Archive | May 2011

Paul Scholes: The Silent Genius

Paul Scholes

“I am not a man of many words but I can honestly say that playing football is all I have ever wanted to do.” – Paul Scholes

24 major honours later, it comes to an end.

Paul Scholes is a “great role model for any young English midfield player,” mused Jack Wilshere on Twitter this morning and indeed that is an accurate reflection of the man who must go down as England’s finest midfield player of this generation. There was little he couldn’t do or didn’t do. His longevity and consistency, the fact that he’s played the game for such a long period of time and still played well propels him alongside some of the footballing greats.

Quietly, oh so quietly, he amazed us – from the volleys against Bradford City and Aston Villa many moons ago, to that goal against Barcelona in 08 and the crucial injury time header against City in the 09/10 season. These moments, as well as his visionary passes into the final third, is all that we have left, now.

Eulogised by many, Paul Scholes is considered a “genius”, “amazingly gifted”, or simply “the best”. You’ve seen the tributes; for they number into their thousands. In truth, there isn’t much to say that hasn’t been said – so, instead, I leave you with perhaps (and arguably, for there are many contenders) his greatest Manchester United goal ever:

[Sigh] Farewell, Paul Scholes. Farewell.

The best of the best Scholes tributes:

  1. Paul Scholes: the complete midfielder?
  2. My Favourite Footballer…Paul Scholes
  3. Paul Scholes – The Man Who Would be King
  4. Thank You, Paul Scholes
  5. Farewell to the little master

Manchester United defeated but not disgraced

Barcelona are synonymous with everything good. As they went to collect their winners’ medal, there was a shot of United’s players clapping as if they were resigned to defeat, as if this were an event of inevitability. Perhaps, it was. Indeed, they were outclassed – as many observers had predicted – by a team that are not destined for greatness, for they are already there. ‘Greatness’ is not on the agenda; ‘perfection’ is more apt for this side.

After Manchester United’s 2-1 win over Chelsea which virtually sealed their 19th league title, Jonathan Wilson wrote: “This was an annihilation, and in the rigor of its pressing, the pace and directness of its attacking, the intelligence of its movement, particularly in the opening half-hour, United looked a team that might perhaps be able to challenge Barcelona in the Champions league final.” But Wilson’s words could not reflect better on United’s opponents at Wembley, who themselves ‘annihilated’ the Red Devils, who themselves displayed pressing of the rigorous kind and whose movement dissected the United defence and with it, the very life of Sir Alex’s men. They witnessed a masterclass and were made to taste Barcelona’s humble paella. It was not a taste to savour.

It feels almost wrong to say Barcelona are invincible, but the gap between them and the second best team in Europe, which is United, is huge. While the standards of European football appears to be declining (look at the Serie A), Barca have emerged as the greatest team in living memory; even better than the Dream Team of Johan Cruyff or Brazil’s all-conquering side of the Seventies. Pep Guardiola, under the tutelage of Cruyff, has gone and done something unprecedented – overtake his mentor not by trophies won, (statistically, he has a trophy less than the Dutchman) but by infusing his ideology into his side and has appeared to have bettered everything he has done.

This is not to say Manchester United played badly; much like the final in Rome 2009, they started encouragingly and again Barcelona seemed to have been starstruck almost. However, the Catalan Giants are perennial slow-starters and this was nothing new; like an experienced batsman who sees off the swinging, new ball they gradually found their rhythm and punished the opposition.

Park ji-Sung started brightly, but perhaps overrun himself; even the man they call ‘three lungs’ cut an exhausted figure after 20 minutes. By then Barcelona were in the ascendancy. Xavi and Iniesta were playing pinball, while Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets formed a defensive barrier that required more than a spirited Wayne Rooney to breach. In fact, their only weakness appeared to be Victor Valdes, who was visibly shaken in the first quarter, huffing and puffing after a few instances of lapses in concentration. But creating chances to trouble him thereafter proved far too difficult. Javier Hernandez was isolated and suddenly the exclusion of Dimitar Berbatov seemed a mistake. However, even the delightful Bulgarian would not have prevented defeat.

When Pedro put Barcelona ahead, it was difficult to foresee an equaliser. Yet, it happened anyway. It was a moment of beauty and disbelief; Wayne Rooney scoring a goal that was even more magical than that acrobatic finish against City earlier this season. Rooney dispelled the myth that he wasn’t a big-game player and his goal, an excellent finish which saw intricate interplay beforehand, allowed United to go into half time with much belief. The Englishman has had somewhat of the clichéd rollercoaster season. After the intense media scrutiny in the first part of the season, Rooney has since come out and displayed the type of football that he is renown for; and again at Wembley, he tracked back and dropped deep trying his utmost to link up play. Make no mistake; Rooney is committed to Manchester United.

