Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Louis Van Gaal - Genius? or Mad man?

As promised, my 100th follower on Twitter would decide the topic of my next post. Maaruthy Kumaar (@the_outlwawtorn) was the chosen (lucky?) one. His request was for me to write about Louis Van Gaal.
There are some Bayern Munich fans out there who will probably want to kill him (or me for writing about him), but he’s quite a special character Mr. Van Gaal. Some consider him quite the genius for his contributions, and others just consider him mad. With a face that looks like that of a politician, it’s always been rare sight to see Van Gaal smiling. Holding a serious appearance, this is one man who never looks like he’s happy; even when his teams played well. But if he looks back at his career he’s got a few things he should be proud of, because wherever Van Gaal has gone, success has, almost always, followed. He’s managed in different leagues across Europe and found relative ease at motivating his players to become victorious.

First and foremost with Ajax, where a decade’s worth of Dutch superstars were given their chance in the game thanks to him. The Golden Era of Dutch Football and Dutch Footballers happened thanks to Van Gaal, though he’s not credited with it as much as he should be. When we think of some of the names that went on to become World Class superstars recognized as Legends at various clubs around the world, it was all thanks to Van Gaal giving them a chance as youngsters and fielding them all together to form an unbelievable team: Edwin Van Der Sar, Michael Reiziger, Winston Bogarde (ok, not a legend but still – Chelsea fans should have fond memories of him), Frank De Boer, Ronald De Boer, Marc Overmars, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert…etc.

These are the boys he turned into men at Ajax where he imposed a 3-3-1-3 formation (or 2-3-2-3 if you like) which was based on possession (comparable to what we now see at Barcelona). The same players pretty much flooded the starting eleven for the Dutch National team for many years. His tenure at Ajax may only have lasted 6 years, but in that period of time, he made history. Leading a team made up of young fledglings to unprecedented success in Holland as well as in Europe: 8 trophies in 6 years, including 2 Champions League finals in a row (1 victory). An incredible record during such a short period of time which is often forgotten when debates go on about the greatest teams of all-time. I would rate that Ajax side highly up there amongst the greatest ever. Following his success at Ajax, Van Gaal was knighted. Yes, that’s right, knighted. Meaning he holds a similar status to Sir Alex Ferguson in the UK; but the Dutch equivalent. That’s how incredible his success was at Ajax.

His next step was to move to Spain and take over the helm at Barcelona. His short term there was controversial, yet successful. Winning La Liga twice and the Copa Del Rey once, his success was marred by constant feuds with the media and public spats with some of his players. Upon his arrival at the Nou Camp, Van Gaal’s immediate intention was to impose his style on the club he took over from Bobby Robson. His philosophy of putting tactics before players didn’t go down well with Barcelona’s superstars at the time (Figo, Rivalo…amongst others) and he replaced some of Barca’s adoring stars with no fewer than 8 Dutch internationals; a move that didn’t endear him to the “socios” of Barca. Despite this, Van Gaal was still successful. Some of the players he had brought along to the Nou Camp were the same players he had brought up during his Ajax days: Reiziger, Kluivert, Cocu, Zenden, Frank and his brother Ronald De Boer, Hesp and Bogarde. It’s almost forgotten now that he gave Xavi his debut and allowed him to break into the first team (as usual giving youngsters a chance).

His success was not good enough for him to stay on at Barcelona. Losing the title in 2000 by finishing 2nd place and losing his battle with the influential Spanish media was the end of his time there. The public fall-out with some of his players was too difficult to handle; in particular with Brazilian superstar Rivaldo (who was the Blaugrana’s darling at the time). The player insisted on being played as a playmaker rather than on the wing and of course, Van Gaal, being the man that he is, stuck him on the left regardless of the player’s opinion. It all blew in Van Gaal’s face in the end and both he and Rivaldo left Barcelona. It was during his time at Barca that Van Gaal’s reputation as a bit of a mad man began to prosper, especially with the Rivaldo situation. Whereas at Ajax his calm imposing presence was respected by all, at Barcelona, the stars wanted to impose themselves on the man himself.

Following his tenure at Barcelona, short stints with the Dutch National team, a return to Barcelona and a return to Ajax (as technical director) followed – but all were unsuccessful and Van Gaal was jobless and out of the limelight during 2004. Most of these short spells with these teams ended in feuds with Van Gaal being criticized for his behavior and stubbornness. The mad man was clearly not making many friends.

