My thoughts on: the England Euro 2012 squad race

January 20, 2012 1 comment

Can Capello and England get it right this time?

The European Championships are due to be held in Poland and Ukraine commencing on June 8th. England obviously failed to qualify for the finals of the previous tournament in Austria and Switzerland and achieved nationwide derision for their showing in South Africa in the 2010 World Cup finals. With this in mind, the squad that Fabio Capello assembles to represent our nation in Eastern Europe has a huge amount of responsibility in terms of redressing the poor performances in the previous two competitions as well as offering optimism for the new incoming national team manager.

With a little over 4 months remaining of this current season, I thought it be interesting to begin to predict how the final squad of 23 will look and map this as individual and team performances fluctuate between now and the summer; basically this will be a dynamic list that I will update periodically

The top 23 – current rankings of who I think Fabio Capello will select

1. Joe Hart, Manchester City (GK)
Literally the first name on the team sheet and secured of his starting berth barring anything cataclysmic happening between now and the plane departing

2. Ashley Cole, Chelsea (DF)
Has been arguably one of England’s most reliable performers for a number of years now and I don’t think has any real competition for his place

3. Scott Parker, Tottenham Hotspur (MF)
For far too long Scott Parker was overlooked for England in my opinion, and finally his consistency and combativeness has been rewarded with regular selection. His importance to how Capello has begun to shape his formation is as critical as his role is in Harry Redknapp’s championship contenders

4. Wayne Rooney, Manchester Utd (FW)
There was plenty of discussion around the prospect of omitting Rooney from the final squad pending his 3-match ban for the act of stupidity against Montenegro in October. His international, and more lately, domestic form, have equally been questioned, but Rooney remains one of the few players who have the ability to ‘make things happen’. The reduction of his ban to two games I think means that there is no doubt whatsoever that he will have a squad number

5. John Terry, Chelsea (DF)
Terry’s role for England provokes much debate, and his inclusion may ultimately rely on the outcome of his court appearance on February 1st. However, if we are solely assessing footballing merit, I think Capello will select Terry and will only debate whether he gets the captain’s armband or not

6. Phil Jones, Manchester Utd (DF/MF)
The former Blackburn Rovers player has received many admirers this season although he is a long way from a polished gem yet. His athleticism, speed and versatility, I think are traits that Capello will want in his squad, although it is difficult to second-guess the Italian as to where he sees him fitting into the team; full-back, centre-half or central midfield

7. Glen Johnson, Liverpool (DF)
I think Johnson remains Fabio Capello’s first choice right-back, despite the consistency of Manchester City’s Micah Richards. What may prove an issue for him though is Kyle Walker’s form at Tottenham Hotspur and whether Capello chooses him ahead of the Liverpool man, and relies on Phil Jones’ versatility to allow options for other positions elsewhere in the squad

8. Kyle Walker, Tottenham Hotspur (DF)
The former Sheffield Utd full-back has consistently been rated as a player with a bright future. His performances for Tottenham Hotspur this season, seeing off the competition of internationals Alan Hutton and Vedran Corluka, to assert himself as one of the most attacking full-backs in the Premier League can only be topped with his assured debut for England against Sweden. I think he is very real competition for Glen Johnson (although I think Micah Richards should be selected ahead of Johnson anyway)

9. Gareth Barry, Manchester City (MF)
A stalwart of the Capello reign, Barry has the ability to drift through games without being noticed too much. From what I’ve seen of Manchester City this season, he plays an integral role, however, I believe there remains questions over his agility and fitness (with visions of that German goal still very real) with regards to him truly being dubbed ‘international class’. His role may likely depend on what formation Capello opts for

England will hope the Cahill/Terry club partnership will reap dividends

10. Gary Cahill, Chelsea (DF)
Chelsea’s newest acquisition may have assured his place in the England squad by moving to the capital. His partnership at club level with John Terry may not only be a benefit for the Chelsea captain and his club, but the England coaching staff may also be forgiven for hoping that 4 months playing together on a weekly basis will be a solid foundation for a centre-half pairing at the finals

11. Darren Bent, Aston Villa (FW)
Aston Villa’s leading striker hasn’t been firing on all cylinders so far this season, however, it would probably be fair to say that neither has anyone at Villa Park. Bent though remains a real threat whenever he plays and is capable of playing the lone striker role which Capello seemingly prefers. I think he is the current incumbant of the number 9 shirt, however, how much game time Messrs Welbeck and Sturridge get may dictate if that remains the case

12. Danny Welbeck, Manchester Utd (FW)
Although Welbeck remains without an international goal and has had a gentle introduction to the England set-up, his growing prominence in a Manchester Utd shirt will be hard to ignore if he continues in the same manner as he has done so far this season

13. Ashley Young, Manchester Utd (MF/FW)
Although Young’s impact since signing from Aston Villa in the summer may have been curtailed somewhat by his injury, his performances for England have been steadily getting better over the last two years. A fit Ashley Young is an excellent attacking asset and he will hope his form returns quickly when he comes back from this current setback

14. Joleon Lescott, Manchester City (DF)
Has begun to add consistency to his game playing alongside Vincent Kompany and his performance, alongside Phil Jagielka, and the fact he is left-sided, I think may have secured his spot. A lot may depend on whether Capello wants to go with the Evertonian or give Rio Ferdinand one last hurrah

15. James Milner, Manchester City (MF)
Milner’s versatility and honesty has won him many plaudits in both an England and City shirt. I remain unsure whether he can truly compete for a starting position but I think Capello is an admirer. There is a lot of competition in midfield at the minute and Milner is one of many that could be left sitting at the airport

