Michael Cox

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Swansea City v SSC Napoli - UEFA Europa League Second Round First Leg

Last Thursday, Napoli travelled to Swansea City and played out a 0-0 draw in the Europa League.

It is difficult to judge a first leg goalless draw in European competition: traditionally a draw is a good result for the away side, but a 0-0 leaves them exposed to a score draw in the return match, which would result in their elimination.

As such, the reaction to the result varied significantly across the British press. The Sky Sports website, for example, led with “Swansea earned a hugely creditable 0-0 home draw with Napoli”. The Guardian, in stark contrast, headlined their match report “Rafael Benítez masterminds first-leg stalemate.” One suggests Swansea deserve credit, the other insists Napoli and Benitez achieved something particularly impressive. The truth is somewhere in between.

The latter headline is particularly interesting – in any normal sense of the word, Benitez’s wasn’t really ‘masterminding’ anything. Think about the situation: the Serie A runners-up, packed with an array of multimillion pound players and a European specialist as coach, travelling to meet an off-form side who qualified for this competition by beating Bradford City, with a complete unknown as coach. Napoli are a powerhouse of European football, Swansea still an underdog.

Besides, if you saw the match, Napoli were extraordinarily lucky to collect a draw. They were under significant pressure for long spells, recorded one shot on target, and were reliant upon not one, but two, excellent goalkeeping displays to keep them in the tie, with Pepe Reina replacing Rafael at half-time. Napoli unquestionably arrived in Wales with a reactive, counter-attacking mindset, and Swansea’s possession dominance was unsurprising – but Napoli conceded far too many chances and barely created anything themselves.

Yet a fortunate 0-0 draw against a significantly weaker side was termed a masterclass. Now, this isn’t a criticism of the headline itself (not least as I’m a contributor to that particular newspaper) because headline writing is an extraordinarily difficult task, as much about SEO as providing an accurate summary or witty pun. However, it sums up how Benitez’s managerial style has grown into something of a caricature – any acceptable result, especially in Europe, is attributed to his genius as a strategist.

There is, very basically, a linear scale ranging from ‘tactical genius’ at one end, to ‘man manager and motivator’ at the other, which summarizes how various managers are depicted. Some managers are both. Others are neither. But ask 10 football fans to place the likes of Benitez, Harry Redknapp, Andre Villas-Boas, Brian Clough and Martin O’Neill on the scale, and you’d get very similar answers.

Benitez would probably be at the wrong end, however, because it sometimes it feels like everyone has completely forgotten the nature of his greatest achievements. His European Cup with Liverpool in 2005, for example, was clinched in extraordinary circumstances – an unthinkable comeback against a vastly superior Milan side (both on paper, and on that evening in Istanbul). English teams never win the European Cup in style, they triumph in a manner that feels like a self-parody of the ‘grit and determination’ they’re supposedly meant to embody.

Benitez’s FA Cup triumph a year later was similarly astonishing. With Liverpool 3-2 down going into injury time, having stuttered against an average, midtable West Ham side featuring the likes of Carl Fletcher and (look away, Liverpool fans) Paul Konchesky, they kept going and going and going, until Steven Gerrard produced one of the all-time FA Cup final goals. For the second time under Benitez, Liverpool won a major trophy on penalties, a test of nerve and composure.

Benitez’s Europa League triumph with Chelsea last season was similarly dramatic, with defeated Benfica manager Jorge Jesus almost speechless at the injustice of the result. “For most of the 90 minutes Benfica were better – better organized, technically and tactically superior to a very strong Chelsea side,” he complained. However, Chelsea had belief and faith in themselves (something lacking at Benfica after they’d blown the league title against Porto a few days before, and because of their infamously poor record in European finals). Branislav Ivanovic headed the winner in stoppage time.

It’s better to be lucky than good, as someone once remarked. However, these victories weren’t purely lucky: they’ve happened too frequently to subscribe Benitez’s career to fortune. The victories had a similar quality – they showed fighting spirit, never-say-die attitude and incredible self-belief. This is what Benitez instils in his sides.

If Benitez was as tactically skilled as the caricature suggests, he wouldn’t have needed to completely restructure his side in 2005. Playing without a holding midfielder against Milan—the most creative side in Europe—was bizarre, although his Plan B was unquestionably brilliant. Similarly, it wasn’t strategic brilliance to rely upon Steven Gerrard’s astonishing long-range effort a year later against West Ham, and his tactical approach against Benfica last season was only a minor part of Chelsea’s triumph.

On the evidence of the last ten years, the major quality Benitez brings to his club, not dissimilar to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, is self-confidence, even when the chips are down. He makes his squad disciplined, focused and together.

