Tuesday, December 29, 2009

How Manchester United and Arsenal are kings of the counter attack

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There is an upsurge in counter-attacking goals and Manchester United and Arsenal both broke at pace to score in breakaway fashion on Sunday. At Hull, United turned defence into attack in five seconds for Dimitar Berbatov to take advantage of Wayne Rooney's brilliance, and Cesc Fabregas finished a seven-second burst for Arsenal against Aston Villa.

The creation of doubt in a defender's head and the consequent creation of space: this may sound like an all-too theoretical explanation for the increase in counter-attacking football of the sort illustrated with such sharpness by Cesc Fabregas and Wayne Rooney on Sunday, but it is theory derived from practice.

It is true that Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson are long-standing practitioners of high-risk, attacking football, but their core beliefs have been aided by recent rule changes.
Part of Ferguson's longevity is his willingness to adapt on and off the pitch and he has acknowledged that in the past few seasons Manchester United's style, particularly in Europe, has evolved into what the former Roma manager Luca Spalletti called 'more Italian than the Italians'.

As Ferguson said before last season's European Cup semi-final against Arsenal, which United won in part due to breakaway goals in the second leg in north London: 'Counter-attacking is part of modern football and something that has really developed in the European game in the last six or seven years.

'We had a spell after we won the European Cup in 1999, when we were disappointing and had to change our thinking. We lost to PSV Eindhoven and Anderlecht away and there were some others, all on the counter-attack.'

Statistical analysis of games at international, Champions League and senior professional level over the past 10 years shows that there has been an increase in counter-attacking football; or, to put it another way, attacks which start in the defensive third or middle third of the pitch.

There are two main reasons for this: firstly, there is the change in the offside rule in 2003 and its interpretation of active/passive; secondly, there has been the gradual refereeing clampdown to the point of near elimination of the tackle from behind.
Put those two factors together and there is more attacking space.

Defences are defending deeper because the interpretation has placed doubt in defenders' heads. They still know when a forward behind them is deemed inactive but they don't know if that will still be the interpretation two passes later.

Now add other factors at the top level such as increased fitness and better technique and you see why that space ceded in front of the defence is exploited by attacking midfielders or by forwards who drop off.

The rhythm of matches has changed. Given this, oddly, we have seen the rise of the non-typical No 9 centre forward. Arsenal began with Andrey Arshavin up front against Villa and - in Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov - United have a pair who contrast with the traditional values that Didier Drogba brings to Chelsea.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Look who the manager and captain for each country voted for in FIFA’s world player of the year award.

Terry and Fabio Capello were among the captains and coaches from 147 national teams invited to take part in FIFA’s world player of the year poll. Everyone was asked to name their top three in order but not allowed to select players from their own country.

Wondering how the list looks like?...Capello voted for Messi, Fernando Torres and Gianluigi Buffon.

Terry went for Drogba, Ballack and Andres Iniesta, the Barcelona midfielder who shattered Chelsea’s dreams with a stoppage-time goal in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final in May. Now he has displayed a serious lapse in footballing judgment - by voting for Michael Ballack as the second best player in the world!

To make matters worse for Terry, he later showed that he did not even know who he had voted for by claiming he had picked Lionel Messi as No 1 - when, in fact, he opted for Didier Drogba. At least Terry’s club loyalty is admirable.

There were three others casting their votes from within the Chelsea dressing room. As captain of Germany, Ballack plumped for Messi, Frank Lampard and Drogba. Drogba (Ivory Coast) picked Samuel Eto’o, Messi and Torres. And Petr Cech (Czech Republic) went for Xavi, Messi and Ronaldo.

Former Chelsea striker Andriy Shevchenko, who rejoined Dynamo Kiev in August, did not forget his old golfing pal Terry. He named the England captain in third, behind Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Terry received three top votes in the poll, from the captains of Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh plus Wales’s Ashley Williams.

Yossi Benayoun (Israel) thought Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard was the best player in the world, as did Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen (Belgium) and Bolton’s Ricardo Gardner (Jamaica).

But Manchester United’s Darren Fletcher might want to take extra care in training after ignoring the claims of Wayne Rooney. The Scotland captain went for Ronaldo, his former United team-mate, followed by Messi and Torres.

Somewhat surprisingly after a year which included some of his best England displays, Rooney only received two top votes, from the captains of Cambodia and Singapore. Wales boss John Toshack picked him in second place behind Messi and Diego Maradona is a fan too, also voting the Englishman as second (behind Drogba).

The international coaches, perhaps more focused on technique and less distracted by the fear of ruining friendships, voted heavily for Messi. Leung Sui Wing of Macau was the only coach to give his top vote to an England man (Gerrard).

Capello could not resist a nod towards his native Italy, by including Buffon in third. Marco Tardelli, however, casting Ireland’s managerial vote on behalf of Giovanni Trapattoni, named Buffon as the best in the world in a selection almost as hard to fathom as Terry’s.

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

The new free-kick king, move aside Christiano Ronaldo, its Chelsea's Didier Drogba

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Those who thought the Barclays Premier League would be a less exciting place without Cristiano Ronaldo's dead-ball specials can think again. The top flight has a new free-kick king: Chelsea's Didier Drogba.

Most of today's top players use side spin to shape the ball over a defensive wall, but Drogba has developed a unique technique. By hitting the ball hard with the inside of his right foot, just above the midway point, he is able to generate topspin. This produces little sideways movement, but the ball descends very quickly, making his deliveries a nightmare for goalkeepers.

The Chelsea striker's second goal against Arsenal on November 29 was a prime example: a powerful free kick hit straight and with pace.

Drogba should be favourite for all dead-ball set-ups, especially from central positions. He hits it very straight and appears to hit the ball with a very powerful side-foot action, almost like the technique used in a side-foot pass. Drogba's style is about beating the goalkeeper with speed and depth.

Drogba's technique is a step forward from the style of David Beckham, one of the first players to introduce topspin into his deliveries. The former England captain generates such a dramatic dip at the end of his set-pieces by hitting an 'instep shot', leaning back and connecting with the ball below the halfway point.

Topspin kickers can hit it harder, perhaps 70mph-plus, because it's going to come down. For sidespin kickers there's nothing to bring it down except gravity, so they tend to hit the ball a little softer, around 60 to 70mph.

An example of a 'pure' sidespin, free-kick taker, who does not create any topspin, is Arsenal's Robin van Persie.

For a left-foot kicker who is hitting the ball with sidespin, the ball will move from his left to his right, so he can be more angled towards the ball because the curve brings it back in.

So what has the Premier League lost with the departure of Ronaldo? Not a topspin or sidespin specialist, or an artist who can make the ball swing in or out but, it seems, a bit of a toe-poker.

Ronaldo partially toeends it, actually. He's trying to kick the ball without any spin, whether consciously or not. The ball deviates unpredictably in flight, completely bamboozling the goalkeeper, who is often left flat-footed on his goal line.

From video evidence it's clear that Ronaldo's free-kicks are not flukes, but the ball moves unpredictably and the ball markings indicate a very low spin-rate.



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