Tuesday, 17 May 2011

What will become of Nuri Sahin at Real Madrid?

“Good decisions come from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions.”

It is a chillingly familiar tale. Youthful prospect has fantastic season, fulfilling ‘potential’ at boyhood club, leading them to huge success. Youthful prospect adored by fans and teammates alike. Youthful prospect has head turned by Iberian overtures. Youthful prospect is seduced by such overtures. Youthful fool joins Spanish giant.

There are naturally exceptions to the rule. But, just as naturally, the surprise success of such exceptions only serves to prove the rule. Firstly, it is my own belief that Nuri Sahin should have stayed at Borussia Dortmund. He would have had the chance to lead his boyhood club to a tilt at the European Cup, whilst trying to retain the German championship. His wages would surely have increased considerably by signing a new contract, and he would have had the chance to show unequivocally, in a familiar environment, that he is one of the best deep-lying playmakers in world football.

Indeed, using the above quotation as a guide, does Sahin have enough experience to justify his departure as a good decision? Or will this be a bad decision that goes on to shape experience? The temptation is understandable, joining FIFA’s club of the twentieth-century, with a genuine chance of winning the European Cup, working with one of the best coaches and motivators in world football, plying his trade with one of his best friends Mesut Ozil, and playing with or against some of the best footballers on the planet. In his tear-strewn press conference Sahin listed such reasons as decisive factors in his choice.

Firstly, let us examine his competition. Sahin, in recent years, has made the “quarterback position” as the creative hub at the base of a midfield his. In such a role, Real Madrid play Xabi Alonso, as essential to their playing style as his national teammate Xavi is to Barcelona’s. Alongside Alonso is the workhorse Sami Khedira, who seems a Mourinho favourite. The term ‘workhorse’ perhaps negates Khedira’s talents, he is too often shoehorned as a man who breaks up play, and although this is his natural role, his energy, distribution (although not a patch on Sahin or Alonso’s), and heading offer Madrid a different option. In reserve stand Lassana Diarra, Fernando Gago and Esteban Granero. Despite all three being talented players, they look likely to be victims of Mourinho’s summer cull. In comparison though, as a potential replacement, Sahin is neither a destroyer like Diarra, nor a utility player like Granero. He seems to be more similar to Gago, although perhaps more creative and less mobile. Regardless, it would be unlike Mourinho to play Sahin alongside Alonso, as although both are intelligent readers of the game, neither is as tenacious or rangy as a Khedira or a Diarra. Sport Bild envisions Sahin fighting with Khedira for the remaining holding midfield place, which is probably a plausible reading, yet what are the other options for the Turk?

Hypothetically, how would Sahin complement Alonso? After all, his teammate Lucas Barrios sees him ‘playing alongside Alonso’. In the field of distribution, they would complement one another perfectly, one right-footer, one left-footer, both are capable of short or long passes. Indeed, both players read the game superbly, are capable of breaking up the play, but both are accustomed to having a genuine defensive midfielder, a workhorse, alongside them to do the unglamorous work, and always have been (Mascherano, Khedira, Bender, Kehl). Sahin is probably more mobile than Alonso (although less mobile than Khedira), but would not naturally suit such the ‘Makelele role’ alongside the irreplaceable Spaniard, and deployment as one to destroy would be a waste of his talents. Although, in playing them together, it is imaginable Sahin playing with freedom to press forward, as well as to sit deep and create. Yet, this contravenes Mourinho’s dogmatic, defensive approach, and leaves his team more exposed than the Portuguese would ever sanction. It is likely that Mourinho views Sahin as a long-term successor to the 29 year-old Alonso, to warm the bench for this season and gradually ease him into the role occupied by the Basque.

Another alternative for Mourinho would be to stick with the 4-3-3 which he played against Barcelona, with Pepe, Alonso and Sahin replacing Khedira in the three in midfield, which also offers the aforementioned left-foot/right-foot balance. Yet, such a formation was used infrequently by Mourinho, and it removes Pepe from his central defensive position, where his understanding with Carvalho has been cerebral.

If we look further forward then, where Sahin is capable of playing, if not natural, the same type of problem occurs. The array of talented, settled attacking midfielders seems to block Sahin’s potential integration into an advanced midfield role in the team. The flanks are filled with the electric pair of Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria, with Pedro Leon, probably Jose Callejon, as well as the versatile Granero in reserve. In the creative role behind the striker stands the incomparable Mesut Ozil. The German has had a wonderful debut season in Spain, and perhaps (with Khedira) demonstrates the ideal example for Sahin to follow, yet Ozil seamlessly filled in for an injured Kaka, who, after returning, provides back-up with the oft-forgotten Sergio Canales. It is unlikely though, that Mourinho deploys Sahin out of position, unless out of necessity, which, with Madrid’s squad depth, seems improbable.

