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Thoughts on the Beautiful Game.

President Trump and the Bald Eagle

Donald J. Trump is, to even the most casual observer, a peculiar, unpleasant man. From the bizarre, nebulous patch of hair levitating above its host’s pudgy, carrot-hued features, to his irritating tendency to immediately repeat another of his meaningless soundbites, perhaps only to give himself a second chance to identify the point he is trying to make – this is a supremely flawed individual.

He greedily seeks to enhance his own opulence in any situation in which he finds himself. Despite this, his companies, or branches thereof, have been declared bankrupt at least four times (and that is long before we approach the insolvency of Trump’s morals). Although in America, bankruptcy can seem to be badge of honour on the well-trodden path to celebrity rather than a source of shame, often (but not always) followed by a carefully choreographed public breakdown, before a less-than-rehabilitative stint in a rehab facility.

Trump, to his credit, is an exception. He has avoided the latter parts of this celebrity process, while reaping the rewards of his reality TV shows, an essential part of his portfolio of self-interest and cultural destruction. This has propelled him to the status of the first reality president of the reality age.

Despite his seventy-one years, he is an avid twit, no, twat – sorry, I’ll get it right this time – tweeter, which means his infantile whims, slanderous personal attacks and half-baked policy decisions are usually thrust on the world through a medium that permits only 140 characters per tweet – surely not enough to suffice as a vessel for serious political discourse. To counter this, he releases rambling series of tweets to his ‘followers’, often entirely unchecked – spelling and factual errors to boot.

Yet, a nation he has enraptured. Or at least part of a nation. He, as we know, actually received fewer votes than Hilary Clinton country-wide. Whatever one’s thoughts on the electoral system in America, what we can glean from this unfortunate reality is that there are enough people receptive to Trump’s dubious charms to enable him to sit at the desk of the Oval Office, and that is a truly troubling thought. Not only for America but for our world.

He appears far from convinced of the existence of the Holocaust while refusing to condemn the actions and beliefs of violent Alt-right groups. Furthermore, his hostility towards the LGBT community is well-publicised and inexcusable. As president, he has proposed legislation to abolish a lot of the previous incumbent’s progressive work regarding the ‘’War on Drugs’’. Should Trump get his way, sentences for crack cocaine offences would be lengthened significantly compared to those for powder cocaine from the 10:1 disparity to which the Obama presidency managed to reduce the imbalance. A thinly veiled push, then, to accelerate the social cleansing of black Americans and Latinos. His apparent fixation with building walls indicates a man more concerned with division than unity.

He denies climate change, and several headings have been altered to remove the word ‘change’ from the website of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a US government agency. The island town of Tangier, Virginia has lost 60% of its landmass and is currently home to those who scientists claim will be the first climate change refugees in the history of the USA (the lamentable irony of this situation of course, is that Trump received 87% of the town’s vote). Trump called the mayor of Tangier to lend him support in his assertion that the sea waters are not rising, and that the loss of over half of his town is down to ‘’natural wave action’’. Trump has, perhaps typically, also backed the construction of a sea wall around the island, one assumes just to be on the safe side.

In 2009, Trump decided to leave several of his properties under the name of Trump Entertainment in the hands of his lenders after his fourth bankruptcy. Like a rat fleeing a sinking ship he detached himself from responsibility and left, seeking to avoid muddying his most honourable name. In 2014, when Trump Entertainment (through the lenders Trump had abandoned) finally gave up the fight and declared themselves broke, the current president unsuccessfully attempted to sue his former company as he alleged that the failure of that business was damaging his own brand.

Alleged links to the mafia in New York have been dismissed by the Commander-in-Chief, while his history of grotesque misogyny is known by all. Renewing tensions and reinstating restrictions with countries like Cuba is a glaring example of his penchant for petty aggression and isolationism.

These are not the actions of an individual fit to serve as head of any state, let alone one with such international influence as the United States.

As for his obsequious cadre of cheerleaders and associates who support him loyally before they reach the end of their usefulness and are pitilessly jettisoned (Steve Bannon being the most high-profile example), what possible incentive could they have for working for this man (they work ‘for’, not ‘with’ him)? A self-serving bully, one imagines Trump as a spoilt child surrounded by toys he himself has chosen, only to lose interest and throw them at a passing chambermaid.

Prestige, honour and morality mean little to Trump, or they certainly don’t mean to him what they mean to most of us. He is perhaps the first President to principally identify the role as a means of making himself richer.

This is a man so lacking in etiquette that he has been pictured driving a golf buggy onto the green at his OWN golf club. On the subject of golf buggies…

It was recently revealed that the President of the United States has, in only seven months in office, spent $60,000 of his own and his family’s protection budget (state money) on hiring golf buggies from, you guessed it, his own golf resorts. Lining his pockets wherever he can, his notoriously tiny hands seem permanently embedded in the White House till.

