EURO 2016: Who’s hot and who’s not?

EURO 2016: Who’s hot and who’s not?

With only the second round of matches in progress at the 2016 European Championship in France, taking stock is probably premature. But if the initial round of matches is anything to go by, the teams to watch out for besides the hosts are traditional European powerhouses Italy and Germany. Croatia and Wales are possible dark horses who are very different from each other in style. It is highly likely that four out of these five teams will eventually make the semifinals unless they meet spirited opposition and/or terrible luck.

The Italian team came into a major international tournament for the first time in decades without being considered out-and-out contenders. But Antonio Conte has managed to bring some of the defensive organization that was seen during his time at Juventus. The back three in a 3-5-2 is the vital for the system to work. Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leandro Bonucci have played together at Juventus for quite some time now and were established as world class defenders under Conte’s regime. The lack of pace in the team has been addressed by playing narrow and packing the midfield with tireless runners. Graziano Pelle is an excellent option up front to hold up play and win aerial duels for the midfield to push forward after possession is regained. Bonucci’s ability to play long passes on the break comes in handy in the absence of the retired Andrea Pirlo, as evidenced by Emanuele Giacherrini’s goal against Belgium. Belgium’s lack of quality wingbacks may have exaggerated the tactical superiority of the Azzuri but it is highly unlikely they will lose to either Sweden or Ireland if they keep shape in defense and focus on not conceding as they did against Belgium.

Germany are world champions and will be looking to add a European title to their World Cup win in Brazil. With the World Cup’s all-time leading scorer Miroslav Klose now a retired legend, Germany’s only weakness is that they don’t have a proper striker to finish the countless attacking moves their midfield muster up. Mesut Ozil has taken his Premier League form to France and looked quite assured playing as the fulcrum around which his team attacked against Ukraine. While Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira had a relatively easy outing against the eastern Europeans, the partnership does seem like the sum is greater than the parts. Kroos’ passing range and Khedira’s defensive covering are their primary qualities but neither of them are shy to latch on to loose balls and take shots from outside the box adding to the team’s choices in attack. Thomas Muller, who has already scored 32 goals for his country including 10 at the last two World Cups and 3 at Euro 2012, offers a wide range of choices for Joachim Low up front. Muller is not a striker or a winger or an attacking midfielder in the traditional sense and his technique is probably inferior to the rest of his teammates. But what he does offer is a sharp reading of the game and the incredible sense to pop up in space at the right time like a magician. If Germany are looking to emulate defending champion Spain by holding both the World Cup and the European Championship at the same time, the genius of Ozil on the ball will need to sync better with the genius of Muller off the ball.

Dmitri Payet has already prompted hushed comparisons with arguably the greatest French footballer of all time, Zinedine Zidane. Zidane was a crucial member of the French teams that won the World Cup in 1998 and Euro 2000, besides almost single-handedly carrying an ordinary team to the final in 2006. The 29-year-old Payet has only played 21 games for France but seems to have peaked at the right time on the evidence of his maiden Premier League season with West Ham marked by his relentless chance creation in every single game he’s played. Injuries to Raphael Varane, Aymeric Laporte and Kurt Zouma have left France with the slow centreback pairing of Laurent Koscielny and Adil Rami. N’Golo Kante’s dynamic midfield shielding will provide enough against teams that attack through the centre but teams that can stretch play with quality wingers are sure to create headaches for Didier Deschamps’ men. Les Bleus have an array of players who are match-winners for top European clubs in Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial, to name a few. Deschamps has still not figured out how to effectively harness the explosive pace of Kingsley Coman, the teenager who has already won league titles in France, Italy and Germany.  But with the home crowd turning up in huge numbers and with their history in home tournaments, France is definitely favourite to become European champion this time.

Wales has had a superb qualifying playing the most expensive footballer in the world, Gareth Bale, in a roving central role just behind striker Hal Robson-Kanu and it is no coincidence they scored the winning goal once they reverted to this system in their opener against a fighting Slovakia. Captain Ashley Williams is a rock in defense and plays a huge role in leading the defense and keeping his teammates on their toes when the opposition has the ball. Bale relishes being the top dog in a team that is assembled around his abilities and has a history of running his socks off every game he puts on the Welsh jersey.

