tirsdag den 7. september 2010

2010/11 Team previews: Chelsea

2010/2011 team previews:


Next we have:


In a 2009/10 season that had seen the other members of the big four lose key players, Chelsea were in my opinion from very early on by a good margin the best team in the league and should probably (also with their goal difference in mind) have won more comfortable than they ended up doing.

There were definitely stumbling along the way. Losing an elite player like Essien to injury for starters. Then goalkeeper Petr Cech, while not on the Almunia scale but still, had some costly games where he just didn't seem confident and new coach Ancelotti while never messing up disastrously, did have new players and a new league that he had to get to know. Versus, to take the most obvious example, closest rival Manchester United with a manager and several players knowing exactly what it takes.

The one constant though for Chelsea. Ever since the Mourinho years but perhaps increasingly so now (with some cost defensively it has to be said) is the scary effective attack. Like I always say, they could be the most dangerous team of everyone in the final third. They can't always get it smoothly up there like a Barcelona, in fact Ancelotti's insistence on a more patient Milan-like possession based/less Mourinho direct attack, when that was stopped occasionally by teams in midfield simply cause this Mourinho build team still doesn't consist of finesse passers of the ball, was when they had their most trouble.

Once in the final third though, with Drogba as immense as ever, Lampard merciless and tireless with and without the ball, Malouda suddenly adding great skills to his always impressive work-rate and athleticism, enjoying his finest season ever, and then Anelka not to be confused anymore with the moody striker of the past, now instead in an almost free role working both right and central, holding up (and running with) the ball very well with strong balance being the insurance almost of maintained Chelsea final third pressure, giving everyone time to make the right runs around him.

Then if you add a couple of fullbacks in Cole and the revelation in that position that was Ivanovic able to go up and down the line all game long, it just becomes way too much for most teams to deal with defensively and that ultimately led to Chelsea's record breaking 103 goals scored.

If anyone have closed the gap enough to compete with that I'll hopefully get to in other previews of the top teams in England. For now though let's try and examine if Chelsea will be weaker or stronger this season.

The most important part of the team was what I just described. The final third domination that even when other things in other places, maybe weren't quite as good as they could, just kept on collecting points.

The most important players there are still intact and only potential vulnerability that I'm able to spot would be injuries. As excellent as they are one of Lampard, Malouda or Anelka injured could be lived with because of depth and versatility elsewhere in the squad.

Much worse would be a Drogba injury and I'm a little surprised that they didn't add a proven decent backup striker to their squad. Even if having to rot on the bench somewhat, Claudio Pizarro style.

Anelka of course has carried the load there well in the past, and could do so again, especially when the surroundings are so good, but by own admission (highlighted during the France World Cup disaster) he isn't and doesn't see himself as a center-forward anymore and reacted badly when put there.

For Chelsea it's much more flexible anyway though and there is constant movement among the attacking players and certainly with someone like (the up and down) Kalou, Anelka could do enough switching around to be be comfortable. And has done so in the recent past of course.

Third choice then is young English forward Daniel Sturridge who I'm not quite sure of yet (one way or the other) but that he is the leading striker on the England U-21 team can't be a bad sign surely.

Of attacking players actually gone most notable are Joe Cole and Deco. Both have been largely disappointing in recent times but occasionally when Chelsea's passing got obstructed to a point where the ball didn't get transported often enough to final third paradise, one or the other could come in and add some passing rhythm. Overall though I think it was correct of Chelsea to get rid of them with Cole being weak athletically and tactically and Deco aging while, ever since Scolari and "Blue Brazil", just not being a very good Premier League fit.

Instead Yossi Benayoun has come in who with both his movement and skill in the final third has every chance (on this team a better chance than ever) to be a good contributor whenever needed. Expect goals and assists.

Also kind of new when talking attacking players in the first team squad, since he has had both suspension (from the controversial transfer) and serious injury to deal with, is immensely talented 19 year old Gael Kakuta fresh from leading his France team to the U-19 European Championship.

He has played mainly left-wing where Malouda sit more strongly than ever but I wouldn't rule out Kakuta being able to contribute in most roles at Chelsea behind and around the striker.
He has pace, excellent technique and a bag of tricks that makes very challenging one on one.

With injury history in mind and all I'm not sure he physically is quite ready to take significant minutes from various experienced attacking Chelsea players but he has so much talent that together with Benayoun I do think he makes up for losing even proven stars like Cole and Deco.

And then there is Chelsea's best signing, Brazilian Ramires with the nickname "The Kenyan" for his unlimited running.

He doesn't look like much physically at first glance but has potential Makelele-like strength in central midfield (despite looking very impressive I've still seen too little of him in that role for a fully convinced verdict) and he also has enough pace and skill to be effective wide out right.

That's pointing towards a player who not only can fill in, but possibly be a good upgrade over the departed Ballack and often disappointing Mikel in central midfield, not least Ramires being Brazilian and with that almost automatically better at reading the game quickly and act accordingly, something Mikel can struggle with under pressure, but also play out wide on the right side, with how wide exactly depending on Ancelotti's system.
But definitely a player more natural as a right central midfielder than Essien, opening up I think, with Ballack gone, an important door for starting lineups without necessarily Mikel as the defensive midfielder.

