Monthly Archives: August 2010

The Sampdoria Reunion at Eastlands

For some folk, it hasn’t taken long for Manchester City to supercede Chelsea in symbolising all that is wrong with the English Premier League. However, for viewers of a certain vintage, when the television cameras pan to the Eastlands bench and the faces of Roberto Mancini, David Platt and Attilio Lombardo, a somewhat different emotion surfaces. The mind drifts back to that glorious Sampdoria team of the early 90s and, more specifically, the 1993-94 season in which the three players were joined by Ruud Gullit to form an attacking quartet that set Italian football alight. The top scorers in Serie A that season they capped the campaign with a memorable 6-1 Coppa Italia victory over Ancona. This is the story of that team…

The summer of 1993 was a big one for Sampdoria. Sven Goran Eriksson had finished a disappointing 7th in his first season in charge and as a result the club missed out on European football altogether just 12 months after reaching the European Cup Final. Having won the Scudetto in 1991, this was quite the fall from grace and there was some cause to think the club was set to rejoin the also rans of Italian football. Spirits were lifted, however, by the signing of superstar Ruud Gullit. Alberigo Evani also arrived from Milan and, with David Platt coming in from Juventus, a new team was being built.

Ruud Gullit

The signing of Gullit was a masterstroke by owner Paolo Mantovani. The Dutchman’s relationship with Milan coach Fabio Capello had completely broken down in the previous season. Capello had little faith in Gullit’s fitness and froze the player out – famously asking Gullit why he was getting on the coach for an away trip when he had neglected to tell him his services were not required. For the player, the final straw was being left out of the squad for the European Cup Final against Marseille. He of the famous dreadlocks decided to leave and nearly joined Bayern Munich before plumping for Sampdoria. Gullit was outspoken in his relief to be away from the Milan goldfish bowl and the strict regime of Capello. Now it was the family atmosphere of Mantovali’s Sampdoria and the more relaxed coaching style of Eriksson:

“They had not given me a [squad] number yet. They asked me which number I wanted. ‘Give me number 4, I have never played with number 4 yet’. They all laughed and so did I. None of the players made any objections. I just put on the shirt and played the whole season up front with the number 4 shirt on my back”.

David Platt

The signing of David Platt was perhaps a more low key purchase but it was a hugely significant one. After making a big impact in an ultimately disastrous season for Bari, Platt had earned a move to Juventus but failed to make much of an impression to justify his price tag. The Bianconeri took the opportunity to move the player on and, like Gullit, Platt was to immediately make himself at home in Genoa. Both players grabbed their first Serie A goals for the club in a 2-1 opening day win at Napoli and a memorable season was underway. Gullit went on to score 17 goals that year in league & cup with Platt contributing 11 goals from midfield.

Roberto Mancini

Clearly, the new additions had a huge impact on improving Sampdoria’s fortunes but that is not to say the players already at the club did not make a significant contribution too. Roberto Mancini had been one half of ‘the terrible twins’ at Sampdoria with Gianluca Vialli and he was already established as a club legend. When given the chance to link up with Gullit, they formed arguably one of the most cerebral forward line the world had yet season – two players of impeccable control and stunning vision. Mancini scored 12 goals in 30 Serie A games and featured 7 times in the successful Coppa Italia run.

Attilio Lombardo & Ruud Gullit

Of course, Mancini and Gullit’s remarkable ability to hold the ball up and bring others into play provided opportunities for midfield runners like Platt to steal the headlines. Lurking out on the right-wing was the unmistakable figure of Attilio Lombardo. A pacy dribbler with an eye for goal, Lombardo had arguably the season of his life scoring 8 goals in Serie A. However, it was in Sampdoria’s successful Coppa Italia run that Lombardo really came into his own, scoring 5 times to help win the trophy.

There were other stars in the team. Alberigo Evani, the former Milan midfielder, would go on to score in the penalty shoot-out at the World Cup Final at the end of the season. Gianluca Pagliuca, their charismatic goalkeeper, also played for Italy in that final. Then there was Pietro Vierchowod, the ageing but pacey defender who had already spent a decade at the club, and Vladimir Jugovic, the brilliant Serbian midfielder. As Gullit himself observed: “the team was a good one: they had experienced men as well as a whole group of promising younger players”.

