When Steven Gerrard equalised to level the game 2-2 at Old Trafford earlier this month, Sir Alex Ferguson knew his side were in trouble.
In danger of dropping points from a winning position for the third Premiership game already this season, he looked to the bench and sent for … Kiko Macheda.
Michael Owen kept the tracksuit on. Overlooked again.
Owen has since bounced back with a brace at Scunthorpe and the equaliser against Bolton. But why should we be surprised – Owen’s scoring record for Man Utd is an impressive one.
The former European Player of the Year has enjoyed just over 1300 minutes of pitch action for United. That equates to just shy of 15 full games. He has scored 12 goals. That’s one every 109 minutes – not far off a goal a game! (For the record, Macheda’s record is 3 goals at 285 minutes per goal)
Of course, some have been in the League Cup, while others have been late strikes to put the gloss on games that had long been won. Not all of them though – there are four Champions League goals as well as that derby winner.
With Wayne Rooney out for some weeks, the rejuvenated Dimitar Berbatov is perhaps in need of a strike partner. Maybe Sir Alex Ferguson will look to the former Boy Wonder – Man Utd’s underused goal machine.
What were the most important goals of Romario’s career? Any answer to that question would appear foolish if it looked past the events of the summer of 1994. Romario, this true genius of the penalty area, won Brazil their first World Cup for 24 years. The key goal? Maybe it was his opener in that classic Quarter Final against the Dutch. Or the late winner in the Semi Final versus Sweden. If you deign to include penalty shoot-out goals it was surely his inch perfect strike in the Final itself…
However, less than a year earlier there was the alarming possiblity that none of this would be possible. Romario had played no part in Brazil’s qualifying campaign after being excluded by coach Carlos Alberto Parreira. The striker had expressed dissatisfaction at being left on the bench after flying all the way from Europe to play. In his absence, Brazil had suffered the ignominy of a first ever World Cup qualifying defeat – at the hands of Bolivia.
Results improved but, going into the final qualifying game against Uruguay in September 1993, the most famous footballing nation of them all was in serious danger of failing to qualify for the World Cup and missing out on the greatest show on earth for the first time ever.
The demand for Romario’s inclusion grew. Former hero Careca had played what turned out to be his final game for the Selecao that August and, while Muller & Bebeto were fine players in their own right, the public wanted a superstar. Romario clearly fit the bill. He had left PSV in the summer to join Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona ‘Dream Team’ and had already won the fans over in Catalonia.
With so much at stake, Parreira was forced to relent.
The Maracana in Rio was packed. The stage was set for a special Romario performance and he didn’t disappoint. On the video below you can see and hear the cheers that greeted his touch that day. His extraordinary skill and turn of pace as he broke through to hit the crossbar. A penalty turned down in the first half. Eventually, however, the No.11 was to find a way through.
The first, a remarkable leap from the man called O Baixano (‘Shorty’) to head home a Bebeto cross. The second, a trademark Romario one-on-one. He rounded keepers, he chipped them, he put the ball through their legs. This time he feigned one way before knocking the ball the other. Changing his stride in an instant he strode past the keeper to slot home.
Henceforth, Parreira was to indulge his mercurial genius of a forward, much as Sir Bobby Robson had learned to do at PSV. It was to lead Brazil all the way to winning the World Cup the following year.
As for Romario, his career can be divided into many parts. However, in terms of goalscoring, his international career can probably be seen in two spells – before Uruguay, and after Uruguay. Up until this point his record stood at 27 caps, 10 goals. From then on, it was a staggering 43 caps, 45 goals. A legend was born.
Ok. So not exactly the story behind it.. more the story that followed it.
In January 1989, Milan were the champions of Italy and soon to become the champions of Europe and the World. However, their Serie A challenge that season was faltering. Frank Rijkaard had joined the club that summer and was enduring a mixed start to his Milan career. He was soon to be converted from a defender to a midfielder by coach Arrigo Sacchi. After 13 games the Rossoneri were languishing in 8th place, an alarming 9 points behind rivals Inter.. and these were the days of 2 points for a win. Game week 14 saw a tricky trip to the Stadio Olimpico to face AS Roma who were a point above them in the table…
Roma had enjoyed an impressive 3rd place finish the previous season and boasted club legends Bruno Conti and Giuseppe Giannini in their midfield. Their star player, however, was striker Rudi Voeller aka il tedesco volante – the flying German. Voeller had arrived at Roma the previous season with a big reputation having scored in the 1986 World Cup Final and bagging a staggering 97 goals in 137 league games for Werder Bremen. Despite this, he had endured a difficult first season in Italy finding the net just 3 times in Serie A and things were looking little better in this second season with just a solitary goal before Christmas.
