Monday 29 August 2011

In Arsène Please Trust

Arsenal's league record since their League Cup final defeat to Birmingham last February: DDDWDDWDDLWLLDDLL. I could list the reasons behind that miserable form but I would be wasting everyone's time. The complaints are all too familiar; Arsenal need a physically-strong centre-back, an assured goalkeeper and a hard-tackling midfield terrier (or two). With the departures of Fàbregas and Nasri, a strong case could be made for the need of another attacking midfielder. The 8-2 annihilation at Old Trafford highlighted their flaws right down to the most excruciating minute detail. There are three days left in the transfer window and the received wisdom says Arsenal need to invest. But do they?

Arsène Wenger knows something about football. He also knows a fair deal about football management, having managed at a high level for 27 uninterrupted years. Since 1996, he has been one of English football's most prominent innovators and successful managers; three Premier League titles (including that unbeaten 2003-04 season), four FA Cups and two doubles betray the influence of the greatest manager Arsenal have ever had, Herbert Chapman included. Wenger's staggeringly prolific trophy haul in his first decade at Arsenal cannot be refuted or ignored, but nor can the barren spell that has followed.

In the six years since Arsenal beat Manchester United on penalties in the FA Cup final, Arsenal have failed to win a trophy not named the Emirates Cup. Such a dry period is infinitely more pronounced at a club as accustomed to success as Arsenal. Criticism is much more keenly distributed as a result, and minor disappointments are distorted into major catastrophes. From Vieira and Henry leaving, to Champions League and League Cup final defeat, Arsenal appear to have lurched from one disaster to another. But upon closer inspection, these "disasters" aren't nearly as significant as many would have you believe.

When Vieira left for Juventus, Arsenal's midfield was criticised as too weak. Cesc Fàbregas and Mathieu Flamini then came to the fore and Arsenal reached the Champions League final, beating Juventus and Vieira along the way. After defeat to Barcelona in the final, Arsenal managed to keep most of the squad together while adding Tomáš Rosický, Emmanuel Adebayor and Alex Song. When Thierry Henry left for Barcelona the following summer, Arsenal were a capitulation away at Birmingham City from winning the league without spending obscene amounts of money.

Wenger's financial prudence has been derided and lauded by certain sections of the media in near equal measure, but its long-term benefit to the club must not be disputed. Of course it is ridiculous to suggest that financial prosperity is, in itself, cause for happiness for fans, but it is equally ridiculous to say that fans' happiness and a healthy financial state are mutually exclusive. Many feel that Wenger's reluctance to spend money is a major hindrance to any ambitions of success that can be measured in silverware. But Wenger, rather than throwing money at problems as a short-term solution, is simply taking the long-term view that will be most beneficial to Arsenal.

His faith in the youth team is well-documented and has produced quality players such as Jack Wilshere, Wojciech Szczęsny and Kieran Gibbs. Another manager may have neglected these players and instead spent upwards of £40 million on less talented alternatives. This fails from both a footballing and financial perspective and is the main reason why Wenger has chosen not to spend large amounts of money on areas that need improvement. Would Arsenal really be any better off had they spent £10 million on Scott Parker rather than develop Alex Song, Emmanuel Frimpong and Francis Coquelin? Did they really need to sign an ageing Shay Given when they already had Szczęsny on the books? This is the logic behind Wenger's reluctance to spend. It really is not that difficult to understand.

None of this is to say that Wenger never buys players for large sums. In the last four years, Wenger has spent £10 million or more on Samir Nasri, Andrei Arshavin, Thomas Vermaelen, Laurent Koscielny and, most recently of all, Gervinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. While Nasri and Vermaelen subsequently vindicated Wenger's decision to spend, Arshavin and Koscielny have never consistently convinced while at Arsenal. This serves as evidence that spending millions of pounds on players does not necessarily guarantee a higher performance level than, say, backing a youth-team graduate. He may have cost £10 million, but Koscielny has not showed enough to suggest that he is a better option that Johan Djourou, an academy graduate who joined Arsenal when he was 16.

Wenger knows the risk he is taking by not bowing to the demands of fans. Most managers would not survive the ire directed at his transfer dealings. Wenger is not most managers, however, and his utter devotion to his philosophy* may be his saving grace. Upon intitial inspection, the unexpected signing of Park Chu-Young may give the impression of a manager making it up as he goes along, but Wenger is far too intelligent and wily for that. It should not be forgotten that Arsenal are in the Champions League for the 14th successive season, hardly an indicator of a club in crisis. A crumbling Tottenham team and an average Liverpool side are the only genuine competitors for a top four finish and an FA Cup or League Cup run is not out of the question by any means, as last year's run to the final shows.

