2013 signings could hold key for Dortmund in 14/15.

Despite the signings of Ciro Immobile and Adrian Ramos, Henrikh Mhkitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang might be the men who will step up for Borussia Dortmund this season. 
 ASDF

Despite the occasional murmur otherwise one of the major positives for Borussia Dortmund last season was the performances of the new signings. The exuberantly named (and comically if you’re Alan Shearer) Sokratis Papastathopolous was immense in the absence of Neven Subotic and at times Mats Hummels and was one of the standout players for Dortmund and in the Bundesliga as a whole. Henrikh Mkhitaryan hit nine goals and ten assists en route to a successful first season with the black and yellows. And Pierre-Emerick scored 13 times and assisted four in the league.

But the feeling in Dortmund is that they can do more, particularly the latter two more advanced players. Mkhitaryan had an impressive late season revival but at times struggled in the autumn and winter. He often lacked composure in front of goal, which was disappointing given he arrived as someone who had netted 25 times in just 29 games the previous season in Ukraine. The general feeling was that at times he struggled mentally with the added pressure of playing at a level as high as the Bundesliga for a club like Dortmund, but after an overall fine first season this isn’t something that should continue. Despite a few flurries of goals, Aubameyang struggled to hit top form at Dortmund, failing to really integrate into their system successfully and benefiting from a high number of tap ins to booster the goal tally. Towards the end of the season he almost got phased out as Borussia moved towards something of a wingless 4-1-3-1-1 formation, as Dortmund re-strategised after the January loss of Jakub Blaszczykowski to the dreaded ACL tear.

New acquisitions in the form of Ciro Immobile and Adrian Ramos and the returning Shinji Kagawa have been made, and there is both excitement and expectations for them given the departure of Robert Lewandowski and recent injury to Marco Reus that will leave the attacking midfielder out for approximately a month.  But for the former two in their first seasons it would be unreasonable to expect them to be able to replicate Lewandowski’s performances and goals and Kagawa will take time to readjust and find his form which made his so coveted in his former stint with the club. Instead, the increased contribution the team will have to supply to make up for the loss of the pole and temporary absence of Reus could rest in the hands of the Armenian and Gabon internationals. A season of experience, successful pre seasons, and a new set-up where they finally seem to have found a home are reasons enough to believe they may start to deliver on their immense potential. 

Mkhitaryan has all the assets needed to be one of the world’s very best midfielders. He has a fantastic burst of pace, which combined with his dribbling ability allows him to beat players. He has a great passing range which, although not at it’s best at times last season, appears improved after a shift deeper in the latter parts of the season. He works very hard defensively for someone who has played mostly as a 10 in the last two seasons and is a major force of Dortmund’s pressing unit. He’s also blessed with a long range shooting ability, and improved finishing, which appeared to be happening throughout last season, could see his goal tally shoot up. 

With his pace and proven goalscoring record Aubameyang is a natural fit for Dortmund’s philosophy and attacking systems. In his first season he was unable to play through the middle but it seems likely that he will be given a chance in the second striker role this season. Assuming Dortmund lineup like they have for preseason most of the early parts of this season, with something of a 4-1-2-1-2 it seems likely that Aubameyang will play as one of the two strikers and Mkhitaryan as one of the midfield two with Marco Reus as the number 10 (Shinji Kagawa will likely occupy the role while he is injured), like he played for much of the second half of last season.

Screen shot 2014-09-12 at 11.38.37

A potential Dortmund lineup for the coming weeks. Injured players to return in bold.

Both players had promising preseasons and appear ready to step up. Aubameyang has had a flurry of goals and performed admirably in the lone striker role at Ausburg in match day two. Klopp seemed hesitant to ever use Aubameyang as the main striker last season – though with Lewandowski around why would you? – and when he did play their, such as in Madrid for the first leg of the Champions League quarter final, he struggled so it was encouraging. The potential two up top in a diamond formation seems perfect for him, as it allows him to drift wide and exploit his pace, without burdening him by forcing him to play a disciplined role out wide, while also not restricting him to a hold up role that would be associated with a lone front man. 

Since his move to central midfield Mkhitaryan has been a revelation and has undoubtably been the biggest beneficiary from Klopp’s move away from the 4-2-3-1 last March. From deeper he’s been better able to showcase his lightening fast Messi dribbling and his goal tally has shot up. As Dortmund’s most expensive ever player there is pressure for Mkhitaryan to prove he is one of the world’s finest footballers. If he continues his progression curve since at Dortmund this season they’ll be no more doubters. Already the greatest Armenian footballer that’s lived (who are you to doubt Jonathan Wilson) Mkhitaryan has achieved a lot in his career. But there is a suspicion that, this season, he’ll go one step further. 

 

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Arsenal Preview – Injuries and Pressing Biggest Concerns

Alexis Sanchez

It’s actually happening! The season hasn’t even started but Arsenal have already bought four players for over £50 million, and there might be more coming. It’s somewhat uncharted territory for Arsenal and it has obviously raised hopes and expectations from the clubs fan base about the clubs prospects next season. However; the transfer market may not be the difference maker for Arsenal next season. If certain issues aren’t addressed no arrival of any international stars will help Arsenal overcome them; but if dealt with properly, the current first team may be good enough to win the league and go deep in the Champions League. 

