Getting lost in the great Indian Football tussle

Indian football fans are going through a predicament. On one side they have a stubborn football federation that has, for the lack of a better word, sold its soul (a.k.a marketing and broadcasting rights) to a private party partnership known as the FSDL (Football Sports Development Ltd), co-owned by Reliance, IMG and Star Sports, and is therefore now a pawn for the big corporates.

On the other side is a movement fast gathering pace against this apparently biased federation and its private owners, headed by I-League teams such as former champions Minerva Punjab, and Manipur’s lifeline NEROCA FC.

What’s so difficult about choosing sides, you might ask? Surely one has to fight the corporates and ensure football belongs to the mass. Problem is that it’s not so rosy on the other side either. FSDL’s new league, the Indian Super League (ISL), paved the way for more opportunities in the sport. The facilities became better, the salaries higher and generally everything got more “professional”.

Add to that the numerous problems associated with the I-League clubs championing the save Indian football campaign. Minerva Punjab, for example, has come in the news for allegedly not paying its footballers and altering their age to participate in tournaments. Not to forget its polarising owner Ranjit Bajaj – a former Roadie who certainly doesn’t know how to mince his words.

The football fans in the country are now caught in a classic Devil vs the Dead Sea conundrum – who do we side with when both seem awfully corrupt?

A brief history of the feud

As far as the mismanagement of the sport goes, there is no specific timeline (forever?) but it is fair to say the recent controversies had its origin on December 22nd evening when I-League teams received an email from the All India Football Federation.

The Hero I-League, the country’s top-flight football league, were recently informed that STAR SPORTS – exclusive broadcasters of the Hero I-League, would broadcast a select 30 matches including the final three last round matches LIVE & EXCLUSIVE on Star Sports 3 for the second half of the league beginning December 29.This would take the number of games of the ongoing 12th edition to be broadcast live to 80 out of a total of 110 games. The games to be broadcast live from December 29, are given in the table below. Four more games are to be added to the schedule at a later date — AIFF

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The email from AIFF to the clubs

The I-League clubs were shocked that their broadcaster had decided to cut short their coverage mid-way through what had promised to be another exciting season. Not so surprisingly, Kolkata clubs were the least affected, while Minerva was the worst hit. The conspiracy theorists had their reasons to suspect revenge. The Punjab club had expressed their displeasure in the Facebook-live type coverage of their match against Chennai City in December. Was this Star Sports not-so-subtly reminding them who owns football in the country?

But the decision couldn’t have simply stemmed out of a Twitter rant. Minerva’s tweets probably acted as a catalyst but this intent was clear – can’t let I-League outperform ISL. You can’t blame Star Sports, can you? They spent millions to kick-start a league. They even got the federation to schedule I-League at odd hours to reduce the eyeballs. Yet, the league kept growing on.

In simpler terms, the contract signed between AIFF and FSDL granted the latter all the rights to pull the plug on the I-League to promote their own product (the ISL).
While it was within the law, the move marked the beginning of a bolder attacking strategy by the FSDL who had until then taken a slightly subtler route to derail I-League as the number one league in the country.

The I-League clubs, especially Minerva, weren’t going to let FSDL and the AIFF have a free run at this blatant, non-inclusive restructuring of Indian football though. On December 28th, they held a press conference in Kolkata where they, along with representatives from Gokulam Kerala FC and Chennai City FC, explained to a set of journalists what FSDL was doing to the country’s football and why everyone needed to act quickly to save the sport.

They even made a cute Noam Chomsky ‘Manufacturing Consent’ rip off to explain what FSDL was doing to the sport.


The I-League clubs even wrote to the AIFF requesting a meeting with football president Praful Patel. But they never got an answer which further showcased how undeterred AIFF was in their bid to make ISL number one. The clubs even suggested a possible merger of the leagues but apparently, even that went unheard. And then the clubs, including Kolkata giants East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, decided not to turn up for the Super Cup as a mode of protest. That led to more controversies and then the latest social media reactions where Minerva owner Bajaj said he will be forced to shut down the club because AIFF ensured the Kalinga stadium in Orissa wouldn’t be available for their home AFC matches.

Of course, these stories aren’t one-sided either. AIFF has come openly declared that Minerva is free to find another stadium for their AFC matches. Praful Patel recently said he had communicated to the I-League clubs that he was willing to talk to them in April.
So on one side, there is the AIFF, the FSDL and on the other side, there are certain I-League clubs with a not-so-pleasant history themselves. How do we take sides especially when India is going through a good period with the national team? The men’s team have shown great improvements in the last two years so why the question is a system that’s showing a steady upward rise?

The middlemen

What a lot of Indian football fans don’t understand is that it’s not a two-way battle for the future of Indian football. There is a bunch of influential football clubs and players, none more so than Bengaluru FC having played in the I-league and then jumped to ISL bandwagon, sitting on the fence carefully observing what is going on.

You’d think the ISL clubs would be sided with the FSDL. The AFC Champions League spot still goes to the I-League champion so an end to the league or declaring the ISL as the top league would be a huge advantage from ISL teams.
But things aren’t so black and white. There is the dwindling interest and a missing connect in the Indian Super League.

READ: No Manjappada, no party in Kerala

There are rumours FC Pune City might shut down or relocate to another city with the club struggling to attract an audience. Delhi is contemplating moving to a smaller stadium. ATK continues to be overshadowed by the big Kolkata teams while NorthEast United can’t get anywhere near the support Aizawl or NEROCA gets. I-League means guaranteed support and interest in the game. Something the new clubs want desperately.

So
1) ISL clubs can side with FSDL. Kill I-league, start fresh and hope the support grows exponentially.
2) ISL clubs can bat for some changes and bring the I-League clubs on board which would be definitely mean improved interest.

As it stands, AIFF is angling towards option one, but want the Kolkata clubs on board because they bring a lot of support. The Kolkata giants might take the plunge but what is supposedly stopping them is the exorbitant fee (believed to be around 15 crores) that clubs have to pay FSDL every year.
If the ISL clubs are smart, this is an opportunity to reform their league. What if these clubs, some going through financial difficulties, struggling to break even in what is still a developing market, demand FSDL to reduce the annual fee. Or even better, ask them to take it all away. The ISL isn’t living up to its promises and if the league has to become the top division, it will have to introduce promotion and relegation, again violating the promises to the clubs from FSDL. A restructuring of the league gives all the teams an option at renegotiating their terms. And considering the past five seasons, there will be a lot of teams jumping at the first opportunity. An ideal scenario then will have the I-league and ISL teams pressurizing the FSDL to come up with a better plan for the entire football fraternity.
The idea might sound far-fetched as things stand today but the reality of any business venture is to churn out profits and the only way to do it in the foreseeable future for ISL clubs would be to cut down on the FSDL fee and hope I-League clubs bring more eyeballs into what is slowly becoming a stale league.
As a fan, unfortunately, the situation is like being in the centre of a three-way Mexican standoff between Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef  (that iconic ending scene in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly). All you can do is to watch how things pan out.

An Animal Farm

What is certain at the moment is that football in the country doesn’t seem to be in the right hands. The Federation has continuously let down the sport for years while the FSDL has emerged as a dictator with zero respect to how the small clubs that ensured the game thrived despite the lack of support. The clubs spearheading the protests, despite doing good work, have also been marred with years of age fraud allegations, and other stories such as fraudulent player contracts.
And hence, as a football fan, it is important (more than ever) to support the cause and not necessarily the entity standing up the cause.

