Thursday, January 19, 2012

The new football model that will make Germany dominate- Individual skill more important than the system, a strikerless formation

By Clark Whitney 

Because of the constant flux of coaches and players in modern football, it is uncommon to see a team develop under relatively constant conditions. Pep Guardiola has managed to achieve consistent success while adjusting his Barcelona team over the years, but otherwise, there are very few that have lasted for an extended period.

On the international stage, though, there is one example of note: Joachim Low has coached Germany since 2006, and his five-year reign has seen a general philosophy stay true, while specifics have been adjusted again and again as he has searched for the right combination.

In the beginning, Low sought to maintain the aggressive, attack-minded values that he had helped instill while working as assistant to his predecessor, Jurgen Klinsmann. He valued the promotion of young Bundesliga stars, and had no qualms turning the likes of Lukas Podolski and Bastian Schweinsteiger into cornerstones of his team.

But during his time at the helm of the DFB team, Low has adjusted certain aspects of his philosophy. He first preferred 4-4-2, but has since resorted to 4-2-3-1, and even 4-1-4-1 systems. In his earlier years, he might have hesitated to promote a 21-year-old (Mario Gomez) to the senior team. But his trust in youth has grown and grown: a year ago, he called up the then-18-year-old Mario Gotze and 20-year-olds Lewis Holtby and Andre Schurrle, handing them their first caps in a friendly against Sweden.

There is a grand scheme at the DFB, and it is one that for all its technicality is often missed or ignored. But every so often, Low and his staff offer a glimpse at Germany’s philosophical direction. Below, takes a look at the latest developments from the DFB.

Believe it: 4-2-4 could be the future

Five years ago, Franz Beckenbauer wrote that for young players, it is best to prepare in a 4-2-4 set-up. Therein, there is no "focal point" of the attack, and all-across the front line learn a more complete skill set.

The topic re-surfaced in 2009, when DFB chief scout Urs Siegenthaler asked Spox: "Why not play with four strikers?"

"Barcelona play with three strikers, and suddenly the whole world is calling for three strikers. But the pure copy of success inhibits one’s own development. We need to find our own solutions, even if they are sometimes provocative."

Siegenthaler’s point at the time was more a comment on Germany’s need to lead their own way than a definite recommendation. But recently, 4-2-4 has re-surfaced as a possibility.

In August and September, Germany U20 coach Frank Wormuth experimented with a 4-2-4 formation that included striker-type players, but had no real "focal point" among Lennart Thy, Kevin Volland, Florian Trinks and Patrick Herrmann. When asked about his tactics, the trainer replied: "Barcelona have shown that you can play perfectly well without a classic centre forward."

Looking at the up-and-coming forwards in German football, there are few top talents who are purely classic 'No. 9'-types. Pierre-Michel Lasogga, of Hertha Berlin and the U21 national team, is one exception. But others, even those with the physique of a classic target-man, have been trained to play in deep areas and out wide. One example is the rather burly Alexander Esswein, who plays wide for both Nurnberg and U21 national teams, but is naturally much more a '9' than a '7.'

Volland, 19, has been prolific for 1860 Munich this season, but his role is more that of a supporting striker, and he often assists. The same goes for Samed Yesil, 17, who has been setting the U19 West Bundesliga alight for Leverkusen ever since returning from the U17 World Cup with six goals and seven assists. Germany really are moving away from the concept of a "poaching”" centre forward. Gomez - who is becoming increasingly a complete player - could be the last such striker we see in the German national team for some time.

A switch to 4-2-4 is by no means a change to expect anytime soon, however. Low said on Wednesday that playmaker Mesut Ozil is no option in the centre of attack should Klose and Gomez both be unavailable. But regardess of the way they are ultimately deployed tactically, Germany’s forwards are making a distinct move away from the classic six-yard box type, and towards a more balanced type, capable of playing outside the box.

Mental development matters more than age

As an isolated quality, age has little value. It is not the years someone has, but the experience, composure, and maturity - in addition to skills - that a player possesses which will give him an edge. As recently as early 2010, Low was still reluctant to make large changes to his team. He waited until March of 2010 to cap Thomas Muller, and to move Bastian Schweinsteiger from the wing to central midfield. Rene Adler was only replaced by the clearly superior Manuel Neuer when the Leverkusen man suffered an injury before the World Cup.

Low now has no qualms shaking things up, and the turning point perhaps was the recent World Cup. Muller’s performances proved that even a 20-year-old could have the mental fortitude to play at the highest level and shine. Had it not been for the Bayern man’s success, Low might have replaced the suspended winger with Piotr Trochowski for the semi-final match against Spain. Instead, he used the young Toni Kroos, who himself had only earned his first international cap three months prior.

