Thursday, May 28, 2009
Barca on Points
An early goal can certainly set the tone of a game, and this morning's game provided a textbook example. United had come out of the blocks quickly, Victor Valdes had already fumbled a sighter from Cristiano Ronaldo into the path of Park Ji-Sung (how crucial Carles Puyol's challenge was, in the grand scheme of things), and Ronaldo had flashed a shot just wide after a well-executed move. Then came Samuel Eto'o's opener, from Barca's first real attack...and all was different thereafter.
In all truth, United looked a beaten side from that moment on. Sloppy in their passing, leaden-footed in midfield and largely unwilling to support each other with movement off the ball, they looked anything like defending champions. Barca, by contrast, gave a masterful display of possession football throughout.
The star of the show, as he has so often been for Barca (although not always recognised as such) was the superb Andres Iniesta. I've long been a fan of the Catalans' peerlessly adroit little strategist, and although his assist (to use an inadequate term) for the first goal was his most telling contribution, he was always in control of the midfield. Xavi Hernandez was an excellent foil as always, providing his own killer blow with his deft cross for Lionel Messi on the occasion of Barca's second.
One of the most interesting aspects of the game for me was Pep Guardiola's use of a subtle tactical approach which I've described previously, and which seems to be slowly gaining ground in world football.
Messi, usually employed on the right, shifted infield for this one...but he didn't play as an out-and-out forward. Instead, he lurked just between the United lines, allowing Thierry Henry (left) and Eto'o (right) to make the thrusts out wide. Guardiola's thinking was clear: the much-lauded United defensive pairing of Ferdinand and Vidic are highly effective when they have a definite frontman (or front two) to "police", but when they have men running at them, it's a different story. And so Eto'o proved, ridiculing Vidic when he swooped from the right to score Barca's first. In the second half, there was a mirror image move, when Henry came surging in from the left to glide easily past Ferdinand, although he failed to finish the move off.
Another advantage of the compressed formation was that it made it even easier for Barca to build from the back, as they love to do. With Messi making an "extra" man in the centre, there was always a man within ten yards of the defence to receive, when Barca's back four were on the ball. Contrast this with United's periods of possession at the back, when the likes of Carrick and Anderson were hanging forlornly around in the centre, not sure whether to drop deep to receive or stay alert for a "second ball".
A new tactical trend? Perhaps. But the essence of Barca's victory was not really any particular tactical design, but rather their individual players' ability to control the ball, move intelligently off it, make good decisions quickly, and pass accurately. Hats off to the champions, the finest football side in the world at the moment.
Monday, May 25, 2009
It'll All End in Tiers...
Needless to say, the FFA's mooting of a second-tier competition has been the hot issue in Australian football over the past few days. It is a natural enough response to the draconian (and largely political) new requirements put in place by the AFC regarding places in the revamped Asian Champions League, and was bound to come onto the agenda at some point in any case.
So what are the pros and cons? First of all, the basic aim of a second division has to be the eventual introduction of a promotion and relegation system, otherwise it is a largely pointless (and expensive) innovation. And promotion and relegation should, in my view, be a long-term goal of the A-League. With expansion, and with the supporter bases still deceptively fickle, some sort of end-of-season excitement at the lower end of the ladder will ultimately be needed to maintain the crowds. The stupid move to a six-team finals series shows that the FFA are already concerned about this, and I suppose one should give them credit for at least confronting the issue, even if they have done so in an extremely foolish and short-sighted way.
But how many clubs will meet the inevitable criteria for entry to the A-League? Stadia in the state leagues are generally inadequate for a truly national competition (with a lucrative cable TV deal), and investment to bring them up to scratch would probably be beyond the means of most of the clubs. There is also the concern about whether an A-League club would survive a spell in a lower division, without an established youth system and with contracts to honour.
Then there's the old "ethnic" issue. Allowing the old NSL clubs with national affiliations into a second division is one thing, but the problems associated with a place at the top table for a Sydney United or a South Melbourne should not be trivialised. The hooligan behaviour at some of these clubs has abated since the move to the state leagues, but the trend is not irreversible.