On that note here is my strongest Chelsea lineup with the attacking positions not in very fixed positions at all meaning there are a lot of things you could call this system:

Safe choice to call it would be a 4-3-3 variation. That covers a lot of things... Often how Ancelotti lines up it's referred to as a 4-3-1-2 which in my formation would indicate Malouda less predominant on the left and Lampard one of the three central behind him, defensively often covering the left. Anelka then roaming around often based right helping making it all work. Not least by making up numbers so it's 5 and not 4 in midfield, despite what it says on paper. No matter what it is on paper exactly though, it's these I think are the strongest.

Defensively (where the goal really isn't supposed to be empty - sorry Petr Cech) one of the best central defenders in the world Ricardo Carvalho has joined his old boss Mourinho in Madrid, and hasn't really been replaced.

Fortunately for Chelsea, Terry and Alex are both very durable (unlike Carvalho recently) and easily make up what is still one of the strongest duos in the league and that on a team usually in control of their matches.

It's still a downgrade though with the only proven alternative being last season's right-back Ivanovic . Up until then usually a central defender anyway so if former right-back star Bosingwa comes back well from injury, it might very well be worth considering a Terry/Ivanovic duo to make room for what not long ago was one of the best right-backs in the world.

Fourth choice central defender looks to be young Dutch player Jeffrey Bruma. I hope he is ready, and if he is (sometimes quite the if) that Ancelotti will actually trust him (a young player gasp) cause I would hate once again seeing Essien used as emergency in central defense.

Ashley Cole on the left needs no introduction. He is one of the best at his position and effective both going forward and defending. His backup Zhirkov on the other hand is really more of left-wing in certain systems who's clear strength is when attacking where he can be a real weapon. Therefore he can fill in for Malouda as well, though now perhaps with increased competition in the form of talented Kakuta.

Final verdict:

An incredibly strong squad and team. One of the best in the world and likely still superior in England (but to keep it interesting let's at least see what the other previews from England bring). Only potential questionmarks being injuries and age of key players.
As far as the last thing go, even if it's only a matter of time, there aren't really any danger signs just yet and even when it comes to injuries there only seems to be one player, Drogba, where it would really hurt, and not even to the extent of how it hurts United when they're without Rooney, Arsenal without Fabregas or Liverpool without Torres.

Tactically my only issue with them last season was at times relying too much on Mikel in central midfield. He has tremendous talent that would probably be much more out there to see had he more freedom. To go forward as well. Instead he is usually in a very tactical role and sometimes he struggles with the distribution aspect of it.

However there are some vague early signs, and I'm not ready to conclude anything, it was also against weak competition, that perhaps he has improved in those areas. It's still early of course but when on more than one occasion last season he was substituted prematurely because a lack of reading the game and limited passing was exploited as the one Chelsea weakness by opponents, it should of course set alarm bells ringing and be all the motivation needed to try and improve.

Even if he hasn't, and it's of course much easier said than done, Chelsea now both have a healthy Essien and newcomer Ramires as high quality midfielders more capable in those areas (among others) than Mikel.

UPDATE: in an interview I just came across, Ancelotti interestingly said this about Mikel: "Last season, he had an average of 18 per cent forward passes and in the three games this season he had 38 per cent. He's trying to put more balls directly to strikers.

It's very hard still not to see a Chelsea team who beats others like no other with their winning combination of great physique and great skill. Whether it's one or the other or both.

Yes eventually they'll get too old but for at least one more season they could be even better than the last one, so it will be up to other teams to step up. Even with a few very potential question marks here and there, central defense (perhaps combined with becoming too attacking) and striker depth if injury plagued, other areas on the other hand arguably more important ones, have been improved. Such as midfield overall looking stronger with on board a healthy Essien and the versatile Ramires. Even Benayoun, due to potentially blending so well with the final third surroundings, could end up doing quite a lot better than what the finesse players shown the door (Cole and Deco) did recently.

Outside of Barcelona in Spain, Chelsea are as much guaranteed to be excellent as anyone. It's the others who will have to improve.

At least, unlike in Spain, there is more than one team with at least the chance to do it.

2010/11 Team previews: AC Milan

Delayed, but better late than never, here the first of my early season fashionable late team previews/reports and it is none other than AC Milan.

Next should be either Chelsea or Roma. Maybe Real Madrid! Whatever gets me going I guess...

Will also take suggestions. Preferably from these though (my list):

Bayern München
Real Madrid
Atletico Madrid
Manchester United
Lyon (only maybe)
Marseille (only maybe)
Dortmund (only maybe)
Werder Bremen (only maybe)
Schalke (only maybe)
Sampdoria (only maybe)
Manchester City
Aston Villa (only maybe)

AC Milan

For most of the off-season it looked to be the same old of modest renewal of the aging Milan squad that their fans have had to endure in recent years. But then just before the end of the deadline they signed, first Zlatan Ibrahimovic, in a deal that made huge news mostly described as a steal from Barcelona, and then as an extra bonus unsettled Brazilian trickster Robinho from Manchester City.

The formerly oh so dynamic duo of Galliani and Berlusconi truly turning back the years.

And just like that in a matter of very few days the whole mood surrounding the club turned around and there is now as much excitement as there have been in years.

Like last year with Leonardo there is also a new coach in town, this time it's Massimiliano Allegri who impressed everyone at Cagliari but who also face enough of last season's challenges for me (before we really get going with the current) to quote something I wrote in last year's preview:


Ronaldinho is the number one in the world, in midfield (wing) he is totally wasted," he suggested.

"If he was playing on the edge of the area, he would be able to punish the opposition more and score more goals. It is the most intelligent solution from a tactical point of view."

