Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Best Week of Football Ever?

As per usual, we needed a win. For once I thought we actually would win. For a pessimist like me this is unusual, but due to our great record against the Wolves, I had tentatively predicted a 2-1 win to the Albion. What was to come I had never imagined in all of my wildest dreams. 5-1 the score ended up, a veritable cricket score. I have seen some great Albion-Wolves games in the past 20 years, the first one I remember being the game with THAT Darren Bradley goal (The uninitiated can view this goal here: The first and only time I have ever seen a Wolves player receive a standing ovation from the Albion faithful with his name being chanted with gusto around the Hawthorns. The player in question was none other than Cyrille Regis. Doesn't matter what shirt that man wears on his back and quite rightly, he is nothing less than an absolute fucking hero. That game ended 3-2 to the Albion and gave me a real taste for this derby which, no matter what anyone says, is not the Black Country derby due to Wolverhampton being in Staffordshire.
But I digress, the most recent fixture was an absolute cracker. Albion looked like they meant business from the off. Lining up in a 4-2-3-1 formation that supporters have craved since Roy's persistent experiments with 4-4-2. Peter Odemwingie unusually started on the right with Marc-Antoine Fortune playing the lone striker role. Liam Ridgewell also made a start after his transfer from Blues. The tactic at the beginning of the game seemed to be pass around the Wolves midfield who were light in numbers compared to us and hit them on the break, getting the ball out to Jerome Thomas who had the Wolves defence browning themselves every time he ran with the ball. We were completely dominant for the first half, which is why it was such a surprise to see the teams enter the dressing rooms at half time at 1-1. A great goal from Steven Fletcher, it has to be said, but completely against the run of play.
By this point Thick Mick has obviously tried to address Albion's dominance in midfield by moving Matt Jarvis into the centre to support Steven Fletcher and Ebanks-Blake out to the left. With Kevin Doyle already starting on the right, this meant that Wolves had three central strikers on the pitch. But two of them were obviously unhappy with their temporary jobs as wingers for the day. And I bet Mick still wonders why they sacked him.
It was no good though, a scrappy goal from Jonas Olsson following a ridiculous clearance from a corner ensured Albion went in front. Then it started. Odemwingie hit a stunner. Then Keith Andrews making his debut, booed at his every touch by the fickle Dingles and for so long maligned by Rovers fans finished off a great passing move and suddenly we were 4-1 up. I have long felt sorry for Keith Andrews, despite his Wolves connections. I always thought Rovers looked a better team with him in it, especially under Allardyce and for Giovanni Trappatoni he clearly seems to be the first name on the teamsheet. That goal, I'm sure, will make him beloved of Albion fans everywhere for years to come. Even if he does nothing else.
After Andrew's goal, Odemwingie turned defeat into humiliation by bagging his hat trick. It was the perfect day, how could it get any better? Easily it turned out. The rumours started circulating on twitter that Rangers were about to go into administration. It turned out to be true, and despite the potentially devastating effects for Scottish football, I bloody love a good gloat. Karma is a fantastic thing sometimes.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Thoughts on last night's Clasico and the upcoming second leg.

Next week will be interesting. Guardiola has consistently got the better of Mourinho in the Majority of Clásicos (with the exception of last years Copa del Rey) and on the evidence of last nights performance he's still nowhere near. Not that Madrid haven't vastly improved since last season because they have and will probably win the league as a result. But a league title without a Clásico win is generally viewed as a Pyrrhic victory by most Madridistas, who will not be pleased by Jose’s comments today that state it would in fact be “great”. Like a Rubik's cube being twisted into shape Barça were at their fluid best last night with both goals coming from usually goal-shy defenders; the ever talismanic Puyol and the criminally underrated Abidal. Madrid had started well though, with a fine goal from Ronaldo to underline Real's early domination of the game. It was not to last though as the Rubik's cube took its final twist and Barça clicked into gear. Unlike the last Clásico in the league way back in December,  Real seemed unwilling to press much beyond goal-kicks, letting Barça build from the back in a way which was only really likely to have one outcome. Going to the Camp Nou next week will not be an easy job, they will need to press and attack by playing Barça at their own game and it should make for intriguing viewing. 

