Friday, 14 March 2014

“O Captain! My Captain!”: A paen to Puyol

This article originally appeared on the Football Radar blog.

As the seats at Camp Nou remind visiting sides, Barcelona are més que un club. Sometimes it’s tempting to question that statement, especially as a result of the Qatar Airways logo that is now splashed across the team’s shirts, but it still holds true. Barcelona are standard-bearers not only in a football sense – that winning alone isn’t enough, that you must win well – but on a cultural and political level as well, to a greater degree than just about any other club you could care to mention. With that being the case, then, their captain Carles Puyol is més que un jugador, and that’s why coping with his absence after this season poses almost as much of a challenge to the club’s identity as the exit of Pep Guardiola two years ago.

Photo by Gerard Reyes, used under CC.

The feeling that this could be Puyol’s final year in a Barcelona shirt had been building for several months before the 35-year-old confirmed it would be the case last week. A succession of knee injuries since the last World Cup have eroded what pace he had and, understandably, affected the mobility required to play at the top level too. Puyol has not featured in two consecutive games since his most recent surgery during pre-season, and his performance in the 2-1 defeat to Ajax in November – albeit at right-back rather than his usual position in the centre of defence – was perhaps the moment when it became conclusively clear his powers were on the wane. “The injuries I have been suffering from have been worse than I expected and have not allowed me to play at my level,” Puyol said at a press conference on 4th March. It was an honest and direct justification for his departure in keeping with his style as a defender.

Puyol has won everything there is to win at club and international level, several times over. Six league titles, three Champions League trophies, two World Club Cups and two Copa del Reys have been lifted with Barcelona. He marshalled Spain’s defence as they followed up European Championship success in 2008 with the World Cup in 2010. Puyol played all but six minutes of the finals in South Africa and headed Spain into the final when he launched himself at a Xavi corner late on in their game against Germany. However, his knees deprived him of a place in Spain’s squad at the 2012 European Championship and, unless Vicente del Bosque shows a remarkable degree of sentiment, he will not be on the plane to Brazil this summer.

As important as Puyol’s achievements on the pitch are, what separates him from other similarly decorated teammates such as Xavi and Andrés Iniesta is how he bridges the gap between Barcelona the football club and Barcelona the institution. There is an incident during a match against Lokomotiv Moscow in 2002 when, as Sid Lowe pointed out recently, fans refer to Puyol preventing a goal with his heart. If Xavi and Iniesta have been the brains behind the dominance of Spanish football, Puyol has provided the soul. In an age when successful football teams can be assembled almost overnight, or at least during one transfer window, there will always be something missing from a squad of players – however talented or expensively acquired – if amongst their number there is not one who is willing, quite literally, to risk his body for the cause.

It’s not just Puyol’s knees that bear the scars of a career at the top. Several newspapers have attempted to calculate the number of injuries he has suffered during his fifteen seasons with Barcelona, with the total coming in at between 36 and 38. He has dislocated an elbow, fractured a cheekbone and torn numerous muscles in the line of duty. After overcoming such a catalogue of setbacks, then, it’s especially poignant when a player like Puyol realises that enough is enough. The modern footballer has reached such advanced levels of athleticism that to hear one admit that his body has reached its limit of endurance is a reminder that even they aren’t invincible.

While it would be correct to say Puyol has always been one of the less gifted members of the squad at Barcelona, this should not lead to his talents as a defender being denigrated. Quite clearly, he would not have played for the club for over a decade if he wasn’t one of the best in the world at his job. And yet, with his Captain Caveman hair and penchant for Napalm Death, Puyol’s committed and occasionally ragged style of defending often seemed as out of step with the rest of his teammates as his tastes in fashion and music. Leaving Barcelona doesn’t mean that he will stop playing altogether, but it’s unlikely the club will ever see a player quite like him again.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

What's the use of utility players?

This article originally appeared on the Football Radar blog.

