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Saturday, 2 February 2013

Manchester United have lost their identity but it won't be long until it all comes together

Wednesday night's display at Southampton was a poor one from United. The sloppiness and lethargic nature of the performance, especially in the second half, will give United fans many concerns as we head into the crucial stage of the season. But, despite what was a worrying performance, let's not panic just yet.

The problem this season for United has been that we have lost our identity – a set way of playing. The same could be said of City or Chelsea. But if you look lower down the league, you see teams who play a certain way and have a clear strategy. Swansea, for example, like to play their passing game at a quick tempo, Arsenal are the same while Spurs use their wide players to great use. The difference is that United, City and Chelsea have better players and more quality – just look at how Robin van Persie or Juan Mata have made the difference time and time again. The problem with that, though, is that it creates a mess. United don't have any obvious way of playing this season and that's why you get performances like we saw on Wednesday. 

In the past, Sir Alex Ferguson has used width to great advantage with skillful, pacey wide players – such as Nani, Valencia, Giggs – creating havoc. Look at the stats over the last few seasons – in 2011/12, Valencia had 13 assists in the league, more than any other player at United, the same goes for Nani the year before (14) and Giggs the year before that (9). This season, the assists have very much been shared with Rooney leading the way on 7, RvP on 6, Evra 5 and Valencia 4. 

The difference this year is that SAF has attempted to implement the diamond, partly due to the arrival of Kagawa and the emergence of Cleverley and partly due to how out of form or injured our wingers have been. It has had mixed results. The performance and win against Newcastle saw the benfits of the diamond – with Carrick dropping deep to protect the defence while Cleverley and Kagawa brought guile and energy in midfield and Rooney played in his best position behind the hard-working Welbeck and the brilliant Robin van Persie. But it's not always easy to change the way the team plays, it takes time to bring in – especially when that team are in a transiation phase like United currently are. While SAF has an extremely strong squad, players are still bedding in. For example, Kagawa is still very much finding his feet, Cleverley is still developing while Smalling, Jones, Welbeck and Powell are all still growing and learning. 

Eventually, though, United will find their identity. The young players will gain that crucial experience needed, our wingers will inevitable find some form and players like Kagawa will, at some point, fully settle in and have maximum affect in our best XI. Once that happens, we'll start to compete with the best in Europe once again. 

Friday, 27 April 2012

The travesty of Chelsea’s colossal triumph

It was a remarkable night in Barcelona. Chelsea, after experiencing a fairly miserable season, achieved something truly astonishing. It was a memorable, stunning night of football. But, sadly, not everyone is capable of enjoying such an incredible achievement.

Chelsea arrived in Spain with few people giving them any chance of beating one of the greatest sides to ever play the game. But they had a plan, and it worked. It was a truly wonderful team effort. Camped inside their own half for virtually every second, Chelsea produced a superb rearguard performance to somehow, almost unbelievably, beat the reigning European Champions. And they played with ten men for most of it!

Not everyone appreciates it, however.

“Anti-football” they cry. “Ruining the game” I hear. Absolute rubbish.

Yes, a team with a £250million starting XI beating a largely home-grown, beautiful-on-the-eye footballing side may not seem much to shout about, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Chelsea’s monumental effort to defeat Barcelona was a simple staggering effort. The Spanish giants were not at their best, granted, and Chelsea did need their luck, but the sheer grit and determination shown by a bunch of millionaires thrown together from all around the world was extraordinary. 

I love watching Barcelona play. It’s wonderful to witness the Catalans in full flow, but it is only one way to play the game. The slick passing and movement between Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and co. is quite something but, only because that’s the way they play, it doesn’t mean everyone else has to follow.

Chelsea’s style may not have looked pretty but let us not forget – defence is 50% of football.

