21 June 2012

After the groups- Euro 2012 team of the tournament to date

After the austerity of the World Cup in South Africa and last summers Copa América, this year’s European Championship feels like something of a throwback. The contests have been exciting, the refereeing generally excellent, and teams playing positive football have generally profited.
We’ve seen some big sides underperform, and some that have acquitted themselves well miss out on the quarter finals. Russia’s staggering, if somewhat predictable, collapse was no less heartbreaking for their supporters than those of a Croatia side who just feel short in Group C. 
Germany have hardly broken a sweat in topping the fiendishly even-matched (at least, from what it appeared outset) group B, while it’s a measure of the standards being demanded now of Spain that many critics have been underwhelmed as they claimed 7 points. None of their players quite made this XI, but those on the bench all came very close.

Holland- total meltdown

Big players have failed to turn up, most abundantly in Holland’s dismal exit. Players in essentially limited sides have excelled, and several who’ve already departed have caught the eye. Finding a middle ground between the best individuals and those who might, theoretically, form a balanced starting XI is no easy task but here this writer has erred on the side of the former whilst keeping an eye on the latter.
Naturally, there are players omitted here, at least from the initial XI, who’ve performed excellently- none more so, perhaps, than the duo of Andrea Pirlo and Andrés Iniesta. Again, this is where the question of balance comes into play. Every midfield needs a water carrier, yet the dynamic Sami Khedira has been that and so much for Germany.
In a tournament of few genuinely outstanding goalkeeping performances, it seems reasonable to go with the two most dependable; Manuel Neuer and Gigi Buffon. In truth, there is very little to separate the pair.

Giorgio Chiellini- Colossus

The most straightforward selection is the heart of the defence. Here, Juventus’ Giorgio Chiellini has been a rock. Combative, clever and masterful in the air he provided the steel that saw his side come ever so close to shutting out Spain. His leadership will be missed against England. 
At his side, the stylish Mats Hummels proved impossible to overlook. Now a double Bundesliga winner, he’s given the continent a clear demonstration of his prowess than was missed in Borussia Dortmund’s disappointing Champions League campaign.
Bt contrast, the most difficult position in terms of who to omit has been the full-back area, not just in terms of those in a first XI but also for those in reserve. But, to my mind, both Fábio Coentrão and Darijo Srna deserved their selection. Coentrão. hindered by the presence of the excellent Marcelo at Real Madrid has at times appeared something of a luxury utility man over the past season. But here, his energy and drive have reminded us of the excitement he created in breaking onto the world stage in South Africa two summers ago.
Shakhtar Donetsk’s Darijo Srna may be capable of playing at fullback, on the wing, and even at the base of midfield, but the Croatian is anything but a utility figure. Here in this tournament, starting at rightback he’s shown us every facet of his game, and given a masterclass in how to impose yourself on a game from a nominally defensive position. His relentless energy, timing and positional sense- along with his ability to read the game and whip in a cross- makes him a nailed on starter in this XI.

Luca Modric excelled against Spain

Srna wasn’t the only Croatian to impress. In midfield, Luca Modric had an excellent tournament. Having controlled their opening game against Ireland, his move further up the park from his deep-lying role was a game changer against Italy. His intelligence in finding space against the World Champions Spain in their narrow defeat reinforced the initial impression, and he could well be the standout performer to be absent as we move to the knockout stages.

João Moutinho- Deco's heir

With Khedira alongside him, another impressive man in the middle- even if his most important work is often far from eye catching- is João Moutinho. An all rounder in a Portuguese midfield of all rounders, what has been most striking has been his organisational capability, wedded to his smart and constructive use of possession.
The forward line was another area where the slenderest of margins came into play. Again, the question of striking a balance is important, but also taken into account has been the overall impact upon games. It is for that reason, that despite his goals, Mario Gomez just misses out. But there’s every chance the Bayern Munich man will go on to be be crowned the competition’s top goalscorer.

