The Passing of Xavi’s Era

Xavi II

It was said, after the completion of Bayern Munich’s incredible treble, that Pep Guardiola’s job would only be made more difficult by the success that directly preceded his arrival. Yet in some ways, it actually made his process simpler. The hunger that the tragedy of Bayern’s May 2012 inspired has been sated somewhat, and the pressure to win absolutely immediately is ever so slightly lessened. It allowed him to try some new (perhaps somewhat controversial) things, such as moving Philipp Lahm to midfield and the evolution of their 4-2-3-1. The results were as expected but the performances were initially more mixed as the players and manager grew used to each other, and various injuries struck.

 

The fatal mistake made by many a successful manager is to rest on that success, and remain completely faithful to the style and tactics which brought them that glory. With that follows players who are unchallenged and contented in a regular routine. This has always been something Guardiola has worked strenuously to avoid. It showed best in the stream of trophies won across his four years at Barcelona, but also in the changes in personnel and style between their own treble in 2009, and the completed product that was the 2011 side.

 

2011 was the peak of his Barcelona. And despite reaching the heights he did, Guardiola recognised the need for change and the changes needed. Guardiola’s belief that the team would be best strengthened by making its most important area even better was and is the correct one. Xavi Hernández was ageing and with their reliance on him being so heavy and his uniqueness meant that they would need new figures to carry them forth into a new era.

 

8 years after leaving, Cesc Fàbregas was re-signed partly for this very job, with Thiago Alcântara coming through at the same time. Thiago is closer in position and qualities to Xavi, but more direct in style. More direct than both of them is Fàbregas, yet both fit perfectly into Barcelona’s ideals of attractive, entertaining and attacking football with a heavy focus on possession. Andrés Iniesta would become even more central over the following few years, compatible next each individual and the best enabler of the in-between point of moving from Xavi’s Barcelona to Fàbregas and Thiago’s, before succumbing to the ageing process himself.

 

At the start of last season, the alterations were taking shape seamlessly and an invigorated Barcelona, with a slightly more limited Xavi, a more liberated Fàbregas and Iniesta (with the latter more advanced than usual) were a new, different magnificence. Then after Tito Vilanova’s injury, complications in style, control and personnel took shape. Fàbregas struggled for form and eventually lost his place. If they were indeed the orchestra that so many lazy metaphors have described them as being, it was one attempting to play pieces from memory, with a conductor who could no longer lift his arms above shoulder height. Fàbregas’ stumbles caught eyes and headlines, but everyone had forgotten Thiago.

 

With everything seemingly so precarious, playing an inexperienced 21-year old in the most important area of the pitch while no manager was present occurred to very few. When Vilanova returned, something of his nerve for any kind of risk appeared to have left him in his chase for a record 100 La Liga points. Thiago’s lack of game-time opened up a clause in his contract that would allow him to leave for just €18million. Thiago plays for Bayern Munich now.

Xavi Messi

Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino took over as Head Coach in the summer after the unfortunate return of Vilanova’s illness. With Neymar’s signing, there was little left to buy a replacement for Thiago (or a centre back or centre forward, at that), so Sergi Roberto has been brought up to play a somewhat deeper role than his most comfortable one and fill the fourth midfielder space. Martino’s changes have continued and noticeable, despite some detractors for ‘going against’ Barcelona’s traditional (read: Guardiola’s) way of playing.

 

They key difference in personnel between this Barcelona and the 2011 one is the wings. Where before there were Pedro, David Villa, Bojan and occasionally Iniesta, they are now Pedro, Alexis Sánchez, Neymar, Cristian Tello and occasionally Iniesta. More individualistic and dribbling-prone players, perfect for a more direct method. Behind them remains Fàbregas who, of course, is perfect for such an endeavour. And then there is the embodiment of Tiki-Taka; the unchangeable man that is Xavi.

 

Xavi is too important not to play most of the major games. For one thing, for a team with a relatively weak back line whose primary defensive strategy is retaining possession, his importance is almost on the level of Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets, even though he has decline. For another thing, he’s the best they have for that deep midfield position. Iniesta can play there, but it is a role with which he is not entirely familiar and is generally a better option in smaller, more open games. The same is true but to a far greater extent with Sergi Roberto. So Xavi plays. Even at 34, despite averaging 52 games a season over the last six, he almost always starts and generally plays much of, if not the full 90.

 

But at the same time, Xavi is not who he was a few years ago. He cannot control games as he did then, he is missing the dynamism and mobility he once had that allowed him to alter a game’s pace through the speed of his own passing and movement as he pleased. Well-drilled defensive sides have been far more able to disrupt the Xavi-Iniesta partnership of late. Too many times in the last couple of years, stagnant performances lacking in their former majesty from the pair have been bailed out by individual brilliance in the final third – mainly from Messi.

 

In the meantime, the question still remains as to what Barcelona’s best eleven is. The injuries to Messi and Iniesta meant they have not been able to test their various shuffles against the more major opposition. Even though Iniesta has had a few adaptation issues with Martino, anything Iniesta gives will almost always outweigh what Martino could believe to be lacking. While Pedro and Alexis are in such form and Neymar has impressed, Iniesta on the left is relatively unlikely. Yet the holy trinity of Xavi-Busquets-Iniesta have had the aforementioned issues; Fàbregas gives them that extra dimension. Fàbregas-Iniesta as a pairing leaves the defence too exposed against stronger attackers. It is a difficult one to solve – my expectation is Martino will either trust in a more advanced Iniesta with Xavi closer to Busquets, and Fàbregas either benched played up front, with Messi on the right. Or maybe being a bit bolder, and playing Iniesta starting from the left, interchanging with Fàbregas in the midfield.

