New Shape, New Style, New Players – Work in Progress

Construction Site

Photograph courtesy of elcosh

I’ve taken a more earnest interest in the stock market in recent years and what fascinates is the multiplicity of factors that lead to the graphical representation of ‘peaks and troughs’ we often see on the news.  As football clubs have become publicly traded companies, their results, injuries, dismissals and sponsorship deals contribute to the undulation of a club’s worth.  In the last year, Manchester United’s deepest trough was preceded by what was perhaps the lowest ebb of David Moyes’ tenure.  More so than home humiliations by all and sundry in the Premier league, a 2-0 defeat to Olympiacos in the first leg of the Champions League round of 16 exposed a frightening lack of soul, belief and tactics in the squad.  The market responded, United’s stock value plummeting to its lowest level yet as David Moyes’ hair continued along its stress-provoked thinning process.

Share price

‘A Picture of the Moyes Era  Last Season’

Photograph courtesy of Quartz

Following Louis Van Gaal’s first competitive victory as Manchester United manager yesterday, the club’s stock enjoyed an encouraging bump to complement what has been a steady rise over the last two weeks.  Like the stock, confidence, in acute shortage this season, is up but then again, these are usually concomitant of each other.  Lining up with Lingard and Ashley Young in the wingback positions when Swansea came to Old Trafford, it was evident that stock, player stock, was low.  South Korean midfielder, Ki, burst the Van Gaal bubble, in the process ‘smashing’ a burgeoning but fragile Manchester United confidence.  The following weak, Sunderland overpowered a weak midfield; after that, Burnley, unfazed by facing a player who cost more money than they have spent in their history (EVER!!), limited Van Gaal’s men to a display largely devoid of chances and quality.  Somewhere in the middle of all this, space was found to get knocked out of the League Cup in embarrassing fashion, undeservedly conceding only 4 (it really should have been more).  A rather cocky chested goal by MK Dons provided a sharp contrast to the rock-bottom confidence of their more illustrious opposition.

The spectre of David Moyes hung over the players (and he’s cost us more than just confidence as Ed Woodward illustrated when presenting the club’s accounts for the just concluded financial year – and will cost us more), injuries decimated a squad already short on quality, the manager doggedly persisted with a structure that simply bore no fruit, and transfer market activity necessary to emplace first XI players into the first XI was slower than Nemanja Vidic on the turn.  Personally, what irked me most was the persistence with the 3-5-2 formation. Of course, a formation is only as good as the players in it but impressive performances during pre-season proved a false dawn.  When under pressure, the player reverted to type – crumbling wrecks, incapable of passing the ball and even worse, reluctant or seemingly unable to adapt to a shape completely alien to them.  At MK Dons, all these factors coalesced into a horror show for all United faithful.


‘New Faces’

Photograph courtesy of Loop

At Old Trafford on Sunday, all the remedies came together to produce something more palatable; ‘FAMILY’ rating stuff (some would have you not take it seriously – #onlyQPRafterall).  A multiple goal victory was assured by half-time, a clean sheet looked well in the offing and most importantly, there was some quality on display.  Debuting shiny new signings and a shiny new formation, the first half was an exercise in efficiency and control.  With Daley Blind at the bottom of a loose midfield diamond, Van Gaal’s men seized the initiative that QPR was only too willing to cede.  Further back, Jonny Evans and Tyler Blackett immediately looked more comfortable playing as a pair.  Additionally, the return of an effervescent Rafael was very welcome (provided he can maintain a decent run of form, he looks a sure bet at right back) and his presence in attacking compensated for Ander Herrera’s relative narrowness on the right side of the diamond.

And Angel Di Maria was the star of the show.  In his debut at turf moor, while easily the most exuberant and threatening player in red, his positioning as one of a midfield two meant he often had too much space to cover and too much defensive responsibility in midfield, resulting in his attacking influence getting blunted as the game wore on.  Here, with Daley Blind designated midfield controller, Di Maria was allowed to roam and attack with greater freedom, often found marauding down the left flank but occasionally popping up on the right side – the results were delightful.  He put United ahead with his whipped freekick (he has seemingly assumed set piece duty from Juan Mata) which evaded all before nestling in the corner, and then set to work on QPR.

His driving run that set up Ander Herrera’s goal was exhilarating, a one-man counterattack starting just outside our box and ending with a lovely reverse pass to Wayne Rooney just inside the opposition box.  His cross for Juan Mata in the second half was superb, although aided by the bungling Rio Ferdinand totally misreading the offside trap.

Ander Herrera turned out his best game so far, scoring a goal, tackling, passing and providing energy to complement the more subtle contribution of Daley Blind.  The Dutchman completed the most passes on the pitch, moving along the base of midfield to continuously provide options to both flanks.  Some have complained about his ‘lack of adventure’ in the pass but the consistency of his passing should not go unmentioned.  As he grows into the role, and grows as a player, he will gain more confidence.  One concern should be his slight build – he was brushed off the ball rather easily on more than one occasion – although it is nothing a bit of gym work cannot remedy.


‘Happier Times’

Photograph courtesy of the Telegraph

Despite the positives, Van Gaal, ever the perfectionist, noted carelessness in the passing.  Furthermore, the individual performances of Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie, while more encouraging than in recent times, are still below expectations.  Wayne Rooney, despite scoring and assisting, is still getting used to sharing the limelight with others.  A player who rarely ever thrives when made a supporting actor to the main star, his captaincy has left him in a bind where he has to lead while in the curious position of playing in a manner which suggests he is dispensable.  That said, after an opening few minutes which included, if you would excuse the cliché, a poor first touch to spurn a presentable opening, he settled into the game with a series of one-touch passes.  His goal was a picture of a good first touch and a cleanly hit strike into the bottom corner.

Robin Van Persie did not fare much better – actually, he was pretty poor.  While Rooney provided overloads on the left hand side, Van Persie favoured the right hand side in what appeared to be a deliberate tactical instruction.  However, his lack of pace meant that he often played the ball back inside to the loss of any attacking impetus.  On two occasions, he could and should have scored after receiving a sublime chipped ball from Di Maria (volleyed tamely into Rob Green’s arms), and later on an attempted pass to Falcao when he should have gone for goal.  Lack of confidence? Altruism? Perhaps a combination of both.  To top it all off, he picked up a yellow card for a poorly timed tackle.  Ordinarily, he would have gone off (many expected him to) for Falcao, eagerly waiting on the bench, but Juan Mata’s goal and all-round good performance made what might have been a dicey decision for Van Gaal relatively easy.  By taking off Mata, who might have needed ‘a rest’, he gave his close confidante and former national team captain an opportunity to play himself into form.  Favouritism?

