International Football

Why Rooney Shouldn’t Start for England in Brazil

Rooney 2014

 

Wayne Rooney’s career has had some highs and lows. Several of his lows, have been whilst wearing the England jersey. And now with the 2014 World Cup in Brazil less than 2 months away, I take a look at Rooney’s place in the England eleven.

Tournament Experience

Rooney, now at the age of 28, has played in 4 major international tournaments. The only tournament in which he performed well, was his breakthrough tournament – Euro 2004. In Portugal, a young Rooney showed a real hunger, raw ability as well as great athleticism in helping England to the Quarter-Finals. He scored 4 goals and was named in UEFA’s team of the tournament.

 

Rooney Euro2004

 

However, his England career since has flattered to deceive on the biggest stages. His qualifying campaigns haven’t been too bad. He has been England’s top-scorer in qualifying for the last two World Cups. He hit 9 goals in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup and 7 goals in qualifying for this summer’s World Cup. But his personal performances in the major tournaments since that 2004 breakthrough have been disappointing.

In the World Cup in 2006 he was taken in the squad despite not being fit after a metatarsal injury in one of the final league games of his Manchester United season. When he was introduced to the team his performances were lacklustre and he was red carded in the Quarter-Final defeat to Portugal.

In 2010, the World Cup in South Africa actually saw Rooney criticise England fans in a rant into a TV camera as he walked off the pitch after a poor performance in drawing 0-0 to Algeria. Rooney was disappointing in the tournament and England were thrashed 4-1 by Germany in the 2nd round.

 

Rooney 2010

 

Before the European Championships of 2012, there was much debate over whether Rooney should’ve been included in England’s squad. This was due to the fact that Rooney was suspended for the first two group games. Roy Hodgson selected him and he went straight into the team when he became available.  Despite scoring the only goal in the final group game against Ukraine, Rooney’s performances in that and the Italy game in the Quarter-Finals were still underwhelming.

World Class?

I’m not suggesting Rooney should be left out of the squad altogether. Neither is this a piece to write off his talents altogether. He is a good player. He doesn’t possess the same burst of acceleration to take him away from defenders as he did so often in his excellent Euro 2004 campaign. But he remains a good player. However, I don’t go along with the Sky pundits and tabloid writers that repeatedly ram it down our throats that he is “world class”. Obviously that is a difficult term to try and define. But Rooney hasn’t performed against top opposition in a way that would actually suggest he is anywhere near the same level as Messi and Ronaldo.

At one stage, Rooney may have been considered Ronaldo’s equal at Manchester United, but Ronaldo usurped him and eventually took over his position in the team, with Rooney having to play wide to keep a place in the team. In Alex Ferguson’s last couple of seasons, he would often leave Rooney out of his line-up for big games against the best sides. So did the Premier League’s most successful manager see a player in decline?

More recently, Rooney has come under scrutiny after signing a deal for a reported £300,000 per week. For me, the only issue with that was how he, for a second time in just a few years, appears to have threatened to leave in order to engineer a massive pay-rise. But my opinions on the matter in hand aren’t affected by this. Manchester United can pay him whatever they like. And their supporters still idolise him despite his two half-hearted attempts at leaving the club.

What has been apparent this season is that Rooney has been poor in most of the games against ‘top 5′ opposition. He’s played in 8 league matches against this season’s top 5 (Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal & Everton) and scored just 1 goal.

I’d also point to games in the latter stages of the UEFA Champions League. Away to Olympiakos in February, Rooney was poor. Again in the away leg in the tie against Bayern Munich, Rooney was wasteful in possession, struggled to control the ball at times, and didn’t offer any attacking outlet for Moyes’ team, before eventually being moved back into midfield. Granted, Rooney may not have been 100% fit in this game, but if that was the case he shouldn’t have played.

My belief is that Rooney no longer does enough against good opposition, to merit the status as England’s talisman and being the automatic-pick he seems to be for the starting eleven.

The Present England

Currently, England seem to have plenty of options in terms of attacking players.

With several young players emerging as genuine talent in this season’s Premier League, Roy Hodgson has a bigger pool of quality attacking players to choose from. Daniel Sturridge, Ross Barkley, Andros Townsend, Raheem Sterling and Adam Lallana have all shown they’re capable of playing for England since the last international tournament. Add to those Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott, Jay Rodriguez and Danny Welbeck, and there is a very youthful and dynamic group of attacking players for England to choose from.