Hope was restored. 1-1, the scoreline read. Arsenal had already done the impossible and doggedly fought back in the first leg from 1-0 to win 2-1 in the last 16 of this competition. With all due respect, these were entirely different circumstances. Lionel Messi was the protagonist, as if there was going to be anybody else, and dribbled in such limited space, evoking memories of the great Garrincha and Maradona. He is a legend in the making. His goal, Barca’s second, typified and epitomised the Argentine wonder. A neat finish was followed by more dazzling with the ball, helping David Villa score the third and final goal which sealed United’s fate.

Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic will certainly look back and rue this night; but both had showed great determination and character. Edwin van der Sar, in his final game, was blameless – he might have been able to prevent the first goal when he was wrongfooted by Pedro’s strike, but made a string of saves that kept the scoreline at respectability. Old Trafford will be without him next year; and the trophy that all of Europe desire. However, La Orejas is with its rightful owners. Barcelona will dominate the continent for years to come, but who’s to say this Manchester United side, passionate, spirited and with the potential to get better, will not cross their path once more in the near future?

Manchester United can exploit Barcelona’s defensive weaknesses

It’s not often Manchester United go into a game, any game, as underdogs. But that evening in Rome still lives long in memory (Patrice Evra: “It hurt so much when we lost. We did the team pictures the following season. We had three trophies. But we were missing the one with the big ears.”) and the pain still remains. But United are adamant that they’ve learnt their lessons and that, on Saturday, there will be no such naivety on show this time around. Of course, words are just words.

However, the general perception is that this will be a more competitive final. Indeed, it will be – or at least, it should be. Despite inexplicably improving even more so since Rome 2009, the formidable Barcelona can be beaten and even without the aid of this. “Basically, Barcelona do not like being attacked or pressured,” says Rafael da Silva. “We need to make them feel uncomfortable.” They have weaknesses, and United must exploit them.

Of course, that’s easier said than done because Pep Guardiola has worked incessantly in his three years in charge to make Barcelona the ultimate footballing machine, perfect in every way and devoid of any weaknesses.

The Guardian journalist Paul Hayward suggested earlier this month that Gerard Piqué is Barcelona’s weak link (also noting how pressing Barca high up the pitch can stifle them): “According to Guillem Balague, the respected Spanish commentator, coaches in his homeland reckon the way to inconvenience Barcelona is to attack their “first line”, which means their centre-backs (principally Gerard Piqué), who start most of their forward moves.” However, Guardiola has anticipated this, even though those sides who have used the tactic have troubled Barcelona. He looks to spread the centre-backs wide across the pitch in the hope of evading the press as this means the opponents will have to cover more ground to try to get the ball off them. Yet by doing so, it comes at a risk because it leaves more space in the middle to exploit and if United get the ball back there, Barca will be in real trouble. Sergio Busquets is usually the man who drops in to make a three and allows them to spread with assurance but press him – that is, if you can – and Barca lose the man who starts off most of their moves.

<Figure 1> Barcelona opt to spread their centre-backs wide when in possession as they anticipate Manchester United, like many other teams who have they faced before them, press high up the pitch. By spreading the defenders it is hoped that closing them down will be more difficult as there is more space to cover. However, it comes at a risk because it leaves a massive gap if United can win the ball back in this area. Sergio Busquets will particularly be targeted as he is the man who plays the ball out so the duel between him and Rooney will be fascinating. (Image generated by The Arsenal Column).

(Another example of Barcelona’s tactic is displayed by Porto who use a similar strategy of spreading their centre-backs wide. Here, Fernando, the defensive midfielder, drops back to receive possession but is dispossessed, resulting in a great chance for Braga. Barcelona, though, are a different kettle of fish in possession.)

Barcelona’s key selection will be that of Eric Abidal at left-back or Carlos Puyol. Manchester United might hope the latter as Puyol will not be very comfortable at full-back getting forward and particularly using his left foot. United must not allow him the easy pass inside and can profit if they cut off the angles off his right boot. Pressing full-backs is an underused strategy as they are cramped for space to the side, even more so as Puyol is not on his “natural” side. Park Ji-Sung did this well against Branislav Ivanovic, forcing him centrally thus making play narrow. They will need him or Antonio Valencia to do the same again at Wembley regardless of who starts.

One player who needs no invitation to get forward is Dani Alves although he has hinted he may be more conservative in the final. Alves’ role is often understated simply because he is a full-back but he gets forward as much as a winger would and is key to helping Barcelona stretch the play. In a way, he sets the dynamics of the team’s movement forward, pinning opponents back. If he doesn’t play, Barcelona are less fluid as he is often their out-ball. Sir Alex Ferguson may want to exploit any space he leaves but is Park the correct man to do that? Valencia could be thought of doing likewise on the other side but if it’s Puyol he’s up against, he’s unlikely to get forward as much. Nevertheless, the left flank seems the most vulnerable side to exploit as David Villa will not track back as frequently bringing the energy of Fabio or Rafael into play.

