Playing Fantasy Football

The PFA recently announced their Championship team of the year – an event which always acts as a massive discussion point for fans, with many looking to promote the virtues of their team’s best players whilst at the same time point out the deficiencies of their rivals.  It is a fascinating annual occurrence without acting to be the grandstand of populist consensus. 

ExileBlog has awaited the announcement of this Championship team of the year, not so much in order to slag off the voting of the playing elite – after all, they are best placed to comment from their position being up close and personal – but instead to respond with a selection of a different focus. 

It was a long pause in play during Cardiff City’s first home game versus Bristol City that got this writer thinking.  For every home game Cardiff City play during the 2011-12 season, it is important to note that there are always two teams out on the pitch.  As such, any enjoyable spectacle is as a result of a positive dynamic between the two teams; with the converse applying to uneventful match experiences.  And one possible component in this overall dynamic is the quality of the player.  Whereas no more than 20 players would have contributed and had an impact from Cardiff City’s standpoint, the number far exceeds 200 for the opposition. 

It is following this loose logic that has led one to consider those individuals in opposing teams that have made an impact.  There are some who have had a notable impact, including a certain Barnsley left back.  However, this writer reserves the right to assemble a collective with positive memories in mind.  As such, herewith a team representing the best players to line up against Cardiff City during 2011/12.  A deliberate 4-4-2 formation has been chosen, including those most impressive individuals as opposed to partnerships in any position.  So here goes…..

ExileBlog’s Best XI v Cardiff City at CCS 2001/12

Goalkeeper – In all honesty, no outstanding all-round performances between the sticks have been witnessed this season.  Notwithstanding his general susceptability at crosses, this writer retains a soft-spot for Joe Lewis of Peterborough.  Cardiff were easily victorious when the sides met during the post-Wembley slump in form, but it is fair to say that the score could have been extravogant had he not made a series of impressive stops.  It is a regret that Hull City decided to bring that great timewaster Adriano Basso to the CCS and not Vito Mannone, who has received rave reviews for his performances whilst on loan from Arsenal.  An honourable mention also goes to Andy Lonergan of Leeds United, who made one of the best saves that I have had the pleasure of witnessing during the end of season encounter.

 

Joe Lewis

Joe Lewis – soon to be Cardiff’s property?

 

Right Back – It may be putting it bluntly to say that Craig Conway has under-achieved for Cardiff this year.  However, ExileBlog was particularly impressed with how Nathaniel Clyne set up to nullify his thread.  From a technical point of view, he was spot on with his body angles and also the timing of challenges.  Honourable mentions to Trippier of Burnley and also Liam Rosenior of Hull.

Left Back – Just before Christmas, it was widely accepted by fans that Cardiff’s only wide threat was through the advancing Kevin McNaughton (lack of end product notwithstanding).  Julio Arca dealt with this apparent threat most superbly.  He worked out how to nullify McNaughton’s attacking advances, sometimes allowing him to cross but not to cut inside, and at other times pushing him back into a wide full-back position, where he was worryingly separated from his centre backs.  Could still cut it in the Premier League going by what ExileBlog saw. 

Centre Back – Rhys Williams.  For his decision to play for Australia I really, really want to hate him, but his performance at centre back against City prior to Christmas was  ultimately commanding.  Comfortable when the ball is played on the ground neverthless, Cardiff’s switch to Gestede and a direct game had him at his best. 

Centre Back – Partnerships invariably involve players of differing virtues.  However, the quality of both of centre back that I have chosen allows them to be similar.  Having seen him play twice, one cannot help but conclude that James Tomkins will not be at West Ham for very much longer.  On two occasions, ExileBlog observed witnessed brilliant anticipation and organisation of his stopper partner, good speed, mature distribution skills – I could go on.  Honourable mentions to Jack Hobbs and Matthew Mills. 

Defensive-Minded Central Midfielder – Mark Noble.  A pleasure to see him go about his craft – a statement that is based more than mere side-parting envy.  Honourable mentions to Liam Bridcutt and Danny Drinkwater for their energy and anticipation.  It should be noted that none of these three players could be described as a physical presence.

Attack-Minded Central Midfielder – Kevin Nolan.  Mentioning this man gives me no pleasure at all.  Lazy and in the referee’s ear all game (x2), his physicality in midfield is admitedly impressive.  Has closed down Whittingham and made him look like a reserve player on both occasions at the CCS.  Honourable mention to Robert Koren.

Right Midfield – Jimmy Kebe.  Glides at time and generally has pace to burn.  I daresay there are better footballers in the league, but Kebe put Taylor under serious pressure.  Even though Cardiff defeated Reading at the CCS, there was a always an element of doubt and that something was about to happen everytime he fronted up to Cardiff’s left back and defence.   Jamal Campbell-Ryce was impressive in that poor Bristol City side, but it is noted that he has since gone on loan down the leagues.

Left Midfield – Matt Phillips.  Counter attacking excellence.  Blackpool soaked it up and then awaited the moment when Phillips could take on a defender in isolation. It may have been idle speculation, but there is no wonder that Cardiff were linked with this player during the New Year transfer window.

Striker – Craig Mackail-Smith.  He made Hudson look a fool during that early season encounter, which moved this writer to question the defender’s future at the club (I have since been proven wrong).  Has not performed to his ability since the turn of the year, but this selection is based on his performance in the early season game. 

Striker – Ashley Barnes.  The ideal foil to Mackail-Smith’s pace and movement.  Honourable mention goes to the evergreen Kevin Phillips (we all knew he would score when he came on for Blackpool, and he didn’t disappoint).

ExileBlog’s Championship XI

It is noted that the Championship team of the year was based upon the classic ‘British’ 4-4-2, with the folly of fitting individuals within set positions.  Instead, this writer would select a team that would seek to ensure that the best players can shine.  In this respect, it is widely accepted that the Championship’s best triumvirate consists of (in no particular order) Peter Whittingham, Ricky Lambert and Adam Lallana.  And so the first step is to select a formation that will maximise these talents.  The following XI will set up in a 4-2-3-1 system with these players in key roles.

Goalkeeper – Kelvin Davis.  Has gone about his business without making mistakes whilst commanding the defence setting up in front of him.  This team needs no more.  Adam Federici deserves to be considered by virtue of his forming part of a Championship winning side

Right Back – Nathaniel Clyne.  As above. 

Centre Backs - Kaspars Gorkss and James Tomkins.  The classic sweeper and stopper combination.  Tomkins is a shoe-in for this team – such a commanding presence and on the cusp of greater things.  Gorkss is a better player than Tomkins’ current club partner Winston Reid, who hasn’t been considered for this team.  Ultimately, Gorkss gets into the team ahead of the excellent Jack Hobbs as a result of him being part of the best defence in the league.

Left Back – Danny Fox.  Ian Harte has had a good season playing for the Championship’s top club, but I consider him to be over the hill and generally susceptable to a good wide man.  Fox is a better player and his advances up the left hand side will be covered by Clyne’s ability to stay tight with the centre backs.

Deep-Lying Midfielders – Peter Whittingham and Mark Noble. Forget his efforts of two years ago, when he was top scorer from a left wing base, Peter Whittingham has really found his place this year as a deep-lying regista.  Up until Christmas, he was pulling the strings for Cardiff, being the catalyst for a passing style through midfield, thus negating the need for natural width.  The Middlesbrough game marked the changing point, from whence teams either marked his options or intensely pressed him when he was in possession.  It also was the start of his midfield team mates going it alone and away from the need for one to sit deep as assistance (here’s looking at you Gunnarsson, with also Kiss’ injuries / being overlooked by Mackay a further cause). 

Looking after Whittingham and allowing him to play is key to the way that this team will play.  The selection of the hard-working Noble as his minder is vitally important – being the engine of West Ham’s intense play this season.  However, Noble is also an able ball-player and can act as an alternative playmaker if Whittingham is being marked out of the game. 

Attacking Midfield Right – Adam Lallana.  I am glad to say that Kevin Nolan doesn’t make the side because it  will be playing through the centre of midfield and thus avoiding the Allardycian direct game. Some of his fellow players (including Lambert) regard him as the best player that they have ever played with.  Lallana has undoubted talent and would normally play in a central attacking role if it wasn’t for the need for a more physical presence to lead the pressing from the middle of the pitch.  However, in this formation he will be afforded a fluid presence – starting from the right, but swapping with Phillips on the left in order to accommodate Danny Fox’s attacking runs. 

Attacking Midfield Centre – Mikele Leigertwood.  ExileBlog retains a big soft-spot for this player.  Indeed, should this formation revert to a 4-4-2 then there may be a temptation to select Leigertwood together with his club partner in the middle Cem Karacan.  This formation needs a physical presence high up the pitch to be prominent in phases of transition – from both attacking and defensive sides – and also to act as a good support to Noble in adopting a pressing game.  Arguably one of the best players in the Reading side over the last two years and sadly overlooked in eyes of many writers.

Attacking Midfield Left – Matt Phillips.  On loan at Sheffield United last year, and has come back a more refined attacking presence.  Will give this side counter attacking presence through his pace, whilst at the same time being comfortable during periods of possession play. 

Striker – Ricky Lambert.  27 league goals this season.  His physical presence will allow him to lead the line, hold up the ball for the likes of Phillips and Lallana, whilst his lines of running will always cause problems for defence.  The able Vaz Te and his 22 goals will warm the bench, with Mackail-Smith’s drop in form post-Christmas counting against him.

5 Substitutes:  Adam Federici, Jack Hobbs, Morgan Schneiderlin, Jimmy Kebe, Ricardo Vaz Te

There may be some overlap of personnel, but I would wager that this ‘team’ would overcome the selection of 11 individuals in the PFA team of the year.  However, the thoughts of the reader are neverthless welcome.

