Calls For Restructure Of SPL Grow As Fixture Chaos Sparks Protests

Bad month for Doncaster (Image from SNS)Neil Doncaster is having a bad month. The chief executive of the Scottish Professional Football Leagues has faced some fierce criticism after his proposed scheduling of this season final league matches and playoff games earned him an angry reaction from the clubs. Having suggested that the final day fixtures be played at different times, the idea was widely shot down as it presented an unfair advantage to the teams playing later in the day. He has since backed down in his decision and returned games to the same time but has now been caught up in a second row which has added to his problems. Doncaster proposed that the current league playoff fixtures be moved to the start of June in an effort to extend the existing season but his proposal has sparked further protest. Motherwell boss Ian Baraclough was the loudest of the protests claiming that his side would seek compensation from the league if forced to play in June. His reasoning was that a majority of his player’s contracts finish on May 31st so in order to play this important fixture the club would have to extend their contracts for an additional month, something that Motherwell had not budgeted for. No retort has been issued by Doncaster or the SPFL but it is yet another baffling call by the leagues governing body which already had several headaches when it comes to fixture planning in the various divisions.

Ian Baraclough faces a fight with the SPL over playoff scheduling  (Image from Getty)
Ian Baraclough faces a fight with the SPL over playoff scheduling
(Image from Getty)

The set up for the Scottish leagues was designed to be simple but is anything but that. With a top tier of 12 teams and three lower leagues of 10, the format is similar to various continental counterparts. But slight alterations made in a desperate attempt to maximize television revenues have turned the leagues into a baffling mess. Firstly in the SPL every team plays each of their opponents three times during the regular season before the league splits into a top six and a bottom six for the final five games. This split is meant to determine European and relegation places however it has various problems attached to it. Firstly the split can often result in teams playing an uneven number of games against others in the league. The SPFL has tried to mitigate this risk by predicting at the start of the season where each team will finish (known as seeding) and aligns the fixture list as such. Based on previous seasons final placing, this model can predict fairly accurately, with the exception of when a team who has generally finished in the top six has a poor season like Motherwell had this year, finishing in the bottom half. Due to this, their fixtures were heavily weight at the beginning of the campaign against the teams expected to finish in the bottom six. They will now face one extra game against these teams instead of the expected fixtures against the top six teams. This in a sense gives Motherwell a slight unfair advantage over its rivals in the bottom six. The other issue which is somewhat ignored by Doncaster is that often the team in sixth can finish the season on less points than the team in seventh. How this is permitted to happen is unknown but Doncaster just sees it merely as a slight hiccup in the split system. The split is seen by the SPFL as essential to avoid the teams having to play a 44 game season (each team home and away twice). But now there are fresh calls to review the format and scrap the split system all together.

Jackie McNamara is calling for a restructuring of the current league format (Image from PA)
Jackie McNamara is calling for a restructuring of the current league format (Image from PA)

Dundee United boss Jackie McNamara has spoken out at the failures of the current league structure and points to leagues across the world which operate on better models. His suggestion is that the SPL be expanded to a 16 or 18 team league which would effectively ditch the split model in favour of a straight league structure. He argues that there are no other leagues in the world operating this bizarre structure and he is almost correct (Malta operates a similar system). But McNamara’s point is valid given that his side has had to face champions elect Celtic six times this year so far (three in the cup) with a seventh game set for April 26th. A move to a larger top league and condensed lower league structure would simplify the fixture chaos that currently reigns over the leagues each season. McNamara is not alone in his thinking with other bosses in the various leagues echoing his thoughts. At present Neil Doncaster has refused to entertain a change to the format that has been in place since 2001 but as the pressure grows on him he may be forced to listen to the clubs and finally signal an end to the fixture chaos.

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Will Manchester City Adapt Its Crazy Transfer Approach?

City's transfer strategy may need a rethink (Image from PA)The uncertainty around the future of Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini has intensified in recent weeks due to bad on field performances and rumoured fall outs with key players. His stay at the City of Manchester Stadium could soon be over with a variety of names including the recently available Jurgen Klopp being bandied around the tabloids. City have not quite had the season that many expected and Pellegrini will pay the price for that although the full blame may not lie solely at his feet. It is the players who win the matches, not the manager so the current squad must take on some of that blame as well as the clubs executive management team who sanctioned their transfers in the first place.

Under Pressure - Pellegrini  (Image from PA)
Under Pressure – Pellegrini
(Image from PA)

City’s transfer policy in the past has been flawed. Given the vast financial resources available to the club, they have spent frivolously on players and most of the time paid over the odds in order to get their targets. Much of this happened in the early stages of their new ownership with the finger pointed firmly at former manager Mark Hughes however this is unfair as it was the City owners and management team that negotiated the fees not Hughes. The Welsh boss merely identified the players he wanted and the club pursued them with vigor and tenacity. The arrivals of Roque Santa Cruz for £18m, Jolean Lescott for £22m and Robinho for £32.5m are three examples where City has arguably paid over the odds for players. Although the latter was used as a way for the owners to show the fans their ambitions of  turning the club into genuine contenders both at home and abroad, the move ended in failure with the Brazilian sheepishly leaving for AC Milan three years after his arrival for less than half what he was bought for. Unfortunately for City, they did not learn their lesson and have continued their brazen approach to transfers with Javi Garcia (£15.8m), Stefan Savic (£6m), Eliaquim Mangala (£40m) all being brought in much on higher than expected transfer fees, much to the delight of the selling clubs.

Robinho's arrival marked the start of the crazy spending by City  (Image from PA)
Robinho’s arrival marked the start of the crazy spending by City
(Image from PA)

A new approach is needed focusing on the long term and for a good example of one in action City don’t need to look very far. Southampton’s recent success in the Premiership is a direct result of two fundamental changes they made to their transfer approach. The first was to look for emerging local youth talent from the surrounding areas and entice them into the club with the promise of personal development and first team exposure. Over the last six years since Southampton recovered from financial ruin and relegation to League One, the club has produced a host of talented youngsters like Luke Shaw, Calum Chambers and Adam Lallana who were eventually sold for large transfer fees. Even before this, the club was bringing through the likes of Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gareth Bale who also moved on to greater things for significant fees. The money received in all these cases was split between funding the first team development and refinancing the existing youth programs. City do not need to be a selling club like Southampton but investments in youth development could save them millions in the future.

James Ward Prowse is the latest product of Southampton's youth initiative  (Image from Getty)
James Ward Prowse is the latest product of Southampton’s youth initiative
(Image from Getty)

Secondly Southampton has targeted up and coming talented players abroad who then became bigger stars at the club. Instead of purchasing readymade internationalists at a premium, they brought in players like Morgan Schneiderlin, Dusan Tadic and Dejan Lovren for low fees who have become more valuable over time. Lovren’s move last summer to Liverpool netted the club £20 million off of an initial investment of £8.5 million only a year before. These clever purchases have made Southampton both successful on the pitch as well as economically sound off of it. City has too often looked for the complete player rather than one that needs development. This works in the short term but in the long term is set to fail. Generally these “complete” players are older having plied their trade in a variety of different leagues, honing their skills along the way before City swooped to buy them for an elevated fee. By buying them sooner, they could have saved some of that fee and used it to develop the player themselves which in turn would add further value to the player and the team.

Southampton made a profit from selling Lovren  (Image from Getty)
Southampton made a profit from selling Lovren
(Image from Getty)

In order to balance the books and comply with the heavily enforced UEFA financial fair play rules, City needs to sell some of its existing aging squad, starting with the players on the highest wages. First up is Yaya Toure, who has been a mainstay in the City midfield since his arrival from Barcelona but in recent years has seen a drop in form and desire to play for the club. Inter Milan are rumoured to be watching his situation with interest but may baulk at his staggering £250k per week wage demands. Another player that City wants off their books is Jesus Navas with the Spanish winger failing to settle in the north east. In total there could be between 10 to 13 players that City choose to sell this summer as a major revamp of the squad is done. Much will be dependent on the new manager who will arrive with his own philosophies and approach.  Regardless City must address their approach to transfers if they are to transform the club this summer. They will likely spend big once again but the question remains if they adapt their signing style or continue to fall into the same pattern of paying over the odds for players they desperately want.

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Klopp Bombshell Puts European Clubs On Alert

Jurgen Klopp has decided to quit Borussia Dortmund after seven years in charge (Image from AFP)After a difficult season, Borussia Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp is set to leave the club. The two time German manager of the year has watched his side struggle in matches in the Bundesliga that they really should be winning. Now after turning their season around and pulling Dortmund away from potential relegation, Jurgen Klopp has announced that enough is enough and that he intends on leaving the former German champions at the end of the season. His decision has shocked many only a year after committing himself to the club following rumours that Barcelona and Arsenal were interested in his services. However a year is a long time in football and for Klopp who has gone through his worst season as Dortmund manager in his seven years in charge, he now feels that he has taken the club as far as he can and that it deserves to be coached by someone who can give 100% to the club.

Klopp announces his decision to quit Dortmund at the end of the season  (Image from Bongarts/Getty)
Klopp announces his decision to quit Dortmund at the end of the season
(Image from Bongarts/Getty)

Speaking at a hastily arranged press conference and sitting next to Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke and Sporting Director Michael Zorc who he has rumoured to have a strained relationship with, Klopp spoke with emotion yet authority as he told the gathered press why he was quitting. Klopp explained that his decision was not based on this seasons results or fatigue stating he feels 100% fine but instead that he was no longer the perfect coach for the club. He quickly shot down rumours that he had already engaged in discussions with other clubs and stopped short of saying which league he would like to manage in next but did confirm that he will not be taking a sabbatical from the game like Pep Guardiola did after leaving Barcelona and instead wants to get back into management straight away after leaving Dortmund.

Watzke, Klopp and Zorc in better times  (image from PA)
Watzke, Klopp and Zorc in better times
(image from PA)

This news will be welcomed by several clubs across Europe who will now have to fight it out for his services. Heavily linked to both top jobs in Spain last summer, he could be tempted move to either if the opportunity existed. However it is unlikely that they will given that Luis Enrique has finally found a winning formula at Barcelona and Ancelotti is highly regarded at Real Madrid. That opens the door to a handful of English clubs with Manchester City leading the pack. The Ethiad club has grown tired of current manager Manuel Pellegrini’s failure to build on the successes of last year and with the club out of Europe and struggling in the league; his job is far from secure. Whether Klopp wants that sort of challenge is unknown with a huge rebuilding job needed, starting with a dismantling of the current aging squad. He would be given a sizable war chest to acquire new faces and the flexibility to mould a new team around his style of playing. But with a large amount of investment comes high expectations from the clubs owners who will expect success both at home and abroad; pressure that the three previous coaches at City experienced. All three fell on their swords early into their agreed tenures which may not appeal to Klopp. He was given time at Dortmund to craft the team in his vision and it’s questionable whether City will allow him the same amount of time and buy into his long term approach.

Start again? - City's aging squad  (Image from Getty)
Start again? – City’s aging squad (Image from Getty)

If he doesn’t end up at City, a job at the Emirates may become available if the Arsenal board decides that it’s finally time for Arsene Wenger to vacate his chair. Klopp has been spotted at a few Arsenal games over the past few years fueling speculation about a gentleman’s agreement struck between himself and Wenger. If Arsene is to leave, he will want to help pick his successor, someone who will carry on his approach of developing youth players and turning them into world stars. Klopp fits that mould perfectly and with expectations on immediate success lower at the Emirates than at somewhere like City, it could be a perfect fit for the talented coach. There are other Premiership clubs in the market for a new manager like Newcastle and West Ham but neither is likely to appeal to Klopp. Liverpool however may spark his interest but it’s widely believed that despite a disappointing campaign this season, Brendan Rodgers has done enough in his time in charge to convince the Liverpool board to retain his services. Klopp could try his hand in Italy or France too but at present England looks to be his most likely destination. One thing that is for sure is that the Premiership would benefit hugely from the arrival of one of the world’s best managers regardless of which team he joins.

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Juventus Aiming For Champions League Success

Vialli lofts the Champions League trophy, but can Juventus do it again? (Image from Getty)It’s remarkably been ten years since Juventus last lifted the Champions League trophy, beating Ajax on penalties in the final. That Juventus side included club legends like Antonio Conte, Alessandro Del Piero and Ciro Ferrara to name a few but whilst the 2015 batch isn’t quite as star studded as its predecessor, they still have the talents of Carlos Tevez, Andrea Prilo and Paul Pogba to call on. As they enter the quarter finals stage of the Champions League and prepare to face Monaco, Juventus manager Massimilano Allegri knows he will need all of his star names on top form if he is to bring the trophy back to Turin.

The road to glory is paved with obstacles and given that some of Europe’s biggest hitters are still in the competition, reaching the final will be a challenge in itself. Allegri will have one eye on proceedings across Europe over the next few weeks with Bayern Munich taking on Porto, Barcelona clashing with PSG and a repeat of last year’s final with Atletico Madrid taking on current holders Real Madrid in the other quarter final matches. With the final played in Berlin, Pep Guardiola’s Bayern side will be looking to rid themselves of last year’s failed attempt by going one step further and reaching the final. Guardiola’s former side Barcelona are also looking to rewrite some wrongs after being knocked out at the quarter final stage last year by Atletico. In their way however is a hungry PSG side that needs Champions League success badly to justify the heavy investment made by its owners. Juventus’s challenge is a daunting one with some difficult matches lying ahead of them if they can progress.

Pep Guardiola is looking to add another Champions League trophy to his collection  (Image from Getty)
Pep Guardiola is looking to add another Champions League trophy to his collection
(Image from Getty)

But before they can think about any of these teams, Juventus needs to dispatch Monaco. The French side progressed by beating Arsenal in the last round with thanks to the away goal rule after a 3-1 victory in London was equaled by a 2-0 defeat in Monaco. Currently third in Ligue 1, Monaco appear to have found a winning formula in the league and remain unbeaten in their last eight games. However in Europe, their form has been patchy at best with convincing wins over Zenit and Bayern Leverkusen at home in the group stage followed by nervous performances on the road. They did however manage to finish top of a difficult group that also contained last year’s UEFA Cup runners up Benfica, setting up a return visit for Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger who bossed the French club back in the late 80’s early 90’s. Unfortunately for Wenger his side severely underestimated Monaco ability to attack on the break and we convincingly beaten 3-1 on a cold night at the Emirates. The stars of that game were rising French midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia and Portuguese playmaker Joao Moutinho who pulled the strings for Dimitar Berbatov and Anthony Martial up front. Berbatov in particular was in fine form, rolling back the years and remind us all what a great striker he was. However in the return leg, the Bulgarian was posted missing for most of the match as Arsenal finally stepped up a gear and looked to sink their French challengers. It wasn’t to be and Monaco progressed but their performance in the second leg as well as several other ones in the group stage will give Juventus hope.

Kondogbia blasts Monaco into the lead against Arsenal  (Image from Reuters)
Kondogbia blasts Monaco into the lead against Arsenal
(Image from Reuters)

Allegri will know that he needs to cut the snake off at his head and that means shutting down Moutinho. Usually he would have tasked the talented Pogba with the role but an injury against Borussia Dortmund in the last round has ruled him out of contention. Instead the duo of Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio with one asked to close down the Portuguese star and the other to sweep behind if needed. If they can break up Monaco’s attacks then they can spring the counter attack with Roberto Pereyra used as the catalyst. His job will be simple – get the ball to Carlos Tevez or Alvaro Morata who between them can create space and drive in on goal. Tevez has been in sparkling form this year and will be looking to add to the Champions League winner’s medal he picked up whilst playing for Manchester United. The Argentine, who was surprisingly omitted from his country’s World Cup squad last year, has scored 25 times this season in all competitions from 36 appearances and leads the Serie A goal scoring charts. His form has been instrumental in Juventus recent success as they look on course to record their four straight Serie A title. Adding the Champions League crown to that would be the icing on the cake for Tevez and Juventus who are desperate to climb back up that mountain and once again be kings of Europe.

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All To Play For As Premiership Enters The Home Stretch

Vardy's strike handed Leicester a much needed 3 points (Image from Getty)Not since the shock 5-3 victory over Manchester United back in September has Jamie Vardy had such an impact. The Leicester City winger, who bagged a goal on that day in a pulsating game, had been notoriously quiet since then but popped up on Saturday against West Brom to remind everyone how good he can be. Picking up the ball at the half way line Vardy surged forward with the ball apparently stuck to his foot. Going past two players and into the box, the Leicester fans rose to their feet as Vardy unleashed his shot past Myhill in the West Brom goal. The importance of Vardy’s last minute strike is as yet unknown but it did hand his team the crucial three points it needed in their fight against relegation. Rooted to the bottom of the league, Leicester looked dead and buried going into the match but after a gritty performance and thanks to Vardy’s last minute heroics, Leicester’s survival push could be on. Now only three points behind safety with a game in hand, Leicester’s run in is favourable with winnable matches against Burnley, Sunderland and QPR but they will need players like Vardy to perform in every match if they are to avoid the drop.

