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Does football overvalue the big fish in the small pond?

April 26, 2011 6 comments

“You were a big fish in a small pond, but this here is the ocean and you’re drowning”
 
Last week, Scott Parker was crowned the Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year. It was met with glee from the masses who felt the award was wholly merited.
 
Parker’s ability to singlehandedly try and keep West Ham United afloat this term earned him the award. In what has been a peculiar Premier League season, Parker’s efforts could ultimately be in vain in a collective sense despite his personal glory. There’s also been widespread appreciation of Blackpool’s Charlie Adam in his first year in the Premier League.
 
The two represent big fishes in small ponds. The two brightest stars in an otherwise crystal clear sky. The question then, is would they be so highly regarded were they plying their trades at the other end of the league table? After all, Parker was deemed expendable during Chelsea’s initial revolution under Roman Abramovich and Adam was surplus to requirements at Rangers.
 
The issue can be translated to a continental level when you consider the career of Schalke striker Raúl González. Raúl spent 16 years at Real Madrid winning a plethora of leagues and cups. He holds the record for most appearances and goals at Madrid and in the Champions League. He is Spain’s most capped outfield player and until recently he was also the country’s all-time top scorer. Not only is he a gifted striker with an impressive scoring record, he is a Madridista and for many years, was the captain of the European giants. By all accounts he should be recognised as one of if not the greatest striker of the last two decades.

But Raúl has never acquired the personal accolades to match his statistics. He has, for example, never won a Ballon d’Or (coming second once in 2001).

Parker has shone despite West Ham's poor season

His love affair with Madrid ended in 2010 when he opted for a new challenge rather than witness his career fade out on Real’s bench. Since his move to Schalke, Raúl’s name has risen to prominence once again. His goal scoring record in Germany is decent but still some way short of the figures he produced in his prime at Madrid.

When looking for an attribution factor, football’s penchant for overvaluing the big fish in the small pond seems like the logical explanation. At Madrid, Raul was overshadowed by two eras of Galacticos. To strive for recognition he had to outmuscle Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, David Beckham, Luis Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaká. At Schalke he is by far and away the biggest pull.

If you need more evidence that we overvalue the big fish in the small pond take the career of Matt Le Tissier. He was a midfield maestro with magnificent technical attributes who spent his whole career at Southampton. Yet Le Tissier only amassed eight England caps. His talent surely deserved more but are we right to hold him such high esteem when reflecting on his career? Would Le Tissier still be as revered had he played for Manchester United or Arsenal?

Just like the scouts who scour this country’s playing fields for prospective talents, it is the diamonds in the rough that come to the fore.

When the media hype up the next generation, we hear just as much, if not more, about talents like Ipswich’s Connor Wickham and Southampton’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. They are young men of unquestionable ability but we forget that like Le Tissier, Parker and Adam, they are still making large splashes in small pools.

You can follow me on Twitter @liamblackburn.

Do you think that football overvalues the big fish in the small pond too? Let me know in the comments section.

My Favourite Match – Barcelona 5 v 0 Real Madrid 29/11/10. Barcelona.

March 5, 2011 1 comment

By Callum O”Toole

This one will probably be the most recent game featured in the series but it’s likely that it’ll be talked about for years and Callum was fortunate enough to be there. One of if not the greatest club side of all time were taking on a Real Madrid side swamped with talent. Featuring were a dozen World Cup winners , the winners of the previous two World Player of the Year awards and the world’s most expensive player. Then there was the added factor of one Jose Mourinho. But it was Barcelona who lived up to the hype. You can follow Callum on Twitter @cotoole17 and read more of his articles on Bleacher Report.

Drama or excellence? Sport throws up many questions like this, not least in its modern form where administrators and organisers frequently refer to matches as “entertainment”. Contrary to popular belief, sport is not a part of the entertainment industry. Sportsmen should not aspire to be entertainers, but to achieve the ultimate expression of their event – to be the incarnation of greatness for their sport. If this can be done in a dramatic fashion, like Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal so often achieve, then it is an added bonus. Yet, often, to achieve so highly necessitates the suspension of drama, as opponents are swept aside in a predictable, almost inevitable fashion.