Of all three senior strikers, Wayne Rooney’s place is perhaps safest.  Not only is he captain, but he is also the most comfortable of three dropping deeper as evidenced by his assumption of Juan Mata’s playmaker role later on in the second half.

‘While it was only QPR’, ‘you can only beat what’s in front of you’.  There were a few positive signs – bar a couple of communication glitches, the defence looked sound, the midfield was strong and worked as a unit, and chances were created (sorely lacking in previous games).  Next week, a visit to a confident Leicester City will be the first significant test of the season. Having held Arsenal and Everton to draws already, they beat Stoke (at Stoke!) over the weekend and have enjoyed their return to the top-flight so far.  Manchester United will not benefit from unfamiliarity among the playing staff that QPR exhibited – the Foxes are built on a bedrock of defenders that led them to promotion.  Nevertheless, confidence is up, the squad is returning (Shaw was in the squad and is playing with the u21s tonight and Carrick is reportedly back in training) and the quality especially through the new additions is there.  The market senses this and while we should tread with caution, stock is trending upwards.

Man of the Match: Angel Di Maria/Ander Herrera.

Verdict: Uninspiring opponent but hey, we might have lost this on the first day of the season.

Key Observation: With De Gea and Di Maria/Herrera, a Spine is forming slowly but surely.

Special Mention: I streamed a football match live online in Mombasa (Kenya) with very few hiccups. Africa’s coming on, I tell you.


Is This The Eulogy Of LVG?

 From a culture war to transfer backlog, it’s becoming apparent that Louis Van Gaal has got his work cut out at Manchester United…. Deskundige Fauteuil provides an outside view of events in Manchester…from the comfort of his desk, very far away.

By Sir Natty…follow him on Twitter @Marc_Desailly 

The British press has this very annoying tendency to refer by acronyms certain football personalities. When its individual players or strike partnerships it seems to work fine, RVP … SAS… and so on. Disturbingly, when it’s applied to hired hands (or managers as they are sometimes known) it tends to involve ridicule (AVB/RDM).  In the week that just passed, Manchester United Football Club (of the Cayman Islands) placed a blanket ban on fans bringing larger electronic devices such as iPads to their Old Trafford football stadium. The motive is being debated in social media circles but mostly amongst the few match-going supporters. The football on show in their opening game might drive fans away from their home games entirely.

 For fans of rival clubs, its like the joke that never ends. Just like Chelsea in the six years after Mourinho left with managers going through the door at a canter, or Arsenal fans, who despite winning the FA Cup and Charity Shield in the space of 3 months, still feel the stigma of going nine years without honours.

 Football fans are very fickle and are very susceptible to their perceived reputations. Most fans would like to support fashionable clubs and might go to massive lengths to make club related news seem more than face value. A little example; when United appointed David Moyes but Chelsea had employed the fancy portuguese Jose Mourinho, many a United fan (I didn’t make this up) especially the english speaking West Africans proceeded to anoint him THE CHOSEN ONE DAVID MOYES. Nothing amiss you think? Except they pronounced the glaswegians name as Dah-vid (Think David Luiz/Villa) Moh-yez (syllabic with Perez)! 

This might have been the thought process of the United board when considering the approaching and signing of Louis Van Gaal as the first non-british manager in their club’s history. Someone exotic, romantic (depending on your taste) who could make the fans dream again, of domestic dominance and returning to their syn-ronaldo period of European excellence.  Reputation is everything in football. Once established, it is very difficult to shake off. There are too many examples: diver, cheat, darling….  Then once in a while you have football personalities that have multiple often-contrasting reputations. People like Louis Van Gaal.

 Van Gaal offers one of the most perplexing examples of how football can exalt and damn in equal measure, frequently on the same page. He doesn’t seem to have that natural inhibition that most coaches have for taking difficult jobs having overseen some of the biggest clubs in world football and seen considerable success at each of them. He successfully replaced his eternal nemesis Johan Cruyff at FCBarcelona (domestically at least) after besting Cruyff’s managerial achievements first at Ajax in his most successful managerial spell to date. 


Photograph courtesy of 

Inspite of this, he still managed to drive himself away with alienating behavior that affected his players so much, the board had to act. He repeated this at Bayern Munich 10 years later. Let’s just say the man is not afraid of dropping his pants to prove a point.  All in all, the man seems to man seems to enjoy a challenge as evidenced by agreeing to manage Manchester United while coach of Holland, before a world cup! Some might call that madness but its second nature to Van Gaal. He took the job in the full knowledge that it would leave him with no rest period for the entire summer. A man of many contradictions; not unlike most of us anyway…. 

The Preseason campaign in the commercial markets of the USA (which, true to form, Van Gaal complained about) was hailed as a success and some bookies were even offering odds on Manchester United being champions in his first season. Seasoned (not a pun) experts were not as easily carried away and the result against Swansea has installed a crisis so early in the season. Mental strength is one aspect that Van Gaal has repeatedly spoken about in pre-game conferences and so far, he has been proven right. It’s one thing playing to potential or even over-performing in friendlies and quite another to play with the same freedom when the Bunsen is right underneath you.