Low backed up his decisions with philosophical comments in October, at a conference at the Freiburg youth academy.

“Cognitive development is extremely important. The development of the mind, I think, is now more important than ever. Intelligent players are receptive and capable of implementation,” he said, according to the official Freiburg website.

"A Mesut Ozil, a Mario Gotze, a Mats Hummels, a Holger Badstuber, and so on - they are very mature even in their younger years. A couple years ago I had a different picture."

Indeed, since the World Cup, Low has dropped the likes of  Jorg Butt, Arne Friedrich, Serdar Tasci, Piotr Trochowski, and Stefan Kiessling in favour of younger replacements, whom he believes to be sufficiently mature.

Individual proficiency is more important than the system

Also at the Freiburg conference, Low emphasised the increasing importance of individual class in the modern game.

"We clearly have better training in technical aspects. But the space on the pitch has become smaller, the time to act scarce. Individual skill is therefore the most important factor in training, more important than the system."

Indeed, with the increasing athleticism of players, there has been a drop in acceptable margin of error.  If a player receives the ball, for example, it is now more important than ever that he have a soft first touch, because these days he is more likely to have a marker nearby.

Low was quick to clarify that such 'individual class' extends far beyond ball tricks and step-overs. Instead, he emphasised complete mastery of the basics in every player’s repertoire.

"We need to make the simple into the very special: the passing game, the timing, the pressing and trapping, the game without the ball, how we deal with one-on-one situations, how we quickly find solutions in small spaces."

It is in these so-called 'simple' areas that Low’s Germany have excelled in recent years: their movement on and off the ball, and decisions in one-touch passing in particular. Success can only come when each player's proficiency works in concert with the next, but the most fundamental and eluse pre-requisite is that each brings an adequate skill-set to the training camp before learning the system.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Eden Hazard v Javier Pastore: Who has been the greater star in Ligue 1 this season?

By Robin Bairner

 Fixture between Paris Saint-Germain and Lille represents the biggest domestic match of the French season, with last season’s champions meeting the side hotly tipped to steal their crown from them.

While Lille’s climb to the top has been steady and measured, PSG have simply exploded over the last six months, fuelled by Qatari investors eager to raise the profile of the Parc des Princes outfit. 

In this regard, perhaps the two players who most signify the values of their clubs will line up in what promises to be a spectacular head-to-head. Eden Hazard was carefully nurtured through Lille’s youth ranks, brought into the first team as a raw 16-year-old in 2007, and has since grown into a Ligue 1 Player of the Year, while Javier Pastore was captured for a national record €40 million (£33.6m) by les Parisiens in the summer.   

Comparisons have inevitably been drawn between the pair, with team-mates and pundits offering their opinion as to who is the greater player. Many have been non-committal, with Lille defender Aurelien Chedjou explaining to Nord Eclair: "It’s not that easy [to pick], but both are big stars of the game. What is certain is that I would not trade Hazard for Pastore."

Pastore has been criticised in the press for a recent dip in form, while Hazard has accelerated, gaining strength as the season has progressed. However, he did not make the early impact of his South American rival, who was to the forefront as PSG reached the summit of the league before being caught by unlikely challengers Montpellier.

With the halfway point of the season approaching, which of these stars presently has the upper hand?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Wayne Bridge in the first major interview of his professional career : Roberto Mancini obviously doesn't know me very well

Wayne Bridge is not after  sympathy - all he wants is an opportunity to put across his side of the story. This is the former England defender's considered response to Roberto Mancini's criticism after two years largely spent in exile.

Mancini claims the Manchester City defender is motivated by money, pulling in £95,000 a week and spending Saturday afternoons down at the driving range. Golf is his big thing, according to Mancini; swinging clubs is his priority instead of trying to find one to take on his super-sized salary.

'Roberto Mancini obviously doesn't know me very well because I don't play golf,' revealed Bridge in the first major interview of his professional career.

Given the freedom and platform to express himself, Bridge has laid bare his frustrations after so long in isolation, an isolation that has seen him spend a month at a time training with the kids at City.

It is all here - his relationship with Mancini and his thoughts on walking away from England after John Terry's alleged affair with Bridge's ex-girlfriend and mother of his son.

He has nothing left to lose now, not after Mancini poked fun at him in a pre-determined attack ahead of City's Barclays Premier League fixture with Stoke City last Wednesday.