Ibra- gone, but not forgotten

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, alongside Modric has probably had the best tournament of those who’ve already departed. There was a little bit of everything in the big Swede’s play- touch, link up play, aerial ability and of course goals. The limitations of some of his team-mates, and his ability to shine even as his team performed poorly in their opener against Ukraine is a testament to this serial winner’s refusal to countenance defeat.
Completing the attack, we have the tournament’s surprise emergence alongside a player tipped by many in the know of great things who certainly hasn’t disappointed. It took a mere three minutes for Wolfsburg’s Mario Madzukic to demolish the aura of defensive strength surrounding Giovanni Trappatoni’s Republic of Ireland. He went on to dominate both Richard Dunne and Seán St. Ledger so comprehensively in the air as to render the veteran coach’s set-up redundant, and turned out another thoroughly impressive display to haul his side level against Italy on the back of that. 
The final inclusion is CSKA Moscow’s Alan Dzagoev. The man from the Caucasus has long been something of an enigma, albeit one who announced his presence to us with a wonderfully taken goal at Old Trafford as far back as 2009. Here, he netted himself three and despite not scaling the same heights as Russia were eliminated by Greece, he still showed far more than any of his more established team-mates.
Manuel Neuer (GER)
Fábio Coentrão (POR)
Giorgio Chiellini (ITA)
Mats Hummels (GER)
Darijo Srna (CRO)
Luca Modric (CRO)
Sami Khedira (GER)
João Moutinho (POR)
Mario Mandzukic (CRO)
Zlatan Ibrahimovic (SWE)
Alan Dzagoev (RUS)
Gianluigi Buffon (ITA)
Phillip Lahm (GER)
Theodor Gebeiselassie (CZE)
Olof Mellberg (SWE)
Pepe (POR)
Giorgos Karagounis (GRE)
Andrés Iniesta (ESP)
Andrea Pirlo (ESP)
Mesut Ozil (GER)
Cesc Fabregas (ESP)
Cristiano Ronaldo (POR)
Mario Gomez (GER)

14 June 2012

Chat with Radio Cadena SER ahead of Ireland v Spain

Ahead of Ireland's game against Spain in group C, I spoke to Jesus Gallego on the Spanish national radio station Cadena SER about our chances of getting something against the World and European Champions.

The audio can be found below.

Joseph Sexton - Cadena SER Irlanda x España


Questions for Del Bosque as Ireland await

Question marks remain ahead of tonight’s game against Ireland for Spain. Criticism has rained down on manager Vicente del Bosque for his choice to play a strikerless system against Italy on Sunday. This criticism has come in different forms. The idea of Spain playing with no reference point up top is hardly something new though
Many credit Luciano Spalletti, then at Roma, for pioneering the idea of strikerless system. In 2005/6, he moved towards a scheme that was widely described as a 4-6-0 (though perhaps its more accurate to see it is a 4-1-4-1. Francesco Totti, that most classic of trequartistas, is not a number 9. But he served as the reference point for a fluid attack, allowing the more attack minded midfielders to push on as Totti dropped deep to create space. The result, even against teams used to systems with more than three bands, was to create havoc. Spalletti employed variations of this, along with an unorthodox 4-2-3-1 throughout the remainder of his highly successful tenure at the club.