Cesc Iniesta

Barcelona lost their true Xavi replacement last summer, and they won’t move forward until they find an alternative. İlkay Gündoğan is one who would fit in style but more significantly, would allow for greater versatility, fitting into a 1-2 midfield setup and even more comfortably into a 2-1, which would be ideal for Busquets, Fàbregas and Iniesta.

 

Gündoğan, or a player like him (good luck finding one of those) would be the optimal – assuming he does not suffer too greatly in the long-term from these injuries – especially if the rumours of Xavi’s departure to the New York Red Bulls have any truth. Even if not, they allow Xavi to remain at the highest level for far longer than forcing him to play 50 games a season would, and with less Xavi, shifts to greater directness would be even easier to facilitate.

 

Xavi has given Fàbregas the keys back this season after the lapse midway through last. If Barcelona can add a centre back, Gündoğan (or some other of that ilk) and a central striker to both cover Messi and allow more versatility alongside him, they will be the complete force again. A very different kind, but approaching similar supremacy.

 

All the while, adding a proper left-sided centre back to partner Gerard Piqué would free Javier Mascherano to play as Busquets’ backup (a vast improvement on Alex Song) and even his partner, allowing the Catalan to harness his more creative and expressive qualities, while keeping the defence well-protected at the same time.

 

Spain, too, must attempt to marginalise Xavi in an attempt to move forward. However, they have what Barcelona do not, in the form of the far greater pool of well-fitting players, including the dearly departed Thiago, himself. Busquets, Fàbregas and Iniesta are all, of course, ever-present in the squads. Xabi Alonso, Javi Martínez, Koke and even Santi Cazorla, Isco and Juan Mata, are all options for the spare spaces next to Busquets in the central midfield three.

 

Iniesta generally plays on the left-hand side, to wonderful effect and Busquets is constant, but Vicente del Bosque’s propensity to rotate steadily from game to game and his incredible depth of players makes it somewhat difficult to predict his next moves. He is generally loyal to his old guard, to the point where Fernando Torres has somehow not been given a restraining order from the squad/taken outside and shot. My prediction is that he will look to replicate Barcelona’s most-often used midfield set of Busquets, Xavi and Fàbregas, with Iniesta on the left, rather than a midfield of the trinity with Fàbregas up front.

 

It would allow Xavi to settle in as that more defensive player with Fàbregas, Iniesta and whoever is on the left or up front – most probably any two of Pedro or David Silva and Álvaro Negredo or Diego Costa (the latter is even tougher to call). Though, if Thiago keeps up his more recent form at club level, it will be difficult for Del Bosque not to play him, and perhaps even use him with Xavi and Busquets, pushing Fàbregas back up to the false 9 position.

 

It is easier for Spain than Barcelona both in the short and longer terms, after the Thiago fiasco, to work for a future without Xavi. While his slow descent marks the end of an incredible era for both his teams, it does not have to be an end to their supremacy. They have been Xavi’s sides for the greater part of the last decade. Now someone else, or a number of others must create something new and most importantly different, because there won’t ever be another quite like Xavi.

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Milan’s Messiah Returns From The Wilderness

Ricky K

To understand the love that exists between AC Milan, its fans and Kaká, there are few better instances to recall than the events of January 2009. As the year turned, every sports page and conversation was filled with talk about Manchester City’s bid for the Brazilian. Milan, engulfed by debts, had no option but to accept the £107million on offer. City’s wage to the player rumoured to be close to £500,000 a week.

 

During the weekend game that followed the reporting of City’s overtures, the fans had displayed banners reading “Kaká is priceless” and “Hands off Kaká”. On the next Wednesday, a typically cold winter evening in Milan, over 1000 Milanisti gathered outside his house in the city to implore him to stay. They got their wish; the evening ended with Kaká holding up a Milan shirt out the window, his name and number facing towards the crowd, gesturing towards his heart.

 

Not many players would have elicited such a forceful and affectionate reaction to rumours they were about to leave their clubs. Even fewer would have stayed. Although Milan’s desperate need to sell saw him leave for Real Madrid six months later, it was an exit filled with tears. Kaká’s sale did nothing to damage his deity status in his spiritual home. If anything, it was furthered: 15,000 season ticket holders did not renew after it.

 

There were similar scenes last week outside Milanello, as his re-signing was announced. The crowds were far smaller, but just like that night four and a half long years ago, it culminated in Kaká holding the red and black striped shirt towards the cheering and singing crowd. The number 22, which had been left vacant since his departure, was given straight back to him.

 

Many, myself included (regrettably), believed that Carlo Ancelotti’s arrival at Real Madrid would give his career with Los Blancos a new joie de vivre. As it happened, he was told that the purchases of Isco and Gareth Bale meant there was no room for him, despite Mesut Özil’s sale to Arsenal. As Real were now turning their backs, there was no doubt as to where Kaká would go.

 

Milan and Real Madrid had attempted to negotiate a loan for the Brazilian in January. Kaká had already agreed a significant paycut until Real demanded money that Milan did not have (read: some), and the deal collapsed. The difference this summer was that Real were willing to let him go for free. He took a cut of over 50%, from around €10million to €4million per year. He could have earned more elsewhere, but the calls from home and the chance to reignite the old romance were too much to ignore.

 

As previously discussed, Kaká had a rough time of it in Madrid, but he is far from broken. Since their parting in 2009, Milan themselves have also had a less-than steady time of it. Similarly for both of them, a sole league title has been unable to cover the deep-set issues. For the club, these problems stretched to a financial chasm. But, like their returned hero, the promises of greater things are upon them once more.

 

Milan, still as poor as Silvio Berlusconi’s case for the defence, have had to go a new way around team building: their focus has been shifted more onto youth development and cheaper, riskier imports, ranging from the youthful and/or less tested (such as Riccardo Saponara and Andrea Poli) to the more expensive, but perceived damaged goods (Kaká, Mario Balotelli).

