Thursday, August 29, 2013

Short pitch: Sessegnon sale highlights new Sunderland

A fee has been agreed for the transfer of Sunderland forward Stephane Sessegnon to Qatari club Al Jaish.  The deal completes a hasty exit from the Stadium of Light for the Benin international, who has been probably the most influential Mackem of the past two seasons – the player was arrested for drink-driving only hours before the transaction was announced.

Questions must be raised about how and why the forward was sold, especially considering Paolo Di Canio’s strident desire to keep him; the fact that the deal was announced so quickly after the infraction only heightens suspicion that a deal was already in place.

After a second key forward swaps Northeast for Middle East in two years (and the third high-profile striker departs in three-plus years) the Black Cats now rely on new guy Jozy Altidore, the young Connor Wickham, a rehabilitating Steven Fletcher and the disappointing Ji Dong-Won.

With Sessegnon departs most of Martin O’Neill’s influence at Sunderland.  Though the move doesn’t seem to be of Di Canio’s design, his men are now obviously the centerpiece of the club’s new direction.  Owner Ellis Short seems to have bought in to Di Canio’s demanding and ultra-professional message and backed him by creating a lineup of hardened, regimented players – the only question now is about the talent level.  

2012-13 looms as something of a referendum comparing players of exuberant if sometimes wayward talent with those of unflinching professionalism.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Gareth Bale transfer to Real Madrid exposes disparity

As the narrative of Gareth Bale’s transfer to Real Madrid careens towards its end pages, we look back on its lifespan with the typical, ho-hum shrug of fulfilled prediction that accompanies such uncomplicated, Cartlandian prose. 

This tricky situation evolved in exactly the same manner as every other protracted move: larger club unsettles smaller club’s player, player decides he likes the money lifestyle at larger club, player agitates for transfer without asking for it directly, smaller club holds out for larger fee, deal is eventually done. 

Most “poaching” goes down this way, unless the smaller club is either a) really small, where incoming funds are gratefully and quickly redistributed or b) in the habit of iron-cladding it’s player contracts for many future years.  In this case, Spurs are neither.

The key step in the above sequence involves the player deliberately acting unprofessionally in order to orchestrate the move.  Last week, footballer-turned-pundit Robbie Savage wrote an article on the BBC website about the techniques footballers use to engineer a move away from their current club.  Wandering eyes have surveyed the landscape and decided that other pastures are a more pleasant shade of green, for reasons of money, money opportunity or money boredom.

The tactics are true and time-honoured because they’re effective.  Savage knows, because as he writes, he used some of them himself.  First internal and then external opinions tootle about “needing a change of scenery” or wanting “a different paycheque challenge”.  Eventually, the player generally gets their way, simply by becoming a distraction.

The biggest surprise of this story hasn’t been that Spurs Chairman Daniel Levy is holding out until deadline day seeking the best deal, nor that Real Madrid are seeking the Premiership’s best player, nor even the frankly diabolical fee mooted.  It’s that the player acting so unprofessionally is Gareth Bale.

Bale is by all accounts a simple and peaceful man; someone Harry Redknapp gleefully described as thinking of “a trip abroad” as visiting home in Cardiff.  Since arriving on the scene as a big-money youngster from the vaunted Southampton youth academy, his personal journey has been littered with troughs and peaks public enough to justify his position as one of the most marketable respected and relatable footballers in the British Isles. 

Personal reports lend credence to the idea of a professional and soft-spoken family man with a Rolls-Royce engine and a piledriver where his left foot should be. 

So why, suddenly, would this man begin to exaggerate injury reports and not arrive for training?  The answer is simple: the lure of Real Madrid – and all that accompanies – is enough to compromise a man’s principles.  Which, when the player is by all accounts so … nice, is such a shame.  Gareth Bale really wants this move and obviously feels he deserves it – either because of what he’s given to Spurs in the past or because of what he can achieve in La Liga’s future.  But should this desire mean he leaves part of the attitude that earned him such success behind, even temporarily?

