What is a ‘tactical masterclass’?

I recently asked on Facebook how people like to define ‘trolls’ and ‘trolling’. I was surprised that everyone had different interpretations of the word, ranging from anyone who disagrees with you online to fake profiles that resort to online abuse. My reaction to the Sunday night’s social media reaction to Jose Mourinho’s ‘tactical masterclass’ against Chelsea bears distinct similarity with my doubts on trolling – how do you define a ‘tactical masterclass’?

I had discussed about this in Jorge Sampaoli’s masterclass vitory for his Sevilla side against Real Madrid and I’m forced to come back to the question again after United’s victory and the subsequent social media tirade.

But first, let’s talk about what Mourinho got right yesterday. And as much as I wouldn’t like to admit it, he did get a lot of things right. Benching top-scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic was a brave move (blah I said he should do this some 5 months back) and utilising Marcus Rashford’s pace to play behind the relatively-slow Chelsea back-line was a smart move. Ashley Young and Jesse Lingard made a quick dynamic front-three which the make-shift Chelsea defence struggled to cope with (again I said it). Ander Herrera produced a typical dogged display to keep the ‘Hazard’ (see what I did there?) in his pockets but it beats me why Eden was not advised to take up a wider role and draw the Spaniard away from central midfield.

Maybe Antonio Conte hasn’t still realized a player needs to make around 5-6 fouls to earn his first yellow card in the match. Very few leagues in the world would have allowed Herrera to keep kicking at people’s heels throughout the match.

But apart from these strong individual displays, United and Jose Mourinho did not do anything that suggested any tactical brilliance. That Chelsea defence is susceptible to high-intensity pressing was shown to us by Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham way back in November when Chelsea was playing its best football under Conte. Then, and against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, Chelsea was bailed out by some individual brilliance. Not to forget that Conte was playing with his favoured XI.

While Thibaut Courtois’s freakish ankle injury during a commercial commitment must have pissed off Conte, it was Marcos Alonso’s absence that hurt him the most on Sunday. The Italian had two ready-made replacements in Nathan Ake and Kenedy but opted to start Kurt Zouma, who has played very little time in a back-three, and push Cesar Azpi to the left wing-back position. The move back-fired the Spaniard offering very little in attack and the lack of symmetry in the shape meant Victor Mosses’ attack was stifled as well. Zouma looked clue-less in the defence and struggled as a RightBack when Chelsea switched to 4 in the back to accommodate Cesc Fabregas in the second half.

On a day of poor performances from the entire Chelsea squad, Diego Costa’s and Nemanja Matic’s incompetency stood-out the most. The Chelsea striker missed opportunities to hold up the ball, was terrible with his passes (Chelsea didn’t complete a single pass in United’s penalty box) and looked like he was just interested in a brawl with Rojo and Bailly. The Serbian midfielder meanwhile played a match that made Paul Pogba’s 100 million tag justifiable (almost).

 

This was more of Chelsea’s undoing itself than a Manchester United tactical masterclass, much like Sevilla’s victory over Real Madrid.  Chelsea had a very poor game and once again showed it has its rivals to thank for the relatively trouble-free stay at the helm of the Premier League so far. The opposition teams haven’t really put up a string of good performances and the Blues have somehow managed to survive at the top with its super-thin squad. Conte’s 3-4-3 will not work without proper wing-backs (like on Monday) and this team has forgotten how to play a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2 because of its unparalled success with the current system.

Where Mourinho was perhaps different from Klopp or Pochettino is that he convinced his team to forget their natural abilities and flair to win the match. Even though Liverpool and Spurs pressed Chelsea with great intent, they could not sustain that throughout the match, because it was trying to attack Chelsea at every given opportunity, which finally played into the hands of the Blues. Mourinho meanwhile, didn’t press with his entire team. He wanted to win the midfield, not go all-out and attack when in possession like Spurs. And in classic Mourinho style, he hand-picked the players to execute his plan – Herrera to take out Hazard, a dynamic front-three to run past the slow Chelsea defence and Rojo/Bailly to irritate Costa. The rest of the team were just happy to just sit back and ensure Chelsea never got into the match.

This is the very ‘anti football’ that made Mourinho what he is – a winner. A team like Manchester United is bound have some of the best athletes in the world and Mou has the ability in him to convince talented players to give up what they love doing to execute his plan.  This is where a Stoke City or West Brom struggles – the quality of the players doing the dirty jobs for United (or Chelsea, Real, Inter before this) are different. He is all-about man management and getting what he wants out of the players. Not a Carlo Ancelotti who takes pride in forging a team that best utilizes the talent of all its players. While this wins you matches, curbing the natural abilities of these super human footballers to do one particular thing in the football field does not deserve to be called a tactical masterclass. And it is something that is bound to backfire in the long run (ever wondered why footballers start revolting in his third year at every club?).

If football is a way expression, Mourinho is its antithesis. I agree there is something romantic about a Barcelona-schooled manager coming up with anecdote to the ‘pure football’ the Catalans proudly preach. You need a Heath Ledger Joker to make the story of Gotham city and batman great.

Don’t get me wrong. Manchester United was the better side and deserved to win the match. But does it deserve to be called a ‘tactical masterclass’ in the mould of Marcelo Bielsa, Pep Guardiola or even the forgotten Brendan Rodgers? Let me not answer that. I’ll instead put a different question forward – do we ever call a Sam Allardyce or a Tony Pulis victory over the big teams a tactical masterclass? Or was the United victory called a tactical masterclass simply because it was Mourinho?