One side effect of the gradual increase in size of the substitutes’ bench over the last two decades has been a reduction in the status of one of football’s most important figures: the utility player. Substitutions weren’t allowed in the English Football League until 1965 and, as recently as 1995, clubs were still only permitted to name three players on the bench in addition to the eleven in the starting line-up. The value of being able to call upon a player capable of operating in a variety of positions, then, was clear to see. In the event that an injury or a red card might prompt an unplanned tactical reshuffle, the utility player was just as much of an important presence on the bench as an extra striker or – unless the manager happened to be Neil Warnock – a back-up keeper.

Athletic Bilbao’s versatile Oscar de Marcos scores against Manchester United at San Mames in March 2012.
Photo by Martin P. Szymczak, used under CC.

Once a valuable addition to, and respected member of, any team’s ranks, with squads at the top level steadily swelling in size the desirability of a player whose main asset is versatility has waned. To be regarded as a utility player has taken on an old-fashioned, antiquated quality, as if being capable of performing well in a number of roles if not excelling in any of them might somehow be at odds with the image of the modern player as an artisan known for one particular specialism. Take James Milner. At 16 he was a genuinely exciting attacking prospect at Leeds United, but now his stamina and selflessness – both admirable qualities – have seen him become the type of player who can be relied on to perform the menial tasks along the flanks or in midfield that nobody notices except those individuals who set up spoof Twitter accounts.

Milner’s reputation for the unspectacular on the pitch, from which the creator of his social media alter ego attempts to mine humour, is, however, true to the spirit of what it means to be a utility man. The primary purpose of such a player, as the name suggests, is to be functional. Invariably, a manager is required to bring him into the side either to competently fill a particular position on a short-term basis due to injury or suspension, or to perform a tactical role – usually defensive – specific to a certain match. For example, September’s stultifying goalless draw in Kiev between injury-hit England and Ukraine – memorably described by one online observer as “like watching two mums play FIFA” – saw Milner stationed on the left wing in a conservative selection designed to offer a little more protection to Ashley Cole against Andriy Yarmolenko. The fact it worked didn’t make the game any easier to watch but it did mean England put one foot on the plane to Brazil by picking up a point. What’s more, barring injury Milner is almost guaranteed to have a ticket for the flight next summer too.

While the reasons for drafting in a utility player are usually down to circumstance rather than design, then, it’s possible for a player who is inherently enjoyable to watch to be just as rewarding to see in action regardless of where he is selected. Athletic Bilbao’s Oscar de Marcos is one such player. What the 24-year-old lacks in technique or subtlety he more than makes up for in energy and desire, which explains why he was just as much of a favourite of former coach Marcelo Bielsa during the Argentine’s time in the Basque Country as more gifted teammates such as Ander Herrera and Javi Martinez. Bielsa is well-known for liking players who can run for ninety minutes; in de Marcos he could count on exactly like that. The ceaseless, almost frantic way in which de Marcos covers ground across all areas of the pitch gives him, with his distinctive straight-backed gait, the appearance of a man attempting to track down presents for his entire family on Christmas Eve in the same department store.

Having been something of a fringe player at Athletic after signing from their Basque neighbours Alaves in 2009, de Marcos had nonetheless already shown his adaptability by being deployed by the club’s then-coach, Joaquin Caparros, across midfield and at full back. When Bielsa arrived in Bilbao in July 2011 a vacancy in the squad at left back saw the new manager continue his predecessor’s experiment and de Marcos began the season there. With Bielsa ordering the full backs in his four-man defence to push far higher up the pitch than the holding midfielder, who acted more as an auxiliary centre back or even sweeper, de Marcos’ attacking instincts served him well in the position. The emergence of teenage left back Jon Aurtenetxe in the early weeks of the 2011/12 season saw de Marcos return to a more familiar role in midfield for much of the campaign, his industrious style complementing Ander Herrera’s artistry, but he continued to provide cover at both left and right back when required for the remainder of Bielsa’s time in charge.