I was fortunate enough to have been present in the Nou Camp on Monday, 29th November 2010, when Barcelona gave, arguably, the most complete single performance in the history of football, in El Gran Clasico against their great rivals Real Madrid. While there have been more significant performances before,  notably Brazil in the 1970 World Cup Final and AC Milan in the 1994 Champions League final, these are set in the context of their achievements. Both these sides played brilliantly, and the performances were greater in that they won trophies as a result. But in terms of the highest expression of their sport, they fell just short. What Barcelona provided was a near flawless display of footballing prowess in the biggest club game in the world.

Prior to the game the excitement was tangible, and it was being billed as the greatest club game in history. Twelve world cup winners were to make an appearance as were the previous two winners of the Ballon d’Or (and the winner before that, Kaka, only missed out through injury). The clash between the two dominant sides in Spain often decides the title, so there was also a significant prize to be had. A tight, unpredictable affair was expected. What we got was a sumptuous showcase of footballing prowess from Barcelona, who demolished their rivals 5-0 in front of an ecstatic Camp Nou faithful.

Eric Abidal tells Cristiano Ronaldo the score

It was not just the margin of victory which shocked that night, but the way the Catalans set about their task. There have been big wins in El Clasico before – two seasons ago Barca scored six in the Bernabeu on their way to a 19th La Liga title, while Real had a 4-1 victory in the May 2008 fixture. What was striking was how Barcelona made their opponents submit to the inevitability of defeat by keeping possession and forcing Madrid to chase shadows.

Barcelona’s style is a subtle mix of fast-paced possession football when attacking, and a highly organised pressing game when without the ball. The two often complement each other beautifully, and they were used to devastating effect as Real were penned back in their own half for long periods. The Madrid attacking threat was virtually non-existent, with Cristiano Ronaldo starved of service and brilliantly shackled by Carles Puyol. Until his half-time substitution most in the stadium were unaware of Karim Benzema’s presence on the pitch.

Barcelona had the ball for more than two-thirds of the game. They weaved, they shimmied, they toyed. Xavi Hernandez was metronomic with his passing, Lionel Messi balletic with his runs and David Villa lethal in scoring a brace. But the game was about far more than mere individuals. Barcelona’s enchanting display was as close to perfection as team sport can be and it may influence the way the game is played in the future.

The performance, and the success of Barcelona and the Spanish national side in recent seasons, has shifted the balance of football heavily in favour of the technicians. For the last few seasons, many sides have attempted to compensate for a lack of skill and guile with physical power. But Barca’s dedication to their traditions has made other clubs take note of the benefits from youth development and attacking football.

Barcelona’s artistry and invention are means to an end. They are not the end in itself, just what the club regard as the most reliable and effective way of achieving victory. Without the success they would be dismissed as “lightweight” as their imitators at Arsenal so often are. Yet results like that against Madrid help to shape the views of a generation. No one watching could deny Barcelona’s prowess and dominance of the game, yet they also thrilled with their mesmeric patterns.

So, while it was not dramatic in the sense of being a one sided game, Barcelona 5-0 Real Madrid was exciting nonetheless as it could, perhaps, have heralded a revolution in how the game is played for the next decade.

If you would like to be involved in the ‘My Favourite Match’ series, read this post to find out more. 

My Favourite Match – Real Madrid 0 v 2 Ajax 22/11/95. Madrid.

February 19, 2011 Leave a comment

By Mohamed Moallim
 
Mohamed has chosen a performance from one of the great Ajax teams for his favourite match. This dutch team possessed a wealth of talent which had grown up together in their famed academy. Their style gained many plaudits and this evening in Madrid was a perfect example of their attacking philosophy.
You can follow Mohamed on twitter @jouracule and read more from him at his blog La Croqueta.  
 