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A Real Head-Ache – Time for Madrid to dismantle the BBC?

Three points clear from Barcelona at the helm of the La Liga and well positioned for a semi-final slot in the Champions League after an impressive away-performance at Bayern Munich. You would be forgiven for thinking all is well at Real Madrid.

Yet with summer inching closer, a squad overhaul is the most talked about subject in the stands of Santiago Bernabeu, especially with fans expressing their discontent with the expensively forged front-trio of three-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo, once-upon-a-time highest transfer fee holder Gareth Bale and French forward Karim Benzema. The BBC, as they are popularly called, has frequently been blamed by the Spanish media for Real’s unconvincing attacking displays this season and Madrid might look to shake-up the attack torejuvenate the squad.

Bale, albeit while missed three months of action through injury, has endured his worst season since joining Real with nine goals in all competitions, while Ronaldo, with 19 in the league, is on course for his worst domestic tally since 2010.

Benzema, meanwhile, has also been far less prolific in domestic matches this year but is the team’s top scorer in the Champions League with five goals to four from Ronaldo and two from Bale.

With the likes of Spanish youngsters Alvaro Morata and Marco Asensio warming the bench in hope of a more regular role, we asses what Real’s board should do to the fluttering BBC this summer.

Karim Benzema

There are few natural centre-forwards in the same league as Karim Benzema. While the French striker has struggled this season with injuries, he still remains a vital cog in the attack with his ability to link-up well with Ronaldo in the left side. While Benzema is definitely on the decline he has a lot to offer and Madrid will be vary of selling its striker, especially considering what Gonzalo Higuain has gone on to achieve after being shipped off.

The problem with Madrid is the presence of Spanish striker Morata in the bench. Alvaro, a Madrid academy product, was bought back from Juventus last summer after his stellar performances for the Old Lady of Turin. But his comeback hasn’t exactly been rosy, with the Spanish first-choice striker playing second fiddle to Benzema at the club. The media has been ruthless with its crucification of Benzema, often accusing coach Zinedine Zidane of showing French bias, and the Real board will be under pressure to come to resolution of this problem. But the problem could be solved if Antonio Conte and Chelsea come in for the Spanish striker. Conte was the manager who signed Morata for Juve and the striker recently expressed his desire to team up with the Italian coach again. While the move would not be popular in Spain, Zidane might be able to use the money and the free slot to lure teenage striking sensation Kylian Mbappe from AS Monaco FC.

Verdict: Keep. At least for a year to smoothen the transition for Mbappe. There are few strikers with the same quality as Benzema in the market and it will also be difficult for Real to fetch a decent transfer fee for the axed Frenchman.

Gareth Bale

When on form, there are very few players who can match the panache Bale brings to the football field. The problem, though, is that the Welsh forward has had an injury-marred career at Madrid so far. Bale has struggled to hit the purple patch and the fans are growing more frustrated with his contribution in the attacking.

In Isco and Asensio, Madrid already has potential replacements if Bale is shipped off, and the time might be right for Madrid to let go of Bale. Though interest from Premier League sides such as Manchester United and Chelsea have faded since last summer, Bale will still be a welcome figure in England if he decides to make the move.

Real Madrid could also use the Morata deal as bait for Chelsea to let go of its talisman forward Eden Hazard, who is apparently the prime target for Zidane this summer. The Belgian forward has expressed his admiration for Zidane and might fancy a Los Blancos shirt though he has publicly denied any such interests. Hazard, far less injury prone than Bale, will bring consistency to the Madrid side and has also the potential to be the marquee signing the fans want to see.

Verdict: Sell. Premier League experience means Bale will fetch decent money, if not the full 77 million pounds Madrid paid to Tottenham in 2013. Asensio already looks world class and Madrid has Isco to fill the void if need be. Add Hazard to the line-up and it would a major enhancement to the 2016-17 squad.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Ronaldo is 32 but why would you still want to sell a forward who has scored 100 European goals? The Portuguese was Madrid’s most decisive player against Bayern and proved his doubters wrong once again when he scored his 99th and 100th goals in European competition on Wednesday night in Real’s 2-1 win against Bayern.

There is no doubt Ronaldo is declining. His physical gifts, such as tremendous acceleration and powerful standing long jump, are not as they once were. He has scored, by his extra-ordinary standards, just 19 league goals this season.  Also not to forget, these were Ronaldo’s first goals in the Champions League in 197 days, the first time he found the net in Europe since scoring against Borussia Dortmund in the group stages back in September.

But a diminished Ronaldo is still better than almost everyone else and there are very few footballers in the world who can potentially replace him. Unfortunately for Real, three such candidates play for its fiercest rivals Atletico Madrid (Antoine Griezmann) and Barcelona (Neymar, Lionel Messi).

Not to forget his off the field impact. He is according, to Forbes, the footballer with the biggest brand value and Real Madrid merchandise sales will take a big blow if he leaves the team.

Verdict: Keep. Hazard brings guile and industry to a side but he isn’t anywhere as ruthless as Ronaldo in front of the goal. With no potential replacements available, Real would be unwise to let go of its Portuguese forward, even for a record-defying transfer amount.

FIFA U-17 World Cup: Minerva boys earn national team call-up

Norton

An impressive outing against the India Under-17 team has earned six Minerva Punjab FC academy players a call-up for the U-17 national side and a chance to impress newly-appointed coach Luis Norton de Martos ahead of the much awaited FIFA U-17 World Cup, which will be held in India between October 6-28.