The gap at the bottom is tight with only 10 points separating 7 places.  Any three of West Brom, Aston Villa, Sunderland, Hull, QPR, Burnley and Leicester could go down with even 13th place Newcastle still not mathematically safe. Defeats for Burnley, QPR, Hull and Sunderland this weekend have added to the tension with only Aston Villa managing to pick up points away to Spurs. Dick Advocaat’s Sunderland revival looked to be on after impressive derbies win over Newcastle last weekend, with Jermain Defoe adding the gloss on that occasion. But his new side was firmly brought back to down to earth with a bump by a rampant Crystal Palace side who continue to improve under Alan Pardew. A hat trick by Yannick Bolasie and a header by Glenn Murray sealed a 4-1 win and put pressure on Dutch coach Advocaat. With one of the worst run in of all the teams involved in the relegation dog fight, it doesn’t look good for Sunderland. They face Stoke next week before games against Southampton, Everton, Leicester, Arsenal and Chelsea in a series of must win fixtures.

At the other end of the table, Chelsea showed why they are likely to end this season as champions. A nerve jangling performance against QPR was not quite what Jose Mourinho had in mind so the relief on his face was hard to ignore when Cesc Fabregas popped up to score the winner. The Spanish midfielder, sporting a face mask to cover the broken nose he suffered last week in a clash with Charlie Adam, broke QPR hearts with a 88th minute shot that squirmed under Rob Green. Chelsea are now 7 points clear with seven games left, one more than the chasing pack. Arsenal continued their pursuit of their London rivals with a 1-0 win over Burnley thanks to an early strike by Welsh midfielder Aaron Ramsey. Manchester United also kept up their chase with a convincing 4-2 demolition of neighbours Manchester City, a result which heaps more pressure on manager Manuel Pellegrini. The Chilean has been under fire after City crashed out of the Champions League and lost valuable ground in the race for the Premiership title. He will more than likely be asked to leave his position with the only question being when as some speculate that he may not get to finish the campaign as manager.

City will be desperate to hold on to 4th place to secure Champions League football once again but the face stiff competition from this year’s surprise outfit Southampton, Liverpool and Tottenham. Ronald Koeman’s Southampton were suspected to struggle this year after selling off half their squad by some clever signings and the addition of new energy into St Mary’s has seen Southampton defy their critics and mount a serious push for Europe. They continued their push with a 2-0 win over struggling Hull and will be bolstered by the news that 6th place Tottenham lost to Aston Villa. However Liverpool could leapfrog them tonight if they beat John Carver’s inept Newcastle side.

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Is Chelsea’s bid For Japanese Star Purely Commercial?

Yoshinori Muto is wanted by Chelsea but for what purpose? (Image from Getty)Chelsea has reportedly place a bid to sign Japanese striker Yoshinori Muto. The FC Tokyo front man is wanted by the Stamford Bridge side who are willing to part with £4million to secure his services. Questions however are being asked about the intent of this deal which comes only a few months after Chelsea secured a £200million sponsorship with Yokahama Rubber Company. The Japanese company has agreed a 5 year deal to become Chelsea’s official shirt sponsor in a move that will help bolster the clubs coffers. Whilst there is no visible link between Yokahama Rubber and Muto’s club FC Tokoyo, many are wondering if his transfer or the transfer of a Japanese player to Chelsea was included as a condition of the deal.

Manager Jose Mourinho has admitted that commercial agreements do come into consideration when purchasing players however he pulled short of stating that this bid for Muto fell into that category. Mourinho did state that he will never buy a player who isn’t up to Chelsea’s standard regardless of any commercial arrangement in place.  Muto is an up and coming talent and at 22 has his best years ahead of him. But he is unlikely to be a first team regular at Chelsea and could be immediately loaned out to Dutch side Vitesse so the move is somewhat baffling. Muto is hardly setting Japanese football alight although his is one of the better players in a poor FC Tokyo team. Perhaps Chelsea scouts were instructed to identify the best young player they could and that player was Muto.

Buying players to tap into lucrative foreign markets is not new in football with several clubs using this as an option to increase merchandise revenues. Manchester United’s signing of Japanese star Shinji Kagawa was seen as a clever move by the Old Trafford club to engage and grow its Japanese and Asian fan base. Kagawa is one of the most recognized players in the region and has legions of dedicated fans that follow his every move. Unfortunately his stay in England was short lived as he failed to secure a regular first team spot. He was eventually sold back to German side Borussia Dortmund, the same club that United purchased him from. Arguably Kagawa wasted two valuable years sitting on the bench at Old Trafford and has struggled to regain fitness and form since returning to Germany. His fans however have stayed loyal and now sport Dortmund jerseys on their backs once more.

Shinji Kagawa spent alot of time on the United bench  (Image from Getty)
Shinji Kagawa spent alot of time on the United bench
(Image from Getty)

It does raise a question about whether buying a player for a commercial purpose only is ethically fair? If we consider that players have become commodities to business focused clubs in recent years then buying to increase revenue streams make sense.  However with a players working career limited to less than 20 years (if they avoid injuries) is it fair to ask a player to give up two or three years of that just so the club can benefit from their commercial brand? Players should be bought in order to strengthen the clubs chances of success on the pitch and for no other reason but as modern day football evolves into a business like model, the opportunity to use players for multiple purposes is far more appealing. Already players are being contractually told that they must partake in chosen club activities that benefit sponsors including promotional tours, interviews and appearances. This usually is limited to 5-10% of their time in order to maintain their focus on their primary role of playing. However if the signing of players for commercial purposes rather than playing purposes becomes more common, will we see a dramatic shift in the players daily responsibilities? Will they effectively become promotional tools for the clubs and play more on a sporadic basis to maintain their image and connection to the club?  Will sponsors soon dictate to clubs which player they want them to buy? Let’s hope not, for the players and footballs sake.

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UEFA’s Landmark Ruling Opens Pandora’s Box

Rosella Ayane's encrochment on the penalty resulted in a mistake by the referee (Image from FA.com)Norway celebrated a hard fought 2-1 victory over England on Saturday in the Under 19’s women’s Elite Round group 4 qualifiers. But days later those celebrations have been muffled after Europe’s football governing body UEFA ruled that part of the match would have to be replayed. In a landmark decision, UEFA has stunned football by demanding that the last 18 seconds of the match be played again. The reason behind this was a mistake by German referee Marija Kurtes who awarded a free kick to Norway for an encroachment by England player Rosella Ayane in the run up to a penalty. Having awarded England a last minute penalty with the game at 2-1 in Norway’s favour, Kurtes correctly penalized England for the encroachment (when a player enters the box before the penalty kick is taken) but instead of ordering a retake as the rules say she instead rewarded Norway a free kick. Law 14 states that if the penalty results in a goal (which in this case it did with Leah Williamson converting) but an attacking player encroaches then the penalty must be retake. If however the penalty is missed (and an attacking player encroaches) then an indirect free kick must be awarded. This is where the error by Kurtes happened but is understandable as a misunderstanding of a complex rule. The replay will now take place on today at 9.45pm BST just hours after England face Switzerland and Norway face Northern Ireland in the last group game. Kurtes for her part has been sent home in disgrace and will not officiate the replay.

UEFA has set a dangerous precedent with this ruling that could change the direction of football. However this is not the first time that such an incident has taken place. In 2005 Uzbekistan met Bahrain in a fourth round World Cup playoff match. Leading 1-0 in the first leg, Uzbekistan was awarded a penalty which they duly converted. However the referee Toshimitsu Yoshida spotted an encroachment by an Uzbekistan player and disallowed the goal and offered an indirect free kick to Bahrain instead. The game did end 1-0 but so incensed by the mistake, Uzbekistan formally requested to FIFA that the game be recorded as an automatic 3-0 victory. Instead FIFA decided to classify the entire game as void and ordered it to be replayed. The resulting replay ended as a 1-1 draw and after a 0-0 draw in the second leg, Bahrain progressed much to the annoyance of Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan players embrace after defeat sends them out of qualification  (Image from AFP/Getty)
Uzbekistan players embrace after defeat sends them out of qualification
(Image from AFP/Getty)

These decisions by FIFA and now UEFA showcase a dramatic swing in the forward direction of the game. The decision also devalues the role of the referee. Once seen as a fundamental part of the game, tasked with holding matches within given guidelines, their role has become marginalized over the past twenty years. Fourth officials were introduced; headphones and microphones added allowing the match officials to talk to one another and recently goal line technology to confirm if the full ball had crossed the line. All of these additions have chipped away at the referee’s decision making process. This all in a world where the game is scrutinized from multiple angles over and over thanks to TV cameras all over the grounds making their job harder. Yes they should be held accountable for their actions and for mistakes that are made however not backing the referee’s decisions could result in their role becoming even less important. The other problem is that now there is an example for teams to use when they feel aggrieved by a referee mistake. Calls for replays will become more frequent but where does UEFA draw the line? Does the ruling only apply to last minute mistakes or would a referee mistake in the first minute of the game result in a replay of the entire match? With the European Championships approaching, would UEFA award a replay during the tournament throwing the scheduling and outcome into disarray?

Referees like Marija Kurtes should be supported not used as scapegoats by UEFA and FIFA  (Image from Bongarts/ Getty)
Referees like Marija Kurtes should be supported not used as scapegoats by UEFA and FIFA
(Image from Bongarts/ Getty)

These questions and more remained unanswered. UEFA insist that their Control, Ethics and Disciplinary Body (CEDB) who fundamentality made the decision were correct to do so and has backed the replay but you have to wonder what Pandora’s box they have opened with it. In terms of the Group 4 qualifying group, the replay which will start with a penalty to England may be irrelevant if England beat Switzerland and Norway win against hosts Northern Ireland. Six points each should be enough to end the group as first and second regardless of the outcome of the replay. However with only the group winners and the best placed runner up progressing to the showpiece event in Israel in July, the stakes are high. England’s 9-1 victory over Northern Ireland on Monday may work in their favour especially if they convert the penalty in the replay and draw the match. In this case with both teams level on points, goal difference would be used to decide who finishes first and who is runner up. If Norway does finish second in the group and is knocked out, they could in theory protest to UEFA or FIFA and insist that the entire game against England be replayed. Then what would UEFA do?

Wigan’s Rebuild Starts With Caldwell Appointment

Gary Caldwell has been appointed as Wigan's new manager with the task of rebuilding them (Image from Getty)Dave Whelan slumped down into his chair late on the night of May 11th 2013 with a large grin on his face after a day of celebrating his club, Wigan Athletics finest hour . In what was described as one of the greatest FA Cup final upsets for a quarter of a century, relegated Wigan stunned Manchester City with a 1-0 win thanks to a late Ben Watson header. Whelan, who bought Wigan in 1995 when they were in the old Division Three (now the Football League Two) deserved the day after giving his heart, soul and more importantly money to the club for over 18 years. The JJB Sports founder was highly regarded by many in football as an example of how owners should act. At 76 years young on that day, Whelan could have been forgiven for considering retirement from his role as Chairman of the club with a new chapter about to begin back in the Championship. But the former Blackburn and Crewe full back decided to stay on and committed to getting the club back into the Premiership.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and looking back now Whelan may be thinking that he made a mistake by staying on instead of leaving on an all time high. Life in the Championship has proved troublesome for Wigan from day one. With manager Roberto Martinez departing for Everton and a host of players following him out the exit door, a rebuilding job was needed starting with the appointment of a new manager, someone who could set the tone for the years ahead. Whelan opted for Owen Coyle but when the Irishman failed to emulate Martinez style and results he was sacked and replaced by Uwe Rosler. Unfortunately for Whelan, the German coach fared no better and only lasted 11 months before he was pushed out as well. Then came arguably Whelan’s biggest mistake when he handed the reigns over to Malky MacKay. The Scot was embroiled in a racism row with his previous club Cardiff along with the Welsh clubs sporting director, Iain Moody. His controversial appointment was made by Whelan who claimed that MacKay had made a mistake and paid the price so he should be granted a second chance. Fan groups and sponsors were up in arms with several of the latter pulling their financial support as a consequence of his appointment. It was then when Whelan knew he had made a mistake himself but now stuck with MacKay under contract he had little option but to get on with things.

Unfortunately for Whelan the controversy continued with the Chairman himself then caught up in a racism row. Defending his appointment of MacKay in an interview with the Guardian, Whelan told the reporter that “Jewish people chase money more than everyone else” and later referred to Chinese people as “chinks”. His throwaway comments were largely criticized by fellow club owners including West Ham’s David Gold and Cardiff’s Vincent Tan. Whelan and Wigan’s reputation was in tatters. With the pressure growing and Wigan slipping closer to the Championship relegation zone, Whelan decided enough was enough and stepped down as Chairman, handing his 23 year old grandson David Sharpe the keys. Sharpe who became one of the world’s youngest football bosses surveyed the legacy that his grandfather had left and knew that significant changes were needed to get the club back on track.

Whelan with his grandson and newly appointed Chairman David Sharpe  (Image from WiganFC.COM)
Whelan with his grandson and newly appointed Chairman David Sharpe
(Image from WiganFC.COM)

Sensing an opportunity to cleanse the club once and for all was all the incentive Sharpe needed to make the changes. With the club teetering on the brink of relegation (8 points from safety with 5 games left), there was little protecting MacKay from the axe. After Monday’s 2-0 defeat to Derby, MacKay was shown the door and replaced by former club captain Gary Caldwell. The inexperienced Scot may look to be a surprise appointment by Sharpe, his first major decision as Chairman but for a player who has spent five years at the club and was the driving force behind that 2013 FA Cup win he is seen as a sensible choice. He will be supported by an experienced backroom staff including Mike Pollitt, Eric Black and Graham Barrow but it will be a crash course in management for the 32 year old. Sharpe has no concerns about his decision to hire Caldwell calling him the perfect candidate and backing up his appointment by insisting he was the only candidate considered for the role. Caldwell will be tasked with keeping Wigan in the Championship this season but if unsuccessful he will still be in place for the start of the new campaign in League One. Sharpe is planning for the long term and views Caldwell as an up and coming manager much like Whelan viewed Roberto Martinez when he appointed the Spaniard in 2009. More importantly for Sharpe, he wants a fresh start for Wigan, one free of scandal and damaging headlines. He may be young but even at 23, Sharpe understands fully the impact on the club of the decision by his grandfather made that fateful night back in May 2013. He will be conscious not to make the same mistakes.

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The Messy Abomination That Is The Argentine Primera Division

The new look Primera Division (Image from Getty)Two months in and so far no problems have arisen for the heavily restructured Argentinean Primera Division. The new colossal league which now has 30 teams competing in it, making it one of the largest leagues in the world, takes time and patience to fully understand but the logic behind it is still baffling. Unfortunately for all of us, that logic will never be known as it died with its creator Julio Grondona, the former President of the Argentine Football Association who passed away this past summer. Grondona had for a long time wanted to change the league structure away from its tired two Championship format – Apertura and Clausura (similar to most other Latin America leagues) to a super league system much like the European ones. When his original idea of creating a 42 team league was squashed, he returned to the drawing board to devise a plan that could not be denied as the right way to go. Unfortunately for Argentina, what he came up with was the baffling mess that they now have to live with. So what is wrong with the new format? Let us explain.

Mastermind - Julio Grondona  (Image from AFP)
Mastermind – Julio Grondona
(Image from AFP)

Poorer Quality of Football

One of the principle ideas behind expanding to a 30 team structure was to improve the quality of football in the league which has been declining steadily over the past decade. However with the addition of 10 teams from Primera B, the quality of football on show will hardly be improved. Unlike the English Championship where several of its teams could compete well in the Premiership, the standard between Argentina’s top two leagues is far greater mostly due to the lack of money being pumped into the second tier. With several poorer teams in the division, the race for the title will be likely determined by the games between the bigger clubs meaning that it will be harder for clubs like Banfield and Arsenal to win the league.

Banfield - Apertura Champions 2009  (Image from Getty)
Banfield – Apertura Champions 2009
(Image from Getty)

Lack of Money

Grondona’s main pitch to the clubs in order to secure the votes needed was that they would see more revenue coming in. The bulk of this would come from a principle betting sponsor and increased funds from the AFA. Unfortunately no sponsor was found and the season began with the clubs forced to split only the AFA funds of $140million per year. However with ten more teams in the league, each clubs share was dramatically reduced leaving many owners frustrated. With the government mandate of Football for All, every game is shown on TV for free meaning that TV revenues that help to largely fund most leagues across the world are nonexistent. Clubs will need to rely on revenue generated from ticket and merchandise sales as well as player sales to help bolster their coffers. However in the new league setup, transfers are restricted to the period between the start of the season up to the 1st July, with all transfers unable to buy or strengthen after this point.  With a majority of the clubs across Europe preferring to spend its cash in July and August, the Argentine league may have shot itself in the foot with this rule.