Do we want a unified league? Yes.
Do we want more opportunities for footballers and staff? Yes.
Do we want an inclusive football top division that gives a chance for teams like Aizawl or Real Kashmir to compete? Hell yes!

What as fans we should do right now is not to get carried away by any one narrative. All parties can benefit from a better planned, restructured league in the country. We should protest any signs of dictatorship and the blatant misuse of power by the FSDL or AIFF. But we also do not want an Orwellian nightmare of supporting an entity only to realise it was far worse than what we already had. The federation needs some reforms, the teams need better internal management, the system needs to be stricter towards age-old practices and the only way to go about these things might be to get a Lodha Committee-like set up to restructure the entire framework of Indian football.

PS: The opinions expressed are personal and the author does NOT claim to have any inside information. I might be completely wrong in my understanding of things.

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Indian Super League: Kerala Blasters impress in Nelo Vingada debut but still struggle to score

The second half of the Hero Indian Super League started with a bunch of positives for two-time finalists Kerala Blasters, with new coach Nelo Vingada tweaking the system to offer more attacking freedom to his players. Unfortunately for the home side, the freedom only translated into chances and not goals, as they played out an entertaining 1-1 draw against ATK.

Here are three talking points from the first match of the second half of the fifth season of Indian Super League

1) Old habits die hard

Vingada has begun his stint at Kerala Blasters with the same structure he used while he was the manager of NorthEast United in 2016 – a 4-1-4-1 formation with Nikola Krcmarevic playing the shielding role in the midfield. Luckily for the coach, the team he inherited were used to playing a similar system, which meant very little tinkering was required.

The difference was that in David James’ side, the onus was on the front-two, often played by Matej Poplatnik and Slavisa Stojanovic, to score the goals while the wingers whipped in crosses. Against ATK, Vingada’s Kerala had just one target man in Poplatnik, while Stojanovic occupied a deeper position in the midfield. Blasters’ plan was to play to play the ball into Poplatnik’s feet, who would then look for runners from the midfield with a first-time pass. Midfielders took turns to support their primary striker, depending largely on the zone of play. Seiminlen Doungel (Len) was a constant threat cutting in from the left wing, while young Sahal Abdul Samad had another outstanding game, orchestrating everything from the midfield. Prasanth, playing in the right wing, worked tirelessly as Vingada’s side dominated most parts of the match. The defence looked well-balanced too and had the game in control throughout the match.

While the system looked promising and chances were created in galore, Kerala were haunted by the same ghost from the past when it came to actually converting those chances. Len, Prasanth and Stojanovic missed sitters while Poplatnik and Sahal also made goalkeeper Arindam Bhattacharya skip heart beats with their attempts. On another day, the score could have been 4-1 in favour of the home team. But we’ve been saying this about Kerala a lot, right?

The new coach is confident about ending the goal-scoring woes though Kerala, who have just scored 13 goals in as many matches, have very little support in the bench who are proven goal-scorers.

2) Building for the future

With the January transfer window open, Kerala Blasters were expected to add some players to their squad after a disastrous first half of the ISL campaign. But the opposite has happened, with experienced players moving away from the club, while youngsters were signed as a replacement. Vingada had even confirmed to journalists that the decision to loan Holicharan Narzary wasn’t his but the management’s. The January transfer plan actually goes in sync with what they did in the summer too, by signing the likes of 2017 Under-17 World Cup stars Dheeraj Singh and Mohammad Rakip. So what is Kerala thinking?

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A place in the playoffs is realistically unachievable for the Kerala team, so they are instead focusing on building a strong Indian core in the team. The young Indian players, especially Sahal and Len, have shown how game-time in top-level football can be a catalyst in the growth of footballers. Rakip and Dheeraj have been playing a lot too, which means the ISL franchise is prepared to wait a season or two, to unlock the potential in the Indian players in their ranks. A lot of teams promote young players to sell them in the future but Blasters seem to be cultivating stars to make their own future brighter. It is a bold strategy but Floyd Pinto and the Indian Arrows have shown in the recent past in the I-League that consistency and belief can go a long way in getting the best out of young players.

With CK Vineeth and Narzary gone, youngsters Boaringdao Bodo, Nongdamba Naorem, Jithin MS and co, will all be hopeful of playing for the senior team in the near future, especially with Vingada confirming in the post-match press conference that it is very unlikely his club will be making any more signings in the window.

3) Where is the Manjappada?

A new manager and a new year aren’t, unfortunately, good enough reasons for the Blasters faithful to make a return to their home. The home support against ATK, although loud and appreciative of the team’s good work on the field, was still underwhelming. Only 4582 fans turned up for the match in a 45000+ capacity stadium.

blasters

The Manjappada (Yellow Army) are arguably the largest football fan-base in the country but their stand-off with the Kerala management, largely due to the team’s decisions to not sign ‘quality players’ and play a ‘boring brand of football’, has affected the stadium attendances badly.

Hopefully, Vingada’s appointment and the positive football against ATK will bring the crowd back. Football certainly needs Kerala!

Interview: Simon Sundararaj — India’s forgotten football star from the 1960 Olympics

“They play the 4-3-3 (formation) a lot these days,” says Simon Sundararaj, pointing to a large TV placed opposite to the sofa where he is sitting, as I made my way into his house in Thanjavur. A quick shake of the hands, a brief introduction from my side, and we jump back into football. He had been watching a replug of Real Madrid’s La Liga match against Leganes. But his ‘they’ had a larger implication, beyond Real Madrid.

WATCH (click to go to YouTube)

“In my time, we played the 4-2-4, a formation that was made popular by the great Brazilian and Hungary teams in the 1950s. We played it in 1960 Olympic Games too,” he explains after I casually ask him what formation he preferred in his playing and coaching days. We had been talking about football in our two phone conversations prior to the meeting. He was pleasantly surprised by the interest I showed in his playing style.

Football formation, to put it bluntly, is the pursuit of distributing players evenly across a field that is designed to accommodate 22 humans, and still leave the perfect amount of space to be exploited. Add an extra player in both teams, the pitch is crowded. Subtract one, there is too much space. Over the years, coaches have tinkered with formations to hit the right balance. But there has never been one answer. Teams dominate for a certain period until a new coach and a new side under him/her finds a flaw in the existing system, develops a new style, and then set the trend for the subsequent years.

For Sundararaj, the star for the Indian national football team in the 1960 Summer Olympics and coach for Kerala state team in 1973, when they first won the Santosh Trophy, the pursuit was no different.

“The (4-2-4) formation, something I used a lot in my career as a manager, was simple,” explains Sundararaj. “It allowed the same number of players in both the halves, unlike strategies you see today, which have more focus on defence. It was the best formation for attacking football. Even though most teams were playing the 4-2-4, especially after Brazil’s success in 1958 with Pele, Vava, Garrincha and Zagallo, I think, playing in front, it was in the 1970 Olympics, the formation really caught my eye.”

A tryst with destiny

India played the 1960 Olympics with the same formation, with Sundararaj occupying the same position (inside forward) that Pele went on to immortalise. In the Games, the last time India ever qualified for the international tournament, the country produced resolute displays including a 1-1 draw against France and a 2-1 loss against a Hungary side in their prime, which made Sir Stanley Rous, then in charge of Olympic football, call India the best team from Asia.