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Andre Villas Boas – a pause for reflection

Before the reader goes any further, let me qualify that I met said 34-year-old on two occasions back in 2004/05, through one of his school mates whom I happened to work with out in Portugal.  I found him to be intelligent and eloquent, yet patient towards this part-time writer who remains vastly inferior in terms of footballing knowledge.  Indeed, let this be my ready-made excuse if any of you are to read this entry and consider it to be riddled with an underlying bias.

It remains unfortunate that such is the ‘Moneyball’ characteristics of football nowadays, bereft of Corinthian ideals, the game at the highest level is all about the win – the mythical three league points, for who cares about the domestic knock-out cup.  Within this context, Chelsea’s results so far this year are blatantly not good enough.  For a side that has won the Premier League 3 times since 2004/05, the thought of being out of title contention, or at least a Champions League place, at this stage of the season is unchartered territory for the Russian owner.   What is more, the elevation of Manchester City and Spurs to the Premier League elite has put greater pressure on Chelsea to retain their position, which is reflected in what we see this year – they are in direct competition with Arsenal in order to save face.    

More worryingly, this crude business-like attitude is also a trait that fans are now adopting: essentially win at all costs and anything less is a failure.  The Latin-like cunning of continental diving has penetrated the game to the extent that winning a penalty through experiencing ‘contact’ in the penalty box is now being applauded.  Within this context, it is therefore unfortunate that the sacking of Andre Villas Boas became inevitable.  Football romantics (and apologists) like oneself kept willing it to be avoided, but alas it wasn’t to be.  The last days of AVB became something akin to a slow death and it pains me to hear of his final moments in the job which include him (apparently) staying overnight at the training ground, no doubt sifting through his substantial technical dossiers to see if there was something he had overlooked. 

The majority of newspaper journalists and columnists reverted to type.  Whether a case of sensing blood, or conversely having the benefit of a not too subtle briefing by ‘sources close to’, it was nevertheless disappointing behaviour.  Inevitable also was the about-turn of those same journalists once the dirty deed had been done, as the predictable rhetoric included the old chestnuts of it being ‘such a shame’ and a ‘knee jerk reaction’.  I suppose one expects nothing different from the honorary members of the Fourth Estate as it is their job after all to sell newspapers.  

And yet this episode promised so very much.  The appointment of Europe’s hottest property as manager – one who won everything available in his first year in charge of FC Porto – was widely seen as an inspired move in the drive for success.  The way that Villas Boas led a team which scored 145 goals in 58 games during the 2010/11 season was considered as most appealing to the Chelsea owner, who longed for an attractiveness to supplement the expectant level of team success.  Ultimately, this manager had the potential to bring a fresh approach and thereby influence the way the club developed in the medium term – an admission by Abramovich maybe that success in an attractive manner is something that needs to be developed rather than reached instantaneously via asset acquisition. 

And so commenced the fresh era of Chelsea stewardship under this bright new manager.  Many seemed to instantly forget that Villas Boas had previous as a Chelsea employee under Jose Mourinho – and where he lacked direct managerial experience, his gain on his predecessors was that he had already benefited from an induction to Chelsea ways several years previously.   Whereas much had changed over this period, some significant factors were ever-present and we should not underestimate the influence of these on his project.  Indeed, Villas-Boas was to inherit a team with two significant characteristics 1/ that key players had significant individualistic characteristics (or to put it another way, reputable ego’s of a significant size) and 2/ that key players were in their 30’s and quite possibly past their peaks.  The duplication in usage of the ‘key-players’ term is deliberate and significant because these individuals had been ever-present since the successful Mourinho era, and happily ridden the attempts of other managers to achieve short-term success.  One cannot help but think such ‘legends’ were always going to reminisce of the Mourinho era as the benchmark of the way in which Chelsea could achieve success going forward.  In everyday reality, I think it is not being too presumptuous to opine that a ‘hark back’ to the good old days is as appealing whether you are in your thirties or in more advanced years.  Notwithstanding there being any truth to the claims that Terry was instrumental in getting Mourinho the sack, I think it is only natural for the veterans of the side to look back fondly on the back-to-back Premier League winning years under Mourinho.

What people fail to fully respect to is that Villas Boas is an intelligent animal – a virtue that this writer was acutely aware of within ten minutes of our first social meeting.  What is more, he too formed part of that ‘benchmark’ reign of Mourinho (pardon the repetition of a point already made).  To conclude that he has no appreciation of what worked in the past is a great folly.  He will already have known inside-out the formations and way of playing to which the players regarded as the technical and cultural norm.  Moreover, his meticulous approach to team /competitor analysis would have no doubt informed a comprehensive understanding of Chelsea life under the other managers.   In fact, to adopt a semper eadem approach would be most welcomed by the growing conservatism of the ageing elite within the dressing room; to advocate change would be of high risk, unless AVB could supplement the case study of his Porto success with achieving a momentum for change. 

With this in mind, there may be credence to the claim that he sought to impose the successful Porto way of playing on Chelsea when he arrived.  Porto played 4-3-3, and that is the formation which brought Chelsea success, so why could any duplicate usage of the Porto template be considered to be a folly one may ask?  Looking at this more closely, the Chelsea and Porto interpretations of this system are markedly different, and I will seek to explain why this is so.

A more detailed assessment would prove that both Mourinho and his younger disciple are practically obsessed with player behaviour at transition moments of a game i.e. occasions when a side will regain possession, revert to attacking and the opposition will be at their most disorganised.  The 4-3-3 of Mourinho’s Chelsea was based on transitional methods of pace, technique and width higher up the pitch; whereas Villas Boas advocates a more thoughtful approach, believing that player intelligence should drive the next step, whether this be passing or outright offensive play (Ironically, it would appear that Mourinho has now embraced this way of thinking as part of the concept of ‘guided discovery’).  In doing so, he invariably looks towards a tiki-taka type of vertical game with a modicum of width in the middle third of the pitch.  In applying this to his team at FC Porto, it was observed that even with Fernando being considered to be the most defensive-minded of the midfield three (with Joao Moutinho and Guarin more advanced), a high level of interchangeability was encouraged and all were comfortable in either holding or attacking role.   In the evolving world of football tactics, this default outlook of 4-3-3, with only one of the midfield three remaining in close proximity to a defence high up the pitch, is more attuned to play against the majority of Premiership/European sides.  With this in mind, who could fault Villas-Boas for believing that this should be the way forward for a team whose owner longed for European success?    Of course, the important caveat here is ‘providing that there is buy-in from players, who are arguably suited to this set-up’.

It would always have been part of Villas Boas’ plan that the ageing will be replaced, or diplomatically phased out.  In the interim stage, where an element of consolidation of personnel would be inevitable, he would have placed trust in these elders, thereby fuelling a confidence that they would be able to adapt to his high-pressing 4-3-3 system.   These players, after all, are highly paid professionals……

Disappointingly, these individuals have shown themselves to be tactically inflexible – a conservatism which identifies as much with their intellectual inability to embrace new ideas as much as their sociocultural conservatism to change.  In a subtle and discreet manner Villas Boas was forced to refine his master plan to accommodate the available playing personnel in two ways: 1/ replacing his reliance on a heavy pressing regime with one that was a half-way house – essentially relenting on having the defence set up deeper (let us try to refrain from using the term ‘park the bus’, but I think you get the idea); and 2/ retaining a permanent holding presence in midfield (i.e. a reversion to what one could term Makalele principles).  It is notable that subsequent to making these changes, Villas Boas was man enough to admit making these two changes to his outlook, and has explained his reasoning with eloquence. 

Logic dictates that asking Chelsea play a high defensive line will only work if there is wholesale buy-in from the back four, else it is easily prone to break down akin to instances when a player fails to follow his team’s blitz or drift defence in rugby union.  In fact, the extent of modern-day performance analysis is such that opposing sides can find a way to dissect such disarray at the moment of transition – usually by quick counter attacking (witness the surprising success of Walcott earlier this season).  Let me state this for the record:  the defensive abilities of David Luiz are not as maligned as you may read or hear in the press.  But for the time being, he is the individualistic scapegoat of the defensive unit being unable to embrace high pressing.  By contrast, the likes of Terry and Ivanovic are more suited to a deep-lying defence, and it is for this reason that Villas Boas allowed the defence a deeper licence.   As a result, this restricted Luiz’s natural licence to advance, making him uncomfortable and prone to mistakes.

To be fair, Villas Boas’ reversion towards the use of a midfield anchor was for good reason.  Rather than simply representing a characteristic of the conservative way in which the team had historically played, his analysis would have surely identified that the moment of transition takes place with more purpose and at a quicker pace in the Premier League.  Indeed, the great majority of transitional phases take place in the midfield phase, with sides and players not comfortable with an extended continuation of possession football and thereby delaying the decisive offensive actions until the time is right.  Having made this decision, the question became thus: who would be best placed to replicate Mr. Makalele out on the pitch.  The club had been decisive in buying Romeu as a deep-lying anchor doubling up as comfortable-on-the-ball regista.  The existing equivalent would be to utilise the once promising John Obi Mikel as a destructive presence in midfield areas.  But then again, Mikel’s stock had been falling ever since Mourinho, as manager of Internazionale, identified that closely marking him would eliminate any effective build-up play from the back.  To tie in with his Porto blueprint, it made sense to favour Romeu rather than Mikel as his new Fernando, but the latter had become an expected starter for fellow team mates and fans, and as such we return to the problem of getting rid of established player.

And so who amongst the other stars would have best suited Villas Boas’ blueprint?  His midfield options appeared to be two from Meirelles, Lampard, Essien, Ramires and Mata.  And overall, one cannot but help admire these options available to a Chelsea manager.  It follows that it should not therefore be hard to find two players to compliment the choice of the third deep-lying midfielder, of course depending on the tactics and opposition. 