Sahin, having been feted for years as the next great playmaker, seems so very close to living up to Arsene Wenger’s promise as “one of the world’s biggest talents”, and this transfer will come to define the young Turk’s career. Mesut Ozil is surely the example, yet the high-profile, well-publicised failures of Metzelder, Cicinho, Woodgate, Reyes, and Cassano demonstrate to Sahin how easy it is for a talented player to fall into mediocrity, for resilience to crumble when placed into the Bernabeu spotlight, for experience not to help make good decisions, but to develop from bad decisions.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The rise and rise of Martin Kelly

Or: “He that courts injury will obtain it” – Danish Proverb

It was an obscure October night, with nothing particular of note about it. Wet, with classic northern rain, and cold, bitterly cold. European Cup ties were taking place all over the continent, and a team from the centre of France was fulfilling the requirements of its fixture list, at Anfield. The Lyon side contained on the bench an injury-prone youngster called Maxime Gonalons, who would come on to score, and effectively put an early end to Liverpool’s European dreams, which were swiftly morphing into a nightmare. A bright spot emerged that night, an injury-prone youngster, but playing in red, not the white of Lyon. Martin Kelly, a surprise name on the teamsheet to some, who were worried about Govou’s hellish pace. In keeping with the pathetic fallacy and his own past, he was taken off injured in the second half, the skies bearing portents of hurt for the club and the player. Despite all the negative signs and signals from nature though, he was awarded man of the match, and received a standing ovation upon leaving the field.

Despite the array of contemporary criticisms of Rafa’s youth policy, and his preference for expensive foreign imports over the historically vaunted Liverpool academy, his stubbornness and lack of opportunity had a flipside, if a young player was given a chance, you knew he was good enough. This point was added to when a debut was given in Benitez’ favourite (some might say pet) competition, the European Cup. Furthermore, when his first competitive start comes directly against a full French international, with pace to burn and proven goalscoring ability, one had to question, but, as ever blindly trust Benitez’ seemingly-foolish judgement.

Let this not be a tale of woe though, as having seen this genuinely superb first competitive start, I have always felt some affinity with Martin Kelly, as we all do when we chance upon seeing the development of something special.

I had and have heard that there is serious talent developing in Liverpool’s academy, could recite the names of these anointed ones and club saviours, and whilst I endeavour to watch the bigger games, the lack of genuine, first-hand knowledge is why, for me, the arrival of such a player is always both a surprise and a pleasure. The dearth of homegrown talent since Steven Gerrard’s burst onto the scene last century leaves a desire to rave about every single sub-21 year old with a bit of talent. Unfortunately, the nature of modern football makes it clear that very few of these players will ‘make it’, as history has so often taught us. Therefore when one does, or threatens to, it is a joyous occasion that the whole club participates in. Kelly was, and is, one such occasion, one such breakthrough.

It is easy to forget that it was Kelly who was given his chance this season by Roy Hodgson, a regular in the Europa League and a starter in the league against Wigan, after coming on against Chelsea the previous week. However, the previous assertion perhaps disregards Dalglish and Clarke’s role in Kelly’s rise to potential England full-back this calendar year. The confidence Kelly was given in displacing England’s number one right-back Glen Johnson has been on show in his rampaging runs forward, providing two assists thusfar. Shunting Johnson to the left-hand side has also benefited the team as a whole, where he looks much more alert defensively, as well as providing an option who cuts inside whilst going forward. Moreover, the 3-5-2 system that Liverpool employed in February suited Kelly and Johnson’s attacking instincts and gave Liverpool genuine width, something which had been lacking.

Kelly, as a natural centre-back seems to be following in the footsteps of the illustrious Jamie Carragher, starting as a full-back before eventually making his way to the heart of the defence. His defensive abilities have also aided the team, with Liverpool having kept eight clean sheets in the League since Dalglish’s takeover and Kelly’s installation as regular right-back. Kelly’s understanding of the game, for someone so young, is excellent, having made nine interceptions up until his injury.

Alas though, Kelly’s rise has always been a tale blighted by injuries. Although promoted to first-team training at Melwood whilst only 17 years old, Kelly had already lost two years of development to a repetitive back injury. Indeed, his injury-prone nature was highlighted by the game against Lyon, in which he was excellent, but left the field with a groin injury, which prevented further appearances until February. Injured against West Ham this season, and subsequent dropout from the England U-21 squad, followed by an aggravation to the original injury completed Kelly’s third major injury in five seasons, and conclusively ended his 2010-11 campaign. Kelly’s style of play seems to contribute somewhat to his injury record, as someone who flew into 38 tackles in 11 games, with a 76% win record, the highest for any club defender. His buccaneering, rampaging full-back play which takes no prisoners, either offensively or defensively, leaves Kelly prone to more injuries than others. Alternatively, as seen with numerous players down the years, Kelly may be one of those talents who is inexplicably prone to injuries, Fabio Aurelio, Jamie Redknapp, Michael Owen, Daniel Agger are all brought to mind. These injuries have another side-effect, which is the constant need to prove oneself. After every injury, it is necessary to remind everyone that you are the same player, possess the same skills, and that the injury hasn’t had any knock-on effects. However, a ramification of this desire to demonstrate fitness and retention of ability can sometimes manifest itself in overdoing it too early, and for a wholehearted performer such as Kelly, taking it easy is not natural.