I leave you with this extract from a letter written by one of the founding fathers of the USA, Benjamin Franklin, in correspondence with his daughter in 1784.

“I wish that the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country, he is a bird of bad moral character, he does not get his living honestly, is too lazy to fish for himself, so he waits on a nearby branch and steals from other birds instead. Like those among men who live by sharping and robbing, he is generally poor and often very lousy, besides he is a rank coward.”

One would not have to change many words of this letter to aptly apply to it the 45th President of the United States.

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Language and Football

My fascination with language comes from the variety of expression it permits. From the flowing prose of a Nobel prize-winning laureate to the quaint vernacular of my grandfather, language offers infinite capacity for nuance, and individuality. Accents, sentence structure and inflection all contribute to a rich canvas of linguistic possibility where meaning can shift, and a gamut of emotions can be derived from a single word, sentence or chapter depending on intonation or context amongst other factors. Furthermore, words can be interpreted differently by different people or at different times. New words emerge every year, while older words return to common use (usually among the young) under the guise of another definition or association. All of what I’ve mentioned and more is the glorious possibility of language.

Football too has a capacity for remarkable variation. The rules of the game itself facilitate this. Unlike many other sports, the ball can move freely sideways, backwards, forwards, and at any angle diagonally. It can travel great distances or no distance at all depending on the will (and competence) of the player. There are no limits, or shot clocks, no particular way of playing, only trends and counter-trends, ideas and counter-ideas. Each touch of the ball adds another stroke to an imperfect masterpiece, not always dissimilar from what has come before it or what may follow in the future, but always different and always changing.

Language and football also suffer from similar age-old crises of identity and purpose.

Surely language is not merely and exclusively a means of communication. Surely it serves more than a functional, communicative role. Words make us feel. Language, like football, can entertain, amuse, sadden, cheer, provoke, delight and enrage. Words, or touches of the ball in football, create patterns (some rudimentary, others beautifully intricate), each one altering what follows. They are consequential.

By the same token, can we say with any certainty that there is more to football than just winning, losing and drawing? Certainly, in the professional game you have conflicting ideas perhaps best epitomised by Argentine football, a nation in which, more than any other, there are two opposing schools which divide the native footballing fraternity more or less down the middle, a sporting, (but also political) ideological debate now decades old about style, and with no clear resolution. World Cups have been won and lost, blame has been apportioned and credit taken, stylistic changes implemented then consigned to the backburner only to subsequently return after more vacillation, yet still Argentina continues to wrestle with its footballing conscience.

For some, winning is the absolute aim, an objective to be achieved at any cost. For others, less quantifiable entities like style of play, attitude, behavioural rectitude and the concept of the ‘right way’ are key tenets in the pursuit of victory. To the more radical, a victory achieved without exemplifying these principles is worse than a defeat where they are clearly demonstrated. There is something more significant, perhaps more incorruptibly satisfying to be garnered from football than only the glory of victory or the anguish of defeat.

Functionality vs style, financial reward vs professional happiness, loyalty vs success, individuality vs team dynamic, competition vs fun – these are questions and conflicts which we face in our lives every day to varying degrees, and it is these moral dilemmas which football tacitly makes you consider.

To me, both language and football can give sensory pleasure to the ears and eyes respectively. When I hear a well-composed sentence, it evokes an appreciation of something far beyond the successful exchange of information. Equally, for an impartial observer in football, a crisply struck shot finding the top corner is of far more sensory merit than a deflected, scrappy effort sliding its way into the net, though there is no difference in terms of reward. Football is full of peculiarities. To compare, the deflected shot is a hastily scribbled shopping list on the back of a receipt, while the arrowing drive into the top corner represents honeyed prose scribed with a quill on the finest writing paper.

From the celebrated coffee house discussions of ‘the beautiful game’ in 1930s Vienna to the online fan forums of the present day, football has always been discussed liberally and in terms often entirely pertaining to that sport. It has its own linguistic identity, its own dialect.

Language, and in particular, the English language (since that is the one I know best) can be elegant or clumsy, substantial or meaningless, hyperbolic or reasonable, traditional or neoteric, and go from one to the other in a frantic split-second. Football shares all of these qualities. Perhaps that’s why I’m so fond of them both.

No matter tonight’s result, Blanc’s days are numbered

Laurent Blanc arrived as head coach of Paris Saint Germain in the summer of 2013. He won Ligue Un with Bordeaux prior to sanitising the poisonous atmosphere around the French national team following the 2010 World Cup. Despite his impressive CV, there was some consternation at his appointment. Many suggested a bigger ‘name’ was required to convert PSG into European contenders, though they were placated by the sight of first, Edinson Cavani, then a hat-trick of domestic trophies making their way to Paris, including a second consecutive league title. After a triumphant first season, Blanc signed an extension to his contract.

