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Interview: Ballack urges Guardiola to unshackle Bayern

“Of course he likes to keep the ball, to have possession as much as possible. Sometimes I miss the up and down, an open football game like you have in England. This kind of football that he played in Barcelona, it’s different, it’s more tiki-taka, but if you play against teams that are really defence-orientated, it turns into a boring football game sometimes. It’s not nice to watch from a football perspective, if one team plays around the box, passing the ball and having 70 or 80 percent of ball possession, but not many chances. It’s about finding a balance between having the ball and targeting the offensive.”

I sat down for a chat with Michael Ballack on Monday and you can read his thoughts on Pep Guardiola’s Barcelonification of Bayern Munich and Mario Götze’s post-World Cup problems here.

Feature: Blackpool and the curious case of the missing statue

“A bronze statue that went missing and then reappeared has become the symbol of the steady and unedifying decline of former Premier League football club Blackpool. Depicting club legend Stan Mortensen, scorer of a hat-trick against Bolton Wanderers in the 1953 FA Cup final, the statue had stood on a plinth outside Blackpool’s Bloomfield Road home in northwest England since August 2005. Last week it vanished, after fans earmarked it as a rallying point for a protest against the club’s owners, the Oyston family, prior to the final game of the season against Huddersfield Town. Although it reappeared on Wednesday, the club’s fans are furious, with the Blackpool Supporters’ Trust describing what happened as “beyond contempt”.”

I’ve written a piece for AFP on the peculiar goings-on at Blackpool and you can read it here.

Analysis: Champions Chelsea unloved but unstoppable

“The Premier League title beckoned for Chelsea from the moment André Schürrle put them ahead after 20 minutes and 45 seconds of their opening fixture at Burnley on August 18. Diego Costa’s first Chelsea goal cancelled out Scott Arfield’s opener and four minutes later Schürrle converted a sumptuous, half-volleyed pass from Cesc Fàbregas at the culmination of a superb 25-pass move. Branislav Ivanović’s 34th-minute goal completed a 3-1 win that took Jose Mourinho’s side above defending champions Manchester City on goals scored at the top of the table, and they have been there largely ever since. “They’ve definitely been the best team in the league,” admits Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey. “They’ve only lost twice this season. Their consistency has been the best and that’s what you need.””

I wrote a piece for AFP on how Chelsea won the Premier League title and you can read it here.

Gary Neville is wrong – winning isn’t everything

Rochdale fansWe need to talk about winning. Because although winning matters, in one way it doesn’t matter at all. And the bit about it not mattering matters a great deal.

We have listened to professional footballers talk glibly about the importance of “winning things” and watched pundits pore over win/loss ratios and trophy tallies for so long that some of us might have started to think that we watch football for the same reasons. But although everyone obviously likes to see their team win something every once in a while, that’s not what keeps us coming back.

The British expatriates who carried football around the world in the latter years of the 19th century, alighting on quaysides in Andalusia, Buenos Aires or São Paulo with a football under their arm and a pair of rudimentary boots in their luggage, didn’t become globe-trotting evangelists for the sport because they were obsessed by winning. The fans who turned out week after week after week after week to watch Rochdale during the 36 years they spent in the English fourth tier without once being promoted or relegated weren’t in it for the glory. And when generations and generations of children have rushed into the street or onto the playing fields to replicate the feats they have seen their heroes perform in the stadium or on television, they have seldom simulated the act of raising a trophy.

Co-commentating for Sky Sports on Chelsea’s 3-1 win at Leicester City on Wednesday night, Gary Neville opined that “no-one remembers” Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United ‘Entertainers’ because they didn’t win anything. It was a throwaway remark, but as a quick glance at the reaction to what he said on Twitter demonstrated, he was wrong. For all their shortcomings, many people do remember the ‘Entertainers’, and fondly, just as people remember the magnificent Hungary team beaten by West Germany in the 1954 World Cup final or the bewitching Holland side that fell to the same opposition at the conclusion of the 1974 tournament.

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Analysis: Brendan Rodgers’s Liverpool to-do list

“With Luis Suárez having left for Barcelona and injuries restricting Daniel Sturridge to only seven starts, Liverpool have struggled for goals badly, averaging 1.38 per game compared to 2.66 in 2013-14. Mario Balotelli and Rickie Lambert, brought in to soften the blow of Suárez’s departure, have failed, and Liverpool’s four recognised strikers (Sturridge, Balotelli, Lambert and Fabio Borini) have mustered only eight league goals between them. Promising Belgian striker Divock Origi is due to arrive during the summer, having been loaned back to Lille after being signed last July, but Liverpool also need to find a proven goal-scorer (or goal-scorers) if they are to recapture the heights of last season. “You can’t hide the fact we’ve lost over 50 goals,” Rodgers said after Tuesday’s defeat at Hull. “We have to look to improve the squad. It’s always great if you can get marquee players to come in and help you. The owners will support that.””