16. Frank Lampard, Chelsea (MF)
Many predicted that Lampard’s England career was over and now the same people are clamouring to draw a curtain on his time with Chelsea too. The problem is though that Lampard continues to do what he is good at, and that is being a goalscoring midfielder. One of the ‘golden generation’, finally not given an automatic starting place, however, I wonder whether Capello will take both him and Steven Gerrard

17. Steven Gerrard, Liverpool (MF)
Gerrard’s return to fitness couldn’t have been timed better as they have to live with the prolonged absence of Luis Suarez. However, Gerrard’s re-emergence could also prove to be vital for England as if he manages to reach the heights he has done previously, he could well fill Wayne Rooney’s role in England’s first two matches. He desperately needs to steer clear of injuries

18. Jack Wilshere, Arsenal (MF)
Yet to kick a ball in competitive action this season and Wilshere, I think, is still likely to make it onto the plane such is the belief in the young Arsenal midfielder. If he’s fit and playing I doubt Capello will leave him behind

19. Theo Walcott, Arsenal (MF/FW)
Walcott narrowly missed out on the debacle of South Africa and pledged to make it a more difficult decision next time. For me, he too often goes missing in games, however, his pace continues to frighten defenders. Arsenal’s wayward season isn’t helping his cause, however, Stewart Downing’s and Adam Johnson’s inconsistency may allow him to keep his place

20. Adam Johnson, Manchester City (MF)
Despite struggling for form recently for Manchester City, Johnson remains an excellent impact player for England and I think it may be a fight between him, Walcott and Downing for two spots… unless of course Capello opts to be more attacking and take 5 forwards that is

21. David Stockdale, Fulham (GK)
22. Scott Carson, Bursaspor (GK)
English goalkeepers seem very keen to not play for England/for Fabio Capello, and with the dominance of Joe Hart as number 1, the two back-up ‘keepers seem to be resigned to a little relaxing holiday. These two seem to be currently playing second and third fiddle

23. Daniel Sturridge, Chelsea (FW)
Sturridge has openly been critical of his lack of game time for Chelsea, and to be fair, he is their leading striker in terms of goals. In addition to that, his performances at the end of the last campaign at the Reebok Stadium, and you would think his place in the England squad would be more secure. Unless Sturridge gets to play a bigger role in Chelsea’s run-in he could see himself considering a role for the Olympic team instead

Make sure you’ve got 6 months on your passport

24. Stewart Downing, Liverpool (MF)
Consistency and goalscoring continues to be an issue for Downing, and with a number of other options, I think he will miss out

25. Bobby Zamora, Fulham (FW)
Fabio Capello likes to have a physical presence up front and it would appear that Fulham’s Bobby Zamora fits the bill. He does appear to be slightly out of favour at Craven Cottage at the minute and unless that situation improves, he may find his one and only chance of appearing on the big stage disappears. If he scores goals regularly between  now and the end of the season, I think he will go in place of either Bent or Sturridge

Rio Ferdinand: Still an England international?

26. Rio Ferdinand, Manchester Utd (DF)
In my eyes, Ferdinand’s England career is over. There are plenty of alternatives and with his age and injuries, he appears to no longer have the aura about him which resulted in his multi-million pound moves to both Elland Road and Old Trafford. I’m still not sure though that Capello shares my judgement

27. Chris Smalling, Manchester Utd (DF)
Much has been made of the former Fulham defender this year, however, for me, I still don’t know what to make of him. He’s played at full-back, but I think centre-half will ultimately where is career will lie. Not quite good enough yet and I’m not sure what Capello would get out of taking him

28. Phil Jagielka, Everton (DF)
Partnered Gary Cahill superbly in the friendly against Spain, and continues to be an integral cog in the Everton side and one of the most sought after defenders in the Premier League. His recent injury may prove to scupper his hopes of making the trip, however, the impact of injuries elsewhere in the squad may dictate the final outcome. If Wilshere is unfit, Capello may see Phil Jones as a holding midfielder; equally the outcome of John Terry’s court case may lead to an opening but I think Jagielka may once again miss out on playing on the biggest stage

29. Jermain Defoe, Tottenham Hotspur (FW)
Once a Capello favourite and often repaid him with goals. Now, he is playing back-up to Emanuel Adebayor and Rafael van der Vaart at White Hart Lane, and unless he can oust either of them, I doubt whether Defoe will get a ticket

30. Leighton Baines, Everton (DF)
Possibly Ashley Cole’s reserve, however, with Glen Johnson and Joleon Lescott both showing versatility, Leighton Baines may see himself omitted as a method of fulfilling more attacking options in the squad

Probably won’t need to wait for a call

Will Andy Carroll get another opportunity in an England shirt?

31. Aaron Lennon, Tottenham Hotspur (MF)
32. Gabriel Agbonlahor, Aston Villa (FW)
33. Andy Carroll, Liverpool (FW)
34. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Arsenal (MF)
35. Scott Sinclair, Swansea City (MF/FW)
36. Kieran Gibbs, Arsenal (DF)
37. Jack Rodwell, Everton (MF)
38. Michael Dawson, Tottenham Hotspur (DF)
39. Micah Richards, Manchester City (DF)

 

 

Book your holidays, I doubt you’ll be heading to the European Championships

Joe Cole appears to be enjoying French football

40. Martin Kelly, Liverpool (DF)
41. Peter Crouch, Stoke City (FW)
42. Joe Cole, Lille (MF)
43. Michael Carrick, Manchester Utd (MF)
44. Leon Britten, Swansea City (MF)
45. Nathan Dyer, Swansea City (MF)
46. Jordan Henderson, Liverpool (MF)
47. Stephen Warnock, Aston Villa (DF)
48. Danny Simpson, Newcastle Utd (DF)
49. Danny Graham, Swansea City (FW)
50. Tom Cleverley, Manchester Utd (MF)

My thoughts on: Doncaster and Willie McKay

October 31, 2011 2 comments

Doncaster Rovers are a football club that I think are generally liked and are held up as a great example of how relative success can be achieved without commanding major headlines.

