Tuesday, 16 March 2010

From Westbuy to the World Cup

When South Africa kick off the World Cup on 11th June in Soccer City, they are expected to have little or no chance of making a footballing impact on the tournament. Ranked 81stin the world, behind nations such Wales, Panama and Uzbekistan, the Bafana Bafana are classed with the USA and Japan as one of the poorest sides whose terra firma has been elected to host the tournament. Carlos Alberto Parreira’s side also have to live with the knowledge that Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana are expected to be the flag bearers for the African continent. One man who has the potential to change these expectations is Steven Pienaar.

The Everton midfielder is currently in the form of his career, emerging this season as a key man for the blues. When he came to England on loan from Borrusia Dortmund in 2007, he was considered a risky buy by the pundits, having never really hit it off in Germany following an impressive few years in the Eredivisie with Ajax. He was a typical David Moyes signing, a loan deal, earning the player an opportunity to prove himself. Initial signs were mixed. While no doubt talented, he looked light, drifting in and out of games showing only patches of what he could do. Where best to play him was also an issue, too small for centre midfield, not an out and out winger or striker, Pienaar didn’t initially settle into an obvious role with the Everton first team. However, one thing was obvious, the South African was willing to work, a trait which won over both the fans and Moyes, earning him a permanent move to Goodison.

As Pienaar matured and developed physically, he has become an integral part of the Everton starting XI. Settling into a left wing berth, Pienaar forged an almost telepathic like relationship with left back Leighton Baines and as Everton have moved from their more direct playing style of the early Moyes years to a more eye pleasing outfit, Pienaar has been allowed to express himself more. Surrounded by the creative minds of Arteta, Osman, Fellaini and Bilyaletinov, the last 18 months have seen the South African play the best football of his career, even on occasion leading the charge from central midfield for the blues. I have watched him in the flesh on a number of occasions since late 2008, and he has been exceptional every time. His work rate is phenomenal, but yet for all his running, his technique never fails to let him down. His decision making has improved immensely always seeming to make the pass when the time is right and he has added a few more goals to his game, making him one of the top performing midfielders in the Premier League.

It is this form that has seen Pienaar become the creative hub for the Bafana Bafana. In an era where South Africa lack a team of top class stars, a lot of weight rests on Pienaar’s shoulders. Heralding from the humble surroundings of the Westbury township, Pienaar is proud to represent his country, but will need to be at his best come June. On paper the South African’s have a tough group, facing World Cup regulars Mexico in their openings game, followed by a clash with an under rated Uruaguay led by Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez before ending the groups stages against the controversial French National Team. However in reality, Mexico struggled despite the lack of strong opposition in the qualifiers and the Raymond Domenech led French are a shadow of the team of four years ago, and overly dependent on Franck Ribery. Like the French in 1998, South Korea in 2002 and the Germans in 2006, the South African side will hope to fully utilise home support to pull them throught the group stages. If the Bafana Bafana are still in with a chance of qualifying come the France game, it could make for an interesting clash, one that Steven Pienaar would surely relish.

International Football Management- Success in the Organisation?

International football is traditionally acknowledged as the stage which provides the ultimate challenge for any football manager. Leading a national team to a World Cup, European Championships or Copa America and to success in that tournament could result in almost beatification in some countries. However, International management is an entirely different job from club management. While a club manager deals with the expectations of thousands of fans each week, the international manager carries the weight of a country on his shoulders. And despite this pressure, the international manager is working with his hands slightly tied. Dealing with a select pool of players, limited time with these players and handling pressure from the clubs who pay the players wages.

International management is always made somewhat easier when the pool of players you have to pick from is of a high quality. This is why traditional footballing nations such as Brazil, Germany, Italy and Argentina, where football is immersed in the culture, are the dominant sides in the International game. However, over the years a series of international teams have achieved success, be it relative or absolute, with limited resources. There have been teams from beyond the top table, with no outstanding stars that upset the odds, beating some of the favourites en route to the latter stages of tournaments. The common denominator for each of these sides was one thing – organisation.

The classic modern example is Greece at Euro 2004 in Portugal. Beating France, the Czech Republic, and the hosts Portugal twice, the 150/1 outsiders stunned the footballing world by winning the tournament. Organised, strong and direct they were a side who played to their strengths and it paid off. Otto Rengahls side my have bored their way to victory in Portugal and they were probably the most unpopular neutrals in Football history, but that mattered little to the hundreds of thousands who danced round the streets of Athens. Winning was the objective and organisation was the method.