_72881840_mata_gettyPhotograph courtesy of BBC 

United’s problems in the transfer market began a very long time ago, long before Woodward and Moyes. Some go as far back as Veron and the sale of Beckham. I personally prefer to look just at the signings they made after selling Ronaldo and letting Carlos Tevez depart in the summer of 2009. The players they have brought in since:

Zoran Tosic (Partizan Belgrade), £6m
Richie de Laet (Stoke City), undisclosed
Antonio Valencia (Wigan Athletic), £16m
Michael Owen (Newcastle United), free
Gabriel Obertan (Bordeaux), £3m
Mame Biram Diouf (Molde FK), £3.5m

Total Spend: £28.5m
Net Spend: -£56.5m

Marnick Vermijl (Standard Liege), undisclosed
Chris Smalling (Fulham), £10m
Javier Hernandez (CD Guadalajara), £7m
Bebe (Vitoria de Guimaraes), £7.4m

Total Spend: £24.4m
Net Spend: £9.4m

Anders Lindegaard (Aalesunds FK), £3m
Phil Jones (Blackburn Rovers), £16.5m
Ashley Young (Aston Villa), £16m
David de Gea (Atletico Madrid), £18m

Total Spend: £53.5m


Net Spend: £41.3m


Frederic Veseli (Manchester City), undisclosed
Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund), £12m
Nick Powell (Crewe Alexandra), £4m Robin Van Persie £24m

2013 Ins: Marouane Fellaini (Everton), £28m

2014 Ins: Juan Mata (Chelsea), £37m*

In these five years (including this one) only two players signed by the club have made a considerable impact on the first team: De Gea and Van Persie.  Van Persie is the key man for the team without a doubt.  This for me is the issue Van Gaal must deal with. The club is ridden with players who offer nothing to the first team and clearing the deadwood must be the first step. Unfortunately for Van Gaal, the extensive preseason offered him no chance to do this. He must instead look to the transfer market and it is here that United’s transfer policy fails them. They cannot sell for value and cannot buy for value either. Chelsea experienced this painfully in 2011 and have been rather more prudent in their transfer dealings since.

One would have thought that the club would have acknowledged that the absence of european football would have turned off the best players from coming to United. So far it has proved true with only the really young and emerging talents joining for big cash. More ambitious players in their primes seem to be avoiding the Old Trafford outfit altogether. With one exception…

images-3 Photograph courtesy of The Telegraph 

All summer long Juventus have said they will stick to their man. They are fooling no one. Antonio Conte left the club not long after talks held with the hierarchy on potential transfer dealings and rumored sales of one of the clubs prime targets to balance the books. The players in question are two of Juventus’ most outstanding central midfielders and It is clear that one of them was on offer to the highest bidder. Older and more experienced, it was only natural that the interest in Arturo Vidal would prompt intense speculation. At one point personal terms were said to have been agreed and at age 27, Juventus could not ask for more than the rumored £47m. What is holding the deal back? Some in the know are tempted to point fingers at Louis Van Gaal but I would encourage them to tread lightly as Van Gaal has good reason to be cautious.

Vidal has the potential to be the catalyst signing at Manchester United, that player that turns everything around and motivates his teammates and so on. So is the gospel these days. What many of them do not know is that in the last four years Vidal has played the best football of his career and struggled to get recognition as the undisputed and the best all-round central midfielder in the world. Then they are his injuries. If the player were two years younger and without what is slowly becoming a chronic knee complaint, it would be a no-brainer. Van Gaal is well entitled to tread cautiously and save some funds (respect) for when the market is more conducive for a blockbuster signing or when the right player comes along. If they are stuck for options they might chance it on deadline day but he really must consider all his options. Then theres the Di Maria deal which also looks probable though it’s more to do with United just looking for quality they can poach elsewhere as they did with Juan Mata (a poor signing in hindsight?). Mata is struggling to justify his position and is another name struggling with a reputation complex.

In his position, I wouldn’t go for just one signing to come and clean the Aegean stables, I’d go for 3 or 4 mammoth signings for effect. It’s the only way to get out of this really poor mess without building drip by drip like Liverpool and Arsenal did to much derision over a long period of time. Signing a player like Vidal would just appease the fans but without the effect on the team, would be pretty pointless in the long run. Pogba is a player that I feel would make not just a difference but a huge statement when his age and determination are put into consideration. Again a tree does not make a forest, United needed more than Shaw and Herrera in this transfer window as neither of them are ready to lead and have left themselves vulnerable to exploitation by rival clubs if they attempt to snare any of their want away stars.

There are already some negative headlines seeping out of Old Trafford about overtraining and exertion on some of the club’s talents (Most recently the aforementioned Luke Shaw). Then there’s the talk of inflexibility and betrayal of the club’s identity. I only see this ending two ways.

One: the fans shut up and let the manager the board employed perform a very difficult task without the added internal pressure. This would mean the board handing over all authority to Van Gaal the man and not distrusting partially. Obviously this has its pitfalls but nobody needs to let him know that HE is a temporary fix. Not yet. He achieves minor miracles and United are restored to past glories. He may last two years but not more than three. May or may not wait to be sacked.

Two: the endless bickering continues and speculation continues and United board feel the time is right to let Ryan Giggs take over again. The insistence of the Utd board that he must work with Van Gaal tells its own story. They don’t fully trust the man. And with good reason – but then why employ him in the first place?

United’s issues will not stop or end with Van Gaal’s appointment but fortune will play a role in how his tenure is scripted in the clubs history. I doubt the players will wholeheartedly buy into his new programme (think Andre Villas-Boas) as the nuevo United will exclude many of them. The form and fitness of RVP cannot be overemphasized: he is the main man at Man Utd.


 Photograph courtesy of metro

All these must fall in place or the iron curtain of top-club management will fall heavily on the enigmatic and storied career of one of European footballs most famous names. Will he be known as King Louis or will he be forever known in England as LVG**


*Club record fee

Guest Feature – Ligue Un opens with a characteristic draw


Photograph courtesy of Zimbio

Sir Natty reporting from the Stade Auguste Delaune…find him on twitter at @Marc_Desailly

It’s Friday night in France, the opening weekend of the new Ligue Un season. On one side, Stade de Reims, a reconstructed 2014 version of the famous old club which competed for honours in the heady old days of the European Cup with stars such as Just Fontaine and Raymond Kopa. While the history remains, the stars are long gone – today they congregate in the city of lights. As the only professional football side in France’s biggest city, PSG’s history, including the oil-rich years, has been rather unremarkable. For in a summer in which they exhausted their entire limit set out by UEFA on one player, Paris St. Germain actually looked like a side short of quality in the most relevant areas whilst at the same time showing the obvious gulf (no pun intended) in ability between they and the other sides in the Ligue.

I decided to watch the game on TV rather than rely on a stream from one of the numerous betting websites that host such games. The regional broadcaster only showed the game on one channel (TV5 Le Monde) and due to my limited (or non-existent…) knowledge of the language, I had to settle for the commentary in the most colloquial of French.

Strangely, it made me enjoy the game more, free of the usual commentator-curses and bias that wreck many an English language game. I could still pick out one or two comments about certain players (ADM for a start) but that was rather outside the immediate context of the game.

