Saturday, May 28, 2016

Van Gaal was lost in translation

Van Gaal was lost in translation.
Van Gaal at Manchester United

"In Louis Van Gaal we have secured the services of one of the outstanding managers in the game today...His track record...makes him the perfect choice for us."

So said Manchester United chief executive Ed Woodward two years ago.

The stentorian Dutchman left the sport this week on a bitter-sweet note. Having said repeatedly his family do not want him to continue, it seems he has completed his last coaching role, although we may see him again as a technical consultant in Holland.

He won the F.A. Cup in his final match but received his P45 in the evening via a press leak. Overall his Old Trafford reign goes down as a failure but the club thought they had hired a man to bring the good times back.

Manchester United have faced the expected baggage of criticism for a sloppy dismissal but in truth there was little they could do to stop the news escaping through some nook and cranny of the fortress of Old Trafford.

The same criticism was levelled at the club in the wake of David Moyes' firing, but reading between the lines it appears Van Gaal knew his fate well before the F.A. Cup Final and probably the dye was cast the loss at West Ham ended hopes of Champions League qualification.

Chief Executive Ed Woodward officially told his manager he would not be required next season on the Sunday after their F.A. Cup win the day before, but the news had filtered out the night before.

At least Van Gaal did not suffer the indignity of being sacked four games before the end of the campaign, as happened to Moyes.

Van Gaal's choppy ride with the Red Devils never found a prolonged stretch of smooth water to sail in and suffered from constant rumblings of discontent from supporters and pundits, not least former Old Trafford star Paul Scholes, who persistently stuck the knife in on Sky TV.

Van Gaal was lost in translation.

This is the same Paul Scholes who said in 2014 on the occasion of Van Gaal's appointment that, "Manchester United fans and myself cannot wait for Louis Van Gaal to get the job started. Van Gaal seems to have the Midas touch."

Scholes then did not take long to notice a pattern of inconsistent form, a stark lack of rapport with the press and above all a soporific playing style jarringly out of keeping with the club's traditions.

A slew of damning statistics show his side kept the ball more than any other team in the Premier League and played it backwards more than anyone too while netting fewer goals than any United team since 1990.

His win ratio of 52.43% was the lowest of the eight coaching positions he has held in his career. In failing to make the Champions League next season, the Dutchman had also cost the club £22.5 million in payments from Adidas.

In this case at least, the stats do not lie.

Finishing fourth and fifth is not the end of the world or most teams but for a club as big as Manchester United is clearly not good enough. If the coach of Barcelona or Real Madrid guide their club to second place they are routinely given the heave-ho.

Van Gaal may contend he had a three-year plan to rebuild the club and he should get some sympathy for that argument.

But the question of how to accommodate the universally accepted need for managers to be given time to put things right and the big clubs' demand for instant returns is a conundrum with no obvious solution. So what happens in practice is more of a lottery than a well-executed plan, with everyone hoping the new man in charge will limp over the line and avoid the chop during the unsteady opening spell before improving in his second season.

Two seasons seems to be the maximum allotted to a new appointment who is not fulfilling expectations.

Van Gaal certainly had structure to his three-year plan but a combination of factors cut his reign short, the last of which was the sudden availability of Jose Mourinho.

Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford might have made the step up to the first team with applause under Van Gaal but what happened to Eredivisie top scorer and £25 million capture Memphis Depay, hailed by France Football last year as the best young player in the world?

Midfielders Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger also faded into the background, while Adnan Januzaj was loaned out at the start of the season and Javier Hernandez let go, leaving United's striking options clearly depleted.

The existing squad needs another overhaul, despite the £262 shelled out during Van Gaal's tenure.

Few fans will miss the Dutchman's authoritarian leadership and lacklustre football. The consensus amongst the Red Devils supporters was that they did not want another season of somnolent passing with few injections of pace and precious few shots on goal.

So after an initial excitement that a big name in continental football was finally coming to England and was all set to revive a club suffering from a prolonged post-Fergie hangover, a depressing acknowledgement set in that the miracle worker was stuck in his ways and ploughing a road to nowhere. Even those who defended the Dutchman on the back of his illustrious record - he arrived with titles won with Ajax, AZ, Barcelona and Bayern Munich - ran out of excuses as the lacklustre first season dragged into a second anodyne one with a heap of frustration but precious little excitement.