Defending is always overlooked. I mean, just look at the PFA Player of the Year nominations – Sergio Aguero, Robin Van Persie, Wayne Rooney – all strikers. Yes, all have had superb seasons and deserve their place on the list, but what about the likes of Vincent Kompany? Rio Ferdinand? Nemanja Vidic was arguably the best player in the world a few years ago, but was he even close to winning the Ballon D’Or? Don’t be silly.

This is what infuriates me. Defending is an art. It’s frustratingly overlooked and only ever picked up upon when someone makes a mistake. Every great football team needs a strong defence.

And Chelsea produced one of the greatest defensive performances of all time on Tuesday evening.  Every single player in white put in their all to keep Barca out. Bodies were being thrown around everywhere, it was a wall in front of Petr Cech.

Barcelona may have had over 80% of the ball, but Chelsea had 60% of the goals and that, at the end of the day, is all that matters. Chelsea deserve their place in the final, it was a simply staggering effort.

So please, don’t try to tarnish what was a phenomenal effort. Jealously isn’t pretty, bitterness is ugly. Just accept – Chelsea were outstanding.

Friday, 10 February 2012

What is happening to our beautiful game

When I was a kid, football was a simple game. It was something to be cherished and enjoyed. It was about my team being better than yours, our players being more skilful than yours, our stadium being louder than yours. It was something that kept you going through the school week, knowing your team was playing that weekend. If your team won then you’d go into school the next day with a smile on your face, if you lost then you tried to fake being ill so you wouldn’t have to face all the mocking.

But in recent times it feels like football is losing its soul. People are forgetting what the game is all about. It’s a 90-minute match played between 22 men that try to kick a ball into a net, it’s as simple as that. But it’s poisoned; the arguments rage and the insults are never-ending.

Arguing about football is natural and it’s part of the reason we love the game but we should be arguing about who’s the better player, which goal took the more skill or whether a manager played the right team. It shouldn’t be about referees and lambasting them because they made an honest error. It happens to all of us. Players and managers make mistakes all the time but never receive the same criticism as referees.

Then there’s the racism issues, a plague that’s threatening to destroy everything I believe in. It beggars belief to see a football club defending a player for making a racist remark and claiming he’s done nothing wrong or to see a manager defending his crowd from booing a player who was the recipient of a racist remark. What is this? Because it certainly isn’t sport.

Tell me, if a man walked up to another guy in the street and kicked him because “he is black”, would people defend him? Of course not! But because it’s football, fans feel they must defend their players or their team no matter what. Then it results in more arguing, more name-calling, more racist remarks. It’s not pleasant at all.

If one of my players was accused and found guilty of racism or violent conduct or anything along those lines then I’d want him banned and taught a lesson. Ignorance is no excuse, because it was in the “heat of the moment” is no excuse. Tell that to the people who have been tortured and killed because of the colour of their skin. This is football, a game, it was invented so people could have fun.

The problem isn’t a single manager or player or even a club, it’s the staggering mass of people who actually feel something like racism is acceptable because their player did it. The fact that they’ll defend him tooth and nail and not for one second dare to consider the possibility that their player, their hero, was actually in the wrong. It’s understandable to support your players and your club but there’s a line. After all, football is not only a sport, we’re talking about people’s lives.

Money is another evil that is threatening to turn football into a soulless sport. Millions and millions, even billions, of pounds are being exchanged and wasted without anyone battering an eyelid. It’s sad, but will only get worse.

I love arguing about football, who doesn’t, but not like this. You have to ask yourself, what is happening to football? Songs mocking the dead, fans aggressively arguing with each other over a refereeing decision or a four-year-old kid believing calling someone a “negro” is alright because one of his heroes said it.  It’s a sad state of affairs, all the pleasure of football is gradually seeping. Something needs to be done, and quickly.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

The start of a new era for English football

England fans a fickle folk. One minute it's all doom and gloom and the next we're going to win the World Cup. But England's impressive 3-0 win in Bulgaria last Friday gave fans a reason to be optimistic about the future.

