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The Barca Plan B Debate

 

After Barcelona’s defeat to Milan, it didn’t take long for many to get their views across that the Catalans desperately needed a Plan B; meaning that in games like that, they need to be able to have a different option, should things not go to plan. Twitter timelines were the primary location for a large number of people to give their opinion on the matter and it become a matter which has been discussed quite thoroughly; this article will look a little further into why/ why not Barcelona need a Plan B.

Having dominated European football for the past few years using their traditional philosophy, no matter who is in charge, you sense that the philosophy they have will remain, as it is what Barcelona are all about. They play to win by playing attractive football; that will never change. Of course, tactics will be slightly tinkered and altered, but winning silverware by entertaining supporters is something that no other side can replicate; it is unique and makes Barca what it is, so surely there is no need to change that? Many other sides have attempted to do what Barca do, but it just cannot be done; they are the only football club that can perfect such a philosophy. In order to succeed with that philosophy, it must run through the club; meaning that same philosophy continues on and off the pitch. There must be a professionalism on and off the pitch to perform in a manner that is enjoyable and exciting; it is Barca’s way of life to so. By implementing a ‘Plan B’, Barcelona are changing the philosophy that is so important to them and because of the success that they have had in the past with it; it is unlikely that all of a sudden, their ideas and attitudes will begin to change.

They use a system which is often referred to as ‘Tika Taka’ due to its constant passing and they’ve had an enormous amount of success with it. They use the ball so wisely and effectively, we never seem to see them outplayed. From the first whistle, they make a stamp on the game and take control. They keep the ball and frustrate you and somehow manage to get the better of you, even in tight pockets of space. Despite being very patient in their play, they shift the ball around very quickly and in a matter of seconds the ball could have ended up the other end of the pitch even though it was only a few seconds ago since Barca had just retained possession at the back. When you can watch them, you see that it is not happened by chance; they have not all just gelled all a sudden, they are being made to train and work hard so that every single player fits perfectly into their style of play and is able to slot in comfortably. The style of play that they regard so dearly has almost forced us to admire it; there are times when you are completely mesmerised at how they manage to keep the ball under such pressure.

When Pep Guardiola was appointed manager of the first team, he was painfully aware of the philosophy. It had progressed and ran through the club; any player contracted to the club was made to fully understand their role and how they were expected to contribute to the team. It wasn’t a team that Pep built entirely on his own, but he continued the work of others and took Barca to the very top. Having been a long-serving player there himself, even before he became manager, he knew how Barca would play. Even with a set of completely different players, he knew how to make them play in the traditional Barca way. With so much effort and determination being shown to ensure this strategy worked perfectly, it was only a matter of time until a talented bunch of players would dominate World Football. They became almost unbeatable. When you play with such a philosophy, it is evident that at some point it will succeed and that is exactly what happened. Then, when Pep decided enough was enough, a few people had fought that Barca’s glory days were over. But with Pep’s assistant Tito Vilanova taking over, there was no chance that was happening. Due to him knowing the same group of players inside and out and working with them during his time as assistant manager, there was no need at all for the squad to be revamped; just a few additions and a few minor changes in Barca’s approach.

Over the years, they have come under a lot of scrutiny for failing to have a Plan B when teams ‘park the bus’ when playing against them; but you have to credit them for persisting to stick to their philosophy. When playing against a team who defend very deep and play with men behind the ball, it is going to be difficult for any side, never mind a team who work the ball into the box using neat passing and flair. If anything, Vilanova has certainly made his own mark on this side and this season there seems to be more desperateness and directness in their play, but again it is still about winning by playing attractive football. One of the most famous cases of Barca’s lack of directness was in the Champions League Semi-final against Chelsea last season. Possession wise, Barca, as expected, completely dominated the game, but struggled to break down a stubborn Chelsea defence who virtually camped on the edge of their box for the vast majority of the game. It is understandable that Barca would find it difficult to find gaps in a team which consists of virtually every man behind the ball. After all, most top teams would.

