Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Lay off Berba

For the disgruntled Spurs fans who rage at the prospect of losing Dimitar Berbatov read the small-town boy who watches with mixed emotions as his beautiful girlfriend seduces the country in some godforsaken talent contest, knowing all the while that her success would ultimately result in her removal from him. Berbatov is too good for Spurs. No amount of protestation from Juande Ramos can hide this. Ramos knows it, Berbatov himself knows it, his team mates know it, and, reluctantly, so do those same fans. It is, after all, a situation they are familiar with, echoing the painful departures of Hoddle, Waddle, Gascoigne and Sheringham.

Spurs’ enemies in the football world, as numerous as they are vociferous, have latched on to the plight of Berbatov with glee. Berbatov’s desire to depart, they say, proves that Spurs will never be a big club, that they are a selling club and a feeder club to the big boys. They miss the point. Berbatov’s situation highlights the impossible difficulties facing any club outside the top four. Clearly to reach this level Spurs must keep him, but such is the scale of the player’s ability that as he has acclimatised to the Premiership he has simply outgrown his stage. An unsettled player is never a positive influence and his departure has become inevitable. Blackburn will soon face a similar situation with David Bentley.

The gulf between the top four and the rest is more pronounced than ever. As Ian Wright inadvertently put it: “I reckon if you asked 10 Spurs players if they would like to join one of the top four clubs, eight or nine would say yes. You rarely hear Arsenal or Chelsea players saying they want to move because they already know they are at a big club. And unless Real Madrid or Barcelona come in for them there are not many bigger clubs they can go to.” What is so surprising about this? Surely no-one at Spurs, or Man City or Everton for that matter, would be foolish to claim that their club can compete with one of the top-four at the moment. If Alan Hutton has asked for time before joining Spurs in the hope that United will come in for him then so what? It is not an insult to Spurs as such, rather an acknowledgement of the state of the realm. United are a bigger club, as are Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. With the cash of Thaksin Shinawatra City may mount a serious challenge to the quartet but the point remains that it is entirely understandable for any player from these clubs approached by the ‘big-four’ to have their head turned. 

The only club from outside this clique to win the Premier League are Blackburn in its third season, while the same four teams have monopolised the FA Cup since Everton won it in 1995. As far as the Champions League goes, only Everton have broken through, and they were unlucky enough to run into an inspired Villarreal in 2005. When even Liverpool, runners-up in last season’s Champions League and the owners of £26m Fernando Torres, trail the leaders by 12 points in January the problems for those below them are clear. Spearheaded by Berbatov, Spurs had their chance to stake their claim this season but for many well-documented reasons the anticipated push has never materialised. Such is life. It is not the player’s fault that in-fighting, injuries and an over-reliance on youth have conspired against his team. Had everything gone according to plan they would have struggled to break the stranglehold, but as it happens not even the great Geoff Capes could have carried Spurs’ leaking ship to European contention this campaign. 

Berbatov has been castigated by the media and countless ex-pro’s for his body language as the team snowballed. Spurs ‘legend’ Paul Walsh, a player whose hair gave fans more pleasure than his ability on the ball, saw fit to describe him as a ‘disgrace’. Walsh is one of many with a short memory. It was less than a year ago when Berbatov first shot to prominence that these same critics eulogised over his languid countenance, his grace and casual air on the ball. Not that much has changed this year. Some weeks he is sublime, others peripheral. It is the nature of the beast. Just as the reckless abandon of George Best was translated so sublimely onto the pitch, Berbatov is an artisan, a rare breed. Why do we demand that he wears his heart on his sleeve in the style of a Lee Carsley?

Clearly an intelligent man, why should Berbatov not have been aggrieved by events at Tottenham this season? The behaviour surrounding the sacking of Martin Jol was shambolic, and a player of his ability would surely be inhuman if he were not led to question what he is doing at a club seemingly so determined to shoot themselves in the foot. As for his body-language, the gulf in ability between Berbatov and some of his team-mates is at times derisory. Berbatov plays a style of football befitting the finest traditions. He is a perfectionist, who cares enough to show his disapproval when his colleagues are playing a different game. He deserves the chance to display his talents alongside those of a similar mindset at Old Trafford or Highbury. After all he is no Paulo Di Canio. He has scrapped with the best of them for Spurs, been influential away at Middlesbrough, Man City and Wigan. He is human yet immortal, his four goals at Reading coming after a first-half when everything he touched turned to mud. To suggest that in such an case the player owes the club is dangerous. They have not developed his extraordinary ability, it is his own work. The player must look after number one, nobody else will.