Minerva, the AIFF U-16 Youth League champion, had played two matches against the national U-17 and U-15 sides in Goa, which the team won 1-0 and 2-0 respectively.

The performances by the Minerva team had impressed coach Norton, who took over the coaching duties from Nicolai Adam, and the management has now brought in Anwar Ali (defender), Amarjit Mishra (winger), Mohammed Shahjahan (midfielder), Ashem Henba (midfielder), Nongdamba Naorem (winger) and Jackson Singh (midfielder) to train with the U-17 team.

“Four of our players were selected from Minerva after we won the U-15 League. We are proud to be contributing 10 players to the U-17 team apart from the six who play for the U-15 team. A football club’s legacy isn’t about how many titles it has won. I’ve always maintained that the national team should be the ultimate aim. I want to proudly say one day that 10 players in the Indian side which qualified for the World Cup are from my team,” said an elated Ranjit Bajaj, owner of Minerva Punjab FC.

While the decision is bound to have pleased the Minerva management, it casts further doubts on how prepared the Indian team is ahead of the FIFA U-17 World Cup. After a decent showing in the 2016 AFC U-16 Championship, the Indian colts lost its momentum, and performed poorly in the 2016 U-17 BRICS Football Cup and the Granatkin Cup.

The success of the nation-wide scouting program, which was conducted to identify the U-17 players, is also being questioned after the Indian team’s loss against Minerva.

Former Indian captain Bhaichung Bhutia, one of the chief scouts along with Abhishek Yadav (former player) and sacked coach Nicolai Adam, was recently removed from the AIFF technical committee, adding fuel to rumours that he had shown favouritism while picking the players.

Interestingly, both Bhutia and Yadav have their own football academies but the ‘conflict of interests’ was not seen as a hindrance to the project by the AIFF management.

Yuta Kinowaki: Finding home away from home

yuta kino

Shillong Lajong has punched above its weight, so far, in the current I-League season. With seven rounds still to be played, the team, currently fifth in the points table, is level on points with defending champion Bengaluru FC.

One of the stars for the Shillong side has been its Japanese recruit, Yuta Kinowaki. The blonde-haired Asian has marshalled the midfield to great effect for the Thangboi Singto-coached team, while thwarting opposition attacks with ease.

“I enjoy playing in the central midfield. Though, I can play anywhere across the back-line, or as an attacking midfielder, my preferred position is in central midfield, where I can dictate things,” said Kinowaki in a tete-a-tete with Sportstar.

Yuta joined Lajong in the winter window, the latest stop in a nomadic football career that has seen the Japanese ply his trade at European leagues in Poland and Latvia.

“I was 22 when I moved to Poland to play for Energetyk Gryfino. A Japanese agent arranged for a trial in Poland and I passed it. But unfortunately due to some ‘paper issues’ I couldn’t play half of the season. The same agent then got me to Latvia where I played the entire season for BFC Daugavpils,” said the midfielder, who went on to play for Japanese club Kyto Shiko SC after an year in Latvia, before securing a move to Lajong’s North-East rival, Aizawl.

Like any modern day footballer, Yuta was lured by the promise of playing in the big Europeans leagues. “Yes, the idea was I will move to a club in Europe and one of the big leagues will find me,” said Kinowaki, who believes that he has settled well in India and now wants to build a career similar to his countryman and Mohun Bagan midfielder Katsumi Yusa.

“I was sceptical about coming to the country because I knew that would reduce my chances of playing in Europe,” said the 26-year-old. “But I’m happy and focused now. I want to improve as a footballer and win titles here. Katsumi Yusa is a role model for Asian players in the league. I want to be like him and stay for the long run.”

But with the future of the I-League still hanging in the balance, Yuta is keeping all his options alive. “We are footballers and ultimately we have to go where opportunity takes us. Like I said, I want to be here. But we don’t know what will happen to the I-League. So I have no idea what the future holds.”

The Japanese, though, has been impressed by the passion shown by Indians for football and feels the country is in the cusp of a football revolution. “It’s my second full season here and I can already feel a difference in quality. All India needs to do is maintain this effort. I have already heard of good academies popping up in places like Dimapur (Nagaland). Recently, I learned that the Mizoram government is sending a bunch of kids to Germany to learn from experts. These are all good signs,” said Yuta.

Shillong Lajong follows a strict policy of promoting home-grown, young players in the team, as highlighted by its recent match against Chennai City FC, when the coach fielded eight under-22 players in the starting line-up. Yuta, though young himself, has had to don the role of the experienced player in the side, something that he has done to great effect till date. The midfielder believes pressure is part of a professional footballer’s life, but prefers to enjoy the game and not think too much about it. “Every time you go out in the field there is the pressure of winning. I don’t think ‘I am the senior, the team depends on me’ when I go out to play. I just concentrate and work hard for the side.”

Lajong’s season so far has impressed Yuta, but the Japanese wants his team to remain focused till it achieves its target. “Our aim is to secure a top four slot. That was our aim when we started the season as well – to finish in a position better than what Lajong has achieved so far in its history of the I-League (best being sixth). So we need to continue to do the good work,” concluded Yuta.

IWL — A much-needed leap for women’s football

 

When All India Football Federation (AIFF) announced the launch of the first-ever Indian Women’s League to develop women’s football in the country, it was greeted with a sigh of relief along with the excitement.