I still feel that a "conference" system, with an end-of-season playoff among the state champions, is a better way of adapting the AFC's two-tier stipulation to the Australian situation.
Incidentally, it was disappointing to see both the normally reliable Mike Cockerill and Sebastian Hassett falling for the persistent myth that there is a "transfer cap" of $3000 for players moving from the state league to the A-League. As I've stated before, this is not the case, although the state league diehards have done a very good job trying to bludgeon this little misrepresentation into reality.
Thursday, May 21, 2009
The (Latest) New Beginning
In all seriousness, Vitezslav Lavicka's record and experience suggest that he has plenty to offer the club. On the minus side, the squad still looks thin on the ground in a number of areas, especially defence.
To the point then: the A-League's very own answer to Manchester City played their second pre-season game last night, against state league stayers Bankstown City at a rainy but well-patronised Jensen Park. 2-0 to Sydney was the result, and although Bankstown frankly outplayed Lavicka's men in the first half (as they did the last time the sides met, incidentally), there were one or two good signs from a Sydney perspective.
Terry McFlynn was perhaps the man of the match, operating a little further forward than usual, and getting involved in some excellent interplay with the forwards at times. McFlynn has been a loyal, hardworking servant of the club since its inception, but subtlety and technical prowess have not traditionally been among his trademarks. As a fellow fan remarked to me last night though, he has improved with every season at Sydney FC, and could yet be a key man this season.
Last night he "made" one goal with a shot which was fumbled into the path of Alex Brosque, and twice played team-mates through on goal in the first half cleverly. With Steve Corica so plainly on the wane and Lavicka apparently looking to reinforce the defence rather than the midfield, Sydney might need McFlynn's modest creative qualities to blossom.
Not least because his central midfield colleague Stuart Musialik looked a tad out of sorts. Plenty of Sydney FC fans expressed approbation for his first season in the club's colours, but I felt that he offered only about a half of what he is capable. Against Bankstown he patrolled the engine room on his own (not a congenial role for him, I feel), and was largely overrun by the energetic Bankstown midfield in the first period.
Karol Kisel looks a good get. Intelligent and supportive in his movement off the ball, he was involved in much of Sydney's better attacking play in the first half. His passing was a little off-beam, but the heavy conditions may have had something to do with that. It was refreshing to see a nominal wide player prepared to move inside and even switch wings at times; by contrast, on the other flank, an out-of-position Brendan Gan was only an intermittent contributor.
Up front, young Chris Payne looks a much matured player. Very raw when he joined the club at the beginning of last season, his goals in the youth league have clearly emboldened him, and he now holds the ball up quite adeptly at times. One would assume that he will be used sparingly once John Aloisi (who, along with Corica, was absent last night) is back in action, but he is a handy reserve option.
It is in defence where the concerns clearly lie. Much will depend on whether Sebastian Ryall is able to return; the youngsters who filled the breaches in defence towards the end of last season - Anthony Golec, Matthew Jurman, Zach Cairncross - all have their deficiencies. Cairncross was in action last night alongside Simon Colosimo, and although he had a solid enough game, he doesn't really inspire confidence on the ball. Shannon Cole was again used at left-back, and the game provided another example of why he would be better employed upfield. It should be added, however, that the highly promising Rhyan Grant was unavailable.
An interesting addition to the Bankstown team was Greg Owens, released from the Mariners after a frustrating couple of years, and no doubt looking for A-League employment elsewhere. He looked understandably rusty, once missing an easy chance after some brilliant lead-up work on the right by-line by Suad Ameti. But once or twice, the Owens of old showed through.
While Sydney were slugging it out at Jensen, the Newcastle Jets were booking their place in Asia's final 16 in Ulsan. Congratulations to Gary van Egmond and his men, who have done well to rediscover some form and confidence after their dismal 2008/09 A-League season.
Another Adelaide-style run in the knockout stage? I wouldn't bet on it, but then few would have bet on Aurelio Vidmar's men making the final either...
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
The Lessons of Ljubo - update
Matthew Hall, now contributing articles to SBS's World Game website, presented the latest rant from the Jets defender to the world yesterday. No references to gay discos this time, but plenty of prolix bagging of Pim Verbeek. And again, Milicevic is getting a far more sympathetic hearing than he deserves.
