Tuesday, 30 November 2010

A Glance Across the Atlantic: A look at the NBA season so far

There is certainly plenty happening in the world of sport right now. I was spoiled for choice today when choosing what to write about in this post. I thought that an attempt to reflect on Barcelona's breath-taking 5-0 demolition of Real Madrid last night would almost certainly do no justice to the quality of their performance. More posts about the Ashes are almost guaranteed so I decided to refrain from writing about that for know. And a piece on the latest attempts to expose FIFA's corruption will be written after we know the fate of England's bid to host the 2018 World Cup, the announcement being made in two days time.

Instead, I have opted for writing a more general post about my thoughts on the new NBA season so far. It always proves very difficult to dip into a sport that I write about so infrequently as there is so much scope for things that I could talk about. For now though, I will look at the struggling form of the Miami Heat and the developing two-horse race for Rookie of the Year.

The Miami Heat had been labelled the team to watch long before the season began. When it was announced back in July that Lebron James was joining Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh on the east-coast, shock-waves were sent through the basketball world. With James, the league's best player, joining the tremendous talents of Wade and Bosh in Miami, it was assumed that a period of unrivalled dominance would follow. The reality has been quite different.

After 'The Decision' (when James revealed he was going to join the heat) there were drastic changes in the Heat squad. Some were forced out to balance the books, some because they were surplus to requirement and others because they were unwilling to settle for a season sat on the bench. Many left and many came in. The Heat's performances thus far this season have been little more than what could be expected of a team in their position.

Miami still have a winning record at 10-8. In many people's eyes, however, this is an abject failure from a team containing a triumvirate of all-stars. The team are struggling with teething problems. From the several matches of theirs that I have watched, they seem unclear of how they are meant to play, both as individuals and as a team.

Wade and James are having to adapt to sharing the role of primary play-maker and point-scorer, roles they had previously held uncontested. Bosh too has had to make this adaptation. He no longer receives the amount of attention as an attacking option as he had been used to in Toronto. The fringe players seems unsure of their roles coming off the bench, all of which has contributed to the confused and clumsy performances that have characterised the Heat's season. These weaknesses have been exposed by the Boston Celtics on two occasions already this season. The Celtics illustrate perfectly how meaningless it is to have numerous big names on the court if they are unable to play effectively together. It is a lesson they ought to have taken note of.

They will not be panicking though. Each of their big three are warming to challenge of altering their games for the good of the team and their individual stats have been steadily increasing. The defensive intensity still seems to be somewhat lacking but this will probably come with the increased understanding that more time playing together will bring.

No one would argue that they have failed to meet the expectations that most had for them. This is probably more a result of unrealistically high expectations than of their own failings. People, myself included, expected too much too soon. They are still managing to win matches despite being disjointed and frustratingly inefficient at both ends of the court. Needless to say, they will only improve as the season progresses and by the time the playoffs come around, which they will be part of, they will probably be hitting top form. When this happens they may well prove to be as dominant as some hoped and many feared.

Aside from the faltering Miami side, I have been very interested in the progress of the league's two finest rookies this season. Blake Griffin was the number one overall draft pick back in 2009 by the LA Clippers. However, Griffin then missed all of last season with a knee injury he picked the day before the season was due to start, thus making this his début season. Now, after a year on the injured list, Griffin seems determined to make up for lost time.

His rival in what is seemingly a two-horse race for the Rookie of the Year title is John Wall. Like Griffin, Wall was the first overall pick in the 2010 draft when the Washington Wizards snapped up the young point guard. He has suffered some minor injury set backs himself this season but when he has been available for selection he has not failed to excite.

Both Griffin (left) and Wall (right) are making names for themselves as stars in failing teams. Despite the Clippers' dismal record of 3-15 (the worst in the league), Griffin is averaging 20 points and 11 rebounds a games so far this season. He has been producing spectacular, high-flying dunks on a regular basis and, despite a year without being able to play, is beginning to show why he entered the NBA with such hype.

Wall's Wizards are on an ever-so-slightly better record of 5-11. Yet he too has been one of the league's stand-out performers in the opening two months. The 20 year-old has averaged 18 points and 9 assists per game. His electrifying pace and ability to find a way to the hoop has boosted the solid reputation he brought with him to the NBA. The point guard position is often recognised as being the most difficult to play in the sport and yet his scoring and passing has shown a level of both talent and maturity beyond his years. It will be very interesting to see how this race for Rookie of the Year develops and to see if the two emerging stars can reverse the fortunes of their failing teams.

There are various other things that I would like to go on to write about and I am sure I will revisit some of them in due course, in particular the prevailing older squads in Boston and San Antonio (if it continues), the emergence of Derrick Rose as the 'real deal' in Chicago and the success of the league's new 'Respect the Game' initiative.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Sunday, 28 November 2010

El Clásico: The world's finest take to the stage

El Clásico. One of the rare moments when a domestic match holds the gaze of world football. Barcelona face Real Madrid at the Camp Nou tomorrow night and I thought that I would throw my proverbial hat into the ring along with many other sports writers by looking ahead to this special game.

