Boas a victim of his own revolution

So after 267 days in charge of Chelsea football club, Andre Villas-Boas has become the sixth manager to fall victim to the trigger happy ways of the clubs owner Roman Abramovich.

The most sought-after manager on the planet last summer following his stunning 2010/11 season in charge of Porto – which saw AVB take the Portugese league & cup as well as the Europa League crowns to the Estadio Dragao – has found himself undercut by player power at Stamford Bridge, and after a difficult spell, encompassing three wins in the last 12 Premier League matches, has fallen foul of the Chelsea owner.

A former aide to Jose Mourinho, AVB has never been able to exert his authority or his philosophy over a Chelsea side still dominated by his old master. In the end, regardless of what may be said publicly from the club, the hardcore of Mourinho loyalists within the Blues dressing-room – Cech, Terry, Cole, Lampard, Essien, Drogba – appear to have done for the 34-year-old, in much the same way they did for Luiz Felipe Scolari when the World Cup-winning Brazilian challenged their authority back in 2008/09 and was sacked after six months.

On his arrival AVB was tasked with what all managers of Abramovich’s era have been: challenging for the Premier League and the trophy that their Russian backer covets most, the Champions League. However, throw into the equation the owners want for a more expansive and aesthetically-pleasing style of play, and the Portugese boss had quite the job on his hands with an ageing squad and players – Essien, Drogba and Terry in particular – who have started to show the wear and tear of years of top-level competition.

However, resistance was met with his attempts to exert his authority and to change a Chelsea style – of force rather than finesse – which has served the club so well since the arrival of Jose Mourinho.

The high-block defensive strategy that had been such a success in Portugal was quickly done away with after a series of poor performances and the 5-3 home blitz by Arsenal in October, as John Terry’s lack of pace and fragility to the pass into his defensive channel was fully realised.

The high pressing game, which had worked so well with the mobile, powerful and pacey Porto midfield of Fernando, Joao Moutinho and Freddy Guarin was unable to be replicated by the Blues more static Jon Obi Mikel, Frank Lampard and Raul Meireles. Indeed, perhaps only Ramires, one of the younger brigade of Portugese speakers at the club and not a Mourinho loyalist, fully embraced what Villas-Boas was trying to achieve from a tactical standpoint.

It’s largely accepted amongst regular viewers of Chelsea that this side is coming towards the end of a cycle and change is needed. However, perhaps Villas-Boas was wrong to promote a revolution, rather than the kind of evolutionary processes which Sir Alex Ferguson has consistently overseen at Manchester United.

Nicholas Anelka and Alex were sent to train with the reserves when it was decided they were no longer required causing dissention amongst senior squad members. Frank Lampard was increasingly marginalised as Villas-Boas tried to make his mark, similarly Florent Malouda – although his demotion from first-team regular to bench-warmer has been far less noticeable thanks to Juan Mata, the leading light in a disappointing season so far.

The plans that Villas-Boas wanted to implement were never going to be quick and easy. He came with ideas, to make a proper mark on Chelsea and to leave a lasting legacy. The likes of Mata, Meireles, David Luiz, Ramires, Daniel Sturridge and Oriol Romeu were the players around whom the Portugese hoped to build his side for the next five seasons. Initially he thought he’d be given time. As time went by he realised he wouldn’t.

Had results been forthcoming then the criticisms with regards to questionable team selections – Leaving Lampard out has been a stick to beat Villas-Boas with certainly, but selecting Bosingwa over a 70% fit Ashley Cole at left-back against Napoli, certainly looked like a man trying to prove a point – would have been overlooked by fans and media alike.

Alas, they haven’t and so the scrutiny of Villas-Boas has been ferocious, something he would not have experienced in Portugal as Porto were sweeping all before them. He’s not dealt with criticism of his management well, and developed something of a spiky demeanour in recent times, having arrived in a blaze of glory.

In the end, Villas-Boas has been shuffled out the side-door, exiting stage-left following what has been termed a “parting” rather than what is quite clearly a dismissal.

Unquestionably, his stint at Stamford Bridge is something Villas-Boas must learn from and grow because of. Undoubtedly, he’ll pitch up somewhere in Europe – possibly at Inter Milan, who were keen on securing his services before his arrival in London – and be a success once again. He’s too driven and intelligent an individual not to be.

Perhaps Villas-Boas was the wrong man for the job. Undisputably it was a case of the wrong club at the wrong time for him. Whether he could have been the right man and led Chelsea into a bright future, we will never know.