The time has come for an amicable break, whether this January or in the summer. Berbatov is 27, the clock is ticking. The fate of a bruised Thierry Henry at Barcelona serves as a reminder of the consequences of misguided loyalty, and Henry had the benefit of Championship medals at Arsenal to sate his thirst for further success. Rather than cursing him for his ambition, Spurs fans should savour the fact that once again they have been lucky enough to bear witness to a player who was destined for a higher plain.

More Guardian Unlimited OBO's

England in Sri Lanka

Second Test in Colombo

First day
morning session

Third Test in Galle

Fifth Day
Morning session
Afternoon session
Evening session

Distin laughing loudest

Written just before Tottenham travelled to Portsmouth on December 15 2007

Sylvain Distin will appreciate the irony when his Portsmouth side entertain Tottenham this weekend. Portsmouth sit fifth in the table, level with big spending Liverpool, are unbeaten in five games and have won their last six away from home. Their opponents, despite a slight upturn under new manager Juande Ramos and the controversial recent home win over Manchester City, are 13th, 15 points adrift and within touching distance of the relegation zone. Both sides have scored a healthy 28 goals, a total topped only by Manchester United, Arsenal and Everton, but Spurs have conceded a whopping 29 goals to Portsmouth's 14. The reason for the disparity in league position is clear.

It could be so different for Spurs and Distin. It was well known in the summer that Martin Jol was keen on signing the 29-year-old Frenchman, a free-agent after reaching the end of his contract at Manchester City, where he was captain. Distin would undoubtedly have been keen on the move to a London club in European competition, but the Spurs board quickly pulled the plug on any deal because of the his age and wage demands . Harry Redknapp had no such quibbles, needing no second invitation to add Distin to an experienced and streetwise defence that already contained former England keeper David James and title winners Sol Campbell and Lauren.

Instead of Distin, the Spurs board preferred to continue their policy of investing heavily in promising youth with the alluring potential of future profit. Their choice was Younes Kaboul, the France u21 captain signed from Auxerre for nigh on £8m. It is a decision that has blown up spectacularly, as Kaboul has made several high profile blunders in recent weeks to cost his side vital Premiership points. Surely, given the chronic nature of Ledley King's injury problems in recent years, signing a young, foreign, ball-playing central defender as his principle cover smacks of gross irresponsibility from up high? Kaboul's current trials are unfortunate, as he has all the attributes to be an exceptional defender given the time that there is little chance he will be shown by a Tottenham support that currently resemble a pack of wounded lions. How they crave the solidity Distin would have provided. Elano and Martin Petrov, two other players vetoed by the Spurs board for reasons similar to Distin have proved the catalysts to Manchester City’s bright first half of the season.

Kaboul's case serves to highlight the endemic flaws in Spurs' transfer policy, and the naivety of their board to expect Champions League qualification on the back of four signings of whom Darren Bent was, at 23, the oldest and the only one possessing any Premier League experience. With their poor start to this season Spurs have paid the price for a failure to acknowledge that youthul promise can only take a side so far. Even the famous Manchester United kids of 94/5 were supplemented by Schmeichel, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin and Cantona. The only player Spurs purchased in the summer who has improved their team in the immediate term is Gareth Bale, and such is the hand of fate that injury has now deprived them of his services until March.

Bent himself has endured a torrid beginning to his Spurs career, a few recent goals failing to mask the low esteem in which the White Hart Lane crowd have held him since he missed a golden chance to level his first North London derby at 2-2, a game that Spurs would lose 3-1. The truth is that Bent, an honest labourer with a touch to match, has never for a second looked a Spurs player to a crowd spoilt by the talents of Hoddle, Ginola and now Berbatov. The problem is, he knows it. For all the upbeat soundbites, Bent's face bears the look of one that is painfully aware it doesn't fit.