4-2-3-1, proclaimed by all and sundry on the BBC and ITV as something new during the last world cup is anything but. Least of all, in England. When a Manchester United, shorn of several key players, played Arsenal at Old Trafford in December 2002, changes were needed. Sir Alex Ferguson, influenced by his then assistant, Carlos Queiroz- more on him later) played what could be described as a version of 4-2-3-1 more rigid than those seen these days. Nominally a full back, Phil Nevill’s  moved into the line of two, giving a wonderfully industrious performance.
The system offered more solidity than United’s standard two banks of four, and permitted those further up the park behind Van Nistelrooy to cause mischief between the lines. a gutsy United prevailed 2-0 on the day to many people’s surprise against what was aone of Arsene Wenger’s greatest Arsenal side, at the peak of their powers too. That result, following on from another surprise victory at Anfield shortly before offered the impetus for United to mount an ultimately successful title charge.
With all personnel available in the spring, the system was to become United’s default selection. It also, to an extent, solved Ferguson’s headache on including all three of Keane, Seba Verón, and Paul Scholes in the team. It also meant there was no room form David Beckham. Instead, a line of three behind Van Nistelrooy; Ole Gunnar Solskjaer starting on the right, Ryan Giggs on the left and Verón or Scholes in the middle, interchanged at will.
Versions of 4-2-3-1 (and also 4-3-3) have become United’s staple since 2007, and the hand of Queiroz can be clearly seen in this. It was his time in charge of the golden generation of Portuguese players in the last 1980’s and early 90s youth sides that first saw the use of both 4-2-3-1 and genuinely strikerless variations of that system. He solved Portugal’s perpetual problem of producing strikers that were nowhere near the level of the glut of playmakers and wingers available to him by dispensing with fielding any entirely. Portugal won everything around them.
Of course, the strikerless system with a false 9 became synonymous with Barcelona under Pep Guardiola. It’s hard to imagine that there’s every been a player suited to this role than Lionel Messi. And here’s the crux with Spain who according to some - if not this writer - can be a little bit boring. Spain don’t have a Lionel Messi type player. But this doesn’t mean experimentation with strikerless systems is wrong, or indulgent, for them. Contrary to those in the British and Irish media who didn’t do their homework, it wasn’t an eccentric departure to line up like that against Italy.
One reason for going with this system was that Spain misjudged Cesare Prandelli’’s intentions for Italy, but of course with the lack of a fit and firing striker- with no David Villa to call- and far too many good creative players in the squad, it simply made sense.
It’s not about taking self parody to new heights either. What Spain are about first and foremost is winning football games. That they do so in such beautiful ways is beside the point. Spain don’t play like they do because the they’re trying to win a beauty contest. They do so because it’s what they do best, and better than anyone else. They are as ruthlessly pragmatic as they are addicted to winning. 
Contrary to widespread belief, Scotland’s Craig Levein didn’t invented strikerless football. But it was his Scotland team who were the first to come up against a Del Bosque Spain without a fixed reference last Autumn. It was David Silva who played the false 9 that evening and he ran riot, scoring twice. Scotland had no answer to the array of options going forward, nor the angles of attack. This system was used in subsequent fixtures, including a defeat at Wembley were Spain were a bit off colour, and England defended fantastically and intelligently. Against Italy, the personnel for the system wasn’t quite right, lacking depth and width.  Michael Cox explained this in his breakdown of the game for Zonal Marking. 
The question now is whether Spain will use the same set up against Ireland on Thursday.  Spanish media opinion has been split down the middle on this. The issue dominates their daily press conferences. One of their most vocal critics has been a certain José Mourinho.
They may well go with it, and barring an act of god they will win. A plus with this set up is that, with quick passing and and movement and without a reference, they can pull Ireland’s rigid defenders to places they never wanted to go. But this is the key- they will do this anyway. Even if they played with a three man midfield, Rául Albiol, Victor Valdés and Pepe Reina up front, their passing and moving will be too much for Trapattoni’s side. They’re just that good.
Really, the question facing Del Bosque is twofold- does he pick the system best suited to winning this game, or continue to test this false 9 system in a game that they probably know deep down that they will win anyway? Del Bosque is going to keep us guessing, though this writer suspects it will be the latter. Personally, this writer would do the former.
If we accept that Spain’s passing and movement would be too good for Ireland even if they fielded 11 players who began on the bench last Sunday, then there is little to be gained in the here and now by lining up similarly. Many comments on the end of columns in The Guardian have people crying out for Fernando Lllorente. It’s a good call, but it must be remembered that the big man from Athletic Bilbao is, like all of his club mates, exhausted. It was for that very reason that Iker Muniain isn’t in the squad. Nobody in Europe’s top leagues played more games than the Basques last season, and Marcelo Bielsa neither had the depth of squad nor inclination to rotate. Llorente is more likely to feature as an impact sub, if needed.
Given that Ireland’s defenders, on the evident of the Croatia game, don’t like it up them, a physical option like the Basque or Sevilla’s Álvaro Negredo would discomfit them. Negredo is also able to play off the shoulder. And given the way in which he opened up the game against Italy, it’s clear that Fernando Torres can add an extra dimension to the play. Forget the misses which, as ever with Torres this past year, were not as bad as some people would like to claim- well, not all three of them, anyway.
For a aide that likes to move the pall around quickly and probe, Torres offers what the Spanish called verticality, or directness- something they were missing until he came on. It allows them to play with more depth in attack and offers a reference point for the players behind him. With the likes of Seán St. Ledger and Dunne especially slow on turn, the former Liverpool man would surely enjoy playing off the shoulder of the Irish defenders. That he has a goal threat matters too, but it’s not the whole point. 
Even if he doesn’t score himself he would pose distinctly different questions to this Irish backline. And, as Michael Cox also noted in his aforementioned piece, a player such as Jesus Navas or Pedro in the team offering genuine width (Álvaro Arbeloa was lamentably poor in this facet of the game last Sunday) would provide the variety to hurt Ireland in numerous and varied ways. Del Bosque is an conservative coach in some ways, so it will intriguing to see how he lines his men up in Gdansk. And it may prove instructive≠ as to how Spain are configured for the games that will follow.

