Is Benzema a Real number 9 ?

Having been criticised by everyone from the fans to the media to even his own manager, the last 9 months have certainly been testing for the Frenchman. At just 23 years old Karim Benzema has divided opinion since arriving at the Bernabéu. Even Jose Mourinho seems to be unsure what to make of him, because just when you completely write him off then he goes and proves you wrong. Adapting to a new club, league and country are always difficult things to accomplish, even more so when relatively young and for a high transfer fee.

Real Madrid is a club like no other, steeped in history, a record nine European Cups. Wearing the famous white shirt in front of 80,000 fans that demand stylish winning football will bring pressure to even the coolest of individuals. It’s fair to say that talent alone won’t suffice, mental strength and consistency being the two key attributes amongst others. The position of a striker or centre forward again adds to the tension, rightly or wrongly they are measured on goals. When a team isn’t scoring the first port of call is their main man up front, when at a big team even when other individuals are scoring plenty of goals people will look for improvements. Win 15 games in a row 5-0 at Real Madrid but no goals for their sole central striker and questions will be asked regardless of what else he brings to the party.

At academy level Benzema was prolific, in Lyon’s U16 team he scored 38 goals in one season. As he broke into the first team, naturally he’s playing time was limited as he looked to gain experience. The season of 07/08 was when he broke through as a regular, starting the term at just 19. Over that season and the one following Karim Benzema scored 54 goals in 101 games in all competitions. Goals against Manchester United, Fiorentina  and Bayern Munich in the Champions League helped attract the attention of the rest of the world. In Europe he recorded 9 goals in 15 games across those two seasons, 0.6 goals per game. In the French League 37 goals in 72 games, 0.51 gpg. Even withstanding the strength of leagues argument, Benzema had a tendency to hit the net in the big european nights.

Enter Real Madrid, the second galactico era embarked in the summer of 2009. All the top players from across the major leagues were going to be snapped up, Benzema was signed for an initial €35 million at just 21. Comparisons were made with the great Zinedine Zidane, this wasn’t down to playing styles more the fact they were both very talented and French. But whilst Karim was no Bruno Cheyrou either, he wasn’t short of controversy. He struggled amongst the other big names at first, stories of unrest between him and fellow striker Raul, whether that was a clash of personalities or because they were both wanting to make the same movement when out on the pitch together, it was difficult to see how the both of them and Higuaín would fit in. With the departure of Raul last summer, this season was Benzema’s chance to push on. The season didn’t get off to a sprint start but Higuaín’s injury in December thrust him into the spotlight. Jose Mourinho has both criticised and supported him in the press throughout the year, tellingly though Jose wanted another striker. He got his wish and since Adebayor has entered the scene the demise of Benzema hasn’t gone quite to plan. 8 goals in 7 starts has seen him revitalised, with his goal against his former club Lyon (having been on the pitch less than a minute) a turning point. In his two seasons at the club Benzema has scored 17 goals in 52 games in La Liga, 0.32 gpg but in Europe its 6 goals in 11 games, 0.54 gpg. Once again this underlines his ability for the big stage, at one point this season he went 15 games in a row in the league without a goal. Even when he has hit a drought in the league he has continued to score for either his national team or in cup competitions. This season alone, Benzema has started just 23 games (8 times playing the full 90 mins) in all competitions and has appeared 15 times as a substitute. As a starter he has notched 17 goals and as a sub just twice. Those 19 goals have come in just 12 games, when Benzema is confident he takes advantage scoring braces and hat-tricks. As a starter in the league he has played 1103 minutes scoring 8 times, that’s 137.8 minutes per goal. Starting in the Champions League he has played 239 minutes hitting the back of the net 4 times, 59.7 minutes per goal. Can’t he play in Europe every week ?

Whether Karim Benzema is a Real Madrid player next season may depend on a number of things. The striker has found himself in a political battle which hasn’t assisted him, with Jorge Valdano (Real Madrid’s director general) having signed him and criticised Mourinho when he hasn’t played. Whether the ‘Special One’ is manager or not will make a difference but its difficult to know in which way. As previously Jose was all too willing to part with him, only for Benzema to pop back up with the goods. With his record in the Champions League and 8 goals in his last 6 games. On the eve of a crucial game for Mourinho in the return leg of the Champions League tie with Lyon, it might just pay him to have faith in the former Lyon man to put Real into the quarter finals of the competition for the first time since 2004.