It’s worth remembering, amid the horror of the early spring in the league campaign, that Arsenal topped the Premier League for far longer than anyone else last season and despite having to scrap for fourth in the final weeks, finished only seven points behind Manchester City, a significant improvement on the 16 points they trailed United the year before. They weren’t far off. What hit them so hard was injuries and the big games. 

Long term injuries to Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lukas Podoslki were big as were smaller injuries to the majority of the first team squad. What makes it so frustrating is that it’s nothing new for Arsenal. Arsenal fans have been counting the what if’s when it comes to injuries for years, perhaps most notably with Cesc Fabregas and Robin Van Persie in the 2009/10. It’s becoming increasingly hard to use it as a legitimate excuse as the validity of Arsenal simply being among the most unlucky sides with injuries every year reduces with each passing season.  

In early June Arsenal signed the head German physio Shad Forsythe in a bid to try and reduce the clubs injury problems. This is a significantly important move and brings hope that the club will stop simply ruing their luck with the players health and instead take a more proactive approach to evaluate their approaches to fitness, training, match preparation and existing injuries – Aaron Ramsey seemed to have at least three setbacks last season and was ‘a couple of weeks away’ for about a month, which simply isn’t good enough – in order to keep a healthy, deep squad next season. 

The other, obvious, issues for Arsenal from last season is their performance in the big games. The results were catastrophic and humiliating and ruined any chances the club had of keeping up their title challenge. The 20-4 aggregate loss to the other four of the top five away from home speaks volumes of the ineptitude of the side in the toughest games. It was particularly strange and disappointing given the consistency and quality the team showed in the rest of the games. So what was different about the big games? Was the greater opposition quality simply too much for a good quality team that potentially lacked world class players who could grab the game by the scruff of the neck? Maybe, but I prefer to look at it from a more specific tactical point of view. What do the top clubs do against Arsenal that others don’t? They press. 

Pressing

Everybody knows Arsenal like to have good possession and dominate the midfield region. The natural response from weaker sides is to sit back, let them donate the ball, then try to hit them on the break when the opportunity arrives. But recently Arsenal have shown an increasing ability to cope with this. Their defensive is more resilient and is better equipped to deal with the counters, and the side is dictated around breaking down teams, with a striker who links up with the midfield, wide number 10’s in the form of Cazorla, Rosicky and Wilshere and a good passer at defensive midfield in Mikel Arteta.  

However, any strong club with great aspirations won’t look to play like that, particularly in their own backyard, and are thus more prone to go at Arsenal in the form of pressing. Arsenal are so used to sides sitting against them, that it may have hampered their ability to handle a side that presses and looks to break away quickly, both in the form of players themselves not being used to the press and their tactics against sides that might use the method. Arsene Wenger has admitted as much, saying he prefers not to focus on other sides and instead focus on his strength. It’s a nice philosophy in practice, but it has meant Arsenal have severely suffered at the hands of sides that don’t play in a way they’re used to. 

While they’re usually used to time on the ball and space to play passes, they’re not granted that when pressed and can be caught out. An early warning sign was in the home match against Borussia Dortmund where Aaron Ramsey was hurried by Marco Reus and disposed 20 yards from his own goal. The tendency of the fullbacks to push forward means that if and when an opposition attacker wins the ball there is immense space out wide. This is something Andre Schürrle and Samuel Eto’o, as well as the Liverpool attacking trio of Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Rahem Sterling exploited brilliantly in the respective thrashings in February and March. Attacking fullbacks is something Arsenal are somewhat reliant on due to the lack of pace in their front line, which additionally, has the duel deterrent of giving the opposition licence to press and an ability to play a high line. One of the main arguments against pressing is that if it fails it allows sides to potentially break away fast beyond the midfield. But a lack of pace means such fast breaks are usually far less effective. The potentially higher line, due to less threat of balls through or over the defence for the attack to run onto, manages to cramp the midfield, and give them far less time and space, making pressing them much easier.

Arguably no one typifies Arsenal as much as Giroud. Against everyday run of the mil Premier League sides where Arsenal dominate the game Giroud is a great player, who scores goals, bags assists and makes his midfield play better. At his worst against the big sides he’s a player who can’t seem to run, dribble or strike a ball effectively from distance, meaning Arsenal have no real means of attacking and allows the opposition to push higher up and press aggressively. This is why – although somewhat ridiculed by many – playing Yaya Sanogo as the main striker against Bayern Munich and Liverpool and Everton in the cup was the right move. 

Arsenal v Chelsea

This would be the typical Arsenal set up last season, seen here in the mauling against Chelsea. The fullbacks high, creating space for Schürrle and Hazard to run into.The wide men drift in and offer few forward runs, with Olivier Giroud looking to get the ball into feet and hold it up. It’s easy to press.