It was the 22nd November, 1995. Just a usual autumn day, nothing out of the ordinary, but on this day something remarkable was to happen, something that would be spoken of for years and generations to come. 
The remarkable event I speak of took place at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid, home to Spanish giants Real Madrid; they were hosting a Champions’ League group game against the reigning champions AFC Ajax, who had won the competition months prior.
Again there was nothing strange about this but after the full time whistle everything changed. 
Compared to today, things were very different in the mid-90s European football wise. Unlike today, a side back then could realistically win the European Cup with a side assembled for less than £1m – but that side had to be very special, and this Ajax side was.

Ajax may have been ever more successful had it not been for Bosman

Much of it was made up of home grown players who are now household names such as: Danny Blind, Frank & Ronald de Boer, Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids, Marc Overmars, Clarence Seedorf, Edwin van der Sar etc there were also players acquired from abroad like Jari Litmanen, Finidi George and Nwankwo Kanu. 

Having the players was one thing, but they needed to be guided and the man in charge was Louis van Gaal. The side he ended up winning the European Cup with in the midst of Vienna was different to the one he inherited, it slowly matured but the signs were already there.
Van Gaal kept the Ajax philosophy and continued the 3-3-1-3 formation which served Johan Cruijff well during his spell as coach in the mid 80s (despite being the bitter of enemies there was this mutual understanding and if you want respect – both knew how to play good football).
As said in the Guardian’s Joy of Six ‘forgotten classics': “With their exhilarating speed, fiendish imagination and exquisite technique, Van Gaal’s young Ajax side of the mid-90s were magnificent to watch.”
Going into the game, the Ajax players didn’t feel like they were underdogs, compared to now where the gulf between the two sides is vast and growing. In 1995 Ajax going to Madrid and expecting not to leave without anything wouldn’t have been scoffed at and called a ‘dream’. 
This game changed everything. Van Gaal’s Ajax side played the game the right way and their attacking approach has always been met with praise and adulation at home and abroad, but this game it seemed they went up a level or three. 
Their starting XI was as follows: Van der Sar; Reiziger, Bogarde, Blind, Musampa; Ronald de Boer, Davids, Litmanen; George, Kluivert, Overmars.
And this wasn’t against a bad Real Madrid side which included Luís Enrique, Michael Laudrup, Fernando Redondo, Raúl and Iván Zamorano to name but a few. Real went into the game on the back of a 1-0 win in the Madrid derby against Atlético de Madrid, a step in the right direction after a torrid start to their season. But this proved to be a false dawn as the Spanish titleholders simply had no answer to the pace and intelligence of Litmanen, George and Kluivert. 
The seamless dominance from the opposition began to tell as the rings of boos and whistles from the home crowd intensified every time Ajax kept going forward – but in no ways did this deter Van Gaal’s men. In the end it was a surprise that Ajax didn’t win by more than the two goals they scored (Litmanen and Kluivert the goal scorers both had goals disallowed and the woodwork was hit several times) such was the dominance that Ajax’s first goal came when they only had 2 up against 6 Real Madrid players.
Finidi George sliced the Madrid defence open with a slick through-ball that Litmanen latched on to before drilling under the keeper and in. Eight minutes later they were two up, Kluivert combining niftily with the outstanding Marc Overmars before nudging the ball into the net off the far post. 
Then Real Madrid coach Jorge Valdano (and now sporting director of the club) after the game commented: “Ajax aren’t just the team of the 90’s, they’re approaching football utopia.”
But what really was memorable that night was the ovation, a standing one, from the home crowd towards the Ajax players, what were boos turned to applause and the Ajax men soaked it in and rightly so, good football deserves such adulation even from the opposition. It was the closest Total Football was played since the days of Cruijff, Krol, Keizer, Neeskens et al.
“We were heavenly, world class,” said Frank de Boer, who watched the game and subsequent lap of honour from the sidelines because of injury. “This was Ajax at their best.”
An urban legend goes that this game has been used by Real Madrid youth team coaches to show their students on how the beautiful game should be played, a compliment of the highest order if true.
Ajax would go on to reach their second Champions League final where they would agonisingly lose to Juventus on penalties, that side would subsequently break up as the bosman ruling took full effect, the club has yet to rediscover the dizzy heights of the mid-90s but with a member of that side in charge now it may not be for long. 
If you would like to be involved in the ‘My Favourite Match’ series, read this post to find out more

