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Posts Tagged ‘Editor’s Blog’

Premiership Debate: How did Manchester City’s new signings fare against Bolton?

Roberto Mancini elected to start his two new acquisitions in the transfer window in the Premiership victory against Bolton Wanderers.  www.aboutaball.co.uk reviews how Adam Johnson and Patrick Vieira got on.

 After a month of frenzied transfer speculation surrounding Manchester City, the arrivals lounge at Eastlands was actually rather under-populated with just the two new names: Patrick Vieira and Adam Johnson, one a midfielder approaching the veteran stage of his career and the other something of a rookie from the Championship. 

 Both made their debut as substitutes at Hull City at the weekend, and both started against Bolton Wanderers.  Furthermore both introduced themselves to the City fans with a significant part in the two goals that their side scored.  However, their overall impact differed significantly.

A changed Vieira?

The decision to start the former Arsenal midfielder alongside Nigel de Jong at the heart of the City midfield prompted the question whether both were required in the starting XI of a game deemed an easy home win.  Many felt that Vieira’s presence in the midfield (in contrast to Ireland, de Jong and Barry against Hull) put too much emphasis on defending rather than going forward. 

However, noticeably Vieira spent much of his time the other side of the half-way line, leaving de Jong with the majority of the covering duties.  Whilst many City fans will recall the Patrick Vieira of Arsenal with part grimace and part grudging respect as something of a midfield enforcer, he returns to the Premiership after a spell in Italy a slightly changed character in terms of his role on a football pitch.

His evolution started under Roberto Mancini at Inter, who often played him in a similar three-man midfield setup alongside the Argentine pair of Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti. Both are more comfortable on the back-foot, so much of the responsibility to get Inter moving forward from midfield fell to Vieira.  This subtle shift in emphasis in his game was quite evident against Bolton, as the Frenchman’s forward passes were of a significantly higher standard than his defensive contributions.

His through pass for the second goal was quite magnificent: the perfect amount of back spin applied for the ball to hold up and fall neatly into the path of Adebayor to smash home.  The finish caught much of the media attention, but the pass through from Vieira went rather unheralded, which was a pity because it was a fine ball.

The rest of Vieira’s passing was somewhat understated and not overly ambitious, but tidy enough.  Nevertheless his defensive contribution was a little lacklustre.  He was caught in possession a couple of times during the game, on one occasion in the first half hesitating on the ball outside his own area seemingly uncertain what to do with the ball.  His tackling and closing down will also need to be improved – Bolton midfielder Fabrice Muamba unleashed a long-range effort from outside of the box at one point, and he really should have been picked up quicker by Vieira and closed down.

After playing the full ninety minutes, something he hasn’t done too much of in recent months at the San Siro, Vieira looked increasingly tired as the game progressed, but at 33 should still be more than able to complete games for City once his full match fitness comes to the fore. 

On the evidence of the performance against Bolton, it looks like he may also have a slightly more attacking role at Manchester City, and if he produces quality through balls like the one for Adebayor on a regular basis, he’ll quickly have Arsenal fans wondering if Sol Campbell wasn’t the only ex-Gooner their side should have picked up in January.

A bit of a wide boy

Whilst Patrick Vieira’s home debut was a bit of a mixed bag, Adam Johnson’s was eye-catching to say the least.  The former Middlesbrough player looks like he might have been a bit of a bargain at £6 million on the basis of the game against Bolton. 

The one time England U-21 international looked a constant menace on either flank and won the penalty from the right side after driving into the Bolton penalty area before being tripped by Paul Robinson.  Interestingly for a wide-man Johnson was equally happy to cut in to the centre of the pitch as try his luck by going down the line, leaving both Bolton full-backs uncertain as to his intentions.

Used as part of a three-man attacking line, Johnson was free to concentrate on influencing the game in the final third, and was at the heart of everything City did positively in the first half.  Employing players with natural width was never part of Mancini’s game at Inter Milan, the Italian preferring a narrow formation that used someone like Dejan Stankovic as a play-maker in the traditional tre-quartista role, what we would refer to as the hole. 

The acquisition of Johnson to come in alongside the existing options of Petrov and Wright-Philips, suggests that Mancini may be prepared to eschew that for an approach based on flank play.  There is going to be plenty of competition of places on the flanks with Johnson’s arrival.  After Shaun Wright-Philips’ rather wild contribution as a second half substitute, it looks like Johnson may be the natural choice to partner Adebayor and Tevez up front, at least for the time being. 

Indeed such was his impact if he can maintain it, then he may be an outside contender for a place at South Africa in Fabio Capello’s England squad.  Quite a change over the course of a season for a player who spent the first month of 2009/10 playing Scunthorpe United and Doncaster Rovers!