The season began impressively but the death of owner Paolo Mantovali after 7 games of the season hit the family club hard. Defeat to Roma was perhaps inevitable given that everyone surrounding the club was in mourning but game week 10, and the visit of the champions Milan, was to prove a cathartic release for Sampdoria:

For Gullit in particular this was an emotional game – hitting the winner against the club that had made him famous the world over. However, the match was a significant one for the whole of Italy. It was the first time the all-conquering Milan had been knocked off the top of Serie A in an incredible 72 weeks. For the remainder of that season there was no doubt who Italy’s most exciting side were. Sampdoria scored 64 goals to Milan’s 38. Unfortunately, the boys from Genoa also conceded 39 goals compared to the Rossoneri’s miserly 15. Too hit and miss to claim the title, Samp were able to have a tilt at the Coppa Italia that year.. but they did it the hard way..

Things began in ignominious fashion with a penalty shoot out victory over Pisa after two 0-0 draws. There was another struggle against Roma where goals from Lombardo and Platt took Samp to another shoot-out where they edged through 7-6 on penalties. Next it was Inter, with Lombardo securing a 1-0 win at home before Gullit scored to earn the draw needed in the San Siro. Wins home and away over Parma in the semi-final, with Lombardo, Platt & Gullit grabbing the goals, meant Sampdoria had negotiated a tricky path to the final where they were huge favourites to defeat midtable Serie B outfit Ancona. A 0-0 draw away was not quite part of the plan but there was to be a glorious finale:

It was only appropriate that there should be some silverware for the club at the end of a thrilling and emotional season. Unfortunately, this particular team was not one that would stay together and go on to reach greater heights. Gullit, after a brief return to Milan, exited for good in the summer of 1995. Platt and Lombardo also moved on. The side was broken up, seemingly for good, but the memory of that team has been reignited by Mancini’s reign at Manchester City. As a coach, he has a reputation for his cautious approach. Maybe this will serve City well, but if a more progressive approach should be required then Roberto will only have to glance across the bench to his old friends Platty and Attilio to be reminded of how exciting a team can be.

Top 5: Backflick Goals

Roberto Mancini

Mancini was arguably past his best when his old buddy Sven took him to Lazio. He still had time to win, just as he had at Sampdoria, the Italian League & Cup and the European Cup Winners’ Cup… but there was no moment better than this impudent little flick against Parma.

 

Johan Cruyff

The Phantom Goal. Cruyff’s gravity defying effort against Atletico Madrid became a thing of myth almost from the moment it hit the net. This camera footage captures the moment better than most.

 

Gianfranco Zola

A magic moment from the little Italian. Great reactions too.  

 

Lee Sharpe

 Ok, technically it isn’t the strongest. A pretty standard flick that doesn’t even go in the corner. Come on though.. it’s Man Utd vs Barcelona. It’s Lee Sharpe. He does his snazzy little dance and he made Jayne Middlemiss cry on the appalling Celebrity Love Island. I know, I watched every episode.

 

Rafael Van Der Vaart

I don’t think there’s ever been a backheel goal quite like this one. More of a cartwheel than a backflick, it is worth a few replays to get your head round it. Ajax vs Feyenoord too. Great stuff.

Matt Murray… What If?

Today, August 26th 2010, Wolves’ goalkeeper Matt Murray has announced his decision to retire from professional football.

In football, there are always those players that leave you wondering: What If? What if they had not had such attitude problems.. What if they had made better career choices.. Or, as in Matt Murray’s case, what if they hadn’t struggled with injuries..

For me, Matt Murray is both the best and worst example of this. The best example because it is hard to think of a single player in the history of the game who battled on for so long with such chronic injury problems – he has retired at the age of 29 despite efectively playing just 2 seasons of professional football. The worst example because, for anyone who saw him play, there isn’t really a question to answer – Matt Murray would have played for England.

Murray’s reputation as a formidable young keeper was well established even before he made his first team debut. He had major injury troubles in these formative years, suffering a cruciate knee injury on loan at Kingstonian, but was eventually able to make his debut in August 2002 at Selhurst Park in a 4-2 defeat at the hands of Wimbledon. Things were to improve  quickly, however, and the season was to end in triumph for both Murray and Wolves as the club were promoted to the top flight for the first time in nearly 20 years and Murray was awarded the Young Player of the Year award.

