Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A great Champions League round

Last night I watched Borussia Dortmund-Real Madrid. Always expect a great match between these two sides, and this was no disappointment with a 2-2 result and great play.
This evening I watched Celtic-Manchester City. A bravely fighting (and a bit lucky) Celtic side (which because of their fans is impossible not to like) managed an exciting 3-3 result against mighty Manchester City, which nevertheless looked a bit easy to shake. As FC Barcelona got a lucky 1-2 victory in Germany against Borussia Monchengladbach, the next match is bound to be a drama as FC Barcelona face Guardiola and Manchester City at home.
Atletico Madrid repeated their feat from last season's semifinals by defeating Bayern Munich 1-0 at home. Leicester continued showing their European potential by defeating FC Porto 1-0 at home.
The only thing I did not like at all, is that FC Copenhagen defeated Club Brugge 4-0....

Friday, September 23, 2016

The first three points

Finally Valencia harvested their first three points in the Spanish league! After the first four matches, Valencia was the only team with no points, and the pressure tonight against Alaves was clear: following the firing of Pako Ayesteran this week, Valencia needed a victory, and they managed a hard-fought 2-1 victory on a late penalty goal by Dani Parejo. The way the fans celebrated, it was clear how needed this was...
All that said, Valencia remains a strange club: this year started with the hapless Gary Neville as manager, for him only to be replaced by his assistant, Ayesteran. For the time being Salvador Voro will be caretaker manager, but truth is that the top management of Valencia seem utterly inept in appointing a solid and experienced manager that can live up to Valencia's always-unfulfilled potential.
I certainly hope they find an excellent replacement, and that this will prove to be the first of many many victories this season!
Amunt Valencia!

Monday, September 19, 2016

Das Reboot: How German Football Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World

Das Reboot, by Raphael Honigstein, tells the story about German football leading up to their incredible victory in the World Cup of 2014. Many forget that up to 2014 Germany had not won a major football title since 1996, despite being one of the great powers of World football. Although they had made the 2002 World Cup final (which they lost 0-2 to Brazil) German football was in crisis since their last major tournament victory in the 1996 Euro.
In 1998 Germany had been eliminated from the World Cup in humiliating fashion by Croatia, and in 2000 and 2004 they had fallen in the group stages of the Euro. This was not the Germany that everyone expected to win, not least themselves. Amid the need for change two sides faced one another, the conservatives that argued that German football should continue with its values and style that had before led them to victories, and a more reformist group of coaches and football managers that wanted to adapt German football to a modern attacking style, and not least to a changing Germany. The book traces the likes of Dietrich Weise, who helped set up a reformed youth system for spotting and nurturing talent, including working with schools, in that footballers should also have education, as aptly put by Volker Kersting, the youth director at Mainz (one of the clubs that gave birth to much of the renewed focus): “...the brain is the most important thing a footballer possesses. What doesn't happen upstairs can't happen down below at the feet either.” But Weise was not alone; a notable a group of reformist managers who promoted youth and a new style at club level, Ralf Rangnick, Jurgen Klopp, Thomass Tuchel and Mattias Sammer, all had important roles in the transition of German football.
 The 2006 World Cup in Germany plays a central role in the tale. Jurgen Klinsmann became the unlikely manager who wanted to change German football. As much as ever, Germany had to win the World Cup at home, but when they didn't, it was not a catastrophe.
Quite on the contrary: the 2006 team became one of the most popular teams of German history. Its attacking style, flat hierarchy, relaxed attitude and friendly players became a symbol of a marvelous World Cup, greatly described in the documentary “Ein Sommermärchen”.
In 2006 football in Germany was no longer about winning only, but captured the wider imagination of Germans.
Germany built on the 2006 World Cup “success” for the following years. Under Klinsmann's assistant, Joachim Low, they continued building on the attacking style and involving players in decision-making. In 2008 and 2010 they lost the Euro final and World Cup semifinal, respectively, to the best Spanish side of all time. In 2012 they lost in the Euro semifinal to Italy, but one could already see the potential of a technically skilled and confident team before the 2014 World Cup. The fruits of the focus on youth could already be seen in 2009, when German youth sides, who had never performed well, in one year won the u-17, u-19 and u-21 European championships. The victories counted up to 10 players who would eventually be part of the 2014 triumph.

The book is excellent as it inter-changes chapters on the background, and then the actual build-up to the 2014 final at the Maracana. Each of the major matches gets a chapter, with the matches against Algeria and Brazil standing out. Against Algeria, Germany was under enormous pressure against a team that had read well their style. Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer saved Germany, who in the end with patience and ball possession wore down the brave Algerians.
For the Brazil-Germany semi-final it is interesting it is to read how the German team had studied Brazil's weaknesses. Brazil had indeed not been strong in the tournament, and the Germans downplayed their chances, while knowing that the South Americans were under enormous pressure to win the World Cup at home; a pressure that the Germans had themselves been under in 2006.
The description of the final is fascinating, also considering that it was never a given that Germany would win; Argentina had one of the best teams in the world, and had it not been for Higuain's misses history might well have been different... The description of Mario Gotze's winning goal is excellent. Gotze himself a fruit of the youth system and an avid user of a computer simulation where players were made to repeat a move similar to the goal move, becomes in the book the ultimate proof of the successful transformation of German football.
I liked the book because unlike many other books it does not go into gossiping or some pseudo-psychological analysis of people. The focus is on football. In that regard it may be too detailed for the un-initiated. The book requires some prior knowledge of older German players, results and teams, or one will have a difficult time appreciating all the changes and details. But f you have that knowledge and an interest beyond German football, and also on football in general (I could not stop thinking why Brazil has not engaged in similar reforms that are very needed), this is a great book.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Two good and two bad things