I appreciate Arsenal fans' frustration after six trophyless years, but they must exercise patience for the benefit of Arsenal in the long run. Replacing Wenger now would waste all of the groundwork he has worked so hard to put in place and would guarantee nothing but a dent in Arsenal's budget. The pathetic defeat to United was demoralising, sobering and chastening but not cause for managerial change. Rather than dwelling on the recent poor Premier League results (which I am convinced are nothing more than a blip) focus on the attractive football under Wenger, the talented academy graduates and the vital European away wins. Calling for Wenger's head threatens all of these things; but most dangerously of all, seeking Wenger's dismissal is to agree with Piers Morgan.

*also known as His Plan or The Project

Sunday 21 August 2011

Without a creative midfielder, Chelsea will win nothing

Chelsea's 2-1 victory over West Brom on Saturday illustrated a number of things. Firstly, Shane Long showed that he is capable of making the step up from the Championship to the Premier League. Two goals in as many games against the league's top two teams indicate a very promising future for Long as the Baggies' (and, perhaps, the Republic of Ireland's) main striker. His alertness to Alex's mistake and the calm finish that followed set an example that Fernando Torres, frustrated once again in Chelsea colours, would be advised to take notice of.

The most salient lesson gleaned from Saturday's encounter, however, was that Chelsea desperately need a creative midfielder. Their victory disguised a wholly unconvincing performance that would have produced nothing against stronger opposition. Once Long had given West Brom the lead, Chelsea struggled to break down Hodgson's two banks of well-drilled midfielders and defenders. There was virtually no understanding between Chelsea's midfield of Lampard, Mikel and Ramires and their front three. Numerous attacking forays broke down as a result of this lack of chemistry, and Salomon Kalou was replaced by Florent Malouda before half-time to try to resolve the problem.

Though Chelsea's two second-half goals and subsequent victory vindicated André Villas-Boas' team selection and substitutions somewhat, the distinct lack of cohesiveness was clear for all to see. It's difficult to escape the feeling that Chelsea simply got lucky. As solid as West Brom's defence were, Chelsea would not have scored against superior opponents. Anelka's goal was, of course, the turning point, at a time when Chelsea did not seem particularly threatening. They grew in confidence after that equaliser, and Bosingwa's superb cross for Malouda eventually gave them a scarcely-deserved lead. For the second consecutive week, West Brom finished with no points when their performance merited at least one.

When I tipped Chelsea for the title at the beginning of the season, I did so on the basis that a playmaker would be signed. As it stands, Yossi Benayoun is the only midfielder of any real ingenuity at the club; Lampard's peak is at least two seasons behind him, Ramires' dynamism does not translate to creativity and Essien is far too injury-prone to be relied upon. Talented player though he is, Benayoun is not consistent or effective enough against the stronger teams to be trusted with creative duties for a side aiming to win the title. The solution to the problem, therefore, must come from outside the club; if Abramovich is serious about restoring Chelsea to the dominant status they enjoyed during the Mourinho years, he must be willing to spend money on a playmaker of genuine class.

Luka Modrić has been consistently linked with a move to the club since the beginning of the transfer window and it's blatantly apparent that the player wants to join. The Abramovich of old would not have been deterred by Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy's insistance that Modrić is not for sale at any price; he would simply have presented Levy with the requisite amount of cash for buying a player "not for sale at any price" and Modrić would be wearing Chelsea's jersey already. Instead, Chelsea have delayed making a firm approach and Villas-Boas has been denied a player who could play a hugely crucial role in his team. With September 1 still ten days away, Chelsea have time to rectify their ponderous transfer dealings by offering Tottenham the cash needed to secure Modrić's signature.

Once that signing is completed, Chelsea will suddenly look like a much more formidable side. With someone to deliver a good supply of passes, Fernando Torres' potential may finally be realised. If his form since his arrival at Stamford Bridge is worthy of scurtiny, his undeniable wealth of talent is not. Romelu Lukaku, though a very different player, is a viable alternative to Torres who could offer Chelsea something a little more direct. Villas-Boas' decision to keep Didier Drogba at the club has been rather surprising - a move to Marseille and a fresh start for the new manager appeared to beckon - but Villas-Boas has obviously been impressed by Drogba's past exploits, even if his performance levels have waned recently. All of this is not to mention the impending signing of Juan Mata from Valencia, a player who oozes class and will offer Chelsea an attacking impetus they lacked at times last season.

