Monthly Archives: July 2010

Saturday Night Links: Comeback edition

Arsène Wenger

Arsène Wenger thinks the new rules on Premiership teams (25 players registered, 8 of which must be homegrown) will be “disastrous.” To quote the man himself, “I am not a big fan of it because it puts, first of all, many players without clubs. Secondly it puts the clubs in a weak position most of the time in the transfer market because when you already have 25 players and you buy another one, you know you have 26 and now have to get rid of one. So when you buy a player, you have to integrate into the transfer how much it will also cost to get rid of a player because you are not sure if you will be capable after of selling the player.”

MLS is considering a 34-game schedule next season (2 games against each team). But that will only work for one year since Montreal is joining in 2012 (though logic dictates that they should just go to a 36-game schedule). In any event, this is a good thing. Balanced schedules always are.

In other MLS news, Seattle traded Freddie Ljungberg to Chicago for a draft pick. I was surprised by this move but apparently the Sounders decided to cash in on their designated player.

The Freddy Adu saga continues and, once again, he fails to latch on with a club. This time, Swiss club Sion decided against signing the American international. I’m not sure where Adu goes from here since he’s clearly not in Benfica’s plans. Perhaps a return to MLS is in order, at least so he gets some playing time.

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Márquez to join Thierry Henry in New York

Rafael Márquez scores v. South Africa (Getty Images)

Well, probably. If you believe the reports.

Though the man himself remained non-committal, it’s a rather poorly kept secret that the New York Red Bulls are interested in signing him, especially now that he won’t have a transfer fee.

Even though Márquez is 31 and has been hurt more or less all the time for the last two years, this is a good move for New York and for MLS. Márquez is by no means finished as a player and his quality and versatility will help the team. His name recognition and pedigree will help the league.

I think it speaks volumes that Márquez would rather go to New York than return to Mexico to play for Atlas (his original club) or, say, América. It says that MLS has to be taken seriously, at least by continental stars.

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Manchester United 2-3 Chivas de Guadalajara

Javier Hernández scores for Chivas v. Manchester United (Getty Images)

After a ridiculously elaborate opening ceremony that was worthy of the Olympics or the World Cup and lasted more than 20 minutes, Chivas de Guadalajara finally opened its new stadium – Estadio Omnilife – with a friendly match against Manchester United.

It seems fitting that Javier Hernández scored the first goal, even if it was for his old club against his new club (the young striker has been in fine form since the World Cup, when he scored goals against France and Argentina and is only adding to his mystique in Mexico). Amusingly, Paul Scholes picked up the first booking in the new stadium, which is perhaps fitting given his history of atrocious tackling. Chivas played the better game and deserved to win, especially in their new stadium.

With all that said, Sir Alex Ferguson chose a young squad again, continuing the tour’s main theme. Tom Cleverley impressed, once again, while Nani (despite a goal) and Tomasz Kuszczak did not. There are a number of projects – both Ritchie de Laet and Mame Biram Diouf should be sent out on loan ASAP – but Cleverley deserves a place on the bench and some playing time. Fabio looked good, especially since he was struggling with cramps against the MLS All-Stars, and Rafael’s omission was telling.

All in all, United are in a decent position and the tour has given Fergie some food for thought. There is still some time for a couple of moves before the season.

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Rafael Márquez to New York?

Rafael Márquez scores v. South Africa (Getty Images)

Mexico captain Rafael Márquez is on the verge of being released by Barcelona, according to reports.

I suppose that’s not really surprising since he’s been hurt a lot the last couple of years and both Puyol and Gerard Piqué are now entrenched in the first XI. That, combined with his relatively high wages and Barcelona’s worsening financial situation, means he could be on his way out.

The only problem is that Barcelona doesn’t have a lot of depth at center back. Perhaps there are a few prospects on the reserve or youth teams but the senior team will be somewhat short-staffed. Of course, just because Márquez might be leaving doesn’t mean the team won’t make other moves.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber has subtly suggested that the New York Red Bulls will offer Márquez a soft landing spot.

This is something to watch.