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The 1960 Rome Olympics football team

Sundararaj announced himself internationally in the tournament, scoring a 30-yard screamer against Peru, which remains India’s last goal in an international tournament of that stature.

But by 1970, the year Brazil won their third World Cup and perfected the 4-2-4, sometimes even shifting to an attacking 3-2-5, Sundararaj had given up on a promising playing career, stunted by a cartilage injury in 1961 that prevented him from playing for India in the 1962 Asian Games (a tournament India went on to win), to focus more on coaching.

“It was a great time to be coaching. It was around the time total football was emerging in Holland. Brazil was playing outstanding, attacking football, and in India, we had some really good footballers. So I wasn’t unhappy,” he remembers. He doesn’t want to brood over his shortened playing career, dismissing all suggestions of a lack of support, by saying “that’s how things were back then”.

Sundararaj hadn’t really thought about a career in coaching. In the late 60s, when he was working for the Southern Railways, he was given a directive to attend coaching classes at the National Institute of Sports (NIS) in Punjab. Sundararaj merely followed the orders and shifted base to Patiala where he secured his coaching certificates. “I went to Punjab at a time when Major Dhyan Chand was coaching at the NIS,” he fondly remembers.

The golden years of Kerala football

Even though Sundararaj is the first Tamil Nadu footballer to feature in the Indian national football team (Krishnamurthy from Thanjavur had also played for India but represented Bengal in the nationals after shifting his base to join East Bengal), it is in Kerala, the neighbouring state, where he spent most of his professional career. After securing his coaching license at the NIS, Sundararaj quit his job in the Railways, to join as a ‘wing coach’ for NIS in Thiruvananthapuram. After a brief stint at the state capital, which according to the coach, was marred with politics, he shifted to Kochi, where he joined Fertilisers and Chemicals Travancore Limited (FACT) as a football team coach.

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Photo Courtesy: Victor Manjila

“It was a time when Kerala was peaking in football. All the public sector companies had excellent football teams and there were competitions across the state. Premier Tyres, FACT, Port Trust in Ernakulam district itself. Then there was Kerala Police in Thiruvananthapuram, We are talking about great teams here. Premier Tyres, for example, had India’s top two goalkeepers, Sethumadhavan and Victor Manjila playing for them at the same time,” recollects Sundararaj.

It was during his early days at FACT that Sundararaj was offered the opportunity to coach to the Kerala football team. The state had been given an opportunity to host its fifth Santosh trophy, with Ernakulam set to be the venue.

“Senior players had a big say in Kerala football. They dictated things and in some ways, prevented younger footballers. For the first time in Kerala’s history, I held an open trial and identified the Santosh trophy team from around 150 players who had turned up for the camps. A lot of these senior players missed out as we selected younger players”, he recollects.

Kerala went on to clinch the Santosh trophy which proved to be an inspiration for a generation of quality footballers who emerged from the state.

“It was a season that changed our outlook towards football,” remembered Victor Manjila, former Indian Goalkeeper and part of Kerala’s 1973 Santosh Trophy winning team, when I met him later in Thrissur. “Simon Sir taught us that discipline was key in a footballer’s life. (Late) NJ Jose, who was Kerala’s standout performer in the previous Santosh Trophy, turned up a week late for the coaching camp. Simon Sir sent him back. Even though was a talented player, it didn’t matter for Simon Sir because for him no individual was bigger than the team.”

Sundararaj continued coaching for FACT and retired from the company in 1997, and after briefly coaching FC Kochin, India’s first professional football club, he moved back to Thanjavur.

Another forgotten legend

“I sold my ancestral house. We were getting too old to maintain it. A flat means it is convenient,” he says, pointing outside the window. It was drizzling — the season’s first rain according to Sundararaj. He goes on to explain how Thanjavur is dependent on rain, as the economy was largely agriculture-dependent, and how a lot of food, including that for neighbouring states like Kerala, was produced in the region.

“Made in Thanjavur, consumed in Kerala,” he says.

The line resonates.

“I chose to play football because it was fun. My uncle played for the Tanjore United sports club and I just picked up the habit from here. I was lucky enough to reach the Indian national team but my objective was always to have fun,” he says, also stressing on how Thanjavur was a hub for sporting activities, especially football and hockey, back then.

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Tanjore United football club

His answer when I ask him his favourite football coach of all time is somewhat in sync with this pursuit of fun in football than the ideology he followed as a manager — where the system was more important than the method. “What Tele Santana did with his Brazilian teams will forever be how I would want football to be played,” he remarks.

Many remember Brazil’s defeat against Italy in the 1982 World Cup as the day “football died”. Where system defeated freedom. Santana’s Selecao, needing just a draw against Italy, opted for a fearless, attacking approach and paid the ultimate price by getting knocked out of the tournament. A contrast to what Sunderaraj achieved with Kerala in the 1973 Santosh Trophy final — where a system overpowered a strong Railways team.

READ: Italy 3-2 Brazil, 1982: the day naivety, not football itself, died (The Guardian)

But in that contradiction, perhaps, lay the beauty of Sunderaraj’s footballing mind — a purist who could appreciate it all.

He gave everything for the game. But the game, he reminds, didn’t give him or other footballers from his generation a lot in return. “We retire and they forget. We only live in the public imagination only till we are playing. A lot of my national team colleagues had a tough time after they retired. Zulfiqar (Mohammed Zulfiqaruddin), who played in the 1956 Games, told in an interview that he had no money to get his children married off. Yousuf Khan, who played in the 1960 Rome Olympics with me, needed help from friends to buy medicines as he battled Parkinson’s. I only learned about this after he passed away,” he remembers.

The struggles players faced post-retirement prevented them from passing on the footballing knowledge to subsequent generations, which according to Sundararaj, is the major reason why India is struggling in football, while France, the team they held to a 1-1 draw in 1960, is winning the World Cup.

“I know the government is providing support to a lot of athletes, like giving pension to veteran players. But as an Olympian, I cannot go and approach the All India Association or the State Association and ask for some pension. My dignity won’t allow me to do that. Instead of them coming here and asking whether I need some help, why should I go there,” he says.

Sundararaj, who will turn 80 in November, still harbours hope of seeing India in top tournaments. “Milkha Singh, in an interview, said he hopes to see an Indian in the final of an Olympics track event before he dies. Similarly, I hope to see Indian football team in the Olympics or the World Cup before I die,” says Sundararaj.

Incidentally, Milkha Singh’s history-making run happened in the same Games Sundararaj scripted history for Indian football — a fair indication of how much the respective sports have progressed in around 60 years.

The article was written in October 2018. Mohammed Zulfiqaruddin, mentioned in the piece, passed away in January this year.

Premier League Gameweek 2: Premier League: Poor defence of Arsenal and Chelsea, Manchester United’s lacklustre show and other talking points

Manchester United and Manchester City’s performances — the former losing to Brighton while the latter battered a sorry Huddersfield Town — summed up a Gameweek of surprises, where the biggest talking point, arguably, was the open nature of a traditionally cold-blooded London derby between Arsenal and Chelsea.

