"What do you mean you've hurt 'your' knee, it's Liverpool's knee" - Bill Shankly.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

How to Become a Famous Football Pundit


Posted on 10. Mar, 2011 by Liam Tomkins in Blog

As I sat watching Barcelona dismantle Arsenal on Tuesday night, I couldn’t help but salivate over their perfectly polished game. Of course, it’s easy to appreciate and respect them for the way they play, but it takes a certain level of intelligence to actually understand it.

Football is a very cosy community, and unless you’ve been brought up on the inside you’re very unlikely to ever get there. That is why pretty much every columnist, panellist and analyst these days is an ex-player. It doesn’t seem to matter how much they actually know about the game – if they’ve got the name, they’ve got the gig.

It takes an exception to prove the rule, and Tuesday’s exception was Rafa Benitez. The Spaniard sat just inches away from Graeme Souness and Jamie Redknapp in the Sky Sports studio, but in terms of knowledge the gap between the trio couldn’t even be measured in light years.

Souness and Redknapp were fine players in their pomp, but fine analysts they are not. Benitez, on the other hand, just oozes intelligence.

As the camera cut back to the studio at the interval last night, Rafa was seen to be clutching a small scrap of paper in his hand as Jeff Stelling quizzed him on the first 45 minutes. He had been making notes on the game in preparation for the half-time analysis.

He divulged in great detail exactly how Barcelona had come to acquire their lead, and why Arsenal had been unable to answer back – all the while referring to his notes to back up his points with facts. At full-time, too, he was on hand to analyse the action in tactical terms.

When asked by Stelling why the home side ultimately prevailed, Benitez claimed the key to their dominance was their use of the pitch as a whole. He explained how they were able to draw Arsenal into the middle of the pitch via Xavi and Iniesta, before taking full advantage of the space this created by firing it to the wide players who were hugging the touchline throughout. Those of a tactical persuasion may have found what Benitez was saying to be obvious and therefore may not have appreciated his two cents. As the camera panned onto the sweaty Souness, though, everyone was about to be given a reason to value an educated input.

The Liverpool legend, when tasked with answering the same question as Benitez, bumbled: “I, I think I’ve told you before, and I’ll tell you again…Barcelona are the best club side ever”. Thank you captain obvious.

Redknapp, too, took the easy way out when he pinned Barca’s triumph on the mesmeric Lionel Messi, before claiming that the Catalan giants had “literally passed their opponents to death”. I must say, I wouldn’t wish such torture on my worst enemy.

As he looked on at the other pundits reeling off clichés until they were finally saved from the embarrassment of being outed as idiots by the interruptions of the anchorman, you could almost hear Benitez thinking: ‘who books these guys!?’.

For the first time in a very long time I actually sat and listened to the panel’s analysis of the game on Tuesday. Not for the opinion of Souness or Redknapp, whose collective input is about as useful as a solar powered torch, but for Benitez, who brought credibility to an otherwise embarrassingly uncultured production.

It was refreshing to hear from someone who quite simply knew what they are talking about. Seeing as Sky Sports just fired their only analyst with half a clue I don’t see it happening again any time soon, unless they start hiring people based on their CV rather than their surname.

I think I know why there is such a shortage of educated and knowledgeable pundits in today’s media. It would appear that anyone with a genuine footballing brain (not literally, Jamie) remains in the game for as long as their ticker allows them to. Intelligent players go on to become managers, and most managers are far too busy to be made up like a princess for a date with Sky Sports. But to draft in a nobody just won’t do for the broadcasting giants, even if they are a tactical genius.

The only other option, then, is to call upon the established names of the game. How else do you explain Paul Merson?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Pep Guardiola the purist and pragmatist oiling Barcelona's machine

The Catalan manager would have supporters believe he has little bearing on Barcelona's brilliance. Don't believe a word of it

Pep Guardiola
The Barcelona manager, Pep Guardiola, has led the Catalan club to almost unprecedented success. Photograph: Mike Egerton/Empics Sport

Tuesday afternoon in Sant Joan Despí and there is bad news. A back injury looks like leaving Barcelona a man short when they travel to the Mestalla to face third-placed Valencia. But this time it's not Xavi who is missing; the midfielder is instead returning from injury. Nor is it Leo Messi or David Villa. It is Pep Guardiola, the coach. He is suffering with back pain and is not sure if he is going to make it.