Less than a year on, Paris Saint Germain host Chelsea tonight in a rematch of last season’s enthralling quarter-final, and the feeling towards Blanc and PSG appears less positive.

At first glance, there seems little to legitimately complain about. Critics point to being third in the Ligue Un table as a regression from the dominance of last season, but that is to casually disregard that the Parisians are level on points with second-placed Marseille, only two behind the leaders Lyon and are overwhelming favourites to retain the Coupe de la Ligue against Bastia in April’s final. However, this being said, there is some justification to the negativity.

While the competition of Marcelo Bielsa’s Marseille and resurgent Lyon, is greater in number and quality than Monaco’s challenge of 2013-14, PSG sit on 49 points after 25 match days, a points per game ratio (1.96) far inferior to that of last season (2.34). There has been a larger discrepancy in their ability to find the back of the net. The 84 league goals scored by Blanc’s team last season came at a rate of 2.21 per match, but a continuation of this term’s form would see them manage no more than 65. In addition, with 13 games remaining in Ligue Un, the 22 goals conceded by Salvatore Sirigu amount to only one fewer than last season’s total.

The personnel is largely the same. The lumbering Alex and winger Jérémy Ménez left for AC Milan, while veteran club captain Christophe Jallet departed for Lyon, but he was generally identified as the weak link in a PSG back-line reinforced by Ivory Coast’s Serge Aurier, and David Luiz from tonight’s opponents.

Aurier seemed an astute addition on loan from Toulouse, but there was disquiet amongst media and fans surrounding the acquisition of Luiz. He has performed more than adequately in conjunction with Brazil colleague Thiago Silva in central defence, but many felt, though a centre-back was needed, the record 50 million euro fee was too much for only one player, and would have preferred a younger, French player.

The French giants’ squad bears some similarity to their regal Parc Des Princes stadium. Both are of indubitable quality, prestige and tradition, but perhaps not big enough to sustain their mid-to long-term ambitions. There is also the fear that certain players are past their prime.

Principal among these is arguably Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Top scorer and player of the year last season, he has been beset by injuries this and has only 11 league goals thus far, ten fewer than the current top scorer, Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette. While he remains the club’s best player, the reported distance between himself and Edinson Cavani has prompted the Swede into a number of curt responses to questions regarding the relationship shared by the strikers. Not content with remarking on the professional integrity of journalists, in a rant not dissimilar to Roy Keane’s assessment of Manchester United supporters in 2005, Ibrahimovic also criticised his own club’s ‘caviar-eating’ fans after boos reverberated around the Parc Des Princes in a recent draw, one of ten in the league this season.

Earlier in the year, Cavani and Argentine forward Ezequiel Lavezzi were suspended and publicly criticised by the manager after a late return from South America after the Christmas break, while Club President Nasser Al Khelaifi felt compelled to venture into the changing room at half-time of the 1-1 draw at a Lacazette-less Lyon

With all the above considered, the impression is of a team in decline, and the pressure on Blanc is inevitably building.

To add to the coach’s woe, injuries to Yohan Cabaye, Marquinhos, Aurier and Lucas Moura during their home game against Caen at the weekend resulted with their finishing the match with nine players and the surrender of a two-goal lead in yet another draw, while Thiago Motta is also out of a massively depleted squad. By contrast, Chelsea had a rest, a virtue of being eliminated from the FA Cup, and though there are minor doubts about the fitness of Cesc Fabregas, Diego Costa is fresh after missing the last three games through a dubious suspension.

Mourinho has increased the scrutiny on his counterpart before the game by claiming to have turned down the PSG job on two occasions, including just before Blanc’s appointment. While their former coach Vahid Halihodzic has helpfully offered his views on the tie saying, “PSG are in difficulty [and] lack team spirit…Mourinho has the authority Blanc lacks”. To compound this, sports daily L’Équipe today published an article wistfully entitled “if Mourinho coached PSG…”.

It is understood that PSG have made spoken to Atlético de Madrid as to the availability of coach Diego Simeone, which was met with a predictable response, though the French champions consider that merely an opening gambit, and are likely to return with a more concrete proposal.

Mourinho sweeps into town this evening with a seven-point lead at the top of the Premier League and, like Blanc, will also negotiate a League Cup final next month. But for the beleaguered Frenchman, even winning the French title and Coupe de la Ligue is probably no longer enough. He must show his credentials in the Champions’ League, a competition almost synonymous with tonight’s opponent in the dugout. Realistically though, even a strong PSG showing this evening will not signal the end of his employers’ furtive enquiries elsewhere.

Jesus labouring under Guttman’s long shadow.

In the early summer of 1962, shortly after winning his second successive European Cup by defeating the winners of the five prior editions Real Madrid, Benfica’s Hungarian coach Béla Guttman requested a pay rise from the board of directors at his club. It was refused and, unsurprisingly, as somewhat of a specialist in sudden departures, he left immediately.

