Thursday 6 August 2015

Van Gaal's Blind spot

Is Louis Van Gaal cutting his oddly shaped nose off to spite his face over Daley Blind?

Louis Van Gaal has certainly given Manchester United fans a lot of surprises during his time at the club. Be they welcome, such as the resuscitation of the careers of Marouane Fellaini and Ashley Young from the murky depths of the Moyes Loch, or less so, like having Phil Jones take corners, the man certainly cannot be second-guessed.

But there have been many indications recently that Manchester United fans are in for a surprise of the latter variety come Saturday’s visit from Tottenham. For all the club’s positive moves this transfer window, the club are yet to sign a new centre back, despite the squad having been crying out for a leader in this position for years. With transfer deadline fast approaching, Van Gaal has all but confirmed his belief that the answer to United’s long-standing defensive issues could come from within the club, through fellow Dutchman Daley Blind.

Out of all of Van Gaal’s repositionsings, of which many have been unsuccessful, Daley Blind as a centre back makes the least sense. Though Blind has had pockets of good form playing as a left back, he does not have the pace nor physicality to play in the heart of defence at any Premier League club, never mind one supposedly challenging for the title. To imagine him breaking into Chelsea, Arsenal or even Manchester City’s defensive pairing would be laughable.

So why does Van Gaal fancy Blind at centre back?

As with all his strange decisions, it seems to boil down to his fixation with the "philosophy” that he wants United to play to. Blind does admittedly fit into this, as Van Gaal wants one left footed centre back to enable easier distribution from the back. For the same reason, the fact that Blind is one of the more technically gifted defenders in the United squad also helps his cause.

However, if better distribution from the back alone is the reason for Blind’s starting spot at centre half, then the decision is a shocking one. Following the signing of Bastian Schweinsteiger, United now have two players who like to sit deep in front of the back four, offering excellent distribution from deep inside their own half and therefore eliminating the need of a ball playing centre back. Michael Carrick, who is also expected to start against Spurs on Saturday, can easily fill the role that  Blind has been drafted in for, albeit from a holding midfield position.

Even more bafflingly, United already have two natural centre backs who are comfortable with their left feet in Johnny Evans and Marcos Rojo. Although neither are the ideal solution to United’s centre back problem, their deficiencies in this role are not quite as extreme as Blind’s.

Blind does not convince as a centre back

So what exactly are these deficiencies that make Blind’s selection such a crime?

Firstly, Blind’s lack of physicality immediately makes him suspect as a centre back. He is average in the air by any positions’ standard, and in the heart of defence aerial prowess is a necessity, not a luxury. Physical strikers, such as Diego Costa and Harry Kane (whom Blind will likely be facing on Saturday), dream of going toe to toe against a defender of Blind’s stature, and teams who can create a physical mismatch against him are likely to find joy.

Blind’s lack of pace is also a major concern. Though he has the positional sense at full back to make up for this, his lack of experience at centre-back means that he will inevitably make positional errors. This was evident to anyone who watched United’s recent defeat to Paris St Germain in Chicago. Though pacier players have some room for positional error that allows them to cover for their inexperience (Hector Bellerin is a fine example of this), Blind certainly does not have such a luxury.

The simple fact is you will be hard pressed to find a Premier League side who do not have a forward that can either easily outmuscle our outpace Daley Blind. Some clubs may indeed have players who can do both. This offers opposition sides a free invite to attack United, something that a club which is still trying to regain their “fear factor” from a few seasons ago needs to avoid.

As mentioned above, Saturday brings a big test for Louis Van Gaal’s selection of  Blind in the heart of United’s defence. In Harry Kane, Spurs have a player who will not only be the favourite in aerial battles against Blind, but who also has the intelligence to drag the inexperienced centre-back out of position, and the directness to run at him whenever the opportunity arises.

Though the Old Trafford faithful will not be satisfied with anything less than a win at home to Spurs, one does hold the slight hope that Kane and company will expose Blind’s unsuitability at the central defensive role, prompting Van Gaal to take one last dip in the transfer market.

However, with United putting all their defensive eggs in one basket with their tireless, but inevitably futile attempt to sign Sergio Ramos, one does worry that any attempt to patch up the defence will prove to be to little to late, with potential targets getting dearer by the minute, and time to bed them in running out.

United fans will still be hoping that Van Gaal can spring one more pleasant surprise before September.

Tuesday 4 August 2015

Watford- Premier League Guinea Pigs

Gino Pozzo's ownership has made Watford one of the most intriguing clubs in the Premier League this season

With Bournemouth’s meteoric rise from the brink of dissolution to the summit of English football dominating the column inches with regards to newly promoted clubs, it seems that we have been overlooking the introduction of one of the most unorthodoxly run clubs in England to the Premier League- Watford.

