Spurs sacrifice shape in pursuit of fluidity

Back in early January I wrote an article on Tottenham discussing the change in their approach this season from last (https://nasher3230.wordpress.com/2012/01/15/wingers-take-central-role-in-tottenhams-title-challenge/). To summarise it seemed clear that Tottenham’s wingers, usually Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon, were given license to roam across the pitch to help Rafael Van der Vaart support the lone striker Emmanuel Adebayor. However, since writing the article, Spurs have taken this strategy to the extreme and now look completely devoid of width, and in the North London Derby with Arsenal at the Emirates they turned a 2-goal lead into an embarrassing defeat through a lack of shape and positional discipline.

In the first half of the season the plan was extremely effective as opposing defences were faced with the duel threat of Tottenham’s wingers either attacking down the flanks and crossing or cutting inside to shoot. Both Bale and Lennon seemed to grow as players and provided more assists and goals. However, to emphasise the point, this was a case of specialist wingers given the freedom to occasionally move infield or switch flank.

Gareth Bale in particular has now seemingly adopted a central position that has ruined Tottenham’s shape and also nullifies many of Bale’s biggest attributes. Playing centrally neither Bale nor Lennon gets to use their pace as much as playing out wide (save for running on to the occasional through-ball such as the one Bale received from Luka Modric that earned Tottenham’s penalty against Arsenal). Both Bale and Lennon are also decent crossers of the ball but it is telling that Tottenham have not scored a headed goal in the league since September, despite having Adebayor to aim for in the box. Finally, when opposing teams crowd the central areas Bale and Lennon lack the ball skills to keep possession like Modric and Van der Vaart.

The worrying thing for Tottenham fans may be Bale’s attitude. Since becoming one of the team’s stars he increasingly seems intent on taking centre-stage, even at the expense of the team’s shape. Whether Harry Redknapp is encouraging this or whether this is simply a result of the winger’s ego is not certain.

To solely blame Bale for the Emirates debacle is unfair, and tactically Tottenham were awful. As already mentioned Bale won the penalty in the first half running between Arsenal’s centre-backs, despite starting wide on the left. This seemed to make his mind up and it is difficult to remember him running at Arsenal’s right-back Bacary Sagna again in the match. After half-time he drifted all over the pitch, at times dropping deep to collect the ball from the defence, but spent the majority of his time attacking the inside-right channel and running into Arsenal’s midfield. If Arsenal were concerned with how to neutralise Bale they needn’t have worried – Bale neutralised himself with his positioning.

Elsewhere, Tottenham’s midfield lacked any sort of balance. In the first half, Modric and Scott Parker sat very deep to watch Tomas Rosicky and Mikel Arteta, with Louis Saha dropping onto Alex Song. This largely removed Saha as an attacking threat, despite his opening goal. Modric and Parker’s positioning gave Arsenal lots of possession which allowed them to go in at half-time level.

At half-time Redknapp rejigged the midfield, bringing on Sandro and Rafael Van der Vaart. His wholesale changes were a surprise – Arsenal lined up exactly as they have done for the last few years, yet Redknapp was happy to completely scrap a pre-planned strategy that had initially put them 2 goals ahead. Sandro was supposed to provide extra midfield protection with Parker, and Van der Vaart was deployed wide right. Unsurprisingly Van der Vaart provided no width down the right, and with Bale attacking through the middle Tottenham became extremely narrow. Sandro and Parker both lacked the discipline as defensive midfielders, often leaving Modric as the deepest Tottenham midfielder by charging forward themselves, and Arsenal ran riot.

Ironically losing shape is usually Arsenal’s biggest fault. Theo Walcott is often criticised for not playing his wide-forward role effectively, and Alex Song is prone to charging forward from his holding midfield position leaving the defence horribly exposed. Arsene Wenger trusts his players to make the right decisions and refrains from giving them individual instructions, often to Arsenal’s detriment, but Redknapp will want to rethink his strategy and convey that to his team quickly.