It has always been an issue when clubs kick-off their league campaigns at the tail end of the summer transfer window. Players are still getting the beach out of their heads, thus cohesion and focus are at a low ebb. Some players are playing for moves away and others still for a spot in the team hence the lack of uniform motivation.

The game begins with one of the most underwhelming kickoffs in recent memory. Or maybe that was due to some unfair expectation on my part. After all, what did I really think? That a manic PSG would set about Reims in a manner reminiscent of 2013/2014’s Bayern?  It didn’t quite start like that but there was some early goalmouth action.  Cavani was put clean through on goal but proceeded to finish like his namesake, Edinson Cavani. While a player of undoubted quality, his erratic finishing often leaves a lot to be desired.  The man just struggles in any squad where he isn’t the main man (BigTimeCharlie Syndrome?).

Just a few minutes later, the Main Man himself was presented with a similar chance and he finished with such grace that you really began to wonder if PSG were going to walk away with. Cavani had time to prefix the most curious and puzzling 15 minutes of football ever seen with another display of finishing hardly in keeping with his bloated reputation (I exaggerate but still…).

First off, Lucas Moura, another South American seemingly lost in Paris, cuts out a wayward backpass and beats the lumbering defender who in his own interests (and probably of his team as well), backs out of a challenge, leaving Moura racing through on goal. To his left is the team’s spiritual leader who he may square the ball to for yet another plaudit-taking brace after only 15 minutes of the new season. Moura probably then has an epiphany; why pass to Him when I can show my worth and commitment to the team by scoring on the opening day? While processing these thoughts, the goalkeeper swarms him and wins the ball cleanly. In a world without rules, a furious Zlatan probably kung-fu kicks Lucas in the head for his indiscretion. However, even Zlatan respects the law and instead spends the next 30 seconds gesturing at Lucas who sheepishly seeks out the safety of the right wing, far away from Zlatan. Still livid and certainly short of concentration, Ibrahimovic gets back onside as soon as PSG win the ball with Verrati. The Italian then runs between the defensive line and Ibra doubles back and follows his run quickly. Perhaps after monitoring furious exchange in the previous passage of play, Veratti smartly rolls the ball to Zlatan in a move more in place in football simulation video games. Zlatan strikes at the empty net and as I jump in exclamation, the ball strikes the upright! The mischievous camera director zooms to Zlatan’s facial expression, before panning to a nervous looking Moura – Zlatan’s miss is probably his fault, and so on…

At this point, Reims is in sixes and sevens and PSG rampant. Another through ball sends Zlatan down the left channel of the box. He crumples under no contact…PENALTY! How Stephanne Lannoy saw that as anything but is anyone’s guess but it makes one wonder how much influence Zlatan has in french football (personality-wise). In life, there are three certainties – death, taxes and Zlatan-scores-a-penalty. Mentally, it’s 2-0 and PSG are in the middle of yet another Ligue Un stroll. The Main Man, never a purveyor of self-doubt, places the ball, steps back in trademark regal fashion and takes aim. It’s surely destined for the bottom left hand side… of the goalkeeper’s glove! I half expected the camera to zoom to Moura again – it’s his fault and Zlatan can do no wrong. I personally haven’t seen him take a worse penalty, although all credit to the goalkeeper for guessing the right way.

A few minutes later with the pair of commentators still jabbering away at the incredulity of what they had just witnessed, Reims wins a freekick. Zlatan is marking the near post but with as much authority as the Queen of England has over her subjects in Scotland) – he’s there but not really. A whipped ball flies in beyond him, Marquinhos and Pastore…BANG! Prince Oniangue is away in jubilant celebration and the crowd goes wild. It’s off his shin, it’s not offside and Sirigu doesn’t look like he even feels like blaming anyone.

Play resumes and PSG is in possession. Pastore…Verrati…Cavani…Ibra…back to Thiago Silva, onto Moura, Van der wiel joins in… goalkick. They try again on the other side but Digne seems to be having some difficulty either with finding the final ball or getting past his man. A very disjointed performance all-round from the reigning champions and as a neutral I look forward to something to give the game a kick.

The football gods answer my prayers and Reims score again with a neat combination between Antoine Devaux and a chap called Charbonnier (whom by the way the commentary team kept going on and on and ON about like he was the next best thing in France, baguette notwithstanding: All I saw was a right footed version of Olivier Giroud in terms of style but I leave it to you to decide whether that’s a good thing or not). With halftime looming, and the game’s entertainment value already in steep decline, I begin composing this.

It’s hard to tell what type of season PSG will have based on their performance in the game but the most pertinent issue must be their overreliance on Ibra. While it’s not quite as bad as wee Lionel piggybacking Barcelona from two seasons ago (the irony is surely not lost on Zlatan), it is concerning enough to warrant marquee signings in the mould of Neymar and Suarez to share the load a bit. However, PSG, due to FFP, cannot go down that route but still have ambitions of reaching the higher echelons of European football.

In midweek, a former coach of Zlatan’s (I couldn’t verify who; some articles quoted it as a former Juve coach and others as a swedish coach…so probably his agent) said that Zlatan was fed up in Paris and yearned for a return to the Old Lady. While it might be true that French football might be proving too easy and repetitive for Zlatan (who by the way scored a brace last weekend vs Guingamp in the Far east super cup), a mercenary of some repute, it might also be a ploy to boost wages. Hardly unreasonable, seeing as his performances are more or less paying everyone else’s wages! Despite the rumours, it’s hard to see the Swede shunning new money for the Old Lady whose highest paid player, Buffon, earns in a year what Zlatan takes home in 4 months.  His agent could do better.

Despite watching Marquinhos yesterday, it still defies logic that they spent FIFTY MILLION SOLID POUNDS (if they paid in full, Chelsea must be laughing) on a defender to partner Thiago Silva. Not that Marquinhos was poor (he wasn’t very good though) – he’s obviously a very talented defender – but that the combination of the Mineirao debacle and more pressing concerns elsewhere have left them scrabbling in the transfer window.

