Monthly Archives: December 2011

Karl Henry – Wolves’ not-so-tough tackler?

By Oli Baker

At the time of writing, no side in Europe’s top five leagues has made as few tackles per game as Wolves (15.4) or as few interceptions (11.9).

For a team that gained a reputation as being tough and uncompromising last season, these are startling statistics.

Although Wolves do fare quite well in the possession stakes, averaging 50.8% (8th highest in the Premier League) the fact remains that while Wolves are quite successful at keeping the ball, especially for a struggling team, they are truly woeful at winning it back.

It is hard to believe that this passive defending is a deliberate tactic from Mick McCarthy. For a manager that takes immense pride in the work ethic of his teams – and a man who physically cheered a tackle by one of his players at Old Trafford last season – it is unlikely he would regularly send a team out to sit off the opposition. This lack of tackles and interceptions has inevitable consequences – only Bolton and Norwich have conceded more shots per game than Wolves in the Premier League.

It is very clear Wolves do not possess a plethora of tough tackling players. In the entire squad, only Karl Henry can be viewed as a traditional defensive midfielder, putting in tackles and breaking up play. Herein may lay Wolves’ main problem. The one player that carries much of the team’s tackling burden, doesn’t really tackle. Anyone who saw his treatment of Joey Barton last season will be surprised to learn that Karl Henry has averaged just 1.2 tackles per game this season.

This does not compare favourably with players who are supposed to be of a similar ilk. Youssouf Mulumbu (3.7), Mohamed Diame (4.0) and Lee Cattermole (4.0) all tackle significantly more than the Wolves man. Even more creative players such as Yohan Cabaye (4.3) and Alejandro Faurlin (4.5) put Henry to shame in this department.

These facts are very much at odds with the general perception of Henry as a player. The infamous MOTD montage of his tackles on Barton was followed very quickly by Bobby Zamora’s broken leg, albeit from a legitimate tackle, and an extremely rash assault on Jordi Gomez, resulting in a deserved red card. Henry was very quickly painted as a villain.

This public witch hunt does seem to have changed Henry as a player. In the immediate aftermath Henry was visibly pulling out of tackles, and while that isn’t the case now, he does seem to have lost some of his aggression – not that he was ever as aggressive as perceived, as the tally of two red cards in more than 200 appearances for Wolves would testify. Manchester United’s first two goals in their recent 4-1 victory over Wolves are perfect examples of Henry failing to make necessary tackles.

Of course, there is more to defensive midfield play than solely tackling. Closing down players and space are both vital and much harder to analyse and report. Perhaps it is for these reasons why Henry is seen as indispensable by McCarthy. Yet, if you were to look at Wolves’ recent record with and without Henry it suggests McCarthy’s faith is misplaced.

Since the summer of 2010

With Henry on the pitch    (w-d-l)                      11         9          25

Without Henry on the pitch (w-d-l)                     8          1           6

In McCarthy’s defence, Wolves have been heavily linked with numerous midfielders in the past few weeks. However, the failure to provide competition for Henry – culminating in the bizarre claim that his team selection would be Karl “and 10 others” – has long been a puzzling aspect of McCarthy’s reign. Henry has certainly played his part in
Wolves’ recent success, and as a local lad who is clearly giving his all, he still has a lot of support amongst the Molineux faithful. But, the harsh reality is that Henry can no longer fulfil the role Wolves so desperately need.

*All stats are from WhoScored

Enzo Bearzot – a Tribute

by Adam Bate

*A version of this article appeared as an obituary in the February 2011 issue of Calcio Italia magazine

Some people choose to remember the 1982 World Cup for the famous Brazil team of Zico, Socrates and Falcao. Their silky skills and attacking football certainly captured the imagination. But they were to leave the tournament empty handed. Instead, Italy became champions of the world for the third time. The manager behind that triumph was Enzo Bearzot.

As the Italian manager later said: “Brazil was the most spectacular side. But the Italian team was the most intelligent at the World Cup.” His side actually struggled in the early stages. The man known as Il Vecio – the old guy – was under fire after a series of lacklustre displays but remained faithful to his vision. Bearzot was determined to build on the attacking principles he had put in place since taking sole control of the Azzurri in 1977. He explained: “For me, football should be played with two wingers, a centre-forward and a playmaker. That’s the way I see the game.”