An early goal from full-back Mauro Tassotti had given the visiting champions an early lead. Then, however, Tassotti was caught out – Voeller took up a position behind him to receive the ball from a throw-in.. Rijkaard, seemingly realising Voeller’s position too late, was caught out and desperately trying to make up the ground. His lunge at Voeller only diverts the ball onto the German’s foot and towards the surprised Giovanni Galli in the Milan goal. Check out the celebrations from Voeller himself and the Roma officials behind the goal:
In the context of the match itself, the goal was hardly significant. Milan went on to win the game 3-1 thanks to Marco van Basten but Rijkaard’s error perhaps crystallised the view in Sacchi’s mind that the Dutchman’s future lay in midfield. Alessandro Costacurta later cemented his position at the heart of the most famous back four of its generation and, although Trapattoni’s Inter could not be caught in Serie A, Milan were to win the European Cup that year and the next.
As for Voeller, his goalscoring fortunes were to improve dramatically and he succeeded in turning his career in the Italian capital around. His finest hour in the Stadio Olimpico was not in a Roma shirt however. The following year he won the penalty that won Germany the Italia ’90 World Cup… but only after he and Rijkaard had made headlines for all the wrong reasons earlier in the tournament – this time at the Dutchman’s club stadium, the San Siro. Perhaps big Frank remembered that day at the Stadio Olimpico less than 18 months earlier…
Johan Cruyff. Ajax’s greatest ever player and arguably the finest European footballer of all time. He had been the star man in Ajax’s 3 back-to-back European Cup wins from 1971 to 1973. Rinus Michels was the coach who gave the world Total Football but there is little doubt as to who the real driving force on the pitch was:
“Cruyff was a big influence, especially as he grew older and talked more and more about tactics with the other players.”
[Bobby Haarms, in David Winner's Brilliant Orange]
However, after the 3rd European triumph with Ajax, Cruyff was removed as captain in an unfortunate move instigated by new coach George Knobel. The players were asked to draw lots to decide the captain for the season – Piet Keizer was chosen ahead of Cruyff and the die was cast. The deposed skipper moved to Barcelona where he was to become a Catalan legend by helping the club to win La Liga for the first time in 24 years.
Cruyff’s international career was characterised by the glorious failure of the 1974 World Cup campaign where the Dutch threw away an early lead to lose to the hosts, their great rivals West Germany. Cruyff declined to play at the 1978 tournament and when he left Barcelona to head to America and play in the fledgling North American Soccer League his career appeared to be winding down. However, in 1981 Cruyff made his long-awaited return to Ajax – the prodigal son was back.
Cruyff may have been 34 years old by the time of his return to Ajax but it was a successful comeback. He scored on his return in December 1981 and helped the club reclaim the Eredivisie title that season. More was to come as Ajax won the league and cup double in the 1982-83 season – only the second time the club had achieved the feat since the great man had left a decade earlier. Incredibly, Ajax refused to extend Cruyff’s contract and thus, in the eyes of the man himself, were forcing him out of the club once again. Cruyff was piqued and when the chance came to join arch-rivals Feyenoord the stage was set for the old legend to prove his point…
At first, the plan to make his old club pay did not go to plan. The now 36 year old Cruyff’s return to Ajax was a disaster as Feyenoord were crushed 8-2.. a hat-trick from the teenage Marco van Basten with youngsters Jesper Olsen and Ronald Koeman also on the scoresheet seemed to send the message loud and clear: Cruyff’s time had passed. The old maestro, however, was to have the last laugh.