 

Adriano Galliani boldly proclaimed at the summer’s start that the plan was to move the first team to a 4-3-1-2. This was, of course, the primary formation under which they achieved so much success under Carlo Ancelotti. Kaká was at its heart, mostly playing as the ‘1’, but occasionally as a second striker, in times of need. He will make up for the final third creativity they have been missing, as well as being the key to enabling this formational change. There will be no problems fitting him in with Milan’s already-established regulars, or even ingratiating him into a wildly different system – it is just a copy of the one that was built for him.

 

Highly warranted worries about their defence notwithstanding, they have managed to put together a very impressive side. There is a squad lacks depth (and some quality) in the defensive areas, but with Mattia De Sciglio, Stephan El Shaarawy and Mario Balotelli they have a core of fantastic young players, and lifelong Milan fans. And with them, there are the likes of captain Riccardo Montolivo, Nigel De Jong, Giampaolo Pazzini and Kaká himself, providing their own ability, with experience.

 

That said, the defence cannot be brushed over entirely. It was starting to look like a far stronger unit at the end of last season, but they remain inconsistent and worrying. De Jong’s presence and the systemic changes will see them better protected, and time together will hopefully have put them more and more at ease in eachothers’ company. Though I’ll believe that one when I see it.

 

Milan saw how reunions can go when Andriy Shevchenko came back and scored just 2 in 26 games, none of which came in the league. But with Kaká the risk is far less, and the gains are potentially far greater. Kaká is almost a human morale boost for Milan now. With austerity having been thrust upon them, Kaká must now lead a younger and weaker Milan back to the top, just as he did the great and powerful one of his first spell.

 

A Scudetto remains highly unlikely this season, but they will have a far greater say in proceedings than they did last term. It is easy to forget that in 2013, they lost just one in 19 – and that was against Juventus. Balotelli’s influence was quickly felt. Perhaps Kaká’s will be, too. Significant problems remain, but they are stronger than they were last season. If they can play like they did in its second half and meet some luck, their challenge will have more strength to it, to say the least. Or maybe, as was so often their way, Kaká and Milan will excel in the Champions League.

 

Kaká and Milan has always been the most symbiotic of relationships. They have always managed to enhance and bring the best from one other. The adoration is shared and unquestionable. At this point, they need eachother. Kaká can’t give what he did upon his arrival 8 years ago, but at 31 he is still a very special player. Milan’s young side has their figurehead. Kaká is back on his throne.


The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of Ricky Kaká

Ricky Kaká

As the rumours about Real Madrid’s attempts to sign Gareth Bale continue and grow, the mind is cast back to the summer of 2009. After watching Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona complete their incredible and unprecedented Treble, Real Madrid – namely newly re-elected President Florentino Pérez – decided that the time had come for action. Pérez has never been acquainted with the virtues of subtlety and understatement. His approach to that summer was the transfer market’s equivalent to a party at Gatsby’s. The extravagance and largesse that has always been synonymous with Real Madrid was turned up to eleven and condensed into two eventful months.

 

Within that two months, they broke the world transfer record twice – the one they had set themselves in 2001 with the signing of Zinedine Zidane. Despite not being Pérez’s choice, Manuel Pellegrini arrived as manager. Alongside the arrivals of Raúl Albiol (£15m) Karim Benzema (£30m) and Xabi Alonso (£35m) came the two record breakers: first Kaká for £56m and a few weeks later, Cristiano Ronaldo for £80m. Naturally Ronaldo, the eventual record maintainer, the one for whom they had waited an extra year, stole all the headlines.

 

It ended up being somewhat prophetic for how their respective careers have gone in the Spanish capital. Ronaldo always the man at the front (with good reason), and Kaká shunted away from centre stage. They have both remained on the trajectories that started there: Ronaldo’s stock somehow ever-rising, Kaká pushed further and further out of sight – first by Ronaldo, then by Mesut Özil, but mostly by his knees.

 

His first season was filled with inconsistency and injury, the latter generally giving way to the former. His adapting process was steady and also harmed by his knee issues. In Pérez’s own words, Real had “to do in one year what we would normally [have done] in three”. The player turnover was quite something. They introduced the aforementioned set of nuevo galacticos, while letting 10 first team players go, including Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Fabio Cannavaro (the former two funnily going on to win the Champions League at their respective new clubs).

 

The team as a whole would’ve been forgiven (well, would’ve been by rational people) for starting slowly or falling to inconsistency. Thanks to Pellegrini’s excellent management, they put together 8 wins in their first 10, climbing to the top at a couple of points, and always close behind Barcelona when second. They finished with a then-La Liga record 96 points. Only Barcelona themselves finished with a new La Liga record of 99 points. It was an admirable fight, but ultimately a fruitless one. They were also knocked out of the Champions League by Olympique Lyonnais in the first knockout round, and fell to a shock two-leg loss to Alcorcón in the Copa del Rey. Pellegrini did what Pellegini does: a fantastic job, but unfortunately with no medals to show for it. Pérez sent him on his way.

 

The rest of the side’s consistency made up for Kaká’s lack of it. Pellegrini experimented with a number of different systems. Kaká was placed in his favoured number 10 role and on both wings as the team around him settled. He struggled to adapt quickly and only started 21 league games, on account of the injuries. His 9 goals and 6 assists were an adequate return, but he was outshone for most of the season by Rafael van der Vaart. The excuses were both present and viable. There was criticism but the calls for patience just about made themselves heard over it.