It was a new style of football not witnessed by England fans before. Fabio Capello, and many previous England managers, have stubbornly used the rigid and orthodox 4-4-2 formation. There's nothing wrong with this but it doesn't suit the way English players play and the players that the national side have had down the years.

Traditionally English players have played with pace and power. They're not technical players, it's a very unique way of playing but it's our way of playing. Too often in the past have we been attempting to play the continental style of keeping the ball and patiently building an attack. We should be playing to our strengths, instead of trying to beat other teams at their own game.

You look at the options England have available - Ashley Young, Theo Walcott, Aaron Lennon a few examples - and there's so much pace there, no other national side in the world can boast such options.

I'm not going to get hopeful and giddy with a win over a poor Bulgaria side but it was the way the team was set up and the manner of the victory which should give English fans hope for the future. The rigid 4-4-2 had gone and instead there was a more fluid, flexible 4-2-3-1 formation.

England played with two holding players win the shape of Scott Parker and Gareth Barry who protected the back four, exerted a lot of energy and hassled the Bulgarians into mistakes. This was what allowed the front four to play with such freedom and expression.

Walcott was on the right, Downing on the left with Young playing in behind Wayne Rooney. That is a formidable front four with an abundance of pace and versatility. Instead of having to stick to their individual positions, these four were allowed to make runs from anywhere, causing havoc amongst the defence.

It also allowed Rooney to play with freedom, this is when he's at his best and most effective. One of Capello's greatest frustrations is how he continues to play players out of their best position. Rooney is without question England's best player, he's one of the best in the world on his day but so often he has under-performed with England.

But on Friday he scored two goals and looked at his best. He was allowed to play with that freedom. Rooney is the type of player who's desperate to be involved and get his foot on the ball but he cannot do that when he's stuck to one position. This wasn't the case against Bulgaria. The three behind him meant he could drop off at times to get involved in the play but also play as the traditional number nine. It's when he's at his peerless best.

It's early days but there's promising signs for England. There's a new breed of players coming though, the likes of Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Tom Cleverley, Jack Wilshere and more, and they're a different type of player to the previous generation. They're more technical and have a more intelligent footballing brain. They're capable of keeping the ball better, it's an exciting thought when thinking of the future of English football.

Below is a very probable England team in a few years. Not only is the formation different, but the style of play is different, as is the type of players compared to the previous generation. There's plenty of fluidity upfront along with a great abundance of energy in central midfield as Wilshere and Cleverley will run all day long. The players are far more technical, better on the ball. Even the defenders like Smalling and Jones. The amount of pace and power in there is frightening.

Players are capable of playing in different positions and swapping with each other. Young can move out to the left, Rooney can drop off and play a deeper role while Walcott could cut inside and take it on himself or power down the line, beating men and putting in a cross. It's what England have lacked in recent years. We've been far too rigid in the past and that's been a big reason for our downfall.

The other advantage of this system is how the full-backs will be allowed far more freedom to bomb down the wings and get involved in attacks as they are fully aware that they have plenty of protection in the shape of the two holding midfield players. There are so many positives to this style and it's when England play their best football. They look solid at the back and threatening in attack. The players coming through have plenty of talent but it's all about transferring it to the big tournaments, and if they can do that then there's exciting times ahead.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

2011-12 Football season predictions

2011/12 Premier league predictions:

  1. Manchester United
  2. Manchester City
  3. Chelsea
  4. Arsenal
  5. Liverpool
  6. Spurs
  7. Bolton
  8. Everton
  9. Fulham
  10. Sunderland 
  11. Aston Villa 
  12. Stoke
  13. Wigan
  14. West Brom
  15. Norwich 
  16. Wolves
  17. Newcastle
  18. QPR
  19. Blackburn
  20. Swansea

5 points – Correct Place
3 points – 1 or 2 places out
-5 points – wrong by more than 5