When Guardiola's injury is conveyed to Valencia's manager, Unai Emery, he laughs. "Can't it be Messi with the bad back?" he says. Emery is joking. A chess and strategy fanatic, a man who can enthuse for hours on tactics and an admirer of Guardiola, Emery knows how important his opposite number is. But there is something in what he says – and not just because any coach would prefer to face Barça without Messi. As if to prove the point, Messi it was who scored the winner – and it was Messi again who set up Seydou Keita's tap-in in Barça's 1-0 win over Real Zaragoza last night.

In the end, Guardiola travelled. But he sat, awkwardly, rigid. Afterwards, he was admitted to hospital and a scan revealed a slipped disc. He could see the Camp Nou from his hospital bed but could not get there: it is not yet clear he will be there against Arsenal on Tuesday night or lead preparatory sessions. Many will ask the same question asked before the trip to Valencia. So what? It makes little difference, right? Wrong.

The impression has been fostered by Guardiola himself. Every time he is asked the secret of success he responds: "The players are very good." When Messi scored a wonderful goal at Real Zaragoza, he turned to a fan and said: "If it wasn't for Messi, I'd be coaching in the third division." Nothing to do with me, mate.

He is fooling no one. Guardiola's contribution is huge and has been recognised. He is lauded in Catalonia; "the legend is starting to be Guardiola himself," noted El País. A sports newspaper in Madrid tried to poke fun at his supposed perfection by sending his reporter to ask him a leading question. The question got exactly the desired response. "Maybe it's true," Guardiola replied, "maybe I do piss perfume."

But if Guardiola is given the credit for his work at Barcelona, there remain misconceptions that come with Barcelona's style; assumptions. Yes, they work hard now: "We had let ourselves go," Rafa Márquez said. But the way they play, well that's simple, natural. Autóctono, the product of 20 years' commitment to a footballing ideal, traceable to Johan Cruyff. Guardiola, captain under the Dutchman, said it: "This team will respect a philosophy," and one friend describes him as having "suckled from the teat of Cruyff". Xavi talks about the rondo – piggy in the middle – as the cornerstone of everything.

Which it is. But that makes it sound too simple, too unwavering. There has been much talk about how Arsenal will play Barcelona, but not very much about how Barcelona will play Arsenal. Well, the answer goes, like they always do.

Yes. But no. Under Frank Rijkaard, one insider claims, the exaggeration serving to make the point: "Barcelona found out who was in the team on the morning of the game." Guardiola could hardly be more different. Even as a player he was a coach, a thinker, a talker. "A talker?" says Fernando Hierro, the former Real Madrid captain, laughing. "He pretty much commentated the matches."

When he was offered the job in 2008, Guardiola asked his assistant, Tito Vilanova, if they were really ready. "Well," came the reply, "you certainly are." Charly Rexach, Cruyff's assistant, recalls that Guardiola was "the man we explained the tactical variations to. If we needed them, he implemented them." He had learnt too in Italy and in Mexico with Juanma Lillo, who coached in La Liga before he was 30. Guardiola had embarked upon a kind of pilgrimage – to meet Marcelo Bielsa, who has coached Argentina and until last month Chile, and the former's 1978 World Cup-winning coach, César Luis Menotti. The conversations lasted well into the night.

What some would describe as principle he believes is pragmatism. Guardiola designs his approach around the ball. Not because he is a puritan, although he is, but because like any other coach he wants control. Like any other coach, he is fearful and seeks to protect his team. It is just that his way of achieving control is different: defending well means attacking well. He will look at Arsenal and wonder how to protect himself from them, by trying to work out how best to do them damage.

"We play in the other team's half as much as possible because I get worried when the ball is in my half," he says. "We're a horrible team without the ball so I want us to get it back as soon as possible and I'd rather give away fouls and the ball in their half than ours." The stats bear that out: Dani Alves makes the fourth highest number of touches in the opposition half in La Liga. He is a full-back. Typically, only the two centre-backs and the goalkeeper spend more than 50% of the game in their own half.

Then there is possession: the top nine passers in La Liga are all Barcelona players. But that is not just an attacking option, it is a defensive one too. "There is no rule like in basketball that says you have to hand over possession or shoot after a certain amount of time, so 'attack' and 'defence' don't exist," Lillo says. Not in Barcelona's model. Barcelona attack to defend; when they lost to Arsenal, Guardiola was angry with Alves not for attacking too much but for attacking badly. That Barcelona lost because they were caught up the pitch is one reading; Guardiola's reading is that had they scored they would not have been caught on the break.

