Monday, 27 February 2017

Ibrahimovic: When genius and ego go hand in hand

Zlatan Ibrahimovic always knew he was going to score. There’s a hint of Cantona about the way the Swede has galvanised Man United and helped the club take home an undeserved League Cup. Like Eric, he looks around Old Trafford and thinks is the club big enough for me rather than vice versa. That outstretched arms celebration (the angel of the north-west?) declares never mind the gaffer, I am the Special One. This is a man who can state, in all seriousness, “I am a lion” and casually mentions his 32 trophies in the post-match interviews.

Zlatan might have an ego the size of the Shard (as does Ronaldo who even has his own CR9 crockery) but it is his self-belief that separates him from other players. In his book What Sport Tells Us About Life, former cricketer Ed Smith makes a convincing case that genius, arrogance and even madness are often bedfellows. He agues that Zinedine Zidane headbutted Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup Final partly because he was convinced that he would score the winning goal in his final game. Only when Buffon made a great save from Zidane’s header in the 104th minute, the French talisman short-circuited. Discovering his triumph was not inevitable, Zidane exploded when Materazzi gave him some verbal abuse and was sent off for that infamous butt.

Mathew Syed writes in Bounce how many players and athletes turn to God, believing that Divine help will cause them to succeed. It might not make sense, but the elimination of doubt does seem to have a positive effect in sport. Brian Clough (like Zlatan a number nine) said when he was appointed at Hartlepool: “Age does not count. It’s what you know about football that matters. I know I am better than the 500 or so managers who have been sacked since the war. If they had known anything about the game they wouldn’t have lost their jobs."

Tony Cascarino revealed in his book Full Time how he was beset by doubts, choking when one-on-one with the keeper. You can’t imagine Ibrahimovic hesitating. He knows he will score because in his own mind he is the best. As he said after scoring that late header against Southampton at Wembley: “I look good. I know I look good. I feel fresh. I feel good. I feel like an animal… I came when people thought it was impossible for me to do what I am able to do. It feels good. I am enjoying it. The important thing is what I believed. What I predicted. That is exactly what I am doing.”

Friday, 24 February 2017

Ranieri also a victim of levelling up at the bottom

The brutal sacking of Claudio Ranieri might have made cold economic sense to Leicester's owners, but what price the loss of public affection? Last season many a neutral fan shed a tear at their story; they've now become the side most people want to see relegated. Ranieri was certainly let down by players like Mahrez, Vardy and Drinkwater who didn't match last season's standards and he made some indifferent signings.

But the club has also been the victim of a levelling out of standards among the bottom 14 clubs. Last season they overachieved by 20 per cent and profited from the terrible form of the top six. This season they have underachieved by 20 per cent. That can make a big difference when all the teams have huge sums of TV money to spend and there are no truly bad sides. Is there really that much difference between say Midlands rivals Stoke, West Brom and Leicester? Factor in injuries or loss of form to say Rondon and McAuley and Arnautovic and Shawcross and Albion or Stoke might be fourth from bottom. 

The Premier League used to have whipping boys like Derby in 2007-08  (a record low of 11 points), Sunderland in 2005-06 (15 points) and Aston Villa last season (17 points). Yet it's hard to find a truly bad side now. There's been some terrible defending admittedly, from top and bottom sides, but Sunderland are improving under David Moyes and new bosses Clement and Silva have inspired mini-revivals at Swansea and Hull City and Big Sam will surely improve results at Palace. There are good players too; many a Premier League side would like to recruit Defoe, Sigurdsson, Maguire or Zaha. Perhaps the weakest sides on paper are Bournemouth and Burnley, but they both have inspirational young managers in Eddie Howe and Sean Dyche. Indeed, perhaps Leicester could learn from the example of Burnley. They went down with Dyche, but kept faith in his ability and saw him win promotion and then rise to mid-table in the Premier League. 

Leicester's owners have destroyed some of the romance of the game and should never have sacked Ranieri after what he achieved. But it's the levelling up of the bottom pack outside the top six that has caused the board to panic. The motto of my daughter's school is "always tighten your helmet strings after battle" and that is what Leicester have failed to do this season. In a levelled-out league any lowering in intensity can cause a slump towards the relegation zone and that has cost Claudio his job. 

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Is Mourinho about to become Special again?

There’s a revealing insight in Duncan Hamilton’s Provided You Don’t Kiss Me where Hamilton, then a journalist at the Nottingham Evening Post, wonders why Clough is so excited at beating Leyton Orient to win the Anglo-Scottish Cup with Nottingham Forest in 1976. Clough explains that winning he first trophy is always the most difficult.

Jose Mourinho probably has similar sentiments about the League Cup — he has made a habit of making it his first trophy. During his initial spell at Chelsea the Blues lifted the trophy in 2005, beating Liverpool 3-2. When he returned to Stamford Bridge his side again won the trophy in 2015, beating Spurs 2-0.