The players were also respectful and cooperative, until frustration with the manager finally blew up in the changing rooms last month away at Tottenham, where Van Gaal had harshly criticised Rashford at half-time.

For the second half, Van Gaal made a bizarre choice to replace the young striker with lightweight winger Ashley Young, United collapsed mentally and lost 3-0, shipping three goals in six minutes.

Only in flashes did United adopt a high-speed, higher-risk playing style but when it brought rewards and pleased the crowd, the following match would invariably feature a regression to the insipid keep-the-ball-at-all-costs system.

Van Gaal cannot complain of bad luck. He had a vast transfer budget and an evaporating competition in the form of imploding Chelsea and stuttering Arsenal and Manchester City.

The club's hierarchy must shoulder the blame too for a second unsuccessful appointment following Sir Alex Ferguson's reign. In appointing Van Gaal they felt they had brought discipline and reliability back to a club which was fraying at the seems under David Moyes.

Despite the negative factors, the Dutchman did have a knack of winning enough must-win games to dodge the much-predicted axe after dismal exits from the Champions League, Europa League and League Cup left his tenure on a tightrope.

This curious survival strategy lasted almost two seasons and unravelled for good only when his side threw away a 2-1 lead to West Ham in their last away match of the season and thereby missed out on next season's Champions League on goal difference.

That result loaded the firing gun for Ed Woodward. Man Utd had a ready-made excuse to dispense with their head coach after that fixture. A quick call to Jose Mourinho was enough to confirm their direction of travel.

It is tempting to think his future hinged on what turned out to be a violence-scarred trip to East London, but in all probability the decision to swap him for Mourinho was taken early in 2016, not long after Chelsea axed The Special One.

Had Mourinho not been unexpectedly unemployed, it is probable the board would have planned on another season of Van Gaal but would have seriously considered swapping him for Ryan Giggs in the event of failing to make the Champions League.

Giggs has cut a bizarre figure on the bench glued to the Dutchman apparently for moral support but with stifled body language. The Welshman was one of United's most exciting entertainers so must have been hurt at having to acquiesce to such lifeless football and a lack of crowd-pleasing.

Van Gaal never spoke a language the fans or press understood and rarely if ever left his seat on the bench, in stark contrast to Alex Ferguson. Curiously for a Dutchman, his English is not very fluent and it is hard to think of a less co-operative manager at a press conference.

We know the Dutch are blunt but Van Gaal was bludgeoning as well. Even in Holland he is colloquially known as 'Hitler'!

Personally I found his stubbornness with the hacks refreshing: The press should know their place and frequently do not appreciate what goes on inside a football club nor accurately reflect the public's mood.

When asked by an American journalist what it meant to him to have won the pre-season tournament the International Champions Cup in front of hundreds of thousands of fans, he answered perfectly truthfully, "Nothing."

Van Gaal's sarcastic tribute to his "friends of the press" in his final conference was also a wry echo of his "adios amigos de la prensa" swansong to the Spanish media when leaving Barcelona in 2000.

If this is Van Gaal's last post in the sport, he can give himself the satisfaction of ending on a high note. Winning league championships in Germany, Spain and with two clubs in his native Netherlands is enough to earn him in a place in the rank of greatest club managers, but his European Cup triumph with Ajax in 1995 will live long in the memory.

His side were overflowing with youthful home-grown talent and won the cup with a gorgeous possession-based game. They were the most impressive Dutch team on the international stage since the Oranje who dazzled the World Cup in 1974.

Ajax 1995 European Cup Winners:

Edwin Van der Sar, Michael Reiziger, Danny Blind, Frank De Boer (c), Frank Rijkaard, Clarence Seedorf (sub Nwankwo Kanu), Edgar Davids, Jari Litmanen (sub Patrick Kluivert), Finidi George, Ronald De Boer, Marc Overmars.