Against Milan, it was another example of how they struggle when you take a defensive approach; again Barcelona dominated the game but in all fairness, Milan defended very well and isolated the threat that Xavi, Messi, Iniesta and co pose. This heat map shows how Iniesta; Barca’s usual creator, struggled to get into good attacking positions and create chances and due to this Iniesta was limited to having the ball in his own half most of the time. Meaning Messi didn’t have much service.

We know that the little magician loves to drop deep and collect the ball, but in this particular game, that meant he rarely got into the penalty box and was restricted to involvement in midfield; where he is a little less dangerous.

Just because Barcelona failed to win when Milan played with men behind the ball, it doesn’t necessarily mean they need a Plan B. They’ve had so much success with the system they currently play, it would seem stupid for them to change their whole strategy after all the work that has been put in and all the success they have had with it; it must be working for them as they are riding high at the top of La Liga. It seems as if every time they lose, we jump to the conclusion that they need a Plan B, but we must understand there are going to be games like that; albeit not many. One interesting stat from Squawka sports shows that of all the 80 goals the Catalans have scored in La Liga this season, only one has been a header. For me, that is enough evidence to say that they do not need a Plan B, they just need to be patient and play with a bit more edge and they will continue to produce the goods.

As for the second leg against Milan, it would be such a difficult task for Milan to produce another fantastic defensive performance and with the crowd firmly behind them, Barca will not struggle as they did in the first leg. If they score an early goal, expect them to secure passage to the next round and end the debate of them desperately needing a Plan B, because a team with such ability and quality will eventually produce.

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The Return Of The King?

 

According to The Express, Arsenal’s hero might be returning to The Emirates in a coaching capacity sooner rather than later. The article expresses the belief that Thierry will be placed into the Youth setup after the recent announcement of Liam Brady’s retirement scheduled for May 2014. Brady, already an Arsenal Hero and someone Jack Wilshere has been likened to has been involved in the academy over the last 17 years and has done a remarkable job. During that time, he would have seen Jack Wilshere, Cesc Fabregas and more recently Serge Gnabry and Thomas Eisfeld hone their skills and work up to becoming fixtures in the Arsenal squad. If you follow me on Twitter, or have read any of my other reports, you’ll know that I am very much for the idea of having former players involved in the club at any level. Patrick Viera has a great role at Manchester City as their Development of Football Executive – and I would fully support him having a role within our club rather than that of City.

If there is any truth to these reports about The King returning he would be doing so in a role with the youth team, or so the report suggests. I would obviously welcome Thierry back with open arms, however I think he would also do a decent job of being a coach working with the Striking partnerships of the club. Imagine getting David Seaman or Jens Lehmann in to work with the Goalkeepers, Tony ‘Mr Arsenal’ Adams or Lee Dixon in to work with the Defenders, Ray Parlour or Robert Pires in to work with the Midfielders and Thierry working with the players up to. I think I’m in heaven. The wealth of experience that the afore-mentioned would bring to the table is vast, let alone the love for The Arsenal that they all have displayed on various pitches, in interviews and their lives; another trait that I am keen for our players to show. Admittedly, there are some who live, sweat and bleed Arsenal, but there are some that look as if they couldn’t care less.

These reports got me thinking. As much as I believe that former players working within the club is a positive thing, I cannot deny that it isn’t being proved right in front of my eyes. Steve Bould has had an almost topsy-turvy effect with The Arsenal since being the assistant manager. In the first three games, we didn’t concede a goal. Everyone put this down to Steve Bould working with the defence and every Arsenal fan was in their element – a problem that had been plaguing us since the demise of The Mad German in-goal had been fixed with the prominence of Wojciech Szczęsny, maybe now our defence was going to be as solid as it had previously been. However, as the season progressed and reports emerged of Arsene not allowing Bould to work with the defence, we started to concede more and more. However, the worst thing about Bould being the assistant is that he looks lifeless. Motionless. Almost like he’s given up – and this is his first season in the post! When I asked my Dad (A life-long Gooner) if Bould ever smiled during his career, he informed me that he wasn’t renowned for his smiling;  but I am still unconvinced it is normal for a man to look that miserable without being miserable.