In 1998, Doncaster Rovers were relegated into the non-league pyramid after amassing just 20 points and conceding 113 goals in their 46 league matches. They returned to the football league in 2003 and celebrated this by subsequently winning the division ahead of Hull City. By August 2008 they had reached The Championship after defeating Leeds Utd 1-0 at Wembley in a play-off final and heralded Rovers’ return to a level they last reached in 1958.

This story represents so many things good about football which is becoming increasingly more difficult to find in this modern era. The test for Doncaster once reaching these giddy heights was about whether they would be able to ‘hold their own’ with clubs with considerably more resources available to them. Finishing positions of 14th and 12th are laudable, and despite being embroiled in a relegation battle last season, the fact that Doncaster Rovers held onto their Championship status whilst close rivals Sheffield Utd slipped down a division, is again a commendable fete.

Willie McKay has been instrumental in securing Rovers' recent signings

However, I feel the recent decision to associate the club with football agent Willie McKay could potentially be a dangerous one and is a huge leap away from the romantic notion of small-town football club on the rise and ‘doing things the right way’ whilst many around them adopt a success at any cost strategy.

McKay has allegedly been provided with exclusive control over transfers at the Keepmoat Stadium in a unique relationship with the intention of not only attracting players otherwise perceived unobtainable, but also a means to generate much-needed income. John Ryan, the Doncaster chairman, has identified there is a need for a change of financial strategy, alluding to the fact that club directors have invested heavily in order to subsidise the club; a model he believes is no longer viable. This is a theory supported by McKay as he outlines that Doncaster “have players on £7,000 a week and a core support of 10,000 people — nobody can sustain that”. “My valuation of Donny was nothing. They have no fan base and everyone in Doncaster supports Leeds, Sheffield United or Sheffield Wednesday, who can all get 30,000 in their stadiums”.

The model that McKay and Ryan are promoting is one that sees Doncaster offer to loan players, currently out of favour at their parent club for one reason or another, for a nominal contribution to their wages, and effectively put them in the ‘shop-window’ for clubs potentially interested in buying them.

West Ham full-back Illunga is on loan at the Keepmoat Stadium

The example that McKay uses to explain this is that of the West Ham Utd full-back Herita Illunga. Doncaster Rovers are apparently paying about 7.7% of his reported £26,000 a week salary, but he is now getting games at a club which “are no threat to West Ham” which may be the catalyst to a potential transfer. The idea is, Doncaster get a player which ordinarily they wouldn’t be able to for very little outlay, West Ham Utd get a player who clearly isn’t in their future plans out playing competitive football, McKay then gets to tout the player’s wares across Europe with the aim it results in a transfer which McKay then gets his commission, Doncaster Rovers receive a fee for their role in the deal and West Ham Utd ultimately get an expensive player off their wage bill and out of their squad for a reasonable fee. That’s my interpretation of it anyway. It sounds complicated and almost quite sensible, although I can’t help but feel a little uneasy with it all.

Currently, as well as Illunga, Pascal Chimbonda has found his way to South Yorkshire and today El-Hadji Diouf has been confirmed as signing a three-month contract, but other players have been linked as part of this innovative model including former Real Madrid midfielder Mahamadou Diarra and Chris Kirkland has already had a very brief spell before an inevitable injury resulted in him returning to Wigan Athletic.

My concerns with this model is that it almost seems as if they are willing to prostitute the football club for the benefit of a few quid and ensuring otherwise surplus players obtain the opportunity to capture another (cue the cynic in me…) lucrative contract elsewhere. The very thought of my club openly inviting players to join for a short spell with the aim of finalising a deal at another club galls me and, in my opinion, represents the heart being ripped out of the club.

What also concerns me is Willie McKay’s history. He has twice been named and cleared in association with football corruption as well as being accused amongst supporters for openly unsettling his own clients with the intention of sealing either more lucrative contracts or a transfer elsewhere to the point where a Facebook page and a petition were both put together voicing disapproval of his antics.

Unlike O'Driscoll, Saunders doesn't have an issue with McKay

Most recently, McKay has been attributed to the transfer of Joey Barton from Newcastle Utd to Queens Park Rangers and has allegedly received £2.5million for his involvement. This he has denied and he claims he has received, in accordance to FIFA and FA regulations, less than 10% of the total value of the deal. The long and the short of it is that there just seems to be a lot of shadiness around McKay and how he goes about his business; the same I’m sure could be said with regards to a number of football agents. What I think speaks volumes is that Sean O’Driscoll who recently left his management post at Doncaster refused to work with him.

Whether this model proves to be a long-term strategy or successful, for sure, I think Doncaster Rovers may now begin to be viewed differently by opposition supporters.

My thoughts on: The Manchester derby

October 24, 2011 2 comments

 

A scoreline no-one expected

Yesterday’s fixture at Old Trafford was billed as being an early measure of who may go on to lift the Premier League title this season; a spicy fixture that has new added meaning with the emergence of Manchester City as credible championship contenders.

Both sides have been guilty of casting aside opponents nonchalantly this season although have equally shown lesser performances in the Champions League; an issue most notably recognised by the media with reference to Manchester City and the suggestion that when facing a more organised and credible opponent, their free-scoring and open attacking play is stifled and they struggle. This I think was the tag-line to this match; could City dispel these early season claims that they only sit at the summit due to their fixture list and this was alleged to be their first major test. I would argue this but this general view surely would only inspire a team and manager who clearly possess a lot of quality (and winners may I add).