In the last few weeks the individual qualities of Tottenham’s attacking players have often masked some disjointed team performances, although the tepid draw against League 1 Stevenage in the FA Cup demonstrated that they wouldn’t get away with it forever. If Harry Redknapp is looking to distance himself from the England job, then he is going the right way about it.

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Is there life after England?

With Fabio Capello planning his next move after departing the England hot-seat and Harry Redknapp seemingly deciding whether to replace him, both men are probably considering the same question: Is there life after England?

For Capello this means whether he chooses to return to management and, if so, whether at a club or with another country. Although there seems to be interest in the Italian from Serie A, a glance at previous England managers’ subsequent careers may indicate a loss of managerial form. Such an issue may also concern Redknapp who is on the cusp of genuine club success for the first time in his career. Should he accept the England job he may fear that his chance of challenging for league titles would be gone.

There are reasons for these concerns. To manage your country is still seen as the pinnacle of a managerial career, and it is an ambition that is far harder to achieve than to represent your country as a player. Even for a foreigner like Capello, and Sven-Goran Eriksson before him, the England job has the necessary prestige attached to one of football’s leading nations. However, with it being held in such esteem there appears to be a degree of finality to the position. In recent years some managers have struggled to return to club football once they have managed at international level, and when they do they have rarely reached the heights that probably got them the job in the first place.

International managers are usually older anyway, due to a preference for experience, and age is obviously a factor in hastening the end of a career. Salaries could be another reason – England is one of the best paid management positions in the world and it may be difficult for some to stay motivated with a return to the comparatively humble wages of club management. But there is also the sense, especially for those managing their native country, that international management is a position that cannot be bettered, and that any subsequent job is too big a step down. Contrastingly an unsuccessful stint at international level draws worldwide attention and unites a nation in its condemnation. It seems that the England job, whether by choice or otherwise, is often the beginning of the end of a managerial career.

A look at the five England managers prior to Capello largely supports this theory. Steve McClaren is an anomaly, hired as a young manager seemingly for being in the right place when Luis Felipe Scolari rejected the job in 2006. Still, after being dismissed from the role he initially struggled to attract an employer before being hired by FC Twente 6 months later where he enjoyed a successful 2 year spell. Later attempts to find success in Germany and England have both ended in failure and McClaren now finds himself back in Holland.

Sven-Goran Eriksson was appointed England manager in 2000 after a successful club career in Italy, Portugal and Sweden made him one of the most celebrated managers in Europe. Eriksson left the role in 2006 and has since had brief spells at Man City, Mexico, Notts County, Ivory Coast and Leicester City. To highlight his plight, Ken Bates recently revealed that Eriksson’s application to manage Championship side Leeds would be rejected.

Prior to Eriksson, Kevin Keegan took the England job after years of with Newcastle and Fulham but left with his reputation scarred by allegations of tactical naivety and resurfaced a year later with newly relegated Man City. Glenn Hoddle followed his international spell with a few years in the Premier League with Southampton and Tottenham, but Terry Venables’ club career went from Spurs and Barcelona pre-England compared to Crystal Palace and Leeds after.

Ultimately, Eriksson, McClaren, Keegan, Hoddle and Venables were far more successful prior to taking over as England manager than when they left the position. Between them they won 11 league titles, 14 domestic cups and 3 European trophies before taking over the England job, compared to just 2 league titles (the Dutch Eredivisie and the English Division 1) afterwards.

It is true to say that the demands of international management are very different to that of a club manager. Time working with the players is minimal, as to the wishes of the players’ full-time employers, while pressure and expectations are increased to those of a (largely) united nation. As mentioned it is seen as a job suited to older men, not simply for experience but also because it lacks the relentless exertion of a club manager. It is also a role that requires a level of respect given that it forces a manager to construct a cohesive team in short and sporadic sessions.

