Welcome to my football blog. I'll be covering most of the key issues and stories which dominate top level English and European football over the coming months, and so if you love this fantastic sport as much as I do, I hope you'll appreciate reading and responding to what I've got to say.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Can Mourinho make Madrid the Real deal?

The latest chapter in what may, in time, become the most illustrious and decorated managerial career in football history has begun. Rejecting the extravagance and fanfare which has greeted other recent high-profile arrivals at the Santiago Bernabeu, Jose Mourinho instead chose to mark his inauguration as Real Madrid boss on Monday 31st May with a characteristic press conference. There was, however, a shift in the rhetoric, with a confident rather than arrogant Mourinho extolling the virtues and stature of his new club rather than his own abilities, and making it clear that he relishes the challenge both of ending Barcelona's domestic dominance and of re-establishing the Spanish giants on the European stage. But in taking on what has become the poisoned chalice of European football, has the Special One bitten off more than he can chew?

The internal problems which have blighted Madrid in recent seasons have been well documented. Firstly, whilst the transfer policy at most major European clubs is developed through dialogue between the manager, the sporting director and the owner/president, at Real the former has often been reduced to nothing more than a head coach, employed simply to work with the players he is given. Manuel Pellegrini recently complained that he had 'no voice' at Madrid, that players like Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder were sold against his wishes, and that he had minimal input into the arrival of new recruits. Consequently, Real managers have invariably found themselves unable to build a team which reflects their own footballing philosophy.

The nature of the transfer policy pursued by Real Madrid, and in particular by current president Florentino Perez, has also proved counter-productive. Whilst the construction magnate's penchant for world-class attacking players has helped bring the like's of Zidane, Figo, Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo to the Bernabeu during his three terms in charge, the defensive side of the team has been neglected. With Perez's refusal to pay top-end wages for defensive players, the only world-class name to arrive in this area is full-back Sergio Ramos, and one senses that it was the young Spaniard's considerable attacking qualities which persuaded the Real president to make an exception to his rule. The ultimate consequence of the 'Galactico' policy is that each Madrid manager inherits an unbalanced, top-heavy side, and it has been defensive naivety which has cost Real in both their clashes with Barcelona and the Champions League in recent times.

With the 'Galactico' policy of Florentino Perez centering around a core of world-renowned superstars on the pitch, the appointment of an equally high-profile manager was not considered a priority. The almost inevitable result of this is what I like to call 'Steve McClaren Syndrome' - a good manager, inexperienced at the top level, being placed in charge of a squad full of internationals with big egos and reputations. The result: the manager is unable to maintain control over the dressing room and to get the players to adhere to his tactical instructions, yielding inconsistent results on the pitch, and particularly ineffective performances against top opposition. The ability of Real managers to keep their star players in check has been further undermined in the past by Perez' reported insistence that his 'Galactico' signings play whenever fit, regardless of form. This breeds complacency among the star players in the squad, who view their starting place as secure, and resentment among the squad players, who find themselves unable to break into the side even if they impress in training.

In spite of their internal problems, the biggest impediment to the success of Madrid in recent seasons has been the rise of Barcelona. The Catalan giants have reaped the benefits of the now legendary La Masia youth academy, combining the home-grown talents of Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pique, Puyol and Victor Valdes with top class internationals such as Dani Alves, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and now David Villa to form the best team of this era. They are a team of superstars with a brilliant collective understanding who play the most entertaining football in the world. In other words, they are exactly what Real Madrid have always traditionally aspired to be. The sheer quality of Barcelona, combined with the insistence of Real fans that their team both wins and entertains, has meant a rapid turnaround of Madrid managers over the past few years. In fact, the last one to survive more than one season was Spain's current World Cup winner Vicente Del Bosque, who left the hot-seat way back in 2004.

There are, however, in spite of all the problems listed above, many reasons to be confident that Mourinho can be a success at the Bernabeu. For starters, the very fact that the brash Portuguese has been appointed hints at a change of policy by the Madrid hierarchy. For unlike some of his predecessors, Mourinho's CV speaks for itself: a two time Champions League winner, domestic League champion in three different countries and, just as importantly for Real fans, the slayer of Barcelona as Inter Milan manager in last season's Champions League semi-final, en route to making the Italian giants treble winners. Since 2002, he has won at least one trophy every season. In summary, Mourinho is a star in his own right, with a reputation which is at least the equal of the players he is inheriting. Consequently he will have no need to win the respect of the illustrious individuals in the Madrid dressing room, and should have no problems in getting them to embrace his tactical approach.