What particularly interested me in this game, as with the previous Clásico, was the use of Alexis Sanchez as an orthodox centre forward, with Messi playing as a classic number ten behind him. Quite often in League fixtures this season (admittedly of less importance) Cesc has been given the number nine role with  Messi in his old right wing role, cutting inside. The formation used in the previous two Clásicos (with Iniesta on the wing and Cesc in midfield alongside Xavi) appears to be Guardiola's preferred 'big game' formation. Also interesting was the use of Dani Alves as an actual right back, not having Puyol to come across and cover for him. It appears that with Cristiano Ronaldo, even Alves has to defend. It did work though, with Ronaldo switching flanks after Callejon came on in the 67th minute. 

On the other hand though, it seems highly unlikely that Mourinho will be too bothered about being knocked out of the Copa del Rey next week. It would take something really special to come back and I’m not convinced Madrid have it. Jose wants the league anyway and unless Real flounder spectacularly, they will get it and despite the the Champion’s League being ‘Mourinho’s competition’, really it is Barça’s to lose and I certainly won’t be betting against them.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

ITV football coverage and El Clásico preview

I’m going to apologise in advance. This rant has been building up for a while and I’ll try and keep it as short as possible. ITV football coverage (specifically Andy Townsend and his motley bunch of morons with Adrian Chiles and Roy Keane excluded) is so ridiculously bad I am seriously considering watching more games in complete silence in the hope that this will provide more interesting tactical analysis than what is on offer behind the mute button. In particular Townsend is so bad he actually makes my teeth hurt just watching him. He is utterly useless at providing any accurate analysis on football whatsoever, except to pontificate on how utterly fantastic Manchester United are. That goes for the rest of ITV as well. Having watched two United v Barça Champions’s League finals on ITV, they gave no indication whatsoever that United were about to get thumped and that everyone with an ounce of common sense knew that was exactly what was going to happen. Not ITV though, they spoke as if though the final were a mere formality before United received the trophy which is theirs by divine right. It was the same last night when they got dumped out by Basle. Quite unthinkable according to ITV despite the fact they’ve not had a proper midfield (or at least one capable of rivalling Barça’s) for the past three years. Incidentally, while we’re on the subject of ITV pundits and United midfielders, Roy Keane looked absolutely disgusted with the performance tonight.

But enough of all that. Rant over. It seems like I’ve been waiting forever for the latest instalment of El Clásico. Perhaps it was the deluge of El Clásico matches towards the end of last season or the long, long football free summer but as they say in the streets of Baltimore, I’m proper ‘jonesing’ for this weekend. Not that I think Barça will win. I reckon either a draw or a horrible defensive Madrid win. It’s probably their turn after all. That and Barça haven’t exactly set La Liga on fire this season, mainly due to Guardiola’s near-fetish for playing central midfielders at centre half and up front. Mascherano and Fabregas have consistently been played out of position all season, as Mascherano was last season too. I don’t get the logic of playing Fabregas as the ‘False Nine’, despite his ability to head the ball and score goals, when Messi is largely ineffective in his old right wing role. Fabregas is certainly more effective bursting from midfield as he used to at Arsenal, always used to look like he relished derby games as well. I also think that Pep is missing a trick by not playing Iniesta on the wing. A position he has excelled in for both club and country. Thankfully though, Pedro is finally back to full fitness and Alexis Sanchez is finally starting to show flashes of the brilliance that brought him to Catalunya from Udinese. If Guardiola does play Cesc in midfield though, I’ll back him to have a blinder in his first La Liga Clásico, Guardiola will probably go for his usual 4-3-3 but could opt for his occasional big game 3-4-3 as he did against A.C. Milan in the Champion’s League. Madrid will most likely go for their usual 4-2-3-1 unless they go for a defensive 4-3-3 to mirror Barça’s in order to man mark Messi, Xavi et al.