David Nugent can sympathise. A goalscorer for England last season, it looks like the £6m signing from Preston and perennial benchwarmer's only achievement this term will be providing proof that Harry Redknapp is not flawless in the transfer market. While he has been afforded little opportunity by the form of Benjani and Kanu, another of Redknapp's shrewdest moves, he has looked worryingly off the pace when called upon. Spurs too bought young from the Championship, but such is the freakish scale of Gareth Bale's talent and maturity that the two hardly bear comparison. After his hat-trick at the weekend, Everton will be happy that they coughed up the extra £4m for Yakubu's proven goal-scoring.

Nugent will almost certainly depart in January, with Portsmouth reclaiming most of their outlay, and Redknapp will return to his policy of buying players who he knows exactly what he can get from them, regardless of their age. One wonders whether he would have been encouraged to alter this strategy had he accepted the job at White Hart Lane that his friend Paul Kemsley is rumoured to have persuaded Daniel Levy to offer him. That hearsay never materialised, but Levy now faces an uncomfortable Christmas bearing the responsibility for the fact that Dimitar Berbatov, the one player on his books capable of taking the club to the financial playground Levy so covets, is likely to leave in the ensuing transfer-window. If he does go, it will send a silent tsunami smashing through Spurs' hopes of joining the elite.

Who knows what the future holds for Portsmouth? James and Campbell will need to be replaced sooner rather than later, and their squad may well not possess the depth to keep going until May. At present, however, they are doing a passable imitation of a side capable of presenting a real challenge for a Champions league spot. Perhaps their success may even jog the thinking of whoever is in control of Spurs' transfer dealings. For the moment though, Distin is the one laughing loudest.

Come in Number 10

Written just after England's decisive qualifying defeat against Croatia on November 21 2007

Over the coming weeks much will be written about what is wrong with English football. Steve McClaren, perhaps deservedly, will take much of the stick, while the argument will continue to rage about the effect of foreign players on the national team. It will be said that the country is not producing enough young footballers of the requisite pedigree. This is not entirely true. Over the last year Micah Richards, Theo Walcott, Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor have emerged, Walcott excepted, from the shadows as outstanding candidates for the senior side in the future. They are all superb athletes, blessed with searing pace and in Richards' case a frightening physicality. They are products of the modern Premier League, a place where place and power rule, but what of their old bedfellow precision?

What is true is that England are not producing a certain type of player any more, the old fashioned no10, capable of operating in the grey area between midfield and attack, putting his foot on the ball and orchestrating play. Nowhere was this more in evidence than on Wednesday at Wembley in the shape of Croatia's Luka Modric. For all England's passionate bluster, their fate always looked to be at the whim of the diminutive yet destructive Modric. Until England find a means of developing this type of player they will continue to look pedestrian and cumbersome in international football.

It is clear that these sorts of players do not exactly grow on trees in England. It is ironic that Chelsea have been linked with a move for Modric when they already boast in their ranks the English player perhaps most suited to the role in Joe Cole. Sadly, for club and country he has developed into a left-winger who, though full of endeavour, spends most of his time doing step-overs on the halfway-line rather than influencing games where it matters. Wayne Rooney, like Teddy Sheringham before him, has the ability to link play but his style is more get-up-and-go and he tends to operate further forward for England. Steve McClaren clearly recognised the inherent lack of guile in his squad. He was in principle admirably committed to solving this problem by employing pace on the flanks, but consistently showed his weakness by reverting to the staid tactics of his predecessor whenever failure beckoned. He was a weak man caught between two stools, a decisive ditherer, whose reign will forever be defined by his inability to trust his own mind.

The last English player to really occupy anything approaching the Modric role at international level was Paul Scholes under Glenn Hoddle, Kevin Keegan and initially Sven-Goran Eriksson. Under Hoddle, Scholes thrived in the now distrusted and discarded 3-5-2 formation, while under Keegan he was given enough license to score an international hat-trick. That said, even Scholes was not a conventional no.10, with his Ferguson instilled work ethic if not his tackling skills giving him a defensive capacity that would have been beyond a Hagi, a Scifo, a Modric or a Kaka. Before Scholes one must turn via the unfortunate Gascoigne back to Hoddle, so gifted yet so typically mistrusted by England during his playing days. He alone among recent England managers has shown any inclination to give the country's most talented ball-players their head in the final third of the pitch.