Despite that heavy defeat, Feyenoord edged ahead of Ajax and by the time of the return leg it was clear that the result could be decisive in the title race. By this stage, a young star had emerged at Feyenoord to rival Marco van Basten – the dreadlocked figure of Ruud Gullit. The young Gullit was to go on to score 25 goals that season, including 9 in Feyenoord’s successful run to win the KNVB Cup. Indeed, it was Gullit’s remarkable free-kick that opened the scoring in that crucial game between Feyenoord and Ajax - and he was to assist for the goal that made it 2-0… a goal that was to prove a cathartic moment for Holland’s most famous player…
Feyenoord had won a corner on the right-flank.. the kick was taken short for Gullit to whip in. There unmarked was Johan Cruyff to head towards goal, only for the ball to be parried… again Cruyff was first to react and the ball was belted home left-footed… seemingly laced with resentment.
De Klassikier was won 4-1 (you may spot Jan Molby bagging Ajax’s goal), Feyenoord went on to complete the double – the second in a row for Cruyff of course – and the legend was able to retire on a high that summer at the age of 37. He was to rejoin Ajax once again the following year, this time as coach. However, there can be no doubt he had proven his point that February day in 1984, with one swish of his left foot.
It is an undeniable fact that tough tackling players are usually remembered fondly in English football. Norman ‘Bite Yer Legs’ Hunter. Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris. Nicknames that echo down the generations and men who still earn a crust working the after-dinner circuit where they regale audiences with tales of cynical fouls that are received warmly by the sound of gruff bellowing laughter.
In recent years, the template for a top class defender has changed. As the last outfield line of defence, the hatchet-man has been stifled by the introduction of the straight red card for the professional foul. As such, old parlances such as ‘stand him up’ and ‘stay on your feet’ have become truer than ever and defenders are now as likely to be judged for their passing as their tackling. Rio Ferdinand, the England captain and widely regarded as a world-class defender, got through the whole of last season for Manchester United and England without receiving a yellow card.. a remarkable statistic given the minor infringements that are now considered foul play.
As the responsibilities of the defender have changed in the modern game, the role of the tough-tackling hardman has probably become embodied more and more in the figure of the holding midfielder. Here, there is a player who is often actively encouraging to harry and close down the most creative players on the pitch. Players who are entrusted with stopping the opposition playing, with little responsibility to do anything other than lay the ball off to a more gifted team-mate. Tackling is surely part of this player’s remit. And yet, in a week in which two robust English midfielders find themselves lambasted for their reckless efforts in the role, is it now time to ask the question – have we seen The Death of Tackling?
Sunderland’s Lee Cattermole received two bookings in the first 22 minutes against his old club Wigan last weekend. The player has been widely criticised for his lack of control and downright stupidity – F365′s Mediawatch amusingly highlighting the contrast between his pre-match comments and his actions on the field.
Wolves’ Karl Henry meanwhile, has felt the full force of the media’s glare in breaking Bobby Zamora’s leg with a strong challenge at Craven Cottage. One may speculate that a challenge resulting in a broken leg would have seen recriminations in any era. However, the widespread condemnation of Henry for a challenge the referee deemed fair and that replays showed to have clearly won the ball is quite revealing:
“Maybe Zamora’s injury will make Karl Henry less of a prick when he is going into tackles. Massively over-zealous every time”.
[The Equaliser on Twitter]
When such a sober and impartial judge as The Equaliser is hurling abuse the player’s way then it is time to consider whether the appetite for strong challenges is no longer there among the viewing public as it once was. Following FIFA’s interventions in the early 90s and the subsequent proliferation of red and yellow cards, it took many fans, pundits and players considerable time to adapt to the modern game. Cliches such as ‘the referee has spoiled the game’ became commonplace after sendings-off. However, there appears to be a sea change and the tide is turning. The 2010 World Cup final was notable for the global outrage at the actions of the Dutch players and their overly physical approach. The thrust of the criticism directed at referee Howard Webb was asking the question: why had he not sent more players off. Even last weekend in the Premiership, in addition to the incidents involving Henry and Cattermole, the question is being asked as to why Bolton’s Paul Robinson was allowed to stay on the pitch for a challenge on Arsenal’s Abou Diaby that referee Stuart Attwell did not even deem a foul. And so, as the public appetite to (no pun intended) stamp out overly-aggressive play continues, there is surely every reason to expect to see the decline of the tackle.