Indeed, it may well come to pass that the quicker than anticipated induction of one player to the demands  of the Premier League was the key determinant in upsetting Villas Boas’ blueprint.  Juan Mata was expected to get used to the pace of the domestic game whilst assuming a wide role as one of the three attackers.  Yet his immediate impact warranted inclusion in a more central, intrinsic team position where he can control matters and act as the main playmaker.  As the season progressed, it was observed that the manager looked upon Mata to control the pace of the game – when it needed slowing down, he would be the man to lead; likewise for the converse.  But these were the same virtues that one would expect of a deep-lying regista, and it would be removing some of the attacking and goal scoring capabilities of this new signing if one was to ask him to drop deeper. 

Herein lay the conundrum for the manager:  to have Mata as the playmaker in a more attacking role would limit the role of the deep-lying midfielder to one that was mainly destructive; to move Mata to this deep-lying role would take away his goal scoring and assist provision capabilities; to move the player to a wide attacking role would marginalise his effectiveness.  Villas Boas concluded that he had to retain Mata in a midfield role, and this complicated matters within that central channel by putting greater pressure on the need for an explosive box-to-box presence as the third midfielder by way of compensation.  Essien at his peak in this role may have been effective, but it would appear that this peak has already taken place, ditto for Lampard. 

To be fair to Villas Boas, he did experiment with different formations in seeking to bring out the best in his players, with 4-2-3-1 appearing to be the best solution in theory.  By doing so, he maximised his chances of getting the best out of the £50 million man up front, who appears happier to play high up the pitch by himself yet with support advancing from deeper rather than wider channels close by.  Yet Villas Boas was quick to revert back to 4-3-3 if any such experiments proved unsuccessful.  Curiously, the 4-3-3 is a formation which is favoured by Torres’ main rival for the central striker role – Didier Drogba – who has remains the team’s main goal scorer.  Goals win games and so long as Drogba delivers he was going to be favoured as the attacking mainstay in this formation.  As such, the vicious cycle of criticism of Torres, and his manager’s inability to get him to score, was made that much worse.  Of course, this had implications at the high echelons where the non-performing nature of their investment led to media criticism which in turn led to them to wanting decisive action.  On reflection neither player was a sustainable solution in the fluid front three that Villas Boas desired.

In conclusion, it can be fair to assume that sacking of Villas-Boas represents an element of the favouring of the egos of Lampard, Terry, Drogba et al over the necessary level of restructuring to provide a sustainable team going forward.  Indeed, the subsequent upturn in Chelsea’s form may be used as proof that the correct decision was taken, and in doing so once again placed emphasis on the benefits of short-termism.  However, after further analysis, I would further conclude that the primary reason for his failure was the unsuccessful approach in implementing his Porto Blueprint – caused by a combination of his inability to apply it to the intricacies of the Premier League together with the individual qualities of his players not being suited to the blueprint (and in particular the imbalance created by the quicker-than-expected acclimatisation of their best player – Mata).  The true impact of player ego was in the form of a reticence to buy in to changes in formation aside a general suspicion that someone so young and inexperienced would know better than them.  Ironically, Villas Boas’ temporary successor has since been successful in playing a 4-2-3-1, utilising Drogba up front. 

What next for Villas Boas?  The links that he has already made in his pre-coaching career means that he could quite easily fall into bed with Internazionale of Milan, especially as their owner seems very keen to rid himself of the presence of Claudio Ranieri (ironically, another Chelsea ex-manager).   If this move actually takes place, he will no doubt be aware that the player pool at this club shows similar characteristics to that of his former club in terms of age and ego size.  Will they be willing to embrace his way of playing?  If not, then a horrible sense of déjà-vu may well prevail sometime in the near future.

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Post Blackpool reflections

Usually, this writer takes time to consider and put together posts, aiming to draft and re-draft over a few weeks.  Evidence maybe of why aspirations to become a sports journalist will remain mere escapism from the merry-go-round of the day job.

In this instance, I will break the trend and apparent good practice in the interests of making a few points having read some viewpoints posted on various forums (be it the Cardiff City Forum or other social media platforms) in the aftermath of Cardiff’s defeat to Blackpool yesterday.  Overall, let me state my opinion that Cardiff are over-achieving in this first season of Mackay’s intended restructuring.  At the start of the year, the aim was top half of the league.  Expectations soon changed to play-offs and now it seems as if the consensus of opinion is that automatic promotion is expected and deserved. 

Granted, any dip in form and loss of league position will be disappointing, but it is important to be realistic about these things.  Cardiff’s team are still getting used to the set-up, the formation and also fellow personnel.  I am going to put it out there:  promotion this year may actually harm the team overall – they are not ready for a higher standard, and will suffer in the Premier League.  Sustainability seems to be the key buzz-word, and I don’t think a brief stint in the top flight will do anything to improve the team as a whole. 

Much to the annoyance of many a fan (feelings which I am certainly sympathetic), Cardiff didn’t buy heavily, compared to the likes of West Ham who are looking towards next year and the Premier League.  The undoubted promise of Harris (and possibly some loan signings) notwithstanding, there is a need to make the most of the team as it is, possibly with some fine-tuning.  I have outlined my thoughts on Cardiff’s formation and best player in previous posts, but herewith is a summary of further observations:-

- Please take little notice of my previous thoughts on Cardiff’ best centre back partnership (Gerrard and Blake – what was I thinking?!).  It is now pretty obvious that Cardiff need the combination of Hudson and Turner.  The former is by no means quick, and has been found out this season, but his understanding with the excellent Turner has proved to be a stabilising influence for the team.  Gerrard is proving to be an emotional liability, easily losing his head and general composure.  Significantly, Turner tends to lead the organisation when partnering Hudson to general success; when Gerrard plays, he tends to over-power and out-shout his partner, with chaos ensuing. 

- Apart from when McPhail plays, Cardiff are reverting to 4-1-4-1 at the moment, which in my opinion is worrying.  This formation cannot sustain a one up front outlet, and is why Mackay is reverting to the use of a second striker (Mason or Gestede - more on the latter later).  The opposition is now easily marking the forward ball (as Blackpool did to good effect yesterday) and leaving Whittingham with space knowing that Cardiff will eventually change tactics and revert to something more traditional.

- As a direct consequence of the above, Whittingham’s outlets are his fullbacks and the wider midfield players.  Essentially he is becoming a lateral regista akin to Iker Muniain in Basile’s Athletic Bilbao team.  But whereas this young Spaniard is allowed to flourish by a compatible system, the same cannot be said for Whitts at the moment.  He needs another deep-lying midfielder to help him out in a reversion to 4-2-3-1. 

- This emphasises how important Kiss is to Cardiff’s formation and way of play.  His presence can allow Gunnarsson to drop deep, but also alternate so as to allow the Icelandic international to make his trademark late runs into the box.  The importance of Kiss is also felt in situations where there is a need to win the second ball, just like during yesterday’s game.  He brings the physicality into Cardiff’s midfield which is essential at times.  Ralls is excellent and in reality I don’t see him being with Cardiff for very long, but the formation does need different qualities most of the time.

- Rudy Gestede.  I just don’t get it.  As a former French Under 21 international, one cannot help but wonder why he hasn’t been snapped up by a Ligue Un side up to now.  I am starting to reach the conclusion that there is a reason for this.  Forget all this talk about him not yet being at full fitness, I just don’t think he has the ability to succeed at this Championship level.  Now, I know this is going to read as an about-turn, but I am approaching the thought-process of advocating Earnshaw as a better option from the bench if the need is for goals (although I still retain concerns about his ability to play in a one up front formation, and his touch per se).

- The most worrying aspect of Gestede’s introduction is that it completely changes the way that Cardiff play.  Noting that his only apparent virtue is his ability to win the ball in the air, then Cardiff tend to play more directly and look towards his hold-up play or flick-ons.   From wide areas, this may work, but Cardiff are looking for Gestede from deep channels where it is easy to double up and defend (witness Rhys Williams for Middlesbrough, and Cathcart yesterday).  This tactic continually by-passes the midfield and the majority of the team’s creative talent. 

But like other posts after the Blackpool game, these thoughts may prove to be fuelled more so by emotion as opposed to actual logic.  We shall see….

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Peter Whittingham – some advance scenario planning for your delectation

Forget the vibrant, pace and intelligent runs of Craig Mackail-Smith.  Put to one size the prolific goal scoring form of Ricky Lambert and excellent anticipation of Adam Lallana.  Ignore if you can the merits of the individualistic West Ham egos, and the defensive virtues of the likes of Matthew Mills and Jack Hobbs.  The most important, and possibly the best, player in the Championship is Cardiff’s Peter Whittingham.

There may be quicker players in the division, and arguably others who have more aerial ability, but the technique and skill of Cardiff’s midfielder is beyond comparison.  For set-piece delivery, there can be nobody better playing in the division.  Be it as a component of his own side’s possession or else as a cog in the process of regaining the ball, Whittingham’s first intention is always to keep the ball on the deck and to seek an available pass into space.  Indeed, if one is to concentrate on his movement, it is startlingly obvious that he always scans the play before receiving the ball, and at the same time looks to move into space to give himself that extra time to interpret the next phase of play.  In doing so, this reminds me very much of how Deco played in his Porto and early Barcelona days.  Only Hull’s Robert Koren and Middlesbrough’s Barry Robson offer able comparison in that midfield role, but neither comes anywhere close to parity in the goal scoring stakes. 

Indeed, the main reason for Cardiff’s good form of late is down to the confidence and prominence of Whittingham, and in turn the tacit trust of his team mates to allow him to be the playmaker for the team.  Cardiff’s lofty position has given their best player some much deserved press attention, which is no doubt coinciding with his scrutiny by future opponents and also a degree of monitoring by Premier League scouts.  This writer and Cardiff fan is warmed by his manager’s response to recent overtures from West Ham (an outright ‘hands off’ response), although will this warn off certain Premier League clubs?  Even if this challenge is resisted, it follows that there are two possible scenarios which I feel are worthy of discussion, and are presented herewith.