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The Blues won the temporary bragging rights and showed glimpses of the very promising “Sarrismo”, but both London teams looked unsure about their new managers’ philosophies, something that will have Tottenham licking their lips (and Dele Alli doing his Conjuring-ish celebration) in the battle for London supremacy, which is now a ridiculous six-team battle with West Ham, Crystal Palace and Fulham also competing (is there no other city in England?).

Here are five talking points for Gameweek Two of the Premier League:

Chelsea managed to eke out a narrow 3-2 win over Arsenal on Saturday. AP

Chelsea managed to eke out a narrow 3-2 win over Arsenal on Saturday, although both teams were seen lacking in their defence. AP

Chelsea v Arsenal and a comedy of errors

London is certainly Blue, but Chelsea will need to tighten up their defence and improve their overall pressing game if they are hoping to challenge for a place in the top-four at end of the season. The match against traditional rival Arsenal though showed glimpses of the positive, attack-oriented football that Maurizio Sarri wants to cultivate at Chelsea, but the Blues went on to win the match largely due to their opponents’ profligacy in front of goal.

While Marcos Alonso (one assist, one goal) and Cesar Azpilicueta (one assist) contributed in attack, they left far too much room for Arsenal’s wide men to dictate play. The abundance of space in the left wing was compounded by Willian’s poor work-rate while tracking back as compared to the work done on the right wing by Pedro. Something Sarri will definitely have to think about once Eden Hazard is fully fit.

Arsenal were, like Chelsea, awful in their defence, and could have easily snatched all three points if their attackers were more efficient. Unai Emery’s men still look like a team finding its true shape and judging by their performance against Chelsea, the former Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) manager will have some tough decisions to take. Mesut Ozil was largely invisible in the match and failed to be the engine for Emery’s counter-attacking plan, while Matteo Guendouzi will need to improve his positioning if Emery persists with a double-pivoted 4-2-3-1 formation.

A reasonable solution would be to replace Ozil with Aaron Ramsey in the starting line-up or shifting Henrikh Mkhitaryan to a more central role and playing both Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette. Arsenal also lacked a captain on the field, which will be another area of concern for the manager. Emery failed to make big decisions against senior players at PSG, which ultimately led to his sacking. Only time will tell, if he has learned his lesson.

N’Go(a)lo Kante?

There is no doubting N’Golo Kante’s credentials as a defensive midfielder. He played a starring role in France’s World Cup victory and was the linchpin in Leicester and Chelsea’s Premier League title runs in the past season. But new Chelsea coach Sarri sees Kante in a new role — a box-to-box midfielder who can contribute in attack as well as in defence, similar to Allan’s role in Sarri’s Napoli side. In fact, Kante had the most number of touches in the opposition penalty box than any other player in Chelsea’s match against Arsenal.

Pushing Kante ahead has its advantages — his pressing in the opposition half will make it impossible for deep-lying midfielders and ball-playing defenders to pick out a pass. But it also takes away Kante’s biggest strength — his recovery speed. His starting position (in the line between opposition defenders and midfielders) when the opposition is in possession means Jorginho has very little cover once a pass is made. The problem is compounded by Chelsea’s full-backs playing like wingers. If attacking from the wings is something Sarri wants at Chelsea, then he will have to pull back Kante to a more defensive role and expect his wide forwards to do the harrying. If Chelsea full-backs revert to a more traditional role, then Kante will be expected to contribute a lot more in the attack, maybe score around eight goals in a season. Expect the little French dynamite to rise up to the challenge, though.

Manchester not-so-United

Two matches into the season and there are already talks of Jose Mourinho being replaced by Zinedine Zidane. United were lacklustre in their outing against Brighton and deservedly lost 3-2, with Mourinho’s men failing to excite. The Red Devils looked toothless in attack and in complete disarray in the defence, so much so that Brighton’s new signing Leon Balogun said, “Some of the lads have just asked me that too and I said I had expected the Premier League to be quicker, but they told me this is always the kind of game you play against United.” *Ouch*

United failed to recruit a quality defender in the summer and Eric Bailly’s horror night will have the manager pointing his fingers at the Board’s inefficiency again. That said, Mourinho still has one of the world’s most expensive sides at his disposal and his failure to get them playing efficient (if not exciting) football, will raise many questions, especially after their star player Paul Pogba’s somewhat strange comment — there are things that I can’t say. Third season curse in ON?

More from Moura?

Pundits (author pleads guilty) were quick to dismiss Tottenham Hotspur’s ability to challenge for a trophy before the season started owing to the lack of transfer activities in the summer. But Spurs managed to keep hold of their stars, have started the season well and have also managed to rekindle the fun for football in their winter recruit Lucas Moura. The Brazilian, a prodigious talent who got wasted in the large talent pool at Paris Saint-German, has stepped up his game at the London club and almost looks like a new signing for Spurs.

The 26-year-old was scintillating in Spurs’ match against Fulham and it looks like the Brazilian winger clearly feels the time is right to live up to his undoubted potential. With Son Heung-Min representing South Korea at the Asian Games, Moura looks set for some much-needed game-time, which could be what he needs to prove — he is better than both Son and Erik Lamela. Considering Daniel Levy’s shrewdness in the market, Moura might well become a £25million bargain for Spurs.

Jesus wants time with Aguero

Manchester City are so strong that they scored six goals past Huddersfield Town without the injured Kevin De Bruyne, wingers Leroy Sane, Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling. Guardiola played an intricate 3-5-2 with Gabriel Jesus pairing with the insatiable Sergio Aguero up front. City bossed the midfield and fed their hungry strikers, who were more than happy to put the ball behind the net.

Quote box: “Pep opted for Sergio and myself, just like he has done last season and I think there was only one match where we didn’t so well – but usually when we both play together we do a great job. We can indeed play together!”

Considering Arsenal and Chelsea’s gaping holes in defence and United’s suffering team spirit, it looks like the title will be decided between Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham (if they can be consistent).

Premier League Gameweek 1: Naby Keita’s impressive debut, Mo Salah’s hug and other talking points

It’s only Gameweek One but it already looks ‘order restored’ in the Premier League as big guns Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham, Manchester United and Chelsea picked up valuable points in their first outings of the 2018-19 season. Liverpool and Manchester City, especially the latter who started without Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva and Leroy Sane, exhibited enough to suggest it will be a two-horse battle for the title. But Manchester United, buoyed by an outstanding performance by World Cup winner Paul Pogba, showed typical Jose Mourinho doggedness, while Chelsea were typically ruthless, suggesting the two favourites won’t have it easy.

Here are five talking points from the Premier League Gameweek One

A revival for the 4-3-3 formation?

In football, it would seem old habits die hard. Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City started their games with the 4-3-3 formation — a strategy that was immensely popular in the first decade of the 21st century after Sir Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho and Frank Rijkaard’s domination with their teams. Tottenham and Arsenal, the other two of the ‘Top-6’, played a 4-2-3-1 formation, which is also an extension of the 4-3-3, where one midfielder is completely freed of his defensive duties.

The opening week of Premier league saw Chelsea (in picture), Liverpool, Manchester City and United fielding a 4-3-3 formation. AFP

The opening week of Premier league saw Chelsea (in picture), Liverpool, Manchester City and United fielding a 4-3-3 formation. AFP

The 4-3-3 has a rich history and was often used by the managers who have a favoured attacking football. The famous Ajax team of the early 1970s, which won three European Cups with Johan Cruyff, used the formation to great effect. Zdenek Zeman ‘Zemanlandia’ revolution at Foggia Calcio in Italy during the late 1980s also used the 4-3-3.