And what now for Chelsea? The new man will still have the same problems that faced Villas-Boas; An ageing squad, the enigma that is Fernando Torres, the power wielded by the experienced pro’s in the dressing room and the knowledge that he’ll always be a poor run from the sack.

On the plus side Roman Abramovich has been in the situation before and has given himself time to make the right decision (of course there is no guarantee he will), by placing Roberto Di Matteo in charge until the end of the current campaign.

A certain former manager may be ready to return come the end of the season, having decided to leave his current position of employ. That man is likely to have lead Real Madrid to the Spanish title this season, and possibly their first European Cup since 2002. That man of course is Jose Mourinho. Whether he’d be willing to return, only he will truly know.

It’s said that pride comes before the fall. For Roman Abramovich, this summer may be a good time to swallow the pride which saw him sack the man who masterminded Chelsea’s first league title back in 2005, and to return him to the manager’s desk at Stamford Bridge.

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Time’s Up: Robin van Persie must leave Arsenal

Milan players celebrate Ibrahimovic's fourth as Arsenal skipper van Persie looks utterly dejected

The scale of the defeat suffered by Arsenal in the San-Siro was hard to take for their supporters. Those who have seen Arsene Wenger’s side grow over the last 15 years from a physically strong, tough, uncompromising side, into one with a more fluid philosophy, revolving around possession, passing, technique and movement, will have been distraught at the non-performance their side gave as AC Milan ran rampant. Wednesday night’s performance showed just how far the Gunners have fallen from their perch. And it’s a great shame.

Disappointments have been par for the course for Gunners fans in the past seven years, ever since Patrick Vieira’s winning penalty in the dourest of FA Cup finals in 2005 secured the trophy, beating Manchester United in a penalty shoot-out. They’ve seen title challenges wilt almost as annually as spring arrives, and their best players – Vieira, Henry, Fabregas, Nasri – all head for pastures new. Now, following the 4-0 hammering in Italy, they may be about to see another vacate the mantle as the Emirates Stadium darling.

Robin van Persie during Arsenal's nightmare night in Milan

At 28, Robin van Persie is the lynchpin of this Gunners side. He’s the club captain who has matured from a precocious talent with a volatile temper into a truly world-class performer. His goals record speaks for himself, as do the countless assists. He’s reverred across the continent for his technique, vision, skill and finishing prowess and is sought after by the biggest clubs in Italy, Spain and England.

Yet, now is the time when van Persie will be looking at himself and his team-mates and thinking  ‘do I need another season of this?’ The 4-0 decimation by Massimo Allegri’s Serie A champions, and the ease at which it was achieved, will surely have told him that his time at the Emirates needs to end, for the good of his own legacy.

The Dutch international has 16 months left on his contract at Ashburton Grove. Last summer he saw his most creative contemporaries – Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas – leave the club in similar circumstances to his own, as they looked to further their careers with the kind of trophies that simply aren’t on offer with Arsene Wenger’s side anymore. Now van Persie owes it to himself to do likewise.

As he struggled against the Milan defensive duo of Thiago Silva and Phillipe Mexes, van Persie must have looked at his team-mates inefficencies and wondered what more can he give to this team. He’s certainly not getting the help from his manager in the transfer market that he deserves.

Tomas Rosicky was no more than a back-up player two seasons ago. Now, following departures, he’s a first-team regular. Aaron Ramsey’s development has stalled. Theo Walcott did his invisible man routine in the San Siro. Mikel Arteta went sideways and backwards, but failed to penetrate Milan’s defence with a pass throughout the 90 minutes. Help was short on the ground for van Persie, and this time he couldn’t do it alone, no matter how hard he tried – despite feeding on scraps, he still forced Christian Abbiati into two decent saves, and one which was truly outstanding from a left-foot volley.

This summer, with 12 months left on his deal, Europe’s big clubs will come calling. Manchester City, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, both Milan clubs. All are title contenders. Van Persie can have his pick.

There will be those who says van Persie owes Arsenal a debt of gratitude, the club having stood by him during a rape allegation in his younger years and a number of recurring injury problems. But that debt has been greatly repaid over the last 18 months or so. Now van Persie has to take care of himself. He needs to be in a position to compete for honours. Staying with the Gunners doesn’t put him in such a situation. Moving on certainly would.

Great players, who define eras, are judged on the things they win, the medals and trophies they collect through their careers, and are looked back upon after their playing days have ended.