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The Subbuteo Pitch: Fernando Torres (Chelsea) v Fulham (Away) 14/2/11

Background

Just Fernando Torres second showing in a Chelsea shirt. Notably a large proportion of Torres goals for Liverpool came at Anfield. This season under Roy Hodgson he scored once in 10 away Premiership games and then in his brief spell under Kenny Dalglish he scored 3 goals in 2 away Premiership games.

How they set up ?

Chelsea opted to change their formation from there previous two games changing from the Diamond formation to their usual set up of 4-3-3. This was to enable Fernando Torres to operate in his prefered lone striker role, the big news though was that Didier Drogba had been dropped to the bench for Florent Malouda. Out also went Boswinga as Ivanovic was moved to right back, in his place was new £25 million centre back David Luiz. Ramires also started in place of John Obi Mikel.

Fulham made only one change Chris Baird moved from left to right back. In came Carlos Salcido and out went John Paintsil, the 4-4-2 which had earned them a draw at Villa Park remained.

Direct Dual

Fernando Torres would be marked for the match by the two Fulham centre backs Aaron Hughes and Brede Hangeland.

1st Half

It took nearly 5 minutes before Torres got his first touch of the ball, with it being played into his feet with back to goal, he tried to chip it out to the right-wing. The ball went out over the head of a jumping Ivanovic and out of play for a throw in. When Chelsea played the straight direct ball in the air up to Torres, the 2 centre backs dealt with him comfortably. At times Torres drifted out to the wings interchanging more on the left hand side with Cole, Malouda and Lampard.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/chalkboards/1022077709mV47998l86

At times his 1st touch was shabby and he looked frustrated with himself, had he been wearing the red of Liverpool many would have said he wanted out. The communication between the defense of Fulham was good as a whole, passing the responsibility of Torres onto whoever’s area he drifted in to. On the rare occasions he tried to run at them with the ball, they all very quickly moved to snuff him out. His best opportunities came through the clever diagonal long passes of fellow new boy David Luiz. With the balls played behind the defense with Torres playing off the shoulder to run on to. The first of which was pulled back for a foul given away by Torres and the second where his first touch let him down again rolling into the very grateful arms of Mark Schwarzer. The only other chance that fell to him this way was from a return header from Ramires, his touch taking into away from Hughes but allowed Baird to make a challenge. As Torres turned onto his prefered right foot an out stretched toe poke looked to be going wide but Schwarzer saved anyway.

2nd Half

Just a minute after the re-start, good work from Ramires on right and a well floated ball into the centre of the goal was headed over by Torres, who just couldn’t guide it downwards. Five minutes later he combined with Lampard for the first time, a slide pass which he thrives on, a clever bent run from the number 9 saw him through on goal had he not turned inside once again. An attempted curl into the top corner sailed over the bar. He began to find a little more space but was often not spotted. Once again the direct straight balls were doing him no favours. In the 71st minute he was replaced by Didier Drogba.

Conclusion

It’s fair to say it was a disappointing evening as a whole for both Fernando Torres and Chelsea as they drew 0-0. The substitution appeared simply to be getting a fresh pair of legs on and a striker more used to the role in which the team plays. Torres movement and ability to find space was good overall but it will take time for him and his team mates to develop an understanding. He will undoubtedly score goals given time, but for this to happen Chelsea will have to alter their tactics slightly. More through balls behind the centre backs will be required as David Luiz did in the first half, and less straight long balls from Petr Cech and John Terry where the defenders comfortably beat Fernando in the air. This tactic may have worked well with Drogba, but Torres isn’t particularly suited as a target man or holding the ball up as Roy Hodgson found out. More high pressing and passing will be required to get the best out of him as a whole. In 19 passes only 11 went to his intended player, of his 3 shots none were on target. In his strongest points he combined well with both fellow January signing Luiz and Summer signing Ramires. It’s clear that some of the more established players have got used to where and how Drogba liked the ball to be played.

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The day I met Ronaldo

For my 21st birthday I was whisked away on a weekday break to a health spar in Leicester. My ex-girlfriend (mother of my 2 boys) had arranged it, a chance to relax at the fantastic facilities,  massage’s and train in the gym (which I was heavily into at the time). As we booked in, the woman showing us to our room said that the Brazil team are arriving later, I thought she meant ‘volleyball’ or something. But my partner confirmed it was in fact the national football team. “Shame you didn’t come last week” the woman remarked “we had the Manchester United team here”, “Glad I wasn’t here then, that would have ruined my birthday” I replied as a boisterous, young and passionate Liverpool fan. “You won’t see much of them though they have a separate part to themselves” my obvious glee having turned to a more gutted look.