Guttman moved to Portugal in 1958, originally with Benfica’s rivals, FC Porto, and subsequently overhauled his future employers’ five point lead in the table to win the title. To some astonishment, after only a season with Os Dragões , he moved to Benfica, released 20 senior members of the squad and promoted a raft of players from the youth team. So followed two more league titles and two continental victories for the peripatetic Guttman, including a league and European Cup double in 1961.

Despite this success, Guttman maintained an uneasy relationship with the board at the club, and privately dismissed many as power-hungry. Though, after consecutive european crowns and the emergence under his tutelage of the continent’s pre-eminent player, Eusébio, Guttman considered his position a strong one and believed, despite the strained relations, that the directors would put the interests of the club first, and that in this case, the interests of the club were to grant him the security, financial and sporting, which he felt he merited.

The president of the club, after consultation with the directors, was unwilling to alter the club’s wage structure to accommodate his coach’s demands, while also confident in the notion that the squad would continue to triumph with or without the coach. Incensed at what he perceived to be a casual disregard for his unprecedented achievements in Lisbon, Guttman left cursing, “not in a hundred years from now will Benfica ever be European champion.”

Fifty-two years, eight lost continental finals later, and ‘Guttman’s curse’, branded as raging bitterness at the time, has become an immortal passage in the history of this great club. So much so, that in the days before Benfica’s 1990 European Cup final in Vienna, where Guttman was laid to rest in 1981, Eusébio, by this time retired, went to his former coach’s grave to pray for a Benfica victory against AC Milan. There was no evidence of divine intervention as Benfica lost to a Frank Rijkaard goal.

In 2013-14, Benfica won a domestic treble and reached a second successive Europa League final having lost against Chelsea to a late winner the previous year. Defeating Italian champions Juventus in the semi-finals, whose stadium was to host the showpiece event, made Benfica clear favourites to dispatch a spirited but limited Sevilla side. However, for the more superstitious onlookers, the ‘curse’ was still in effect as Ivan Rakitic was inspired for Los Nervionenses as they forced and then won a penalty shoot-out to lift the trophy.

Nine of the eighteen players included in the match-day squad for the final have since left the Benfica, amongst them, Ezequiel Garay, Guilherme Siqueira, goalkeeper Jan Oblak and Oscar Cardozo, while Lazar Markovic, suspended for the final, moved to Liverpool in the summer. The coach Jorge Jesus, himself a similar character to Guttman, albeit less nomadic, remains but the spine of his title-winning team has gone. In a league where even the top clubs must perpetually regenerate, Benfica attempts at replacing the departures look poorer than in previous years, all the more so when one looks at the reputations of new names involved in Porto’s reinvigoration under Julian Lopetegui, and the steady improvement at cross-town rivals Sporting.

However, Jesus has engendered a winning habit at the club since his arrival in 2009 and while there is a long way to go, at the time of writing, Benfica remain unbeaten and are top of Liga Sagres, four points clear of FC Porto.

But it is in Europe where inadequacies become more quickly apparent, and in a balanced group at first look, a comprehensive loss at home to Zenit St Petersburg on match-day one in the Champions’ League is a more accurate signal of Benfica’s level compared to the continent’s elite. After losing two consecutive finals, Benfica’s best chance to break the ‘curse’ may well have gone.

After winning the portuguese double in 2010, Jorge Jesus stated with his customary self-assurance “I told you I’d be champion of Portugal, and I am. I now tell you I will be a champion of Europe”.

In that pursuit, Jesus is scrapping along with Europe’s top coaches, but none of his counterparts are working with the added weight of being required to disprove the embittered prophecy of an illustrious predecessor to do so.

France set shining standard

Group E. Switzerland v France. Arena Fonte Nova, Salvador.

Friday 20th June 2014

Referee:  Kuipers (Holland)

 

Line ups:

Switzerland:  Benaglio – Lichtsteiner, Djourou, Von Bergen (Senderos, 9 mins), Rodríguez – Behrami (Dzemaili, 46), Inler – Shaqiri, Xhaka, Mehmedi – Seferovic (Drmic, 69)

France – Lloris – Debuchy, Varane, Sakho (Koscielny, 66), Evra – Sissoko, Cabaye, Matuidi – Valbuena (Griezmann, 82), Giroud (Pogba, 63), Benzema

 

Switzerland made two changes to his starting eleven with goalscoring substitutes Admir Mehmedi and Haris Seferovic, both so brilliantly utilised by Hitzfeld in the comeback victory over Ecuador, coming in for Valentin Stocker and Josip Drmic respectively.

The French, perhaps surprisingly also made two changes to the team that started the comfortable win over Honduras. Antoine Griezmann made way for Olivier Giroud and Moussa Sissoko replaced Paul Pogba, somewhat targeted by the Hondurans for rough treatment, in what constituted a slight change of shape.