FA Cup: United (5)
League Cup: City (5)
Champions League: Barcelona (5)
First Premier League manager to leave his job: Steve Kean (5)
Premier League top scorer:  Wayne Rooney (5)
Championship: West Ham (5)

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Community Shield analysis: United's fluidity and flexibility crush sloppy City

The Community Shield is only a friendly, yes, but it's a good indicator for the new season. It may not mean much and the losers will brush it off as nothing more than a friendly defeat but it helps to gage where a team is at. And, based on yesterdays game, the two teams were poles apart. United looked fluid, they were versatile and sharp. They had options, kept the ball well and played with passion, desire and as a team. City looked like a bunch of individuals thrown on the pitch, there was no drive, almost like they didn't want it. City were outplayed just as much as United were outplayed barely three months ago at the hands of Barcelona.

It may have no bearing on the destination of the Premier League title but the Community Shield gave us a clear signal - United are going to be very tough to dethrone. They bossed the game and displayed so many qualities which are needed for a title winning side.

The most impressive aspect of the performance, in my opinion, was the fluidity and flexibility of the front line, especially after the break. The movement and understanding between them was exceptional. Ashley Young and Luis Nani constantly switched flanks and cut inside, causing mayhem and confusion to City's defence.  Tom Cleverley and Anderson controlled the midfield with energy and precise passing. Wayne Rooney pulled the strings in the free role, he repeatedly found the ball in space before producing a vital pass. Danny Welbeck's pace and strength saw him cause trouble to City as he was never in the same position. It was an inter-changing front six, unlike before when it's been a rigid 4-4-2.

The second goal showed just this. It was a quite brilliant goal, a goal which Barcelona would be proud of. In fact, had Barcelona scored that goal, no-one would stop talking about it. The touch and movement from Rooney, Cleverley and Nani was stunning. The spacial awareness and anticipation made the goal, they were all on the same wavelength, knowing where each other each going. It was a magnificent, wonderful goal.

There are so many players you could pick out from this performance. Chris Smalling was once again outstanding, Anderson bossed the central midfield, Welbeck showed pace and hunger, but I was particularly encouraged by Nani and Cleverley.

I've always been a great fan of Nani. He is greedy and can be extremely frustrating at times but he produces moments of genius that turn games. He has pace and trickery, he scores goals and can put in a wicked cross when he wants to. His finish for United's second goal was sublime before he showed great composure to round Hart and win the match in the final minutes. He was good last season, this year he could become a world beater.

Cleverley produced perhaps the most encouraging individual display. Last season, United badly lacked a central midfielder who was capable of putting in a tackle but also getting up the other end and creating goals. Cleverley showed he could be that player. He has the complete package. He showed his quick feet and sharp thinking, his passing was accurate throughout and he tracked back time and time again, always putting in a tackle, showing great energy and desire.

The strength in depth was evident, too. It's almost come out of nowhere. There's been raging debates all summer on how badly United needed a central midfielder, but that was far from the case at Wembley. All over the pitch United have two players competing hard. It's the most important factor for a title winning side.

And the most frightening aspect was how young the side was. Sir Alex's genius continues to amaze. It was only a matter of months ago when there was an issue of an ageing squad with the likes of Scholes and Van Der Sar retiring. Now, there is a squad who could go on to dominate for another 10 years. There was a 20 minute period of the match where the average age of the United XI was a mere 22 years. Amazing.

It's a message of intent from United to all their rivals. They will not rest on their laurels, the squad is hungry for yet more success, Ferguson is as motivated as ever. He's building a new United squad, a young, fresh squad ready for the challenges.

As for City, they'll brush it off as a meaningless friendly, and rightly so. But it was clear to se their problems. They lack a creative midfielder to go alongside Silva as well as some width. City may have money to spend at will but money alone cannot buy success. You need that hunger and desire, that motivation to win trophies.