Some things just never change and while the coach is new there is still the same old challenge of channeling Berlusconi's "insight" into something workable on the pitch.

The people who did this most successfully was of course legendary coaches Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello. They both stayed strong to their particular formulas of winning and off the pitch Berlusconi could use that succes to build his career in politics.

Even now somewhat forgotten star coach Alberto Zaccheroni, stayed true to his unique 3-4-3 system and secured a scudetto.
At the first sign of things going bad Zaccheroni was sacked though. Following a 2001 Champions League quaterfinal knockout against Deportivo La Coruna, Berlusconi in the middle of a busy election campaign took time to make it very clear on live tv afterwards that he didn't agree with many of the tactical choices that were made. "Tonight we saw that I was not wrong" was his quote, and that Zaccheroni's days as the Milan coach were numbered.

A couple of years before that, even Fabio Capello had felt Berlusconi's wrath as soon as things weren't going well and ended his second spell with the club getting sacked.
Granted things were very ugly at that point but this was the most succesful coach in the world who after winning everything with Milan had gone to Spain and just won La Liga in his first spell there with Real Madrid.
A couple of years later Capello in perhaps his finest achievement lead Roma to the title. Then Juventus. Then Madrid again. This man was far from done and obviously a great coach but also someone probably not very likely to implement Berlusconi's tactical input on to the pitch.

Sure finishing with a goalscore of 36-15 in 34 games (drawing 12-losing 3) as Capello's Milan team amazingly did in 1993-1994 was acceptable when also winning the title, but the first sign of that kind of football not transformed into great results, surely Berlusconi himself will have the best ideas of what to do instead!
Capello however I'm sure would not feel that way. Zaccheroni didn't.
Sacchi actually was also sacked, probably doing exactly what he had done before just not with the same results, ending his brief second spell with club.

One man who kept lasting though was of course Carlo Ancelotti. He won (just) one Scudetto in 8 years.
Of course his great succes in the Champions League where the team should have won 3 trophies instead of the two they did win helped a lot, but with plenty of dry spells during his long run as the coach, I strongly suspect that an important part of his quite remarkable staying power had to do with his willingness to listen to Berlusconi's insight when things weren't going well.

So with that, enter rookie coach Leonardo and his already shown willingness to play Ronaldinho where Silvio feels it's right. That's encouraging right? Well for Leonardo's staying power it is.

Of course the last two sentences proved incorrect. As described plenty in both the Pirlo writeup and the Ronaldinho one on my list, Leonardo (now without a job) quickly moved away from playing Ronaldinho in a forward role central (from what I remember he only really did it in that Berlusconi Trophy game which I had just watched when writing that) and instead parked him way out left. From my Ronaldinho entry on the best players in the world list:

While he is still a supremely skilled player he has been something of a team killer in recent years. Killer of his own teams that is.

Because of what I presume must be poor physical condition, cause he is still only 29 which is a decent football age, he just doesn't have any movement without the ball anymore.
That he doesn't work when his team isn't in possession is not anything new of course. That's never been his role in the first place. But when he never makes runs or has movement off the ball he is generally just too easy to mark.
Then when he 4 or 5 times a game he will make a run he will often be too out of breath to do anything effectively once he gets the ball.
Too often it has seemed like he wasn't able to keep up with the tempo at the highest level anymore, which when you think about it is pretty sad for a 29 year old who among millions of people is still one of the utmost talented this game.

Personally I'm convinced that a significant part of Barcelona's historic improvement from the last season under Rijkaard to first season under Guardiola was the black hole that had become Ronaldinho wherever he was on the pitch now being gone from the lineup.
His extreme case of non work simply limited the team in too many ways. With the ball he reduced the movement of the whole team and without it, for starters, something like effective pressure on opponent possession could never be very effective.

Even last season in what was his debut season for Milan it was when Ancelotti started benching him that results finally improved for Milan and they started a rapid climb up the table. Coincidence? I think not!

So why is this clown even on the list? Why is this season different?

It really isn't that much different from what I can tell. I still see many of the same negative things from him and him now being given a whole left-wing to occupy in a 4-3-3 by new Milan coach Leonardo, where he can then mostly stand still or sometimes go for walks, he still hurts his team's balance consistently throughout games.

But what can't be denied is that he is an extraordinary playmaker when he gets the ball out there.
He doesn't really have the energy/pace/whatever to dribble much anymore, but he'll make great passes that very few can even think of. Short, forward, long, diagonal or cross, he'll do it all and with two other forwards to look for and a player like Seedorf coming from behind often ending up somewhere near him, he's been quite effective lately and he leads Serie A in assists. It's when Milan doesn't have the ball where the real trouble starts but with it and Ronaldinho, parked out on the wing, he has actually become value.

Leonardo seems to have just accepted that off the ball Ronaldinho just isn't good enough anymore in order to not be, a way too easy mark so to speak, so he has placed him so far out left field that he really is beyond normal marking unless you wanna man mark him for some reason.
For long periods of the game he is just out there almost glued to the sideline and yeah most players wouldn't be able do much of anything from out there especially not when they're slow and not much of a threat to cut well inside, but Ronaldinho he'll somehow make things happen from out there.
Say one great first touch, follow it up with some genius pass and the man (the clown) has created a dangerous situation, and that without much effort at all.