It’s possible that Southampton could pull off a Bobby-Stokes-type shock on Sunday and repeat their 1976 FA Cup Final triumph against United. But without the departed Fonte and injured Van Dijk it’s surely doubtful the Saints defence can hold out against Ibrahimovic, a player with a Shard-sized ego, but who produces on the big occasion. Despite United's fixture congestion you'd also expect Mourinho to come up with some winning tactical ploys. 

When Mourinho becomes playful instead of churlish, the signs are he’s on the way to trophies. The master defensive tactician has been mischievously boasting about the attacking football his team are playing. “We were phenomenal, at Man United you have to play in a certain way,” he gushed after a win against Watford. He even called his old charges at Chelsea “very defensive.” The last time he looked this confident was when he started talking at Chelsea about his team being, “Beautiful young eggs, eggs that need a mum, in this case a dad, to take care of them.”

His work has been impressive at United so far. The club has spent a fortune since Ferguson left (Di Maria anyone?) and are still over-reliant on a 35-year-old striker. But since a 4-0 hammering at Chelsea United have gone 16 games unbeaten in the league.

Mourinho made big statements early. He didn’t include World Cup winner Sebastien Schweinsteiger in the squad and dropped Wayne Rooney — though his man management appears to have been good enough to ensure Rooney is still behind the team. He’s refusing to play the £27 million left back Luke Shaw because the men in possession of the shirts are doing well. When Jones and Rojo were doing well as a centre back pairing earlier this season they retained their places.

Above all Jose seems to coaxing the likes of Mata and Herrera into becoming better team players and getting consistent performances from the lesser stars like Valencia. He’s challenged players like Mkhitaryan to produce in his system and they have. While he’s even praising Marouane Fellaini (at some personal risk, the Belgian’s hug after scoring agains Hull nearly smothered the diminutive Mourinho) and emphasizing how important he is to the group.

Should United win the League Cup they could then challenge for the Europa League and FA Cup this season the title next season. At present there’s a jauntiness about Mourinho — he even clapped Blackburn’s goal against United in the FA Cup — that suggests the Special One might be back.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

The key question for Arsenal: what happens to Wenger's duvet coat?

In all the articles on the Wenger succession at Arsenal one crucial question has been missed. What happens to Arsene Wenger’s duvet coat? You know the coat, the padded winter number that Arsene has terrible trouble zipping up, the one that stretches down to his calves. As someone once quipped, he resembles a particularly well-insulated boiler. Arsene looks eminently capable of spending a night alone in the French Alps with just his coat as a bivvy-bag.

If the duvet coat is to go to Arsene's successor then he has to be a very tall gaffer indeed, a man in the Jurgen Klopp or Peter Crouch mould. The coat would simply envelop diminutive bosses like Antonio Conte so the Gunners’ board should immediately being a height requirement into their planning. They can probably rule out Big Sam on the grounds of busted seams.

Other clubs have made similar mistakes. Part of the problem with the botched departure of Alex Ferguson from Manchester United was that David Moyes was not handed Fergie’s black Crombie, worn in his latter-days over a black zipped-up polo-neck, the one that made him look like an elderly Glaswegian bouncer as he squared up to Roberto Mancini.

Wenger’s duvet coat has proved so vital to Arsenal in winning the Wenger Cup (fourth place) over the last decade that it might even be given its own role after his retirement. Perhaps with advances in technology, some sort of Wenger-bot could be created to fit the duvet coat. It could sleep at the training ground and appear in the directors' box, occasionally kicking a water bottle and telling journalists that in England we are always one game away from a crisis. As indeed are Arsenal, unless they identify a plan for the duvet coat.

Friday, 17 February 2017

When good gaffers get mad — the art of lashing out in the technical area

So West Ham boss Slaven Bilic has escaped with an £8000 fine for trashing a TV microphone boom against West Brom. It’s not easy for an irate gaffer to find a new inanimate object to trash near his technical area. Presumably the FA gave Bilic some credit for his innovative choice, rather than just kicking the traditional water bottle.

The FA's decision will inevitably annoy Jose Mourinho who was given a touchline ban after theatrically kicking a water bottle against the Hammers in December. As Bilic quipped after the game: “The problem is that he hit that bottle like — well it was a great volley, to be fair. He should have miskicked it! He hit it too good.”

Water-bottle kicking has also been exploited by Arsene Wenger, who once beat the ground with an imperfectly closed water bottle against Spurs and greeted a disallowed Arsenal goal at Old Trafford by kicking a water bottle only to get his angles all wrong and scoop it up into the air with his right foot.

Hitting the bottle can be a dangerous exercise for the modern gaffer. Tim Sherwood managed to pull a hamstring backheeling a water bottle when Aston Villa drew with Sunderland in 2015

Lashing out can take many forms. Tim Sherwood was also prone to chucking his gilet on the ground in a fit of pique, while more bellicose bosses have taken it out on opposing players. Alan Pardew, then at Newcastle, was banned from the touchline for seven games after going head to head with Hull’s David Meyler in 2014 while Leicester’s Nigel Pearson ‘light-heartedly’ placed his arms around the neck of the prone James McArthur in 2015.