On the simplest level, it is the biggest collection of world-class footballers you can witness in any match outside of the International arena. This is a match-up, however, that is anything but simple. It comprises of numerous intricate battles and sub-plots.

The first of these, which has received predictably large amounts of attention, is the showdown between indisputably the two greatest footballers in the world right now, Messi and Ronaldo. While the debate over who is better rages on, this match offers fans the opportunity to see the two compete for the headlines on the same pitch.

Either Messi or Ronaldo are able to change or win a game with one moment of brilliance. We all know this. Nevertheless, there are tactical complexities that perhaps warrant greater consideration. To allow ourselves to become preoccupied by the Ronaldo versus Messi battle would, of course, be doing a disservice to the spectacle that is El Clásico.

Another fascinating battle will be on the sidelines. Mourinho will take part in this historic derby for the first time tomorrow and all eyes are on him to see how he approaches the match. Can he mastermind a performance to put an end to Madrid's four-match losing streak in this fixture. When his Inter Milan side knocked Barça out of the Champions League last season, the majority of the footballing world applauded 'The Special One's' tactical masterpiece. Needless to say though, his current Madrid team does not in anyway, shape or form resemble that of Inter Milan.

Madrid, as ever, are defined by their attacking prowess rather than Mourinho's well documented approach last season which was to stifle opponents. Some have questioned whether Mourinho will adapt his tactics for this match. He may abandon his use of four attacking players in the 4-2-3-1 formation, usually using Di Maria, Özil, Ronaldo and Higuain, and replace one of them with another deep-lying midfielder to play his more common 4-3-3 formation, with the option to revert it to a 4-5-1.

It is hard to see who he may drop though. Ronaldo, maybe not. Higuain represents their genuine striker and Di Maria has been in good from cutting in from the right wing while Özil has adopted the role of puppetmaster, pulling the strings in the Madrid attack. Nevertheless, he may choose to play Lassana Diarra, Xabi Alonso and Khedira to attempt to try and combat the threat of Xavi and Iniesta's creativity.

Attempting to second guess Mourinho would be foolish. One thing does remain certain though, he will have worked on extremely specialised tactics for this game. These will probably revolve around preventing Xavi and Iniesta the opportunity to run the game while stopping service to Messi as much as possible. He is the world's most prominent tactician and his preparation for this match will have tireless, all of which makes this El Clásico all the more exciting.

His opposite number, Pep Guardiola, rarely strays from Barcelona's trademark style. With Busquets sitting in front of the back four, Xavi and Iniesta will push forward and act as the lynchpins in the Catalan side's formiddable attack. Messi, Villa and Pedro will rotate and push more narrow as the wing-backs, Maxwell and Alves, provide the width outside of them. Describing their likely approach is one thing, stopping it is quite another. With each attacking player being so comfortable on the ball and so adapt at beating their man or playing the killer ball, it becomes almost impossible to stop them creating chances.

The tactical battle that seems certain to unfold tomorrow night adds a new dimension from the usual 'we will score one more than you' nature of the game. How will the respective defences cope in trying to contain the other side's numerous attacking threats? Who will dominate the midfield and thus have the greater possession with which to breakdown their opponent? Will either manager change tactics or personnel for this match? These are all questions which add an intriguing depth to the all-star cast of El Clásico.

Through all this intrigue though, there are fears. The game has made for such a spectacle in the past because it was often both sides playing all-out attacking football. As sublime as Mourinho's treble winning achievements were last season, if he takes the same defence-minded approach tomorrow, many football fans will be left unsatisfied. The saving grace remains that with the number of fantastic players on the pitch, the match rarely fails to excite.

It is a clash between two of the most recognisable clubs in the history of world football. It is the duel between twenty-two of the most talented footballers on the planet, two of which reign supreme in a league of their own. It now has the added edge of being a tactical battle between two of the premier managers in the game right now. Under the spotlights, on the stage of the Camp Nou, the greatest domestic football match will be played out once again tomorrow night with the footballing world intently watching open-mouthed.

Thoughts, comments and opinions...

Friday, 26 November 2010

The State We're In: Why the latest criticism levelled at the Premiership needs to be acknowledged not ignored

There are two articles that have particularly caught my eye over the past couple of days. There is this one about the levelling out of the quality of the Premiership and this story about Carlos Tevez once again threatening to quit football in his prime.

To save you having to read them to understand what I am going to go on to talk about, here is, in my opinion, the essential parts of the respective articles. These are two quotes concerning the state of football in England (which is ultimately what each article is concerned with).

Zeljko Petrovic, Avram Grant's No. 2 at West Ham until he was sacked: "Everybody has great words for the Premier League but it is a myth... The Premier League is a crap league, it is nothing. In truth the level is shocking. Every team has just three good players. If you take those players out of the teams, then there are only players left who would not be playing in the bottom team in Holland. The Bundesliga is far better."

Carlos Tevez: "Football is only about money, and I don't like it. There are so many agents with really young footballers... it's awful, as these young players are not interesting in winning titles, they only want money. The young players think that they have won something in football because they have two mobile phones and a house."