He is too skilled not to be on the list :(

In short the Ronaldinho of the last 3-4 years simply hasn't had either the strength, acceleration or most importantly the needed off the ball movement to be able to function central where space is tightest.
Then with almost all his value being when he has the ball, in order for him to get it enough to justify him even playing, he has been placed way out left, beyond normal marking where the other players can find him with relative ease. Then hope for the best.

Make no mistake about it Allegri now has a better team than what Leonardo had but how he solves the Ronaldinho question and how it relates to the rest of the lineup+Berlusconi's enjoyment voyering the whole thing, I still think is the most important challenge he faces.

What has made the situation even more tricky is the extra bonus gift from Silvio in the form of Robinho. One Allegri admits that he didn't expect but of course now has to deal with.

Him and Ronaldinho has played the same position for years. It was Robinho who took over there on the Brazil national team.

Is getting Robinho a sneaky Silvio ploy to get Ronaldinho where he wants him on the field, in the middle behind the huge striker upgrade that is Ibrahimovic, both scoring goals?

That extremely attacking lineup which I don't think there is any doubt Allegri is under pressure to showcase sooner rather than later, would have Robinho on the left, Ibrahimovic in the center, Pato as right forward and right behind them (I'm sure switching a lot with Robinho which would be a must I think) the clown prince, Ronaldinho himself.

The two midfielders that leaves room for would then I'm guessing be Pirlo and Ambrosini.

Last year under Leonardo we often saw a very unbalanced Milan side with 3 forwards that didn't participate in defensive play and a midfield then, when not ran over, standing very deep to avoid just that, getting run over. A lot of teams then basically had a acres of space on their way to the Milan final third.

Some opponents took advantage of that better than others. In many games I found myself surprised it didn't end worse for Milan and I clearly expected more games like the ones against Manchester United in the Champions League and the defeats not least against Palermo in Serie A. But no matter what though, I have little doubt it was that very unbalance that was the main contributor stopping Milan from being enough of a consistent winner to compete all the way for the title.

And what would this Allegri extreme attacking lineup part II be then?

For starters it's even more attacking than Leonardo's and it's clearly also more talented.

Ronaldinho for all his flaws is a genius with a football. Robinho is one of the most talented attacking players in the world and Ibrahimovic and Pato are two of the best. Few teams will be able to stop that kind of talent from scoring.

There is obviously very little defending though and the team is likely to find itself in situations with not enough men behind the ball too often to not concede.

Allegri of course knows this perfectly well and one early sign of change that he has implemented (mind you this is with the 4-3-3 without either of Robinho and Ibrahimovic) to try and create more cohesion and balance is that he has moved the back four up the pitch which is a clear change from Leonardo's very deep defending.

That of course has its own risks and is clearly gambling but I think it's better than what clearly isn't gonna cut it in the long run, playing without people in midfield, either deep in the opponent half or deep in your own. He is simply making the pitch smaller. Something that of course has a rich AC Milan tradition where Arrigo Sacchi build his success on that working to perfection.

For Allegri's Milan I can't see it working that well at all, you just have to look at the characteristics of the current players and compare them to a team like Sacchi's that was build for it with not least Rijkaard's physicality in the pressure game but runners like Ancelotti and Evani as well. Even Gullit (when healthy) and Donadoni played their important parts. Then behind the midfield Baresi was the revolutionary master at pushing the back four up in essential support.

On the current team, when the attacking player I see as most likely to put in a decent defensive effort that includes ball pressure is Robinho, then I don't think that is something which bodes very well.

Ronaldinho and Ibrahimovic will do nothing. Pato has the physique and it is possible that in lineups this year not as heavily dependent on his fantastic presence in the final third as they were at times last season, that he can bring an effort as well with at least some burden there lifted from his shoulders.

In a way replace that now gone burden with a new defensive one so to speak. It's hardly given it's something that could be relied on though.

In midfield players like Ambrosini, Flamini, Gattuso and interesting newcomer Kevin Prince Boateng can all to various extents do the needed job. Like midfielders should. But there are only two midfield spots left and one of those must be Pirlo's right? A player not build for Sacchi ball pressure at all but who can at least get by defensively with his positioning when playing deep.

Even if Allegri did the in my opinion criminal (and I'll get to why in a bit) and sacrificed Pirlo for one of the midfielders capable of the defensive effort, I still have my serious doubts if it would be enough and Allegri's team still not be one too often defending with only 6 or less players. It's not like fullbacks always stay back either (those orders couldn't even save Maradona's actually less attacking Argentina lineup).

No, then keeping orchestrator Pirlo in the lineup and go for that other, "even-maker" when it comes to making up for lack of defensive players, overwhelming possession=less defending to do, might be a better gamble. Even if I still suspect it's one (unlike prime attacking example Barcelona with their great immediate pressure on the ballholder) that will be countered too often to be truly successful. Interestingly enough not dissimilar to the last Barcelona side that had Ronaldinho starting.

For me the strongest Milan lineup is very obvious and one only made more so because of the early encouraging signs of the 4-3-3 tactically playing higher up and the addition of Robinho.

Stay away from the insane 4-2-3-1 that has all of the stars (Robinho,Ibra,Pato,Dinho) in one giant dysfunctional attacking basket and keep with the 4-3-3 significantly upgraded tactically, balance-wise with the arrival of Allegri on the bench and upgraded on the player front massively with Ibrahimovic over Borriello and yes also (the one thing that really amazes me that I don't see talked about anywhere and there is plenty of discussion and articles on this new Milan everywhere) with Robinho over Ronaldinho on the left.