If Robin van Persie’s career ended today, in ten years time he’d be an afterthought across Europe.

And for a player of his talents, that would be the biggest shame of all.

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Tactical Review: Wolverhampton Wanderers 1-5 West Bromwich Albion – Mick McCarthy’s last stand

A Black Country derby which would have seen Wolverhampton Wanderers go three points clear of the relegation zone, and to within two points of bitter rivals West Bromwich Albion. Instead the 5-1 destruction saw Wanderers plunged into the bottom three, Roy Hodgson’s Baggies put an eight-point gap between themselves and the relegation places, and saw the end of Mick McCarthy’s reign at Molineux after five-and-a-half years in charge.

Albion took charge of the game early on, imposing their short, passing style on their hosts and took the lead through Peter Odemwingie. Steven Fletcher equalised for Wolves on the stroke of half-time but it was scarcely deserved. The visitors ran out comfortable winners with four second half goals – two more from Odemwingie, one apiece for Jonas Olsson and Keith Andrews (against his former club) – as they outclassed their dismal opponents and secured their biggest victory on enemy territory since 1962.

Starting Line-ups

Starting Formations for Wolves (Yellow) and West Brom (Red)

Mick McCarthy set up his Wolves side in a straight-forward 4-4-2 formation, albeit encompassing three strikers – Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, Steven Fletcher and Kevin Doyle – and an out-and-out winger in Matt Jarvis. Jarvis would begin the game in his customary position wide on the left, whilst Doyle started on the right-hand side, with Fletcher and Ebanks-Blake through the middle.

David Edwards and Jamie O’Hara were the designated central midfielders, with a back four (right-to-left) of Kevin Foley, Roger Johnson, Sebastian Bassong and Stephen Ward.

Roy Hodgson went with his sides usual formation away from home: 4-2-3-1. Liam Ridgewell made his debut at left-back, with Steven Reid on the right and the centre-back pairing of Gareth McAuley and Jonas Olsson.

Youssef Mulumbu and Paul Scharner were the designated sitting midfielders, with an attacking midfield trio of (right-to-left) Peter Odemwingie, James Morrison, Jerome Thomas and Marc-Antoine Fortune as the centre-forward.

First Half

A scrappy opening 10 minutes, in which Wolves appeared nervous and fearful of conceding an early goal – having been beaten on their last three home outings – soon developed into a period of consistent Albion pressure and Wolves dropping deeper towards their own goal. West Brom were dictating play through the centre of the park – outnumbering Wolves 3v2, with Morrison making intelligent runs either side of O’Hara/Edwards, and able to pick up the ball on the half-turn, in space – and were making use of their extra man in midfield, spreading play out to Thomas on the left wing, before swiftly working it across to the right-hand side, isolating Odemwingie 1v1 against Wolves left-back Stephen Ward. A mixture of last-ditch defending, good goalkeeping and wasteful finishing ensured that Wolves reached the 30 minute mark still on level terms.

First Goal and McCarthy’s tactical change

Albion eventually took the lead in the 34th minute, and it was no surprise that it came from down the right-hand side once again, but the effect that the off-ball running from Morrison and Reid can’t be underestimated.

A long diagonal ball from Olsson was controlled by Fortune. However, the run from midfield by Morrison, through the heart of the Wolves defence, dragged Sebastian Bassong from his position marking Fortune, which meant Steven Ward had to come round on the cover. Fortune set the ball back into midfield to Mulumbu, who quickly swept it wide to Odemwingie who was faced by Matt Jarvis, but the overlapping run from Reid, and Jarvis’ fear of him being played down the line, meant Odemwingie easily stepped inside. The Nigerian struck with his left-foot, and a wicked deflection left Hennessey wrong-footed.

Wolves had barely left any in-print on the match and were second best in all departments. West Brom’s quick rotation of the ball through midfield and out to either flank was bypassing Wolves attacking quartet and the midfield duo of O’Hara and Edwards were chasing shadows.

Therefore, a matter of minutes after Albion’s opener, Mick McCarthy made a tactical re-shuffle, in an attempt to match up with Roy Hodgson’s side. Fletcher remained as the central striker,  Ebanks-Blake came to the left, Doyle pushed further down the right, whilst Matt Jarvis came into a central, attacking midfield role -  similar to that of Morrison – in an attempt to even the numbers in the middle of midfield.