So where does all this leave us? What is the role of the defensive-midfielder nowadays? The answer, perhaps, is right in front of us – it is in the role being performed by Jon Obi Mikel, Sergio Busquets, Esteban Cambiasso and others – the Interceptor: a no-nonsense midfielder for the 21st century…
Alex Song - 'Interceptions vs Tackles' comparison - Liverpool vs Arsenal 13/12/2009 (Guardian Chalkboards powered by Opta data)
The above diagram is indicative of the role played by Alex Song for Arsenal last season. It is a defensive one in terms of position but is not characterised by tackling. Indeed, the player managed only one successful tackle in the match and completed more interceptions than he attempted tackles. That is not to say the player did not do his job – in many ways the interception is the next generation of the tackle: prevention rather than cure. If a tackle is required then the implication may be that an opposition player has already been allowed to receive the ball in a dangerous area. An interception suggests the threat has been averted before it was allowed to occur and has the added benefit of an increased likelihood of ball retention – another key quality required in the modern defensive midfielder.
Tackling is a divisive issue. Some see it as a vital part of the game, others suspect the game would be better without a single player going to ground all day. For most, there is ambivalence: easy to enjoy a good crunching tackle.. right up until someone gets hurt. At that point, we reflect and ask questions. This week has been one of those weeks and yet it feels different – no longer is the argument that ‘he got plenty of the ball’ considered acceptable. The inherently physical nature of tackling is being questioned. As the tough-tacklers continue to be replaced by the interceptors we become increasingly aware of the overly-physical. In a strange irony, as society at large becomes desensitised to violence on our streets and on our screens, the sight of a full-blooded challenge is proving less palatable than ever.
I thought it’d be nice to revisit a piece from last September that many of you may have missed … (basically it took ages and nobody was reading this blog then!)
2010 sees the 50th anniversary of the World Club Championships. Previously a contest between the club champions of Europe and South America, the competition has now been extended to include other continents to better represent the global nature of the game. In all that time, only 4 teams have retained their title and thus won the competition back-to-back. The first was Pele’s Santos. The second was the legendary Inter side of Helenio Herrera, the grand wizard of Catenaccio. The third team to do so was Arrigo Sacchi’s incredible AC Milan of the late 80s. The last side to claim the honour, however, was one that is often overlooked. The club was Sao Paulo, and they achieved the feat in 1992 & 1993 by conquering Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona ‘Dream Team’ and Fabio Capello’s miserly Milan. Let us take a look back at that remarkable outfit.
The coach, Tele Santana
For Santana, leading Sao Paulo to become World Champions was blissful redemption. The culmination of his ‘Jogo Bonito’ (Beautiful Game) philosophy that had been so damaged by his experiences with the Brazilian national team. Santana was the coach of the Selecao in the 1982 & 1986 World Cups. The ’82 side in particular is commonly regarded as the finest side never to reach the World Cup Final. Some slack play against Italy allowed Paolo Rossi to score a hat-trick and eliminate Santana’s side – Toninho Cerezo was particularly culpable for a thoughtless pass across his own goal to allow Rossi through. Four years on, Zico’s penalty miss in normal time preceded a shoot-out loss and Brazil were again eliminated from the World Cup, this time at the hands of France. Santana left his role with the Selecao as Jogo Bonito was pushed to one side and the Brazilian national team went for a more pragmatic approach. Santana, however, was not done with his particular footballing philosophy and he was to rebrand it with spectacular results when he joined Sao Paulo in 1990.
This Sao Paulo side was built on quality defence. In those early days, there was the centre-back partnership of Antonio ‘Zago’ Carlos and Ricardo Rocha to rely on. Rocha was soon to move on to Real Madrid but the two combined to provide the base for Sao Paulo’s Campeonato Brasiliero win in 1991. Of more devastating attacking significance was Santana’s use of the full-back positions in his side:
The man who was to go on to become the most capped Brazilian footballer of all-time was arguably the key figure in Sao Paulo’s dominance of club football in the early 90s. He played in both of the club’s Copa Libertadores wins in 1992 and 1993 as well as each of the World Club Championship successes in those same years. Cafu’s calm nerve in the penalty shoot-out was to serve his side well – he scored in the ’92 Libertadores win over Newell’s Old Boys, the ’93 Recopa Sudamericana defeat of Cruzeiro and the ’93 Supercopa Sudamericana victory over Flamengo. When Cafu moved on to enjoy further success with Zaragoza and beyond, the titles dried up and Sao Paulo were simply not the same side.