France began in confident fashion. Benzema, twice on the scoresheet in the first game, curled only narrowly wide of Benaglio’s goal, while Yohan Cabaye relieved the Swiss of some early French pressure by hacking a volley over the top from distance. A suspected fractured cheekbone to the only outfield member of Hitzfeld’s squad in his thirties, Steve Von Bergen, meant that Philippe Senderos replaced him after nine minutes.

Didier Deschamps’ apparent rotation policy bore fruit with two French goals in the space of sixty seconds before Switzerland had even got going.

A corner was headed in by Giroud, and straight from the restart, Karim Benzema surged at the Swiss centre-backs before finding Blaise Matuidi who caught out Benaglio low at his near post. The composure Switzerland displayed against Ecuador was nowhere to be seen here, and La Marseillaise resonated around the Arena Fonte Nova. In the space of a minute, France had assumed grip on the match which they never truly loosened.

Granit Xhaka had a goal correctly ruled offside before Xherdan Shaqiri scuffed a shot narrowly wide via touch from Lloris which went undetected. However, their strong response was nearly in vain.

Benzema occupied space vacated by Lichtsteiner as the French broke. He made his way into the penalty area where he induced an impetuous attempted tackle from Djourou and France had a penalty kick. What followed was an episode of Gallic profligacy and misfortune. 

Benzema had his effort well saved, but from Benaglio’s stop, the ball was volleyed against the crossbar by the onrushing Cabaye. Matuidi helped the ball again towards goal, but the Swiss survived what would have been the coup de grâce.

France were counterattacking with structure and flair, and the inevitable would be postponed no further. This time from a cleared opposition corner, Varane released Giroud into the acres of space again left by Lichtsteiner’s reckless abandon. He squared for Valbuena to sweep home, and France were extending their lead at the top of Group E. Switzerland appeared stunned to the point of inertia. Shortly afterwards, Valbuena could have had another through yet another break and Benzema tested Benaglio again before half-time but three-nil it stayed.

Blerim Dzemaili replaced Napoli teammate Valon Behrami as Hitzfeld endeavoured to manufacture some balance, and the beginning of the second half saw the French tide somewhat stemmed. Seferovic, who fired the winner against Ecuador, snatched at a couple of chances as the man he replaced in that game, Josip Drmic warmed up. Giroud flashed a shot wide from twenty-five yards but the French were more subdued.

Switzerland created a little more for a period but their relative renaissance was short-lived. Pogba had replaced Giroud, unfortunate to be withdrawn, and it was the young midfielder’s delightful pass with the outside of his right foot which eluded Senderos to set up Benzema for the fourth of the day, and his third of the tournament. Senderos, much maligned at Arsenal and Fulham in the Premier League, should certainly have done better with his clearance.

That goal, like the first of the afternoon, was followed rapidly by another only after fast interplay was tarnished by Patrice Evra’s lack of faith in his right foot. No-one would have blamed Benzema if he had shot from the edge of the area during a similar French move, but he helped the ball wide for Sissoko to bury first-time into the far corner. Benaglio saved well from Valbuena and Benzema to keep the deficit at five, and to say Switzerland were in tatters would have been a gross understatement. Les Bleus were simply walking through them.

France coasted to the finish allowing the substitute Dzemaili to puzzlingly find a way through the wall from a long-range free kick for a consolatory goal, which was quickly followed by another from Xhaka and it finished five-two.

Switzerland will be grateful for their two late goals which lessen the damage to their goal difference, while hoping for another comfortable French win over Ecuador in order to progress in second place. They possess quality but lack a little international experience, and one suspects they will not go any further than the second round, even if they do progress.

Meanwhile, a second comprehensive French victory gives more weight to claims they may well be contenders for the trophy. A draw against Ecuador will be enough to top the group, and they will have serious ideas of going a lot further than that. France tend to follow an unsuccessful World Cup campaign, like those of 2002, 2010, and even 1994 where they failed to qualify, with a hugely impressive one, like those of 1998, 2006 and, they will hope with some realism, 2014.

Clinical Colombia cling on

Group C. Colombia v Ivory Coast. Estádio Nacional, Brasília.

Thursday 19th June 2014

Referee:  Webb (England)

 

Line ups:

Colombia:  Ospina – Zúñiga, Zapata, Yepes, Armero (Arias, 72 mins) – Aguilar (Mejía, 79), Sánchez – Cuadrado, James Rodríguez, Ibarbo (Quintero, 53) – Gutiérrez

Ivory Coast:  Barry – Aurier, Zokora, Bamba, Boka – Serey Die (Bolly, 73), Tioté – Gervinho, Y. Touré, Gradel (Kalou, 67) – Bony (Drogba, 60)

 

A comfortable defeat of Greece in their first game did little to dampen Colombian expectations, which had reached a crescendo before confirmation of Falcao’s absence from the tournament due to a damaged cruciate ligament. The names of Edwin Valencia and former Atlético Madrid defender, Luis Amaranto Perea, were added to the list of those in absentia for Los Cafeteros.

Carlos Bacca, voted Marca’s La Liga signing of the season for 2013-2014 and impressive from the bench in the Colombians’ opener, also missed the second group game as Cagliari’s Víctor Ibarbo, kept his place. Porto’s in-demand Jackson Martínez remained on the bench, as Colombia were unchanged, exemplifying the strength of José Pekerman’s squad.

Didier Drogba, catalyst for the Ivorian revival against Japan in Recife, surprisingly began on the bench again, while Max Gradel, once of Leeds United replaced Salomon Kalou on the left of the African attacking trident.

One would have been forgiven for mistaking Brasília for Bogotá as the trend for vociferous South American support continued at the Estádio Nacional. The stands were awash with Colombian yellow.

Teófilo Gutiérrez scuffed the game’s opening chance wide of Barry’s left-hand post. Snappy midfield exchanges from both teams were characterising the opening minutes, one releasing Cuadrado into a promising position behind the Ivorian left-back, while Gervinho forced a corner from another at the opposite end.

Didier Zokora has undergone a veritable transformation into a central defender since leaving Spurs. Accompanying his Trabzonspor colleague, Sol Bamba, in that position today, he made a crucial interception from James to end another Colombian counter-attack. 

The Monaco man’s deft left foot was integral in unleashing the considerable speed of Ibarbo and Cuadrado down the flanks in the first quarter, and Gutiérrez fluffed his lines from a James cross after the ‘number ten’ had squeezed between two opposing defenders.

Though the South Americans carried more threat, Ospina demonstrated his safe hands from a Gradel shot, and Serey Die had a venomous effort deflected behind for a corner. However, Bony was ineffectual, failing to muster a first-half touch in the Colombia penalty area. It was a performance crying out for Didier Drogba.

While the first-half passed with flashes of quality, they resulted in disappointingly few chances. Yaya Touré is a paradoxical amalgamation of outstanding athletic endeavour and an air of lumbering laziness, though, indicative perhaps of the lack of goalmouth action, Carlos Sánchez’s quietly absorbing duel with Touré, one the Colombian was shading, was probably the first-half’s highlight.

Colombia probed spasmodically with little reward at the start of the second half, but just as Ivory Coast appeared to be assuming control, Cuadrado sparked into life. 

A clipped pass from left to right found the Fiorentina winger and he beat his man with ease, firing a rising drive from a tight angle goalward, which was tipped onto the crossbar by Boubacar Barry.

As a riposte, Sabri Lamouchi called Ivorian talisman Drogba from the bench to replace Bony, and his first involvement was to typically head away a Colombian free kick. The match was bubbling promisingly.

It exploded into life minutes later with three goals in less than ten minutes.

A outswinging corner from another substitute, Juan Quintero, was met by the head of James Rodríguez who diverted the ball into the roof of the net via a touch from Barry to give Colombia the lead.

A second followed swiftly. A wasteful Ivorian corner found its way to Serey Die on halfway who conspired to give the ball straight to Gutiérrez. He then fed Quintero to sweep confidently past Barry, and continue a trend for goalscoring substitutes at this World Cup.

However, the two-goal lead lasted only three minutes. Gervinho, showing the kind of ability at which he only hinted during his time with Arsenal, skipped into the area between Zúñiga and Aguilar from wide on the left. Carlos Sánchez dove in impatiently with a challenge the winger did well to avoid before drilling the ball in at the near post. Suddenly the Africans were back in it.

The Ivorians came back well against Japan and had designs on doing so here. A Boka cross only narrowly eluded Drogba’s accomplished forehead, and Kalou shot meekly at Ospina. Although the possibility of a Colombian break was eminent, Quintero testing Barry from fully 45 yards, Pekerman’s side were getting a little ragged. 

After that, an ill-tempered debate surrounding a drop-ball aside, the game passed without incident and Colombia have gone some way to ensuring their presence in the knockout stages. While Ivory Coast displayed enough to suggest that they are better placed than the Japanese to progress as the Asians play a Colombia looking to top the group in their final game.

Guardiola’s tactical development and experimentation at Bayern Munich up to Christmas 2013 (written December 2013)

The understandable disappointment of most of the British press was punctuated with initial, outraged incredulity from the more diehard tabloid cheerleaders of the Premier League, followed by blind panic. The ‘petrodollars’, ‘megabucks’ and other assorted Premier League buzzwords had failed to tempt the most sought-after coach in the world to come to the “best league in the world”, thus depriving a nation of years of laboured “Peptalk” headlines. A couple of days of introspective analysis followed, as if the Premier League looked in the bathroom mirror, and silently asked itself between sobs, “Why doesn’t he like me?”, “What has the Bundesliga got that I haven’t?”. Naturally, this knee jerk hysteria came to a swift enough end, but rarely, if ever, has there been quite that level of widespread, unanticipated disappointment over a manager choosing to coach in another country. The tabloids, and some of the more excitable broadsheets, had to content themselves with his assertion that he still maintained the “dream” of coaching in England. That the season’s Champions’ League then culminated in the first all-German final, in which his future employers gleefully added the final third of their treble to the signing of the defeated opposition’s best player, only added to Josep Guardiola’s mythical status.

 

 

On January 16th of this year, during the winter break in the Bundesliga with the intention of minimising any potential disruption to Jupp Heynckes and his squad, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge announced, that FC Bayern Munich had procured the services of Josep Guardiola i Sala for the following three seasons commencing 1st July 2013. This should not really have been as much of a surprise to many as it appeared to be.

Guardiola’s only previous senior managerial post was at FC Barcelona, the club he represented with distinction for the grand part of his playing career. The sporting and structural similarities between Bayern and his previous employers are now well-known (thus I see little reason to repeat them here) and numerous, and one imagines, they contributed greatly to the Catalan’s decision to move to Bavaria.

Add to this the current wealth of resources, both sporting and financial, on offer at the Allianz Arena, as well as the general public perception of Josep Guardiola, albeit a hugely, clichéd exaggeration, as being cut from a different cloth to your average ‘european super-coach: a footballing demi-god, if you will, who concerns himself not with fame or fortune, but with a sense of honour, ‘doing things the right way’ and other idealistic convictions that no sum of money could possibly compromise. With this taken into consideration, it would have come as little surprise to the sensible observer that the foreign owners of the Premier League were politely told to keep searching by the ‘de rigueur’ managerial target of the 2012-13 season. 

Between his signing for Bayern and his first press conference as manager, the football world had changed. The aura of invincibility he had built at FC Barcelona had been destroyed by his new club in the Champions’ League semi-finals only two months prior. He had signed in January, billed as the catalyst to propel a Bayern team on the brink of greatness to the heights their talent and industry merited. He arrived as the man charged with improving upon perfection.

Even prior to his arrival for pre-season, Guardiola’s influence became apparent. He wanted a deal to sign Neymar Jr from Santos concluded before his target played in the Confederations Cup, but was told that the club had no intention of entering the bidding for the brazilian for a number of reasons, not least the complications caused by his ownership rights. Accepting this, he suggested an alternative. Bayern shocked the footballing fraternity by announcing the signing of their main rivals’ prized asset, Mario Götze, after meeting his buyout clause. Dortmund were powerless.

Whether Bayern would have attempted to sign Götze had they not appointed Guardiola is not known. Yet it is conceivable that Guardiola’s impending arrival convinced Götze that the benefits of working under the tutelage of a veritable superstar of the managerial domain would outweigh the likely vitriolic reaction from the Dortmund fans.

In addition to Götze, the endless technical expertise of Thiago Alcántara embellished the squad for over 20 million euros from Barcelona after Guardiola’s insistence that he was the only further player he required. To make room, two relatively technically limited defensive midfielders departed, Luis Gustavo and Anatoliy Tymoschuk. Several youth team players were called up to first team training, including Pierre-Émile Hojbjerg who featured several times towards the end of Heynckes’ rein, and Julian Green who has since appeared in the Champions’ League under Guardiola. 

After only days of pre-season, players were speaking of a novelty to the training sessions. Rummenigge expressed his surprise at the sheer volume of Pep’s ideas and Franck Ribéry claimed that Guardiola asked him if he could play as his ‘Number 10’ in certain situations. Guardiola himself stated that he felt a team of Bayern’s individual and collective calibre need not always play with the ‘double pivot’ midfield utilised to great effect the previous campaign, and that in most scenarios, he considered one holding player sufficient.

As the season has developed, this is Guardiola’s most striking alteration to the winning ‘formula’ of his predecessor. Bayern have almost exclusively played with one holding midfield player. Not only is there one fewer occupying that line, the nature of the one that remains is often far removed from the styles of Heynckes’ preferred, steady but destructive pair of Martínez and Schweinsteiger. He seems, depending slightly on who gets the nod in that position, to occupy the possessional fulcrum of the team, a wall of off which teammates can bounce the ball and have it returned to them when they are ready, yet also the deepest of the team’s creative pillars. An all-rounder’s role, then. This is probably Guardiola’s most defining positional innovation since his relocation of Lionel Messi from inverted right winger to an elusive, central goalscoring phenomenon.

Shortly after his acquisition, Thiago started as the pivot in the German Supercup against Dortmund. Early on in their tactical development, facing a team incredibly aware through several years of repetition of their collective and individual roles, Bayern were overrun on the counter, and Guardiola outmaneuvered as Dortmund won 4-2. 