Croatia’s midfield core of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, established starters at Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively, automatically increases their chances of winning in tight games. Darijo Srna has been consistently solid at rightback for Ukrainian champions Shaktar Donetsk in the Champions League over the last decade and is a natural leader at the back who marauds forwards when his team needs an outlet. Mario Mandzukic’s towering presence offers a target for long balls from the back but Croatia rarely rely on punting the ball and bypassing their world-class midfield. Ivan Perisic’s lack of pace is offset by his clever footwork and juicy left-foot crosses, offering a different sort of attacking threat.

Belgium’s golden generation, the top-ranked team in the tournament, slipped on the Italian banana peel but could pick up form in the remaining group games. The absence of skipper Vincent Kompany in defense has seriously affected defensive organization and the lack of high quality wingbacks pegged them back even against a defensive team like Italy. Belgium have enough firepower up top to make up for these defensive deficiencies but Mark Wilmots has not shown any signs of getting all the talent playing together fluently. Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Yannick Carrasco are all individually explosive if the team is built around them but the midfield is now pushed far too back for the passing ability of Radja Nainggolan to link up with any of them.

England also suffers from a similar tragedy of riches. Roy Hodgson has played a gambit by taking off the attacking shackles that seemed to weigh this young, exciting English team down in qualifying. This has momentarily yielded good results in their opening game before Russia managed to sneak in an equalizer after substitutions seemed to stretch the defense out of shape.

Spain, much like Germany, also struggle to score against teams that defend deep because the lack of pure finisher means their obscenely talented midfield keeps passing around the box to no effect. The fact that both centrebacks had to push up to provide some kind of goal threat in their opening match against Czech Republic underlines this deficiency.

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Does football need a revolution?

Does football need a revolution?

A topsy-turvy season of Premier League football has come to an end with surprise results for all teams, except for maybe the consistently poor crew at Aston Villa. Leicester City have hit the jackpot of £93 million, mostly bolstered by the £5 billion TV deal that most expected to flow into the already overflowing coffers of a Manchester or London club. Teams like Tottenham Hotspurs, West Ham United, Southampton and Watford have claimed a stake to be considered as competitors for next season’s European places alongside clubs which made huge revenues (and investments) in the last decade. Leicester’s unpredictable title win this season was embraced by fans around the world with hyperbolic puritan escapism, alluding that money is not a factor in winning football trophies. Of course, what they mean to say is, money is not the only factor in winning football trophies.

Much like life, there are things money can’t buy in football but you do have some things that you can buy to reduce the impact of such things. The technique and fitness of individual players can be improved by designing and spending on training regimens and infrastructure. Talented players and managers can be bought from different parts of the world. Words like “history” and “tradition”often litter discussions about money in football but if you look closely, it is only used to celebrate the victories of an established hegemony but at the same time to lament the rise of a new hegemony. “You can’t buy fans!”, you say? As teams that routinely make the list of richest football clubs in the world have ably demonstrated, it is even possible to manufacture a huge overseas fanbase (who stay up past midnight to watch football and dream of flying to European stadiums to watch their clubs play) that dwarfs the needs of the local fans who actually turn up at stadiums week-in and week-out to watch their clubs play. None of this, of course, takes anything away from enjoying the sport unless a good vs. evil narrative is central to your understanding of sports.

This good vs. evil narrative – a relic of our collective human obsession with religion – has always plagued football, another one of our collective human obsessions. The rags-to-riches stories of some of the best footballers to have ever played, from Pele to Luis Suarez, have been anecdotes that demonstrated the meritocratic fairness of football in a “nasty, short and brutish” life outside of the game. Clubs bankrolled by multi-billionaires being upset by clubs bankrolled by multi-millionaires are celebrated as events of hope that the inherent goodness of the poor is a force that can beat the inherent evil of the rich. Thus, the evil in modern football is the same evil in modern life: Greed and his bastard offspring, Capitalism. The good is a little more complicated because what can possibly beat the evil of capitalism? A revolution, of course.