With the exception of Blind, none of those players stayed in Amsterdam forever. Their stock was too high. In his own mind, Van Gaal must have dreamed of replicating that wonderful team again, which might explain his persistence with a possession at all costs game at Old Trafford.

Another explanation might be that the 3-5-2 he used with the Netherlands in the 2014 World Cup did not work when he tried it at Old Trafford so he reverted to the comfort of his old passing game with four at the back and often only one up front.

Perhaps he tried too hard to replicate that Dutch side with his hopes pinned on Angel di Maria in the Arjen Robben role for Oranje, but the Argentine's form and motivation diminished rapidly after a traumatic burglary.

It is thus a little lazy however to accuse Van Gaal of having no Plan B, a charge always leveled by watchers wise after the event. Perhaps the players were not up to his ideas or he did not have enough ones of top quality, or maybe there was a lack of team spirit for whatever reason.

Nobody is really sure, but it seems Van Gaal's clear instructions were delivered in such a strong manner that some creative players felt shackled by what they felt were strict commands and as a result were afraid of using imagination when it was required.

Previously he had spoken about Dutch players' refreshing desire to have an opinion, in contrast to other nationalities following the boss's orders.

"We Dutch think our philosophy can win the game," he explained. "In England they are not used to that. That is why it is taking much more time here." The cultural clash is probably the key to explaining United falling short under him. If his 'no pasaran' attitude to the press is anything to go by, his personality felt alien to the players and so they reverted to following what they thought were orders and hoping for the best.

Van Gaal's leaving statement, still on the Manchester United website, reads too much like that of a script he was asked to sign, with its ubiquitously scattered praise and claim that he had always wanted to coach in England, a country whose football he conspicuously criticised and avoided for years.

From his utterance that what he most liked about England was Chinese food and its restaurants' wine lists to his surreal press conferences and strange persistence with unattractive football at England's largest club, his long-awaited English experience was ultimately a let-down.

It was a murmuring exit to a great opera of a career in football but he had disappointed before, such as in his first stint in charge of the Netherlands, his second spell at Barcelona or his final season at Bayern Munich.

Van Gaal's place in coaching history remains secure, not only for his triumphs in Spain, Germany and the Netherlands and for winning the European Cup with Ajax but also for mentoring a string of top coaches including Pep Guardiola, Mourinho, Philip Cocu, Danny Blind, Luis Enrique and Ronald Koeman.

(C) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Platini's Fall to Earth


Michel Platini's football career looks finished and whatever the circumstances, the sport has lost a major figure.

Platini's Fall to Earth.

Even if he was corrupt and untrustworthy, his status as one of the greatest footballers of the modern era and the greatest French player of all time means his exit stage left from the game is tinged with a little melancholy.

This week the former UEFA President resigned from that organisation after his appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport only reduced his FIFA-imposed ban on footballing activities to four years instead of clearing him as he had hoped.

Platini was banned for eight years last December for accepting a payment of £1.3 million from FIFA President Sepp Blatter in 2011 without proper paperwork.

The pair had claimed there had been a gentleman's agreement in place for Blatter to pay Platini for consultancy work he had performed between 1998 and 2002, but prosecutors instead believed the pair were putting their hands in the FIFA till and Blatter was using the money to grease the wheels of power a few months before his presidential election.

It is remarkable how Platini ruined his otherwise excellent chances of becoming the chief of world soccer– his golden playing career had made him universally admired outside the corridors of power while within Zurich he was valued as head of UEFA and a loyal Blatterite.

As he ascended the greasy pole at FIFA he carried the benefit of fans' doubt because unlike the rest of the world governing body's hierarchy, Franz Beckenbauer excluded, he had been a player, and a great one too. He was in effect a golden shoe-in for the top job in football.

How sad that for now his amazing playing career - winning the European Championship scoring nine goals in five games, bagging the European Cup, Cup Winners' Cup, Ligue 1, two Serie A titles, Coupe de France, Coppa Italia and three Ballons D'Or, is sent far into the shadows while his tainted footballing political career implodes before our eyes.

His playing prowess will probably never be forgotten but his descent into FIFA corruption is a bitter coda to his otherwise glittering soccer life.