Now these views are, of course, not representative of the footballing world. They are, however, indicative of the waning reputations of both Premiership football and footballers in the Premiership.

Petrovic's less than favourable view of the Premier League is undoubtedly distorted by his recent dismissal by West Ham. To put the quote in context, the Guardian's Paul Hayward was writing about how the Premiership has become far more open due to improvements from smaller combined with a faltering big four.

Ultimately, the big four no longer exists. With Tottenham and Manchester City now bridging the gap, Liverpool struggling and teams like Bolton exceeding expectations, the league, thankfully, no longer conforms to the predictability of just four teams competing in their own elite league while the other sixteen are left fighting for scraps.

The recession unquestionably impacted upon Premiership clubs. The money was no longer available clubs to draw in the the star players when needed and this has, to an extent, taken away the advantage the big clubs held over the rest of the league for so long. Whereas they once could afford the better players now they, like the rest of the clubs, are having to make the most of what they've got. The rather uninspiring strength-in-depth of many squads, as highlighted by the untested youngsters now making their way on to the substitutes bench, reflects this trend.

The new found fallibility of the big four comes as a welcome relief to most Premiership fans. Nevertheless, it illustrates Petrovic's view that the quality of the Premier League is in decline. The big teams have lost their dominance over both domestic and European competitions. Big name signings, excluding Manchester City's spending sprees, have largely dried up and the thinning number of ageing stars are being replaced by, as Tevez says, young players who “are not interesting in winning titles.”

Tevez's criticism too is almost certainly a little harsh. Like Petrovic though, he touches upon a genuine problem in English football, namely, the attitudes of the young up-and-coming stars. It is something I wrote about back in October when Ryan Giggs shared a similar sentiment. The money and fame that is thrust upon footballers still in their teenage years can only be of detriment to their growth both on and off the field.

The preoccupation that young players reportedly have with securing bigger wages and sponsorship deals detracts from their focus on what really matters – winning football matches and winning titles. Andy Carroll and Jack Wilshere, too of England's brightest young talents, have both faced police action this season for their behaviour off the pitch. They are not necessarily to be blamed though.

They are the products of a new footballing culture that has been created in England. A culture that places the tag of 'celebrity' on footballers and the attention, money and fame that this in turn brings is often too alluring for players to resist. Cameras are shoved in their faces and ludicrous sums of money are deposited into their banks accounts having a negative impact upon them as footballers and as human beings. This is, whether we like it or not, part and parcel of the modern game and the disillusioned words Carlos Tevez epitomises the problem.

This culture hinders England's ability to produce players of the required quality in the necessary quantity. With the big names no longer coming in and the new stars not emerging at a rate that the FA, or any England fan for that matter, would be content with, it is easy to understand why England's stronghold over European football five years-or-so ago has come to an end.

It need not be all doom and gloom, however. The example of Aston Villa's emerging core of young and exciting English talent is reason for genuine hope. Moreover, the very fact that the quality of the so-called big four is not what it once was has resulted in the Premiership being more exiting than ever as, to use the old sporting cliché, the playing field is becoming far more level.

The Premiership still remains in the top tier of world football, even if it is no longer at the very top. The current lack of excessive spending could be to the advantage of English football, too. If the media and fans in England can learn not to create and then destroy the reputations of young players with such speed and ease then green-shoots could appear.

There is a lesson to be learned from the quotes of Petrovic and Tevez which have prompted this post. Although they may be overtly critical, they ought not to be ignored. Their views are based on elements of truth which English football, whether it be the FA, clubs, press or fans, should acknowledge and attempt to correct. The climate, from my viewpoint, is becoming increasingly suited for these changes to take place or at least gain recognition. In the aftermath of the World Cup the inquiry has begun and these are just a few of the issues that now need to be addressed.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: Part I

Here is the first in what is likely to become a series of posts which show the latest videos of the good, bad and ugly sides of a range of sports. For part one, football.

This post contains a sublime overhead-kick from Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a blatant display of unsportsmen-like time-wasting from Real Madrid's Xabi Alonso and Sergio Ramos to earn themselves deliberate red cards and then a clip of everyone's favourite Uruguayian, Luis Suarez, performing his own version of the 'Mike Tyson bite'. Enjoy.

The good:

The bad:

The Ugly:

Thoughts, comments and opinions please

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Bolton's Face Lift: Under Owen Coyle Bolton have a new, more attractive appearance to go with their good-looking league position

Last week I wrote about the great work that Chris Hughton has done as Newcastle United manager. The Toon have subsequently lost two and drawn one of their last three games, the latest loss being a 5-1 hammering by Bolton yesterday. Nevertheless, these losses should not detract from Newcastle and Hughton's success so far this season. Yesterday they were quite simply outplayed by probably the Premiership's biggest over-achievers.

Bolton are currently fourth in the table. What is heightening their praise is the manner in which they have reached such a position. The type of football that Owen Coyle has got the team playing is a long way removed from the stereotypically unglamorous approach they are often labelled as playing. Like Hughton who he defeated yesterday, Coyle illustrates what can happen when a manager successfully instils a footballing philosophy at a club.

