This week Fifa released the shortlist for the Ballon d’Or 2012. The False Nine team share their thoughts on some interesting nominations and omissions…
The Manager’s Shortlist: The Ones Who Got Away
Ole Gunnar Solskjær
Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s Molde are 3 points clear of the Norwegian Tippeligaen with 3 games to go till the end of the season. This will be Molde’s 2nd consecutive Championship trophy after Solskjær guided them to the summit in his first season as a professional manager – this was also Molde’s first ever title in their 100-year history. The ‘baby faced assassin’, a well respected player throughout the game has taken to management like a duck to water, starting out at Manchester United’s Reserves where he also took them to the Championship title.
Whilst the Tippeligaen may not be the most competitive of leagues, he has built a league winning squad from next to no budget, having won 13 out of 14 home games this season. He boasts a win rate of 63%, a figure any manager anywhere would be happy to enjoy. ‘OGS’ has clearly established himself as one of the best up and coming managers in European football. Whilst the likes of Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola in their first managerial roles (Porto and Barca) made the best team in their respective leagues champions, Solskjær has taken the equivalent of an Aston Villa to the title, and Champions League. A potential successor to Sir Alex Ferguson, he too quite rightly holds the Norwegian version of a knighthood.
By Joe Bookbinder
Montpellier’s René Girard was another European manager to take his side to their maiden title. When billed against the financial might of Paris Saint-Germain, as well as the traditional French powerhouses of Marseilles and Lyon, Montpellier’s achievement was nothing short of remarkable. Girard’s side combined youthful exuberance (Younès Belhanda, Karim Aït-Fana and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa) and a selection of older players, who enjoyed an Indian summer in the south of France (Hilton, John Utaka and Marco Estrada). However, Girard found the greatest success in nurturing the best out of striker Olivier Giroud. Until last year, Giroud had spent much of his career in the lower leagues of French football living in relative obscurity, but in a talismanic season last year at Montpellier he delivered 21 goals to help seal the title. It was certainly a year to remember too, as Yanga-Mbiwa and Giroud received call-ups to the French National Team and Montpellier qualified for the Champions League for the first time.
Girard shares his name with an esteemed French philosopher, who was elected to the l’Académie française in 2005 – one of the highest honours in French society. While the Montpellier coach may be some way off this level of prestige, he deserves recognition for his club’s achievements this year; a mention on Fifa’s shortlist wouldn’t go amiss.
By Hugo Greenhalgh
Having already won the 2010 league title, 2010 Russian Cup and 2011 Russian Super Cup, the former Roma boss led Zenit St Petersburg to glory in 2012 as well, following a punishing 44-game 2011-12 Russian Premier League campaign. The first, and only, of its kind, season to mark the transition from a summer schedule to a winter calendar at the behest of FIFA saw Zenit pitted against their seven strongest rivals in a mini 8-team division for the first half of 2012. Spalletti’s men only lost once in the second phase of the league season as they convincingly won the title with 88 points; Aleksandr Kerhakov, Vyacheslav Malafeev and Roman Shirokov all excelling in a well-oiled line-up. The passing style that Zenit, under Spalletti, play with is by far the most progressive team philosophy in the Russian Premier League.
2012 also marked the year that Zenit reached the knockout stage of the Champions League for the first time, narrowly succumbing to Benfica in the Round of 16. Perhaps the best compliment made to Spalletti is that of Dick Advocaat’s when in charge of the Russian football team – choosing to reflect the homemade talent at Zenit by using at least 6 of their players in each of their Euro outings. The joke in Russia went that fans would note that Zenit were playing in red such was their influence on the team but Advocaat couldn’t get the best out of a nucleus of players who perform at their finest in St Petersburg and, after a stunning 4-1 win over the Czech Republic, the team failed to reach its potential and crashed out of the competition.
Spalletti sure knows how to get the best out of his players and, if anything, the high-profile signings of Hulk and Axel Witsel, for a combined sum of £64 million has rocked a steady ship in St. Petersburg this season as the successful team has had to adapt to accommodate their expensive purchases. A brief dip in form has been arrested and Zenit are a couple of points off the top again. If anyone can bring about the new dawn in St. Petersburg then it’s Spalletti. With a win record of 59% from 112 games in charge, Spalletti is capable of turning the team into a dominating force of Russia for years to come like Manchester United have done over the past two decades. Unlike United, Zenit won the league title and avoided dropping down to the Europa League from their Champions League vantage point this year. Something more deserving of a Ballon d’Or nomination, surely, than Sir Alex’s own recognition?
By Andrew Belt
Why have they been nominated?
Mario Balotelli – The last Italian to win this coveted award was the captain of their World Cup triumph back in 2006. Undisputedly another in the long line of great Italian defenders to grace the game, Fabio Cannavaro’s triumph in 2006 proved to be rather contentious – a reward more for captaining a functional Italian side to unexpected World Cup glory than a magnificent run of form throughout the calendar year. His countryman Mario Balotelli lays very much in the same boat. Whilst enduring another turbulent year at Manchester City – forever courting controversy for on-field petulance and off-field extravagance – the Italian forward has struggled to find consistency at club level. His nomination appears to be solely a recognition of a blistering few weeks at the European Championships in June, the highlight of which came with his double salvo at the semi-final stage against the Germans. An impressive return of 17 goals in 32 appearances for the English champions during the 2011-12 season was undermined by two dismissals in the league, whilst he is yet to register a goal during the current league campaign – hardly the sterling form of one of the top 23 players of 2012.