After 1-1 in the first match of the Champions League group stage between Paris St. Germain and Arsenal, there are two good conclusions for Arsenal:
  • That the reserve goalkeeper David Ospina is in great form (he basically saved Arsenal)
  • The result
For Paris St. Germain, there are two bad conclusions from the match:
  • Edison Cavani's number of missed chances 
  • The result

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Manchester Derby

Probably no other match this season has been as awaited as the clash between Manchester United and Manchester City: The clash of two of the greatest clubs in the world, from the same city. Two football philosophies clashing; Mourinho versus Guardiola.
It had every ingredient for a great match, and it did not disappoint, with a high level of drama and fantastic play.
In the ever-rainy week in Monrovia, I almost panicked when my TV at home had no signal to send the match, so I hurried into my car to find a place to watch it. I was disappointed that I had to go to a couple of places near my house in Sinkor, but finally, five minutes into the match, I found a place to watch it.
I had not seen the lineups, but it was only after 40 minutes I realized that Paul Pogba, the millionaire signing, was playing....
Manchester City were all over in the start, playing a high pressure football that one has come to connect with Pep Guardiola. An outstanding Kevin De Bruyne scored the first goal, while Sergio Aguero's replacement, the 19-year old Nigerian Kelechi Iheanacho, scoring the second goal on a ripost from a DeBruyne shot.
At this point it seemed like Manchester City could tear United apart.
But then two of the new players the clubs have invested in took over: the new goalkeeper Claudio Bravo could not reach a high ball, which went to the ever-threatening Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who scored a goal that looked easier than it really was.
The fantastic Zlatan has scored four goals in as many matches for Manchester United and is proving that at 34 years he is still on fire.
Claudio Bravo on the other hand looks like he has a mountain to climb. Coming in for the club's legendary goalkeeper Joe Hart, he looked insecure and tired throughout the match. Guardiola preferred Bravo to Hart due to Bravo's apparent better technique, but even there he looked extremely weak.
I do not understand why Guardiola preferred Bravo over Hart. Yes, technique is important, but more so it is to have a solid and popular guard on goal, who knows the club and enjoys the respect of fans and teammates alike. It seems to me Bravo will have a long way to achieve that, and he could cost more goals.
In the end it meant nothing today: Manchester United put excellent pressure on City in the second half, in particular when Marcus Rashford came on the pitch. There will surely be more pressure on Mourinho to have the youngster start the following matches.
In the end City came out victorious, but much closer than it had seemed at one point in the match. Be sure the next match will be as dramatic!

Friday, September 09, 2016

Andres Iniesta

In connection with the publication of Andres Iniesta's autobiography, the Guardian has some interesting articles on the (already) legendary player, based on the book:
Highly recommended, and I most certainly should get hold of the book!

Friday, September 02, 2016

South American World Cup qualifiers

A new round of South American qualifiers has just taken place, with Argentina jumping to top of the table with 14 points with a 1-0 victory over Uruguay, on a goal by the returning Lionel Messi. Uruguay, Colombia and Ecuador follow Argentina in the table, all with 13 points, and if it ends as it is, these would be the qualified teams for Russia. Ecuador, who until recently had been on first spot, surprisingly lost 0-3 at home to a Brazil side for whom the 19-year old new Manchester City signing, Gabriel Jesus, scored two goals. Brazil are now taking the 5th place, which is a play-off place, with 12 points, ahead on goal difference of Paraguay on 6th place. Paraguay has gotten stronger after a shaky start, and defeated the South American champions, Chile, 2-1 in Asuncion.
Chile, with 10 points, will be looking for a victory in their next match against Bolivia, to keep up with the teams above. It is nevertheless a testament to the high quality of the teams in South America that there is only four points difference between the 1st place and the 7th, with all having an option to qualify, or running a risk of ending outside the first five spots. The only teams that seem out at this point are Bolivia (6 points), Peru (4 points), and the hapless Venezuelans, who with 1 point are disappointingly out after previous years strong showing. That said, Bolivia, Venezuela and Peru have before shown that they are fully able to defeat any of the other sides, and that just gives the South American qualifiers more flavour and drama.
Be sure that there will be much more!

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Transfer deals in the Premier League

This season's Premier League is looking to be very interesting following the summer's Euro and Olympic games, and the arrival of new managers in some major clubs, just to add to the existing rivalries. Excitement was only added to the mix with a lot of interesting news coming from the transfer window that just closed.