I’ve written a piece on the five issues Brendan Rodgers needs to address in order to get Liverpool back on track and you can read it here.

Analysis: Man City déjà vu leaves Pellegrini exposed

“Having snatched the crown from Manchester United’s grasp on the final day of the 2011-12 campaign, City stagnated and finished the following season 11 points adrift of their derby rivals in second place. Manager Roberto Mancini paid the price with his job, sacked two days after a shock defeat by Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup final, and a similar fate may lie in store for Pellegrini. Heralded as the antithesis to the spiky and combative Mancini, the urbane Chilean steered the club to a league and League Cup double in his first season. But Pellegrini’s position now appears under serious threat, with British bookmakers offering odds of 2/7 that he will no longer be at the helm on the opening day of next season.”

Who is to blame for Manchester City’s failure to defend the Premier League title? Some thoughts in this piece for AFP.

Analysis: Why have English teams flopped in Europe?

“Any evaluation of the English teams’ woes in this season’s Champions League must, however, also take into account the major club-specific failings that led to each side’s elimination. Chelsea showed complacency by electing not to press home their advantage following the dismissal of PSG’s Zlatan Ibrahimović in the second leg of their last 16 tie, enabling the French champions to claim a 2-2 draw that sent them through on away goals. Arsenal paid the price for kamikaze attacking — a habitual failing — in their 3-1 first-leg loss to Monaco, while in setting City out in a porous 4-4-2 formation, Pellegrini allowed Barcelona to take control of their tie with a 2-1 first-leg win.”

I’ve written a piece for AFP analysing why England’s Champions League representatives came unstuck in this season’s competition. You can read it here.

Feature: Mourinho ‘monsters’ meet in Matić-Motta duel

“In building his teams, Mourinho has often used the number six as a cornerstone. At Porto he had Costinha, another wiry, combative player, and the scorer of the goal against Manchester United during the 2003-04 Champions League that sent Mourinho sprinting down the Old Trafford touchline and into the wider football consciousness. At Chelsea there was Claude Makélélé, the tip of the inverted midfield triangle with which Mourinho swamped the central midfield pairings that prevailed in England at the time.”

My AFP piece on José Mourinho and the search for the perfect number six can be read here.

Analysis: Echoes of Moyes as Van Gaal grasps at straws

“For Manchester United’s fans, manager Louis van Gaal’s attempts to explain their team’s shortcomings may be beginning to carry faint echoes of the reign of his doomed predecessor, David Moyes. United’s regression under Moyes was spectacular, but it was his continued insistence that progress was being made — despite stark evidence to the contrary — that particularly irked supporters. Fans could just about countenance the team slipping back after the departure of Alex Ferguson, but hearing Moyes claim that his side should aspire to play like Manchester City or that Liverpool were travelling to Old Trafford as “favourites” was impossible to stomach. With United still on course for Champions League qualification, Van Gaal’s stock has fallen no way near as low as Moyes’s did, but the excuses he gave after Monday’s FA Cup elimination by Arsenal raised more than a few eyebrows.”

I wrote a piece for AFP on Manchester United’s FA Cup elimination and Louis van Gaal’s inability to explain away their failings, and you can read it here.

Analysis: Old flaws harpoon Arsenal in Champions League

“Arsenal’s defensive naivety and gung-ho attacking have long been used as sticks with which to beat Wenger, but his side seemed to have turned over a new leaf in last month’s 2-0 victory at Manchester City. After years of one-sided losses to rivals, Wenger appeared, belatedly, to have grasped the importance of defensive shape and to have accepted that a team can cede control of possession and still prevail. But against Monaco, and despite the fact Arsenal fielded £90 million of attacking talent in Alexis Sánchez, Danny Welbeck and Mesut Özil, all the old failings returned.”

My take for AFP on Arsenal’s calamitous Champions League defeat by Monaco can be read here.

Analysis: Five ways Rodgers has re-energised Liverpool

“Liverpool began the season with a four-man defence, but after losing seven of their first 16 games, [Brendan] Rodgers rejigged his team, introducing a three-man defensive configuration in a loose-limbed 3-4-2-1 formation. It has yielded defensive stability — Liverpool have conceded only seven times in their last 10 games — and greater zip and dynamism in attack, where the positional fluidity has allowed Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho to thrive, plugging a void created by Daniel Sturridge’s long spell on the sidelines due to injury. “We have great control of the ball and we’ve got the ball longer in the opponent’s half, which means they don’t have to defend as much,” Rodgers has explained.”

I’ve had a look at the reasons behind Liverpool’s improved recent form in the Premier League and you can read it here.