Kelly shows signs of being the brightest English full-back in years, possessing the attributes to make a success of the role, pace, stamina, strength, tackling and passing ability, as well as sound defensive understanding. The question surrounding the young buck is whether his injury-prone nature will decrease or increase with time, if the former is the case, I fear his career will become as disrupted as Fabio Aurelio or Daniel Agger, if the latter, then Liverpool fans can look forward to a long period of defensive stability, and Kenny will be posed some serious selection headaches. I’m sure though, as the immortal cliché goes, it’s a problem he’d like to have.

Friday, 29 April 2011

"Best of the Rest" La Liga XI

The duopoly of “La Liga” means that when compiling a “Team of the Season” one is faced with a choice. Will the side be a composite Real Madrid/Barcelona XI, or a ‘best of the rest’ XI? ‘Best of the rest’ always seems to imply something secondary, a runners-up, which, in this case, is essentially true. However a team entitled “Best of the Rest”, it must be remembered, is ‘the rest’ only because it is playing against comfortably the best two teams in Europe, and in no way disregards the abilities of said players. In fact, such players make up a league that, in this blogger’s view, is the best in the world, aesthetically certainly. Indeed, some of them would snuggle comfortably into the respective playing styles of Barcelona and Real Madrid.

GK: Carlos Kameni (Espanyol)

In a bizarre season for Espanyol, who, at one stage, were contemplating European qualification, but ended up relying on several youngsters to see them through recent fixtures, Carlos Kameni has had yet another outstanding season. Club captain who made the number one spot his own in 2006, and hasn’t looked back since. His traits include a dominant command of his penalty area, as well as feline-esque reflexes and confidence in the air. Ten clean sheets this season and two penalty saves mark out an excellent keeper. His fiery personality has seen clashes with both fans and managers, however this only serves to demonstrate his loyalty to his country, Cameroon, and his adopted homeland of Catalonia.

Other candidate: Diego Lopez (Villarreal)

RB: Andoni Iraola (Athletic Bilbao)

A sturdy, dependable full-back, who makes very few errors and is reliable going forward, Iraola has been a regular for Bilbao since 2003-2004. He has reaped the rewards of an excellent season containing four goals and six assists, by being honoured with his fifth Spain cap, away at Lithuania. An excellent striker of the ball, capable of taking free kicks and penalties, whose positioning is rarely suspect and is quicker going forward than most full-backs, Iraola is a versatile, talented footballer. One of the most underrated right-backs in Spain is finally getting the recognition that has always been his in his beloved Basque country.

Other candidate: Miguel (Valencia)

LB: Jeremy Mathieu (Valencia)

At first glance, Jeremy Mathieu looks nothing like a full-back. Built like a bull, standing at well over 6 feet tall, with a capacity to run for days, and not as technically gifted as some of his counterparts, when seen chugging up the Valencian flanks as El Cid used to do, it is less of a heroic sight than the Cid and more of a strange one. Yet a superb debut season from the French full-back sees him shade another Valencian left-back, Asier del Horno out of contention. Mathieu’s consistency in both the Champions League and La Liga make him selected. He possesses huge strength in the tackle, as befits someone of his size, but sometimes overzealous, as Karim Benzema would readily testify. Mathieu can also produce the occasional howitzer shot, as witnessed with his only goal of the season, away at Bilbao.

Other candidate: Asier del Horno (Levante)

CB: Diego Godin (Atletico Madrid)

Although Godin seems to have faltered slightly following a superb introduction to the season, he deserves immense credit for bringing even a semblance of stability to Atletico’s notoriously porous backline. With 27 appearances this season, such stability has come from his consistency, and his understanding with fellow South American Filipe and the young Alvaro Dominguez. Although mostly composed, he occasionally looks worringly mistake-prone, yet possesses all the characteristics of a world-class central defender, with pace, positioning, passing and stamina, as well as being beastly in the air. His World Cup performances prompted interest from Chelsea, which did not cease despite a move to Ateltico Madrid, and at only 25, the chronic instability at “Los Colchoneros” may force him to move on sooner rather than later.

Other candidate: Alberto Botia (Sporting Gijon)

CB: Ivan Ramis (Mallorca)

Perhaps a surprise pick, however Ramis has enjoyed a superb season with the Islanders, demonstrating the most essential quality for a centre-back, sheer consistency. Without possessing an array of stunning natural abilities, and perhaps despite possessing too short a temper, as six yellow cards this season, and two reds in the previous would justify, Ramis has become one of the finest centre-backs in La Liga. The 26 year-old has been linked with both Celtic and Fulham in recent seasons, whose oft-porous backlines he would certainly benefit.