Key getting the best out of the formation are the wide forwards who support the lone central striker. These players are all-round attacking players with pace and shooting ability, who use their speed on the wings before cutting in towards goal. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have been showing the potential of wide forwards for over a decade now, and the reason why managers are using the formation must largely be due to the availability of players like Mohamed Salah, Eden Hazard and Riyad Mahrez. In Manchester United, it helped free Pogba of his defensive duties, therefore bringing the best out of the Frenchman.

Pre-season and Gameweek One suggest this will be the go-to formation for the big teams in the year, strangely ending the love for the three-man defence that was made popular by Antonio Conte in his two-year stint in the Premier League.

Naby Keita and Liverpool’s swagger

Liverpool's Guinean midfielder Naby Keita impressed on debut. AFP

Liverpool’s Guinean midfielder Naby Keita impressed on debut. AFP

After an impressive pre-season, Naby Keita did not disappoint in his Premier League debut, dominating the midfield and adding steel to an impressive Liverpool team. Proactive and more than happy to burst his lungs, Keita was involved in everything positive for Liverpool in their match against West Ham United, justifying the hefty £52.5 million they paid RB Leipzig to secure his services. The Guinean footballer certainly looks capable of shouldering the attacks in the Philippe Coutinho-role while adding more to the defence.

Keita also showed his versatility as a midfielder, comfortably slotting into the front-three, after Jurgen Klopp replaced Robert Firmino with Jordan Henderson. With Xherdan Shaqiri also impressing in his cameos for Liverpool so far, it is safe to say Liverpool won’t regret not signing Nabil Fekir in the summer.

Sarri-ball will need time

Chelsea might have eased to a 3-0 win over Huddersfield but the Blues are far from being the Napoli-like dominating team their new tactician Maurizio Sarri craves for. In fact, the victory was typical Chelsea — converting three of their five chances. The Sarri-ball will take time to roll with Eden Hazard, Matteo Kovacic and other World Cuppers still some time away from regaining peak fitness. The new-look midfield does promise a lot though, with Jorginho and N’Golo Kante already looking suited for each other. David Luiz looked comfortable throughout the game, suggesting a revival for the Brazilian defender who had a difficult relationship with the previous manager Antonio Conte. Early signs are positive for Chelsea, but a match against Arsenal in the upcoming Gameweek should give a clearer idea of how prepared the team is.

Wolves can bite

Newly promoted teams are often bookies’ favourite for relegation but Wolves’ opening-day performance would have most gone a long way in at least temporarily halting that trend. Marshalled by the exciting Reuben Neves, Wolves excited in their opening 2-2 draw against an Everton who invested millions in the summer. 21-year-old Neves, who was Championship’s best player last season, is a midfielder with rich pedigree. He was 18 when he captained Porto, arguably Portugal’s best team, before surprisingly making a jump to Wolves. Neves scored a stunning free-kick and played a crucial role in Wolves’ attacks as the men-in-yellow impressed against Everton. Neves isn’t the only star in the Wolves team though. With Rui Patricio keeping, Jao Moutinho as central midfield, Helder Costa in the forward line, this Wolves team should be eyeing a top-10 spot this season.

How can you not love Mo Salah?

Sadio Mane must be wondering what he must do to get out Salah’s shadows. Mane outscored the Egyptian in Liverpool’s 4-0 win against West Ham and was arguably more efficient, but Salah still managed to hog headlines, this time via an actual hug.

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Last season’s Golden Boot winner ensured that a young fan’s pitch invasion in the 80th minute didn’t go futile by giving him a hug and ensuring he didn’t get charged upon by the security officials. Awww!

Maurizio Sarri, named as new Chelsea manager, is owner Roman Abramovich’s latest gamble in quest for ‘perfect football’

On a summer day in 2003, the fax machine at Gianfranco Zola’s office buzzed with an unexpected message. It was a request, more like an ‘offer you can’t refuse’, from Russian billionaire and Chelsea football club’s new owner Roman Abramovich. He desired to retain Zola, who had left Chelsea in the summer for his hometown club Cagliari and was willing to pay £3 million as wages to the Italian, and another £1 million to Cagliari to buy out the contract.

 

As rumours go, the diminutive attacker, who was a key figure in Chelsea’s Champions League berth-clinching 2002-03 campaign, had played a huge role in convincing Abramovich to buy the debt-ridden London club. He wanted Zola in his Chelsea, and the team’s football to be modelled around the attacking guile that the Italian brought to the football field.

Zola rejected the offer to stay true to his promise to Cagliari but the fax message was a precursor to how Abramovich would function — he gets what he wants. Soon an army of international players was gathered at the Stamford Bridge. A roaring lion with a sceptre replaced the old laid-back lion on Chelsea’s crest. The intention was clear — to win but also win by playing attractive football.

Unfortunately for Abramovich, the king he chose to run his empire (after giving a season to Claudio Ranieri), Jose Mourinho, came from a different school of thought, where winning was all that mattered. Mourinho, in his first stint at Chelsea, instilled his DNA into the Chelsea team, making them winners, although not by playing the football Abramovich craved for. The marriage didn’t last long with Mourinho leaving the club in his third season with the Blues. A herd of managers (10 including two stints by Guus Hiddink) occupied the helm at Chelsea, won trophies aplenty, but alas, failed to deliver the football their Russian owner desired. Antonio Conte became the latest manager to be sacked by Chelsea on Friday.

Appointing Maurizio Sarri, the banker who turned into a football coach to help Empoli and Napoli scale new heights in the Italian leagues, is Abramovich’s latest attempt at bringing attractive football to Stamford Bridge. The bespectacled tactician, known for his smoking habits on the pitch, doesn’t come with the same reputation as Mourinho or Carlo Ancelotti, but his work at Napoli has earned him praise within the footballing world. The manager is notoriously famous for his work ethic, as is obvious from his desire to live at Chelsea’s training ground in Cobham, and encourages his team to play attacking football, often called ‘Sarri-ball’ or the vertical tiki-taka. “If I saw my team defending and counter-attacking after 30 minutes, I would get up and return to the bank because I would not be having fun,” the Italian said during the 2015-16 campaign with Napoli. The Sarri-ball is his solution the problem – a possession-based style with plenty of short, quick passes but with an emphasis on moving up the pitch quickly.

Maurizio Sarri was announced as the new Chelsea manager on Saturday. Image courtesy: Chelsea website

Maurizio Sarri was announced as the new Chelsea manager on Saturday. Image courtesy: Chelsea website

In simpler terms, it is the best of Spanish football and the best of German football integrated into one formation. Sarri’s Napoli liked to have the ball, but the objective was always to systematically move it forward unlike the Barcelona side who mastered the traditional tiki-taka, which involved horizontal passes that stretched the opposition team and made holes for key passes. Current Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, who implemented tiki-taka to perfection at Barcelona, was so impressed after facing Sarri’s Napoli in the Champions League in the 2017-18 season that he described the team as the best side he has faced in his career as a manager. While Sarri might not have titles to show for his time at Napoli and Empoli, he did beat title-winning Max Allegri to the Panchina d’Oro (award to given the best coach in Italian football) in the 2015-16 season.