Football for All is a government run initiative that  means every match is free on TV (Image from Getty)
Football for All is a government run initiative that means every match is free on TV
(Image from Getty)

Unfair Advantage in Clumsy Fixture list

The standard fixture list across the world sees each team play all of their opponents at home and then away. This allows for home field advantage and makes the fixtures even. However in the Primera, the fixtures will be split, with each team playing half their opponents at home and the other half away. So if you are a minnow team looking to upset the apple cart by shocking Boca Juniors on your own turf you may not get the chance if that single fixture is due to be played at La Bombonera. There is no logic behind doing this except for the fact that if each team was to play both home and away, the league would be looking at a 58 game season, not including Copa Libertadores or Copa Sudamericana fixtures. So each team will play 29 regular games instead with the final 30th match to be a special fixture which pits historic rivals against each other for a second time. This money grabbing move strangely doesn’t benefit clubs like Boca and River who will have to play each other but does work in favour of clubs like Arsenal and Velez Sarsfield whose rivals are much weaker than them.

Intimidating atmosphere awaits at La Bombonera  (Image from Getty)
Intimidating atmosphere awaits at La Bombonera
(Image from Getty)

Relegation is a mess

Given the way that the fixture list was created, it’s hardly surprising that the relegation setup is designed to protect the larger clubs in the league. Based on an average system, which looks at a three season points average with the worst two relegated and the worst positioned team in that season also dropping down to the Primera B Nacional, the system helps to avoid the nightmare possibility of a club like River Plate or Boca Juniors ever being relegated. River were spectacularly relegated for the first time in their history back in 2011 despite Grondona’s desperate attempts to stop it from happening. Given the leagues stature across the world and the need for revenue to flow into it from foreign markets, it’s not hard to understand the effects of having one of Argentina’s biggest and most successful clubs not playing in it. But the average system is hardly fair on the smaller teams within the division. Teams could be relegated despite having a turnaround season which saw them finish well into the top half or even challenging for honours.

River Plate's relegation caused headaches for the AFA  (Image from Getty)
River Plate’s relegation caused headaches for the AFA
(Image from Getty)

Reduction back to 20

Finally in one of the most bizarre moves, the league will eventually revert back to a 20 team league thanks in part to another crazy rule. Over the next few years, three teams will be relegated with only one being promoted and so on until in 2019, the league will only have 20 teams in it.  So after four years of craziness with fixture chaos, poor quality football and bizarre relegation fights common sense will be restored with a new format. That is until the powers that be at the AFA decide to change it again.

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Shout Out From The Stands – The Bright Future of Football In Singapore

Singapore has followed many countries in setting up academies and centres of excellence, which are churning out young players for the local and regional teams. Unfortunately, very few make it into the top teams in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, and even fewer make it beyond the region’s borders. However, this may just be starting to change.

Singapore celebrate scoring at the 2013 SEA Games  (Image from AFP)
Singapore celebrate scoring at the 2013 SEA Games
(Image from AFP)

This last month has seen the first Singaporean player ever to move to an Australian A-League team with 23-year-old Safuwan Baharudin signing on loan for Melbourne City. The versatile defender impressed the City Football Group team during a couple of friendly matches in the UAE and after completing the move has gone on to make 3 appearances scoring 1 goal in his first month. Young Singaporeans are also looking further afield for their footballing education. Adam Swandi spent 2 years in France with FC Metz (more of him later) and Mahathir Azeman has just returned from Brazil to Singapore to serve his National Service (NS). Azeman, 19, was signed from the National Football Academy (NFA) by Boavista Sport Club at the end of 2013 and has been a first team regular in the club’s reserves (U-21) side. He will play locally this season before heading back to Brazil with Boavista once his NS is complete.

Following this trend are the 2 eldest sons of (arguably) Singapore’s greatest player, Fandi Ahmad – the first Singaporean footballer to play in Europe – have huge shoes to fill. From a young age both have shown plenty of potential and have already been picked up the Chilean club CD Universidad Católica’s academy, without either having played a Singaporean league game. Irfan is a forward with good vision and touch, excellent speed and accurate passing. Ikshan is an attacking midfielder noted for his ability to dribble at defenders and beat them with individual skill. At 17 and 15 respectively, they have time to develop but it is already hoped that they will be key players for the national team for the next 15 years. (Oh, and they also have an 11 year old younger brother, Ilhan, who is rattling in the goals for his school team). Perhaps this growing trend of the best young players leaving Singapore to maximize their development will be the key to the country improving the national team’s FIFA Ranking and maybe even improve Singaporean football on the whole. However, it makes my task of identifying 5 of the best U20 prospects in the country a little harder.

So here goes, these are my 5 top players under the age of 20 that Singapore currently has:

Adam Swandi

Age: 19

Position: Attacking Midfield

Club: Courts Young Lions

Like some of the young starlets mentioned above, Swandi burst on to the scene with captivating displays for the NFA teams. A 2-year stint with FC Metz in France followed, although he has returned to Singapore this year to serve his NS and play locally. An intelligent playmaker with great control and one-touch passing, who plays with a very similar style and physique to that of Philippe Coutinho.

Recommended Future Club: Like many Singaporean players Swandi has good technical skills but lacks strength. Given a strict conditioning program to improve his physicality then he could certainly provide a playmaking role to a team that plays with a number 10 behind the forward line. A team like West Ham could do wonders for his development as they have a proven youth history, have an experienced manager renowned for getting the best out of unknown players and make good use of playmakers.

Anumnathan Kumar

Age: 20

Position: Central Midfielder

Club: Courts Young Lions

Kumar is a strong midfield general who has grown to dominate the Courts Young Lions’ boiler room. His presence inspires those around him, strong in the tackle, great vision and finds his teammates on most occasions. The national team has called him up regularly over the last 18 months and so we should see him playing regularly at international level.

Recommended Future Club: Kumar’s potential is crying out to be tested at a higher level. With his skills similar to those of a young Clarence Seedorf then AFC Ajax would be an ideal place for him to develop and hopefully follow in their tradition of producing world-class players.

Rising star Anumnathan Kumar in action against Palestine  (Image from Getty)
Rising star Anumnathan Kumar in action against Palestine
(Image from Getty)

Adam Hakeem and Amer Hakeem

Age: 17 and 16

Position: Both defenders

Club: NFS U-17 and U-16

Standing at 1.92m, Adam Hakeem, son of Singapore football legend Nazri Nasir, is a looming presence that reinforces the backbone of the defence. His ability to get up in the air coupled with his towering height makes him a dominating player at both ends of the field. Younger brother Amer has impressed scouts and already impressed scouts and earned himself a training stint at the prestigious Ajax Academy in Holland. His humility, willingness to learn and effervescent leadership ability are certainly qualities of a star in the making.

Recommended Future Club: As these brothers are still so young I would keep them together and let them follow the example of Mahathir Azeman by going to Brazil with Boavista SC. The Brazilian training and league produces strong defenders without sacrificing any focus on skills and creativity.

Amirul Adli

Age: 19

Position: Central defender/midfielder

Club: Courts Young Lions

A versatile player, Adli, has been brought through the NFA system and established himself quickly in the Young Lions last season. A composed player who makes good use of the ball, he provides defensive cover to more attacking teammates. Made his international debut last year and should see more playing time in upcoming matches.

Recommended Future Club: With respect to Adli, his potential path to glory is unlikely to be as meteoric as others on this list. His solid style is perfect for development in the A-League with the Brisbane Roar. The 3 time champions have an experienced management team, good youth team structure and in Matt Mackay they have an international defensive midfielder for Adli to learn from.

Post by Kenny C, BOTN writer based in Asia

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Nations Look To Copy Belgian Blueprint for Success

Michel Sablon, who masterminded the Belgian revolution (Image from Getty)

It may have taken 88 minutes for Belgium to grab their second win in the World Cup group section this past summer and secure qualification for the knockout stages of the tournament but for Belgian fans, the wait to see this moment has been a lot longer. Belgium is revelling in what has been proclaimed as the Golden Generation – a group of talented players who have come through in recent years and are accredited with turning around the fate of Belgian football. However the evolution of Belgian football should be credited to the vision of one man, Michel Sablon who put the wheels in motion many years ago. It was in 2000 when Belgium was co-hosting the European Championships with Holland that was the main turning point. Placed in a group with Turkey, Italy and Sweden, expectations were high that the hosts would reach the knockout stages with relative ease. Despite an early win against the Swedes, Belgium suffered back to back defeats against Italy and Turkey eventually finishing in third place in the group and missing out on progression. With an aging squad including captain Lorenzo Staelens, Luc Nilis and current Belgian manager, Marc Wilmots Belgium were looking towards the future generation and what they saw was bleak.

The failure of Euro 2000 was a blessing in disguise for Belgium  (Image from AFP)
The failure of Euro 2000 was a blessing in disguise for Belgium
(Image from AFP)

Belgian football was on a downward slide and faced years of mediocrity. Few saw the problem as clear as Sablon and even fewer would have thought that the overhaul needed was so radical. Sablon realized that the Belgian league was failing, that it was struggling to produce on a regular basis talented players for the national side. Added into this, any ones that did emerge moved abroad at an early age in order to play in a better league. So he created a new blueprint for the national obsession, one that went back to basics and focused on what was really important. What he came up with was hardly revolutionary but instead common sense. To succeed, he needed clubs on every level to embrace his plan, not partially but fully committing to it. Changing the philosophies and mindset of an entire nation is one thing but managing to convince everyone to implement it is another but somehow he managed to do just that. Not that it was an easy task, especially given the changes he was asking them to make at a youth level. Sablon asked for all teams in the Under 18’s and below to play a 4-3-3 passing formation and more importantly forget about winning.

Youth football in Belgium is focused on technique rather than winning  (Image from Getty)
Youth football in Belgium is focused on technique rather than winning
(Image from Getty)

He realised that younger players and their coaches were too obsessed with the result of the game and what it meant for their position in the table to care about perfecting their individual game. He used university professors to film and study over 1,500 youth games in an attempt to show them what he meant. The result was exactly what he thought and backed his argument that winning at all costs was killing the game. So with the support of the Belgian FA, he simply scrapped the league tables and reorganised youth football introducing smaller pitches, five against five at junior level, seven against seven for older kids and a renewed focus on technique development. The best players from across Belgium were regularly taken out of their clubs and sent to six performance academies for two weeks at a time. This meant that the younger players got to know each other early on which has helped as they all migrated to international football, first at youth level then later to the full internationals you see today at the World Cup. The years passed slowly, with friction from the clubs and youth teams an ever present until in 2007, Belgium’s youth changes started to show promise when they made the last four of the European Under-17 championships for the first time in their history. The stars of that tournament were Eden Hazard and Christian Benteke.

Eden Hazard is one of Belgium's best players  (Image from PA)
Eden Hazard is one of Belgium’s best players
(Image from PA)

Now 14 years after instigating change, the fruits of Sablon’s labour were on show at this years World Cup. Belgium possessed one of the more talented squads in the tournament and was even tipped as potential dark horses to win the trophy. In every position, Belgium has star players who are all plying their trade at the highest level. As an attacking team, Belgium boast the likes of Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens, Axel Witsel and Romelu Lukaku and not forgetting Aston Villa’s Christian Benteke who only due to injury is not in the squad. Their backline is impressive too with Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Vermaelen, Toby Alderweireld and Vincent Kompany playing in front of one of the best goalkeepers in the current game, Thibaut Courtois. Indentifying a weak link in this vibrant squad is near impossible and the talent doesn’t stop there with a host of youngsters coming through the youth team like Thorgen Hazard, Laurens De Bock, Dennis Prat and Massimo Bruno, all eager to break into Wilmot’s team.

The current crop of Belgium stars  (Image from PA)
The current crop of Belgium stars
(Image from PA)

Other countries are now following suit in particular Scotland who have taken the Belgian blueprint and have implementing it fully with the hope of having the same effect. Formerly under the guidance of Mark Wotte, the SFA invested £20m in seven performance schools and indoor training centres. But they face an uphill battle to change the mindset of Scottish clubs who are struggling to stay afloat and with the mentality of the Scottish public in general. If they want to have the same success as Belgium, then following Wotte’s plan is the only way forward regardless if of who is in charge. The results may not be obvious now but if Scotland can produce a squad with the same quality of talent as Belgium for the 2022 World Cup, then it will be money and time well spent. For Belgium, the future looks bright with the current squad set up to dominate for the next 10 years. The possibilities of this team are endless and it may start with a surprise World Cup final victory in the near future. If they can lift that trophy, Sablon will be hailed as a hero, the man who changed Belgian football for the better.

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Football’s Data Epitome On The Horizon

The use of data in football is growing as more clubs embrace it (Image from Wiki)

The evolution of technology within football over the past decade has dramatically changed the game arguably for the better. Whilst goal line technology is still in its infancy, other hi-tech advancements especially in the treatment and conditioning of players are more broadly accepted and are being incorporated into clubs across the world. But one area that had for a long time been untouched and against change is now undergoing a much needed makeover. The sourcing and scouting of players has traditionally been a simple affair – with a manager identifying the player(s) he wants and clubs scouting network travelling to games to watch them. But with every match being recorded in one shape or form, the need for bums on seats in the stands is become less important. Of course there is no substitute for seeing the player first hand and the scouts in particular will tell you that there is no other way to see or catch a player’s weakness than to see him or her in the flesh. But the process of finding and scouting players can be altered thanks to new technologies and with it the data that it brings.

Heat maps like these show how players are moving across the pitch (Image from OPTA)

Using data to judge players suitability is a fairly new concept but one that more and more clubs are turning to. Companies set up specifically around data collection, processing and display such as OPTA, Stats Inc and Prozone are revolutionizing the way that players are viewed. The data can show things that potentially the scout couldn’t detect by seeing the player on the field such as an underling problem in their game or a long term injury. With more knowledge about each individual player than ever before, clubs can make smarter selections in order to enhance their team and performances. The idea of using data in such a fashion may be slow in the adoption by soccer teams but in baseball in the US, clubs regularly use stats to their benefit. Highlighted in the book turned movie “Moneyball” where Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane and his team use data to put together a winning baseball team on a budget with great success, the use of data to analyze all aspects of a players game has now become common practice. Soccer has been reluctant to date and slow to adopt insisting that data can be inaccurate and is secondary to experience and knowledge of the game. But slowly clubs across various leagues are realizing that instead of data being a threat to the way they run their club, it can hand them a huge advantage over the teams who are not.

Brad Pitt (sitting) starred in the film version of Moneyball  (Image from Sony)
Brad Pitt (sitting) starred in the film version of Moneyball
(Image from Sony)

Brentford, in the English Championship are not exactly the first team you would think of when it comes to this approach but are very much a club in transition. Under the ownership of forward thinker Matthew Benham, Brentford are paving a new path for themselves by embracing the data available and using it in an effort to uncover gems across Europe. Benham, who made his money by running a sports betting and football stats business, has taken the brave step of giving successful manager Mark Warburton his notice as he attempts to switch the clubs direction to this new model. Warburton, who is considered one of the best managers in the lower leagues, has guided the Bees into the Championship and has them on course for a potential shot at promotion to the Premiership for the very first time. But regardless of what happens Warburton will part ways with the club in the summer after agreeing to terminate his contract due to a difference in philosophy with Benham. Far from being opposed to using data in the scouting process, Warburton feels that as a manager he would still like to own the decision of who to buy and who would work well in his squad, something Benham and the club disagrees with. Benham will spend the next few months identifying a new head coach rather than manager who will work alongside Director of Football Frank McParland as part of a new setup. It may be seen by many as a risky move but Benham believes it is the right thing to do for the future of Brentford FC.

Brentford owner Matthew Benham is embracing the use of data  (Image from Getty)
Brentford owner Matthew Benham is embracing the use of data
(Image from Getty)

This move follows a dramatic shift in the mindset of some owners in England from the conventional British approach where the manager owns and controls the team to a European approach where a Director of Football or Sporting Director takes care of transfers, scouting and youth development leaving a head coach to coach. Recently QPR appointed Les Ferdinand into a Director role with Chris Ramsey as Head coach and although Ramsey is only in place temporarily until the summer, QPR will likely maintain this structure going forward regardless of whom they choose. It’s a similar situation at Newcastle where Managing Director Lee Charnley and Chief Scout Graham Carr are tasked with the buying a selling of players whilst temporary manager John Carver manages training and the team. They too will likely hire a full time head coach during the summer with several names already being touted for the job.

Ferdinand as Director of Football will help Ramsey with the business side of the game  (Image from Getty)
Ferdinand as Director of Football will help Ramsey with the business side of the game
(Image from Getty)

Adjusting to this new approach will not be easy, especially for managers, coaches and scouts who have been in the game for considerable amounts of time but the evolution of technology will continue with or without them. Data, like in baseball will start to play a more significant role in how teams operate both on and away from the pitch. Mangers who cannot adapt will be pushed to the sidelines and replaced by new coaches who can. It is an evolution of football that has been coming for some time now but only in recent years has picked up enough steam to push its way through to the end.

To see more on how OPTA is helping the data revolution, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7bCp0pHuHqQ

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How Long Before FIFA Cracks Under The Heat Of Its Own World Cup Report?