Other candidate: Carlos Marchena (Villarreal)

LM: Santi Cazorla (Villarreal)

Cazorla seems the unluckiest player in La Liga. A natural, versatile talent capable of playing on either flank with ease, and causing perennial problems for opposition full-backs, he never seems to have been awarded enough international recognition, nor scored the goals which his talents justifiably deserve. Two goals in 29 Spain appearances and 18 in 110 in his second coming at Villarreal bely Cazorla’s instrumental role in Villareal’s rise to becoming one of the best clubs in Spain. His regular assists (8 this season) for Giuseppe Rossi and Nilmar, and midfield understanding with Cani, Borja Valero and Bruno have formed the Yellow Submarine’s mechanical heartbeat, whilst his influential and undemonstrative leadership is a metaphor for the club’s dealings as a whole.

Other candidate: Juan Manuel Mata (Valencia)

RM: Xabi Prieto (Real Sociedad)

The crafty right midfielder from San Sebastian seems to have been on a one-man mission to preserve Sociedad’s first-division status, after a superb season. The desire to retain first division status is understandable, as Prieto stayed with the Basque outfit after relegation in 2006-07 and throughout a torrid experience for such a historic club and good player, in La Liga Adelante. Prieto has reaped the rewards of his loyalty this term and shown fans all over Spain his abilities with all-round contributions of goals and assists, as well as remarkable consistency and lack of injuries. Prieto is blessed with excellent dribbling abilities, good vision, and a creative mindset but his hitherto unwavering loyalty is set to be tested this summer, with Liverpool supposedly swirling. No Sociedad fans would begrudge losing another talented Xabi to the Scouse outfit, but would dearly love to keep the 27 year-old midfield schemer.

Other candidate: Jesus Navas (Sevilla)

CM: Ivan Rakitic (Sevilla)

Since Rakitic has only played half a season, this perhaps seems a surprising choice. However, the Croat has provided an instant impact at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, fulfilling his undoubted talent and potential by adding a creative spark into Sevilla’s oft-physical, and leaden-footed midfield. Indeed, Rakitic’s impact has coincided with Sevilla’s rise back up La Liga, propelling the Andalusian giants into a challenge for European spots. His five goals from midfield provide Sevilla with a deeper-lying attacking threat than Alvaro Negredo and Jesus Navas, whose talents are undoubted but suffered from injuries, lack of service, and lack of support before January. Moreover, the Croatian’s partnership with the Chilean Gary Medel has provided balance both defensively and offensively. Picking up the disillusioned Rakitic from Schalke and reinvigorating him has proven to be an astute piece of business from the normally unstable and chaotic Sevilla.

Other candidates: Jonathan de Guzman (Mallorca)/Bruno (Villareal)

CM: Borja Valero (Villarreal)

The former, bald-headed, ball-playing unsuccessful West Brom midfielder was signed last summer by Villareal after a cull of wage-guzzling senior players. He was thrust straight into the heart of the Yellow Submarine’s midfield, and found the swift movement, precise passing, and high-tempo game just to his liking. So much to his liking in fact, that he has probably been the best midfielder in Spain this season. Were it not for Xavi, Iniesta, Alonso, and Busquets standing in his way, he’d be a shoe-in for Del Bosque. Valero looks nothing like a creative midfielder, the slight hunch, the bald head, the awkward running-style, none of the ostentatious panache, swagger or self-importance that accompanies fine trequartistas. But Valero puts paid to the elegant stereotype, proving that hard work and desire, along with a dosage of natural talent can carry a team to the very top (in our league which doesn’t include Barcelona and Real Madrid, of course). Ten assists and four goals in 43 games aren’t outstanding stats, but Valero’s importance to Villarreal comes stylistically, as the living embodiment of their attractive tiki-taka, and as the link man, the unflustered creator who makes things tick.

Other candidates: Tino Costa (Valencia)/Javi Martinez (Athletic Bilbao)

ST: Felipe Caicedo (Levante)

An international debutant at 16 will rightly have much expected of them. And indeed, the Ecuadorean centre-forward experienced a bright introduction into English football with Manchester City, scoring a brace against Hull City. However as with numerous young talents, Caicedo’s star shone brightly only briefly, before loan moves to Sporting Lisbon and then Malaga. On Summer 2010’s deadline day, deep into the dark, last, late hours of August, Caicedo pitched up on his third loan move in Iberia, this time to relegation favourites Levante. Caicedo’s goals though, have propelled Levante towards a comfortable mid-table position, and safety, that reward at the end of the rainbow. And goals there have been, headers, volleys, penalties, tap-ins, one-on-ones, Caicedo’s muscular play has been rewarded with 13 of them. His has been a mission, a man possessed, to show his rich Manchester owners what they’re missing out on, and to lead his adoring Valencian fans to the promised land of safety.