Any feedback/discussion please Tweet me @RyArsenal

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Barclays Premier League: Who’s Going To Finish In The Top Four?

Finishing in the top four of the Premier League has never been as coveted as it is today. Finishing in such places affords the teams entry to the premier club competition in the world: the UEFA Champions League. This comes with added riches, memorable nights and a chance to compete against the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid. For years in the Premier League, the same ‘big four’ would consistently finish in the top four, but as the league has become more open, clubs like Everton and Tottenham Hotspur have started to break the dominance. As for 2013-14 – the race for the top four is once again tight, here’s a look at the teams involved.

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Will Santi Cazorla drive Arsenal into the top four once again?

I’ll start off with a team that have been a custodian of a top four place for over a decade; my beloved Arsenal. Things are not well at the Emirates. A loss against Bayern Munich confirmed what many Arsenal fans had worried for a long time – that it is going to be yet another trophy-less season for The Gunners. In terms of the Premier League, Arsenal have stuttered to fifth place. At times they’ve dazzled with some brilliant football and at other times, it looks a shambles. Club captain Thomas Vermaelen has been shoddy by his high standards, and other experienced players like Bacary Sagna and Per Mertesacker have been sub-par as of late. It looks more and more likely as if Arsenal are going to miss out on the top four; with Chelsea and Spurs both in better positions and on better form. Top four is certainly not out of Arsenal’s realm, but it will be a tough task. Derby day next week will be huge. The winner of that will have the momentum.

As for north London rivals Spurs, they are currently enjoying some good form – with Welsh winger Gareth Bale at the heart of it. Under new manager Andre Villas-Boas, Spurs sit comfortably in 4th. Long-term injuries to Sandro and Younes Kaboul don’t look like affecting the Lilywhites in their quest for top four. After finishing fourth last year, Spurs were not in the Champions League due to Chelsea’s exploits in Munich. Whilst they are not a lock for the top four, if Gareth Bale continues to play like he is, you’d be hard pressed to find a better side in the race. Third is not out of the question.

Optimism was high for Chelsea at the start of the season. With good reason too, the European Champions started off lighting up the Premier League with £32 million signing Eden Hazard at the forefront of everything good. Since then, results have turned sour, Roberto Di Matteo has been replaced by Rafa Benitez and Fernando Torres is still not playing well. Despite all of this, Chelsea are third. The sheer talent in the squad means they are probably guaranteed a top four berth. With the ridiculous outlay in the summer – it’d be embarrassing for Chelsea to miss out on Champions League football. Ridiculous, but not impossible.

Everton's Kevin Mirallas has been a good signing; will he be playing CL football next year?

Everton’s Kevin Mirallas has been a good signing; will he be playing CL football next year?

Last season, Newcastle United almost upset the party by missing out on fourth by one place. This season, Everton are doing the same. Whilst they do not play the most attractive football in the league by any means, they are effective. Marouane Felliani sums this up. The midfield maverick has  taken leadership of this Everton side. With him, they can beat anybody. Goodison Park is one of the  most difficult places to visit. I have them down to just miss out, but regardless of that, they won’t give up. A good season for Everton.

To conclude, a good team is going to miss out. Last season, Spurs cruised in third most of the season, only to collapse in the last part of the campaign – which ended up costing them Champions League football, and probably Luka Modric. This season they look mentally tougher. I think they’re going to make it. As for the other place, it’s down to consistency with Arsenal and Chelsea. On their day, I feel they are both better teams than Spurs – they just don’t have enough days. It’s hard to imagine the Champions League without Arsenal, yet the prospect of this is coming ever closer. What a big end to the season we have lined up.

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The Three B’s

Where do we go from here? What can we do to raise spirits? We travel to Munich trailing 3-1, after being outclassed by a display worthy of Champions League winners. But, there we glimpses of just how fragile Munich can be and why Arsene Wenger still defends his players to the death, with flashes of excellence.