Southampton v Arsenal 

Arsenal’s late January trip to Southampton was the first game where they showed a real vulnerability to a pressing method in the league and, even though they got back into the game, wh

ere lucky to get a point. As shown in the graphic below Southampton attempted and successfully won the ball high up the field several times and Arsenal were unable to cope with the energy of Southampton, failing to find their rhythm in the early stages. Southampton didn’t manage to make use of their early chances and only managed a couple of goals but it was a strong warning sign for what would come at Anfield et al. 

Southampton InterceptionsSouthampton Tackling 

Ironically this game was the original date set for Aaron Ramsey’s return, more than two months before his actual return, emphasising the poor handling and estimations of his injury. This would prove to be significant as Ramsey helps reduce the effect of the press through his energy, bursting forward runs and defensive work rate. In his absence the midfield paring of Arteta and Flamini, a much older and slower paring, was overrun by a young energetic Southampton side. Ramsey would also miss the Liverpool and Chelsea games, where the less disciplined Wilshere and Chamberlain struggled.

Liverpool v Arsenal

If the Southampton game had shown Arsenal to be vulnerable to pressing, then the game against Liverpool showed that they were capable of getting destroyed against a good pressing side who excelled at fast breaks. Liverpool harassed Arsenal, making 35 tackles to Arsenal’s 16, and many of them occurred high up the field in the opening exchanges in the lead up to Liverpool goals. Philip Coutinho was the main architect of the attacking players, notching up an astonishing 6 tackles, 2 interceptions and 2 through balls (a seasonal through ball rate of 0.5 per game is elite levels). He regularly won the ball high up the field and exploited the space Arsenal exposed with lethal passing and the match was over after 20 minutes. 

After the first two goals Arsenal arguably panicked and as a result sent the fullbacks even higher up the field than usual, in search of quick goals to try and restore parity to the game. But this only contributed in making Arsenal even more vulnerable to the fast breaks Liverpool orchestrated upon wining the ball. 

The third goal is the best example of Liverpool’s intense pressing and the space left to exploit. Özil dribbles and gets closed off by Jordan Henderson.

Ozil closed off Ozil tackled

Henderson then wins the ball and is left with multiple options out wide due to the space left by the advanced fullbacks. While Laurent Koscielny is fast for a centre back, the defensive trio of he, Mertesacker and Arteta is no match for the pace of Liverpool’s front three and Henderson is left with an easy pass to Suarez who squares the ball to Sterling for Liverpool’s 3rd goal with Sagna unable to get back in time. 

Liverpool break with options 

This angle shows just how high up the pitch Arsenal’s fullbacks are with Monreal on the left and Sagna on the right highlighted. 

Full back's exposed

The third goal wasn’t the only example though. Liverpool’s goal glut could’ve been even more severe given the chances that came about. Here a poor Özil pass is intercepted by Coutinho.

Ozil prepares to passInterception

Again the Liverpool midfielder has options out wide, as Suarez drifts into the space left vacant by Monreal.

Coutinho prepares to pass

This stretches the Arsenal centre back paring which leaves space for Sturridge to exploit and he nearly scores. 

Suarez pass

The fourth goal again came via Coutinho who anticipated Özil’s pass, got there ahead of Wilshere and exposed Arsenal’s high line with a brilliant through ball onto the onrushing Sturridge. 

Coutinho anticipatesCoutinho interception Coutinho through ball

Of course, one also has to appreciate how well Liverpool played. They showed brilliant energy and their quick, accurate passing meant that a vulnerable Arsenal defence were put to the sword viciously. Liverpool only needed one or two passes to get in and that’s a credit to both their passing and Arsenal’s defensive systems. 

But Arsenal would continue to show a vulnerability to the press, even against sides without the same levels of pace in the attack and passing ability in the midfield. 

Chelsea v Arsenal

At the Emirates earlier in the season Mourinho had approached the match very defensively, choosing to sit back and try to hit on the break. This worked to the extent that they didn’t lose, but at home they needed something more than just a point. Mourinho is obviously a very wise tactical coach, and seeing the success Liverpool and the like got against Arsenal through pressing systems it was little surprise he deployed one against Arsenal at the bridge. Chelsea pressed slightly deeper than Liverpool, choosing to focus on the attacking midfielders of Arsenal with David Luiz and Nemanja Matic performing the midfield enforcers role from deep.

For the first goal Andre Schürrle intercepts a stray pass from Alex Oxlade Chamberlain and, upon playing a quick one-two with Oscar, is away.

Pre passSchurrle interceptionOne-two with OscarSchurrle break away   Eto

For Arsenal it’s groundhog day with the fullback caught high up the field allowing lots of space for the Chelsea forward men to run into. Eto’o, seeing this, drifts wide and gets the pass from Schürrle in enough space to be able to get the shot away into the bottom corner.

The second goal is arguably the best illustration of what Arsenal do worst against the press. Gibbs passes the ball to Podolski before overlapping down the line. 

Gibbs picks the ball upGibbs passes to Podolski 

Despite the forward run by Gibbs, Podoslki decides to play a square ball into the centre circle where Cazorla is. 