Other candidates: David Trezuguet (Hercules)/Roberto Soldado (Valencia)

ST: Giuseppe Rossi (Villarreal)

Is Rossi one of the most complete, underrated forwards in Europe? The Italian scores goals. He creates goals. He works tirelessly. He possesses a lethal shot and superb movement between the lines. He regularly shows his creative instinct. He’s quick, quicker than expected. He runs for days. The term “forward” could perhaps have been created for Rossi, for his attributes, he seems to so define the position. Outside of the top two, the best striker in La Liga this season, and one of the best in European competition. His breakthrough season has changed the European view of him, as second top scorer in the Europa League testifies. No longer is Rossi another failed United starlet, he is now, by his own merits, a top forward, capable of playing just behind a frontman, as a lone striker, or cutting in from a flank. Not merely that, Rossi has that rare, cherished ability to make things happen, to excite fans, to take a game by the scruff of its neck and bend it to his will.

Other candidates: Osvaldo (Espanyol)/Sergio Aguero (Atletico Madrid)/Fernando Llorente (Bilbao)

Friday, 22 April 2011

Bundesliga XI of the Season

It is difficult to pick a Bundesliga XI of the season without ignoring the overwhelming claims of the two Ruhr clubs, Dortmund and Schalke. Their outstanding seasons, one domestically, and one continentally see them deservedly dominate such a selection. However, I have tried not to ignore claims from teams at the start of the season who sprung surprises, such as Mainz, and teams whose influence lasted, nay increased over the course of the season, such as Hannover and Freiburg. Such a list also necessitates taking into consideration the wretched seasons endured by Wolfsburg, Werder Bremen and Koln. The team was compiled after 30 games of the season, therefore all statistics date from then.

GK: Manuel Neuer (Schalke)

Neuer has enjoyed a season that has cemented his position as one of the leading, if not the leading, goalkeepers in world football. His stellar performances throughout Schalke’s Champions League run, allied with his consistency in the Bundesliga (highest average rating in kicker’s “Torhuter” list), behind a sporadically erratic defence make him justifiably Germany’s number one, and his domestic league’s top keeper. Although nominally unpopular in Munich ahead of his ‘secret’ transfer, good early performances (which will undoubtedly come, knowing his class) will swiftly put paid to any supporter unrest.

Other candidates: Rene Adler (Bayer Leverkusen)

LB: Marcel Schmelzer (Dortmund)

The flamboyant, expansive left back with his trademark blonde hair has been a huge factor in Dortmund’s excellent defensive record, having played the full ninety minutes in each and every game thus far (30). His keenness to go forward is matched defensively by a clever positional sense, and an industrious work ethic. Not only this, but his motivational abilities and desire mark him out as a future Dortmund captain. His superb season saw him make his full Germany debut at left back against Sweden in November.

Other candidates: Christian Fuchs (Mainz)

RB: Andreas Beck (Hoffenheim)

Another flamboyant, blonde-haired German fullback, whose international recognition came earlier than his Dortmund counterpart, and at the same time was tinged with heartbreak as he was the final omission from Germany’s 2010 World Cup squad. The consistent displays produced by the right-back in 2010/11 are demonstrated, akin to Scmelzer, by him playing the most amount of minutes for Hoffenheim. His impressive performances this term have seen him linked with a summer move to Italian giants Juventus, who would surely only be benefited by the prototype of an ideal modern fullback, as reliable an option going forward (7 assists) as when defending.

Other candidates: Phillip Lahm (FC Bayern)

CB: Mats Hummels (Dortmund)

The Bundesliga’s outstanding centre-back, bar none. His positional awareness, tactical understanding and tackling strength mark him out as a player destined to provide the backbone of the Germany national side for many years to come. Formed an awesome partnership with the Serbian Neven Subotic, many commentators now see them as an inseparable pair, which has been the scourge of many a Bundesliga striker this season with 13 clean sheets. The settled backline has provided the basis from which Dortmund’s plentiful attacking talents can flourish. Can also chip in with useful goals, five this season, one a classy header in the vital away win at Bayern.

Other candidates: Neven Subotic (Dortmund)

CB: Benedikt Howedes (Schalke)

Yet another member of the 2009 U-21 European Championship winning German side to have graduated youth football and become a key member for their club. Although only 23, already vice-captain of Schalke, and comfortably handling esteemed adversaries such as Samuel Eto’o and Diego Milito. His tackling has always been a strength, naturally, as with his heading, but he can be occasionally positionally suspect. Howedes has swiftly formed an easy understanding with former Real Madrid man, Christoph Metzelder. The youthful centre-back is attracting covetous glances from Arsenal and Manchester City, both perennially linked to talented starlets, Howedes seems set to stay at Schalke for the coming few years at least, having come through the youth ranks of his boyhood club.