A change of coach at Athletic this summer saw Ernesto Valverde arrive from Valencia but the new boss has maintained de Marcos’ role as the squad’s odd-job man. So far this year, the player has been selected at left back as well as on both wings and even up front, in addition to his most effective position acting as a runner behind the main striker. De Marcos was even primed to play at right back against Getafe last month until regular starter Andoni Iraola overcame a back problem in time for kick-off, meaning that he would have played in every outfield position except centre back and defensive midfield just two months into the season.

Given his versatility, it’s understandable why de Marcos was reportedly in the thoughts of Sir Alex Ferguson for much of 2012. While some coaches, one notable example being Jose Mourinho, are fond of saying that they like their squad to be made up of two players for every position, Ferguson had a soft spot for players who might not be needed every week but could plug gaps throughout the team or be relied upon not to shirk the responsibility for a particular job if it was given to them. Players such as Phil Neville, John O’Shea and Quinton Fortune all enjoyed long careers at Manchester United because of their manager’s fondness for a hardworking all-rounder. It might also just about explain why in April Ferguson said Phil Jones had the potential to be the club’s greatest ever player.

Across most leagues, the standard number of substitutes allowed to be named is now seven. Even if one of those slots is taken up by a specialised player – a goalkeeper – it is possible to fill the remaining six seats on the bench in such a way that all eventualities in defence, midfield and attack can be coped with. In Serie A, as if to imply an added level of tactical complexity in Italian football, managers can name a faintly ludicrous twelve substitutes even though three quarters of them will go unused in any one match. The time when most coaches will be able to call upon two players in every position in their match squad seems to be approaching. It will be a huge shame if this means there is no room left for the utility player.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Should United return for Ander Herrera in January?

This article was originally written for the Manchester United website Pride of All Europe, which is edited by the excellent Justin Mottershead.

The mismanagement of Manchester United’s transfer policy over the summer will undoubtedly be a recurring theme for discussion as this season plays out. Even Adnan Januzaj’s superb performance on his league debut against Sunderland arguably only came about as a result of the club failing to land every single one of their major targets, other than the consolation prize that was Marouane Fellaini.

United saved their most desperate disappointment of the transfer window until its final days. In fact, they saved it until its final hours. Having already been rejected by one of Spain’s most promising young midfielders, Thiago Alcantara, and one of their national side’s most established figures, Cesc Fabregas, United were not afraid to risk rejection from a La Liga star for a third time. The attempt to land Athletic Bilbao’s Ander Herrera was United’s last roll of the dice. He was the final card upon which they tried to stake a whole season. It was a gamble that ended in high farce – even more so than the inflated fee paid for Fellaini.

Although the governing body of the top two divisions in Spain (the LFP) denied reports that the lawyers purporting to be from United who had turned up at their headquarters on deadline day were imposters, as the window closed that evening it was clear the club had failed to grasp the complexities of the country’s release clause system and, in turn, simply run out of time to complete a deal. It was more complicated than depositing the €36m and buying Herrera a plane ticket to Manchester.

On the one hand, for United to have switched their sights from Barcelona to the Basque club made perfect sense. The Europa League defeat to Athletic in March 2012 is still fresh in the memory and Herrera started both legs of it, helping his team to win 5-3 on aggregate. A member of Athletic’s first eleven since moving to Bilbao from Zaragoza for €8m in July 2011, he has enjoyed a productive relationship in midfield with Ander Iturraspe and Oscar de Marcos for much of that time. Herrera’s passing range, allied to Iturraspe’s aggressive work in a holding role and de Marcos’ box-to-box running, turned the trio into La Liga’s most effective midfield for a period of time during the spring of 2012, which coincided with the Basques’ trip to Manchester.

After their run to two cup finals that season, though, coach Marcelo Bielsa’s demanding methods took a heavy toll on Athletic’s players during the following campaign. They were eliminated from Europe before Christmas, knocked out of the Spanish cup by third tier opponents, and weren’t mathematically safe from relegation until May. Herrera, whose groin problem during the latter stages of the 2011/12 season was indicative of the strain that Bielsa’s punishing training regime was already putting on the squad, recovered his fitness and was ultimately the only member of Athletic’s starting line-up at Old Trafford – with the exception of the right-winger, Markel Susaeta – not to suffer a tail-off in form during 2012/13.

