Archive | June 2011

David “Van” de Gea can handle the pressure

David de Gea, atletico Madrid to Manchester United

“Pressure? This is just a football match,” says the great Paraguayan goalkeeper José Luis Chilavert. “When you do not know how to feed your children, that is pressure.” And so when David De Gea, Manchester United’s latest addition, puts on his new shirt for the very first time in a competitive game, he can use this rather-odd advice from a player many young keepers, maybe even himself, aspire to be like. For de Gea, feeding children probably isn’t on his mind – but the quote itself suggests the sort of environment goalkeepers are brought up into; they are the lone stars of an unforgiving world, where levels of expectation is so high that ‘pressure’ is just part of the game.

It would be almost impossible to ask de Gea not to feel any sort of pressure when he does make his debut; and because the fear amongst United fans is his temperament rather than a question of ability – and just how much his general inexperience and naivety will come into play. Granted, he dealt admirably in the recent U21 European Championships which Spain won in convincing fashion but this will certainly be his greatest challenge yet.

Pressure will be there, but how much will it affect him? One person who doesn’t think the Spaniard will be fazed with filling Edwin van der Sar’s gloves is Gareth Nunn, author of the Atlético fansite madridatleticos: “I don’t believe that the pressure will be an issue for him as he’s handled it with Atletico,” says Nunn, an Irish writer based in Madrid. “Just look at his performances in the Europa League Final and Super Cup final in 2010.”

Make no mistake, de Gea is competent. Even at the tender age of 20, there is much reason to be excited about the player who has been compared to compatriot Iker Casillas on several occasions, someone whom himself attracted great interest and was (and still is) critically acclaimed at a similar age. Let’s not forget that de Gea has, potentially, another 20 years at the highest level.

So where does his strengths lie? “His handling is impressive,” Nunn says. “The ball seems to come directly to him.” Crucially, he is renowned is the air, too. “When he jumps for the ball with an opposing player, you can only see one winner.” The keeper, who stands at 6 ft 4, has also attracted attention on social networking sites for having freakishly long fingers which might explain something when Nunn says: “He sometimes seems to be able to reach the impossible and his shot stopping is superb.” And during the U21 tournament in Denmark, he was quite impressive – even saving a penalty en route to the final. “He has great reflexes and a great record on penalties,” adds Nunn.

Despite the many qualities the goalkeeper possesses, fans will have to recognise that the transition may take time. At the very early stages, a goalkeeper’s reputation is fragile, unfairly decided on one moment or game. Nunn is fearful of this: “When he makes a mistake, and he will as we are all human, the press will jump on it and as he is very critical of himself so he might allow it to bother him.” Saying this, he has his weak points. “He can be, at times, hesitant to come off his line and sometimes his timing can be a little suspect,” says Nunn. “And he doesn’t command the defense in a way that Van Der Sar has done.”

Then, when pointing out his flaws, you must remember that he is still only 20 and will continue to develop, maybe eventually fine-tuning his game. Nunn tells me that he has made some “amateurish mistakes” in the past, “but at the end of the day he is young and I believe that all this are part of his learning process.” And the avid Atletico fan, not at all pleased at the departure of such a key player yet understanding, says: “I believe that at United he will be around a more stable environment. Working with top players will be good for him, too.”

David de Gea will need some time adjusting to his new surroundings but Nunn, who was at his farewell press conference earlier today, revealed: “I have heard that United have their coaches learning Spanish and I believe that for someone like De Gea that this will be a very welcomed gesture.” A lot has been spoken about the obvious language barrier which might well have an impact on his game but simple football terminology and the fact that Patrice Evra can speak Spanish will be most beneficial.

De Gea has all the ingredients of a great player. He’s ambitious, committed and is even dating a pop star, but Nunn assures me that he and “Edurne” (no, me neither) are “far from the David and Victoria model.” And is he ready for the so-called fast-paced, attack-minded nature of the Premier League with shots being fired at him continuously? “Well,” says Nunn. “One of his routines at training is dressing with an American baseball mask and having tennis balls pegged at him at a great speed.” That should do the trick.

Van der Sar -v- De Gea - 10-11 League data - click to enlarge (OPTA data)

What these statistics above show – and you can interpret it any which you want – is not so much a reason to criticise Van der Sar after an excellent farewell season but instead to heap praise on de Gea. He, too, enjoyed a solid campaign where he made a total of 88 saves from efforts inside the penalty area, more than any other goalkeeper in La Liga (via OPTA). Granted, the graphic is limited in information but it does give you an indication of where his strengths lie.