1/ How Cardiff can counter any moves to make Whittingham impotent

One of Mackay’s greatest virtues is that he has had the confidence to try different formations before settling on this current strategy which has at its core a team ethic whilst also looking to maximise the qualities of Cardiff’s best player.  In doing so, Mackay has flooded the midfield with hard-working players all subscribing to a team ethic, which takes the pressure of Whittingham to endure defensive duties.  I have covered this in more detail in a previous blogpost, and will resist repeating verbatim in the interests of holding the reader’s attention.  But in summary, this involves a system which at its default setting is more 4-2-3-1 rather than 4-5-1 as some members of the press may have you believe (or even 4-3-3 if you believe the otherwise observant Jason Perry).  In removing a second striker and instead having a hard working ball winner higher up the pitch, he is able to play a pressing game that places less defensive pressure on Whittingham sitting in a deep regista role.  He thus became the spare man in midfield and is afforded great freedom in this role. 

Of late, the greater confidence and fluidity in the midfield has resulted in a further change to the formation.  This time, I don’t believe it is Mackay-led but rather more organic.  Whereas Kiss or Gunnarsson would have taken turns to drop deep aside Whittingham, both are now playing in a more advanced role, pressing higher up the pitch.  Whilst this plays into Mackay’s hands insofar as achieving a better pressing regime, the resultant 4-1-4-1 has removed the role of Whittingham’s minder and allowed him to be more easily targeted.  Middlesbrough used Barry Robson to mark him closely, and to draw him more closely into a duel.  Alternatively, Birmingham afforded Whittingham great freedom and instead successfully man-marked the four midfield options in front of him.  This latter approach has been replicated recently by other sides, and has led to Malky looking to rectify the lack of service to Miller from midfield channels by introducing Gestede.  Something different maybe, but a change that is not necessarily correct. 

One way in which this focus on nullifying Whittingham could be countered is by a change in formation.  This doesn’t necessarily imply a return to 4-4-2, but instead an option would be for greater service for Miller in the hole behind.  In such a 4-4-1-1 role, the hole player will need to assumed by a player who is happy dropping deep and to act as the link man with Miller.  It will also require a player who is willing to do a lot of the running for Miller, and in this respect Peter Whittingham would not be suited to playing higher up the pitch.  Instead, I would advocate that Malky looks to play Joe Mason or Don Cowie in this role.   Interestingly, the latter was at his most effective for his previous club Watford in this role.   

However, this would represent an overhaul of the tactical outlook which has served the team so well in the last few months. It raises the question: is this really the juncture to be considering such a change when there is so much to be lost?  If the reader can allow the writer a moment of conservatism, then I am inclined to say no it isn’t.  Instead, Mackay should trust in his 4-2-3-1 formation, and strive for greater discipline alongside some fine-tinkering.  These are discussed in turn in the following paragraphs.

The greater discipline aspect will necessitate his asking Kiss and Gunnarsson to return to their alternating positions in order that one always sits deep and in close proximity to Whittingham.  This will give him his ‘minder’ so that defensive duties can be delegated, but also an easy outlet for a pass in order to start build-up play from deep midfield.  That said, both are needed in an advanced role up the pitch – Kiss for his destructive manner of pressing; Gunnarsson for his late offensive runs.  However, the important point here is that these differing virtues would apply at different times, and hence why there should be no reason why one or other could not drop deeper when needed.

The fine tinkering aspect would come in the guise of making the pitch bigger via the attacking midfield channel and in particular the 3 players who would habitually support Miller up front.   I have already advocated this in an earlier blog, but repeat it here for the avoidance of doubt:  Cardiff need to incorporate wide players into their squad.   Such width does not necessarily need to be on both sides at the same time – after all Cardiff do not play like Brighton – but does need to involve the provision of a better delivery.  At the moment, any sort of wide play is obtained from McNaughton overlapping on the right, Cowie drifting out from a central position or Conway cutting in from the left onto his right foot.  None of these options provides anything resembling a quality delivery.  Indeed, the only semblance of crossing ability comes from Peter Whittingham’s dead-ball play, which continues to be of a high quality.

Conway in particular has been a disappointment.  He tries hard, but doesn’t offer enough in my opinion.  There is no particular footballing chemistry with Andrew Taylor down the left and they habitually crowd each-other when an overlap should be created.  His lack of pace is a worry, as is his reluctance to rely on his crossing from the by-line.  As much as it may make this writer appear like a font of negativity, it is a time to replace him in the starting line-up.  The alternative options within the current squad would be Joe Ralls or else Joe Mason.  However, I would instead advocate that Mackay look to purchase someone such as Jimmy Kebe (or Craig Noone if the rumours are true) providing he is vetted as someone who has the necessary team ethic.  If so, then this would mean Cowie shifting over to the left, with the new signing arriving on the right.

 2/ How can Cardiff continue to be successful with Whittingham absent?

Late into the pre-Christmas home game against Middlesbrough, Peter Whittingham fell awkwardly and lay motionless on the ground.  The home crowd went silent momentarily, followed by an apparent collective groan.  Was this the time when Cardiff’s luck had run out?  Is Whittingham injured?  More importantly, what do we do now?

Thankfully, Whittingham got up and saw out the remainder of the game, and continues to be an ever-present for Cardiff in the Championship this season.  That said, do not underestimate lady luck to take a turn for the worst at a time sometime in the future.  And with this in mind, let us discuss how Cardiff can best make use of resources if he was to be absent from the team.

As I have said earlier, Whittingham is something of a luxury player and the current system helps to compensate (and cover) for his lack of defensive abilities.  This is not a criticism – other sides have flourished by moulding the surrounding players in support of the main playmaker.  The likes of Riquelme as trequartista and Pirlo as regista come to mind straight away.  However, taking such a player out of the team allows the collective element to be more successful and arguably more fluid.  Following this school of thought, it would therefore mean that Mackay could better adapt his formation to best face the opposition as necessary.

Before we go any further it is worth assessing whether the success of the current formation could be maintained through the introduction of a similar player in the Whittingham role.  Quite simply, Cardiff do not have another Peter Whittingham, but the closest version would be Stephen McPhail who has served the club so very well over the last five years or so.  However, if we are being honest, McPhail can be outmuscled from games if sides play a tight midfield game (whereas Whittingham would seek to play a way out of traffic).  This, coupled with his recent absences from the side, may not make him the most suitable candidate to replace Whittingham.   Should Malky wish to maintain the tactical formation in Whittingham’s absence, then he would be advised to seek to buy an understudy.

The alternative would be to change things about a bit.  Assuming a first choice back four of McNaughton, Hudson, Turner and Taylor in front of Marshall, the question therefore is who would play in midfield or attack.  A reversion to simple 4-4-2 would likely see Kiss and Gunnarsson in the centre of midfield.  Their own virtues notwithstanding, the creative presence would therefore need to come from the wide midfielders.  Here, a question mark hangs over the suitability of Cowie and Conway in this role.  Would Joe Ralls be an adequate replacement on the left?  Alternatively, Cowie could fill that role, and a new signing such as Kebe or Noone could come in on the right.  Up front, Kenny Miller could be accompanied by Gestede in a classing ‘big man-little man’ combination (this may even allow for the resurgence of Earnshaw as an understudy to Miller), or else Mason could play a withdrawn role behind Miller.  Ultimately, I confess to having concerns about this working, especially as it remains the default system for a large portion of opposing teams in the division and they therefore have a better understanding of how to set-up against it. 

An alternative would be to look towards a fluid midfield diamond, or 4-3-1-2, as Mackay used in the win against Nottingham Forest.  Forest had been successful in stifling Cardiff’s midfield play earlier in the season, and Mackay instead advocated a fluid midfield set-up behind a front two rather than one as normal.  This had positive results with Cardiff coming out on top and such a set up would see Kiss in a destructive deep role, with Cowie and Gunnarsson providing the fluidity in front.  Joe Mason would then play in the hole behind a front two (Miller and Gestede).  Alternatively, the midfield would incorporate Joe Ralls, and Mason would move up alongside Miller.  Granted, this approach would be devoid of natural width and would ask a lot of McNaughton and Taylor, and notwithstanding the fluidity of movement in the middle to the park, it would be prone to counter-move by an astute coach who would look to constrain any offensive intentions by Cardiff’s full backs.  Witness Tony Mowbray’s successful instructions to the more advanced Julio Arca (marking McNaughton) and conversely to the retreating Justin Hoyte (shadowing Taylor) in Middlesbrough’s second half come-back on the 17th December.   

 3/ Conclusions

If Cardiff are to push on for promotion and at the same time appear in the Carling Cup Final against Premier League opposition, then this will likely require Peter Whittingham pulling the strings as the midfield creator.  Assuming that the player himself has the desire to stay with Cardiff then Mackay is mainly in control of making sure that he continues to flourish to maximum effect – by ensuring the tactical set-up is secure, and also by making sure that he is rested whenever necessary to warn off burn-out or training ground injury.  The chance of injury within a game is to a large extent an uncontrollable, but if Whittingham continued to be excused from destructive midfield duties then this can at least be minimised.

As a final point, this writer admits that to promote the virtues of the individual over the team collective is something of a folly; after all it takes more than one person to engineer a goal scoring opportunity and conversely to marshal the defence of one’s own goal.    Therefore, this essay should be interpreted as a discussion about Cardiff’s best team player, but not one which takes this individual in isolation from the ten others on his side.

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Cardiff City – an interim report

Three months in to the new season and for this writer it is time to take stock on how the new manager has performed at Cardiff City.