Premier League bosses are uneasily caged in their technical areas; ready to lash out at just about anything that comes close. Perhaps we should credit Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp for resisting the urge to stamp on his own glasses during Liverpool’s recent poor run.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Should Leicester drop Vardy and Mahrez?

A postman called Lee Chapman (not the old Leeds striker) got a lot of publicity last year for doing his round dressed as Jamie Vardy and then joining in Leicester’s title-winning celebrations. This season it’s been tempting to wonder if Lee Chapman has actually replaced Vardy in the Leicester line-up, as the once-prolific striker has only scored five goals all season. Vardy almost joined Arsenal in the summer and though he did the romantic thing by sticking with Leicester, he might now be wondering if he should have gone. He’s been suffering from a lack of service and the loss of Kante’s brilliant tackling and counter attacking instincts, but Vardy today looks like a player woefully short of confidence.

Vardy’s taking a touch too many where once he was firing in first-time volleys such as that unstoppable goal against Liverpool. The winger turned striker is now 30 and perhaps had the season of his life last time round, destined never to be repeated. Perhaps he might benefit from a rest and coming off the bench against tiring teams where he could regain his pace and confidence. But for the moment maybe Ranieri should give games to more prosaic strikers such as Slimani, Okazaki and even the wantaway Ulloa.

The decline of Mahrez has been equally alarming. Admittedly he made a great chance for Slimani at Swansea, but he still looks unwilling to take on his man. Perhaps Ranieri should apply the old Harry Redknapp school of coaching, and insist he gets in at least ten crosses a game and goes on a set amount of dribbles into the box. He looks like a player who needs to hear some home truths.

Another worry for Leicester is that Morgan and Huth are creaking at the back. Huth was let go by Mark Hughes at Stoke because he was felt to be past his best. He responded with one final season of abrasive defensive brilliance, but now at 32 he’s not the force he was and has been further restricted by the clampdown on tugging and pulling at corners. His partner Wes Morgan is 33 and is also fighting against time. Was it the form of Kante as a defensive shield that made them seem so solid last season?

No-one in football would want to see Ranieri sacked after last season, but with the club facing up to a relegation fight now is surely the time to bring in some hungrier younger players.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Peter Crouch — the ultimate Moneyball footballer?

Peter Crouch has scored four times since his return to the Stoke City line-up just before Christmas, including his 100th Premier League goal (and his robot celebration), which isn’t bad for a 36-year-old. Crouch often strikes me as a Moneyball-type of player. There’s a great chapter in Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball where he sits in on a meeting of the Oakland A’s baseball scouts discussing whom to pick in the draft. The scouts make comments such as, “he’s got big thighs… it’s a soft body… a fleshy kind of body.” They dismiss players who look the wrong shape or have a unusual gait.

Lewis explains how Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s general manager, deduces that traditional baseball scouts are subjective when judging players and have their own cosy language and culture. They reject players too quickly and the five “tools” of a baseball player are overvalued. Basically they pick players who they think look like baseball players. They project on to them what they think they should become. And the world of football is similar.

Peter Crouch is tall and gangly, standing at 6ft 7ins and just doesn’t look like a footballer. He’s had a peripatetic career via QPR, Aston Villa, Southampton, Liverpool, Portsmouth, Spurs and Stoke. Yet he’s scored once every two games for England (22 in 42 games), a comparable strike rate to Wayne Rooney, Bobby Charlton, and Gary Lineker.

Yes, he lacks pace, but the close control of Crouch is often underrated and he’s much more than an aerial presence. Had the volley he scored from 35 yards (after teeing up the ball with his thigh) for Stoke against Manchester City been scored by, say, Ryan Giggs, it would have bee billed as the goal of the century.

Another player dismissed as a big lump up front, West Ham’s Andy Carroll, recently expressed his admiration for Crouch. Carroll might be generally seen as unstoppable in the air, but the football world expressed astonishment when he scored a stupendous overhead kick against Crystal Palace — the sort of sublime effort that might have come from the departed Dimitri Payet. It shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise as immobile old Andy has always been able to play a bit on the ground; witness the way he beat three defenders and stroked the ball into the top of the net against Swansea in 2015.

There are many more Moneyball players if you look for them. Crystal Palace sold striker Glenn Murray even though he returned from long-term injury to score seven goals at the end of the 2014-15 season. Murray looks a bit ungraceful, a journeyman striker. Yet he puts himself about and scores goals. Palace thought they could do better with Connor Wickham and ultimately Christian Benteke. But had they retained the honest Murray — who is still banging them in for Brighton — they might not have been facing up to a relegation scrap.

Football is still unscientific, coaches still back hunches and there are a lot of players out there who don’t look like A-list players. But as with Peter Crouch, a closer look at their stats might well reveal a severely undervalued resource.