Ricky Kaka celebrate

Before he could get fit, he had the 2010 World Cup. He was at the centre of Brazil’s side and their hopes ahead of the tournament, but his World Cup was similar to his domestic season: subdued and disrupted. His performances were not up to his own high standards, although he did register two assists. He was farcically sent off in the group match against Côte d’Ivoire but only missed the dead rubber against Portugal. He simply wasn’t himself, and the knee surgery he so desperately needed took place shortly after Brazil’s loss to the Netherlands.

 

The diagnosis was that he would spend four months out. The scene to which he returned was markedly different from the one he had left: José Mourinho had taken Pellegrini’s place, and after a sensational World Cup, Özil had taken his. Mourinho had clearer ideas and a far more settled squad upon arriving, while Özil had the advantage of not being injured when trying to earn his place. He made a highly impressive start to his career in Madrid and has grown into one of the best attacking midfielders in the world. Mourinho experimented briefly with attempting to fit Kaká and Özil into the same side, but in a system built for Ronaldo, one of them would invariably be too cut off from the play and struggle to make impact from wide, or alternatively they would inhibit eachother in the central areas.

 

Kaká made just 11 league starts that season and did not feature in the 1-0 Copa del Rey final win over Barcelona. Just over 18 months after becoming the most expensive player of all time, he was reduced to a bench player, through little fault of his own. Or anyone’s, beyond misfortune. Özil was and has since been far too good to even consider dropping, while Kaká himself has shown many, many times that he still has it, but generally in the same manner he did in his first season: momentarily. With Özil’s brilliance, Kaká has rarely had a run of games, and the flashes of his old self he has shown in his starts and (more often) introductions from the bench have been just that. Too fleeting, yet never given the chance to grow into anything more.

 

He had more of a role in the 11/12 season, but was still unable to push his way ahead of the ever-improving Özil. There were games when it finally looked as though he was truly back, but that they are remembered now with more rue than triumph by most indicates just for how long he was indeed ‘back’. He had a significant, if not exactly major, role in Real breaking another points total (this time making 100) and finally clutching the title back from Barcelona. La Décima remained the coveted entity; they took Bayern Munich to a semi final penalty shootout but Kaká, along with Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos, missed their penalties and left Bayern with the home final Real themselves had so desired two years before.

 

12/13 was more of a decline back into the form and rare gametime of 10/11 than the progress 11/12 had promised. Özil remained exceptional. Kaká’s chances were even more limited by this and the arrival of Luka Modrić. Real descended into domestic disarray by February, while La Décima slipped away again as they lost to Borussia Dortmund. When trailing 4-1 on aggregate with half an hour left in the second leg, Kaká was introduced and had a big hand in their first goal and turning the pressure up on Dortmund, who just about held together despite Real clawing it back to 4-3 with a few minutes left. The long, drawn out and painful death of Mourinho’s era was complete, and now it was another new start for Real and Kaká.

Kaka Carlo

In January 2012, it looked very much as though Kaká time in Spain would meet its end, or at least come to an intermission of sorts. Kaká’s home came searching for its lost son. Not Brazil, but Milan. But it was not the Milan he had known. It was an indebted shadow of its former self, scraping up pennies to try and reclaim the riches it had lost. They could not afford Kaká’s fee, or even his wages, but they aimed to negotiate a loan with Real. Kaká had agreed a paycut to return; the clubs couldn’t reach a financial settlement to let him do so. And so he stayed, surely just wasting his time on the bench for however long it would end up being.

 

During the glorious years at Milan, Kaká became the world’s greatest. He was the most elegant, the cleverest; blessed with fantastic vision and technical ability. A wonderful dribbler and passer with a truly phenomenal awareness of space and other players in the opposition half, and always able to score plenty. Yet he made no sense. He was not a number 10 in the truest sense, although that was his nominal position. He needed complete freedom and a setup that protected his near-total inability to defend and played to his undying determination to push the play forward, which is also part of why he struggled in Mourinho’s more rigid 4-2-3-1. He was worth all the provisions. He could yet prove that he still is.

 

His stream of successes at Milan were mainly thanks to the manager who knew him best and knew exactly how to get the best from him: Carlo Ancelotti. Pérez’s decision to give ‘Carletto’ the Real job was possibly the only thing that could have saved Kaká’s Real Madrid career. Ancelotti has already indicated that Kaká is doing extra work on his speed, which was one of his most valuable assets during his prime and has been damaged by the injuries. Kaká himself has said that they have had encouraging conversations about the year ahead.

 

To revive the magnificence of the Kaká who signed for Real Madrid is probably impossible, but that does not mean he must forever remain the wasted former star, turned irrelevant understudy. He has been thrown a chance most assumed impossible and although there exists massive competition for places, Kaká has as good a chance as any he has ever had to remind the world why he was widely accepted its best, and to make himself a part of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s plans again, ahead of the World Cup. With the help of the man who once described him as “even smarter” than Zidane, chances will not be lacking; all that remains is for him to justify them.


The De Sciglio of Tranquility

De Sciglio

A search for a modern full back who excels in both attacking and defending yields few results. The worldwide desire for attacking football, although not universally recognised at the highest levels, dictates that most full backs are converted wingers, who do not have the attacking prowess to make it further forward, but have use further back. Alternatively, they are reared under the idea that a full back’s main purpose is to be an attacking outlet, and so defending is focussed on less. As a result, there are far more of Glen Johnson’s ilk than of Philipp Lahm’s.

 

Ignazio Abate is far more similar to the former, although he is significantly better. He is a good right back who has the ability to add another level of threat to AC Milan’s attack when he is on form, while being defensively okay, if fallible under pressure. As if Milan did not have enough problems at the season’s start – especially in the defence – he suffered an ankle injury which led to him missing a few of their opening games.