Sir Alex Ferguson has never shied away from making surprise team selections, as shown by his defensive attitude at Anfield last week, and I think there was a general raise of the eyebrow with the inclusion of Johnny Evans partnering Rio Ferdinand and the omission of the Mexican predator Hernandez who has proven already to enjoy these occasions. Equally, the question for Roberto Mancini was; should he adopt a cavalier approach similar to Chelsea, who although lost at Old Trafford, proved to cause a number of problems for the home team. Or, should he revert back to a more solid-looking side with two deeper midfielders which he was often accused of being too negative for previously?

Is David Silva the best player in the Premier League currently?

Mancini got his selection right. Players such as David Silva are often referred to as luxury items; those only the most successful sides can possess as the notion with such a label is that defensively they may not ‘put in a shift’. That was not the case on Sunday as David Silva proved what an outstanding, and dare I say it, world-class performer he is.

Manchester City defended stoutly; and they had to as the home side had the majority of possession early on which although the onus was on Manchester Utd, I was a little disappointed in what I was seeing and questioned whether this was going to show City up for what they are. My concerns however were unfounded. City grew into the game and although some may point to the sending off as being the catalyst to the final score, I disagree.

The sending off (and it was pleasant to hear that Ferguson didn’t question it) obviously opened up a bit of space, however, Manchester Utd’s defending was atrocious. Defenders were too inclined to bomb forward despite there being no cover and midfielders, and in particular Ashley Young, were guilty of not raising their game, and were far too often caught ball-watching.

Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and David de Gea are young, so some may exempt them from poor decision-making; I would point to their transfer fees and international notoriety and counter that despite their relative inexperience, more should be expected. I would however point a harsh finger at Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra, both who are seasoned internationals, have captained club and country and have won numerous accolades. For me, Ferdinand’s performance highlights why he shouldn’t be in the England squad. He looked slow, lethargic and poor; often being pulled out of position and appeared to lack the energy or desire to recover sufficiently. I’m sure he would have been very disappointed with his contribution.

 

Balotelli is beginning to look something special

The scoreline was emphatic. Three goals in injury time could be argued as over-elaborating City’s dominance; however, how easily Utd rolled over will be uncomfortable for Sir Alex Ferguson. Utd ordinarily have a number of leaders across the pitch and yesterday I felt this was  more absent as the game wore on. The sending off proved, in my eyes, not the catalyst for City to believe they could go on and win the game, but it shook Utd and they never looked like they thought they could recover. This is unusual and not a facet of their make-up that we are used to. Manchester City inevitably picked them off with a simple pass-and-move philosophy and I thought were thoroughly deserving of the width of their victory margin. It could have been more and that I think is what is frightening. City looked to have a hunger to not only win the game, but to win it convincingly. They wanted more goals and the three post 90 minutes is evidence of this; if Edin Dzeko showed the finishing prowess displayed at White Hart Lane, City easily could have ended with 7 or 8.

I think this result is great for the Premier League. I think it shows the distance Mancini’s side has come in terms of development as a team and has quashed any doubts about them being ready to mount a serious title challenge. I applaud their manager’s and captain’s comments post match; this was a result for the supporters; in terms of their title challenge, this was only 3 points and is the same amount of points they will get for winning with less style.

I think to say the shift of power has moved is premature. Let’s not forget that Manchester Utd have been incredibly successful for nearly 25 years and I think it is fair to say that they have dominated the Premier League since its conception. Manchester City have a long way to go to achieve such heights but this was a significant step in the right direction. I am sure Sir Alex Ferguson is wily enough to not linger on the past; what is important is what happens now and in the future and for both clubs, for different reasons, the interesting thing is how they will react next weekend to this memorable result.

My thoughts on: Wayne Rooney and England

October 10, 2011 4 comments

Wayne Rooney shows the petulance we all thought he'd grown out of

On Friday night we saw England qualify for next summer’s European Championship finals in Poland and Ukraine due to a 2-2 draw in Montenegro. It was a strange game I thought. For the first 40 minutes England seemed to be relatively in control without playing particularly well, and thanks to taking their chances, had secured a two-goal lead.

Although Montenegro had shown signs of causing problems for the England defence and had reduced the deficit before half time, the sending off of Wayne Rooney could arguably be referred to as the catalyst for the sustained pressure Montenegro applied in search of the goal that would secure their play-off spot.

Rooney’s red card, in my opinion, is incontestable, despite Joe Hart’s protestations, and I think is an act of stupidity that he  unfortunately remains capable of. It is debatable whether Rooney ought to have started considering the news regarding his father and uncle, and it is only speculation whether that was a contributory factor to his poor performance and ultimate sending off.

I thought Rooney was poor in the first half in Podgorica; his touch was unusually slack, his passing poor and I thought his general contribution was not equal to the level we would expect from a supposedly world-class player against this sort of opposition. I felt you could visibly see Rooney becoming increasingly more frustrated with his own performance and was surprised that Capello didn’t succumb to the urge to bring him off and move Ashley Young behind Darren Bent.

Rooney’s petulance could have had far more serious consequences if Montenegro were a slicker and better unit. The home side and the support were lifted by England’s reduction in personnel and I wonder what would have been the final outcome if they had managed to find the equaliser 5 or 10 minutes earlier? My gut feeling is that they may have gone on to get a third goal and England would have found themselves in the lottery of the play-offs, but I think more importantly raises a question over his temperament, an issue I think that many of us had thought he had learned to handle.

Rooney will get at least a one match ban and will miss England’s opening fixture next summer; it could be worse pending the referee’s match report. Capello has publicly stated that the Manchester Utd frontman will be omitted from the warm-up matches (well, at least the starting XI) as the England manager has now claimed he wants to “test new players, a different style and a new different movement”.