However, as undoubtedly talented as Herrera is, the fact that United made a bid of €30m – about 50% more than Bayern Munich paid for Thiago, it’s worth adding – for a midfielder who has yet to make his international debut and never scored more than two league goals in any one season was indicative of the club’s desperation to make a marquee European signing.

Reports that United will make a second attempt to sign Herrera in January do at least go some way to allaying the suspicion that he was a last-minute target pursued because the club was running out of options, but there must still be reservations over whether he represents the best use of precious transfer funds. Athletic are notorious for being tough negotiators, not only in terms of extracting the highest possible fee for a player but also standing firm over contractual matters. It took weeks of discussion before Bayern Munich were able to acquire Javi Martinez for €40m in the final days of last summer’s transfer window. After that, Athletic were happy to let the unsettled Fernando Llorente – scorer of 29 goals during 2011/12 – sit on the bench for the next nine months until his deal ran out. As one of the very few clubs in La Liga without chaotic finances, Athletic could afford to make Juventus wait before Llorente moved to Serie A on a free in the summer.

After an impressive performance for Athletic in the opening game of this season – in which his clever flick helped to unlock the Valladolid defence for the opening goal – Herrera’s displays have failed to reach the same level. He was dropped for his side’s trip to the Bernabeu to face Real Madrid twenty-four hours before deadline day and has been substituted twice in his last three starts despite the team being in a losing position at the time, most recently on Sunday night when he only made it to half-time as Athletic found themselves a goal down at home to Valencia. On both occasions, the team has fought back without him and got back into the game (earning a point against Valencia and all three against Real Betis two matches earlier).

Despite his current dip in form as part of a team adjusting to the methods of a new coach, Herrera remains a fine midfielder whose poise and intelligence on the ball would grace the Champions League with distinction. However, considering that Real Madrid were able to add Spain’s brightest talent, Isco, to their squad for €30m, paying more than that in order to land Herrera is a clear demonstration of the weakened position United currently occupy in the transfer market. Herrera would not help United conquer Europe but he might improve their chances of staying near the top in the Premier League. It’s a huge price to pay to stand still.

Spain's golden age of the left-back

This article was originally written for Forza Futbol - "A better lens at Spanish football"

As Muddassir Hussain’s recent article argued, there is an abundance of left-sided talent in La Liga at the moment. In choosing his top five left backs, Muddassir made me think about the young Spanish players who might feature on the list in a year’s time. Once something of a problem position for the national team, it could be one of its strongest assets over the next decade.

Less than eighteen months ago, Jordi Alba – number two on Muddassir’s list – enjoyed a swift rise in becoming Spain’s first choice in the position after a successful season with Valencia. He had made only one competitive start for the national side before Euro 2012 and there were reservations about whether he was ready for such a big stage, having not even been an automatic choice for his club twelve months earlier. Alba went on to be one of Spain’s players of the tournament, his performances growing in stature during the knockout stages. He laid on the cross for Xabi Alonso’s opening goal against France in the quarter-final and scored the second goal in the 4-0 defeat of Italy in the final. With a successful first season at Barcelona to his name now too, the 24-year-old retains a tight grip on his place in La Roja‘s first eleven.

The clearest challenger to Alba, however, is Sevilla’s Alberto Moreno. The 21-year-old was still playing in Segunda B for Sevilla Atletico until this February when, with Unai Emery settling in as the first team’s new coach, he promoted the young left back to the senior side and put him straight into the starting line-up. He made a total of fourteen starts before the end of the season, repeatedly catching the eye with his ability to read the play, cut out passes, and spring forward in attack. Alberto’s performances helped Sevilla to qualify for the Europa League but greater success was to come over the summer as he started four games – including the final – at the European U21 Championship as Spain retained their title.