Wolves fans understandably have fond memories of Matt Murray in that campaign. For a 21 year old goalkeeper to come into the side and be so comanding is rare. The lofted corners, free-kicks and long throws that are such regular features of football in the Championship were rendered virtually redundant up against a man with exceptional agility, height and handling skills. Even at such a young age his only real weakness was his kicking but the impact of this was lessened by his powerful throws from the back that could spark a counter-attack in a matter of seconds.

Matt Murray’s finest hour arguably came in the Play-Off final – Wolves 3-0 Sheff Utd, May 2003. Murray was voted man of the match for his efforts in saving Michael Brown’s penalty early in the 2nd half and subsequently pulling off a string of high-class saves to prevent the Blades getting back into the match. He was voted Wolves’ Young Player of the Year that season and – having established himself as the successor to Paul Robinson as England U21 keeper ahead of Chris Kirkland and Robert Green - there were high hopes that a Premiership campaign would bring full England recognition.

Sadly, Murray was to embark on a scarcely believable run of injuries. He was restricted to just 1 Premiership match and 2 appearances in total in the 2003-04 campaign after suffering a fractured foot. Wolves were relegated as even a respected keeper like Paul Jones had the fans mumbling ‘if only Matt was in goal’ throughout much of that top flight campaign. The following season was to be little better – a solitary league game and an FA cup appearance was all Murray had to show for his efforts as his foot problems continued. In 2005-06, he did managed to fight his way back to fitness, making 2 appearances on loan at Tranmere before returning to make 1 appearance for Wolves at the back end of that campaign. It seemed his troubles were finally over.

The 2006-07 season was the Second Coming of Matt Murray and not a moment too soon. Glenn Hoddle had abandoned the club in pre-season and the playing staff was reduced to a dozen as Mick McCarthy took over. A ragtag bunch of free transfer signings were assembled, many of whom now find themselves playing in League One and below… and yet incredibly the side was able to make the Play-Offs, largely thanks to the heroics of Murray in the Wolves goal. He was voted Wolves’ Player of the Year, the PFA Championship Fans’ Player of the Year and, of course, was in the Championship Team of the Year. Ray Clemence was asked about the player’s chances of a full England call-up: “We’ve had Matt Murray watched since he has come back from injury and he has done very well. The game at Birmingham was the first time I’ve seen him this season and his goalkeeping was exceptional. He played for the Under-21s two or three years ago and did well there and looked to show lots of potential. Can he challenge for England? It’s not for me to say at this moment in time but, yes, he is playing well”. Unfortunately, he suffered a shoulder injury in training before the Play-Off semi-final. As it turned out, Murray had played his last competitive game for Wolves. He had just celebrated his 26th birthday.

Murray was now on the slippery slope. His shoulder injury was followed by another cruciate knee injury to his left leg in pre-season and he missed the whole of the 2007-08 campaign. Then, in November 2008, Murray earned rave reviews in his first 2 games on loan at Hereford and hopes were high that he was finally on the comeback trail. In the third game, Murray collapsed in a heap having ruptured the patella tendon, this time in his right knee. 21 months later, following several more abortive attempts, Matt Murray had reached the end of the road and announced his retirement at just 29.

It is always a sad time when a player so young retires from the game through injury. However, Matt Murray’s retirement is more difficult to take than most simply because his talents never received the audience they deserved. The announcement today will cause barely a ripple in the sports world and this won’t just be because it was on the cards but will more likely be down to the fact that many have not even heard of the player. Martin Swain, chief football writer of the Express & Star, has been good enough to note that Murray stands alongside Mark Bosnich as the finest keeper he has seen on the West Midlands patch in 20 years of covering the region. However, Fabio Capello certainly has little reason to be aware of his existence. And yet if Murray had been able to maintain his fitness for any length of time it seems a fair bet to say he could have made a difference to England’s fortunes at this summer’s World Cup. If that has us wondering ‘what if?’ then one can only imagine how Murray himself must be feeling today.

Everton 1-1 Wolves: Analysis

A strange game this one..

Everton completely outplayed Wolves for the first half and were looking like the side many people expected them to be this season. The hallmarks of a typical Everton performance were there - fiercely competitive, high tempo football with Mikel Arteta pulling the strings. For their part, Wolves had decided to stick with the 4-4-2 that secured an opening day victory over Stoke. The  problem for them at Goodison was that the combative Tim Cahill dropped into the midfield where appropriate as the home side’s 4-4-1-1 swamped Karl Henry and David Jones leaving the visitors unable to get hold of the ball for any length of time. Jones in particular could not get the time he needed to bring Wolves’ wide men into the game and the result was that Matt Jarvis – often the side’s major threat – was simply not involved in the game:

Matt Jarvis, right-winger. Passes up until 53rd minute when he was switched to the left.