I believe the only way forward is with Wenger. I do not however, believe that he is exempt from criticism. I think his substitution of Lukas Podolski was baffling, as he looked our most dangerous player having already bagged one goal and threatening down the left hand side more often than not. Aaron Ramsey had a storming game from my perspective, but did look tired when he was substituted for Thomas Rosicky. Rosicky and Giroud were linked together via the formers cross-pitch pass to Walcott being whipped into a dangerous area and with his first touch, the latter launched a half volley into an unaware Neuer and the ball ricocheted away. We started brightly too, with Santi Cazorla and Theo Walcott almost linking up after a quick move down the right hand side. There were tiny positives to take from last nights game if, like me, you’re trying to salvage some happy thoughts on the game. Bacary Sagna played well, winning everything in the air and for the most part breaking down play extremely well. Laurent Koscielny also proved his worth yet again, while as mentioned previously; Aaron Ramsey had a great game, chasing down every ball and starting attacks from the middle of midfield, while drifting wide also.

The fact is, without Arsene Wenger, we wouldn’t be the team we are today. This is the man that moulded English Football into the technical minefield that it is today. Everything from players diets to the sublime football that we are renowned for has come from his mind. Wenger has taken us to the dizzy heights of the Champions League Final (which is a different blog entry for a different time in itself), gone a whole season unbeaten and won double, doubles. The criticism of Wenger is completely over the top and anyone who follows me on Twitter will know that I back him 100%. To get this kind of abuse from his OWN fans, is sickening. We mock Chelsea fans for booing Rafa Benitez, yet we bombard out own manager with flags, hash-tags and stickers demanded he be removed. I have no issue with people voicing their opinions and would love to converse with anyone who doesn’t agree with my point of view. But so far, no-one who wants Wenger out has the slightest idea what to do when he has gone. They have no answer as to what manager realistically would want to manage Arsenal. Even if we got Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho or your dream manager, who’s to say that the board would release funds for transfers? Or that their tactics would work, the players would want to play for them. And for anyone questioning whether or not Wenger is still committed to this club, look into his eyes when the third goal went in.

Without doubt, the best moment of the night was after the game. I don’t want to suck up to anyone, but Jack Wilshere is just what we need. With tears in his eyes, he came out alone and took the flack for the display. When asked about the criticism of Arsene Wenger and the pressure he was under, Jack responded with ‘It has nothing to do with the manager, if he picks us it’s up to us to perform.’. This wasn’t the captain taking responsibility, although many including myself subscribe to the ideology of Jack being our captain fulltime – this was the boy who loves Arsenal Football Club more than life itself. The really sad thing is, I wouldn’t blame him for leaving us in a few years time; he deserves medals, trophies, accolades and plaudits galore. I just hope and pray, that he gets all of those during a very long and very successful career at The Emirates.

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Any comments, responses or feedback welcome – tweet me @RyArsenal

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DIFFERENT SHADES OF MANCHESTER UNITED

 

Adaptability, they say, is key to survival and success in every endeavour of life. Those who can bend to fit the shape of the challenge will always find a way past it. This season, Manchester United have shown different sides at different moments this season to face the things that have been thrown at them.
Of course, to a lot of fans, Manchester United always win with pace, direct play and style. It is what we have grown to expect and love over the years. Best, Charlton, Cantona, Beckham, Ronaldo have been the torchbearers of the cavalier style associated with the Red Devils but sometimes, it is wiser to tamper purity with pragmatism.
Doing what counts when it is needed is always better than doing what is pleasing to the senses and this season, Manchester United have shown that practicality always gains.

Adding The X-Factor

Purchasing Robin Van Persie at the start of the season proved to be the first display of wisdom on the side of the manager. Last season showed that the team lacked a certain “something” in its attack.
The likes of Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez contributed their bit to the campaign but it was obvious that they could not provide Wayne Rooney with the perfect mix of experience, skill and pace that would bring in the goals. Van Persie has given exactly that and even more.
His skill set of crossing, movement, and scoring instinct have made the difference at key moments of the campaign. Strikes against Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham and Man City have given the team four wins and a draw whereas last season United’s trips to Stamford Bridge, Anfield and Etihad Stadium produced two draws and a loss.