Rooney is still part of this group. Of course he should go to Brazil. In terms of actual strikers, there isn’t much real quality behind Rooney and Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge. Jermain Defoe’s transfer abroad could’ve scuppered his chances and Andy Carroll has spent most of the season injured. The only English striker to have enhanced his reputation in the last 2 years (besides Sturridge) is Ricky Lambert. So there isn’t a great deal to choose from in terms of centre-forwards.

Square Pegs, Round Holes

What I would be hoping Roy Hodgson will do, is choose a system that will give England the best chance of success, and then select the best/in-form players for each position. For too long, England sides have just tried to get all the big-name players into a team, even if it meant forcing players to play unfamiliar roles or unsettling the balance of the side.

The most criminal example of this was forcing Paul Scholes to play left midfield in a 4-4-2 to accommodate the inclusion of Frank Lampard. Also, the persistence for years in playing Gerrard and Lampard in a central midfield partnership, when other countries would have chosen one of them to play at a time, alongside a more disciplined midfielder. This approach of putting square pegs into round holes is possibly through pressure from the English press, and managers not wanting (or being brave enough) to leave out a “big name”.

If England are to get anywhere in a major international tournament, we have to place a team ethic above individual ego’s. The so-called ‘star names’ don’t all have to be in the team if form or the system being used dictates.

Not many countries in the world cup will be starting games with 2 strikers in traditional centre-forward roles. This seems to be a thing of the past in the modern game and England themselves have finally begun to adapt in the last couple of years. If Hodgson does go with a single central striker, it is likely it will be either with two wide forwards on either side (4-3-3), or with three attacking players with a bit of freedom behind the striker (4-2-3-1). Both of these systems have been used by Hodgson in the last year or so.

The question then becomes – where does this leave Wayne Rooney?

If we’re looking at having one central striker, surely we should go with the man who has been THE outstanding English striker in the Premier League this season. With 20 goals in 26 league games, that man is Daniel Sturridge. It is not only Sturridge’s goals that have impressed. His great level of confidence and self-belief is rare in England internationals. He is skilful, quick, creative and able to beat a player in a 1v1 situation.

 

Sturridge  

What would be a travesty (yet sadly I can see it happening) is Rooney playing centre-forward while Sturridge is forced to play out wide. This would be a waste of Sturridge’s talents and another case of putting square pegs into round holes to avoid making a big decision by leaving someone out.

Options

The options for Hodgson include playing Rooney wide with Sturridge up top, playing Rooney in the middle of the 3 in the 4-2-3-1, playing Rooney up top with Sturridge wide or on the bench, or leaving Rooney out.

Personally, I don’t see an argument for not playing Sturridge at the head of the attacking line-up. That leaves Rooney fighting for a place deeper in the team, or competing with Sturridge for that starting place and coming off the bench when needed. Currently, Rooney’s form isn’t so good that you would feel a huge need to have him in the starting line-up. And his ability to pick the ball up deep, turn and attack seems to have deserted him as he’s lost that dynamic edge he had earlier in his career.

So to have him in a central role at the head of an attacking midfield area, in my opinion, wouldn’t utilise the attributes he currently has. I’d rather see someone with the intelligence and fluidity of movement of an Adam Lallana, an Oxlade-Chamberlain or a Ross Barkley in that kind of a role.

To have Rooney in a wide attacking role makes even less sense. The apparent strengths that the modern England team will have, include being able to counter-attack quickly and have pacey, confident dribblers on the flanks. With the likes of Andros Townsend, Raheem Sterling, Oxlade-Chamberlain and even Danny Welbeck who is often used in a wide attacking role all available, they would all be better options for the good of the team in such a position.

Rooney’s Role

So with Rooney not in good club form (another poor display in the Easter Sunday game at Goodison Park), and with it being 10 years since his last positive impact at an international tournament, the time to leave him out of the starting line-up is now. Of course I would still take him in the squad. But I’d have him competing with Sturridge for that central striking role.

I expect to be disappointed by Hodgson not being brave enough to leave out a player that the press/media have spent years hyping up. But it would be a great signal of intent to move England forward into a new era, if Hodgson goes with a more youthful, fearless and skilful attack, all without ego and willing to put the team first.

