Friday, July 30, 2010

Season Preview

The English Premier League is only two weeks away from kicking its first ball in anger. Over those two weeks, I will be writing a comprehensive preview of what I think the league will look like throughout the season. I will break the teams up into five categories.

5. Relegation Fodder. These clubs will be at or near the bottom all season. Some of them may survive, barely, but their fans will be biting their fingernails all the way into May.

4. Established in the top flight. These clubs have been in the Premier League for a while, are relatively stable, and should remain that way. They will be inconsistent, and may have a poor run in March or April that has their supporters scared, but they will end up somewhere between 10th and 14th, with little chance of moving into the battle for Europa League spots, and little chance of going down.

3. Europa League hopefuls. These clubs will almost certainly be in the top half of the table, and likely will be fighting for the fifth, sixth, and possibly seventh spots, which might provide European games in 2012.

2. Champions League hopefuls. These are the clubs with a realistic chance of finishing in the top four, but not enough experience, talent or depth to make a run at the league title.

1. Title contenders. The big boy's club, and they may be inducting a new member this season.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

4-2-3-1 (Continued)

In my last post I discussed the possibility of Bolton playing a new formation this season, and gave my opinion on who would make up our best deep-lying midfield two. Today I am going to address the lone striker in the 4-2-3-1 formation.

The 1 is a straight choice between Kevin Davies and Johann Elmander, and I think most Wanderers supporters would say there is no doubt who should be chosen. An interesting option coming off the bench late in matches could be Riga, whose pace and movement would give tired defenders a lot to worry about.

There are 2 distinct ways to manage the attacking 4 in this formation, and both involve a lot of movement to create space. Under Joechim Loew, Germany used a 4-2-3-1 with a traditional centre-forward in Miroslav Klose. In this system, there is a lot of movement and interchange between the three attacking midfielders, as well as overlapping runs by the full-backs, but the striker remains relatively stationary in the middle of the park, hopefully near the opponents 12-yard box. This is the first way to manage this formation, and probably the most appropriate for use with Kevin Davies. And Owen Coyle's signing of attacking left-back Marcus Alonso from Real Madrid seems to point towards this tactical attack.

The second tactical option is to use the lone striker as more of a playmaker, scoring goals himself, but also bringing the midfield into play and allowing them to contribute to the goal tally. It almost removes the centre-forward designation and makes the 4 attacking positions entirely interchangeable. This is best displayed at AS Roma, where Francesco Totti pulls the strings from the front of the attack. Kevin Davies is not suited for this role. Johann Elmander might be, but there is very little patience for him in Bolton at this point.

So, unless another striker is on the way to the Reebok, it will be Kevin Davies up top, and he will need to do a lot not just in holding the ball up, but in quickly bringing the midfielders into the attack.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Toronto FC v. Bolton Wanderers New Look 4-2-3-1

It figures, doesn't it? My beloved Bolton Wanderers finally come to the US on a preseason tour, and they do not play anywhere near New York. Instead, they are playing Toronto FC as I write this. It is 1-1 at halftime.

I have been thinking the past week about what formation Bolton will play this season. Owen Coyle seemed to play 4-4-2 at home and 4-5-1 on the road last season. But I think he has learned some things from last years Champion's League and the World Cup. 4-2-3-1 has become the most effective formation in football.

Interestingly, that seems to be the formation Bolton are playing against Toronto tonight. Fabrice Muamba and Joey O'Brien were the holding midfielders, with Martin Petrov, Mark Davies, and Matt Taylor the attacking 3. Taylor was really getting forward, oftentimes actually ending up ahead of Kevin Davies, who was the lone striker. I think Matt Taylor is poised for a bounce back season, as he was in poor form for most of last year.

As for the general formation, I really like it, and I think Wanderers have the personnel to play it. Muamba will definitely be one of the holding midfielders, a real destroyer who I think is going to get attention from England manager Fabio Capello as this season continues.

The second deep lying player needs to be a passer, someone who can get the balls Muamba wins and put the attackers into good positions. Sean Davis is probably the favorite for this role, but I can see Ricardo Gardner spending some time there, or maybe even Stuart Holden. Although as I write this Gardner is looking very lively on the left wing. Anyway, I think Tamir Cohen and Joey O'Brien are too similar to Muamba to play with him.