Under Sam Allardyce Bolton epitomised the concept of route one football. They were gritty and aggressive in defence and predictably direct and physical in attack. Now, under Coyle, there has been a dramatic transformation. He has shown a great appreciation of tactics and personnel to know how to best use the squad he has available to make Bolton contenders in pretty much any match they play. The team has a great balance and work-rate that stems from a humble acceptance of their own abilities and a lack of egos.

While they remain extremely hard working without the ball, they have begun to play a far nicer brand of attacking football. They keep the ball on the floor and play short, sharp passes off and around their two front-men. Crucially, Davies and Elmander have both hit form for Bolton this season to add goals to Bolton's industrious and creative team-play. Elmander is now joint top Premiership goalscorer along with Andy Carroll on eight goals, one of which was this beauty against Wolves.

The midfield combination of Holden and Muamba, meanwhile, has been one the most under-rated success stories of the season. Their play may at times appear unremarkable but they have the highest successful tackle count in the league. They are a working example of how the 4-4-2 formation can still be used successfully. They both willingly get back to break down attacks and then link the play with the striker or the wingers, Lee and Petrov, with simple passes, thus allowing the more creative players to use the ball in the final third. They have an understanding as a pairing of who will join the attack and who will hold which has offered Bolton a core around which the team can function.

In defence they have the highly-sort-after Gary Cahill who, along with the giant figure of Zat Knight, has been in domineering form so far this season. Behind them there is the always consisted and seemingly never-ageing Jussi Jääskeläinen.

Bolton are now becoming one of the most talked about clubs in the Premiership. Their rise to prominence has been as surprising as it has been rapid. It is the style of play, however, that remains the biggest talking point. While bigger teams like Manchester City and Liverpool struggle to understand what brand of football they ought to be playing, the likes of Bolton, Newcastle and Blackpool play with unusual confidence and reassured character.

Like Alex McLeish did with Birmingham last season, Coyle has created a footballing philosophy that shows both a great understanding of the players he has at his disposal and the value of building a strategy around doing the simplest things in the game well.

In 2005 Allardyce led Bolton to qualification for the UEFA Cup. Now, although I am aware that I am almost certainly getting too far ahead of myself, Bolton could be on their way to repeating this feat but in very different footballing style. In a Premiership season where the saying 'anyone can beat anyone on the day' seems more true than ever, Bolton have emerged as the real surprise package, both in terms of their results and the attractive manner by which they are achieving them.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Friday, 19 November 2010

A Preview of the 2010/2011 Ashes

This post was unavoidable. With only six days to go, now seemed like the right time to write a preview for the Ashes. It would take too long to cover all the intricate battles and aspects of the upcoming series but I thought I would take a more general overview, albeit still quite a lengthy one, of where the two teams stand as the opening Test rapidly approaches. 

England are, according to the bookmakers at least, considered the underdogs. The odds of 7/4 on England to win the Ashes represents good value as many pundits and experts see England as the stronger of the two teams and I would be inclined to agree. Under the measured leadership of Strauss and Flower, England have become a formidable side in every form of the game. Australia, on the other hand, enter the series on the back of a largely disappointing 2010.

Let's look at England.

If we start by looking at the batting line-up. England have a stable and relatively consisted top six. Furthermore, with the likes of Broad and Swann in the tail, England can rely on players outside their regulation batters to contribute runs.

Strauss will inevitably be key. Both as captain and opening batsmen it is integral that he leads by example. Cook is likely to be targeted as a genuine weak link in the side so Strauss will be vital for England at the top of the order. Runs from the openers is always important and the pressure will be on Strauss more than Cook to provide them , even though Cook did get a century in England's warm-up match against South Australia.

Trott and Pietersen, at three and four respectively, could be where the series is won or lost. The patient Trott is still inexperienced at Test match level while Pietersen is struggling with a well documented loss of form.

KP will probably not be considered 'the danger-man' any more. There are too many other weapons around him now. He is being regularly outscored by his team-mates and his reputation is faltering so the pressure is on him. There have, however, been signs in the warm-up matches that he may yet be able to recapture his form. Let's make no mistake about it though, he is still England's best batsman. The mind games between KP and Australia show that they still fear his run-scoring capabilities and rightly so. If he can rediscover something like his best form he could well prove to be the decisive factor in the series.

Behind KP, Bell and Collingwood appear to offer real stability in the middle order. The dogged style of Collingwood offers a steadying confidence for any faltering team while Bell, who has just hit an impressive 192 in a warm-up game against Australia A, seems to be playing better than ever. Questions over his mental strength are seemingly on the way to being answered by the new, more confident and free-flowing Bell. His runs in the middle order would be invaluable.

Prior has been a reliable source of runs as wicket-keeper and, as I have said, with Broad, Swann and perhaps Bresnan too in the tail, there are players who can bat right down the order. On paper at least, England's batting line-up looks to be in good order. It is one full of experience, talent and variety.