His return to the managerial fold was just another demonstration of the class that Van Gaal has as a manager. Taking over the reins of AZ Alkmaar in early 2005, an unfashionable club in the Dutch league with a stadium that holds no more than 17000 people, he turned them into League Champions by 2008. A feat all the more remarkable in a league which had only 3 different winners (PSV, Ajax & Feyernoord) since the last time AZ won it, back in 1981. His success with AZ led him to his next big break – with the mighty Bayern Munich where he spent only 2 seasons. Success followed as well, with a League and Cup double in his first season, which could have been a treble but for the defeat in the Champions League final vs Inter Milan. Van Gaal had made his mark and put Bayern back on the European map (also gave youngsters a chance again - Muller, Badstuber...). However, towards the end of the following season, 2010-2011, Van Gaal was sacked for failing to securd 3rd spot in the league; a harsh sacking, but which was greeted by many in Munich.

Stories of Van Gaal clashing with his players constantly kept occurring in Munich and it disrupted the squad. One of them, told by Luca Toni to the press, was about Van Gaal pulling down his pants in the Bayern Munich dressing room to show his testicles to the players to prove to them that he had “balls” to drop any player from the team. There were also rumors that Van Gaal made his players (and his children) call him “Sie”, which is the equivalent of using the plural for someone older, or more respected, in languages like French or Spanish. There’s also the common perception that Van Gaal hated Brazilian footballers, as wherever he managed, he had difficulties with them and treated them differently (Sunny Anderson, Rivaldo, Lucio…). A lot was even made about his speech during Munich’s title celebrations. Many comparing it to that of a dictator (I can’t blame them really,
click here to see it).

Despite all that, Van Gaal’s records everywhere speak for themselves. It is a shame that he’s without a job at the moment, because if ever there was a manager to guarantee a team instant success and discipline, Mr Van Gaal would be the man the ensure it. And I can think of quite a few clubs around Europe would could use such a manager.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Jose Mourinho moments

Jose Mourinho has never been far from controversy and last week he continued that trend during the Super Copa Final with his now famous “poke”. He’s never been a very popular figure amongst opposing fans and has always been able to grab the media attention.

Slick and sly, his witty arrogance is never gone unnoticed. He has always been a hate figure and it’s not difficult to see why. His teams’ style of play has always been tactically-oriented and a bit dry in comparison to others, but regardless of the style of play, as a manager, you can’t question his success.

Personally, I like Jose Mourinho. He’s managed clubs that I despise and despite that, I like him. He’s capable of pissing me off for no apparent reason that when I look back at it, I find it funny. He’s fun, he has charisma and he has balls. He says what’s on his mind regardless of the consequences and he does what he wants no matter how many people hate him for it.

Whenever Mourinho is around, we’ve come to expect something different to happen – either to anger opposing fans or just to entertain us. Hate him or love him, Football would be a much quieter place without him and now we look at 10 unforgettable Mourinho moments. These are my favorite Mourinho moments that emphasize his entertaining character and you’re welcome to leave some of yours on the comments below or on the Facebook page or wherever else.

10 - At the Camp Nou, Mourinho slaps Puyol:

9 - The 2005 Carling Cup final during Mourinho’s first season at Chelsea. Mourinho silences Liverpool’s fans:

8 - Chelsea lost the title to Manchester United in 2007, by drawing 1-1 with Arsenal at the Emirates stadium. Mourinho, in typical fashion, took the centre stage and went on the field:

7 - Mourinho, knowing he was leaving Inter Milan, following their historic treble winning season in 2009-2010, fell right into the hands of Marco Materazzi:

6 - Mourinho celebrating at Nou Camp following Inter Milan’s triumph in the semi-final versus Barcelona of the 2010 Champions League semi-finals:

5 - Mourinho when asked about the pressure on Chelsea as Manchester United closed the gap at the top of the table:

4 - When asked again about the pressure on his Chelsea team during the title race:

3 - When Mourinho was questioned about the transfer money available to Chelsea:

2 - Prior to the quarter-final clash in the Champions League, Mourinho named his entire starting 11 before Chelsea’s game versus Barca. He also named Barca’s starting 11 the day before. He got it right. For both teams:

1 - The moment that Mourinho made his name on the European stage. Beating Manchester United at Old Trafford at the last minute and running all along the touchline to celebrate. Mourinho, the character, had arrived in European Football:

(Please note that the videos don't belong me. They are the property of their rightful owners who posted them on youtube)

Monday, August 15, 2011

Cesc Fabregas - Is he really needed at Barca?