That money now looks like it could have been better spent on a player like Angel Di Maria who would certainly fit excellently in a PSG system that is begging for a free-playing attacking midfielder. The absence of Blaise Matuidi was also surprising, especially in light of France’s quarter final exit at the world cup. Aurier should replace Van der Wiel as a (sigh) replacement for club icon Jallet who has departed for Lyon in search of greener pastures; all that oil must rile him. If PSG cannot sign that number 10 they so desire, an alternative may be pushing Verrati further upfield where his ill-discipline is not shown up quite as much. He is also an excellent dribbler of the ball and this move might free up more playing time for Chantome or Cabaye who are sadly beginning to look like Home-grown rule squad elements.

PSG starts the second half with a high line pressing for an equaliser but that seemed to offer Reims more space to attack and they were lucky not to concede a 3rd. Zlatan came to the rescue, scoring a rather fortuitous goal as the game petered into torpor. The commentary drizzled in and out in the second half with both commentators probably digesting what they had seen and not seen and what they expected in the season. Special mention must go to Diego Rigonato who I saw a lot of, but not enough to ascertain how influential he will be in the coming season.

I wonder whether PSG can still squeeze out a little more money by selling someone (eg Cavani /Lavezzi/ Moura/Pastore) and get Di Maria as it is difficult to see them setting anywhere alight this season if such dour and ineffective performance are to be the norm. Then again, it’s the start of the season so maybe I’m a bit harsh. I fully expect them to walk Ligue Un but Qatar will be expecting more than a dash of flair this time.

Zlatan of the Match: Ibrahimovic (sigh)

Not-Zlatan Man of the Match: Prince Oniangue


On coping with writer’s block (or the lies we tell ourselves along the way)

Sense of clarity

Black coffee and cigarettes

writing 2

I haven’t written for a very long time.

I joined a creative writing class a while ago to help me through my ‘writer’s block’ – can you call yourself a writer if you don’t write? – and I managed to produce a total of 500 words over the entire four-week course. A paltry amount by any standards, though the course itself was brilliant.

One of the suggestions from my fellow writers was to write about why I don’t write. I’ve been thinking a lot about the reasons I don’t write lately so this seemed as good a place to kick off my writing again as any. And also address why I call myself a writer in the first place – a hard sell in the writing void of the last few months.

In my professional life, I have been a public relations consultant, a journalist and now, an editor. Words…

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Maya Angelou

patricia a. matthew

Of all the things I remember about the time I met Maya Angelou, I don’t quite remember how we ended up shopping in Shreveport, Louisiana the day after she visited my college.  As college friends post memories on my Facebook page of her visit, I have been trying all day to remember exactly how we ended up shopping and how she came to buy me this scarf.


I do remember that the process, the work of bringing her to campus taught me everything I needed to know about political maneuverings, regional pride, and, eventually, what is possible when an entire institution decides to do a thing right.

I got it into my head one summer that I should bring her to my small, private, mostly lily white, college in Northwest Louisiana. I’d read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in middle school in Biloxi, Mississippi when my father was…

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 With two weeks to go to the commencement of the 2014 World Cup, Brazilians find themselves in a muddle – their love for football, to them as the baguette is to the French, uneasily coincides with the feeling that they could really do without the tournament

‘I-don’t-want-football!’ he appears to wail, pounding his fists against the table.  Despite his tantrum, the little boy will have to eat the football.  It is too late in the day, the meal is served and his parents are out at dinner with Mr Blatter anyway.  They have told him that after eating the football, they will be able to buy him a new shirt and bicycle, and even put him in a new school.  Putting aside these juicy future incentives (believe me, kids engage in substitution behaviour), it is a simple choice – eat or starve.  Luckily, that football resembles a traditional leather one; leather is tanned meat which, under the gravest of conditions, is edible.  It’s not a beach-ball Jabulani, thankfully. 

So the little boy takes a bite…’hmm, that’s not too bad, you know?’ But he knows it’s not right, this mastication of a football.  He contemplates dropping his fork and knife, but glancing up, he spies himself smiling tentatively back at himself in the mirror.  He loves football but he’s never had to eat a football.  He knows the dams will burst again, and the tears will return with the force of a tsunami.  When they do, his reality will be all that’s left with him, as cold and depressing as the steel in his hands. Till then, just chew.  His frustration builds…




Photograph courtesy of Gustavo Froner/Reuters


A Year Ago…

Feeling bored in the interlude between finishing my final exams and graduation, I decided to pen my thoughts, backed up with a bit of research aka ‘internet trawling’, on the state of Brazil’s preparations for the World Cup, particularly with the Confederations Cup just around the corner.  My findings could be summarised thus:

‘With administrative failings holding up infrastructural progress, it falls to the men on the pitch to alleviate the gloomy pall.  Disappointingly, La Seleção is failing at the moment.’ 

At least half of the stadiums to be used in two weeks were, at the time, nowhere near completion. Brazil was officially the 22nd best team in the world, had won 1 in 7 games under Luis Felipe Scolari, and had also suffered the ignominy of drawing with England.  At home; in the imposing Maracanã .  Pessimism engulfed the preparations, the team was relentlessly booed – on every front, there was a distinct sense of hopelessness.

Additionally at the time, although little explored in the last piece, something more systemic was afoot, a level of public discontent that went beyond even football itself.  While public revolts and protests have historically been somewhat of a staple in Brazil, this resentment, rather paradoxically, came at a time of relatively great economic prosperity for the Brazilian nation.  In the preceding 20 years, a significant middle class had blossomed, with GDP per head rising; more people were being lifted out of poverty.  However, as is often the case in transition economies struggling to yank free of the vestiges of central command-and-control, chasmic inequalities in wealth remained.  Very often, this is reflected in underfunding and unavailability of affordable social welfare utilities, among others.  That said, Brazil had done well for itself and its people, its leadership believed.  It had come a long way in a relatively short space of time and the World Cup in 2014 would be the perfect stage to showcase this progress.

Hence, when demonstrations began in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte in August/September of 2012, they were expected to abate quickly.  After all, they were isolated, and concerned the rather ‘trivial’ issue of bus fare prices.  The municipal authority, under the local public’s sustained pressure, capitulated and reduced the prices.  It was not until March of 2013 that similar protests occurred in Porto Alegre, where locals unsuccessfully tried to persuade their municipal authority to further reduce bus fare prices which had already been knocked down by a judicial order.