Not that some of his criticisms of Verbeek and his cautious style are wide of the mark, but those cheering Milicevic for his strictures should perhaps learn to discriminate between honesty and spite. Hall himself, in my view, subtly nails his own colours to the mast by depicting Milicevic as a "a straight shooter" in his opening paragraph (not quite how I would define it). As for the "Keep it Real" policy...
It must be said, in fairness, that Verbeek's own comments were typically blunt and insensitive. But he is probably right: although Milicevic has done very well with the Jets in the Asian Champions League, that is five games only, after a period of enforced rest. Not quite the record of consistency you would be looking for in an international defender.
The Australian football media needs to be a little wary of lapping up the Ljubo soundbites too avidly. Although he provides plenty of colour and entertainment in the short term, implicitly encouraging the man to shoot his mouth off at every opportunity is likely to lead to embarrassment sooner or later, for the sport as a whole.
Sunday, May 17, 2009
The Halfway Point
Behind them is a chasing pack of three, with no other teams within coo-ee of the leaders at present. So then, a look at the top four in this season's competition, and a preview of what the back end of the season might hold.
It has been quite some time since any team has started the competition in such dominant form. Ante Milicic's side has combined experience and guile with a tremendous fighting spirit, and has reaped the consequent rewards. Even in this weekend's 3-2 loss to Manly United, the team rallied impressively in the second half to pull the score back to 2-2, before Manly's breakaway winner.
More significant than the loss, however, is the fact that Milicic - who has been a true talisman this season - is now off to Europe with the Young Socceroos for a few weeks. Whether United can maintain their momentum without him is debatable; other players, such as Glen Trifiro and a rejuvenated David Zdrilic, have been in good form, but the Manly game was a timely reminder that Milicic's mere presence on the park is sufficient to inspire the team in adversity. The player-coach picked up a nasty-looking injury towards the end of the game as well, which may bode ill for the leaders.
Vedran Janjetovic has been excellent in goal, and Luka Glavas and Elsid Barkhousir have troubled opposition defences throughout, despite some profligate tendencies. If United have a weakness it is probably in the centre of defence, where unnecessary fouls are more common than Milicic would probably want.
The continued success of the side from the northern beaches is a real tribute to coach Phil Moss's acumen and motivational powers, given that it remains essentially a journeyman side. Even in the recent absence of Robbie Cattanach, there is plenty of penetration in attack (the youngster Joe Gibbs looks a fine prospect), and the addition of two wise old heads at the back in Spencer Prior and ex-Socceroo Matthew Bingley has kept Manly solid (if a tad slow) at the back.
Joey Schirripa, who narrowly missed out on a Sydney FC contract last season (Shannon Cole got the nod), remains one of the most dangerous free-kick specialists in the league, and Brad Swancott has enjoyed a good run of form in goal, putting in a brilliant performance in a tight early-season battle against Marconi.
If he is in the market for an A-League gig, it can't be long before Phil Moss gets a call.
To their great credit, Marconi have looked far afield in recruiting for the 2009 season, and the result has been quality and entertainment aplenty. Ali Abbas, one of the asylum seekers from the Iraqi Olympic side, has provided fine touches and vision in midfield, although his coach Lee Sterrey has openly admitted that he has not quite adapted to the physicality of the Australian game as yet.
Even more exciting than Abbas, in my view, are the two Ivorian imports, Ousmane Kader Toure and Vamana Diarra. The former is a lively right-winger who is full of tricks and enthusiasm, although like Sydney FC's Kofi Danning, he can be over-elaborate at times. Diarra is a central midfielder with neat skills and an excellent strategic sense; I was particularly impressed with his performance against the West Sydney Berries at Lidcombe Oval, in a game which Marconi thoroughly dominated.
Elsewhere, midfielder/striker Alex Canak has been tireless and adroit, one of the players of the season so far, while Nahuel Arrarte continues to perform the midfield general duties with calm aplomb. It's hard to see Marconi dropping out of the top four any time soon.
