Mick in context – a look at McCarthy’s Wolves reign

by Adam Bate

To put Mick McCarthy’s Wolverhampton Wanderers reign into perspective you need to go much further back than its beginning in 2006. You need to go back to 1989 – the year that Wolves won the old Division Three title.

Until McCarthy’s arrival at the club that was not only the last team to win a league title but it was also the last team that had a meaningful connection with the club’s supporters. It was the team of Steve Bull and a collection of other hard-working souls determined to give their all for the club despite being forced to train on the stadium car park because there was no training ground.

The facilities changed for the better when Sir Jack Hayward took the reins at Molineux in 1990 but somewhere along the way something more vital was lost. Wolves became a byword for big spending and bigger failures as the club became a victim of its own hubris.

Graham Taylor was indulged with the seven-figure signings of players such as Dean Richards, Steve Froggatt, Tony Daley, Don Goodman and Mark Atkins as Molineux heaved with expectation once more. In the 1994-95 season, Wolves’ average attendances were over 10,000 more than those at Sunderland, Derby, West Brom, Stoke or Bolton – but promotion did not come.

Mark McGhee followed and blew millions more before the spending reached an inglorious crescendo when Dave Jones splashed more than £13million in 2001 alone – only to see the disconnect between players and fans reach its nadir as the team collapsed in the run-in to allow rivals West Brom to claim promotion instead. The infamous ‘You’ve let us down again’ banner said it all.

By the time promotion finally came twelve months on, Hayward was spent-out and relegation was inevitable. Suddenly Wolves were saddled with an owner who’d lost interest and so it seemed strangely appropriate to go the whole hog and appoint a manager with little interest in the shape of Glenn Hoddle.

When the diffident Hoddle left the club in the lurch by quitting in the summer of 2006, Wolves were left with just nine fit players to report for pre-season training. Things appeared to have hit rock bottom.

Enter Mick

This was the environment into which McCarthy walked and immediately set about scaling back ambitions by declaring he was no magician. Fans feared the worst but with a young and hungry agenda and a fierce work ethic, McCarthy went to work.

Karl Henry was his first signing – a £100k capture from Stoke’s reserves. Stephen Ward arrived from Bohemians for £150k and Michael Kightly was snapped up for just £25k from non-league Grays Athletic.

Of course, some of the freebies weren’t up to scratch but it was refreshing to see a Wolves team battling against the odds for the first time in a generation. An extraordinary 6-0 home defeat to Southampton summed up the mood at Molineux as the fans supported the players – not because of some lame gallows humour – but out of a genuine belief that the players were giving it everything.

Two years later, McCarthy took Wolves to the title in brilliant fashion. His young team – only two of the first XI were older than 24 – played with enthusiasm and gusto as Wolves’ wingers Kightly and Matt Jarvis tore defences apart on a regular basis. It was a team to bring pride back to a city.

Going backwards

That McCarthy should find himself sacked three years on, having twice kept the club in the Premier League, may seem strange to some. But for all the accusations that can be thrown at Wolves owner Steve Morgan, the claim of the Daily Mail’s Des Kelly that the club has shown “no loyalty” to McCarthy must be particularly galling.

Premier League table as it stood in November 2010 (taken from the BBC website)

There were difficult days in McCarthy’s second season at the club, after which the manager himself admitted that if the fans had been given the choice between keeping him or keeping misfit striker Freddy Eastwood – a divisive figure at the club, who had become a champion for disenchanted fans – it would have been the manager to go.

But Morgan backed his man. He did so again when McCarthy was labelled a disgrace to the Premier League for making 10 changes for a trip to Manchester United. And the owner still remained calm throughout Wolves’ second season in the top flight, despite Wolves picking up just nine points from the opening 14 games and eventually being just three minutes away from relegation on a traumatic final day.

Morgan and the fans have watched on as arch-rivals West Brom have prospered. Albion were supposed to be the neighbours with the tight budget; the epitome of the yo-yo club. And yet, while McCarthy trudged on against the backdrop of ludicrously ambitious stadium expansion plans, it was the Baggies who acted so ruthlessly in ditching Roberto di Matteo in favour of Roy Hodgson just months after the former had taken the club to promotion.

For McCarthy it has been a death by a thousand cuts. There have been the bizarre selection decisions, the limited tactics and the nonsensical formation changes. The nagging belief that while the club made big plans off-the-field, on it things were beginning to slide – as evidenced by the fact that despite spending well over £40million since promotion, eight of the Championship team still regularly featured in McCarthy’s starting XI this season.

