How a Chain Smoking Coach and Bad Milk Changed Barcelona’s Fortunes

I have watched a lot of football through the years and seen thousands of goals but for some strange reason one strike plays back time and time again. Ronald Koeman’s thunderous cup winning strike against Sampdoria in the 1992 European Cup final wasn’t the prettiest but it was enough to engrain it forever in my memory as a great goal. Perhaps it wasn’t Koeman’s goal at all that I remember, instead the team he played in, one of the great Barcelona sides of the past thirty years. Laudrup, Stoichkov, Salinas, Giokoetxea, Zubizarreta and Guardiola all in the same team, as part of Barca’s first ever dream team.

Led by Dutch icon Johan Cruyff who revolutionized Spanish football by introducing the 3-4-3 formation focusing on technical ability and finesse more than stature and graft, Barca’s history would be forever changed. Cruyff’s decision to change the tactical direction of the club at all levels fundamentally paved the way from the product line of superstars that Barcelona now relies on. Messi, Iniesta, Xavi and Thiago would never have been considered in the old approach where only players of 5ft 9in and above would make the cut, regardless of technical style and ability. Building from the back, Cruyff started to build a team of champions all with the mindset of scoring more than their opposition.  Cruyff argued that it did not make sense for a flat back four to defend against two strikers, whilst the same happened at the other end so his switch to three centre backs allowed more players to be pushed up field. Now with three forwards and two support wingers, Cruyff understood that opposition defenses would not be able to cope and Barcelona could create more chances to score. The chain smoking coach, who was often spotted on the sidelines during a game with a cigarette hanging from his mouth, placed emphasis on talented ball passers like Pep Guardiola and José Mari Bakero, employed in the centre of the park specifically to keep the ball moving and spread the ball wide to creative wide players like Michael Laudrup, Txiki Begiristain and Ion Andoni Goikoetxea. Once in possession, the trio were able to run at defenses with pace and conviction creating chances for the strikers. His system worked to a degree but it wasn’t until the introduction of Bulgarian legend Hristo Stoichkov that his plan was complete. The temperamental Bulgarian who was known in the media as mala leche (Bad Milk in Spanish) transformed Barcelona’s attacking play and played a pivotal role in their success.

The dream team was officially born at Wembley as Cruyff’s Barcelona took on Sampdoria in the European Cup final in 1992. Koeman’s strike, deep into extra time gave Barcelona it’s first European Cup and paved the way for future Barcelona sides. As Koeman positioned the ball, just a few meters’ from the 18 yard line with Juan Carlos and Stoichkov hovering nearby, he paused briefly to examine the scene. In front of him was a five man wall, positioned perfectly by Sampdoria goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca to cover his left hand post. Pagliuca moved over to the right hand post and took up his position, comfortable in the knowledge that he had all the angles covered. Or so he thought. Koeman’s short run up and thunderous strike flew past the diving Italian stopper and crashed into the net to give Barcelona the lead. As the Barcelona players celebrated, Cruyff (who had switched from smoking cigarettes to sucking on lollipops after undergoing double heart bypass surgery in 1991) rose from the bench and made his way towards the race track that surrounded the old Wembley to applaud his players but in a way also to bask in the glory as he knew that that strike would change the clubs fortunes forever and cement his place as an iconic manager.

During his eight year reign, Cruyff secured 11 trophies including four La Liga titles, one Copa Del Rey, three Supercopa de España, the Cup Winners Cup, European Cup and European Super Cup, making him one of Barcelona’s greatest ever coaches. Whilst his departure from the club was less than ceremonious, Cruyff remains a legend to many associated with Barcelona and the reason behind the clubs modern day successes. Spain too owes him its gratitude as his transformation of the Catalan club and its overall approach gave birth to the likes of Iniesta and Xavi who inspired Spain to three successive international titles (European Championships in 2008 and 2012 plus World Cup 2010). Koeman’s goal in the 1992 final proved to be the turning point for Cruyff and will live in the memory of lots of football fans for many a year to come.

To see Koeman’s strike, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=byjcAjwAjOg

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How a Chain Smoking Coach and Bad Milk Changed Barcelona’s Fortunes

I have watched a lot of football through the years and seen thousands of goals but for some strange reason one strike plays back time and time again. Ronald Koeman’s thunderous cup winning strike against Sampdoria in the 1992 European Cup final wasn’t the prettiest but it was enough to engrain it forever in my memory as a great goal. Perhaps it wasn’t Koeman’s goal at all that I remember, instead the team he played in, one of the great Barcelona sides of the past thirty years. Laudrup, Stoichkov, Salinas, Giokoetxea, Zubizarreta and Guardiola all in the same team, as part of Barca’s first ever dream team.

 

Koeman's strike changed the fortunes for Barca (Image from Getty)

Koeman’s strike changed the fortunes for Barca (Image from Tumblr)

Led by Dutch icon Johan Cruyff who revolutionized Spanish football by introducing the 3-4-3 formation focusing on technical ability and finesse more than stature and graft, Barca’s history would be forever changed. Cruyff’s decision to change the tactical direction of the club at all levels fundamentally paved the way from the product line of superstars that Barcelona now relies on. Messi, Iniesta, Xavi and Thiago would never have been considered in the old approach where only players of 5ft 9in and above would make the cut, regardless of technical style and ability. Building from the back, Cruyff started to build a team of champions all with the mindset of scoring more than their opposition.  Cruyff argued that it did not make sense for a flat back four to defend against two strikers, whilst the same happened at the other end so his switch to three centre backs allowed more players to be pushed up field. Now with three forwards and two support wingers, Cruyff understood that opposition defenses would not be able to cope and Barcelona could create more chances to score. The chain smoking coach, who was often spotted on the sidelines during a game with a cigarette hanging from his mouth, placed emphasis on talented ball passers like Pep Guardiola and José Mari Bakero, employed in the centre of the park specifically to keep the ball moving and spread the ball wide to creative wide players like Michael Laudrup, Txiki Begiristain and Ion Andoni Goikoetxea. Once in possession, the trio were able to run at defenses with pace and conviction creating chances for the strikers. His system worked to a degree but it wasn’t until the introduction of Bulgarian legend Hristo Stoichkov that his plan was complete. The temperamental Bulgarian who was known in the media as mala leche (Bad Milk in Spanish) transformed Barcelona’s attacking play and played a pivotal role in their success.