Wolves went to match up against their opposition but went into more of an attacking 4-2-1-3 shape and were unable to get Jarvis into the game, despite his now central position

However, the differing nuances in personnel between the two sets of players, meant that whilst Albion’s was a true 4-2-3-1 formation, Wolves variant was much more open and offensive, more a 4-2-1-3. The gaps it created would prove to play a big part in their downfall, with Albion able to move the ball through the spaces into different areas of the pitch, with all too much ease.

On the stroke of half-time, against the run of play, Fletcher levelled for Wolves, a moment of individual brilliance, linking with both Doyle and Ebanks-Blake, before driving at the Albion defence and drilling a left-footed shot past Ben Foster. It was perhaps the only time in the entire match that a Wolves forward ran directly at the centre of the Albion defence, who were well shielded throughout.

Second Half

Wolves began the second half in much more direct fashion, looking for long diagonal-balls out to Doyle on the right, or onto the head of Fletcher, as they looked to bypass midfield and create problems for the Albion backline. Fletcher almost got onto the end of an excellent right-wing cross from Doyle, whilst he also forced Foster into a brilliant finger-tip save with another header.

However, whilst Wolves were able to generate some early pressure and force a number of corners, Hodgson’s side remained resolute, and adhered to their own footballing principles. Keith Andrews had replaced Paul Scharner at half-time, and whilst the Irishman was less dynamic than the Austrian, his ability to not veer from his position and to keep possession had a calming influence on Albion as they frustrated their opponents, who failed to score during their early period of pressure.

Swedish international Olsson scored at a corner after shambolic defending from Wolves in the 64th minute to make the scoreline 2-1, following which Wolves became more ragged and, needlessly, gung-ho. The wide forwards, Doyle and Ebanks-Blake, effectively reneged on their defensive duties – which Steven Reid, the West Brom right-back made the most of as he took every available opportunity to offer support down his flank – leaving O’Hara and Edwards to be overworked in the middle, having to cover not only their own area of the pitch, but also that in front of the unprotected full-backs.

Albion were able to move the ball through midfield into the excellent Fortune – whose link-play and unselfish running created opportunities for others and pressured the Wolves backline into mistakes – at will, and a third goal arrived in the 77th minute again from a set-piece, Odemwingie forcing home after Olsson and Ridgewell kept alive Morrison’s deep corner.

Wolves situation became more desperate, and they resorted to long balls from just inside the West Brom half by O’Hara and Milijas, who had replaced Edwards, looking for the forwards either in the air or over the top. No one showed for feet except for the full-backs who were now pushed on down their respective touchlines. Albion had dropped onto the edge of their own penalty area and were happy to indulge in the aerial duel with Olsson and McAuley both dominant in the air, whilst Jarvis couldn’t find any space in between the lines, so condensed was the space. Therefore, whilst Wolves were allowed possession, it was only in areas that Albion allowed – Up to thirty yards from goal and down the flanks. Wolves were never able to pass the ball into feet on the edge of the box.

Albion retreating towards their own goal, defending deep and blocking the central areas, before looking to breakout on the counter-attack

Albion secured the most disastrous of days for Mick McCarthy with two late goals, both against a hapless and unprotected home defence. The fourth came when Odemwingie nicked possession from Ward, before finding Morrison, whose cut back was lashed home from 20 yards by Keith Andrews, whilst the fifth came as a result of an incisive counter-attack.

A Wolves corner was cleared, as was the resulting cross back into the middle by Andrews, straight to Fortune who raced down the left-side. He drew across a Wolves defender before playing in Morrison, who had surged on the overlap and the former Middlesbrough man found Odemwingie free in the penalty area to tuck home.

Conclusion

The match was a great example of a side who knew exactly what they were doing tactically and putting it into practice, and having faith in their manager’s strategy, against a team who had been thrown together thanks to a 45 minute performance against QPR – who it must be said were down to ten men – rather than thanks to any long-term planning.

Tactically Roy Hodgson didn’t do anything he hasn’t done before, but Mick McCarthy had no answer with the players at his disposal, to either break down the Baggies backline, or to stop them dictating the tempo of the game. Not for the first time this season, Wolves were far too open at home and were easily picked off by their opponents, who were in no way flattered by their five-goal victory.

Update: 11am Monday morning: The resultant humiliation has seen Mick McCarthy sacked from his post as Wolves manager following a run of just one win in 13 matches, and 14 points from the last 22 league games. The second-half capitulation was enough for chairman Steve Morgan, who now has two weeks before the trip to Newcastle United to find a new manager, but with a lack of truly outstanding candidates available, whether the decision to sack McCarthy (now) was a wise one, is as yet, unknown..