That to me is the logical step but signals from everywhere, the club, its fans and journalists, seems to be either all four of them playing or Robinho, not Ronaldinho, as kind of a supersub joker coming from the bench.

While I do think that's the lesser evil of the two and might work very well with the upgrade that's Ibrahimovic and a healthy Pato (healthy Nesta in back would really help too) it's still a team I have my doubts if really, to use sporting director's Galliani's own words, can compete with anyone and be one of the very best teams in Europe. Challenging both for the Scudetto and the Champions League.

The team I think has a better chance of that has younger, potentially harder working, faster and (despite flaws of his own and lack of true genius) overall better Robinho playing instead of Ronaldinho. As an extra bonus, Robinho for Dunga's Brazil, even showed, what he never really did in club football, a certain defensive effort which while maybe not looking like all that much coming from a skinny Brazilian, is more than a fat Ronaldinho could ever do, and potentially even assist Allegri's tactical defensive rescue plan for the 4-3-3 tremendously.

This in my opinion is the strongest Milan lineup:

With that world class front three, Pirlo will finally have have other options than to just seek out Ronaldinho on the left. There is actual pace and movement around him. Something he has been severely lacking the last couple of years.

Deep down I still think over a season Flamini playing the majority of games instead of Ambrosini would be best but while not even realistic in the first place, Ambrosini captain and all, Flamini did actually get more chances last season and with Ambrosini still going strong there wasn't all that much difference between them I don't think.

Gattuso almost left the club but after some reportedly emotional face to face meetings with Galliani decided to stay after all, and with that a reality he is of course as always an alternative as well.
In the last few years a very bad one since he has struggled severely with injuries and form, but with a good healthy spell leading up to the World Cup and then a long rest

there might just be enough of a bounce back from him this season to at least occasionally justifying reliving the legendary Rhino/Pirlo/Ambrosini midfield trio.

The generous gift from Genoa, Kevin Prince Boateng, should get a midfield spot though I think. He isn't always the most reliable in his actions on the field but there is plenty of talent and he brings some impressive athleticism that's been really lacking from the Milan midfield in recent years.

Good old Seedorf will probably be his main obstacle and in many ways that he still performs at a good level is impressive, but by now his starts should be diagnosed more carefully I think, and with the new arrivals the team is much less dependent on him as one of the first alternatives to make creative things happen as well. Which is a very good thing.

The young talented Greek with the cool name Sokratis Papastathopoulos (another generous gift to Berlusconi from Genoa president Preziosi who just keeps giving - Bocchetti actually was almost another hmm) seems equally adept at central defense and right-back and is therefore a very good signing for depth. That he is young and less injury prone doesn't hurt either.

He probably won't win the right-back spot right way, especially not at notoriously hierarchical Milan, he might not even be first alternative to Zambrotta then, that could (wrongly) go to classy looking but usually lets you down Bonera, but with plenty of injury problems both central and right, his services should be needed and they're good upgrade over the likes of hopeless Oddo and Abate who just wasn't comfortable playing fullback.

The left-back clearly belongs to Antonini with the only washed up alternative now being Jankulowski.
The other, Kaladze and his high salary, is finally offloaded, to guess where? Yes Genoa once again!

In central defense Nesta despite the unavoidable injury problems had a very good season where he saved the unbalanced team on more than one occasion. After all his horrific injury trouble him actually managing coming back and playing regularly was great news not just for the club but for football. He isn't the unbelievable and unbeatable defender he used to be but in glimpses at least it's still there.

Beside him Thiago Silva has all the gifts needed to be a top defender for years and with more and more experience he should only get better.

Final Verdict:

While possibly making great progress solving the balance issues of the Ronaldinho 4-3-3 that had plagued Leonardo, promising coach Allegri was suddenly gifted the keys to an incredible attack presenting new dreams but also more challenges. And more pressure.

The huge positives are both more depth and much more talent in the squad but truly deciding just how well the club will compete with the very best in the Champions League and Inter in Serie A, will be if Allegri can find that elusive right balance.

My guess is, that has to be done avoiding consistently playing the 4-2-3-1 with all four attacking stars and instead stick with the tactical and talent-wise improved 4-3-3 benching preferably, not Robinho but rather Ronaldinho.
Will Silvio even allow such a thing? If they win he'll live with it. Otherwise it's his way, or eventually goodbye Allegri.

torsdag den 2. september 2010

The 200 best players in the world: 55 - 51

At last I reach the top 50.

Unfortunately as announced earlier I didn't have any much time to update the list during August and the time I have now as I've also said I want to use instead (transfer window closed and all) writing some fashionable late team reports/previews on what's still the new season.

So definitely not a massive Serie A preview team by team report like last year but rather do several interesting (mostly top I guess) teams from different leagues. Mainly Italy, England, Spain and Germany.

Right now there is an international break of course (where I'm personally looking forward to talented Belgium against Germany tomorrow) and I think it's a good time then to try and squeeze as many club previews in as possible (which as these things go could end up being not many at all - we shall see) before the leagues get started again and/or I get tired of it, where I'll then immediately will seek to continue and (finally) finish the list.

Right now I have to say though that the new season is a lot more interesting for me than the good old list anyway (I hardly even do changes any more either which is a massive change from earlier) which hopefully will also result in some decent productivity.

Which teams will be first? I have no idea!

Good suggestions are welcome.