As for the bowling. This is where many of the concerns lie. Can England take twenty wickets in the less bowler-friendly conditions Down Under? Much has been made of the Kookaburra ball and flatter wickets so it will be interesting to see how the seamers fare. Anderson will have less swing to help him take wickets so the line and length bowling of Broad and Finn, Bresnan or Shahzad will be key. If they can adapt to the conditions and remain disciplined there is no reason why England's bowling attack cannot take wickets.

Swann, the world's premier spin bowler, probably holds the key with the ball. As Australia lack a quality spinner, Swann could be the difference between the two sides. His wicket-taking ability over the past two years have been phenomenal and if he can continue this then England's chances will improve no end. If, in second innings especially, he can tie up and end while threatening to take wickets then England will be able to exert real pressure on Australia's faltering batting line-up.

Now looking at Australia.

They have lost the sense of superiority they use to have in Test cricket. They have struggled, as any side would, to replace the likes of Hayden, Warne, McGrath and Gilchrist and find themselves in an awkward transition period. They have tried numerous spin bowlers, wicket-keepers and opening partnerships but with little sustained success. They lack that extra class they had become so use to having and as a result have struggled of late. Their bowling attack is too often wayward and their batting line-up has been failing to producing big scores.

All that being said, it would come as no surprise to see Australia's performances improve dramatically in the Ashes. Their determination to beat the English and regain the Ashes should not be underestimated. With Ponting, Katich, Hussey and Clarke they still have an impressive selection of batters in their team too.

Ponting is under more scrutiny now than at any other time of his career. His captaincy has come under question and his batting is not what it once was. Like Pietersen though, he could prove decisive. This could be his moment to bow out in style by having a stand-out series with the bat. Nevertheless, those around him will still need to perform and there are question marks surrounding the likes of Marcus North and Shane Watson.

Whether their bowlers can perform with the necessary consistency is where serious doubts can be raised. They failed to do so in the 2009 Ashes series in England but if each of their seam bowlers reaches top form then the English batters could well be in for a tough time. They must find that trademark killer instinct so commonly associated with Australian bowling attacks because if they don't Australia have no chance.

What the Australians do have is the extra advantage of the home crowd. It will, of course, be a hostile and unnerving atmosphere for any English player this winter. Having a Test series on your own soil is a massive advantage both for the cricketing conditions and the motivation of having a nation cheering you on.

In the 2006/2007 Ashes, when Australia demolished England 5-0, England struggled to adapt as Australia thrived. Can they avoid those mistakes this time around? I would agree with many by saying that England have the better team now. A comparison of the form of the two sides will tell you that. That will count for nothing though if they are unable to perform at their best as I would Australia to do nothing less. England now have to cope with the pressure of expectation and end the twenty-four year wait by completing the greatest feat for an English - win the Ashes Down Under.

(Here is a useful breakdown of every Australian and English player of this winter's Ashes by the Guardian.)

My perhaps overly Anglocentric prediction is an England 3-1 series win. There are too many 'ifs' when assessing Australia's chances. England seem better placed to deal with a malfunctioning part of their team whereas the currently underwhelming Aussie side will need each part of their team to be on top form if the are to beat England. Through all the talk and hype, one things seems certain – it is going to be a very close series.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Out With The Old, In With The New: After disappointing World Cups, Capello and Blanc look to youth as the way forward

Only Italy could compete with England and France for the title of 'biggest disappointment of the 2010 World Cup'. Tomorrow night England and France face each other at Wembley but both with very different looking sides to those who performed so woefully back in South Africa.

Capello may have had his team dictated to him by injuries but I doubt he will begrudge that too much. It has saved him several tough decisions. With no Rooney, Lampard, Terry or Glen Johnson, Capello can experiment with other players relatively free from judgement.

Wilshere may have been deprived a first England start but Carroll and Henderson are set to do so with Gibbs getting his second cap. The new selection policy is clear - give youth a chance. I do, however, remain somewhat cynical about whether this is Capello's new initiative or one laid down to him by the FA. Nevertheless, few would argue that the likes of Carroll and Henderson don't deserve their call up after their great starts to the season.

France too have seen a radical change in personnel. Now being managed by Laurent Blanc, France welcome a host of different players into their squad as the final lingering members of the successful teams of the '98 World Cup and Euro 2000 have been replaced.

Blanc, like Capello, has made a clear indication as to his new selection policy looking forward. No player is infallible. Anyone can be dropped in favour of a player in form. Each have signalled their intent to rely on a new generation of young players as they look to create a team, as Germany have already successfully started to do over the past few years, who can challenge in Poland/Ukraine in 2012, in Brazil in 2014 and beyond.

Out of a sad personal curiosity as much as anything, I have decided to do some research of my own to substantiate this point. These are the average ages of the England and France squads at the 2010 World Cup (done on the player's ages on 1st June 2010) compared to the squads for the match tomorrow night (done on their current age):

ENGLAND:    World Cup Squad – 28.5 
                         Current Squad – 23.9   (4.6 years younger)

FRANCE: World Cup Squad – 27.5
                   Current Squad – 24.1   (3.4 years younger)

These figures highlight the changes that the two national teams have undergone over the past four months. As I say, there are senior players missing for both sides due to injury. What it does illustrate though, is a the willingness to bring in young players rather than older, more experienced players to fill the gaps.