Empoli’s Emperor

Sarri’s big break as a coach came in 2012, aged 53. He was hired by Empoli, then struggling in the lower ends of Serie B. A relegation survival would have been enough for Sarri to secure his job but the former banker ensured that the club reach the promotion play-offs in his first season.

In his second season, Empoli secured a promotion to top-division and in his third, the Florence-based team managed a respectable 15th position in Serie A with a shoe-string budget. It was not just the position that was impressive. Sarri’s Empoli were strong in defence – conceding the second least number of goals – and played a football that involved keeping possession of the ball.

His success at Empoli might have gone unnoticed by the media, but the football world had taken note of the late-blooming manager. According to various reports, Arrigo Sacchi, the legendary AC Milan coach, asked then AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi to sign Sarri as their manager. But Berlusconi hesitated and Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis came swooping in for the Sarri. The rest, as they say, is history, as Sarri introduced the famous Sarri-ball system and gave Juventus a tough battle in Serie A.

On a collision course

Things will not be easy for Sarri at Chelsea though. Unlike Napoli or Empoli, where players hadn’t tasted a lot of success, Chelsea are a club with a winning DNA. It remains to be seen if the players at the London club will accept Sarri’s demands of an attractive, fast-paced football, especially having a played a counter-attacking, defence-first football for most of their time in London.

Sarri won’t be the first attractive-football-playing manager their Russian billionaire manager has appointed. Remember what happened to Luiz Felipe Scolari and Andre Villas-Boas? Chelsea never bought into their ideology and eventually led to the sacking of the managers.

Chelsea are a club built on a tough defence. They have always been tough to crack but didn’t often play the most flamboyant of football. In fact, judging by the club’s history, it wouldn’t be Chelsea if they didn’t resist Sarri’s policies. To ensure a smooth functioning environment for Sarri, Chelsea will have to support him in the transfer market.

At Napoli, he played he deployed a 4-3-3, with two centre-backs who were comfortable with the ball, had great distribution and were athletic. While Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rudiger fit the description, Gary Cahill and David Luiz’s future will be in doubt. Chelsea have been linked with Juventus’ Daniele Rugani, a young centre-back whom Sarri managed at Empoli, while returning Kurt Zouma also offers a fresh option.

Similarly, his midfield trio included a defensive midfielder, a box-to-box player and a playmaker. In N’Golo Kante and Tiemoue Bakayoko, he has strong and athletic midfielders, but Cesc Fabregas might struggle in the advanced role. But with Ruben Loftus-Cheek set to be given a major role in Chelsea, and Jorginho all but confirmed, the midfield looks ready to play Sarri-ball.

Zola’s return

If rumours are true, Sarri will also be assisted by Zola. The former Chelsea player has a decent resume as a coach, having managed West Ham United, Watford and Birmingham City in England and is a favourite amongst Chelsea fans. He will also be able to act as a mediator between the players and the manager, thereby easing the transition. Zola’s agent has publicly expressed his client’s desire to work with “idol” Sarri and his appointment would mark the perfect end to a 15-year-long cycle that started with Abramovich sending a fax message asking Zola to join his empire. The question is whether the end of the cycle will produce the football that Abramovich craves for at Chelsea.

One thing is for sure, with Sarri’s appointment, the Premier League will become richer with another coach who has a distinct, positive approach to football. Imagine Sarri-ball, Guardiola’s tiki-taka, Klopp’s gegen-pressing, Unai Emery and Mourinho’s counter-attacks, and some good old English long-ball game in the Premier League next season.

Indian Media’s Love For Sensationalism Is Being Unfair To The Country’s Football Revolution

sunilchhetri 2

Exactly a year ago, Indian media houses were greeted with a positive press release from the country’s football federation. The mail conveyed that the Indian Under-17 team had beaten its Italian counterpart during the team’s exposure trip in Europe and scripted a “new chapter in Indian football”. The news, which was published by all major organisations and accentuated by celebrity ‘influencers’, sent the world of the internet into a frenzy.

 

With the Under-17 World Cup, India’s first FIFA tournament, only a few months away, this was the perfect news for the multitude of fans across the country. Suddenly the country started believing its team could compete with the very best in the world. Chest-thumping and mindless debates devoured the internet as the optimism levels hit the stratosphere.

Strangely though, as some nosy journalists later found out, the Italian football team website had no information about the match. A quick search confirmed that Italian starting line-up didn’t feature any known U-17 player from their past matches either. So who did the Indian football team defeat? The Indian Football Federation said they “didn’t know about it” and had assumed it was the national side because they wore the Italian jerseys. A Public Relations nightmare, as an AIFF staff would later admit (anonymously), putting unwanted pressure on a young Indian side while also giving a false sense of optimism to the fans.

For the Intercontinental Cup, that concluded on June 10th, the journalists were better equipped. They pointed out that the teams visiting India, including the lower ranked Chinese Taipei, were far from their strongest eleven. Yet, as is the strange pattern with news these days, these conversations got submerged in a wave of positive news about the Indian team. It started with Captain Sunil Chhetri’s plea — a video in which he calls for more support at the stadium after being disappointed with the audience turn-out in India’s match against Chinese Taipei. The video went viral with the likes of cricket captain Virat Kohli requesting fans to cloud the stadium in support of the Blue Tigers. The fans did arrive in hoards and India did win the tournament beating Kenya in the finals but Chhetri’s video had a far wider, and more importantly different, impact than he would have hoped for.

There was a shift in the narrative as media organisations felt the need to portray the Indian football team greater than what it actually is. Media outlets, responsible for sending out unbiased news, became fanboys of the Indian football movement. Suddenly there were statistics equating Chhetri to Lionel Messi, and the Indian team’s win record being compared to that of Germany’s.

To be fair Chhetri, who has been a fantastic servant for the Indian football team, tried to quell most of these praises by pointing out there is still a lot of work to be done for India and the need to play top Asian sides more often, but that never made it to the headlines.

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So what is the harm if sensationalism prevailed over sense in our coverage of the event? Especially when it was for a good cause – in this case garnering support for the Indian football team.

By portraying we are a better side than what the rank 97 would signify we risk a massive fallout when the going gets tough for the side. Instilling a false sense of hope does not do justice to a sport that is still in its nascent stages in the country. It happened with the Under-17 team – the interest in the team disappeared soon after the team failed to impress in the group stages of the World Cup. And it could well happen at the AFC Asian Cup where India will face strong opposition. It is imperative that the right details of our team is highlighted so that the ever-growing Indian football fans won’t be disappointed if the team struggles.

This is not to say we should be pessimistic. The Intercontinental Cup had its positives – the team showed great cohesion, dominated in the central midfield (an area of weakness), and was miserly defence. The success also put pressure on the authorities to send the U-23 team to the Asian Games, where the side will get to play against top sides. Not to forget AIFF’s strategy to improve India’s ranking by inviting Kenya and New Zealand, who were unlikely to send their main eleven.

It is unfair to criticise the team as well. They played their socks off and we have to acknowledge they are a developing side. It will take years of effort to have a system in place and this is exactly what the media should be focusing on. There is no quick fix to quality football. It took a decade of effort for Germany to rebuild a team to win the world cup. The current golden generation of Belgium football is also the fruit of a long-term plan. And these are nations who already had a footballing culture. In India, the effort would be larger and these international matches are small steps in the right directions. Indian Super League is slowly starting to find its identity, with teams starting to prefer clever homegrown signings over international marquee targets.

