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.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

‘Special’ won’t cut it for Villas-Boas at Chelsea

New Blues boss must outdo achievements of former mentor Mourinho and win Champions League to be a success at Stamford Bridge

Chelsea's appointment of 33-year-old former scout Andre Villas-Boas has surprised many
For someone who claims to be trying to avoid comparisons to Jose Mourinho, Andre Villas Boas has gone a funny way about it.

One of the Special One’s most trusted assistants over the course of eight years spent at Porto, Chelsea, and then Inter Milan, Villas-Boas ultimately decided to leave his mentor’s side and carve out his own legacy in management.

Yet after an impressively overachieving but brief stint at unfashionable Academica, where did this single-minded and ambitious young coach choose to go to make his mark? Porto, a club still struggling to emerge from the shadow cast by Mourinho’s monumental domestic and European achievements there six years earlier.

Still, make his mark Villas-Boas certainly did. Under the 33-year-old’s astute guidance, Porto won four of the five tournaments they entered, romping to victory in the league by 21 points without losing a single match as well as triumphing in the Portuguese Cup and Europa League.

Along the way, Portugal’s latest coaching whizz-kid broke many of Mourinho’s old records and established himself as a top managerial prospect in his own right. The footballing world was at his feet, with Inter Milan and Chelsea both weighing up the possibility of a summer move to procure his services.

Neither option would have done much to discourage the perception of the 33-year-old as ‘the Special One: Mark II’. 
But Villas-Boas is a smart man as well as a talented young coach. While he may continually stress the differences between him and his former boss in press conferences, he has recognised that comparisons with arguably the greatest coach of the past decade could only boost his career prospects, and has used this image to his advantage.

Reportedly the Italian giants were unwilling to stump up the outrageous sum of £13.3million required to release Villas-Boas from his contract, leaving Chelsea the only viable suitor. But even had it been a straight choice between the two, it is likely the Porto boss would have favoured a move to west London anyway.

Why? Partly because the Premier League currently has the edge on Serie A in terms of quality of competition and prestige. Partly also because Villas-Boas underwent much of his coaching development in the UK, first on Uefa coaching courses and then in the corridors of Cobham.

But mainly because although either option would have placed the burden of expectation on Villas-Boas to match Mourinho at the scene of one of the most spectacularly successful chapters in the Special One’s illustrious career, only Chelsea could offer the opportunity for the student to surpass the master.

For despite delivering a trophy haul unprecedented in the club’s history, Mourinho left Chelsea in 2007 feeling relatively unfulfilled by his own impossibly high standards.

The Champions League was the only major trophy to elude Mourinho at Stamford Bridge

Sure, he had ended the Blues’ 50-year wait for a league title and then repeated the trick a year later, but he had not – as he had done at Porto and would go on to do at Inter – brought the Champions League trophy back to Stamford Bridge.

The notable absence of the greatest prize in club football from Chelsea’s modern success story is still referred to with a degree of regret and frustration by Mourinho to this day, just as it is still the source of the unrelenting obsession which drives Roman Abramovich’s astoundingly lavish spending.

For Villas-Boas then, the Champions League represents the greatest opportunity of emerging from the shadow of his former boss. It also happens to be his only chance of long-term survival.

Carlo Ancelotti’s swift demise barely twelve months after he had led the club to its first ever Double illustrates that domestic dominance is now expected rather than cherished at Stamford Bridge. A league title can buy a Chelsea coach another season, at best, but only European glory can make him a permanent fixture.

Just matching Mourinho’s achievements, then, will not be enough.

Abramovich may be addicted to the thrill which success in football brings, but Premier League and FA Cup triumphs no longer provide a sufficient high. Villas-Boas will have to deliver him the ultimate prize, or recent history suggests he will become just the latest in an illustrious list of managerial casualties.
The 33-year-old’s task will only be made harder by the fact he inherits a considerably weaker squad to the one Mourinho assumed control of in 2004. 
The spine of that title-winning team remains the same in name only, lacking both in youthful hunger and vigour. There is also a distinct absence of cover in many areas – the result of an apparent cost cutting drive last summer, later rendered futile by January’s £75million spending spree.

As well as refreshing the first team ranks, Villas-Boas would also do well to rein in the player power at Stamford Bridge. The likes of John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba have grown in influence as well as experience over the past few years, and the sway which Chelsea’s captain appears to have with Abramovich is a particular cause for concern.
The close relationship between Terry & Abramovich would worry any incoming Chelsea coach
But for all the potential pitfalls inherent within it, this is not an impossible job. It is merely a very difficult one. Moreover, it is one for which, despite his relative lack of experience, Villas-Boas may be uniquely well-equipped to flourish in.