McCarthy changes it

The key moment that changed the course of the contest was the arrival of Algerian midfielder Adlene Guedioura to play on the right side of midfield. McCarthy withdrew left-back George Elokobi, moving Stephen Ward from left-midfield and switching Jarvis to his favoured left-wing. Thereafter, the game swung in Wolves favour and this is shown bluntly by the shots on goal:

1st Half: Everton 11, Wolves 1
2nd Half: Everton 4, Wolves 9

The substitutions were clearly a major factor in this. The 2nd change came in the 71st minute when Greg Halford came on to play down the right flank with Guedioura replacing Jones in the centre of midfield. The Algerian’s busier approach helped wrestle control of the game and his dubious tackle on Heitinga set up the attack for the equaliser. Another key advantage was that Ward’s superior passing ability at left-back could now bring Jarvis, playing ahead of him, into the game. The speedy winger had the run on Tony Hibbert and his increased influence is shown on the chalkboards:

Matt Jarvis, left-winger. He enjoyed much more of the ball in the 2nd half

Conclusions

It was hard to see anything other than 3 points for Everton at the half-time interval. However, a couple of substitutions by Mick McCarthy emphatically changed the pattern of play and this was reflected in the scoreline. Perhaps David Moyes could have done more as he made only like-for-like changes. Perhaps McCarthy got it wrong initially. Whatever your view, this game showed that even those games in which the gulf in quality seems all too apparent can be altered by seemingly innocuous rejigging.

Top 5: Headers

In the wake of Chicharito’s sensational *ahem* header in the Community Shield, Ghostgoal takes a look at our Top 5 headed goals …

 

Javier Hernandez

The Mexican clearly wanted to put on a show at Wembley and did so in fine style. Not satisfied with simply tapping into the empty net, Chicharito blasted the ball into his head as he dived forwards all in one motion. Bravo, sir. 

 

 

Martin Palermo

The daddy of headed goals.. a 40 yard behemoth from everyone’s favourite Argentinian bruiser Martin Palermo. Just think of the neck muscles required to pull off this feat.. All Hail Saint Palermo.

 

 

Henrik Larsson

Euro 2004 was one of those rare tournaments where a headed goal was one of the most celebrated. Larsson’s gymnastic dive was sublime and almost poetic – head intercepting ball in a moment of sheer perfection.

 

 

Graziano Mannari

Not a name that springs to mind when thinking of Sacchi’s great Milan side of the late 80s but Mannari was the man who had the pleasure of finishing off this move from one of club football’s greatest ever sides. You know that Goal of the Month candidate that is all about the move rather than the strike.. the one where you like to look clever in front of your friend/dad/son/wife/dog by claiming it was your favourite.. yeah, this is it.

 

 

Jared Borgetti

A deft goal of real class and beauty against one of the finest goalkeepers of all-time. This is a classic.

Top 5:Guardian Chalkboards 09-10

Paul Scholes wowed viewers once again as he rolled back the years with a passing masterclass in Manchester United’s opening weekend victory over Newcastle United. Of course, the statistics only ever tell half the story – the true beauty is in watching Scholes probe away with his short and long range passing until finding a way through, as he did for Ryan Giggs’ landmark goal late on. Even so, the diagram shown here indicates the control Scholes exerted on the game and is a good example of the merits of the Guardian Chalkboard facility. Below, Ghostgoal takes a look at some of the Guardian Chalkboard highlights of 2009-10:

The Holding Midfielder

Paul Scholes’ role for Manchester United has changed over the years and is even known to change within games. Scholes is both attacking midfielder and deep-lying playmaker. He is certainly not one of those players whose purpose in a side is questioned by the masses – that cross to bear lies with ‘the holding midfielder’.

The holding midfielder does not play killer passes and in recent times he doesn’t even lunge into tackles. What a good holding midfielder does do is control the space and retain possession. No statistical tool illustrates this better than the Guardian Chalkboard.