Mourinho is also an uncompromising individual, notoriously intolerant of boardroom interference in team affairs. He will not be told who to pick or what tactical system to employ, and he always plays an active role in identifying transfer targets. Therefore, his appointment is a clear manifestation of Perez' realization that, if the ultimate goal of besting Barcelona and returning to the pinnacle of European football is to be achieved, then principles must be sacrificed. The first such principle to be cast aside was the policy of signing one 'Galactico' per summer. Mourinho invariably does not sign 'Galacticos'. He targets good players who possess the right mindset and suit the tactical needs of his team. 'I am not interested in big names; I think we need three or four defensive players', he said when questioned at the press conference. Perez himself cleverly glossed over his own concession of the 'Galactico' program by stating 'this year's galactico is Mourinho'. The Portuguese has also succeeded in persuading his new president to keep striker Gonzalo Higuain, a player who looked for all the world to be on his way out of the Bernebeu last season as a result of a reported spat with Cristiano Ronaldo, despite an impressive tally of 29 goals in all competitions.

Further proof of the change in policy can be found in a brief look at the signings which Madrid have made since the Special One took charge. Angel Di Maria, Pedro Leon and Sami Khedira are not yet marquee names, but the former two will provide the option of width in attack which was so lacking for Madrid last term, whilst World Cup revelation Khedira will provide energy, dynamism and bite in the midfield. Aside from a couple of defensive additions, there is little further need for a change of personnel in the Los Blancos squad, as no one can deny the embarrassment of riches available to them in attack. Consequently, Mourinho's biggest impact at the Bernabeu is likely to take the form of his tactical organisation of the players at his disposal.

As his Inter side's almost faultless performances in the Champions League knockout stage last year proved beyond doubt, Mourinho is currently the most astute tactician in world football. A combination of exhaustive research into every aspect of his opposition, and the first-class physical and mental preparation of his own players, means that Mourinho's teams invariably approach the biggest games of their season in peak physical condition and with a clear and effective gameplan. Real Madrid have long possessed a team of extremely talented individuals, capable of winning matches against top level opposition. If this ability can be allied with Mourinho's trademark organisation, then Los Blancos will be extremely difficult for anyone, Barcelona included, to beat.

The biggest problem facing Mourinho in the long term may well be the Real Madrid fans. For them, winning alone is not enough: they expect their team to entertain as well. Fabio Capello's ill-fated second stint in charge of Los Blancos is a case in point. In spite of winning the La Liga title in the 2006/2007 season and, in doing so, ending a spell of four seasons without a trophy, the Madrid faithful never took to the Italian's pragmatic style and insistence that results take precedence over performances, and he was sacked. As one who has been subject to similar criticisms during his career, Mourinho must take care to avoid risking the ire of Real fans by placing too much emphasis on a winning mentality, and to the detriment of putting on a show. The noises around the Bernabeu at the moment, however, suggest that knocking Barcelona off their perch is the overriding priority. Manuel Pellegrini's Madrid scored over 100 goals last season and finished with a club record of 96 points, but second place is second place, and so even these impressive numbers couldn't save him. The Real fans want trophies, not just because of their own failure, but also because of the success of their arch-rivals, and so if the Special One can carry over his reputation as Barcelona's bogeyman into his new job, they will surely be happy.

Jose Mourinho's arrival at the Santiago Bernabeu is a clear indication that Real Madrid will stop at nothing to unseat their arch-rivals as the dominant force in European football. Barcelona beware: Los Blancos are coming, and this time 'the translator' is pulling the strings.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Do Manchester City have a plan?

Almost inevitably, Manchester City have dominated the summer transfer window thus far. The irrepressible financial muscle of the Abu Dhabi United Group has already succeeded in bringing Yaya Toure, David Silva, Jerome Boateng and Aleksandar Kolarov to Eastlands for a combined fee of around £75m, and the spending spree shows no signs of slowing down. Aston Villa are now apparently resigned to losing James Milner after the player made his desire to leave clear to Martin O'Neill, and in Italy, the signing of Inter Milan striker Mario Balotelli also appears simply a matter of time, with a fee reportedly close to being agreed. City boss Roberto Mancini has also come out in the last week and publicly declared his interest in LA Galaxy forward Landon Donovan. If the Citizens end up landing all of these targets then, even relying on conservative estimates, it is likely that the total outlay for this window could reach as much as £150m, surpassing the figure of around £130m spent on reinforcements last term. Whilst, in a financial sense, these figures are almost irrelevant in the case of a club for whom money is no object, Manchester City's relentless spending raises an important footballing question: is their transfer policy indicative of a careful, methodical approach towards becoming the dominant force of the English and European game, or suggestive of a group of impossibly rich businessmen playing fantasy football?

