Bullet-pointed observations from the mind of Coach Larry on last week's World Cup qualifiers from around the globe.
I should have spent more time on Sunderland in my preview of their match versus Liverpool, but I didn’t want to make it a season preview. They definitely need to add attacking options and put a leash on Lee Cattermole. But Stéphane Sessègnon is impressive; Ahmed Elmohamady, Kieran Richardson & Gyan are all big factors, and their back line was well organized, essentially making Andy Carroll irrelevant. Think they will finish 8-10.
Liverpool still has a cutting edge problem, though they are more balanced then before. Suarez is a beast to play against. He uses his speed so well to play inside-out, and then he also has the “craftiness” to win penalties and kicks. He will for sure make a lot of enemies around the league. Dalglish played Luca Leiva, Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson, and Charlie Adam (the latter three all newly arrived in the squad), with Kuyt and Meireles only subbing in late once things got urgent after Larsson’s flying side-volley that pulled Sunderland even. Again looks like its gonna be hard on Merseyside to strike the right balance.
After watching the first 40 minutes of Man City and Swansea’s Monday night football match, 3 observations: Swansea did well to purchase a young athletic GK as he will be needed to make more than a few reaction saves. YaYa might be my hero. And MCFC are right back to playing with two defensive MFs, despite being at home and against a team that has advanced 4 divisions in 6 seasons.
Which leads me to a last point. Can we abandon the idea that they and others play a 4-2-3-1? Look at how they play, not how they line-up for the kickoff. Two defensive central midfielders sure. One central attacking mf in Yaya. One wide mf who cuts inside as much as possible in Adam Johnson, one trequartista in Silva, and one forward in Dzeko.
Liverpool played the same: Adam and Lucas. Henderson. Downing. Suarez. Carroll.
Chelsea does it too. Mikel and Ramires. Lampard. Malouda. Kalou. Torres.
Arsenal last year did it too, at least when Walcott didn’t play.
This really counts on their full backs to get forward to provide most of their width, otherwise there just is not enough space on the pitch.
Firstly, from the Xavi interview, speaking about Spain, but easily parallels Barça:
“Paraguay? What did they do? Built a spectacularly good defensive system and waited for chances – from dead balls. Up it goes, rebound, loose ball. It’s harder than people realise when you’ve got a guy behind you who’s two metres tall and right on top of you.”
I think we all know that Arsenal totally incapable of playing like Paraguay. Also from Xavi: “But now I see Arsenal and Villarreal and they play like us.” That said, certainly Wilshere’s remarks about “getting nasty” indicate a plan, though Xavi suggests an alternate route, “Yes, but this year they’re much better. I think it’s a disadvantage for us that we played last year. They had [too] much respect for us. It was as if they let us have the ball.” So keeping the ball, Arsenal’s preferred routine in Engerland, would do them better according to one of their opponent’s key players.
Realistically, of course, given Nasri’s injury especially, we know both Song and Wilshere will play. In fact, there is little reason to suspect a different line-up than the one that played against Wolves on Saturday (which was, including substitutions: Wojciech Szczesny, Bacary Sagna, Laurent Koscielny, Johan Djourou, Gael Clichy, Cesc Fabregas, Theo Walcott, Alexandre Song, Jack Wilshere (Pereira Neves Denilson, 77), Andrey Arshavin (Marouane Chamakh, 72), Robin van Persie (Nicklas Bendtner, 72)).
Koscielny and Djourou will have their hands full with Pedro and Villa, but the Gunners must rely on those two as Song, Wilshere, and even Fabregas must neutralize the trinity of Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi. Clichy, of course, must await Alves at his front. Arsenal should consider assigning Wilshere to Messi always and everywhere. Now if Pique decides to get in the mix from the back, van Persie will struggle to help, but at least that places the ball much farther back in the formation. Little will matter if Arsenal’s third-string keeper can’t handle free kicks.
Barça’s shape does provide some opportunity. Sagna must take every chance to get forward and exploit the absence of a true winger on that side. Naturally, this will help push Arshavin forward to provide a link and partner to RvP. What, isn’t that Walcott’s side? Well, certainly, the two have switched flanks, allowing Walcott all the room Alves has vacated, particularly if Wilshere and Song can lay some longer diagonals in front of him.
Should be an interesting match despite every commentator essentially writing off Arsenal since the draw.
Our picks for the weekend–a couple Premier League games, a couple Serie A games, a USMNT friendly, and the final of the Copa Centroamericano. As usual, culled from SoccerInsider’s comprehensive listings, and all times ET:
Saturday, Jan 22
England, Wolves-Liverpool 7:30 a.m. ESPN2: This exact sort of fixture continues to bedevil Liverpool. Can they fix a two-year problem visiting the grounds of England’s lesser lights? If not, will Daiglish snap?