Malky Mackay came forward as the preferred candidate at a juncture when the board saw fit to compare him with the bland and deficient alternative that was Alan Shearer.  Whether this was a unique public relations stunt or simply a reflection of the two best candidates, we will probably never know.   Needless to say, the candidate with a better track record got the job.

Despite Watford’s reversion to mid-table obscurity, Mackay has developed a reputation as one of the league’s up-and-coming coaches.  Indeed, this was endorsed by the players that he has to date worked with, and also fellow managers.  But what endeared him most of all to the fans at the outset was his explicit promise to reconnect with the supporter base.  Mackay led a series of meet and greet sessions with fans which scored much-needed brownie points, especially if one is to compare this with Jones’ apparent indifference to anything resembling supporter disquiet. 

One of the obvious examples of this was the way in which he cajoles his team to thank the fans for their support after every game – both home and away.  Mackay then makes a point of staying on the touch-line until he has personally shaken the hand of each player, before turning to thank the crowd himself.  His own particular way of doing the ayatollah on request from the Canton Stand (which can best be described as ‘violent’, and then a seamless reversion to thumbs up salute in their general direction) is worthy of note.   This may be a bit showy, but it was just the type of gesture which was needed post Jones era, where the manager held very little touch-line presence. 

Mackay has made it clear that he would rather work with hard-working and cooperative players as opposed to individuals with flair yet big egos.  In backing up this mantra, he has shown to be astute in the transfer market, for free and payment transactions.  Getting Taylor, Cowie, Conway and Gestede on frees has proven to be canny;  the signing of Joe Mason inspired.  Likewise, Filip Kiss will, I am sure, prove to be a great year-long signing.  I think that we are yet to see the best of Kenny Miller, who had been slowly regaining fitness and form until he was injured against Hull.  We will return to Earnshaw and Gunnarsson later. 

Mackay’s management of the remaining sparse player pool has also been impressive to date.  Bring Gerrard back into the fold from the Hull wilderness was necessary.  Reassuring Paul Quinn that he still has a future may turn out to be a good back-stop move as Cardiff are short of good full back cover.  Also, entrusting McNaughton with a license to advance down the right flank has improved what was already Cardiff’s jewel in the crown. 

The manager has also identified the need to harness the other quality asset that Cardiff possess.  Peter Whittingham is Cardiff’s best creative player in the middle of the park, whom Jones had used in the centre of midfield.  Unfortunately, Jones’ reliance on rigid 4-4-2 meant that there was no avoidance of the need to do a fair share of 2nd ball duties in the middle of the field.  Conversely, Mackay saw the best way of bringing out the creative ways of Whittingham via a deep-lying role, gathering the ball from the centre backs and distributing further up field.  Mackay’s initial thinking seemed to exclude the possibility of Whittingham adopting a free role behind the attackers because this would conflict with another of his tactical aims – for a careless attitude to closing down and putting pressure on the opposing players would be at odds with a high pressing regime starting with the more advanced players up the pitch.

Instead, Mackay saw Whittingham in a pivote role, similar I suppose to what Andrea Pirlo has been adopting for Milan.  It should be noted that Pirlo needed a minder to do the dirty work in the guise of Gattuso; and I imagine Mackay thinking that so now did Whittingham.  As such, Aaron Gunnarsson was used in this role at the start of the season.  The downside to adopting this deep sitting midfield duo option requires there to be fluidity of the attacking players up front, usually in the guise of one up front and a midfield three.  Mackay seems to be entrusting in a front two partnership, and so this means that the remaining two midfielders (i.e. those ideally with width) were forced to play narrow in order to fill the void in the centre of midfield.  Accordingly, the likes of Don Cowie and Craig Conway have had to tuck in and make wide runs facing out from a starting position towards the middle of the park.  This has meant that Mackay’s default formation was initially a narrow diamond shape, with two deep midfielders, 2 narrow attacking midfielders and a front two partnership.   

However, Mackay’s need to be flexible with his formations was changed somewhat when Gunnarsson went off injured against Bristol City.  The absence of a proven like-for like replacement meant that he instead reverted to a midfield diamond, and in the circumstances this proved to be the correct tactical decision.  Being at home, the gamble of losing a midfield ball-winner was not a major problem, especially with the opposition being so poor.  He brought on Joe Mason at the top of the diamond, who went on to flourish in an almost free role on his home Championship debut.  However, the reality is that, against better opposition, this formation was prone to failure, as Brighton showed soon afterwards with a passing game that deliberately made the pitch as big as possible, thereby stretching the hole in the middle of the park.  

For away games, Mackay had adopted a more conservative mentality.  He has sought to retain a deep-lying midfield two, but in front of a midfield three supporting the lone man in front, for which Miller was tailor-made having had previous experience for Scotland and other teams.  In such instances, he has preferred to play the flourishing Filip Kiss alongside Gunnarsson to give extra ballast, and with Whittingham higher up the park in the centre of the midfield three behind Miller. Whilst having only one man up front at home would be frowned upon by home supporters, this attacking formation is probably the only way that continuing the trend of two deep-lying midfielders can be sustained. 

Indeed, in the last two home games (Barnsley and Burnley), Mackay has reverted to 4-2-3-1.  This is a bold move in the face of obvious supporter bemusement (” we are at home, and he is only playing one up front?”), but the correct one if he is intent on maximising the skill of Whittingham in a deep role.  The welcome return of Stephen McPhail has relieved some of the burden on Cardiff’s best player, but whether they can function as a deep-lying duo in away games is open to debate.

I understand the above essentially takes a positive spin on what has happened since August.  Cardiff find themselves in a mid-table position, with the defence on course to concede more goals than respective totals for the past five years.  Indeed, the above-described modus is ultimately unproven and from my season ticket seat I have identified a few holes/problems which are outlined as follows

1. Lack of width - This stems largely from Mackay’s wish to adopt a deep-lying midfield two, which has forced the likes of Cowie and Conway to tuck in for their attacking midfield roles.  As mentioned earlier, if this is to continue, then it can only be remedied by withdrawing an attacker and playing him deeper in midfield as part of a fluid three.  However, even if this was achieved (or alternatively Mackay reverts to 4-4-2), I would find myself questioning whether these two players are naturally wide players, or have the inclination to attack from wide positions. Conway in particular is adopting a curious habit of advancing into advanced positions on an angle from the centre of the pitch, which proves little threat for defenders using the touch-line as their friend (especially when Conway looks lacking in pace).

At present, the only player that is giving Cardiff an attacking platform from width is Kevin McNaughton.  Unfortunately, Kevin’s delivery is not the best, and we have therefore suffered from anything resembling a service from the flanks for the attacking players.  The downside of giving McNaughton creative licence is that you then lose his able assistance in covering for the mistakes of the centre backs.  Such mistakes have been more than obvious this year, as point 3 below explains further. 

2. A flawed approach to pressing - Malky has sought a pressing game high up the pitch.  The problem with this is that his preferred 2 up front do not hunt as a pack and thereby adopt the first line of defence.  Miller is pretty adept at closing down defenders, but unfortunately Earnshaw is proving to be every so slightly lazy, thus allowing defences to play triangles around him.  This then puts any midfield pressing on the back foot, and exposes the defensive abilities of the likes of Whittingham and McPhail.  Personally, I would like to see Mackay revert to just the one up front and to insert a skillful ball-winner higher up the park.  Evidently, this he did against Barnsley, with Gunnarsson playing as the central man in the attacking midfield three in a 4-2-3-1 formation.  The added benefit of this is that Gunnarsson has the ability to arrive late in the box, as witnessed by his second goal in that game.  Away from home, I would argue that this type of player in that role becomes even more important. 

3. A Lack of pace at centre back - This may be stating the obvious, but all does not appear to be well at the back for Cardiff.  Mackay retains loyalty to Hudson and has brought him back into the fold as a regular.  Indeed, we may not know the full virtues of Hudson as a captain and dressing room leader, as there is only so much to be seen on the pitch.  Clearly, Mackay holds him in high esteem and we must trust that there is more to Hudson than is known by the fan.  His aerial ability is first-rate, as is that of Gerrard – his first choice partner for the majority of the season to date.  Sides who play an aerial/long ball game have proved to be no match for these two; it is when the attacking threat is governed by pace that there is a problem.

I return to the example of Brighton, who played an expansive passing game, consisting of impressive pass and move and with the front men oozing pace.  Craig Mackail-Smith proved to be extremely impressive in that game and showed Hudson up to be slow turning and lacking in pace, as typified in the faux duel which led to the second goal (see clip below)

Indeed, there is a history of this happening before, with Hudson proving to be the weak link when the attackers make intelligent runs that drag him away from his defensive partner, and thus making him bereft of cover behind.  Shane Long is not the quickest of players, but he still unpicked Hudson to the extent that Cardiff lost the play off semi final by half time in the second leg. 

As you can guess, I am not a fan of Hudson and find him to be limited and a hark back to defenders of past eras.  Mackay has a number of options to choose from, and surely there is a partnership in the squad which has the all-round ability to cope with Championship attacks.  My own preference would be for Gerrard and Darcy Blake, with the latter offering the pace to complement the aerial ability of the former. 

4. Robert Earnshaw - We all love Earnie for his commitment to the cause and eagerness to return to city.  We all remember his goalscoring prowess, playing off the last man and flourishing off the service of a big target man’s knock downs.  This he did to notable success, and for which his first spell at the club will be remembered fondly. 

That said, the game and its systems have moved on.  Habitually playing the big man/short man partnership up front is now very much out dated (although with its merits on the isolated occasion).  Being a striker in a 4-3-3, 4-5-1 or 4-2-3-1 system now requires the ability to hold the ball up, to link well with the supporting players, as well as being the leader of a high pressing game.  Sadly, Earnie Model #2 is none of these.