Here is how I think the teams will line up:


Dani Alves  Pique   Puyol    Abidal
             Xavi           Fabregas

Iniesta             Messi              Villa

Real Madrid:

Arbeloa  Sergio Ramos  Pepe  Marcelo
           Xabi Alonso   Sami Khedira

Di Maria            Oezil            C. Ronaldo

It’s possible that Benzema will get the nod ahead of Higuain as according Guillem Balague, Ronaldo prefers to play with him and Fabio Coentrão could start at left back ahead of the criminally underrated Marcelo. There is also, of course, the chance that Fabregas will be benched and Pedro will get a start, with Iniesta moving back into midfield. This was Guardiola’s preferred line up last season and we all know what happened then. But then again, anything could, and hopefully will, happen.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Ten Games Unbeaten: The Rise of Athletic Bilbao under Marcelo Bielsa

After the 1-0 loss to an expensive Malaga team in September, everything seemed like it was going wrong for Marcelo Bielsa and his new way of thinking at Athletic Bilbao. Last season, Athletic were viewed in La Liga much in the same way as Stoke or a Sam Allardyce team in England: nothing but physical play, long balls and 1-0 wins. A tag which, could rightly be argued, was more than a tad harsh. With the summer appointment of Bielsa (formerly coach of Chile and Argentina) a new style of play based on pressing and short passing has graced San Mames. At first it looked like Athletic would struggle to adapt to the new style of play and the new coach and his strange ways. After consecutive league defeats against Espanyol, Betis and Malaga and a draw against Villareal came Europa league wins against big-spenders PSG and a Basque derby win against rivals Real Sociedad. After that came another win against fellow Basques; Osasuna. After an unlucky draw against Valencia at the Mestalla came a resounding 3-0 win over Atletico Madrid.

One of Bielsa’s most successful new tactics has been the incredibly fluent attacking midfield trio consisting of Muniain, De Marcos and Susaeta, supporting Fernando Llorente, the lone striker. This was evident against Atletico and even when a tired looking Muniain was substituted after an hour, Toquero came on and hustled and bustled the Atletico defence with great success. Llorente was the real star though, scoring his fifth and sixth goals in as many games. Atletico looked tough to beat in the first half, but were undone in a ten minute spell of play punctuated by clever through balls from Ander Herrera. Athletic are also masters of playing down the wings, crossing in balls for Llorente and Andoni Iraola made some dangerous runs from right back. One of the main advantages to the new attacking midfield trio behind Llorente is the use of Muniain in a central role. Though, if truth be told, he looks dangerous anywhere in that formation and as they are constantly swapping roles, this makes him dangerous to mark.

“We never lose when it rains” Andoni Iraola told new boy Ander Herrera before then Barcelona game. Rain it did and lose they did not. Despite weather like a summers day in Manchester, a fantastic game of football ensued. Possesion repeatedly gained and given away by both sides due to the surface water all over the pitch. It made for exciting viewing. Athletic lined up in a 4-3-3 formation mirroring Baras every move. The usually superlative Xavi and Iniesta  were practically marked out of the game. Messi was also unusually ineffective (despite getting the last minute equaliser), played on the right hand side of the front three rather than his usual deep-lying centre forward role, with Fabregas playing as the ‘false nine’. Athletic’s marking and pressing game worked wonders with a Barcelona side who were not having a good day at the office.

Bielsa has been successful in making Athletic an even better team to watch than they were last season and seems to be making the most out of his most talented player, Munian. The real worry is though, if Llorente gets injured, they don’t really have anyone else to provide the goals. But after a slightly shaky start to the season, they are in good form and looking to challenge for a Champions League place. Something they shouldn’t have trouble achieving if ‘El Loco’ keeps up his tactical nous.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Pessimism returns...

Albion played Liverpool at home on Saturday. Never a fixture I look forward to. Ever since a boxing day game a few years ago when they trashed us 5-0 (at home as well) or something horrific like that. All I remember is that I stopped watching and got drunk instead. Seemed like the right thing to do. In all fairness, it probably was. Not this time though, only 2-0 and I didn't touch a drop. But after the optimism of the previous two weeks, the pessimism (which along with cynicism is an essential part of supporting the Albion) has finally returned.