All that remained was for a knockout blow to be delivered. And a 5-1 derby defeat to your rivals is just about as emphatic as it can get. It was an insipid effort that crystallised feeling as it showcased many of McCarthy’s failings and none of his strengths. The tactical flaws were there for all to see – starting with all three strikers for the first time ever in a game he could not afford to lose. But gone was the fight and commitment so clear to see in all of his finest Molineux moments.

It was a result that changed the debate. No longer could the issue remain about who could do better. It now had to be framed in terms of who could do worse.

That’s a sad way for things to end for Wolves’ most successful manager in a generation. But as Morgan himself put it: “We had little or no choice.”

What is success for Liverpool?

by Adam Bate

What a return it has been for Kenny Dalglish. Only Cardiff City now stand in the way of Liverpool lifting the Carling Cup at Wembley later this month and thus securing the club’s first trophy in six years. King Kenny has brought the buzz back to the city. And thankfully, whatever the dramas off the field, everyone at Anfield appears to be pulling in the same direction once again.

It’s a far cry from January of last year when Liverpool were languishing in twelfth place in the Premier League under beleaguered boss Roy Hodgson. The subsequent return of the Messiah saw the team swept forward on a wave of optimism and invention that brought 10 wins in 14 games – a run that took Liverpool to the brink of a fifth place finish.

One might think it would be regarded as something of a disappointment then, that the club currently finds itself seventh in the Premier League. Has progress already reached a plateau? That’s an alarming thought given Liverpool’s 2011 spending spree of £110million. As ESPN’s Michael Cox puts it: “Failing to match last season’s performance after considerable spending on players in the summer would prompt serious questions from outside Liverpool about Kenny Dalglish’s future.”

Of course, those questions are unlikely to come from within. Liverpool fans will point to the money recouped from the sales of Fernando Torres and Raul Meireles. Others maintain this level of spending should not bring with it unattainable expectations of glory. Tony Evans, chief football writer for the Times and Liverpool fan, explains: “Spending £100 million should bring instant top-four success, goes the logic, as if it were that simple. Some cannot see that … Tottenham Hotspur have leapfrogged the five-times European champions.”

Evans is quite correct to say that some could not see this. It has certainly proved news to the notoriously unsentimental bookmakers who considered Liverpool 10/1 shots for the title, while making Tottenham the 66/1 sixth favourites. Meanwhile, the assessment of the experts at the BBC could scarcely have been more emphatic in backing Liverpool’s chances of cracking the top four.

In the BBC’s summer predictions for the season, 23 of 31 pundits tipped Liverpool for a top four finish. Mark Bright, seemingly convinced by the Merseyside club’s oft-cited advantage of not facing European distractions, even went so far as to predict Liverpool would be champions come May. “The Reds have four players who could grace any team in the Premier League: Pepe Reina, Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll,” claimed Bright.

Oh Carroll. Some supporters sought solace in the ‘Torres less £15million’mind-trick. That remains a theory from the same school of thought that if someone pays £5 for your bag of Maltesers then you’ll happily cough up £3.50 for a Curly Wurly. In truth, he is a one-man conundrum – the catalyst for countless theories searching for some kind of Moneyball method behind Liverpool’s spending madness. After all, there had to be something we were missing when more than £50million was thrown at Andy Carroll and Jordan Henderson, right?

Time will tell. And there is plenty to be said for a happy fan base. But, from the outside at least, Evans’ claim that Dalglish’s potential Carling Cup success may “come to be seen as his greatest achievement,” appears rooted as much in wish fulfilment as anything approaching the reality of Liverpool’s season so far.

Anelka, Drogba and the Shenhua Revolution

by Andrew Crawford

Having even the remotest interest in Shanghai Shenhua should probably come with a health warning. When I die a decade prematurely, blame it on the side from the Hongkou stadium for weakening my heart and badly damaging my sanity. Shenhua is a dangerous interest to have. Believe me, its lots of fun but if you can, enjoy it in moderation.

The Chinese Super League (CSL) has recently been thrust into the spotlight via the big money arrivals of Nicolas Anelka and Jean Tigana at my ‘local’ club, who having not won a title in almost a decade, have now exploded into relevance once again. No-one is entirely sure where the money has come from for these signings but equally, no one really cares – Shanghai is a brash, loud city where success is expected and demanded. As long as the new arrivals help the club win, everyone’s happy.

