Rooney – Should he stay or should he go?

19 10 2011

This piece appears in full on TEAMtalk.

The last week has surely confirmed what we all knew already – Wayne Rooney is the most divisive figure in English football.

Wading through the views of journalists, ex-pros and – of course – the TEAMtalk Your Say boards, there appears to be no real consensus of opinion.

While Harry Redknapp and Alan Shearer have been quick to rubbish suggestions that England’s star man should stay at home for Euro 2012, others are calling for Fabio Capello to write him off as a talented liability.

Motormouth Stan Collymore and World Cup winner George Cohen believe Rooney should be dumped from the squad and seem to have the public on their side.

At the time of writing, a Sky Sports poll suggests 68% do not want Rooney selected for England.



Like Father, Like Son

29 07 2011

You may have noticed this week that Juan Pablo Angel’s son, Tomy, has been making a name for himself by showcasing some impressive skills in front of the cameras. Eight-year-old Tomy not only had the twists and turns but also a sweet left foot suggesting a career in the pro game may beckon. But Tomy isn’t the only youngster with a talented dad that’s caught the eye in recent years.

Enzo Zidane, of course, is somewhat further down the road towards superstardom. The 16-year-old brought back memories of his father’s sublime skills in some magical performances for Real Madrid.. such as this display against Barcelona:

And how about this for a textbook tackle. Clarence Seedorf looked to be having it easy against a group of youngsters until a perfectly timed slide tackle cut him down to size. The identity of the tackler? Daniel Maldini.

Tomislav Ivic – An Obituary

28 06 2011

by Adam Bate

In football there are two types of great coaches. There are those, such as Sir Alex Ferguson or Guy Roux, who construct a club in their image and remain there for a decade or four. Then there are those like Bela Guttmann who opt for the short sharp shock approach – instilling their beliefs, ensuring an upturn in fortunes and then moving on. The remarkable Tomislav Ivic, who died last week aged 77, was predominantly in the latter camp. He was also one of the most successful football managers in the history of the game.

Born in Split in 1933, Ivic – like so many of the best coaches – enjoyed a moderate playing career. His time at RNK Split did, however, result in him being handed a coaching role at the age of 34 and embark upon a career that would see him manage clubs in 14 different countries as well as four national teams. Along the way he enjoyed phenomenal success. In fact, he remains the only coach to win league titles in six different countries. It is a testament to his abilities as a strategist and is indicative of an enthusiasm for the game that transcended national boundaries.

The first of those many league trophies came with another of his former clubs, Hajduk Split, in 1974. His success there paved the way for that first big move beyond the confines of the former Yugoslavia. And what a move. Tasked with replacing the legendary Rinus Michels at Ajax, Ivic rose to the challenge. He was inheriting a side past its best, but was still able to guide Ajax to the Eredivisie title after finishing third in the previous campaign. Sadly, Ivic’s more pragmatic approach was not enough for the high-minded aficionados of Total Football and a return to Split followed.

Ivic’s time at Ajax was significant in many respects. Far from deterring him from coaching abroad, it instead heralded the beginning of one of football’s great globetrotting stories. It also marked the start of a happy knack that would follow Ivic through much of his career – he possessed an uncanny ability to win the league in his first season at a new club.

Whether this was down to the wily Croat’s shrewd choice of employer or his impressive motivational skills is a matter of opinion, but it seems likely that his intense training methods had a significant impact in the short-term. Joao Pinto, the gifted Portuguese forward, had the dubious pleasure of working under Ivic at Benfica. Pinto said: “He was the only coach who ordered me to train three times a day. Once before breakfast, another after and a third one on the afternoon. Despite that, I enjoyed working with him.”

His methods clearly worked. Ivic claimed the Yugoslav title immediately upon his return to Hajduk Split and then won the Belgian league with Anderlecht at the first time of asking in 1981. A spell at Galatasaray followed before the much-travelled Croat had a stint in the Italian top flight with lowly Avellino. While winning Serie A may have proven a bridge too far, Ivic still managed to added Greek and Portuguese titles to his collection – with Panathinaikos and Porto respectively – before the decade was out.

Ivic also won the European Super Cup and the Portuguese Cup in that 1987-88 season with Porto. He later enjoyed a second period in charge of the Dragoes but was replaced by Sir Bobby Robson and his assistant Jose Mourinho. The Real Madrid coach now seems keen to adhere to the Ivic approach with short stays at successful clubs and the old man was certainly impressed with his young Portuguese replacement. Speaking in 2010, Ivic said: “Mourinho is a genius. Neither Ferguson nor [Fabio] Capello can work with so much success in different countries.”