And, in his very first press conference as a United player, he stated his desire to ’emulate’ and ‘even surpass’ Edwin van der Sar, although that was after he spoke highly of the Dutchman. Nunn tells us: “He was nicknamed David Van De Gea by some of his teammates for the resemblance to Van Der Sar.” That’ll do fine, then.


Dimitar Berbatov and the criticisms that don’t quite add up

Dimitar Berbatov faces an uncertain future after missing out on the Champions League final squad

"You say what?"

No wonder he frowns all the time. Dimitar Berbatov must be wondering what he’s done so wrong in his Manchester United career; while he isn’t flawless nor is he immune from criticism there is something that sets Berbatov apart from the rest. He is the darling of the aesthetes and rather unorthodox for a forward, meaning he will not be appreciated by all corners as, say, Javier Hernandez. And when there are admirers, there are those who object.

Football is quite simple; and there has never been a player, no matter how great, without a flaw. From all the criticism Berbatov seems to get, many seem to be unjust – in fact, this article, written by a realist rather than an apologist, attempts to explode the myths and other unfair labels. (Amidst all the recent speculation over his career, and some discouragingly infuriating comments on Twitter, I felt this needed to be done…)

“He cost £30m, so he must do better. I demand it!”

If Andy Carroll turns out to be what the lovely people at the media label a ‘flop’, then many will point to his £35million price tag with unforgiving eyes. It’s a tad unfair on him if that were to happen; after all, he is no control of what a team pays for him. In fact, it is perhaps more flattering for every extra millions of pounds. For Berbatov, his actual valuation should have no bearing of what you think of him as a player – the transfer market has changed over time and has rapidly become inflated (see Joleon Lescott). In truth, his value is still somewhere in the region of £20m+ if you were to consider talent rather than age or an expiring contract; not to mention that his three years for the club have been convincing enough, regardless. This essay analysis of Berbatov is essential reading.

“That bloody Bulgarian needs to score goals, damn it!”

Ah, these days were fun. He cost £30m so he should score. Blah, blah. The fickleness of some; while it was true that Berbatov had scored frequently for both Bayer Leverkusen and Tottenham, he was not signed for his goals alone. His link up play and ability to drop deep and allow others to get involved in play has been effective; both Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney would agree. That said, his conversion rate for United is still something for others to desire.

“I’ve change my mind. Now, I think goals aren’t everything.”

For the dissenters nowadays, there is a very popular argument – that “goals aren’t everything” so being joint recipient of the Golden Boot last season doesn’t matter for the player who scored 20 times. It’s quite frankly laughable – indeed, it was the same people who moaned about the lack of conversion in previous seasons from the delightful Bulgarian. When you think about, no, Berbatov is not your typical goalscorer – that’s not his game but that’s what made last season all the more extraordinary. The word ‘genius’ is an apt description of this man and not such hyperbole; for he started the season in a rather unfamiliar (in his United career, that is) higher position and was able to adjust with much success.

“He’s not a big game player. End of story.”

This is one is certainly unfair rather than untrue. This argument really came to prominence in the 2009/10 season – but statistics show that United picked up 52 points against the bottom half that season, but only 33 against the top sides. What that suggests is that United really haven’t flourished in the so-called “big games” – and for a player to effective, the other ten around him have to click also. That aside, he has performed notably in two games of importance – the 3-0 win against Chelsea in 2009, and then the 3-2 triumph over Liverpool in September 2010. In the latter, he scored a hattrick – meaning many had climbed onto his bandwagon. As you do.

“He’s lazy, don’t you know? And he sulks!”

Lazy? Not on Berbatov’s watch – “I’m not lazy – I just make everybody else look good!.” Ironically, dismissing him as ‘lazy’ is perhaps a rather lazy thing to say; while his unfazed exterior screams a man who can’t be bothered, he’s actually far more active than given credit for. His failure to track back might remain an issue; but that doesn’t suggest he is ‘lazy’, more so that he’s just like many other forwards on the planet. Instead, lazy should be defined as somebody who doesn’t care and so doesn’t really contribute – yet Berbatov does so by creating chances and making space. In the 09/10 season, he actually created more goalscoring chances per 90 mins in open play last season than any striker in the league (via @OptaJoe) – and the year previous, created the second most assists in the League. That does not sound a player who fails to contribute.