For the hardcore fans, the ones who transform the north and south ends of the club’s otherwise sparsely filled stadium into swaying, swearing, boisterous carnivals of noise, the signings are a mixed blessing.  Anelka is still a very good player and Tigana, despite being a big fan of resigning without warning, is a proven top level coach. For a success starved club, this is exactly the sort of bold investment that the fans wanted.

However, one can only imagine that there will be more than a little frustration at the sudden influx of new supporters who have been enticed by the hype of Anelka. Ticket prices will go up, not only to fund the wages of the new arrivals but also because there will be more demand, certainly for the first half of the season.

There is also the problem of our chairman, Zhu Jun, who frankly is about as likeable as small pox. This is a man who recently made Shenhua play their ‘home’ games for the Chinese FA Cup in Wuhu, a city in the neighbouring Anhui province over two-hundred miles away from Shanghai. Last season, he sold off all Shenhua’s best players midway through the season, sparking a spectacular nosedive from the top-half of the table and into a relegation dogfight. There are more unicorns in the city then there are people with nice things to say about Mr Zhu.

However, the Anelka singing has given the eccentric videogames mogul a new platform in which to shamelessly promote himself to anyone who’ll listen, much to the delight of rumour mongers everywhere. You’ll probably be reading about Shenhua’s interest in Didier Drogba, which is highly unlikely to go through as the club already have two foreign strikers (Anelka and former Australian international, Joel Griffiths) and need to get an overseas defender or two to strengthen their backline. Fans of Brazilian club, Internacional will be equally curious about the fate of their Argentine playmaker, Andres D’Alessandro, who is also rumoured to be moving to Shanghai. Basically, if you have played in a big European league in the last five years, chances are you’ve been mentioned in the same sentence as Shenhua.  Guti and Michael Ballack are among the names that have been recently mentioned and with Zhu reluctant to deny almost any rumour, the pick-a-name reporting shows no sign of slowing down.

As someone who likes to spend his Saturdays encamped with the Blue Devils, one of the supporters groups in the Hongkou’s north stand, I can’t wait for the season to begin. The all-standing atmosphere in that part of the ground is a joy to behold, especially when tickets plus a beer can be as little as a fiver. I desperately want this season to be a success, not only as a writer who likes the romantic story of a once great club returning to its former glory but also as a resident of Shanghai who wants to see his club do well. Some fans would like a title run but for me, a decent league finish with a couple of wins over rivals Hangzhou and Beijing would be just fine. And the less Zhu, the better, obviously.

You can follow Shenhua’s fortunes by following Andrew on Twitter @ShouldersGalore

Jordan Rhodes – ‘Premier League player’?

by Adam Bate

Jordan Rhodes has certainly got the Premier League’s attention. As many as eight top flight clubs were represented at Huddersfield Town’s game against Wycombe Wanderers last week. And they are likely to have been impressed – the striker bagged five goals in a remarkable display. The question all of those scouts will have to answer is simple. Can Rhodes do it in the Premier League?

Such is the Scotland forward’s form at present, it almost seems churlish to ask. The numbers are phenomenal. Rhodes had scored 27 goals before the Christmas decorations were even down. And the 21-year-old striker is improving. “His finishing is up there with Alan Shearer, Andy Cole and Kevin Phillips,” said Huddersfield boss Lee Clark. “And his general play is excellent.”

And yet question marks will inevitably hang over the youngster. Much will be made of the massive gulf between League One and the Premier League. It’s far safer to go for proven top flight performers, or so the theory goes. But what is a proven Premier League player? The reflected glory that comes from being a youngster in and around the squad at a big club can count for a lot – but sometimes with very little substance to back it up.

Look at Federico Macheda. The 20-year-old striker has recently been snapped up by QPR on loan from Manchester United. The west London club were seemingly unperturbed by the Italian’s goalless contribution to Sampdoria’s relegation in his previous loan spell away from Old Trafford. And that’s no surprise – because he is a Manchester United player.

And then there is Everton’s popular frontrunner Victor Anichebe. The Nigerian is in his seventh season at Goodison Park with little suggestion he is likely to drop down the leagues. But Macheda and Anichebe’s combined number of career league goals currently stands at 12. In a whopping 128 games. To put this into context, Rhodes recently matched this combined league goal tally in under three weeks.

Of course, the standard is higher. But it’s equally legitimate to turn the question around and ask whether the likes of Macheda and Anichebe are capable of scoring 12 goals in five games in the competitive world of the Football League. Perhaps we should forget a few of our preconceived ideas of what constitutes a top flight player.