This revolution will ensure all clubs start off as equals and only the “deserving team” wins. After each season, the revenue generated will be distributed equitably based on which clubs won more and which clubs attracted the most fans. Wait, isn’t this how we reached the current state of income-gaps in the first place? Okay, then the Football Association must put in social safety nets and affirmative action policies for the least performing clubs and historical instances of oppression by referees and bigger clubs will be considered before final league tables and prize monies are calculated. The definition of “deserving team” is usually limited by club loyalties but is usually agreed to be “team that plays exciting football” which is another way of saying constant attacking play. Since the success of such exciting football is measured by goals, this would also mean that the league title would go to the team that scores the most goals and not to the team that wins the most matches. (Sorry, Leicester City!) Of course, investments outside of revenue earned by club is also a strict no-no because this would create unfair advantages for some clubs. We should ideally also not keep score, as this would result in some teams being considered better than others purely on the basis of the number of goals that they scored and conceded!

The romantics may clamor for a revolution and shed a tear about how money has corrupted football and loyalty means nothing for anyone except the fans in football anymore. Meanwhile Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Antonio Conte, Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho are all bringing their respective styles of previously successful management to the same league next season. Is the point of football to bring all the best talent in the world and make them compete in different scenarios? Or is it to spot young talent and provide them situations to grow, even when they make mistakes? The point in sports is to win. The competition might be more exciting than the result but it is the prospect of the result that creates the competition. Everyone involved in the setup of a club understands that winning is not one of the most important things but that it is the only important thing. And this is precisely why Stretford End would put aside its critiques about his style and embrace Mourinho as one of their own, if he even hints in his first few games at maintaining the best win percentage for any manager in Premier League.

 

The Cool Phase of El Niño

The Cool Phase of El Niño

In the spring of 2009, a team, second in the table but chasing the league title plays a team fighting to stay in the league on a warm sunny afternoon. A one-club-man takes a touch, and then launches the ball upfield as he has done for the most of his career. A dashing young striker with blond highlights chests the ball and volleys it on the swivel. The goal keeper stands no chance. The striker runs off and is mobbed by his teammates. The crowd is spellbound but at the same time there’s an air of inevitability to it. There’s no denying the magic but magic is unexpected. Is it really magic if you expect it?

Almost 7 years to the day, a team, second in the table but chasing a league title plays a comfortably mid-table team on a warm sunny afternoon. A one-club-man takes a touch and then immediately launches it upfield, quite contrary to his character as a buildup player. An old warhorse of a striker with blond highlights chests the ball and half-volleys it on the swivel. The shot is powerful but the keeper could and should have saved it. The striker runs off and is mobbed by his teammates. The crowd is happy but not spellbound but at the same time there’s a sense of magic even though it really isn’t that special. But isn’t it magic if you don’t expect it?

Seven is considered a magical number in football. But for the striker in question, more than anything, the past seven years has been an impossibly long and sometimes tortuous period if the perception of time depends not just on duration also on the range of experiences and emotions. Over the course of seven years, Fernando Torres has gone through the stages that most players take an entire career to go through. From an ebullient young striker whose unreliable hamstrings buckled under the strain of a title challenge, to a unhappy World Cup winning star, to a grinning record-breaking transfer signing who debuted against his old club, to a brooding flop who tried (but a flop nonetheless), to a surprise Golden Boot winner at an underwhelming European tournament, to a fashionable Milano-who-coulda-been-a-model, to a grateful boyhood hero who came back home, to a marketable target for the Chinese Super League, Torres has been through it all. Over this period, Torres has arguably been the footballer who has received the most media coverage after the otherworldly duo of Messi and Ronaldo with his decline in form and class leading to even theories of solace in employment in the exciting field of accounting.