In an era where loud, brazen news is in demand, it is important that the reports and opinions on Indian football stick to a narrative that is honest to what is happening to the sport.

FIFA World Cup 2018: Sluggish Germany Needs to Prioritize Form Over Pedigree

Much of the commentary surrounding Germany, the defending champion, ahead of the World Cup was whether this team in transition, devoid of pillars such as ex-captains Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger, could carry the mantle forward. Parallels had already been drawn before the team arrived in Russia. In Joshua Kimmich, the Die Mannschaft was sure it had found the next Lahm. Timo Werner’s Confederations Cup heroics in 2017 meant he was deemed the ideal successor to Miroslav Klose. But after the team’s first game, where it was comprehensively beaten by Mexico, the comparisons have taken a back seat as the central question became, “Is this German side good enough?”

To put things into perspective, the last time a German side lost its first match in a World Cup, the Berlin wall was still a daunting structure while other World Cup competitors Serbia and Croatia weren’t even formed. Germany in the past 30-odd years has established itself as a powerhouse, the team to beat, in international football.

“Football is a simple game: 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.” – Gary Lineker ( Former England striker)

The most surprising part of the earthquake-causing victory was how Mexico beat Germany to its own game. Counter-attacking, gegen-pressing and direct football, all trademarks of the multiple Joachim Low sides, were used by the Mexicans, as the Germans stood still and allowed the men-in-green to dictate play.

Redundant formation and tactical naivety

Low opted to start the German team with a 4-2-3-1 formation, a system the Germans have been using since the 2010 World Cup, with Julian Draxler, Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller forming the trio behind Werner in an attack-minded set-up. The problem with this double-pivot formation, anchored by Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira, is the space it leaves in the midfield. The 4-2-3-1 requires two players capable of handling the defensive responsibilities while also having the vision to distribute the ball across the field. The formation, which was prominent till around four years back, is no longer used by big clubs because they have struggled to find the perfect two for the job, especially when opposition teams stack up the midfield. The Kroos-Khedira (Schweinsteiger) combination was perfect till 2014, when opposition teams were also playing the same formation, but against Mexico the midfield looked thin and it might get exposed against a stronger team.

Even when the game looked like it was slipping off its hands, Low failed to make substitutions that the situation demanded, instead opting for stars. Hirving Lozano was a constant threat in the left-wing for Mexico, and Kimmich had to shoulder a mammoth amount of work with Mueller taking up a very central attacking role. Bringing young Julian Brandt or Marco Reus, both natural wide players, for Muller would have brought stability to the formation, but Low used up all his substitutions on attackers by sacrificing his midfield and defence. The formation left gaping holes in the midfield and a more clinical team would have been able to score more than the solitary goal Mexico managed.

Time for a fresh approach

While the result was catastrophic, Germany is still a favourite to progress from the group. But coach Low will have tough decisions to make for the desired result. The centre-back pairing of Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng looked solid but the central midfield will need tweaking. Ilkay Gundogan offers creativity, Niklas Sule has raw strength, and Sebastian Rudy has experience as a box-to-box player. Adding any of the three into the midfield will add steel to the midfield and free Khedira of his running duties.

Similarly, with Timo Werner in form, Low might have to sacrifice the experienced Mueller for a player who can play in the flanks and offer width to the German side. Leroy Sane was surprisingly omitted from the squad because Low believed he had enough players for the position. One among Reus, Draxler and Brandt should feature in the playing XI, especially if Germany fails to break down the opposition in the first half against Sweden.

The team against Mexico also lacked the desire you often associate with a German team in an international tournament. It was Dutch legend Johan Cryuff who said you aren’t 100% once you’ve won something — like a “bottle of carbonated water where the cap is removed for a short while.” Germany lacked that fizz on the pitch and the only way it can prevent the ‘curse of defending champion getting knocked out in the first round’ (both Italy and Spain were knocked out in tournaments that followed their World Cup victories) is to up the tempo and deploy players in form.

The young German team that won the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia had that desire in them and Low will be required to use some of these players to reinvent a squad that does not look motivated for the task. The tournament is a make-or-break event for many in the German squad including Low. If the squad fails, expect a complete overhaul and another rebuilding campaign, similar to what followed the Euro 2000 campaign. That said, the task is too hard for Low who has a side filled with world-class stars, provided he is willing to take a gamble or two. Even the odds aren’t against the Germans — the last time they lost an opening match in the World Cup, they went on to reach the finals.

FIFA World Cup 2018: Time ripe for Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ to make history in Russia

“The time isn’t in one, two or four years. I think now is the moment to be together and do something great,” stressed Eden Hazard, Belgium football team captain, to the press who had gathered, ahead of his team’s friendly against Costa Rica. The purpose was clear – a rallying call for his troops to embrace themselves for what is undoubtedly a make-or-break tournament for the much-hyped ‘golden generation’ of Belgium footballers.

This article first appeared on Firstpost

Hazard, a symbol part of this ball-playing, intelligent football generation, probably understands the importance of the event as much as anyone else. A team, however good it might be, will only be remembered for the trophies it wins. History is full of examples. Johan Cruyff-led Netherlands 1974 World Cup team or Roberto Baggio’s 1994 Italian team were arguably better than the Dutch or the Italian team that tasted international success. Yet it is the latter people remember.

The ‘this is Belgium’s tournament’ rhetoric has been floating around for over four years now. The Belgium Red Devils was an outside favourite to win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. They were knocked out in the quarters by a Messi-inspired Argentina. At the 2016 Euro, a more experienced side, was expected to do better. But things didn’t improve, as a directionless Belgium were knocked out by a far inferior, yet highly motivated Wales.

So the time is clearly now for the Red Devils. The core of the team have already played in two major international tournaments are arguably in the peak of their career. According to research, the best age to play in a World Cup is 27.5; the average age of the Belgium team for the World Cup is 27.6, and is one of the most experienced side at the World Cup.

 

Belgium had a flawless qualification campaign in UEFA’s qualifying Group H with the likes of Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Estonia, Cyprus and Gibraltar offering very little threat. The team scored 43 goals in the campaign with Lukaku leading the way with 11.

The relative easiness of the campaign meant coach Roberto Martinez, who replaced Marc Wilmots, and his coaching staff had ample time to test out a three-man defence formation. The Red Devils have stuck with the formation till date but questions still persist on its effectiveness against a strong side.

The rationale behind the switch from a four-man defence would be Belgium’s lack of a genuine left-back – Jordan Lukaku is still developing and not seen as an option by the manager. The formation allows Martinez to field the trio of Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Vincent Kompany, along with wing-backs, thereby ensuring defensive stability.

The formation unfortunately puts a lot of pressure on the central midfielders, especially in terms of helping out in defence, so whoever might partner de Bruyne in the centre will have a large role to play.

Part of Wilmots’ fault was his inability to out-think his opposition managers even with a better set of players in his ranks. Martinez’s Belgium have not been tested against major opponents yet and his decision to stick to a three-man defence might come into question if they struggle.