Further ahead, Rooney will be 30 by the time the next European Championships come around. That will probably be his last chance to play in a major tournament in his prime. He shouldn’t be written off as an England regular, but as he may need to adapt his game. At present I don’t see him playing in the no.10 role he once did. He appears to me to be more of a no.9, without the quick movement between the lines and combination of strength and speed that saw him picking up the ball deep and running at defences in Euro 2004 all those years ago. Many have suggested that he would convert to be a central midfielder in his later years. That may be something he does depending on his club manager, but there would be doubts around whether he could find a new position and be competent enough with it to be international class in a new role.

So Mr Hodgson, leave Rooney out of the starting eleven, for the good of the present England team.

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Problem Position to Embarassment of Riches

Cast your minds back a little over a decade and you will remember the English national team’s problematic left side. The left-midfield role was scarcely contested, and without much quality too. Nick Barmby and Trevor Sinclair benefitted hugely from this.

The left-back slot was just as much of a problem. After Stuart Pearce’s long reign as England’s regular number 3 came to an end, Graeme Le Saux was a natural replacement during Glenn Hoddle’s spell in charge. Hoddle’s favoured 3-5-2 formation with wing-backs on either side ensured the position was Le Saux’s to lose as it suited his game down to the ground.

Moving on, Kevin Keegan struggled to find a consistent performer at left-back. More often than not, Keegan played Phil Neville in a position which, despite claiming it as his favourite position, is not a position he was ready to play at international level at that time.

Surprise call-ups

When Sven Goran Eriksson took over in 2001, it kicked off several months of England caps being given out to any available, English, Premier League left-back. Chris Powell made 5 appearances for his country during this time and Michael Ball won a solitary cap. Gareth Barry was also trialled in this position but failed to make the position his own as he was still finding his way (and his best position) at Aston Villa in his early years as a professional.

Ashley Cole thankfully came along and made sure that number 3 shirt was his for years to come. Initially the lack of competition may have had something to do with it. But the improvement in his defending, rather than showing a reliance on pace to get himself out of trouble, in the last few years has seen him become one of the best full backs, defensively, in Europe.

Competition

Only now does Cole have real competition for his place.

The maturity of Leighton Baines over the last 12 months has been a joy to watch. He has always been a player of great quality on the ball. He showed that in his time at Wigan. At Everton, Baines has grown in confidence year after year and formed an unrivalled partnership with Steven Pienaar down the left of Everton’s improving team. He is better technically with the ball at his feet than Cole, with crossing ability to put Cole to shame. What perhaps lets Baines down in his challenge to become England’s left-back, is his lack of experience in big games. Rightly or wrongly, players at clubs taking part in the Champions League are always more likely to be picked for England. The rumoured move to Manchester United this summer didn’t materialise, but had it done, it would’ve been interesting to see how much closer Baines would be pushing Cole for that England place by now.

Cole’s understudy at Chelsea is 23 year old Englishman Ryan Bertrand. At 23, Bertrand would have no doubt been hoping to have played more 1st team football than he has done. But on the other hand, he has played in a UEFA Champions League final. And he has the winners’ medal to show it. He played that night as a left-midfielder, as he has done on several other occasions, but he’s also an adept left-back with a similar playing style to that of Ashley Cole. He’s pacey, quick to get forward and he covers the centre-backs well when needed (essential as John Terry shows no signs of getting any quicker). This season Bertrand already seems to be trusted with more game-time by club manager Roberto Di Matteo. And this trust in him by a manager who is clearly confident he is ready for top-level football should see him really improve between now and next May.

The 4th contender for the England left-back position is Arsenal’s Kieran Gibbs. The youngest of these 4 players, Gibbs has made a brilliant start to the 2012/2013 season. He appears far more confident and composed in possession. He is playing like he now believes he deserves to be playing at this high level. And last but by no means least, he will be benefitting from the addition of Steve Bould to Arsene Wenger’s coaching team. Bould was a part of Arsenal’s original famous back four and is already receiving many plaudits for the current side’s defensively solid start to the season. Gibbs will no doubt improve his education in the art of defending with Bould around. The 22 year old is already now keeping Andre Santos out of Arsenal’s team, despite the Brazilian only arriving from Fenerbahce 12 months ago. He will now be looking to add to his handful of England caps.

The future

So England have gone from throwing caps around like confetti in desperate searches for left-backs, to now having real competition of quality players in this position. And whilst these players aren’t necessarily all at the peak of their powers at present, the coming years will see the best of the three challengers to Ashley Cole’s number 3 shirt.

Pictures courtesy of Allsport, mirror.co.uk, Getty Images and arsenal.com.

Parents – The Key to England’s Improvement

Written on 26 June 2012.