Imposing this philosophy had been a challenging process. The legendary writer Brian Glanville summed it up: “Bearzot worked hard to wean the Italy team away from catenaccio. It wasn’t easy but, bit by bit, he succeeded.”

The turning point came in the second group stage. Bearzot had shown faith in Paolo Rossi, the Juventus forward who had only just returned from a two year ban following a match-rigging scandal. After defeating the defending champions Argentina, his faith in Rossi was rewarded when the striker hit a hat-trick to eliminate Brazil. The 3-2 victory remains one of the most famous games in World Cup history and from that moment Bearzot’s side only grew in confidence.

It was a confidence that came from the top down. Bearzot was calmness personified. Journalist Gabriele Marcotti put a personal slant on it that must surely resonate with an entire generation: “I felt an instant connection with Enzo Bearzot, as if it were my grandad on the sidelines, watching in that fiendishly reassuring, pretending-not-to-care way, but obviously as emotionally involved as if he were on the pitch.”

With a Rossi brace in the semi-final, there was an air of inevitability long before the West Germans were vanquished 3-1 at the Bernabeu. Marco Tardelli’s celebration will be replayed down the ages but the mastermind behind the victory was the quietly determined Bearzot. The coach underlined his relaxed approach when he played cards with the Italian President on the plane back from Spain. Il Vecio had just secured Italy’s first World Cup win in 44 years.

Little in Bearzot’s early career hinted he would go on to lift the World Cup. Born in 1927 in the Friuli region of north-east Italy, he was, in modern parlance, a defensive midfielder and enjoyed a solid if unspectacular playing career. After spending some time as a bit-part player with Inter, he headed south and enjoyed a happy few years in Sicily with Catania. At 26 he moved back north to Torino, a club still rebuilding after the Superga tragedy. It was while there he earned his solitary international cap against the great Hungary side in 1955.

Although there was a brief and unhappy return to Inter, Bearzot saw out the last seven years of his playing career with Torino and, upon retirement in 1964, he joined the coaching set-up at the Granata. It was a journey that would lead to the top job in Italian football.

Bearzot’s route to the Azzurri role was not the conventional one through club management. After a brief spell as coach of lowly Prato, he threw himself into a life working within the Italian Football Federation. A lengthy spell in charge of the Italy U23 side gave Bearzot the grounding he needed and he was later an assistant manager in Italy’s disappointing 1974 World Cup campaign. There was some resistance to his appointment as joint manager with Fulvio Bernardini in 1975 but two years later Bearzot found himself in sole charge of the Azzurri – and began to impose his own philosophy.

In hindsight, the creditable fourth place finishes at both the 1978 World Cup and 1980 European Championships hinted at the success that was to follow in 1982. Naturally, that was to prove the peak of Bearzot’s career. In a period that foreshadowed the later problems of fellow World Cup winning coach Marcello Lippi, Bearzot’s faith in his champions saw them produce stale performances in failing to qualify for Euro 84 before disappointing in Mexico in 1986. Nothing could erase the achievements of 1982 but the inevitable resignation followed and – a brief stint as president of the IFF’s technical sector apart – his career was over.

On 21 December 2010, Bearzot died at the age of 83. Paolo Rossi, the man who shared in the glory of that magical World Cup summer, perhaps said it best: “Enzo Bearzot was one of the greatest figures in 20th century Italy. He was like a father to me and I owe him everything.”

Il Vecio – elder statesman of Italian football… and national hero.

Time for Ronaldo to light up El Clasico

by Adam Bate

Cristiano Ronaldo doesn’t look like an underdog. He doesn’t feel like one and he most certainly doesn’t act like one. But this weekend he is the player more than any other who will be tasked with the role of challenging Barcelona’s footballing oligarchy.
And yet, don’t expect people to thank him for it. Because for many Barcelona
are benevolent dictators. They are the guardians of that risible notion of ‘playing the game the right way’.