This summer has already seen Santi Cazorla move to Malaga and PSG buy Javier Pastore, two players who could have eased Chelsea's creative difficulties instantly. Chelsea must ensure that they do not squander the opportunity to sign Modrić and Mata. If they do miss out, struggling to break down defences will become an uncomfortably familiar problem.

An important season for Thiago

Of the Spanish U-21 squad that attracted much attention for their European Championship victory this summer, Barcelona’s Thiago Alcântara was perhaps the player singled out for most praise.

Swing by Back Page Football to read the rest of this article.

Saturday 13 August 2011

Premier League predictions - blogger vs layman

With every football writer / blogger worth their salt offering some form of predictions for the coming Premier League season, I felt obliged to get in on the act. But rather than doing it the old fashioned way, I decided to test my crystal ball abilities against someone completely unversed in the world of football.

By his own admission, friend of Ball Between Two Gary Drohan had not even heard of some of the teams in this year's Premier League. Tasked with placing the teams in the order in which he thinks they will finish, he relied merely on his knowledge of teams whose names he was familiar with.

My challenge is to see if I can trump Gary's predictions (or, more accurately, guesses). At the end of the season, we will review our respective forecasts and see whether predicting where teams finish requires background knowledge or simply pot luck. Gary has proposed a Crunchie bar for the winner; if he ultimately wins that Crunchie bar, Ball Between Two will be forced to taste bitter humiliation.

* * *

Gary's Predictions
1.   Manchester City
2.   Manchester United
3.   Chelsea
4.   Arsenal
5.   Liverpool
6.   Everton
7.   Fulham
8.   Newcastle
9.   Bolton
10. Aston Villa
11. Blackburn
12. Tottenham 
13. Sunderland 
14. Stoke
15. West Brom
16. Norwich
17. Wigan
18. Wolves
19. Swansea
20. Queens Park Rangers 

Ball Between Two's predictions
1.  Chelsea
2.  Manchester United
3.  Manchester City
4.  Arsenal
5.  Liverpool
6.  Tottenham
7.  Sunderland
8.  Everton
9.  Aston Villa
10. Stoke
11. Bolton
12. West Brom
13. Fulham
14. Newcastle
15. Wolves
16. Norwich
17. Queens Park Rangers
18. Wigan
19. Swansea
20. Blackburn

Wednesday 10 August 2011

Roy Keane

August 10 marks the birthday of Irish sport's most divisive character of all time. This is no exercise in hyperbole to convey a point; Roy Keane truly split the opinions of a country, not just for one summer in Saipan* but throughout his entire career. Viewed as an inspirational leader who merely asked for the optimum performances from those around him by some, and as a narcissistic thug with no regard for anyone else by others, Keane was never a player who pandered to the public. His confidence in his convictions was (and still is) unparalleled among his playing peers and it is for this reason, above all else, that Keane is still regarded as one of the Premier League's defining players.

Everyone has heard the story about Brian Clough, while Keane's manager at Nottingham Forest, punching Keane in the dressing room after he had committed a mistake that led to a Crystal Palace goal. Rather than falling out with Clough, the 19 year-old Keane resolved to atone for his error by scoring three goals on the way to the FA Cup final. Though Nottingham Forest would ultimately lose that final, this determination would prove to be the defining characteristic of Keane's career in football. He would later admit to sympathising with Clough's actions as he could understand the stress of management at the highest level.

Keane's performances had impressed Sir Alex Ferguson enough to warrant a transfer to Manchester United for a British record fee. Not one to be cowed by any price tag, Keane helped United to a Premier League and FA Cup double, scoring a derby winner against Manchester City along the way. Still only 22 years old, Keane had firmly established himself as a first-team starter and an indispensable part of Ferguson's squad. Keane would go on to win yet another double in 1996, his dynamism playing a crucial part in catching a cavalier Newcastle team that had amassed a twelve-point lead. When Eric Cantona retitred, Keane was the obvious choice for the captaincy and was duly awarded the armband by Ferguson.