Another international tournament. Another penalty shoot-out defeat. Another tournament showing the same deficiencies in the English game as the five tournaments before this one.

More questions asked. Fingers pointed. Blame apportioned.

At least in 2012 there is more of a sense of realism amongst England fans, in that more people are realising that England just aren’t as good as they have been built up to be. They’ve been built up by the British media, from the tabloid press to the pundits on any T.V. station showing football. Sometimes the players haven’t helped these unrealistic expectations spiral out of control as they’ve always, before this year it must be said, gone along with the “We can win this” quotes in the daily red-tops.

Sadly, it’s the same problems that have been England’s downfall. An inability to keep possession of the ball has ultimately led to the England players becoming fatigued far quicker than their opponents as they’ve spent the majority of matches chasing the ball whilst squandering it themselves.

Yes, England undoubtedly looked more solid as a group than in previous tournaments, and only conceded one goal in matches against two good teams in France and Italy. But England still never looked comfortable in possession and were never able to keep it for prolonged periods in any of their four matches. Too often an England player in possession only has one option to pass to, and not enough players within reachable distance for a short pass on the ground. This leaves a predictable pattern of play that the opposition can read in advance and close down the avenues available easily, often forcing England defenders into playing the ball high and long into the channels or for a striker to challenge in the air with a centre-back.

Not enough movement off the ball. Not enough players really wanting the ball. Not enough patience on the ball and willingness to play simple passes to keep the opposition moving.

The FA are finally doing something about this. At the end of May this year, FA shareholders voted with an 87% majority to redevelop youth football in England. The changes will see:

  • 5-a-side football for under 7’s and under 8’s,
  • 7-a-side football for under 9’s and under 10’s,
  • 9-a-side football for under 11’s and under 12’s,
  • 11-a-side football only introduced at under 13’s level.

The changes are long overdue and still won’t be fully phased in as mandatory changes until 2014/15. But at least it is a step in the right direction. It will see young children playing more enjoyable games on smaller pitches where they will get more touches of the ball. It will develop their technique with more touches encouraged by the appropriately sized pitches and smaller-sided games. It should improve their mental approach to the game too, which should be more noticeable in their adult years. This will be in the form of comfort with the ball at their feet. A calmness on the ball and an instinct to pass the ball rather than the average approach you will see in kids football in England – kick it and chase it up a pitch that is far too big for them so that the bigger, stronger, faster kids excel (or appear superior anyway).

The issue of a lack of quality, qualified coaches in this country is another obstacle that needs to be overcome. There are less than 3,000 UEFA qualified coaches in England. This compares to 35,000 in Germany and 25,000 in Spain. I’ve believed for a long time that the FA’s pricing of courses seems to price out many people from average walks of life that would have the knowledge, intelligence and enthusiasm to be great coaches. It seems to favour ex-professional players, many of whom aren’t exactly students of the game and don’t understand the tactical side of the game or the correct way to coach children to improve their game. What’s more, ex-professional players that are members of the PFA actually get discount off the cost of their course with the help of the PFA, so the ones who can probably afford it on their own are the ones getting the financial help towards it.

The number of coaches will always be increasing. And with social networking sites helping aspiring coaches share ideas and philosophies over the internet, the quality coaches could see their ideas and approaches adopted as best practice on a broader scale before long. The changes the FA are making to grassroots football can only help. I say it can only help, it will only help if the parents of the young kids playing junior football get on board with the idea too.

Too many parents are loud on the touchline, screaming at their kids. They want them to win the match, the league, the cup and come home with medals/trophies. Maybe some see it as a chance to relive their own youth where they weren’t quite good enough. Maybe some think the more trophies their kid has, the better chance they have of making it as a professional. The truth is, most of the stuff shouted from the touchline by these overzealous parents is absolute rubbish and is detrimental to the development of the kids on the pitch.

“Get rid of it!”

“Put in the channel!”

“Get if forward!”

It is bad enough when you hear the above three commonly used phrases shouted at a professional football match. But to hear it at junior level, screamed at kids as young as 8 or 9 years old, is shocking. There’s no wonder so many English lads grow up to have no confidence in receiving the ball under pressure, no patience when they’re on the ball and play in games where they spend most of it running about without having many touches of the ball.

Many parents would be delighted when their kid comes home on a Sunday having won 15-0. Why? How will that make him a better player? The winning team and the losing team both get nothing out of a game like that, despite the short-term opinion of the usual majority that think the winning team is great and destined for professional careers.