Even the most sceptical of City fans would find it difficult to argue with the remarkable progress their club has made since Abu Dhabi's takeover in August 2008. The perception of Manchester City as perennial Premier League strugglers may have already been banished with the help of Thaksin Shinawatra's millions, but the investment Sheikh Mansour and co. has transformed the club even further, from mid-table mediocrity to Champions League contention. Last season, the Citizens signed genuine top-level operators such as Carlos Tevez, Emanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure, and this summer has seen a continuation. Kolo's brother Yaya is the closest thing in world football right now to Patrick Vieira at his peak, and Valencia schemer David Silva's inability to hold down a place in the exceptional, World Cup-winning Spanish midfield shouldn't fool anyone - he is a player with world-class potential, linked to a host of top clubs before City made their move. Jerome Boateng also impressed in South Africa after an uncertain start, and Lazio defender Kolarov provides a potent attacking threat from full-back. Moreover, with Yaya Toure the oldest of the new recruits at 27, it is clear that Manchester City are focusing their attentions on younger players possessed by the desire to win trophies, rather than established stars with less to prove.

It does seem, then, that City's considerable financial outlay this summer can be explained as the result of a coherent transfer policy. Boss Roberto Mancini spoke in the wake of the Kolarov signing of his desire to have 'two top-class players for each position', in order to ensure that his squad are fully prepared for the domestic and European challenges which lie ahead. There is, however, significant reason to wonder whether this approach will yield the kind of success which the fans and owners crave. Firstly, with so many top class players, it may prove difficult for Mancini to know his strongest team, and his attempts to find it may result in inconsistent results in the first few months of the season, costing City valuable points. But potentially a much bigger problem lies in the sheer competition for places at Eastlands. It is certain that, having arrived for hefty transfer fees, Silva, Toure and Kolarov will not expect to be sitting on the bench, and their talent will probably ensure their position as first team regulars. If this happens, then it is hard to see the likes of Wayne Bridge and Shaun Wright-Philips being willing to accept the role of bench-warmer that they left Chelsea to escape.

There will almost certainly be, given Manchester City's huge squad list, a considerable cull of personnel before the new season. But if Mancini's words are to be believed, then it will still be a nigh-on impossible task to keep everyone happy, unless the Italian adopts an extreme form of squad rotation. Such a policy rarely works on the pitch at the top level, since the best sides are forged around a spine of quality players who benefit from playing together week-in, week-out. Another problem, arising directly from City's hyper-activity in the transfer market, is that Roberto Mancini may be faced with the same problem which confronted Mark Hughes at the beginning of last season - namely, that a first XI consisting of too many new signings invariably takes time to gel, and more often than not yields inconsistent results in the meantime. In Hughes' case, this manifested itself not in losses - for the Citizens suffered only one league defeat in his tenure - but in an abundance of draws, which undermined City's push towards a Champions League place, and ultimately cost the Welshman his job. Mancini will know that, despite statements of support from the Eastlands hierarchy at the end of last season, his position as manager remains tenuous, and completely dependent on whether or not his team matches the ambitious targets set by his superiors - either of a sustained title challenge or, more likely, comfortable qualification for the Champions League next season.

With another summer of huge spending, the Manchester City hierarchy have sent out a clear message to their cross-town rivals that they fully intend to join them at Europe's top table. Roberto Mancini has no margin for error if he is to prove himself worthy of leading the charge.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Can Joe Cole transform Liverpool?

Until today, it was fair to say that, free-spending Manchester City aside, this summer's transfer window had failed to capture the imagination of many Premier League fans. With most top clubs and players unwilling to consider transfer negotiations until after the World Cup, significant developments in the market had been at a premium. But now Liverpool have come up on the rails to beat Tottenham, Arsenal and possibly a few others to the signing of Joe Cole, prompting former Reds legends such as Ian Rush and Alan Kennedy to publicly congratulate Roy Hodgson on pulling off such a coup, and even leaving rival fans grudgingly impressed.