In some ways, Earnshaw and Miller are the same type of player.  Both are predators in the box and curiously have something of a telepathy to replicate each other’s runs and positioning.  Indeed, I have lost count of the number of times when one would drop deep, the other would follow, meaning that there was nobody holding a high line (especially to receive Hudson’s hopeless long-ball game). 

Granted, his signing on a free was a bit of a no-brainer for the club.  However, I feel that his future lies more so as an impact substitute.  Miller is arguably a better player than Earnshaw and is more suited to the variety of different formations that Mackay could implement.  A worry for little Earnie is the promise that Joe Mason is showing as a replacement striker.  Mason replaced the injured Miller against Barnsley and coped superbly as the lone striker, with the opposing defence not knowing who should pick him up.  It was quite simply the best exhibition of running into space I have seen by a Cardiff player this season.  Ironically, when Earnshaw was brought on to give him some support, momentum was lost as the defenders went man for man faced with the familiarity of a two-man attack.  Mason’s direct running and willingness to press and hurry defenders also means that he is an option in a deeper role – as the central man in an attacking midfield three. 

As such, Mackay needs to come to the conclusion that Earnshaw is no more than a squad player, and that the likes of Miller, Mason, and even Gestede, are ahead in the pecking order.  However, things are not so bad as to say that Jon Parkin is also in front of Earnshaw in the hierarchy!  This will go down as one of the truly awful purchases of the Dave Jones era. 

Without a doubt, there needs to be some sort of strengthening of personnel if Cardiff are to push for a playoff place.  Mackay has done very little in the loan window, but has not ruled out splashing out again in the January transfer window.   I would advise that he looks to secure a player (or players) who will give midfield width.  From what we have seen so far, the likes of Bristol’s Jamal Campbell-Ryce or Robbie Brady of Hull (on loan from Man United) would be options.  Ironically, Cardiff would be better placed if they had managed to keep hold of Chris Burke.

It is a shame that Luke Chambers decided against joining Cardiff at the start of the season, as he would have been an excellent signing.  Instead, I think that Mackay should look to his squad for a centre back partnership, where it exists in the Gerrard-Blake axis. An additional central midfielder may also prove to be an astute purchase to cover for injury problems, although there is always a need to improve the ball-winning ability for the side.  I have long been a fan of Mikele Leigertwood, for his athletic ability and skill in the middle of the park and would advocate a move for him if Reading do not fully appreciate his quality. 

As an overall summary, I would say that there are more positives than negatives so far to convey to the reader.  Ultimately, this is a two/three-year project, and what is seen on the pitch is very much a work in progress.  I will report back in the new year and the end of the season with my further thoughts.

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The Nearly Men #3 – Yugoslavia 1987-92

On the 26th of June 1992, Denmark defeated Germany 2-0 in the final of the European Championships – a result which was held by many as the biggest upset in the final of the tournament. 

In fact, Denmark were fully deserving of their victory on the day, when they out-muscled and out-fought a German side that was at its peak yet ever so slightly over-confident.  Yet this triumph of one of the smaller European footballing countries was tinged with an element of anticlimax – a sense of ‘what if’, for Denmark had been a last-minute replacement for Yugoslavia who had qualified with optimum ease yet had been expelled from the tournament as a result of geo-political circumstances that were very much out of the team’s control.  This deprived the footballing world of a team of exceptional players but not yet at their respective peaks.  The sad reality being that this was to be their last opportunity of performing as a team, and none of them were allowed to turn up.

To be fair, Yugoslavia had a long tradition of presenting competitive teams on the international stage, with appearances at both World Cup and European Championships (including two final appearances).  This was despite limited signs of youth pedigree, with only two appearances at the World Under 20′s championships, the first of which in 1979 ended in arguable failure with elimination at the group stage.  However, this was to change in 1987 at the 6th finals in Chile.

Yugoslavia had approached the tournament in a relaxed manner and with no real aspirations for victory.  Indeed, it is arguable that the football federation only sent a team to Chile in order to satisfy international requirements, so much so that they had left those age group players who had broken into domestic first team squads behind.  This included the likes of Sinisa Mihajlovic, Alen Boksic and Vladimir Jugovic who were kept back by their respective clubs.  The absence of pressure of expectations had a positive impact on players, who embraced the local culture as well as significant ex-pat community, and played with great freedom under the auspices of the coach Mirko Jozic. 

The absence of Mihajlovic, Boksic and Jugovic did not mean that this group of players was any less up to the task.  Time will show them to be one of the most talented teams to have entered the competition, with the great majority going to achieve full international honours (whether for Yugoslavia or its subsequent component parts).  Jozic moulded his team of talent into a fluid hybrid 5-3-2 / 4-4-2 formation, the backbone of which was Dragoje Lekovic in goal, the captain Branko Brnovic at right back, Robert Jarni at left, and with Igor Stimac featuring in the centre of defence.  The notable stars Robert Prosinecki and Zvonimir Boban controlled the midfield, supplemented by the industry of fellow team members, and the attacking platform was provided by Davor Suker and Predrag Mijatovic.

Yugoslavia breezed through the group stages, scoring 12 goals in defeating Chile 4-2, Australia 4-0 and Togo 4-1.  They came from behind to defeat Brazil 2-1 in the quarter-final, and then an East German side featuring Mattias Sammer by the same score in the semi final.  In the final, they overcame West Germany after extra time and penalties.  Despite being banned from the final along with Mijatovic, Prosinecki was the undoubted star of the tournament, and was the easy choice for player of the tournament (Golden Ball).  FIFA’s own overview describes the choice as follows:-

“A shining star in a glittering galaxy! Robert Prosinecki was chosen as player of the tournament from a plethora of tremendous Yugoslavian players. Among his many talents, it was his brilliant vision that won him most plaudits – almost a second sight, delivering chances on a plate to front men Mijatovic and Suker. The Croat’s lethal final pass made his side by far the most dangerous in the competition.”

So what sort of set-up did these notable rising stars have to come back to?  Mijatovic (and latterly Brnovic) returned to Partizan Belgrade, who had won the league in 1986 and 1987, but were to endure a period of slump.  Suker and Boban returned to Dinamo Zagreb to join the promising Mario Stanic (who was deemed too young for the 1987 tournament), whilst Stimac and Jarni rejoined Alen Boksic at Hadjuk Split.  Meanwhile, Prosinecki was to return to Red Star Belgrade, who were embarking on a five-year plan, which would eventually see them to European glory in 1991.  At the club, he was joined by Mihajlovic, Yugovic, Dejan Savicevic and, more significantly, Yugoslavia’s best player at that time – Dragan Stojkovic.

Stojkovic ran the midfield for Red Star.  With dazzling close control, a willingness to dribble and also possessing the important virtue of delivering the final ball, he was the catalyst for the team’s success.  Indeed in 1989, Stojkovic became one of only five players to have represented for Red Star to be given the award of ‘Star of Red Star’ (Zvezdina Zvezda), already guaranteeing him a place in history.  He also transferred this form and skill to the Yugoslavian national team, for which he had made his debut in 1983.  Naturally, when Yugoslavia qualified for the 1990 World Cup in Italy, a Maradona-esque level of expectation was attributed to the player, and for him to haul a team comparable lesser quality to ultimate glory.   To a certain extent, this matched his own confidence and self belief  – Stojkovic knew he was the best player in the team, whilst also acknowledging that he needed his team mates in order to shine.

The three years that separated the World Youth Championships and Italia 90 had seen the promotion of Prosinecki, Jarni, Boksic, Suker, Lekovic and Boban to the senior Yugoslavia team.   Boban missed the finals through suspension for an incident that occurred in a domestic league game (see later).  However, in the vogue defensive 5-3-2 system of the time, none of these players made the starting line up for their opening match against West Germany.  Stojkovic appeared as the mainstay of the midfield three, supported by Srecko Katanec, but they were over-ran by Matthaus and co as the Germans won 4-1.  Dejan Savicevic led the attacking line, along with the captain Zlatko Vujovic of Paris St Germain, but both found it difficult to overcome the strong German back four.  Prosinecki was a 56th minute substitute in the game, but failed to make a significant impact.

For the second group game against Colombia, coach Ivica Osim changed the formation to compensate for the lightweight midfield performance of the first game.  Their 4-5-1 formation featured Vujovic as the lone man, with Katanec and the other midfielders acting to allow Stojkovic to roam in the middle of the park.  The younger Darko Pancev was a second half substitute for Vujovic, and Jarni replaced Katanec to give an extra attacking presence on the left, with the result that Yugoslavia scored on 75 minutes and held on for the victory.

For the final game of the group, Osim reverted to a 4-4-2 formation, with both Vujovic and the in-form Pancev up front.  Pancev scored two, with the substitute Prosinecki also adding one to a 4-1 win, which saw them through to the second round where they were to face Spain.  Osim again shuffled his deck such that a 3-5-2 formation was preferred, with Stojkovic scoring a sublime brace as Yugoslavia won 2-1 after extra time.

The quarter-final pitted Yugoslavia against a defensive-minded Argentina squad who had failed to impress in advancing to that stage.  Osim’s reversion to 4-5-1 was cancelled out by Bilardo’s adoption of a 3-5-2 formation, the result of which was that Stojkovic and Maradona cancelled each other out in a cluttered midfield.  Add to this the dismissal of Hadzibegic, and Yugoslavia were prevented from playing with their natural verve.  Prosinecki was picked as part of the midfield five, but failed to make a lasting impression.  Yugoslavia were to falter in the penalty shoot-out, as Italy were also to do in the semi finals, with many reflecting that both were far superior sides to the Argentinians who eventually ended up as runners-up. 