Another World Cup Scandal for FIFA to deal with (Image from Getty)FIFA’s report into the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups has cleared Russia and Qatar of any wrong doing, ending the possibility of a re-vote. Since the winning bids were announced in 2010, controversy has surrounded the proceedings with several claims made of bribery and corruption against the FIFA delegates, some of which has now been substantiated by various newspapers across the globe. FIFA originally denied any illegal activities and insisted that both bids had been awarded on merit and with the games’ best interest at heart. However as problems began to emerge, particularly with the Qatar winning bid, the fire underneath FIFA was turned up forcing them into action. FIFA President Sepp Blatter launched an independent inquiry, led by US lawyer Michael Garcia and a FIFA appointed ethics adjudicator, German judge Hans Joachim Eckert. After two years of investigations, Garcia concluded his findings and handed them to Eckert for review on September 5th 2014. A 42 page report was revealed earlier this week that cleared the two hosts nations but surprisingly heavily criticized England for its part in the bid process.

You didn't believe the report? Blatter in hot water yet again  (Image from Getty)
You didn’t believe the report? Blatter in hot water yet again
(Image from Getty)

The report claims that England acted inappropriately by trying to win over now disgraced Jack Warner by offering him assistance in getting a person of interest to him work in the UK, letting the Trinidad youth team hold a training camp in the country in 2009 and sponsoring a gala dinner for the Caribbean Football Union. England’s bid team is bemused by these claims, insisting its transparent bid was fully in line with the guidelines provided. But FIFA claims that England actions damaged the FIFA image and the bid process as a whole. These claims are laughable given FIFA’s handling of these bids and recent revelations of corruption by certain high profile members of their organization. It is not by coincidence that the English FA has been the most vocal of its objection to the handling of the bid process after the winnings bids were announced and have been stoking the preverbal fire under Blatter to reveal the truth. This report has been written in a way to silence the critics and put England back in its place whilst pulling a veil over what has really gone on.

England were blasted for their dealings with Jack Warner (Image from AFP)
England were blasted for their dealings with Jack Warner
(Image from AFP)

Put yourself in FIFA’s boots for a second and imagine that they were accused of helping with a murder along with two other accomplices. Faced with acquisitions that you had a role in this death, you would do everything in your power to clear your name including helping organize an investigation. However you would hardly leave the body out in the open or any other clues that could connect you with the death?  Of course you wouldn’t and this is exactly what FIFA has done. Case in point, it has been revealed that the Russian bid team only handed over limited documents to Garcia’s investigation claiming that the rest were on computers that were leased to the bid team and have subsequently been returned to their owners and wiped. Very convenient you may say. Added into this the report made mention of connections to the Qatar bid and former Fifa vice-president Mohamed bin Hammam including payments he made to several individuals but insisted that these payments were made for his personal political interests rather than that of the 2022 bid.

Russia's bid team have made sensational claims about what happened to all of their bid information  (Image from Getty)
Russia’s bid team have made sensational claims about what happened to all of their bid information
(Image from Getty)

Few believe this to be true including the man who started the investigation, Michael Garcia who has sensationally blasted the 42 page report insisting that it contains numerous materially incomplete and erroneous representations of the facts and conclusions. He, along with several others including UEFA president Michel Platini and FA chairman Greg Dyke have called for the full 430 page investigation to be released rather than FIFA’s interpretation of it. Dyke in fact has gone one step further by writing to every current sitting FA chairman across the world to take a stand and boycott any future World Cups until the full findings are released. German Football League president Reinhard Rauball has echoed this sentiment but also added that UEFA could leave FIFA if the findings weren’t published in full.  Pressure is now mounting on Blatter to act but once again the FIFA president is refusing to do so. Can we really be surprised by this or by the nature of FIFA’s handling of this matter? Not really as it’s is to be expected. Its dark criminal underbelly remains intact for the time being but as the fire is reignited and intensifies, will Blatter really be able to hold out any more or will he eventually cave and reveal what really happened during that bid process four years ago? There is a body somewhere that needs to be dug up after all.

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Brazil Recovery On Track As Copa Approaches

All smiles again as Dunga and Neymar put Brazil back on track (Image from PA)The 2014 World Cup semi final still haunts Brazil. The humiliating defeat at the hands of eventual winners Germany was an eye opener for a team so confident of success in the tournament that they became blinded towards the truth. Despite having arguably one of the best players in the world in Neymar, the Brazil squad selected for the World Cup in their home land was less than inspiring. Luiz Filipe Scolari’s side were good on paper but lacked the creative spark or cutting edge of previous Brazil world cup teams. No Robinho or Ronaldinho to add an extra dimension to their play and no Romario or Ronaldo like striker to fire them to glory. All in all it was a side built for one purpose – to support Neymar. The talented 22 year old was given a free role, allowed to roam and create and basically do what he does best. With that freedom, Neymar shone picking up four goals on route to the quarter finals and placing himself in the running for player of the tournament. But a bad clumsy challenge by Colombia’s Juan Zuniga in the last few minutes of their clash in the quarters ruled Neymar out for the rest of the tournament. Heading into the semi’s Brazil were like a chicken with its head cut off. Unable to function and without Neymar to lead the way, Brazil were torn apart by a rampant Germany hungry for success. The 7-1 score line was flattering to Germany but in truth it could have been more. Their pride severely dented, Brazil’s national team was in tatters.

Brazil were humiliated by Germany in the Semi Final or The World Cup  (Image from Getty)
Brazil were humiliated by Germany in the Semi Final or The World Cup
(Image from Getty)

Two months later a fresh looking Brazil side took to the field to play Colombia in a friendly. Led out by new manager Dunga returning for a second spell as national boss, Brazil looked nervous yet prepared to start to rewrite the wrongs that had happened months previously. Their ranks had been changed dramatically with several key players from the World Cup notably absent. Striker Fred, who suffered the most due to his poor showing at the World Cup, had retired from international football aged 30 whilst Julio Cesar, Jo, Hulk, Maxwell and Paulinho all were left out in favour of fresh blood. In came Diego Tardelli, Everton Ribeiro, Philippe Coutinho and a recall for Robinho to add options to Brazil’s approach. The inclusion of Atletico Madrid defender Miranda was also welcomed by the fans and Brazilian media, many of whom felt that he should have been part of the World Cup squad in the first place and not have been excluded. His addition helped to solidify a shaky looking defence, even if it meant breaking up the much hyped PSG duo of David Luiz and Thiago Silva.  The match against Colombia finished in a 1-0 win with newly appointed captain Neymar sealing the win with an 83rd minute free kick. That nervous win would kick start a run of friendly victories that has now stretched to eight in a row. Brazil are back so it would seem and with a bang. Or are they?

Yes they have played against some good sides (notably France, Chile, Argentina and Colombia) scoring 18 times and conceding just twice but in a majority of the games Brazil have labored away to get the win. This may be due to Dunga crafting the team in his vision – less flair, more workhorse like in their performances. Brazil is more disciplined than before preferring to play through teams on the deck rather than looking for adventurous but risky long balls. Neymar in his new role as captain has a more disciplined approach too, less free to roam the pitch and more focused on linking the play and inspiring the team with some quick setup work or a shot on goal. The results of this change have been evident with the Barcelona player scoring eight times in as many games, including a self demolition of Japan when he scored four goals. Unlike during the World Cup though, the pressure on Neymar as his country’s only real goal threat has been lifted with several new players drafted in to ease the burden. In particular, the emergence of Hoffenheim’s Roberto Firmino has been a massive boost to Brazil’s attacking options with the 23 year old playing a significant role as provider and finisher of some of Brazil’s best moves in recent games. Despite having only four caps to date, Firmino has scored two fantastic goals and looks set to cement his place in Dunga’s long term plans as long as his form continues for both club and country.

Brazil’s fresh start under Dunga has been impressive to date but the biggest challenges await with the Copa America the first of them. Due to be played in Chile in June, Dunga will know that only a strong performance and perhaps a win will be enough to mend the bridges with the Brazil fans that were so violently destroyed by that defeat by Germany. The Copa is far from an easy competition to win, arguably tougher than the World Cup so Brazil will need to be on their best form to be triumphant. Brazil face Peru, Colombia and Venezuela in the group stage starting June 14th with progression expected. Failure to progress is not an option open for Dunga especially with the heartache from the World Cup still fresh in Brazilian hearts and minds.

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Home Nations Take Step Closer to France

Wins for all the Home Nations  give hope to qualification (Image from Getty)

Cometh the hour, cometh the man is an expression that perfectly describes what happened on Saturday in Israel.  With Wales taking on group leaders Israel in a must win game, the welsh fans were looking to one man in particular to be their inspiration. Gareth Bale did not fail to disappoint and when his country needed him the most he was there to provide the goals and the gloss on a well fought 3-0 victory over their group rivals. The Real Madrid star who has had a problematic season so far in Spain with many of the Real fans turning on him was a constant threat from the first whistle to the last. He provided the set up for Aaron Ramsey to head Wales into the lead before adding a stunning brace himself to wrap up the points. His first was a perfectly taken free kick, curled over the wall into the corner leaving the goalkeeper stranded. The second came thirteen minutes from the end; a drilled shot from Aaron Ramsey’s pass was enough to give Wales the win and have them leapfrog Israel into top spot in the group. Israel and Belgium do have a game in hand to play against each other which could see Wales drop back down to second before their crunch game with Belgium in Cardiff in June.

Expectations were high for Scotland going into Sunday’s must win game against Gibraltar at Hampden. Having warmed up with a narrow win over Northern Ireland four days earlier, Scotland fans were expecting a goal rout against the tiny peninsula state. The visitors were playing only their tenth international since being granted UEFA membership in 2013 and had until Sunday failed to record a competitive goal or a win. So when Luke Casciaro collected a pass from Aaron Payas on the twentieth minute of the match before coolly slotting it under David Marshall in the Scotland goal, dreams of an upset were very much on the cards. Scotland looked rattled having taken the lead only moments earlier through a penalty from Shaun Maloney but soon found the composure needed to get back on track. Sunderland striker Steven Fletcher added Scotland’s second of the day with a glancing header just before the half hour mark before Maloney added a third with his second penalty of the day. Steven Naismith put Scotland into a commanding position with a four goal six minutes before the interval.  The second half started much as the first had ended with Scotland in control and Fletcher in particular looking hungry for more goals. He would add a brace to complete his hat trick and earn himself a place in history as the first Scotsman to score three goals in an international fixture since Colin Stein did it in 1969. The win leaves Scotland still in contention in 3rd place in the group of death which also included World Champions Germany, Poland and the Republic of Ireland.

Northern Ireland meanwhile put their 1-0 friendly defeat to Scotland behind them when they took on Finland at Windsor Park on Sunday. Amidst scenes of protests outside the ground from religious groups who were calling on the IFA to boycott the game as it was played on a Sunday, Northern Ireland surged out of the blocks and into an early lead only to see the goal strangely ruled out. But the home support didn’t have to wait long before Kyle Lafferty drilled home his twelfth international goal after some good work from Niall McGinn who headed the ball towards the striker who sweetly volleyed home. The former Burnley and Rangers front man added a second five minutes later with a fine header from a Conor McLaughlin cross. Finland did manage to pull one back late in the game but Michael O’Neill’s men held on for another valuable three points. The win leaves them in second spot, a point behind Romania who they face next in June. With Greece already out of the reckoning and Finland struggling to find a winning formula, it looks to be a three way race between Romania, Northern Ireland and Hungary for the two automatic spots. A win against Romania followed by three points against the Faroe Islands could see Northern Ireland clinch its place at the European Championships for the first time in their history.

Harry Kane’s dream season continued with his debut appearance for England against a very poor Lithuania. In typical Kane style, he marked his first England cap with his first England goal only two minutes after coming on as a substitute. The Tottenham striker latched on to Raheem Sterling’s cross to head in at the back post and seal England’s four nil victory. Goals from Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Sterling handed England all three points and kept their quest for qualification on track. Sitting top of the group after five matches with a six point lead England will progress if they win their next two games against second placed Slovenia and whipping boys San Marino. Few would bet on England progressing especially given the depth of talent available to manager Roy Hodgson. Already blessed with several options upfront, Kane’s addition and strong showing on his debut including not only his goal but some strong link up play will be sure to give Hodgson some food for thought.

With five games remaining, all four home nations look to be in good positions to qualify for Euro 2016 set to take place in France. With two automatic places in each group and the best third place team qualifying, the home nations all know that this is their best chance of all reaching the tournament. They will want to avoid the playoffs considering who may be involved at this stage in the game. Holland, Belgium, Ukraine, Russia and Switzerland all occupy third spots in their respective groups and are struggling for consistent form. If that continues the playoffs could be one of the most hotly contested of all time. Hopefully be then all of the Home nations have already sealed their places and will be focusing on the challenges that lie ahead of them in France.

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Premiership Clubs Agree To Share The Wealth

Sharing the wealth of the Premiership (Image from Getty)Call it generosity, call it guilt but the decision by the current twenty Premiership clubs to hand over at least£1billion of their new £5billion TV deal to the lower leagues sides and grassroots needs to be commended. In a meeting yesterday, the clubs decided unanimously to hand back £50million each in an unprecedented move. That money will now be given to five worthy areas in the lower regions of English football – grassroots facilities, participation, fan engagement and match day experience, solidarity with lower leagues and supporting disadvantaged groups. Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore has called the decision “the right thing to do” and added that it would be tough to find another sport that is as committed to this level of sharing. He fell short of breaking down how much each area would get in terms of redistribution as the agreement is dependent on the outcome of a regulatory challenge from Ofcom into how the league sells its TV rights and further additional potential income generated from lucrative international TV right sales.

Richard Scudamore revealed the intent to share £1billion  with the lower leagues yesterday  (Photo by Tom Shaw/Getty Images)
Richard Scudamore revealed the intent to share £1billion with the lower leagues yesterday
(Photo by Tom Shaw/Getty Images)

The divide between the top tier in England and the other leagues has been growing year over year since the launch if the Premiership in 1992. Clubs in the Premiership have profited considerably from increased interest and subsequent lofty TV deals whilst sides in the lower divisions struggle to survive. Sky and BT agreed this year to a three year, £5.136billion deal that will start in 2016 but as the Premiership continues to grow its global brand this cost could rise to as much as £8billion when they come to renegotiate for the rights to continue in 2019. By stark contrast the TV deal struck between Sky and the Football League, which runs the three divisions under the Premiership – Championship, League One and League Two is also a three year deal but for a much smaller sum – £264million.  Interest in the Championship both domestically and internationally is growing as the league attempts to become more attractive to investors by making itself more competitive but reaching the same levels of TV revenues that the Premiership is getting now is still very much a pipe dream.

Whilst the move has been welcomed by many of the fans groups associated to the lower league clubs including the Football Supporters Federation, there are some who believe that the amount is still not enough and that the Premiership should be sharing more of its wealth.  But the move is a step in the right direction for many who see the investment as a way to protect the future of football in England going forward. In an additional move, the twenty Premiership clubs have also agreed to pay all full time staff at their own clubs at least the living wage. The current living wage is set at £9.15 an hour in London and £7.85 an hour in the rest of the UK. This should help to appease several fan groups who have been protesting for fairer conditions for their workers associated to the Premiership clubs. The fans are also calling for a reduction of match day tickets with the average cost now sitting at £56, a dramatic rise from the average cost of £19 when the league kicked off in 1992 which has meant that the common working fan struggles to afford to attend games on a regular basis. In previous years families used to take their kids to games but with the cost of a match day experience for a family of four reaching the £300 mark (after tickets, transport, food etc), it proves too difficult for families who are struggling to make ends meet. That decision lies with the clubs themselves who may be less likely to lower prices given this new deal with the lower leagues.

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Parma Face Uncertain Future As Debt Mounts Up

An uncertain future for Parma (Image from Getty)Time is running out was the message from bewildered Parma captain Alessandro Lucarelli who is facing up to the realistic proposition that he may be unemployed soon. The Italian side faces a bleak future after it was announced that the club is riddled with debt and unable to pay its players or bills. News surfaced about the extent of Parma’s debt after the club was forced to scrap last weekend Serie A clash with Udinese as it couldn’t afford to pay for the stewards or police.  A bankruptcy hearing date of March 19th has already been set with the Italian authorities looking to wind up the club before it melts down any further. It’s a dramatic fall from grace for a club who are due to celebrate its twenty year anniversary this May of their biggest triumph, the 1995 UEFA Cup final win over Juventus.

With stars like Cannavaro, Crespo and Dino Baggio, Parma won the 1995 UEFA Cup  (Image from AFP)
With stars like Cannavaro, Crespo and Dino Baggio, Parma won the 1995 UEFA Cup
(Image from AFP)

Sadly this isn’t the first time this club has teetered on the brink of extinction. In 2004, the club was declared insolvent following the financial meltdown of Parmalat, the multinational Italian dairy and food corporation founded by Calisto Tanzi and then Parma owner. Tanzi, along with several other senior executives at the company were charged with financial fraud and money laundering in one of Italy’s biggest financial scandals with Tanzi accused of embezzling an estimated €800million. He was sentenced to eight years and one month in prison initially before having an additional 27 years added later for his part in letting Paramlat and Parmatour fall into bankruptcy. After three years of administration, Param were rescued by engineering entrepreneur Tommaso Ghirardi who created a holding company called Eventi Sportivi which would control the club and its assets.  Up until December 2014, Ghirardi continued to own Parma but after being sensationally banned from competing in Europe this season due to an unpaid tax bill, Ghirardi finally relinquished control Albanian businessman Rezart Taci before he flipped it only months later to its current owner Giampietro Manenti.