A Catch-22 is inherent when signing long term contracts: the lifespan of professional athletes is short enough even without the risk of serious injury so long-term financial security is understandably desirable.  What other leverage did Bale have?  He played the only card available to him, that of the disaffected star.  With Levy characteristically content to let the transaction drag in order to leverage best price, and Real Madrid able to move on to players anew, the player is patently the party with the most to lose. How is this fair?

It’s not too long a bow to draw to suggest that Bale is desperate for the move simply because the hand he played is so antithetical to his supposed character.

If nothing else, the episode rams home the concrete nature of media politics in the game of transfers; it is cynical, media-driven and the entity with the most at risk throughout the situation is also the party with the least control. The result?  Gareth Bale acting jarringly out of type.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

EPL: Re-installing Arsenal

After a disappointing 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa on the season’s opening day, speculative glare has fallen upon Arsenal and their unsuccessful efforts to improve their squad.  Despite controlling the ball for long periods against the Clarets, the Gunners seemed strangely faceless – perhaps a side effect of Gervinho’s departure two weeks ago.

Over the past number of years, Arsenal have reinforced sparingly and with haphazard success.  Purchases like Mikel Arteta and Per Mertesacker have proven generally effective and Santi Cazorla is a star, but other players in whom manager Arsene Wenger has placed much faith (and not inconsiderable investment) have yet to fully work out.

While rivals such as Chelsea and Spurs appearing flush with vibrant talent and opportunity, it would take only the most ardent optimist to suggest the same of the Arsenal.  It’s not only the club’s player list that needs refreshing; perhaps the club requires a reboot. 

Or, more appropriately, a complete re-install.  The hardware has been upgraded at great cost, the processor still seems to have some life and the software is capable of getting the job done, but the system is not running smoothly or easily.  In computer parlance, this is usually a symptom of tiny corruptions in key parts of the operating system; rather than repair these one by one, it’s easier and cheaper to wipe the slate and hope you’ve kept the backup discs. 

For the lads at the Emirates, this doesn’t mean selling their best players or throwing money at others – though this is usually the way such things happen and Wenger has priors.  Perhaps the best way to rejuvenate a stale squad might simply be to give them a greater sense of identity. 

While Arsenal have  an marginally impressive spread of talent – Cazorla is one of the Premiership’s more creative types, while all of Mertesacker, Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen are all first-choice for respective international sides of exceptional quality – the overall façade presented by the playing group is not one of a club itching to shape their own destiny, but of a team having it thrust upon them.  While Carl Jenkinson, Kieran Gibbs and Ramsey are very nice pieces, even the most one-eyed Gooner should admit that they are hardly the types of players to stamp their authority on a team.  The same could be said of Bacary Sagna, Wojciech Szczesny and Arteta.   Jack Wilshere has the potential to be such a iconic player, but will he turn into that guy consistently, or be overwhelmed by the surrounding tepid waters?

To borrow a much-used phrase, the whole has somehow become less than the sum of its parts.

After Manchester United lost the 2011-12 Premiership on goal difference, former manager Sir Alex Ferguson promised himself that the club would never lose out in such circumstances again.  The defensive mindset of the prior three years was cast to the netherworld and United made one single purchase to spearhead to a goal difference of 43 and a return to the league’s pinnacle.  The mindset came first, and it’s on-field embodiment arrived shortly thereafter.

The same can happen at the Emirates.  However, will Arsene Wenger, Ivan Gazidis or even Stan Kroenke recognize the opportunity?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

EPL finally overcomes offseason inertia

The most pressing questions facing the English Premier League as the offseason began were:

Question: Will Luis Suarez stay at Liverpool?
Answer, May 30th: Likely, but we don’t know
Answer, August 14th: Likely, but we don’t know

Q. How will David Moyes fare as Manchester United manager?
Answer, August 14th: Your guess is as good as mine

Q. Will Arsenal spend big (or at least moderately) in the transfer window
Answer, May 30th: Who can tell?
Answer, August 14th: Who can tell?

