Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Summer Season

 Even though the playing season is off this time of the year, there is what I like to call the “behind the desk season” with club managers faxing and calling each other to close transfers. To me, this is the stepping-stone of a successful season. Players transfer is an art in which success depends not only on the players’ name but also in the economic contribution to the club, the quality and skills that he brings to the team and, of course, its effect on the moral of the team.

Tito’s Barcelona has started on the right foot with the signing of Jordi Alba but there are still some questions that must be answered. For instance, who will the club sign for the center-back position? All signs point at Javi Matinez but if that’s the case I don’t expect to see him signing until mid August. Why? His club does not want to negotiate and expect any buyer to pay them the exit clause price. This means that any buyer would need to spend 57 millions (40 for the clause, 17 in taxes) unless they convince Athletic to negotiate.

Barcelona has already made it clear that they have 26 millions available for the transfer of the center back but they also will go a bit further if necessary. A believe the idea is to reach a similar deal to the one for Alexis Sanchez a year ago. That is, a deal that have a significant amount of hard cash right in front an some easy to reach variables like making it to the champions league, the amount of minutes played in the season etc.  It’s a win-win situation as the selling club gets a total amount close to what they wanted originally while Barcelona gets to write on their books just the cash part of the deal. That’s the beauty of finance.

I do think it is possible to reach such deal but it will require some heavy negotiations along with the help of the player. He would probably have to forgive part of his salary in the same way Mascherano and Fabregas did. The question is: is Javi Martinez worth so much trouble? In the current market I’d say yes. He’s young; he’s definitely a good center back though originally he is a defensive midfielder; and best of all he’s teammate with several members of the Barcelona squad who are also in the Spanish national team. Valuation of players is a misguided practice because it’s based on the past but it’s evaluated on the future. Alves’s cost was 35 millions but it almost seems like a steal based on his performance. Ibrahimovic cost 65 millions and it couldn’t have been a worse deal.

But signings aside there is still one name that seems to come back to the rumors: Ibrahim Afellay. His situation is complicated because he was in the injured list for the entire season. Just when he was starting to adapt to the team and show his talent he injured his knee ligaments. He’s back and he’s still got a good reputation behind his name, which means there are some big teams interested in singing him.

But this is when I ask: should Barcelona sell him? Don’t get me wrong; from a financial point of view any transfer operation will give us a large margin. Thanks to the expiring day of his contract with PSV, Barcelona was able to buy him for 3 millions euros and his exit price would not be less than 8. But to me, it feels rather cheap to sell him without giving him a good opportunity first. After all, he was the man behind Messi’s first goal at the Bernabeu in the Champions League semifinal in 2011. I think the right thing to do would be to give him a year to test how can he contributes. It’s not every day that you find a good player, with a good attitude. He can also play in the midfield as well as the wings.  Barcelona gave Henrik Larsson an opportunity after missing his debut season thanks to a similar injury and the results were more than positive.

If there is an important lesson that Barcelona should take from the past season is that there is no such thing as too much talent. Injuries occur throughout the season and it’s important to have players that can contribute to the team.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Brazil found its heir

I grew up listening stories about Pele’s Brazil team from the 60s. For many, that was the best national football team to ever hit the pitch. Ever since 1970 there has been great performances by many nations, but it feels that no one had taken the torch of being that consistent team write its own page in the book of football. That was the case until yesterday when Spain achieved what no other national team had done before winning back-to back- to back tournaments.

What Spain did in the final against Italy was similar to what Barcelona did in 2011 against Manchester United. It was the best tribute to football and a statement that it is possible to play beautifully and win. Ever since Luis Aragones took the team in 2006 and convinced them on their style, on their chances, and on their talent, this team has found an identity worth of every compliment on the book.

On the pitch, this team has its ideas clear and they would lose fighting for them rather than becoming a defensive team for the sake of winning. Iniesta, Xavi, Fabregas, Silva, Mata, Busquets, Alonso, Alba, Pique understand football this way. Asking them to give the ball to their rivals is taking away part of their talent and their in-pitch personality. Just look at Xabi Alonso with Spain and look at his game with Mourinho’s Real Madrid. It’s so easy for him to associate with other players on the national team who can crate game as well as he can. At Real Madrid it’s hard for him to associate because he is the ultimate playmaker. And while Real Madrid has had dominant matches, when it comes to the crucial matches they have a tendency to give the ball away.