Later that evening, whilst sitting down at the table eating my dinner, my partner said “Look it’s Ronaldo !!”. As I started to turn to look I had already began my “Don’t be so bloody stupid reply”. To my amazement it was as well, my eyes fixed on him permanently. There were about ten players in blue national team tracksuits sitting around laughing and joking. From what I can remember there didn’t seem to be many other football fans around, least of all ones that knew the Brazil squad. My knowledge of what the players looked like was not what it should have been at that time but I could still identify many. In reality which I was struggling to distinguish between, “Big Ron” could have been sitting there with the “Miss World” beauty contingent but this was the most famous player on the planet.

This was an opportunity I wasn’t going to miss. Off I set, up to the room to get my camera phone which nearly 10 years ago wasn’t as good as you would hope for in the situation. As I arrived back into the foyer area luckily for me the players were still there. I jogged past Denilson (who at that time was in his prime at Real Betis) he was strolling up and down talking on a mobile phone wearing inexplicably socks with sandals. My partner had already spoken to the players and asked if she could take a photograph. I suppose if you don’t really know who someone is you can’t be affected, I could meet the most famous rapper or basketball player in the world but as it’s not my thing i could take it or leave it. It is fortunate she had done this because I hadn’t really thought about what I was going to say or if they would understand me. Straight over to Ronaldo I nervously walked and as quick as a flash (pardon the pun) is was done. He half smiled at me as I walked off, sitting relaxed in his chair. I had a million and one things to ask him but as I was still in shock, didn’t want to disturb him too much with he’s friends and the fact I can’t speak a word of Portuguese, somewhat stopped the questions from flowing.

I sent the picture to everyone who I thought my care, when I arrived back at my room. I no longer have the picture due to several changes of phones, had it have been now I could have backed it up onto my computer. As the break unfolded, I came into contact with a number of the players Roque Junior (former Leeds) sitting on a bench and Denilson again. Whilst training in the gym Cafu (former Roma and Milan) came in to use the stationary bike, a smile and a nod in my direction as I was the only other person in there. Ze Roberto (former Bayern) then entered to use the leg extension machine, I have never seen such definition in someones legs, seemed to have muscle upon muscle as he effortlessly lifted heavy weight. The strangest moment of all was when Juninho (former Boro) walked into the gym, he high-fived both Cafu and Ze Roberto, stood looking at me doing lateral raises (shoulder exercises) for about 10 seconds then walked straight back out. Every time I was in the pub there after and Juninho shoulder barged someone off the ball (which was hardly ever) I would claim to have taught him that. Watching Ronaldo and others play golf was like watching a Nike advert before my own eyes. At the end of our stay we were told that the team would be training that afternoon and we could watch, my then partner said she wanted to pick our eldest (only child at that time) up from school as he had just started. For some strange reason I gave in, missing the opportunity of a life time, convincing myself it may come up again. This is why she is now my ex (joke).

Couple of years later, I was up Birmingham and a man came up to me and said is this you. I looked rather nervous has he got his phone out looking for a picture. Thoughts of what I had done raced through my mind. The picture he showed, to my relief, was that of me and the great forward himself. A sense of pride having had the privilege to meet such a great player came over me. I smiled and said “Yes, I’m the one without the funny teeth”

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Is Barcelona a blueprint for Liverpool’s future ?

With the current Barcelona side ripping up the record books, every club in the world is looking on with envy. How do we achieve what they have ? Chelsea met with the former Barça sporting director Txiki Begiristain. Manchester United and Arsenal both reportedly view Pep Guardiola as a long-term successor to there long serving managers. But have Liverpool got the upper hand in not just making the not to distant future a Barcelona Way but also restoring the club to the rightful Liverpool Way ?

This may have already started with the reintroduction of Kenny Dalglish, having overseen events at the Academy he is more than aware of the talent that is in or around the first team squad. But as grass-roots level is no longer his domain what else is in place to help build the stars of the future. After all this is where world-class players learn their trade and develop alongside each other. To the world outside and the mass media talk of Liverpool developing a Barça style of football would certainly be laughed at having had 6 months of Roy Hodgson, the similarities between him and Pep start and finish with the fact that the two of them both breathe in order to live. But for fans of the club and those of us in the know we realise that one of the most defining moments in the Rafa Benitez era might be something that he will be very rarely credited for if it comes to fruit. The introduction in the summer of 2009 of Jose Segura and Rodolfo Borrell.