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Manchester United 5-2 MLS All-Stars

Javier Hernández scores v. MLS All-Stars (Bob Levey/Getty Images)

Let’s get one thing out of the way right away: all-star games are stupid. No matter when they’re played, either in the middle of the season like soccer, basketball, hockey, and baseball, or at the end of the season, like football, they’re an exercise in stupidity. They take up time in a busy schedule and, more importantly, they risk injury in what is, in effect, a meaningless game. And, since most take place in the middle of the season, an injury can ruin a team’s chances in the second half, the playoffs, and the championship. Not only that, but the games are, in general, ragged because players haven’t played together, which, in soccer, results in a lot of missed passes and other miscommunication. On the other hand, the league gets to shmooze with sponsors and make some easy money.

With that said, a young-ish Manchester United squad outclassed the MLS All-Stars. In fairness, Landon Donovan played 15 minutes and Edson Buddle didn’t play at all (due to the CONCACAF Champions League game the night before against the Puerto Rico Islanders). Yet the MLS All-Stars looked like an all-star team: great individual talent and lots of miscommunication. There was a slight difference in how the teams prepared. United’s youngsters were hungry and went all out (Federico Macheda scored 2 goals in 12 minutes and should have had a hat trick a few minutes later). The MLS players saw the game for what it was: an exhibition. I cannot fault either side.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s central theme on the current North American tour is to see what the young players can do. The MLS All-Stars offered a good challenge because they were quality competition. Despite the miscommunication, the players are individually very talented and are on a different level than a regular club team (no offense to the Kansas City Wizards, which defeated United 2-1). Nevertheless, Fergie is giving the young players lots of minutes, trying to decide who will stay and who will go out on loan. The aforementioned Macheda has made a good impression so far, with well-timed runs and attacking aggression, both of which are needed. And Javier Hernández, the Mexican international, made a wonderful impression in the all-star game. Both will likely stay with United and get a lot of playing time in cup matches. Similarly, I don’t know much about Tom Cleverley, other than he was on loan at Watford, did well, and was hurt in April, but I liked what I saw in the all-star game. The only tragedy is that none of those players are center backs.

Not all was well, despite the 5-2 scoreline. Nani should be dominating a game like that, especially against a young defender like Kevin Alston. Yet Nani was nowhere to be found and he was eventually removed in the 61st minute for Hernández. I’m not a Nani fan. I think he’s one of those players who has the talent but won’t ever put it together, despite brief flashes (like at the end of last season). I think Fergie should have sold him earlier this summer, but I guess he’s sticking around for another year at least. The back line is still a problem. I realize that both Fabio and Rafael are young but both want to play significant minutes this season. To be fair, their pace down the flanks would be an asset. While Fabio has shown signs of maturity, Rafael still gets too emotional, especially about bad things. It takes him out of the game and will be costly (again) this season.

The real problems were the two center backs. Both Peanut Head and Jonny Evans repeatedly made horrifying mistakes. I don’t like Wes Brown (and I never have) and I can’t understand why Fergie continues to stand by him. He needs to be replaced ASAP. Evans’s problems, on this night, at least, had more to do with laziness than anything else. He’s young enough that he can fix that and become a useful player. Indeed, he has proven useful at various times over the last couple of years. But United still need a quality center back so that Rio Ferdinand does not have to play every game. I don’t know who that man is, but Fergie needs to act to find Nemanja Vidić a permanent partner.

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Who should United sign?

Sir Alex Ferguson

Sure, there are a couple of signings already completed (Javier Hernández and Chris Smalling) and the club is on tour in the United States, but that doesn’t mean that Alex Ferguson’s summer work is finished. And, for sure, he has a proven track record of making the right choices in the real world while mine is limited to Football Manager.

But still. There are a couple of players I’d like to see in red shirts before the transfer window closes at the end of August.

1. Michael Bradley, midfielder. If anything, the United States international will be a massive step up from Michael Carrick and the perma-crocked Owen Hargreaves (that latter of which is too bad, since he had the potential to be outstanding for both club and country, as proven at the 2006 World Cup). Bradley has the fitness, the pace, the skills, and the football intelligence to play both defensively and offensively in Fergie’s system. No, he’s not a straight up defensive midfielder but he can mark offensive players far more effectively than Carrick ever could (despite his own flashes of goodness).