Less than four months after that triumph, Alberto finds himself promoted again – this time to the full national set-up for the World Cup qualifiers against Belarus and Georgia. It is a remarkable progression for the full back, who is now in with a realistic chance of lining up in Brazil next summer just over a year after he was playing in Spain’s regional third tier. As well as being rewarded for his efforts over the last eight months with recognition by Vicente del Bosque, Sevilla have given him an improved contract and set his release clause at €30m in an attempt to deter the many other clubs – most notably Real Madrid and Manchester United – that are following his situation with interest.

So rapid has the youngster’s ascent been that putting such a high price on his head could be an unwanted source of pressure. Alberto doesn’t seem to be phased by anything though, perhaps benefiting from the experience of playing in front of Sevilla’s ferocious Biris Norte ultras. If he continues to shine at club level and goes on to impress for Spain then €30m is unlikely to put off potential suitors for very long.

Looking beyond Alberto, however, the future for Spain at left back looks more and more promising. Valencia alone boast three potential candidates to challenge for the position over the next decade. Like Alba and Alberto, Juan Bernat is a winger who has been converted into a full back. Unai Emery also played a key role in his development, handing him his first league start at 18 on the opening day of the season two years ago. Although he still spent most of that campaign playing for the B side, Bernat is now an established presence in Valencia’s first team squad and has taken on the role of Andres Guardado’s understudy at left back. At 20, time is still on his side. Beyond Bernat, Los Che can point to the twin talents of Jose Luis Gaya and Salva Ruiz. Both are still only 18 but were each given 90-minute run-outs in the Copa del Rey last season, with neither looking out of place. Salva is currently on loan with Segunda side Tenerife while Gaya continues his progress with Valencia Mestalla.

Astonishingly, Valencia could even have had a fourth contender to be Spain’s future left back had Alejandro Grimaldo not been snapped up by Barcelona’s youth system in 2008. Still only 18, Grimaldo won the European U19 Championship in 2012 at just 16 and was a key component of Barcelona B’s starting line-up until he ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament in February.

With Alba currently sidelined by a hamstring injury, Alberto is expected to make his full debut during the forthcoming international round. In turn, the main beneficiary of Alberto’s elevation to the senior squad has been Bernat who received a call-up to the U21 side. The competition between the three players over the coming months and years could be intense.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Merlin's 1994 Premier League sticker collection

The Football Attic is a terrific site devoted to football history and memorabilia, curated by two thoroughly decent guys in Chris Oakley and Richard Johnson. Having wanted to write something for them for a long time, here I take a look Merlin's first Premier League sticker collection.

One lunchtime at school, a friend whose identity I've sadly forgotten gave me the playground equivalent of magic beans. They were just half a dozen football stickers that he said he had no need for, but they started off my very first collection and one that would grow into a complete set by the end of the 1993/94 season. I didn't quite understand the concept at first - idly swapping stickers with other friends without realising I was giving away players I would need to acquire again later - but I soon realised I'd been given the keys to a whole world of trading, bartering, and one-upmanship.

Once I found out there was a whole album's worth of stickers to get, I started buying them almost on a daily basis. Of course, my parents often bore the cost but my younger brother had agreed to come on board in the collecting so they were at least only funding one collection not two competing ones. I would also think nothing of blowing my weekly £2 pocket money on ten packets all in one go.

Looking back, in relative terms I've never been so profligate with cash as I was during those months. Using my entire weekly income to indulge one obsession at a young age could have had unfortunate repercussions later on, so it's a relief really that football stickers proved to be a gateway to nothing harder than a regrettable dalliance with pogs a year or so later.

Although the Premier League was in its second year, this was actually the first edition of Merlin's sticker collection. The introduction on the first page - penned by Andy Gray, no less - wasted no time in aligning the two brands with the assertion that the album, like the Premier League itself, "breaks with tired, old conventions". That statement seems a lot more ominous now than it did twenty years ago, but that's probably because I was ten at the time so I just skipped straight to the player pages beyond it instead.