In the season gone by, Manchester United finished with more headed goals than anybody else in the Premier League (they notched up 18 headed goals, three more than Newcastle in second) and although they have struggled to convert from set-pieces and corners in particular, their aerial threat is a key asset to their game and one that can ultimately see defeat for their opponents. Barcelona are not as bad as made out to be in the air, they are sometimes vulnerable.

“Ferguson is aware of the physical superiority of his team and knows that United’s best chances may be from mistakes and corners,” says Cesc Fabregas, who also recommends starting Fletcher in a 4-3-3. “This strategy is the key in the finals. A dead ball for [Nemanja] Vidic is dangerous. Rio Ferdinand does not go up all the time, but I think in the end he will when it matters. United are extremely combative.”

Barcelona come into Saturday’s game as overwhelming favourites – but they are beatable and United will know that. And, despite boasting some of the best defensive players in the world, their backline is an area that they have to, and can, breach. When it does happen, you’ve got to take your chances; you never know if you’ll get another one.

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The defensive lapse that led Piqué on the road to stardom

Ahead of the Champions League Final on the 28th May…

Gerard Pique Villarreal vs Barcelona

Defensive mistakes are the norm in football. You make one, you get up, dust yourself off and not let it affect you. However, the story of Gerard Piqué’s remarkable rise to stardom since his move from Manchester United to FC Barcelona is an extraordinary one. For the man they call “Piquénbauer”, the first, rather unforgettable, chapter of this story takes place in Bolton in the 07/08 season, at the Reebok Stadium.

Here, on a cold and dismal November afternoon, he was making only his second start of the season. A little over ten minutes had been played in what started a cagey affair, and an out-of-sorts United had just conceded a free-kick. Bolton’s Ivan Campo had prepared to deliver. His cross, perfectly flighted into the penalty area, had to be dealt with. It wasn’t.

“I misjudged a header and Nicolas Anelka scored for them, and we lost 1-0,” Piqué recalls. “I looked back at that day when Ferguson lost some confidence in me. He didn’t say so, but I sort of felt then I would be moving on.” It was this simple mistiming of a header that had ultimately lost the game for the beleaguered Red Devils, and appeared to signal the end for the Spaniard.

“From that day, everything changed,” writes Piqué in his autobiography El Viaje de Ida Y Vuelta (literally, ‘A back and forth trip’). “Sir Alex stopped trusting me. He has always denied that point, but it is one of those feelings one has and I know it is true (translation from Guillem Balague).” Perhaps, you can dismiss this story (it is a translation, after all). The words ‘always denied that point’ is a revelation that will surprise a few; and so we can never tell for certain how true his claims are. However, many agreed – even before Piqué released this autobiography – that the Bolton game spelt the end of his four-year tenure at the club.

The defender could not see any way through and despite having spent the past season in Spain with Zaragoza, still regarded himself naive, finding it difficult in such a competitive environment. He says he “was too young, and barring my path were two of the best centre-backs in the world in Rio and Vidic, who Sir Alex Ferguson rated more highly.” In truth, he was right to leave – as proven anyway as Guardiola continues to mould his team into the finest the game has ever seen – because he was always third choice, perhaps lesser. “Vidic and Ferdinand were, and are, such an excellent pairing that I could not see a way past them, and there were also Wes Brown, John O’Shea, Jonny Evans and Mikael Silvestre,” Piqué reflects.

Gerard Piqué’s rise has been unprecedented since he left United. Within a couple of years, he became a World Cup winner and part of Barcelona’s all-conquering treble winning side under the guidance of Pep Guardiola. However, it would be foolish to say that his meteoric rise as one of the world’s best defenders was all down to his move to Camp Nou, and Piqué recognises as much.

There are very few places that can develop players quite like Old Trafford, and although no longer as renown as Barça’s La Masia, Piqué prospered from the wealth of expertise that surrounded him (“I think that, for me, [Sir Alex] was a really helpful person. He will always be a second father.”) and the physical nature of the game enabled him to become a better player, allowing to him become more agile and aware “I never regretted my choice because my time in England made a man of me,” he says. “It was another way of playing, more direct and physical. I learned how to defend without the ball at United, I got a real wake-up call the first time some big bloke beat me to a couple of headers.”