As I said, the Community Shield is completely meaningless in terms of glory but it can set the tone for the season ahead. It can give you huge confidence and bring a side together. United were extremely impressive at Wembley and, if that performance is anything to go by, there will be a 20th league title on it's way to Old Trafford come May.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

My first ever under par round

It's been an aim of mine my whole life, everything I've worked for - shooting an under par round. I love golf, it's a quite brilliant sport. Frustrating, yes, but ever so rewarding when it all comes right.

So, it was Monday afternoon and I was off for a fun round with my mate as we do once or twice a week. It was at my local course, as ever. It's not a difficult course but neither is it easy. It's challenging, you have to plot your way around and good iron play is crucial.

I walked down for the first hole, relaxed, looking forward to an enjoyable round in the sunshine. Seven iron on the simple first hole, the shortest par 4 on the course. I was determined to leave myself a good distance in, but I pulled it left. Swing felt stiff and rusty. Maybe it was going to be a long day.

I was left with only a wedge in, but I was right behind a tree. It was a crisp strike and it landed softly. Right of the pin but had a 12 footer to get my round off to the ideal start. When through my usual routine, this was a great chance to start perfectly. Lined it up, solid stroke.... BANG! Straight in the middle. Few better feelings than seeing a birdie putt hit the bottom of the cup. I fist pumped and got the adrenaline running, maybe this could be the day for that under par round.

Onto the second, a very difficult, long, uphill par 4. Sweetly struck my drive but pushed it right. Left myself with a 7-iron in from 160 yards. Again, struck it beautifully but pulled it. It was a tricky up and down left, and a poor chip left me a 10 footer for par....oooo! Shaved the hole. Back to level.

Third hole. Tricky, downhill par 3 with a two-tier green. Not easy. Got an 8-iron out, didn't hit it cleanly but it was straight and stopped a whisker short of the green leaving me a 20 footer for another birdie. Huge swing off the right but I fancied it. As soon as it left the putter face, it was in. Curled beautifully into the centre of the cup, back to under par and I was feeling confident. Especially now we were entering a very friendly stretch of three holes, all are birdie chances.

First is a 480 par-5. Good drive, set myself up for a 5-wood approach that left me 30 yards short. Another birdie chance. Hit a decent pitch to leave me a make-able 20 foot birdie putt to get to -2 but I left it high.

Now came two short par 4s, and I played them both immaculately. A solid drive down number five left me with a sand wedge in, I had a 12 footer for birdie but pushed it. To number six and again, I laid up of the water with a soft 8-irion leaving myself a sand-wedge in. Crisp strike and had yet another 12 footer for birdie. I didn't fancy it, outside left and quick, very quick, but it rattled in. Another fist pump, now two under. I was feeling good.

The seventh hole is, in my opinion, the toughest on the course. A 410-yard dogleg left par-4 which was playing into wind. A narrow entrance to the green with a bunker left and right, it's tough. I took my 3-wood off the tee, my usual choice as I don't carry a driver due to my consistency with the 3-wood, and it pinged of the face but right and in the rough. Took a 5-wood but came up a good 20 yards short to leave a tricky up and down. My chip was good, if not spectacular, leaving me with a testy 15 foot par putt.... straight in the middle again!

This was the moment when I began to realise that something special could happen, I was -2 and feeling relaxed heading onto the eighth tee. Another great par-4, not long but not easy. Another good drive set me up but I miss-judged my second shot and left a long, bendy putt up the hill for birdie. I struck it well, it looked good and curling towards the hole, I thought it was in....but it just held up a fraction short. Tap in par, that'd do nicely.

The ninth is a long par-4, a couple of sweetly struck shots gave me a 30 footer for birdie. Again, the stroke was good but it trickled by. I tapped in for a third straight par and was thrilled with my front nine, 34 shots, two under par.

It's a long walk to the tenth, plenty of time to gather my thoughts. I prefer the back nine but I've struggled on it of late. The tenth is a middle range par-4. Two heavy irons left me short but a neat chip gave me a further tap in par to remain at -2 and heading onto a very reachable par-5.