If it were my decision, it would be Stuart Holden. He is just so impressive every time I see him play. He is an excellent passer, has a good shot on him, and just doesn't give the ball away. He is decent sized, strong on the ball or challenging for it, and not afraid to put in a tackle. Just great composure, and he puts in very accurate free kicks. He also runs miles, and that is especially important, because for all his gifts, Muamba is not a very cultured passer. His midfield partner will need to get close to him in order to control the ball and initiate the attack.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Premier League Changes

Only a few weeks to go until August 14th, and the return of the English league. Germany will start the following week, and the Italian and Spanish leagues, bastions of administrative competence that they are, will see fit to release this season's fixture lists at some point soon.

The big talk right now is transfers, and that will only get bigger as we approach August 31st, and the closure of the transfer window. This is significant, but I can't be bothered with the speculation, talk to me when the players actually sign a contract.

Anyway, I think a lot of people are missing the big story in England. That is the new rules about team's squad lists. The publicity that has been given to the new rules has focused on the homegrown player rule, but I think the effects of that rule are over-rated. There is only one club, maybe two, that will have any trouble meeting that requirement, and they have plenty of time to sign an English player or two before squad lists are due on September 1st.

That is not the real story though. The real story is the 25 man squad limits. This won't affect a team like Arsenal, because they have a lot of under-21 players who don't count against the 25 man limit. This affects clubs like Chelsea, Manchester United, and Manchester City, because they have huge squads of older, veteran players. And these players aren't going to sit around and twiddle their thumbs for 4 months. But the clubs don't want to lose them in many cases. So I think we are going to see quite a few older, big name players go on half season loans to mid-level premier league clubs.

I just hope Bolton is a beneficiary.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Netherlands v. Spain

Here it is. The one we have all been waiting for. The two greatest footballing nations never to have won the World Cup. Two countries famous for their attacking talents, their passing ability, their brilliant football, and their unpredictable temperaments. I think it will be epic. I think we will see brilliance on the pitch.

Football is often a game of attrition. This is an era where the biggest concern is conceding goals, and the aim of most managers is not to lose, rather than to win. Even with those for whom the win is important, 1-0 is the preferred tally. But I don't believe that mentality will rule the day tomorrow. I believe both of these teams want to win, and win in 90 minutes, and they want to accomplish that by scoring more goals than their opponent. It sounds silly to say, but it is never the goal of a team like Italy.

My prediction is that Arjen Robben will put on a show, and David Villa will match him firework for firework, aided by the superb passing of Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, and Wesley Sneijder. Look for Robin van Persie to get a goal, but it will not be enough. Spain 2, Holland 1. The World Cup Trophy can go on display next to the European Cup from 2008.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

World Cup Semi-finalists

I should have gone to Vegas before the tournament and made some bets. I could have been a rich man.

Netherlands will play Spain in the final, just as I thought. Most interestingly, a new nation will win the World Cup for the first time since France did so as hosts in 1998. Uruguay is also on that list, they won the first World Cup as hosts in 1930, then won it again in 1950. They didn't add their third trophy this year, but they may well have been the story of the tournament. A tiny South American nation that had to qualify through a playoff ends up reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup. Luis Suarez looked great, and no matter what you think of his handball against Ghana, he was one of the stars of the tournament.

That said, for me, the player of the tournament has been Diego Forlan. He has scored goals, he has created goals, and he has been the leader of his team in every sense of the word.

The team of the tournament so far also lost this week. Spain won the match on Wednesday, but Germany has been a revelation. And their entire midfield will still be in their 20's at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Keep your eye on this team. I would think they will be co-favorites, along with Spain going into the 2012 European Cup.

Monday, July 5, 2010

World Cup Transfers

Just as reliable as the tournament itself, is the rush of big clubs to buy up players who impressed while playing for their country.

One of the first up, Pablo Barrera, a 23-year-old Mexican winger who plays for UNAM in Mexico. Of course, Mexico have a deep pool of talented youngsters who love to attack, and Barrera didn't even make the starting XI, he was used as a substitute in three of their four matches. Yet he is still being chased by West Ham, Lazio, Espanyol, and Celtic. Barrera looks to be a good prospect, and he will not be too expensive, but he will be more than he was a month ago.

A good signing was announced a few weeks ago by Manchester City. I have to say, for all the complaints about Manchester City throwing their money around, it's difficult to point to specific signings and say they were bad. Even the ones that have turned out poorly (Robinho, Bojinov) I thought were justifiable at the time. City signed Jerome Boateng from Hamburg in Germany for about £12 million. Considering that he has played well for Germany, and Germany have been outstanding in getting to the semi-final, City saved themselves a substantial amount of money by signing him before the tournament started.

I must admit though, the Yaya Toure signing does perplex me a bit. The fee of £24 million is a little high for a holding midfielder, but not crazy, as he is a very good player. What I don't understand is why they would sign Toure when they already have Nigel de Jong, Vincent Kompany, Gareth Barry, and Patrick Vierra in the same role.