08 June 2012

Spain stand on the verge of making history at Euro 2012

My preview of Spain's chances for STV Sport. Original article can be found here.


Spain stand of the precipice of making history this summer in Poland and Ukraine. But they also enter the tournament with question-marks hanging over their hopes of winning a third major tournament on the bounce.

A cursory scan of their squad list shows an embarrassment of riches in midfield. The fact that talents such as Cesc Fabregas and Santi Cazorla will have to be content with sitting on the bench illustrates this point.

But two key absentees cast a shadow over the defence and the attack. David Villa, their deadliest marksman, finally conceded defeat in his battle to regain fitness following a leg fracture last December. At the other end, Carles Puyol, their talisman at the back, has also been forced to sit out the tournament.

Many were surprised to see Valencia’s Roberto Soldado miss the cut, but despite his hat-trick off the bench against Venezuela in the spring, there were always questions about whether or not he would be a good fit for Spain’s system. His lack of form in front of goal in the latter part of the season may have contributed to Vicente del Bosque preferring Sevilla’s Alvaro Negredo.

Del Bosque’s employment of the double pivot of Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets drew criticism in the last World Cup, but we can expect both the start in this tournament too. Alonso’s passing range and Busquets’ intelligence in breaking up the play offers a solid platform which is all the more necessary given the composition of the back line. Xavi will slot in to a more advanced role in the centre.

With Puyol out, Sergio Ramos will move into the centre to partner Gerard Pique. The Real Madrid man excelled in this role for his club this season, having edged out Ricardo Carvalho.

But, as ever, questions remain about his temperament and positionally he has been found wanting at times. Alongside him, Pique has been somewhat inconsistent for some 18 months now, and all the more so on the many occasions that Puyol has been out for Barcelona.

Jordi Alba comes into the side after an impressive season at left back for Valencia. He provides an attacking thrust down that side, but as a converted attacking midfielder he will be relying on his team-mates to cover for him. On the other flank, Alvaro Arbeloa is still an injury concern ahead of the Italy game, with Atletico Madrid’s Juanfran – another converted winger coming off the back of a great season – his likely deputy.

Silva fell out of favour at the World Cup in 2010, but the Manchester City man looks certain to start here. Along with Andres Iniesta, he will be expected to drift in from the wide areas to support Fernando Torres up front. Silva has also shown against Scotland that he can be devastating when employed in a false 9 role – a role that Fabregas has also been used in at club level.

The bench is likely to prove crucial if Spain are to go all the way here. Del Bosque likes his game-changers, and doesn’t lack variety. Fernando Llorente and Negredo provide a more physical reference point, and Jesus Navas provides width and great crossing ability on the right. On the other side, we can expect Barcelona’s Pedro to stretch the play, comfortable as he is off either foot.

The key factor for Spain is that they have been here and done it before. Stretching back over a decade, and across the age levels, they have gained a winning mentality that previous generations have lacked.

The players know what is expected of them on the field, have the flexibility to adapt to game situations, and their pressing and monopolising of possession makes play against them a dispiriting task. History awaits them should they succeed.

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