I applaud the decision to exclude Rooney from the build-up to the competition and I would urge Capello to consider why he hasn’t already considered an England team without him anyway? Amidst the adulation linked to the removal of the reliance on previous stalwarts such as Ferdinand and Lampard, Rooney appears to be immune to ‘the chop’ despite his recent record in an England shirt being relatively uninspiring.

Will Daniel Sturridge be given a chance?

Who is to replace Wayne Rooney though? Much will depend on how Capello wants England to play. Will he want to see Steven Gerrard returning from injury to play a more advanced role or will he opt to move Ashley Young inside (which may depend on the form of Adam Johnson, Theo Walcott, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Aaron Lennon)? We are led to believe that the forwards in with a chance of claiming a starting position are Darren Bent, Jermaine Defoe, Peter Crouch, Bobby Zamora, Andy Carroll, Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge; but what I don’t understand is why has it come to Wayne Rooney being suspended before Capello realises that you just cannot rely on one player and in the modern game, the era of the squad, alternatives need to always be considered.

This isn’t intended to be an opportunity to bash Wayne Rooney; I rate him very highly and I think it is clear that Manchester Utd function far better when he is playing. However, for England, I struggle to recount the number of games where Rooney has excelled and rather than react positively to having a ‘world class’ striker leading our nation’s line, I now feel that his inclusion is on name rather than merit.

Since the start of 2010, England have played 19 international fixtures (of which 7 have been friendlies) and have won 57.9% of them. The six draws and the opposition and circumstances that these have come in I think are a totally different discussion but if presented with the names of Montenegro, Algeria, USA, Ghana and Switzerland I would have expected more positive results from the English national team.

Wayne Rooney has played in 76.1% of the total game time during this period; and as England’s main striker I would have expected a better goal ratio than one every 433.7 minutes (or 4.8 games). Wayne Rooney has scored just 3 international goals in this time, which I think is quite a stark statistic, particularly if you take into account that two of these goals were scored in Bulgaria only last month.

Jermaine Defoe secures England's only win at World Cup 2010

Over this same period, Jermaine Defoe has been given 453 minutes in an England shirt, including 4 competitive starts, playing 26.5% of total available game time. Defoe scored in two of these games; a hat tick against Bulgaria at Wembley and the winning goal in England’s solitary win in South Africa in the World Cup. Defoe’s four goals however show a ratio of a goal every 113.3 minutes and is almost 4 times better than that of Rooney. The Tottenham forward has had periods of injury but has accumulated only 31 minutes of international football in the last nine England matches as Capello has sought a player to play alongside Rooney with Kevin Davies and Bobby Zamora amongst others to be given a taste of an opportunity.

Peter Crouch was once a maligned figure when representing England, but his 22 goals have over time meant he has been largely a mainstay of the national squad. Crouch’s last run-out was a 5 minute cameo in the 1-2 defeat to France in November 2010 on an evening when England looked embarrassingly second best; he scored. Other than 70 minutes in the previous game against Montenegro at Wembley, Crouch’s opportunities have been bit-part at best, with him accumulating just 17 minutes in total at the World Cup (which I think is remarkable!) and then a couple of halves against Mexico and Egypt as part of the build-up to that tournament. Crouch scored 3 goals in those two warm-up games which makes the fact he was given only 17 minutes against opposition such as Algeria, Slovenia and USA even more astonishing! Since March 2010, Peter Crouch has scored 4 goals whilst playing 10.8% of the total game time for England; that’s one goal every half and I think raises serious questions as to his under-usage in South Africa and to why he seems to have been cast aside so easily by Fabio Capello. I hope he begins to find the net regularly for Stoke City.

Darren Bent finally appears to be given opportunity and I am glad about that. I am a big supporter of Bent and I think far too often when people talk about him they refer to the negative things (his miss against Switzerland, his move from Sunderland to Aston Villa and Redknapp’s famous quote), rather than concentrate on his excellent goalscoring record. In the 12 games England played in 2010, Darren Bent played 75 minutes and scored one goal; the third in the 3-1 win in Switzerland. Since then, he has been involved in 4 of England’s subsequent nine matches, scoring 3 goals in the process. Similarly to Defoe and Crouch, statistically, Bent poses a much greater goal threat than Wayne Rooney as in the 409 minutes Darren Bent has played, he is managing a goal approximately every 100 minutes.

I think for too long, Wayne Rooney’s inclusion in an England shirt has been uncontested as the general consensus is that he is capable of doing something extraordinary or being capable of producing a match winning moment. I’m struggling to recall many of these in recent years and therefore think that his role in the team needs to be examined. As a striker, Wayne Rooney’s value to the team surely is primarily how many goals he scores; particularly if, as Capello has been known to do, he is played as a sole forward. I hope we can draw a positive out of his sending off in that it encourages Capello (and hopefully provide his successor with some ‘food for thought’) to challenge Rooney’s position and offer encouragement to other strikers by utilising a different system with different personnel. The three players I highlighted, Defoe, Bent and Crouch, may have all not been in form during the period I highlighted, however, when selected they have produced goals as their statistics show; something Rooney cannot claim.
 
Player Total mins Game time Goals Min per Goal Games per Goal
ROONEY 1,301 76.1% 3 433.7 4.8
DEFOE 453 26.5% 4 113.3 1.3
CROUCH 184 10.8% 4 46.0 0.5
BENT 409 23.9% 4 102.3 1.1

My thoughts on: The Next England Manager

September 28, 2011 3 comments

England face a trip to Montenegro on Friday 7th October as Fabio Capello aims to secure qualification to next summer’s European Championship Finals in Poland and Ukraine. A draw will suffice but England, as always, will be expected to win and to mount a serious challenge for winning the tournament with the memory of the team’s failings in South Africa still fresh in the mind.