In a recent interview on LFCTV Jose Segura (Academy Technical Manager) talked about ‘creating a line and a style, everyone following the line’. This isn’t necessarily just copying Barcelona but creating a similar aesthetically pleasing game on the eye, a hard-working system and finding an approach that will better serve the players in the demands of English football. The Scouting system will obviously need to play their part as they have with a variety of good 15/16-year-old talents having been snapped up recently. But when Segura talks he references the arrival of a 12-year-old Andres Iniesta at the La Masia which he does with a sense of pride. By following this ‘line’ as a 12-year-old, almost drilled into them on a daily basis, by the time they reach 20 after 8 years it becomes second nature. Stripping away bad habits and keeping to the same goals is very military like but has outstanding results. But this is where the scouts play a massive part as the players need to have the raw talent in the first place. Iniesta was a very good footballer (as far as 12 year olds go) according to Segura but the coaches obviously nurture the talent to reach there potential. However when Sky Sports pundit and ESPN writer Graham Hunter spoke to a certain Lionel Messi he said “I’ve always played this way” and more tellingly perhaps “There were a number of coaches in the youth development system at Barça who tried to change me, but I just ignored them and kept playing my game”. As it’s clear that Messi arrived from Mars, unless Liverpool pick up a young future world’s best player (ever ?) it’s fair to say that they won’t go far wrong with Jose’s imaginary “line”.

In the case of Señor Borrell (Academy Under 18 Coach) everyone at the club can’t speak highly enough of him. Having spent 13 years at the Nou Camp, coaching all age groups from U11’s to U17’s he clearly knows if a player has the potential to make it or not. Pique, Messi, Bojan, Fabregas and LFC’s very own Dani Pacheco have all been coached by Borrell at various stages in his time in Catalunya. Now he can get his teeth into Jesús Fernández Sáez, aka Suso and Toni Silva. Borrell spoke last summer that he felt the Academy wasn’t up to scratch on his arrival “The under-18s had no centre forward, no balance, no tactical level, no understanding of the game. We are working hard, but you can’t change things overnight.” It’s a work in progress but things are a definite step in the right direction. The passion of Rodolfo has been evident for Academy director Frank McParland who said “Rodolfo is an ultra keen competitor who works his socks off every day with the players. They actually not just respect him, but they love him for what he does.”

Barcelona’s youth set up is right next to its famous stadium, the La Masia building an old farmhouse was suggested by Johan Cruyff then a Barcelona player in 1978. It’s aim was not just to develop fantastic players but have an identity and also a loyalty which is key in a money driven world. With 8 players starting in Pep Guardiola’s prefered starting 11 it is the best in the world. What should be taken into consideration is this is a probably a ‘one off ‘ never to be witnessed again. Many clubs in Spain have fantastic youth systems but what they have at Barcelona is untouchable for now.

The English media will often look at the manager if the quality of the young players doesn’t make the top grade which seems a little unfair as they have often not appointed the youth team coaches and neither have they had the pleasure of working with the players day in day out. Having two top coaches that have worked in such a set up can only be of benefit to Liverpool. That’s not to say they will be able to reach such heights again but a proven track record and hard work is all fans can ask for. Perhaps the most important thing for a club that has produced the likes of Fowler, McManamen, Carragher and Gerrard is that they realise it’s not just about picking up the best players from around the world. “The best players to defend the Barça shirt are Catalan players, the best players to defend the Liverpool shirt are English players,” said Borrell, maybe he ment Scouse but that was lost in translation, either way the future of Liverpool Football Club is in good hands even if it takes 10 years to reap the rewards. Whether it be a new Gerrard or a new Xavi, Jose Segura and Rodolfo Borrell know what is required.

For more on this then buy issue 6 of Well Red mag where editor Gareth Roberts also writes upon this subject.

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How Special has the last 6 months Real-ly been ?

Half way through, 19 games gone, Real Madrid are 2nd in the league as they were the season before, so whats changed at the Bernabeu since this time last year ?