After years of false promises and missing out on talented footballers due to lack of opportunities, the Indian football federation has finally put together a league for the eves, albeit a small, two-week tournament with all the matches played at the Dr.Ambedkar stadium in Delhi.

Indian women, despite occupying a respectable 54th place in the FIFA rankings and outperforming their male counterparts for years, had no regular league such as the I-League and Indian Super League for men, until now.

Their playing time was often limited to National championships and SAFF competitions, after which the onus was on the player to maintain the fitness required for playing at the top level. This forced many stars, including former AIFF player of the year (2013) Oinam Bembem Devi, who is the captain of Eastern Sporting Union in the IWL, to move out of the country in search of opportunities. Bembem, in 2014, joined New Radiant SC in Maldives — a country ranked lower than India — to become the first Indian woman to play for a professional foreign club. National team goalkeeper Aditi Chauhan shifted to London in 2015 and still plays for West Ham United.

It is not like there is a shortage of examples within the country to show how focused efforts for the women’s game can reap great benefits. Manipur has set the benchmark with women’s football by conducting intra-state competitions on a regular basis. The state has also won 17 Indian Women’s football Championship since the tournament’s inception in 1991-92.

Odisha is another state that has seen rapid progress in women’s football. The state football association, in partnership with SAI (Sports Authority of India), have been promoting the game and as result Odisha has become formidable force in the women’s game. The Kalinga stadium in Bhubaneswar and Barbati stadium in Cuttack are breeding grounds for women footballers in the country and have produced top-class players such as the 2016 AIFF women’s player of the year Sasmita Malik.

A SMALL YET SIGNIFICANT STEP

One can argue that the logic behind AIFF and IMG-Reliance’s decision to start the league is an attempt to cash in on the ever-growing popularity of the sport. After all, a two-week long league does not significantly increase the number of playing days for the women footballers. The organisers have failed to find a TV broadcaster for the event which will hamper its reach and appeal. No prize money has been announced for the winners either. Which all points to one big question — what was the need to start such a disorganised league in a hurry?

Yet, after repeated failed attempts to attract sponsors to kick-start a women’s league, the decision by AIFF to go ahead with the event, shows a real intention to improve the game. Perhaps the reason sponsors stayed away, despite the success of Indian Super League, was the lack of clarity in AIFF’s roadmap for the women’s game.

Now that AIFF has shown its intent, sponsorship and corporate interest will hopefully follow — something which will be essential to sustain the league in the long run.

A professional contract will also reduce, if not remove, players’ financial dependability on other jobs to sustain their lives. National team captain Ngangom Bala Devi is a police constable with the Manipur Police department and commitment such as these surely hinder a player’s growth.

The league, which will only feature Indian players, will also be a great platform for young footballers to make a mark at the top level. The average age of the Indian team that won the 2016 SAFF women’s championship was less than 25, which means the best is yet to come for most footballers in the team.

ONE STRIDE AT A TIME

During the inauguration ceremony for IWL, AIFF president said, “Our women’s team is ranked 54 in the world which is higher than the men’s ranking of 129 which means that for the upcoming FIFA women’s World Cup in 2019, if we put in the right effort our women’s team will have an outside chance of qualifying for the World Cup before the men.”

While the World Cup should be the holy grail for the Indian team, it is important that the women’s side takes it one step at a time and first aim to establish itself as a top-five team in Asia.  Indian women have dominated the South Asian region in the past years and is unbeaten in its last 19 matches but is currently ranked 12th in AFC (Asian Football Confederation).

[Ref: http://www.fifa.com/fifa-world-ranking/ranking-table/women/afc.html]

Five out of 24 slots in the 2015 FIFA women’s world cup went to AFC teams but to reach the top-five India must significantly improve its performances at the AFC Women’s  Asian Cup. Indian women haven’t qualified for the tournament since 2003 and the last time it went past the group stages was in 1983.

Japan, Australia, China and Jordan have been given automatic qualificiation for the 2018 edition after being the top three sides in the 2014 Women’s Asian Cup and the host respectively. India’s quest for a place in the other four slots will begin in April this year when it plays South Korea and Uzbekistan. Hong Kong and group-stage host North Korea are the other two teams in India’s pool.

It is AIFF’s responsibility to ensure the momentum gained by the IWL is utilised to go beyond the ‘big fish in a small pond’ mentality and ensure the women play more friendlies and tournaments against tougher ranked opposition.

The teams: FC Alakhpura (Haryana), Jeppiaar Institute of Technology FC (Puducherry), Aizawl FC (Mizoram), FC Pune City (Maharashtra), Rising Student Club (Odisha), Eastern Sporting Union (Manipur).

 

 

Perks of watching Sevilla v Real Madrid on a slow internet connection

Contrary to popular perceptions, change is not the only thing permanent on planet Earth. If history is anything to go by, and I’ve been hearing a lot about it around the city due to the Jallikattu ban, human beings have been frustrated since time immemorial.

Back in the stone ages we were upset about not gathering enough food while today we face the challenges and emotional trauma of bad internet connections. On Sunday night, an over-sized football fan (read – me), braved post-operative instructions, and dived into the deep waters of the internet to find a free steaming link for Real Madrid’s trip to Sevilla

Beneath penis enlargement programs and lonely neighbourhood women, I did find a working link but alas, my internet connection was too damn slow to buffer the match seamlessly. I decided to brave it out because, you see, Real Madrid, a team I dislike unless it is playing Barcelona, was on a historic run (40 games unbeaten) and Sevilla, a team I have a good rapport with having managed it for years in FIFA and PES, had recently held the Los Blancos to an entertaining 3-3 draw.