Unusually, it is the European champions themselves who are perceived to have right on their side. In particular, this is true of the world’s greatest player Lionel Messi. In contrast, as Brian Phillips – in a brilliant explanation of the dichotomy that isn’t – wrote: “Ronaldo is, at the moment, pretty seriously underappreciated by soccer fans. Everyone agrees that he’s a great player, but he’s a great player whom it’s weirdly cool to disparage.”

And it’s not just the fans doing it. Johan Cruyff, writing in El Periodico, has discussed how Ronaldo needs to learn to find his best position on the field and not be so rushed in
his actions. While it may be a valid criticism from a legend of the game, it still seems an unworthy accusation to level at a Champions League winning player with a Ballon d’Or to his name. Phillips adds: “Not exactly a loser’s résumé but people still talk about him as though he’s an embarrassing case of squandered talent.”

With the odds stacked against him like this, Ronaldo needs all the help he can get if he is to showcase his talents in a Clasico. In a recent World Soccer interview with Sid Lowe, he explained: “I have been on the right wing, on the left wing and as a centre-forward. I’m not going to lie, though. I am happiest on the left.” But such has been Barcelona’s dominance in this fixture of late, this is a luxury that Jose Mourinho has often felt unable to afford.

Ahead of the two teams’ first La Liga contest last season, Mourinho sacrificed the optimum positioning of his greatest weapon in the hope of outflanking Pep Guardiola’s
champions. It was a move that catastrophically backfired as Real Madrid were dismantled in a lopsided 5-0 encounter. It is worth quoting Michael Cox’s Zonal Marking summary of Real Madrid’s tactical set-up for that game in detail:

“Mourinho started the game with his wingers on the opposite flanks to usual – Ronaldo out on the right and Angel di Maria on the left, presumably to work around the problem of Real defending against Dani Alves, as Di Maria is the better defensive player. Whilst Mourinho is generally a reactionary manager anyway, in a sense Guardiola had won the first battle of the match without a ball being kicked, since Mourinho felt the need to play his most dangerous player somewhere other than the position where he had been turning in incredible performances so far this campaign.”

Although Mourinho is a coach famed for his ability to learn from mistakes, it would appear he did not regard Ronaldo’s inclusion on the right to be one of them because it was here that he lined up for the return match in April. Indeed, Ronaldo only moved to the left flank after his side were a goal and a man down. It didn’t do ten-men Real Madrid too much harm though – they equalised to secure a respectable draw with Ronaldo himself firing home the spot-kick.

Perhaps this goes some way to explaining the folly of Mourinho’s reactionary thinking. Ronaldo, by his own admission happiest on the left, is also fundamental to Real Madrid’s style of play when stationed there. The table below details the sides of the pitch down which La Liga sides attack their opponents:

The La Liga positional statistics show how much more important the left flank is to Real Madrid

The contrast between Real Madrid’s left-side dominance and Barcelona’s more evenly
balanced approach is stark. Barcelona actually launch fewer attacks down their left flank than any other team in the league. As a result, in Real Madrid’s biggest games their best player and one whose presence on the left is key to how they play, has often found himself stationed in the position where he is least likely to see the ball.

However, there are signs this season that things are changing – both for Ronaldo and Real Madrid. The league table tells its own story regards Real’s improvement but there are also indications that Mourinho’s side is gaining ground in terms of general style of play too. The possession statistics indicate that Real Madrid are now better placed to control the game and get the ball to Ronaldo wherever he can do the most damage:

The possession statistics year-on-year clearly show Real Madrid closing the gap

While Barcelona remain consistent in their dominance of possession, Real Madrid are
evidently closing the gap in more ways than just points. The key is to be able to do this not just against the other teams in the league but also head-to-head in the Clasico itself. And here too there is reason for optimism.

In each of the five Clasico encounters last season, Real Madrid’s overall possession never rose above 37.2% – and even that was in a 5-0 defeat. In this season’s 2-2 result in the Super Cup, Real’s possession was 48% – in other words more than 10% higher than in any of last season’s contests.

And Ronaldo even played on the left.

So perhaps, with Real Madrid now flying, the time has come for Cristiano Ronaldo to take centre-stage. After all, Ronaldo doesn’t look like an underdog. And for the first time in a Real Madrid shirt, he could be set to walk out for the Clasico alongside a team determined not to play like underdogs.

 

*All data tables taken from the excellent WhoScored website