Month: September 2013

No longer making plans for Nigel

As overused as this cliche is, it is nevertheless the end of an era. It seems a lifetime ago since Nigel Clough took over in January 2009, watching his new employers defeat Manchester United 1-0 in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final. His remit was to keep the club up, after the utterly disastrous spell under Paul Jewell, and he achieved that aim. His next task was to reduce the wage bill whilst producing a competitive team, and he did that too. An emphasis on youth was also placed, and the Rams (with the setback in 10/11 an exception) began to climb the table. However, it would appear that the 1-0 defeat to Nottingham Forest was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Was his sacking right?

My first reaction was mixed. Prior to Clough’s sacking, I had said to my sister not long after the Forest defeat that “I’m becoming more sceptical of Clough”. Be careful what you wish for. I feel no joy or optimism over this decision. Inconsistency has blighted the 13/14 campaign already, but prior to the City Ground result the Rams had the best away record in the league, with form at Pride Park the Achilles heel. On reflection, I feel that he should have been given at least until January, if not the end of the season. I’ve said recently that I wouldn’t mind finishing outside of the play-offs this season, provided that the play-off challenge was there, and was consistent. That’s looked unlikely so far this season, but are seasons made and broken in September?

Let’s evaluate Clough’s reign. He achieved his initial remit, and whilst the progress since has been relatively slow, it has been tangible and visible. Paul Jewell (and Billy Davies to an extent) littered Derby with far too many first team players, leaving Clough with essentially a bureaucratic as well as coaching role. I’ve spoken more in depth about Clough’s tactics in a previous post, but to surmise he has always tried to implement a passing style at Pride Park. For someone derided as ‘non-league Nigel’ by some, we played far better football under Clough’s reign than many of his predecessors, with George Burley probably the last manager to provide attractive football. His financial constraints have been clear for all to see, and in my opinion Clough’s good signings far outweighed his bad ones. When backed with larger sums for individual players, he has more often than not provided good value; think Shaun Barker, John Brayford, Jason Shackell and Richard Keogh, with Conor Sammon possibly the only expensive flop (although the jury is still out to a degree). When Clough detractors have gleefully pointed out his worst deals, they have often been either freebies (Lee Hendrie, Lee Croft, David Martin) or low cost signings (Chris Maguire, Chris Porter).

My main frustration with Clough was his stubbornness. Too often a substitution would be left late in a game, when changes were urgently needed. Michael Jacobs, a talented if raw winger who can play the Jamie Ward role has frequently been left in the cold due to his poor record at tracking back. Players would be signed and initially praised, only to be quickly frozen out at will. Formations would come and ago, with a clear lack of width (4-4-2 shapes would often involve central midfielders on the wing), and players often shoehorned into position (such as Craig Bryson on the left wing during the 12/13 season, or Jeff Hendrick on the right this season). Clough’s public blasting of players often got on the nerves of the supporters, such as this harsh view on Tomasz Cywka (a Clough signing): “So he can go back to Wigan or wherever he came from, I am not really bothered, until he learns the game”. A Clough team, ultimately, would be immensely hard working and dedicated, but with a lack of flair to unlock the tightest of defences. It became a little tiresome to reach the halfway point of a season with the mantra “let’s build for next season”.

However, it was refreshing to have a manager who clearly cared for the club. Cynics will say that it’s a results business, but what’s wrong with a bit of heart in the game? I of course want every manager of Derby County to succeed, but never more so than with Clough. I longed for the sight of Nigel holding aloft the Championship trophy (or play-off trophy; they both entail promotion), doing his family proud. Robbie Savage tweeted that Clough was a man “who put the club before himself”, and it’s hard to disagree with that. He clearly loved the club, and gave his all for the cause. His tenure was littered with quality signings; Shaun Barker, John Brayford, Jason Shackell, Craig Bryson, Jamie Ward and Richard Keogh to list a few. Furthermore, whilst the work of academy coaches should never be overlooked, Clough put the likes of Jeff Hendrick and Will Hughes into the first team; the latter in particular has the world at his feet. Clough never once directly moaned about the financial constraints, and on their day his teams could be a match for anyone in the league. Championship clubs may be sceptical, but League 1 and 2 clubs could certainly do a lot worse than Nigel.