For many, and I include me in that, thought that there should have been a change in leadership after the defeat to Germany; but there wasn’t, and now England sit on the verge of qualification for the 2012 tournament with Capello still at the helm, albeit ready to step down post-tournament (or sooner I guess dependant on the results next week?).

The big question then is who should take the reins and move England forward? To be fair, to call the Italian’s time in the job as a failure may be a bit harsh. We are slowly seeing a change in personnel and the removal of the reliance on a number of players in preference of youth; he has overseen comfortable qualification campaigns and who knows; he may have learned from the mistakes made in 2010 and England may have a good tournament next year (what would happen if we went on to win it I wonder?). The fact remains though that, in my opinion, England need a fresh start inspired by a new regime.

The next England manager?

The leading contender amongst the media and many supporters is Tottenham Hotspur’s Harry Redknapp. Although Redknapp is tagged by some as a ‘wheeler dealer’ manager, borne out of his stewardship at clubs such as AFC Bournemouth, Portsmouth, West Ham Utd and Southampton; Redknapp has dealt with many high-profile players, so I fail to see how this attempted blot on his CV stands up. Some might say he hasn’t been that successful, which again I would argue against, citing his time at West Ham Utd with finishes of 5th and 8th and the overseeing of many academy products making the journey into first team regulars (and ultimately internationals).

His two stints in charge of Portsmouth brought about great success for a provincial club; winning the second tier at a relative canter, keeping them in the top-flight and winning the FA Cup and was ultimately more successful than his brief spell in charge of their near-neighbours Southampton.

Now in charge of Tottenham Hotspur; Redknapp has led the club forward to a point where they are now seriously considered as a real and consistent threat to the monopoly of the top-four slots in the Premier League, and indeed, oversaw qualification to the Champions League for the first time in the club’s history.

I hear suggestions that this relative success was only possible due to the financial clout he received at Portsmouth and what he currently gets at White Hart Lane; however, I would argue that this is really not that relevant as being England manager dictates that you have a pool of every English player to select from and the role relies more on coaching ability, tactical nous and man management skills rather than how successful or dependant you have been in the transfer market to acquire success.

The FA I believe have openly suggested that the next manager of the national team will be an Englishman and although it is a sentiment that I would rather, I think it is something of a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to the media/public frustration connected to Sven-Goran Eriksson and the current incumbant. By choosing an Englishman does not necessarily guarantee you greater success as the opposite doesn’t as recent appointments have shown. My main issue with Fabio Capello is that I feel he doesn’t have the grasp of the language to communicate effectively nor did he have a great understanding of the English game when he came into the role… I may even question if he fully understands it now.

I would not be adverse to another non-English appointment, but I would stress that it would have to be given to a character who has experience of the English league and is able to communicate clearly and concisely in English. I would have no problems with names such as Wenger, Ferguson, Mourinho or O’Neill being linked to the job; all of which have been successful in England (albeit to differing levels and consistency) and all of which would command the respect of the squad. The same old arguments undoubtedly will be discussed referencing how successful (or lack of it) English managers actually are; but the problem with that is that if you measure success purely by winning the Premier League, until one of those clubs who monopolise that title give an Englishman the job, then it is unlikely we will see it for a few years yet.

Another common suggestion is that in order to be successful England need to appoint someone with proven international management experience. Research shows that this is completely inaccurate as since 1994, only Berti Vogts (one year with Kuwait) and Roger Lemerre (coached under Aime Jacquet’s reign) had previous experience at that level and therefore I think blows that thought process out of the water

The Special One?

For me, the next England manager needs to be an experienced coach, someone who has shown to be tactically aware and successful, someone who can communicate coherently with players and supporters, someone who can manage the players as individuals, including those players who aren’t necessarily in the squad, and someone who commands respect. For me, my choice would be one of the above; Redknapp, Wenger, Ferguson, Mourinho or O’Neill; I wonder whether the FA dare select any of these characters or opt for the ‘safer option’ of Stuart Pearce?

My thoughts on: Forest 1 v 2 Rams

September 19, 2011 1 comment

Nine months ago, on a cold and foggy December evening, Derby were humiliated by their local rivals Nottingham Forest 5-2 in a game which Nigel Clough describes as a career low point and one that will remain with him until old age. On Saturday, Steve McLaren may have felt a similar feeling as his fledgling career at the City Ground hit a new low.

This fixture appears to have intensified in its importance to supporters from a rivalry borne out of geography, exacerbated by the prevalence of the greatest manager in both club’s history and in more recent times, the increased frequency of players, managers and coaching staff switching allegancy along the A52. It is the most eagerly anticipated game in the fixture list for this part of the East Midlands as the short 13.3 miles separating the two clubs provides plenty of opportunity for family and friends to conflict on their support.

Nottingham Forest have enjoyed two successful years under the stewardship of former Rams boss Billy Davies, although on both occasions failed to succeed in making the play-off final. The presence of Davies undoubtedly helped to stoke the fire between the two clubs (as I am sure is the case that Derby have a manager by the name of Clough); but his dismissal under the guise that owner Nigel Doughty had concerns over his ability to raise the players for another more successful tilt at promotion was one that had a mixed reception amongst the Forest faithful. The appointment of former England (and Derby player and coach) Steve McLaren received a similar level of joy and disappointment, although my view was that it would ultimately be a positive selection with McLaren promoting a brand of football more pleasing on the eye (whereas I would argue that Davies succeeded by knowing that results, however they come, ultimately returned success), and his experience of putting faith in youth development. These are two key beliefs held dear by Forest fans and I think some of the criticism that Davies came under was because he wasn’t always seen as sticking to these principles; my view with Davies is that he sees short-term goals very clearly but if you want someone to develop a football club and adhere to a long-term plan, his vision may appear a little more cloudy.