"Barcelona are the only team that defend with the ball; the only team that rests in possession," Lillo says. "They keep the ball so well, they move so collectively, that when you do get it back, you're tired, out of position and they're right on top of you." Lillo knows: his Almería side were defeated 8-0 by Barcelona.

Michael Laudrup, the Mallorca coach, said: "They move the ball so fast that by the time you get there, it's gone. You end up desperate, and shattered." As Rexach notes, Barcelona even waste time with possession. Most teams would go down to the corner; Barcelona would rather keep the ball between themselves.

In order to achieve that dominance, technical ability is fundamental, as is the pressure that is the coach's greatest obsession. But so is positioning. Barça's game is all about creating numerical superiority, opening up angles of passes. "We do a lot of positional work," Vilanova says. "That gives you options and prevents you from making unnecessary effort." Running, as Rexach famously put it, "is for cowards". "At Sevilla, you had to go looking for the ball," Keita says. "Here, it arrives at your feet."

Yet those fundamental lessons do not mean a lack of flexibility or invention. Nor does the faith in their identity mean ignoring the other team. Guardiola was accused by some of being tactically out-thought by José Mourinho last season or by Wenger at the Emirates. If so, it was not for lack of thought. Guardiola is every bit as obsessive a coach as, say, Rafa Benítez. "You wouldn't think so," Barça's reserve goalkeeper, Pinto, says, "but Guardiola controls every little detail." "Every decision is made according to the opposition," says one of Guardiola's collaborators. "Every one."

Messi's withdrawn role was initially employed – in 2009 – to confuse Real Madrid. Barcelona won that Clásico 6-2, Christoph Metzelder saying: "Centre-backs hate being dragged away from that position and we just didn't know whether to follow him out." As one of the staff puts it graphically: "With no No9 you leave the centre-backs to kick each other." Messi has now made that role permanent but not entirely inflexible. The reason is partly tactical, partly a response to the Argentinian's own desire. A different solution with Zlatan Ibrahimovic was aborted because of personal problems.

That means no Plan B – if by Plan B you mean a Big Man. But there are nuances and variations: plans C, D, and E. Besides, seeing tactical awareness only in terms of changing a game in course is a red herring; Guardiola would rather change the course of the game first; a successful coach ends up looking like a less interventionist coach. Against Athletic, he made his players receive on their own byline, four of them lined up around the area to receive from the keeper. "We knew they would pressure high and that risked us being dragged into long balls – which they would inevitably win," he said. Every move was 120 yards long. But if that's what has to be, so be it.

Against Valencia last week, there were three centre-backs and two wing‑backs. Within five minutes, there were also five long, uncharacteristic diagonals. The idea was to force Valencia to think twice about their high pressure. The plan did not entirely work – although Messi had countless chances – and this time Guardiola, suffering with sciatica, did make the change. On came Pedro. Messi got the goal; the assist came from Adriano, the man least expected to be included and the favourite to be removed.

There is a discernible Barcelona philosophy, a style. It is Guardiola's style, one so clear as to appear to suggest rigidity and insularity. The impression is not entirely true. When Guardiola travelled to South America, Menotti encountered a man who "reads, studies, listens and shows an enormous capacity for observation". And the observation is applied to opponents. Guardiola only knows how his team is going to play when he knows how the other team is going to play. Everyone has been asking how Arsenal will play at the Camp Nou this week. And Pep Guardiola is no exception.

Rafa Benitez exclusive: blame, lies and broken promises at Liverpool


By ROB DRAPER Last updated at 12:38 AM on 6th March 2011

Rafa Benitez will get up this morning, take in the magnificent views of the Dee estuary from his home on the Wirral and spend time with his wife, Montse, and daughters, Claudia and Agata. Then he will sit down in his living room to watch Liverpool take on Manchester United in the Premier League - and spend the entire match analysing his former team. It is a habit that, for Benitez, is impossible to break.

Having been an intrinsic part of the biggest fixture in English football for six years, his absence from the cast list seems odd but Benitez, who has returned with his family to England after what became an acrimonious six-month stint at Inter Milan, is adjusting to a new life. When he watches Liverpool, however, he reverts to type.

Benitez shows off his ball skills on the Wirral

Life's a beach: Benitez shows off his ball skills on the Wirral

'The other day I was watching a Liverpool game with my wife and I was saying, "Now this player will kick the ball long, this one short",' he says, as he nurses a soft drink at his local restaurant. 'With one player, I was right four times in a row. But it was very easy because I know the team so well.'