Tactically, it had all the billings of a cracker. And the starting line-up confirmed it. Real Madrid, clearly worried about the previous encounter, chose for a cautious 3-5-2 approach (yes the same formation Italy and Wales used in EURO 2016), with Marcelo and Carvajal acting as wing-backs. This was a team, unbeaten since Donald Trump became a household name, changing its normal shape ( a 4-3-3) because it was vary of the opposition. If there’s anything such as a mental high, Jorge Sampaoli would have certainly felt it seeing the starting line-up. That is, unless, he was distracted by Sergio Ramos’ respect for his balls.

 

Good thing about being in the 21st century is that for every frustration there is a hyper orientalized English movie to calm you down. So I channeled my inner Master Shifu and found a fun way to kill my time during the buffer breaks — screenshots and analysis. I ended up taking way more than I should have in a dull 2-1 victory for Sevilla but I’m going to use some to explain some key points, which according to me, were the highlights of the game.

PRESSING AND COUNTER PRESSING

One thing that did not change was how Sampaoli approached the game. This Sevilla side works on pressing hard and then attacking through the flanks, something which Zidane had hoped to stifle with the change of formation.

The wing-backs, with the aid of the two midfielders in the respective side, were able to halt Sevilla’s progress through the flanks. The ever-lively Vitolo and Nasri were taken out of the game as shown by the screenshots below.

madrid-pressing-3

Carvajal, Modric and Casemiro form a triangle to prevent Sevilla’s attack through the left flank.

Even when the wingers cut inside, Sevilla opted not to switch flanks, where it had a numerical advantage, and instead opted for the safer pass back to either N’Zonzi or Iborra in the central midfield.

madrid-pressing-2

Madrid’s central midfielders hunt down the players trying to cut in

Zidane was winning the battle of pressing in the  defensive half, but Madrid’s lack of man in the attacking half meant all Sevilla players needed to do was keep their heads still.

Madrid’s lack of adventure and Sevilla’s discipline meant a dead spectacle for the fans. The Los Blancos were terribly direct and super slow in their counter attacks, almost hoping Sevilla will make a mistake. Which it did in a rush-of-blood-to-the-head moment and conceded a penalty for Ronaldo to score.

Not so surprisingly, for both teams, it was the counter pressing, bombarding full-backs pressing high in the opposition half, which opened up up chances for both teams.

This 21st minute pressing from Marcelo finally forcing the keeper to kick the ball outside play.

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Sevilla’s goal also came via counter pressing though the strategy was deployed only because there was just a few minutes remaining and Real Madrid was already looking happy with the point.

Sevilla outnumbered Real in a throw and launched a scathing attack on the left to feed Jovetic who curled past the outstretched arms of Navas to win the game for his team and end Real’s dream run.

sevilla-high-pressing

jovetic-scores

RAMOS IS WORLD’S BEST DEFENDER

If you have been following my blog (please say yes) you will all know how much I love Leonardo Bonucci. He is the epitome of ball-playing central defenders who have come to dominate football today so when I say Sergio Ramos might be better, I mean it.

Let me get this straight. I’m not a fan of the chap otherwise and would like him to be on the losing side always (for some weird reason). Yet, Ramos is everything a central defender should be (kudos to Mourinho who moved him from RB to CB) — fast, brilliant in the air, and exceptional tackling. Yet, that’s just 30% of his overall abilities. The defender is an attacking threat from all the set pieces and has a knack of producing the goals when its needed. Unfortunately he scored in the wrong end against Sevilla

Zidane used Ramos as a ‘libero’ or a sweeper in the match (read my piece on David Luiz to know more about the role). His was the starting point of most attacks for Madrid, spraying balls to wingers, while also preventing Sevilla to control the second third of Real Madrid’s half.

luiz-heat-map

Here’s heatmap proof (via whoscored) of Ramos’ dominance in the region. Certainly an option for Zidane to try in important matches (maybe even an El Clasico).

WHAT TACTICAL MASTERCLASS?

We (yes me included) have a tendency to hype things, especially when there is an upset involved. A lot of publications I generally read called Sevilla’s victory as a tactical masterclass. I didn’t think it really was. It was at best an ordinary match, two sides with too much respect for each other, playing a waiting game. I’m not denying that requires great patience and team-work, but it never looked like Jorge Sampaoli had unearthed some master plan to beat Madrid — the team was simply better drilled and focused.

Real Madrid will easily recover from the victory, but Zidane’s maturity as a tactician was questioned in the match. What was the need to leave a successful 4-3-3 ? Ronaldo and Benzema missed chances to finish off the game and extra presence in the attacking half might have sealed the victory for the travelling side.

 

What Ballon Sur Bitume can teach Indian football

When I was presented the task of reviewing a documentary on French street football, the first question that popped up in my head was a resounding ‘why?’

Why was there a need to review a sports film in India? Especially by a publication like ours — we didn’t review Ronaldo, nor did we review Pele. We even overcame peer pressure and stayed away from Dangal.

Finding the context, therefore, became utmost priority, as I watched the film on Youtube.

Ballon Sur Bitume, which translates as concrete football, is a 50-minute documentary on the street football culture of France, packaged into modules of nostalgia, with the likes of Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez and PSG’s Serge Aurier, who have roots in Paris’ suburbs (Los banlieues), narrating their rags-to-riches stories.
While the film highlights the difficulties of growing up in the suburbs — lack of money is a common thread in every footballer’s recollection — it is anything but a fetishisation of poverty, because street football, to the Parisian suburbs, is a mode of expression. Just like graffiti art or rap music is. An immediate escape from the reality that cloud their lives. To be successful at it was to escape the clutches of poverty. It wasn’t just a game for the young Benatias and Mendys — it was their ticket to another life.