Along with the trend of personal misfortune, collective success has also followed him. Misery in the World Cup at South Africa and at Chelsea was to a degree offset by the pleasure of global gold and regional silverware although Torres and Milan was a match made in masochistic heaven. Time has taken its toll. Once sure of touch and unbelievably fleet of foot and thought, Torres now lumbers around the pitch like the ghost of Banquo, invisible to all but the despairing manager. A recent resurgence with a run of 4 goals in six games has strangely enough, come at the same time as rumours of a contract extension. Lacking the acceleration of old, a leaden footed still managed to score in 3 consecutive games since the fag days of 2012 when he wore blue for Chelsea. Much like his Chelsea days, he remains unable to maintain a consistently useful run in the starting eleven, scoring or otherwise, with a tendency of blemishing his scoring runs with bouts of red mist like the silly sending off against Barcelona last week, or the ones against Swansea and Spurs while at Chelsea.

A year into the twilight of his career, Torres still splits the jury. Was he a genuine world class talent who burned out far too early due to unfortunate injuries, a club’s selfish need to rush him back and his own desire to conquer the world? Or was he just a speedster who could finish well in a system built around his strengths with pinpoint delivery from one of the greatest English midfielders of all time? The answer, as always, is not black and white but lies somewhere in the grey. Torres has been in his cool phase for the better part of the last decade, more of a La Niña than the hot and bountiful El Niño Vicente Calderon and Anfield had come to worship. At the end of the day, does it really matter what let the golden goose be killed if it’s hamstrung and on its last legs and soon to be killed? Eggs from this particular goose, situational or inherent, like that against Espanyol or Blackburn, are going to be increasingly rare. Let’s enjoy them while we can.

GUEST AUTHOR: Achuth Vasudevan

Transfer of Power

Transfer of Power

With the end of yet another season of football approaching, fans of all clubs (with copious amounts of flame-fanning from the media) are speculating what players their clubs should buy, sell or loan before the start of next season. Football pundits across broadcasters talk about how clubs like Arsenal need to spend more in the transfer market. Even in the age of Leicester City’s motley crew assembled for Premier League pocket-change prices being chased by Tottenham Hotspurs’ healthy mix of local youth players and reinvestment from the sale of the world’s biggest football transfer yet, the importance of transfer spending has never been higher.

The Bosman ruling in 1995 is considered seminal to how European football transformed to the untamed commercial beast that it has become. Jean-Marc Bosman was a Belgian professional footballer whose contract with RFC Liege expired in 1990 and French club USL Dunkerque were interested in signing him. The catch was that Liege demanded a transfer fee for their out-of-contract employee Bosman and this was challenged by Bosman in the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. The ruling from the ECJ upheld Article 39(1) of the Treaty of Rome, which led to the formation of the European Economic Committee in 1958. Article 39(1) allowed for free movement of labour within the European Union territories and in effect, the ruling established that players are free to move to any club in EU territory at the end of their contracts. Thus, if a player chose to see out his contract with the club and signed a contract with another club, the club would not stand to make any profits from the sale of the player. The Bosman ruling also established that creating quotas for foreign players in the club squad amounted to discrimination against nationals of EU, and this led to increasingly cosmopolitan football clubs peaking with Arsene Wenger’s famous Arsenal starting eleven that failed to include even a single Englishman in the English Premier League.

The Bosman ruling opened the floodgates with clubs trying to tie top players down with long-term contracts that pay upwards of six-figures a week and becoming more eager to sell players they helped develop before they were out of contact and left on free transfers. Thus, players with long-term contracts became expensive and financially powerful clubs at that point in time could flex their monetary muscle and attract talent from the financially-strapped clubs by paying the parent club in the middle of the player’s contract. Prior to the Bosman ruling, the parent club could always block the free transfer at the end of the contract leaving the player with no option but to continue even if he wanted to leave. Over the last two decades, spanning billions of Euros and hundreds of clubs, the actual effects of the Bosman ruling go far beyond improved labour conditions for players. The rise of the football agent, epitomized by Jorge “superagent” Mendes, who brokers deals to move players at large prices from clubs that badly needed their services to clubs which already have enough players in those positions is just one of the many complex spillovers.

