Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The EPL: The League Tightens Up and the Plot Thickens

Ball Harambee By Bagga Wilks

It is too early in the English Premier League for the sheep to be distinguishing themselves from the goats. Nonetheless, from these early rounds, it is clear that as the game becomes more tactical, coaching matters even more. Much takes place in training and in the locker room beyond the seeing eye of the public. But much also takes place during the ninety minutes in front of the eyes of the public.

A classical illustration of this was the Manchester United versus Sunderland game. Manchester United has begun the season like a sputtering old jalopy. Before confronting Sunderland on their home field, they had just been trashed by West Brom 2-0 at Old Trafford.

All eyes were on the Manchester United manager struggling to walk in Sir Alex Ferguson’s shoes. Moyes decided to act boldly. He sat down his aging central defender, Rio Ferdinand, and replaced him with the younger, Phil Jones. He sat down his over-size mid-fielder, Fellani who he had brought over from Everton at the twelfth hour of the trading deadline. He brought in the 18 year old mid-fielder, Januzaj, starting for the first time in the Premier League.

The move was a stroke of genius as the youngster leveled the score for Manchester United which had fallen behind. Januzaj tallied later in the game to secure three vital points for the team.

Like Manchester United, Manchester City was also in the throes of a shaky start. The previous week they had lost to Aston Villa 3-2. They were facing Everton who had not lost thus far for the season. Pellegrini didn’t make any drastic changes and unfortunately lost their skipper early in the game. But Manchester City with the return of Silva pulverized Everton with Yaya Toure and Fernandinho exercising hegemony in mid-field. Everton suffered their first defeat as Manchester City returned to their triumphant pathway defeating The Toffees 3-1.

Jose Mourinho has won in every major competition in Italy, Spain and in England. Some recognize him, especially with the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson as the outstanding manager in the game. Matched up against Norwich, he was face down in the weeds, late in the game with a 1-1 tie.

Mourinho went for broke and opted for a 3-5-2 system from the 4-4-1-1 system he began the game with. The move paid immediate dividends as the Norwich team had to fight back a barrage of Chelsea attacking players. He substituted Demba Ba with Eto'o, Cole with Hazard and Willian for Mata. Chelsea scored two goals after the 83rd goal that was a beauty. Mata wasn’t sharp during this game and Hazard displayed his guile and Willian demonstrated dexterity at finishing. Lampard played for ninety minutes but Frank is not the Lampard of old. He is now an old Lampard. John Terry has bounced back and David Luiz, time and time again, illustrates that he is the best central defender with concomitant defensive and offensive skills, a rare but precious attribute. For the time he was on the pitch, Demba Ba showed he adds the Drogba-like dimension to Chelsea’s game.

Mourinho is not afraid of making changes and the experiment for the right chemistry is still a work in progress.

Things are still sorting out themselves in the EPL. Southampton thus far has been a surprise and are perched in fourth place. West Brom under Steve Clarke are a well-prepared team that has beaten Manchester United and held Arsenal to a 1-1 draw. Sunderland is undergoing managerial woes. Liverpool is at the top of the tables and has shown that the tandem of Suarez and Sturridge is uncontainable for the first 45 minutes. Liverpool remains a potent first half team and an impotent second half team. They defeated Crystal Palace 3-1 after having them down 3-0 at half time.

Rodgers has shown that he is not averse to playing the formation that fits his personnel and in the last two encounters have reverted to playing with three at the back. He has critical decisions to make when Glen Johnson returns and Coutinho is again fit to resume his playmaking role. Victor Moses has been outstanding as a player on loan and deserves to be on the pitch. Rodgers’s mettle as a coach will be severely tested but he has already shown that he has brought together a collection of players that currently sits at the top of the Premier League.

Monday, September 30, 2013

How Have the Mighty Fallen

Ball Harambee By Bagga Wilks

There is the cliché that in the English Premier League any team can beat any team at anytime. On Saturday, September 28, 2013 that was a truism. The top teams who spend the most money found themselves among the vanquished. Money can’t buy love. In the past, it has bought a lot of trophies. But on Saturday, it bought more than its fair share of grief.

Real Madrid had traditionally used Atletico Madrid as a beating stick. For decades especially playing at home, the score was a foregone conclusion. But not this Saturday, maybe not this year. Atletico Madrid gave Real Madrid a rare spanking.

The Real Madrid coach, Ancelotti, down at half time, opted to bring in his new golden boy, Gareth Bale. But Bale who had a few runs at the opposition but in the end, there was no cigar.