September was too early to sack Clough. Pessimism has infiltrated Pride Park recently, but he could have turned it around. Perhaps a promotion challenge was just beyond him, but an improvement on 10th from last season was not beyond the realms of possibility. Buoyed by the cash of Will Hughes’ potential sale next year, who knows what Clough could have done with some money finally at his disposal? The alternative looks bleak, which I have often said to Clough-haters. Tony Pulis, seriously? We have methodically and carefully built up a passing game at Derby; why throw that away at one stroke with a rash appointment? I’d love to see where Will Hughes would fit into a Tony Pulis team. Jamie Ward and Craig Bryson would be considered too small. The long ball approach is archaic and ultimately ineffective; even Stoke tired of Pulis eventually despite his promotion exploits. The next manager has to be a significant improvement, and someone who can buy into the ethos on passing football and a strong academy. Of the available options, my best case scenario would be Gus Poyet, but that is extremely unlikely.

Had we finished below 10th this season, I may have called for Clough to go. However, the board’s pandering to a consistent and long-term approach looks pathetic with this decision. September is too early, and this looks all too much like a knee-jerk reaction. The board have a lot of questions to answer; Clough has been a convenient shield for their lack of investment. Had Clough had another year or two, perhaps we finally would have exploded a la Burton in 2009, with everything clicking into place. Thanks for everything Nigel. You kept us up, cleared the deadwood, reduced the wage bill, gave youth a chance and brought some entertainment back to Pride Park, even if it was often in patches. More importantly, you gave a damn about the club. On and off the pitch, the next guy has big shoes to fill.

Clough’s highlights:

-Derby’s 3-2 victory (after being 2-0 down) over Nottingham Forest in 2009, their first at the City Ground since 1971

-Four consecutive victories at the start of the 11/12 season; Derby’s best start for 106 years

-Down to 10 men and 1-0 down after one minute, Derby beat Forest 2-1 away in September 2011; they make it a league double in March 2012 with a Jake Buxton effort in a 1-0 win

Clough’s low points: 

-A 4-1 home defeat to Scunthorpe in January 2010; the first time his position was seriously called into question

-A 5-2 away feat at Nottingham Forest in December 2010. Need I say more?

-The 10/11 season. Fluid football in a 4-2-3-1 formation was later undone, and a strong promotion battle quickly regressed into a relegation dogfight and a 19th place finish

Best signings:

-Shaun Barker

-John Brayford

-Craig Bryson

Worst signings:

-Lee Croft

-Chris Maguire

-Nathan Tyson

Let’s finish with a quote from Brian, which sums up the current situation: “If a chairman sacks the manager he initially appointed, he should go as well”.

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Diving in to the diving debate

As a Crystal Palace fan, you can all understand my beef with Ashley Young. A player notorious for simulation and conning referees and not for his ability, Young was at it again on two separate occasions. The first was a booking, fair play by Johnathan Moss. The second will likely engender debate across the country for a long time.

The incident plays out as follows. Mile Jedinak gives the ball away to Young and he bears down on the Palace goal. He takes a touch towards the box and, pretty clearly, does not follow the ball and instead runs into the path of a retreating Kagisho Dikgacoi. He then proceeds to lean into him and go down before Dikgacoi slides and goes down too. The result is a penalty and a red card for Dikgacoi. I can’t find any footage of the incident right now but I will embed it as soon as I find it. For those of you who have seen it, there are at least three things we can agree on.

  1. The incident took place outside of the box, and thus wasn’t a penalty.
  2. Dikgacoi was not the last man, as Delaney was covering.
  3. Young had deviated from the path of the ball and thus it could not be considered a goalscoring opportunity.