Tomorrow night's match, even though it is an England friendly, promises to be interesting insofar as it is an opportunity to see how these two new-look sides fare in the international arena. In the words of the always eloquent Carlton Cole, "few new faces blad. alwayz gud to see".

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Haye vs Harrison: Much ado about nothing

I wrote with relative disdain about the announcement that David Haye was going to fight Audley Harrison and, after the non-spectacle of last night, I feel perfectly vindicated to have done so. Haye won comfortably as most people expected him to. But what has he achieved?

Haye admitted that he had backed himself for a third round victory. It explains why he chose not to throw a punch in the opening two before then unleashing a vicious barrage of blows that ended the fight abruptly a minute into the third round. There will most likely be quite a lot made of Haye's admission, which does equate to a form of match fixing. His choice to select a specific round makes the betting market for the fight an unfair one.

In reality, however, it purely illustrates just how fascicle the fight really was. Such was the difference in class that Haye was able to pick the round he wanted to win in and then bet on himself to do so.

After months of talk and hype by the two boxers, the fight was little more than sparring session. The difference in ability was abundantly clear and Harrison, who landed just one punch in the fight, was made to look as deluded as Haye had told everyone he was.

I can understand, of course, why the fight went ahead. It generated enough interest amongst British boxing fans to make it worth-the-while for Haye. He undoubtedly received the majority of the fee for the fight too. Some suggest that Haye may have received up to £5million compared to Harrison's meagre £1million fight fee. It was an easy pay day for the WBA Heavyweight Champion.

The only real positive to come from the fight is that it may mark the end of Audley Harrison's career. I wont say that I have not found 'A-Force' entertaining over the years but he was never more than a national level fighter. At the age of 39 there is little for him to do but hang up his gloves and be rightfully content with his Gold Medal from the 2000 Olympics.

For Haye, the fight has done little to enhance his reputation. He scored an easy win against somewhat of a nobody in the Heavyweight boxing world. It still appears as though his desire to unify the division is secondary to his desire to earn easier money.

There must surely be a greater worldwide demand for Haye to take on one of the Klitschko brothers and yet financial demands continue to stand in the way. Haye wants to keep all of the UK TV income from a fight with the Klitschkos. As there is no pay-per-view boxing in Germany, the Klitschkos are unwilling to settle for this uneven splitting of the money. Economic disputes aside, if Haye wants to cement himself as a 'great' boxer then he will have to beat the best and, needless to say, Harrison is not that.

In reality, the fight at the MEN Arena was little more than an under-card to the main event last night, a mere warm-up for the fight between Manny Pacquiao and Antonio Margarito for the WBC Light-Middleweight title. Pacquiao confirmed his place at the top of the pound-for-pound best boxers list with a unanimous points victory. His performance was characteristically dominant and the win means that he is now an eight-weight world champion.

The victories for Haye and Pacquiao last night will still leave fans unfulfilled, though. The nagging knowledge that each of these fighters ought to be fighting someone else will only continue to diminish whatever successes they may enjoy in the mean time.

Pacquiao vs Mayweather and Haye vs a Klitschko remain the match-ups that boxing fans are eagerly and frustratingly waiting for. There is quite simply no one else for the respective fighters to take on who represents enough of a challenge for the boxing world to get excited about. As I have said on numerous occasions, it is essential for the waning interest in and credibility of the sport of boxing that these fights happen sooner rather than later.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Friday, 12 November 2010

A Potential 'Great Britain' Team in the 2012 Olympics

I was casting my mind forward to the 2012 Olympics and, more specifically, the football at the games. Great Britain has not entered a team in tournament since 1960 but now, with London obviously hosting the event, they have agreed to participate once again.

The problem has been that each of the four home nations have been previously unwilling to compromise their own independence by forming just one team. There was an ongoing dispute over who would gain control of the team in terms of the management and squad selection. A solution was only reached when Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all agreed to opt out of the team but allow a team to be entered comprising solely of English players on behalf of Great Britain.

So we know that there will be, as it stands, an all-English team representing Great Britain in both the men's and women's football tournaments at the London 2012 Olympics. I think that it is a shame that the home nations were unable to put their well-known differences and rivalries to one side to enter a team for the competition.

That being said, although it may still be two years away, I thought I would be interesting to think about what 'Great Britain's' team may look like in 2012. The format is basically an Under-23s tournament, with all but three members of each squad having to be under the age of 23. With all that considered, here is my forecast as to what a potential line up could be for Great Britain's opening match in the 2012 Football.

Playing a 4-2-3-1 formation (by 2012 I am assuming that this will have replaced 4-4-2, as it pretty much already has done, as the system used by the elite sides). The number in brackets represents the age the player will be at the time of the 2012 Olympics. I have chosen not to select any senior players for this line up to make it an entirely Under-23 side.

GK: Jason Steele (21), Middlesbrough.

DR: Martin Kelly (22), Liverpool.

DC: Chris Smalling (22), Manchester United.