Most parents would rather their kid be involved in a match where his team wins by 7 or 8 goals than a match they’ve drawn but played some excellent football. What the focus should be on is how the kids played. Did they enjoy the game? Did they get plenty of touches of the ball and look to pass it to team-mates? Were they patient rather than hoofing it up the pitch for the big striker to chase?

Too many parents start to moan when the team their kid plays for isn’t winning. It isn’t about winning at that level. Or at least it shouldn’t be. Let the kids play. Let them enjoy themselves. When they enjoy themselves they will get on the ball more often and not be afraid to make a mistake. They will try new things and start to be creative and imaginative.

The parents of the next generation of footballers need to let the coaches coach. Encourage the kids to play well rather than to win. If they take the changes on board and embrace them, it could be a winning combination. And we could begin to see the results by the time the 2020’s come around.

Disappointing Dutch get what they deserve in Group B opener

As one of the pre-tournament favourites, Holland had a lot to live up to in their opening game against Denmark. Impressing on their way to the World Cup final 2 years ago only to disappoint in the defeat to Spain, even the Holland players may have felt like they had a point to prove. The Danes meanwhile, had been generally written off in most quarters. They would have no chance of progress to the quarter finals in the so-called “group of death” according to most pundits. This was undoubtedly unfair on the Danish squad and perhaps lazy on the part of several pundits who failed to note that Denmark had topped their qualifying group ahead of Group B rivals Portugal. The Danes do have talent of their own and are a modest, well-organised, hard-working unit too.

The game began with a pattern that would follow for large parts of the first half – Holland in possession. They passed, they probed, but they didn’t get into many positions to hurt Denmark. When they did, Robin Van Persie’s finishing could’ve led some to think he was wearing ugg boots rather than football boots, such was the lack of quality and composure shown by the Arsenal striker.

Image

Denmark took the lead in the 24th minute through a well taken Michael Krohn-Dehli strike. They grew in confidence after this and began to have their own share of possession.

Holland did come close when Robben struck the post after a calamitous mistake from Danish ‘keeper Stephan Andersen. This was as close as they came to getting anything from the game. And it was the only time Robben threatened to score.

Stats point to a landslide in Holland’s favour in terms of shots at goal. And the BBC match commentators seemed to imply that the number of shots from the Dutch team meant that they had dominated the match and deserved something from it. I think that is well wide of the mark – much like 90% of the Dutch’s shots incidentally. With closer examination you will see that of Holland’s 29 shots, only 8 were on target. And I would suggest that a large number of those total shots came from Arjen Robben, who seemed intent on shooting every time he had the ball, regardless of where he was on the pitch or whether a team-mate was better placed.

Denmark, on the other hand, were far more efficient with their shooting. They hit the target with 4 of their 8 efforts with one going through the legs of Stekelenburg and into his net.

The main problem I think the Dutch faced was the lack of numbers they had in support of Van Persie. There is no question the quartet of Robben, Afellay, Sneijder and Van Persie is as good a front 4 as you are likely to see in the tournament. But they seemed to be left alone to do all the creative attacking themselves. That often leaves them out-numbered against a well-organised side such as Denmark, who will have a solid midfield barrier protecting the back 4. Van Bommel and De Jong don’t attempt to get forward and support attacks, rarely getting ahead of the ball. Are they both needed in this system? Maybe one of them could make way for a disciplined player who could also do more with the ball. And the full backs need to do more down their relative flanks to offer some width and give the opposition something to think about with players running forward.

Holland immediately looked more threatening when Van der Vaart and Huntelaar came on with 20 minutes to go, as they had more creativity in the deeper midfield area and more support up alongside Van Persie. The ‘Oranje’ could have also had a penalty, when Lars Jacobsen seemed to handle in the Denmark penalty area late on, but a Holland equaliser would have masked a very team poor performance.

The tragedy of this match was that Wesley Sneijder was on the losing side. The Dutch number 10 played some sublime passes that deserved better end results from his team-mates. The finest moment perhaps being a fantastic ball through ball with the outside of his right foot that sent Huntelaar racing through into the box. He saw enough of the ball in the Group B opener, but there needs to be more movement around him from other players and more players getting into the final third for him to pick out.

One thing is for sure – Holland vs Germany on Wednesday is set up to be a cracker.

Picture courtesy of dailyrecord.co.uk

Cole Uses Champions League to Pronounce World Class Quality

Ashley Cole is a player who has often been in the headlines. Whether it was for his personal relationship and its breakdown, his on-the-pitch exploits, his training ground air rifle incident, being banned from driving or his controversial move to Chelsea in 2006 he has often dominated front and back pages of the national newspapers.