Premiers last season, they looked set for a less-than-stellar 2009 after a stuttering start and the loss of their key man Brad Boardman to a short-term injury. But they have rallied and put together a string of wins, including a recent 4-1 thrashing of Sydney Olympic which might have been 7-1.
The Sharks have continued to play with impressive width; Mike Katz and Jim Bakis on the right are surely the most dangerous wide combination in the competition. In the centre, Neil Jablonski has been combative and clever, and young Matt Hall (who came into his own in Boardman's absence) has impressed many up front, showing that his stunning solo goal against Sydney FC in a trial game last year was no fluke.
Although not as tight defensively as the rest of the leading pack (the loss of Pedj Bojic has been felt keenly), Sutherland appear to have improved this aspect of their play in recent weeks.
Anyone who has followed Sydney Olympic's fortunes this season (and for several seasons past, in fact) will understand very well why it was the Greeks who invented the twin literary genres of tragedy and comedy. Aytek Genc's reign came to an early and unsavoury end, and new coach Nick Theodorakopoulos, switching to a back three, started off with three wins...followed by three straight losses! Life is never dull at Belmore.
Bankstown have stayed on the edge of the top five, but haven't quite looked as crisp as they did in 2007, although Lebanese international Hussein Salameh has been a good addition. Newcomers Bonnyrigg haven't quite made the impact that was expected of them, although agile winger Freddie Graham has troubled many opponents.
The defending champions' season has been, thus far, an unmitigated disaster. Problems with their home ground have not helped, and their dreadful off-season difficulties, although ostensibly solved, have left their mark. It is to be hoped that they can live to fight another season in the NSWPL: the proud history of football in the Illawarra merits a presence in the league.
Friday, May 15, 2009
The Ryall Case
It has been a bad week for the reputation of Australian sportsmen in general, given the blanket coverage of the Matthew Johns "incident" in New Zealand. But the sexual antics of NRL players have been a running sore for years; the charges against Sebastian Ryall have come out of nowhere. It would be hard to think of an A-League player with a cleaner reputation than the former Melbourne Victory fullback.
And, it should be remembered, charges are all they are at the moment.
One disturbing piece of information in the above article is the following:
Ryall first faced court on August 13 last year, and is expected to face Downing Centre Local Court in October.
This, of course, was a long time prior to his off-contract transfer from Melbourne to Sydney FC.
Did Melbourne know? Sydney FC and the FFA were apparently unaware of the allegation until April 23 (which begs another question - does it really take three weeks for an issue like this to be "discussed" to the satisfaction of all concerned?). But it would not reflect at all well on the Victory if they were aware of the situation. Likewise, if Ryall and his representatives did not inform either club, then his contract with Sydney FC is surely rendered worthless.
Among other things, it is a distraction Jan Versleijen's Young Socceroos could have done without in the lead-up to their Egyptian adventure. Ryall was, of course, captain of the side, and by all accounts a key contributor.
Not a happy day for the game here.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Jets in the Hangar
It seems that, despite initial optimism, the situation is far from being resolved. Although Culina's warning that Constantine could walk away from the club smacks of emotional blackmail (the strong-willed chairman has survived worse, after all), his mention of the ills currently affecting basketball in Australia is worth heeding. Basketball is, after all, a sport which shares much in common with football in terms of the position it occupies in Australia's sporting hierarchy, and it should be obvious by now that the A-League is in some trouble in the short term.
Needless to say, I earnestly hope that a solution is found and that the Jets do line up in Ulsan. The domestic embarrassment aside, the AFC would not look at all kindly on the matter, and even the goodwill of the newly re-elected Mohammed bin Hammam might not be enough to preserve Australia's two places in the competition, should the worst occur.
If there is one thing that is worth saying definitively about the mess, it is that all parties - the FFA, the PFA and the clubs - need to get together to properly nut out the issue of ACL participation. The fact that clubs have so little financial incentive for success (see, for instance, this analysis of Adelaide's recent troubles over at The Spawning Salmon) will be an ongoing problem unless an extra reward for the individual club can be worked into the franchise system.
