A tale of two City’s

Man City’s awful results in the Champions League have been…well…exactly what every non-City supporting fan hoped they’d be. Despite their expensive and talented squad up there with some of the best teams in the world, they have so far only picked up 1 point in their group. Even worse, their performances have hardly even warranted that, being second-best in every one of their games. Followers of the Premier League will testify to City’s excellence after their superb domestic campaign last season, which makes their predicament in Europe all the more perplexing. What is it about the Champions League that converts City’s superstars to the pub team they resembled against Dortmund and Ajax?

If it wasn’t for Hart’s heroics, City would have 0 points from a possible 9

City will – and have – pointed to the quality of Group D. And they have a point, what with it containing the champions of 4 of the best leagues in Europe (La Liga, the Bundesliga, Eredivisie and the Premier League). Each of these teams have talent in abundance and know they’ll have to be on the top of their game to progress in this group, meaning they will give their all on each performance. But with City’s spending power equalling Real Madrid’s and far exceeding Dortmund’s and Ajax’s, that is no excuse. Their starting XI against Ajax cost them £184.7 million, and the total of all the City players including substitutes cost £251.7 million. That’s just under £17.98 million per player. Only Real Madrid – ironically the team City came closest to beating – can compete with those figures, their XI+subs against Dortmund costing approximately £277.4 million (£21.3 million each)*. Furthermore, whilst it has been well documented that money does not guarantee instant results, City have undeniably had (domestic) success, with a return of two major trophies since Sheikh Mansour’s takeover. His investment has returned the goods and amassed a squad of brilliant footballers. This success in England puts even more question marks over their continued failure in Europe. Last year they could (just about) put it down to naivety. This year, despite the group draw, they did not have that excuse.

One theory being bandied about is that the English league is falling behind its European counterparts in terms of quality, enabling City to dominate one and falter in the other. I don’t buy this. The Premier League has ruled in the Champions League in recent years, reaching the final at least in every year since 04-05 except for 09-10, and one week of poor results does not change that despite what certain media outlets might say. Furthermore, whilst they faltered this week, 6 of the 7 English clubs in European football are in a good position to qualify from their group. To me, it seems over-zealous hyperbole to state that the English game is a spent force a mere 3 group games into the season following an English team winning Europe’s top competition. No, the quality of English football is not the reason for City’s struggles.

Another theory, and one with a lot more credibility to it, is that the problem is Roberto Mancini. His personal managerial record speaks of a glittering, trophy-laden career on the domestic front but continual disappointments in Europe, albeit usually via the knockout stage. To Mancini’s credit, there have been few excuses. He has been honest in his interviews and admitted that City’s failings are their own doing, whether that was defending too deep against Madrid, not running enough against Dortmund, or personally making poor choices against Ajax. He has not blamed any refereeing decisions and refused to accept Champions League inexperience as an excuse. Thank God he hasn’t, because their team is full of players that have played in the Champions League.  Tevez, Balotelli, Aguero, Dzeko, Nasri, Maicon, Kompany, Clichy, Javi Garcia and the Toure brothers had all played in the Champions League before joining City. No, I believe City’s shortcomings is best be shown through Micah Richards’ outburst against Mancini after the Ajax game. Richards blamed the back three formation Mancini employed, revealing the two reasons City are struggling – poor player attitude, and Mancini’s mistakes.

Richards questioned Mancini’s decision to switch to 3 centre backs

Mancini must take some blame for their losses, as he has and as any manager should. But he can’t be completely blamed – the players themselves are the ones on the pitch playing the game and they have to hold themselves accountable, which I don’t think they are. Mancini has actually done a pretty decent job of handling the egos in his team so far. Yes, he’s made mistakes, but dealing with Tevez’s revolt last year and Balotelli’s constant behavioural irregularities can’t have been easy. However, Richards is now the second player to have spoken out against the team this year, after Joe Hart claimed the team “can only blame [themselves]” for losing to Real Madrid. Hart and Richards have never come across as petulant prima donnas, so their comments must be taken seriously. Whilst they came in post match interviews in heightened emotional conditions and footballers have never been the canniest of public speakers (oh, the perils of Twitter), their comments hint at an attitude towards the game that may be their undoing. It implies that they believe the hype around them. I doubt they pay too much attention to the media, but the amount of praise and admiration that is dolled out to City’s players must have leaked to them somehow, and that may have led to a few of their players resting on their laurels and believing that they can win games just by turning up. Some of their performances in the League this year have been unconvincing even in victory, such as their most recent game against Swansea, and interestingly their better players this year have been those pillioried last year, those with a point to prove such as Tevez, Dzeko and Kolarov. Mancini must control this over-confidence if he is to succeed in general, let alone in Europe. Thus far they have scraped their way through most of their games by just about doing enough, winning the majority of them by one goal. It is a far cry from the swaggering, goal-scoring form they started last season with. They certainly have the quality, but need to be reminded that they still need to work hard to succeed. Perhaps their current Champions League predicament will kick them into action?