As both managers were in their first seasons, then the comparison is a fairly justified one as far as time to work with their current teams. Both managers had a similar amount of time to pass on their approach and tactics to their squad and integrate the new signings into their side. Current manager Jose Mourinho will be at a slight advantage over former manager and current Malaga manager Manuel Pellegrini as some of the Galactico signings of the summer of 2009 should by now be firmly to grasp with their new surroundings. Injuries will alter the sides to varying degrees but question marks are currently being asked as to who takes the blame for them, is it just unlucky or is it down to individuals fitness or coaching methods ? Investment was obviously considerably more in Pellegrini’s time but the players of a whole brought in were of a world-class standard so it could only help Mourinho. The involvement of the managers in the transfers could be argued as the purse strings are mainly controlled by Jorge Valdano and Florentino Pérez, but the signing of Ricardo Carvalho indicates that Jose has a bit more power in the boardroom than Manuel ever possessed. Style of football has changed during the course of Mourinho’s time with a need to shore up the defence in the early part of the season and looking somewhat disjointed whilst going forward, a sort of back to basics, which had supporters concerned they would be playing like his previous club. But in the latter part of the year as players have glued and developed an understanding the team have looked more fluent when going forward and have at times appeased the baying fans who demand stylish attacking football. The press have definitely given Mourinho more of an easy ride than he’s predecessor or it could just be that newspapers such as Marca couldn’t have done much more in their vendetta against the Chilean.

League games have only been taken into consideration for this comparison, the only real way of measuring Real’s achievement in Europe will be if they make it past that dreaded stage of the last 16 which they have fell victim to over the last few years. The fixtures aren’t identical in the league due to promotion/relegation and home/away so it can’t be taken as definitive, every statistic has its place and all that. But it is certainly a useful tool in measuring the progress that has been made by Los Blancos.

                                       Pld        W          D           L             Pts

Pellegrini (2009-10)   19         14          2            3             44           

Mourinho (2010-11)   19         15          3            1             48

This shows itself that Mourinho is performing well, although only a rise of 4 points this is considerable when Barcelona have only dropped 5 points all season. With Real currently 4 points behind the league leaders, an 8 point gap would be hard for even the strongest of mentality’s not to register. An average of 2.32 points per game (ppg) for Pellegrini compared to Mourinho’s 2.53 ppg, which is also an increase from last years Internazionale rate after 19 games of 2.37 ppg. Real harder to beat now with only one loss, but what a loss it was. 

Perhaps a more myth buster fact to what you would have expected is that Mourinho’s Real have scored more goals (47) than Pellegrini’s at this stage (44). But what will surprise many is they have also shipped in more goals with Jose’s conceding (17) to Manuel’s (14), tellingly Inter had also let in 17 goals at the half way point last season.

                                            No. of Clean sheets       Percentage

Pellegrini  (200910)                 11                                 57.89%            

Mourinho (2010-11)                 8                                  42.1%

Perhaps the increase in goals has led to them becoming more susceptible at the back however 3 goals either way is fairly marginal in the scheme of things. Both of the Real Madrid sides at this stage have a goal difference of +30 but Barcelona’s has increased from +39 to +50. The two managers have a 100% home record so the key to where improvement can and has been made is in the away form. 4 wins in 9 games in Pellegrini’s reign and 6 wins in 10 under Mourinho’s. The fact that Barcelona have a 100% away record after 9 games means there is a lot of hard work to be done, but with away trips to Valencia, Sevilla, Villarreal and Real for the Catalans sterner tests are around the corner.

Projections

If Real were to continue in the same way as they have done so far this season, then their projected points total will be 96 the same total they achieved in their record points amount last year. However Pellegrini’s side had a fantastic 2nd half to the season picking up 52 points with fewer games to play due to there Champions League exit assisting the team. A key area for Mourinho will be maintaining a balance as at both his seasons with Inter he has had a points advantage on his rivals at this stage, subsequently his sides have not finished the seasons as strongly with 37 points last year and 41 the year before. In fairness to Jose, when Barcelona also recorded there treble in the season 2008/09 and Pep Guardiola’s first season in charge they too earned 37 points from the remaining 19 games. But the bar has been lifted in La Liga since then with no side ever having achieved 52 points at the half way point till now.

On conclusion Mourinho’s Real Madrid are progressing nicely unfortunately for them so too are its arch rivals Barcelona who are just getting better and better. Although it doesn’t look likely that either side will lose many domestic games or even drop many points before the end of the season, you can never tell in football as a spate of injuries or off field problems could derail the sides when you least expect it. What can be guaranteed though is that whoever does win this league they will throughly deserve it.