Q. Does Wayne Rooney really want to leave Manchester United, and if so, will they sell him?
Answer, May 30th: Probably, and probably not
Answer, August 14th: Probably, and probably not

Q. Can Tottenham rebuff interest in Gareth Bale from bigger clubs in the long-term
Answer, May 30th: Maybe for a while, but it risks destabilizing the team
Answer, August 14th: Maybe for a while, but it risks destabilizing the team

Q. How will Manuel Pellegrini fit in as Manchester City manager?
Answer, May 30th: He’ll favour attacking football and be more popular than Mancini, but we can only guess
Answer, August 14th: He’ll favour attacking football and be more popular than Mancini, but we can only guess

You get the picture.  It’s time for the previews, endless transfer punditry and assumptive journalism to end and for football to start.  This close season has not produced one answer to any big question of relevance: before last term ended, we knew Jose Mourinho’s return to Chelsea and Manuel Pellegrini’s move to Man City were faits d’accompli, the baton had been passed between Scots at Old Trafford and that some clubs were going to remodel themselves almost entirely.  For most of the league, however, it has been an offseason marked by inertia.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Guardiola may not be Bayern Munich's Man of Steel

The new Superman movie, Man of Steel, does some things well.  It creates a plausible Superman back story, introduces a new dynamic into the Clark Kent/Lois Lane relationship and makes Kevin Costner somewhat likeable again after two decades of “meh”.  Despite making nearly $300,000,000 (or nearly three Gareth Bales) in its two-month run so far, the film pales in comparison with Superman and Superman II, movies made in the late 1970s directed by Richard Donner and Richard Lester.

MoS makes everything is more complex.  The stark, crystalline beauty of Krypton in the original films was turned by director Zack Snyder into George Lucas’ most lurid celluloid wet dreams as rideable flying lizards engaged troop carriers above a landscape seemingly composed only of mesas.  The Phantom Zone, the prison supposedly incarcerating Kryptonian antagonists is now a giant machine rather than a mirrored square of unknowable origin.  The film is visually more overwhelming, but rather than this making MoS a better movie, it shows up what shouldn’t have been attempted: redefining an iconic moment in film.

And this is the situation faced by Pep Guardiola as he takes over as head coach of German giants Bayern Munich.  He, the bright young director, has been charged with replacing Jupp Heynckes – one of the best managers in recent memory who in his last season led Bayern to a treble-winning season defined by masterful play and an intimidatingly balanced lineup.

Guardiola, like Snyder, has a preferred motif.  Rather than Pulis’ Sndyer’s wanton cyclic violence, Pep favours a possession game the likes of which the footballing world has rarely seen.  His Barcelona teams would regularly play keep-away for over 80% of their matches, moving their opponents marginally out of position again and again until fatal flaws became exposed.  However, Bayern’s outstanding past three seasons have been based upon a very different style: incision has come from Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Thomas Müller while bite has come from Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez.

Barcelona’s triumphs were equated to “death by a thousand cuts”.  Bayern’s modus operandi was to take a scimitar and lop off the head.  Players like Schweinsteiger, Müller and Mario Götze are eminently capable of playing a ball-dominant style, does it suit them the way it did Xavi, Iniesta and Messi?

There’s every chance that despite significant talent upgrades (in the form of Götze and Thiago Alcantara) that Bayern fall short of last season’s lofty standards simply because of coaching.  That isn’t to say that Guardiola isn’t talented – he is – more that installing a coach who works rigidly in a fluid paradigm is a needless attempt at reinventing the wheel.  Heynckes orchestrated an epoch-defining team at die Roten was who will now be instantly re-booted. 

There is a time and a place for changing the artistic direction of a football club, but is that time immediately upon winning the European Cup and when the boss wants to stay?  Bayern were forced into signing Guardiola simply because he wasn’t likely to be available again any time soon.  The new man has claims at being the world’s best manager; but so too did the incumbent.  If Bayern had hoped to repeat as Champions League (and perhaps treble) winners, making such a massive adjustment to an iconic franchise may not be the best place to start.