But for all the attributes, the careers of former England managers have started to follow a similar pattern and it will be something that Redknapp may have to consider before contemplating leaving Tottenham. Capello will surely seek to buck the trend, but only time will tell if he is successful.

Is India’s Premier League Soccer the future?

2012 will see the inaugural Premier League Soccer competition take place in India. It follows in the footsteps of the hugely successful Indian Premier League cricket competition which began in 2008 and has now run for four seasons. In that time it has become the world’s leading club cricket competition and attracted the best players from around the world. The league has proved lucrative for both players and team owners by taking advantage of cricket’s biggest market.

The PLS will largely copy the IPL’s format. Six teams will be auctioned off as franchises to various companies and corporations keen to profit from its expected commercial success. The competition will be a standard league, including home and away ties, concluding in the top four teams going into a semi-final and final to determine the champion. All 33 games will be played over seven weeks. Each team will have an international coach and a limited number of foreign players. It is hoped that, aside from being profitable, the competition will help the development of Indian football.

However it is clear that Premier League Soccer will not have the same impact as the Indian Premier League for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the PLS will not have the financial appeal to attract the world’s best players when similar financial packages can be offered in other major leagues. Similarly, players are unlikely to get permission to play a two month competition in India when clubs are already at odds with International sides over an overly-congested calendar.

Secondly, football is not nearly as popular in India as cricket, which is less a sport and more a religion, and so the competition lacks the marketing potential in its host country. The IPL is almost totally reliant upon Indian broadcasting revenue and a football competition would not command the same investment. The competition would also have to compete against the English Premier League which is already regularly shown on Indian television.

Thirdly, football has been a global game for many years, with multi-national teams dominating the top European leagues. The concept of taking the best players from different countries would lack the novelty factor. Also, while cricket is a team game, it is a sport largely constructed of set plays with individuals and lacks the required interplay and teamwork of football. While it is possible to assemble a group of international cricketers into a cohesive team in a short period of time, such a task would be near impossible in football.

Finally, the foreign players would be far superior to the local players in each team. The IPL has a limit on four foreign players which aims to help the development of Indian cricket, but the ability of the local players does not detract from the quality. Indeed, the top Indian cricketers (including MS Dhoni and Sachin Tendulkar) are the teams’ most popular players and are a major reason for the league’s commercial success. This would not be the case in football, with India lacking any football heritage or star names.

Despite this, there are reasons to think that Premier League Soccer could form the template for smaller football nations in years to come. The league does not need to reach the revenue of the IPL to be considered a success, and with players such as Fabio Cannavaro, Hernan Crespo and Fernando Morientes it is sure to have some local appeal. On an international scale, the format of the competition should still create a small following based on curiosity if nothing else.

The standard of the players should also have a positive effect on Indian football. With no flagship league, a novelty competition will at the very least increase local interest in the sport and inspire more people to play football. Equally the Indian players involved can only benefit from playing alongside experienced internationals and under respected coaches (and John Barnes).

But mainly it is the format of the competition that could become popular. Rather than attempting to create a traditional league season over 8 or 9 months, a short-term competition appeals to both the participants and the fans. Foreign players only have to commit to living and working in India for a short period of time, and so are more likely to sign up than if it had been a longer competition. Also, with overseas players likely to be in the twilight of their career, a reduced number of games would not ask too much of their fitness levels. A regular programme of two games a week for each team helps maintain interest and with the top four teams competing in an end-of-season play-off, the majority of games can be deemed important.

As football continues to look for new markets and further expand its global appeal, it is not unthinkable for similar competitions to spring up in other parts of Asia and Africa. Rather than attempting to compete with the European leagues it would be a way to grant a level of exposure to smaller footballing nations and players looking for a route into the big leagues. For a few weeks of a year at least, the footballing world’s attention may soon be on India, Thailand or Ghana as much as England, Spain and Italy.