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Diego Simeone: Atletico Madrid’s hero, who no matter what, will always be respected

Diego Simeone - The prodigal son returned to Atletico in December

When a hero returns to the scene of former glories, it can often be questioned whether or not it’s a smart move. You see, the hero is remembered for any number of reasons to any number of people. But all those reasons combined, and all those peoples feelings combined, make him a hero. A hero in the eyes of those who cherished in him. And as time goes on, those who adored and loved remember him with additional fondness and favouritism. The memory lasts, and the hero has his place in the people’s hearts.

But, if the hero returns, and fails, then there is every chance that what he achieved in the first place will be dampened, always looked upon with distain. It will no longer be remembered for what it was and the fondness and adulation will erode to the point where only the failings will be pointed out and he may cease to be a memory. Just an afterthought.

This is the situation into which Diego Simeone, the former Argentina midfielder, now finds himself.

Infamous in the UK for ‘that’ moment in the 1998 World Cup which saw David Beckham red carded, the man known as ‘El Cholo‘ (a nickname given to him by his former youth coach who felt Simeone reminded him of for Boca Juniors player Carmelo Simeone (no relation)) has made a return to the Vicente Calderon, having lead Atletico Madrid to their last Primera Division title, as captain, in 1996.

On that occasion the player Simeone – who described his style as “holding a knife between his teeth” – hauled the side to a league and cup double. Now, Simeone the manager, looks to halt a decline that has seen a mere two trophies – the 2010 Uefa Europa League and that year’s Uefa Super Cup – land on the banks of the Manzanares in the intermittent 16 year period.

16 years has seen 16 coaching changes in an attempt to replicate what Raddy Antic – the Serbian manager who curiously once had a playing spell with Luton Town – did in winning the Spanish title. Those 16 changes have only seen Atletico fall further and further behind their great rivals, Real Madrid.

This season began with optimism – despite the departures of star strikers Diego Forlan and Sergio Aguero – and renewed hope, thanks to the arrivals of the likes of Colombian striker Radamel Falcao, Turkish winger Arda Turan, Brazilian defender Miranda, and the talented playmaker Diego.

However, a poor start, with inconsistent results matched by inconsistent performances putting pressure on new manager Gregorio Manzano. He hadn’t been the supporters choice anyway. They’d wanted Luis Aragones, a club legend. Instead, they got a pragmatic man from Bailen, who’d had a spell at the club before and they hadn’t liked him then. They didn’t like him now either.

By December, they were booing whenever Manzano entered his technical area to give instructions to his players. They also booed when he didn’t. The relationship was untennable. Manzano had to go, and following Copa del Rey defeat to Albacete, with the club stranded in 10th in La Liga, Manzano was dismissed and Los Colchoneros needed yet another new manager.

Enter the returning hero.

Within six matches, everything has changed. Simeone has brought pride and harmony (as much as there can ever be at the Vicente Calderon) back to Atletico. His system has been put into place, a hard-working team ethic where there can be no passengers. Everyone working together. Everyone pulling in the same direction. Simeone arrived back in the Spanish capital and stated that he wanted to “see an aggressive, strong, combative and determined team.”

Six unbeaten matches, encompassing three wins and two draws, taking eleven points and bringing the club to within two points of the Champions League places, later, and that is exactly what he has. Atletico have scored eight goals since Simeone’s arrival. They’ve conceded none.

They drew at Malaga, followed that by beating Villarreal 3-0, before recording a 4-0 win at a Real Sociedad side unbeaten in seven games for their first away win of the season. A single-goal victory over Osasuna followed before another pair of 0-0 draw’s, at home to Valencia and away at Racing Santander; Their results are starting to resemble binary code: 0-0,3-0,0-4, 0-1,0-0,0-0.

Supporters at the Calderon may want free-flowing football and to see their side go toe-to-toe with their bitter rivals, but they’re realistic enough supporters who have been through their share of rollercoaster rides, to know that that is someway off. Real are off breaking their own records at the moment, and that’s not even a guarantee of success such is the phenomenon that is the Blaugrana of Barcelona. Spain’s big two are playing a different game to the rest of La Liga – they’re playing a different game to the rest of the planet.