He burst onto the scene as a professional footballer with Arsenal in the 2000/2001 season, profiting from an injury to Silvinho to show his promise in the Gunners’ first team. He made 228 appearances for Arsenal before eventually signing for Chelsea in August 2006, after a drawn-out affair that involved a ‘tapping-up’ meeting with Chelsea officials in January 2005.

England

He has been a regular in the England set-up since his debut in 2001 and has virtually been an automatic pick for most of the last 11 years. His time with England has also had its ups and downs for Cole. At one time he was booed by England fans at a few home matches at Wembley. And comments that came out in the media quoting Cole as saying “I hate England and the people” didn’t help his cause in 2010. But he has always performed fairly well for England. Perhaps giving his best performances in recent years as he has grown and improved as a player. His athleticism was always strength of his as a youngster, but now he has fused that with excellent positioning, one-on-one defending and timing of his tackles.

Medals

After winning 5 major trophies (excluding the Community Shield) in his 6 full seasons at Arsenal, he has surpassed that in his first 6 seasons at Chelsea with the Champions League winners triumph on Saturday being the 7th major competition’s winners medal he has picked up in that time. Whilst surprisingly he won more Premier League winners medals at Arsenal than he has thus far with Chelsea (two to one), the Champions League victory and the fact that Arsenal haven’t won a single trophy since he left should eliminate any doubt that he made the right decision to switch from North London to West London 6 years ago.

Improvement

There is also no question that Cole has improved as a player as a result of his time at Chelsea. Arsenal under Arsene Wenger are said to spend very limited time working on defending in training, which can only be to the detriment of young defenders like Cole was at the time. At Chelsea he has worked under Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and Guus Hiddink – all known for being fantastic coaches and all known for having well-organised defences. Cole has reaped the rewards of this and has obviously been keen to improve. The young marauding left-back we saw at Arsenal is now a solid, reliable left-back who is rarely beaten, both in the air and on the ground. He still gets forward to support attacks but chooses the time to do it more effectively to ensure it doesn’t imbalance the team or leave them too exposed at the back. He has come up against the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Arjen Robben and Theo Walcott, all offering different problems, and has not been outclassed in any of those battles.

Champions League Stage for Excellence

The 2011/2012 season has been a dramatic one for Cole. Chelsea struggled for form under previous manager Andre Villas-Boas in the first half of the season. Cole found himself out of the team as Villas-Boas seemed to want to re-build the Chelsea team with younger players. A key match for Cole was the Champions League second round 1st leg away to Napoli. Cole was left on the bench, along with other experienced players, but was called upon just 12 minutes in when Jose Bosingwa limped off injured. Chelsea went down 3-1 that night in Naples but Cole made a crucial goal-line clearance to keep the score at 3-1. By the time the second leg came around, Villas-Boas had been replaced as manager by interim boss Roberto Di Matteo. The Italian restored faith in the senior professionals and they all starred in a brilliant 4-1 victory at Stamford Bridge to ensure progress to the quarter finals.

Two brilliant defensive performances against Benfica in the quarter-finals were followed by two world class performances against Barcelona in a dramatic two-legged semi-final. Cole was exceptional at Stamford Bridge as Chelsea defeated the holders 1-0 thanks to Didier Drogba’s goal. He was then faultless in the Nou Camp as ten-man Chelsea fought off wave after wave of Barcelona pressure to draw 2-2 and make the final.

In front of a worldwide audience in the UEFA Champions League Final of 2012, Ashley Cole confirmed his standing as a truly world class left-back with another master class performance at full-back. Facing the likes of Ribery, Robben and Lahm, Cole was rarely beaten, made another key goal-line clearance and was fantastic as Chelsea soaked up almost constant pressure from Bayern Munich to take the game to a penalty shoot-out. Cole showed nerves of steel to score a penalty in the shoot-out and help his side on the way to the trophy that has eluded them since Roman Abramovich began to plough his millions into the club in 2003. Whilst he is not perfect and could improve on his delivery into the box when in good positions to cross, he has developed over the years to the point where he can now be considered one of the best left-backs in world football.

Picture courtesy of fansfc.com.

Puyol Puts English Stars to Shame by Valuing Team before Ego

Recent days have seen Barcelona Captain Carlos Puyol rule himself out of contention for Spain’s Euro 2012 campaign. And whilst most people won’t think anything more of it, the Spaniard’s thought process here should be a lesson to England and some of their star players’ attitudes in previous years.