Those three things are clear enough, but there is a pretty clear case for a fourth point: Young initiated the contact and thus dived to con the referee into giving the decision for United.

Gary Neville once gave an analysis most University lecturers would be proud of on diving which many of you I am sure have seen. He argues that 95% of attackers, when in the box, are looking for limbs to trip over, and will often move their legs unnaturally towards defenders to make sure of the contact. In instances like the ones he describes, it is both a foul and a dive, as you have to go down to make the foul noticeable to the referee and officials.

In the case of Ashely Young, however, there was no leg to trip him up, and his movement into Dikgacoi was far from natural. When Dikgacoi eventually made the slide tackle, Ashley Young was already most of the way down and the contact had already been initiated by Young. It was cynical, intentional, and effective, but very much unlike what Gary describes in the video. It’s this sort of thing that needs eradicating from the game. But how? There are a number of problems.

At the forefront of this is the difficult job the referees have. His view of the Young-Dikgacoi incident was obscured, because all he will have seen is Dikgacoi’s back and him sliding in on Young (this was probably his downfall in the end, sliding in from behind, even without contact, is asking for trouble). The interpretation of referees is different; for example, a different referee may have sent of Young for a second bookable offense, or just given Dikgacoi a yellow. Steve Parish told 606 that he’d like to see red cards for incidents like this. As good as this idea sounds, what if you give a player a red who was legitimately fouled? What if Tevez had got injured in the tackle in the video AND been sent off for simulation? Hardly just is it?

Secondly, there’s the issue of retrospective action as the leading deterrent against diving. I’m probably going to sound very opinionated here so those who don’t like healthy discussion should stop here. Retrospective action is not the answer. Yes, you can give divers the bans that they warrant, but by Gary’s definition, you’d be giving several retrospective bans every week. Things such as points deductions have also been discussed, but that isn’t going to give relegation-threatened teams their hard-earned points back, is it? It’s still going to leave a bitter taste.

In my opinion, the best way to tackle the diving pandemic is to incorporate some level of technology into the sport. On television broadcasts, we are spoiled with access to replays and analysis referees aren’t, and they need it more than we do. Most premier league grounds will have a large monitor somewhere in the stadium: why not broadcast replays so that everyone can see them including the referees? Alternatively, have a referee or so in the production booth where selected replayed are broadcast to the public and let them see them in there? The only way to correctly make a decision is to make it in real time, and the only way that can be done is allowing referees to access replay technology. Couple this with hefty fines for divers and then we can think about red cards for diving. Then, we can really put to bed something which is plaguing the beautiful game.

Ibrahimovic is a great player, but it doesn’t excuse him from being a role model

This is a bit off topic, but I think it may implicitly highlight the more down to earth nature of the Football League!

 

Before I start what could develop into a lengthy rant, let me establish the facts; Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a cracking player. His fourth goal against England last year would have been enough to secure his legacy, but that would be to discredit his achievements at some of Europe’s biggest clubs; Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona and Milan. He’s won numerous titles and accolades along the way, and at the age of 31 he scored 35 goals in 46 games last year for Paris Saint-Germain, along with 11 assists. He should be celebrated for his undoubted ability, but he should also be castigated for his often callous attitude to the game.

 

I know that I’ll be in a minority here. Many football fans take to Ibrahimovic’s ‘colourful’ outbursts as a hilarious form of laddish banter, and find him an entertaining source for quotes. The headline “Zlatan Ibrahimovic announces he is donating his entire salary to Zlatan Ibrahimovic” may raise chortles, but are we really going to pat him on the back for saying “the children of Paris are not leading Ligue 1 in goals this season. I am”? I find it hard for Ibrahimovic to be endeared to me in this time of economic hardship when he adds “if anything, the children of Paris should be giving me even more money for having the privilege of being in the same city as my incredible quality”. 80% of football fans will probably laugh at this ‘Zlaritible donation’, but I doubt they would if they lost their job, or indeed if a primma donna was to blatantly dive and win a penalty at their team’s expense; the hypocrisy is ludicrous.