Gibbs picks the ball up

Matic anticipates the pass well, and rushes Cazorla straight away. Perhaps as a consequence, Cazorla’s first touch is poor and Matic wins the ball.

Cazorla poor touchMatic tackles Santi 

Matic then breaks away and passes through to Schürrle, exploiting the space left by Gibbs before controlling and going on to fire home into the bottom corner. 

Matic pass to Schurrle

The goal is illustrated wonderfully by The Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) in his piece on whether Arsenal have become easier to press.

2nd goal image

Countering the press

So how can Arsenal set up better to make themselves less vulnerable to the press? There are a number of different possible approaches they can take. A necessary improvement has to be in the pace of the attackers. In the games against Liverpool and Chelsea the only player of any real pace was Chamberlain and even he lacks the directness that Theo Walcott has. The signing of Alexis Sanchez is therefore a major step and I would be highly tempted to start him as the number 9 in most of the big games this season. He can act as an outlet for the rest of the attacking midfielders or drop back to play balls through for onrushing midfielders. If they can get him as the #9 and Theo Walcott playing on the right then Arsenal are suddenly blessed with pace which, given Arsenal’s gulf of creative midfield passers, means through balls are a major threat. 

The natural consequence of faster attackers is also that it allows a more direct form of football. One of the reasons Arsenal are easy to press is their slow build up play and tendency to pass sideways. Slower build up means greater dwelling on the ball and greater chance for a tackle and interceptions tend to be more punishing on sideways passes. If you try a failed pass down the line you’re usually in place to cover yourself, but if a ball is intercepted in between the midfielders or defenders it creates space ahead for players if they pick the ball up. This was something explained well by Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher after Chelsea v Liverpool (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TdmxV-7QvJ8), where Chelsea played very few sideways passes and Liverpool obviously conceded via an intercepted sideways pass. 

The fullbacks could also do with playing deeper. This can again be done by greater pace and width offensively, instead of the usual wide 10’s who prefer to cut inside and let the fullback overlap. Pressing sides tend to tire, so deeper fullbacks wouldn’t necessarily have to be a thing for whole matches, but certainly for the opening exchanges they should be considered. 

Screen Shot 2014-08-11 at 15.40.19

This could be a potential set up for matches against the top sides next season. The starting lineup can resemble a normal Arsenal 4-2-3-1, but with Walcott pushing right up to the edge of the opposition defensive line, and preferably running in behind as much as possible. The natural consequence of the player on the right doing this would be for the number 9 (Alexis) to move slightly to the left and perform a similar role. Özil and Cazorla as the play makers would be equipped with trying to play the front two in as regularly as possible and Ramsey and Arteta can provide a direct passing game from deep. Such direct passing early on (when most vulnerable to the press) can bypass the midfield area and any pressing. Cazorla could also drift further inside, almost setting up a 4-4-2 like formation but with the strikers playing as wide men rather than traditional centre forwards. For this role a more dangerous dribbler such as Chamberlain may be a better option. 

The fullbacks would also stay deeper along with the rest of the back four and Mikel Arteta, in an attempt to provide greater cover for counter attacks and to stretch the game, allowing greater space for Özil, Cazorla and Ramsey. 

On top of such an approach work needs to be done on improving players composure on the ball and reducing the amount of time they dwell on the ball. For this simple training methods could seriously help the players be less susceptible to sides hurrying them and consequently lose the ball less. 

One thing is for certain though. Sides, even potentially some of the smaller clubs, will start to press Arsenal more after last season. They can’t afford to show the same faults next season, nor can they afford to constantly get beat against the rest of the top 7. 13/14 was a major learning curve and the lessons need to be applied into results this year, otherwise consequences have to be felt.

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This piece was meant to be done a couple of weeks ago, but procrastination. As a result we’ve got a first look at Arsenal in a big game to asses additionally to this piece. It’s hard to get a great judge of what the game meant, given it’s pre-season nature and the players missing for City. City’s midfield paring of Fernando and particularly Yaya Toure seemed completely devoid of any interest in tracking back. But the signs were encouraging. Three times in the first half an Arsenal player got beyond the City back line (twice Sanago and once Alexis) and it could’ve been more had Arsenal’s final ball been better – the return of Mesut Özil should help that. Arsenal looked dangerous on the counter.

The departure of Sanago and Alexis at half time predictably slowed things down, and Arsenal barely created a chance in the second half as the game petered out. It’s hard to say how Arsenal would do in a more intense game at Stamford Bridge or Anfield, but the early signs are positive.

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Toni Kroos could suit Madrid better than Pep’s Bayern

The potentially Real bound Bavarian might find greater influence in a faster, less possession based side, similarly to how he did in Belo Horizonte. 