As it is, the Atletico fans are happy to see Simeone’s side showing resistance and proving obdurate. On February 5th, Valencia – third in the table – were reduced to a single shot on target in 90 minutes. Simeone has given the side a backbone, a never-say-die attitude just as he did when he was a player. Couple that with the undoubted match-winning qualities of the likes of Falcao, Arda Turan, Diego and Adrian, and a top-four finish is not a mere pipe dream.

That’s not to say that it’ll last however. There have been many false-dawns at Atletico down the years. Simeone is something of an adopted son to the Atleti Ultras, who remember his fantastic performances when they last won the Spanish title, and whilst initially that may help him in any disputes with players or the board, if progress stops being made, it won’t save him. Football fans are the most fickle people around but Diego Simeone knows that. He’s been around the game long enough. And that makes his taking on of the Atletico challenge even more awe-inspiring.

Currently the man is held on a pedestal by the clubs supporters. He is a hero to them. He was the warrior who sweat blood for them and lead them to success. Now he must lead them again. If he’s successful, then it’ll lead to elation and God-like status will be preserved for him.

But if he fails…

If he fails it may tarnish all of his hard work that has gone before. It’s reason’s like this why the old addage says ‘Never go back.’ Failure could destroy his legacy and the heroic image that every Atletico fan who saw him emerge triumphant in 1996 carries with them may become tainted.

But one thing’s for sure. If he does fail, It won’t be through lack of effort. And it won’t be through lack of determination, application or hard work. He will give his all to Los Rojiblancos. He’s put his head on the chopping block at a time when Atleti are as far removed from Spain’s big-two as they have ever been. He’s taken the proverbial bull by the horns, and is set for a challenge, the immensity of which I don’t think he could have possibly considered before taking the job – Attempting to put Atleti in a position to merely compete with the two Primera Division behemoths.

And for that, Diego Simeone must always command respect, regardless of whether he becomes merely a footnote in the annuls of Atletico Madrid, or whether he can lead them, into a triumphant future, however unlikely that may be.

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Martin O’Neill needs to tinker at Sunderland, but maybe not wholesale changes

Martin O'Neill has a job to do to rebuild fragile confidence amongst his new playing squad

Martin O’Neill sat himself in the stands at Molineux to see his new Sunderland charges take on Wolverhampton Wanderers. The former Aston Villa manager will have quickly come to realise that there are changes he needs to make at the Stadium of Light, but also that there may be the tools he needs, to make short-term progress, already at the club.

What will have startled O’Neill will have been the ease at which the Black Cats fell apart after Sebastian Larsson’s penalty miss and Steven Fletcher’s equaliser for Wolves. From that moment, confidence visibly drained away from those players that Sunderland had on the field, who had counter-attacked at pace and who had dealt with their opponents threats, until that moment, with a certain degree of assurance and comfort. From the moment Fletcher’s header beat Kieran Westwood, there was only going to be one winner, and, for the second successive week, the Wearsiders went on to lose from a winning position.

Therefore, O’Neill will need to instill in his new side a degree of belief, character and leadership. The likes of John O’Shea and Wes Brown must start becoming more vocal presences on the pitch and in the dressing room – perhaps at Manchester United they didn’t need to be, but with their respective levels of experience, both are seasoned internationals, of course, they must be prepared to do what is necessary – they must alleviate worry and negativity amongst younger colleagues, and start taking charge of proceedings when things become tougher than they would like.

O’Neill has had on-field leaders at his previous clubs – Martin Laursen (Aston Villa), Stillian Petrov (Celtic & Aston Villa), Neil Lennon (Leicester City & Celtic),  Matt Elliott & Steve Walsh (Leicester City). If he doesn’t feel he has the required characters in the Stadium of Light dressing rooms now, then come January, he won’t hesitate in bringing in new faces, who will give his side more backbone than that which has been shown in 2011 and which ultimately cost Steve Bruce his job.

Also of worry to O’Neill will be that Sunderland are blunt in attack. It had been noticeable earlier in the season, but the defeats by the two sides beginning with ‘W’ have really hammered home that fact.

Ji Dong-Won needs time to adapt to English football, but isn’t a poacher in the Darren Bent mould, nor a skillful powerhouse like Asamoah Gyan, both of whom have departed in the past 12 months. The South Korean’s link-up play is decent however. Nicklas Bendtner continues to frustrate with his ego, clearly thinking he is better than he is. He has ability and the physique to trouble defenders, but he doesn’t commit, nor is he willing to put his body on the line, the way an Alan Shearer or a Kevin Phillips would to get goals. Connor Wickham is young and a talent, but needs time to develop. Therefore, options are limited, and O’Neill will need to spend money on a proven goalscorer in January.