This means, incidentally, that the Spaniard is perfectly suited to Napoli – who were often tactically brilliant under his predecessor Walter Mazzarri, but desperately lacked a winning mentality.  They had a dressing room celebration, for example, when they clinched second place last year, despite the fact they were vaguely in a two-horse race with Juventus for the title, rather than a plucky outsider gunning for European Cup qualification. Some mocked Arsenal when they partied after clinching fourth place, but having spent the majority of the campaign in lower positions fighting their way up through the league, it was a more understandable reaction. Napoli were never going to finish lower than second, but acted like heroes when it happened anyway. That has to change, and under Benitez, it gradually will.

In football, the consensus about an individual doesn’t changes once an individual is typecast, because it’s simply easier to play along. Take Toronto’s signing of Jermain Defoe, whose departure from English football prompted glowing appraisals of his role as a natural-born finisher. The common wisdom is that Defoe is superb in front of goal, but never developed his all-round game.

Yet often, the complete opposite has been true – Defoe’s all-round game has improved, but his finishing has been poor. Under Harry Redknapp, Defoe unselfishly dropped off Peter Crouch and made up the numbers in midfield to shift Spurs from 4-4-2 to 4-5-1, precisely the sort of thing a ‘pure finisher’ doesn’t do. In a recent game against Sunderland, Defoe recorded a 97% pass completion rate and created two chances – yet failed to test the goalkeeper from any of his six attempts.

Is this a natural born finisher? Not really. Besides, his finishing is erratic: he often blasts the ball as hard as possible, rather than taking chances coolly. Only once has he scored more than 13 goals in a league campaign. Yet he’s still categorized as a pure finisher, because that’s what he was over a decade ago at West Ham.

It’s similar with Benitez. His tactical ability is less crucial to his managerial style than his skill in managing the mood of the group: an attribute arguably more important, and almost certainly more difficult to teach. Yet he’s still depicted as he chess player, the thinker, the methodologist.

Maybe this a complete façade, and Benitez is deliberately projecting an entirely false image to trick opposition coaches. Perhaps this is the mind game to end all mind games.

Whatever the truth, it’s undeniable that Benitez’s ability to win trophies at various clubs, in various situations, demonstrates that he’s a very fine manager – just in a completely different way than we’ve been led to believe.

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Siena is a strange little club. The ground, the Stadio Artemio Franchi—which shares its name with Fiorentina’s more renowned stadium 60km north—is the first thing you notice when entering the city from the motorway. The pitch is positioned significantly lower than street level, so it’s entirely possible to watch part of the action without buying a ticket, and the nearby presence of various hotels means that a well-positioned room at the Excelsior or the Chiusarelli affords you a fine view of the action, at roughly the same price as a match ticket.

Siena, a pleasant Tuscan town more famous for Il Palio, the crazy biannual horse race around the city’s main piazza, hardly feels like a football city. The modest size of the club is most apparent from the club’s ‘megastore’, a shop roughly the size of a six-yard box, located down a narrow, steep street on the way to the centre. This is staffed by two elderly ladies, sitting behind bulky desktop computers from the last century, and doubles up as the club’s ticket office. It’s hard to believe this is a Serie A club.

The spectating experience inside the Franchi is hardly a ‘great advertisement for Italian football’, the basis for which everything within football must apparently now be judged. The ultras occupy one stand behind the goal, but the opposite end is generally unoccupied, which looks terrible on television (one of Sky’s early policies in the Premier League era was an instruction to directors not to show camera angles that concentrated on empty stands—this spoiled the viewing experience, apparently).

In fact, the stadium is so basic that Siena don’t end have a proper ‘curva’ at that end of the ground, but rather a few free-standing blocks of temporary seating arranged together in a manner reminiscent of an incomplete Subutteo stadium set. This is Italy, so there’s inevitably a running track separating the stands from the pitch, although it’s been out of action for years, parts of it ripped up to the point that sprinting would be impossible (though it would work naturally as the setting for a 3000m steeplechase). You can understand why the club is attempting to move to a purpose-built complex in the south of the city, with an outrageous underground design which received significant attention a couple of years ago.
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I’ve had the pleasure of watching Lionel Messi play just twice. In both matches, he’s failed to score, which, considering both matches were after his explosion into the greatest player of his generation (circa 2009) is a surely a statistical improbability.

Both times, the general reaction to his display was muted; I’m unquestionably yet to witness a Messi masterclass. However, on both occasions he was quite evidently Barcelona’s best and, most important player. If he were any other person on the planet, his performance would be described as exceptional. From Messi, we expect genius every week.