Before the Bosman ruling, the transfer record was £13 million for Italian left-winger Gianluigi Lentini’s move from Torino to AC Milan in 1992. Diego Maradona, who was considered nothing short of a God, had previously set the record in 1984 when he moved to Napoli from Barcelona at £5 million. The phenomenal Ronaldo soon broke the record in 1996 with his transfer from PSV Eindhoven to Barcelona for £13.2 million and Alan Shearer’s move to Newcastle from title-winning Blackburn Rovers in the same year swiftly broke the record at £15 million. Argentine sharpshooter Hernan Crespo became the first footballer to breach the £30 million mark when he moved from Parma to Lazio at the break of the new millennium, more than doubling the transfer record just five years after the Bosman ruling. Since then, Real Madrid have breached the world record four times in their never-ending quest for assembling a team of Galacticos with Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, in that order. Teams vying for Champions League positions in Europe’s top 5 leagues have routinely made signings breaching the £30 million mark every year in recent seasons, especially post-2004 after Roman Abramovich has proved to the world it was possible to sustain a winning club by spending big instead of being limited by waiting for half-baked youth academy products to step up and meet most of the starting eleven requirements.

The Premier League’s new TV deal which redistributes revenue equitably to all 20 participating teams is also a turning point that is reflected in how competitive the league has become with any team, barring the exception of an out-of-sorts Aston Villa, capable of beating any other team. This would go a long way in explaining how Chelsea’s post-Mourinho run of 15 games unbeaten is the longest unbeaten run by any team in the league this season and yet they languish at 10th place. Teams like Stoke City and West Ham have broken their club transfer records to bring in players like Xherdan Shaqiri from Inter Milan and Dmitri Payet from Marseille and have been rewarded with top 10 finishes in a topsy-turvy season. Other teams have chosen to unearth obscure players that compliment the existing squad and the traditional domination of a handful of clubs in the Premier League looks like it has finally come to an end.

However, all this could change once the summer transfer window opens. Teams like Chelsea and Manchester City have appointed new, proven world-class managers in a bid for a fresh start to overcome the blindsiding they faced in 2015-16. With advertising revenues and established fan bases, these teams still hold the advantage in attracting the top players from around the world. Teams like West Ham and Leicester will need to prove that it was no fluke that they managed to take the league by storm this year. Will they need to make marquee signings to create similar impressions next season? Or do they need to buy bargain players that could neatly fit in to the current squad? Do they need to buy at all? A quick look at the fate of last season’s champions, a squad with players at their peak or fast approaching their peak, suggests that huge transfers might be required to keep top players on their toes more than anything else. But then again, you never know what you’re paying for till the season starts and the pressure is on.

The Sport of War

The Sport of War

Football hooliganism has flown under the radar in recent times, especially among the new generation of overseas supporters in the developing world. Native English football fans have a different history to content with – one marred by mindless violence centred around football matches, which peaked a couple of decades back with marauding battalions of fans invading continental cities during European match ups. The kind of wrong reasons football fans make the mainstream news these days, like last season’s controversy about Chelsea fans racially abusing a black man on a Paris train seem extremely tame in comparison to stories of casual war from the recent history of football like when Tottenham Hotspurs fans invaded the unsuspecting, sleepy industrial town of Rotterdam in 1974 after which 70 fans were arrested and more than 200 people injured.

In an era where institutions battling social injustices are increasingly tying up with football clubs in an effort to affect changes at the grassroots, it might be baffling for fans who watch games on TV to hear about clubs being handed out bans for violent behavior in the stands. In the early 2000’s, Ajax’s hooligan fans invaded the pitch in a friendly match against Feyenoord and it took the then Ajax manager Johan Cruyff, arguably the club’s biggest legend, spreading himself over a fallen Robin van Persie to prevent them seriously injuring the Feyenoord youth player at that point. Last September, 10 fans were arrested after they tore down hoardings following Arsenal’s Carling Cup win over Spurs. Four Polish fans of Slask Wroclaw  were arrested following an attack on visiting Sevilla fans in Manchester in October in what was understood to be the continuation of a previous feud between the fans of both clubs. Instances where bombs were hurled, knives were wielded and sometimes even live rounds of ammunition were fired, involving large groups of fans were also reported in places like Chile, Turkey, Amsterdam and Congo among dozens of other places in the last year.