Miroslav Klose Toni Kroos Sami Khedira Germany

I’ll admit something, I haven’t always been a massive fan of Toni Kroos. He’s obviously an incredibly talented and skilful player. His passing range is fantastic, as are his long shots. He can tackle, is physically strong, reads the game well and is equally adept off both feet. But I’ve often had doubts about just how much he’s able to influence this game. It’s not something I’ve always had the confidence to express publicly as it’s the sort of thing people will get upset about and create accusations of not understanding the game properly, but his season for Bayern this year consisted of minimal goals, just a few assists and not a lot of ball winning, though the latter was slightly to do with Bayern’s absurd possession (more on that later). With Manchester United rumoured to be offering him £260k a week for his services I thought they’d jumped a bullet when they stopped pursuing him as it was surely an excessive amount for someone who struggled to really dominant games playing in the deeper role he’d surely have occupied at United.

But over the last couple of months I’ve kind of been turned on his work. First of all he dominated the DFB Pokal final in mid May as Bayern clinched the double. A strong World Cup, with the highlight being the way he rocked Brazil in the opening half an hour in their World Cup semi final has further enhanced his reputation. He’s shown energy, won tackles, made goals and scored them himself. But are his improvements also as much to do with team tactics and dynamics as much as any personal differences?

There’s a bit of a stereotype, perhaps due to the existence of Xavi, that fantastic deep lying passers are better off in possession based sides such as Barcelona, Spain and Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich. While more possession naturally means more touches of the ball and more chances to showcase a players passing ability, the detracts of a possession based nature, particularly a slow one, mean defences can get many men behind the ball. This really limits a player’s ability to play incisive passes and often restricts them to sideways passing, unable to breakthrough the wall of opposition defences.

Over the last few years many sides have very successfully defended against possession sides in this manner. One of the better examples this season was Manchester United at home to Bayern Munich in the first leg of their quarter final clash, where Bayern had 74% possession but could only muster three shots on target. Kroos played as the number 10 in that game and was therefore designated with being the chief playmaker.  Here’s his passing radar for the game.

Kroos passing United all

Click to enlarge

His overall passing immediately bring up reminders of the infamous Tom Cleverly passing radar against Stoke, which led to immense criticism for only being able to “pass the ball sideways”.  Kroos’ is similar, with very little substantial final third penetration. No passes successfully arrive into the box and any forward pass is usually from deep or a very short one. His passing stats for the game? 92 passes at a completion rate of 96% and 12 accurate long balls, but no through balls or key passes at all. This isn’t really Kroos’ fault, but more to do with the detracts of working in a heavy possession based side playing against side happy to shut up shop.

Another example would be Bayern’s 1-0 defeat at the hands of Real Madrid in the next round.  Perhaps as a response to the Manchester United game, Bastian Schweinstiger occupied the number 10 roll in the game, with Kroos sitting slightly deeper in the number 8 role. But the result was similar, with Bayern having 72% but just four shots on target and Kroos’ passing map was reminiscent of Old Trafford.

Kroos passing Madrid all

Click to enlarge

So if possession can stifle a passer what can less of the ball and a system suited greater towards counter attacking do for a deep lying playmaker? Luka Modric is arguably one of, if not the, finest deep lying playmaker today and it’s notable how his passing radar from the same game differs to Kroos’. Obviously there are less passes, but of those that are there, they are of a very different nature. There are far more straight or diagonal balls, many of which would’ve helped to unleash fast breaks.

Modrid passing all

Click to enlarge

Obviously Germany are still a heavy possession side, but not to the same extreme effects that Pep’s Bayern are (59% average possession this World Cup, down from 71.2% for Bayern in the Bundesliga). Kroos’ passing radar in the 4-0 demolition of Portugal, where Germany had just 57% of the ball saw a greater proportion of forward passes and aggressive balls out to the flanks.

Kroos passing Portugal

Click to enlarge

But without a doubt his best performance was on Tuesday night against Brazil, where his outstanding contribution in the first half an hour rendered the final hour redundant. His far post corner set up Müller for the opener, his forward ball in between Dante and Luiz set through Müller in the lead up to Klose’s goal, he finished brilliantly for the third goal and disposed Fernandinho before exchanging passes with Khedira on the edge of the box for an open goal finish. He played a major hand in the first four goals and the game was finished in a flash.

Kroos v Brazil

Click to enlarge

The dispossession of Fernandinho (green cross 30 yards from goal) is particularly relevant. Kroos has shown in the last couple of months he can do more than just coast through games and makes the case he can work in a pressing system. The way he and Khedira pressed for the fourth goal in particular could be a sign of things to come at Real Madrid – there are major links with Kroos and Real at the moment, some saying it’s already done – with Kroos and Khedira in a high energy midfield either side of a deeper Luka Modric (though there are reports linking Khedira away from Madrid).

Some have suggested Kroos would be better suited at Barcelona, but it’s arguable that Real’s style presents a far better chance for Kroos’ to showcase a wider range of his skills.  From incisive passing, to tackling, pressing and shooting. Whatever happens, if he leaves someone will get a great addition and Bayern will miss him.

 

– Radars courtesy of FourFourTwo stats zone.  Photograph: Robert Ghement/EPA.  Possession stats courtesy of whoscored.com. 