Was this a missed opportunity for Yugoslavia?  It is unlikely that they would have beaten the Italians in the semi final, who were only prevented from a home final by the ultra negativity of Argentina.  What is more, the likes of Faruk Hadzibegic in defence, Safet Susic in midfield and Zlatko Vujovic in attack were all in their 30′s and nearing the end of their international careers and if not ever so slightly over the hill.   These players had nothing left to give, and were phased out of the national team set-up thereafter, together with a number of other squad players at that World Cup. 

That summer, Dragan Stojkovic was to leave Red Star Belgrade for the more glamorous settings of Marseille in a mega money deal.  Luck would dictate that the hype was never fulfilled as he was soon injured and did not play a full season for his new club as they advanced towards potential European glory.  At the same time, his old club were close to the denouement of the 5 year plan, and had made it to the final of the European Cup after stellar performances in the previous rounds (famously including Bayern Munich in the semi final).  

Indeed, the sale of Stojkovic had a positive result for the team, for as Jonathan Wilson argues in his excellent article on Red Star for The Blizzard (Issue Zero), his departure gave the side greater balance.  Red Star’s coach Ljupko Petrovic set his team up playing a 4-3-3 system, with captain Stevan Stojanovic in goal, and a back four of Refik Sabanadzovic on the right, Slobodan Marovic on the left, and the centre back partnership of the elegant Romanian Miodrag Belodedici and Ilija Najdoski - none of which household names.  However, the midfield three had moved beyond reliance on Stojkovic and was now a tight unit, with the youth team prospect Vladimir Jugovic holding behind Prosinecki and Mihajlovic in a more advanced role.  Up front, the prolific Macedonain Darko Pancev (84 goals in 91 league appearances between 1989 and 1992) was supplemented by Dejan Savicevic and Dragisa Binic, giving width on the left and right respectively. Alternatively, Petrovic would adopt a 4-4-1-1 formation, with Mihajlovic on the left of midfield, Binic on the right, and Savicevic in the hole behind Pancev.

In the final, chance would have it that Red Star were to play Marseille in Bari.  Having spent big in the summer of 1990 (including the acquisition of Franz Beckenbauer as coach), Marseille were the favourites for to win their first European Cup, and such was the level at what Red Star were perceived as underdogs it had an impact on their outlook, which became one of suspicion and self-preservation rather than liberation.  Unfortunately for observers, the final was to be one of the worst in memory, tinged with collective paranoia and decided by Pancev’s winning kick in the penalty shoot out.  Yet the abiding afterthought was positive - that a ‘hard edged’ Eastern European team had finally received the reward which their talent deserved.

However, the emphasis of team cohesion over individual glory was soon to change.  The brilliance of Prosinecki was recognised by Real Madrid and he agreed to join them soon after the final.   Pancev was transferred to Internazionale in the summer of 1992, as was Jugovic to Sampdoria, Mihajlovic to Roma and Savicevic to Milan.   Elsewhere, Boban had escaped Dinamo Zagreb for Milan in 1990 prior to Italia 90, after kicking a policeman in a match against Red Star (which was said to have been the catalyst for the escalation of Serb-Croat hostilities).  In 1991, Davor Suker headed for Sevilla and Robert Jarni for Bari.  By 1992, Alen Boksic was playing for Marseille and in 1993, Predrag Mijatovic left Partizan Belgrade for Spain to play for Valencia. 

It was a time of noticeable exodus of talent from Yugoslavia, which saw the nation’s rising stars elevated to the better leagues of Europe where they could improve their skills and experience greater glory.  Despite the scattering of these individuals throughout Italy and Spain, this had no negative consequences on the collective – this time in the guise of the national team.

Rather than relying on the brilliance of one player, the national team could now draw upon a series of individuals who were willing to play the team card. The team began the qualifiers for Euro 92 with four straight victories.  Hadzibegic was still featuring at the back, as was Vujovic up front.  However, it was Darko Pancev who was now the principal attacking threat in attack, scoring hat-tricks in the 4-1 home defeats of Austria and Northern Ireland.  Savicevic had now become a regular on the left of attack or midfield, and Prosinecki taking over creative responsibility in the absence of Stojkovic, who spent a large part of the 1990-91 season injured.  Boban and Suker were regular substitutes in the games up to the 2-1 home defeat against Denmark, which put an end their 100% start to qualifying. 

This was soon put right in the next game, when Iceland were put to the sword by the margin of 7-0.  This game was significant for it represented the introduction of Jarni on the left of defence, Mihajlovic in defence/midfield, and also Boban (back from the international wilderness) in midfield to join Prosinecki.  Jugovic was to be introduced in midfield for the next game which was won 2-0 against the Faroe Islands.  Mijatovic and Suker were to feature as substitutes for this and the remaining games, together with Branko Brnovic.  Surprisingly, for all who remember his supreme performances, the captain of the 1987 team remained an unfulfilled talent without a big money move to Western Europe.

The defeat of the Faroe Islands had the ultimate significance of representing the last competitive international before the significant Croat element of the team left to represent their own newly formed nation. Prosinecki, Jarni, Boban and Suker were thereafter to be lost from the blue shirt.  Katanec had earlier played his last game in the away win against Denmark before Slovenia formed their own team.  

On the 31st May 1992 – 10 days before the start of the tournament – United Nations sanctions imposed on the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) meant that they were expelled from Euro 92.  Likewise, a similar ban was imposed on their participation in qualifying for the 1994 World Cup in the USA, where they were the top European seeds, and Euro 96 thereafter.

As Serbia & Montenegro remained in the international wilderness, Croatia and Slovenia developed as young footballing nations, coinciding with the success of their best players at the highest level.   USA 94 came too early for both nations, but for Croatia Euro ’96 proved to be a surprising success.  Coach Miroslav Blazevic had the benefit of drawing upon key members of the 1987 golden generation, and moulded them into a 3-5-2 formation.  In front of goalkeeper Drazen Ladic was a front three of Igor Stimac, Slaven Bilic, and Nikola Jerkan.  The width in midfield was provided by Jarni on the left and Mario Stanic on the right, with a midfield three of Boban (as captain), Prosinecki and Aljosa Asanovic.  Attacking options were provided by two from Suker, Boksic and Goran Vlaovic.  Wins against Turkey and Denmark in the group stage (the latter with stunning conviction) gave qualification to the quarter finals, where they were eventually defeated against the eventual winners Germany. 

After their surprise quarter-final performance at Euro 96, the footballing community was not ambushed at the 1998 World Cup in France.  The same core of players, supplemented by Dario Simic in defence and Zvonimir Soldo in midfield, made light work of qualifying from the group stage behind Argentina.  Romania were put to the sword in the second round and then came the result which defined this group of Croat players - the defeat of Germany 3-0.  Thereafter, despite being one goal to the good against eventual winners France in the semi final, a second half come-back by the hosts saw them lose 2-1. 

That tournament also saw the return of Yugoslavia to the international fold.  Unbeaten in the group stage, they advanced to the second round where they were to be defeated 2-1 and by a late Edgar Davids long-range strike.  Despite their absence from the two previous competitions, many observers concluded that this represented a failure by a side filled with star names at their collective peaks.  Indeed, the same could be said for the calibre of player in the Croatia team playing in the same tournament, which makes one wonder what could have been if civil war had not acted to divide up this former nation. 

I suppose the truth is that we will never know; likewise, it is not clear whether Yugoslavia would have advanced to win Euro ’92.  Of course, they had the individual potential, but circumstances would have played out differently under the dynamic of a different team.  Instead, we are left with the pleasure of picking a team for the former Yugoslavia at a date when this class of 1987 were at their peak.

Unfortunately, Lekovic in goal was never to fulfil his earlier promise, despite earlier caps for the national team.  By 1998, the two options were the Serb Ivica Kralj or the Croat Drazen Ladic.  On the basis of his performances for Yugoslavia during qualifying, my own preference would be for Kralj as first choice, but this position remains possibly the weak link in the team.

That is the easiest part, and it now falls on one to pick the formation.  A 3-5-2 system seemed to be favoured by the former Yugoslav countries at the time, and so it is only right that we look to implement this tactical outlook into our team.  The former attacking midfielder Sinisa Mihajlovic was by now used in a more defensive role for domestic league duty.  He is here used as a left centre back, aside Igor Stimac who had developed from his 1987 performances into a regular from Croatia and, according to Derby County’s own website, their most influential player over the past three decades.  The third member of the back three is Dario Simic who, whilst of younger age and of lesser international experience at that time, was fast becoming a colossus at the back.  Stints playing for both Milan clubs have showcased his abilities, and he was to become Croatia’s most capped player. 

In terms of the width in defence/midfield, by 1998 Robert Jarni was starting to blossom and was by a clear margin the best left back/wingback amongst the options available in the former nations.   The skill of Mario Stanic was by then visible for all to see, combining astute defensive play with raiding runs down the right flank – an easy choice for the other wing back position, although a case could be made for the Bosnian Hasan Salihamidic, normally accustomed to playing wide in a 4-4-2 system.  Salihamidic was to move from Hamburg to Bayern Munich that summer and was regarded as one of the biggest prospects in Europe.

The midfield three of the time tends to pick itself.  Boban and Prosinecki were the backbone of the Croatian midfield and arguably the catalyst for their success in 1996 and 1998.  Aljosa Asanovic was also a key component in the Croatian midfield, but in my opinion there is a need for a midfield anchor, for which there are two options:   Zvonimir Soldo and Vladimir Jugovic.  The latter was at that time at the peak of his powers with Lazio, and noting his history of providing a platform for Prosinecki to perform, is here preferred. 

This formation allows for two front men, and I have selected a partnership rather than two out-and-out goalscorers.  Predrag Mijatovic and Davor Suker had carried forth their experience of playing together at Chile ’87 and formed a successful partnership at club level for Real Madrid, with the former scoring the winning goal in that season’s Champions League win against Juventus.  Mijatovic would sometimes drop deep and act in support of Suker who was the more natural goal scorer.  This relationship puts them ahead of other candidates at that time, namely the deep-lying Zlatko Zahovic of Slovenia and the Serbia target man Savo Milosevic. 