Other candidates: Serdar Tasci (Stuttgart)

LM: Sidney Sam (Bayer Leverkusen)

Sam is perhaps the model for Leverkusen’s new signing Andre Schurrle. Signed from Kaiserslauten before this campaign for €2.5m, a tricky, quick winger who can dribble pass and shoot comfortably off both feet. Indeed, despite being a left winger at Kaiserslauten, Sam has seamlessly slotted into Jupp Heynckes’ Leverkusen team on the right of midfield. 12 goals in 34 games in the 2010/11 campaign represents a fantastic return for a player now considered as one of ‘Die Nationalmannschaft”’s future stars. Physical strength and decision making are concerns for the 23 year old, however the advantage of youth means that he has several years to mature and experience, and develop these characteristics, which certainly should not overshadow an excellent debut season for Leverkusen, from a highly gifted young footballer.

Other candidates: Kevin Grosskreutz (Dortmund), Shinji Kagawa (Dortmund- I know he’s out of position but who cares!)

RM: Andre Schurrle (Mainz 05)

I’ll say it now, this kid will be one of the signings of next season. If perhaps overshadowed this season by the more mercurial, memorable Lewis Holtby, it was certainly not for performance. Statistically Mainz’s best player, and chipping in with essential goals to keep his side in the European run-in, particularly the late stunner at home to Gladbach. Schurrle possesses pace in abundance, and allies it with a rare combination of direct running and elusive movement. Indeed, the 20 year old’s work ethic belies his few years, and his will to win is unmatched. A superb season from the Mainz youngster, whom Leverkusen will be hoping replicates this season’s form for them in 2011-12.

Other candidates: Jefferson Farfan (Schalke),

CM: Mario Gotze (Dortmund)

Occasionally one is privileged enough to see genuine, raw, uninhibited talent in action. Blessed with a turn of pace, but more crucially, instinctive movement to go with it, Gotze’s skill-set is enviable to say the least. When one adds in an ice-cold finishing ability, unflustered passing ability and calm dribbling ability, one is confronted with a serious talent. A football brain that allows him to play anywhere across an attacking midfield trident, and a maturity which belies his years complete an awe-inspiring array of abilities. Despite a supposed weakness in stature, he stands at a mere 5’7”, his first senior goal was a header. Six goals and 14 assists this season will undoubtedly have the European giants hovering around this precocious playmaker, however the influence of Lars Ricken and his agent Volker Struth should ensure he sees out his current Dortmund contract until 2014.

Other candidates: Lewis Holtby (Mainz), Luiz Gustavo (Hoffenheim/FC Bayern)

CM: Nuri Sahin (Dortmund)

The sheer joy of watching talent and potential fulfilled is one of the most glorious of football sensations. Nuri Sahin’s name had always been uttered in slightly audible whispers, of a youth with serious talent, but wary of burdening one too young, or burgeoning him with lofty comparisons. This season has been his breakthrough, if you’ll forgive the cliché, as six goals and eight assists will readily testify (his goal against Wolfsburg will live long in the memory). However the unadulterated pleasure of watching Sahin pass and subsequently move in order to receive again cannot be replicated in statistics alone. The vision, the creativity and the awareness are intrinsic qualities, uncoachable, and thus making it all the more rare and more pleasant when one encounters across a player possessing such a formidable combination. It can be dangerous to claim a player has mastered the art of passing, an art so essential to football itself, yet Sahin is one of the very few to come close to the plethora of Spanish masters in his ability to control a game.

Other candidates: Arturo Vidal (Bayer Leverkusen), Julian Draxler (Schalke)

ST: Raul (Schalke)

A man selected purely because he didn’t have to be in this team at all. He could have retired, content with his numerous successes, the European Cups, the League titles, the records, safe in the knowledge as one of the greatest goalscorers ever to play the game. But no, he felt he had something to prove, or had the hunger to carry on playing, the desire, the love of the game. This season he surpassed Gerd Muller’s record of most European goals, classily enough, on his home turf of Spain, playing for his adopted German club, bringing together the two strands of his footballing life. Not only that, his influence, experience and leadership have been utterly vital in leading Schalke to the Pokal-Final and the Champions League semis.