So it’s finally over. Cesc Fabregas has moved to Barcelona from Arsenal for a reported fee of 34 million, but could rise up to 40 million depending on certain variables. One of the longest transfer sagas (probably one of the most boring as well) is now over and we no longer have to hear anything about Arsenal not wanting to sell their captain or of Barcelona’s players pleading, almost daily, for their mate to join them.

Obviously the Arsenal fans that I know are disappointed to be losing their captain and the Barcelona fans are ecstatic. From my point of view, I just wonder if Fabregas is worth that money and whether or not Barcelona actually need him. When we look at Barcelona’s current starting 11, it’s very difficult to find flaws in it. This is a team that is unplayable against and one that plays the most attractive Football in Europe. They’re already pretty much winning every competition they play in. So what more is needed? Why fix something that isn’t broken? I don’t see where Fabregas will fit in Barcelona’s system. The midfield trio of Iniesta, Xavi and Busquets functions pretty well and doesn’t need any mending in my opinion.

Some say that he’s been brought in as the long-term replacement for Xavi. I completely disagree with that. Bearing in mind that Fabregas is 24 years old and Xavi is 31 years old, the age gap isn’t that big. Both players are not at ages which require them to be sitting on the bench. Fabregas is a player who should be starting every game and the same goes for Xavi. The position that Barcelona’s number 6 currently occupies is not one that requires a lot of pace or speed; it’s one that depends on creativity and vision. Xavi has never been a fast player. He’s never needed to be. His qualities lie in the reading he has of the game – and that doesn’t change with age. I don't see Xavi losing his place any time soon in the starting line-up. When Xavi will be 34 years old he will probably be better than most midfileders that are 10 years younger than him, simply because of his vision. His fitness will probably stay the same for another 2-3 years at least, and even if he loses a yard or two of pace, he’s never needed it anyways. So I don’t believe that Fabregas has been brought in as the potential replacement of Xavi. He’s also definitely not going to be replacing the energetic Iniesta who’s at the peak of his career. So, unless he’s been brought in to become the shielding midfielder that Busquests currently plays in, then I don’t get the reason why he’s been brought. Where does he fit in?

Another thing that should be worrying for Barcelona is Fabregas’ fitness. For some reason this has not even been mentioned anywhere in the media, but over the past 3 seasons, Fabregas has never been able to complete a full season. The average appearance of a player that plays for a club at the top level is approximately 40-45 games a season in all competitions (and in some cases probably more). Over the past 3 seasons, Fabregas has averaged 34 games a season – in all competitions (Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup and Champions League). He always seems to get injured at key moments in the season and in key games in particular. I’m not sure if that’s just a coincidence, or it says something about the player’s fitness itself. But it’s just another issue which begs the question: is he truly needed at Barcelona?

Fabregas leaves Arsenal with only one medal to his name: an Fa Cup medal. That alone and the fact that he’s left them when they needed him most is probably why he’ll never be remembered as a Legend in the same way Patrick Vieira is remembered there. It won’t matter much to him. He got what he wants. Cesc Fabregas was a very good Arsenal player, and that’s how I believe he will be remembered in years to come. Most Arsenal fans would probably disagree with that statement and say he's a world class player. Maybe they're right, but he looked world class next to Alex Song, Abou Diaby and Tomas Rosicky. Let's see how he'll look over the course of an entire season next to real world class players. For all what Arsenal fans love about Cesc, the facts speak for themselves. He didn’t achieve much with Arsenal, and especially as a captain. Creative? Yes. Loveable? Surely. Very good footballer? No doubt. World Class? We'll see.

They say that once a team gets to the top, the hardest part is staying there. To keep the players motivated to repeat the same thing the following year and to do it all over again must be even more difficult. I think the hatred of Real Madrid alone must be enough of a motivation for anyone related with Barcelona to want to stay at the top. Mending a few things that need some change is part and parcel of the game, but does Fabregas’ arrival guarantee that? I don’t think so. I think he’ll struggle to break into the team at Barcelona. He’s joining his friends at Barcelona and moving back home. But he has to prove himself all over again, because for all his qualities, he’s joining the best club side in the world at the moment (don't get ahead of yourselves) and whereas at Arsenal he might have become a king, at Barcelona he’ll just be a prince.