Denilson (Arsenal), Mikel (Chelsea) & Nigel de Jong (Man City) are key figures for their respective Title-contending sides

The three chalkboards above each show games in which the holding midfielders at three of the best sides in the Premier League did not once giving the ball away. Denilson’s remarkable 73/0 game against West Ham United is statistically the pick although Mikel (52/0) and de Jong (51/0) each did their job impeccably. It is an old cliche to argue that ‘the lads in the dressing room know what he does’ while a player remains under-rated among the fan base but there is less excuse than ever for this disparity now that we have the statistics readily at hand. Almost every team in the land has a player fulfilling this role and, as can be seen, they are not necessarily the tough-tackling ‘bite yer legs’ type:

Huddlestone (Spurs), Petrov (Villa) & Heitinga (Everton)

Tom Huddlestone is a playmaker and perhaps utilises more long-range passing than others in the position. Such is his accuracy, he still completed the freak defeat at home to Stoke with a perfect passing record. Stilian Petrov, a former attacking midfielder, now enjoys a sitting role at Aston Villa while younger players take the attack to the opposition. At the other end of the spectrum, Johnny Heitinga is a centre-back who has shown he can operate in the holding role for Everton. The similarity of their respective chalkboards is a testament to how they can adapted seamlessly to the demands of the role.

Henry (Wolves), N'Zonzi (Blackburn) & Thomas (Wigan)

The above chalkboards illustrate perfectly how the holding midfielders involvement in the game changes as we move lower down the Premier League. Blackburn’s Steven N’Zonzi actually completed just 12 passes in his 90 minute outing against Bolton. This may seem a paltry effort but the match was won 3-0 and the watchword remained the same – he did not give the ball away once.

Arsenal: No Longer the Invincibles but still Immaculate

Denilson’s incredible ball retention has been highlighted above. This habit is an infectious one in the Gunners line-up though and keeping the ball from the back is a hallmark of Arsene Wenger’s style of play:

Emirates Passmasters: Vermaelen (vs Burnley), Denilson (vs West Ham) & Gallas (vs Hull)

By operating with two centre-backs who can keep the ball and a sitting midfielder doing the same, Arsenal are able to ensure that almost every time they gain possession the ball will eventually find its way to one of the more creative players in the side. This passing philosophy is in sharp contrast to others in the league:

Arsenal attempted 549 passes vs Hull (completing 88%). Stoke attempted 163 passes vs Man City (completing 64%)

Contrast with Stoke City

Stoke’s season was a triumph as they improved on their 12th place the previous season to finish 11th in the Premiership…. which only makes it more fascinating that they did so with such a different approach. Even their astonishing lack of ball retention in the match highlighted above did not get in the way of securing a draw against the expensively assembled Manchester City side. Of course, the personification of the Stoke approach is long-throw specialist Rory Delap and this is borne out by the chalkboards:

A sample of Rory Delap's passing chalkboards for 2009-10. From left to right: Wolves (a), Villa (h), Liverpool (a).

In each of the above games Delap attempted more throw-ins than he did passes, lending credence to the view of him as, first and foremost, a long-throw specialist. Delap may be the bete noir of the possession football advocates but the 2009-10 season gave a fair share of reminders that football isn’t all about passing the ball around all day…

Possession isn’t Everything

Arguably the most illuminating contest of the season was Inter’s glorious defeat in the 2nd leg against Barcelona. The game was lost with barely believable possession statistics showing Inter had just 24% of the ball in the game. No matter. The aggregate win was secured and Mourinho went on to lead the Italian side to the biggest prize in European club football.

There are plenty of examples from the chalkboards of plucky backs-to-the-wall victories where the winning side had less of the ball. Perhaps the best example, however, is the passing chalkboard for Wigan’s hammering at Spurs in November:

Tottenham Hotspur 9 - 1 Wigan Athletic - 22nd November 2009

Spurs completed 71 more passes than the visitors that day at White Hart Lane. Wigan also misplaced 12 more than the home side. Even so, there is little to indicate the 9-1 scoreline that ensued. At the risk of betraying Jonathan Wilson and coming over all Jamie Redknapp – goals change games – and in this one the involvement of Jermain Defoe highlights the disparity between the passing chalkboards and the Sunday newspaper headlines:

Jermain Defoe - 10 passes. 5 goals.

Defoe has sometimes been perceived as a selfish player only interested in scoring goals. This chalkboard both exemplifies that and vindicates his approach. The forward completed only 10 passes in the game but had 9 shots at goal, scoring 5. Even in the age of universality, the chalkboards show that the goalscorers primary concern is putting the ball in the net….