Report: Figo keen on FIFA presidential debate

“The most eye-catching initiative in his sleek, 20-page manifesto is a proposal to expand the World Cup from its current 32-team format to a super-sized sporting extravaganza featuring 40 or even 48 national sides. Last year’s World Cup in Brazil was seen as one of the most successful tournaments in the competition’s 84-year history, but Figo said it was important to keep growing it for both financial and political reasons. When it was put to him that the proposals could ruin the tournament, he replied: “I don’t think so.””

I sat down for a chat with FIFA presidential candidate Luís Figo at Wembley on Thursday and you can read about our conversation here.

Analysis: English Premier League TV deal sparks fan fears

“English Premier League clubs risk losing a generation of supporters if their record-breaking new television rights deal does not translate into cheaper ticket prices, fan groups warned on Wednesday. The Premier League on Tuesday announced that broadcasters Sky and BT have paid £5.1 billion ($7.8 billion, 6.9 billion euros) to show live games in the period 2016-2019 — a 70 percent increase on the previous deal. Overall revenue could soar beyond £8 billion once a global TV rights deal is renegotiated, but it comes at a time when rising ticket prices are making it difficult for some supporters to attend games.”

I’ve written a piece for AFP on calls for Premier League clubs to share the fruits of their blockbuster TV rights deal. You can read it here.

Profile: So much, so little for Liverpool great Gerrard

“Taken as a whole, in his club career — which began when he walked through the doors of Liverpool’s academy at the age of eight — Gerrard has scaled almost all the heights. From the header that sparked the comeback to end all comebacks against Milan in Istanbul to the sensational 35-yard thunderbolt that took the 2006 FA Cup final to extra time, he has swaggered through his Anfield career with the audacity of a comic-book hero. He came third in the voting for the Ballon d’Or in 2005 and was voted the greatest player in Liverpool’s history by fans in a 2013 poll. No less a judge than Zinedine Zidane observed in 2009: “Is he the best in the world? He might not get the attention of Messi and Ronaldo, but yes, I think he might be.””

My piece for AFP on Steven Gerrard’s departure from Liverpool can be read here.

French football quotes of the year 2014

Pleasantries

Marcelo Bielsa“There’s already one of ours who’s up there [Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa], and I wish him the best. Rémy, I think he deserves something else than Newcastle. I wouldn’t go there. You must get bored shitless in Newcastle.”
– Montpellier president Louis Nicollin on reports linking Rémy Cabella with a move to Newcastle United

“At Milan, they treated me like a king. People were courteous, welcoming and always willing to help. At a restaurant, in France, you sit down and not only do they make you wait for a very long time, but they treat you badly. It was disconcerting, but now I’ve adapted: if someone treats me badly, I treat them badly in return. I’m a real Parisian now.”
– Paris Saint-Germain’s Thiago Silva on the joys of life in the capital

Loïc Féry: “Thank you.”
Christian Gourcuff: “I’m not saying thank you to you [vous].”
Loïc Féry: “So we’re vous-ing each other now?”
Christian Gourcuff: “Yes, yes, we’re vous-ing each other now.”
– Terse exchange between Lorient president Loïc Féry and outgoing coach Christian Gourcuff, caught on camera by Canal+ after Lorient’s 4-1 loss at home to Lille on the season’s final day

“For him to be bad is one thing, but for him to be stupid is something else.”
– Nice captain Didier Digard hits out at referee Antony Gautier after being sent off for handball during a 1-1 draw at Saint-Étienne. He later apologised

“It’s not glasses he needs – it’s a Labrador!”
– Lyon midfielder Clément Grenier to referee Ruddy Buquet after a stormy 2-1 loss at home to Saint-Étienne

“I’m surprised by the unacceptable and immature attitude of Romao, who made vulgar remarks towards [Canal + pundit] Pierre Ménès and me because he couldn’t think of anything else to say after fouling me but insult me. I quote: ‘Go and suck that fat Pierre Ménès.’ Unacceptable.”
Bafétimbi Gomis, then with Lyon, on a dispute with Marseille midfielder Alaixys Romao

“So then Mr Gomis, about the ‘son of a whore’ and ‘tramp’ that you yelled at me on the pitch yesterday – I should tweet it, right?”
– Lorient midfielder Mathieu Coutadeur suggests Gomis is no angel himself

“The atmosphere on the pitch? The French were too arrogant, as usual.”
– Sweden Under-21 player Kiese Thelin after his side eliminated their French counterparts in an Under-21 European Championship play-off

“A coach is above all someone who works in the technical domain. And there are coaches who don’t coach, like Laurent Blanc at Paris, where it’s [Blanc’s assistant] Jean-Louis Gasset who takes care of it. I don’t like this model. A coach who doesn’t control the pitch, as far as I’m concerned, is not a coach.”
Christian Gourcuff

“I passed my coaching exams. Mr Gourcuff passed them 30 years ago. He should take them again and see that the job has evolved.”
Blanc responds

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