DC: James Tomkins (23), West Ham.

DL: Kieran Gibbs (23), Arsenal.

DMC: Jack Rodwell (21), Everton.

DMC: Fabian Delph (22), Aston Villa.

AMR: Theo Walcott (23), Arsenal.

AMC: Jack Wilshere (20), Arsenal.

AML: Daniel Sturridge (23), Chelsea.

ST: Andy Carroll (23), Newcastle.

There are others who could have made the team, especially; Marc Albrighton, Dan Gosling, Jordan Henderson and Phil Jones. Each of these are highly rated at their respective clubs but I have gone for players that I feel will be the most experienced and established by the 2012 Olympics.

The side is, of course, highly unlikely to look anything like this. Some players may not progress as expected while other young players will hopefully emerge from obscurity to stardom to in the intervening period. The side will also be based largely on which players are selected for the Euro 2012 Championships as it is foreseeable that the selectors will pick an entirely different squad from those who take part for the senior England team in Poland and Ukraine.

Nevertheless, the Under-23 Olympic format will be an extremely interesting insight into the next generation of England footballers. It offers an opportunity to see how young English players compare to those from around the world, a parameter of a potential England team of the 2010s. It is an examination that will be of particular interest as the production of young players in England is under such scrutiny.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Chris Hughton: An example of the importance and rarity of managerial stability at a football club

It was just two weeks ago that Newcastle suffered a 4-0 home defeat to Arsenal. Following that loss Chris Hughton topped the list of Premiership managers most likely to get the sack. Since that Carling Cup exit, however, Newcastle have responded with two fantastic performances resulting in two of the more surprising results of the season.

First they beat their bitter rivals Sunderland 5-1 before then getting revenge on Arsenal with a 1-0 win at the Emirates. Behind these two superb victories lies Newcastle's quiet and understated manager, Chris Hughton.

Since emerging from the wreckage of Newcastle's relegation, Hughton has made few mistakes as manager. He got the Toon promoted in record time and he has, for the most part, carried that momentum into the Premiership. After just eleven games Newcastle find themselves in 5th place in the Premiership. Despite this, Hughton is still only on a short-term contract.

Hughton's current deal will expire at the end of the season and it seems bizarre that the club would not reward their manager by showing some faith in him by offering a long-term deal. This would, at very least, indicate to him that he has time to build a Premiership squad that will be able to compete back at the top level.

Since becoming the permanent manager back in the summer of 2009, Hughton had shown a tactical nous that has enabled Newcastle to grind out hard fought victories as well as run riot on teams, as they have done against Sunderland and Aston Villa already this year. More importantly, Hughton clearly has the players working together and working for him.

The one thing Newcastle have desperately lacked in recent years is stability. The club has had eight managers since 2004. It appears to have taken relegation to finally provide them with that in the form of Chris Hughton. Still the board seems reluctant to cement this stability.

Hughton's managerial record - Played 65, Won 39 (60%), Drawn 15, Lost 11.

During their cycle of different managers, Newcastle's results suffered. It is never a good recipe for success. A manager always has a style of football he prefers and thus different preferences in personnel, both players and coaches. Common sense would therefore suggest that for a football club to be successful they ought to allow a manager implement his own philosophy at a club and, in turn, create a team to be successful to that ends. It is a simple idea that is so often over-looked.

The current habit of short-sighted boards replacing managers in the faint hope that they will achieve unprecedented success is all too evident in the Premiership. Hughton has proven himself to be a successful manager. What he may lack in charisma and charm he makes up for in a very hands-on appreciation of the ins-and-outs of the game.

He goes about his work quietly while people are starting to take note of Newcastle's steady climb up the table. They will almost certainly not be able to maintain their current position. This should not, however, detract from what Hughton has done there. He has inherited an awkward assembly of players and mobilised them into a cohesive, hard-working and ever-improving team.

They seem to be reaping the benefits of the tough experience of Championship football. Players like Nolan, Barton and Carroll are all playing at their best while new signings Williamson and, in particular, Tioté have proven to be very useful additions to the team. They are, thus far, the league's biggest over-achievers and yet their manager seems constantly under threat.

Perhaps Mike Ashley and co. should follow the examples of the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal and realise that, although success may not come immediately, supporting a manager who has a clear direction for the club can prove very rewarding.

Boards should allow a manager to try and install a footballing philosophy at a club and then be given time to pursue it in the transfer market and on the training ground. The reply is often, 'football is a results business'. The fact remains though, in the long run a club can reap the rewards of managerial stability as opposed to knee jerk reactions from impatient businessmen.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Optimism Despite Defeat: Some brief thoughts on an ever-improving England team

I rarely delve into the world of rugby but do follow the England team and as I have not written a post about rugby in a very long time I thought I would share my opinion, albeit briefly, on the team after their opening Autumn Test.

England fought back to within ten point of the All Blacks at Twickenham yesterday and it probably should have been less. With New Zealand a man down and all the momentum with England in the final ten minutes, it was right to think England could find at least one extra score.

Despite the loss, there has been an overarching sense of optimism surrounding the performance. Following a breath-taking 21-20 victory over Australia back in June, England seem to be heading in the right direction.