 

Didier Drogba and the Golden Boot

Nowhere was this more theatrically demonstrated than in the performance of Didier Drogba on the final day of the Premier League season. In search of the goals he felt he needed to secure the Golden Boot, Drogba went into a sulk when not allowed to take a penalty but later made amends with a hat-trick to win the Premiership and the individual honour he craved. His performance that day makes Defoe’s earlier passing efforts look like the work of Juan Roman Riquelme….

Didier Drogba. 5 completed passes. 8 shots at goal.

Paul Scholes has laid down an early marker. We’ll have to wait to find out what the chalkboard stories of 2010-11 will be.

Wake-Up Call for Spurs

Half an hour gone and 10 months, or arguably 40 years, of Spurs’ hopes, dreams, money & ambition looked to have gone up in smoke. 3-0 down to Young Boys of Berne in their Champions League qualifier was a pitiful start and in clawing their way back to 3-2 many will wake up with this morning feeling Spurs are off the hook. The truth is that Harry Redknapp’s tabloid allusions that ‘tactics aren’t that important in football’ leave him open to criticism after games like this.

Ghostgoal wrote a piece back in May praising how Spurs had been able to overcome their difficulties putting away defensive opposition by retaining 4-4-2 but deploying Luka Modric in a central position. However, it is the conclusion we came to that resonates even more this week:

“The conclusion therefore is that of a qualified success for Spurs. They have shown 4-4-2 can still bring some Premiership success, they possess talented players in abundance and their achievement this term could give them a platform to become even better. However, the suspicion remains that one of the keys to success at the highest level is being adaptable. This is a trait Spurs will need to learn should they find themselves negotiating a tricky Champions League group come the Autumn.”

As it has turned out, the European examination came even before the group stage. The warning signs were there in the opening Premiership encounter against Manchester City. In truth, Spurs were unfortunate not to win that contest. The tactics guru Jonathan Wilson rightly praised Spurs’ ‘boldly attacking pairing of Modric and Huddlestone’ but the relative success of ther line-up in this match owed much to a dysfunctional City team selection. Mancini’s side were unable to pressure Tottenham’s midfield two and allowed them enough time and space to pick out the forwards and the wide men at will.  As an attacking force, City failed to get their full-backs forward and Yaya Toure, Nigel de Jong and Gareth Barry (playing tucked in off the left) could not expose the potential weaknesses of Spurs’ attacking formation. That is not to say the weaknesses were not there:

Spurs vs Man City - Yaya Toure breaks untracked before firing wide

This run from Yaya Toure was a rare example of City midfielders driving forward into the wide open spaces that can be available when facing an attacking 4-4-2. Although David Silva did drift into the area that could expose Tottenham, he struggled to make an impact on Premiership debut. Against Young Boys, the North London outfit were not so fortunate. This time around, Spurs were up against a side prepared to play a high tempo pressing game that denied Modric the time on the ball to bring the attacking players into the game. In contrast, with just Palacios for support in the centre and only token defensive contributions from Pavlyuchenko and Defoe in the first half, Spurs were simply ripped to shreds. Moreno Costanzo, the bright young Swiss-Italian No.10 was afforded the freedom of the park which was more than he needed. As it turned out, he played little part in Young Boys’ opening goals but the warning was there to see in the build-up to the 2nd:

Young Boys' 2nd goal. Pavlyuchenko (circled) is closest to Costanzo who is about to run clear on goal.

As the Spurs defence gets sucked towards the ball and inexplicably lose out anyway, space is afforded to Young Boys’ playmaker Costanzo. The closest man to him is actually Pavluychenko but his tracking back is no more than a gesture. This space is more of a direct factor in the beautiful 3rd goal:

Costanzo is about to receive the ball in acres of space and thread a beautiful ball through for Hochstrasser to make it 3-0. Defoe is the nearest player to him.

As Tottenham’s midfield pairing reacted to the pressure they were under by dropping deeper, this just made it easier for Costanzo to find the space in front of them rather than behind. Again, the efforts of the Spurs striker (Defoe in this instance) are no more than a gesture. After the half-time interval it was clear that a conscious attempt was made to address this problem as the front two played much more as a split pairing, sharing the tracking back duties. When Robbie Keane came on he even came so deep as to receive the ball from the centre-backs but was still involved enough further upfield to provide the assist for the potentially crucial 2nd away goal.