Inflated Transfer Fees? Look in the Mirror, Sir Alex

July 30, 2010 4 comments

“Many of us believe that wrongs aren’t wrong if they are done by nice people like ourselves”

Every now and again, Sir Alex Ferguson will come out with a piece of pure hypocrisy which surprises me. Usually it will involve the F.A. or referees. This time, it involves transfer fees, wages and the new lofty heights they continue to reach:

“The enormous amounts of money that are paid, not just the transfer fees, but for salaries; I don’t think it rests easy with supporters.”

Ferguson spent big to get Berbatov back in 2008

This truthful titbit comes from the Manchester United boss who has smashed the British transfer fee for Gary Pallister, Roy Keane, Andy Cole, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Juan Sebastian Veron and Rio Ferdinand. Add in Wayne Rooney, the world’s most expensive teenager at the time and Dimitar Berbatov, who would be Britain’s most expensive player were it not for Robinho. Last January, Ferguson agreed to pay Fulham £10 million for Chris Smalling who had only made three Premier League appearances at the time of the transfer. Moreover, the biggest winners of inflated prices were the club who profited from the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo, the world’s most expensive player. That club and the beneficiaries of £80 million were Manchester United.

Ferguson isn’t in a position to complain about escalating fees. More than any other manager in the Premier League era, he has raised the bar for transfer fees and wages. But now with Manchester City, Chelsea and Real Madrid all able to freely spend, Ferguson claims he has been “hamstrung” by the competitive market. What the Scot is experiencing now is a taste of his own brutal medicine. The rest of the Premier League have been continually frustrated when United have ramped up the prices. Roles haven’t entirely reversed but Ferguson certainly feels belittled by City in particular.

Even after a World Cup, bargains can be found this summer

Even in a World Cup year, there is a good value to be found in this transfer market. Joe Cole, held in high regard by Ferguson as a teenager, was available on a free. Germany’s young World Cup stars Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira were available on the cheap as both had only one year left on their deals. Khedira may well have rebuffed any approaches from England as soon as Jose Mourinho and Real Madrid threw their hat into the ring. But Özil’s name continues to be linked with a plethora of European giants and the playmaker, who tormented England at the World Cup, is reportedly available at somewhere between £10-£15 million. United need a goal-scoring, creative midfielder along with a dominant holding player and all three of these players would fill voids in Ferguson’s team without breaking the bank. Wesley Sneijder has been linked with a move to Old Trafford but he was superb value 12 months ago and Ferguson missed out. There is a real danger that in a year’s time, Özil could be the next one that got away.

If you can’t keep up with the market, you have to be happy with what you’ve got. This is where Ferguson, an expert at handling the media, comes into his own. He claims he is very happy with his young charges. It would be wrong to question Ferguson’s faith in youth. Nobody has dared attempt to do so since Alan Hansen scoffed humble pie back in 1996. If nothing else, we know these players will have a winning mentality drummed into them. But will this next batch of youngsters reach the same heights as the class of 1992? There have been flashes of brilliance from Danny Welbeck, Gabriel Obertan, Fabio et al, but replacing club legends like Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville is a tall order.

Perhaps Ferguson has been stung by his last acquisition to carry a large price tag. I remain a big fan of Dimitar Berbatov but he was grossly over-priced at £30 million particularly considering his age. Perhaps, as most fans believe, Ferguson’s hands are tied by the heavy debts that the Glazer family have burdened the club with. Perhaps Ferguson hides behind the ‘no value in the market’ line to protect his employers. It is a theory which Ferguson frequently rejects much to the fans’ dismay.

Whatever the case, Ferguson’s criticism of inflated transfer fees is hypocritical. He is right to insist that fans are dismayed at transfer fees and wages but this phoney empathy has never stopped him breaking the bank beforehand.

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