Former owner Tommaso Ghirardi is being blamed for the current financial mess  (Image from Getty)
Former owner Tommaso Ghirardi is being blamed for the current financial mess
(Image from Getty)

Once seen as the savior of Parma, public opinion of Ghirardi has shifted dramatically since the revelations of the extent of Parma’s debt. When he took over the club, the club had a gross debt of €16m which has now risen to an amazing gross debt of €197m (net debt of €97m) in a seven year period.  Where the money has gone is anyone’s guess however many will point to the fact that over a two year period between the summer of 2012 and summer 2014, Parma has been involved in 450 player transactions ranging from full purchase deals, co ownership agreements, loans and transfers. The effect of this is that Parma now has a total of 143 players on its books; with 85 of them currently out on loan and 11 of them under co-ownership agreements with other clubs. The architect of this idea was not Ghirardi but instead Parma’s director of Football Pietro Leonardi. In place since 2009, Leonardi created a system that he believes will be beneficial to the club in the long run. In a move similar to an over excited Football Manager player, Parma acquires all the most promising free agents on the European market targeting quantity over quality. They then send them throughout Europe to allow the players to develop both in terms of skill and value in exchange for either a monthly fee or full coverage of the player’s wages.  At the end of the loan, the player can be sold for a fee, loaned back out again or in a rare case promoted to the Parma first team. In theory the system creates a continuous cycle of money and a production line for talent.

Parma currently has 85 players out on loan  (Image from Wikipedia)
Parma currently has 85 players out on loan
(Image from Wikipedia)

The system has generated a lot of criticism to date with some complaining that Parma are treating players like cattle or stock, trading their careers away on a whim in order to make a quick buck. Whilst the club insists that it’s simply developing young players for the future, the sheer scale of its loan project is staggering and hints back to why the club finds itself riddled with debt. Leonardi insists that the cost of running such a scheme is minimal but the club has yet to break even on player transfers in the last five years. The debate on whether the system is working or not has been paused as the club switches it focus to remaining in business. Current owner Manenti is confident of sorting the clubs problems out but with a rising debt, drastic changes will be needed to ensure he can. A short term loan of €5million is needed urgently to cover the running costs of the club until May allowing Parma to complete the Serie A season.  Long term, refinancing or a new wealthy owner need to be found to secure the clubs future for the next few seasons.

Parma sit rooted o the bottom of Serie A under manager Roberto Donadoni  (Image from Getty)
Parma sit rooted o the bottom of Serie A under manager Roberto Donadoni
(Image from Getty)

The club will be dragged over the coals and scrutinized by the Italian authorities for every deal that it has struck since recovering from administration in 2007. However this may be a lengthy process given the number of player transactions made by the club since then. The extent of which Leonardi’s scheme affected the club will become apparent with the club potentially facing further sanctions by UEFA for its mismanagement of players and bending of the rules. UEFA has yet to crack down on schemes like Leonardi has created with other clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City also guilty to a lesser degree. Nothing however will be done by UEFA until the summer and by that point the issue may be null in void in Parma’s case if the club no longer exists.

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What Next For Falcao As He Heads Towards United Exit Door

What next for Falcao? (Image from Getty)

It’s all gone so wrong for Radamel Falcao. The Colombian striker joined Manchester United in the summer on a year long loan but has been unable to establish himself in Louis Van Gaal’s starting eleven. In truth, Falcao does not look like the player he once was and questions over the physical and psychological impact that his knee injury that rules him out of the game for over six months had are starting to surface. Now fit again, Falcao jumped at the chance in the summer to join Van Gaal’s United revolution and many expected him to be leading the goal scoring charts at this stage in the season. But with a return of only four goals in 22 appearances, his move is turning into a nightmare and the chances of him staying at Old Trafford beyond this season are dwindling by the day. United have the option to buy Falcao from French side Monaco for a pre-arranged fee rumoured to be north of £40 million but with the 29 year old failing to live up to his billing, it’s unlikely that they will follow through with it.

Falcao's Manchester United move has been a nightmare for the player  (Image from Getty)
Falcao’s Manchester United move has been a nightmare for the player
(Image from Getty)

So what has gone wrong for Falcao? The injury to his left knee, suffered due to a horrible tackle in the French Cup clash between Falcao’s Monaco and 4th division side Monts d’Or Azergues Foot in January 2014, meant that he missed last year’s World Cup in Brazil. It was a devastating blow for the player who up until that point was arguably the world’s most feared striker. Colombia too were distraught at the prospect of not having Falcao in their squad and gave him up until the very last minute to show he had recovered and take his place. However it was not meant to be and Falcao along with head coach Jose Pekerman informed the public at a press conference just weeks before the start of the tournament that he would not be available.

At United, Falcao has struggled to get to grips with both the speed difference between Ligue 1 and the Premiership as well as the more physical nature of the game played in England. He has looked off pace when in games and has lacked the cutting edge that made him so famous in the first place. Van Gaal has not helped the situation by constantly tinkering with his tactics and randomly dropping Falcao to the bench in place of the returning Robin Van Persie or even youngster James Wilson. This has resulted in a further loss of confidence for the mild natured Colombian, something his former agent calls as the primary reason behind Falcao’s lack of goals. There is a sense of trepidation in Falcao’s play as well with the player perhaps slightly more cautious of stretching for a ball or riding a challenge in fear of another lengthy spell on the sidelines. Knee injuries can and have wrecked careers with a good example being that of Michael Owen. The former England striker never really recovered from his knee injury in the 2006 World Cup and looked like half the player he once was in the remaining six seasons of his career. At 29, Falcao knows that he has perhaps five to six years left at the top before old age catches up with him but another lengthy injury could cut that down even further. Like Owen, Falcao has not lost his predatory instincts that helped him to hit the back of the net on a frequent basis but he has lost a yard of pace which means that he will need to adapt his game slightly to compensate. Recovering psychologically may be trickier for the player but as the old adage says the best way to recover from a fall is to get back on the horse. Falcao needs to play regularly, he needs to be involved in collisions with other players to show him that his knee will not give out but most importantly he needs to start scoring again. Goals for a striker are like a drug, they give them fuel and confidence which in turn leads to more goals, increased confidence and so on.

He need to play consistently and at United under Van Gaal he won’t unless something dramatic happens between now and the end of the season. Falcao has now accepted that his United stay will come to an end in June with the player’s agent now examining the options available to him. A return to France would suit his existing employers Monaco who have lacked a reliable goal scoring front man this season. However it’s unlikely that Falcao will want to head back to France, preferring to try his hand elsewhere at a new club. Italian champions Juventus could offer such an opportunity, whilst former club Atletico Madrid are also rumoured to be watching his situation very carefully. Staying in the Premiership is not also out of the question with Liverpool, Tottenham and even Manchester City willing to take a gamble on the once great striker. Rumours of a summer switch to Real Madrid were floating around before his injury but the Spanish giants went in a different direction last summer. However they may now return for Falcao as there are only one of a few teams who could afford his fee and his wages. Regardless of where he ends up, Falcao knows that his next move may be the most important one he makes. He can ill afford another season on the sidelines which damages his reputation as one of the game’s best strikers. Falcao used to equal goals and he still can if he can find a club willing to give him a fair go and help him rebuild the confidence in himself.

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Bale Faces His Toughest Challenge Yet – Winning Over the Press

Love me again? Can Bale win over the Spanish media? (Image from Getty)

After becoming the world’s most expensive player following his record breaking move to Real Madrid, it’s not hard to understand why the media spotlight appears to be permanently fixed above Gareth Bale’s head. The welsh winger, who made the switch from Tottenham to Madrid in the summer of 2013, has embraced life in the Spanish capital and despite a rocky start that was plagued with injuries and language barriers problems, Bale has impressed with some breathtaking  performances.  Two in particular set him apart from everyone else, including his pragmatic teammate and World player of the Year, Cristiano Ronaldo.  With the Portuguese superstar confined to the stands due to injury, it was to Bale that Madrid turned for inspiration during their Copa del Rey final against Barcelona last year. And he didn’t fail to impress scoring a wonder goal that is now one of the most viewed goals of all time.

Bale and Ronaldo have had a rocky relationship at Real  (Image from Getty)
Bale and Ronaldo have had a rocky relationship at Real
(Image from Getty)

With only minutes left in the game, Bale picked up the ball on the left wing just inside his own half, nudged it past Barca right back Marc Barta and set off after it. With his path blocked he was forced to run into the manager’s technical area which handed Barta a five yard head start. It mattered little for Bale who outpaced Barta, collected the ball and coolly slotted past Pinto in the Barca goal to hand Real the trophy. A month later, he would be on hand again late in the game to head Real into the lead during a hard fought Champions League final against rivals Atletico Madrid. It would be the turning point in the game. With Atletico now broken, Real surged into a 4-1 lead and ultimately picked up their 10th Champions League title. Bale had secured legendary status and appeared to be loved by both the fans and the media.

The love hate relationship that exists between the press and players like Bale is born out of necessity with both parties with much to gain. But whilst Bale remains impartial to the local Spanish press, preferring to keep them at arm’s length by living a quieter, event free life in order to protect both his image and his family, keeping them onside is equally as important. After all they tend to be two faced and have the ability to pander your name to the masses which can make life more difficult. Bale is experiencing this first hand and as a result is suffering the consequences. Once loved and adored by the Spanish newspapers Marca and AS, who waxed lyrically about his match winning performances last season as Madrid marched to domestic and European trophies, they have started to turn on him slating his every move and criticizing his performances on the pitch for Madrid this season.  Whilst critical of the entire Real Madrid team following their 2-1 defeat to Barcelona on Sunday, Marca pinpointed Bale as the main culprit and even refused to rate him in their review of the game the next day.  AS did decide to rate him however gave him a 4.5 out of 10, indicating that he was by far the worst performer for Real on the night. Whilst Bale freely admits to a dip in form in the last few weeks, the stats still showcase that he is having a good season having scored 14 times in the league with countless assists for his teammates.

Spanish paper Marca refused to score Bale following the defeat on Sunday to Barcelona  (Image from Marca)
Spanish paper Marca refused to score Bale following the defeat on Sunday to Barcelona
(Image from Marca)

But with the boos now ringing out from the Madrid faithful in the stands due to what they see as a series of under performances since the turn of the year, the focus of that anger is now starting to be concentrated on the teams more talented individuals. Bale in particular has received some harsh treatment from the Real fans, fuelled by the negativity being spewed out by the Spanish press. For the generally laid back Bale, the pressure is starting to show on the 25 year old. Two weeks ago, Bale ended his 829 minute goal drought with a double against Levante. He celebrated by covering his ears, indicating acknowledgement of the boos aimed at him that had been ringing out for several weeks before running to the corner flag and kicking it hard out of pure frustration.

The negativity is affecting Bale and the way that he plays with the skinny nervous welsh boy that used to exist now reappearing. To make matters worse, Bale’s car was attacked by some fans following the defeat to Barcelona on Sunday. He was not the only player but Bale must now be considering his own safety and that of his family. With the season nearing its end, it could be a summer of transition for Bale who may decide to quit La Liga in favour of a move back to the Premiership and an escape from the boo boys. Real will not want to see him depart, given that they view him as the long term successor to Ronaldo who at 30 years old and with a growing list of injuries will soon run out of steam. If Bale does stay, he will need to win over the fans and more importantly his toughest critics, the press. They once adored him so it is possible that Bale can charm them into loving him once more.

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Bournemouth’s Hollywood Finish Edges Closer

Bournemouth are flying high in the Championship (Image from Getty)

It’s a story straight out of Hollywood but one very much with its roots firmly set in the south of England. A phoenix from the flames story about a club teetering on the brink of collapse and narrowly avoided relegation from the Football League eight years ago to now only a few points away from promotion to the country’s top league. However this isn’t just a Hollywood dream but in fact a reality. This is the story of Bournemouth FC and their remarkable turnaround. Having spent most of their 116 year history plying their trade in the lower leagues of English football, few would have believed that Bournemouth would be now so close to the Premiership. But after five strong seasons which has seen Bournemouth climb league after league, they now sit top of the Championship on 73 points and are looking to end their long stay in the lower leagues and finally compete with the best teams in England.

Final step? The Championship table as of Monday 23rd March 2015  (Image from BBC)
Final step? The Championship table as of Monday 23rd March 2015
(Image from BBC)

The credit for this must go largely to their manager, Eddie Howe. The dynamic young boss has been in charge at Dean Court for nearly six years albeit with a short stint as Burnley boss in-between. When originally appointed Howe was the youngest manager in the football league at aged 31 and many doubted that he would be successful given the various challenges he faced – taking over at the club at arguably its lowest point, second bottom of League Two and facing relegation after the club was hit with a 17 point deficit at the start of the season for entering into administration. Despite this, Howe inspired Bournemouth to safety finishing 21st on 46 points above Grimsby and the relegated duo of Chester City and Luton Town. With 19 games left in the season when he took the reins, Howe rallied his Bournemouth team to 11 wins and two draws that gave them the points they needed to secured their position in League Two. The next season he would go one better as Bournemouth finished 2nd in the league, gaining promotion back to League One. He left half way through the next season to join Burnley but returned to finish what he started less than a year after leaving. It took two attempts but eventually promotion to the Championship was achieved. Now sitting top of the Championship with seven games left to play, Howe could complete an incredible hat trick that sees Bournemouth promoted once again, this time to the Premiership.

Miracle worker - Eddie Howe  (Image from Getty)
Miracle worker – Eddie Howe
(Image from Getty)

Saturday’s emphatic 3-0 victory over promotion rivals Middlesbourgh was a huge psychological boost to Howe and his team who firmly believe that their destiny is now in their own hands.  Four wins should be enough to secure a playoff berth but Howe will not settle for this, preferring to hold on to top spot and automatic promotion.  Having built a team on a limited budget, selling key players in order to reinvest in the wider squad, Howe’s man management of Bournemouth has been simply remarkable.  He has made clever signings over his time as manager bringing in Dan Gosling (a free from Newcastle), Matt Ritchie (signed from Swindon), Artur Boric (on loan from Southampton) and this season Callum Wilson (signed from Coventry). Alongside veteran strikers Yann Kermorgant and Brett Pittman, the 23 year old Wilson has been a revelation since arriving, scoring 16 vital goals as Bournemouth climbed the table.  Solid at the back (the 2nd best defence in the league) and scoring for fun at the other end (82 goals so far and counting) it’s hard to see Bournemouth slipping up at this late stage.

That said Howe acknowledges that this season has been tough and that they will need to battle to the end to ensure that they are rewarded for their efforts. The memories of a torrid February still linger in Howe’s mind (Bournemouth failed to win a single game that month losing twice and drawing three times) so he will not allow a repeat of this. There is no such thing as an easy game in the Championship and Bournemouth will know that they will have to give their all to ensure promotion. Up first is Ipswich away after the international break this weekend. April could be a defining moment for Bournemouth and for Howe as they look to end their Hollywood story with a happy ending.

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Club Profile – Dunfermline Athletic

Club Profile - Dunfermline Athletic FC (Image from DAFC.com)

In yet another example of how money has changed the beautiful game, Dunfermline Athletic offer hope to clubs facing uncertain times due to financial problems. Back in 2013, the Pars faced up to administration and were weeks away from winding up calling to an end almost 130 years of history and tradition. But like many struggling clubs in Scotland’s various leagues, the solution came in the form of fan ownership with a group of fans known as Pars United Limited rescuing their club from disaster. Now back on an even financial footing, Dunfermline can now focus on getting back on track and climbing the divisions once more. It’s a long road ahead but one that the Pars and their fans are ready to take on. In the latest of our club profiles, we look at the challenge that lies ahead and the obstacles that Dunfermline need to overcome to get back on that road to success.

Club Details

Founded: 1885

Ground: East End Park, Dunfermline, Scotland

Capacity: 11,480

Owners: Pars United Limited (fan community)

Manager: John Potter

Club Honours

Scottish FA Cup Winners (2) – 1961,1968

Scottish First Division Champions (3) – 1989, 1996, 2011

Scottish Second Division Champions (2) – 1926, 1986

Current League

2014-15 Current Standing: Scottish League One, 6th (as of 11th March 2015)

2013-14 Final Standing: Scottish League One, 2nd

2012-13 Final Standing: Scottish Championship, 9th (relegated)

2011-12 Final Standing: Scottish Premier League, 12th (relegated)

2010-11 Final Standing: Scottish Championship, 1st (promoted)

Typical Starting Eleven

Normal Starting Formation: 4-4-2

No Position Player Name Age Value (GBP)
GK Ryan Scully 22
LB Alex Whittle 21
CB Lewis Martin 18
CB Gregor Buchanan 24
RB Ross Millen 20
LM David Hopkirk 22
CM Lewis Spence 19
CM Andy Geggan 27
RM Josh Falkingham (c) 24
CF Michael Moffat 31
CF Andy Barrowman 30

Star Player

Josh Falkingham

Signed by Leeds United aged 8, Falkingham progressed through the youth system for the next 11 years but was released having never broken into the first team. St Johnstone picked him up on a short-term contract before spending 2 years at Arbroath. He had developed into a versatile playmaking midfielder (preferred wide on the right) with accurate passing, determination and strong in the tackle. Newly appointed Dunfermline manager Jim Jefferies saw his potential and brought Falkingham in. He was immediately installed as the team vice-captain, but before the season was out he would be handed the captain’s armband and has not looked back since.