When Simon Burnton of the Guardian interviewed Billy Beane and asked who the most underrated footballer was, the Moneyball mastermind had a fine answer. “You know, I’d actually say Lionel Messi,” Beane declared. “He’s so remarkable, watching him play, he’s probably still undervalued. When you’re scoring five goals in one Champions League match, there’s no value that’s too high.”

For the majority of top footballers, take away their main asset and they’d become an average player. You can basically do three things when you get the ball: dribble, pass, or shoot. Messi can do each to an astoundingly high level.
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Half of Europe is trying to, but no-one plays football quite like Barcelona: the style is unique, and it demands a very specific skillset from the players.

One result of this is that new signings have to adapt; it’s rare for a new arrival to play the same role at Barcelona as they did at their previous club. David Villa was a central striker with Valencia, while at Barcelona he plays wide-left. Alexis Sanchez was a winger and then a number ten at Udinese; now he wears the number nine shirt and often plays upfront. Javier Mascherano was a holding midfielder; now he’s a centre-back. If you don’t adapt, you don’t fit in. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was sold after a season because he couldn’t adjust his game, while Alex Hleb’s didn’t have the mental capacity to adjust to Guardiola’s regime.

The tale of Cesc Fabregas is more complex. He trained at Barcelona until the age of 16 before moving to Arsenal. There, he spent one-third of his life and the majority of his serious footballing education in London, trained in the Arsenal youth academy and brought up to play in the Premier League. Arsenal and Barcelona are often likened in footballing style, but Arsenal move the ball forward more quickly—Arsene Wenger’s best sides played with pace rather than hoarding the ball like Barca do.

Therefore, like Villa and Sanchez, Fabregas had to adapt. The problem is it’s not clear what he’s meant to become. He arrived at the club as something of a number ten, the highest Arsenal midfielder in a 4-2-3-1. Barcelona don’t play with a 4-2-3-1, and therefore they don’t play a ten. They haven’t for years, which is partly why Juan Roman Riquelme didn’t fit in. Deco, who played at the top of the midfield in a 4-3-1-2 at Porto, had to drop deeper.

But which way is Fabregas going to move? At the start of the season he was pushed into the forward line beside Lionel Messi, and surprised everyone with his goalscoring. Now, Pep Guardiola prefers deploying him much deeper in midfield.

The key word here is patience. The word describes Barcelona’s passing style, it also describes one of the few qualities Fabregas does not have. But this alone doesn’t solve the problem, for Fabregas’ impetuousness affects him regardless of which role he plays. When moved forward at Arsenal, he said, “Now, my position is higher up on the pitch, sometimes I don’t touch the ball as often as I used to, so I have to be patient.” But when talking about adjusting to a midfield role at Barcelona, he says “Playing as an interior means you have to be disciplined, to keep your position, and sometimes I lack the patience of [Sergio] Busquets and Xavi [Hernandez]. It is not easy.”

When high up he wants the ball too quickly, when in midfield he’s too keen to get it forward. He acknowledges this, saying “I always want to get forward, as I was used to at Arsenal, where the football is more nervous.”

Clearly, Guardiola has tried to change his style. Earlier in the season he described Fabregas as bringing ‘anarchy’ to Barcelona’s finely-tuned system, while some coaches at Barcelona were shocked by how direct Fabregas was, accusing him of making Barcelona’s play ‘too English’. He’s still adjusting. “At Arsenal I was free to do whatever I wanted, and tactically I wasn’t good at all. Here I have to work much more for the team and be married to my position. I can’t just go wherever I want, I have to think tactically, and that’s the thing I’ve improved upon.”

But there remains a danger that Fabregas could be coached out of what makes him special. His best moments at Arsenal came from his directness, and when Spain used him as a supersub at the World Cup two years ago, he brought an added burst of ambition to their play—generally replacing the slower, more thoughtful Xabi Alonso. Spain didn’t win the World Cup from tiki-taka—they won it because they combined tiki-taka with more direct options: Fabregas, Pedro Rodriguez, Jesus Navas, Fernando Llorente. They had a plan B, C, D and E, all of which were more direct than their natural ideology, and all of which were needed at some point in the competition. But at Barcelona, the directness comes from Messi and Sanchez, the two major Barcelona attacking options not available to Spain.

I remember reading an interview with England rugby player Jonny Wilkinson back in the early 2000s. I’ve no interest in rugby, but found it fascinating that Wilkinson said he’d become the greatest kicker in the world by completely changing his physical technique and mental preparation, and that there was a period of transition between the two styles, where he could do neither to a high standard.

That seems to be where Fabregas is at the moment. He’s not offering a goal threat nor contributing to great build-up play. He was left out of the Clasico starting XI, a fair decision considering his poor performance at Stamford Bridge last week, but Messi lacked the support Fabregas had been providing early on this season.