Norwich’s Paul Lambert is just the latest in a long line of manager’s from promoted clubs that have challenged the notion that there is a ceiling for lower league players. Lambert realised an important lesson – it’s better to sign a player adored by League One fans than ignored by Premier League ones. The Scot invested his summer transfer kitty in hungry young talent such as Elliott Bennett, Steve Morison and Anthony Pilkington and is now reaping the rewards.

Bennett and Pilkington both featured in last season’s League One PFA team of the year and they are just the latest in a long line of players who have made the step up. England internationals Joe Hart, Phil Jagielka, Joleon Lescott, Michael Dawson, Ashley Young, Andy Carroll, Tom Huddlestone and Matt Jarvis all featured in lower league representative sides, while Gareth Bale is another graduate of the League One PFA team of the year.

So let’s not get too caught up with the question of whether Jordan Rhodes is capable of proving himself. After all, he’s been doing that all season.

GhostGoal in 2011

2011 – A Thank You

It’s been a drunken busy Christmas and New Year period and I haven’t got round to summarising 2011 on the site. I wanted to take the chance to belatedly amend that now.

2011 was the first full year GhostGoal has been in operation and it’s been great that it’s developed as it has. The year began with the ‘My Favourite Goals’ feature which started out as a chance to invite anyone to write something about, well, their favourite goal.

The fact that ‘anyone’ ended up including award-winning writers such as Andrew Thomas, Michael Cox, Dave Hartrick, Jack Lang and many more volunteers was much more than we could have hoped. I think it highlighted the fun side of blogging collaboration in what turned out to be a fraught year for the – awful phrase coming up – ‘blogging community’.

Since then we’ve been chugging along. It was good to be one of the first sites to point out back in May that Owen Coyle wasn’t all that people held him up to be, while the defence of Serie A from the criticism of the Sunday Supplement brigade in October certainly seemed to strike a chord with a lot of people.

For me personally it has been a far more successful year than I could have hoped. When Oli and I first had the idea to jot down a few of our frustrations back in May 2010, the notion that this could directly lead to me getting paid to write about football would have been ridiculous. But (albeit in a small way) that’s what has happened over the past year with magazine commissions, regular work with Sky Sports and even an award nomination.

As a result of these writing distractions, the plans for GhostGoal in 2012 are sketchy but I’m afraid there won’t be any dramatic “I quit” stories regarding the site. Not least because it’s actually looking better than ever thanks to the much appreciated efforts of Thomas Baugh and his redesign.

And besides, I’m sure Oli will have plenty of things he needs to get off his chest in the coming year and – even if I don’t get round to writing as much as I’d like – with over 200 posts there’s plenty of nonsense for new arrivals to wade through should they be of a warped disposition.

Most of all, thanks for reading, commenting, contributing and criticising over the past 12 months.

All the best


Why Mick McCarthy’s time at Wolves is up

by Adam Bate

Progress. It’s the bane of the football manager. No matter what you deliver there’ll always be people wanting more. It’s a problem surely consuming Wolves manager Mick McCarthy right now. After lifting the club from the Championship in 2009, fans are now left wondering if progress is something McCarthy is still capable of delivering.

You can read the rest of this article by clicking here to go to BT Life’s a Pitch

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

They Retired The Shirt: Franco Baresi

by Adam Bate

In 1999 the No.6 shirt of AC Milan’s Franco Baresi was retired. That same
year, he was named Milan’s best player of the twentieth century. More recently,
he was officially named as Italy’s player of the century too. These are
extraordinary accolades to be given to a defender. But then, Baresi was no
ordinary defender.

At a fraction over 5’9” tall and slender of build, Baresi wasn’t your typical defensive
colossus. But he used every inch of his wiry frame to compete physically;
excelling thanks to those rarer defensive qualities of skill and grace. Perhaps
Baresi’s most notable attribute, however, was his incomparable positional
sense. He was able to use his footballing intelligence to snuff out threats
before they occurred and provide the base for the next attack. Contrary to
appearances, Franco Baresi was a defensive giant after all.

The route to becoming a Milan legend was not a straightforward one for the
young Franco. Indeed, the first opportunity for the boy from Brescia may well
have come with Milan’s great rivals Inter. Incredibly, Baresi was rejected and
denied the chance to follow in the footsteps of his elder brother Giuseppe with
the Nerazzurri. No matter. Franco tried his luck with the Rossoneri instead and
never looked back.