Of each of the six previous managers Chelsea have hired and/or fired since 2004, Mourinho lasted the longest in the job – a relative lifetime of three years. 
Villas-Boas witnessed first-hand how the Special One managed to maintain a working dialogue with his impulsive and ruthless chairman for all this time, and he was also present as the relationship gradually broke down. This means he is arguably better placed than anyone not only to replicate Mourinho’s successes in this regard, but also to learn from his former boss’s misjudgments.

The other great advantage Villas-Boas has is an established rapport with the Chelsea players, many of whom benefited from the exhaustive scouting reports he diligently compiled during Mourinho’s reign and still retain a genuine respect for him as a result. 
Of course, it still remains for the 33-year-old to ensure this relationship now assumes a player-manager dynamic, but the emphatic nature of his success at Porto suggests this won’t be a problem.

It is clearly a massive risk for Villas-Boas to plunge himself into football's ‘lion’s den’ with only 18 months’ worth of managerial experience to his name, but equally massive are the potential rewards. 
He has the opportunity to finally emerge from the sizable shadow of Mourinho by completing his former mentor’s ‘unfinished business’ in the Champions League and begin writing his own history in the process.

One thing is clear, however: Anything less than making Chelsea ‘kings of Europe’ will be regarded as a failure, because being ‘Special’ just doesn’t cut it at Stamford Bridge anymore.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Is the 'English premium' worth paying?

Big money moves for Henderson and Jones have reignited the 'English premium' debate

After a quiet start, the Premier League summer transfer window has suddenly exploded into life, with Liverpool swooping for Sunderland midfield starlet Jordan Henderson and Manchester United splashing out on Blackburn Rovers defensive wonderkid Phil Jones.

The deals, which could both rise to £20million depending on the youngsters’ eventual level of achievement, signify the ongoing commitment of both clubs towards securing the best young English talent regardless of the cost,  following on from the signings of Chris Smalling and Andy Carroll earlier in the season.

This shared commitment is undoubtedly admirable, but is it wise? After all, the two Premier League giants have now committed to shelling out a combined estimate of £82million on four players who boast just three England caps between them.

It goes without saying that the figures quoted in connection with the names above are, by any normal market standards, ridiculous. They are inflated, disproportionate to the players’ current abilities and unduly distorted by the tantalizing possibility of what they may go on to become.

They are, in short, examples of what’s become known in domestic football circles in recent times as the ‘English premium’ – the somewhat bizarre and often spectacular phenomenon which dictates that top young English footballers command much higher fees on the transfer market than foreign talent of equivalent, or sometimes even superior, skill and experience.

Sounds strange? That’s because it is. But it’s also true.

Jordan Henderson, a promising but relatively unproven young midfielder, has cost Liverpool an initial fee of £16million – the same price that Tottenham Hotspur paid to bring Luka Modric, at the time rated as one of the most gifted young playmakers in Europe, to White Hart Lane three years ago.

Phil Jones has already cost Manchester United more than double what Nemanja Vidic did in 2006, although admittedly the Serbian was an absolute snip at £7million.

And at £35million, Liverpool have paid around £10million more for a 21-year-old Andy Carroll than they did for a 23-year-old Fernando Torres – a player who, even then, boasted a far more extensive and impressive resume – back in 2007.

"Andy who?!? How much?!?"

Of course, player acquisition in football has never been, and never will be, an exact science. 

But even if we assume the likes of Modric, Vidic and Torres were unusually good value for money, the fact remains that, purely in terms of initial transfer outlay, a policy of pursuing foreign talent appears to represent both a far smaller risk of failure and far greater chance of reward.

So why do top Premier League clubs still consider the ‘English premium’ to be worth paying?

There are several reasons, the first of which constitutes the stick which is repeatedly used to beat football in this country. It is this: young English players with elite potential are a rare commodity.

Moreover, when you subtract the likes of John Terry, Jack Wilshere, Paul Scholes and Steven Gerrard, who were fortunate to come through the youth ranks already at one of the Premier League giants, the number of feasible and worthwhile young English transfer targets shrinks even further.

All this means when an English ‘wonderkid’ surfaces at a middling top flight club, the Premier League giants are more inclined to consider an inflated transfer fee a risk worth taking.