But all technicalities aside, you also have to look at the human factor. Luis Aragones made perhaps the most controversial decision made in Spanish football when he decided not to call Raul to the national team. Raul was not only the top scorer of all times for Spain; he was also the face of the team. But Luis understood that the team should not adapt to one player. His vision of the winning team was that in which there were no egos whatsoever. A team where players understood they are needed to support each other on the pitch, from the bench, or from the stands. Luis Aragones was right and he assembled not only a formidable group of good players but also a formidable group human being. These players understand that the team is above any individual achievement. Look at David Villa, he could have forced being in the team despite not being 100% recovered from his injury and yet he chose to call Del Bosque to tell him that he couldn’t perform at a level the competition demanded. Most players would have lobbied to be in the team even if it meant on the bench. Team over egos, that’s the best way to describe them.

The best quote from the tournament came from Iniesta before he knew he was the MVP of the tournament. When asked about the possibilities of achieving the golden ball he said, “I play to be happy. Not for individual recognition”. That’s the spirit of this team and, in my opinion, the true reason behind their success.

As for Italy, I hope they keep doing what they did in this Eurocup. It is refreshing to see a team that plays defensively but also is capable of playing the ball. Pirlo’s game was outstanding throughout the tournament and Xavi shutting him down was one of the main reasons Italy couldn’t win.

Up until today the Brazilian national team from the 60s was the reference of national football. Now new generations will grow up listening stories about how Spain and its little geniuses became the reference of beautiful football winning what no national team had won before. Modern history has been written…in Spanish

Friday, June 29, 2012

Eurocup Final: A match between the best

I said to a friend of mine last Wednesday that I had a feeling Italy would be making it to the final of the Eurocup. I wasn’t thinking about statistical or historical data (Germany has never defeated Italy in official competition) but rather on Italy’s display through the tournament. They may not be the best squad in the tournament but, in my opinion, they have been the best team.

Left behind are the days when Italy was the catenaccio team with its extremely defensive display and lack of offensive football. Prandelli has found a new personality for this team, which still relies on solid defending but also displays a swift transition defense to offence and vice-versa. Italy moves like a unit and rather than giving the ball away, they play it really good thanks to a stellar Pirlo.

Having said all that, Italy is up against the best squad in the tournament. Rather than concentrating on defending or attacking, Spain is the master of possession. If Spain wants to have the ball there is no much their rivals could do. Though this may not guarantee victories, I believe whichever team controls the ball has more chances of winning. Spain has also the psychological advantage of knowing they are the team to beat. Prove of this is how its rivals, even Italy, modify their initial formation when they play against them.

It’s hard to say what will happen this Sunday, as these are, without a doubt, the two best teams of the tournament. Italy needs no only an inspired Pirlo but also a concentrated Ballotelli. He has shown he’s capable of the best (his game against Germany) and the worst (his game against Spain). Spain on the other hand needs to capitalize on the chances they get, which I expect will be not many. May the best team win…

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

About Chelsea

 At last after 8 years Roman Abramovic has the championship trophy that he wanted so badly. This Champions League title ratifies his investment and gives Chelsea a tangible reason to claim a spot among the “big clubs” of Europe. Just like the Europa League, the winner of this Champions League was the club that not many would have guessed back in December. An impeccable defensive order and a sublime Drogba carried them throughout the tournament allowing them to defeat every team that, on paper at least, was better than Chelsea.

Is there merit in what they did? Absolutely. I won’t be the one to say that they don’t deserve the title. This team walked on the tight rope at all phases of this championship and yet they never gave up. They capitalized in the very few chances they created. There is merit in that. However, I can never support anti-football: the art of not wanting to go for the victory. Inter did it two years ago, Greece did it in the Eurocup 2004 and now Chelsea has done it too. They all have won without attempting to win but rather focusing in not losing.