Firstly, Puyol is injured. He picked up a knee injury in a recent game against Espanyol and has been advised he will be out of action for six weeks. It may seem common sense that he would miss out on this summer’s international tournament. But when you think back to England’s World Cup campaign in 2002 it was a different story when one of the supposed “Golden Generation” picked up an injury in the months leading up to the tournament. When an Aldo Duscher (then of Deportivo La Coruna) tackle caused injury to David Beckham’s metatarsal bone in his foot, there was no suggestion in England that it might be better for a player in first-class condition to go to the tournament in his place.

Instead, the next couple of months of British media was dominated by the embarrassing long drawn-out saga of whether Beckham would be fit in time, reporting his every visit to a physio and front page headlines in tabloid newspapers wishing for his foot to recover in time. This could lead to another debate of how the British media consistently over-hype and build up players into “stars”, which then contributes to the “disaster” story of one of them being injured. But sticking with the topic, Beckham fought hard to get himself fit for the tournament. There is no criticism for this in itself, as you would expect any professional to do the same. What you would also expect though, when the time comes for the tournament squad to be announced, is that there would be a bigger emphasis placed on the team as a whole, a bit more honesty and a lot more common sense. Beckham went to Japan and South Korea and captained the squad despite being no-where near fully fit. It showed in his performances. He earned praise for scoring a penalty against Argentina in the Group Stage but bottled a challenge in the build-up to Brazil’s equalising goal against England in the Quarter-Final.

Beckham isn’t alone in terms of English players that have gone to a tournament without being 100% fit. Wayne Rooney suffered a foot injury in a match for Manchester United against Chelsea prior to the World Cup in 2006. There was a similar obsession in the media of whether he would be fit in time. In reality, it should have been obvious all along that he would go to the tournament whether he was fit or not. After being treated with new methods such as the now famous oxygen tent, he was declared in a suitable enough condition to travel and take part. Sure enough he came on as a substitute in England’s second match in the group stage and started the three games that followed. As with Beckham four years earlier, Rooney was not fit and it showed. He put in performances well below that of the level expected of him and failed to score in the tournament. He ended his tournament on an especially sour note as he was sent off during the Quarter-Final defeat to Portugal for a stamp on Ricardo Carvalho.

Both players took places in the squads in these tournaments when they would have been better filled with players in good form and fitness. They were both rushed back to full health and had no time to build up any match-fitness, which shouldn’t be confused with general fitness. Some blame should be apportioned to the manager for picking the players as well. In both cases the England Manager was Sven Goran Eriksson, who was maybe influenced by the media’s inference that the campaign would have been a failure without these individuals involved in the team. Putting so much focus on individuals rather than the team as a collective has been a big part of England’s lack of progress in the last 10 years – from selecting players on past reputation and standing in the media, to taking injured players to tournaments, and players attempting too many 60-yard ‘Hollywood’ passes in games to impress rather than retaining possession.

A quote from Carlos Puyol reads as follows:

“I think it’s impossible because when you come out of an operation there is a recovery period and I believe that those who are in better shape should go.”

He went on to clarify that he is not retiring from international football. He is just putting the team first and recognising that the Spanish team will perform better with eleven fit and able players on the pitch, rather than ten players carrying an injured player whose ego outweighs the wish for the team to succeed.

There is no suggestion that England would have gone on to win either of the tournaments in 2002 or 2006, but they would surely have performed better and stood a better chance of progressing further with a fully fit squad. Puyol should be praised for his unselfish attitude. Whilst in England, passion is praised when someone kisses the badge after scoring or throws their body into a full-blooded challenge, Puyol has shown in Spain that passion for his country to do well in ways that we may not see in England until many, many attitudes are changed.

Photograph: Halden Krog/EPA

Why Redknapp leaving for England will benefit Spurs

The speculation surrounding the vacant England managerial position still seems to point to Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp being the favourite to be approached for the job. I believe the Tottenham hierarchy should accept any FA approach to speak with Harry Redknapp as it could be the key to turning the North London club from a team challenging the top four of the Premier League into to a club challenging to win the Premier League.