Leonardo Long before the days when Leonardo was oozing class in the Milan midfield, he was being utilised everywhere from left-back to right-wing by Tele Santana in order to win trophies with Sao Paulo. Leonardo played a vital role in the 1991 Brazilian league title success before moving to Europe with Valencia. However, he was to return to his homeland in glorious style by scoring in both legs of the ’93 Supercopa Sudamericana, helping Sao Paulo defeat Milan in the famous game of ’93 and even scoring in the ’94 Recopa Sudamericana success over Botafogo before moving to Japan after the ’94 World Cup.
The beginning of Sao Paulo’s continental clean sweep came with their first ever Copa Libertadores win in June 1992 over Newell’s Old Boys of Argentina. A 1-0 defeat away from home was reversed in the home leg in front of a huge crowd though to be upwards of 100,000. Rai’s penalty in normal time was repeated in the shoot-out with Cafu also on target as Sao Paulo finally claimed South America’s greatest club prize. It was to begin a rush of continental trophies that would secure this team’s legacy as one of the greatest the world has seen.
The hero that day had been Rai. A mercurial playmaker of considerable talent, Rai is justifiably regarded as one of Sao Paulo’s greatest ever players. He was later to enjoy success with Paris St Germain but endured a bitter-sweet ’94 World Cup - earning a winners medal but having to relinquish the captaincy to Dunga and sitting on the bench for the final 3 games. His finest moment, however, surely came 6 months on from that Libertadores success when he led Sao Paulo to victory against Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona in the World Club Championships in that December of 1992. Down 1-0 to a Hristo Stoichkov goal, Rai was not only to equalise but also grab the winner with a picture perfect free-kick late in the 2nd half (shown below with Osmar Santos’ memorable commentary).
After edging past Newell’s Old Boys and Barcelona in 1992, the 1993 Copa Libertadores was to be Sao Paulo’s most emphatic success. Their old rivals Newell’s were dispatched 4-0 in the 2nd leg of their last 16 clash before Flamengo were disposed of in the Quarter Finals. After shutting out Cerro Portero of Paraguay for 3 hours in the Semi-Final, only Universidad Catolica stood in the way of back-to-back Libertadores triumphs. The first leg in front of 100,000 people in the Estadio do Morumbi was to be the final confirmation that Sao Paulo were the kings of South American football. The Chilean outfit were destroyed 5-1 with Rai again amongst the scorers with a beautiful chested goal in what was (for now at least) to be his farewell gift to the club.
Also among the scorers that day was Sao Paulo’s striker supreme, Muller. He, along with fellow attacking force Palhinha, were virtual ever presents through this period of success for Santana’s side. A strong forward of some skill, Muller was already an established star in the game having enjoyed an impressive spell at Torino in Italy as well as scoring for Brazil in the 1990 World Cup. He added the 5th that day against Universidad Catolica with a sumptuous left-footed lob but was to miss out on Sao Paulo next major triumph – the 1993 Recopa Sudamericana.
The Recopa Sudamericana is now the South American equivalent of the European Super Cup. In September 1993 it was contested between Sao Paulo and Cruzeiro over 2 legs. The football was something of a non-event, with both games finishing goal-less, although Sao Paulo’s shoot-out victory was remarkable in that it featured a high-profile penalty miss by Cruzeiro’s teenage sensation, Ronaldo. Zetti, Sao Paulo’s Brazilian international goalkeeper, was to prove the shoot-out hero once more by tipping Ronaldo’s effort over the bar with his left-hand having dived to his right. Cafu was among the 4 scorers for Sao Paulo and the trophy was in the bag. A few weeks later, yet more silverware was to follow with victory in the Supercopa Sudamericana and the emergence of another superstar…
Juninho Paulista had caught the attention of Tele Santana whilst playing against Sao Paulo for minor outfit Ituano in the Sao Paulo state championships. Santana wasted little time in acquiring the young starlet and before long he was exerting his influence at the Estadio do Morumbi. Juninho really took centre-stage in the Supercopa Sudamericana, a competition between previous Libertadores winners, when he scored in both legs of the final against Flamengo. Each game ended 2-2, with returning hero Leonardo also scoring in both legs, before Sao Paulo completed their now customary penalty shoot-out victory (Leonardo, Cafu and Muller all scoring from the spot).