On the other hand, Platini probably only has himself to blame for inserting himself in the hierarchy of the sinking ship skippered by Sepp and partaking in their nefarious deeds.

His faux-pas in recent years had been so calamitous, football fans had begun anyway to question the maestro's sanity.

It was ubiquitously assumed having a real football man at the helm would end the madness of the Blatter years' perennial tinkering (golden goal, silver goal, 32-team World Cup etc) and craven obeisance to corporate demands (kicking off USA '94 at noon local time for instance or handing sponsors huge swathes of World Cup tickets).

While lizards like Jack Warner and Ricardo Teixeira still stalked the corridors of FIFA, a new broom in the shape of a great no-nonsense footballer it was felt would start the clean-up of the Augean stables with aplomb.

Alas, like a newly-elected government who stutter and stumble before the public finally loses patience, Platini began issuing edicts from Zurich which confused and eventually angered the constituencies of football fans who had previously backed his ascent.

After it had been widely accepted that the World Cup's expansion to 32 teams had done nothing to improve the quality of the tournament, polluting the first round in particular with minnows and dead rubbers, in 2008 Platini bizarrely blazed ahead with a plan to expand the 2016 European Championship to 24 finalists.

That was all well and good for the likes of Albania, Iceland, Wales and Northern Ireland who will get a rare outing in the finals of a major tournament next month, but the bloated Euros will resemble the qualifiers now instead of the intense quality tournament it always was. The need to accommodate 24 teams meant a host nation now needed at least ten good-sized stadia, which meant the sad end of smaller host nations like Sweden in 1992, and a greater probability of joint organisers like Belgium & the Netherlands in 2000.

Single-nation hosting always makes for a better atmosphere.

Behind the expansion there seemed to be a desire to ape the World Cup and for UEFA to challenge FIFA in prestige on the international level, with the richest club competition the Champions League already under its belt.

As a journalist at Euro 2008 I sensed something like this was in the air amid the swathes of UEFA banners and logos adorning the press facilities.

As if the format could not be damaged further, in 2012 Platini announced the 2020 finals would take place in 12 different countries (!?!) , ending the noble tradition of a host nation whose character imprinted itself upon the tournament and the supporters.

No-one knows how this apparent farrago will turn out but it is unlikely the atmosphere and spirit engendered by one-nation tournaments like Italia '90 or Euro '96 will be anything comparable when one has to jet between Baku and Glasgow.

If he received an invisible talking-to for the initial expansion, he saw yellow for the Euro 2020 debacle and received his marching orders for his unfathomable opposition to goal-line TV replays.

Even after such high-profile cause celebres such as Frank Lampard's goal against Germany at South Africa 2010, Platini insisted human eyes were better and UEFA competitions now enjoy two extra linesmen bizarrely standing behind each goal instead of the reliable technology of a laser or camera.

After that blunder, Platini was then considered not a reformer or a saviour but a mad and uncontrollable king by the majority of fans, an impression only bolstered by his blustering press conferences where his gallic storm of bloody-mindedness was on full display.

At a meeting in Warsaw to herald Euro 2012, I remember a flustered Platini responding to what must be said was an irrelevant question from a tabloid hack from England, a country he never had much time for, with the flippant rebuff,

"Je m'en fous" - I don't give a toss.

But his contempt for the rules and relish of being a talented maverick would eventually catch up with him.

He might have finally been banned for trousering FIFA cash from his mentor Blatter but it was really his support for Qatar 2022 which finally did for him in any doubters' eyes.

The fact a former footballer could have advocated a World Cup in a place either with 50C temperatures or in the middle of a domestic season beggared belief, especially for a man who introduced the integrated international calendar.

When it came out he had been turned at a high profile dinner with French President Nicolas Sarkozy it was clear Platini was not only not his own man but also rash and foolhardy to boot.

His subsequently vocal defence of choosing Qatar only rubber-stamped the lunatic label on his forehead. His son's business interests in Qatar also created a whiff of self-interest. With the CAS judgment, which branded him "not ethical or loyal," he finally was made to pay for his crazy years at the helm of UEFA and role in the house of corruption that was Blatters' FIFA regime.