Wayne Rooney has amply repaid the £30m Manchester United paid for him in 2004

Manchester United raised a few eyebrows when they made 18-year-old Wayne Rooney the most expensive teenager in football history by paying Everton up to £30million for him in 2004, but they gambled they were signing the best English talent of his generation. So it has proved.

Theo Walcott, who cost Arsenal £9million to prise from Southampton at just 16, has not proved such an emphatic success, but time remains on the side of him and his club.

That’s all very well, you might say, but one question inevitably now comes to mind: Why are English clubs so bothered about signing young English players in particular?

The cynic might argue it’s because of the Uefa Home-Grown Rules implemented at the start of this season by the Premier League, which require at least eight members of each club’s squad to have been trained for at least three years below the age of 21 in the English or Welsh professional system.

However, while this may factor in the thinking of Premier League clubs now, the ‘English premium’ has been around considerably longer than any home-grown restrictions.

Ultimately, the main reason why top Premier League clubs are consistently willing to pay marquee prices for top young English players is because they consider them a more fundamentally worthwhile investment than their foreign counterparts. 

And when you look at the evidence they can summon to back up their case, it becomes hard to argue.

This may seem counter-intuitive given the England national team’s dismal record at major international tournaments over the past decade, but whether youth team products or big money arrivals, the country’s finest footballers have been hugely successful assets for their clubs.

John Terry, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney have all been integral as Manchester United and Chelsea have shared the last seven Premier League titles between them, while Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher both played key roles in Liverpool’s sensational Champions League triumph in Istanbul in 2005.

Steven Gerrard inspired Liverpool to an astonishing comeback in 2005

The best young English footballers invariably mature not just to make up the numbers at top Premier League clubs, but to help form the spine of successful teams.

Their native knowledge of the English footballing culture and style of the Premier League, combined with their superb ability, means they can provide the sort of leadership which, even in the most illustrious of dressing rooms, may otherwise have been lacking.

Another reason why the Liverpools and Manchester Uniteds of this world consider the ‘English premium’ to be worth paying is the greater longevity of service top English players tend to provide.

There are many disadvantages to the Premier League being the all-consuming monster that it is, but one of the biggest plus points of having such a strong domestic club game is that, with the odd exception (I’m looking at you, Mr Beckham), English youngsters tend to grow up wanting to play for Liverpool, Arsenal or Manchester United, rather than Real Madrid, Barcelona or AC Milan.

What’s more, having this added familiarity with the environment they are in means top English players are far less likely to become unsettled and want to leave for non-footballing reasons. Even domestic transfers of high-profile English players between the country’s top clubs have been extremely rare in the Premier League era.

When top young English players sign for Liverpool and Manchester United and succeed, they invariably stay. This inevitably has a massive bearing on the sort of prices the clubs are willing to pay for them in the first place.

Kenny Dalglish will have far fewer objections to spending over £50million on Andy Carroll and Jordan Henderson knowing that the fee is being paid with a view to the pair seeing out their careers at Anfield, rather than spending a couple of seasons on Merseyside before wanting a new challenge. The same applies to Sir Alex Ferguson and Phil Jones.

That said, there is no denying the risk inherent in paying the ‘English premium’.

Having committed a huge amount of money towards the procurement of some of the country’s finest young talents, both Manchester United and Liverpool can now ill afford to fail to bring the best out of them.

But it is equally clear that United and Liverpool have made their investments with their eyes wide open.

They will have thoroughly run the rule over their new arrivals many times over the past year or so, analyzing all their strengths and weaknesses before agreeing to a deal. They will be as confident as can be of producing the next generation of English superstars.

Paying the ‘English premium’ will never be a safe bet. But one thing is for certain: If you win, the rewards are enormous.

2010/11 Season Review Part 2: European Team of the Season

And so, ladies and gentlemen, we’ve come to the end of another season, and it was a decidedly mixed bag.

In England, we we lured into predicting the tightest Premier League race in years only for the rest of the pack to limply fade away and leave Manchester United to amble over the line to a record 19th title.

Spain lived up to its billing as the most glamorous two-team league on the planet, Italy was competitive but short on elite quality teams, while Germany and France both yielded surprise champions.

And in the Champions League final, Barcelona left almost everyone except Sir Alex Ferguson feeling all warm and fuzzy inside with a virtuoso display that surely confirms the Catalans’ place among the all-time great club sides.