Star Player History

Senior Career

Season Team Mins/Game Apps Starts Yel Red Gls
2009/10 St Johnstone 63 1 1
2010/11 Arbroath 82 38 36 8 2 9
2011/12 Arbroath 85 41 40 8 8
2012/13 Dunfermline Athletic 82 39 38 9 3
2013/14 Dunfermline Athletic 84 38 36 6 5
2014/15 Dunfermline Athletic 82 31 27 8 2

Team Strengths

  1. The Dunfermline squad has a really good mix of young and old players.
  2. The coaching team are all experienced professionals and can help with youth development, notably former Rangers and Scotland internationals Neil McCann and Andy Goram.
  3. Defensively the team has been fairly solid having conceded 33 goals in 28 games (the lowest goals against in league is 30).
Former Scotland star Neil McCann is now working behind the scenes at Dunfermline  (Image from Craig Brown)
Former Scotland star Neil McCann is now working behind the scenes at Dunfermline
(Image from Craig Brown)

Team Weaknesses

  1. The team have no major attacking threat. In December 2014, the manager opted not to extend the contract of 21 year-old Gozie Ugwu who had scored 7 goals in 14 league games (and is still comfortably the teams top goalscorer for this season). He chose to use the salary and living expenses money from Ugwu to invest in new players for the club, none of who have improved the team’s league standing (they have fallen from 4th to 6th).
  2. The midfield lack width as even the current wide players (Hopkirk and Falkingham prefer playing centrally).
  3. From January 1st 2015, Dunfermline have played 11 games but have never had the same starting eleven. On average the manager has made 2.6 unforced changes to the team for each game.
  4. Since 2012 Dunfermline have been plagued with financial difficulties and transfer sanctions. They have paid almost ₤0 in transfer fees since the 2011/2012 season, but have also not recouped any fees on departing players in the same timeframe.

Improvement Suggestions

  1. Formation

The Dunfermline squad consists largely of players who prefer to play through the middle and so should have a formation that takes advantage of this rather than forcing players into positions. I can see them do well by playing a 3-5-1-1 that would utilize their defensive and midfield strengths in the centre with young pacey wing backs providing width when required. The single striker would need Moffat to hold up the ball for Hopkirk playing in the hole and Falkingham providing attacking support from deep.

  1. Team Selection

In terms of personnel, young Ryan Williamson has the best win/loss percentage in the club and should come in for Ross Millen (who would be very handy coming on from the bench). The misfiring attack (Barrowman in this case) should be replaced by an additional centre back in Urquhart to allow for the wingbacks to push forward. Finally, the other key change I would make is to establish a preferred starting 11 and not make as many unforced changes to the starting eleven. With a constantly changing team the players (especially given the young age of most of them) don’t get a chance to learn how to play intuitively with each other and could explain why Dunfermline’s results have been so erratic since the start of the year.

Ryan Williamson has impressed this season (Image from DAFC.com)
Ryan Williamson has impressed this season (Image from DAFC.com)

Proposed New Starting Eleven

Starting Formation: 3-5-1-1

No Position Player Name Age Value (GBP)
GK Ryan Scully 22
CB Stuart Urquhart 19
CB Lewis Martin 18
CB Gregor Buchanan 24
LWB Alex Whittle 21
RWB Ryan Williamson 18
CM Lewis Spence 19
CM Andy Geggan 27
CM Josh Falkingham (c) 24
ACM David Hopkirk 22
CF Michael Moffat 31

Post by Kenny C, BOTN writer based in Asia

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Raising Awareness Of The Silent Killer Affecting Football

The late Robert Enke (Image from Getty)

On the morning of November 10th 2009, Hannover 96 goalkeeper Robert Enke kissed his wife goodbye and said he was off to training. Two years later, Wales’s manager Gary Speed said farewell to his colleagues at the BBC after filming Football Focus, saying he would see them next week. Unfortunately it would be the last time that anyone would see these men alive again as shortly after their subsequent departures, they took their own lives. Their deaths, along with the attempted suicide of referee Babak Rafati a week before Speed, in a hotel bathroom just shortly before he refereed a German league match highlighted that depression in football is very much a problem. The pressures of the modern game is affecting all of its participants with some unable to cope, forcing them to look for an escape.

Babak Rafati tried to take his own life due to depression  (Image from Getty)
Babak Rafati tried to take his own life due to depression
(Image from Getty)

Enke’s death shocked German football as it came as a surprise to many, with few signs that the player was in trouble. However underneath his calm professional façade lay a man who had been battling depression for nearly six years. The death of his daughter Lara in 2006 due to a severe heart defect, three years into his depression only heightened his sense of despair and despite seeking treatment, Robert decided on that cold morning in 2009 to step in front of a train and end his pain. Speed’s death was also a shock given how highly regarded he was in the game. After a glittering career with Leeds, Everton, Newcastle, Bolton and Sheffield United, Speed had now turned himself into an accomplished manager and was in the process of revitalizing the Welsh national team when he died. Former teammate Alan Shearer and BBC presenter Dan Walker had spent the day with him at the BBC’s Manchester studio watching his former club Newcastle play against Manchester United and commented that Speed appeared to be in high spirits. But in truth Speed was suffering and later that night he would hang himself in his garage, only to be found the next morning by his wife.

Leeds paid tribute to their former player Gary Speed  (Image from PA)
Leeds paid tribute to their former player Gary Speed
(Image from PA)

According to the World Health Organization, depression affects an estimated 350 million people per year globally across all age groups and is the leading cause of disability worldwide. Depression is hard to spot as it often disguises itself amongst the normal lows of life. However consistent feelings of detachment, disillusion and despair can indicate a larger problem. Self diagnosis does happen however fewer than half of people (or in poorer regions it can be less than 10%) who recognize that they may suffer from depression seek help. Many factors prevent treatment from happening such as cost, accessibility of help and the social stigma of admitting you have a problem. Even talking to a love one can be hard with few caring to admit to what they perceive as a weakness. For families and friends, spotting depression in others can be extremely difficult given the varied levels that the disorder has. Early warning signs are increased irritability, lack of energy or appetite to do anything, sleepless nights or sleeping too much and general disengagement from society. Unlike some other disorders, depression can be treated with a range of psychotherapies and if needed antidepressant medications.

Depression affects 350 million people worldwide  (Image from Getty)
Depression affects 350 million people worldwide
(Image from Getty)

Since Robert Enke’s death, his wife Teresa has worked hard to raise awareness about the condition and destroy the social stigma attached to it in an effort to encourage others who suffer from this disorder to seek help. She set up the Robert Enke foundation in his honour and is working closely with his former club Hannover 96 and the German FA to offer confidential support options to anyone else in the game who may be suffering in silence. Pressure is part of all professional sports but for footballers who are always in the public eye for better or worse, the pressure can be too much to cope with. The awareness of the disorder brought on by the untimely deaths of Enke and Speed has increased dramatically and is helping others with their fight. Some things are changing with depression no longer a taboo subject in clubs with players encouraged to talk to the clubs medical staff, coaches or a teammate if they are find themselves spiraling out of control. But it is a long road ahead with more needed from the games governing bodies to help promote further awareness and support in order to prevent another tragedy like this happening again.

For further information about depression, please see the World Health Organization page here: http://www.who.int/topics/depression/en/

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Scottish Future Looks Bright With Latest Batch Of Talented Youngsters

One of a host of bright stars for Scotland - Ryan Harper of Real Madrid (Image from Getty)Once considered a breeding ground for new talent in the 70’s and 80’s, Scottish football entered into a somewhat dormant phase of its history with few Scottish born players making the move to other countries to ply their trade. Of the ones that did, only a handful succeeded such as Paul Lambert who joined Borussia Dortmund from Motherwell and helped them to the Champions League title in 1997 before returning to join Celtic. Others like Gary O’Connor lasted only a few seasons abroad before returning sheepishly to Scotland to rebuild his career. But now a new generation of talented players is emerging and interest in Scottish football has spiked again with many clubs now sending scouts to watch specific players. The latest player to agree to the move is Stephen Hendrie, the Hamilton left back who has signed a pre contract with West Ham and will depart for the Premiership in the summer.

Hendrie has agreed to join West Ham in the summer  (Image from Getty)
Hendrie has agreed to join West Ham in the summer
(Image from Getty)

The 20 year old has had a superb season helping his side perform above expectations in the Scottish Premier League. Over the years Hamilton has become one of several clubs in Scottish football who continuously discover, develop and sell on young talent. Previous graduates include midfielders James McArthur and James McCarthy who both left the club to join Premiership sides and have since built notable careers. Whilst the latter of the two has chosen to represent the Republic of Ireland at national level, he is still Scottish by birth and a good example of how the clubs youth system is progressing. Similarly Dundee United, Inverness Caley Thistle, Celtic, Rangers, Hearts and Hibernian have all had talented Scots leave their ranks in recent years to test their skills at a higher level.Switching to the English Premiership has been a common theme for several Scottish players once they start to out shine the other players in Scotland. Alan Hutton, Charlie Adam, Andrew Robertson, Steven Naismith, James Morrison and Steven Fletcher are all examples of players who have made successful switches and continue to play in England’s top league on a regular basis. But now other European leagues are sitting up and taking notice of the Scottish talent on show. The recent move of Ryan Gauld from Dundee United to Portuguese side Sporting Lisbon is probably the one that springs to mind to most after his £3 million move. The player dubbed “mini Messi’ by the Dundee United fans is still only 19 but excelled in Scotland over a two year period before Sporting came calling. He is now pushing hard for a starting spot in the Lisbon first team after performing well in various cup matches.

Gauld is considered one for the future for Scotland national manager Gordon Strachan who is reaping the benefits of work carried out former Performance Director Mark Wotte. The Dutchman was drafted in by the SFA in 2011 to revamp the countries failing youth system and immediately set about implementing the recommendations of a review conducted by former first minister of Scotland, Henry McLeish. These changes most notably included a shift in mindset around how clubs were developing its younger players, focusing more on technique, fitness and healthy living. The plan, partially backed by the SFA with significant investment saw the appointment of Wotte and the birth of a new generation of players. Whilst it’s the clubs that deserve most of the praise for the way that they have nurtured talent, McLeish and Wotte deserves some credit for starting the conversation and helping Scottish football to get back on track.

The late Henry McLeish and his report  (Image from STV)
The late Henry McLeish and his report
(Image from STV)

The future now looks rosy especially for the national team. Not only can Strachan call up players who have spent several years in the Premiership developing their games but he now has a wealth of talented players coming through to freshen up his side. Gauld, along with the likes of Chelsea’s Islam Feruz, Real Madrid’s Ryan Harper and Dundee United’s Stuart Armstrong are the future of the national team. For the fans their hopes are that this new generation can help the national side to finally end its long term exodus and reach a major international tournament, something it has failed to do for nearly 30 years. Reaching a World Cup or European Championship would be just reward and indicate how far Scotland has come over the past ten years. If the influx of talent young players leaving the country for stronger leagues across Europe is an indication, then Scotland looks to be on course once more to reaching its goals.

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Club Profiles – Nottingham Forest

Nottingham Forest Club Profile (Image from Getty)One of the most successful clubs in English football history having won back to back European Cups during the dizzy heydays of the Brian Clough reign, Nottingham Forest are desperately looking to rekindle those years under new boss Dougie Freedman. The Scot, who replaced club legend Stuart Pearce in February after a disastrous return to the City Ground for the former England Under 21’s manager have now put together an impressive run that has them leaping up the table towards the promotion places. After a sixteen year absence, we ask do Nottingham Forest have what it takes this year to make that final step back into the Premiership? In our new series of club profiles, we break down the Forest into its elements and make suggestions about what is needed for them to make that step and start back on that path towards glory.

Club Details

Founded: 1865

Ground: City Ground, Nottingham, England

Capacity: 30,576

Owners: The Al Hasawi Family

Manager: Dougie Freedman

Club Honours

European Cup Winners (2) – 1979, 1980

European Super Cup (1) – 1979

English Champions (1) – 1978

English FA Cup Winners (2) – 1898, 1959

English League Cup Winners (4)- 1978, 1979, 1989, 1990

English FA Charity Shield (1) – 1978

Current League

2014-15 Current Standing: The Championship, 9th (as of 9th March 2015)

2013-14 Final Standing: The Championship, 11th

2012-13 Final Standing: The Championship, 8th

2011-12 Final Standing: The Championship, 19th

2010-11 Final Standing: The Championship, 6th

Typical Starting Eleven

Normal Starting Formation: 4-1-4-1

No Position Player Name Age Value (GBP)
1 GK Karl Darlow 24 2.64m
13 LB Danny Fox 28 1.76m
6 LCB Kelvin Wilson 29 2.42m
16 RCB Jamaal Lascelles 21 2.64m
2 RB Eric Lichaj 26 1.32m
4 DCM Michael Mancienne (C) 27 1.32m
18 LW Michail Antonio 24 2.20m
38 LCM Ben Osborn 20 0.66m
10 RCM Henri Lansbury 24 1.76m
27 RW Chris Burke 31 1.23m
9 CF Britt Assombalonga 22 5.28m

Star Player

Jamaal Lascelles

He may not be the most expensive player bought by Forest (Assombalonga for GDP5m) or the highest profile player (Lansbury – at Arsenal from the age of 8, Wenger commented that he “will be a big player” and capped by England at U16/U17/U19/U21 levels) or most creative (Antonio has scored 11 goals and has 11 assists this season), but Jamaal Lascelles is definitely a star. A product of the Forest youth system, Lascelles is a strong, commanding centre back that is quick and comfortable on the ball. In August 2014, Newcastle United bought him from Forest, and then loaned him back for the season. He has represented England at U18/U19/U20 levels and is now featuring for the U21 team.

Emerging talent Jamaal Lacsalles should feature more before he moves back to Newcastle  (Image from emipics)
Emerging talent Jamaal Lacsalles should feature more before he moves back to Newcastle
(Image from emipics)

Star Player History

Senior Career

Season Team Mins/Game Apps Starts Yel Red Gls
2011/12 Nottingham Forest 90 1 1
2011/12 Stevenage (loan) 72 9 7 2 1
2012/13 Nottingham Forest 5 2 0
2013/14 Nottingham Forest 88 29 29 8 2
2014/15 Newcastle United 0 0 0
2014/15 Nottingham Forest (loan) 66 20 1 4 1

International

Active Years Team Mins/Game Apps Starts Yel Red Gls
2011 England U18 46 1 1
2011/12 England U19 54 8 3
2013 England U20 90 2 2
2014- England U21 90 1 1

Team Strengths

  1. Forest have 2 very experienced and strong fullbacks in Danny Fox and Eric Lichaj. This season Forest have had their best win percentage when both players are in the starting eleven. Fox is a Scottish international who has also played for Celtic, Burnley and Southampton. Lichaj is an American international signed from Aston Villa.
  2. Scoring goals has not been a problem for Forest this season and they rank 5th highest in the league. Its also good to note that both the midfield have more than contributed their fair share of goals with Antonio and Lansbury the 2nd and 3rd top goal scorers respectively for the club this season.
  3. Overall the squad is good mix of experience and youth, and there is a great balance to the positions available, which means they can easily and quickly switch formations without having to overhaul the starting eleven.

Team Weaknesses

  1. Kelvin Wilson (central defender) has the worst percentage of losses to games played.
  2. The 4-1-4-1 formation is heavy on defense but the team is 9th worst in the league for goals against.

Improvement Suggestions

  1. Formation

Historically the formation most used by Championship teams in 4-4-2 (this is especially true for the teams promoted over the last 5 years).

However, with Forest’s squad I would make a slight change to their 4-1-4-1 and make it a 4-2-3-1 with a flat back 4 and the 2 central midfielders split as 1 deep lying player and the other a box-to-box player. The 3 attacking midfielders would have a central playmaker and the 2 wide men as inside forwards (keeping the opposing full backs from moving forward).

Another advantage of this formation is that it can morph into multiple other formations quickly and without a change in players:

  1. 4-1-2-2-1 V – drop the deep lying midfielder between the defence and midfield, with the attacking central midfielder dropping back in the central line. Allows the forward and wide men to stay high and pick up cleared balls and counter attack.
  2. 4-4-1-1 – Drop the wide men back to provide deeper support and form 2 banks of 4 to break down any opposing attacks.
Switching to a 4-4-1-1 formation may solve Forest's problems  (Image from FA)
Switching to a 4-4-1-1 formation may solve Forest’s problems
(Image from FA)
  1. Starting Eleven

To accommodate this formation then a few personnel would need to change.