“But he sulks,” I hear you say. True, but that’s only a problem because people have made it so. After being left out of the Wembley Final, he admitted he was very upset not to play, but seemed defiant to do better – as if it was his fault, which is certainly was not. Furthermore, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney are no strangers to sulking – in fact, they’re probably guilty of doing it more often than the Bulgarian. But, of course, we won’t say that about them. Inconsistencies of a football fan, this is.

“He missed chances against Manchester City. Grab your pitchforks!”

When Yaya Toure put City 1-0 in the FA Cup Semi Final last season, fingers were pointed at two men; Michael Carrick and Dimitar Berbatov. It would seem understandable because Carrick was not only below-par but it was his error that led to the decisive goal. Berbatov, however, is the man we shall focus on – he missed chances. And good ones, too. Most of the time he’d put them away, but not in this game. So it is fair to criticise him partly for the defeat; however, that is no game to base your judgements on him. Indeed, most people who cite this game dismiss the 7-1 win over Blackburn where Berbatov scored five goals – concluding that it’s highly unlikely that’ll happen again. Obviously, five goals is just an everyday achievement any random fool can do it.

Plus, he isn’t the first centre forward to miss chances. There’s evidence here, here and here. And here.

Phil Jones: A man of great promise

Phil Jones

After an impressive debut against Chelsea in March 2010, Phil Jones’ rise in the past 15 months has seen him touted as the future of English football and, in the process, generating great interest from a whole host of clubs who view him as a welcome addition to their side. Interest, it would appear, is there for good reason.

But Jones is a special case; his transition from centre-half to a defensive midfield player has been impressive; and with the news that the Englishman is set to sign for Manchester United it will seem likely that such a talented player will only develop further at Old Trafford. There are some doubts, though – for one, the environment he’ll be brought into will certainly be very competitive if he were to be used primarily as a defender – even with the futures of Wes Brown and Jonny Evans uncertain, it is unlikely that both will depart from the club at the same time. Granted, he can play in midfield but he certainly isn’t a replacement for Owen Hargreaves (nor Paul Scholes ) – not yet anyway having played in the position, despite competently, for only a season.

However, there is much reason to be excited. Sam Allardyce, his former boss at Blackburn Rovers before he was sacked, described Jones as a ‘natural’ and for a player of his age, can make ‘more right decisions than some more experienced players.’ Allardyce did then admit that, long-term, he will ‘ultimately’ play in the back four. But Jones gives off the impression, when I have watched him play, that he is willing to play wherever. In fact, his description of his more advanced role was the following; “I would not say it was central midfield. I would say it was screening the back four for extra security.” That epitomises Jones and just what sort of player he is – a defensive-minded player that perhaps prefers to play at the back, but is willing to do a job higher up the pitch – such versatility will be very useful to United.

Against Manchester United in the penultimate game of the season, Jones reverted back to his natural position of centre-half alongside Christopher Samba. They were both solid, robust and reliable – in fact, United’s goal in the 1-1 draw came from a Wayne Rooney penalty. Indeed, the Red Devils were frustrated by the pair.

Phil Jones' Interceptions

<Figure 1> The chalkboard gives a good insight into the game of Phil Jones. His interceptions were in different places in his own half, suggesting his tendency to get forward when needed to prevent Manchester United from playing their own game. Those who watched the game would have witnessed just how United struggled in the final third.

Phil Jones Clearances (All headed)

<Figure 2> What is perhaps most impressive about this chalkboard is what you can’t see; all seven of his clearances were headed. Jones is renown for being strong in the air – a quality a defender cannot go without.

via Guardian Chalkboards

So what does this signing mean? Jonny Evans could possibly be used as a utility player, like John O’Shea – but his chances to make an impression will once again be limited. Jones is sure to be seen as part of United’s future and the successor to Rio Ferdinand (although he still has two/three years) – while Evans, and indeed Brown, are resigned to less game time or perhaps a career elsewhere. Don’t be put off by the price of Jones, either (the transfer market usually sees an inflation of price for any English player regardless of age; see Wayne Rooney, Ferdinand or even Joleon Lescott too, being a prime example) and for a 19 year old, that might represent good value if he becomes established and a mainstay at the club. Furthermore he’s signed a five-year contract, which makes the fee a little more acceptable.

Just to fuel any excitement you might have, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling will partner each other in the upcoming Under 21 European Champions and is the perfect stage for two players of such quality. Both are very similar – they show good positional awareness and discipline and are strong in the challenge as well as being competent in the air. Plus, both are what the English media would call “no-nonsense types”. One thing for sure, Sir Alex knows talent when he sees it – and such has been his development under the guidance of Allardyce and Steve Kean in the past campaign, that he knows Jones will fit into perfectly at Old Trafford. These are times of promise.