With all this in mind, I’ve compiled my team of the season. I’ve elected to play 4-3-3 because, as you all surely have heard, it’s like, so in right now.

In the first XI I’ve chosen who I think have been the best players in each position over the last year, and on the bench I’ve tried also to be representative of the players who shone outside England and Spain, and who invariably spurred their teams on to great things.

WARNING: Neither PFA Player of the Year Gareth Bale or FWA Player of the Year Scott Parker have made it into my squad – Bale because he only dazzled intermittently in an injury-disrupted season, and Parker because I feel that, with all due respect, being the best player in the worst team in the Premier League doesn’t actually count for all that much.

Have a read and let me know your views.

Goalkeeper - Edwin Van Der Sar, Manchester United

It is easy to forget that before Van Der Sar signed for United in the summer of 2005, Sir Alex Ferguson’s ill-fated search for a worthy successor to great Dane Peter Schmeichel between the Old Trafford sticks had become a source of comedy for rival fans.

The Dutchman has more than put paid to that though, oozing calm and consistency for the last five years and providing a reliable platform for Ferguson’s latest era of success at United. Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic have looked so imperious as a defensive pairing not least because of the confidence they share in the man behind them.

Van Der Sar’s place in my team is not assured by the fact he is retiring this summer, but simply as a result of him being the best keeper in the world this season (Champions League final blip aside). Mr De Gea, you have some big shoes to fill.

Right-back - Dani Alves, Barcelona

I don’t think there can be any arguments with this one. The decline of Maicon at Inter has given Alves the opportunity to assume the mantle of best right-back on the planet, and it is one he has grasped with both hands.

Rarely has a full-back carried such tactical influence on any team, let alone one of the greatest club sides in history, but Alves is undoubtedly crucial to the way Barcelona play.

A supreme athlete, his ability to ally potent attacking threat – he has 15 (yes, 15) assists in La Liga this season - with defensive awareness provides the Catalans with much needed width going forward without exposing themselves too much at the back. A worthy edition to any side.

Centre-back - Nemanja Vidic, Manchester United

Comfortably the best centre-half in the country this season and, as his inclusion here categorically proves (ahem), one of the two best in the world. The big Serb has symbolised everything which has marked United out as deserving Premier League champions through his confidence and unerring determination.

With regular partner Rio Ferdinand suffering from persistent injury problems, Vidic has regularly held makeshift defences together and occasionally stopped his team conceding through what seems nothing more than sheer force of will.

Despite Barcelona tearing him a new one in the Champions League final, there are still few people other than Vidic who you would stake your life on making a goal-saving block or tackle, and he brings much needed grit to this flamboyant team. The defensive lynchpin and natural captain of this mythical team.

Centre-back - Gerard Pique, Barcelona

A tall, elegant, ball playing centre-back, Pique would complement Vidic in this team in much the same way as Ferdinand does at United.

But make no mistake, the young Spaniard can also mix it in physical terms against the very best, as his astonishingly dominating display in the Champions League final proved.

Like Vidic, Pique earned his place in this team by holding his defence together for long periods in the absence of an illustrious partner, and at only 24, he can remain one of the best in the world for many years to come. 

And he’s doing it all with the added distraction of dating Shakira…

Left-back - Marcelo, Real Madrid

Marcelo just edges out Patrice Evra for my left back berth on the strength of what has comfortably been the best season of the young Brazilian’s career to date.

Long renowned for his exceptional attacking gifts, Marcelo had been regarded as something of a defensive liability by a succession of Real Madrid managers until Jose Mourinho arrived at the Bernebeu.

But the Special One appears to have corrected this issue, and now his young charge balances responsibilities on the left flank at both ends of the pitch almost as well as fellow Brazilian Dani Alves on the right.

Defensive Midfielder - Sergio Busquets, Barcelona

The biggest complement you can pay to Sergio Busquets is that Barcelona have not missed Yaya Toure since the big Ivorian moved to Manchester City last summer.

In fact, the Catalans’ midfield is actually stronger, with increased La Masia connections facilitating their suffocating possession football, and Busquets’ defensive talents improving the team’s ability to win the ball back deep in the opposition’s half.

His play-acting frustrates and even disgusts at times, but his quality and place in this team cannot be denied.

Midfielder - Xavi Hernandez, Barcelona

No justification needed here. Xavi is the greatest midfield playmaker of his generation and one of the best of all time.