Manchester United divested of Sir Alex Ferguson, has made the worst start in recent years. They are bunched up with teams that traditionally excel in mediocrity. David Moyes lost to a rejuvenated West Brom. Manchester United’s defense has been porous under Moyes. Their central defender, Ferdinand, now chases younger strikers like a man past his prime.

Managing is not just putting players on the field but it is what is said to individual players and the team before taking the field and at half time. The season is still in its infancy and it is only fair to give David Moyes the opportunity to put his stamp at Old Trafford. Nonetheless, one wonders if he is the man to replace Sir Alex Ferguson.

Pellegrini, the Manchester City coach who had a field day beating up Manchester United last week, got beaten this week by an Aston Villa team that barely escaped relegation last season. Manchester City scored first just before half-time but Aston Villa came out in the second half a more aggressive team and shocked the free spending Manchester City winning 3-2.

Manchester City’s defense is not as impregnable as it was in yesteryear. They coughed up three goals at Cardiff City and three more to Aston Villa. Under Mancini, there was always disorder off the field. Under Pelligrini, there seems to be disorder on the field.

Mourinho in the Chelsea game against Tottenham, trotted out the wrong team. David Luiz partnered with John Terry as the two central defenders. Mourinho’s starting mid-field of Mikel, Lampard and Oscar was run over by Tottenham’s Paulinho, Erikson and Dembele. At the end of the half, the pupil had his teacher in punishment, leading 1-0.

The “know-it-all” Mourinho went to the blackboard in the dressing room and changed his line-up. Ramires, rather than playing on the right flank, came into the middle and replaced Mikel and Juan Mata was brought in to add creativity to philistine-like Chelsea.

Mata and Ramires changed the dynamic of the game and scored shortly after being introduced but the referee ruled off side. On a deft taken free kick by Juan Mata, John Terry’s header gave Chelsea the equalizer. The pupil and the teacher ended up with a draw.

Oscar is still a young player with a great potential. He brings great energy to the park but as a playmaker, he is not as magical as Juan Mata. Hopefully, Mounrinho saw the class of Juan Mata on Saturday and will now make him a fixture in Chelsea’s starting eleven.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

2013-2014: The Year of the Managers

Ball Harambee By Bagga Wilks

This season, 2013-2014, has seen quite a movement of managers at some of the top clubs in this global sport. Owners are not shy to show managers the door and managers are not reluctant to confine players to the bench or not including them on the eligible roster.

The Chelsea manager, Mourinho, has won titles in La Liga, Serie A and the English Premier League. He cut his teeth as a manager in the Portuguese League. His managerial strategy has evolved in recent years as he is no longer defensiveminded but he remains a player provocateur and his criticism of players are not done in the office but in the glare of press conferences.

Juan Mata had an outstanding season last year as Chelsea’s playmaker and as a goal scorer. With the second coming of Mourinho to Chelsea, Mata has lost his starting place and has been told he will have to change his game or he will be a “tit-bit” player for the duration of the season. Oscar is the new playmaker with the newly acquired Willian as his understudy.

Against Fulham, David Luiz was also placed in Mourinho’s dog house and was confined to being a spectator. Mourinho punished him for the loss in the Championship League against Basel. Mata and Luiz are set to have ongoing confrontations with the combative Mourinho.

David Moyes is finding that Sir Alex Ferguson’s big shoes are not easy to fill. He received quite a spanking from Pellegrini’s Manchester City.

Yaya Toure was the towering figure in mid-field and turned the giant figure of Fellani into a dwarf. Pellegrini seemed to have figured out his starting eleven while David Moyes is busy criticizing his players like Ashley Young in the tabloids.

Arsene Wenger has silenced his critics. Without any great midnight shuffler, just the acquisition of Ozil, Arsenal is playing the best football in many a season. The obstinate yet visionary Wenger stuck with his young prospects like Ramsey and Wilshire who have emerged as big league impact players.

Managerial changes have taken place at Real Madrid, Barcelona, Inter Milan, Roma and Bayern Munich. Next year is the World Cup in Brazil and players’ fortunes in Brazil will be impacted by the decision of managers. In this era of coliseum spectacles, gladiators can be chewed up by the managers who are the Kings of the Jungle.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Bitter Fruit of the Transfer Market

Ball Harambee by Bagga Wilks

Transfers at the eleventh hour can strengthen or weaken a team. It also means not good news for those already in the roster. The transfer of Fellaini from Everton to Manchester United will unquestionably strengthen the Manchester United mid-field. It will mean Anderson might never be a regular starter for Manchester United and Cleverly will see less playing time.