England, Aston Villa-Manchester City 12:30 p.m. FSC: Darren Bent’s debut for the Villans as they begin their campaign to avoid the drop. Gotta believe Kompany will have his hands full paired with the useless Lescott if Kolo Toure not back from injury. Can Dzeko grab his first or even play nearly as well as last time out? Who will Manciin rest after the FACup replay in mid-week?
Friendly, USA-Chile 10 p.m. Telefutura, ESPN3.com: Almost exclusively young, uncapped players for Team USA. A good chance perhaps to see who will take over for the current team, but only available on Telefutura/ESPN3 means very little chance of actually doing so. (Why is the game only on Telefutura and ESPN3? Details here)
Sunday, Jan 23
Italy, Udinese-Inter Milan 6:30 a.m. FSP: Inter on a roll after Leonardo replaced Rafa; a player to watch for Udinese: Alexis Sanchez
Italy, AC Milan-Cesena 2:30 p.m. FSC: it should (might?) be interesting to see how Italian teams approach being near relegation. We are all familiar with the English “Route One”, but how Cesena approach travelling to the leaders.
NFL – NFC Championship, Chicago Bears-Green Bay Packers 3pm: For only the 2nd time, we expand our listings to include an contest of the “other” football. Why this one? Because CultFootball’s prehistory can be traced back to when we were (a variety of) the Monsters of the Midway.
Copa CentroAmericana final, Costa Rica-Honduras 6 p.m. GolTV
[Editor’s note: Coach Larry takes over this week’s edition of our weekend viewing guide, with some color(ful) commentary on this weekend’s FA matches in England. As usual, TV listings pulled from WaPo SoccerInsider’s useful weekly post, and all times ET.]
Saturday, Jan 8
England FA Cup, Sheffield United-Aston Villa 10 a.m. FSC: Aston Villa play at Sheffield United. Can relegation candidates in one league overcome them in another? Can either use it as a springboard to survival or will advancement divide their attention? Will Guzan play? Who will Randy Lerner kiss if Villa do something good?
Sunday Jan 9
England FA Cup, Manchester United-Liverpool 8:30 a.m. FSC: The Biggie. Can Liverpool find success at their only chance to find it this season? Are they really lining up bids for Ashley Young, Luis Suarez, and Elia? Certainly they could use the speed on their flanks, but it will make them even more disjointed. Maybe NESV has been studying isolation plays in the NBA.
England FA Cup, Leicester-Manchester City 11 a.m. FSC: Man City travel to Championship mid-table Leceister. Can the giant bag of overpaid superstars possibly stand the trip? Will they introduce Dzeko? Will they play a nearly all out attack against one of the worst defensive in that league?
Italy, Napoli-Juventus 2:30 p.m. FSC & ESPN3.com: Oh, and in Serie A Napoli face off with Juventus, which is third versus fifth. Both are coming off losses, though Juve had much the worse showing last week:
The Premier League has nearly reached its halfway point, and the title race has narrowed to five, as there is no reason to supsect any team from Bolton on down to make a serious run to the summit.
The current leaders Manchester United stand two points clear and have yet to lose, but have not impressed, relying on late comebacks from both ahead and behind to draw too many matches. They have good depth and teamwork under the rule of Sir Alex, but individually there is little magic to be had. Then again, maybe Berbatov has found some, but the laconic Bulgarian is not known for his consistency. They benefit from little World Cup fatigue as only Park and Chicharito had substantial roles in South Africa. They have survived, despite the only occasional presence of Rooney, mostly due to the stability along their back line, especially in the middle. Van Der Sar has been solid in goal, yet he has no depth behind him. If Rooney, Chicharito, and Rafael can find a consistent high level, they can even improve, though they must consider investing in Carlton Cole to hedge.
Players I would pay to see: Rooney, Nani, Berbatov.
Players who must play well for them to win: Ferdinand and Vidic, Nani, Berbatov, Evra, Rooney.
Players who if they play too much kill their chances: Any GK not named Van Der Sar, O’Shea, Evans.
Chelsea were seemingly running away from the pack until their recent stretch which even saw them struggle in the Champions League with MSK Zilina at Stamford Bridge. 32 shots at Birmingham produced only nine on target and zero goals. Obviously, missing both Lampard and Essien at times has hurt them significantly, as they no longer can just plug in other near-world-class players like Ballack or Deco. They have shown themselves too susceptible through the middle, as Terry and Alex also have struggled with injuries. Cech has returned to a decent form, but they are another top club with nobody behind their number one.
Players I would pay to see: Drogba, Malouda, Essien.
Players who must play well for them to win: Drogba, Malouda, Essien, Terry and Alex, Lampard.
Players who if they play too much kill their chances: Any GK not named Cech, any player with a squad number higher than 40, Ramires, Ferreira, Kalou.
Arsenal have only one player remaining from “The Invincibles”, and the six years have shown a consistent problem converting chances into goals. When combined with their penchant to become unsteady late in matches, their challenge consistently suffers from dropped points in winnable matches. Of course, the additions of regular time for Song and now Chamakh has somewhat increased their ability to deal with the physicality of the daily grind. Naturally, they possess a great depth of some interchangeable parts, and the players all believe in what they are doing under Wenger. Oh, but their woeful goalkeeping must improve.