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Ronaldinho – The Barca Years

Having just completed his move back to his native land of Brazil, I thought now would be as good a time as any to look back at a time when he was more than a well-known name he was also a superstar on the pitch.

It was the summer of 2003 and all eyes were on Spain. Real Madrid had just won title number 29, their 2nd title in 3 years. Meanwhile Barcelona had finished the season in 6th after consecutive 4th placed finishes in previous seasons, the last time they had won La Liga was in 1999. Joan Laporta was the newly named president and Frank Rijkaard was the newly appointed manager, 2003 was a time of change. Laporta promised the Barca faithful that one David Beckham would be arriving in Catalunya, a world-renowned signing to make everyone sit up and take notice. Out trumped by the Galacticos he had to make do with his second choice, outbidding Manchester United who in turn were forced to purchase an unproven 18-year-old Portuguese winger of a similar name who was never really going to amount too much. Ronaldo de Assís Moreira arrived for a figure of €32,250,000 from French club Paris Saint-Germain. He followed in the footsteps of other great Brazilians before him Romario, Rivaldo and Ronaldo to name but a few. Ronaldinho as he was known in Europe had been plying his trade at PSG for the last two seasons and his stock was already high in England after an apparently freak goal against David Seaman whilst in the 2002 World Cup Quarter Finals. He was also reportedly swayed by then vice-president Sandro Rosell, who he had struck up a friendship with when Sandro was a Nike executive in Brazil.

Things didn’t start out quite as well as they would have hoped for, after all one good signing does not make a team especially when he is out injured. Just 5 wins in the opening 15 league games for Rijkaard’s side saw criticism from some sections of the home support as well as the media. Languishing in 11th place and having just been beaten at home to league leaders Real Madrid was a major kick in the teeth. At the turn of the year things changed dramatically as Edgar Davids joined on loan and Ronaldinho returned to full fitness. In 20 games they won 15 including a 9 game win streak. At the end of the season Ronaldinho had scored 15 goals in 32 games in the league and Mr Beckham had 3 in exactly the same amount of games, at least the shirts were flying off the shelves. Barcelona finished 2nd and Real finished in 4th the first time they had fallen below their rivals since 2000.

The feeling around Spain was Barcelona were back if they could just put their second half season form into a complete calendar year. A busy summer ensured as some of the deadwood made way for the likes of Deco, Samuel Eto and Rafael Márquez. Frank also made more of the talent pool that was La Masia as Andrés Iniesta started to play more regular and Xavi was made vice-captain. Ronaldinho was the star of the show though, Brazilians have always been known for some outrageous skills but this was taking the piss. Overhead kicks, passes off the back, step overs, back heels, flicks, disguised passes, ball juggling, if you could name it ? Ronaldinho could do it ! Unsurprisingly he claimed the FIFA World Player of the Year at the end of 2004 and Barcelona then secured there 1st title for 6 years. Rijkaard had built a very good side but one player stood out from all the rest. Coming in off the left flank with his pre-dominant right foot, Ronaldinho had the art of the inverted winger down to a tee. Gliding past tackles, a vision that seemed to be 360° and an ability to release the ball at the right time made him unstoppable. Just the 9 league goals for the season but more tellingly on the team he’s best assist rate with 16.

Things were looking rosy and Ronaldinho was the hottest property in world football. With that in mind Barca offered him a mammoth contract to fend off preying eyes but would have seen him tied to the club for the next 9 years. He rejected the deal but did sign a shorter extension to his current deal with a release clause of £85 million. Things continued in much the same way both on the pitch and off as the buck teeth wonder scooped a second World Player of the Year and a European Footballer of the Year. Perhaps the single most defining moment of Ronaldinho’s time in Spain could be categorised with what happened on the 19th November 2005. At the Bernabau, home of their deadliest rivals he put on some show scoring two outstanding solo goals in a 3-0 win. The last of which when he skipped past Sergio Ramos and slotted it in the far corner. As the camera spun around the stadium the Madrid fans stood  emotionless in the face but clapping the man who had just ripped their own team apart. I personally had never witnessed such an action but it had happened before in 1982 when Diego Maradona received similar respect. All of a sudden that lob over ‘Safe Hands’ was starting to look a lot more like he ment it. The season finished with another La Liga but this time they had won the Champions League, only the 2nd in their history. A career best of 26 goals for a man who seemed to have a permanent smile attached to his face.

