With clubs putting as much importance into qualifying for the next season’s Champions League as performing well in the current, Simon Smith asks what the point of the competition is…
Much has been made in recent weeks of the apparent unwillingness of Premier League clubs to participate in the dreaded Thursday football squad exhauster that is the Europa League. The earlier season push for Europe reached its absolute peak with victories over Arsenal for Southampton’s on New Year’s Day and Tottenham’s in the north London derby keeping the victors in the Champions League places on both occasions. But, with predictable familiarity, the enthusiasm for European football seems to have left both squads once the top prize became out of reach. Spurs and Saints have joined Liverpool on the list of suitors seeking to avoid the booby trap fifth place that consigns a team to the Europa League.
The size of the competition, endless travel to far off destinations in Turkey and Ukraine, and distraction of continually playing on Thursdays and Sundays are often touted as legitimate reasons for the Europa League being a poisoned chalice. One need only look at what Liverpool achieved – well, almost achieved – in their season bereft of midweek continentalism to see the damage it can cause, and so on. This is well covered ground.
What I want to know is, why don’t we see the same sort of thing in the Champions League? I mean what has the top level of elite European Club football ever done for the Premier League clubs? Besides the televisual and marketing exposure, commercial opportunities, additional revenue and pulling power when attracting players in the transfer market, is there an actual footballing reason for being in the competition? Continue reading
TFN’s Simon Smith on why Juventus vs Dortmund runs deeper than Catenaccio versus Gegenpress…
Of the various ties in this Champions League last 16 to savour this week and next, there are many sub plots and rivalries to look forward to. Last week’s David Luiz derby might not have been the most enthralling, but with Carlo Ancelotti facing fellow former Abramovic employee Roberto Di Matteo in Schalke versus Real and Arsene Wenger’s reunion with Monaco there shall be no shortage of managerial talking points.Manchester City and Barcelona once again contest the Yaya Toure derby, although the match will most likely be more shaped by their experiences in last season’s clash. But none of this is what I’ve been looking forward to the most.
That would be the other semi-tenuous derby clash, the rematch of the 1997 Champions League final between Borussia Dortmund and Juventus. In tactical terms this is arguably the most intriguing match, and on paper one of the most evenly matched in a round that often provides mismatches for the larger clubs to sail to the latter stages. And, for differing reasons, this probably represents one of the more important ties for the two clubs themselves.
Dortmund are in the horrifying position of being on something of a hot streak – only Bremen’s five consecutive Bundesliga wins is better than their two – and yet having only just climbed out of the relegation zone. Their season would be long over were it not for the fact that their relegation battle is all too real, and yet their form in a difficult group with Arsenal, Fenerbahce and Anderlecht was unexpectedly good. The Champions League represents the best chance of any glory in a season they will hope to forget. Continue reading
Simon Smith looks at the narrative surrounding title chasers and the aura of invincibility which made Real Madrid and Chelsea more vulnerable…
After yet another episode of self-congratulation in the endless carousel that is the Ronaldo-Messi show, Ballon d’or finalists Leo and Cristiano returned to business as usual this week with headline dominating performances and five goals between them. Real Madrid have had to contend with another reshuffle of their squad this season following some classic Perez-ing in the summer; he may be the only club president in European Football the British public recognise. The narrative has been much the same as last season too; Ancelotti’s masterclass in ego management, tactical ingenuity and flexibility of approach that has allowed for a near seamless inclusion of James and Kroos into an already star studded side.
And yet this expertise, the ability to field a front six as ridiculous as Isco-Kroos-Bale-Ronaldo-James-Benzema as Real had the audacity to start with in the World Club Cup final, has become in recent weeks almost a stick to beat Madrid with. Questions of fatigue in the squad have cast a spotlight on the lack of rotation. As impressive as Real have been since their early season struggles, as unreal as the all competitions win streak became, the League is not only not beyond Barcelona yet, but likewise local rivals Atleti.
The thorn in Ancelotti’s side is not that Barcelona have failed to implode during a period of off-pitch crisis; it isn’t the way Messi-Suarez-Neymar has shown flickering signs of becoming a real and viable strategy in recent matches; it’s that all this has happened almost by accident. Barcelona have hardly been devoid of strategy this season, but the starting XI has yet to remain unchanged in consecutive league fixtures. The record of having 25 different starting lineups this season is staggering to the point where one wonders if you would stumble upon that if you actually tried to. Continue reading
Simon Smith looks at the growing examples of loaned-out players outperforming their parent clubs…
This Christmas I will have to contend with a shocking and unexpected horror when I visit my family for the annual yuletide celebrations. As an Arsenal fan, albeit one who always strives for objectivity in my writing, having a cohort of West Ham fans in the family has on occasion provided me with opportunity for many a laugh at their expense. The Hammers have had their revenge on occasion. They were the first team to win at the Emirates Stadium, and their often pragmatic underperformance in the Premier League is at least easier to deal with than the aneurism inducing heartache of disappointment all Gooners know all too well. But nonetheless I have usually been able to content myself with beating them most of the time and generally being the better club.