Barca players including Stoichkov celebrate their first European Cup (Image from Colorsport / Andrew Cowie)

Barca players including Stoichkov celebrate their first European Cup (Image from Tumblr)

The dream team was officially born at Wembley as Cruyff’s Barcelona took on Sampdoria in the European Cup final in 1992. Koeman’s strike, deep into extra time gave Barcelona it’s first European Cup and paved the way for future Barcelona sides. As Koeman positioned the ball, just a few meters’ from the 18 yard line with Juan Carlos and Stoichkov hovering nearby, he paused briefly to examine the scene. In front of him was a five man wall, positioned perfectly by Sampdoria goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca to cover his left hand post. Pagliuca moved over to the right hand post and took up his position, comfortable in the knowledge that he had all the angles covered. Or so he thought. Koeman’s short run up and thunderous strike flew past the diving Italian stopper and crashed into the net to give Barcelona the lead. As the Barcelona players celebrated, Cruyff (who had switched from smoking cigarettes to sucking on lollipops after undergoing double heart bypass surgery in 1991) rose from the bench and made his way towards the race track that surrounded the old Wembley to applaud his players but in a way also to bask in the glory as he knew that that strike would change the clubs fortunes forever and cement his place as an iconic manager.

 

The master and the apprentice - Cruyff and Guardiola (Image from Getty)

Master and apprentice – Cruyff and Guardiola (Image from Tumblr)

During his eight year reign, Cruyff secured 11 trophies including four La Liga titles, one Copa Del Rey, three Supercopa de España, the Cup Winners Cup, European Cup and European Super Cup, making him one of Barcelona’s greatest ever coaches. Whilst his departure from the club was less than ceremonious, Cruyff remains a legend to many associated with Barcelona and the reason behind the clubs modern day successes. Spain too owes him its gratitude as his transformation of the Catalan club and its overall approach gave birth to the likes of Iniesta and Xavi who inspired Spain to three successive international titles (European Championships in 2008 and 2012 plus World Cup 2010). Koeman’s goal in the 1992 final proved to be the turning point for Cruyff and will live in the memory of lots of football fans for many a year to come.

To see Koeman’s strike, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=byjcAjwAjOg

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Tactical Review – Chelsea vs Manchester City

Guardiola and Conte are two new acquisitions in the Premier League, with each of them boasting impressive tactical pedigrees. On one hand, Guardiola has been struggling with a hit-and-miss Manchester City side. His players are still adjusting to their new tactical workload, and while they started out the season in a promising fashion, Pep has found himself struggling off late, suffering from a leaky defence, and, at times, misfiring forwards. City, who, at first, dominated the Premier League, have now slipped to fourth, and have opened the title race back up for the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool, and Spurs.

On the other hand, Antonio Conte went through a rough phase at the start of the season while he experimented with the formations and tactics that he needed to use to make the most out of his Chelsea side. However, a string of brilliant results followed when he fixed his formation and playing style. The new 3-4-3 that he uses allows him to give freedom to his attacking playmakers (Hazard, Pedro), while ensuring that his teams are defensively solid through the introduction of versatile wing-backs in the form of summer signing Marcos Alonso and breakthrough first team player Victor Moses. Furthermore, the metamorphosis of Azpilicueta and the maturity of David Luiz has allowed Chelsea to concede only 11 goals throughout the course of this season.

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The matchup between the new boys was highly built up, especially if one considered the outcome that this match could have on the respective title challenges of the teams. Chelsea did come out with a win, and find themselves three points ahead of the pack, while City are now in fourth, having to fight off competition from the likes of Spurs and United. So, how was the tactical jousting between the two managers like?

  1. Formations

Each formation allowed City and Chelsea to make the most out of their tactical strategy. They were, in my opinion, foreshadowing to the playing styles of the team.

Manchester City went through yet another tactical reshuffling under Pep Guardiola, with John Stones being recalled back into the first eleven, Kolarov being played as a centre back and Sane and Navas on the wings. They played with a back five while defending, with Sane and Navas playing as wing backs. While attacking, the back five transitioned into a back three to aid City’s attacking exploits.

On the other hand, it was more of the same from Chelsea, who lined up with their trademark three at the back formation, with only one exception – Fabregas, who made his first top flight appearance since the 24th of September, replaced an injured Matic, pairing up with N’Golo Kante to make the heart of the Chelsea midfield. However, compared to the City formation, Alonso and Moses didn’t contribute much to the attacking exploits of the team, due to the overwhelming force of the City attack.

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Victor Moses has been a revelation for Chelsea this season (Image from Tumblr)

  1. The Tactical Chameleon, Exploiting and the Double-Edged Sword

Guardiola brought out another one of his tactical tricks, pulling out another trick from his magical hat. City’s team were lined up with one purpose – to exploit the weaknesses of the Chelsea team. On that day, his side were focused on maintaining possession while overloading flanks to create chances.