It is rare for mainstream media houses in England to report incidences of football hooliganism. This is primarily because stadium security has been increasingly tightened over the last decade with huge pre-game preparations especially before traditionally volatile derbies or inter-city rivalries. It is not often the biggest clubs that have the most active fan “firms”. West Ham United, for example, has the legendary Inter City Firm which has taken on and left fans of many bigger clubs like Manchester United’s Red Army, Chelsea’s Headhunters and even lower division teams like Birmingham’s Zulus and Millwall’s Bushwackers maimed and even killed. The 2005 feature film Green Street Hooligans is loosely based on the Inter City Firm. Hooliganism has moved away from stadiums in recent times to away fans ambushing local pubs or squaring off in areas removed from the public eye by mutual invitation, sometimes days before or after the games. The international appeal of the Premier League and the sponsorship implications mean clubs distance themselves from this violence in their names and mainstream journalists follow suit.

It would be naive to dismiss violence in football as scattered instances of English drunkeness. In the former Yugoslavia, Croatian fans of Dinamo Zagreb and Serbian fans of Red Star Belgrade clashed in 1990 in what later resulted in large-scale civil war with rival fans enlisting themselves as soldiers eventually leading to the dissolution of the state. In Poland, the fans of Krakow channeled violence at the football stadium and football matches became the pressure valves that finally blew to bring down the oppressive communist regime that prevented freedom of expression everywhere else. However, even the hardcore self-styled hooligans of Eastern Europe admit the influence of old-school English hooliganism on their ways despite most of these firms taking it to extremes that were never possible in the English law-and-order situation.

Part of the appeal of organized sports is the opportunity to fight without the shooting. Contact sports like football offer the vicarious thrill of being in battle without intentionally hurting anyone, usually. Especially in the modern era where two-footed tackles and high-boots are banned to reduce violence on the football pitch and other measures to make football cleaner and  more family-friendly, it would be intuitive to assume that violence related to football would be on the decline . But for the most hardcore of local football fans nothing has changed, and watching the action from the galleries is not enough. Organized violence has a rich history documented from countries like the carnival football capital of the world in Brazil to the pot-smoking liberal poster-child of Europe, the Netherlands.

When socio-economic and political conditions are perceived to be bleak and unemployment rates skyrocket, angry young men sometimes take to the streets searching for a cause to unite under and fight against. Football provides them a cause, an easy identity which can be exaggerated into a “us vs them” narrative that spirals out of control once the violence starts. This is barely different from other causes like civil rights movements  and anti-establishment protests, inciting the same amount of bewilderment and calls for strong government action from people who are outsiders to these particular groups. While mainstream media waxes eloquent about the beautiful game and the global goodwill that huge sporting events provide, the ugly realities that are a part and parcel of being grassroots football fans in cities with rich footballing history during hard times are usually swept under the carpet. Governments have fallen, dictatorships have been overthrown and countries have gone to war from flashpoints that arose at football stadiums. It truly adds to the mystique of football, that goals in a game have changed the course of human history!

Mourinho’s Cesc Addiction

Mourinho’s Cesc Addiction

A 2-0 win over Porto, indicative of classic Jose Mourinho rather than current Mourinho, took Chelsea to the top of their Champions League group and to the knock-out stages with the confidence they lack in the Premier League right now. A glaring omission from the action was the player who led the league for assists in last season’s march to the title, a player whom Mourinho suggested could skipper Chelsea soon after John ‘Captain Leader Legend’ Terry retires – No. 4 Francesc Fàbregas. Brazilian dynamo Ramires was deployed in his stead and Nemanja Matic suddenly looked like the holding midfielder who consistently won the ball back for his team last season.