With Kompany still nursing an injury it won’t be a surprise if Belgium switches to a 4-3-3 for the World Cup though. While the team might not have played it under Martinez, it is a system that is widely popular amongst youth teams in Belgium. Academies and junior teams were asked to adopt the system as a part of a football revolution under Michel Sablon which is often credited as the reason behind Belgium’s phenomenal growth as a footballing powerhouse.

Cohesion the key

Having a set of good quality players is one thing, winning a title is a totally another. Ask England side who had like the likes David Beckham, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen playing for it. Team unity and cohesion will be the key for Belgium if they are to challenge for a title come mid-July. If the superstars in the team can click, then Belgium would be a force to reckon with.

But in a squad with so many big names and egos, finding the right balance is hard task. Martinez claimed the ommission of Radja Nainggolan from the World Cup squad was purely tactical but it is widely accepted that decision was taken with team unity in mind. The Roma midfielder is a great asset for any team but Martinez believed keeping him in the substitute bench could back fire.

Premier League stars v England football team

Belgium are a part of Group G which also features England, Tunisia and Panama. England are likely to be Red Devils’ major challengers but working to Belgium’s advantage will be their players’ familiarity playing with/against the English opposition.

11 players of the 23-man Belgium squad ply their trade in the English Premier League which would make the match against England interesting in multiple levels. England have a very young, attacking side, spearheaded by Harry Kane, and will pose a threat to the ageing Red Devil backline. But Belgium have enough star power to top their group and proceed to the knockout stages.

But a mere entry to the knockout phases will not quench the thirst of the multitudes of fans waiting for the Red Devils’ entrance into the history books. Nothing short of silverware will suffice for Belgium’s golden generation.

Squad

Goalkeepers: Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea), Simon Mignolet (Liverpool), Koen Casteels (VfL Wolfsburg).

Defenders: Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham), Thomas Meunier (Paris Saint-Germain), Thomas Vermaelen (Barcelona), Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham), Dedryck Boyata (Celtic), Vincent Kompany (Manchester City).

Midfielders: Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), Axel Witsel (Tianjin Quanjian), Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Nacer Chadli (West Bromwich Albion), Leander Dendoncker (Anderlecht), Thorgan Hazard (Borussia Moenchengladbach), Youri Tielemans (Monaco), Mousa Dembele (Tottenham Hotspur).

Forwards: Michy Batshuayi (Chelsea/Dortmund), Yannick Carrasco (Dalian Yifang), Adnan Januzaj (Real Sociedad), Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United), Dries Mertens (Napoli).

Why Belgium will miss Radja Nainggolan’s versatility in Russia

Radja Nainggolan is the stereotypical modern-day football player. He speaks his mind, is covered in tattoos, flaunts a ‘mohawk’, and has been involved in a controversy or two. A player who isn’t afraid to stand up for what he believes in, be it regarding his position in the Belgium national team or turning down lucrative offers from the English Premier League for the lovely ‘sunny weather in Rome.’

This piece was first published in Firstpost

On the pitch he is equally animated; a beast who roams from box to box waiting to pounce on any opportunity the opposition team offers him – a quality that has seen him become a indispensable member of a Roma squad that reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League this year. Yet, of all the above mentioned details, Belgium coach Roberto Martinez chose to see one – his affinity for controversies – when he omitted the midfielder from the Belgium squad for Russia 2018.

“I don’t think Radja is a player to be used in a small role in any group,” said Martinez. “We all know he has a very important role at club level and I don’t feel that we can give him that.” A clear indication that Martinez didn’t see Nainggolan starting for the Red Devils in the World Cup.

File image of Radja Nainggolan. Reuters

The World Cup Qualifications had seen Nainggolan’s role in the team diminishing. He made just two appearances in qualifying and has never been truly accepted in the international fold since Martinez’s appointment as manager in 2016. The final nail in the coffin came when the Roma midfielder posted a video of him drinking and smoking during a New Year’s party, which caused a public outrage.

The manager is right to omit a player who could disrupt the team spirit as it comes with a risk of losing squad depth in what is arguably the most important tournament for Belgium’s ‘golden generation’.

In the provisional 28-member squad selected, Martinez has named five central midfielders: Manchester City star Kevin De Bruyne, Manchester United’s Maroune Fellaini, Monaco’s Youri Tielemans, former Zenit Petersburg star Alex Witsel and Tottenham’s Mousa Dembele.

While all are capable midfield marshalls, capable of thwarting attacks that come their way, it is clear that the creative duties will largely be headed by De Bruyne, who has had a stellar league campaign. But the City midfielder has already made 54 appearances for his club and country this season, making him prone to injuries.

Young Tielemans, who struggled to establish himself in his first season at Monaco, is the only player who can deputise for De Bruyne in the team. Which is where the decision to leave out Nainggolan becomes a little difficult to comprehend because, unlike a France team that can cope with with absence of Karim Benzema due to the abundance of quality striking options available, Belgium is short of quality central midfielders in the mould of the Roma midfielder.

Nainggolan was a star for Roma this season. He played a more advanced role for the Italian club, taking up the role of a No 10. While he might not have impressed as much as De Bruyne did as central midfield playmaker, he offered a different set of skills, cutting out the influence of deep-lying midfielders by pressing them incessantly. Not to forget his ability to strike goals from distance.

A midfielder for all formations

Belgium are likely to play either the 3-4-3 formation, which they relied on during the qualification stages, or a more defensively resolute 3-5-2. Both rely heavily on de Bruyne pulling the strings from the midfield and therefore raises questions on the lack of a proper deputy.

The 3-4-3 is Martinez’s favoured structure with two among Yannick Carrasco, Thomas Meunier and Nicer Chadli donning the roles of wing-backs. KDB takes up one of the central midfield roles while the other vacant spot in the midfield is usually assigned to one among Witsel, Fellaini and Dembele.

Barring de Bruyne, there is a shortage of creativity in the midfield options available for Martinez, especially considering the below-average season Tielemans has had. Nainggolan offers a balance which no other midfielder in the squad offers.

The 3-4-3 worked to great effect in the record-setting qualification campaign but Belgium hardly had quality opposition in the group, with the likes of Greece, Gibraltar, Estonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina offering very little in attack. The formation though can be exploited by top sides, especially if one of the central midfielder is an advanced playmaker. Chelsea, who play 3-4-3 in the Premier League, struggled this season against high-pressing teams with the central-midfield pairing of Cesc Fabregas and N’Golo Kante for this very reason, and Belgium will be vary of exposing their central midfielders to direct pressure.

They played a 3-5-2 against Mexico in a recent friendly, perhaps a sign of things to come in the World Cup. In both formations, a more defensively sound Nainggolan offers a good alternative to de Bruyne in central midfield, especially if the latter is having a bad day or being used in a more advanced role. In a 3-5-2, both the players could have started behind an attacking pair of Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku. That would have provided plenty of balance to the Red Devils’ midfield.

Antonio Conte, who brought back the three-man defence back in fashion with his success at Chelsea, pursued Nainggolan’s signature in both his seasons at Chelsea – a testimony to the Belgian’s suitability to the role.

But say what we may, Nainggolan will not be travelling with the Red Devils to Russia, and announced his retirement from the national team through an emotional post on Instagram. For a 30-year-old footballer who wears his heart on his sleeves, a rejection from football’s grandest stage was just too hard to deal with.

As for Martinez, the test begins now, having made a call that could come back to haunt him if the Belgium team fails to deliver in the World Cup.