There's no doubt that, as a free agent, Cole was an inspired signing waiting to happen for any ambitious Premier League club, and Liverpool rightly deserve credit for securing his signature. The natural flair which he exhibited as a youngster at West Ham always marked him out as a special talent, and under Jose Mourinho's guidance at Chelsea this ability was complemented by an indefatigable work ethic and willingness to track back - rare qualities in a creative midfielder, and one which would make him a significant asset to any side.

But the impact of Cole's signing is not limited to the talent he possesses on the pitch. It has the potential to be a statement of intent - to show that Liverpool are not yet out of the business of signing top players, despite their lack of Champions League football and financial troubles. It can also serve to convince the top players already at the club that their future successes lie at Anfield. In one area, this potential has already been realised, with talismanic captain Steven Gerrard effectively committing his future to the club in the wake of the signing. Fernando Torres included, Gerrard is the most important player at Liverpool - not only for his invaluable contribution on the field, but also because he is an integral part of the club's identity. As a consequence, his departure would have dealt a catastrophic blow to Roy Hodgson's attempts to rebuild Liverpool as a major force.

However, whilst the impressive capture of Joe Cole must be given its due credit, it must also be placed into context. Liverpool finished 23 points off champions Chelsea last year, and comfortably missed out on the fourth Champions League spot. They were exposed as a woefully limited side, far too reliant on the drive of Gerrard and goals of Torres, and therefore unable to cope with the loss of form and fitness of these two key individuals. The sale of Xabi Alonso also proved a mistake, as it took his replacement Alberto Aquilani the whole first half of the season to overcome his own injury problems, and much longer to adapt to the rigorous style of the Premier League. This term, he will surely be better, but Liverpool's task to regain their position in the 'big four' has become much harder. Manchester City continue to operate in accordance with the mantra that 'money is no object' in their pursuit of their lofty aims, and Tottenham's budget and playing squad will be strengthened by the financial rewards of achieving Champions League football last time out. With Aston Villa and Everton also likely to be competitive once more, Roy Hodgson will know that overseeing an Anfield revival will be far from easy.

It will take more than Joe Cole to remedy the problems which Liverpool faced last season, and to adequately prepare them for the challenges posed by the current campaign. Whilst he will certainly lessen the creative burden previously thrust entirely upon Gerrard's shoulders, another quality striker is desperately needed, either to deputise for Fernando Torres in his absence, or to partner him on the field. The Spaniard is undoubtedly a world-class forward, but based upon the evidence of the last 18 months, it would be optimistic to the point of foolish to rely on him to have an injury free season. Moreover, it remains uncertain whether Torres will even be a Liverpool player for much longer, with several rumours linking him to both Chelsea and Barcelona. He may require more assurances than Gerrard that Liverpool will soon once again be challenging for major honours, and Hodgson will surely consider this one of his biggest priorities.

A new midfield enforcer may also be required, with Javier Mascherano's Anfield future growing more doubtful with every message which Roy Hodgson is forced to leave on his voicemail. Pepe Reina remains one of the best keepers in the country, an assertion borne out by the fact that Liverpool boasted the third best defensive record in the league last season, despite their poor overall performance. Nevertheless, a recognised left-back is urgently needed after the sale of the disappointing Emiliano Insua and the inconsistent Fabio Aurelio, and the addition of a pacey young centre-back to the squad would complement the more physical qualities of Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger.

There is, of course, well over a month to go in the summer transfer window, making it perfectly possible that Joe Cole could be the first of several big names to arrive at Anfield. Certain indications, however, suggest that this may not be the case. The huge debt that Reds owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett have saddled the club with has been well documented, and worryingly for Liverpool fans, these financial restraints appear to have manifested themselves in a 'less is more' approach to transfer dealings, with the emphasis thus far being placed on securing free agents and promising youngsters for minimal fees. Whilst it must be said that Liverpool have fared particularly well in their pursuit of the former, with talented internationals Maxi Rodriguez and Milan Jovanovic joining alongside Cole for nothing, the fact is that quality free agents are extremely few and far between, and therefore it seems inevitable that significant outlay will be required if Hodgson wishes to make further top additions to his squad.

The capture of Joe Cole is undoubtedly a significant statement of intent from the Liverpool hierarchy that they intend to regain what they consider to be their rightful place in the 'big four' of English football. Only time will tell whether they have the pockets to match their ambition.