However, it isn’t all doom-and-gloom on Wearside, something that O’Neill will have been well aware of before signing a three-year deal with the club.

Sessegnon's quicksilver thrusts need to be allowed to flourish

In Stephane Sessegnon, Sunderland have a creative talent capable of committing defenders and producing moments of brilliance for his side. If O’Neill can harness his undoubted ability in a functioning side, then he’s a potential match-winner, whether his new manager chooses to deploy him from the left flank or as a number 10.

Elsewhere, Sebastian Larsson is a very gifted technical footballer, whose delivery from set-pieces is straight out the top drawer whilst, there is a surplus of top-quality goalkeepers in Kieran Westwood, Craig Gordon and the young Belgian international Simon Mignolet.

Brown and O’Shea remain solid Premier League performers, in a squad also containing Titus Bramble and Michael Turner. Phil Bardsley has improved vastly in the last 18 months whilst Kieran Richardson has plenty of quality and energy, from which to spring from an attacking left-back position.

Whilst there is a dearth of forward talent, O’Neill may make use of a system with three centre-halves – although the obituaries to systems using such defensive lines have been written, Walter Mazzari’s Napoli have shown that it can have it’s place in modern football – with Richardson and Bardsley given the run of the flanks, as attacking wing-backs.

Playing with a back-three could allow O’Neill to monopolise his defensive and midfield resources – the Sunderland squad is stocked with central midfielders including Jack Colback, Lee Cattermole, Craig Gardner, David Vaughan, David Meyler in addition to Larsson and Sessegnon – potentially in a 3-5-1-1 formation, thus allowing Sessegnon a free role behind a lone striker. O’Neill played three centre-halves quite often during his time at Filbert Street.

In the short-term, it would make the Black Cats difficult to beat, making the most of decent technical players such as Vaughan, Larsson and Colback, whilst the imagination of such a system, could bamboozle opponents. Larsson has proven that he can score goals from midfield this season, whilst his former Birmingham team-mate Craig Gardner was top-scorer at St Andrews last season.

There is talent at the club, no question about it. Now it’s up to O’Neill to harnsess that talent in a way that Steve Bruce proved incapable of doing.

Three consecutive sixth-place finishes at Aston Villa prove that Martin O’Neill has vast ability. He has always appeared set to produce greatness at one club or another. Perhaps, if he can mould the team as he wants quickly, in a harmonious environment in front of 48,000 passionate supporters, that destiny can be fulfilled.

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French Revolution set to entice Beckham – But will he fit at PSG or be mere window dressing?

David Beckham - Seemingly set for a final renaissance in France

Former England skipper David Beckham is looking increasingly likely to leave LA Galaxy when his contract with the MLS club expires at the end of December, with the megabucks on offer at the Qatari-owned, French capital club, Paris Saint-Germain, his most likely destination.

The veteran midfielder won the MLS Cup on Sunday evening, as his Galaxy side won 1-0 against Houston Dynamo, but the post-match celebrations and press conference had more than a feeling of farewell for the star.

So far he has made no commitment with regards to his future either way, not giving the declaration of love and intent to continue bringing the game of soccer to America that his MLS paymasters will have unquestionably been looking for, and he told BBC Radio 1: “I have a decision to make and I haven’t made it yet. I’ve got options, which is amazing at my age. A couple of big European clubs are after me.

“I’ve looked after myself and still feel I can play at the top level. At the moment I’m still a Galaxy player and I said I’d finish this season, respect the contract I signed, which I’ve always done, and then sit down with my family and see how I feel and what’s going to be best.

“I still love playing and want to play. There’s no question I want to carry on playing.”

Albeit, whilst he is non-committal about his future in Los Angeles and  continues to be tipped to link up once again with his former AC Milan manager Leonardo – now Director of Football at PSG – Beckham is keeping his own counsel, only saying he is yet to begin talks with the French club.

“I have not spoken to Leonardo actually, he sent me a message of good luck but I have not spoken to him about a PSG move,” he told Sky Sports News.

“Whenever a big club comes in for you it’s a temptation. At 36, to still have a big European club after me means a lot.”

However, Qatar Sports Investments (QSI), who own 70% of PSG, are coveting Beckham “the brand”, every bit as much as the player himself, if not more.