Introduction to the list

200 - 101 (and every writeup+honorary mentions)

100 - 95
100: Jose Bosingwa - Chelsea - Portugal
99: André-Pierre Gignac - Toulouse - France
98: Andrés Guardado - Deportivo La Coruna - Mexico
97: Ricardo Carvalho - Chelsea - Portugal and Rio Ferdinand - Manchester United - England
96: John Terry - Chelsea - England
95: Mark Van Bommel - Bayern München - The Netherlands

94: Alejandro "Chori" Dominguez - Valencia - Argentina
93: Claudio Marchisio - Juventus - Italy
92: Michael Carrick - Manchester United - England
91: Darren Fletcher - Manchester United - Scotland
90: Miralem Pjanic - Lyon - Bosnia-Herzegovina
89: Santi Cazorla - Villarreal - Spain
88: Samir Nasri - Arsenal - France
87: Luis Suarez - Ajax - Uruguay
86: Mario Balotelli - Inter - Italy
85: Alberto Gilardino - Fiorentina - Italy
84: James Milner - Aston Villa - England
83: Mikel Arteta - Everton - Spain

82: Thierry Henry - Barcelona - France
81: Thomas Müller - Bayern München - Germany
80: Ivica Olic - Bayern München - Croatia
79: Branislav Ivanovic - Chelsea - Serbia
78: Nemanja Vidić - Manchester United - Serbia
77: Giorgio Chiellini - Juventus - Italy

76: Marcos Senna - Villarreal - Spain
75: Lass Diarra - Real Madrid - France
74: Francesco Totti - Roma - Italy
73: Antonio Di Natale - Udinese - Italy
72: Emmanuel Adebayor - Manchester City - Togo
71: Mirko Vucinic - Roma - Montenegro
70: Antonio Valencia - Manchester United - Ecuador
69: David Pizarro - Roma - Chile
68: Dimitar Berbatov - Manchester United - Bulgaria

67: Juan Manuel Vargas - Fiorentina - Peru
66: Robinho - Manchester City - Brazil
65: Patrice Evra - Manchester United - France
64: Michel Bastos - Lyon - Brazil
63: Seydou Keita - Barcelona - Mali
62: Javier Zanetti - Inter - Argentina

61: Ashley Cole - Chelsea - England
60: Andrea Pirlo - Milan - Italy
59: Mario Gomez - Bayern München - Germany
58: Karim Benzema - Real Madrid - France
57: Zvjezdan Misimovic - Wolfsburg - Bosnia Herzegovina
56: Rafael Van der Vaart - Real Madrid - The Netherlands


Michael Ballack

Bayer Leverkusen

Midfielder - Germany

One of the best midfielders in the world for the last decade is back at Leverkusen where he got his big breakthrough more than 10 years ago.

Ballack even at his best was never flashy but as effective a player as almost any. His power, stamina combined with intelligence, considerable skills (passing, first touch as well as shooting) plus aerial ability made him able to excel anywhere from commanding play in central midfield to provide bundles of goals in the final third.

With great consistency that was all showcased time and time again in Germany. Whether for Leverkusen, Bayern or the Nationalmannschaft, Ballack was the unquestionable leader and mostly the best player too, and with a big ego to go along with all the ability he was in many ways yet another traditional almost imperious German football Kapitän. Just the way they seem to like them.

Then when Ballack moved to Chelsea as a 29 year old veteran much of the same was expected but never quite materialized itself with the same consistency. First of all there were injuries, second there were other midfielders so excellent that Ballack wasn't the talisman, more like a very good role player in fact, and that one of those midfielders Frank Lampard shared many of Ballack's characteristics while almost never missing a game, meant that Ballack for Chelsea never became the dominant midfielder everyone had grown used to.

It's interesting I think, that at least before physical decline really set in for Ballack, that Chelsea had perhaps the 3 most effective midfielders in the world at their disposal, Lampard, Essien and Ballack but in a classic case of there can only be so many chefs, some saw their roles reduced on a regular basis.

For Essien - at least when he wasn't totally wasted playing defender (ugh) - that wasn't a problem because even though the two-way ability has always been there clear as a bright day, he is of course as everyone knows superb and fully comfortable, indeed one of the very best defensive midfielders in the world, fully fine with being more selective with his powerful forward runs.

For Ballack however, at least in the early Chelsea days, still with so much to offer in and around the box, not being the key part of the attacking game that he always had been, must have been some adjustment.

Maybe you could even say that it was when the adjustment took place naturally, Ballack losing the power to be dominant at the highest level, that he was at his best for Chelsea. Providing the most value. With Essien desperately unlucky with injuries and Mikel with moments of liability never quite taking command of defensive midfield, it was Ballack who with good distribution and intelligent defending (and some attacking too at times) in a deeper role provided much needed consistency from there on the way to his first league title in England, enjoying what I thought was a very good season.

For the national team during World Cup qualification similar took place. Gone was the box to box goalscoring talisman and instead we saw a defensive controlling midfielder fulfilling his role very well. Particularly impressive was his performances in what I think counts as only two or three games in the last four years where I've seen Germany play defensive, the games against Hiddink's Russia, eeking out a couple of close victories.

Injury of course put a stop to that and with an even stronger defensive midfield emergence coming from younger countryman Bastian Schweinsteiger last season, performing brilliantly, it will be interesting if there is still room for the self proclaimed STILL captain on the German national team.