While it has to be accepted that this Porto team does not have the pace of most Premier League clubs to make Terry look his actual age, and therefore did make Chelsea look better than they actually are, Chelsea’s defending of spaces improved considerably with Zouma, Matic and Ramires running around creating triangle roadblocks for Porto’s attacking four.The blistering pace on the counter Chelsea has at their disposal was only betrayed by some penalty-box hesitance. Porto had lost just once in 24 games in all competitions coming into the match and Chelsea had lost 8 games in the league alone since August but it appeared to be the other way around at Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea played in a 4-2-3-1 which they used through most of last season and since Ramires for Fàbregas is the only change, it’s interesting to look at how it changed team dynamics so much. Ramires provides direct box-to-box running while Fàbregas is a quarterback pinging balls to forward players in space in the right-side of midfield while Matic cleans up beside them. Very bluntly, this should mean Chelsea attacks better when Fàbregas plays and defends better when Ramires plays. However, while the latter is mostly true the former has ceased to be mostly because Fabregas’ short-passing seems to have dropped below 80 in FIFA16. The lack of defensive cover when Fàbregas tries to get forward but loses the ball also means that Eden Hazard and Willian have to drop back to help more often than not, which means Diego Costa has to use his lethal mix of thuggery and cunning on his own hoping Fàbregas finds him. So, when Costa’s goals have dried up it is not too far-fetched to speculate it is partly Fàbregas’ fault.

The ability of Cesc Fàbregas, Gunners captain at 17, has never been in doubt but the consistency over a season has never really been tested after his first couple of seasons with Arsenal due to injury and a World Cup-winning midfield relegating him to the bench at Barcelona. Even in his best career season, his first Chelsea season, he was quick off the mark to get to 12 league assists before Christmas before settling at 17 for the season. It would seem as if he sold his game to the Devil, who in turn seems to have sold it to Mesut Özil, since then. While Özil plays as a No.10 behind the striker, the job description while their team is attacking is the same – orchestrate the movement of the quicker players around you to create space and attack the goal. Fàbregas starts from a deeper position because he also has to help out in defense and plays more long balls. In the few games he did play further up as a No.10, his touches have let him down at crucial points.

Cesc still has an eye for the pass but his technique seems to be declining, possibly due to fatigue. Fàbregas covered the most ground of all Chelsea players last season, a solid 11 km average per 90 minutes, meaning he was involved in both ends of the pitch as fast as he could run. Chelsea as a team, with the notable exceptions of Willian and Cesar Azpilicueta, have been sluggish this season in their running and Cesc is especially representative of this. Too often, Cesc prefers to lug the ball long and rest deep instead of driving forward to provide more options against defenses that mark tight. While Ramires’ binary  finishing style switches between “screamer”and “tear your hair out”, this is exactly what he has done when played this season to encourage the midfield three in front of him to try myriad approach play.

It should be suspected that Mourinho understands this as much and, in the wake of Chelsea’s worst start to a campaign in 37 years, would not be too hesitant about dropping last season’s lynchpin so that the team can string together some form. This might help Cesc to rest a bit and get back to his workrate from the beginning of last season. Of course, this does beg the question of whether Mourinho’s lack of rotation is to blame for this nightmare scenario at Stamford Bridge. However, if everyone else from that successful starting eleven can still play in a winning team there is some deliberation required as to how important of an attribute fitness is for a player to be considered world class. Mourinho has much respect for Fabregas as signalled by the fact that he has not dropped him too much this season but evidence from the Porto game indicates that Mourinho needs to stop having Cesc for a bit so that he can have better Cesc towards the middle of crunch festive season.

Hot Pochettino

Hot Pochettino

Amidst a huge turnout at Wembley in solidarity with the victims of the attacks in Paris, football itself took a backseat last night. But when two young and exciting teams that play contrasting styles clash, no matter what the context, it is difficult for football addicts to not make some mental notes about the game itself. Delle Alli’s smooth transition from club football into the senior national team was definitely a large post-it note stuck on the refrigerator door for later rumination. Less than a year ago, Alli was a breakout local schoolboy at Milton Keynes Dons who replaced leaving skipper Stephen Gleeson as a holding midfielder with an eye for goal in League One. But, of course, that was before Mauricio Pochettino noticed glimpses of a young Englishman with the work-rate and technique to start for Tottenham Hotspurs in him.