 

There was little to smile about during Milan’s 1-0 home loss to Sampdoria on the season’s opening day. Daniele Bonera, Mario Yepes and Robinho all started; the misery of the Milanisti seemed to have osmosed itself onto the sandy mess of the San Siro pitch and the team appeared to have nothing that could change that. Only the 20 year old right back, fittingly just rewarded with the number 2 shirt, provided any relief from the negativity. His exemplary positioning, intelligent runs and eye-catching crosses were a patch of well-mown green on a muddy potato field.

 

Mattia De Sciglio understands more than most the “importance” of wearing the number 2 for Milan, and has spoken of his wish to follow in the path left for him by Mauro Tassotti and Cafù. He grew up in Rozzano, a small town in the Province of Milan, just a 20 minute drive from San Siro. A lifelong Milan supporter, his youth was filled, like so many others’, with dreams of representing them and emulating his idol Paolo Maldini.

 

When he turned 10 he joined the Milan academy. He rose through every team in every age bracket before being included in the first team squad and making his debut at the age of 18 last season. His numerical movement at the start of this year was the start of his greater involvement in the first team.

 

He is the poster boy for Adriano Galliani’s ‘Project Youth’ (also known as ‘Operation: Oh Shit, We Have No Money’) both on and off the pitch, to a greater degree than the fantastic Stephan El Shaarawy given longer-standing ties to the club.

 

The aforementioned injury to Abate and loss to Sampdoria, along with with games against Bologna and Anderlecht were his initial breakthrough. An injury to Luca Antonini opened up time for him to showcase his ability at left back as and when he was needed there, while Abate himself was in and out of fitness. The circumstances had conspired to give him a chance to give him a run in the first team far earlier than even he could have hoped, but not once has he looked scared, out-of-place or overawed. In the difficult early months, he and El Shaarawy gave some early encouragement to the new-found belief in youth.

 

De Sciglio is a distinctive figure on the ball. He has the height of a centre back, the breadth of a flagpole and an odd, but graceful running style which allows him to cover ground very quickly. His standout quality is his calmness, especially for someone of his age. His having started out as a centre back is evident in his exceptional reading of the game, tackling and aerial strength. It is rare to see him slide into tackles. He specialises in the standing challenge; his ambidexterity means he is comfortable enough to lead into them with either foot. He is a fantastic defender in the making.

 

He has stated that he prefers to play on the left-hand side, which allows him to cut in onto his favoured right foot when further forward, although I am of the belief that he is stronger at right back. The few times he has been caught out and made errors – examples of this were his being drawn inside for Luis Fabiano’s first goal in his first game for the Italian National team (though that error excepted, he was excellent) and penalty he conceded in the 2-2 draw at Fiorentina – have come when he has been on the left side. At this point, he adds greater attacking threat on the right side, with his deliveries on that foot being better than with his left.

 

These errors remain firmly in the memory because they were such rarities. His self-assurance, despite his mere 36 professional games for club and country, is astounding. His aptitude and tranquil nature are made even more impressive by the defences he has had alongside him. Having any combination of Philippe Mexès, Yepes, Bonera and Cristián Zapata next to you is not something that would fill any sane individual with mounds of confidence, but he has defied them.

 

He has shown great promise going forward, too; the most noticeable facet of this being his brilliant crossing. He has been Milan’s fourth highest chance creator this season, but the presence he adds – or, more accurately, should add more – in this area is the closest thing to a weakness in his game. It must be said that, like his comfort on his weaker foot, this has noticeably improved through the season. While being a primarily defensive player, he is good in attack, but does not add the same threat as someone like Abate just yet. That being said, if the swift improvement he has shown in his attacking this season continues, it will not be long before he conquers his counterpart in yet another department.

 

The greatest testament to De Sciglio’s rise, more so than his rise from novice to the Azzurri in just 7 months, was the Abate to Zenit St. Petersburg deal in January that eventually never actually happened. The fact that Milan were willing to sell the 26 year old and trust De Sciglio to be their first choice right back, with the arriving Cristian Zaccardo as his backup, says all it needs to about how highly he is regarded at Milanello.

 

Quite shockingly, the young, talented, Italian, lifelong-Milan-supporting defender has been labelled as the ‘New Paolo Maldini’ by some. The comparison helps no one, in reality but, like his hero, De Sciglio may join the pantheon of one club men. His best performances have come in the Milan derby and in the win at home to Juventus, as well as having a very strong game overall against Brazil – he holds no fear of any opposition. And he has no reason to do so.

 

His mature style translates to his wider being. There is often an inherent danger in indulging a young player in excessive praise while he still has so much to learn, though De Sciglio remains level-headed and grounded, eager to improve and aware of his own potential. He is in the perfect environment to thrive: Milan are providing a platform for young players and hold great belief in him. He is a phenomenal talent; at a time when so few in his position are really capable in both attacking and defending, he stands out as an exception to this already.

 

And who knows, in 20 years time, maybe the 2 will join the 3 and the 6.


Magnificent Martínez and the Munich Machine

Javier Martínez

In a recent interview, Bastian Schweinsteiger said of his club that “in Munich we play to win”. There has never been a culture of accepting second best at Bayern, which only goes further to emphasise how truly disastrous last May was for the club. The Bundesliga had been lost, yet again, to Borussia Dortmund, who were to play them in the DFB-Pokal final, with the Champions League final in their own stadium against Chelsea a week later. There is unlikely to have been a worse week in the modern history of the club. An unquestionable 5-2 battering in the former, and history’s biggest and luckiest heist in the latter and Bayern were left weeping into the spoils of their season.

 

The squad boasted magnificent talent across the pitch, but its flaws were fairly open. The clearest was the level of depth and quality at centre back. This, in the main, was addressed early, before the May collapse, with the €5million signing of Dante from Borussia Mönchengladbach (though some would argue that there is still another signing needed there). Another was the depth in the forward positions, especially with Ivica Olić’s impending departure. The re-signing of Claudio Pizzaro after 5 years away was confirmed at the season’s close and after an impressive Euro 2012, Mario Mandžukić was brought in.