Perhaps Keane's most famous display was in the Champions League semi-final victory over Juventus during the treble season. Booked for a trip on Zinedine Zidane and 2-0 down (3-1 on aggregate) after ten minutes, Keane dragged United back into the game with an inspirational performance, archetypal of the Keane who won both Players' Player of the Year and Writers' Player of the Year in 2000. His header to make the score 2-1 was the catalyst for the most unlikely of comebacks. United won 3-2 and booked their place in the Champions League final, though Keane's earlier caution meant he was suspended from playing any part. United owed their place in the final largely to Keane's selflessness and his unapologetic will to win, without which that 1999 treble could never have been won.

There was another side to Keane's game of course. Never one to shy away from 50-50 tackles or confrontations, he often found himself on the wrong side of referees. Keane was responsible for his fair share of "questionable" tackles in his career (though not all of them were punished with a red card), most notoriously for a horrendous tackle on Manchester City's Alf-Inge Haaland. Keane admitted in his autobiography that the tackle had been an act of vengeance after Haaland had accused Keane of feigning injury in an earlier match against Leeds. Following his admission, Keane was banned for five matches and fined £150,000.

This was not Keane's only feud with a fellow player. When Arsène Wenger's Arsenal side emerged as serious challengers to United's Premiership-era dominance, the pre-existing rivalry between the two teams intensified to unprecedented levels. The rivalry was embodied by the two clubs' respective captains, Keane and Patrick Vieira. Not only did the players viciously lock horns on the pitch, but they bore a mutual loathing for each other off it as well. The tunnel altercation between the two (with added Gary Neville) is the most famous product of their rivalry and is something that seems almost inconceivable in today's comparatively timid Premier League, little more than five years after the incident occured.

Characters like Keane are virtually non-existent in top-flight football today. Whatever your opinions on Keane, it is next to impossible to argue that he didn't make football a whole lot more entertaining during his playing career. Sir Alex Ferguson once said that Dennis Wise could start a fight in an empty room; if this is true, Keane's replacement Michael Carrick could scarcely provoke a mutter of disapproval in a pub brimming with alcoholic hooligans. Compared to Keane, almost all of the Premier League's best footballers are utterly devoid of personality. The quality of matches suffers as a result, with no real edge to even the fiercest Premier League derbies. Where Keane once clashed with Vieira, Michael Carrick now locks horns with Jack Wilshere. Football is the worse for it.

Currently without a job after an underwhelming period at Ipswich Town, Keane's managerial career has not been decorated with the same success as his playing days. Though taking Sunderland to the Premier League was a thoroughly commendable achievement, the money he spent during his time at the club suggests that he could have left them in a better position than in the relegation zone when he stepped down in December 2008. However, I believe he has shown sufficient positive managerial traits during his time at Sunderland and Ipswich to tempt a chairman into offering him another shot at management. Football fans should hope that that chance comes soon; love him or loathe him, football is more fun when Roy Keane's involved.

* I ignored the events of Saipan in this post because I'm sure you've all read the avalanche of articles written in its aftermath. If you would like to read about it, Soccer Ireland has an impressively comprehensive account here.

Wednesday 3 August 2011

Waterford v Kilkenny - the last 5 encounters

Ahead of Sunday's All-Ireland hurling semi-final between Waterford and Kilkenny, Ball Between Two takes a look at the five previous times these two teams met in the Championship and wonders what lessons, if any, today's Waterford team can learn from past encounters.

1963 All-Ireland final: Kilkenny 4-17, Waterford 6-8

The defeat that signalled the end of Waterford hurling's golden era. Boasting players such as Phil Grimes, Tom Cheasty and Frankie Walsh, Waterford entered the final as favourites, four years after the 1959 final in which they had needed a replay to see off Kilkenny. But a Kilkenny team containing Eddie Keher was never going to be a pushover. It was Keher who proved to be the difference between the sides with a magnificent display in which he scored 14 points. Despite a hattrick of goals from Waterford's Séamus Power, Kilkenny's superior points total ultimately sealed their victory and gained a degree of revenge for their defeat in 1959.

1998 All-Ireland semi-final: Kilkenny 1-11, Waterford 1-10

(A short clip of this match begins at 1:15 in the above video.)