Both Vieira and Johnson look like they may have a role to play for City as they look to try and muscle their way into fourth place, or better, for Champions League football next season.  With critical fixtures coming up against both Liverpool and Tottenham in the next five games, not to mention a clash against Chelsea and an FA Cup match against Stoke for a place in the quarter-finals, there will be no shortage of incentive for City to do well.  Adam Johnson in particular could have a key role to play as the final and decisive stages of the season are entered into.

Premiership Debate: Did Arsenal lose against Chelsea because of Arsène Wenger?

Arsene Wenger: "D'oh??"

The flag often seen in the background at the Emirates Stadium proclaims: “In Arsène we trust!”  A bold statement, but as Arsenal slump to nine points off the pace set at the top of the Premiership and Chelsea and Manchester United ease themselves away again, www.aboutaball.co.uk looks at whether Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger is as much the cause and solution to Arsenal’s problems.

 The conundrum was perfectly summed up by Homer Simpson in one episode of The Simpsons when sat at Moe’s Tavern and about to start the umpteenth beer of the night he mulls: “Ahh beer…the cause and solution to all of life’s problems”.  Perhaps if one subbed Arsène Wenger for beer, and despondent Gooners for Homer Simpson there might be quite a parallel today.

Right from the outset of this piece it should be pointed out that the recent success enjoyed by the club combined with the flamboyancy that Arsenal play with is entirely down to Arsène Wenger and the rest of his backroom staff, who have instilled a playing ethos that makes the club one of the most attractive in the world. 

By almost any measure Arsène Wenger is one of the greatest managers that, not only Arsenal, but the entire English league has ever witnessed.  Furthermore whilst recent silverware has been thin on the ground, Wenger’s overall record is still pretty decent: played 772, won 443, drawn 190 and lost 139, a winning percentage just under 60%, and less than one in five ending in defeat in all competitions. 

Yesterday’s reverse against Chelsea was in many respects entirely unjust.  Arsenal played the best football and dominated much of the match, something that is backed up by the stats in terms of possession, territorial advantage and attempts at goal.  Which makes the 2-0 loss all the more difficult to stomach, especially amongst aesthetes of the game.  Not that Chelsea won ugly, but Arsenal in many respects played the better football.

Nevertheless the result, which is ultimately what counts, rendered the excellent performance and the largely positive football somewhat meaningless.  Having had a day to contemplate defeat perhaps Arsène Wenger would have approached things differently.

The sum of the parts

An attacking line of Theo Walcott, Andrei Arshavin and Sami Nasri is obviously lacking any sort of physical prowess.  It’s a point that has been made countless times before, but Arsenal against Chelsea lacked any sort of cutting edge or presence in the opposition penalty area.  This meant that any ball into the attacking line had to be absolutely perfect.  Cesc Fabregas managed one such weighted pass, which Arshavin volleyed over in the first half, but asking the Spaniard to repeatedly attain such technical brilliance is too much.

The lack of an obvious centre-forward also meant that whilst each Chelsea player looked like they played with a shared sense of purpose, Arsenal seemed occasionally uncertain what they should be doing when in possession.  Should the ball go to Fabregas in midfield, to Walcott down the right or instead up to Arshavin somewhere in the middle?  Chelsea certainly didn’t lack for that thrust on their decisive counter-attack for the second goal, but somehow one sensed that Arsenal were never capable of springing such a move in reply. 

The answer to Arsenal’s problems may have been closer to Arsène Wenger than he realised. Whilst Nicklas Bendtner may not be the most talented player in the squad, what he brings to the team in the absence of Robin van Persie or Eduardo is the willingness to show for the ball with his back to goal.  Starting with the Danish forward would mean having to leave an arguably more talented player on the bench, but such is the lot of a Premiership football manager.

Fabio Capello has the courage to play Emile Heskey, despite the Aston Villa forward almost polemically dividing the English football watching public as to his effectiveness in the side.  Nevertheless the Italian recognises that whilst Heskey might not be as talented as other strikers at his disposal, the role he performs in the team is no less valuable. 

Arshavin has proved that he can make a worthwhile contribution to Arsenal, but not from a centre-forward’s position, a role for which he lacks either the bravery or the movement.  John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho has the relatively straightforward task of keeping the former Zenit man in check, where they would have been far more troubled if he could have started from a wider position and attacked balls provided to him by the like of Bendtner.

Sticking to his guns

Wenger has so far stuck doggedly to his guns down the years refusing to adopt a more pragmatic approach to the beautiful game.  It has brought Arsenal success by degrees, but in this age of power, so dramatically highlighted by both Chelsea and Manchester United in recent weeks, it may be time to consider a tactical tweak.

In truth, despite the concession of five goals to two of their direct title challengers, Arsenal aren’t that far behind their rivals.  Whilst the nine point gap to Chelsea as we enter the final third of the season is probably insurmountable from Arsenal’s perspective there is no reason why they can’t start next season in excellent shape.  That would require using the rest of this as an extended test starting each game with at least one dedicated centre-forward be that Bendtner, Eduardo or once fit van Persie, and making the acquisition of a top-quality striker a priority when the transfer window re-opens at the end of the season. 