The film is, very loudly and clearly, the celebration of this freedom. Freedom of the few, who braved it out in the concretes, honed their skills under the tropical sun, to become world renowned footballers today.

To understand street football it is mandatory to understand the socio-economic backwardness of these suburbs. Many of its inhabitants are immigrants — Benatia is Moroccan, Aurier is from Ivory Coast, and Mahrez plays for Algeria — therefore, the game is an emotional outlet to a set of people struggling to find a home away from home.

Much like the Samba footballers from Brazil, the players who have roots in the Los banlieues have a distinct style – agility, quick feet, ball control, and most importantly a street spirit to win. Like Mahrez says in the film, these players are used to cut-throat pressure, having played in front of aggressive fans while growing up.

The film also delves into the relationship street football has with various with forms of music, dance, and fashion. Style is an element of street football, where restrictions and team rules go for a toss. If you are losing, lose in style. The idea to ALWAYS make a statement.

Interwoven with stunning shots and apt background music, the film on France’s street football is a cinematic experience on its own. The politics of the filmmakers are also quite clear — a ‘fly on the wall’ merely observing the happenings , with no God-like voice-overs influencing the story.

The film finds a special relevance in India or other countries where stifling alternate forms of expression, by tagging it anti-institutional/anti-society/anti-national, continue to be the norm. By criminalizing these counter-cultures, the country is merely cutting its own limbs of progress.

Take the example of Sevens football — a popular 7-a-side football game that is widely popular in North Kerala collectively called the Malabar. A place rich in history — from being one of the world’s first metropolitan cultures due to early century trades with the Arabs to being the first to strongly revolt against the British rule. The region, especially the district of Malappuram, is one of the socio-economically backward parts of Kerala.

There are multiple stories regarding the origins of the game yet the most popular theory involves the flora and fauna of Malappuram ( which means ‘on top of mountains’ in Malayalam). The mountainous terrain meant plains the size of a football ground were a premium. So every summer season, after the paddy was yielded, people would gather in the fields to celebrate the harvest by playing football in the rectangular plots (considerably smaller than traditional football fields) where seven-a-side seemed just about ideal.

The game’s popularity is also connected to the Gulf exodus in the 1970s, when people from the region went the Middle-East to make a fortune. When they came back, they brought back wealth, and lavishly spent it on football tournaments.

Yet this form of game, which has its roots deep into the culture of the land, has not been accepted by the official football bodies. Players are banned from playing the sevens game even at a time when Kerala’s football is at all-time low. Why? The reasons Kerala Football Association gives certainly don’t make sense– shorter fields will affect the player’s growth as a footballer, no system to take care of medical requirements etc. But they are talking as if 11s opportunities for footballers in the state are plenty when the truth is quite the opposite.

What if Brazil and France had opted the same stance? Would we have seen a Ronaldinho (the legend himself admitted how much Futsal influenced his game when he came to Chennai) or a Thierry Henry?  After an impressive debut season, Premier Futsal seems to have kicked the bucket after the AIFF went all guns blazing against it.

The successful countries identified the favelas and the streets as potential scouting grounds. Regions with similar socio-economic climate as most parts of India.

gally-cricket

Youngsters play cricket at dhobi ghat in Mumbai

In a time when efforts have been amplified to make India a multi-sporting nation, it is important to recognize the need for sports to become part of its identity. Just like cricket has. No country can succeed if it sees sports as an alien entity — something not borne from within its culture. With the 1983 World Cup, the advent of Doordarshan and the success of Sachin Tendulkar, India found an identity, a voice to shout at the world, in cricket. Today, kids play cricket in railway tracks and even in narrow lanes of slums. Yet more endemic sports such as Hockey, Kabaddi, or football lost the plot due to bad luck and mismanagement.

Why hasn’t USA men’s soccer reached top levels regardless of plush infrastructure, scholarships and state interest? The answer, as always, lies in the streets. In USA, kids take up basketball or baseball when they grow up. Like how football was a mode of expression for immigrants in France, basketball became closely intertwined with African-American empowerment. Football, or soccer as they call it, still remains something confined to training grounds and state-of-the-art gyms. As long as soccer stays away from the streets, the game will fail to attract the best athletes in the country, who are often hidden in the corners of these socio-economically backward suburbs.

While the India’s football association has been making commendable strides to improve the game, it has often come at the cost of cutting ties with traditional football cultures, be it in Goa or Kerala. Corporatization and professionalism are genuine needs for the game in India today, but as Ballon Sur Bitume shouts out, it should go hand-in-hand with history and existing cultural norms.

Interesting Reads:

  1. “Why America doesn’t like soccer, and how that can be changed”, TIME MAGAZINE, June 12, 2014
  2. “AIFF-FIFA show red card to Goa”, Rahul Bali, Goal.com
  3. “Why is Soccer Less Popular in the U.S.? By Kelsey Ontko, Julia Fogleman, and Lucas Nevola.

Chinese Super League: Trouble for football’s big boys or added insurance?

Oscar’s double thumbs-up in Shanghai SIPG jersey is not going to go down in the history books as one of ‘those’ sensational transfers. It certainly did not have a manager kicking a boot on to the player’s face nor did it involve an astronomical sum at the end of a bidding war.