Unknown to the government, and with much of the outside world ignorant, these incidents, seemingly unrelated and relatively divergent in time, were the start of a rash of larger, more widespread demonstrations across the country.  Bus fare prices, as it turns out, were simply representative of much broader grievances held by the Brazilian public.  With the Confederations Cup to be the rehearsal for the World Cup, and with all eyes on Brazil, the magnitude of the public’s ire was transmitted around the world.  While masses protested gross inadequacies in the provision of social services such as education and healthcare, the ballooning public spending (much with taxpayers’ money) on preparation for the World Cup increasingly came to be regarded as the sadly ironic paragon of a political leadership removed from the real needs of the people.

If one needs a more accurate paradigm, look no further than the construction of the World Cup stadium in Brasília, possessing capacity for over 70,000 spectators.  Interestingly, it has been rebuilt on the site of a former stadium which was demolished in 2010.  Its final cost will be nearly $900 million, triple its original estimate and making it the most expensive World Cup stadium.  In the aftermath of the World Cup, it will in all probability play host to nobody.  Brasília does not have a major professional football team.  That is not to say its people do not love football (I’m sure they do), but rather they simply did not need the stadium.  One could label this the product of corruption or the dissociation of leadership with public (or simple miscommunication?) or plain bad planning, but in truth it is probably a combination of all three.



Photograph courtesy of SambaFoot


The tournament began even as the protests raged across the country and Brazil, much to the surprise of many, played excellently, seemingly vaccinated of their form of the last few months, and indeed the volatile atmosphere within the country.  Getting to the final against World Champions, Spain was probably as good as many expected it to get, perhaps except the men who stepped out onto the pitch at the Maracanã.

The atmosphere, by all accounts, was electric, a bubbling frenzy coursing through the delirious fans.  When the Brazilian national anthem was played, the stadium stood up, along with the players, and provided a spine-tingling rendition.  In hindsight, Spain, already sapped by sweltering humid conditions they were totally unaccustomed to, probably lost before a ball was kicked.  Not because they became lesser players; rather, Neymar Jnr.  and Co., energised by the crowd, transcended what even they hitherto believed they could accomplish as a team.  It was a blitz, Fred bagging two goals, with Neymar Jnr.  grabbing the other and tormenting the living hell out of Alvaro Arbeloa.  Up till then, the Real Madrid fullback had been Del Bosque’s steady-Eddie, always a 7/10.  Neymar Jnr.  effectively retired him – he will not be going back to Brazil this summer.  At full-time, Brazil were crowned Confederations Cup Champions, with optimism and belief officially restored.  It was a rehearsal, yes, but more importantly, it was competitive.  And they dismantled the competition.

Off the pitch, however, the mood could not have provided an image of sharper dissimilitude.  In fact, one did not have to look far.  Even as Hulk powered through Spain’s quaking backline, protesters marched on the stadium, threatening to burst the barriers of riot policemen.  They were repelled by tear gas but the message, steadily growing in volume over the tournament, rang true and clear – ‘YOU WANT THE WORLD CUP, FIFA? – YOU PAY THE BILL’.  At this point, affairs on and off the pitch arrived the forked road where, unclasping hands, they parted ways.  While Scolari’s men have danced, scored and regaled supporters down the road north, seemingly to destiny, the protests have only gone south, intensifying and becoming even more widespread and violent.




Photograph courtesy of Slate


It’s a simple image – a boy, fork and knife, and a football.  Yet, Paulo Ito, a Brazilian street artist, encapsulated the incredibly complicated mood in Brazil at the moment.  An image speaks a thousand words – in his artistic way, Ito brought the truth to bear.  The Brazilian masses are being fed football and hey, rather ‘surprisingly’, they have thrown a huge tantrum.  Without the preceding context provided, it is inexplicable and downright inconceivable.  The home of football, the historic kingdom of joga bonita, protesting against football???

This is the uncertain incongruity that many Brazilians will face this summer.  While public ire has reached a crescendo, and could still yet outdo its pre-established pitch with more protests a possibility, football and indeed other massive sports tournaments, have a tendency to make populations collectively happier. Yes, happier.  It might seem a banal, some may even argue wholly inaccurate, observation but it stands true.   While intangible, we all strive for personal happiness at the very least.  From my piece last year:

‘…football regularly serves as opium to the worst fears of many, providing respite, even if ephemeral.  Kuper and Szymanski, writers of the wonderful Soccernomics (I will recommend this again – fascinatingly insightful), note the role successful hosting of a tournament (that is success on the pitch as well as the general organisation of the broader event) has to play in making the people happier.’

And while that holds true, there is another truth which, it appears the protesting Brazilians have uncovered through the public deprivation they have endured; hosting such tournaments, contrary to the pronounced asseverations of your eager and smiling politicians, does not make you richer.  As summarised in Soccernomics, by evaluating case studies of Euro 1996, World Cup 1994, Korea Japan 2002, Athens 2004 and Germany 2006, Rob Baade and Victor Matheson (two well-respected American economists) found that hosting sports tournaments does not increase the number of tourists, or of full-time jobs, or total economic growth.

But these are precisely the promises that have been made by those involved in its organisation.  Having identified the lack of any positive economic impact, the vast spending still has to be justified to the deprived masses who see funds that could have been spent on public services blown on stadia (which will often go on to be under-utilised) and flash cars and other property for the entrenched bourgeoisie who nearly always benefit in isolation from these events.

In 2010, Orlando Silva, Brazil’s sports minister at the time, told Simon Kuper, after observing the World Cup, he expects the Cup in Brazil to ‘serve as a stimulus for development and infrastructure’.  Echoing similar sentiments, Jerome Valcke, FIFA’s Secretary-General, has recently argued that quite contrarily to those arguing that World Cup spending is a severe misallocation of priorities, ‘the World Cup is a way to speed up a number of investments in a country’.  Indeed, a global poll of 117 economists conducted by media organisation, Reuters, concluded that the World Cup will add just 0.2 percentage points to Brazil’s slowing economic growth this year.  Any progress is good, right?  The simple riposte to that would be that with a cost of over $11 billion (the most expensive world cup ever – by far), much of which is footed by Brazilian public spending, how much of that money could have contributed to more economic growth by being channelled into those sectors of social welfare and infrastructure Brazilians are in dire need of.  By the way, Mr Silva resigned in 2011 amidst a torrent of corruption allegations.