2. Mesut Özil, midfielder. Özil is the flavor of the month, and for good reason. The Werder Bremen man showed glimpses of his potential when he dominated long stretches of games for Germany during the World Cup. He’ll be relatively cheap (apparently United and Chelsea have tabled bids in the £10 million range) because he only has one year left on his contract. He’s worth perhaps double that amount. With Özil and Rooney near the top and Bradley controlling the middle, there’d be less pressure on Ryan Giggs and, more importantly, Paul Scholes. Ball-winning and ball-controlling midfielders also help relieve the pressure on the back four.

3. A central defender. I don’t have a specific name but I do have a profile. The defender should be quick and strong and, preferably, tall. He needs to pair with Nemanja Vidić so he should have complimentary skills. He needs to replace Rio Ferdinand (who’s aging in dog years and preparing to join Hargreaves on the perma-crocked list) so there’s that, as well. I maintain my position that the one recent transfer Fergie would undo if he could is selling Gerard Piqué to Barcelona. Getting another central defender probably should be number 1 on this list, if one thinks about it for more than a few seconds.

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Entire France team suspended

France and Bordeaux manager Laurent Blanc

Well, “suspended” is a term loosely used here. New France coach Laurent Blanc will not pick any of the 23 players from the World Cup for the next friendly against Norway on 11 August. It’s something that needed to be done and I didn’t think, in a million years, that he would do it.

After the squad’s mutiny in defense of monumental douchebag Nicolas Anelka, it had to be done. Patrice Evra was a poor choice as captain and his willingness to stage (lead?) a wildcat strike shows that. I can understand wanting to defend your teammate but, at the same time, it’s not like Anelka is a symbol of stability. Evra would have been better off talking to the squad behind closed doors rather than making everything private. Of course, there’s just something so very French about a petulant mass walkout. (This does not absolve the French Football Federation of blame for going to the World Cup with a terrible coach in Raymond Domenech, just to be clear.)

What’s the impact going to be? A couple of world-class players will miss out on 1 cap. Evra will likely be stripped of his captaincy and, if I were in charge, frozen out for a while. That’s about it, unless Blanc is a lot bolder than I think he is.

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World Cup Final: Spain 1-0 Holland

Andrés Iniesta scores the World Cup-winning goal for Spain (Michael Sohn/AP)

To paraphrase Dickens, it was the best of times and it was the worst of times. For Spain, anyway. For Holland, it was just the worst of times.

In some respects, the Dutch players brought it on themselves. In abandoning Total Football (much like Brazil abandoned its joga bonito style) in search of championships, the Dutch employed a guerrilla style that results in fouls. Take Mark van Bommel, for example. He’s a hard man in the middle, and I respect that. But if we’re being honest, he probably should have been booked at least 10-15 times more than he was (once). The same can be said of Nigel de Jong. The problem, then, is that while the Dutch played sturdy defense, they fouled too much. Which is exacerbated when trying to mark players as skilled as Xavi and Andrés Iniesta.

So how did Spain win? Patience and perseverance. Spain frustrates opponents because it controls the game in ways other teams can only dream of. It’s intimidating. Look how passive the Germans were against Spain, as compared to their other games. Look at how passive the Dutch were today, despite their tough pre-match talk. It was all posturing because they, like the other teams Spain played, became flustered by their lack of possession.

Spain’s patience was rewarded, albeit extraordinarily late. Iniesta’s goal was the result of a good build-up and a terrible cross (with a lucky bounce) by Fernando Torres. The point is that the build-up, the probing (in Martin Tyler’s words), is successful. It’s not exactly Barcelona-style beautiful football, but it’s effective, in part because of the skill on Spain’s team and in part because the team is committed to it.

That’s not to say there aren’t any problems. The Spanish back line was curiously bad today (probably because they gave Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder more room than other opponents, and justifiably so). But San Iker was there to save the day on Robben’s especially glorious chance at 62 minutes. David Villa, up front, was frustrated numerous times that he wasn’t found in time (Cesc Fàbregas should have laid the ball out for him) and he blew a couple of open-ish chances. Fernando Torres was off the entire World Cup and pulled up lame near the end of the game. But the good far outweighs the bad for the Spanish team.