 

With them was Xherdan Shaqiri, signed as the long-term replacement to Arjen Robben, for around €11million, which had been announced the previous February. By June, there were at least two players of high quality in every position; there looked to be little need for upgrades.

 

Towards the end of the month, rumours emerged that they were chasing Javi Martínez from Athletic Bilbao. Barring a sale in the defensive midfield area, where they already had Luiz Gustavo and Anatoliy Tymoschuk, it just seemed somewhat unneeded (though it is not as if that has been a deterrent for Bayern before) especially for what Athletic were set to demand for their best player, and the excellent season Gustavo had just had. Bayern had hoped to get the deal done for around €25million, but such was their wish to get the 24 year old on board, they agreed – amid much controversy – to pay his €40million release clause.

 

To be the player for whom the club known as ‘FC Hollywood’ broke their transfer record is no mean feat. Some felt that €40million was too much to pay for a player who had never played in the Champions League, or even outside of Bilbao; others, including the chiefs at Bayern, took the view that someone of his talents and of his age could be a mainstay in the side for the next ten years. Thus far, he has more than justified his fee.

 

Gustavo is the more typical ‘destroyer’ defensive midfielder: he is an exceptional tackler and marker, as well as having a strong range of passing. He relies more on these than his reading of the game and anticipation which, although good, are simply not on the same level as Martínez’s. The same is also true for his passing and his ability to protect the ball and carry it forward. The Basque is much more of an all-rounder, and far stronger and faster in turning defence into attack.

 

The most apt stylistic comparison between Martínez and another, made by the 24 year old himself, is with Patrick Vieira. A lazy man could characterise both as pure holding players, based on their physical power and defensive talents, but in reality they both epitomise the ideal box-to-box midfielder. It is extremely difficult to find that combination of supreme technical talent, unstoppable physique and extreme intelligence that the two both possess. Martínez has the same capability to burst forward, following Vieira’s example in using his strength and skill to do so, and has it within him to reach similar heights to those Vieira did in his brilliant career.

 

While deployed in the midfield anchor role, sitting deeper than Schweinsteiger, Martínez shares more of the German’s characteristics than Gustavo, taking some of the creative and transitional onus from him. This can be seen as limiting Bayern’s vice-captain somewhat, but he remains the key figure of the whole side, on whom so much of their play hinges, and the presence of both makes Bayern a far more layered threat. With him marginally more ‘limited’ they are a stronger collective defensively, and Martínez’s own quality mean they have not been hamstrung by losing some of his attacking influence, in instances. They are perfect midfield pivot.

 

With regard to their improvement as a defensive unit, the stats seemingly need little development, but any they get only makes them more impressive. The mere 13 goals they have conceded in the 28 league games they have played this season is impressive enough, but is made more so by the fact that only four of them have them have come in Martínez’s 1482 minutes on the pitch, meaning they average a goal conceded every 370.5 minutes with him there. By contrast, the average in the time he is off is a goal conceded every 105.3 minutes (9 goals in 948 minutes).

 

Within those four goals, one was a penalty, conceded via a mistake by Jérôme Boateng (which, perhaps most impressively of all, have been kept to a minimum this year) in the 1-1 draw with Borussia Mönchengladbach; a goal by Mario Götze vs BVB after some poor marking at a corner and the two in the 9-2 müllering (pun intended) of Hamburg SV when they were already 7-0 and 9-1 up respectively this weekend. Martínez is still yet to meet with defeat in the Bundesliga, and has only been confronted with it twice since moving: in their shock 1-3 loss to BATE Borisov (although he was taken off at 0-1 down) and in Arsenal’s 0-2 triumph at the Allianz Arena, which was an uncharacteristically poor game for him, deployed further forward in the ‘Schweinsteiger role’.

 

The centre of midfield is the most important position in almost every top team. Around the fantastic plinth of the Martínez-Schweinsteiger axis, Bayern have one of Europe’s finest sides. If they are not the strongest team in Europe then they are certainly the strongest squad. For Arjen Robben, despite his many, many, many, many flaws, to only perhaps find a run of games in the team – if Xherdan Shaqiri does not manage make the space his own – now Toni Kroos has picked up an injury and Thomas Müller will move infield from the right hand side, is a huge testament to the phenomenal depth in their squad, and the talent within it.

 

Both have been reflected in their results this season. They have dropped points on just four occasions (three draws, one loss) and stand just days from potentially securing the Bundesliga title. The DFB-Pokal semi-final awaits them against Wolfsburg, with Dortmund already having been vanquished in the quarters. Meanwhile, they hold a 2-0 lead in the Champions League quarter final against Juventus.

 

It will take a lot for the ghosts of last May to be exorcised entirely – the scars from the latter final may never heal – but if they continue as they have, their pain could pull them over the line. The willingness to pay the full €40million for Martínez last summer has been reflective of their ruthlessness through the season. The constant reminder of their late switch-offs will keep them focussed and driven for the last six weeks of the season. And now it is time for their amends to be made.


Stevan Jovetić: The Greatness Ahead

Jovetic

Around a month ago, Serie A was a very different place to the one it is now. Napoli were finally looking as though they were putting together some sort of legitimate challenge to Juventus for the Scudetto which would, if nothing else, assure both of the top two spots in the table; AC Milan, newly equipped with Mario Balotelli, were continuing their fantastic recovery from their awful start to the season, flying towards the Champions League places, just as Inter’s dip took on a new toll as their only true ‘number 9’ Diego Milito was (shockingly) ruled out for the remainder of the season. Lazio had suffered a similar fate, losing Miroslav Klose for a few months, leaving them without a goalscorer, which has seen them recede in their charge for Champions League football.