On the other hand, Derby’s recent performances since Clough’s appointment have led to similar levels of discontent with some supporters believing he isn’t the man for the job whilst others preferring to point to the pressures of massively reducing a wage bill and squad size whilst dealing with the issue of ensuring year-on-year improvement without being given the financial support some believe he has sometimes been promised… an issue familiar with Forest fans maybe?

So despite the fact the Rams started the season in a fashion not seen since 1905, the two defeats against Burnley and Coventry City was a concern in that the Rams have often been very quick to fall out of a good run into something incredibly dreadful. Forest on the other hand had started poorly by expectations (although their early season points return was not too dissimilar to that which has coupled seasons of play-off heartache), and although they suffered a defeat at Southampton last week, the players are very quick to communicate that performances are improving as the squad gets fitter and more accustomed to how McLaren wants them to play.

Steve McLaren looking worried... rightly so I think

The anticipation before the match surrounded personnel and who would be fortunate to be selected for the Rams after what was quite a flat performance at Coventry City a week earlier. I was convinced that Theo Robinson would start; anyone who has seen any of the goals that Forest have conceded so far this season (and I am particularly thinking about the 1-4 defeat to West Ham Utd and the 2-2 draw with Leicester City), will know that Forest are struggling defensively; both with and without the ball. Distribution is poor under harassment, they look slow and confidence is low… quite astonishing taking into account that the last two season’s play off assaults have been built on a solid back 4 and goalkeeper. For Clough to also choose Thomas Cywka to play off the frontman and keep Jamie Ward in the side I feel was very positive and was quite refreshing as Clough I think has been guilty of being a little too negative in his selections on occasion.

To me it looked as though we had set up not to concede (as I think that remains the primary objective in these early months) with the ability to counter quickly. Any game plan however went out of the window inside the first couple of minutes with the sending off of goalkeeper Frank Fielding as he tried to block Ishmael Miller’s (scuffed?) shot (/poor control?). The long ball by Camp to the £1.2million striker proved to the be first of many such balls from a player in red and caused big problems; I don’t understand why Forest didn’t capitalise on the relatively inexperienced Mark O’Brien who, although is maturing at pace and clearly looks to have an excellent future ahead, did struggle with the physique of Miller. I thought if Forest were going to impose themselves as an attacking force, Derbyshire and Miller needed to be clever in their positional play; for Derby, we were quite happy for Miller to tangle with captain Jason Shackell all day long, leaving the young O’Brien to handle the much less robust Derbyshire. When Miller did get free he looked a handful and I think with games and better fitness he will prove to be a good signing.

The sending off for me was a bit harsh. Looking back on the television I don’t think I can argue with the awarding of a spot-kick, and I guess the letter of the law justifies the red card; but with Gareth Roberts clearing the ball from behind Fielding and with the ‘keeper making a genuine attempt to stop the ball, I can’t help but think that this rule really needs to be considered more carefully when goalkeepers are brought into the equation. It was a genuine collision and it would be fair to say that I thought the ‘writing was on the wall’ at 1:05pm on Saturday and prepared myself for another result similar to what we witnessed last season.

What was surprising was that the inevitable onslaught didn’t really come to fruition. Forest ‘huffed and puffed’, but never really got going. It seemed as though they had an awful lot of possession in the middle third with a lot of sideways passes being played, but no-one appeared willing to go past a full-back or provide the guile or intelligence to get what would have been a crucial second goal. Although Derby weren’t proving to be an attacking force themselves, I got the feeling there was an uneasiness around the Forest back-line, and this proved to be the case in what has been made into a very contentious moment in the match.

Congratulations to Jamie Ward after a superb individual goal

Chris Cohen went down in some pain under no challenge in Derby’s half as Jeff Hendrick strode past him. There were calls from Forest players and supporters for Derby to put the ball out whilst Rams supporters, and management, were beckoning Derby to carry on. Derby did carry on and Jamie Ward ended a simple move with an excellent run and finish. Forest fans and players were furious and in the aftermath of the game I have read on a forum that Derby “lacked class” and it showed a “lack of integrity” in what they did (not views shared by all Forest fans I may add); but I will maintain that we did the right thing and played to the whistle. It is easy to throw statements about such as ‘you should’ve kicked the ball out’… but the question is, would you have been happy to do the same if the ‘boot was on the other foot?’. I think the real issue is (and one that was discussed with a number of Forest mates after the game in mutual agreement), was that it took Derby 66 seconds to score after the incident. Within that time there were a number of opportunities for a player to make a tackle and make the decision for the referee in terms of halting play. In addition, you would have to look at the attempts to stop Jamie Ward by Raddy Majewski and Chris Gunter and the effort to save the shot made by Lee Camp; I think it is easy to blame Derby rather than looking at the real issue and that was that Forest defended the moment terribly. If some Forest supporters want to point to gamesmanship and integrity I would quickly refer to the surrounding of the referee after the penalty he had awarded asking for a red card and on a similar level, highlight the 1-1 draw at the City Ground in 2004 where Rams’ forward Junior was barracked and booed for ‘feigning’ injury; he made 13 more appearances as the injury ultimately contributed to ending his career.

Steve McLaren said the goal shocked his side but I struggle to understand how his side can remain shocked for an hour? On paper I think Forest have a better side than last season. True, they have lost a number of players, but how many of them were truly first choice? Forest don’t look like a team; Derby do. Clough has moulded a side that is hard-working and has a great team spirit, and everyone knows their job and to ensure they do the simple things correctly. That’s what happened on Saturday. Derby defended manfully, put the ball in the right places when attacking and looked arguably more dangerous than the home side, despite the numerical disadvantage, whenever the ball was in and around the penalty area.