Players I would pay to see: Song, Fabregas, Van Persie, Arshavin, Nasri, Rosicky, Sagna.
Players who must play well for them to win: Fabregas, Song, Van Persie, Chamakh, Sagna.
Players who if they play too much kill their chances: Bendtner, Wilshere, Denilson.
Ah the riches of the Middle East have been showered upon Manchester City, yet instant success has not arrived upon a horse-drawn sleigh. World class players all over the pitch and in the stands watching have done little to implement a plan to harness this advantage. At times, they appear forlorn to have to play, especially at some of the lower-ranked outposts around the country. They must solve their owners versus manager versus players versus fan expectations dilemma. Mancini should start by breaking up his DeJong, Yaya Toure, and Barry central midfield, and move decisively toward pairing somebody with Tevez up front. They can, at least, be assured of the best goalkeeping in this group, with an established backup to Hart.
Players I would pay to see: Tevez, Silva, A Johnson, Balotelli, Yaya.
Players who must play well for them to win: Tevez, Kompany, Silva, A Johnson, Tevez.
Players who if they play too much kill their chances: Yaya&Barry&DeJong, Vieira.
Tottenham live on the edge each match and sit fifth in this race, yet from owner to substitute, they possess the most belief in themselves. Only their supporters continue to doubt, as they have been conditioned to do. Clearly, they remain unafraid of the big matches, but they must increase their readiness against the “lesser” teams. Having earlier dismissed Bolton, Tottenham actually possess a lower goals differential, as leaving every victory to late will bite them before long. Solving their center and right of their backline would contribute mightily, as would finding a regular defensive midfielder. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to move to a 4-5-1 to provide their width without having to force Hutton and Assou-Ekotto. Gomes has come around to being perfectly adequate, and might become good if he sheds his habit of making the worst possible mistake at the worst possible time. At least they have good depth behind him. Ouch, not only is Van der Vaart out for a month, its for the most possible matches in a month as well.
Players I would pay to see: Van der Vaart, Bale, Modric, Assou-Ekotto.
Players who must play well for them to win: Van der Vaart, Bale, Modric, Defoe, Assou-Ekotto, Huddlestone or Palacios.
Players who if they play too much kill their chances: Crouch, Jenas, Bentley, the crappy version of Lennon.
Now some of these players deemed useless may prove needed if the spate of freezing weather continues. The snowy, uncertain pitches will bring out the necessity of direct targeting from open play, which will highlight the necessity of an aerial presence. Lots to play for, and, if the pressures don’t overwhelm them, many great matches to see.
[Editor’s note: This is the final installment in Coach Larry’s account of his trip to South Africa for WC2010. See his previous SA dispatches here.]
Poor weather drives us away from the beachfront and up to Umhlanga to the mall for some shopping in the largest mall in the Southern Hemisphere. Disappointingly, I cannot locate the indoor roller coaster, though it does feature a climbing wall and a goodly number of surf shops. Over and after lunch we see the surprisingly entertaining Germans roll through the English as if every English defender has lost all sense of position. The evening match and dinner prove not much more exciting, though it does horrifyingly display more inept refereeing. Alas, we have worse ideas than an early bedtime, as tomorrow brings us Netherlands v Slovakia.
We make an early trip to Victoria Market, acquiring a mish-mash of souvenirs after walking well past the structure, getting a bit lost in the day market. At least I have some peri-peri spice for the World Cup Final party back home (fyi, it was pretty good). A quick beer over at Wilson’s Wharf gets us off our feet, but we return our treasures home to head to the match. Back down the hill we walk. We barely make it past the top of Florida Road before we start mixing with head-to-toe Orange clad Dutch fans. The two miles go quickly as we continue to pick up jumpsuits, admiral outfits, curly wigs, and cow hats. There was even an Houston Dynamo (Holden) kit thrown into the mix. As the extreme wind nearly carries away my pre-match beer, I worry the action might get affected.
[We are still going back in time to experience Coach Larry’s trip]
The drive into Durban went easily enough, and we arrived at the hotel around lunch. We walked down to the beachfront and enjoyed the warm weather. A mile of sandy beaches with swimmers and surfers, sand sculptors, and a wide promenade separate
the FIFA fanfest area in the south and gorgeous Moses Mabhida stadium on the north end. The casino and its food court are also in the north, hosting the secondary fanfest sponsored by Hyundai. Hey look its Frings, and we all enjoy bidding, “Arrivederci , Italia!” though regretting we will not be enjoying a Netherlands v Italy second round match on the 28th.
We decide to utilize the main fanfest for the Brazil v Portugal crunch on the 25th. After we enjoy our toes in the sand and a lovely walk around the beachfront, FIFA opens the gates two hours before the match. We sample some local foods, though somehow miss the bunny chow as we opt for more sausages.