  1. Kelvin Wilson would drop to the bench and Michal Mancienne moved into central defence. Michael is an experienced defender who came through the Chelsea youth ranks.
  2. Bring Gary Gardner off the bench and into the deep lying central midfield role. Gary is on loan from Aston Villa but has the highest win percentage to games played in the whole squad.
  3. Britt Assombalonga is out for the season and so should be replaced by the long serving Dexter Blackstock, with Matty Fryatt on the bench as backup forward. Both players have great scoring and assists records but Blackstock edges it for both percentage of games won and percentage of games lost (in fact Forest lose less whenever Blackstock is in the starting eleven).
  4. Recall Djamel Abdoun from loan. He has one of the lowest loss percentages per games played in the squad and would be great cover for the inside forwards (potentially replacing Chris Burke as Abdoun better suited for the inside forward role).

Proposed New Starting Eleven

Starting Formation: 4-2-3-1

No Position Player Name Age Value (GBP)
1 GK Karl Darlow 24 2.64m
13 LB Danny Fox 28 1.76m
4 LCB Michael Mancienne (C) 27 1.32m
16 RCB Jamaal Lascelles 21 2.64m
2 RB Eric Lichaj 26 1.32m
22 DLM Gary Gardner 22 0.88m
38 B2BM Ben Osborn 20 0.66m
18 LIF Michail Antonio 24 2.20m
10 ACM Henri Lansbury 24 1.76m
27 RIF Chris Burke 31 1.23m
23 CF Dexter Blackstock 28 0.88m

Post by Kenny C, BOTN writer based in Asia

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Juan Roman Riquelme – The Last True Playmaker?

Juan Roman Riquelme - the last true playmaker? (Image from Getty)In terms of great examples of illustrious attacking playmakers, there is no one better that Juan Roman Riquelme. The sublime Argentine is one of the finest players to grace the position and is considered by many as one of the most talented Argentine players ever produced. At 36 years old, after a memorable career Riquelme has decided to call it a day and ride off into the sunset. Anyone who was lucky enough to witness him in action will testify about his genuine talent and flair for the game. Sharp on the ball, with incredible vision, neat touches and precision passing, Riquelme was a formidable opponent who wreaked havoc over opposition defenses for nearly 20 years.  The four time winner of Argentine Footballer of the year including back to back wins in 2000 and 2001 was capped over 51 times for his country and will be remember as one of the last true number 10’s and one of the world’s greatest playmakers.

Riquelme played over 51 times for Argentina including at the 2006 World Cup  (Image from Getty)
Riquelme played over 51 times for Argentina including at the 2006 World Cup
(Image from Getty)

Growing up in rural Argentina, Juan Roman dreamt about one day becoming a professional footballer and representing his favourite team, Boca Juniors. Little did he know that he was destined to become an icon at the club he adored. His journey with Boca started in 1995 when he was signed along with several other promising youngsters from Argentinos Juniors, a club well known for producing some of Argentina’s greatest players including the likes of Jose Pekerman, Fernando Redondo and Diego Maradona.  Aged 18, Riquelme wasted little time in impressing his new employers and before long was taking to the field for his debut against Union de Santa Fe. He would soon establish himself in the first team but it wasn’t until the arrival of Carlos Bianchi in 1998 that transformed Riquelme from a good player into a great one. That season Boca marched to the Primera Division championship in style losing only once in 38 matches with Riquelme now operating in the role he would later define – the attacking midfield playmaker. Positioned just behind the front two of Martin Palermo and Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Riquelme was tasked with pulling the strings and making the team tick, a role which he played perfectly notching 10 goals himself on route to winning the league. His talent would soon attract attention from Europe and in particular Barcelona who were desperate to add him to their ranks in 2002 having just let Brazilian playmaker Rivaldo leave to join AC Milan that summer. A fee was quickly agreed and Riquelme would join the Spanish giants but his stay at the Nou Camp would not go quite to plan. Issues with then manager Louis Van Gaal who preferred to play Riquelme as a winger and the signing of Ronaldinho the following year meaning that the club was over its foreign player allocation eventually led to Riquelme being shipped off to Villarreal on loan. It was there under the guidance of Benito Floro and later Manuel Pellegrini that Riquelme would rediscover his form and show the world why he was considered one of the best players at that time.

Impressed with his performances, Pellegrini made his loan move permanent and set upon building a new side around him alongside striker Diego Forlan. With Riquelme pulling the strings once again, Villarreal became a contender for the title over the next few years and had saw success in Europe too. In 2006, Villarreal reached the last four of the Champions League, knocking out favourites Manchester United along the way but found it hard to break down Arsenal who progressed to the final thanks to penalties. Unfortunately it would be a tipping point for Riquelme and his time in Spain. Shortly after the start of the new season, Riquelme would fall out with Pellegrini and after things became irreparable, he agreed to a loan move back to his beloved Boca which would eventually turn into a permanent one. His return would mark a continuation of his early success at the club and would in the end turn him into a legend. Playing in his favoured position, Riquelme became an irreplaceable component of how Boca played over the next six years as he helped them to the Copa Libertadores title in 2007, a Recopa Sudamericana in 2008, a Copa Argentina in 2011, and two Apertura titles in 2008 and 2011. The legend was born.

With age catching up on him, Riquelme took the tough decision to quit Boca citing a lack of energy left after giving all he had to the club over the past six years.  Despite interest from abroad, there was only one place that Riquelme wanted to finish his career and that was where it started – back at Argentinos Juniors. He would play for them for half a season before eventually calling time on his career early this week. For all the clubs that Riquelme touched and the players he played with, his legacy will remain.  An Argentine legend and the true definition of a traditional number ten, Riquelme will go down in history as one of the greatest attacking play makers to have ever graced a football field.

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FIFA Continues To Fumble With The Womens Game

Christine Sinclair, right, of Canada challenges for the ball with Fara Williams of England during the Cyprus Cup final (Image from AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)

Only FIFA in its disorganized and corrupt state would allow two tournaments’ to run simultaneously. Hard to believe but this week saw the completion of two international tournaments in the women’s game – the Algarve Cup and the Cyprus Cup. The invitation only Algarve Cup to be fair has been running for longer (since 1994) so the addition of the Cyprus Cup in 2008 must have come as a surprise to its organizers. Having another tournament in the women’s international space is not a bad thing but FIFA allowing it to run at the same time is just ludicrous.

Record breakers - The US women's national team lifted its 10th Algarve Cup  (Image from AFP)
Record breakers – The US women’s national team lifted its 10th Algarve Cup
(Image from AFP)

With the best teams in the world split between the two cups it’s hard to see how either could be set for success. Crowds were low to nonexistent at both whilst media coverage was limited in several key markets with various media outlets unaware that the tournaments were actually taking place. Yes the tournaments are organized separately but by combining them into a mini world cup format or even scheduling them in separate months would likely be more beneficial to all involved.

Mexico and South Africa played in the opening match of the Cyprus Cup in front of empty stands  (Image from PA)
Mexico and South Africa played in the opening match of the Cyprus Cup in front of empty stands
(Image from PA)

It’s another poor reflection of how little FIFA appears to care about the women’s game across the world. Already at the centre of controversy over the decision to test out artificial pitches at this summer’s Women’s World Cup in Canada. Protest rang out from the players when the news broke of FIFA’s intentions to use artificial surfaces rather than grass for the women’s pinnacle tournament. FIFA retorted to criticism of sexism by suggesting that this was a trial for the men’s which they hoped would follow suit. This only angered the players further who saw themselves being used as guinea pigs by FIFA, something the footballing organization denies in a contradictory statement. Despite legal action being taken by a group of high-profile players against FIFA and the threat of a strike before the world cup, FIFA held its stance. Unfortunately for the players, the women’s game doesn’t have the same amount of clout as the men’s does. If the men were to strike, it could cost FIFA financially as well as being a PR disaster but with the women’s game still in development, they are likely years away from having equal billing in FIFA’s eyes.

Controversy around the choice to use artificial pitches at the Women's World Cup continues  (Image from THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)
Controversy around the choice to use artificial pitches at the Women’s World Cup continues
(Image from THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

In the end the results of the two tournaments were hardly important. The Algarve Cup is held on the picturesque Portuguese coast and saw twelve teams from across the world compete in the competitions 22nd iteration. The US secured a 2-0 win against France in the final to lift their record-breaking 10th Algarve Cup. A stand out performance from the controversial Hope Solo in-goal, who made several key stops including a penalty to keep them in the game, pushed the US towards the trophy. At the other end goals from Christen Press and Julie Johnston were enough to see off a French side who had laboured well bit could not break down the resistant Americans.

Elsewhere at the Cyprus Cup, World cup hosts Canada were looking to finalize their preparations for the June-July tournament with a finals appearance. They were hoping to add a historic third Cyprus Cup to their trophy room but fell at the last hurdle to a determined England side. A single goal from Lianne Sanderson settled the contest and handed England the much-needed morale boost ahead of their participation this summer. The style of the win suggest that England will be a feared opponent in Canada this summer.

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Where Are They Now Series – France 1998 World Cup Winning Team

France lift the 1998 World Cup (Image from imago/Oliver Behrendt Frankreichs Kapitän Didier Deschamps hält jubelnd den World Cup in die Höhe; Finale, Endspiel, Sieger, Siegerfoto,)With the chaos surrounding the fitness and mental state of Brazil’s star striker Ronaldo, the media spotlight had swung away from the hosts and firmly on to their opposition.  With the pressure lifted, France was able to complete their historic march to the World Cup lifting the famed trophy following a stunning 3-0 victory. The team heralded as legends in France would later go on to lift the Euro 200 championship trophy cementing their status in World football as legends too. With Euro 2016 due to be held in France next summer, we now look back on that 1998 final team and ask where are they now.

Goalkeeper – Fabien Barthez

The eccentric Barthez played an integral part in his country’s first ever World Cup triumph by conceding only twice in the seven games during the tournament, winning the Yashin award for best goalkeeper in the process. The former Marseille, Monaco and Manchester United stopper took over the No.1 jersey from Bernard Lama shortly after Euro 1996 and held onto the shirt for almost a decade. In the final itself, he made a wonder save from a nervous looking Ronaldo which kept France in the game. After retiring in 2012, Barthez became honorary president of US Luenac and now splits his time between performing that role and partaking in his new passion for motorsport.

Right Back – Lilian Thuram

Widely considered as one of the world’s greatest ever defenders, Thuram retired in 2008 as France’s most capped player with 142 caps to his name. Versatility is the word that describes Thuram the best, as a player he was comfortable anywhere across the back four, either as an outright defender or an offensive threat. During a distinguished playing career that saw him turn out for Monaco, Parma, Juventus and Barcelona, Thuram won over all that watched him with his grace, passion for the game and outstanding physical and technical attributes.  A great thinker on the pitch, it comes as no surprise that now retired Thuram has shown interest in raising the awareness of a variety of political and social issues, both at home in France and in his role as UNICEF ambassador.

Centre Back – Marcel Desailly

Sent off in the final after receiving two yellow cards with twenty minutes to go and France two goals ahead, Desailly could only watch in anticipation of a Brazil revival. Luckily for him that revival never came and France completed the rout with an Emmanuel Petit strike in the dying minutes. Desailly, often criticized by many for his outspoken nature and often over exuberance about his own abilities, was the rock at the heart of the France side alongside Blanc. Like Thuram, he is considered to be one of France’s best defenders with 116 caps to prove it. The former Nantes, Marseille, Milan, Chelsea player finished his career in 2006 after a two year spell in Qatar, first with Al-Gharafa and then latter with Qatar S.C. Now working as a pundit for the BBC and Canal Plus, Desailly has the platform he so desperately wanted during his playing career in order to make his opinions heard.

Centre Back – Frank LeBouef

In for the suspended Laurent Blanc, the then Chelsea defender has only played a bit part in France’s run to the final but would play a larger role in their final 90minutes of the tournament. Tasked with man marking Ronaldo, LeBouef gave the performance of his life limiting the Brazilian to only few attempts on goal. Not considered to be on the same playing field in terms of legendary status as Desailly, Thuram or Blanc, LeBouef’s showing in the final did earn him cult status at home and abroad which has helped in his career after football. Now an accomplished actor, LeBouef starred in the Oscar nominated The Theory of Everything as the Swiss doctor who tells Stephen Hawking’s wife that he will never talk again. Hollywood is calling for more of LeBouef with several casting firms keen to sign him up following his performance in the film.

Left Back – Bixente Lizarazu

Having made his name at Bordeaux during a ten year spell in the late 80’s early 90’s, Bixente Lizararu was set for greater things. A brief stint in Spain was followed by a career defining move to Bayern Munich where he would play for seven years and win countless honours including the Bundesliga title six times and the Champions League. The diminutive left back, at only 5ft 7inches was a star player for both club and country, always reliable and never caught wanting.  During the final he was asked by Jacquet to control the runs of Rivaldo and Cafu, something that Lizararu did perfectly with the duo limited to bit parts roles in Brazil’s defeat. Since retiring, Lizararu has gotten involved in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu competitions, becoming the European champion in the blue belt senior 1 light division.

Midfielder – Didier Deschamps

Captain fantastic, Deschamps was a leader both on the pitch and off of it for France and played a starring role in lifting the World Cup and latter the Euro 200 cup.  Over a 16 year playing career with Nantes, Marseille, Juventus, Chelsea and Valencia, Deschamps perfected his trade whilst using his time wisely to ingest as much information about the game as possible. Since retiring, Deschamps has become an accomplished manager in his own right although serious honours have somehow eluded him to date. Now the France manager, Deschamps is looking forward to next summer when France host the European Championships with Deschamps keen to become one of only a few to win the tournament as a player and as a manager.

Midfielder – Christian Karembeu

Originally from New Caledonia, Karembeu was one of several players in the French squad from French overseas territories but it matter little to many as he earned his spot as part of the national team. An accomplished tough tackling midfielder, Karembeu alongside Deschamps and Petit boss the French midfield during the 1998 World Cup. He would only play a bit part in the Euro 200 triumph as well but by then Karembeu’s legacy was complete. Another player who started at Nantes, Karembeu travelled far during his playing career with spells in Italy (Sampdoria), Spain (Real Madrid), England (Middelsbourgh), Greece (Olympiacos), Switzerland (Servette) and France (Nantes, Bastia) chalking up 414 appearances along the way. Now strategic advisor at Olympiacos, Karembeu also campaigns for peace throughout the world as part of the Champions for Peace club.

Midfielder – Emmanuel Petit

The long blonde locks of Petit are probably what he is remembered most for but his role in the final could not be understated. His corner just before the half hour mark was met by Zidane to give France the lead and it was his goal in the dying minutes after a through ball from Patrick Vieira that sealed the victory. Petit in fairness had played a significant role in getting France to the final with his nonstop running and occasional goals. Having spent nine years at Monaco, it wasn’t hard to see why he jumped at the chance to reunite with his old boss Arsene Wenger at Arsenal after the Frenchman took over there. It was here that Petit was converted into a defensive midfielder in a move that benefited both Arsenal and France in the end. He would spend three years at the Gunners before moving to Barcelona and then back to the Premiership with Chelsea. Since hanging up his boots, Petit has become a football analyst back home in France whilst also throwing his support behind football initiatives like the Homeless World Cup.

Attacking Midfielder – Zinedine Zidane

Widely considered the greatest French football of all time (some argue Platini is), Zinedine Zidane did not have the greatest of tournaments but popped up at the right time to become a legend. Having been sent off in the group stage against Saudi Arabia, Zidane returned for the quarter final against Italy and semi final against Croatia without really having an impact. But buoyed by the chance to win his country’s first world cup, Zidane stepped out onto the pitch to deliver arguably one of his best performances in the Les Blues jersey. His two headed goals sent France into half time with a 2-0 lead and the momentum they needed to go on a win the trophy. After the final whistle, Zidanes name rang out across France as a legend with his image projected onto the Arc de Triomphe in Paris along with the words Merci Zizou. He would go on to play a bigger role in France’s Euro 2000 success and latter in their march to the World Cup final in 2006, where despite losing his head and the game to Italy (he was sent off for head butting Marco Materazzi in the chest after the Italian had insulted his sister), Zidane retired as a legend. Now manager of Real Madrid’s B team, Real Madrid Castilla many believe Zizou’s is destined to manage France one day, a notion the great man has failed to dismiss.

Attacking Midfielder – Youri Djorkaeff

The little magician, Youri Djorkaeff played a vital attacking role alongside Zidane in Jacquet’s 4-3-2-1 formation.  The son of former France defender, Jean Djorkaeff it only seemed fitting that it was part of France’s greatest hour given his performances up until that point. Despite only scoring once in the tournament, Djorkaeff was one of France’s biggest contributors of assists including that cross in the final for Zidane’s second goal.  After spending eight years in France perfecting his craft, Djorkaeff eventually left home to join Inter before a spell in Germany with Kaiserslautern. But it was his switch to Bolton in 2002 that he will be most remembered for, at least with British fans. During those years, Bolton attracted the likes of Jay Jay Okocha and Ivan Campo to play for them but Djorkaeff was by far their best signing. After leaving England he spent the last year of his career in the US with New York Red Bulls before retiring to become a pundit and bizarrely a singer releasing “Vivre dans Ta Lumiere” as a single.