(On a side note, I love the fact that he’s banging my cousin)

Monday, August 8, 2011

The man who changed Football: Jean-Marc Bosman

For many followers of Football, the Bosman ruling is just a term which means that players are allowed to leave for Free at the end of their contracts; but behind this term was the man who revolutionized the way Football has become. The insane wages, the crazy transfer fees, the agents and everything else that involves transfers and players changed thanks to this man.

Jean-Marc Bosman, was a professional player in the Belgian First division for RFC Liege in 1990 and was looking to leave his club and move to French Club Dunkerque as his contract had expired. But using the Belgium’s player-evaluation system at the time, RFC Liege stuck a £500,000 valuation on him and Dunkerque were put off by the deal. Following the fall-through of this transfer, RFC Liege cut Bosman’s salary down by 75% and this was the beginning of the court case which turned into a revolution in the game we love.

For those who aren’t aware, or don’t remember, prior to the Bosman ruling most European clubs could prevent their players from joining other clubs even if their contracts had expired. It sounds crazy to think of such a scenario taking place in the game today. If a player’s contract was finished, he would have to remain at the club until another club came in with a transfer fee to buy him. The club could slash his salary in half, and he would have no say in it and could not leave. Sounds like modern-slavery. It was an unfair and unjust system. The players had no freedom to move as long as they belonged to the club.

Similarly, prior to the popular ruling, the quota of foreign players in each participating team in European competitions was restricted to 3 players. Let me clarify it for you – no team could field more than 3 foreign players (including on the bench). Yes, only 3. Meaning when Manchester United got spanked 4-0 by Barcelona at the Nou Camp during the 1994-1995 campaign, United could only field 3 foreigners while the likes of Schmeichel and Cantona had to look on from the stands as United had to field 8 English players (even if they were from the youth team).  Again, unthinkable in the modern game now.

The Bosman ruling changed all of that.

A five-year court case which ran from 1990 until 1995 ended in Bosman’s favor. It was a victory for Bosman (even though he never made the transfer he desired and ended up playing in the lower leagues in France and Belgium until the end of his career). It was a victory for Footballers in Europe. And it was the start of Football’s mad money. Players could now move for free at the end of their contracts. With 6-months, or less, left on players’ contracts, they could now begin speaking to other clubs and could sign pre-contracts – leaving their originial clubs with nothing. No transfer fee. Player-power was now in the making. The clubs no longer had the strength to tie a player against his will.

Furthermore, there was no longer the quota of “foreign” players on each club as long as they were European. Teams could now fill up their teams with players from all over Europe. This change, coupled with the free movement of players, is when Football’s face began changing. 16 years after the ruling, we now find teams with players from every single corner of the globe and with salaries that make the average working individual look in envy and disgust. Even Bosman could never have imagined the impact his court case would have on World Football.

This story isn’t a cheerful and jolly one. It is an ironic one more than anything else; because while players like Tevez, Rooney, Messi, Ronaldo and other world beaters are taking advantage of the fight that Bosman won all those years ago and are now earning near £200,000/week, Mr Bosman is now living another battle of his own: against alcohol and depression. He now lives off social aid in Belgium and lives on 700 euros a month. His marriage has failed. Even his 15-year old dog recently died. Talk about irony. This is the same man who is to thank for all these big bucks in the game.

He’s been seen in the media recently saying that Footballers should give something back to him because of what he gave to them; a charity match of some sort to thank him for his fight. Like some sort of martyr celebration or something like that. I sympathize with him to some extent but knowing that he made close to £750,000 thanks to his settlement in that court case, one must wonder what he did with all that money.  Not so sure I sympathize that much with him knowing he lost all that cash.

There’s no doubt that if it weren’t for him, Football wouldn’t have been the same today (or maybe someone else would have fought the way he did?). Bosman’s story is an ironic one and is one that seems to be forgotten. With players threatening to use the Bosman ruling to either get a higher pay-cheque or leave on a free (with a higher salary elsewhere), he must wish he was one of the players reaping the rewards of the system he created. But he’s not. He’s become just a name. He’s even become a verb. He’s become a threat. He’s become a hero, but he’s also become an alcoholic and has fallen into depression - and wants the Football community to feel sorry for him - but he seems to forget that his motives to move to Dunkerque were pretty much the same as the majority of Footballers nowadays: he wanted to move for more money. And in the Football business, not the game, there is no pity.  Bosman’s legacy will never be remembered for what he did on the pitch, but only for what he did off it. Regardless of what has become of the man now, he’s already forgotten.