Arsenal is the beneficiary of the Gareth Bale trade to Real Madrid as it made Ozil available. In his first game Ozil settled in right after the referee’s whistle even though it often takes players coming into the EPL one year to adjust. Wenger’s patience paid off and as they displayed against Sunderland Arsenal, will be a contender all season.

Mourinho acquired the players he wanted to possible triumph in his return to Stamford Bridge. Samuel E’too made his debut. Willian, the Brazilian, was not included in the roster and the new Chelsea is still struggling to find the right chemistry.

Manchester City is also struggling to integrate new players and a new coach. They are far from sharp and could only manage a draw at Stoke City. The departed Tevez is rejoicing as he will get to play regularly as the point striker for Juventus in Serie A. Juventus has readily integrated Tevez into the lineup even though they could only manage a draw against the newly reconstructed Inter Milan.

A.C. Milan sent Prince Boateng to Schalke in the Bundesliga, and re-possessed Kaka who had wallowed in Real Madrid’s bench since he transferred to La Liga a couple years ago. Kaka will now play regularly and try to get back to the form of the old Kaka. He joins with Balotelli and Robinho but Robinho against Torino was not in the game. Kaka did not sparkle. A.C. Milan drew 2-2 with Torino in a game that Torino deserved to win.

Across the river in La Liga, Spain, Neymar is settling in and his combined play with Messi should produce numerous highlights. One wonders why Alex Song transferred to Barcelona as in the prime of his career when he had established himself in the EPL. He has become a bench warmer at Barcelona.

Bale scored in his debut for Real Madrid but Real Madrid’s game ended up as a draw. All eyes are on Bale to determine if he can live up to the money spent for his acquisition. Like Ozil, he might not need much time to justify the bounty on his head.

Those who have lost places as a result of eleventh hour trades will certainly seek new pastures in the January transfer market.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Brazil Fine Tunes, Australia Out of Tune

Ball Harambee By Bagga Wilks

Australia is more known for its cricket prowess than its soccer skills. In a friendly against Brazil in Brazil, it was batting practice for the Selecao squad. At the end of a ninety minute rout, Brazil had registered six goals. Australia early in the game had a few corners but barely had a shot on goal.

Scolari’s team did not play well against Switzerland in a recent friendly when they lost 1-0 with Daniel Alves scoring on his own keeper. The Brazilians are yet to show that they can win on the road. They were impressive in the Confederation Cup which was played in their backyard. But does the dog have the same bark when he walks through the gate and leaves the confines of his own house? Brazil plays Portugal on Tuesday, September 10 in Boston and that will be a more formidable test for Scolari’s squad.

Scolari experimented with his starting team against Australia. Maicon who spent a half season warming Manchester City’s bench and is now at Roma, started at right full back. The two central defenders, Thiago Silva and David Luiz have grown comfortable playing together. Marcelo started at left full back but had to leave the game just before half-time as he pulled a hamstring. Brazil is unquestionably solid with their back.

Oscar was injured and thus the three mid-field players were Luiz Gustavo, Paulinho and Ramires. Those are three mid-fielders who can run until the cows come home, tackle furiously and are effective offensive players. Scolari should stick with that trio against Portugal.

Against Australia, there was no Hulk and the talented Bernard started on the right flank and made quite an impression. Scolari will have to keep Bernard in the starting line-up.

Jo replaced Fred and netted two goals. Jo had a rough time in his debut in English soccer with Manchester City and was shopped around from club to club. He returned to Brazil and has re-established himself as a formidable striker and more than likely will start for Brazil in the 2014 World Cup.

The strike force of Neymar, Jo and Bernard will not be easily contained by opposing defenders. The midfield will be supportive of the forwards and the last four comprise some of the top defenders in the world of soccer.

Scolari is fine tuning his squad and the aggregation is being led by players in their early twenties seeking to bring back the glory days of Brazilian soccer.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Daniel Sturridge Walks Alone

Ball Harambee By Bagga Wilks

Liverpool vs Manchester United is one of the great rivalries in British football. The game played at Liverpool on September 1, 2013 is by far the best game played in the English Premier League to date. The two teams played with great intensity for ninety minutes. As against Aston Villa last week Liverpool on a Daniel Sturridge goal scored in the first half. Liverpool dominated possession in the first half and that dominance frustrated the Manchester United players that three of them ended the first half with yellow cards including Van Persie.

Just as in the Aston Villa games, Liverpool wilted in the second half and Manchester United had them backing up and defending desperately. This failure to maintain the same level of intensity in the second half has to be an issue of stamina. As the season advances, Brandon Rodgers will have to do something about that lack of conditioning.