Barring a series of favourable results this weekend, I will have to arrive late on Christmas Eve knowing that my beloved Arsenal are lower than West Ham in the table. What’s more, they have done so playing largely eye catching and attractive attacking football, and by getting some of the best out of loan signings Carl Jenkinson and Alex Song.
Song has proved to be something of a coup: if his move to Barcelona seemed a little bizarre, a touch above his pay grade, then it should still be accepted that West Ham is a little below the level that the football community might have expected to drop down to. That shouldn’t be taken as any disrespect to West Ham, especially given their excellent form throughout the season so far, so much as an indication that his status as something of a joke figure in English football was misplaced. Continue reading
Simon Smith looks at how the smaller Premier League clubs have upset the balance this season by signing the right players and assigning the right tactics…
Recent events have got me wondering how the league table would look if Chelsea hadn’t managed to have such a productive summer in the transfer market and get their act together this season. Would Southampton really be the league leaders? The trend in recent seasons has grown from none to one, and then to two, of the big teams each season to struggle. Not necessarily terribly, but to fail to achieve what they ought to, to invite the media crisis circus upon them. This season has reached new crises heights due to the fact that all the big clubs bar Chelsea (and to a lesser extent Manchester City) have failed to get their act together.
Just what is going on at Arsenal, Tottenham, Everton, Liverpool and Manchester United? The answer for all those clubs will be different, so perhaps instead we might muse what Southampton, Swansea and West Ham are doing that these sleeping giants are incapable of.
Tactically, it’s hard to conclude anything concrete: all three of those clubs have reasonably different plans, styles of play and ways the team is set up. What perhaps sets them apart the most is their player recruitment strategy. In a chaotic summer for Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United in particular, these smaller clubs have shown the value of planning signings with the team in mind. Continue reading
TFN’s Simon Smith returns with an in-depth look at where Jack Wilshere is right now…
In September 2013, Jack Wilshere gave an interview looking forward to the season ahead, what he hoped to achieve, what Arsenal might accomplish and in particular how he might go about amending his “joke” of a goalscoring record. Somewhere along the line, everything went terribly wrong: he became “terrible”, he couldn’t match the performances of the now meteorically rising Aaron Ramsey and he was a worse player than his rose tinted breakthrough season. The criticism that Jack needed to improve was everywhere, least of all from the man himself, and yet a year later the very season he looked forward to was being used as a stick to beat him with.
In the shadow of club teammates, incapable of stepping up for the retiring Gerard and Lampard for Country, humiliated in the now infamous Paul Scholes interview and seemingly more interested in his off field smoking habits: it was hard to envisage a way back for Jack Wilshere. Somehow Autumn has set in with a perceived upturn in Jack’s fortunes. Four Four Two recently ran an article asking titled “Is Jack Back”, his England performances have been much praised despite the unfamiliar role at the base of the diamond, and at times he has looked more dependable for Arsenal than recent years. In a year of extremes for the player, are we seeing a reinvigorated Jack Wilshere? Continue reading
In the fifth instalment of ‘Tacticle Your Fancy’, Simon Smith compares the style and roles of Mesut Ozil and Wayne Rooney…
The recent debate about what’s wrong with Mesut Ozil has really captured my imagination, perhaps almost as much as his unlikely summer transfer itself did. Everyone seems to agree that there’s something wrong with the way he is playing at the moment, and yet there seems to be so much inconsistency in the reports. Sure, we can agree that he has a tendency to ghost in and out of games and perhaps it is fair to see he isn’t the most proactive player off the ball. The jump I find hard to make is how we get from this very general observation to the very niche and specific problem of why he is out of form: surely this is how he plays always, when in form as well as out?
The excellent two minute debate about whether he should be left out of the starting XI to face Manchester United by Sky Sports News was simply thrilling, in that while the panel managed to point out some home truths about the player, they all seemed to miss the point somewhat. It was a brilliant display of how big generalisations about players lead to a misinterpretation of specifics in games. Continue reading