It would be 35 years before Kilkenny and Waterford met in the Championship again. Waterford had spent the intervening years in hurling wilderness while Kilkenny had won another 10 titles to add to their previous fifteen. But this Waterford team featured the likes of Tony Browne and Paul Flynn at the peak of their powers; Tony Browne in particular was enjoying his best year at intercounty level. What followed was an incredibly tight affair, if not a high-scoring one. Just two points separated the sides at half-time, before PJ Delaney extended Kilkenny's lead with a crucial goal. Waterford nearly clawed back a seven-point defecit thanks to a goal from Tony Browne, but the referee blew the final whistle just 27 seconds into stoppage time and with Kilkenny ahead by a point. It was the first of what would become a familar sense of semi-final heartbreak for Waterford fans and players alike.

2004 All-Ireland semi-final: Kilkenny 3-12, Waterford 0-18 

(Unfortunately, I was unable to find any clips from this match on YouTube. Given that all of the matches featured in this article end in Déise defeat, I think it's only fair that I include a very positive memory from the year of this semi-final instead: Waterford v Cork in the Munster hurling final.)

Hopes of a Waterford victory were high going into this game, even without the suspended John Mullane. Kilkenny, meanwhile, had been defeated by Wexford in the Leinster semi-final and were forced to take an unfamiliar back-door route to reach this stage. Regular Waterford goalkeeper Stevie Brenner was dropped after his howler in the Munster final in favour of Mount Sion's Ian O'Regan. The decision proved to be a costly one; O'Regan's nerves seemed to get the better of him as Kilkenny scored the three goals that ultimately booked their place in the final. For Waterford, it was their third semi-final defeat in three appearances.

2008 All-Ireland hurling final: Kilkenny 3-30, Waterford 1-13

(If anyone has ever doubted that there is a desperate lack of hurling videos on YouTube, they need only know that the very short video above is the lone clip of what many regard as the finest team performance of all time.)

The 2008 final is a match Waterford and Kilkenny fans remember for two very different reasons. It was the first time Waterford had reached the final since the aforementioned 1963 campaign, while Kilkenny were looking to win their third All-Ireland title in succession. We all know what happened next. Waterford, apparently frozen by the scale of the occasion, were ripped apart by a merciless Kilkenny team. Kilkenny's forwards were simply unstoppable. Waterford's forwards, in contrast, found themselves swarmed by Kilkenny players whenever they got the ball. It was a truly defining performance by Brian Cody's Kilkenny team and demonstrates above all other matches why they are regarded by many as the greatest team in the game's long history.

2009 All-Ireland semi-final: Kilkenny 2-23, Waterford 3-15

(Part two of this game, including post-match interviews and analysis, can be viewed here.)

Less than a year after that annihilation, the two teams met each other in yet another semi-final. Waterford were given virtually no chance in the build-up to the game, perhaps understandably given Kilkenny's formidable performances. The match began ominously for Waterford when Henry Shefflin pointed within the first 60 seconds, but an early goal by Shane Walsh gave Waterford an unlikely lead. But Shefflin was in imperious form. His tally of 1-14, 1-7 of which were from play, highlighted a breathtaking performance as good as any Croke Park has seen in recent years. Shane Walsh and Eoin Kelly did manage to score two further goals for Waterford but, impressive as their spirited display was, they were simply no match for the genius of Shefflin.

While these five results do make somewhat grim reading for Waterford, there is nothing to suggest they will have any significant influence on Sunday's match. There are, however, certain things to be learned from these games that may be of some benefit if we are to beat Kilkenny in the Championship for the first time since 1959.

  • It goes without saying at this level, but Waterford must not concede needless frees. Like Eddie Keher in the 1963 encounter, Henry Shefflin will be sure to punish any fouls committed with his trademark clinical accuracy.
  • All signs indicate that Davy Fitzgerald will name an unchanged side from the one that beat Galway in the quarter-final. The shaky performance of Ian O'Regan in 2004, a player selected to play for the first time, suggests that this will be a wise move.
  • Waterford must not be cowed by occasion. This happened to them earlier this year against Tipperary, and most notably against Kilkenny in that 2008 final.
  • Finally, the influence of Henry Shefflin must be curbed. If Waterford are to have any chance of victory on Sunday, they cannot afford to let Shefflin have the time and space to play like he did in the semi-final of 2009.

Like that 2009 clash, Waterford enter the match as complete underdogs. This seems to be when they play at their very best, evident most recently in that victory against Galway. While anything more than cautious optimism of victory against Kilkenny would be foolish in the extreme, there is nothing to suggest that Waterford can't mount a serious challenge to Kilkenny's stranglehold on this fixture in recent times.