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Novak Djokovic needs to forget French heartache and build Wimbledon legacy

After again failing to complete his career grand slam in Paris, Novak Djokovic’s season can hind on the next week in SW19.

Ever since Novak Djokovic’s outstanding 2011 season his major goal has been winning Roland Garros.  The missing link in his grand slam record.  An incredible all-rounder, one of the highlights of Djokovic’s career is how complete it is. Of the nine 1,000 events, the Serb has won eight, six of which he’s won multiple times, with only Cincinnati missing, where he’s made the final four times.  To put things into context, Nadal and Federer have two missing each.  Adding in the End of Year Tour Finals, Djokovic has won 12 of the 14 tournaments which give the most rankings points.  Four clay 1000 titles, in this era, with Rafael Nadal, is astonishing in itself, and is even more impressive given all four of those were won against the Spaniard in finals.  

For that reason, that the French Open crown is still not there, is of great pain to Djokovic. In at least three of the last four years, Djokovic has gone into the tournament as favourite, with recent success over Nadal and often the number one ranking alongside his name.  2013 was perhaps the most painful.  An unfortunate draw as a result of Nadal’s lower ranking (he’d been out for several months through injury) meant they met in the semi finals, with Nadal edging a four and a half hour epic 9-7 in the fifth set.  With the biggest game of the season lost in early June, Djokovic admitted it partially derailed his season and it took until he lost his number 1 ranking in the Autumn for him to really hit his mojo again.  

For Djokovic, at this stage of the season, that can’t afford to happen again, and Wimbledon creates the perfect opportunity for Djokovic to cement a legacy as the world’s best grass courter, the most well rounded player of his generation and the world’s best player at this moment in time.  His record at Wimbledon is so far mixed.  An early semi final lead in 2007 as a 20 year old promised lots but his performances at the all England club where underwhelming until his breakout year in 2011.  Back then it looked like he could be the next dominator of the grass courts but it has so far failed to come to fruition and he was poor in the 2013 final.

Since the decline of Roger Federer and rise of Djokovic and Andy Murray, there hasn’t been a standout grass player in the mens game. The last four Wimbledon’s have gone to each of the traditional big four.  With it arguably being Nadal’s weakest surface, Andy Murray is a major candidate for the title, Roger Federer has perhaps his best chance of reviving past glories and an outsider such as Grigor Dimitrov or Milos Raonic could spring a surprise.  But none of them perhaps have as big a chance as Djokovic.  While grass is far from his strongest surface, he’s a more than capable player and better than at least all bar one of the other candidates.   

The Wimbledon Championships are even more important for Djokovic given the now lingering doubts about whether he is the same player that took the tour by storm in 2011.  Five masters wins in his last six tournaments, with a year end championship in between show his skill level is still there, but it’s worrying that it hasn’t been transferred into grand slam wins.  The Serb hasn’t won any of the last five grand slams and sine the 2012 Australian Open epic with Nadal, his final record in slams is played six won one.  

One of the reasons he brought in Boris Becker as coach was to help improve the mental side of his game, but it’s worth remembering that the Djokovic circa 2011/2012 was arguably the strongest mentally on the tour.  Even Nadal would struggle to win the five seters and it was uncanny how many times an epic would end with Djokovic victories.  As of yet it hasn’t brought additional success and Djokovic and Wimbledon will be a serious test of the supposed benefits Becker is bringing to his game.  It’s not easy for Djokovic, with the crowd rarely on his side in the epic games, and Wimbledon is particularly tough with the possibility of facing the likes of Murray and Federer – crowd favourites in South London – or even the likes of the young revelation Nick Kyrigos. 

But Djokovic has the game to win Wimbledon and argue his case to be the world’s best grass courter and with it would probably the crown of world’s best player.  

Plan

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World Cup Harder to Predict After a Couple of Rounds

Check out any bookie before the World Cup and it was pretty obvious who the bookies were confident would win.  Skybet for instance had the supposed dark horses but increasingly overhyped Belgium as fifth favourites at 18/1, slightly ahead of the European pack of France, England, Portugal, Holland and Italy, as well as Colombia in the mid twenties to one.  All of them were someway off joint fourth favourites Spain and Germany, who were both 11/2 slightly behind Argentina at 9/2 and Brazil at 3/1.  To most observers it was obvious one of the so called big four would win it with it most likely being a South American team rather than it being a European nation.  

But after the first two rounds of games the certainty of a member of the big four winning it has almost entirely been ripped to shreds.  Tournament favourites Brazil have been far form convincing, relying on referee blunders and goalkeeper howlers to overcome Croatia in the tournament opener and failed to get the better Mexico in their second game. They have clear issues up top and their midfield is also an arguable weak point.  

Argentina have been similarly underwhelming.  For all the pre-tournament hype about their attacking prowess they’ve had to rely on two moments of Lionel Messi magic to get wins against war torn Bosnia and Herzegovina and lowly ranked Iran.  Despite a strong qualifying campaign there remain questions about whether they’re able to get the best out of all of their forwards together.  Sergio Aguero was the most prolific goal scorer in the Premier League during the club season but has so far only registered a single shot on target in the opening two games.  