Jeff Hendrick's first senior goal... quite an important one!

Jeff Hendrick thankfully made up for his earlier glaring miss with a nicely taken winner but even without the three points, this game for me showed that under Nigel Clough, Derby are beginning to look like a team. It has taken a long while for it to come, and I don’t think we are really there just yet, but the foundation of something good is in place. The quality of football will improve as confidence and maturity grows and players return to fitness, but in terms of a performance, I am struggling to think of a better one conducted by a Derby side reduced to 10 men.

Derby did what they needed to do; Forest didn’t and that was the difference in my opinion on Saturday. Forest struggled to fashion any clear-cut chances, looked comfortable playing a square pass, largely lacked leadership (with the exception of Guy Moussi) and generally guilty of being poor (again, with the exception of Moussi, but also Miller and substitute Joel Lynch – who I wonder why he isn’t considered for the troublesome left-back slot Forest continue to crave a solution for), and seriously looked short of confidence and passion.

I may be biased but I thought it was a deserved win.

Cup competitions… what’s the problem?

September 15, 2011 Leave a comment

This last week has seen two players highlight their disappointment at not being included in their respective club’s squad allocation for the early stages of the Europa League. Both Rafael van der Vaart of Tottenham Hotspur and Stoke City’s Jonathan Woodgate have been made exempt from trips to Greece and the Ukraine with greater importance being placed on the domestic league campaign. Similarly in this week’s opening Champions League round of matches, new Chelsea boss Andre Villas Boas ‘rested’ John Terry and Frank Lampard and Sir Alex Ferguson has decided against taking Rio Ferdinand to Portugal for Manchester Utd’s game against Benfica, as the two English sides prepare to meet on Sunday.

Great manager; not sure I agree with his views

The issue about ‘resting’ players isn’t something I’m going to go into as I have already discussed this at length previously; but what I don’t like is the growing trend of cup competitions particularly, being treated with disdain by some managers; Harry Redknapp even referred to the Europa League as a “nuisance” this week.

I understand that sometimes short-term goals are put to one side in preference for long-term aims, but the contempt and disrespect that is often shown towards these competitions I think is really bad for the game. Redknapp has claimed that he may field a younger side in this tournament, something he has done previously when he took over at White Hart Lane with Tottenham struggling near the foot of the Premier League, and to consider qualification to represent the English league against continental opposition as a nuisance is really poor in my opinion.

I would argue that this is a modern-day view borne out of the incessant amount of money attributed to Premier League success and does not represent views of clubs from other leagues in Europe, and may possibly indicate why English clubs often fare poorly in Europe’s secondary club competition.

This tactic though is not only employed by clubs embarking on a Europa League campaign but is also seen in domestic competition.

Birmingham City are in the Europa League after beating Arsenal

The English League Cup still offers a route into Europe and a trip to Wembley for a club and its fans, but again, early rounds are looked on rather scornfully by clubs; even to the extent that Queens Park Rangers manager Neil Warnock claiming that “people don’t care about the cup” and that he couldn’t get “motivated for the competition”. I find this an incredible thing to say; in my opinion, comments like this do not help generate interest in a great competition that has now slipped down certain club’s pecking order of priorities behind such things as finishing 17th.

The question is, how do you prevent clubs treating the competition as an annoyance and encourage a more positive approach which captures the imagination of supporters?

There have been attempts in the lower division’s Johnstone’s Paint Trophy with the ruling that at least 6 regular first team players must be selected in the starting XI, aimed at encouraging managers to not field a reserve side. This however has proven to not discourage the likes of Sheffield Wednesday’s Gary Megson who made all three substitutes in the first 17 minutes in their recent penalty shoot-out defeat to Bradford City in order to ‘protect’ some of his regular first team players.

There may be some general antipathy against this competition; particularly amongst those sides who would be regarded as ‘bigger clubs’ in the lower divisions, with aspirations of promotion to The Championship their main priority (I’m thinking of Sheffield Utd and Wednesday, Leeds Utd and Nottingham Forest in recent seasons), but for many other clubs, this represents a genuine opportunity to experience the Wembley atmosphere and provide players and supporters a ‘once in a lifetime’ prospect, with teams such as Carlisle Utd, Luton Town, Doncaster Rovers, MK Dons and Wrexham all winning the trophy in the last six seasons, and all backed by a large following in the final. The appetite is clearly there as Wembley gets closer, but similarly to the League Cup, and also sadly the FA Cup now, how can enthusiasm be reignited for the early stages of the competition for many clubs?

In the current economic situation and the spiralling rise in player wages and ticket prices, surely the first thing that could be introduced is a cap on the price of tickets. This could increase on a round by round basis; for instance in the FA Cup, I would argue that if ticket prices were capped at £8 for round 3 games, we may see a greater uptake in matchday attendance; this could increase to £12 for round 4, £18 for round 5 etc. Just an idea and one that I think deserves researching by the FA. A similar model could be introduced for the League Cup; or at least trialled before the competition loses what little kudos it still holds for many clubs.

Another idea I would be keen to see looked at; and one that counters another issue I have raised previously regarding clubs travelling around the world for showcase friendlies and then complain about player ‘burnout’ as the reason why the League Cup is seen as a competition not worth competing for. Could the early stages of the competition be reorganised to take place prior to the start of the league season? For instance, could round 1 take place the Saturday before the first game and round 2 quickly follow it midweek?

I think without any viable intervention by the footballing authorities in this country, we could see the demise of our cup competitions increase further as clubs continually see success as being measured on their ability to finish 17th in the top division or for those clubs with the comfort of perennial Champions League qualification, a finish in the top 4. For me, cup competitions still evoke the romance of domestic football and should be treasured; I still get excited about the draw for the next round of the cup.