Winning The Hard Way

Another side that the team has shown this season is the gritty, unpleasant side that has turned losses into draws and wins and has contributed to the 12-point gap at the top of the league. It may not be what the inherent quality of the team should give off but it has done the business all the same. The games against Southampton (home and away), Newcastle (at home), Aston Villa (away), Liverpool (away) and Reading (away) highlighted the need to dispense with the fancy and embrace the important values.
All those encounters were not the best displays from the team but they emerged winners nonetheless. They did not dominate those games but when character oozed out in the right amounts, the goals came and clinched the points.

Quick Reactions

Perhaps, the most important shade that Man United has shown is the renewed tactical awareness of the manager Sir Alex Ferguson. For everything that he has achieved with the team, the gaffer has made mistakes in terms of team selections and tactics and some of them have been very costly. Last season saw a repetition of delayed reactions to challenging situations that the team faced. Players were introduced too late in games to replace the tired, ineffective legs negating the team effort on the field.
This season, however, the manager has been very proactive with making changes and he has shown improved reaction time to worrying trends.
At Aston Villa, he introduced Javier Hernandez to devastating effect and he turned a 2-0 score to a 3-2 win. At Southampton, he hauled off Tom Cleverley and let Paul Scholes loose on the Saints to push Man United from 2-1 down to a 3-2 victory. At Liverpool, Scholes came on for an ineffective Nani and he contributed to the Red Devils gaining an important 2-1 result.

The Right Tactics

Tactically, the gaffer has understood his team and his opponents to a large extent and in the most important games this season, he has found the right disposition for the team to very beneficial ends.
A natural approach of pace with two wide men in Valencia and Young laid the foundation for wins at both Chelsea and Manchester City. The move was even more apparent at Chelsea where United’s first two goals were direct consequences of some good link-up play between Rafael da Silva and Antonio Valencia down United’s right to isolate Ashley Cole.
The decision to use a diamond formation away at Newcastle was not the most popular among fans but it stifled a Magpies team that had smashed the Red Devils in a 3-0 only 9 months earlier. It used Rooney’s energy in midfield and employed Cleverley and Kagawa in wide areas to help their full-backs out. It did not afford Newcastle the chance to pose huge problems to Man United and even more refreshing was the fact that Jonny Evans and Patrice Evra scored on the day.

Conclusion

The season still has twelve or so games left in its sleeves and there are many tough tests ahead. Home games against Chelsea and Manchester City and a trip to Arsenal are top priority games no matter the position of the Red Devils on the league log and gaining good results should be high on the agenda.
There should be no room for complacency and the effort in each game should hundred percent and even more.

However, with the way the team has evolved over the course of the season, one can be sure that a few more shades are left to be seen and perhaps, come the end of the season, the team will show the most important. The red shade that will grace the Premier League title as it lifted for the twentieth time.

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Capital One Cup Final: Match Preview

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This Sunday, Wembley will play host to one of the most unlikely cup finals in many years. League 2 side Bradford City face the challenge of overcoming Premier League opponents Swansea City. Ordinarily you’d expect the game to be a walk in the park for the Swans but the astonishing journey that has given Bradford their place in the final shows that this game may be one that lives long in the memory.

Wins against Notts County, Watford and Burton Albion gave the Bantams a well-earned place in the fourth round. Next up came Premier League side Wigan. The match was goalless after 90 minutes and also after extra time, resulting in a penalty shoot-out. Bradford won the shoot-out 4–2. It was the first time Bradford had knocked a Premiership club out of the competition since they defeated Nottingham Forest in September 1995 but they were only just getting started.

The quarter-final draw saw them host Arsenal. Garry Thompson had put the Bantams in the lead in the 16th minute just for Thomas Vermaelen to equalise late on. The game went to extra time but no one could break the deadlock. It would have to be penalties to separate the two sides and again Bradford’s penalty taking prowess prevailed as they netted three times compared to Arsenal’s two.