Striker – Stephane Guivarc’h

Picked ahead of Dugarry and a youthful Thierry Henry, Guivarc’h had only played a bit part up until the final despite being handed the number nine jersey by Jacquet at the start of the tournament. He did start against South Africa, Italy and Croatia in the run up but was substituted on all three occasions. Even in the final, Guivarc’h failed to complete ninety minutes, giving way to Dugarry on 66 minutes. The former Auxerre, Rennes, Rangers and Newcastle striker had a mixed career with the highlight of it being the World Cup win. Since retiring in 2002, Guivarc’h has done a variety of things including selling swimming pools. No diving jokes here.

Subs

Alain Boghossian

A 57 minute substitute for Karembeu, Boghossian is probably the least well known player to have played in the France win. Dogged through his career with injury, including picking up one a day before Euro 200 started, Boghossian was limited to only 26 caps for France. He did spend eight years in Italy making a name for himself with Napoli, Sampdoria and Parma before eventually retiring in 2003. He is now a coach with the French national team.

Christophe Dugarry

Replacing Guivarc’h in the final was surprisingly Christophe Dugarry ahead of France’s top goal scorer in the tournament Thierry Henry. Jacquet decided to throw Dugarry on with a view to introducing Henry later. But when Desailly was sent off, the plans were changed and Henry never took to the field. Dugarry had played well during the tournament so it was only fair to use him and as a different type of striker to Guivarc’h, one capable of holding up the play, it was just what France needed. The former Bordeaux, Milan, Barcelona, Marseille and Birmingham striker played 55 times for France over eight years starting in 1994. He joined LeBouef and Lizarazu in the punditry box after retiring in 2005.

Patrick Vieira

Best known for his spell with Arsenal, Vieira was still a youngster when the tournament was in full swing so was limited to substitute appearances. At Euro 2000 however he would take Karembeu’s spot as starter in the midfield, a role he would hold for a further nine years. After leaving Arsenal in 2005, Vieira returned to Italy with Juventus and then Inter before heading back to England for a final year with Manchester City. It’s at City where Vieira has remained appointed as part of their new administration as Football Development Executive.

Manager

Aime Jacquet

The mastermind behind the win, it’s hard to believe that even up to a month before the start of the tournament that Jacquet was not liked by the French fans, many of who were calling for his head. Despite this, Jacquet created a siege mentality and national pride within the team giving them the opportunity to win the World Cup on home turf. After securing the World Cup, Jacquet quit his job later becoming technical director of French football a month later. He held that role until 2006 when he finally retired from the game.

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The Falseness Of The False Nine

The False Nine  (Image from afp)

When David Villa suffered a broken leg months before the kick off of Euro 2012, the media went into speculation overdrive about who would lead the line for Spain. With strike partner Fernando Torres lacking form, candidates like Fernando Llorente and Álvaro Negredo were mentioned as obvious front runners for the position. When Vicente Del Bosque sent his team out for their first match of the tournament, shockwaves went round the stadium like a Mexican wave. Had Del Bosque made a mistake? Did the stadium announcer get it wrong when he read out the team? How could little Cesc Fabregas be leading the line? Del Bosque had simply revived a position forgotten in time, known as the false nine.

Tactical Surprise from Del Bosque  (Image from Getty)
Tactical Surprise from Del Bosque
(Image from Getty)

Sitting removed from a firm position, the false nine was an enigma and near impossible to mark. The problem with the false nine is the position itself. Not an outright striker, nor an attacking midfielder. Not even a trequartista . Floating around like a bee chasing pollen, the false nine moved from central to flank to outright front man all in the space of minutes. Central defenders are thrown into turmoil, trying to work out whether to track the player, pulling them dramatically out of position or leave him be and have him run at them at pace. The only solution for defending against this is to employ three centre backs or two centre backs with a holding midfielder, one of which is assigned to track the false nine wherever they go.

Fabregas and Spain triumphed using the false nine formation  (Image from AFP)
Fabregas and Spain triumphed using the false nine formation
(Image from AFP)

So if it works so well, why don’t teams use it now as a tactic? Simply put you have to be Spain to make it work or at least a team like Spain featuring strong interchangeable passing players whose principle philosophy is pass and move. You also need a player like Fabregas who can operate in a variety of forward facing roles, spread passes with ease and find space where little exists. You need a player of considerable skill but one who also possess a “footballing brain”, able to exploit opponent’s weaknesses without instruction.

Messi inspired False Nine (Image from Sky)
Messi inspired False Nine (Image from Sky)

Arsenal could potentially operate an effective false nine with Olivier Giroud dropping from the team and Jack Wilshere playing in the nine position. With the abilities of Ramsey, Arteta, Ozil and Carzola in support, the false nine role would take flight. But for Wenger it would be too far removed from the tactics he has used during his entire coaching career- a central figure who holds the ball up for attacking players to attack. Arguably he did test the formation a few years ago with Van Persie dropping from his central striker position into such a role but in that instance it was less about the position and more about the player who likes to explore all the space available in the final third.

Wilshere could operate as a false nine  (Image from Getty)
Wilshere could operate as a false nine
(Image from Getty)

Barcelona operates a semi false nine on occasions with Messi operating as such. But the Argentinean prefers to be at the heart of everything and likes to take on players making him more a complete or advanced forward rather than a nine. Roma successfully channeled the position in 2007 under manager Luciano Spalletti who used Francesco Totti in the role. However he abandoned the formation mid season after failing to score in five league games. This was despite starting well with 11 back to back victories. The only true team to have pulled off the false nine effectively (besides Spain) is the great Hungarian team of the 1950’s. The Mighty Magyars as they were known destroyed oppositions with ease during the period by operating a false nine with Nándor Hidegkuti operating in the role. Supported by the dynamic and potent trio of strikers Ferenc Puskás, Sándor Kocsis and attacking half-back József Bozsik, Hungary dominated football in the 1950’s and should have won the 1954 World Cup but for adverse weather conditions and rumours of cheating by the Germans. Their false nine tactic worked spectacularly well against sides who at the time only operated either a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 formation. With Hidegkuti dropping off and the centre backs following, it created acres of space for captain and Hungarian legend Puskas to exploit. During the five year period between 1950 and 1955, when the tactic was used to full effect, Puskas scored an incredible 50 goals in 51 games for Hungary.  

The legendary Puskas  (Image from PA)
The legendary Puskas
(Image from PA)

Arguably playing the role of the false nine is the toughest in football. You need to be a special type of player to pull it off effectively. It also requires a strong willed coach who won’t shy away from public criticism of anti football like Del Bosque was subjected to. Fans after all want to see goals and rely on a central figure (the striker) to provide them. The tactic lends itself to a short tournament like the European Championships, where time to alter tactics is not afforded to coaches and the risk of failure is heightened to the highest degree. Spain, under Del Bosque took a gamble during Euro 2012 that fortunately paid off in style. But we are left to wonder what the backlash would have been on Del Bosque and his tactical decisions if Spain hadn’t lifted the trophy at the end of the tournament.

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A New Dawn At Rangers As King Sweeps Into Power

King seized control of Rangers with a majority vote at the EGM (Image from PA)In the end it only took just over 13 minutes for Dave King to gain full control of Rangers at the clubs EGM but for the Rangers fans it has been a long time coming. The South African based businessman who is a majority shareholder in the club called an extraordinary general meeting in an attempt to finally end the mismanagement of Rangers by several individuals on the board. At the EGM held earlier today, King was looking for the immediate removal of the four current board members – James Easdale, David Somers, Derek Llambias and Barry Leach and the subsequent appointment of himself, Paul Murray and former Tennents boss Jim Gilligan onto a new look board. In the weeks running up to the meeting, King’s chances were handed boost after boost with two of the four current directors – Easdale and Somers stepping down in advance, the clubs bumbling appointed nomad WH Ireland resigning and several influential shareholders throwing their support behind him or one of the various fan groups. It may have only taken 13 short minutes for acting chair Andrew Dickson to wrap up the vote but the result was a resounding yes for change with each of the resolutions receiving an 85% in favour of it being approved.

Now that King has control, albeit in a non executive function until he has gained SFA and Stock market approval as a fit and proper person, the work can now begin in rebuilding Rangers but the volume of tasks on his to do list is staggering. With the help of Murray and Gilligan, King will need to focus his attention on five pressing matters that require resolution quickly if he is to succeed in rebuilding the club he loves.

Appointing a nomad

To remain on the stock exchange, Rangers need to appoint a Nomad to act on their behalf following the resignation of WH Ireland. The club has 30 days to do so or faces delisting from the Alternative Investment Market. Failure to do so could make raising capital harder a with a length process required to become listed again. King is confident that he already has a nomad in place so an announcement on this front should be made in due course over the next few weeks. One thing that is certain is that WH Ireland will not be partaking in the usual handover of responsibilities to the new nomad after the quit before the general meeting. King however is likely to prefer it this way as his faith in the appointed person at the firm, Paul Shackleton was clearly gone even before King called the EGM.

Now the work beings for Murray, King and Gilligan  (Image from AFP)
Now the work beings for Murray, King and Gilligan
(Image from AFP)

Appointing further members to the board

After appointing a new Nomad, up next will be strengthening the board with potentially two to three new faces at a minimum being added. There is a strong possibility that one or two of the spots could be filled by the so called Three bears – George Letham, George Taylor and Douglas Park. Their support of King and has quest for change will not have gone unnoticed and as primary shareholders and established businessmen, their appointments would be widely welcomed by all involved. Another set of investors who will likely seal a seat if not two on the board is the fan groups of Rangers First and the Rangers Supporters Trust. Both sets of fans have been instrumental in King’s win by collectively rallying behind him and gathering crucial proxy votes from the clubs fans. An appointment of a fan representative to the board will aid King in his quest to hand back the club to the fans and restore a culture of transparency and honesty, something that has been sadly lacking in recent years. Further appointments could be made as the club moves forward with various established business figures already being touted as potential members. But for now Rangers will likely operate with a smaller board in order to remain agile and able to get things done quickly.

Douglas Park will likely be appointed to the board  (Image from PA)
Douglas Park will likely be appointed to the board
(Image from PA)

Ashley’s loans

Next on the agenda is what to do with Mike Ashley and his agreements that he has with Rangers struck during the last tainted regime. Ashley, with 9% ownership of Rangers has weaseled his way into Rangers first from a commercial prospective with an astonishing Sports Direct deal that will likely be problematic for King to exit from and secondly from an asset prospective by handing the club two £5million loans with rights to appoint two board members and various rights for Rangers assets. Whilst the second £5million has not yet been drawn down, or at least has not been confirmed by the club as such, the first loan is still very much alive. King could repay the loan and rid himself of the headache but he could also look to strike a deal with Ashley given the Newcastle owners considerable wealth. King is no fool and understands that the club needs capital and quickly to remain in business so burning bridges with a billionaire may not be the smartest move.

Discussions with Ashley will likely take place soon  (Image from Getty)
Discussions with Ashley will likely take place soon
(Image from Getty)

Raising capital

Regardless of how King handles Ashley, Rangers need to raise funds to not only stay in business but eventually to start to restore the club to a point where it can be competitive again. King has already stated that he is willing to put his own money in but will not be the only person doing so. Ashley could provide further funding but having already secured the commercial rights and with King having no intention of using the clubs assets or board seats as a carrot, it is hard to see what is in it for the Sports Direct owner. Turning to the three bears could provide extra working capital in the short term but longer term new revenue will need to be found in order to rebuild and restore. US businessman Robert Sarver, who tried gallantly to buy Rangers last year before being rejected by the then board may return to the table and could offer significant long term investment but he wants full control of the club so it remains to be seen if King can strike a deal with him for co ownership.

Phoenix Suns owner Sarver still holds an interest in buying Rangers  (Image from Michael Schennum / The Arizona Republic)
Phoenix Suns owner Sarver still holds an interest in buying Rangers
(Image from Michael Schennum / The Arizona Republic)

Rebuilding the foundations

With funding in place, the job of rebuilding can begin and first up is hiring a new manager. With Ally McCoist on gardening leave and his replacement Kenny McDowell handing in his resignation too, King needs to find someone who can lead the club forward. Stuart McCall, a former Rangers midfielder is the most likely candidate but the new board will not rush into an appointment stating the need for the right candidate is more important than getting someone in quickly. Once appointed, the club will focus on other staff hires including a new lead scout to build a scouting network and other coaching staff to help the new boss. Long term a Director of Football may be hired with Walter Smith the preferred candidate for Rangers fans. Whether there are roles given to former legends of the club like Richard Gough and John Greig is still to be seen but could happen as this would appease the fans and help strengthen the connection between the board and the supporters. After the appointments are all made, the focus will switch to repairs to the clubs training ground Murraypark and stadium Ibrox and then eventually the squad itself with a major overhaul needed. A new approach is needed that focuses on the long term health of the club and its new future.

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Will This Be The Most Exciting MLS Season Yet?

Will this be the most exciting MLS season to date? (Image from MLS)Just days away from the kick off of the new season, the MLS has reached a tentative agreement on a new collective bargaining contract with the players and their union. This move has prevented a PR disaster for the league and its commissioner Don Graber as the players threatened to walk out of the league and go on strike just four days before what could be the most important year in Major League Soccer.  With more at stake than ever before, the agreement ends an anxious time for the MLS management team who can now sit back and watch as this season unfolds. But what type of season are we in for? Well the answer may lie in three important factors as detailed below. Could this well be the best MLS season in its near twenty year history?

Who will challenge LA Galaxy for the Cup this year?  (Image from MLS)
Who will challenge LA Galaxy for the Cup this year?
(Image from MLS)

More Competitive than ever

Since its inception almost 20 years ago, nine separate teams have won the league with LA Galaxy dominating in recent years with their most recent success being last season. But this new season sees the addition of two new teams – New York City FC and Orlando City bringing the number of teams in the league up to 20. Both new sides could pose a threat to LA’s defence with New York in particular looking strong through their squad. Managed by former Real Salt Lake boss Jason Kries and under the watchful eye of iconic US midfielder Claudio Reyna in a Director of Football role, New York have attracted Spanish striker David Villa and England midfielder Frank Lampard  to join their cause. The duo could also be joined by Barcelona legend Xavi in the summer although his move is merely speculation at this point. Their additions give New York a strong chance but winning the league in their first season may be a stretch too far. Similarly Orlando, coached by Englishman Arian Heath who has assembled a multicultural squad including Brazilian Kaka, US international Brek Shea and Jamaican goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts are hoping for an immediate impact however they will face stiff competition from other sides in the league in the form of Houston Dynamo, Seattle Sounders, New England Revolution and DC United. Even Toronto FC, who dispatched with the troublesome Jermain Defoe over the January transfer window have a shot given the strength of squad they have now following the signings of Jozy Altidore, Sebastian Giovinco this year and Michael Bradley last year. This new season is anyone’s to win and could prove to be an exciting spectacle with several twists and turns along the way.

New Star Players

Since its debut in 1996, the single biggest draw for fans to attend games has been the star players on show. Whilst each team is limited to only three designated players, allowing them to stretch their salary caps beyond their given limits, teams have relied heavily on star power to draw in new and existing fans season after season. In the first few years, the draw mainly came from US internationalist like Tab Ramos, Eric Wynalda, Tony Meola and Alexi Lalas with a splattering of South American talent like the wonderfully gifted Carlos Valderamma and the eccentric Jorge Campos. The success of the 1994 World Cup held in the US, plus subsequent performances of the US team at the 1998 and 2002 World Cups helped to generate the passion for the game and gradually attendances started to rise. However it wasn’t until the arrival of David Beckham to LA Galaxy in 2007 and Thierry Henry in 2010 that the league started to be taken more seriously, not just in the US but abroad.

Once viewed by European players as a league to join in the twilight of your career for one final payday, the perception shifted dramatically when Republic of Ireland striker Robbie Keane, aged 30 joined LA Galaxy. His move heralded a new era for the league and its fans with it becoming one of the most exciting leagues in the world to play in. Since then, the MLS has attracted some very big names, most of whom will be on show this season.  Steven Gerrard, Kaka, David Villa, Frank Lampard and Sebastian Giovinco are just a few of the new faces that will help kick off the new season (although Lampard and Gerrard will not join officially until the summer)  as it gets underway this coming Saturday.

Increased Coverage

When the league kicked off, it struggled for a long time to get the exposure it so desperately needed from the US media. Obsessed with the more traditional US sports like football, baseball, hockey and basketball, column inches in newspapers and magazines dedicated to soccer were few and far between. Even worse was the desire of TV stations to cover games with little to no interest shown in the new professional soccer league in the US for several of the foundation years. Having been burnt before with the defunct North American Soccer League (NASL), US based media conglomerates like ESPN, Fox Sports and NBC have been cautious in their approach but as the league grew in stature so too did their confidence that the league and soccer as a mainstream sport in the US was here to stay.  Today the MLS has bumper contracts with all three to showcase its games and have added Univision in an attempt to reach the growing Spanish audience in the US too. International awareness and interest in the league is at an all time high as well with TV networks across the globe now striking deals for their own countries to show the games and highlights much to the delight of the MLS.

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A Sideways Look At Football/Soccer Across The World

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