 

Not only has Ibrahimovic been boastful about his financial gain and conspicuous consumption (he is said to earn some 14 million euros a year), but he has had utter contempt for one of the game’s great managers; Pep Guardiola. In a published autobiography called ‘I am Zlatan’, Ibrahimovic labels Guardiola (the winner of 3 La Liga titles, 2 Copa del Reys, 2 Champions League titles, 3 Supercopa de Espanas, 2 UEFA Super Cups and 2 FIFA Club World Cups in his managerial career alone) a “spineless coward”, before going on to add this curious anecdote: “None of the lads acted like superstars, which was strange. Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, the whole gang – they were like schoolboys”. Surely not! Footballers acting modestly? “The best footballers in the world stood there with their heads bowed and I didn’t understand any of it. It was ridiculous. Everyone did as they were told”. Fans across the country rightly lament the often arrogant nature of the modern footballer, yet will they agree with Ibrahimovic’s thesis? Ibrahimovic can’t really contest the way that Barcelona has been run over the years, which has brought the Catalans magnificent success; the episode highlights the heavily individualised nature of the towering Swede.

 

People will rightly say that there are plenty of other footballers guilty of heavily inflated egos.  Pierre van Hooijdonk may not immediately spring to memory for some, but he supposedly said that Celtic’s £7,000 a week offer “might be good enough for the homeless…but not for an international striker”. I’ve picked Ibrahimovic out in this piece because he is such an outrageous example. He also hasn’t always been value for money; when Inter received around £40 million plus Samuel Eto’o for Ibrahimovic from Barcelona in 2009, who do you think got the better deal? Barcelona sold him for around £20 million a year later to AC Milan. Ibrahimovic obviously had little control over what was paid for him, but if we are to take his earlier quotes with PSG as gospel then he was worth every penny.

 

It’s a crying shame that we can’t just discuss a player’s ability on the pitch, and I’m aware that I’m prone to calls of hypocrisy, but quotes of Ibrahimovic’s capacity inevitably draw this kind of derision. I wouldn’t mind at all acting like a schoolboy if I was earning over £200,000 a week, especially if it was to do a hobby. Every footballer is a role model, and should act so accordingly. As a world class player, Ibrahimovic is in the spotlight, and whilst his remarks may be entertaining, they act as a symbolic smack in the face in an ever escalating financial bubble for football fans. Would it really cost much for Ibrahimovic to be just a little more modest? Zlatan is a remarkable player, but there are players better than him that are capable of toning down the arrogance. He’d do well to remember the words of former Ipswich chairman John Cobbold (Sir Bobby Robson’s former boss): “you have to love the game more than the prize. The game is more important than the prize because without the game, there is no prize anyway”.

 

Off-topic Mondays: Deadline Day – Clubs and players to watch

Today starts the dawn of a new, weekly post series about all things… non-Championship. I would have done a Championship deadline day piece, but the topic is far too broad to leave the big guns out of it. So here are some players and clubs and players to watch today.

Wigan Athletic

Since Wigan got relegated, everyone was expecting this huge exodus of talent, particularly from midfield. So, who exactly has left Wigan so far? Well, Alcaraz, Kone, and Joel Robles have all departed for pastures blue, Franco di Santo has left on a free, and Figueroa has hot-footed it to Hull. All of their talented midfielders remain contracted to the club, which will please Wigan fans to no end. As a result, I would largely expect a few Premier League clubs to put bids in for their talent as the window nears closure. Everton have seen a £10m move for James McCarthy get flat out rejected, and Newcastle remain interested. Similarly, the rumour is Crystal Palace have had a £2.5m bid for Callum McManaman turned down, but it seems that they have since turned their attentions to Forest’s Adlene Guediora and, perhaps ambitiously (and hopefully flat out not true), Arsenal’s Nicklas Bendtner.