By this point, what may now be seen as the final piece of the jigsaw in the Sao Paulo side was in place. Toninho Cerezo, the rangy midfield dynamo who had been the villain in Tele Santana’s unsuccessful tilt at the ’82 World Cup, was back to play under his old mentor. Cerezo had first played for Santana at Atletico Mineiro as long ago as 1971 and was now 38 years of age. He was, however, a remarkably young 38. He’d proven this by winning Serie A with Sampdoria just a couple of years earlier and then playing in the 1992 European Cup Final for them against Barcelona. Now Santana had persuaded Cerezo to return to his homeland after a decade in Italy. It was a masterstroke by the wily old coach - the veteran midfielder had one final great performance in him.. and he would save it for the grandest of stages.
December 12th 1993, Sao Paulo 3-2 AC Milan
Their finest hour. Fabio Capello’s AC Milan were filling in for the now disgraced 1993 Champions League winners Olympique de Marseille but this did not make Sao Paulo’s task any easier. Far from it in fact. Milan were on their way to winning the 1994 Scudetto by conceding just 15 goals and their season was to culminate in a 4-0 demolition of Barcelona’s ‘Dream Team’ to clinch the Champions League. That victory would see Milan hailed in Europe as the best team in the world. This was a view unlikely to be shared by their South American counterparts who had keen memories of the match the previous December when Sao Paulo had done battle with Milan in the National Stadium, Tokyo..
There is just so much to enjoy in Sao Paulo’s performance that day. The opener is a thing of beauty as Cerezo sweeps the ball out left before a crossfield ball falls perfectly for Cafu to pull it back behind the much vaunted Milan defence, where Palhinha is waiting to turn home. Milan’s equaliser is less aesthetically pleasing as Sao Paulo fail to clear a long throw before Marcel Desailly lumps an ugly ball into the box for Daniel Massaro to fire home. 1-1. Just before the hour mark Sao Paulo are ahead again as Palhinha finds Leonardo in the inside left channel where he jinks to the byline before finding the mustachioed figure of Cerezo at the far post for his fairytale goal. Again Milan hit back. Roberto Donadoni chips the ball into the box to find Massaro who heads on for Jean-Pierre Papin to nod home. 2-2. Still Sao Paulo are not done. Good work from Leonardo finds Cerezo – who else – and the old man threads a ball in between Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi that the Milan keeper Sebastiano Rossi can only push against Muller for the striker to bundle home. 3-2 and Sao Paulo are the Champions of the World for the 2nd time in succession.
It is a feat yet to be repeated.
There were other good days to follow. The Recopa Sudamericana was won again the following year, 3-1 vs Botafogo with Leonardo on the scoresheet. Shortly after this, Brazil won the World Cup for the first time in 24 years. Zetti, Cafu, Leonardo, Muller, Rai, Ronaldao & Ricardo Rocha were all in the squad. Sadly however, the team was breaking up. Cafu moved to Europe and Cerezo was approaching retirement, while Ronaldao & Leonardo had already agreed deals to head to Japan. Muller followed them to the Far East later that year – but only after amusingly making a fool of Everton manager Mike Walker by pulling the plug on a move to Merseyside just minutes after a press conference had been called. Juninho did pitch up in England with Middlesbrough the following year, joined later (and somewhat less spectacularly) by Doriva – the youngster who’d done much of the covering for Cerezo that day in Japan.
Decline was confirmed when, finally, Sao Paulo were undone by a shoot-out – losing to Velez Sarsfield in the final of the 1994 Copa Libertadores with Jose Luis Chilavert the hero, scoring at one end and saving at the other. The great Sao Paulo side had been knocked off its perch and the players that had taken them there were moving on. For Tele Santana, the glory days were behind him and he was forced to retire in 1996 after suffering a stroke. Ten years later he sadly passed away having left the world with memories of a sensational Brazilian national side that couldn’t quite lift the greatest prize of them all… and a truly wonderful Brazilian club side that most certainly did.