Manchester United was without Wayne Rooney who suffered a gash to his forehead in practice. Manchester United continues to rely on the old geezer, Ryan Giggs, rather than giving younger players like Anderson, to develop their true potential. The telling question at this juncture is Giggs still a great player or was he a great player and simply running on fumes and his reputation? Giggs needs to take a seat beside Scholes.

Ashley Young started and Nani was brought into the game as a substitute. Both displayed their wares as top class players. But in the end Manchester United lost and that could be the omen for the season that they will have. Van Persie was closely marked and lost his cool a number of times. He has a steep hill to climb to replicate his incredible performance last season.

Does Wenger Know Best?

Arsenal started the season rather shakily and Wenger was being blasted by the fans for not bringing in top transfer players. But Arsenal showed in their game against Tottenham that they have a nucleus that can compete with the top tier teams.

Soccer evidently is a team game where the chemistry among the players must be like clockwork. Teams like Newcastle or Sunderland which made sweeping changes fail to develop an effective esprit d’corps. Arsenal has and the players who came in last year like Cazorla, Podolski and Giroud are now fitting in with the team.

Tottenham was unafraid to spend money and they brought in a new midfield. But it takes some players a year before they find their stride in the English league. Tottenham devoid of Bale is yet to score a goal in open play. They attack with great uncertainty and one wonders if Soldado can make it in the English league. Dembele looks lost and will lose his place to players like Erikson.

AVB is supposedly an astute student of the game but his trades do not seem to have a grand design. Nonetheless the season is young and one should wait until the half-way mark before being too definitive.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Signs of a Long Season

Ball Harambee By Bagga Wilks

Last season, 2012-13, Manchester United ran away with the League like Usain Bolt and left the “also ran” far behind. This year the opening games signify that we are in for a long, competitive season and the struggle for the top four will be particularly grueling.

Arsenal vs Fulham

In inclement weather, Arsenal easily defeated the revamped Fulham. Arsenal is yet to make any formidable trades yet the miserly Wenger can point to improvement of particular players in yesteryear squad. Mertesaker who in his first year looked clumsy and ineffective has become the key man in defense. If Kieran Gibbs can remain healthy, he will be an attacking threat to opposing teams.

The Arsenal surprise thus far is Ramsey who seems to have recovered his old confidence. Wilshire is developing into a first class midfield player and Walcott on his day has become an unstoppable force.

The yesteryear trades have come of age. Cazorla is more at ease this season and Podolski just had a hell of a game against Fulham. And Giroud doesn’t have the technique of Van Persie but he has his own method of scoring.

Tottenham vs Swansea

Despite the team improvement, it will be a great struggle for Arsenal to qualify to play in the Champion’s League at the end of the season. Other clubs have bolstered their ranks with new acquisitions. In Tottenham’s case, Bale is expected to sign with Real Madrid and although the club’s coffers will be more than replenished, it may be too late to purchase an impact player to replace the departing Bale.

Tottenham has played two games in the EPL and yet to score from open play. Their two 1-0 victories have come from the penalty spot.

Liverpool vs Aston Villa

Liverpool played a strange game against Aston Villa. They eked out a 1-0 victory from a terrific goal from Sturridge. They were impressive in the first half and, like a flower, wilted in the second half.

Aston Villa who were mesmerized in the first half, outplayed Liverpool in the second half. They failed to score but deserved to have gotten at least a draw. Aston Villa against Chelsea and Liverpool has served notice that they are no longer just a team of immature cubs but a team of young lions with a fierce will to be contenders.

Manchester City vs Cardiff

Manchester City who looked invincible in their first game looked vulnerable against the newly promoted Cardiff soccer club. With Kompany out with a groin pull and Kolo Toure at Liverpool, the normally deep Manchester City has no replacement for their fallen skipper. Before the trading deadline closes, they had better procure a reputable center back. So early in the season, they have fallen among the vanquished. Kompany’s injury shows that durability is an important factor in ensuring a top four place.

Manchester United vs Chelsea

Moyes debut at Old Trafford ended in a scoreless draw. Manchester United looked fluid and Rooney was at his best but Terry kept Van Persie in his pocket.

Mourinho started the game with his specialist strikers on the bench. Ba and Mata have been invisible men in the second coming of Mourinho to Chelsea. Mata was missed as last year he was the straw that stirred the drink. Chelsea had half chances but were in desperate need of a playmaker.

The Mourinho experiment will continue and David Moyes will fight to step out of Sir Alex Ferguson’s shadow.