The A-League needs its current "socialised" structure in the short term, and John of A Seat at the A-League is right to point out (on Bill's blog post linked above) that the MLS has done well enough with a centralised system. But competing in a continental competition with clubs that are not part of a circumscribed franchise system presents problems, and player bonuses are just one of them.
Sunday, May 10, 2009
Expansive Thoughts - update #4
The federation's takeover of Adelaide United, with no significant new investor apparently on the horizon, is a worry on two counts. Firstly, a club that reached a continental final and secured a lucrative appearance at a FIFA event in December should not, one would think, be in such trouble. That's not even taking into account the hefty transfer fee for Bruce Djite, inamongst a couple of similar windfalls.
Secondly: the aim of diversified investment in the A-League clubs is looking something of a lost cause at present, with the majority of the clubs depending heavily on the fortunes of just one chief investor.
So, given that investors are going to be harder than ever to come by in the current climate, would it not be better to let the 10-team league run for an extra year? The novelty won't wear off in a single season, and it should provide a reasonable idea of whether the "talent dilution" mantra is really a viable argument.
On the other side of the ledger, there is clearly a desire at the FFA to outflank the AFL in western Sydney (I've commented on this little struggle before), and tap further into the Melbourne market. And a six-team finals series would be marginally less ridiculous with twelve teams rather than ten.
But with some decidedly dubious investors (the name Millissa Fischer comes to mind) coming into the frame in recent times, there must be some concern that the ongoing health of the league will be in the hands of those whom the FFA will turn to as a last resort. And that can't be good for Australian football.
It's an exciting time: the competition is expanding, the national team is on the cusp of a second successive World Cup, and all sorts of medium-term benefits are flowing from the Asia move - which, I still maintain, has been about the best thing to happen to Australian football in half a century. But the FFA should be wary of thinning out their resources at such a critical time.
Thursday, May 07, 2009
A Fitting Final
United's first-half display at the Emirates was a model of defensive efficiency and opportunism at the other end, although of course they owed a great deal to Kieran Gibbs' unfortunate slip early on. And their goal in the second half? An absolute masterpiece, one of a few impressive breakaway specials they have produced in recent times. Although the move was started (delightfully) and finished by Cristiano Ronaldo, the involvement of Park Ji-Sung was worthy of note; the hard-working Korean was perhaps United's best on field in the home leg against Barcelona last season, and he probably deserves a starting spot in Rome, especially with Darren Fletcher out.
What to say about the other tie, concluded this morning? Chelsea were desperately unlucky to be denied two (arguably three) plain penalties, and although Barcelona predictably dominated possession, Chelsea created far more clear chances. But Didier Drogba's one golden chance was spurned, Frank Lampard's range was on the blink throughout, and Barca, to their credit, adapted superbly well to their numerical disadvantage. It was instructive to watch how Gerard Pique, who had been moving into midfield quite often in any case, essentially took on a double role once Eric Abidal was dismissed and Seydou Keita shifted to left-back: Pique became both central defender and box-to-box midfielder. Occasionally he was caught out of position on a Chelsea break, but the attacking impetus he provided (when Barca desperately needed it) outweighed this easily.
So then: what of the final?
The suspension to both fullbacks probably tips the balance in favour of Manchester United. Daniel Alves' tireless overlapping dovetails beautifully with Lionel Messi's darting thrusts infield, and without him Barca are less likely to pose danger from the right (even if Alves' crossing left a lot to be desired in the tie against Chelsea). And with a winger as dangerous as Cristiano Ronaldo in the opposition ranks, you would always want your first-choice wide defenders there in any event.
I'm tipping a narrow, hard-fought win for Sir Alex's men.
Tuesday, May 05, 2009
Baan v. Berger, Part 2
I confess to once flipping through the late Eric Worthington's controversial "Teaching Soccer Skill" book. To me, it read like the outpourings of an academic who had not been near a training ground in years, although this was apparently not the case. And yes, there was a part in the book in which the, erm, "direct" approach to the game was, if not endorsed, at least partially condoned.