Even if different because the emergence of an actual German number 10 playmaker in Mesut Özil has made the old Ballack role sort of go away, there is of course even a new superb German two-way, box to box player really coming into his own in Sami Khedira (who I now would rank just inside the top 50 I think), so it's not like that position is anything near being a clear pathway back into the team for Ballack either.

At Leverkusen the early perhaps too ambitious signaled intent is not to put a straitjacket on Ballack and play him in his recent holding role but rather wish for the old Ballack being a key player, in attack as well.
There is no doubt Ballack is still skilled and strong but whether he still (maybe in the Bundesliga?) will have the engine for box to box play with real impact definitely remains to be seen.


Aaron Lennon


Winger - England

Still only 23 Lennon began last season sensationally, showing I thought, consistently a higher level than ever before and in full flow fully delivering on the great promise he had shown years earlier.

His great pace and skill with the ball meant games where he was almost unstoppable to the point where was actually one of the best players in the league, game in and game out providing high class differencemaking, and when Tottenham's best player Luka Modric got injured already in August, not least Lennon (while not forgetting the other Spurs players who made the list or Bale the notable) helped carry the team to impressive victories.

Also very impressive to me nowadays is when a winger is comfortable in a 4-4-2 rather than the mostly more modern winger friendly 4-2-3-1.

For Tottenham when it's mostly playing with two outright strikers not helping out defensively to any great effect, it's good to see a smaller not very strong but very much fast and skilled type of player like Lennon mostly very comfortable, working hard, both when his team is in possession and when it's time to defend and cover his wing position making up/playing his part in the two defensive chains of four in the 4-4-2.

A lot of wing type of players would not be comfortable in a 4-4-2 with the defensive requirements of the current day player and in order to line up well defensively without the ball need the extra midfielder (over a striker) for protection and for the team to make up the needed defensive numbers. Contrary to formations with the extra striker on board where it's the opposite with the real danger there of actually taking away from the defensive numbers and potentially, if not very rigid (where it can still be a very effective defensive system) or with strong defensive play in positions where it perhaps isn't common, run the great risk of getting outnumbered when up against the very common five man midfield formations.

I can only really remember one game last season where Lennon in the Spurs 4-4-2 (Redknapp did actually change systems against the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea) were given a runaround by a more flexible system. It was against Manchester United who with a curious almost wingless lineup and a midfield of Giggs, Scholes, Fletcher and Anderson, then Rooney as usual being everywhere, with outnumbering then fully in place made it very easy, for not least Giggs and Scholes with their quality passing, to make the Spurs midfielders resemble, at times, yes headless chickens.

Tottenham of course still do face plenty of 4-4-2s in England and in a battle of those, with their quality (not least superior two-way play from Modric, Palacios and Bale) will mostly prevail, but as already speculated heavily on by many people, what is going to happen in the Champions League when instead mostly up against different systems, not least the 4-4-2-unfriendly 4-2-3-1. That of the extra midfielder.

Of course numbers on their own don't say a whole lot necessarily and everything depends on different player characteristics making up those very numbers but any two of the Defoe/Crouch/Pavluchenko three starting, could make Spurs vulnerable against the typical 4-2-3-1s and it will be very interesting how well they (and Lennon facing this challenge) deals with it.

Ideally a striker upgrade fully able to spearhead a 4-2-3-1 and make the people around him better would have been brought in by now (say Fabiano who instead renewed his contract at Sevilla) but another option could actually be another very good attacking midfielder, one so good that he and what is already in place, will give a lone Spurs striker such good working conditions that the job just might end up being one that can be overcome.

Currently there are rumors of Rafael Van der Vaart in what would be a very late (maybe too late!) transfer deadline deal.

Could formations with both him and Modric + the impressive supporting cast in what has to be said is just a very strong midfield, be so good that one of the aforementioned Spurs striker trio could do, what's not really obvious capabilities when looking at them, a good enough job as a lone striker?

Crouch to me doesn't bring enough goalscoring, let alone when alone, and while I like his play together with a co striker I'm not sure his play working with midfielders is good enough. Defoe certainly brings the goalscoring but teamwork isn't good enough if we're talking the highest level and he just needs someone consistently close to him to find the space near goal that he then is really good at taking advantage of sniper style.

All in all Spurs current best bet might just be Pavluchenko then. I'm not sure that's entirely positive, again someone like Fabiano undoubtedly would have been much better, but he does have the physicality that Defore doesn't and a drive that Crouch can only dream of.
For the completeness that's actually there in the Pavluchenko body he could still just not be quite good enough in all his positive areas when at the highest level, but an excellent midfield might just lift him. Just enough. I definitely think it's worth a try (it's not easy to imagine VdV in a 4-4-2 anyway). At least in the Champions League.

For Lennon (yes back to him) a late December injury put a stop to his excellence and when he eventually came back he never really found the great form again. Including like many others at the World Cup.

I suppose there is a danger that I've been too quick to forget less good Lennon spells, including curiously enough under ex Spurs manager Ramos in systems on paper at least more suited for a modern winger, and that I became more than a bit blinded by a great spell of Lennon magic in the more traditional fast paced British 4-4-2 under Redknapp and his positive impact (in contrast to Ramos) with a more (much more) classic British style of football managing. On and off the field.

This season should tell a lot. Not just whether if Lennon can keep it up, but the club as well on two fronts, and the new physical, mental and tactical challenges that comes with it.

Will be interesting to watch.


Andrei Arshavin


Attacking midfielder/Forward - Russia

An enigmatic player if there ever was one who's incredible attacking talent (control, dribbling, pace, balance, shooting, passing) suggests an even higher ranking but who's actual performances (especially last season) too often could justify a lower one.