'When I was at Chelsea I was playing for a team where Ashley Cole was the best in the world and I still got games. It won't happen at City. There has never been an explanation, but it's obvious they don't want me.

'Mancini doesn't really speak to me, he doesn't really speak to any of the players. The only time I've known a player isolated like this was Winston  Bogarde at Chelsea. Usually you still train with the first team, even when they want you out.'

Bridge, 31, has played just once for City this season - a Carling Cup third-round tie against Birmingham - and has barely featured in first-team training. Most days he arrives early, working out in the gym at City's Carrington training complex to vent his frustrations before he joins the kids again. That is the daily routine: walking out on to the training pitches to join the youngsters, alone with his thoughts and willing himself to get through another soul-destroying session.

'I've never caused trouble, I'm not that kind of character,' he said. 'There will be days when I'm  frustrated - not depressed, but down. Training helps take my mind off the fact that I don't play.
'I don't like confrontation, to be honest. It takes a while for me to lose it, but when I do…

'Some players are totally different to me - they would phone the manager and say things there and then. I just get on with things and hope they resolve themselves. Even when I'm playing I just like to get on with my own life. 'If I kicked up a fuss I might have got out easier.'

That is the plan, negotiating with City to secure his release in the January transfer window. He has been training hard and his five per cent body fat - the lowest at City - is unlikely to be troubled by the home-made chocolate cake his popstar girlfriend Frankie is serving.

'I feel I am letting my mum and dad down and they basically live for following me around and watching me play football.

'I hate that my parents can't come and watch me or Frankie, who loves to watch football, can't come with her mum and dad.

'It is like I am letting them down as well because they are so proud to see me out there playing. They have been really supportive.

'They are people I can call when I am down. They cheer me up straight away and slap me back into place. Aaron Lincoln, my agent, has been amazing.

'Everyone has been so supportive and they can all tell when I have been down.'
There has been talk of Arsenal taking him on loan and there has been interest from Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain. He desperately wants to get away, to rediscover the zest for the game that took him to the very top.

Bridge played in the 2003 FA Cup final for Southampton and went on to win two Premier League titles, an FA Cup and the League Cup with Chelsea. Inevitably he regards Jose Mourinho as the best manager he played under. His eyes light up with the memories of a glorious goal against Arsenal in the 2004 Champions League quarter-final at Highbury, and a beauty he scored against Portsmouth the previous season.

'There was a time when I could have gone to Portsmouth on loan, but I had to say no - my dad's Southampton and I grew up supporting them. Dad would never have spoken to me again.'

This is the old Bridge, bounding with enthusiasm as he talks about the games that earned him 36 caps before he retired from international football in a storm of publicity last year.

He misses England, but maintains he was left with no alternative after refusing to shake Terry's hand when City travelled to Stamford Bridge in February 2010.

'Everyone misses being an international when they don't play. It is the thing everyone wants to be - an England international. When you start playing professional football it is the next step.

'It has been difficult for me over the last couple of years football-wise - I have not played great and personal stuff that had gone on. I don't want to talk too much about it. I don't want to bring up the situation that happened because I didn't talk about it at the time and what's the point?
'If I had gone to the World Cup it would have been an absolute media frenzy. I probably could talk about it one day, but at this precise moment I don't think it is going to help me and I don't think it's going to help anyone else who was involved.

'I had never been in the press before. Then I was and everyone had an opinion about it. It was like I felt, "Just leave me to get on with it". Some were  supportive and some weren't. That's just the way it is. But I got a lot of support and I am thankful for the support I did get. I can deal with it. Everyone was talking about it and I just didn't want to talk about it.

'At the time, (England manager) Fabio Capello called me two or three times but it wasn't right. 'My personal life has got better. I am happy at the moment and the football has got to get better in January.'
He is expecting to move and is prepared for the next phase of his career.

'My next move has to be right for me. I'd rather play three games a week than none, but I'm  entitled to leave. City claimed I'm only at the club for the money, but when it comes to the deal to let me go, it becomes about the money for them.'

After this, it is time for City to do the right thing. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Xherdan Shaqiri - Basel's young Swiss on a roll who knocked Manchester United out of Europe

By Jonathan Birchall

Alongside the stats and pictures on Basel's website's player profiles, there is a simple question asked to each member of the first team squad – ‘where do you see yourself in 10 years?’ 

South Korean defender Joo Ho Park wants to travel the world. Veteran striker Marco Streller wants to be spending time with his family.

But what of Xherdan Shaqiri, a man who has interested the likes of Liverpool, Juventus and Bayern Munich, and has been touted as European football’s next great winger? “With a top club,” his answer and with it an indication that he himself believes the hype. 