At one point this season Tottenham were within touching distance of the two Manchester clubs and were in a position where you could genuinely count them as title contenders. But then they stuttered, going on a run of 5 games without a win including defeats against Arsenal, Manchester United and Everton. I put the collapse of Tottenham’s season down to several factors:

  • Injuries to Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon
  • Moving Modric out of the centre
  • Transfer activity in January
  • Lack of strength in depth
  • No ‘Plan B’

The injuries to Bale and Lennon at different times gave Tottenham a major problem. They are two key players in Tottenham’s pacey attacking style and they didn’t really have any like-for-like replacements of anywhere near similar quality to replace them with. That said, it was a mistake to move the pivotal figure of his team (Modric) out of the centre of his midfield. All this did was disrupt another position in the team, forcing a further change to the line-up, whilst also restricting the influence Modric was able to have on games from a wider starting position. Kranjcar or Rose coming in for Lennon or Bale would have been a better option and would have caused less disruption to a side that was previously in good form. With Rose replacing Bale on the left, the side could have retained the 4-4-1-1 shape and Rose’s pace could have even maintained the way in which they attacked down that flank. Similarly on the right, putting Kranjcar in for Lennon would have meant only one change to the team and would have seen a clever player in a position that he has played many times during his time in England.

You could point to the transfer activity in January as key to the failure to deal with the injuries and lack of squad depth. Spurs allowed Steven Pienaar to sign for Everton on loan late on transfer deadline day and failed to ensure they signed a replacement. As it turned out, Pienaar would undoubtedly have been the first name in Harry Redknapp’s thoughts when Lennon, and later Bale, were injured. There could also have been raised eyebrows over the decision to allow Vedran Corluka to leave on loan whilst not bringing in a replacement who could provide back-up for Kyle Walker at right back. Kaboul has deputised at right back when necessary but hasn’t looked entirely comfortable with his positioning in this role.

The lack of strength in depth at Tottenham is well documented and I’ve already hinted at two instances of this when they suffered injuries in wide areas. You could look at the manager for not looking to bring in reinforcements in the right areas. You could suggest it is down to the manager to rotate the side slightly and give game-time to fringe players to keep them at a level where they could step into the team at any moment and perform to the required standard. You could counter that with the argument that that back-up players just aren’t good enough, but then you’re back to the initial failings of the manager’s transfer activity.

All of the above points have contributed to Redknapp being exposed as not having a successful ‘Plan B’ to turn to when his thin-on-quality squad was stretched in key areas. In some games Redknapp has adopted a 4-3-3 formation with Bale and van der Vaart in floating attacking roles behind a main striker. This is not a formation Redknapp has used before and should not be confused with the 4-4-1-1 regularly used with van der Vaart behind Adebayor in attack. This change to 4-3-3 was only implemented because Aaron Lennon was still out injured Redknapp didn’t trust anyone else to step into his boots on the right of midfield without continuing to waste Luka Modric in this position. When the difficult run of fixtures began, Rafael van der Vaart was also unfit and struggling with injury. Against Manchester United and Everton, Redknapp went with a 4-4-2 formation and lost both in the absence of the Dutch creator.

As well as the injuries to Tottenham players forcing changes to their own team, there is also the suggestion that other teams had found a way to play against them. That they had found a way to counteract Spurs’ quick attacking style and attack them when the time was right. Chelsea demonstrated at Wembley in the FA Cup Semi-Final how to absorb Tottenham’s attacking play, limit them to just a few shots on target, and exploit frailties in a tired defence. Even during this game, Redknapp’s choice of substitution and tactical alteration in the second half directly led to Chelsea ceasing the initiative in the final 15 minutes and running our comfortable winners.

Tottenham need to capitalise on their improvement in the last few years and take this opportunity to develop themselves so that they can become title contendors. But to take the next step it is vital that they have a manager who is as tactically aware as they come. Someone who could mastermind victories in high-pressure games, implement suitable tactics for different opponents and positively change games with substitutions and tactical tweaks. There’s no doubting Harry Redknapp is a good manager. But as Kevin Keegan showed with Newcastle in 1996 – man management and motivational skills will get you so far, but you need that extra tactical awareness to implement a ‘Plan B’ or even a ‘Plan C’ when things aren’t going well or when teams find a way to play against you. I would suggest Redknapp has taken Tottenham as far as he can, and that they need a manager of the tactical astuteness of someone like Rafa Benitez to take them forward and compete with the best teams in England and Europe.

So whilst the uncertainty around the England job remains, Daniel Levy and the Tottenham Board would be wise to accept any approach from the FA to speak to their current manager.

Pictures courtesy of watchmeruletheworld.com and ladbrokes.com.