It is eight months since he left Liverpool following six years at the club that are still the cause of contention. A glorious Champions League victory, another final, an FA Cup win and a UEFA Super Cup and consistent qualification for the Champions League are to his credit; some dubious signings and a backdrop of endless infighting between owners and the executives register on the debit side.

Yet, for now, the Spaniard is content with his life.

With his family back in their English home - eightyear- old Agata barely knows any other - he is enjoying his first extended break from the game in 13 years. Even so, the job is never truly far away. As he talks in the restaurant, he appropriates salt and pepper pots to demonstrate the virtues of zonal marking.

'It's really strange to be relaxed but now I'm watching games in a different way,' he says. 'You are trying to take notes, analyse things, but it is not the same as when you need to be ready for the next game. You can enjoy the football a little bit more. But you know you have to be ready, because we have had some offers from abroad, though for now it is better to be calm and choose the right team.'

There are, of course, constant reminders of his status in English football. On Tuesday night he took in Chelsea's game against Manchester United and witnessed Sir Alex Ferguson's verbal assault of referee Martin Atkinson. For a man almost as famous for what became known as Rafa's rant as for his Champions League heroics, it was a familiar moment.

Gerrard accused Benitez of being too distant

Critic: Gerrard accused Benitez of being too distant

When Benitez launched his now notorious attack on Ferguson, just over two years ago, his side were top of the table, mounting the club's most credible title challenge for 18 years.

And Benitez's principal fear was that Ferguson was escaping punishment for undermining referees.

'I knew that they [United] had some problems, that we were winning and top of the league and they were under pressure,' says Benitez. 'I just wanted a level playing field until the end of the season. But, now in football, the more you shout the more famous and more important you become and the more people seem to take notice of you.

'I think we have to have respect. The example we give to the children is really important. If you are a referee, it's not easy because everyone wants to win and so there will be cheating. The problem is that the people who are doing the right thing [by respecting referees] have to have some benefit. And to the people who are not doing this, someone has to say: "Enough is enough".'

Pointing out the dominance of Ferguson in English football - and the fear the authorities appear to have of punishing him - can be a dangerous business, inviting further hostility. Benitez dismisses the theory that his attack on United's manager marked a turning point in the race for the league title that season, which in the end saw Liverpool finish second, four points behind United. But he adds wryly: 'Before then, I had a good relationship with him.'

Rafael Benitez
Rafael Benitez, Liverpool head coach, shouts to his team in February 2010

Changing faces: Rafa Benitez on his first day as Liverpool manager and six years later on the touchline

That, of course, was before Benitez became a threat. Yet it was a threat that could not be sustained. Following Liverpoool's second place, hopes were raised higher than at any time since Liverpool's last title win in 1990. But the club endured a debacle of a season, finishing seventh, their lowest position for 11 years. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, Benitez attempts to address the myriad issues that undermined that campaign.

A persistent complaint throughout his reign was his managerial style, which was reputedly cool towards his players. Benitez is genuinely bemused by that claim. Yet the tales have become legend.

Steven Gerrard, having produced a performance in an FA Cup final comparable to Stanley Matthews, joked that he still failed to get a 'well done' from Benitez. Fernando Torres wrote that a day after the birth of his first daughter he received belated congratulations from Benitez, only to realise the praise was for attacking the post at a corner rather than for his new fatherhood.

'I was surprised that they said I was too distant,' says Benitez. 'Every day at Liverpool I spent 15 minutes in the physio room talking to players who were injured. I know what it means to be injured and spend six months training on your own.

'But I [also] say, "You can do better". I push, I push, I push. It's my style and I think that Gerrard, Torres, Reina, these players can always give something more because they are top-class players, mentally, physically and technically. So I try to push them. The approach with other players is different. When they don't have that level you have to say, "OK, fine, well done". But with top players you have to push them.'

Steven Gerrard and Rafa Benitez with the European Cup after beating Milan in 2005

High point: Steven Gerrard and Rafa Benitez with the European Cup after beating Milan in 2005

The Torres anecdote upsets Benitez. 'It's not true,' he insists. 'We had been practising a movement, where we attacked the near post. Then against Chelsea, he attacked the near post and we scored. Straight after the game - straight after the game, not a day later - I went to see him and said, "Well done. Attacking the near post!"

'In his book, he says it was a day later, not after the game. I asked Fernando, "Why did you write this?" They changed the time of when I said this but it gets repeated and repeated and people think it's true.'