He plays like it too, with a bravado and swagger that is borne from far more than youthful fearlessness. The midfielder, who turned 20 in October, has already played over 70 times for the Swiss champions and averages just under a goal every three games for the national team. The visit of the Premier League champions, who need a point in Switzerland to qualify for the knockout stages, seems the perfect stage for him show off his credentials.

Shaqiri was born in the town of Gnjilane in now war-torn eastern Kosovo but moved to Basel as a child with his parents, and played with local club SV Augst from the ages of eight to 10. From there, he joined the Basel youth set-up and went on to win the Nike Premier Cup’s Most Valuable Player award at the age of 15, following in the footsteps of Andres Iniesta and Fernando Torres.

Ever since, the youngster has grown in stature and become a – if not the – key component in the Basel first team, helping them to consecutive league victories in 2009-10 and last season.

By using his low centre of gravity (Shaqiri is not the tallest at 5ft 7in), astonishing close control and rocket of a left foot, the starlet has already started making waves on the continent. With a man of the match performance at the Stadio Olimpico against Roma followed up by a goal in the return tie in Switzerland during the Champions League group stage last term, the winger has proven that he can perform where most his age fall quiet: the highest level.

His efforts in the competition last season were followed up by a quite breathtaking showing in this summer’s European Under-21 Championships, in which he, alongside Thiago Alcantara, lit up the tournament in Denmark. A wonderful solo goal against the hosts set the tone for his fortnight, as he led his side to the final, where they were overcome by the irrepressible Spanish.

The goal which made onlookers sit up and take notice of the young Swiss was his effort against England just over a year ago, when Fabio Capello’s side won 3-1 at St Jakob Park, the place Shaqiri calls home. After collecting the ball on the right wing, the youngster, then only 18, glanced inside as if the hesitant Ashley Cole wasn’t there and lashed a strike past Joe Hart from 20 yards out. It was the inward run of Lionel Messi finished with the clout of Cristiano Ronaldo.

To put one so young alongside the game’s two foremost giants would be foolish, but as with La Liga’s poster boys, Shaqiri has an ability to completely dominate a football match, and how.
Equally impressive is the youngster’s versatility, and he could play anywhere across the midfield against Sir Alex Ferguson’s men at St Jakob Park. The 20-year-old will most likely face Patrice Evra, lining up on the right-hand side, and it will be interesting to see how the Frenchman, so confident against traditional wingers who remain steadfast to the channels, copes with a player comfortable with wandering inwards.

The winger missed the sides' frankly ridiculous 3-3 draw at Old Trafford back in September – a match indicative of United's instability during the group stage. It is the same inconsistency that has left the Red Devils still needing a point to qualify despite a draw that seemed so kind in Monaco back in August.

The eyes of the continent will be on Sir Alex's team, who haven't failed to make it to the knockout stage since 2005 and have participated in thee of the competition's last four finals. The heat is certainly on for the Premier League champions but they will have to share the spotlight with Xherdan Shaqiri, and that’s just the way he likes it.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Top 10 Champions League performances against a former club, Cristiano Ronaldo vs Sporting Lisbon and the rest

By Stephen Crawford

As Bayer Leverkusen's Michael Ballack prepares for the visit of his former employers Chelsea - and Milan's Zlatan Ibrahimovic doing the same with Barcelona travelling to Italy -  Here's a list of 10 memorable Champions League matches in which a player has faced their former club.

Some brought heartache for the players, others brought heartbreak for the fans - but the stories are always interesting for the neutral!

Without futher ado, here is the list in alphabetical order:

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

10 football stars who fit the stereotypes of another nation- from Andrea Pirlo to Jose Mourinho

By Carlo Garganese

Brazil coach Dunga hit the headlines when he spoke of his admiration for Italy playmaker Andrea Pirlo and remarked that the Juventus star's style of play was more reminiscent of a Brazilian rather than an Italian.

"Juventus have a Brazilian in their team - and it's not Amauri. I am talking about Andrea Pirlo. He's the most Brazilian player of all Europeans and is Juve's true Brazilian," said the 1994 World Cup winner.

"His positional sense, technique, rhythm and accurate passing. He's fantastic. He's the first player on the paper if I had to make a dream team.

"Like we say in Brazil: Pirlo has turned this Juventus into what they are now. You can see that his team-mates respect him as their new leader." 

But if Pirlo does play like a Brazilian, he certainly isn't the only football-related figure who possesses some of another country's characteristics. Here are 10 other examples ...



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