A look at the makeup of Premier League midfields is revealing. Very few attack-minded 'creative' midfield players are given license to operate in a central position. Cesc Fabregas at Arsenal is an exceptional exception, while the vision of Scholes and Anderson at Manchester United is supplemented by a tireless work ethic. All are shielded by exceptional defensive minded partners. Elsewhere managers are less forthcoming in going forward, with most play-makers accommodated by their teams in wide positions, notably Elano at Man City, Mikel Arteta at Everton, Steed Malbranque at Spurs and Yossi Benayoun at Liverpool. Elano and Arteta are consistently excellent, but the other two would undoubtedly benefit from a more central exposure in midfields that have notably underperformed this season. Seba Veron is an example of an old-fashioned play-maker who could not adapt to life on the margins at Old Trafford. Scholes aside, the injury-prone David Dunn at Blackburn is the sole regular English exponent of the creative central-midfield art in top-flight football. His manager Mark Hughes has also been unafraid to entrust the impressive David Bentley with a central attacking responsibility, all while maintaining an enviable defensive solidity. With a successful stint as Wales manager already on his C.V. Hughes looks increasingly the outstanding candidate for the England job, a man who knows his own mind in an increasingly fear-driven environment.

So why this distrust in the ball-player? Premier League midfields are increasingly reliant on the power of African imports, a trend understandable in the modern era as any team seeking to thrive in the Premier League must compete first on a physical level. Whether this emphasis on hard-running and harder-tackling is a recipe for success remains to be seen. It was clear watching Nigeria play Australia recently that, for all their enviable power, African teams too continue to lack a player who can operate in the style that Harry Kewell did that day, dropping deep and picking holes in the opposition defence. Their lack of subtlety is glaring, and it is difficult to see an African nation fulfilling Pele's phrophecy and winning the World Cup until they address this problem. It is worth remembering that the two outstanding midfield pairings in English football in the last ten years contained an enviable balance of defensive solidity and attacking nous, Roy Keane and Paul Scholes at United and Patrick Viera and Emmanuel Petit at Arsenal.

The standard Premiership midfield now comes pre-packaged with a powerful holding midfield player and an energetic box-to-box player who can score goals (see Sissoko and Gerrard, Essien and Lampard, Zokora and Jenas). Most managers are happy to see their creativity come purely from the flanks, whether it be in the form of a wide-playmaker like Arteta or the out-and-out winger such as Cristiano Ronaldo. The problem, however, is that a great number of these creative players are foreign: Ronaldo and Nani at United, Hleb and Rosicky at Arsenal. There are attacking English players featuring in the Premier League: Cole, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Walcott, Young, Agbonlahor, Bentley, and Aaron Lennon are the most prominent, but with the exception of Cole and Wright-Phillips, the English fliers are at the start of their careers.

So what does the future hold? Clearly, the English game does not produce players in the style of Luka Modric, but Steve McClaren's successor cannot afford to bemoan this. He has pace and trickery at his disposal in wide areas, and must organise the midfield in a way as to best provide our wingers with the ball in the areas in which they can hurt the opposition, high up the pitch. Never again must lumping balls up to a big-man be England's sole means of attack, and if this means crushing a few egos in the middle then so be it. After all, we are at the end of a campaign in which England have failed to pass through Macedonia at home.

Whoever follows McClaren has a hell of a difficult job. Young English talent will continue to compete physically with Makelele and outpace Mikel but, for now at least, they will not be able to outpass Modric. He must have the courage and the judgement to clip the wings of the established and give his young wingers their heads when it is appropriate, as they represent the best hope of conquering the present malaise. If he dithers, he will quickly come to a sticky end like his predeccessor, stuck in the mud of no-man's-land.

What happened to Wayne?