Germany demolished Portugal in game one, but they were helped largely by the haplessness of Portugal, who had to play the whole of the second half with ten men due to Pepe’s madness, though the game was likely done by then anyway.  Then of course there was the entertaining, but from a German perspective, disappointing draw with Ghana.  Of the favourites Germany probably had the worst build up to the tournament, with fitness problems for Lahm, Schweinstiger and Neuer before talisman Marco Reus was ruled out of the tournament less than a week before it was due to begin.  The flaws in the side – the lack of genuine strikers and Jogi Löw’s baffling refusal to play genuine fullbacks no matter way – are obvious and a clear barrier to the sides hopes of winning the tournament.

As for Spain?  Well, what needs to be said that hasn’t already?

The failure of the big four to really shine to the levels of expectation has led to the rise of many other outsiders as genuine contenders, but even they haven’t fully convinced.  The Netherlands made the first statement, hammering Spain 5-1 on the second day but they themselves looked remarkably vulnerable against Australia.  The case is similar with Italy, a win against England raised expectations, before a loss to Costa Rica sent them crashing down again.  Chile look an impressive unit, but even they struggled in the second half of their game against Australia, and if they fail to beat the Dutch in their final game, will face the prospect of Brazil in their first knockout game.  

In the end, of all the sides in this world cup, it has arguably just been France and Colombia to really have been without fault.  France have probably been the best side in this tournament, sweeping aside a Honduras side whose ten players admittedly seemed to be more interested with the amount of pain and bruises they could inflict on the French team, rather than any threat on Les Bleus goal, and then hitting five past a talented Switzerland side.  Similarly it’s hard to not feel the Colombia bandwagon which is lighting up Brazil with their yellow kits and their fantastic football.  The threat of implosion as a result of the loss of their talisman Radamel Falcao was never likely due to the immense depth they have in the forward position and in James Rodriquez they have an arguably just as talented main man.  

Maybe it’s too early to be drawing such conclusions.  It’s possible to peak too early and if one of the remaining big three were to get a run together in the knockouts they may be unstoppable.  But at the moment there would be many a good outside bet due to the mixed performances from the favourites.  Colombia and France have been the most impressive sides, but Chile and the Netherlands are another good outside bet.  However, despite the early signs, it may still remain foolish to look past one of the big South American teams.   

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How David Moyes altered expectations at Manchester United

It says a lot that David Moyes’ greatest achievement was making his apologists think 7th was ok for title defending Manchester United

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When news broke yesterday afternoon that the sacking of Manchester United boss David Moyes was imminent, it was remarkable to see some people still jump to his defence on twitter that very day.  Not even the biggest sceptics could have predicted the season would turn out this badly for United.  Moyes’ almost unthinkable level of ineptitude has actually managed to shift perceptions of how hard the job was and has thus released the scrutiny on him which should have escalated to his sacking weeks if not months ago.

Lets first of all set the scene.  Moyes inherited a squad that had strolled the league by eleven points last season.  The previous year they’d only lost the league to City on goal difference and had comfortably won the league the year before that.  As a result the club should’ve been aiming to win the league again this season, as no one had accumulated more points than them in a season since Chelsea got one more in the 2009/10 season.  What more, he got loads of money to spend to boost a squad that had already proved to be the best and most robust in the country.  This was all topped off with backing from the fans and media, who were willing to give him a chance if things went sour and in some sections even sticking by him taking them to 7th into late April.

Yet, you actually get people making it out to be a tough job. The squad is ageing? Really? It aged so much in the three month off season that it went from best in the league to worse than Tottenham and Everton?  Moyes’ recent comments about how the squad is ‘rebuilding’ epitomises the tragedy of it all.  Why is a side having to rebuild and face the reality of years outside of Europe just months after their peak?  Attempting to imply Ferguson would’ve struggled with this same squad is pretty much like covering your ears, shutting your eyes and screaming, pretending last season never happened.  Another issue is how it’s hard to win when replacing a legend like Ferguson and that it’ll always be hard for Moyes as he’ll be compared to the greatest.  Yet everything bad he’s done has been defended from all corners.  How can you constantly say expectations are too great while defending him against those expectations? Surely that means expectations are lower?

Lets not forget, Moyes wasn’t the only high profile managerial shift last season.  City, Chelsea, Bayern Munich and PSG all changed managers, and despite a few teething issues, all have done brilliantly in comparison to United.  Pep Guardiola, like Moyes, inherited a title winning side last season.  Judgement on his first season is still to come despite wrapping up the league in record time last month. Similarly Laurent Blanc could be the victim of PSG’s Champions League quarter final exit, despite defending Paris’ Ligue 1 title in his first season in charge.