The red half of Manchester enjoyed similar good fortune, as United's signing, Mexican forward Javier Hernandez, scored two goals and showed himself to be possibly the fastest player at the World Cup. He cost £10 million, and looked like a very good prospect at the tournament. By agreeing to this deal in April, Manchester United probably saved around £5 million. Which is good, because I think the Chris Smalling signing from Fulham is an absolute waste of £8 million.

I am sure more World Cup signings will come down in the next few weeks, as the players return home from South Africa, but that is what we have for now.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Bolton sign Bulgarian winger to stabilize young midfield

I just had to use this break in World Cup action to give an update on my mighty mighty Bolton Wanderers. Owen Coyle has managed to sign a top class left winger who was never able to establish himself at Manchester City due to three managerial changes, fitness issues, and a revolving door of player acquisitions.

Fact is, Martin Petrov is class. He showed it for Bulgaria, he showed it in Germany, and he showed it at Atletico Madrid. He even showed it in spurts at Man City, where he had to fight his way into the team past a flotilla of big name, big money signings. For me, this is the Coyle equivalent of when Sam Allardyce signed Jay-Jay Okocha for Bolton back in 2002.

Petrov runs at defenders with pace, puts in a good cross, and scores goals. He can play on either wing, and given the youth and versatility Wanderers have in the midfield, he will be allowed a good deal of freedom to attack.

I have to say, I really like the way the midfield is shaping up. We still have several veterans such as Matt Taylor, Ricardo Gardner, Tamir Cohen, and Sean Davis (who is really like a new signing). But it is the kids we are excited about. Some of the luster has faded from Joey O'Brien (24 years old) and Chris Basham (21), but if they ever return to fitness, I still think they can be useful players, if nothing else for their versatility.

After he put on a show for a surprising South Korean team at the World Cup, all eyes will be on Lee Chung-yong (22). He will receive a much needed rest over the next few weeks, and take his place as one of the first names on the team sheet once the season starts. But he is just the tip of the iceberg in a loaded stable of midfield youngsters.

Fabrice Muamba has established himself as a destroyer in the center of the park. His passing improved dramatically following Coyle's arrival, and as the 22 year old continues to improve, an England call-up is looming in the not-too-distant future.

Mark Davies is also 22, and so thoroughly dominated Arsenal last January that William Gallas decided the only way to stop him was to brutally fracture his leg. Davies will be back at full strength this season, and gives Bolton a tireless box-to-box central midfielder willing to defend and attack with equal aplomb.

Stuart Holden (24) is perhaps the most intriguing of all. He can play on either wing or in an attacking central role, and may be able to provide the creative spark Wanderers have been lacking in the middle of the park. He looked outstanding in the US warm-up matches before the World Cup, and many soccer fans stateside are perplexed as to why he did not feature more in the US campaign once the tournament started. I am fine with it, because he will be fit, well-rested, and ready to contribute once the season starts.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Netherlands v. Brazil - Part 2

I am hoping for an epic battle akin to the 3-2 match last decade. Both teams have looked solid defensively, but spent most of their time going forward. It will be interesting to see if one side is able to dominate possession, and how the other will respond.

The man to watch for Brazil is Robinho. He has been their creative force so far in this tournament. Luis Fabiano is getting the goals, but Robinho is the one scaring his opponents, specifically right-backs, as he has done most of his damage on the left flank. Holland has alternated between two right-backs in this tournament, the young, attack-minded Gregory van der Wiel, and the veteran, more defensive Khalid Boulahrouz. Which of these names appears on the team-sheet will tell us a lot about the Dutch tactics going into this match.

Brazil's defenders will have to keep a close watch on Arjen Robben. He is just returning from injury, but he has continued the phenomenal form he showed in leading Bayern Munich to a domestic league/cup double and a place in the UEFA Champions League Final. Robben usually plays on the right because he is so effective at cutting inside and shooting with his dynamic left foot.

The man charged with stopping Robben for Brazil will primarily be Michel Bastos. Bastos plays as an attacking left winger for Lyon, but Dunga has moved him to left back for his country. THis is an important match-up to keep an eye on. If Bastos is sitting deep to cover Robben, he is not getting involved in the Brazilian attack. This is a huge advantage for the Dutch, as Brazil depend heavily on their full-backs to give them width going forward.

I predicted before the tournament that the Dutch would knock Brazil out at this point on their way to the Final. I am sticking with that prediction. 3-2, Oranje.