Chelsea display in the final was horrible in my opinion. It feels more like Bayern lost rather than Chelsea won.  Compare their display to Barcelona last year or compare them to the Real Madrid team that won the 9th Champions League 10 years ago. It almost a sin to play like Chelsea did. In fact, the real sin is that Chelsea, until the 1-0, did not want to play. Two defensive lines of 4 and 5 players respectively at the grandest stage in European football is something I don’t expect from a team that wants to be crowned “the best”.

Listen to what Mata, Torres, Di Matteo, and other players were saying at the end of the game about how Bayern played better and you can see even they know luck was a huge element in their title win. Again, I think that “never give up” attitude is fantastic but to renounce any effort to go an win the game is not a good thing for a club that wants to enter into that “best clubs of Europe” category.

That football philosophy is valid sure but 8/10 times you will be eliminated by a team that wants to play for the win. If you want proof of this just look where Chelsea ended in the Premier League: in a Europa League place where their game belongs. I’m not saying that defensive football is a bad thing or that it isn’t valid. But being a defensive team doesn’t mean that you have to forget about attacking.

I doubt any good midfielder or striker who’s looking to play in another club would dream about playing for Chelsea, at least Di Matteo’s Chelsea. How could they? No striker wants to spend the whole game alone waiting for a long pass, a bad defense, and luck to score a goal. No midfielder wants to be constantly playing in a center-back role just to get the ball and have nobody to make a pass. Even as a fan, I would rather pay to see Arsenal or Tottenham play before paying to see Chelsea.

The funny thing is that Chelsea deserved this title long ago but won it when they least played for it. However, I will give credit where credit is due. Both, Drogba and Cech, were out of this world. That header from Didier was one of the best headers I’ve seen. They alone won this cup for Chelsea.  The years will pass and this final will be remembered for the wrong reasons. It will be the final that Bayern Munich couldn’t win, or lost to Chelsea.  

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Atletico de Madrid: the bitter side of glory

The Europa League is always a fun tournament but this year it took a different spin with the presence of Manchester United, Shalke04, Manchester City, Valencia, and Ajax. Add to that a fantastic Athletic de Bilbao and you could see why at times it felt more interesting than the Champions League. But none of those teams won the cup. Instead, Atletico de Madrid reclaimed the cup they won 2 years ago with a stellar Falcao and an unbeatable Courtois.

This cup has a lot of merits for Atletico de Madrid both inside and outside the pitch. From a technical point of view, this team is completely different from that of Quique Sanchez Flores in 2010. There are only two survivors from that team: Perea and Dominguez. To me that’s remarkable. It’s hard to build a winning team and to do it in less than two years is even more amazing. Add to that the fact that Simeone didn’t even start the season as the coach and the story becomes even more amusing. Atletico won the final being loyal to their beliefs and playing very smart defensive game without being cowards on the pitch.

But leaving all the euphoria and all the celebrations for the title aside you can see that not everything is happiness for the club. Yes the won the cup, but they missed finishing 4th in La Liga, which means they are not in the Champions League next season. So what’s the big deal? Just entering the champions league gives clubs the approximately the same prize money as winning the Europa League. That’s right, Atletico de Madrid could have lost the Europa League final but made it to the Champions League instead and they would have gotten a better money prize. But it’s not only about the money prize; clubs get funding from television contracts and basically the better the team is positioned for the next season the bigger piece of the pie you get.

From a fan point of view that doesn’t matter because a title is a title and you want your club to be a champion. But now Atletico is going to be forced to sell key players to avoid red numbers in their balance sheets for the year. This means goodbye Diego because even though he’s on a loan, it cost the team 5 millions to keep him. This also means goodbye Falcao and possibly Adrian as well because funds are needed.

Atletico will be doing the right thing, which is spending no more than their income so they can pay their debt even at the expense of the team. It’s a short term sacrifice for a better future but it’s hard to sell this to fans who, understandably, want to raise cups instead of finishing 4th in La Liga.

So congratulation Atletico for this well deserved cup, a sugar coat for a mission half accomplished. 

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Mourinho: you just don't get it

First things first, congratulations to Real Madrid for a well-deserved title. I love league titles because there is very little chance to have a controversial champions. You have to prove that you are the best for 38 fixtures. Referees’ mistakes are usually compensated over the course of the season as well as shots to the posts and other irregularities.