Conclusions:

This could really go one of two ways for Harry Redknapp and Tottenham Hotspur. You may take the view that their team is unsuited to the more unforgiving nature of the Champions League given the fact that far tougher challenges lie ahead. After all, Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United team of the 90s took years rather than weeks to adapt to the tactical demands of European football. On the other hand, a 3-2 result means they have an excellent chance of progressing back at The Lane and it may be that this was a lesson they needed to learn sooner rather than later. Should they reach the group stages there will be a need to operate with different formations, particularly in the away matches, and events on the plastic in Switzerland may have served as a timely reminder that Spurs can ill-afford to defend with two men out of the game up front.

Playing (Against) 4-4-2 Suits Wolves

After operating with a 4-5-1 for virtually the entire second half of the 2009-10 season, Mick McCarthy returned to his tried and trusted 4-4-2 for the new season. There was always the sense that McCarthy had begrudgingly abandoned his stock formation but change it he did and survival was the vindication of a bit of flexibility from a notoriously stubborn man. However, it would appear that the real cause for optimism regarding Wolves’ fortunes in any individual game comes not from whether they operate with a four or five man midfield but whether the opposition does.

Wolves’ victory over Stoke on the opening day was fairly convincing. McCarthy’s advice to his players that they should get the ball down and play rather than get sucked into Stoke’s direct football proved spot on. The Guardian chalkboard analysis shows that no Stoke player managed more than 16 completed passes in the entire match. In contrast, not one of the Wolves midfield four or indeed either of the full-backs completed less than 25 passes (Steven Fletcher made 15 passes in 49 minutes too).

The really telling factor, however, is the contrast between Wolves’ centre-backs and full-backs. Of course, it is common for full-backs (for Arsene Wenger, the modern-day playmakers) to have more possession than centre-backs but in this instance the contrast is particularly marked. Christophe Berra attempted just 4 passes in the game but even this was positively adventurous in comparison to Jody Craddock’s paltry 3 passes. Meanwhile, Wolves right-back Kevin Foley attempted and completed more passes than any player on the pitch:

The left-hand chalkboard shows Kevin Foley's passes - 45 completed and 5 unsuccessful. On the right you can contrast Jody Craddock's passing - just two completed and both to Marcus Hahnemann.

By playing two forwards in Ricardo Fuller and Kenwyne Jones (later Mama Sidibe), Stoke ensured that Berra and Craddock would be engaged in man-marking duties. These would prove to be one-on-one battles the like of which suit two physical defenders of limited ball-playing abilities.  Stoke’s formation also meant that they would rely on the front two to provide the goal threat, playing Matthew Etherington surprisingly deep – often tracking back to double up on Matt Jarvis. This had the knock-on effect of meaning that the men given real space  in the Wolves team were their full-backs, the aforementioned Foley and Stephen Ward. Both players have significant experience playing in midfield (in Ward’s case even as a striker) and so are relatively comfortable on the ball. In other words, Stoke played completely into Wolves’ hands. 

Although the personnel has changed at times, it is noticeable that Wolves have long been more comfortable when operating against 4-4-2 whatever formation they play. Perhaps the best example comes in the 2009-10 results against the top five. Eight defeats out of eight against Chelsea, Man Utd, Arsenal (just) and Man City but two deserved wins against Spurs. Is it a coincidence that Spurs were the only side to consistently deploy two out-and-out strikers? Berra and Craddock were excellent in both those wins – heading, blocking and clearing the ball for fun. However, they were rarely faced with the difficult decision of whether to drop off or get close to the man playing in the hole. They seldom had the ball at their feet with an obligation to build the attack.

Conclusions:

Against Stoke on Saturday, Wolves looked a very capable Premiership side. The centre-backs relished the physical battle while the full-backs and midfield passed the ball impressively. The real challenge will come when the opposition does not play so obviously to their strengths – when the full-backs are closed down, we see the striker(s) drop off deeper and the midfield two are outnumbered. Everton away next up could prove a more revealing test.

My Favourite Player.. Steve Bull

The Equaliser is currently running an excellent feature called My Favourite Player. This was Ghostgoal’s contribution:

I thought long and hard about choosing Dragan Stojkovic for this piece. I’m a sucker for number 10s so there were loads to consider from Abedi Pele to Zinedine Zidane, with a nod to the likes of Hagi, Laudrup and Stoichkov along the way. Perhaps even Diego himself. Who am I trying to kid though? The reality is somewhat less exotic. When it comes to the matter of ‘who is your favourite player?’, the only thing simpler than the question is my answer. Steve Bull.
 