A significant thing happened at the end of that season assistant manager Henk Ten Cate left to manage Ajax. Maybe a coincidence or the fact he was the strict disciplinarian, Barcelona didn’t win anything else under Rijkaard’s tenure. That season Ronaldinho scored an overhead kick against Villarreal and a low free kick against Werder Bremen, when the wall jumped it slid under their feet. He had yet another fantastic season scoring his best return in the league with 21 goals. At the end of the 06/07 they were level on points with Real Madrid but lost out on the head to head rule (Barcelona had a 19 goal superior goal difference).

2007/08 was to be his last year at the Nou Camp and also the last for Rijkaard. That pre-season saw everything begin to decline, players complained of tiredness after the travelling to Scotland to the Far East and then to Germany. Frank’s authority was being constantly undermined and training lacked the intensity of the past becoming somewhat of a joke. Personalities were clashing in the dressing room and Ron took a rather a large fancy to a spot of disco-dancing. Ronaldinho was becoming more accustomed to the celebrity lifestyle that his fantastic talent had enabled him to. A largely disrupted final campaign due to injury (some of which has to be attributed to the way he was then looking after himself or not as the case was) saw him score 8 league goals in 17 appearances. Ronaldinho is very much a family man, Sister (secretary), Uncle (chauffeur), Mother (chef) but having his Brother as his agent was probably not to his advantage. In some ways you could argue that he would always have his best interests at heart, but in other ways it seemed he had more of a control over his client than other agents could ever achieve.

In July 2008, Ronaldinho joined AC Milan for a fee in the region of €18.5 million. On his exit from the club he wrote a letter to the fans http://www.fcbarcelona.cat/web/english/noticies/futbol/temporada10-11/08/24/n100824112529.html

For Ronaldinho the Barca years were certainly the form of his life.

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Gregorio Manzano – The Spanish Roy Hodgson ?

Managing a club with big expectations either from the fans, historically or the media takes a certain kind of manager. A progressive and passing style is often required at the upper echelons of world football. Forward thinking ideas, tactically sound and a coaching ability to teach even the very best players something new are just some of the skills required.

Gregorio Manzano arrived in Seville on the 26th September 2010 replacing Antonio Álvarez who had been promoted in a boot room like way as had his predecessors Manolo Jiménez and Juande Ramos. He had no pre-season to get to know his squad or no transfer window to bring back Christian Poulsen or consider a move for his very own Paul Konchesky. He had however inherited good players but an unbalanced squad I think its fair to say. Last seasons 4th place finish just ahead of Manzano’s own Real Mallorca on the last day of the season was testament to that. On his arrival Sevilla had already been knocked out in the qualifying for the Champions League and were sitting 7th after just 5 games. The sacking of Álvarez was seen by many as a scapegoat for off field problems with 9 wins in 19 games it was hardly the worst of records but only 2 wins in the opening 8 games in all competitions had seen him pay the ultimate price. Gregorio however arrived on the back of a very successful season with Real Mallorca, 5th was some achievement for a club that had the 5th smallest budget in the league and is in the bottom 5 for attendance figures. Constant changes in personnel and owners mean the stability of the club is poor but still they defy the odds. If a manager can achieve this kind of success with a lesser team and players, imagine what can be achieved with a bigger budget and better players ! Unfortunately football rarely works like this, it takes a very different skill set to manage a smaller club as it does to manage a larger club despite what Sam Allardyce will have you believe.

Comparisons

To compare Liverpool with Sevilla is a little unfair, as until 2005 Sevilla had won just 1 League title and 3 Copa del Rey’s. There success is very recent so the two clubs are very different but due to the last 5 years expectations have certainly risen in Andalusia. In this time they have won 2 UEFA cups, 2 Copa del Rey’s, UEFA Super cup and a Spanish Super cup. So the two jobs of the managers aren’t to dissimilar. Both managers could argue that their job has changed in the short time they have been at their respected clubs but only Manzano can say that the situation has got worse. Both are required to work alongside a Sporting Director although Monchi has been there all along and Comolli has only arrived recently. The Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán holds 40,000+ which is in a similar region to that of Anfield but Sevilla have not had to contend with trying to rid their club of Statler and Waldorf. The real similarities lie in the appointments of the two men trying to get the results on the pitch.