Written just after England's qualifying defeat in Russia on 17 November

Wayne Rooney's volleyed goal against Russia was stunning in its simplicity and brutal in its execution. It was also a goal that evoked hope in English supporters. Hope that England would go on to clinch the win that would secure qualification for the European Championships, and hope that here, finally, Rooney was showing signs of growing into the player that he had threatened to become in that heady summer of 2004, and answering the critics who claimed that he was no longer worthy of his place in the national side.

Sadly, fate is rarely sentimental. England lost, and in a cruel twist it was Rooney himself who clumsily upended the Russian right-winger for the equalising goal. Rooney's eagerness to help his side out defensively was to ultimately cost them dear. For Rooney the goal-getting hero of 2004 read Rooney the defensive villain of 2007. His goal aside, his contribution was fitful, his partnership with Michael Owen once again anonymous. So where has it all gone wrong?

Before chairs are thrown from tables, it has obviously not gone that wrong. Rooney was a vital member of the United team that swept (for at least half the season) majestically towards the Premiership last season and helped to reignite the public's passion for a domestic game that had endured two seasons of Chelsea's unchallenged monotony. The problem, in so much as there is one, lies in the fact that his flashes of genius are now increasingly rare, so rare that even the most ardent United or England fan could no longer claim that Rooney is one of the Premiership's, let alone the world's, top players. Good? yes, Great?

Whereas his teammate Cristiano Ronaldo goes from strength to strength and trick to trick, the byword for Rooney is now functionality. He possesses in abundance what his club manager Sir Alex Ferguson has always demanded from his players, a willingness to graft hard and for the team, as epitomised in that fateful moment in Moscow. He willingly fills in at left midfield when Ferguson persists with his controversially conservative 4-5-1 formation, and the audacious long-range efforts of old have disappeared to be replaced with sideways passes. He is most probably now a more mature and better all-round player than when he arrived at Old Trafford but at what cost has this been to his hopes of greatness?

Improving the allround game is such an unsatisfactory term in itself; just ask Jermain Defoe and Emile Heskey. While neither were as talented as Rooney, as young men both had the potential to be significant international players. Yet somewhere along the way, while developing their 'allround game', they misplaced the confidence and gumption to keep doing what had got them there in the first place. Heskey lost the ability to turn and drive at defences in the way that so terrorised the Argentinians at Wembley in 2000, while Defoe discarded the single-minded head-down scent for goal that marked him out as such a predator in his time at West Ham and early days at Tottenham. Both appear jaded by experience, and while injuries have led to a very different Heskey's temporary resurgence, Defoe remains in the doldrums, still searching for the fearlessness of his early career. For Rooney to go the way of these two would be criminal. He must seek to regain what marked him out as special before it is too late. It may already be so.

Where is the joie de vivre of the Rooney who scored a hat-trick on his Old Trafford debut, the audacity of the youngster who juggled the ball on his knee on his full England debut aged 17 against the uncompromising brutes of Turkey? It seems to have disappeared somewhere in a fireball of metatarsal injuries, constant press scrutiny and the relentless treadmill that is now the life of an international sportsman. The old anger is still there, but seems more borne of frustration at the diminishing of his powers than a healthy flame inside. Playing football appears far more of a job for Rooney than you would want it to be for a 21-year-old with theoretically well over a decade left at the top level. But then again Rooney is no ordinary 21-year-old, having already played 40 times for his country.

While in the past England managers have been criticised for not giving their most technically gifted players a run in the team (Hoddle, Barnes, Le Tissier), Rooney has suffered no such problem. Of course he brings more to the team as a whole than all three of them, but it looks increasingly like Steve McClaren persists with Rooney on the basis of what his prodigious gifts once promised to bring. It cannot be for his recent international form taken in isolation, which while by no means being derisory has not been good enough to warrant depriving the team of the tall striker that statistics prove Michael Owen needs along side him to score goals consistently. And that is what England need and have needed all through this qualification
campaign: Owen's goals.