Ivic’s assessment of Mourinho perhaps reveals what he regarded as his own greatest achievement – that ability to go anywhere in the world and be successful. The 1990s brought a Copa del Ray with Atletico Madrid and a Ligue 1 title with Marseille. It also saw a series of forays into international management. A brief stint as co-manager of Croatia was followed by a time in charge of the United Arab Emirates. There was disappointment in charge of Iran, however, when Ivic was sacked on the eve of the 1998 World Cup.

It would have been a fitting swansong to a wonderful career. Instead, that career drew to a close with a consulting role at Standard Liege. But his legacy had been assured more than twenty years earlier. Tomislav Ivic blazed a trail for the coach without borders and he did it picking up 16 trophies along the way. It is perhaps appropriate that the final word goes to Slaven Bilic, the current Croatia coach, who summed up this legacy in glowing terms:

“Not only Croatia, but the world has lost one of the greatest ever football experts. Creator, coach, leader, and a football revolutionary. One of the few chosen, who will forever be written in record books among the true geniuses who have literally changed the concept of football games.”

Tomislav Ivic passed away in his hometown of Split on Friday 24 June aged 77 years old.

Darren Bent – The Truth

19 05 2011

When Darren “The Truth” Bent made his big money move from Sunderland to Aston Villa in January 2011, football fans everywhere were divided. For some, he was a striker who guaranteed the most important commodity in the game – goals. Others were adamant that this was symptomatic of the Anglocentric attitude towards scouting among Premier League clubs.

But what is the truth about Darren Bent?

On the face of it, he is surely one of the unluckiest players in the world today. Yes, I know he had a fair slice of luck with that beach-ball goal against Liverpool but take a look at the bigger picture. Last summer, Bent was the only player in the five major leagues of Europe to score 20 goals for a World Cup nation and not be selected for the tournament. Indeed, only Didier Drogba, Wayne Rooney, Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, Cristiano Ronaldo and Antonio Di Natale managed more than Bent’s 24 league goals.

It’s a remarkable statistic that might be explained away by suggesting Bent was some sort of one-season-wonder. Of course, that’s not the case. The Villa striker has now scored more Premier League goals in the past three years than any other player. That’s more than Drogba, more than Rooney, more than Carlos Tevez and certainly more than Fernando Torres. And he’s done it in weaker sides than those players have had the opportunity to play in.

The counter-argument to this is that Bent has not done it and never would do it at the highest level. Not against the best defences in Europe anyway. Again, it’s worth examining the stats.


The table above shows Bent’s goalscoring record over the last three seasons against the top six sides in English football. It is quite astonishing. This is not a small sample that has been extrapolated to draw misleading conclusions – this is his record over more than 40 hours of game time against some of the finest sides in Europe. The 2436 minutes equates to a shade over 27 full matches. That’s 20 goals in 27 games against the top six over a three year period.

The key to understanding criticism of Bent is that there is far more to being a top-class centre forward these days than merely scoring goals. Universality is the future, not specialisation. It’s an argument that Stan Collymore articulated when explaining why Bent should not go to the World Cup last summer:

“Even allowing for his fine season, Carlton Cole and Bobby Zamora remain ahead of him. The reason? Well, at international or European club level, touch, awareness of space and an appreciation of team-mates’ positioning are as vital as the ability to score goals.”

The example of Cole was also advanced by Mark Bright and, even if that now feels less appropriate a year on, the issue of bringing others into play is at least a valid one. And besides, Collymore was happy to repeat his criticism of Bent when discussing his impending move to Aston Villa in January of this year:

“It just smacks of desperation. As an instinctive striker he gets a solid A, but as an all-round footballer he gets a D. Holding the ball up, his movement, his awareness, that’s why to me he would be massively overpriced. Being a £20m striker means that you have to be able to score goals but if you’re not scoring goals you can drop off, you can get involved in the play, you can draw other defenders in, you can create from wide positions. There’s a massive question mark about Darren Bent’s ability to fulfil that kind of remit.”

Collymore and – it has to be said – many other pundits were keen to labour the point that Villa should have been looking for a more complete footballer for their money. The Guardian conducted a poll asking if Bent was worth the £18m fee (said to be rising to £24m) and the result showed 76.8% felt the striker was not worth the money.

They were, however, less forthcoming about who this complete footballer might be that would like to come to Aston Villa. Within a couple of weeks of the Bent debate, the agenda had moved on anyway. Edin Dzeko’s arrival at Man City was followed by the £50m move of Fernando Torres and the emergence of £35m man Andy Carroll. The argument that Bent was overpriced was now something of a side issue – and so perhaps it’s better to return to the issue of him ‘just scoring goals’.

This criticism is largely justified. Bent’s technique is rudimentary and his hold-up play ordinary. This is a striker who prefers running onto the ball and, while that does have the advantage of forcing the opposition to play a deeper line, it doesn’t lend itself well to playing an active role in linking the play.