Even if it does, there are still concerns surrounding Mancini. After the Ajax game he displayed genuinely concerning levels of naivety and managerial ineptitude. He openly admitted that he “prepared badly for this game” and he even suggested that tactics weren’t important:

“We changed for five minutes to three at the back, but we always have 11 players. I don’t think that is important – three, four, five, six or seven defenders. If someone wants that as an excuse then OK, but it’s not the reason. If you have the spirit or quality to play in the Champions League, you can play. If not, you can’t. This is the problem. The tactics are not important.”

Is he seriously saying that tactics aren’t important in the Champions League? Try telling that to Roberto Di Matteo, whose tactics for Chelsea won the competition with arguably the weakest Chelsea squad since Abramovich took over. It comes across as a Mancini tantrum after having his decisions questioned by one of his players. In my opinion, he felt undermined by Richards and responded with a statement that he (surely) doesn’t actually believe. Nevertheless, if he really didn’t prepare for a crucial, must-win European game then yes, he does only have himself to blame. How many more times can he do that before Sheikh Mansour refuses to allow it? It would be rash and foolish to sack Mancini even if they did crash out of the the Champions League at the group stage, yet the suggestion is not entirely fanciful. It’s within Mancini’s abilities to reel back his squad, do his homework and bring his team back down to earth, just as it’s within the squad’s capabilities to salvage their European campaign. But the players need to give more to the cause before that can happen, and that giving needs to happen from the first minute of their next Champions League game.

*All figures are approximates taken from http://www.transfermarkt.co.uk/

If Sylvester Stallone were to build a football team…

A lot was made of QPR’s summer transfer work, with many big names coming in from clubs as prestigious as Inter Milan, Real Madrid, Manchester United and Chelsea. They are an ambitious club with a lot of money, a manager with Premier League experience and, now, a host of shirt-selling signings. All of which contributed to some of my friends speaking of a European push, and one of their own signings – Julio Cesar – even suggesting they would challenge for the title one day. The big talk, big players and big wages have, so far, come to a big fat nothing. The Hoops are struggling, anyone can see that. Not only have they left themselves vulnerable to financial trouble, with many of their players lacking in resale value due to their age and on expensive contract with no relegation wage cut clauses, but they have also amassed a squad full of risks, either through age (Ryan Nelsen), injuries (Kieron Dyer) or Premier League adjustment (Esteban Granero).

I am not saying that QPR are doomed or will be relegated – one thing they’ve got in bucket-loads is experience and that should see them safe this year, but I think they need to drastically change their transfer policy for them to reach the levels Tony Fernandes, the owner, clearly wants. After all, at the moment their 2012 summer signings seem to me to resemble the cast of Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables – a group of ageing  expensive big names working together to create something brilliantly mediocre. Let’s look at the cast and ‘their’ player:

Sylvester Stallone – Julio Cesar:

     

A dark-haired strongman with a surprising amount of commitment to the cause. Seen as a major asset to the team and guaranteed to get a huge amount of action. Built like a machine, he’s almost definitely paid way more than anyone else.

Jason Statham – Esteban Granero:

     

One of the few members in the crew in demand and sought-after. He has talent in his own way but certainly isn’t as renowned as those he’s been working with. Is probably wondering why he signed up for them after very underwhelming results. Was probably lied to during the negotiating process. Is either wondering if he could have done better or enjoying being one of the better individuals in the team.

Jean-Claude Van Damme – Stephanie Mbia:

     

A strong badass who don’t take no shit. Arguably better known outside of England, but will probably grow in prominence after recent exposure with Coors Light advertising/QPR (delete as appropriate). With a name like that you’d really think he’d be French, wouldn’t you?

Jet Li – Park Ji-Sung:

     

Chuck Norris – Robert Green:

     

Made into a bit of a joke (Green for the gaffe against USA, Norris for the infamous ‘Chuck Norris jokes’) despite actually being fairly successful. Overshadowed by a better, more important person who plays exactly the same role as him, meaning he’s not going to get much time in the spotlight.