Readers will note that there are some omissions from this line-up.  Unfortunately, I would argue that the 1998 tournament was one too far for the likes of Pancev, Savicevic and arguably Stojkovic (althought the latter was still to feature in the Yugoslavia team).  These players may well have been prominent should the team have made it to USA ’94 and Euro’96, but would not have been surrounded by anything resembling a complete team.  Indeed, the fact that such players do not feature in my team at all, shows the strength in the squad.  The remaining seven who warm the bench would be Drazen Ladic, Slaven Bilic, Zoran Mirkovic, Zvonimir Soldo,  Aljosa Asanovic, Zlatko Zahovic and Savo Milosevic.  Alen Boksic was injured for the tournament, and so hasn’t been considered for this fantasy squad.

Once again we will never know how good this team could have been.  The fact that the eventual winners of France ’98 were the hosts, who struggled to beat Croatia in the semi final, can be used as evidence that a stronger Yugoslavia may have made it to the final.  But then again, would any side have been able to withstand a fully firing Ronaldo in the final?  One for a pub debate me thinks.

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Why Guardiola is a cut above

I had a quite interesting debate with a friend whilst on holiday last week over tactics. In particular, the discussion focussed on a settled team, with proven tactics and established formation. My friend’s opening gambit was to insist that the best teams are those with the best players, which have a degree of consistency in team selection over a period of time, and with a settled outlook, such that tactics are not all that important. He cited the example of Barcelona to emphasise his point. It was at this point that I challenged him, and this is why.

Barca’s 4-3-3 formation had been reintroduced by Frank Rijkaard in an effort to reintroduce the passing aspect of the club’s ideology, and also to make the best use of the players at his disposal (in fact this was more likely to be down to the work of his assistant Henk Ten Cate and his appreciation of the Michels-Cruyff ideal, but we shall park that for the time being).  This allowed the team to accommodate Ronaldinho, Eto’o and Messi, whilst a central midfield three would bring out the best in Xavi notwithstanding the presence of Mark Van Bommel and Edmilson.  These players collaborated successfully to win the 2005 Championship, and then the Champions League (and league) the following year.    In fact, it could well be argued that this team is good enough to be considered as one of the top 50 club sides of all time.

Yet fast forward to 2-3 years and the tables had turned.  Real Madrid, still advancing their galacticos policy, had assembled a collective of supreme individual footballers.  The successive teams of Schuster and Capello, if not ‘teams’ in the purest sense, were nevertheless winners by virtue of an inert ability to impart and enforce their individual personalities to the extent that they became victorious.  Madrid followers may beg to differ, but I would argue that these teams were not pretty to watch; they did nevertheless find the way of becoming victorious over their rivals – during individual games and over the long haul of a league season.  Putting it another way, these Madrid teams and their managers found a way to tactically counter the 4-3-3  of Barca, which had become rigid and stale.

And this, unfortunately, characterised the denouement of Rijkaard’s reign at the Catalan club.  It was his inability to evolve the tactics and formation of the team that led to a perceived sterility in approach which, coupled with the inflating egos of certain personalities, culminated in a lost dressing room.  Granted, Rijkaard did make changes to personnel in order to freshen things up, but this is nothing unusual and is expected on an annual basis by fans.  Signings of the calibre of Henrik Larsen, Eidur Gudjohnsen and Thierry Henry are a sure sign of ambition, but not within a team playing under the auspices of a dated tactical outlook.

His successor Pep Guardiola, being a product of the Messia academy, is steeped in the traditions of the club.  He was already a pupil of Cruyff before himself being elevated to the Dream Team in readiness for the 1992 European Cup win.  He therefore had an advantage over his predecessor – the Barca way of playing was already in his blood and he did not necessarily need to become its student. Instead, the fact that he has such an appreciation for the 3 colour sartorial principle allows him the added gravitas associated with its ambassador.

What Guardiola understood was that in order to preserve the nirvana of Barcelona’s way of playing tactics needed to evolve with the times, and to counter tactically astute coaches.  And, as a significant component of tactics, this meant that the formation should also evolve, although not necessary to the detriment of the fabled 4-3-3.  Evolution should instead act to preserve the integrity of this formation, largely due a return to the intense pressing principles of Rinus Michels coupled with an emphasis on tiki taka as reflected by possession play and pass completion. 

Guardiola’s first move was to first weed-out the big egos apropos ensuring his player pool would instead look to the team ethic in the first and respect his instructions.  Exit the likes of Ronaldinho, Deco et al, and instead a hard-working (for the pressing) yet flexible and pass-friendly midfield and attack (for the tiki taka).  Witness therefore the advancement of Xavi and Iniesta at the same time alongside a more defensive holding presence in midfield (the shackled Yaya Toure, followed by Busquets).  Of significance was his realisation that in order to create an active presence up front, the front three had to provide width, but more importantly act as a goalscoring presence.  Hence the decision to use ‘inverted wingers’ – that is placing right footers on the left-wing and vice versa.  This allowed Messi to start on the right-wing, but to cut in on his favoured foot and to head to goal instead of the byline.  A simple tactical move and one that was instantly successful, although remaining a complete secret from the pool of idiotic pundits (Townsend et al).

Guardiola did not for one minute believe this tactical ploy to be a fait accompli.  He was not satisfied with the central fulcrum of his attacking three, and concluded that it would require a more powerful, skillful presence in order to make the most out of the inverted wingers.  As such, he gambled on essentially swapping the still prolific Eto’o with Ibrahimovic – a man of undoubted skill and ego.  Despite Ibrahimovic himself being a failure, both performance and personality-wise, the move was still somewhat successful in advancing the importance of the inverted wingers.  The irony is therefore that our friend Zlatan turned out to be a selfless resource for the team when, given the chance, he would never choose to be.  Anyway, I digress.

The getting rid of Ibrahimovic signifies a notable scrapping of the holding man up front.  Rather than going back to the drawing board,  Guardiola decided that the future to unlocking defences lay in fine-tuning this idea.  Rather than a big man holding the ball up, he instead envisaged a pivote to run at defences and actually score goals from deeper positions, essentially withdrawing deeper behind the inverted wingers who would be the most advanced attacking presence.  This role would essentially be free and allow the incumberent to rove as he sees fit.  It was a position that was tailor-made for his most creative asset, and thus came to pass that Messi assumed this ‘false nine’ role, accompanied by two high-class inverted wingers in the Villa and Pedro.  On paper, this gave no penalty area presence, save for the two inverted wingers moving in, but instead ended up with Messi scoring goals aplenty.  This was no surprise a la Hidegkuti circa 1953 – it was a calculated move that was always going to succeed, with the wide presence of the inverted wingers drawing the centre backs apart, with Messi taking full advantage of this vulnerability.

Guardiola didn’t stop there.  Since 2010 he has been looking to innovate the way that his team builds from the back, so as to enhance their possession play.  Since the Tiki Taka-friendly Busquets replaced Yaya Toure in midfield, he has possessed a natural solution.  Busquets drifts deeper to pick the ball up from his centre backs, something Guardiola sought to encourage further to ensure he became the staple ball-player at the conception of possession play.  In doing so, he would bisect the centre backs (Puyol and Pique) and allow them some width and space.  This would allow the full-backs in the original back four to then press up the pitch such that they effectively became wide midfielders.  This was very much subtle and not really observed (strangely), but it allowed Barcelona to ambush sides in midfield and give a lateral presence to Xavi and Iniesta (and Messi if he was dropping deeper).    This naturally enhanced the attack-minded gameplay of Dani Alves, but also gave the usual midfielders more passing options, to the extent that Opta statistics became a joy to observe. 

Tactically evolving to this stage, it was questioned whether Barca had reached their peak.  Indeed, the advancement in the respective ages of Xavi and Puyol could mean that these mainstays of the side slowly become ineffectual.  So what does Guardiola do next?  Does he quit and walk away having established one of the best sides ever to play the game?  Does he keep them playing the same way?  Or does he follow a third way?

It looks increasingly like he is favouring the third way option: one more stage of evolution at least.  The signs of this were shown towards the end of last season in meaningless Champions League/Copa del Rey games.  Guardiola has moved to reinforcing his inverted wingers in the form of Affelay and Sanchez – nothing new there.  However, he has also noted that sides are playing 4-5-1, in an effort to nullify the midfield passing and try to ambush Barcelona on the counter attack, noting the lack of pace at the back.  In making his own counter move, Guardiola has started gambling with playing an established 3-4-3 from the start.  So is this a case of just establishing the ambush formation of the previous season? 

The evidence appears to suggest not.  He has started seeing the benefit of a ball-playing presence at the back, alongside a more terrier-like individual.  In this respect, Mascherano is being groomed as a defensive presence, whether or not this is to cover for the similar qualities of Puyol.  By withdrawing the defensive aspect of the midfield, this would then allow the midfield to be populated by attacking individuals - Xavi, Iniesta, one lateral such as Alves, and AN other.  It is also possible that this formation (or tinkering) by Guardiola is a deliberate attempt to accommodate the arrival of Fabregas as the AN other presence.  My own personal take is that it is an independent outlook on the way that the game is progressing.  In any way, Xavi’s injury problems are becoming more regular, and Fabregas may find a more regular position in the default midfield three. 

Only time will tell how this latest change will impact on what is surely his final season at the helm.   My own opinion is that it will not be the default, and will be avoided when sides are playing a big, tall presence up front.  The 4-3-3 will prevail, although Guardiola’s period in charge of Barcelona has been characterised by continuing variants of this formation.  This is how he has made the team into one of the best that has ever been (if not the best), and secures his position as a coach of the highest quality. 

And that is how I presented my argument.

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