There are certain DOs and DON”Ts out there in the Footballing Twittersphere..
DO lament the state of mainstream punditry.
DON’T express interest in James Corden’s next ’footie’ show.
DO read Iain MacIntosh’s tweets and wish you had his way with words.
DON’T ever be impressed by Henry Winter when he uses Chaucer references.
DO surrender yourself to the wisdom of Zonal Marking & Jonathan Wilson.
DON’T say “false 9s??? hit the big man & shove inside-out wingers up your arse”.
DO nod when Tor Karlsen notes a chap in Norway’s 2nd tier is better than Santa Cruz.
DON’T wonder what johnny foreigner will be like on a cold Tuesday night in Bolton.
The trouble is.. what if you find yourself swimming against the tide of public opinion? What if you actually do find yourself wondering what kind of fist the 5’3” South American winger will make of his trip to the windy Britannia? The ugly question rises inexorably from somewhere within your gut - Am I a horrid xenophobe. Or am I something worse?
The issue that has sparked these feelings of angst that could soon see me sitting with Tony Gale & Phil Thompson, miserably shunned by the cool kids, was an article by the esteemed Mr Karlsen in which he set out his top five best/worst buys of the Premiership summer. In summary, it reads like this:
Joe Cole (Liverpool) – Free
Antolin Alcaraz (Wigan) – Free
Javier Hernandez (Man Utd) – £7m
Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal) – £10m
Pablo Barrera (West Ham) – £4m
Mauro Boselli (Wigan) – £6.6m
Bebe (Man Utd) – £7.4m
Steven Mouyokolo (Wolves) – £2.7m
Steven Fletcher (Wolves) – £6.5m
Kenwyne Jones (Stoke) – £8m
Now your initial reaction may well be that there isn’t too much wrong with that assessment. In basic terms, most people would say that the 5 players in the ‘best list’ represent a more impressive bunch of individuals than the 5 players in the ’worst list’. When you throw in the fact that the quintet of chaps who make up the ‘worst list’ have cost their clubs a staggering £10m more in transfer fees then it is surely an open and shut case.
Well here’s the thing. I say no it isn’t. And to explain why is to strike at the heart of the issue of that famous Fergie phrase – Value In The Market.
Antolin Alcaraz or Steven Fletcher
Alcaraz, the Paraguayan defender, was certainly a bargain signing by Roberto Martinez for Wigan – a free transfer no less. Fletcher, for his part, was clearly overpriced at a fee rising towards £7m. The former Hibs man had been signed by Burnley for £3.75m less than a year earlier. However, does a bargain represent a good signing per se? Is paying over the odds the real hallmark of a poor buy? I would argue not (Frank Lampard to Chelsea for £11m anyone?). Alcaraz has endured a difficult start to his Wigan career, looking all at sea in the opening day 4-0 mauling at home to Blackpool of all teams. Wigan’s display that day was hailed as one of the worst defensive efforts ever seen by a Premier League team. And yet, who could really have expected Alcaraz to hit the ground running? Many observers had spent much of the summer labouring the point that a good player in the Premiership does not necessarily make for a successful performer on the World Cup stage. This being the case, does the opposite not hold equally true – that a class act from abroad may find the challenge of Sky’s high tempo darling, the English Premier League, an alien experience for them.
Fletcher meanwhile, had a more successful opening day experience, scoring and producing a man of the match performance at home to Stoke City. Of course, the Scot was well prepared for the unique challenge posed by Tony Pulis’ side having come through a tough Premiership season with lowly Burnley. Although that campaign had been ultimately unsuccessful for the club, the experience had been an individual success with Fletcher scoring 9 goals and receiving many plaudits. Mick McCarthy would doubtless argue that he had paid a premium for a young striker with experience of thriving in the lower reaches of the Premier League. Could Wolves have convinced a better young striker to join them with this sort of experience as a pre-requisite? I remain unconvinced.