His passing is metronomic in its accuracy, his technique flawless, his awareness almost supernatural. Xavi not only sees gaps in opposing defences before they appear, he then has the poise and ability to find them, time and again.

He is also the man for the big occasion, having now dictated two Champions League finals and last summer’s World Cup showpiece against Holland in South Africa. Simply a joy to watch whenever he takes to the field.

Midfielder - Andres Iniesta, Barcelona

There's a reason they're the best team in the world, you know. Completing my midfield triumvirate is the third member of what will surely go down as one of the best footballing units in history.

Iniesta possesses vision if not quite on a par with Xavi, then at least in the same league, and combines this with the dynamism and skill to get into attacking positions and contribute goals for his team.

The 27-year-old earns his place in the team on his own merits, but the fact remains that when Xavi and Iniesta play together, their almost telepathic understanding allows them both to reach new plains of greatness.

Right-winger - Mesut Ozil, Real Madrid

Ozil won his big move to Real after a series of star-making performances for Germany at the World Cup last summer, but the odd question still remained about his ability to produce his best in the pressure cooker environment of the Bernebeu.

The young playmaker could not have answered those questions more emphatically. Not only has he matched the heights of South Africa this season, he has improved and matured into a consistently world class performer.

Ozil has created a chance on average every 22 minutes this season – the best ratio of anyone in the top five European leagues. It’s no wonder, then, that former World Player of the Year Kaka has been relegated to the role of understudy to the German.

Centre-forward - Lionel Messi, Barcelona

Who else? Messi has once again confirmed his status as the greatest player of his generation with the best season of his career to date.

53 goals and 23 assists yielded La Liga and Champions League winners’ medals, and the little Argentine capped it all with a masterful performance at Wembley.

The Messi has achieved all he has achieved is exceptional. That he is still only 23 is, frankly, frightening. No ultimate team would be complete without him.

Left-winger - Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid

His trophy haul might not have been as impressive as Messi’s this season, but Ronaldo appears to have been inspired by the astonishing feats of his rival to reach new levels of greatness.

The Portuguese superstar broke the all-time scoring record in La Liga, recording 40 goals over the course of the campaign, and matched Messi’s total of 53 in all competitions. 

Those who accuse Ronaldo of being more individualistic than the Barcelona man might also be interested to know he has 15 assists in all competitions this term, the third highest in the team.

He may not be the best in the world, but he’s certainly done enough to ensure he’s still in the debate.

Manager - Pep Guardiola, Barcelona

As great as this Barcelona team is, it does not, as some like to believe, manage itself. 

Pep Guardiola has been just as integral to the club's phenomenal success over the past three seasons as the players he trains, and an astonishing haul of ten trophies from a possible 13 in that time reflects just as much upon him as it does his team.

For all he has achieved in his time in Catalonia, this season's triumphs may be his greatest yet. Managing a small (albeit exceptional) squad, the 40-year-old had to deal with the lengthy absences of  key players Eric Abidal and captain Carles Puyol. 

He also had to negotiate an unprecedented period of four intense El Clasicos in less than a month which defined the Catalans' season, and tested their young coach's resolve as well as his talent.

Guardiola has hinted he may take a break from football when he finally leaves the Nou Camp. After this season, you'd have to say he's earned one.


Edinson Cavani, Napoli – his 26 goals fired Napoli to an unexpected title push and eventual Champions League place.

Jack Wilshere, Arsenal – went from prodigious youngster to key man for both club and country in the space of a season. A superstar in the making.

Manuel Neuer, Schalke – brilliant all season for Schalke and produced arguably the outstanding goalkeeping performance of the season in his side’s Champions League semi-final first leg against Manchester United.

Thiago Silva, AC Milan – Marshalled an aging Milan defence to 20 clean sheets on their way to a first Serie A title since 2004, as well as establishing himself as first choice for Brazil.

Eden Hazard, Lille – provided the skill and class which enabled his club to win its first top flight French title in 57 years as part of an historic league and cup double. Is all but assured of a move to a top club this summer.

Nuri Sahin, Borussia Dortmund – While boy wonder Mario Gotze attracted the headlines, it was Sahin who linked defence and attack for the surprise Bundesliga champions with his excellent vision and awareness. Deserves his move to Real Madrid.

Antonio Di Natale, Udinese – the very reason why Edinson Cavani’s phenomenal season still wasn’t enough to win the Serie A golden boot. Still outstanding at 33, Di Natale’s experience and quality was integral to an Udinese side which secured Champions League qualification for only the second time in the club’s history.