There are many statistics I can bore you with. It may serve more purpose to provide some context here. I was 6 years old when my dad first took me to Molineux on April 4th 1987. Bull had been signed by Wolves from fierce rivals West Bromwich Albion just 5 months earlier. 306 goals later he played his last game for the club on May 9th 1999. I was 18 years old. Thus, Steve Bull’s Wolves career covers pretty much my entire childhood, my full school career and without wanting to labour the point too much – the journey from boy to man.
 
That goes some way to explaining why he means so much to me. However, I don’t think you need to be an impressionable youngster to be taken aback by the achievements of Steve Bull. He was a strong and quick, hard-working centre-forward and his early goalscoring feats are frankly ludicrous. He remains the last player to score 50 goals in an English season – and he did it twice, back-to-back. Many fans look back on their childhood heroes and convince themselves that they were scoring in every game. In my case, a look back through Rothmans confirms this was often a literal truth. From the first time I stood on the South Bank at Molineux in May 1987 to the game on Bonfire Night 1991, ‘Bully’ scored 124 goals in 119 games at Molineux. This period included the mind-boggling run of scoring 27 goals in 14 home games in the 1988-89 title winning campaign!
 
The obvious point to make here is that these achievements were in the lower leagues of English football. I can only say that, to a young fan cheering on his hero, this was an irrelevance. And besides, vindication was just around the corner. After having scored for the U21s and the B team, Bull proved there was no level at which the net could elude him when he fired home on full England debut, coming on as a substitute against Scotland at Hampden Park in May 1989. A brace against Czechoslovakia followed – the second of which was voted the 37th best England goal of all-time and the 8th best in friendlies – before a late equaliser saved England’s blushes against Tunisia. The result – Bull, with just a season in the old Division Two under his belt, was off to the 1990 World Cup.
 
In many ways it was all set up for Steve Bull and not Salvatore Schillachi to be the surprise hero of that World Cup. Jimmy Greaves wore a T-shirt on air imploring Bobby Robson to ’Let The Bull Loose’ while Trevor Brooking amusingly noted how a cheer went up from 50 Wolves fans whenever Bully scored a goal in training. Local reporter David Instone claims to have hauled a mailbag of good luck messages for the player all the way to Sardinia that was said to be bigger than the one for the rest of the squad put together. As a result, I have mixed feelings about Italia 90. On the one hand, there is the deep regret that he didn’t become England’s hero. I still vividly recall the headed miss against the Dutch, the long-range drive tipped wide versus Belgium and most bitter-sweet of all the sight of his training top going back on when Lineker equalised against Germany. On the other hand, there is the knowledge that just one goal at that tournament would probably have been enough to tip the balance and see him leave Molineux. As it was, Graham Taylor soon dropped him and my hero spent the rest of his career with Wolves – adding memory after memory along the way.
 
I’ll end with a clip of probably my favourite Steve Bull goal. It isn’t his best finish and it isn’t either of his late winners against West Bromwich Albion. It is, however, my clear favourite for the context, the crowd and the commentary – as the man on the video says: ”the hero of all heroes”.

Stjarnan – Internet Sensation

Stjarnan FC is an Icelandic football team founded in 1960. They play at Stjornuvollur, a ground with a capacity of just 1,000, and have never won the Icelandic league title. In short, there is very little about Stjarnan that would indicate the club’s on field activities could ever be the subject of international discussion. Until that is, some of their players hit upon the idea of injecting a little fun into their goal celebrations…

The world sat up and took notice when striker Halldor Orri Bjornsson hit the winner against Fylkir last month and his post-goal celebration was caught on camera, blazing a trail across the world wide web. Johann Laxdal is the man doing an uncanny and frankly unnervingly accurate representation of a fish:

Laxdal is now the subject of a fan page on Facebook and is presumably being contacted by unscrupulous agents working out how best to cash in on this new found fame as we speak. For now though, the Stjarnan boys are content to spend their time building up their repertoire of new moves – there has been a ballroom dancing celebration, a marching parade and a Rambo style shooting spree but thus far this, the Human Bicycle, is probably the best of the rest: 

Everyone now has a new favourite Icelandic team, and who’d have thought they’d be saying that a month ago.