Arranged, conventionally enough, in alphabetical order, the twenty-two clubs that made up the Premier League that season were represented by a rather modest fifteen players each. There was also a team photo of every squad to collect as well as a fairly redundant action shot of the side's star player divided across two separate stickers (I lost count of how many copies of Neville Southall's outstretched right boot I had at one time). However, the crowning piece of every team section was obviously the picture of the club's badge on a reflective background. These were universally called "shinies" at my school yet erroneously referred to as "glitters" by those at a rival one, perhaps emphasising the class divide that exists between many Norwich suburbs.

Moving on to the pictures of the players themselves, what immediately becomes apparent is the general propensity of sensible haircuts and unironic moustaches that date the collection as much as the kits and the presence of Swindon and Oldham in the top division. It's also striking how old some of the younger players look, and indeed how old all of the older players look. Coventry's David Rennie, who was actually my final sticker in the collection, was only in his late twenties but already looked like he'd wandered into shot from a veterans' exhibition game taking place nearby. At Southampton, Peter Reid looked particularly grizzled even by his standards, giving him the appearance of Jack Regan working undercover as a veteran midfielder in a lost episode of The Sweeney.

For fans of kit design, an early nineties sticker album throws up a classic on almost every page. Norwich's speckled home shirt, famously worn the night they beat Bayern Munich at the Olympic Stadium earlier that season, is still revered very highly but I'd never noticed that the Canaries' yellow effort was based on a Ribero template also used for Coventry's sky blue version. Similarly, the chevron design on the front of West Ham's shirt (a personal favourite) was a Pony creation used to slightly less impressive effect at Southampton too. Laces around the shirt collar were a popular feature, favoured by Manchester United, Ipswich and Sheffield United. The award for the most daring away kit was a tie between Everton's salmon (it says here) and dark blue stripes and Manchester City's purple shirts with white pinstripes. Conveniently, all of the kits are reproduced as shinies towards the album's middle to be stared at in all their magnificence.

No doubt because of the heavy Sky presence throughout the rest of the collection, Merlin saw fit to include a double page spread on the channel's television coverage in the centre of the album. Entitled "Fabulous Footballing Facts About Sky", the section contained six stickers ranging in excitement from a Sky Sports logo that at least counted as a shiny to the mundanity of a cameraman standing pitchside. In another shot, Clive Allen - still on West Ham's books that season - is pictured sitting next to Richard Keys, who sports a jacket so yellow even the cast of Hi-de-Hi! would've dismissed it as garish. Stickers such as this, and the one of original Goals on Sunday presenters Anna Walker and John Salako posing for the camera, were obliged to be collected even if they were the football equivalent of the "Krusty Poses for Trading Card Photo" gag in The Simpsons.

The album ends on a rather poignant note, picking out eight players for its "Rising Stars" section. Some of those selected went on to enjoy respectable top flight careers but none of them became the superstars that the makers of the collection clearly thought they could be. Steve Froggatt, then a spritely winger at Aston Villa, eventually received an England call-up in 1999 while at Coventry, as did Norwich starlet Darren Eadie in 1997, but neither received a cap and both retired early due to injury. Chelsea youngster Neil Shipperley went on to play professionally until 2007 but never got further than seven U21 appearances. Southampton's Neal Bartlett and Manchester City's Adie Mike, however, had both dropped into Non League football within five years.

Looking back at the 1993/94 season through the medium of stickers offers an intriguing glimpse at the brief period between the formation of the Premier League and Euro 96 when the infiltration of television money and glamour hadn't quite taken full effect yet. Newcastle and Blackburn had both won promotion as a result of wealthy benefactors but Sir John Hall and Jack Walker remained examples of the traditional model in British football of the dominant businessman in the area taking control of his local club. The baggy indie fringes modelled by the likes of Manchester City's Garry Flitcroft and Sheffield Wednesday's Graham Hyde, meanwhile, come across as fairly budget concessions to style next to the sleeve tattoos and bejewelled earrings that would be flashed across our screens in later years.

You can read the original posting of this article on the Football Attic here.