Gerard Pique – Many observers would regard Gerard Pique’s inclusion amongst the shortlist as a no-brainer. The central-defender was imperious during Spain’s glorious run during EURO 2012, which included a clean-sweep of clean sheets through the knock-out stage. Scratch under the surface, though, and Pique appears to have been nominated on reputation alone, rather than as a reward for defensive consistency throughout the calendar year. The Catalonian made just 22 league appearances during 2011-12, owing much to a spate of injury problems which contributed to a loss of form. Since his summer exertions with the national side Pique has again struggled for constancy whilst his injury problems have resurfaced. It has hardly been a vintage year for the Spaniard; his nomination points at a flawed FIFA process, especially considering the possible defensive alternatives. The exclusion of Manchester City’s defensive linchpin Vincent Kompany, given his outstanding domestic form, is absurd – as is that of Giorgio Chiellini, the heartbeat of Juventus’ unbeaten league season and Italy’s run to the Euro 2012 final.
Wayne Rooney – Similarly to former Manchester United team-mate Gerard Pique, Wayne Rooney has seemingly been nominated on reputation alone, for what has been, by his own high standards, a modest year. Despite being the only British player to make the cut, it is unlikely that the striker will look back on 2012 with fond memories. Though Pique and Balotelli have been nominated on the back of impressive performances during the European Championships, Rooney was extremely disappointing – suspended for England’s first two matches, he appeared grossly unfit as his country laboured in their next two. A return of 21 goals over the calendar year masks a number of failings – particularly the absence of a domestic trophy and public criticism of the striker’s physical fitness. His patchy form since the start of the 2012-13 season can be attributed to both injury and the arrival of fellow nominee Robin van Persie, which has seen Rooney depart from his favoured central attacking role.
Manuel Neuer – Bayern Munich and Germany’s number one has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the last few years but his nomination for the 2012 Ballon d’Or seems unjustified. Manuel Neuer has endured a frustrating 2012 for both club and country. Germany entered Euro 2012 heavily tipped to go all the way, but once again came unstuck at the semi-final stage whilst Bayern Munich ended the season trophy-less – capitulating in the Champions League final whilst finishing runners-up to Borussia Dortmund in both the league and cup. That Neuer’s inclusion comes at the expense of any of his club-mates testifies to the defensive solidity that the goalkeeper has instilled – Bayern conceded just 22 goals throughout the 2011-12 league campaign. However, that his inclusion comes at the expense of any of the electrifying Borussia Dortmund side beggars belief. Robert Lewandowski, the Polish striker, plundered 30 goals last season, before starring at the Euros, whilst the elegant Mats Hummels has emerged as Germany’s latest ball-playing centre-half.
Sergio Busquets – The universally unpopular Sergio Busquets is given a hard-ride in the mainstream media. His understated role as Barcelona and Spain’s ball-winner gains him almost as few admirers as his fiery personality and supposedly un-sportsmanlike conduct. His nomination for this year’s Ballon d’Or marks a watershed moment for the midfielder whose medal haul far outweighs any individual awards. That it comes, however, at the expense of the fulcrum of Spain’s flamboyant false-nine system – Cesc Fabregas – seems misguided. Though Busquets remained a bastion of consistency at club-level, his fellow Spaniard flattered to deceive at times – although a return of 15 goals and 20 assists in his debut season at the Nou Camp suggests otherwise. Fabregas’ two goals and effervescent displays as Spain’s false-nine during the Euros inspired their glorious run to a third consecutive tournament victory, whilst he has proved central to Barcelona’s current renaissance under Tito Vilanova.
And finally… Sir Alex Ferguson -
The Scotsman’s influence over the English Football Association is often the butt of jokes and has been particularly well publicised since the weekend. Few though have reckoned with the Manchester United’s manager wider influence and a reputation that has seen the Knight nominated for FIFA’s Coach of the Year for no discernible reason whatsoever. Having been unceremoniously dumped out of the Champions League group stage at the end of 2011, his United side struggled past Ajax in the Europa League before succumbing to Marcelo Bielsa’s vibrant Athletic Bilbao side over two legs – this is to say nothing of the eight point lead that the Manchester club squandered in the Barclay’s Premier League from April. It is an absolute travesty that Ferguson has been nominated having won nothing and blown a league title from a position of dominance so late in the season. Certainly his European nemesis Marcelo Bielsa has a superior case for inclusion given that his side, whilst adhering to strict club policy and playing graceful attacking football in the process, won over a substantial amount of neutrals during their path to the finals in both the Europa League and Copa del Rey.
By James Dutton
Follow the False Nine on Twitter: @The_False_Nine