Photograph courtesy of Bleacher Report


Since decimating Spain, they have played 8 games, winning 7 and losing 1.  The solitary defeat was to Switzerland, no slouches themselves (according to present FIFA rankings, 8th best in the world).  Coming less than two months after beating Spain, one may tentatively ascribe it to the post-victory hangover.  It did also wake them up – in the following 7 games, 25 goals have been plundered, with only 2 conceded.  By any measure, they are astounding figures.  On May 7th, with more than 700 journalists present at a traditional concert house in Rio, Luis Felipe Scolari announced his squad for the World Cup – 17 of those that were present the previous summer were on the list.  While one may express dismay at the exclusions of the likes of Kaka, Robinho, Lucas, Miranda and Filipe Luis, Scolari largely stayed loyal to those who have served him well.  Despite their wildly variant seasons, perhaps most exemplified by the ultimately middling debut season Neymar Jnr.  recently completed at Barcelona, Scolari is a man who places great stock in loyalty.  It brought him one World Cup (in 2002) when he stood by the recuperating Ronaldo, and is convinced it will bring him success this year.  The 23 chosen ones, in response, will fight for their manager.

While the protests brew, La Seleção remains an island of serenity amidst the hurricane of public anger and incredulity.  That does not mean they do not see, and cannot identify, with the emotions shared by much of their otherwise adoring public.  In fact, they have lived it.  Earlier this week, on their way to training, the team’s bus was attacked by a horde of protesters.  Last year, David Luiz, Dani Alves and Hulk spoke out in support of non-violent protests which are ‘democratic and peaceful’.  As Hulk quite perceptively added, today, I have a privileged social position, but I don’t forget that I come from a poor background…I’m very proud to watch the people fighting to change the standards of public transport, health, education and so many other problems.”  He continued, voicing his ‘big concern’ – “that the protest is legitimate, without violence, always focused on the fight for rights without losing perspective.”

The Zenit forward also argued, undeniably, that ‘there are millions of people who love football in this country’, also insisting that ‘it is a triumph for Brazil to have the World Cup’.  Therein lies the fundamental contradiction, a disconnect so evidently played out in the attack on their team bus.  While Brazilians will kick and juggle oranges, rolled up old socks, anything to play football, these Brazilians rather than viewing the World Cup as a triumph, regard it as a yoke which they so reluctantly have to bear.

Despite this, there has been no shortage of demand for tickets.  FIFA reported record demand, receiving more than 10 million requests for around 3 million tickets.  A lot of that demand is domestic, illustrating that despite their displeasure, Brazilian’s will still watch (1.1 million tickets available to the public have been bought by Brazilians).   Even amidst the good news of this demand, there remain the ubiquitous signs of the shoddy preparation that has plagued this tournament.  Sadly, there have been deaths of workers at construction sites.  While evidently an occupational hazard of working in such conditions, these have only entrenched the gloomy pall cast over the preparations.  Stadium construction delays in 4 cities – Curitiba, São Paulo, Porto Alegre and Cuiabá – have meant that tickets for fixtures to be held in those venues have been held back until FIFA can guarantee fans seats.



Photograph courtesy of kicking-back


While happiness may be the one constant to emerge from hosting of such tournaments, it is evidence of the appropriability problem associated with football – which is that football can’t make money out of more than a tiny share of our love of football, and as fans, we often make nothing out of it – in fact, we make a loss (from a strictly economic perspective, of course).  I’ve spent a whole afternoon penning this piece but will not be paid for it.  But this hardly applies to FIFA.  In fact, when it comes to the World Cup, it has the opposite effect.  In the four years to the end of 2010, FIFA was reported to have earned more than $4 Billion, with the laying bare FIFA’s dependence on World Cup revenues.  At the end of that period, it banked $631 million to its reserves.  All earnings from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa were tax-free.  It will be the same in Brazil (one can have a read of this piece for more information on these tax exemptions), with FIFA announcing that it is expected to make nearly $2 Billion in profits from this event.  World Cups are hugely appropriable events for FIFA, all the more because not a single dime is paid in taxes.  Mired in numerous allegations of corruption over the last few years, public support for football’s governing body has never been at such a low point.

Free-riding on the promise of beautiful football and lovely, sunny beaches epitomising the joie de vivre of Brazil, FIFA has hogged on sponsors’ bounty.  While Brazilians punctuate their protests to host a welcome from which they may not even derive their full recompense in happiness, FIFA laughs all the way to the bank.  Brazilian football legend turned congressman, Romário, is careful to highlight this in a rather eloquent piece he penned for the Guardian.  Formerly in support of Brazil’s bid to host the World Cup, he simply argues that ‘this mega event can only deepen Brazil’s problems’, adding that ‘the only beneficiary will be FIFA’.  It is true.  While he admits that the political and economic reality prevalent at the time of bidding was different to what prevails today, the oft-repeated promise of job generation, income creation and boosted tourism, as evidence shows, is often, if not false, surely ephemeral.

And if Brazil wins?  Well, they certainly have the talent to do so.  At the back, arguably the best defence in the world (Spain a close second, in my view) with Dani Alves, Thiago Silva, David Luiz and Marcelo, will form the platform for a probable midfield of Paulinho, Luis Gustavo and Oscar.  Up front, Fred (despite his patchy form at club level dominated the Confederations Cup and has the faith of Scolari) and Hulk will provide goals and power to supplement the magical talents of Neymar Jnr. When in the zone, as they showed last summer, no team can match their blend of discipline, physical intensity and ruthless precision.  The players are desperate for victory, the Confederations Cup granting but a taste of the explosive fervour and joy that would greet the delivery of a 6th World Cup.  Thiago Silva has spoken of his difficulty in controlling his anxiety, imagining ‘the madness’ that would ensure if Brazil wins it.  If this was the year of La Décima at club level, Dani Alves argues that Brazil is not obsessed with ‘La Hexa’, just confident – ‘It’s natural to expect a Brazilian triumph, especially when we are playing at home’.



Jennifer Lopez and Pitbull’s Official World Cup song is, by a rough estimate of YouTube ‘Likes’ vs. ‘Dislikes’, running the World Cup close in unpopularity stakes.  Between 60 and 70% of votes are likes, compared to just 48% of Brazilians who believe hosting the World Cup was a good idea.  The tide of public sentiment has turned and with the World Cup two weeks away, questions remain as to how the public will react.  Will the protests continue?  There is valid reason to believe so despite the Government set to deploy over 170,000 security personnel to ensure the peace.  One thing is certain – even a 6th World Cup for Brazil will provide but fleeting anaesthetic for the deep-seated pique of the people.