Real Madrid

All the talk surrounding Real Madrid has been about two things: Gareth Bale’s world record move, and deluded United fans thinking Ronaldo will actually return to Old Trafford. For those of you who missed it, Mesut Ozil is on the verge of a move to Arsenal, and Kaka has gone home to AC Milan. The word from Carlo Ancelotti today is that Fabio Coentrao will not be leaving, which personally saddens me because he’s too good to be sat on the bench every weekend, and I’d love to see him in the Premier League (come on Daniel Levy, do the usual). Other names linked with moves away are Angel di Maria, again possibly to Arsenal, and Karim Benzema, though a lack of striking cover may spell the end of any speculation surrounding him.

Newcastle

Joe Kinnear was brought in to sign all the players Alan Pardew needs to push for Europe once again. So far, he’s trolled him by signing QPR striker and previous Newcastle rejector Loic Remy on loan. That surely is some sort of prank. Rumour has it that they were on the verge of signing Aaron Hunt, until Kinnear pronounced his name wrong, and they have since moved on to Charles N’Zogbia… I jest and digress. In all seriousness, Newcastle need some players, any players, and James McCarthy is a linked name. If they don’t bring bodies into the club, expect them to face a very tough season.

Peter Odemwingie

It’s always been interesting to see what happens with this guy ever since he showed up on a London car park with a sign saying “will kick ball for food”, but it looks like he might actually be moving this deadline day around. Cardiff have been given permission to speak to the Nigerian forward and all we can do is pray and hope that it falls through and the drama can continue come January.

The remaining members of the Aston Villa bomb squad

Yeh, they aren’t moving. No one wants them. Stephen Ireland, Shay Given and Charles N’Zogbia and co. will continue to leech Randy Lerner’s money until their contracts expire.

Arsenal

They’ve finally come to life, and they’ve left it very late. Ozil is pretty much a done deal, and more look to be on the way in. Emiliano Viviano from Palermo will join to provide competition for Wojciech Szczesny. Angel Di Maria, Karim Benzema, Demba Ba, Yohan Cabaye have all been linked. And, to my knowledge, they havent been linked with a single defender, which is kind of what they need. Expect an influx of talent.

Spurs

I don’t know why, and I don’t know who. But it’s SPURS. They WILL do something. Rumours are Hulk, Tom Ince, and Coentrao.

Manchester United, Marouane Fellaini, and Shinji Kagawa

Even with Liverpool, Newcastle and Arsenal all around, somehow Manchester United are this seasons soap opera. The fans are getting edgy. The board refuses to deliver. Why didn’t they hijack the Ozil deal? Wouldn’t Christian Eriksen have been the ideal creative midfielder? Why don’t they swoop for Juan Mata, seemingly becoming more and more available? Instead, they’ve gone for Ander Herrera, a player who plied his trade at underperforming Athletic Bilbao last season. £30m is the fee. He’d better be good. Additionally, Moyes seems to be far too focused on a player who doesn’t really fit the United mould: Fellaini. I can understand why, he’s an arial threat, and Moyes knows him well. He is not the answer. He isn’t a creative, natural CAM like a Gotze or an Ozil or an Eriksen. There is however a solution, one that really maddens me that Moyes has ignored…. PLAY KAGAWA. Just play him, he’s one of your best players. He can score, he can create, JUST PLAY HIM. It’s no wonder Dortmund fans are getting antsy, he’s too good to sit on the bench while TOM BLOODY CLEVERLEY plays EVERY GAME and he’s simply not good enough to pull on the red jersey. So David Moyes, you can sign who you like, I don’t care. But please sell Kagawa to a club who actually wants to play him and not waste him for the purpose of marketing in Asia. The rumours are that Dortmund and Atletico Madrid will bid for his signature, but I’ve heard rumours of a Premier League loan to Aston Villa for him… watch this space.