Joe Cole or Kenwyne Jones
This focus on ‘value in the market’ is not exclusive to bargain overseas purchases – so no accusations of little Englander mentality this time. Liverpool’s acquisition of England international Joe Cole was overwhelmingly hailed as a masterstroke by Roy Hodgson. Jamie Redknapp had clearly been taking tips on football finance from daddy ‘Arry when he brilliantly pointed out that ”you can’t get cheaper than a free transfer”. It is perhaps worth pointing out that a ’free transfer’ on £80k a week for 4 years represents the same £16m outlay as an £8m signing on £40k a week for 4 years. Leaving aside the issue of signing on fees and Joe’s astronomical weekly wage, there is the intriguing matter of how the former Chelsea man will actually be used by Hodgson at Anfield. Initially preferred to Steven Gerrard in the role behind a front man in a 4-4-1-1, Cole struggled and the feeling persists that he lacks the vision or the goal threat to really make the position work. If Hodgson reverts to his favoured 4-4-2 this is unlikely to suit Cole either. The jury is out on whether Joe Cole, approaching his 29th birthday, is still a man in search of his best position.
Things are a little clearer in the signing of Kenwyne Jones by Stoke City. The former Sunderland man may be overpriced at £8m but it is hard to look past the fact that his signature is something of a coup for the Potters. Jones was heavily linked with a move to Liverpool as recently as January but now finds himself pitching up at the Britannia. At just 25 years of age, his best years may yet be ahead of him and one wonders whether Stoke could realistically have attracted a better striker to the club. The forward position had become an issue at the club following Tony Pulis’ falling out with, and the subsequent exit of, James Beattie. With Samil Tuncay also struggling to adapt to Stoke’s particular brand of football, it became clear that a quality target man is what would be needed. Jones impressed early on in the opening day encounter with Wolves and, equally significantly, Stoke struggled when he went off injured. Mama Sidibe is a desperately poor substitute for big Kenwyne and this highlights the value of Jones to Pulis’ side. In summary, Kenwyne Jones is one of the best strikers that Stoke could attract, he is at a good age, has experience of scoring goals in the Premiership, fulfils a vital role in the side and has been purchased at a price that this well-run club can afford.
Bebe or, say, Rafael Van Der Vaart
Ok. You may have to bear with me on this one. Firstly, let us look beyond the intriguing revelation that Bebe moved to Vitoria de Guimaraes on a free transfer just 5 weeks earlier. Whilst there is every reason to rue why this player was not spotted earlier, it is merely an extreme example of something commonplace in the football market – a player moving for far more money than he had earlier in his career. Does anyone at Chelsea really concern themselves with the fact they signed Didier Drogba for £24m just a year after he moved to Marseille for £3.3m? The only practical issue is whether Bebe is worth £7.4m of Man Utd’s money. To be frank, on the face of it the unknown Portuguese kid of little pedigree looks an extremely pricey £7.4m … a feeling exarcebated when compared to Spurs’ acquisition of Rafael Van Der Vaart from Real Madrid for £8m. I don’t doubt this is true. I would merely point out that Sir Alex Ferguson may well take the view that players in the Van Der Vaart bracket – very good but not great – aren’t exactly what Manchester United require. If Ferguson can no longer afford the £20m+ purchases then it would appear he is happier spending the funds that are available trying to find the next big thing. This has resulted in a significant outlay on youngsters such as Bebe and Chris Smalling when he could easily have brought in proven high class performers at a similar cost. Overpriced? Maybe. But if Mao Tse Tung famously thought it too early to know the consequences of the French Revolution, it is fair to argue that it’s also too soon to know whether Bebe is a bad purchase for Man Utd.
I realise that Tor-Kristian Karlsen has considered all the other factors when evaluating these signings. However, I’m also convinced that much of the bland assessments of these transfers elsewhere has been over-simplistic – there’s more to a good or bad signing than just the number crunching. The intangibles need to be considered. The different requirements of each club. Does the player need to be able to hit the ground running? Is he likely to fit in instantly – are there synergy benefits? Does a specific weakness in the team need addressing at all costs? A player that may objectively be considered to be worth £5m could quite plausibly be worth £8m to a particular team – especially if no £6m player can be persuaded to join!
This is surely an issue that takes in many factors and the pounds shillings and pence behind a transfer tell only half the story when it comes to the complex matter of ‘Value In The Market’.
Anyway, time to get back to my opus on why Jamie Redknapp is right and Jonathan Wilson is wrong – passion really is more important than tactics……………….