Now Barcelona want him to play in a less vertical way. The time has come to look for a replacement for Xavi, especially with nagging injury problems (though don’t be surprised he’s still playing for Barca in four years time) and Fabregas might be the man. But, at the moment, he’s a less able replacement than Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets or Thiago Alcantara.

Fabregas looked up to Guardiola when at La Masia—“He was a hero for me…I learned from watching him, the way he passed the ball and calmly controlled the game”—and to suit Guardiola the coach, it seems Fabregas will have to mimic Guardiola the player.

People always like to moan about the Champions League, UEFA’s favourite cash cow, but the reason varies from year to year. This season, we’ve seen some fantastic displays from outsiders at the expense of big clubs, and have a terrific spread of eight quarter-finalists from seven different countries, with Spain’s big two providing the only exception to the rule.

The rich clubs’ dominance of the European Cup is the usual cause for complaint, but now we have to find something new, and the inevitable issue this year is the ‘standard of competition’. Football is a sport ripe for nostalgia, especially considering the huge changes the game have seen over the past couple of decades, and the result is almost every fan looks back on the past with rose-tinted spectacles. It’s difficult to remember competitions from a couple of decades ago in greater depth than the finalists, so people tend to remember the entire competition based upon the standard of the winner. The standard of competition now is no worse than five years ago, or ten years ago. In fact, because of the evolution of the game over the years, it’s almost certainly stronger.

So why would anyone feel the opposite? The truth is that our expectations have been distorted by Barcelona and Real Madrid. The duo may or may not make the final—that depends partly on the draw—but they are by far the strongest teams in this competition. The Premier League’s best two clubs couldn’t get past the group stage, neither could Germany’s champions and league leaders, Borussia Dortmund. France’s top two, Montpellier and PSG, didn’t qualify for the tournament in the first place, while Milan are a decent side but a shadow of the team that was so strong throughout the last decade. If the Champions League was just that—a league—then from this final eight, Barcelona and Real’s dominance wouldn’t be too different from the ludicrous superiority they enjoy in La Liga.
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There is something strangely romantic about the under-appreciated footballer with extraordinary talent . The biography of infamous former Reading striker Robin Friday, for example, was titled The Greatest Footballer You Never Saw. The lack of exposure probably allows a fair amount of creative license, an opportunity for nostalgia to take precedence over raw fact.

In basic terms, it is ludicrous to compare FC Zenit ’s Danny to Friday. Danny, for starters, lives in the age of mass media, satellite television, and the Internet. He also plays at a considerably higher level than Friday, having made his Zenit debut in the European Super Cup where he scored against Manchester United. And he isn’t short of admirers: anyone with more than a passing interest in Russian football is aware of his talent, and anyone who watched the last World Cup will have seen him deployed on the wing for Portugal.

But the point stands: this is a player who deserves widespread acclaim and admiration across the continent. Despite being a key player for the Russian champions (and a club in the knockout stage of the Champions League) in addition to being a regular in the squad for one of the more prominent national sides in Europe, Danny remains something of a mystery.
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Jay DeMerit’s remarkable personal story is well-known to ‘Caps, Watford and USA fans, and now the world via his documentary film detailing his unlikely career. Zonal Marking author and Footy Blog contributor Michael Cox caught up with him at a recent London screening of the film, where they talked Whitecaps, new coach Martin Rennie, and Vancouver’s MLS form during their inaugural season.

One of the key moments in the film of your life (Rise and Shine: The Jay DeMerit Story) concerns you being given the captaincy at Watford – you speak of the pride at being given the armband. Was being captain of a new side important in your decision to come to Vancouver?

Yeah, that was part of the reason why I came to Vancouver. After the World Cup I was a free agent and I had quite a few opportunities to go a lot of places, but ultimately, for me, I don’t play this game for money, I don’t play this game for personal reasons, I play it for the competitiveness, I play it for a role – and Vancouver was the only team that really offered me the role that I wanted. They asked me to come and be their first signing, to be one of the guys they built their team around. To play that role – it’s an amazing honour to be asked that. It’s a challenge – they hadn’t been in MLS before, they’re a brand new team in the league. We struggled this year, but that’s what it’s all about, what’s experience if you can’t use it? I’ve been fortunate enough to have been through a lot, and know soccer at absolutely every level there is, and I know that means something, at least in my own head it does. So if I can help a team or an organisation build with my experience and what I’ve been able to see and do in my career, then for me that’s what it’s all about, that’s what’s most gratifying. Vancouver’s been fantastic in allowing me to do that – and this isn’t over, the challenge continues, and that’s exciting.
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