John Stones, brought back specifically for this fixture, was tasked with bringing the ball out from the back with his brilliant retaining skills. He stayed deep for much of the game, combining his passing intellect with his defending skills to play as a last man. His comrades, Otamendi and Kolarov, were assigned the same instructions – maintaining possession. Otamendi is a good ball-playing centre back, and his passing skills, which mirror that of Stones, were used by Pep to ensure that his midfield and attack didn’t suffer from the loss of his passing centre back. During the build-up, Fernandinho dropped deep, giving security to the likes of Gundogan and Silva, who spent most of the game occupying attacking positions, which, in turn, allowed City to make the most out of their game plan – abuse the right wing.

The left side of Chelsea is comparatively weak if one studies the partnership of Alonso, Cahill, and the lack of Fabregas’s defensive mindset. Therefore, Guardiola decided to bombard that flank with his players. De Bruyne stuck to the right flank, supported with bombarding runs down the line due and through the half-spaces the attacking prowess of Navas, Gundogan and Silva. The half spaces allowed Aguero and Co to make runs through the lines, giving De Bruyne and Navas chances to pick them out with low crosses. If those runs didn’t work out, the likes of Gundogan and Sane were present in the space created by the runs, poised to pounce on the second ball and to provide other passing opportunities.

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Figure 1 – City’s game plan was effectively carried out

While defending, City ensured that Chelsea’s defenders and midfielders didn’t have enough time on the ball, preventing them from switching the play, playing out from the back and counterattacking. This was achieved through a strict man-marking, with each City player assigned a Chelsea player to mark during their build-up phase. For example, Aguero pressed Luiz to ensure that Chelsea couldn’t rely on him to bring the ball out from the back. The lack of forward movement forced the likes of Hazard and Pedro to drop back to ensure that the ball moved forward, invariably disrupting Chelsea’s attacking shape.

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Figure 2- Chelsea were forced to play defensively, with City exploiting the spaces in their formation.

Once City lost the ball, they also engaged in counter-pressing to prevent Chelsea from advancing quickly. The lack of passing options forced some Chelsea players to play to their weaknesses (for example – Kante as a playmaker, Cahill as a ball-playing centreback), which allowed them to regain possession easily.

City were dominating the first half. The intelligent runs of Guardiola’s attackers put Chelsea’s defence were on strings. After the first goal, it looked like City were set for a walkover victory, however, luck wasn’t on their side.

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“Football is a combination of four things – the ball, space, time and luck.”

The intensity and complexity of Guardiola’s tactics had its toll on his side, physically and mentally. Pep’s tactics are often double edged swords – the strain that they place on his team often harm them.

During the second half, City began to slack off, and became less intense in their counterpressing, making them more vulnerable to counter-attacks, which allowed Chelsea to become more efficient in possession. Hazard and Pedro effectively used Pep’s marking system against him, dragging Kolarov and Otamendi out wide, making space for Costa to run into. The introduction of Willian was also vital. The pacy Brazilian and his direct style of play added another dimension of deadliness to Chelsea’s counter attacks. Things went from bad to worse from the Citizens after the substitution of Stones, allowing Chelsea to get their vital goal and kill off the game.

Manchester City v Chelsea - Premier League

In conclusion, City had a brilliant game plan which was executed perfectly in the first half, however, Chelsea made the most of their chances, and used their luck to come away with the victory.

Written by Chaitanya Jadhav  (@IndiciumBlog)

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Why City’s Hidden Troubles Will Keep Pep Awake At Night

Given various factors including the failure to launch of arch rivals Manchester United, the capitulation of Chelsea, Arsenals past history of collapses and the unpredictability of results in this Premier League season, winning the title should have been fairly straight forward for Manchester City. Instead they find themselves struggling to get the points they need to climb to the top of the pile and stay there. Hammered by Leicester last week and beaten by Spurs this weekend is hardly championship winning form. In years gone by, when City have drawn level after falling behind in a game, they usually push on to win it. But the killer edge that became their calling card in previous seasons is not there this year with the latest example being against Tottenham who snatched a late winner and all three points.

Leicester’s win highlighted some of City’s problems (image from Getty)

To Tottenhams credit, they continue to improve – they may be a young side but they consistently show the heart and self drive needed to keep pushing for the win even if the game seems lost. Such is the strong work ethic and mentality of Pochettino’s side that they often run more than their opposition giving them an advantage (3.5km more than City in this game). Whether this is an indication of future champions is to be seen. Many believe that this season may be a step too far but not apparently based on yesterday’s performance against the former champions. City needed a win to tighten the gap at the top and keep their title hopes alive but it would be Tottenham that had the last laugh. After a stalemate first half that was more of a love in than a football match (fitting however for the day, Valentine’s) it needed a goal to spark it to life. Spurs taking the lead in the second half thanks in part to a harsh penalty with the ball striking Raheem Sterlings body not arm, seemed to be the tonic that both sides needed. City pressed for an equalizer using width and a range of quick passing to try and break down a resilant Tottenham, eventually getting their reward courtesy of their regular super sub Iheanacho. But like a cheap deck of cards City folded and couldn’t hang on for a point with birthday boy Christian Erikson popping up to seal all three points for Tottenham.