Alli is not the first player to be called up to The Three Lions squad while improving tremendously under Pochettino. In his two seasons at Spurs the Argentine, who needed an interpreter during his preceding spell at the St. Mary’s, has also overseen the national team call-ups for Harry Kane, Eric Dier and Ryan Mason. In his debut season at Southampton, Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana, Jay Rodriguez, Calum Chambers, Nathaniel Clyne and Luke Shaw were called up to the England senior team. That the Saints academy has been the best in England for a while, producing most notably a certain Welsh left-back who exploded as a wide attacker under Harry Redknapp, takes nothing away from this accomplishment.

Mauricio Roberto Pochettino Trossero used to be a centreback in his playing days before he took over as manager at Espanyol, a club where he is a veteran of almost three hundred appearances, in 2009. An Argentine centreback is a pantomime villain in football circles, for their reputation of hard tackling and dirty fouling to stop flowing opposition attacks and Pochettino lived up to this when he gave away a penalty against England in the 2002 FIFA World Cup for English darling David Beckham to convert and send England into the knockout stages. But no one could have quite predicted that he would continue to help the English three World Cups later, albeit in classier fashion.

Pochettino came to England from Espanyol with a mixed record at Espanyol, where he lifted the club from relegation pits in his first season and made them stay in the comforts of the middle of the table for two more seasons before things went a full circle and he left in the November of 2012. The South American with continental European training found refuge at a newly promoted and struggling Southampton and with a minimal transition period in which he made full use of the youth academy and his predecessor Nigel Adkin’s record-breaking signings, a team that comprehensively beat defending champions Manchester City, the SAS Liverpool, and defending European champions Chelsea, was born.

Pochettino’s preferred formation is the contemporary staple 4-2-3-1 where the most important players for the system are the holding midfielders in front of defense. While he guided Southampton to a reasonable 14th place, the best of Pochettino was yet to come. Bulldozing midfielder Victor Wanyama was signed from Celtic to partner Morgan Schneiderlin in midfield and ball-playing  Croatian centreback Dejan Lovren came in from Lyon. These two players revolutionized how Southampton played with Wanyama becoming a defensive enforcer and Lovren becoming the focal point for a team playing out from the back instead of the usual upfield pinging of the ball that cash-strapped teams opt for. But with a talent drain that reinforced traditional balances of bargaining power imminent, a frustrated Poch made the switch to North London where the riches from Gareth Bale’s record transfer were at the risk of being squandered by poor management.

At White Hart Lane, Pochettino dipped into the reserves to give consistent starts to players like Kane and Mason while building a team around the silky feet of Christian Eriksen. Dier and Alli were transferred in for paltry sums while more than twenty contracted players were either released or sold. Vlad Chiriches started making a mess as the ball-playing centreback (much like Lovren after his transfer to Liverpool) and this thrust Dier into first-team action where the former Sporting Lisbon youngster thrived. But midfield remained a problem with Paulinho abandoning his post more often than not to try (and fail) to score goals. Mason and Nabil Bentaleb, a star for Algeria at the preceding World Cup, showed signs of a reliable partnership around the same time Harry Kane revealed himself as the new beacon of hope for English football. Only Chelsea, City, Manchester United and Arsenal finished above Spurs and that was true testament to the remarkable improvements that Pochettino brought to the club.

Injuries to Mason and Bentaleb means Spurs have to play Dier and Alli in midfield but this has looked to be an unlikely improvement more than a stop-gap measure so far. Hijacking Toby Alderweireld’s move to his former club from Atletico Madrid, Pochettino showed glimpses of his maturity as a manager who not only believed in his system but understood the missing pieces he needed for it to work. Toby, Dier and Vertonghen now form a three-man defensive shield that is arguably the best in the league, winning their boss a Premier League Manager of the Month award in September. Tottenham are now a backup striker away from cementing a top four finish and that is an understatement for how good they have become. As long as he keeps supplying exciting local talent who are well-drilled in the responsibilities of their role but at the same time not afraid to let rip when they come up against resolute defending, fans of all clubs can sit back and enjoy a ride on the Pochetrain. Who knows, he might win England a first major trophy in decades in the process.