Phillip Lahm had played much of pre-season as the deep-lying midfielder, after Guardiola identified him as “the most intelligent player I have ever worked with”, and wanted the team to have better use of his quality of distribution. It is a simple thought process, but not a common one it would seem. At the age of 29, at the peak of his career as a full-back, with no previous top-level experience in the midfield, Guardiola identified that being predominantly situated on or near to the right touchline, Lahm could invariably pass only one way, infield. This, he considers, at times, a waste of his passing accuracy and level temperament. Lahm has since played at right back this season, it was not a change of position, more a utilisation of his obvious positional flexibility but also a broadening of the team’s tactical horizons. Similar expansions of players’ tactical capabilities have been attempted with Marios Götze and Mandzukic, Thomas Müller and Javi Martínez amongst others, to varying degrees of success. Mandzukic’s stint as a left sided attacker of a front three driving into the centre was probably the adaption that bore the least fruit, but it was also the briefest. Guardiola has seemed to accept that the team and Mandzukic are best served with him starting in a central position, before running the ‘channels’, attempting to isolate defenders for the quartet of attacking midfielders to exploit, while his presence allows the team to be more direct when necessary or most productive. 

In Mandzukic’s absence, Müller has often been placed as the central attacker, performing an unconventional role of a sort of hard-running, quasi-poacher. On other occasions, Götze has occupied the forward role as what would now conventionally be called a ‘false nine’, an expression designed to label Guardiola’s aforementioned repositioning of Messi. 

But the most interesting, and perhaps extreme, example of his incredibly versatile squad can be found in his use of Javi Martínez during the first half at the Westfalenstadion against Dortmund in November’s league match. He principally occupied a position which was not dissimilar to the one Marouane Fellaini generally used to occupy for Everton, and Bayern were often seen playing longer passes to his head and chest in order to beat the energetic Dortmund press and gain field position. Mandzukic was a more mobile target for similar long passes, and the pair’s ability to retain the ball and find a teammate often stifled Dortmund pressure before it had really been established. This development of this tactic was encouraged by the absences of all of Dortmund’s first choice defenders.

Early in the second half, Guardiola replaced Mandzukic with Götze, dropping the advanced Martínez back to a more conventional midfield position and having Götze occupy his ‘false nine’ role. The added body in midfield and the withdrawn nature of Götze’s position allowed for the wide players Arjen Robben and Müller to push forward. Expecting Dortmund not to press for fear of the press-breaking long pass to Martínez, Bayern looked to retain more studied possession of the ball. 

The progression of this tactic was accelerated by Guardiola as he brought on Thiago for the centre-back Boateng. Martínez then made the full reverse to replace him in the defence, Müller joined Götze more centrally, Lahm went wider to the right freeing Thiago to occupy the deep role in the midfield allowing him much possession as Bayern looked to seize control. His wide range of passing facilitated his creation of counterattacks from his pseudo-defensive position.

Shortly after his introduction, Götze scored. 0-1 Bayern. Dortmund pressed again in search of an equaliser. In the last ten minutes, Robben doubled the lead from Thiago’s long, counterattacking pass, and Müller scored from his new central position thanks to a Lahm cut back from wide on the right. Guardiola’s in-game modifications to his Bayern side directly allowed the team to thrive in a variety of guises in the most important match of the club’s season thus far. For all the emphasis on Guardiola’s allegedly rigid ideology, his tactical acumen should not be lost on anyone.

The fact that he has such a plethora of options at his disposal means that Bayern are developing so many subtle variations within the basic framework of their functioning system, that detailed examination of their patterns of play by opposition managers and scouts can be rendered utterly futile with one slight adjustment on a theme.

The general flexibility of the squad combined with the technical ability has surpassed even that of the treble winning season in the first half of this campaign. This is a sophisticated, monster of footballing mutation, directed astutely by a refreshed Guardiola, who has maintained and added to the appetite for success synonymous with the club last season by synchronising his sheer force of innovation, strength of footballing doctrine and clarity of explanation with the basic values and structure in place at an already magnificent football club.

We are witnessing the formation of a chameleon of a squad, capable of adapting to every possible move by the opponent and having the collective initiative and maturity to make small, in-game changes within the framework of the side’s shape and position during any given match.

Guardiola presided over the formation and maintenance of the greatest team I have ever seen, and now appears to be in the brink of navigating a side to rival them in terms of trophies, style and innovation. While his portrayal as a seer gracing the rest of football with his continued involvement is unhelpful and does a disservice to a number of other prominent footballing theorists (Bielsa, Pellegrini etc), Josep Guardiola is the preeminent footballing thinker in the current game, but what separates him, is the success he has had, and is having, in transferring his distinctive ideas from the theoretical, to the practical.