He has supreme technical skills and explosive pace. And even if pictures such as the one below would suggest an athlete perhaps not always in the greatest physical shape when compared to others at this level he does have this mysterious often phenomenal but of course also undefinable 'Russia strength' and his balance for an example is very impressive.

But is Arshavin an intelligent man or football player I should say since that is what's more relevant here?

For both Arsenal (before that Zenit) and the Russian national team he would be a part of, even instigate, whether through clever movement delicate touches, passing combinations at such a high level that without to some extent great vision and football intelligence you wouldn't think it possible, yet his decision making at times is horrid and perhaps at best very erratic. He will create a shot for himself when it's the worst option or simply, as has become quite the worrying trend, the wrong kind of shot. For an example the most difficult option always. Like top corner always, MUST

So to the disappointment of many (including me) after some scintillating displays early in his Arsenal career, last season was too hit and miss from Arshavin.
It's difficult to say if it's mental or tactical. Tactically I think he is someone who needs a good centre-forward in the middle to work with from out left and in key moments of faltering last season Arsenal (and Arshavin) didn't have that with neither Van Persie, or Bendtner for that matter starting, in the 2-0 and 3-0 defeats against Chelsea or the 3-1 defeat to Manchester United. In fact in two of those games it was Arshavin who found himself playing a middle striker role on right top, where he just isn't at his best.

In contrast compare Arsenal's (and Arshavin's I think as well) performances in the earlier 2-1 defeat to Manchester United with Van Persie in the middle and Arshavin to the left, and it was much better in what was a game they could actually have won versus the complete opposite during the course of the 3-1 defeat where they were completely outplayed and outrun.

Signing someone like Marouane Chamakh therefore was a must and with both Bendtner and Van Persie in early season injury trouble, to keep the consistent point collecting going, he is already very needed.

Arshavin is someone who clearly needs good company.


Juan Manuel Mata


Winger/Attacking midfielder - Spain

In a long line of young skilled attacking Spanish players to emerge in recent years Mata is good enough to be a standout.

On the wing of course he has plenty of pace, that's just a must, and especially with the ball and the pace his control enables him to maintain with it is impressive.

While Mata has very good technical skills, including dribbling, he first and foremost make the right decisions. That's far from always looking for a dribble, a shot or flashy trickery so he is not one to constantly try to beat his man or go for crosses. Rather he participates very well in attacks and often it's him in the end who with a great run into the box with or without the ball is the recipient of a scoring chance where he is a good finisher.

That's another impressive thing, he is effective both in the wing role and when central whether more as an attacking midfielder or almost second striker at times.
Both places with hard work, skills, movement and exemplary team work, knowing his role and the others.

I have a feeling he is complete enough to maybe even deserve a higher ranking but this season should tell us a lot about how good at 22 years of age that he really is. With Valencia's two biggest stars, Villa and Silva, gone, it's now Mata who looks to become the attacking center piece. Perhaps not even on the wing but in Silva's old more or less free playmaker role with a lot of the attack going through him.
I'm actually not sure Mata has the creativity and excellent passing to do that on the highest level, if I thought that, he should probably be ranked many places higher. Higher than Silva still to come on the list for starters, since Mata is more consistent, versatile, has better teamwork, defensively as well, and it will be very interesting to see if he can rise to the challenge.

No matter if he reaches that next level (this season) or not, Mata is already an excellent skilled versatile intelligent team player who will be great for many years to come. Fully worthy of a very good ranking.


Javier Mascherano


Defensive midfielder - Argentina

Defensive master like few others. Mascherano has great work rate and tackling ability and during his time at Liverpool was a key player in some of the best defensive performances in recent years.

With his excellent defensive qualities but limitations in contributing going forward in almost any way, he in many ways embodied a Liverpool team that especially in the Champions League against good technical sides gained the reputation of maybe the toughest matchup around.

In the Premier League it was often similar, and at least (to some extent) until Xabi Alonso especially in his final year took his play to another level, it was a side you'd often see struggling to get enough going in attack to put away the same smaller sides the other top teams took care of mostly with ease, while against the very top teams you could see Benitez Liverpool compete at a very high level.

It's really no secret what Mascherano does well. He is an enforcer or spoiler if you will who knows every trick in the book (who won't hesitate to use them either) and whether his defensive job, and it is always a defensive job for Mascherano, is tight tactical defending holding together the midfield chains (straight lines Benitez style, notice his obsessive hand gestures signaling this to his players constantly throughout every game) and defending his zone or if it's more aggressive pressure, battling to win the midfield, winning tackles in the process, Mascherano will do as great a job as anyone out there.

What's most impressive about his work is his range of defending I think. Not meant like he gets out of position, that would be as bad for him as it would a centre-back, but in the concentrated area that is central midfield he really does seem to be able to do more defensively in more places more often than perhaps anyone else out there.

On this list in many ways (like on the pitch actually) Mascherano where he ended up (fitting I think right before the top 50) became sort of the ultimate defensive block for the attacking players. Or for that matter the best players with something to offer both defensively and going forward. The one defensive specialist that only the most special players would be able to go past up the list. The one excellent defensive player, providing us with one final defensive stand where even small chinks in the (attacking player's) armor, or a few questionmarks here and there, like with Arshavin and his consistency, would be enough to stop the rise up the list and instead get to be - ranked behind