A quick comment on Howard Webb’s performance. In a tournament in which the referees were, on the whole, terrible, Webb had a reasonably good game. The bookings (a record number for a final) were all justified. There could have been a couple more, especially if Nigel de Jong had been booked for kicking Xabi Alonso in the chest. In all, it was a choppy game but not because of Webb; it was choppy because of the Dutch tactics.

That should not detract from Spain’s triumph. Spain won the game fair and square. It was the most dominant team over the last 3-4 years and thoroughly deserved to win.

Congratulations to Spain.

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Spain wins the World Cup

Spain wins the World Cup, by a score of 1-0 over Holland on 11 July 2010

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Manager a-go-go

Roy Hodgson introduced as the new Liverpool manager

Now that some of the good teams are knocked out of the World Cup, expect a lot of movement in terms of managers in the next few weeks, for both club and country.

Javier Aguirre, Mexico. Aguirre resigned as Mexico manager, falling on his sword and taking responsibility for Mexico’s showing. To a degree, he’s right (it was a stupid decision to go with Oscar Pérez in goal and he had misplaced faith in the obviously overwhelmed Efraín Juárez). At the same time, he’s wrong because Mexico’s expectations were too high. The team that went to South Africa was a 2nd round team (perhaps a quarterfinal team if it played its socks off). That’s the first problem. The second problem was skill level. Mexico is very talented in midfield, especially with Giovanni dos Santos’s improvement over the last year. But the team has no strikers: Guillermo Franco isn’t that good and Carlos Vela isn’t developing (here’s hoping he makes a dos Santos-like breakthrough in the next year or so). When Cuauhtémoc Blano is still seriously considered for national team duty, the cupboard is bare. Mexico needs to develop young players and put its faith in them (Javier Hernández comes to mind), much like Germany has done.

Roy Hodgson, Liverpool. Hodgson left a decent Fulham team for a Liverpool squad in disarray. What he does get is a massive step up in reputation (no matter what I think about Liverpool, it’s one of the biggest clubs in the world). Hodgson is clearly a stop-gap and he might not even have been the first choice (Didier Deschamps reportedly turned Liverpool down). So, one of the biggest clubs in the world hires a middling manager with precious little success on his resume. Fascinating. I think this was a political choice and I hope Hodgson makes the best of it. But when the clear-out comes – and it will come sooner rather than later, what with the owner debt and lack of European competition – Hodgson will be the sacrificial lamb. He should’ve stayed at Fulham.

Bob Bradley, United States. Let’s make this clear: Bob Bradley should NOT be fired. Although starting Ricardo Clark was a massive error, Bradley’s system works for the United States, as it’s currently constructed. In short, he gets good results out of sometimes lacking talent (the distressing habit of allowing goals in the first 20 minutes notwithstanding). The bigger problem is that, like Mexico, the US has no go-to striker (if we’re being honest, the two best strikers are midfielders: Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey). Jozy Altidore has the potential to be very good but he needs to play like he did against Algeria all the time (he was virtually absent against Ghana). Some of that is the coach’s fault. But national team managers are put in a position where they only get to see their players for weeks at a time. It falls on the USSF, MLS, and players to get into situations to maximize their skill development.

Fabio Capello, England. Of course, the English tabloids are calling for his head. They are, if nothing else, predictable. England’s problem is similar to Mexico’s: it fancies itself a world soccer power when, in reality, it’s a middle-of-the-road player capable of extraordinary results once in a while. In fact, according to Soccernomics, England consistently punches above its weight and wins a lot of its matches, except when it counts. England’s problems are twofold: first, it’s a relatively small country, in terms of population (meaning there are fewer players to choose from) and it’s relatively insular in terms of coaching and skills development (the Everton academy is a bit of an exception). Don Fabio helps with both of those by exposing English players to Italian soccer philosophy. Second, the players it develops are all the same. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. Emile Heskey and Wayne Rooney. John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, and Jamie Carragher. Aside from skill level, they’re all basically the same player. And they can’t play together. I think Capello will learn from his mistakes and I think he has the stones to leave some of those players out next time (clearly Gerrard was England’s best player at the World Cup – he should be the captain).

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