English football needs a winter break

There is something almost ironic about writing such a post when the season is well over and the summer sun is out (well, most of the time). You can thank Fabio Capello for bringing the subject up again…

It’s a debate that is slowly becoming a one-way argument. Sir Alex Ferguson wants it. So does Fabio Capello. But their cries for a winter break in the Premier League may never be answered – yet observation and statistics suggest they have a point. After England’s 2-2 draw with Switzerland on Saturday, Capello was quick to use fatigue as an excuse for his side’s under-performing and, in the process, dismissing the notion that his side simply aren’t good enough; “It is not the quality. We have got quality. The problem is the energy, not other things. We are not so fresh. It was difficult.”

Back in 2004, the then FA chief executive Mark Palios told the BBC that a league winter break is indeed “the target”, but that is hardly the case in present. Palios’ comments were in response to Sven-Goran Eriksson’s plea of introducing it in time for the 2006 World Cup, and seven years on the lack of it is blamed for England’s poor campaign in South Africa. It’s a case of all talk, but no doing.

With the European Championships just a year away, there is threat of another English failure (and, as you’ll find out later, it does have an effect on club football, too). Of course, fatigue might just be an excuse, however it certainly appears expose a footballer’s limitations. “[The winter break] is not just to give the players a rest, it is to get rid of all the little injuries they carry,” says Sir Alex. “It would also freshen everyone up mentally.” Yet, Ferguson is dismissive concluding that “TV has too much power” in scheduling and so it’ll never come into force.

There are many ways a lack of break could affect a football side; the Premier League is very intense, thought to be far played at a quicker tempo and perhaps more physically draining because of it. Even if it wasn’t, the argument that a winter break is required still remains the same.

How much difference does a winter break make?

In recent years, Sir Alex has been rather vocal about the situation, citing the detriments of playing in the gruelling festive period. He has recognised England’s failure in major tournaments is not all down to a question of ability, but more deep-rooted: “The English season is exhausting. Most Decembers we play between eight and nine games at the worst time of the year,” says the United manager. “The pitches are heavier, the weather is worse and then in the second half of the season you’ll find a lot of players at all clubs carrying strains, pulls, but because of the importance of the games they keep on playing. And then when they get to the end of the season and have a major tournament like a World Cup or European Championship they are not 100% fit, they can’t be.”

In 2001, a study by Uefa on the importance of the winter break around Europe found that injury rates for ‘teams without a winter break had a significantly higher injury risk during the second part of the season’ compared to those who did have it (‘14.8 injuries versus 7.8’). “There was no difference in injury rates between teams with and without a winter break during the pre-break season,” says the study, going on to conclude; “during the last three months of the league season, the injury risk was four times higher.”

And so Capello’s fatigue “excuse” is understandable. The Swiss national side are certainly beatable; in fact, England did so in one of their earlier qualifiers in Basle beating them 3-1. In September. You would have to, then, concede Capello has a point. If the Wembley game was contested in the earlier months, England may well have emerged victorious. Barry Glendenning posted an intriguing statistic on Twitter, saying: “England’s starting 11 averaged 46.54 matches each over season compared to Switzerland’s 28.90.” Indeed, this point does not have much to do with winter break – but instead ties in well with the fatigue argument. A winter break would, however, surely allow them to go on for longer.

For England, it is not a change behind-the-scenes that will be of benefit; an overhaul of training methods is all good, but it won’t fully address the problem. What’s needed is the winter break. The blunt truth is that itwill be met with great resistance, and might never be enforced. Certainly, not for next season which again handicaps England somewhat ahead of Euro 2012. And the rest of the Premier League with it.

_ _ _ published some interesting findings of their own. Last year, they investigated the effects of the winter break – that teams whose league have it in place tend to score more goals. At first, it sounds rather bizarre – goalscoring patters are never quite conclusive. However, this investigation had some convincing elements; for example, it noted that ‘Barcelona scored 26 more goals during the second half of the season than they did in the first half of the campaign’ and ‘Real Madrid added an additional 22 goals.’ It continued to discuss how other European sides – be it Italy, France or Germany – saw an increase in goals. The conclusion was most remarkable, however: “Five teams scored less goals in the second half of the season in comparison to the first – remarkably, three of the five teams are English, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. Liverpool and Arsenal showed a huge reduction in goals scored, 13 and 19 respectively.” Granted, goals scored is hardly an appropriate measure of fatigue and the effects of a winter break.

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