Experienced – At 63 (Hodgson) and 54 (Manzano) the two managers have plenty of experience, you can’t beat a bit of experience in times of trouble ? Well if all that experience is sod all like the one you are about to face then does that not make it a new experience no matter how old you are. In fairness both had managed at clubs with similar expectations Roy at Internazionale and Gregorio at Atletico Madrid but a win percentage of 44.19% (all comp) for Roy and 39.47% (league only) for Gregorio respectively means they hardly stood out from the other potential candidates for their new jobs. It seems that it is not just fans that think in the short-term, both have been given their roles on the strength of the progress they have made in the last 2 years but both were under entirely different circumstances. In Gregorio’s 17 years of management he has had 16 different clubs across Spain, in Roy’s 24 years he has had 17 (including national teams but not non-league) across Europe. Surely a closer look at these times might have been better served.

Success – Hodgson has a rich array of trophies (8 league titles) unfortunately none of these have been achieved since 2001 and none have been achieved in a top 5 ranked league in Europe. Manzano however has just the Spanish Cup to his name which he won in 2003 but as this was achieved in his first spell at Real Mallorca does it carry a little more weight than Hodgsons ? In 2008 Manzano was awarded the Don Balón Award (coach of the year), last season Roy was voted LMA Manager of the year.

Tactics – To say Manzano’s tactics are similar to Hodgson’s would be doing a massive injustice to the Spaniard. He certainly isn’t as rigid with his starting formation, he’s more likely to make reactive changes and doesn’t have a tendency to put players in there un-favoured positions. The one player that he has done this with Freddie Kanoute has often excelled either in central midfield or in the hole. Showing a good range of passing and work rate off the ball and winning headers to flick the ball on to the striker. Which leads me to the point – directness ! I don’t think it’s too unfair to call Hodgson’s tactics long ball in the main, obviously managers game plans change from game to game but overall it is certainly a long ball from either centre back or goalkeeper for the striker to contend with. Manzano’s is similar with a lack of creativity in the centre of midfield when the wingers have been given little space there has been a tendency for the longer pass but with Kanoute’s different position and either Fabiano or Negredo up front it definitely suits Sevilla more than it does Liverpool. Whether Manzano continues in this vein will probably depend more on the players brought into the club rather than just general stubbornness.

Squad – International players ? check ! World Cup winning squad members ? check ! Striker with supposedly poor body language ? check ! Both squads contain some fantastic individuals when on top form but both sides also contain a number of individuals who aren’t good enough for varying reasons. In defence of Manzano injuries to key players for a large part of his time at the club have affected his 3 months in charge. Jesus Navas is a very important player and he was out for a good while whilst Luis Fabiano has said a number of times in the last 18 months of a desire to play elsewhere. Had Hodgson lost Steven Gerrard for a more extended time period than he did and had Fernando Torres actually openly say he wanted to leave rather than the daily rags constant speculation then things could have been even worse (heaven forbid).

Away Form – Perhaps the most striking comparison between
the two is the fact that since Manzano rolled up Sevilla have won
just once away, sounds familiar for Liverpool fans. 1 win in 5
games is still better than 1 win in 9 games which is what Roy currently boasts with the reds. More tellingly though is the fact that last season at Real Mallorca and Fulham, Gregorio managed only 3 away wins in 19 games and Roy just 1 win in 19.  Their home form being the reason they have got their chance at a bigger club has also deserted them at times this season with losses to Almeria and the previously poor away side Real Mallorca. Newly promoted Blackpool and a Wolves side that hadn’t won away all season.

Conclusion

There are as many differences as there are similarities between the two men, as is the case with all managers. I’m yet to see Manzano really put his foot in it with the fans nevermind on a regular basis. The situation the 2 clubs now find themselves in is what ultimately separates the two of them. Liverpool under new ownership are looking for a manager with a long-term vision, to embrace new ideas and restore them back to former glories in the short but mainly over a greater period of time. Hodgson is a dead man walking every game seems like an extended stay with the end of the season as long as he can possibly hope for. Sevilla have realised that they can’t continue to pay out high wages or high transfer fees, they want to return to the not to recent past of bringing players through their youth system while looking to move them on for a considerable profit, as in the case of Sergio Ramos, Dani Alves and Jose Antonio Reyes. Top six positions are probably the best they can hope for in the longer term. The jury is still out as to whether Manzano is the right man for that despite being a good manager.

For more on Sevilla try Sid Lowe’s recent article : http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/blog/2010/dec/13/sevilla-a-crisis-runs-through-it

For more on Hodgson, Liverpool and having the right manager for the right job read the excellent Paul Tomkins : http://tomkinstimes.com/2010/11/depression-and-dreading-life-as-a-red/

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