Ironically, it was from Owen's unlikely and impressive leap that Rooney took the ball on his chest to give England the lead in Moscow. Sadly that was all that was seen of Owen of note on another night that he and Rooney notably failed to work in tandem. This might be forgiven in isolation, away from home on a plastic pitch in the cold of Russia, but cannot be when the same trend was in evidence against the fragility of the Estonians at Wembley four days earlier. Something, surely, has to give with the return of Emile Heskey and Dean Ashton.Heskey and Owen showed more chemistry in two games last month than Rooney and Owen have in three years, and this cannot be ignored any longer. But what a crime it would be, for the gifts of Rooney to be substituted for the brawn of the derided Heskey. At United, he fits seamlessly as part of a global ensemble cast of stars, but his country require more from him. The problem is that Rooney is no longer as we once knew him, and until he returns to that level, the team must come first.

Is it our fault we have to ask ourselves, the nitpicking media and the baying public? Has the culture we have created demanded Rooney's conformity because flair and genius is something the English rarely possess and so are naturally distrustful of? Would the English have tolerated the sporadic, inconsistent yet mesmeric genius of Gheorge Hagi and Enzo Scifo in the way of the Romanians and the Belgians? Not if the gradual assimilation into the ranks of the similarly talented
Joe Cole is anything to go by. For the grin of Ronaldinho and the wink of Cristiano Ronaldo read the grimace of Rooney, because he is English, born and bred in Toxteth, and what English sport cherishes most are blood and guts and heart and soul; you need only look to the England's Rugby players in Paris on Saturday to see that. What chance of greatness did Rooney ever stand in this framework?

To turn to cricket for a comparison, Kevin Pietersen was lauded when he first played for England because he displayed a very un-English (unsurprisingly for a South African) lack of fear of situation or reputation, qualities equally synonomous with Rooney at the start of his career. With Pietersen's boldness came risk, occasional failure, yet a bravado that captured the imagination of the public and prematurely did for the stodgy Graham Thorpe. As his career has progressed, for a number of reasons, including several media backlashes when things have gone wrong, he has tempered that bravado. Unadulterated showmanship has been replaced by relative circumspection. As his Test figures show, he is undoubtedly a better
all-round player for it, yet England fans have missed his devil-may-care attitude in the shortened forms of the game, where he has appeared confused by his change of identity. While cricket is technically a team game, there is a clear focus on the individual. Consequently, Pietersen has been able to showcase his improvement and sheer weight of Test runs mean few save the romantics rue his changes
in approach.

Unfortunately for Rooney, football works differently, and consequently his progression as a player has not been so clearly visible. He is a striker, and as such is judged ultimately not only on goals, but because of his reputation, spectacular ones. They have been few and far between of late, with significant goal droughts for United in Europe and England
in competitive fixtures. While he has broken both, such trends beg the question as to whether we have seen the best of him already at 21?

Only time will tell, but if so, perhaps we should not be greedy. For that one summer, the possibilites for Rooney and England were endless, the future was an open door. That is a rare and exceptional feeling, and he bestowed it upon a whole country in a way that no player had done since Gascoigne. At least he had the chance to stamp his genius on the international scene, unlike the unfortunate Robbie Fowler, whose best days were the preserve of the Kop and was washed up at 23, but would
have graced any field in the world before then. That may sound sacrilegious, but Michael Owen has never been the same player since he was voted European Footballer of the Year at a similar age in 2001, and arguably never the same since he too terrorised Argentina at the age of 18.

But this is not an international obituary; it doesn't have to be like that. Rooney is 21. The talent is clearly still there, waiting to come out. In his next match he will probably score a hat-trick of volleys from outside the area and I will happily eat my words. However, until then, until he rediscovers what made him England's Wayne Rooney in the first place, England and McClaren must let go of the past and pick a team that serves Michael Owen and will beat Croatia.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

GU OBO- England v India 5th ODI

A pretty comprehensive victory for India in the 5th ODI at Headingley as they outclassed a Flintoff-less England.

For my OBO of the England innings click here.

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Good-Bad or Bad-Good?

This is a great article by Barney Ronay in the Guardian. He really nails the difference between technically great footballers who fail to produce consistent results, the bad-good players (ie Steed Malbranque) and those players who overachieve for their ability, the good-bad players (Peter Crouch, Lee Carsley, Phil Neville). Which would you rather have in your team?