But perhaps the most obvious signs of the benefits of organisation is the resurgence of countries that have struggled for periods. As an Irishman, I have experienced this firsthand. While Ireland have players like John O’Shea and Aiden McGeady have played in the Champions League and Robbie Keane, Shay Given and Richard Dunne are consistent Premiership performers, these are not World Class players. For the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign under Steve Staunton, the Ireland National team were a shambles. Disorganisation ruled with the low points being the 5-2 defeat in Nicossia and scrapping past part timers Andorra. However, with largely the same pool of players Giovanni Trappatoni guided the Irish to a second place finish in a tough group that included World Champions Italy. The difference was organisation. Trappatoni, as he has done with every team he has every managed, played to the strengths of the team, setting them up in a structured and hard working fashion. Realising the limitations of the squad, Trappatonit deployed two defensive midfielders and playedtwo banks of four, aiming to nick a goal from breakaways and set pieces. The difference was obvious from the outset. The Irish team played with confidence and knew how to get results.

While not to the same extreme, another example the current England team. Under Steve McClaren, the ‘Golden Generation’ of English Football failed to qualify for Euro 2008
Defeats, poor performances and tactical disasters (and that brolly) are what the McClaren era of English football will be remembered by. Under Fabio Capello, largely the same group of players won 9 out of 10 games in World Cup qualifying and destroyed Croatia, who had embarrassed McClaren’s team at Wembley in 2007, in Zagreb. Capello is recognised as an outstanding coach, and without doubt he has brought much to the England job, but there first thing he brought to the team was organisation, his team winning 3 of their first 5 games workman like fashion. Another example is the South Korean, Austrialian and Russian teams of Guus Hiddink. It is the first thing any good coach ingrains in a side, and in the case of international football organisation can often be enough to bring success.

As Otto Rengahl said in 2004, when asked about his team’s tactics in winning Euro 2004 - “No one should forget that a coach adapts the tactics to the characteristics of the available players”.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Can the re-engineered Brazil triumph in South Africa?

I have been thinking for some time about starting a world football blog. I am an avid follower of the world game, regularly watching games from across the globe with a specific interest in the European and South American game. Something always got in the way though, simple things like my job, my social life and my impatience with the written word. But I decided to not let these things hold me back any longer and I am now delighted to introduce my World Football Blog.

I had been pulling together the site since early 2010 and decided to kick start my blog following a trip to see the Brazilian National team play Ireland at the Emirates Stadium. Surely, there is no better subject on which to share my footballing views than that rare journalistic topic of the samba boys of the Selecao?? Only time will tell I suppose... Happy reading.

As I sit in my seat in the upper tier of the Emirates Stadium, looking down on the Brazilian National team go through their warm up routine, I am in a serious state of anticipation. Amongst the small sided games and stretching there are flicks, tricks, intricate triangles, nutmegs, lollypops and occasionally the odd player will break away to perform a few ‘keepy ups’ which keep the expectant crowd entertained.

Despite being Irish, its the draw of the yellow shirt, the blues and greens adorned by the crowd and the samba rhythm played by the crowd that has me here. I have grown up witnessing the second great era of Brazilian teams. The drought ending 1994 team, the tragic 1998 team, the redemption 2002 team and the not so Magic Quartet 2006 team. This is the third consecutive spring that I have watched the Selecao live in person (v Italy in 2008, and Ireland in 2007), I sat ticketless outside the Berlin’s Olympastadion in 2006 as Carlos Alberto Parriera’s men started their 2006 campaign, and I tuned into most of their televised World Cup Qualifying games and Confederations Cup matches.

I am not the only one whose heart is warmed by the Brazilians. They are the neutrals favourites, the beau of the armchair football fan. Both will testify that they will win the World cup, many will put money where their mouth is and back Dunga’s men to triumph in South Africa. The same people will ensure that they are in their regular big match position, be it the lazy boy chair or the high stool down the boozer to watch the Brazilian’s first Group G match against North Korea, expecting to be wowed by convincing victory contrived through a passing master class that has you wondering ‘what makes them so special. They will expect version of the free flowing football of Pele and Carlos Alberto in 1970, which hit our television screens in Technicolor and instantly found a place in the hearts of all football fans. Until now I was one of those fans.

Dont get me wrong, I will still be tuning in to watch Lucio lead his men out in Johannesburg. And I will still expect a convincing Brazil win, but the manner in which such a win may be devised will be somewhat different.