We simply didn't turn up. Admittedly, I missed the first 20 minutes including the 'penalty' but watching the rest of the game we seemed overawed by the likes of Charlie Adam who is without a doubt the most overrated player in the Premier League. We stood off them, not wanting to press the ball, letting Adam and Lucas control the midfield. Lucas is a fine player on his day, he wouldn't be in the Brazil side if he wasn't, but I genuinely believed before the match that Scharner and Mulumbu would give the Scouse midfield a run for it's money especially with the ever crocked Gerrard out injured again. We managed to pull a few decent passing moves together and managed to look dangerous from set pieces (something which for the past 6 years has eluded us) but really, it was a poor showing. Jonas Olsson was unlucky not to score from a corner, but even if he had it would have been too little too late. In fairness to Liverpool though, Carroll and Suarez linked up well and looked constantly dangerous and even Adam played some of the long accurate passes that made his name at Blackpool. I still think he's crap though.

Next up: Arsenal, away. Oh dear...

Monday, 24 October 2011

Does the phrase 'like a dog with two dicks' mean anything to you?

This week just gone, I have been walking around like a dog with two dicks. "Why?" I hear you cry in anticipation. Well, the Sunday before last we (meaning the Albion or for the uninitiated 'West Brom') beat our local rivals Wolves. It was a game we desperately needed to win, points on the board were sparse and bragging rights were at stake. Super Chrissy Brunt (as I like to call him) and Peter Odemwingie got the goals and fine goals they were too. The next week however i.e. the one just gone, we played Villa. Away. Our other, more local, rivals. In the 21 years I have supported the Albion, I have seen us beat Villa just the once. As a child, Black Country derbies against Wolves were plentiful and we won many, if not the majority. Villa, however were in a higher division and not to be played against as often. Until last season, I had never witnessed or indeed been alive for a victory against the hated 'Seals' as they are colloquially known amongst Albion fans.

So anyway, last Saturday, we won. I'm not used to this. At all. Ecstatic doesn't even come close. It was like a dream, I'm half convinced I'll wake up soon and find out we lost 4-0.  Jonas Olsson and Paul Scharner got the goals. Super Chris missed a penalty, Alan Hutton committed a disgraceful foul on Shane Long and Chris Herd was sent off for a dubious 'stamp' on Olsson. All in all, an action packed derby, worthy of the label.

Also worthy of the label were QPR v Chelsea and the Manchester derby. What can I say about the Manchester derby ? Except; bloody hell. Didn't expect that one. United capitulated like I've never seen from them. They need to be worried, especially with Anderson in midfield. Inept can be the only description. Although, as usual, De Gea will probably get the blame. Despite the performance of the players in front of him, irregardless of Evans sending off.

As for the West London derby; a classic English game of football. Full of tackles and violence. Just how a derby should be. Always pleases me to see John Terry and Frank Lampard upset. There were many on twitter criticising QPR for not being more attacking once Chelsea went down to 9 men. Surely they would have been foolish to commit more men forward when they were already one nil up. I love attacking football as much as the next man, but when you're a newly promoted team, such a tactic is suicidal. God knows, I've seen the Albion throw away too many games by attacking when they didn't need to. Keep possession, be patient and pray 'til the final whistle would be my strategy on those occasions.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Athletic Bilbao 3 Osasuna 1

On the evidence of this performance, Athletic Bilbao will have no problem obtaining a top 4-5 finish this season. A great display of attacking football and an absolute masterclass from Iker Muniain. But, poor Osasuna. In the first half they could have been two or three up but for the performance of Gorka Iraizoz in goal who made several top class saves. Unfortunately for Osasuna, goals from Muniain, Igor Gabilondo and Javi Martinez ensured that they were found wanting, despite a late penalty from Javad Nekounam for a harsh handball decision against Javi Martinez.

An exciting end to end first half was followed by a second half where Osasuna didn't really turn up, their heads had dropped and they never really looked like getting back into the game. Bilbao were unlucky not to score more in the final 45 minutes, particularly Llorente  who led the line brilliantly just in front of an attacking midfield trio of Markel Susaeta, Muniain and De Marcos. Gabilondo came off at half time and was replaced by Autenetxe, pushing De Marcos into midfield from left back. This midfield trio was incredibly fluid throughout the second half with all three players taking turns in various positions, passing and moving like they'd never been the tough, physical side many pundits write them off as. Bielsa must have been ecstatic after their slightly shaky start to the season.