Despite the foregoing, I’m WELL excited for the football which does promise to be awesome.  9pm BST on Friday, 13th of June, Brazil hosts Croatia.  Do not miss it.

Champions League – 3 Thoughts and Observations

Red Card, Penalty and Suspension – Overkill?

Last year, the Arsenal v Bayern Munich fixture got me critically thinking about the fairness and use of the away goals rule in football today.  I still think it should be done away with but that’s a debate for another day; on to last couple of nights then.

Two red cards, one each on Tuesday and Wednesday, have brought the alleged overkill of punishment for last man tackles to light.  The main difference between both is that one involved the sending off of a goalkeeper and the other involved that of a defender.  First of all, the referees almost certainly applied the law in the correct fashion.

A player…is sent off if he commits any of the following…offences:

–          denying the opposing team a goal or an obvious goalscoring opportunity by deliberately handling the ball (this does not apply to a goalkeeper within his own penalty area)


–          denying an obvious goalscoring opportunity to an opponent moving towards the player’s goal by an offence punishable by a free kick or a penalty kick


It is important to note that the rules mention nothing about a ‘last man’ specifically.  However, a ‘last man’ foul tackle is often the most obvious denial of a clear goalscoring opportunity so we’ll forgive the misconstruction of the rule.

The guidelines provided by FIFA to referees for the interpretation of this rule are not especially helpful in these circumstances between the sending offs themselves were hardly controversial from an objective standpoint.  However, is sending off of the offending player totally necessary?  Forgetting the extent to which a sending off can utterly unbalance a game (Bayern’s 2nd half domination was so complete, it has not taken a day for many to forget how competitive the 1st half was).

Defining what an obvious goalscoring opportunity is throws up a few questions.  First of all, a one v one chance is, as experience has shown in football, hardly a guaranteed goal.  For that reason, when the foul occurs in the box, a clear goalscoring opportunity is given – a penalty. Proportionate compensation?  Arguably, yes.  Of course, things get trickier when challenge occurs outside the box.  In that situation, a freekick will be given but the law still states that the player should be sent off.  The proportionate compensation granted for a foul in the box, forgetting the red card, is absent in this situation.  A wall can be set up, players can mill around the box – while an opportunity to attack, it is hardly an obvious goalscoring opportunity.  One radical approach could be, of course, to make every denied ‘obvious goalscoring opportunity’ a penalty kick, regardless of where it occurs on the pitch.  However, this raises questions of proportionality – not all chances are equal. 

The effectiveness of the current rule also varies according to scenarios.  Imagine a side leading 1-0 going into stoppage time and suddenly there’s a lapse and the opposition striker is let in.  A defender has every incentive to bring him down before he reaches the box and earn a red card.  The attacking team earns a freekick and the obvious goalscoring opportunity is lost.  How can this be remedied?  Perhaps by awarding a penalty kick, thus presenting the attacking team with an obvious goalscoring opportunity.  Fair?  That’s another moot point but arguably, it is a fairer call than the simply providing a freekick. 

The point to be made here is that ultimately, laws of the game are constantly being revised and the goal is ultimately to make the new rules ‘fairer’ than the old rules.  If proportionality is synonymous with fairness, then the current rules are most certainly punitive.  Punitive laws, it is argued, should ultimately be reserved for cynical actions such as deliberate last man fouls, handballs to deny an obvious chance (Luis Suarez springs to mind) or reckless and dangerous tackles which result in penalties.


Courtois Walks the Walk

In the past few days, reports have arisen of Thibaut Courtois, Atletico Madrid’s on-loan goalkeeper, effectively nipping insurrection from his deputy in the bud.  The insurrection came in the form of the Liverpool keeper expressing his ambition to take the Belgium number 1 jersey – of course that would mean displacing Courtois. In a swift, some would say arrogant, riposte, Courtois stridently spoke of Mignolet staying ‘humble and respectful’, pointing out the examples of De Gea, Valdes and Reina in quietly backing the embattled incumbent, Casillas. 

A visit to Milan presented the first chance for him to back up his big talk and indeed he did it in style.  The first great save came from a Kaka curler, the keeper diverting it onto the post and out for a corner.  The second save from Andrea Poli was simply stunning, springing to his right to divert a 6 yard point blank header onto the post.  Diego Costa was the match-winner with his rather impressive header but by keeping Atletico in the game with his match-saving (excuse the pun) saves; he not only demonstrated his indisputable talent but also his big-game quality.  Clutch, they say.


Crossing can be a more precise business, Moyesy

David Moyes was in the stands to watch the game (or Toni Kroos – he couldn’t miss him anyway; in the 2nd half, he was that bloody good) and could do with introducing a few facets of Bayern’s play into his Manchester United side’s approach.  One feature of note was the clever and deliberate use of crossing.  The ultimate quest in football is precision – simply put, the more precise your passing is, your shooting and all other things are, the more likely you are to win.  It is why footballers train so much, and why in the case of the best of trainers, players are also coached to know precisely where to be in certain situations.  One of the more imprecise arts is crossing of the ball.  Oftentimes, a winger will seek out a certain area to deliver to.  In football parlance, the POMO – Position of Optimal Opportunity (just outside the 6 yard box, in between the last line of defence and goalkeeper) is often targeted.  Nevertheless, experience has shown that the probability of scoring from a cross is incredibly low (this study posits that only 1 out of over 91 open play crosses will lead to a goal).  In the 2012/2013 EPL season, only roughly 20% of crosses actually reach a teammate. 

Bayern Munich completed 10 of 37 attempted crosses against Arsenal.  One of those attempted crosses from Phillip Lahm led to a nifty goal from Thomas Mueller.  Before that, there was a mix of crosses; Mario Gotze missed a rather presentable chance from another neat Lahm cross.  Rafinha and Alaba were aggressive in their positioning, often provided a more precise option for a pass inside on the overlap; Arjen Robben was presented with a golden opportunity from such an Alaba pass only for his goalbound effort to be blocked by Koscielny.  For all their neat passing, Bayern make very effective use of wingplay, particularly with Mario Mandzukic in the side, thus continuing the good work of Jupp Heynckes last year.


Next week, there’ll be more action featuring Real Madrid, Chelsea, Manchester United and co. Till then, enjoy reading.