I have always been quite forthright with my disapproval of the choice of Martin Johnson as England coach. I feel that his first two years in charge of the team largely justified this too. Now, however, there are signs that he is growing into the role.

There have been numerous changes made, both tactically and in personnel, that have given England a new look. The aimless kicking and slow ball is on its way to being eradicated and in its place there are new, young and exciting players coming in and looking to play more expansive and positive rugby. If nothing else then this makes an England match slightly less arduous to watch.

Foden, Ashton, Lawes and Youngs all promise to be stars of the future. The balance between experience and youth seems to be almost right.

My main concern with the England team is at Fly Half. Is Toby Flood good enough to lead this new England side to a period of sustained success? I have my doubts. At the heart of any great team is a Fly Half pulling the strings. Flood seems to lack the quality required to act as the lynch-pin of this ever-improving England team.

Flood failed to impose himself on the match and dictate the play, especially in New Zealand's 22, in which England had good possession which they failed to convert into points. Dan Carter's clinical leading of the All Black attack served only to exaggerate Flood's own failings. Perhaps I am being overly critical but he does not fill me with the calming confidence that a world class No.10 should.

Nevertheless, England performed admirably. New Zealand came to Twickenham on the back of a busy Autumn schedule. Not surprisingly therefore, they looked sharper and made by far the brighter start. England warmed to their task and in the second half though and had given good cause for optimism by the final whistle.

Martin Johnson's men now face Australia, Samoa and South Africa on consecutive Saturdays at Twickenham and how well they perform will be an ideal parameter of just how far the team have come and how far they have left to go ahead of the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Sabremetrics: The future of the transfer window?

The news arrived today that Damien Comolli, ex-Tottenham director of football, has been appointed as Liverpool's new director of football strategy. This may seem of little importance or interest to many people but it is an indication of a new style of player recruitment that Liverpool are likely to adopt.

The new owner at Anfield, John W. Henry, is a devote believer in sabermetrics. Sabermetrics, to put it simply, is the use of statical analysis when scouting and signing new players. Comolli is the first of what is likely to be a number of back-room signings geared towards embracing this approach to the transfer market.

It is a recruitment technique that has become increasingly popular in statistic-driven American sports ever since the book Moneyball was published back in 2003. The book outlines how Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team, has used sabermetrics to assemble a very competitive team despite the Athletics being one of the most financial restrained teams in the league.

Henry hired Theo Epstein, a 28-year-old Princeton graduate, as his general manager when at the Boston Red Sox. Epstein utilised sabermetrics and led the Red Sox to two World Series titles.

Epstein, as Beane had done, looked at statistics beyond simply the number of home-runs a player scored to show how effective and efficient different players were. The question is, how can this approach be adapted into the world of football?

Henry and the new team he is assembling behind the scenes at Merseyside will be hoping that sabermetrics will help Liverpool get optimum value for money when the transfer window opens. They are not alone either. Arsène Wenger has also taken a heavily statistically driven approach to signing players. Comolli used this approach while at Tottenham too. He was responsible for the signing many of Harry Redknapp's successful crop of current players, including Inter Milan-terroriser Gareth Bale.

There are, however, some critical things sabermetrics cannot easily account for - strength, fitness and, more importantly, mental toughness and attitude. These mental attributes are things that Wenger has gone to lengths to compile files on when he is looking into signing a player.

Moneyball does not offer a directly transferable system. What it does is outline a scientific approach to looking at sports stars. The days of a manager or scout using experience and instinct to find potential signings are being replaced by men in suits sat in offices with calculators and graphs.

Rob Marrs over at Left Back in the Changing Room has written many pieces on the use of sabermetrics in football, which largely responsible for influencing this post. When offering an example of how this technique can be used, Marrs states that football managers can get value for money in the transfer market by ensuring they sign players on quality, albeit often not eye-catching, and not purely on hype or reputation. This can be done by taking the following into consideration:

  • Looking in countries that are often not scouted – like Steve Bruce did with Palacios and Valencia.
  • Buying players without a 'wow status' – like Lucas at Liverpool or Makélélé at Chelsea.
  • Buying ageing players or rebuilding players in a new style or position.
  • Looking at the less used stats;
  1. Number of touches – indicates a player's ability to get into the right position to receive the ball, his fitness and how willing their team-mates are to pass to him.
  2. Shot creation – shows how many chances they create, not simply just assists that can be misleading.
  3. Ball retention – helps to show the use of players who may not be as involved in attacking play.
  4. Balls won – highlights a player defensive ability.
  5. Ground covered – illustrates a player's fitness and their willingness to work for the team.

If nothing else, sabermetrics cannot be said to not be an interesting development in the world of sports. It is essentially what many football fans with lots of free time have been doing for years - sat in front of a computer screen playing Football Manager.

As I say, sabermetrics is nothing new. It is a well established and widely used system. With Henry and the New England Sports Ventures now taking their first steps to implement sabermetrics at Liverpool it will be very interesting to see what impact this has on the club's fortunes on and off the pitch.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

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