 

Yet, the Brazilian playmaker’s 60 million move to China could be the beginning of the end of Europe’s tag as footballer’s dream destination. With Chinese Super League announcing its intention to become one of world’s best leagues by signing some of World’s coveted talents, Europe now faces stiff competition for football stars — especially from continents such as South America and Asia.

The signs were already there. Last season, the Asian football markets saw records being shattered with the arrivals of Jackson Martinez (Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao), Ezequiel Lavezzi (Hebei China Fortune), Ramires (Jiangsu Suning) and Alex Teixeira (Jiangsu Suning). These were players who were in the peak of their career unlike a Didier Drogba or Nicolas Anelka who took the Asian route for one last fat pay cheque before they hang their boots up. Europe didn’t mind the Drogbas and Anelkas moving because it was helping them clear out players on the decline without upsetting the fans who don’t like it when their heroes aren’t offered contract extensions. But Jaingsu secured services of 25-year-old Teixeria by outbidding Liverpool — a team with a rich pedigree in Europe. Oscar was, until very recently, a primary target for Serie A champion Juventus. Suddenly, to people’s dismay, the Chinese were taking away Europe’s primary targets.

Shattering the football cycle

China’s financial power, aided by President Xi Jingping’s 50-point plan for football domination, in due course, will bring to end the traditional cycle of football economy. To understand how this works, lets break down the cycle into four parts. Of course, no club is completely reliant on one particular system and having a youth team is mandatory for long-term success, but we will stick to this simplistic structure to get an idea of what China can do to football.

There are 4 types of clubs:

1. The Home-grown: Clubs such as Spain’s Athletic Bilbao and England’s Southampton have always relied on identifying talent at a very young age and nurturing them to become top-class footballers. Their success lies two in factors – 1) continuous supply of young, quality footballers and 2) big clubs buying their stars for a high sum.

2. The scouts: Some clubs may not have a bright academy but they make up for it by scouting talent from across the world. They take the gamble with young players from their own league or other countries by giving them regular playing time. For the players, the clubs are guaranteed spotlights. If they perform well, the big guns will come looking. For the clubs, if the gamble pays of its a lot of profit.

3. Title chasers: The demands of a cup every single seasons means most of these clubs like to buy proven talent. They tend to buy from clubs in established leagues rather than taking a risk by signing them young.

4. The final-bow: The Major League Soccer (MLS) or the Indian Super League (ISL) are primary example of leagues where the players go to after their peaks for one last pay cheque. There is money and the football isn’t too demanding. The clubs in turn make the most out the players’ marketability through jersey and ticket sales.

chinese-super

What Chinese clubs have done, much to the unhappiness of Europe, is that they have entered in the ‘title-chasers’ category and not ‘final bow’. Suddenly, the home grown clubs and the scouts have alternative option to sell, which in turn will give them leverage during a negotiation. Liverpool desperately wanted Teixeira, but Shakhtar Donetsk, would not fudge until the Reds matched the Chinese bid. Moreover, the money going into these relatively smaller clubs, will allow them to fend off approaches from top clubs.

The EPL, buoyed by a new TV rights deal, is an example of how money can level the playing field. A traditional buyer such as Chelsea or Manchester City will struggle to sign a player from Southampton today because the money the Saints are getting from the deal (which is close to what top clubs from other European clubs make). This in turn prevents the top clubs’ ability to buy off competition.

If Chinese Super League continues its trend, and one would assume that will be the case, then the likes Atletico Madrid, Sevilla, and Borussia Dortmund will have the financial security to say no to approaches from teams in the same league.

That said, the Chinese market also acts as an added insurance for the big clubs who are bound by the financial fair play (FFP) regulations. Take the case of Oscar. Chelsea bought the Brazilian from Internacional for his potential. Though he didn’t exactly flop, he never rose to the Neymar levels that were expected and was only a bench-warmer in Antonio Conte’s new look Chelsea. In short, it was a gamble that didn’t pay off for Chelsea. That is, until CSL took him in and handed Chelsea a whopping 40 million profit.

The big clubs now have the safety of not losing money on risky moves which will push them to scout talents rather than rely on other scouting clubs. If Gabriel Jesus turns out to be a flop at Manchester City, it won’t worry the City owners too much. There is the CSL who would love to get a young player of his quality. Acquiring players from big clubs is good for China too. Oscar still has the best part of his career ahead of him and is more marketable than a player bought from Shakhtar because of Chelsea’s fan base.

This will disrupt the functioning of traditional scouting clubs who will have the likes of Real Madrid and Chelsea breathing down their necks.

China is using the same method that saw its rapid rise in industrial sectors — acquiring foreign companies (clubs) and talent (in this case footballers) to improve its own. Atletico Madrid is partly owned by Chinese Billionare Wang Jianlin while Manchester City in 2015 announced a 265 million pounds deal with Chinese investors. With President Xi’s dream of turning China into a ‘soccer powerhouse’ very much a priority, rich offers from the oriental east will not be on a shortage (at least for the immediate future).

Chinese Football League promises to shake up the existing the financial system in football and throw open a plethora of opportunities (and difficulties) to clubs in Europe. Only one thing is missing in China’s top league today — the presence of a European football star.

But with the summer of 2017, this could change, with both Wayne Rooney and John Terry being eyed up. Will they open the flood-gates (and thereby change the power structure in football forever) by moving to China? Only time will tell.