I smashed a drive down the middle but the wind into face made reaching the green in two difficult, I failed but was only 20 yards short. I chipped to within 8 foot, could have left an easier putt but I rolled it in firmly. Another first pump and suddenly.... I was -3!

The 12th is ranked the most difficult hole on the course but it was playing downwind and a straight drive put me in prime position. I had a 6-iron left, wasn't my cleanest strike but it was straight and I had yet another make-able birdie putt from within 15 foot. I was scared of it. Left it a good three feet short. No matter, I confidently rolled it in to remain at three under.

The 13th is a challenging par-3, I was half a club short with my tee shot but I had a 25 footer for birdie. Again, my stroke was good but it tailed off to the right, leaving me with another par - five in the last six holes.

I felt in control. This was it for me, an amazing chance to achieve a dream of mine. Usually, I think too far ahead when scoring well and that's my downfall. Not this time. I had a nice rhythm and was striking the ball well. Most importantly, I felt confident with the putter. I took each hole as it came, it wasn't until the 14th tee when I started to play with fear.

It's a par-5 and a presentable birdie chance, but I was scared of the trees down the right, which resulted in me pulling my tee shot well left. Safe but left. Again, my second shot I pushed right, fearing the ditch on the left. I was now faced with a 140-yard shot from the rough, over a lake. This was the most nervous I felt during the whole round. I was so close, but there were still four holes to go to achieve my ambition. I stepped over the ball, I said to myself 'confident, free flowing swing' and.... bang! It was a beauty. Right over the pin, giving me a 15 footer to go -4. It trickled off to the right but I was content enough.

The 15th is a gorgeous hole. A short par-3 but a narrow, long green and a huge bunker at the front make it tough. I hit my 8-iron dead straight but well short. It left me with a long, snaky, uphill putt from 40 foot for birdie. All I wanted was a two putt. I lined it up and was determined not to leave it short. I didn't. As soon as it left the putter, I knew it was good. It tracked beautifully, dead straight the whole way. Rolling, closer and closer until....bang! Another birdie! It nearly bounced out but I couldn't care less as I leaped in the air and let out a huge roar and a fist pump. Now FOUR under with three holes left.

Just three pars James, that would make me more than happy. Sixteen is tough, very tough. Narrow and long with a ditch in front of the green. I pushed my tee shot right, leaving me with 175-yars left from the rough and facing some trees barely 20 yards in front. Shall I play safe and just lay up or hit the green? I went for it.

And I got it. I was determined to play confident, natural golf and not be scared of any shot. I hit my trusted hybrid and stuck it to 15 foot. This was the moment when I knew I'd done enough, 17 and 18 are not difficult holes. I knew, at this moment, that I was going to be under par. I fancied the putt but left it a fraction short. I stayed at -4 heading onto my favourite hole on the course, the short 17th.

My drive left me with a 9-iron in and I hit it as clean as you can get. It was straight down the pin, and I was left with a 4 footer for birdie. I missed! I thought it was in, I took a step thinking it was in but it lipped out. I tapped in but, despite my current score, I wasn't happy. I wanted to shoot as low as possible.

But now for the final hole and a glorious par-3. It really is a fantastic finishing hole. Short, uphill, over a lake with bunkers and a small green. So picturesque. I took out my 8-iorn and hit another beautifully struck, precise shot to within 15 foot.

I had dreamt of this moment for years, walking onto the final green with a putt for a round sub-70 and under par. It was even better than that, it was for a 66. I didn't particularly like the look of the putt but I was determined to finish with a flourish. I did. It was speedy but straight into the centre of the cup. YES! I shouted. COME ON! I bellowed. Fist pumps galore. A round of 66, I was in disbelief. My playing partner and friend was in shock.

I will never forget it. A dream realised.