Under Dunga, Brazil are not the free flowing passing team that the stereotype suggests (they probably haven’t been since the 1980’s), but a well oiled, ruthless counter attacking machine. This is a team formed in Dunga’s image, hard working, efficient and powerful. On the pitch this is Kaka’s team, he is the standard bearer, the driver of the counter attack.

The team line up in a 4-2-3-1, one of the favoured formations of the later part of the recent decade (along with/as a variation of the 4-5-1 and the 4-3-3), is a far cry from the celebrated ‘Brazilian’ 4-2-2-2. The two centre halves and two sitting midfields primary role is to defend. The width is provided through right back though, Maicon, is nothing short of a steam train like wing back. He is one of the key attacking forces in Dunga’s set up, powerful and direct, and extremely effective.

The ‘3’ within the midfield, likely to be Robinho, Kaka and Ramires of Benfica, have a dual role. When the opposition are in possession, get behind the ball, close the space and do not let the opposition play through. When Brazil regain possession they burst forward in support of the lone striker Luis Fabiano, with Kaka as the ball carrier and the others offering him options on either flank.

One potential issue for Brazil is the fact that this team is built around Kaka, There has been a theory that he hasn’t been in great form for Real Madrid since his summer move either. However it seems as though Madrid are very much Ronaldo’s team and that Kaka is constrained by tactics. He seems to relish in his more central role for the national team. The team also seem dependant upon Robinho, whose form for the national team, despite his non-existence for the last 12 months at Man City, seems excellent and Luis Fabiano, who has consistently bagged goals for the national team. Any loss of form or injury to Brazil’s number 10, or either Fabiano or Robinho will seriously damage the Selecao’s chances. It could also open the door for the man who was supposed to be the player of the last world cup, Ronaldinho, but that a discussion for another day.

But it seems to be worth the gamble, because this approach has worked. Since Dunga took charge in 2006, he has almost swept all before him. He won the Copa America in 2008, the Confederations Cup in 2009 and topped the South American Qualifying group. The only blot on his copybook is the 2008 Olympics Bronze Medal. But the question is now can he do it on the biggest stage of all?

The first hurdle is the Group stage, Group E – the Group of Death. Brazil face their former colonial masters, Portugal, who despite struggling in qualifying have one of the stronger squads in the tournament, led by one of the worlds most complete attacking players in Cristiano Ronaldo. Also placed in Group E are Cote D’Ivoire, the African flag bearers and on paper the strongest of the African teams, who are also led by one of the most complete strikers in global football, Chelsea’s Didier Drogba. Dunga will be all to aware that containing both Ronaldo and Drogba will be key in defeating both these sides and is likely to set his side up to curtail the influence of these two players, ensuring that neither gains an opportunity to isolate the Brazil centre halves. He will be heartened by Lucio’s performance against the Ivorian in last weeks Champions League clash at the San Siro and will hope the burden of carrying a struggling Portugal team will weigh down Ronaldo. If Brazil had faced this group in 2006, I would have feared for their progression, but given Dunga’s caution, I sense they will progress to the last 16.

Beyond the group stage the biggest threats are the usual big boys, tournament specialists Germany and Italy, South American rivals Argentina. But the team for Brazil to beat at this world cup must surely be the Euro 2008 Champions Spain. On paper, player for player they have the strongest starting 11, and for that matter, squad, in the tournament. Right from the Goalkeeper Cassilias, the midfield of Xavi, Iniesta, Senna, Alonso (with Fabregas and Busquests in reserve), the front two of Torres and Villa, with players like Silva, Mata , Jesus Navas and possibly Racing Santander’s prodigy Sergio Canales to come of the bench, they have quality in every position.

This is potentially the most intriguing match up of the tournament, the dress rehearsal was supposed to happen last June, but Spain’s defeat to the USA in the Confederations Cup, put pay to that. If it comes to fruition this summer, which could happen at the last 16 stage if one of the two fail to top their group, it will be the ‘tica-taca’ quick passing approach of Spain versus the now efficient counter attacking Brazil. Under Dunga, they are tactically as stereo typically ‘European’ a side as there is in the tournament and if this match-up were to occur, it could be a containment job by the Brazilians, trying to punish the Spanish on the counter attack. This will disappoint the armchair fan, but tactically it is intriguing. Seeing how Dunga deals with the Xavi/Ineista partnership and how the Spanish defend against Brazil’s Power on the counter.

This is the game I hope to see, and while there is a chance it may never happen, I think that both teams have the ammunition and are playing so well, that injuries permitted, they will both top their respective groups and will progress to the final.

What will happen there? In short of course Brazil can win it, but they will have to be at their best, and have that bit of luck to do so..........

The Libero