In particular in the big teams of Manchester United and City, under the eternal rivals of Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola. At Manchester United Jose Mourinho has gotten hold of three stars for his team: Zlatan Ibrahimovic from Paris St. Germain, Hernrikh Mkhitaryan from Borussia Dortmund and most interesting of all Paul Pogba from Juventus. Ibrahimovic has already proven he will be good for goals and fight with his experience, while Mkhitaryan could be one of the type of players that could thrive under Mourinho. And the same can be said of Pogba: he is an incredible talent, but is arrogant and self-centered - just like Mourinho, who could plausibly tame the Frenchman.
In the meantime Mourinho is making his club unpopular again: the freezing out of Bastian Schweinsteigger is just the kind of thing a great player does not deserve.
That said, I am sure Mourinho will do great things with United.

At Manchester City Pep Guardiola has been more drastic that Mourinho, letting go of the English goalkeeper Joe Hart (to Torino), Edin Dzeko (to Roma), Samir Nasri (to Sevilla), Eliaquim Mangala (to Valencia) and releasing Martin Demichelies. In have come a group of players much more attuned to how Guardiola will want to play: John Stones has come in from Everton - likely to strengthen a slow back four under Demichelis. On goal Hart has been replaced by the Chilean goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, much better with his feet, and likely to venture out of the penalty area more than Hart would ever have done. A very interesting transfer is that of Gabriel Jesus from Palmeiras, one of very promising Brazilians of late, who could do great things under the style of Guardiola if he adapts quickly. Ilkay Gundogan (from Borussia Dortmund), Leroy Sane (from Schalke 04) and Nolito (from Celta Vigo) are the other interesting arrivals in Manchester City.

The defending English champions of Leicester have managed to hold on to some of their most prized players, although N'golo Kante left for Chelsea (where he will miss out on European football this season). That said, the champions have attracted some great players: the Algerian Islam Slimani has joined from Sporting Lisbon where he had an outstanding goalscoring record, and many may remember Slimani from Algeria's outstanding 2014 World Cup. The striker Ahmed Musa has joined from CSKA Moscow and the defensive midfielder Nampalys Mendy from Nice, who has often been dubbed the as the new Claude Makalele.

Much of Jurgen Klopp's work at Liverpool was to get rid of a long list of players that do not fit into Klopp's style, so Liverpool released a lot of players: Christian Benteke (who never managed to convince, went to Crystal Palace), Joe Allen (simply too slow and varying to play the tempo of Klopp, went to Stoke), Mario Balotelli (Liverpool never managed to tame the Italian, who went to Nice), Martin Skrtel (the veteran has gone to Fenerbahce), Kolo Toure (to Celtic) and Lazar Markovic (to Sporting Lisbon) have all gone.
Although arrivals at Liverpool have been less, the main one has been the Senegalese Sadio Mane, from Southampton, who became the most expensive African transfer in history. Expectations will be high, but he has already shown his class with a splendid goal in the 3-4 victory against Arsenal.

At Chelsea Juan Cuadrado has gone definitively (to Juventus), while Mohammed Salah has returned to Roma. In the meantime manager Antonio Conte has gotten hold of Michy Batshuayi from Marseille, who along N'golo Kante can give Chelsea a strong edge on midfield. But also the back has been "reinforced", with Marcos Alonso (from Fiorentina), and rather oddly, with David Luiz, who now returns to Chelsea from Paris St. Germain for 34 Mio Pounds after they sold him to the French side for 50 Mio in 2014. It was too much then, and it is too much now.
I do not know who has lost most from this deal; Chelsea or Paris St. Germain....

At Arsenal it is always difficult to figure out what Arsene Wenger is thinking. I still think he is one of the best managers in the world, but if I were an Arsenal fan, I would understand creeping frustrations. Jack Wilshere has gone to Bournemouth, a strange move for a player that has continued to contribute to the team. The exit of Joel Campbell (to Sporting Lisbon) and Tomas Rosicky (to Sparta Prague are less strange).
The arrivals in midfield seem strong: Granit Xhaka from Borussia Monchengladbach and Shkodran Mustafi from Valencia look like strong complements to midfield. The arrival of Lucas Perez from Deportivo la Coruna seems like more of a gamble: surely he has been a few of the Spanish scorers in the Spanish league dominated by foreigners, and Spanish offensive players have traditionally thrived with more space in the Premier League, but it still seems a gamble as Arsenal fans scream for a striker other than Oliver Giroud.

West Ham is one of the sides that has had most arrivals: Andrew Ayew has joined from Swansea (where he never really thrived, so hopefully he will in London), Simone Zaza from Juventus will be an interesting addition up front, while Sofiane Feghouli, coming in from Valencia, could potentially be a player to watch. Also, interestingly, Alvaro Arbeloa, has joined on a free transfer, coming from Real Madrid.

Tottenham's most interesting purchase is Moussa Sissoko, joining from Newcastle. The Frenchman was very strong in Euro 2016, and could have strong impact on Tottenham. Victor Wanyama from Southampton and Vincent Janssen are other strong additions in London.

Look forward to seeing all these players, and many more, in this fantastic new season!