Real Madrid is the champion because they did not fail as much as their competitors. Sure, I don’t think the gap between Barcelona and Madrid is as big as the table suggests; but the bottom line is that Madrid dominated the tournament and won at every single important stadium.

Now, with that said there is something that Mourinho said today that bothers me big time. During the celebration of the title he mentioned “Some geniuses think there is only one way to win, they think they know football by just doing a Google search”. He also mentioned that his team played spectacularly all season. I won’t say that his team wasn’t impressive. In fact, Real Madrid has probably the best defense-offence transition in the world. Their counter attacks are that good. But to say that his team played spectacularly is a bit of a stretch.

Let’s not forget that this season Real Madrid lost the supercup against Barcelona even though they had a week more of training. They were also eliminated from the King’s cup by Barcelona again and lost at home to the same team after having a 1-0 lead in the first minute.

In Europe, they dominated the champions league until they faced the first big team. Against Bayern, they were completely outplayed and even though the penalties are a lottery they did justice to what was seen on the pitch. Real Madrid let a 2-0  lead score at home escape by playing a stingy football against a team that knows how to move the ball around the pitch and generate chances.

The problem is not that Mourinho’s style is wrong or bad. In fact, he’s a living proof that it works. What I just don’t understand is why he underutilizes his squad the way he does.  He has the players that know how to take care of the ball. Against Bayern I wasn’t expecting a 60-40% possession but I was expecting more control especially after the 2 goals in the first 15 minutes. They gave away the midfield and payed for it.

Mourinho won a well deserve title, but he already proved last season that he can beat 99% of La Liga’s teams. Real Madrid supporters want to see the beginning of an era not just a title per year. The Santiago Bernabeu stadium is not Stanford Bridge or San Siro where you just win. This stadium demands domination, control, and good games. If this wasn’t the case, then why whenever the ultras chant his name there are sectors of the stadium that still boo him? Mourinho demands crowd support but it is hard to be into the game cheering when your team refuses to play! This isn’t a second division team, this is Real Madrid.  

The Santiago Bernabeu stadium knows Mourinho has the tools to have an iconic team like they had not so long ago with Del Bosque. That old man who won 2 champions league and 2 league titles and was fired…

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Welcome Tito

Just seconds after the announcement that Pep Guardiola would not be coaching the team next season, Andoni Zubizarreta announced, to everyone’s surprise, the new coach for the F.C Barcelona: Tito Vilanova. Is it me or is this move just pure genius? A cloudy and doubtful future seems now much more clear.
Tito’s announcement came to me as a surprise as he had been struggling with his health this season. In fact, I thought one of the reasons Guardiola would be leaving the team was the possibility of Tito not being able to be his second coach for the future. So here comes the first good news: in order to take charge of the team it means that Tito is 100% recovered.

From a technical and tactical point of view, Tito Vilanova is the only man that can guarantee the continuity of the club’s philosophy. I’m not saying that other coaches are not capable of continuing Pep’s work; however, what better man that the guy who has been there for years already. Tito coached Messi, Fabregas and Pique when they were kids. He is also known for being a strategist who studies his rivals meticulously. Tito Vilanonva is the ideal man to help the team make the transition in the post Guardiola era.

The fact that Tito Vilanova was appointed as the new coach is no coincidence. This means the general manager, Andoni Zubizarreta, had already considered future candidates for a long time The way he explained his reasoning for this decision leaves no doubt in my mind that he studied the possibilities long before Guardiola stated he was not going to continue. This caused a very positive effect, as the talk is no longer about Guardiola leaving but about Tito’s role next season.

Will this work? Nobody thought it would when Guardiola was appointed four years ago and we all know how that story ends. I think it’s a perfectly logical solution. Tito has to make sure he puts his own spin into the team and introduce some new alternatives without deviating from the values and philosophies of the team. There, I think, lies the true challenge. I hope fans understand that he is not Guardiola and he shouldn’t try to be. He’s Tito and he’s been given something many coaches would die for: trust.

Let the Tito era begins.