Baresi’s career really took off when he established himself as a first-team
regular in the 1978-79 season. It says a lot for his quality that he was able
to break into the Milan side at the age of just 18. That his first full season
also coincided with the club becoming champions of Italy for the first time in
over a decade says much more. It was also fitting that retiring legend Gianni
Rivera was able to bow out as a champion – and do so playing alongside the man
who would go on to take his Milan appearance record.

Although the post-Rivera era was a period of relative obscurity for Milan,
it saw Baresi’s career go from strength to strength. Enzo Bearzot, the Italian
manager, recognised the young defender’s talent despite Milan’s relegation in
1980 and called him up for that summer’s European Championships on home soil.
Baresi did not feature in the tournament, serving instead as understudy to the
Juventus sweeper Gaetano Scirea.

It turned out to be a lengthy apprenticeship with the Azzurri because Baresi
was given a similar watching brief for the 1982 World Cup. It was, of course, a
successful one for Italy as they ousted the holders Argentina, champions-elect
Brazil and eventually West Germany in the final. While Paolo Rossi earned the
plaudits, Baresi cheered him on from the sidelines. Incongruously, he was yet
to win his first cap but was now part of a World Cup winning squad.

If that experience was a positive one for Baresi, the years that followed
were ones of frustration. The man known as Piscinin – the Little One – was gaining
a burgeoning reputation as a skilful sweeper with an exceptional talent. But
Milan’s second relegation in three years meant the 1982-83 season was spent in
Serie B as the club remained in desperate need of investment. Meanwhile,
Bearzot’s refusal to introduce new players gave Baresi limited opportunities
with the national team. His strained relationship with the coach even saw him
miss the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

Despite being champions, Italy struggled that summer. It was perhaps a
blessing for Baresi as the subsequent resignation of Bearzot, coupled with the
retirement of Scirea, brought new opportunities for him. But the main reason
why 1986 was a turning point in his career was the change in ownership at Milan
– and the arrival of one Silvio Berlusconi.

That Berlusconi transformed Milan is a matter of fact. And yet, he was able
to do so thanks largely to the raw materials already in place at the time. As
well as Baresi, there was the reliable right-back Mauro Tassotti and a young
left-back by the name of Paolo Maldini. When Alessandro Costacurta broke
through the ranks soon after, one of the most famous defensive units in the
history of the game was in place.

Berlusconi did play a key role in bringing players such as Marco Van Basten
and Ruud Gullit to Milan. But his most visionary piece of business was in
identifying the young Parma coach, Arrigo Sacchi, as the man to take Milan
forward. Sacchi’s was a unique take on the Dutch Total Football model – with an
emphasis on intense pressing and the importance of controlling space. He had a fascinating way of demonstrating this to his superstar players:

“I convinced Gullit and Van Basten by telling them that five organised
players would beat ten disorganised ones. And I proved it to them. I took five
players: Giovanni Galli in goal, Tassotti, Maldini, Costacurta and Baresi. They
had ten players: Gullit, Van Basten, Rijkaard, Virdis, Evani, Ancelotti,
Colombo, Donadoni, Lantignotti and Mannari. They had 15 minutes to score
against my five players. I did this all the time and they never scored. Not

Sacchi may well have seen himself as the scriptwriter and the players as
mere actors but central to this success was Baresi – his leading man. The
captain of the side, he marshalled the defence using his supreme reading of the
game, and led Milan throughout a period of unprecedented success. The 1987-88
Scudetto was Baresi’s second and a defensive triumph – Milan conceded a miserly
14 goals as they lost just two games all season. Crucially, the title opened
the door for the Rossoneri to take their domination onto the European

The 1989 European Cup victory marked Milan’s ascent to the next level, but
it was not without luck. Down to ten men and losing away to an exceptional Red
Star Belgrade side, the fog descended and play was abandoned. The match went
ahead again the following day and Milan triumphed on penalties with Baresi
converting from the spot. It was a controversial escape but one Milan made
count as they memorably destroyed Real Madrid 5-0 in the San Siro before
annihilating Steaua Bucharest 4-0 in the final. It was an explosive climax that
saw Baresi lift the European Cup in the Camp Nou.

Twelve months later, Milan sealed their legacy as they became the first team
in ten years to retain the European Cup. No team has repeated the feat since.
There were fewer fireworks this time around. The key was that Milan conceded
just three goals in their successful defence of the trophy – with Baresi
imperious throughout.