ISL Final: Five takeaways 

Here’s my pick of the stories that outlined the Hero ISL season three final:

1)      Squad Depth the key to ISL success

We saw it with Chennaiyin FC last season and we witnessed it again on Sunday with Atletico de Kolkata. When you are playing 16-odd matches in a span of 12 weeks, you need to have a good set of 15-16 players in your team. Kerala looked jaded – the side was playing its third game in seven days – and did remarkably well to even make a competition out of the encounter. But ultimately ATK had far too much fire-power in its ranks. Coach Jose Molina could afford to make as many as nine changes to his squad for the second semi-final and the freshness in the players was all too evident in the final.

2) Where are Kerala’s young guns?

That said, questions should be asked on why Steve Coppell insisted on playing with the same set of players throughout the season. One might argue it’s the case of team lacking enough quality, but by not giving the likes of Vinit Rai and Thongkosiem Hoakip enough opportunities to play, the team served against one of the biggest motives behind ISL – to improve Indian football.

Coach Molina on the other hand, while having a plethora of foreign talent to choose from, improved the Indian players under his wings. Jewel Raja looks a transformed player and along with Rowllin Borges can form a great defensive midfield duo to future Indian teams. The likes of Pritam Kotal, Prabhir Das and Didika have all looked completely transformed players in the recent weeks.

 3) 4-4-2 past its best

Again, in defence of Steve Coppell, he had the team given to him. But against ATK’s 4-2-3-1, Kerala’s 4-4-2 looked flat. With the Vineeth and Belfort (wingers) also tucking in to aid the defence, there was connection between the midfielders and the strikers. Nazon and Rafi were completely isolated and the extra line in ATK’ formation allowed Borja Fernandes and Jewel Raja enough freedom to start counter attacks. Coppell, at least after the 60th minute, should have been risky, and tried to mirror Kolkata’s formation. And its’ not like he didn’t have the right player to do it – a combination of Belfort, German, Vineeth and Nazon have the required trickery and pace to succeed in the formation.

4)  Iain Hume’s Kerala duck

Yes, his team finally won. But the Canadian striker still could not find a way to score against his former team, even missing a crucial penalty in the shoot-outs. ISL’s all-time scorer, according to coach Molina, volunteered to take the first penalty kick, but had his shot stopped by goalkeeper Graham Stack.  Hume’s versatility was something Molina used to good effect throughout the season though. In ATK’s previous match in Kochi, Molina pushed Hume to the left-wing and made Javi Lara play in the centre, which disrupted Kerala’s defensive balance and finally saw the Spaniard scoring the winner. The striker’s tireless running throughout the game was a pleasure to watch and it’s only a matter of time he gets one past his old team.

5)  Camus’ Hengbart

This was Cedric Hengbart’s third final in a long and winding career. In his first final (2005 Coupe de la Ligue final with SM Caen), his coach opted not to play him and his team lost. In ISL season one, he was injured and couldn’t play. Kerala Blasters lost that. And on Sunday, the Frenchman’s penalty miss proved costly as Jewel Raja went on to score his, and win the title for ATK. Even Albert Camus couldn’t have scripted anything more tragic. The Frenchman, along with CK Vineeth, were the best players for a Kerala team, that on roster, had one of the poorest squads in ISL. One can only hope, for football sake, that the defender will return next season, his drive to win the title still very much intact.

ISL final another Nehru Cup?

manjappada

There is an air of discomfort as one makes his way into Kochi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, the venue for the Indian Super League season three final between Kerala Blasters and Atletico de Kolkata. While on the exterior everything looks happy — barring the huge billboard in front of the stadium in which both C. K. Vineeth and Iain Hume are sporting frowns — the organisation of the mega-event has raised many eyebrows.

Thousands of Blasters faithful, people from across the world who haven’t missed a single home-game yet, are still queued up in front of the ticket-counter, even though there are signs stuck everywhere informing them that tickets have been sold-out.

“We heard that around 5000 tickets are yet to be sold. We don’t want to miss such a big football event,” said Nisar, who came to the city on Saturday from his native town in North Kerala. The optimism, though, is running thin and there is feeling that it might lead to an angry mob, as the match moves closer to the kick-off.

“Why were tickets given in 50s and 100s? Now we true fans, who didn’t back away even when the team was struggling last season, don’t have tickets while some rich VIP will flaunt a fake Blasters jersey for a selfie inside the stadium,” said an angry young man, who intruded the conversation with a security guard placed next to the VIP entrance.

While it is understandable that tickets cannot be sold beyond the stadium capacity of 60,000, one can only wonder why large screens haven’t been installed outside the stadium or across the city, to cater to the demand.

The atmosphere resembles that of the 1997 Nehru Cup semifinal played between India and Iraq. The security and organisers had failed to contain the crowd that night, in which it is believed, over a lakh people gushed in to see India’s penalty shoot-out loss against the eventual winner.

The frustration in not being able to procure tickets has hit everyone. Local newspaper Mathrubhumi reported that former Indian striker and Kerala’s pride I. M. Vijayan was offered only a general ticket for the event.

Amidst all this, reports have also emerged that two black-ticket sellers have been caught by police. Rs. 300 tickets are selling like hot cakes for Rs. 3000.

The entry into the stadium was opened at 3:30 p.m. and one can already see thousands of fans inside the stadium. Blasters’ fan group, the Manjappada (Yellow Army) has already taken up the East Stand. The infectious energy of the fans is keeping everyone optimistic for a really entertaining final.