He is thankful for his time at Old Trafford; there was even a moment where, so desperate was he to play a game, he ‘lied’ (his own words) when asked by Sir Alex if he had experience playing as a full-back: “I said, ‘Oh yes, lots of times in the Barça junior teams’. So I got drafted in at right-back for a game against West Ham. Fortunately, I did okay.” You can decide for yourself if that was desperation or just a lack of respect. Or a bit of both. But that no longer matter – Piqué can prove again on Saturday night, like he did in 2009, of just what United let go of – yet regardless of what happens, the 24-year-old is destined for even greater things.

Van der Sar’s longevity propels him amongst the greats

Edwin van der Sar

There are many cases in which footballers are talked up as being “the greatest in the world” or “the best player in this era”, but the true measure of a great of the game is longevity. Lionel Messi might be the talk of the town; he is currently recognised as the very best by many observers at this moment but he is no legend, not yet anyway. He is on the right path, however – he is surrounded, and appears to be directed well by, coaches with expertise, teammates and other key figures in his life and remains humble, hardly getting drawn into the whole fuss of who really is the best. He has a long way to go; for him to eclipse Maradona (something the great Ossie Ardiles believes will happen or has already happened) or the likes, he must continue to play in a similar manner for a large part of his bright future.

And when Messi takes to the field on Saturday night at Wembley for the Champions League final, he will certainly come up against an undisputed, seasoned great who will play the final game of his illustrious, decorated career. Edwin van der Sar has always been a winner. From his Ajax days in the nineties and still now some 21 years later. Even his brief spell at Juventus saw him regarded as one of the best goalkeepers to ever play in Italy; he eventually lost his place to Gianluigi Buffon through, what at least appeared, no fault of his own. Funnily enough, he might have ended up at Old Trafford as Peter Schmeichel’s replacement back in 1999 but the Italian outfit swooped first.

United’s attempts to replace the ‘Great Dane’ Schmeichel with a new number 1 never quite materialised at first, if ever. Indeed, they used 10 different goalkeepers between 1999 and 2005, before signing van der Sar who was then able to rectify any concerns United had in this position. One of his finest individual achievements was going 1,311 minutes of play over a three month period without conceding a goal in the 2008-09 season, keeping 14 clean sheets in the process.

How they compare – Van der Sar and Peter Schmeichel for Manchester United

Statistics courtesy of @NickCoppack

“There are certain criteria to be a goalkeeper here: good experience, personality and a track record,” Sir Alex Ferguson says. “Edwin has all of those qualities. He didn’t cost us a lot of money, about £2m, so he’s right up there with my best signings. I just wish we had signed him earlier, to be honest.” United’s manager shows great fondness for van der Sar – and such has been his worth to the club and the game that he could not find himself to say a bad word when he made a rare blunder to allow West Brom’s Somen Tchoyi to score back in October: “Here’s a lad with 130 caps for Holland, the most fantastic career you could imagine,” Ferguson said. “You couldn’t even criticise him because he doesn’t deserve that. He’ll probably make one horrendous mistake in his life.”

It sounds almost inconceivable that van der Sar has been at the top for so long, and yet still many believe that the Dutchman can go on for another a year or two. At 40, van der Sar has four previous European final appearances already in the bag and considers himself fortunate to represent United at such a tender age: “It’s great of course [to be here], I had an unbelievable six years and it’s unbelievable at my age and everything to still play for a team like this and it’s really been enjoyable.”

Goalkeepers are of a different species. They generally tend to last longer than their outfield counterparts. As to why, there are many theories. A simple answer would be that a veteran keeper knows the game better; a trait that naturally comes from experience. The notion that the goalkeeping position is where experience is most important is difficult to disagree with; as the great Italian World Cup winner Dino Zoff recognises as he told Champions magazine last year that the very best goalkeepers are those who have played for an age:

“In my opinion, the best goalkeepers of all time are Gordon Banks, Peter Shilton, Ray Clemence [he names a whole host of keepers here]…Edwin van der Sar, Peter Schmeichel, Ladislao Mazurkiewicz and Thomas Nkono,” Zoff says. “They all reached their best at around 40 years old, and that’s because mature men know how to deal with the severe pressure and responsibility goalkeeping brings. When a keeper reached 40 and is still at the top, it shows how he has lived and behaved professionally, taken care of his body and mind, overcome many obstacles. That strengthens your self-esteem and gives you the ability to react to the inevitable errors.”

Edwin van der Sar must go down as a great of the game, and not just labelled a great goalkeeper, because of his longevity; few players have played at the highest level for so long and so well. It is true that role of a goalkeeper is the most unforgiving, yet avoidable errors is not what you’d connote with the player who has been named Best European Goalkeeper four times in his career, rather match-winning saves (as Nicolas Anelka knows only too well) and a cool head. This will remain the case regardless of what happens on Saturday night. Edwin van der Sar, footballing legend.

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