Of course, while Baresi’s Milan career was largely one of glory, his efforts
for the Azzurri will always be tinged with sadness. He was 30 before he even
got the chance to play in a World Cup. It was on home soil in 1990 and so
nearly saw Baresi complete the perfect season. Things began brilliantly as
Italy hit seven goals without reply in their first five games. Unfortunately,
despite being the better side, they could not edge past Argentina in the semi-final
in Naples. Penalties ensued and, while Baresi demonstrated his leadership skills
by putting away the opening penalty, teammates Roberto Donadoni and Aldo Serena
could not replicate his efforts and the dream died.

Four years later it would be the turn of Baresi himself to feel penalty
heartbreak. By that point, Sacchi had left Milan to take the national job but
the trophies had continued to roll in. Baresi helped the Rossoneri to three
consecutive Scudetti. The last of which, under Fabio Capello in 1994, was
another reminder that great sides are built from the back. Milan scored a bewilderingly
unimpressive 34 goals in topping the league, but thanks to their defensive
capabilities they conceded just 15 at the other end. Sadly for Baresi, he
missed out on the sensational European Cup final win over Barcelona – but there
was an even bigger game ahead that summer.

It is always a shame that a World Cup Final be remembered for penalty
shoot-out misses. For a player of Franco Baresi’s calibre to have to remember
the biggest game of his career in such a way is tragic. But for him to have to
remember this game in such a way is just plain wrong. Baresi had heroically returned from a knee cartilage problem in the group stages and promptly delivered a colossal defensive performance. Brazilian forward Romario, the player of the tournament, was emphatic in his comments after the game, saying: “His performance today was the most ruthless monitoring of my entire career.” Sadly, Franco Baresi walked away from the
Pasadena Rose Bowl that day with only a runners-up medal.

There was still time for the old master to play an active role in another
Serie A triumph in 1996 but the curtain finally came down on an astonishing
career the following year. It would be an understatement to say his legacy was
already guaranteed. The countless memories of Baresi with his shirt untucked,
socks round his ankles, gliding round the San Siro had long since ensured that.
After all, he is Italy’s player of the twentieth century. He is Milan’s eternal
number six. He is Franco Baresi.

*A version of this article appeared in the now sadly defunct Calcio Italia magazine in March 2011 



In a stellar career there are so many big matches to choose from. Here are
just five famous encounters that define the career of Franco Baresi …

19 April 1989
Milan Topple Madrid
AC Milan 5-0 Real Madrid – European Cup Semi-Final – San Siro, Milan

Although Real Madrid had not lifted the trophy in over twenty years, they were
still perceived as European footballing royalty. So when they were ruthlessly
dismantled in the San Siro it was perceived as underlining the power shift:
Baresi’s Milan were now top dogs.

24 May 1989
Champion of Europe
AC Milan 4-0 Steaua Bucharest – European Cup Final – Camp Nou, Barcelona

The scoreline says it all. Only twice before had a side won the European Cup
by a four goal margin. Steaua had good pedigree, having won the title three
years earlier. But they were no match for Milan. Gullit and Van Basten scored
two each – and Baresi ensured a clean sheet.

23 May 1990
Retaining The Crown
AC Milan 1-0 Benfica – European Cup Final – Praterstadion, Vienna

To this day, Franco Baresi is the last man to captain his team to back-to-back
European Cup wins. The skipper had a brilliant season culminating in this
efficient display in Vienna. No surprise Sacchi’s machine was working like
clockwork – only Donadoni was missing from the previous year’s starting line-up.

3 July 1990
Heartbreak in Naples
Italy 1-1 Argentina – World Cup Semi-Final – Stadio San Paolo, Naples

The day the dream died for the host nation is not one Baresi would like to
dwell on. However, there was little wrong with the Italian defending that evening
in Naples, or indeed in that World Cup. In fact, Caniggia’s second half goal
was the first the Azzurri had conceded in the entire tournament. Baresi
hammered home the opening goal in the shoot-out but, when Aldo Serena’s effort
was saved, Italy’s hopes were dashed.

17 July 1994
Master Class in Vain
Italy 0-0 Brazil –World Cup Final – Rose Bowl, Pasadena, California

The match is sometimes remembered as a bore draw. It was the game that
failed to seduce America. It also happened to include a Franco Baresi defensive
master class as he snuffed out the threat of Romario for two long hours in the
California sun. Of course, it ended – quite literally – in tears, as the
captain blasted his tired penalty over the bar.