But some context here may help. Comparing Bent to a Rooney or a Messi is ludicrous and irrelevant. Evaluating his record against, say, Jermain Defoe is a more useful exercise. Defoe is also a player who prefers running onto the ball rather than developing the attack with his hold-up play. And yet, he was the man chosen by Fabio Capello, not only to go to the 2010 World Cup, but also to start the vital game against Germany.

It is therefore worthwhile looking at Defoe’s goalscoring record against England’s best teams. His stats over the same three year period against Man Utd, Chelsea, Man City, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham are revealing. Defoe has scored five goals to Bent’s 20. This comes from a total game time of 1774 minutes – a goal every 354.8 minutes. Put simply, Defoe has scored five goals in nearly 20 games against the cream of English football compared to Bent’s 20 in 27. And yet, he was in England’s starting XI and Bent was not on the plane.

Is it possible, therefore, that – even as a £24m man – Bent can be both limited and underrated? Amid the hoopla of his January transfer, as wags everywhere joined in the mockery of Bent, the words of high-profile Norwegian football scout, Tor-Kristian Karlsen, resonated. Karlsen has long bemoaned the premiums paid on English-based talent and so his balanced assessment was revealing:

“For all the criticism he is an established Premier League star who’s proven capable of scoring consistently. The closest you come to an English 20-goals-a-season striker in the top flight. Ideal for any team that plays on the break or employs traditional attacking schemes without sophisticated collective patterns of movement. He has probably found his rightful home at an upper mid-table Premier League side.”

It’s a qualified endorsement but also an acknowledgement that Bent was probably the ideal signing for Aston Villa. The suspicion clearly remains that his limitations would be exposed on the world stage. But, given his record, perhaps Bent – ahead of Defoe and the rest – is a man who has earned the right to find out.

Pelé – A Thoroughly Modern Man

12 05 2011

In a month in which Lionel Messi again demonstrated his genius and the El Clasico series dominated football it was only appropriate that the Greatest Player of All Time was asked his opinion on matters.

Interviewer: “Who is the best, Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi?”

Pele: “I am the best.”

It’s a brilliant answer and one that gives rise to that most ancient of chestnuts – where would Pele fit into the modern game?

Perhaps a good starting point is to address some of the traditional arguments against players of yesteryear. The standard response of those wishing to question stars of the past is to point out that the game is quicker now and players are fitter.

This is an argument that can easily be turned on its head. Obviously, if you time-warped back to 1958 then the player of today would be physically superior. But modern training methods, increased professionalism and superior medical treatment would only make players of Pele’s era even better. It’s fair to assume a dedicated pro like Pele wouldn’t take too long to get up to speed so any advantage for the modern player would easily be negated.

The reality is that the proverbial goalposts have been moved since Pele retired – and many of the changes would surely work in his favour. Rule changes such as the more lenient interpretation of offside as well as the introduction of the backpass law clearly benefit attacking play.

More specific to Pele, the increased protection afforded modern players would be a huge advantage to him. Speaking about the 1966 World Cup, of which he was brutally kicked out of, Pele said:

“I found the violence and lack of sportsmanship as dispiriting as the weak refereeing that allowed it to go unchecked for so long.”

One can only speculate how many more goals Pele may have scored if savage defences had seen this weapon removed from their arsenal. But you don’t need to look beyond recent events to see the impact that going down to ten men can have – Messi’s vital brace against Real Madrid came only after the opposition had  a man sent off.

Ultimately, I’m more interested in the question of not whether Pele would fit in but how he would fit in.

Brazil 1958 World Cup

To answer that requires us to start at the beginning and take a look at Pele’s role in Brazil’s 1958 World Cup success. Although that side is characterised as playing a 4-2-4 formation, 21st century eyes could easily mistake it for the 4-2-3-1 that is seemingly ubiquitous in the modern game. Pele is – both literally and figuratively – the classical No.10 in this formation.

By 1970, and the Brazil side usually cited as the finest ever, Pele was seen as the complete footballer. He had speed, skill and vision. He was good in the air and better on the ground. And, although he had developed as a player, he was still playing in the No.10 role – and Brazil’s formation could still be interpreted as a 4-2-3-1. Certainly, Tostao was the central forward. Roberto Rivellino enjoyed an advanced role on the left and Jairzinho’s attacking presence on the right is proven by his scoring in every game Brazil played in the tournament.

From a tactical viewpoint therefore, Pele is a man who could seemingly slot into many of the top sides of today. Ironically, for much of the past decade that may well not have been the case. Tactical specialist Michael Cox noted on his website, Zonal Marking, that the 2000s were a decade in which classical No.10s struggled to find a role in the modern game. As Cox said:

“Almost every player that would have expected to spend their career behind the front two has had to redefine their game, generally being stationed out wide.”