 

In the meantime, sixth-placed Fiorentina, fresh from a 2-1 away loss to Bologna, appeared to be relying on all three of those teams to collapse and they to be pretty great themselves if they were to make the top three. It had been an inconsistent year, but in the first full season of Vincenzo Montella’s new project, this was of not representative of any great crisis, but did present a worry as to the future of their best player. A month on, they sit in fourth, just three points behind Milan and five from Napoli, whose own collapse has been quite something to behold.

 

Their rise up the table has had its roots in Stevan Jovetić’s return to form. Like the team as a whole, he has had a patchy season thus far. It started strongly, with him scoring 5 in his first 7 league games, all of which came with him playing in a two-striker system. With Luca Toni and Mounir El Hamdaoui he was very much the ‘number 10’ and it was then where the goals flowed most. By contrast, with Adem Ljajić, who is usually somewhere between an attacking midfielder and a winger, they played in a more rotatory manner, with both capable of playing deeper and further forward. Mostly, however, this saw Jovetić, the far stronger in front of goal, sit further up while Ljajić got to grips with the position. This led to Jovetić pushed further away from the play, reflected by his generally low goalscoring alongside the Serbian in the first half of the season. At the time, it was a relationship that greatly benefitted neither party.

 

The number 10 role is widely regarded as the position in which Jovetć is most comfortable. Much of his career has been divided between there and time on the left wing, which has allowed him to develop his creative tendencies and hone his ability to beat players. This year looked as if it was to be the breakthrough campaign for his goalscoring which has been solid, if not prolific, through his time in Tuscany.

 

He missed six weeks from early November after picking up a thigh injury, but he still managed to score a few goals either side of the injury. There is a misconception where Jovetić is concerned that he is an injury-prone player, thanks to the cruciate knee ligament tear in 2010 which ruled him out of the 10/11 season. He had a few minor muscular problems across the 11/12 season, but these are commonplace for players recovering from long-term injuries. Otherwise, the aforementioned thigh issue has very much been an outlier this year.

 

In more recent weeks, he has been used at the centre of a three striker system, as a ‘9.5’ style of centre forward, in the mould of both Robin van Persie and Karim Benzema last season, respectively, when the former was used in a more creative capacity by Arsenal and when the latter remembered how to be good at football. This sort of system is difficult for a team to adjust to, as it requires the whole side to be accustomed to having their striker spend most of his time closer to the midfield than the penalty area, as well as said striker having a strong understanding with his wingers, who are needed to operate more centrally, and the key creators behind them.

 

Jovetić and Ljajić very steadily established a strong partnership during their time played as a pair, and their respective moves into positions that, it could be argued, suit them better has seen them both flourish to a greater degree. Jovetić has maintained his total positional freedom, only now he has more space to use it. Not reflected in the stats is that he is visibly learning his new role as he goes, but is picking it up quickly. The only struggles he appears to be having with it is trying to be close to the main midfield creators David Pizzaro, Alberto Aquilani and Borja Valero (or whichever one, two or even three of which are on at any given point), all of whom are deeper-lying playmakers rather than classic number 10s.

 

So Jovetić is occasionally forced to sit deeper than even most ‘false 9s’, but this is becoming less and less of a problem as his understanding develops with the aforementioned midfielders. One stat that does bear this out is the fact that they have scored 9 goals in the 4 games in which Jovetić has been used at centre forward.

 

The mention of Van Persie gains more credence with a comparison between the two players. Both came through as number 10s who were comfortable on the wings; both are extraordinarily technically blessed and with a outstanding ability to manipulate space. With Thomas Müller, Jovetić is the closest thing to the Dutchman outside of the man himself. The Montenegrin’s movement is similarly brilliant outside the penalty area and he shares his excellent vision, creativity and ability to bring his teammates into play. Jovetić, however, is more able to beat players, while the former Feyenoord man remains stronger (at least at the moment) in most other departments.

 

Van Persie did not adapt instantly to the centre forward role and in his early days there; he assisted far more than he scored. His deep movement was as brilliant as ever it was, but it took him a while to crack where to place himself in the area. Once he did, the goals arrived. And, at first wonderfully and now most irritatingly, they have barely stopped. The same is currently, and will certainly become true of Jovetić. His goals have almost all come from outside of the 18-yard box across his career and when he combines this with the poacher’s instincts, which he is more than clever enough to learn, he will be near-unstoppable, and it will reflect in his goal record.

 

The similarities with Van Persie go their way to further explaining Arsenal’s apparent interest in him. His ability further back also make him ideal for Manchester City’s and Juventus’ (the two other seemingly interested parties) preferred two-striker systems.

 

For Arsenal he would play a role similar to his new one for La Viola, only with the main playmakers closer to him. He would combine extremely well with Santi Cazorla who himself has shown great improvement in his finishing and positioning in the area in recent weeks, as well as Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski, as wingers who prefer the inside track to providing pure width themselves.

 

For City, assuming Roberto Mancini is still in charge, and Juventus, he would fit in very easily, but would not be utilised as the key goalscorer. Rather, he would be used in the more creative role. At City, a combination of David Silva and he switching between going wide and moving centrally within games could be marvellous to behold. In Turin, he would play as a better alternative to or replacement for Sebastian Giovinco, with the similar penchant for making play from wide areas.

 

Any move to either (the former being far more likely than the latter given the history between Juventus and Fiorentina) would probably be negative for his development as a ‘9.5’, but would not damage him overall: he is far too good not to get the playing time required to excel at whichever, should he make the move.