Imagine for a moment, if either of those two had taken their sides to 7th this season.  Seventh.  The likewise defences would probably look something like this.  It was always going to be difficult to replicate the success of Heynckes.  Guardiola is bringing a new style to Bayern and it will take time to be integrated.  The core of Ribery, Robben, Schweinstiger and Lahm is getting older and the Bundesliga is a growing competitive league.  It’s therefore, little surprise that Bayern have fallen behind the likes of Mainz in the race for the Europa League places and have done well to starve off competition from Ausburg. Similarly, Paris had become too complacent following their recent success.  The players are mostly to blame for their decline from nearly knocking Barcalona out of the Champions League to trailing Bordeaux.  Only a further €200 million in the summer will be enough to get them back competing for the Europa League places next season. 

You may argue that the Premier League is a more competitive league. But remember we’re not talking about simply Chelsea and Manchester City, two rich, high quality sides leapfrogging United. We’re also talking about Liverpool, Arsenal, Everton and Tottenham.  While finishing third would’ve been a disappointing first season for Moyes, it would’ve been understandable given it was his first season.  Finishing fourth would’ve been a really poor seaoson, but would probably not be too deteriorating in the long run.  Finishing outside the top four with the squad they had was never something which should’ve been acceptable and given it’s been obvious it won’t happen for some months, its remarkable he’s still their manager.

Andre Vilas-Boas had to cope with the loss of the leagues best player last season, limited funds in net value and was sacked for taking Tottenham to seventh in November after weeks of being destroyed by the tabloids.  Many Arsenal fans want Arsene Wenger to leave at the end of this year despite the possibility of winning the FA Cup and taking a Champions League place.  Niether of these sides realistically expected to do better than United this season yet their managers have received just as much, if not more criticism and scrutiny.  It highlights the ridiculousness off Moyes’ defenders.

If Moyes were a manager with lots of success at the highest level behind him sticking with him might just about be justifiable.  If he was bringing an exciting new attacking style to the club people may be inclined to think things will work out eventually.  Moyes has done neither of those things.  The style he’s brought is outdated, boring and negative, and not something which would be wanted in the long rung and has only got previous sides so far.  At the moment the damage of his rein is brief and reparable.  Giving him long term power and supplying him with millions in the summer just can’t be done.

A tough job is inheriting a thin squad, with limited talent and resources to go with it, while having to deal with inpatient fans and unrealistic expectations.  Getting the best squad in the league, immense financial backing and people defending you no matter what, isn’t one.  Don’t let how comically bad Moyes has been shift what you expect from a new manager.  Spending over £70 million and taking Manchester United, the season after they’d won the title, to seventh is disgraceful, whichever way you look at it.

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Arsenal, Man City and a word on squad depth

I guess it was predictable in the end. After dominating in the Autumn injuries, nerves and, ultimately, a lack of squad depth meant that in the late winter and early spring they crashed out of cup competitions and saw their title push breaking at the seams. This is a sentence one would usually associate with Arsenal, but has surprisingly become relevant to Manchester City after their draw at Sunderland left their league hopes in serious jepody. It followed what has been a disappointing two months for the club, where they’ve been knocked out of the Champions League, FA cup and gone from title favourites to outsiders.  A League Cup win featured in between, however, it’s fair to say at the start of February their ambitions were greater.
 
There’s been a lot of talk about squad depth this season.  With Arsenal’s season collapsing under the strain of injuries and fatigue and Liverpool arguably profiting from less games outside the league as the season has gone on, it’s become incredibly relevant towards who’s going to win the Premier League this season.  But the recent struggles of rich City, who’s depth has been praised all season, presents an interesting conclusion to the whole debate.  They’ve shown, that for all the theoretical depth in the world, competing on four fronts all year round is still incredibly tough and that injuries to star players will hinder everyone.  
 
Injuries to Sergio Aguero, Fernandinho and recently Yaya Toure have impacted heavily on City at different times this season and it may ultimately be the difference between success and failure.  Edin Dzeko and Javi Garcia are very good footballers, but Aguero and Toure are unique in their ability and style, and can’t be replaced.  Similarly, constant reshuffling, which City have had to do at the back this season, disrupts rhythm and stability.
 
Arsenal’s inability to keep up their form after the injuries to Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott and, to an extent, Mesut Özil, has been heavily criticised, but it shouldn’t be put down to a lack of squad depth.  Ramsey was the best midfielder in the league for the first half of the season, Walcott has been one of the most potent goal threats in the country in the last couple of seasons and Özil is one of the best number 10’s on the planet.  No team can account for that with the squad players at their disposal bar perhaps Bayern Munich.  Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Santi Cazorla are fine replacements for Arsenal’s injured trio, but they’re not as good and the team will inevitably not do as well without them.  It’s the same way Barcelona struggle without Messi, Liverpool would struggle without Gerrard, Sturridge and Sterling, Chelsea without Cahil, Oscar and Hazzard, etc.  
 
This isn’t to say certain sides should be exempt of criticism.  There’s a reason some sides are more injury prone than others and many such injuries are preventable.  But it’s far too simplistic to say an injury ravaged sides struggles are down to a lack of squad depth.  When any teams best players are out, they won’t do as well.  It’s simple and rarely to do with whether their bench was assembled with superstars or not.

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