This modern challenge has left a talented man like Juan Roman Riquelme looking like a man uncomfortable playing in his own era, and yet one suspects there would be no such difficulties for Pele. He had both the pace to cut in from wide and the physical presence to adapt to the demands of a false 9 role. And besides, there are now indications that a more attacking interpretation of the 4-2-3-1 will be the next tactical advance – and, as Jonathan Wilson points out, that is a role with which Pele is more than familiar:

“It is intriguing too that the emergence of 4-2-1-3 seems to hint at the playmaker/second striker hybrid once again becoming something akin to the playmakers of the 1980s, but operating behind a front three rather than a front two. In that the playmaker is returning to his origins: Scarone, James and Pele, at least in 1958, were similarly creating the play for a central striker and two wingers.”

Such is the cyclical nature of football – Pele, both individually and tactically, remains a thoroughly modern man.

Matt Jarvis – Learning His Trade

24 03 2011

Matt Jarvis never played for England’s under 21 side. That probably didn’t come as a huge shock to him – he hadn’t been called up for the under 19s or the under 17s either. But this week, at the age of 24, Jarvis was named in Fabio Capello’s squad and will surely become the 1,173rd man to represent England at senior international level. His story is a triumph of will and a testament to the virtues of hard work.

Hard work and discipline. They’re not the first qualities you think of when assessing a flying winger. However, as someone who has watched nearly all Jarvis’ 126 appearances for Wolves since joining in June 2007, I can tell you that this is what strikes you about him before long. And it’s chiefly because of the way his game has developed over the past four years.

Jarvis arrived at Molineux to operate on the opposite flank to Michael Kightly who had impressed in the previous season. Unfortunately, despite showing promise, it was an injury-hit debut season in which he struggled to get an extended run in the side. McCarthy occasionally favoured utility-man Stephen Ward – a player perceived to be more likely to adhere to the manager’s mantra of “putting a shift in.”

Even in the club’s title-winning 2008-09 season, Jarvis began the campaign on the bench with Ward seen as the counter-balance to the marauding Kightly. It was only when both wingers were unleashed, most notably in the 5-1 thrashing of Nottingham Forest, that Wolves emerged as genuine promotion candidates. But Jarvis remained a crowd thriller rather than an obviously effective performer.

His three goals and nine assists that season saw him outshone by Kightly on the other flank who contributed eight goals and an astonishing 21 assists. Jarvis had no problem finding the byline. But his left-footed crosses would invariably be stabbed towards the near post, while cutting inside regularly resulted in a mishit shot trickling into the keepers’ hands. You sensed he could do better.

The Premier League brought that improvement. And the progress has been conspicuous in a variety of ways. He may have been aided by the increased freedom afforded by Wolves’ 4-5-1 formation but Jarvis appreciated immediately the importance of tracking back to help his under pressure defence. At Wigan in August 2009, one lung-busting 80 yard dash to help double up on Charles N’Zogbia helped secure the three points late on. No longer was the young winger a luxury player but instead a necessity.

Jarvis’ technique has also improved in line with his mental strength. As Lee Dixon has pointed out, Jarvis regularly works on slowing the full-back down to a standstill, only to then speed him up again to find that yard for the cross. And those crosses are getting better – as indicated by the fact he now plays a role in dead-ball duties at the club. He is a more potent goal threat for his side too – despite playing in a higher league this will be the fourth year in a row in which Jarvis has improved his goal tally. All the clear result of hours spent on the training ground.

Mick McCarthy is certainly unambiguous about the reasons for the player’s improvement. He acknowledged: “If there is a criticism that has been levelled against Matt, it’s that he doesn’t score enough goals. What I like – and always will – is that he has taken it on board, gone on to the training ground and spent a long time with my assistant, Terry Connor, and done something about it. It has not just happened. Matt works constantly at his game. He is a great lad – straightforward, very honest and puts in a real day’s work.”

In an era in which footballers can sometimes feel like they’ve made it by the age of 18, it’s encouraging to see a player working on his game in his mid-20s. Don’t expect Jarvis to stop now. It may sound trivial but recent matches have seen him introduce a step-over trick to his game. He developed it in training – now he is implementing it.

If Matt Jarvis does get on the pitch for England at some point over the next week, people should not expect the finished article. What they can be sure of is that every time they see him play they’ll be seeing a better player than the one they saw last time. And I’d say that’s just about all anyone could ask.

BackPageFootball: Top 50 Players

16 02 2011

BackPageFootball have put together a compilation of the Top 50 players in the World.

They have done so by asking their readers and selected bloggers/writers and then totting up the results. Let’s be honest, it’s got to a fairer way than anything FIFA could come up with.

The results are being released block by block. I provided the ‘pen pic’ for No.13 on the list: Iker Casillas. For that piece, and the rest of the players ranked No.20 – No.11 please click the link below:

BackPageFootball Top 50 Players in the World: No.20 – No.11