The Qatar-owned TV station al-Jazeera have just concluded a deal to show French football from 2012-2016, in conjunction with Canal+, worldwide, and it is the general manager of al-Jazeera Sport – Nasser al-Khelaifi – who is also President of PSG. Indeed the relationships between PSG, Qatar and France as a whole are becoming more intertwined, especially with France and Qatar currently trading strongly, and al-Khelaifi has made his economic reasons for attracting Beckham to the Parc des-Princes known.

“David Beckham goes beyond the sport. He is an ambassador, he is a brand, he is an example to others” al-Khelaifi told L’Equipe, before adding, “But he is also still a very good football player.”

The talk of the “project” at PSG has been of building a side based around the best, young French players, both purchased from across Ligue 1 – the likes of Kevin Gameiro, Blaise Matuidi and Jeremy Menez – and harnessed from within – Mamadou Sakho – teaming them with ‘marquee’ signings like the €45m Argentinian playmaker Javier Pastore. Beckham, one of world football’s true icons and one of the most recognisable people on the planet, would certainly be ‘marquee’.

However, the question then arises: How do you fit the 36-year-old into the PSG line-up?

So far this season, the Ligue 1 leaders have been successful making use of Antoine Kombouare’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, a formation in which a right-sided midfielder without pace, like Beckham, has no natural home.

He isn’t quick or skillful enough to play on the right of the attacking trio behind the lone striker – it is in that position that French international Menez, the €9m summer signing from Roma, has been occupying – nor is he a player defensively astute enough to play in the holding duo in front of the back four.

In his favour, he does have the passing range to play as a deep-lying playmaker in that position, alongside an energetic destroyer like Matuidi. Yet, his lack of naturality and defensive diligence in that role, make him far from suited, especially when Mathieu Bodmer, the former Olympique Lyonnais powerhouse, has been in good form in that position this season.

Javier Pastore - €45m marquee summer signing

A solution could be to change the shape of the side, perhaps to a 4-3-3 formation with Beckham in a right-central midfield area, alongside both Bodmer and Matuidi. However, in this shape there is no natural position for Pastore, the languid trequarista for whom the 4-2-3-1 formation at PSG is purposefully built, so as to get him in his favoured (and best) number 10 position, playing in between the lines, looking to use his passing ability to free wingers Menez & Nene, and also to create chances for striker Gameiro. A similar issue arises with a 4-4-2 formation – No natural spot for Pastore.

A potential alternative could be to do away with the wingers and change the formation to a 4-3-1-2, thus allowing Beckham to come into the right of the midfield trio and keeping Pastore in his free role behind a front two – or to a 4-3-2-1 formation with Pastore and a partner behind Gameiro.

Nevertheless, the most consistently-outstanding player for PSG over the last 15 months has been the Brazilian winger Nene, a fan-favourite with the Parisian support. Kombouare, Leonardo and QSI would come under fire were the wingers place given away merely to accomodate Beckham.

Furthermore, to change a (so-far) successful side, formation and style to accomodate the arrival of Beckham, ageing legs and all, would not be a good move for QSI, as it has the potential to cause friction in their relationship with the club’s support, which has thus far been only welcoming to the money being put into the club from the resources-rich Gulf state.

But besides that, what if Beckham simply isn’t good enough to warrant a first team place anymore?

Regardless of the off-field benefits, if, as Chris Waddle suggests, Beckham struggles to perform and his arrival proves detrimental to a team that has struggled for success in recent years, then what?

“I keep up with French ­football and Beckham would be lucky to get the occasional 10 minutes in that team” Waddle, the former England and Marseille midfielder said in his column in the People.

“Signing Beckham at 36 years old would be a publicity stunt.

“It would be window dressing for ­sponsors and something to raise the profile of the club off the pitch, not on it.”

It would be nice to disagree with Waddle and say that would not be the case, if and when Beckham makes the Parc des Princes his new home. But when thinking about who out of the PSG front six – Matuidi, Bodmer, Menez, Pastore, Nene or Gamiero – you would drop to accomodate the former Manchester United and Real Madrid man, I honestly wouldn’t pick the man who represented the Three Lions with such distinction. After his time in the United States, you seriously have to question if Beckham still has what it takes to perform in a top European league.

Nonetheless, with Qatar looking to use their sporting arm to make worldwide statements of intent before their hosting of the 2022 World Cup, and with Beckham looking ready to cross back over the Atlantic exchanging Los Angeles for Paris, we may soon be about to find out.

However, not all fairytales have happy ending’s and perhaps Beckham is set become merely another piece of expensive window dressing, in an already expensive city.

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