Other candidates: Lucas Barrios (Dortmund), Didier Ya Konan (Hannover)

ST: Papiss Cisse (Freiburg)

Some Freiburg fans would call him their “football God”, whereas others would prefer to temper down hyperbolic statements of immortality, however they would all agree that Papiss Cisse has had a sensational season. Freiburg’s rise up the Bundesliga was thanks in no small part to the Senegalese hitman, bought from Metz in 2009, and who has scored 22 goals in 30 appearances this season. This record is impressive enough, but his goalscoring prowess is also highlighted by his seven goals in eight international appearances. Freiburg’s surprise eighth-place, which could have been higher, as Europe was beckoning at one stage, has been totally reliant on Cisse’s power and goals, as their next top goalscorer has five. His strength, which is prodigious despite his relatively small stature for a striker, belies an excellent touch and a clear eye for goal. A shrewd buy who has captured the eye of Arsenal, Bayern Munich and CSKA Moscow, Freiburg are sure to cash in on their prize asset sooner rather than later.

Other candidates: Theofanis Gekas (Eintracht Frankfurt), Mario Gomez (Bayern Munich)

Friday, 15 April 2011

Schalke: Debunking the Myths

Schalke, akin to a majority of European football giants, is a club that characterises itself by past achievements, as well as by modern day successes. Indeed, in barren times, a belief that some of these former achievements transcend today’s football can be seen to permeate such historic clubs, a nostalgic view of the past which allows for a belief that what occurred was somehow more romantic, more genuine, and more difficult to do than ‘modern football’. Schalke, however, is more than this, more than mere successes and achievements and historical records. “Die Knappen” (The Miners) can lay claim to being one of the founding clubs of European football, by challenging social structures, and defining myths.

A myth which this Schalke team helped the construction of, particularly in continental Europe, but often misattributed by the British media to the 1950s/1960s (Manchester United/Celtic), was that of the “hometown team”. The Schalke XI won its first-ever national championship in 1934, with late goals from brothers-in-law Fritz Szepan and Ernst Kuzorra. Their fraternal relationship highlights the closeness of the mining town of Gelsenkirchen, from where the majority of the 1930s Schalke team hailed, and grew up together. This Schalke team would win five titles in seven years between 1934 and 1940, as well as never losing a home game in eleven seasons. Their stellar achievements did much for German football, providing an intrinsic belief in the power of young, local players, as well as providing the attacking trident (Gellesch, Szepan and Urban) of the Breslau-Elf, one of Germany’s finest ever-national sides. The atypical German-sounding names such as Szepan and Kuzorra came from Polish early 20th century immigration to the Ruhr region, in order to work down the mines. The working-class, mining town myth thus came to prominence, and was further built on in a variety of places throughout the following decades.

Schalke’s 1930s style of football came to be known as the “Kreisel”, the spinning top, and has just claim to be regarded as one of the first styles of football to be dependent on movement of man, and not ball. It is often, however, overshadowed by the Austrian “Wunderteam” of the early ‘30s, which ran during a parallel time period. The swift moving, ball on the ground style of football revolved particularly around the genius of Schalke’s Austrian coach Gustav Wieser, appointed in 1927, and the creativity of Fritz Szepan and Ernst Kuzorra. It overwhelmed and confused opponents, relied on high levels of fitness, and, according to several contemporary sources, it was successful because it was, essentially, “playing with your mates”, and therefore the close link between the ‘local lads’ and their attractive, positive style of football arose.

Indeed, Schalke has been a club from its very inception to contravene accepted social structures and challenge the status quo. Despite its 1904 founding, the club did not join the League until 1912, due to Bourgeoisie DFB angst. Further flouting occurred in 1930 when Schalke began paying its players to represent the club. Due to massive unemployment in the local area, Schalke paid its players fractions of the huge gate receipts it was receiving, in order to feed their families. Friction occurred immediately with the middle-class DFB, whose rigid view of the amateur nature of football was laudably idealistic, but hopelessly out of touch. Their swift response was to expel Schalke, whose chairman later committed suicide. Popular uproar saw their swift reinstatement, but the club’s reputation as social revolutionaries was beginning to stick.

Some quests for money however, are a step too far, and Schalke’s participation in the 1970s match-fixing scandal, where eight players were banned for accepting Deutschmarks to throw a game against Arminia Bielefeld, is a shameful stain not only on the club’s working-class origins, but on football in general. Indeed, had the team not been decimated, with talents such as Klaus Fischer, “Stan” Libuda, and Klaus Fichtel, it may have become the dominant 1970s force in German football, a place possessed now (rightly) by Bayern Munich.

On the field, fortunes have always been unbalanced at best. The 1980s experienced relegation, three successive seasons in 2.Bundesliga, and eventual promotion to where Schalke fans believed they belong. Even their first genuine continental triumph, against Inter Milan in the 1997 Uefa Cup final, was far from easy, with the aggregate score being tied at 1-1 after two tense legs, Schalke eventually prevailed in a penalty shootout. 2001 saw another tight finish, Bayern’s last day, 4th minute of injury time equaliser against Hamburg snatched the title from the grasp of the “Konigsblauen”. Schalke’s challenging of social norms is even demonstrated in their celebrations, after winning the 2002 DFB-Pokal, their elaborate actions after the presentation resulted in permanent damage being done to the huge trophy.