 

He is not, at this point, a 30-goal a season striker: he is in the process of becoming one. He could become the archetype of the modern, complete centre forward, capable of scoring and assisting in equal measure. He may still remain in Florence – which would be more likely should they achieve Champions League football – but whichever teams he does end up at will have a magnificent player. Fiorentina appear to be demanding €30million for him. Should any pay that, it could be the best €30million they ever spent.


No Manager Mo Problems: They Think It’s All Vilan-Over

FC Barcelona v Real Madrid CF - Copa Del Rey - Semi Final Second Leg

THE BARCELONA PROJECT IS FINISHED. DONE. LA MASIA? OVERRATED. THE TEAM RELIES ON MESSI AND HE’S BEEN FOUND OUT. FÀBREGAS IS DESTROYING BOTH HIS AN INIESTA’S CAREERS. FÀBREGAS IS BLOWING BARCELONA’S HOUSE OF CARDS OVER. XAVI AND PUYOL ARE TOO OLD. BURN IT ALL DOWN. BEST TEAM EVER? NOT EVEN THE BEST TEAM IN CATALONIA. THE EXPERIMENT IS FINISHED. I’M OFF TO FIND A NEW BANDWAGON. ALL HAIL BAYERN AND THEIR GLORIOUS MAGNIFICENCE.

 

That may seem somewhat overstated as a reaction to Barcelona’s current plight, but take away the capital letters and a worryingly little amount of sensationalism and you have a verdict very similar to those of a few of the actual journalists on my Twitter during the most recent episode of El Clásico. It was as hilarious as it was infuriating, and a few of the comments on Cesc Fàbregas and Andrés Iniesta’s respective performances went their way to showing up the actual watchers from the pseuds. Barcelona, for once, have been this week’s Arsenal Lite, for all the oh-so occasional viewers opportunistically looking to gain a few views by throwing their two cents at anyone they think may pick them up.  And no, that isn’t what I’m doing here!

 

A few things worth noting at this point: Barcelona are 15 points clear at the top in La Liga before the end of February; they have lost a game in a cup competition that is not particularly well-regarded – although it was admittedly a full side and an emphatic loss – and are 2-0 down, with a home leg looming, against arguably the poorest (yet confidence-filled) AC Milan side in a generation which they are more than capable of overcoming. Quite the crisis for the crumbling empire. Are they still the best side in Europe? Undoubtedly, even if not on current form.

 

Before Tito Vilanova’s cancer relapse and subsequent absence from the sidelines (since mid-January), they had played 20 league games, winning 18 of them and drawing and losing just one: against Real Madrid and Real Sociedad, respectively. As well as this, they amassed four wins, one loss and a draw in a dead rubber against Benfica in the Champions League. They were more ruthless than previous forms of themselves – I wrote about their philosophical shift in this, focussing mainly on Fàbregas and Xavi Hernández – and on the evidence provided, potentially even more effective. Since Vilanova’s absense they dropped two points against Valencia, and despite winning the remaining five in the league, they fell to the two aforementioned cup losses against Milan and Real Madrid.

 

What the raw stats only capture in part is the difference in how strong they looked in the two periods. While the sample sizes are significantly smaller, their falling behind and points dropped at Mestalla and cup performances, with the uncharacteristically scrappy nature of the wins against Sevilla and Granada are demonstrative of this. There can be no disputing the fact that they have looked disjointed and tactically confused since his departure, and no two have epitomised this more than Fàbregas and Iniesta.

 

Without guidance from Vilanova, the team has become almost self-managing, reverting, with Xavi’s guidance, back to a style far closer to Pep Guardiola’s than the one adopted this season. But Jordi Roura, presumably operating under his boss’ instructions, is fielding the team built for Vilanova’s more direct method: namely with Fàbregas in the midfield next to Xavi, Iniesta out on the left and David Villa on the bench. So much of what made their style so effective was their strength in midfield, specifically the Xavi-Iniesta partnership, and how well- versed the two are at playing a lateral style, not to mention their near-telepathic relationship. Fàbregas, however, prefers the more direct route and does his best creative work high up the pitch.

 

The problem lies in that without Vilanova, they feel the need to bring Iniesta into play wherever and whenever possible, which sees him sit slightly deeper and further infield, which inhibits Fàbregas’ space and in turn leads to Fàbregas inhibiting Iniesta’s. The fact that the former Arsenal captain has scored just one of his 9 goals and not added to his 9 assists speaks to this, just as Iniesta contributing just 1 goal and 2 assists to his total of 5 and 13 does. And a further looks shows that the goal and one of the assists came in the 6-1 thrashing of Getafe and the second assist was when they were already 3-0 down to Real Madrid. The effectiveness of both has suffered considerably.

 

It is important to note their pre-Vilanova-absence stats to make clear that Iniesta has not been marginalised in Fàbregas’ name. Far from it; both had been more effective than they had been in some time. In fact, Iniesta has produced the same number of goals and four more assists than he did all of last season. And similarly, Fàbregas is already on the same number of goals and is one assist better off than the whole of last season. Of course, the stats never tell the full story, but their respective levels of productivity being higher this February than they were last May says a lot of what it needs to.

 

So what is the solution, until Vilanova is back? Without him they have no one to direct the way he wants them to play, so they are stuck between the two ways. Roura cannot change games as the pair preceding him could, nor set up in different ways to counter their opponents. His best hope is probably to drop the unfortunate Fàbregas and bring Villa on in his place, moving Iniesta inside, back to Guardiola’s preferred setup.

 

If nothing else, recent events should put to bed the myth that anyone can manage Barcelona and with it should increase the appreciation for the job Guardiola did and Vilanova was doing and will hopefully continue to do upon his return. They have another Clásico this evening and the Milan second leg in 10 days time, both of which are very difficult to call. But reports of Barcelona’s demise are greatly exaggerated. Some may think it’s all over, but in reality it is far, far from it.