Bruce Willis – Andrew Johnson:

     

Bald, aging guy who should probably stop working so much and take a bit of time out to relax. Had a good career and will probably continue working despite getting on a bit. Not going to lie though, it’s mostly just the bald thing.

Arnold Schwarzenegger – Ryan Nelsen:

     

A robust, strong, manly man who has been working at the top level for a long time despite not actually being very good. However, his commitment cannot be faulted and he has been a valuable asset to both his country of birth and the country where he made his name. Also, they both have a really wide face…

Liam Hemsworth – Junior Hoilett:

     

The youngster of the group. An up and coming star surrounded by loads of old guys out for one last battle. Has talent and probably on the cusp of being huge, but should be wary of committing to a failing cause.

Jay from The Inbetweeners – Fabio:

     

You know how Orange have those adverts in Odeon cinemas of how mobile phones can ruin your film and stuff? Well, for those who haven’t seen the Expendables one, it involves James Buckley, Jay in The Inbetweeners, as part of their crew. Fabio reminds me of him – a fresh-faced youngster who hit the big time quite luckily with his last career decision and is surrounded by better known and more talented teammates. Might do well for himself, but we all know he’s a little bit rubbish really.

That was fun.

Back to being serious for a sec, I’m not really sure what Tony Fernandes’ objectives are. If he told Mark Hughes: ‘make sure we stay up this year’, then I think his manager has done as he’s asked, as Hughes has brought in a lot of quick-fix players for a short-term solution. But if Fernandes instructed his manager to build a serious Premier League contender then mistakes have been made. This bunch of players will never become a team together; there are too many older players set in their ways and reluctant to adapt – or incapable of adapting – their game to suit whatever strategy Hughes wants. Building a team requires younger players that are more impressionable and mouldable than Hughes’ mercenaries. Furthermore, a lot of their players based their game on pace that they won’t have now that they’re older – notably Cisse, Johnson, Wright-Phillips and Dyer. They will have to work on changing their own game and improving in other areas, which will go one of two ways. Either Hughes will realise where his team needs improvement and train his players in those areas (for example, if he wanted a forward with a useful first touch he could mould Cisse into a Berbatov/Crouch-esque player) or the aforementioned quartet will focus too much on their own game and neglect to adapt to Hughes’ style. For QPR’s sake, I hope it’s the latter, and I’m intrigued to see if it will be more successful than Stallone’s all-action extravaganza.

Are England really that bad?

 

The body language says it all

In Jonathan Northcroft’s article in this week’s issue of The Sunday Times, he places this current England team amongst the 6 worst England XI’s ever. After watching yet another insipid (a word that seems to only ever be used in a sporting context) performance from England, labouring to a 1-1 against Poland that was barely deserved, it is hard to argue against him, and once again the English National football team has come under severe criticism from fans and pundits alike. This is in no way unusual. To be honest, the English football team has come under abuse about for as long as I can remember. Born too late to appreciate the semi-final success of Euro 96, I feel as though the only times I have heard the English public talk about its national team with pride was when we beat Germany 5-1 and in the run ups to Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup. Since going out to Portugal on penalties on July 1st 2006, I have read countless articles, had many conversations and heard so much moaning about the failures, disappointments and incompetence of those perceived to be the best footballers our country can produce.

But is our national team really worthy of such denigration? Much has been made of the ludicrousy of our position on the FIFA World Rankings list; we are currently 5th, although were as high as 3rd after Euro 2012. I have even heard this England team labelled as the most hated of all time, what with the racist allegations against John Terry, the promiscuity of Ashley Cole, Wayne Rooney attacking the fans after boos against Algeria in 2010 and the general antipathy aimed towards the likes of Jermain Defoe, Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand, Gary Neville and Sol Campbell amongst others (the final point deriving more from excessive club loyalty rather than the unethical actions of the players, despite some antagonistic activity from those named such as Defoe biting Mascherano and Neville goading Liverpool fans). In amidst all this hatred and derision, the fact that we actually have a better record in major tournaments, qualifying campaigns and friendlies than almost every other country goes somewhat ignored.

Before I go any further, please don’t think I am naïve. I am not suggesting this England team are World Cup winners, that our football is majestic or that we should overhype the team. We are currently far inferior to Spain, Germany, Argentina, Brazil and Belgium to name a few, our display against Poland was listless and we should remain realistic of our chances in major campaigns. However, I am saying we should not chastise the team so much that we expect, almost relish, failure. Since 1996, we have participated in 7 major tournaments. In that time, we have finished in the quarter finals 4 times, and in the Round of 16 twice. Not a record to write home about, but not appalling. Moreover, look at how we went out, and who we went out to:

1998 – Argentina (penalties)

England crashing out of Euro 2012 on penalties

2000 – Group stage

2002 – Brazil (winners)

2004 – Portugal (penalties) (runners up)

2006 – Portugal (penalties)

2008 – awkward…

2010 – Germany (3rd)

2012 – Italy (penalties) (runners up)

Barring Euro 2000 and the 2010 World Cup, we went out to the 1st or 2nd best team in the tournament and four times by penalty shootout, which are more a lottery than based on ability. Admittedly, it is foolish to blame bad luck on our exits – after all, every team that’s ever left a tournament can do that – yet a little acknowledgment of this record might be factored into any comment on our international tournament failings. This is not even mentioning our qualifying record, where we have topped the group on every occasion since 2000 (excluding Steve McClaren’s pathetic reign) despite playing worthy opponents such as Germany, Turkey, Greece, Switzerland, Poland, Croatia and Ukraine. Why, then, do we vilify the team so much?

Well, I believe it’s because we’re ‘paying our dues’ for expecting too much of the team in the past. We have always expected a lot from our national team, retaining very high expectations that are largely unjustified. In previous campaigns, we have been very vocal about these expectations. From 2002 to 2006, England were always considered, by its own fans at least, as a potential tournament winner. Therefore, our exits embarrassed us – more because of what we said beforehand than actual on-pitch shortcomings. I believe we, the proud English public, felt self-conscious at the thought of the rest of the world laughing at us for supporting our national team so fervently and misguidedly. Furthermore, we’re still feeling that self-consciousness, thus we adopt a pessimistic attitude towards the team – enabling us to join the rest of the world in laughing at England’s mediocrity.

Returning to the England-Poland game as an example, I couldn’t help notice how critical of England the commentary was. Misplaced passes and lapses in defensive concentration were highlighted and the solid defensive work that ensured Poland fluffed all their chances went unregistered. Nor did it mention anything negative about Poland’s play, how they wasted opportunities our ‘sloppy passing’ offered. It was never acknowledged that England were the away team in a passionate stadium with a wet surface; conditions which, in the Premier League, would give any team reason to implement a defensive approach. In the qualifying game against Ukraine, I came away thinking that we actually played fairly well and that Ukraine were fortunate to get a 1-1 draw. The statistics say we shared equal amounts of possession but that England had 14 shots to Ukraine’s 8, including a debatably-legitimate goal ruled out and several excellent chances wasted. Thinking about it, our performance was not dissimilar to Poland’s against us – good play, great chances wasted and the same end result – yet where Poland were praised, the injury hit England were lambasted. In the Premier League, it is often said that the best teams are able to pick up points without playing well, yet for the international team this statement seems to be forgotten.

With the likes of Welbeck (pictured), Wilshere and Chamberlain, England have some quality youngsters coming through

As I said earlier, I know this England team are not world beaters and I know a lot of people will disagree with what I say in this article. Nonetheless, we contain many top players and have a good crop of youngsters coming through. Perhaps it’s time to find the support level between hysteria and pessimism – something similar to ‘we want England to do well, but any good results against the top sides are unlikely’. And just remember, every great international side has had its failures. Spain were the perennial underachievers as recently as 2006, now they’re regarded as one of the best international sides ever. And even in their case, the Spanish team received its fair share of criticism at Euro 2012 (and the 2010 World Cup) for dull, negative football and very nearly went out to Portugal in the Semi-finals, so even the most successful International team ever has its critics. It may not happen to England, but as supporters, we should be supporting our players when they lose, not criticising them at every possible moment.

Hi, I’m Alastair, but everyone calls me Ali (outside of my family, the majority of whom hate it). Since graduating, I’ve been looking at Journalism and how to get into that industry. Numerous failed job applications later, I thought it would be a good idea to start a blog where I can publicise my opinions and practise writing articles.

As I am hoping to move into Sports Journalism, I will be writing (unsurprisingly) about sport; predominantly football but really anything that takes my interest. Not going to lie, I’m interested to see where this will go, even if no-one else is. Hope you enjoy it!

So I’ve started a blog!