Whereas some English clubs, notably Tottenham and Newcastle, have adopted aspects of the “continental” approach to running a club, where an owner, Director of Football or some other high level committee controls the biggest decisions at the club, including player recruitment, leaving the traditional manager a marginalised and dispensable figure, Watford have taken this approach to the extreme. Typified by their turnover of five managers in a season where they gained promotion to the Premier League, The Hornets appear to be making a success of a style shunned by the English footballing intelligentsia. Their thriving in the merciless glare of the top flight could lead to a change in England’s approach to how a football club is ideally run.

Watford’s innovative leap began in the summer of 2012 with their takeover by the Pozzo Family, who also owned Italian and Spanish sides Udinese and Grenada from 1986 and 2009 respectively. Whilst the family’s most active member, Gino Pozzo, certainly takes a more hands on approach than most Premier League owners, there is at least a clear and well functioning method to his approach, which has brought about great success.

The Pozzos’ general strategy centres round investing heavily in global scouting networks to prize talented young players relatively cheaply and then to sell them on for large profits. Barring few others, Udinese are the worlds best at this, having had players such a Fabio Quagliarella, Kwadwo Asamoah and Alexis Sanchez drive European finishes in recent seasons, before departing to huge transfer fees. As a result, Udinese maintained financial security during an era of famine in Serie A whilst managing to consistently secure top half finishes and feature in both the Champions and Europa Leagues. Clearly, if Watford could match anywhere near that then fans will be overjoyed.

The family’s other club, Granada, have also enjoyed relative success since their new ownership in 2009, leveraging their partnership with Udinese to gain promotion to La Liga for the first time since the mid 70s in the 2012/13 season maintaining that position. However Gino Pozzo himself has indicated that he wants Watford to match the success of his Italian club, rather than his Spanish one:

“If you look at the recent history of Watford the project was: we need to sell all our best players as soon as an offer comes because there weren’t the financial resources to hold on to them. Now the idea is to move the club to a different level where the player himself feels there are very few choices that are better. We want those choices to come down to Barcelona, Real Madrid and so on. The players who leave Udinese are moving to AC Milan, Inter, Juventus or a couple of clubs in Spain and a few clubs in England.”

However, there are some drawbacks of the Pozzo’s ownership structure that may furrow a few brows at Vicarage Road.

First and most obviously is their tendency to rotate players around their three clubs. Though loaning players such as Matej Vydra from Udinese has been key in securing Watford’s promotion to the Premier League, such an approach does threaten continuity at the club. The Pozzo’s ownership is one based on constant change, adaption and moving forward; however fears that, should Watford struggle, Udinese may get the pick of the better players, are not completely unfounded.

The second, and more substantial, fear is that differences between Italian and English football would mean that Udinese’s successes in Serie A may not be able to be translated to the Premier League.

For starters, many of the players who have defined Udinese under the Pozzo family, such as their biggest success story Alexis Sanchez, had been drafted in at a young age from South America. UK footballing work permit laws would prevent many of these deals from happening for Watford, greatly limiting the effectiveness on an strategy based around thorough global scouting networks in England.

Indeed, we are already beginning to see the worrying consequences of this barrier to securing young talent in Watford’s transfer dealings this summer. Rather than bringing in prodigious talent, Watford have sought after out of favour players who still have the past track record to suggest that they could make an impact beyond the fees spent for them. Valon Behrami and Etienne Capoue typify this type of signing.

Etienne Capoue- hardly Alexis Sanchez

The risk here is that the “hunger of youth” factor which so evidently propelled Udinese forward may be lost on this Watford side. The fact that new manager Quique Flores has come recently after a stint in the Middle East may further suggest that Watford are not running in as a forward thinking manner as their Italian sister.

Further concerns lie in more footballing matters. What kept Watford in promotion contention throughout their managerial influxes were an endless supply of goals. Their three strikers scored over 15 goals each, and this factor alone made success near inevitable. However with the side now going into most games on the back foot, and new manager favouring a system with a loan striker, one must be concerned whether this strength will carry through into the coming season. Though captain Troy Deeney is certainly Premier League quality, Vydra struggled at this level with West Brom recently and it will be Odion Oghalo’s first season in any top flight.

But perhaps what makes Watford fans most fearful, and what makes this club most intriguing, is that their approach has routinely failed in every other implementation in English football. Their 10 summer signings seems incredibly “Spursy”, Etienne Capoue could have just as easily been an overpaid QPR “bad egg” and the mere thought of five different managers in a season makes the orifice on any stadium seat pucker. But the Pozzos have had unmitigated success in all their footballing ventures.

Should they succeed on the most lucrative stage of all then it will be as an against the odds victory as any newly promoted side.