There are plenty of people in Australian football who still speak of Worthington in respectful terms, and even Murray is hardly scathing of him in the above piece. Others, such as Rale Rasic, have an undisguised scorn for the man's legacy. But let us leave that to one side for a moment, and consider some of the points made in Les's piece:
The late Worthington, whose salary...was no drain on the Australian Soccer Federation’s finances, was a lovely man, a desk coach who spent his time tapping away at his typewriter writing curriculums...
Any parallels here? Les goes on:
Worthington made two monumental mistakes during his long reign. One was that he jealously guarded the integrity of the faculty he set up and refused entry into the Australian developmental coaching organism by foreigners with different, or even better, qualifications...[this] happened to dozens, even hundreds of other talented development coaches down the years who didn’t agree with Worthington’s ways and had other, more progressive, more ‘foreign’ philosophies and technical agendas.
Han Berger is relatively new in his job, and although I have my problems with the new "curriculum" and its concomitant management changes, he deserves the benefit of the doubt for the moment. But with Les's above comments in mind, the Australian football fraternity should keep a close watch on Berger's record of appointments in the months to come.
Sunday, May 03, 2009
Baan v. Berger, Part 1
...Han Berger...has accomplished in three short months what...Rob Baan was incapable of doing in two long years...
...he has rejected much of what Baan developed, and rightly so...
...and he [Berger] works. Hard. What a revelation that is...
...my criticism of Baan was always that he lacked the CV or quality to develop his own adaptations to the KNVB...system, and that any attempt at doing so was likely to be disastrous...
Really, Foz? You could have fooled us, given the earlier piece linked above.
In fairness to Baan, three important points need to be made. First: as many people commented at the time (including your resident tragic), Baan's role was simply not well-defined enough when the position was created. Was his focus meant to be the Olyroos? Assisting Graham Arnold (and then Pim Verbeek) with the national team? Standardising the development path? It was all pretty nebulous.
Second: like Berger, Baan did produce, admittedly in collaboration with others, a lengthy policy document. Said document, the development plan, did at least put in place two new leagues running parallel to the A-League, even if much of it was nothing particularly new.
Thirdly, and most importantly, Baan's contribution did go beyond producing bits of paper to something tangible; he steered the Olyroos through a difficult opening round of qualifiers, setting them on their way to Beijing. The job was finished by Graham Arnold, but those who saw the games (and I saw a fair few) were in broad agreement that the youngsters played far better football under Baan.
(In conjunction with the fact that the Socceroos played excellently in their one game under Baan, one might conclude that he was better value to Australia as a coach than as a technical director. But I digress.)
So then, what of Berger? Interestingly, there is close parallel in Australia's recent past. More later.
Friday, May 01, 2009
KNVB-all and End-all
Complete tactical rigidity - exactly what Rob Baan warned against, when he stepped into his new position as Technical Director - has now been mandated for our national teams. No doubt, should a young Aussie kid now show any promise as a genuine No.10 (the sort of player we have produced so rarely), such tendencies will be quickly hammered out of him by his learned coaches. No room for that sort of stuff in a 4-3-3, son.
(It says something for the general level of football knowledge at the FFA that the preferred formation is described in the above document as the 1-4-3-3. Or is the goalie to become a quasi-sweeper now, Stanley Menzo-style?)
Any decent coach, especially at national level, needs to be able to adapt their tactics to suit their personnel, and not the other way around. An addiction to one particular formation (and way of playing) is the stuff of academics and dogmatists, not high-level professional coaches.
This particular dogma is only mentioned with regard to the national teams. But, towards the end of the article, there is a nasty little kicker. After detailing the extra layer of bureaucracy that the new curriculum will entail, the clubs (especially the state league clubs, one suspects) are given a boot in the generative organs:
Football Clubs, schools and academies will be accredited and rated. Adoption of the Curriculum will be a pre-requisite to accreditation and rating.
All the corporate knowledge of long-standing, successful clubs, and all the nous possessed by coaches with decades' worth of experience, from a wide variety of backgrounds, at many levels of the game, could now be held hostage to a pre-fabricated collection of nostrums from the Dutch brigade.
A self-respecting football country should not have to put up with this petty nonsense, and I suspect that many self-respecting clubs and coaches won't.