Birthday boy Erikson scores late to snatch three points for Spurs (image from getty)

These are slightly worrying times for Manchester City who should be in a state of euphoria after sealing Pep Guardiola as their heir apparent beginning next season. With the Spanaird known for doing extensive homework ahead of taking on a role, the logic would suggest that the players would up their game to impress the new boss. Instead they appear to have done the exact opposite and look somewhat lethargic during games especially against Leicester and Tottenham. Perhaps they feel that they no longer have to impress current coach Manuel Pellegrini and therefore do not need to try but that surely can’t be the case. They are still in the hunt for four major honours and could with renewed effort push to secure at least three of them (the Champions League may be a stretch this year). Yesterday the problems that Guardiola will inherit were apparent. Whilst Aguero had an off day and can be forgiven for missing a few good chances, it is others that raise the eyebrows of concern. Player wise Yaya Toure looks less like the world class player we once knew as his influence over games diminishes whilst Otemendi still hasn’t found out how to replicate his La Liga form that made him one of Europes best defenders. Organizationally City are lopsided with Sterling, a natural winger who petulantly wants to play in the number ten role that David Silva fills, running all over the place. De Bruyne does act as a proxy for this but his recent injury has meant that City were forced to look elsewhere for a solution that doesn’t exist. Upfront is a major concern as well. Aguero is world class but if he is injured or has an off day like he did yesterday there is no one to turn to to fire City back on track.

It’s not all doom and gloom for Guardiola who will inherit a strong squad with a sizeable warchest to improve it. He will have the summer to fix the issues that he has discovered in his evaluation phase but only when he sees his team during the course of the season will he unearth the other underling issues at the club. Like what has changed in Toure’s mindset that has him giving less each game or how Sterlings teammates feel he fits best into the side. At that point, Guardiola will find out exactly what he has let himself in for and if he has any chance of being successful at Manchester City Football Club.

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Is This The End For The Special One?

Before the season began, Saturday’s clash between Chelsea and Leicester was seen by many as a meeting of two teams at the polar opposite ends of the league table – one challenging for the title and the other fighting off relegation. Few however would have predicted that the roles of these two clubs would be reversed and that it would be Chelsea not Leicester in the doldrums. For manager Jose Mourinho, who guided Chelsea to the title last year, this new season has been nothing short of a disaster. Nine defeats in sixteen Premier League games is unbelievable and has left Chelsea dangling in unfamiliar territory just about the relegation zone. Talk of a top four finish has started to die down and the first discussions of writing off this season all together now in full swing. For Mourinho, ending the season right now would be the perfect solution – a chance to start a fresh, reset his team and go again. But that is not an option so the self proclaimed Special One carries one but for how long?

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Mourinho walks slowly over to shake the hand of Ranieri after Chelsea lose to Leicester City (Image from Getty)

A meeting of the Chelsea board of directors led by owner Roman Abramovich hardly spells good news for the Portuguese coach.  The outcome of that meeting is yet to be revealed and as we write today, Mourinho remains Chelsea manager. But how long can the club allow the slide to continue? Abramovich has a key decision to make – stick with the manager who has historically brought success to the club or twist by sacking him and appointing another. With the latter, the question would be who? Former boss Carlo Ancelotti is the obvious choice given his availability however its unknown whether the Italian would want the role. He has already stated that he wishes to remain on sabbatical until the end of the season but in addition to that the former Juventus, Real Madrid and AC Milan coach may still hold a grudge against Abramovich for sacking him during his first spell in charge at Chelsea. If Ancelotti is out, Marcelo Bielsa may be an option with the Argentine out of work since dramatically quitting Marseille one game into the new campaign. However Abramovich would have to move quickly as its rumoured that Swansea are gearing up to make Bielsa their new manager following the sacking of Gary Monk last week. The Swans may not have the financial muscle of Chelsea but can offer the 60 year old an easier, less pressure filled platform to test his skills in England than the Stamford Bridge outfit can.

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Will Abramovich reunite with Ancelotti again at Stamford Bridge? (image from PA)

It may be that Abramovich sticks with Mourinho and backs him with the funds he so desperately needs in January’s window to plug the gaping holes in his side. It would need to be a significant investment given the various problems that exist for Mourinho. Low morale and confidence is one thing but players consistently under performing is another with the only solution being to replace them with new players. A quick glance at the league table will tell Mourinho all he needs to know. Four wins, three draws and nine defeats. Eighteen goals scored, twenty six conceded leaves Chelsea in sixteenth place. In front of goal, Chelsea have been timid with Diego Costa the most culpable. The Spanish striker was deadly last season but this year has spent more time complaining and getting into unnecessary fights than hitting the back of the net. Three goals in thirteen highlight how bad he has been and how desperately Mourinho needs to offload him and bring in one or two quality strikers to get them rolling again.

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Diego Costa to go? The Spanish striker prefers picking fights than picking the ball out of the net this season (Image from AFP)

The midfield has struggled too contributing only seven goals to date with Fabregas and Hazard visibly short of form. However even if Chelsea were scoring, at the back they are a mess. Captain John Terry and the usually reliable Ivanovic have been posted missing in several games. Rather than try to improve, Terry has chosen to spend his time criticizing pundits like Robbie Savage for their opinion in a move which must frustrate Mourinho. In the matches they have played Chelsea’s defense has usually started well (only conceding seven goals so far in the first half of games) but have dropped away dramatically in the last fifteen minutes (eight goals conceded to date in games during this spell) resulting in several dropped points. Mourinho has shuffled his pack on various occasions but has failed to get the rub of the green with a handful of players failing to execute on his orders. Results have not been good enough and if he cannot correct this in the league, he may be gone before the new year.

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John Terry has been short of form this year and is taking it out on pundits like Robbie Savage (Image from Action Images via Reuters)

So what can save Mourinho now? Ironically Guardiola can and more importantly his current contract situation. The Bayern Munich boss current deal with the German Champions expires at the end of the season and to date the former Barcelona manager has not indicated a desire to sign an extension. That has caused a frenzy amongst several Premier League teams including Chelsea who would love to appoint the Spaniard as their new manager. If he is to leave Germany, then the English Premier League is his most likely destination as he looks to join an elite list of managers who have won titles in three different European leagues. Manchester City may have the financial clout to entice many a manager but for Guardiola the project is more important than the money. That would mean that Manchester United and Chelsea have a better shot with Guardiola keen to help them build apon previous Champions League wins.  Sacking Mourinho now would leave Chelsea with two options – appoint an interim manager until the end of the season or entice Pep to move now.