The semi-final saw them face yet more top flight opponents in the form of Aston Villa. The first leg was held at Valley Parade and the League 2 side got of to a dream start. Nahki Wells gave them the lead after 20 minutes and Rory McArdle scored in the 77th minute. Andreas Weimann scored for Aston Villa in the 82nd minute, but Carl McHugh restored Bradford’s two-goal lead after heading home Gary Jones’ corner. Villa managed to win the second leg 2-1 but it was not enough to overturn the aggregate deficit. Bradford were going to Wembley.

Swansea also enjoyed an impressive route to the final, comprehensive wins over Liverpool at Anfield and then Chelsea over two legs will see them also heading down Wembley Way this Sunday. The game will be The Swans’ first ever appearance in a major English final and Michael Laudrup’s men will of course be hungry for silverware.

Swansea will go into the game as favourites but if we have learned anything from the performances of Bradford this season its that they lie down lightly. Phil Parkinson has created a solid back four, a hard-working mid-field and star players like Nahki Wells may just provide that bit of quality and creativity to break down the Swansea defence and if the League 2 side can manage to take the game to penalties they will certainly fancy their chances of victory having won their last nine penalty shoot outs in cup competitions.

Team News
Bradford City

Rory McArdle (ankle) and James Meredith are doubtful. Andrew Davies could step in to fill the centre-back position after making it through two matches after his long lay-off with injury.

Swansea City

Chico Flores is likely to miss the match due to the injury sustained against QPR. But apart from that Swansea City have their key players fully fit after leaving them on the bench for the Premier League fixture with Liverpool.

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Improvements Made

Theo+WalcottThis season hasn’t been a great one for  Arsenal Football Club. But for some of our players, it has been a season of improvement. Some of our players have made big strides and have provided a lot better than they have in previous years.

Aaron Ramsey: After losing his place to a rejuvenated Tomas Rosicky in the second half of last season, Aaron Ramsey has bounced back and regained his form. Having started the season off  on the substitutes bench, he has seemingly worked his way back into the starting 11 in recent weeks. Injuries to Arteta and Coquelin saw him used in the regista role of the team, where he performed admirably. It’s not just this that has been impressive. Throughout the season he has looked more assured whenever he has played. More free and comfortable. As if a big weight has been lifted of his shoulders. The unfair pressures put on him from last season are now gone and he has moved on from the incident that I’ll refrain from talking about. Lets hope he continues like this and gets better and better. There is only One Aaron Ramsey.

Theo Walcott: How immense has Theo Walcott been this season? He has improved every aspect of his game. And too a high level as well. He’s currently Arsenal’s top goalscorer with 18, and top assist maker with 12. It’s isn’t just his final ball that has been excellent, however. In each performance he is looking more and more devastating. He looks more confident and composed on the ball that he has ever been. More consistent than he has ever been. His performances this season show nothing of the ‘no football brain’ tag that has been put on him previously. He put away fears Arsenal fans had of losing yet another key player in the summer by signing a new contract, and since doing so he has provided a goal or assist(if you count winning a freekick as an assist) in every game he has started since. He is finally becoming the player he was expected to be.

Kieran Gibbs: Prior to his injury against Liverpool, Kieran Gibbs was one of the star performers for Arsenal this season. The level of his game has shot right up and he has become a mainstay in the Arsenal defence (when fit of course). He has also been very consistent, hardly putting a foot wrong when playing in the Arsenal colours. He has certainly come a long way since that slip against Manchester United in the Champions League finals a few years back. With the signing of Spanish international, Nacho Monreal, he has now been provided with adequate competition for his spot(no offence Santos) and when back from injury, I’m sure he’ll be up for the challenge.

Carl Jenkinson: Despite being sent off in his appearance, Carl Jenkinson has made big strides this season. The lifelong gooner started the season off as our first choice right-back as Bacary Sagna was still recovering from a broken leg suffered at the rear end of last season. Carl grabbed this opportunity with both hands. In each game he grew more and more, becoming better and better. He was no longer the boy who looked out of his depth in the premier league. He rose up to this challenge and beat it with stellar performances, notably against Montpellier and the premier league champions, Manchester City. He still has a long way to go and much more to learn, but the signs are promising. I am confident he will be a brilliant player for the Arsenal.

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