Of the team he left, the one inherited first by Roy Hodgson and now by Kenny Dalglish, he is bullish.

Although he admits there were mistakes in the transfer market, he says they were due to the risks he had to take because of the financial squeeze on the club. In 2008 Liverpool's interest payments on the club's debt had risen to £36.5million; by the next year they were £41m. The club were making huge losses.

Benitez says: 'We had the confidence we could win the league but you have to wheel and deal. You cannot bring in two or three top-class players if you don't have the money. You have to sell. We sold Xabi Alonso and bought Glen Johnson, Alberto Aquilani and Sotirios Kyrgiakos. We [should have] had money but I couldn't use it because we had to meet the interest payments.

'We had one top-class player who was our target, Fiorentina's Stevan Jovetic. As far as I was concerned, we had the money for him in our budget. But then the owners said: "No, no, we don't have the money". Then he scored against us in the Champions League to help knock us out!

Best of enemies: Sir Alex Ferguson and Benitez

Best of enemies: Sir Alex Ferguson and Benitez

'If you have your budget and you know that is happening, fine. But my budget was always given to me as a net figure [after taxes] for wage negotiation. But in the last year it was gross - a massive difference - but I didn't know. No one told me it had changed.'

Senior players quickly cottoned on to the financial restraints and some became disillusioned. Torres, whose form collapsed because of injury and frustration, was among them. 'I was very clear and honest with him,' says Benitez. 'And to be fair, he was telling me, "If we don't spend money, we cannot compete against the top sides".'

Torres has since spoken of broken promises that drove him to leave Liverpool for Chelsea and Benitez says: 'Obviously the things that the owners were telling me, I'm sure that they were telling to Fernando and Gerrard. If they have this feeling it must be because someone was telling them something.'

Still, he believes the players he had were capable of challenging for the top four. Hodgson's suggestion, when he took over the job, that they were not annoys Benitez. 'You should defend what you have or will have, not attack the former manager,' he says.

'Everything was "Blame Rafa". But now, with Dalglish in charge, and without new players, because Carroll hasn't played and Suarez has hardly played, the same group of players are doing much better [than under Hodgson].

'Two years ago they were finishing second. In football it is a question sometimes of the mentality, understanding the players, the atmosphere, the confidence.'

Throughout the latter part of his reign he had to maintain an often Kafkaesque dialogue with the owners. He says:

'Sometimes you were talking with [co-owner] George Gillett and it was fine; sometimes you were talking with Tom Hicks and it was fine. Sometimes one was saying the opposite of the other. The problem was when they say to you one thing and then it changes.'

His regrets are limited: some signings perhaps, but principally that he did not take full control of the club's youth academy for the final year. It is a mistake that he would like to rectify when he works again.

He is eager for a project where he can demonstrate that he can build a club combining a thriving academy with the transfer market. Given his record - even his mixed six months at Inter gained him the Italian Super Cup and the FIFA World Club Cup - he will not be waiting long.

'My job is to analyse clubs and say, "I know how we can improve this team, we can spend money here or spend money there". Right now I'm preparing projects for different options and different clubs because it could be this one, it could be that one. The main thing will be the transfer targets, as it depends on the potential of the club. But I want to work in England.'

For now, though, there is the diversion of this afternoon's match and a possible debut for a £35m Liverpool signing. Benitez is optimistic for Carroll.

'If he is there, even on the bench, he will be a massive presence because he's a different player,' says Benitez. 'He will have the passion and the fans will all be behind him.'

And the prospect of another famous Liverpool victory? 'Always I say the 11 starters of Liverpool are at the same level as the others,' he says.

'Over nine months, it's not easy if you have injuries and you can suffer more than the other top sides. But for me Liverpool are a top side in terms of their 11 starters.'

He will not be there, of course. His television will have to suffice for now. It will be a while before Benitez takes charge of a game at Anfield again. But perhaps not that long.

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Quote of the moment

Defying belief however, is a market Benitez has cornered quite well. The moment you think Benitez is clueless, he defies it by pulling off a result of majesty, like the one achieved in Madrid. The moment he is hailed a genius, he masterminds toothless surrender to a team going nowhere. In the ongoing Anfield power struggle, just when he was cornered by the firing squad, the Spaniard's demise at Liverpool looking practically assured with the ominous suspension of betting by the bookmakers, he squeezes out through a narrow trapdoor and eliminates Rick Parry. Rafa Benitez is Keyzer Soze.
- Just Football blog: The Curious Beast that is Football 28 Feb 2009