And what of today’s Schalke team? Today’s “Knappen” are once again at their knack of challenging social structures, emphasised by their Champions League run, in which they put paid to the hopes of European giants such as Benfica, Valencia, and Inter Milan. This team however, hasn’t defined any myths thus far, what it has done though, is permanently established a legend. His name, Raul Gonzalez Blanco.

Thursday, 31 March 2011

Belgian football's colonialist history, and its bright, non-colonialist future

When one thinks of the European colonisation of Africa, thoughts are immediately evoked of the Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique, the French across North Africa, the English and Dutch battling Zulus and each other for control of the vast South African Kraal. Sometimes one can even recall tales of the Italians marching in and out of Ethiopia repeatedly for centuries. Spain preferred to focus on Latin America, and reap its own benefits from that fertile continent. However, throughout this list, one 19th century European superpower was missing. Missing, because it is often not regarded as a superpower, in fact I was probably misleading you by calling it a superpower, we’re thinking 1830s here, and Germany as we know it didn’t exist. I’m talking about Belgium. Belgium didn’t merely conquer a small, hidden-away corner of Africa, it conquered the great beating heart, the Congo.

Belgian dominance in the Congo was widely-regarded as the most sadistic of all contemporary colonialist regimes. Moreover, Congo’s neighbouring colony, Rwanda, Belgium’s open preference for Tutsis in power, as opposed to Hutus led to the genocide in 1994, as years of resentment between Rwanda’s two tribes exploded in a dreadful massacre of 800,000 Tutsis. A century earlier, in the Congo, King Leopold’s desire to possess and control all of the Congo’s vast raw minerals led to the deaths of millions of Congolese in labour camps. To demonstrate the harshness of Leopold’s rule, the tale of him cutting hands off manual labourers for not working hard enough is often told. It seems therefore ironic, that Belgium nowadays should be such a hotbed, breeding ground and home for so many talented African footballers.

Colonisation in football seems often too little discussed. Where would France be without its generations of talented African footballers? From Zidane, through Vieira, represented today by the reborn Benzema, all of whom grew up in France, but, had it not been for French imperialistic dominance of North and West Africa, their footballing talents would have aided African sport, not European sport, instead. Indeed, what would the Real Madrid side of the ‘50s look like without Di Stefano? Or the famous Dutch teams without Kluivert, Gullit, or Riijkard? Portugal without Eusebio? The terrible tales and deeds of European colonisation of Africa and Southern America, perversely, seem still to benefit and enhance European football hugely. The colonised, after independence, are prepared to make home in the land of their colonisers.

The award of the “Ebony Shoe” to Everton’s Marouane Fellaini in 2008, then of Standard Liege, sparked my interest in the exoticism and self-awareness of Belgian football’s African heritage. The “Ebony Shoe” is an annual award given to the best African player, or player of African descent in the Belgian Pro League. Reading through a list of winners since the award’s inception in 1992 is similar to reading a list of some of Europe’s most successful African footballers, the majority of whom have graduated the Jupiler League after recognition in the form of the award and gone onto play in more lucrative leagues: Daniel Amokachi, Celestine Babayaro, Emile Mpenza, Mido, Aruna Dindane, Vincent Kompany, and Fellaini himself. The exception seems to be Mbark Boussofa, who was Anderlecht’s loyal left-sided midfielder until his move to Anzhi Makhachkala, but reaped the rewards of his now-dubious loyalty by being honoured with the award three times, the most in the award’s short history.

But why Belgium? Language helps. French being widely-spoken in Belgium means that north or west Africans with French as their first language, who would find it too tough to break into the physical Ligue Un immediately on arrival in Europe, feel comfortable in Belgium, and sign for clubs there, most of whom have scouting links and initiatives across Europe and Africa (Double Club intitative, Beveren’s links with Arsenal for starters). Those to have launched their careers in Belgium, and to have used it as an entry league for more prosperous European leagues, include Didier Drogba, Emmanuel Eboue, Cheik Tiote, Gervinho, Peter Odemwingie, and Joseph Yobo. Moreover, although once a concern that the sheer number of incoming foreign players would harm the national side (clearly a fallacy anyway, the greatest Belgian footballer of all time, Enzo Scifo was of Italian parentage) colonial history and Belgium’s status as an ‘entry league’, as well as its close geographical and colonial links with France, have proved beneficial for a national side enjoying a renaissance, spearheaded (both literally and metaphorically!) by Romelu Lukaku, of Congolese descent, but supported by a host of players with interestingly varied African origins, Marouane Fellaini (Morrocco), Vincent Kompany (Congolese), Nacer Chadli (Morrocco), Moussa Dembele (Mali), Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe (Ghana), Axel Witsel (Martinique) as well as traditionally ethnic Belgians such as Steven Defour, Eden Hazard, and Jan Vertonghen.