This year the Euros returns to France, scene of Platini's finest hour as a player in 1984 when he captained his team to glory, scoring nine goals along the way.

In 1998 he enjoyed his heyday as an administrator when the World Cup finals he had masterminded ended again with a glorious French triumph in Paris.

Les Bleus have a strong team this year and will be among the favourites again for the trophy.

But the talisman of French football will be watching at home on television, raging against the dying of his light.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Friday, May 6, 2016

Atletico seek the start of a new age in Milan


Has the prospect of a Champions League Final of Real Madrid v Atletico Madrid set the football world alight?

Not exactly. Why is that?

Atletico seek the start of a new age in Milan.

Well, despite a city derby being something to relish on paper (2014's was the first in the history of the European Cup) the pair's rendezvous in Lisbon then proved to be such a long, drawn-out affair it has not left the continent chomping at the bit for another round.

Atletico were leading in injury time that sweaty night before Real's last-gasp equalizer led to a white goal rush, but had they seen out the clock their victory would have been as dull as many a 1-0 in the history of the competition.

Derbies are usually hectic affairs but the huge stakes of the Champions League trophy means the final will probably be a cagey affair once more.

Atletico have never won the top prize so will not be going for broke while Real have too much experience to gamble. One point separates them in the league; they are too close to separate.

There is also the fact Spanish football is so dominant – four of the last seven Champions League finals and seven of the last twelve Europa League finals have been won by La Liga clubs, while three out of the four finalists in this season's competitions are Spanish, that another all Spanish final has no novelty factor.

If Manchester City had not been so overawed by the Bernabeu on Wednesday, then their first visit to the final tie would have engendered much expectation, even if they probably would have capitulated through a lack of experience on the night.

Wolfsburg was the wildest of wildcard entries in the last eight but also froze like a deer in the Real Madrid headlights, despite holding a 2-0 first-leg lead. In that context, City's loss does not look so bad.

Paris Saint Germain were the most exciting presence in the knock-out stages, and a win for them would have come as a welcome reassurance that French club football can compete again for the top prizes and that there exists another European centre of excellence. But it was not to be.

Based on the semi-finals, Bayern Munich were the best side still in the competition but rotten luck conspired against them in their away goals loss to Atletico and Pep Guardiola's German chapter concluded without Champions League success.

Real are little to get excited about for neutrals because they are super-rich and super familiar, reinforcing their ranks each year or two with mutli-million dollar galacticos.

Only the deepest pockets can compete with their empire, which has turned the Champions League into a footballing arms race of financial frippery (the sport is a notorious bonfire of serious investments), where the most profligate spenders are currently the Arabs and the Chinese, with some Americans breathing down their necks.

Real have an extraordinary following across Spain and profit from the stentorian support of the nation's biggest dailies AS and Marca as well as the television stations, banks and even the Royal Family.

So the Whites are as establishment as it gets and seeing them in the final is a regular occurrence.

And then there is the absence of Barcelona.

The all-conquering behemoth surprisingly fell at the semi-final stage of the Champions League this season but were in the midst of a poor run and came up against a dogged and determined Atletico who deserved to advance 3-2 on aggregate.

The age of tiki-taka may be in the past but the South American forward trident had been enough last season to propel Barça to a clean sweep of trophies.

One cannot complain if this season they failed to dazzle in Europe again, yet the lack of Lionel Messi, Neymar, Luis Suarez and the familiar blaugrana colours still seems a little disappointing to the neutral.

So forgive the general public if they do not hurry home for kick-off in the final.

Barça's conquerors Atletico are in their second Champions League final in three years and won La Liga two seasons ago, but still fail to enjoy that sexy tag Barça and Real Madrid enjoy.

Perhaps this season they will be taken seriously as one of the very best, but they need to win one of La Liga or the Champions League, ideally the latter.

But even were they to win the final in Milan, it would probably be greeted in the wider football world as a blip, the result of the usual big boys having an off-year, much like the triumphs of Porto, PSV or Steaua Bucharest were.

Football supporters enjoy the novelty of a surprise winner but when big clubs are on the wane also yearn for normal service to be resumed, a curious duality which is at odds with individual sports like golf or road cycling, where the winner is quite often an unexpected individual.