Arsène Wenger stated pre-season that he didn’t feel his Arsenal side were the perceived soft-touches that some thought, and yesterday’s excellent response to going an early goal down proved that.  The Gunners have worked on their resilience in the face of adversity, but now must work on this aspect of their play. 

If the Arsenal management team headed up by Wenger fail to acknowledge this need, then it may be a while before they are in any sort of position to challenge the duopoly of Chelsea and Manchester United.

English Debate: Do Manchester City need to smarten up their transfer dealings?

Is too much of this stuff, the problem for City?

In the wake of the failure to sign up Real Madrid’s Fernando Gago, Manchester City have come in for some heavy criticism from both the Spanish side and the player’s agent.  www.aboutaball.co.uk asks whether City need to wise up in the transfer market.

 

The recent activity in attempting to sign the Argentine midfielder Fernando Gago and subsequent welter of abuse that has been directed in the direction of Eastlands has certainly dragged Manchester City’s name somewhat through the muck.  Real Madrid’s bitter words could just be a by-product of an attempt to try and prevent City achieving their status as one of the world’s foremost football teams.

Jorge Valdano, Real Madrid’s Sporting Director, has been the source of much of the ire, and claimed that City weren’t in any position to sign the midfielder citing a lack of any preparation and paperwork, even hinting at an illegal approach to the player before consulting his club.  It rather suggests that Valdano believes that City were somewhat amateurish in the way they handled the approach, but perhaps one needs to delve further into the time-line of the transfer before reaching any conclusion.

It would appear that City were looking at Fernando Gago as a possible transfer target for some time and identified the out of favour former Boca Juniors player early in the window.  Reports indicate that they were quoted a staggering £21 million to acquire Gago, despite the fact that the fee represented a 50% mark-up on what Real paid his former Argentine side when they swooped for him in a double deal with an agency to bring Gago and compatriot Gonzalo Higuain to the club.

Manchester City tax

Rebuffed City sought other transfer targets, but after the deal to sign the Kenyan Mariga evaporated, they returned to Real and were quoted a more reasonable price of around £15 million.  This indicates that Real Madrid, like AC Milan in the Kaka deal previously, simply hiked up the price because it was Manchester City who came calling. 

Could Kaka have been wearing the light-blue of City if it hadn't been for AC Milan?

There is certainly a lesson to be learnt for City, in that they need to bide their time when making offers for players, and they may need to be prepared to identify another target if their initial choice falls through.  Chelsea suffered the same issue in the immediate aftermath of the Abramovich take-over, and City will need to go through the same process. 

However, given the fact that Real substantially reduced their asking price at the second time of asking with time running out to conclude the deal suggests that the reason it failed to go through was because of their own greed.  They had hoped to exploit City’s nouveau-riche status, and when Real lost the chance to move on a player who hasn’t featured much this season at a profit, they simply spat the dummy out and blamed everyone else but themselves.

Always City’s fault?

Valdano’s comments therefore smack of frustration at their inability to fleece City, but also petty-minded parochialism.  There is no doubt that City’s rapid emergence in the past couple of seasons has ruffled a few feathers amongst the elite of European football, who are more interested in preserving their own status at the top rather than encouraging competition. 

Manchester City were the target of much vilification from AC Milan and now Real Madrid over transfer dealings, accusing City of amateurism and unsettling players, an accusation Real Madrid in particular should steer clear of making given their conduct in the Cristiano Ronaldo transfer.  Clearly there is an attempt to sully City’s name, as they attempt to financially muscle their way into what has been largely a closed-shop for many years.

 There is certainly something in this theory; ultimately AC Milan accepted a bid of nearly half what City had offered for Kaka when the talented Brazilian made the move to Spain in the summer.  Were AC Milan willing to accept susbstanially less just to ensure that Kaka didn’t move to Eastlands?  Most suggest that Kaka didn’t fancy the move to City in the end, and that might have been so.  But why then did AC Milan accept a much lower bid subsequently from Real, when their asking price when City enquired was nearly double that?

City themselves have refrained from letting themselves get dragged into a slanging match with Real Madrid after trading public remarks with AC Milan over the failed-Kaka deal.  Internally though, City may need to switch their targets away from the bigger sides and instead concentrate on acquiring promising players, who can fulfil their potential at Eastlands. 

Returning to the example of Chelsea, the unfortunate incident of Gael Kakuta aside, they too were often criticised for the way they conduced transfer dealings, most notably by Manchester United after they failed to secure Jon Obi Mikel after Chelsea trumped them for the player.  City may also need to go through the same process before being able to conduct transfer business without provoking the wrath of other elite sides from around Europe.

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