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In the wings? Pep Guardiola (Image from AFP)

The latter is unlikely to happen as Pep still wants to lift the Champions League crown with Bayern, something he still has a chance of doing. There appears to be little reason to hire an interim manager until the end of the season when you already have Mourinho in charge unless Chelsea strongly believes that the team is broken under his leadership and relegation is a real possibility. Whilst mathematically possible at this stage if the current form continues, the chances of Chelsea being relegated is slim with the side possessing too much quality to go down. More likely a mid table finish is on the cards unless Mourinho can turn things around in January and go on an unbeaten run. Even that however may not be enough especially if Guardiola is waiting patiently in the wings for his chance at Stamford Bridge.

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Hello Jurgen? Liverpool Close In on Klopp After Rodgers Departure

On a wall on route to the Anfield tunnel is a plaque almost as famous as the club it represents. Leaving the Liverpool changing room, the players walk down a flight of stairs directly underneath the plaque which instantly became a symbol of the club on the day it was hung there. Reading “This is Anfield – Liverpool Football Club”, it has become a ritual for Liverpool players and fans of the club to touch it as they walk down those few steps. As Liverpool manager, Brendan Rodgers was one of those who has touched that plaque more than once but in recent months it has been a different set of writing on the wall that has had Rodgers worried. He knew that he was in danger of being sacked and probably believed he had more time but after a dismal start to this season, Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Everton would turn out to be his last in charge of Liverpool.

Liverpool's search for a new manager is one as Rodgers is sacked (Image from Getty)

Liverpool’s search for a new manager is one as Rodgers is sacked (Image from Getty)

In the end the result at Goodison mattered little as the club’s owners had already made up their minds. Rodgers was informed shortly after the match by managing director, Ian Ayre. Whilst expected, the news will still have hurt as Rodgers strongly believed that he had what it took to turn Liverpool around. But for Fenway Sports Group, Liverpool’s principle owners enough was enough and a change needed to be made. They had grown tired of Rodgers excuses of why despite repeatedly spending vast amounts in the transfer market, he had little to show for it. In three years, Rodgers has delivered nothing – no cups, no European success and certainly no title. The latter is what FSG wanted the most having already tasted success on several occasions with their baseball team, Boston Red Sox. But in the footballing world, their sizable investment under Rodgers failed to bear any fruits. One season of nearly clinching the title does not quite count and for Rodgers the writing was starting to be etched on the wall as early as last Christmas.

Liverpool co owner John Henry lost patience with Rodgers and has acted (Image from Getty)

Liverpool co owner John Henry lost patience with Rodgers and has acted
(Image from Getty)

Whilst former AC Milan, Chelsea and Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti has been linked heavily with the job along with current Ajax boss Frank De Boer, there is only one man who Liverpool should be turning to in their time of need. Jurgen Klopp is that man and if the FSG has any sense they will appoint him quickly. This is the perfect time for a change with the international break now upon us, it will give Klopp longer than usual to settle in and start to formulate the clubs revival. The former Borussia Dortmund boss has been out of work since this summer after calling time on his spell with the former Bundesliga champions. At his exit press conference, emotions were running high with a Dortmund board inconsolable about losing their prodigal son. It was Klopp’s decision to leave, stating that he could no longer offer them everything he had. Dortmund’s loss could well be Liverpool’s gain as they close in on their preferred candidate.

Hard not to like him - Jurgen Klopp (Image from Getty)

Hard not to like him – Jurgen Klopp
(Image from Getty)

But why Klopp? Critics will argue that the appointment of a more highly experienced manager like Ancelotti would make more sense, and give greater stability to the club than they had under Rodgers. Ancelotti has been there and done that during a glittering 20 year managerial career and any club would be fortunate to have him. But Liverpool are looking for something different, someone with charisma and charm that can be a driving force on the pitch as much as off it. Klopp fits what they need. Anyone who has ever met the guy has loved him and fallen head over heals for his smooth talking German charm. His inviting smile and friendly demure make him seem highly approachable, almost to the point that you could believe that he would be quite happy to have a pint with you and talk for hours about the beautiful game. But underneath all of this is a superb footballing brain, one that sees beyond what is in front of it and is already planning the next five moves. There are only a few coaches like this in the game today – Guardiola and Mourinho being the best examples so for Liverpool to secure one would be a massive coup.

Klopp touches the Anfield sign last year (Image from Getty)

Klopp touches the Anfield sign last year
(Image from Getty)

Whilst he may not have the years of managerial experience across multiple countries as Ancelotti has, Klopp has shown in the teams he has managed that he can build teams not only for now but for the future. He focuses heavily on youth players both through transfers and promotion from the youth team and building a squad capable of challenging for years to come. This is exactly what Liverpool needs at this junction, a manager who will take average players and make them into great ones and build a side that can challenge on all fronts going forward. Klopp has been open in his admiration for the club in the past speaking about its rich history and unfilled potential. He might be just what Liverpool need now as they look to reclaim the glory years of yesteryear. Time will tell if the German can do just that and give the fans another piece of history to hold on to.

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From World Cup Winner To Bit Part Player – What Has Gone Wrong For Mario Gotze

With only ten minutes left of their crunch second leg game against Barcelona and trailing on aggregate by two goals, Pep looked at his bench. Sitting there was a player who could potentially turn the game, a baby faced assassin who seems to flourish in these big occasions. Mario Gotze knew his time had come so stripped off and prepared to enter the fray. Having the luxury to remove a player like Thomas Muller and replace him with Mario Gotze is a dream that only few coaches will ever experience. So deep is the pool of talent at Bayerns disposal that they can afford to leave out Gotze from the starting eleven is startling. But with the talent that Gotze has was it right of Guardiola to give him only four minutes or indeed leave him out of the starting line up all together? Whether or not Gotze starting the game would have had any effect on the overall outcome is unknown but arguably he offers slightly more to the side than others. But for one reason or another Pep has never really warmed to the little German.

No love lost between Pep and Gotze (image from Getty)

When Guardiola agreed to take over at Bayern he asked that they sign Neymar. Instead he got Gotze as the board felt he was as good and had the added advantage of being German. In the end, Neymar joined Pep’s former club Barcelona  whilst Gotze traveled across the country from Dortmund to Munich. It’s fair to assume that the relationship between the two has been on rocky ground for some time now. Gotze last year spoke publically about his frustration at the playing opportunities Guardiola had thrown his way that season. Gotze did manage to finish the season strongly and was selected for the Germany squad in a move that ended up securing them the World Cup thanks to his extra time goal. Returning to club football, Gotze must have believed that Guardiola would have been impressed by what he had achieved for his country but instead he found a manager who didn’t seem to care. Guardiola simply didn’t know what to do with Gotze. Talented yes but as a smaller player in a fairly tall squad where exactly would he fit?  In a 4-3-2-1 formation, dropping Muller or Ribery/Robben from wide positions was not an option, nor was the prospect of leaving the towering Robert Lewandowski out in favour of Gotze. Sacrificing one of his central midfield three appeared to be the best bet but that would mean leaving out Thiago, Schweinsteiger or Xavi Alonso. Thiago, who played for Guardiola at Barcelona was a player who the coach specifically wanted and who the board delivered, unlike Neymar. Schweinsteiger is a legend for both club and country and his work rate for both is unheralded. So that only leaves Alonso. At 34, Xavi Alonso appears to have lost none of his tactical awareness of the game with the way he reads it and dictates the play a joy to watch. In a midfield crammed full of talent, Alonso still stands out as the player Guardiola can ill afford to drop. He is their calm through stormy weathers, with a passage range that most great players would be proud off. To say that Alonso keeps getting better season after season is not far from the mark although he has notably slowed over the past decade as time caught up with him. Dropping Alonso for Gotze would mean a change in format and a switch to a more uncomfortable approach. Gotze would be condemned  once again to being  rotation player only for Bayern.

Alonso continues to impress despite his advancing years (image from pa)

To be fair to Pep he has played Gotze more times this season than last. Gotze has made thirty appearances in the league, fourteen of which came from the bench. Injuries to key players like Schweinsteiger, Ribery and Thiago have indirectly handed Gotze a few more starts than usual but as a result Guardiola had to adapt his formation to suit. His preference it would appear is to have Gotze come from the bench, something the player isn’t too happy about. Guardiola doesn’t necessary not like the player, he simply can’t fit him into his preferred system. In fact when Gotze was heavily criticized recently by German legend Franz Beckenbauer for being lazy, it was Pep who jumped to his defence stating that Gotze was one of the best professionals he had ever worked with. He fell short of saying that he was an important member of his squad however, something that would have perhaps made Gotze feel slightly better about his role at the club.

Beckenbauer has been critical of Bayern and Gotze in particular in recent weeks (image from getty)

Where to play Gotze is the puzzling question. Coming off the bench appears to suit Gotze style of play. He is an impact player who can grab the goal that wins the game. Given that a quarter of Bayern’s league goals this season were scored in the last fifteen minutes of the game, it’s not hard to work out why Pep prefers it this way too. Whether Gotze sees it this way is a different matter. With Pep confirming that he will be in charge next season, Gotze has two options – stay and fight for a spot or leave. If he does decide to leave the list of potential suitors will be a long one with clubs in England, Spain and Italy more than willing to add the German to their ranks. Gotze will have to decide if staying in his native Germany is more important at this stage in his career than regular games. He could bide his time and wait for Guardiola to depart at the end of next season when his contract expires but the risks with that strategy are great. Bayern are happy with what Guardiola has done so far albeit missing out on the Champions League final was not ideal. However if he can steer them to Europe’s top club prize next season, a new contract may be offered by the Bayern board if it hasn’t been offered before then.

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Shout out From The Stands – Spurs Manager Roulette Continues

Spurs suffered from low confidence under AVB (Image from PA)Let’s take a step back from all the raw emotion and try to think clearly. Sherwood is in an invidious position. He inherited a dysfunctional, unbalanced squad with low morale from AVB and the man AVB reportedly asked for as DoF, Franco Baldini. That was not Sherwood’s fault. Yes, we should have kept Bale for another season and gotten a toe-hold in the Champions League before selling and rebuilding but at the time the vast majority of Spurs supporters seemed happy for Bale to go for what was undoubtedly a good price. Many may now look at Suarez and Liverpool’s success and rue that decision. It’s not often Spurs produce a world class player and arguably we shouldn’t have been so hasty to do business. Whether he wanted to go or not, Bale was on a long contract at Tottenham and I’m sure another season tearing up defences in the Premier League wouldn’t have killed him. Rooney and Suarez were both persuaded to stay so perhaps it should not have been beyond Tottenham.

Liverpool prospered by holding onto Suarez (Image from Getty)

Liverpool prospered by holding onto Suarez (Image from Getty)

The transfer situation, although regrettable was also entirely predictable. It takes most foreign players at least a season to adapt to the Premier League. Mertesacker and indeed Suarez are good examples of imports who struggled to adjust in their first season. The problem is having seven new faces in the same squad who are all trying to adjust at the same time. It may have appeared to be an exciting transfer strategy of ‘selling Elvis and buying the Beatles’ but it’s proven to be chaotic and ill-judged. It has also highlighted the lack of leaders from within our existing group of senior players. Only Dawson and Ade seem that bothered on the pitch. Where are Lennon, Vertonghen and Dembele when our backs are against the wall?

Lennon and Vertonghen have been posted as missing this season (Image from PA)

Lennon and Vertonghen have been posted as missing this season (Image from PA)

If these players cared more, there would be less pressure on the new players. Please don’t get me started on the players’ languid body-language in the tunnel at Anfield. Here were professional, elite athletes, many of whom are being paid £50-100k per week, arrayed like a hungover, pub team. You could see we’d lost the game before it had even kicked off. Our fans sang ‘we want our money back’ and they have a strong case. Let us for a moment, revisit the halcyon days of last summer when Bale seemed on his way and we Spurs fans were clamouring for exciting, exotic replacements which Levy duly delivered in numbers beyond our wildest dreams. All our Christmases had come at once, or so we thought. The new signings were arguably the best of the bunch available to us at that time. It’s not possible to analyse the season so far without discussing the changes in personnel who joined at a combined cost of £107m, twice breaking the club’s record transfer-fee. New signings and/or new manager invariably mean a season of transition for a club. We’ve been here before at Tottenham but any manager would have struggled with the Herculean task of life without Bale. The Welshman’s departure had a greater impact than anyone anticipated.

Could Spurs season have been better if Bale stayed?  (Image from Getty)

Could Spurs season have been better if Bale stayed?
(Image from Getty)

Bale’s stunning performances had papered over many cracks and AVB for all his coaching badges and Power-Points did not have the tactical Polyfilla to fix them. Sherwood was promoted with an 18 month contract and he made a promising start but has faded in March when Spurs came up against a series of tough games against Chelsea, Woolwich, Benfica (x2) and Liverpool. Yes, March was punishing but it hasn’t been all doom and gloom. We were holding our own at Chelsea until the 56th minute penalty which saw Kaboul sent off.  We outplayed Woolwich at the Lane and were good in the 2nd half at Benfica. It will be interesting to see how Sherwood fairs in the final six games. All are against teams we should beat. Win them all and Spurs end up with 74 points, our highest ever tally in Premier League history. It probably isn’t fair to judge Sherwood on the basis of half a season with a misfit, inherited squad. Whether he’ll get another season to show what he can do remains to be seen.

Has Sherwood really done that bad of a job? (Image from PA)

Has Sherwood really done that bad of a job? (Image from PA)

Some fans have been against Sherwood’s appointment from day one, churlishly poking fun at everything from his accent, to his choice of clothes. Is this unprecedented level of vitriol a symptom of Sherwood’s results; his boyhood Woolwich links or a bit of both? Or is it because Spurs fans feel they need a big ‘name’ such as a Van Gaal? One thing is for sure, it’s paradoxical for fans to bemoan the high frequency of Spurs managers whilst calling for a manager to be sacked. Personally, I like the idea of recruiting from within the club and the extended THFC family, like they do at Barcelona where the focus is on the long term. Those fans who criticise Sherwood’s lack of experience must also acknowledge Guardiola had no experience prior to taking over at the Nou Camp. If Sherwood does get chopped who picks up the poisoned chalice? I have some nagging doubts about Van Gaal. If he is that good why would he come to Spurs when there will be bigger Champions League fish to fry? Hoddle’s name has been linked to the job and he undoubtedly talks a good game on Sky.

Van Gaal on route?  (Image from AFP)

Van Gaal on route?
(Image from AFP)

There’s arguably no better football brain in England and it’s a bit harsh when fans judge him on his previous tenure a decade ago when Spurs were a struggling mid table-outfit with significantly less playing and financial resources at their disposal. That awful scene of apathy in the tunnel at Anfield suggests we may be better off investing in home-grown talent who genuinely feel for the club and who love the shirt. Should this policy extend to the manager too? The cultivation of a distinctive footballing identity will take time but there were some promising signs in the U21s on Friday. The youngsters Winks and Coulibaly celebrated their respective goals like they’d won the World Cup. It clearly meant a lot to them to play for Tottenham. Fans can rightly level some criticisms at Sherwood but lack of passion for our cause isn’t one of them. The Tottenham roller-coaster trundles on. Whoever is in the hot-seat next season, I’d like to wish them well. For all the pain of supporting Tottenham, I’d much rather be in our situation than follow a play-thing for bored oligarchs.

Post by Leon Butler

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United Fightback Stuns Newcastle As Rivals City Lose

Alex FergsuonIt was the tale of two cities this past Boxing day. In Manchester, United entertained a Newcastle side short on form and well out of luck. Having dropped points against Swansea at the weekend, Alex Ferguson’s men were keen to get back to winning ways against Pardew’s team who had lost 3 of their last 4 games coming into the match. But Newcastle showed spirit from the off and were ahead after only 4 minutes thanks to James Perch. And so began a thrilling match that would see Newcastle lead three times only to be pegged back three times and eventually dealt a sucker blow with Hernandez’s 90th minutes strike. It was a hard pill for Pardew to swallow as for so much of the game, Newcastle looked worthy of a point, if not 3. For the first time in more than a month, the Toon Army were given a glimpse of last season’s form that has so far deluded the team this year.

Hernandez late strike sinks Newcastle

Hernandez late strike sinks Newcastle
(Image: bleacherreport.com)

Up in Sunderland, Manchester City were looking to put a poor performance against Reading behind them, where they snatched the three points thanks only to a later Gareth Barry goal. They faced Martin O’Neill’s Sunderland who lie mid table but have hardly shown the form that they are capable of. Indeed Steven Fletcher’s influence and goals looks like one of the few reasons why Sunderland aren’t involved in this years relegation battle. City struggled early on in the match to find their gear and fell behind in the early part of the second half to a goal scored by former City player Adam Johnson. Johnson, who joined City from Middlesbourgh in the January 2010 window for a reported £7m, failed to hold down a first team place under Mancini and was sold this summer to Sunderland for a reduced fee. A pacey winger, Johnson has flourished at Sunderland with some fine performances, including yesterday’s one against his old club. Mancini’s team were unable to get the equalizer they needed and left the Stadium of Light without any points and now sit 7 points behind rivals United.

Johnson returns to haunt City

Johnson returns to haunt City
(image: Getty)

With Chelsea picking up three points with a 1-0 victory over Norwich and Tottenham and Everton continuing their form with victories, the pressure must surely be on Mancini. Out of the Champions League and desperate to retain the league title again, Mancini knows that City’s wealthy owners are running out of patience and quickly. With the January transfer window approaching, Mancini will look to strengthen his squad but may not be given the chance if the owners feel that now is the perfect time to change leaders. Guardiola is rumoured to be open to discussing new opportunities and the potential for him to succeed Mancini may be too much to look past. Across the city, Ferguson will know the importance of Hernandez’s 90th minute goal and the psychological effect it will have on the title race. United will know that if they can maintain good form in the last half of the season and hold off the chasing pack, they could see themselves lifting a record 13th Premiership title in May.

Chelsea Ready To Lift The Cup That Means Not A Lot

Club World Cup TrophyIt’s been a crazy year for Chelsea. After AVB was dismissed after a bad start to his first season in charge, club legend Di Matteo took the reigns and turned the club around, eventually leading them to Champions League glory. Whilst it was understood by many as being the main prize that owner Roman Abramovich was gasping for, it appeared as though it wasn’t enough as Di Matteo was eventually sacked and replaced by Rafa Benetiz, much to the amusement of the clubs fans. Now as Benetiz leads Chelsea into their first ever Club World Cup final tonight against Copa Libertadores champions Corinthians, he will be desperate to get his hands on some silverware in an attempt to hold on to his job for a while longer.

Chelsea have a good chance of beating Corinthians who were less than impressive in their semi final win against Egypt’s Al-Ahly but the real question is what value this win would actual bring to Chelsea. Granted it would add some additional cash to the clubs coffers ($5million for the winner and $4million for the runner-up) but for a team bankrolled by a billionaire, is this a good reason to travel mid-season to Japan for two games? Hardly. The Club World Cup is not really about football, it’s about brand building. With only four teams competing, one from each of the six continental confederations (there is a mini tournament between the 3 lesser confederations beforehand to work out which team progresses), it’s not really a tournament as such.

Torres arrives in Japan for the tournament

Torres arrives in Japan for the tournament

Chelsea will be hopeful that history repeats itself as the past 5 winners of the final have been from Europe with Brazilian team Internacional the last team to pick up the trophy for South American in 2005. So far, the UK press has been consumed with the return of form of Fernando Torres who expertly dispatched Monterrey in the semi final, but for realists out there, it was merely Torres getting on the score sheet against a much weaker side. There in lies the fundamental problem with this supposed tournament. In the last 11 years, every final has been fought out between the Champions League and the Copa Libertadores winners, except for one occasion when African Champions League winners, TP Mazembe upset the odds to reach the final where they were eventually thrashed by Inter Milan, ironically managed by one Rafa Benetiz. As the clubs in Europe and South America grow in stature and pedigree each year, the other champions are unable to keep pace and the gap in class widens till eventually the Cup’s early games look more like Chelsea vs Barnet in the FA Cup than Chelsea playing against the CONCACAF champions.

Inter and Benetiz celebrate Cup victory

Inter and Benetiz celebrate Cup victory

To solve this problem, FIFA needs to re-examine why it holds this competition in the first place and radically change its setup. Firstly expanding the number of teams involved would make sense, even if it is just to increase it from 4 to 8, it may offer some more competition. Secondly the timing of the tournament makes not sense either as it falls in the middle of domestic leagues, causing disruption for the teams involved in the tournament and the leagues. Thirdly, the location is not ideal. Whilst it is understandable that they need to find somewhere that is geographically in the middle for the competing teams, it still results in a lot of additional travel for the teams competing, especially like Chelsea during the middle of a busy domestic campaign. Perhaps UEFA has the correct approach with its plans for EURO 2020 and beyond, with no host country and instead a variety of countries closer to home hosting games. At Chelsea’s match against Monterray in the semi finals, the stadium was half full with only 1,000 Chelsea fans making the long trip to Japan for the game. You could actually hear the players talking to each other during the game, because the crowd was so quiet.

Juan Mata scores Chelsea's 3rd goal in the Semi final

Juan Mata scores Chelsea’s 3rd goal in the Semi final

FIFA needs to step in and either change the format of this dithering tournament or axe it all together. For Benetiz, who is looking for his 2nd Club World Cup after that win with Inter, will aim to inspire his Chelsea team towards glory tonight as he knows anything less than success is rewarded with the axe. Although with Pep Guardiola finally taking off his sabbatical slippers and ready to step back into management, the result tonight might not matter, especially when Abramovich is involved. At least for Rafa, a second win will help bolster his resume as he faces the possibility of looking for yet another job.