Broadcaster Danny Baker, a famous fan of lowly Millwall, put it succinctly,
"I like big clubs to remain big and little clubs to remain little."

The status quo can change of course but only over time until repeated dominance evolves into a sense of permanence. Barcelona have that permanence like Real, but Atletico do not. Until they do, they must suffer their reputation like an albatross.

So it is that Atletico for now have the cruel tag of being 'not quite Real', stuck fast in the shadow of their big city rivals.

Visit any souvenir shop in the Spanish capital or at Barajas airport and Atletico gifts are few and far between and far less ubiquitous than Real and Barcelona's. This is a pity.

Only a sustained period of success can improve their image as being a good but not amazing team. A number of cities' second clubs do suffer the same plight to be fair – ask Everton, Torino and Manchester City for instance.

City now of course are challenging United for dominance of England's second city in a prolonged manner, much like Internazionale and Milan squabble fairly equally over being the pride of Milano. But it has taken tens of millions of pounds of Arab investment, a new stadium and vast training complex and sustained investment in top-drawer coaches and players for City to reach that level.

Much has been made of the 20% Chinese investment in Atleti but the team's current success is largely because it has stuck with a popular coach in Diego Simeone and has not succumbed to Real Madrid levels of shopaholic addiction.

The Argentine has been at the helm since replacing Quique Sanchez Flores in 2011 and has spurned advances from Chelsea and others to take his time to build a club with his philosophy.

The evidence of a well-drilled defence and hard-working midfield this campaign was all too evident, a band of brothers who are all pulling in the same direction and refuse to be beaten, even by Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

Again, Atletico deserve more credit than they are being given.

They are popularly regarded not to possess the array of stars on show at the Bernabeu, hence their less than global appeal. But the procession of top forwards in the colchonero (bedspread – red and white stripes) over the past few seasons would appear to suggest otherwise:

Diego Forlan, Fernando Torres, Falcao, David Villa, Sergio Aguero, Diego Costa and now Antoine Griezmann have all done their duty up front for the allegedly second-best team of Madrid.

Their striker scouting at the very least merits some applause.

The fan experience too is more agreeable as Atleti do not have the institutionalised grandeur or monarchical arrogance of Real.

One can only take the underdog motif so far however, as Atletico are not Rayo Vallecano, the capital's other top-flight team whose stadium holds less than 15,000.

They have enjoyed moderate success over the years, unlike Man City or Torino, whose golden age was back in the 1940s.

Had the insane Jesus Gil not been in charge for so long and sacked so many managers, they probably would enjoyed more success on the back of the sustained stability Simeone is showing.

Los Colchoneros have won ten Copas del Rey and ten La Liga titles, their best spell being four league titles between 1970 and 1977, while they have also won the Europa League twice this decade.

Yet Champions League success still eludes them. As with Sevilla, who have done all but rename the Europa League in their honour in recent years, only victories in the biggest cup of them all will cement their reputation as a great club.

Nevertheless there is much to admire about Atleti.

Vicente Calderon, Madrid, Spain

A visit to the 55,000 seat Vicente Calderon, a messily-built stadium of contrasting stands, like English stadia used to be, is far and away more enjoyable than buying a ticket to the 81,000 Santiago Bernabeu, which slumbers under the heavy expectation of a stolid establishment, and is comparatively lifeless.

Alas, Atleti have fallen into the familiar trap of wanting a financially more attractive new ground far from their barrio and later this year should complete the long-delayed move to La Peineta, with an increased capacity of 73,000.

Like so many English teams, they will probably struggle to adapt quickly to their new surrounding and the fans will rue the change of scenery, however cleaner and more comfortable the facilities are. And what else is there to like about Atletico? The kit of course, a wonderfully over colourful number worthy of Subbuteo.

The elements are all there for Atletico to be treated as seriously as Barcelona and Real and for a global following to ensue.

That they have not achieved that status remains a curious fact. When they might be thought of in the same breath remains uncertain, but later this month they can start changing all that.

These things take time and patience is a virtue, whatever billionaire owners feel.

But winning the Champions League in Milan on the 28th of May cannot hurt.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile