Juan Mata Holds The Key To United’s Improving Performances

There’s something quite unsettling about the transfer of an expensive, high profile player from one of the Premier League’s top clubs to another – probably because it happens so infrequently. Examples in recent history have undoubtedly heightened that sense of unease, with Fernando Torres’s infamous period as Chelsea’s number nine the most noteworthy disappointment in the last decade. Ordinarily, of course, elite clubs are willing and able to raid the foreign leagues for their most prodigious talents and naturally see it counterintuitive to pay handsome sums to their domestic rivals, even if it means relieving them of their finest players. Indeed, this is probably at the heart of the contemporary issue regarding the lack of chances afforded to English players at club level, with the millions available more readily spent on Argentine or Spanish youngsters than British ones.

Angel Di Maria has this season become the most costly indication of how far from guaranteed success a big money signing can be. With just three goals in 21 appearances for Manchester United, the winner of last season’s Champions League arrived at Old Trafford with expectations that he simply hasn’t come close to fulfilling. His transfer fee of £59.7 million is a British record and some way above Juan Mata’s £37.1 million move from Chelsea to United in January 2014, which was, at the time, the Red Devils’ record signing. In spite of the aforementioned apprehension that comes with a headline transfer deal between two of English football’s titans, the Spaniard is beginning to show just as much brilliance for United as he did at Stamford Bridge and has effectively replaced Di Maria in Louis Van Gaal’s meticulous midfield formation.

It seems the Dutch coach – and the Old Trafford faithful – had finally lost patience with the successive lacklustre attacking displays after Man United’s 1-2 defeat at home to Arsenal in the FA Cup quarterfinal at the beginning of March. In the subsequent games that month, Van Gaal opted for Mata over Di Maria, with Michael Carrick holding and Wayne Rooney reinstated up front. Following months of experimentation and an apparent lack of clarity over his strongest team, Van Gaal might just have found his perfect setup, with Mata holding the key to much-improved offensive performances.

Against Newcastle United in mid-March, the Red Devils powered their way to a 3-0 victory, looking as convincing as they have all season. Rooney took most of the media attention due to a punchy celebration of his and United’s third goal and also because the simple truth is that pundits and fans across the country were pleased to see England’s captain being played where he is most effective. It was the most recent game, against Liverpool at Anfield, where the real importance of Van Gaal’s changes was plain to see. Making the decision to play four at the back simplified things considerably for United’s midfielders, who were tasked with keeping the ball from the impressive trio of Philippe Coutinho, Adam Lallana and Raheem Sterling. They did this wonderfully; passing with a tempo that rivalled any performance from any side in the top flight this season.

Individually, United’s midfield players were excellent. Carrick kept the ball and distributed with the composure for which he is now being touted as a vital starter for England. The masterstroke from Van Gaal, though, came in his acknowledgement of the link between Ander Herrera and Mata. The Spaniards appeared to be liberated from the previously rigid style with which the United manager has become associated and their mutual understanding unlocked the Liverpool defence consistently, ultimately leading to the first goal. Marouane Fellaini’s contribution was also imperative in both the Newcastle and Liverpool wins. Played in the position that earned him his move from Everton (as a physical brute-like number 10), the Belgian kept the ball moving in United’s favour from wing to wing.

It was a display worthy of United’s prestige and ought to have impressed their expectant supporters no end. But why was Mata particularly central to everything that has been altered in the last two games? Aside from the two quite magnificent goals he scored at Anfield, his main contribution was the nature in which he plays and how he implicated his teammates in that style. Though classed as a winger, Mata is quite unlike the traditional chalk-on-the-boots, cross-loving, pace-driven players that normally occupy those zones. Mata thrives because of his intelligence and speed of decision-making. Not one to draw players and then dart away or win a free-kick, Mata is more interested in moving the ball quickly, finding space, receiving it and then releasing again. Mata is not confined to the position he has been assigned and it is his tendency to drift and capacity to locate open areas that makes him so dangerous in the Premier League. Simple perhaps, but it’s something a European Cup winner like Di Maria has thus far failed to do.

Gary Neville wrote in The Telegraph just a couple of weeks ago that it is no longer acceptable for England to hold onto its belief that it is the toughest league. Physicality is not something that many of the players arriving on these shores involve in their games, nor do they appreciate being subjected to it. Mata learnt this quickly at Chelsea, accepting quickly that his strength lies in his sharpness of movement and of mind. Di Maria, thus far, has seemed intent on looking to win free-kicks over moving the ball quickly and determined to outpace players rather than find a teammate and dart into space. The Argentine is no Eden Hazard (not many are even close), who makes all of those things quite simple. Di Maria would do well to observe Mata’s skill and trickery, because it has injected a lethal edge to United that has been missing for much of this campaign so far.

The international break has not represented an opportunity for Mata to continue his impressive form, which is striking for a number of reasons. First, his absence from his country’s starting team is demonstrative of Spain’s strength in depth in his position. Second, it highlights just how numerous Spain’s players of his type are, with England in possession of very few of his ilk. The reality, when confronted with the question about why there is such a dearth of English players being given opportunities to prove themselves, is that they have not been equipped with the tools to think, act and achieve with speed and precision. They’d rather hold onto their big, shiny and tremendously overrated physicality.

One thing is for sure: Juan Mata is on course to be one of the most successful high profile signings from one huge Premier League outfit to another and his helping United to consolidate Champions League football for next season is just further proof of his class. Fans of the club will be pleased that his value has been recognised by Van Gaal and that he was not allowed to wither on the bench in much the same manner that Shinji Kagawa did before him.


Has Man City’s current squad peaked?

It’s one of the great injustices of football commentary that there is a tendency, after a game like the one at Turf Moor on Saturday evening, to pick apart the bigger team’s lacklustre performance rather than to praise that of the underdog. Despite such a statement – and as much as it would seem right for this article to now concentrate on Burnley’s excellent victory – steering clear of that most typical of analytical pitfalls is entirely fitting here, given the significance of Manchester City’s defeat. With the title all but lost and Manuel Pellegrini’s tenure at the Etihad seemingly in its final act, it is the Premier League champions’ predicament that is of particular interest.

Seven points adrift of Chelsea, who look certain to lift the Premier League trophy in May, if City are eliminated from the Champions League at the Camp Nou on Wednesday they will have nothing left to play for this season. In fact, that’s not strictly true. Current form would suggest they will have to fight their damnedest to secure second place in the league, as the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United maintain pressure just below. Nevertheless, it goes without saying that a runners up medal is hardly likely to satisfy the expectations of the City faithful and more pertinently, the City board.

Patience is a virtue rarely possessed by the Premier League champions’ executives and it is unlikely that Pellegrini will even be afforded until the end of the season to turn his side’s fortunes around. Barcelona may well provide the final nail in that particular coffin, especially with Lionel Messi and his peers in imperious form.

That City are now fighting for survival in the title race and in the Champions League is not only a mark of how far they have regressed in the league since last campaign, but also of how little they have progressed in their European ambitions since becoming a member of football’s elite several years ago. Indeed, it is worth questioning – given their frankly dismal showing in each of their Champions League crusades – whether they can be classed as one of the continent’s strongest outfits. It appears that City have established a system whereby they manage to win the Premier League every other year but are far more consistent in their European disappointment.

Ultimately, with a squad whose average age stands at a relatively advanced 28.9-years-old, all of this underachievement would suggest that City’s current crop of players has peaked and begun making its descent on the other side. The game against Burnley did little to convince doubters otherwise, with an examination of each individual performance highlighting issues throughout the team.

Vincent Kompany, once regarded as captain fantastic, has come under fire quite regularly in recent times for his recklessly poor performances. Leading from the back, the Belgian has been one of the more noticeable underachievers this season with his worst displays seemingly arriving all at once. Defeat at Anfield represented the start of some dire defensive showings, with Kompany at fault for Jordan Henderson’s opening goal and countless other opportunities gifted to Liverpool’s strike force. Just a month away from his 29th birthday, Kompany’s career ought to be in its prime. Injuries might have riddled his recent form but he must improve quickly if he is to keep hold of the armband for a side that should be challenging for every competition in which they enter. Alongside him, Eliaquim Mangala is doing little to justify his astronomical transfer fee and 34-year-old Martin Demichelis’s days are surely numbered.

The full back position for City tells a similar story with Pablo Zabaleta (30), Gael Clichy (29) and Aleksandar Kolarov (29) all struggling for form and not quite as youthful as many of their counterparts playing for rival teams. Ordinarily, the three are quite imperative in City’s attacking play but have only contributed eight assists between them this season. There have been troubling signs for those just ahead of them too. Jesus Navas against Burnley underlined his greatest issue: his inability to clear the front man with crosses, which is quite a considerable problem for a winger.

The only players who can claim, with a straight face, to have performed to anywhere near the required standard this term have been the usual suspects: David Silva, Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero. The three have generally been good with flashes of brilliance here and there. The Argentine’s 17 goals are an indication of how magnificent a player he is, in spite of fluctuating form from the rest of his team. Toure’s absence during the Africa Cup of Nations was made rather apparent by City’s poor run of results and Silva is forever involved in anything creative that happens at the Etihad. When the trio don’t perform, as on Saturday, it is rather evident. So is it enough to say that they simply need to improve in those areas around Silva, Toure and Aguero?

Perhaps. The reality is that a number of City’s players are certainly capable of progressing and being part of a side that could challenge for the most coveted trophies. Central midfield needs improvement; of that there is no doubt. Fernando and Fernandinho have made themselves expendable insofar as Pellegrini struggles to know which of the two is better and alternates between them. James Milner, though not particularly fashionable, continues to prove that his brand of skill and endeavour is far more effective than the more expensive, mercurial styles of Navas and Samir Nasri. Speaking of expensive strife, Wilfried Bony has started poorly and seems immobile in comparison to the devastating Aguero – who, despite his own class, requires service. The Ivorian’s arrival is becoming ever more questionable but Edin Dzeko is also stuck in a rut. Half a dozen of those players could have few complaints if they were to leave this summer with their (surely) incumbent Chilean boss.

The Premier League’s representation in the Champions League this season has been nothing short of embarrassing, with all of the English teams seemingly destined for elimination before the quarter-finals. A team of City’s perceived quality ought to be doing much better but perhaps the problem is that their quality is wrongly perceived. Only a few of their players are world class and therefore capable of carrying them forwards, which is where they must go now that they are established as one of the Premier League’s elite clubs. They will not become one of Europe’s unless they revitalise what has become a stale squad of decent, but over-valued, players. Pellegrini will become yet another casualty in the incessant pursuit for a mastermind who is able to draw the best out of player past their peak. Perhaps, in the harsh light of truth, he has also started to make his way down from the Premier League summit that was reached in May last year.

Aston Villa Are a Bigger Club Than Newcastle United

Short of tallying up revenue (or perhaps expenditure, more appropriately), trophies and crowd attendances, it is difficult to know how to establish the size of a football club. A great deal is said of history as an indicator of grandeur but quickly does it become tiresome and a little embarrassing to see and hear people desperately holding onto past glories. Attitude ought to be the means of defining a club’s contemporary stature, with more surely made of a team’s approach to each game that they play.

Take, for example, Aston Villa.

Once a titan of English football, Villa have experienced a turbulent decade and a trophy-less last two. Under Martin O’Neill, they challenged for a place in Europe’s elite competition three seasons running, resembling a club with the sort of stature that has been banished to the history books. Persistently, for the last few years, they have only just found themselves on the right side of the narrow margin between relegation and survival. This season of strife could prove to be a bridge too far. Despite their fruitless recent history, though, the Villans maintain a position as one of the country’s biggest clubs, even if their attitude to every game would suggest otherwise.


To expect the worst of each match must be demonstrative of how far the club has fallen and symptomatic of a much deeper issue than simply one of personnel. A change of manager at Villa Park has done little to quell fears of the drop, and even less to alter the outlook for the long-term with every game seen as a probable defeat and careless ownership still in place. If club stature were to be judged based on the number of trophies won over the years, Aston Villa would be considered a bigger one than Newcastle United, to whom they listlessly suffered a 0-1 defeat on Saturday. Attendances this season, by contrast, tell a different story. Newcastle’s average of 50,883 supporters per game eclipses and shames Villa’s 33, 176.

Evidently, the Villa Park faithful have little faith in their team these days. Great clubs are built on their drive, belief and ambition – in short, their will to be great clubs. The claret and blue outfit have lost all of these characteristics and it is hard to pinpoint when any of them were last in evidence in the Midlands. Not for some time, it is fair to say.

Villa began the season well – brilliantly, in fact. Taking 10 points from a possible 12 was a dream start for Paul Lambert and his young side of which little was known and even less expected. Form rapidly went downhill in the subsequent weeks and months and the club has since descended into what can only be described as resignation. Relegation looms larger than in previous terms, of that there is little doubt. The only way Villa will escape is through a healthy portion of good fortune and the poor form of teams around them, which begs the question: which are the clubs with which Villa should be competing.

In truth, it’s hard to say but most supporters will believe that Newcastle United are among them – perhaps Stoke City, Swansea City and West Ham United too. These clubs occupy the positions from 8th to 11th, sitting just outside the impenetrable seven and represent top-flight comfort and accomplishment. For a club that has been in the Premier League every season since its inception, Villa should be there at the very least.

Another truth is that this should have been a season of growth, not regression, as should the season before and the season before that. Perpetually stuck in Premier League quicksand, it is a wonder whether Aston Villa and comparable clubs of considerable size but limited quality set targets for upcoming campaigns or whether they simply adapt according to how the season seems to be panning out. A laissez-faire attitude to ambition seems to have engulfed Villa Park and it has shrouded the players, fans and disposable coaching staff in an uncertainty that is now embedded in the preparation for every game.

The larger question in light of all this trouble, though, is: how does a big club re-establish itself after so many years of struggle? The short answer involves a significant investment from a wealthy foreigner, rightly or wrongly. Since one has not been forthcoming since Randy Lerner’s decision to put the club up for sale, perhaps it would be wiser to look at other clubs and the examples they have set. Newcastle United might, in fact, be the most important case of a positive resurgence, particularly given the real possibility of the drop.

There have been suggestions that relegation would represent an opportunity to clear out and start again, as it seemed to for Newcastle. This argument is as short-sighted as most of Villa’s activity has been in recent years, as a dip into the Championship could be more long-term than anticipated, as Leeds United and many other clubs have proven over the years. Relegation is not akin to clicking the refresh button. It would cost the club millions of pounds in television money for instance, which is something that simply cannot be afforded after the monstrous new deal struck by Sky and BT.

In reality, any proposition as to what the club must do in order to rebuild itself is futile if each of its elements are unable to come together to achieve. Ultimately, the attitude at Villa Park has been and continues to be wrong and quite poisonous, with success as improbable in practice as it is in the minds of all those involved with the club. Of course, Lerner must go and give life to a new era at the club. Sherwood’s position is as tenuous as his qualifications for the job and the players are on equally thin ice, given their lack of quality. Things need to be refreshed but not in the Championship. Unless things change quickly, Aston Villa will just be another big club in England’s second tier and could stay there for some time.

Football has become more cut-throat than ever and fans even more fickle. History will mean nothing to Villa in a league that they don’t belong. The club’s mantra says it is “prepared”. Whichever division they start in next year, needless to say those present will have to be prepared to re-establish the historic club to how it should be.

Tim Sherwood’s Task At Aston Villa

A week ago, Aston Villa had just dropped into the Premier League’s relegation zone for the first time since April 2013 and manager Paul Lambert’s tenure still appeared interminable. Randy Lerner, distant and far more dispassionate about the claret and blues than he had once been, was seemingly the only man involved in Premier League football who was ignorant to Villa’s on-field plight. Pressure from the Villa Park faithful ultimately dictated what happened next, and rightly so.

The axe swung on 11 February to relieve Lambert of his command over a team that has scored just 12 goals in 25 top-flight games this season. This represented the first correct decision made by Lerner and his board of executives for a long time. Inaction had paralysed and frustrated Villa supporters for so long and this move was, at least, something. Replacement of the incumbent Scot will, of course, prove to be a far more important judgment as time goes on.

At present, despite booking a place in the FA Cup quarter-final with a 2-1 victory over Leicester City on Sunday, the new era ushered in under Tim Sherwood is one being met with caution. The former Spurs manager’s swift appointment would indicate that Tom Fox had him in mind prior to Lambert’s dismissal but that will do little to ease the concerns of Villa fans who question Sherwood’s lack of experience and the squad’s perceived lack of quality.

Tottenham Hotspur v Aston Villa - Premier League

However, even the most pessimistic of Villans are likely to be quietly intrigued by what changes Sherwood will bring to the club. An absence of belief is the real reason for the team’s occupation of the lower echelons of the Premier League and Sherwood is nothing if not confident. His energy will be most welcome in his communications with the press, the fans and crucially, the players. Where Lambert would appear pained and inarticulate, Sherwood will ensure his players remain upbeat and endeavour to plainly express his views, which is an invaluable characteristic during a relegation battle like the one in which Villa are now embroiled.

In a match starved of much quality, Villa’s victory in the FA Cup will mean a great deal to the new head coach, who celebrated like a supporter in the stands when Leandro Bacuna and Scott Sinclair scored respectively. Indeed, progression to the latter stages of England’s premier cup competition is a pleasant distraction from the uphill task that faces them in the league but it will by no means alter the harsh reality that Villa are performing very poorly. Although the BBC were quick to suggest that Sherwood’s half-time team talk proved instrumental in the win, a rose-tinted view of proceedings does little to conceal the side’s frailties.

Even in victory, the Villans looked blunt in attack for much of the game. Christian Benteke cast an isolated shadow up front and only truly came to life in the final 20 minutes of the game. Even during that period, many of his shots were limited to those from outside of the area and were often hesitant efforts, underlining the Belgian’s diminished confidence of late. Sherwood will do well to transfer some of his vigour to Benteke, who is undoubtedly Villa’s most imperious player.

Andreas Weimann, on the other hand, is simply not good enough with or without confidence. The Austrian, who burst onto the scene as a teenager, routinely struggles to influence games in the manner that he should. Unfortunately for Villa fans, his willingness to try hard quite effectively masks his impotence when it comes to creating and taking chances. In the cold, hard struggle against relegation, players who do not deliver must be discarded, and Sherwood proved during his time at Spurs that he is willing to be bold and frank in his dealings with them. With the likes of Carles Gil – out for the Leicester tie through injury – available to replace Weimann, the winger position shouldn’t cause Sherwood too many issues.


The area that will be of grave concern involves those who ought to shoulder much of the responsibility for the dearth of creativity in this Villa side: the midfield trio of Tom Cleverley, Ashley Westwood and Fabian Delph. Every first touch against the Foxes was either sideways or backwards for Cleverley, who is confirming his mediocrity to all of those who have doubted him for so long. Westwood’s control of the ball would be impressive were he capable of following up with a successful, penetrative pass but too often does he play it too slowly or inaccurately. Delph, whose contract renewal inspired a torrent of optimism at Villa Park just a couple of weeks ago, now finds himself in a vein of poor form, his passing ill-considered and his defensive duties often neglected. With Carlos Sanchez displaying many of the same issues as the other three, Sherwood has a mighty – and essential – task on his hands to get them playing expansive football together.

Vitally, the defensive unit at Villa Park has been relatively impressive this season. Aside from a 0-5 thumping at Arsenal recently, Jores Okore, Alan Hutton, Ciaran Clark and, when fit, Ron Vlaar have been the outstanding performers in front of an ever-reliable Brad Guzan. Sherwood will be thankful that he is inheriting a cohesive backline with young players who are willing to give everything for the cause and leaders in captain Vlaar and his American keeper. This will enable him to focus on his players further up the pitch while Guzan and Given challenge one another for his favour and the likes of Okore and Clark grow into fine defenders. It is fair to say that the strength and discipline of this rearguard is Paul Lambert’s positive legacy at Villa Park.

To say that Aston Villa are too good to go down is to overlook not only the fact that they are the lowest scoring Premier League side in history but that they are plagued by reduced confidence and an inherently regressive, backward-looking attitude to the game. The fans have been, naturally, most vocal about Lambert’s reign but it is the players who are in the greatest need of this change of management. Sherwood’s exuberance will breathe life back into the club and should give the players encouragement in the fight against relegation.


Nevertheless, a manager’s impact may only be felt rather temporarily unless more executive decisions are taken properly and with the club’s best interests at heart. Poor ownership in recent years was compounded in the summer by Lerner’s choice to publicly state his desire to sell the club, thus unsettling all of those associated with it. His control has waned and his interest slipped, meaning it is only a matter of time before the club changes hands. Worryingly, that matter of time could span many months to come, which introduces a sense of short-termism about all that happens at Aston Villa Football Club.

Unfair though this may be on the fans, players and coaching staff, it makes Sherwood’s job quite simple: avoid relegation and see what happens at the end of the season. Sadly, that is how it has been for a few years now and it will continue to be until Lerner goes. Lambert and his style of play had to go, certainly, but the real problem at the club remains in charge.

What is the point of the transfer window?

What is the point of the transfer window; I mean, why did it replace the former system? That’s not asked in a facetious manner, either, no matter how prevalent that particular tone might be on social media. No, I’m genuinely intrigued as to what reason was, is or will be given when questions are asked following a deadline day as drab and sickeningly over-indulgent as yesterday’s.

In many ways, it was reassuring to see widespread disdain on Twitter for the most contrived “event” in the sporting calendar, provoked in no small part by the BBC’s decision to jump on the Jim-White-driven, Sky-Sports-sponsored bandwagon. Leave those adorned in appropriately tacky yellow to use their shiny broadcasting studios for such matters and save the license fee paying public’s money for something less nauseating, please.

Still, none of that really matters. What is worthy of further investigation is why this day, or indeed the last month, has been allowed to happen. Indeed, not just allowed, but given legislation; written into European Football Association law during the 2002-03 season after negotiations with the European Commission. Serious business, as it would prove to be for the subsequent 12 years, right up until the most recent torrent of deals to push us to the edge of our seats. Aaron Lennon was just one of many players delighted to be involved yesterday.


In effect, the reason for the European Commission’s involvement was the pursuit of equality in the labour market. According to European law, contracts held between employer and employee across all industries are not enforceable or liable for appropriate compensation. In other words, employees are able to give a notice period and move on of their own accord. Football, of course, is quite different. Players cannot suddenly decide to up and leave unless the club to which they are contracted agrees to a parting of ways.

Put simply, the two transfer windows per season are designed to give clear and indisputable periods during which contracts can be ended or created. On the Premier League website, this is the description of why the windows were introduced:

“Windows were introduced as part of a compromise agreement with the European Commission about how the whole transfer system worked and how it could best preserve contractual stability for both the player and the club while allowing movement at prescribed times during the year – the summer and the winter transfer windows in effect.”

So the windows offer stability to players and clubs. What’s more, they encourage investment in young, developing players, which would be less likely in a situation whereby players could leave as and when they chose. Protection of both sides of the contractual agreement is paramount, but what are the problems?


The main issue is that a limited period of time in which to approach clubs, players and complete multi-million pound deals across land and sea boosts prices. This has proved divisive in terms of its enabling of bigger, richer teams to buy (within the boundaries of Financial Fair Play, which is just another spanner in the works) the best players while rocketing the prices of players who ought to be more affordable to smaller clubs.

What’s more, teams who suffer difficult periods just prior to or during the transfer window become desperate and buy players that would ordinarily be considered surplus to requirements. Equally, players are forced – as are their clubs – to make snap decisions about joining teams that display late interest in them. Given that the European Commission intervened to establish greater fairness in the transfer market, to see players miserably hold aloft a shirt of their new, undesirable team is a touch of irony too thick to stomach at times.

Ultimately, though, the transfer window has created its own sporting parallel – the world of winners and losers. Those who buy a player of whom much is expected are often cast as the winners until a month later and he hasn’t scored a goal and they are plunged back into the depths of defeat. By the same token, a player who signs for a lesser team for a slight pay cut (if that ever happens) is ridiculed for his fall from grace, only to attract plaudits from far and wide when he helps to transform a struggling side into a Europa League one.


The reality, albeit an over-simplistic and rather depressing one, is that the transfer window is the best system we have even if it does fail in its attempts to place all teams and players on a level playing field. Truly, though, the real problem is not with the transfer window, but with the pressure we place on each and every club, player and negotiation during the designated periods. The real losers are the ones who take it all so seriously.

Three At The Back

It’s Jamie Carragher’s birthday today and my Grandma’s too. I wish them both a very Happy Birthday (capitalised to make it extra special). No doubt they’ll be reading this – though not together, I wouldn’t have thought.

The reason I mention the opinionated pundit is because she shares with Carragher, as well as a penchant for birthday cake topped with Liverpool icing, a certain view about the changing nature of that most mysterious of beasts, the centre-back.

Quite seriously, Carragher last week raised some points that were worthy of some discussion following the Capital One Cup semi-final first leg between Liverpool and Chelsea. Specifically, he pondered Emre Can’s newfound position within the Reds’ backline and highlighted that perhaps this was a new dawn; one that would see three central defenders become the norm.


No, no, no. Four at the back, it has to be. Two central defenders and two full-backs. It works, it always has and it always will. We’ve only just come to terms with one up front, the false nine and two holding midfielders feeding the wingers. To alter the midfield is one thing, but not our beloved back four, surely.

In reality, it is quite probable that the back four has been changing for some time. Can’s displays against Chelsea in the last week are evidence of a much larger phenomenon – that of midfield players fitting almost seamlessly into a more compact rearguard.

As Carragher highlighted in his post-match analysis with Sky Sports and the little piece he wrote on Kicca.com, Can performed well because he was part of a back three that was better able to split the defensive work, thus reducing the pressure on the German and liberating him to launch rather than quell advances. This is a role that has been fulfilled by some world-class midfield players across Europe over the last few years.


Sergio Busquets is one of the outstanding examples. Playing just ahead of a defensive unit that includes Gerard Piquet and Javier Mascherano, Busquets is tasked with covering those equally tough tacklers and bridging the gap between defence and midfield with his range of passing. You only have to admire Busquets’s tackling stats to understand just how imperative his protective work is for Barcelona. Only Eibar’s Dani Garcia – a very defensive midfielder at a team far more likely to sustain pressure than Barca – has made more tackles (70) this campaign than Busquets, who has made 69 (Whoscored.com).

Indeed, the aforementioned Mascherano, upon whom the light only seems to shine when Roy Hodgson holds the torch, is another of the same ilk. The Argentine was one of the finest performers at the World Cup in Brazil and has been consistently solid for Barcelona at the heart of their defence, having been transformed from a combative midfielder to an accomplished centre-half. Alongside Piquet and Busquets, and with the tireless athleticism of Jordi Alba and Dani Alves either side, Mascherano’s workload is not as considerable as that which would have faced a central defender just ten years ago.

Pique, Busquets and he are all centre-backs and midfielders at once. Though I strongly dislike using comparisons with a sport that is both entirely different and misleadingly named, the modern centre-back, flanked by two others, becomes more of a defensive quarter-back. He defends, of course, but he also dictates.


It could be argued – as, in fact, I have before – that this conversion comes as a result of a shortage of top class centre-backs in world football. Then again, the change itself may be the root cause of that lack of old-fashioned, John Terry type players in that position. That’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation that hardly merits much contemplation.

Of course, this does not apply to all players, nor does it to all teams. It is quite probable that only the very strongest teams, capable of progressive football in all areas of the pitch, are able to function effectively with three centre-halves and two wing backs. Naturally, this system demands that the three pivotal players have the capacity to alternate between defensive and midfield duties with little trouble at all. Phillip Lahm’s flawless transition from full back to central midfielder is perhaps the primary instance in recent times in which a defender has proven their competence as a hybrid, or as a quarter-back, to use that term again.

Javi Garcia, Nemanja Matic, David Luiz, Sergio Ramos, Daley Blind, Raphael Varane and Paul Pogba, to name a few more, are all players who adopt this position between defender and midfielder. All of them are excellent, creative and yet aggressive and diligent in equal measure. They are the new generation of central defenders and defensive midfielders, with the qualities to play both.


Despite Louis Van Gaal’s best efforts, three central defenders do not represent the norm and it will be a while before they do, if ever. Nevertheless, it is quite apparent that there is an emergence of the type of player who is capable of switching from defender to playmaker with consummate ease. A counter-attack enthusiast’s heaven, perhaps, but it is also leaving defences more exposed, as emphasis is split between the two responsibilities. Fortunately, of course, with three at the back, there is less work for each individual.


For now, we wait to see whether this becomes a more widely accepted system. As it stands, there still exist true centre-backs, like Terry, Martin Skrtel, Vincent Kompany, Diego Godin, or Nemanja Vidic (a few years ago), who live for the tussle between centre-half and forward. They’d sooner smash the ball clear than find the nearest man and there is plenty of room still in the game for such predilections.

However, as the game edges towards domination through possession and sharp attacks, the birth of this new type of defender-cum-midfielder might well reinvent how we view our Jamie Carraghers in the future.

No Time To Leave It Late for City

“I swear you’ll never see anything like this ever again.”

Those words, spoken by the peerless Martin Tyler, have become immortalised in Premier League folklore. The moments they described made them seem even more hyperbolic than perhaps even the great commentator had intended. That exclamation, however, was no overstatement of just how improbable replication of that historic moment would be. Two years later, though, albeit in less dramatic fashion, Manchester City would leave clinching the title until the last day yet again.

City don’t fear leaving it late. Given that their two Premier League titles have both been won at the eleventh hours of the respective triumphant seasons, it would appear that they embrace it – and revel in it. For years, Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United were revered for their capacity to score late goals, picking up vital points and on a certain night in May 1999, they won Europe’s greatest prize in the dying moments of a tie with Bayern Munich. These days, it’s the “noisy neighbours” who are renowned for their industrious desire and theatrical tendency to win during the final act.


That winning spirit, histrionic or otherwise, has not been in evidence just recently. City’s last two results in the league have been nothing short of unacceptable by their standards and by those set by Chelsea, who now lead the division by five points – the widest margin between the top two since the morning of December 6, just before Mourinho’s men succumbed to their first league defeat of the campaign.

Last year, a draw at Goodison Park would have represented a good result. This term, with the Toffees floundering, the Premier League champions will view a 1-1 draw as two points dropped. Subsequent back-to-back 0-2 defeats at home to Arsenal and Middlesbrough, more significantly, have seen Man City swept under by a torrent of widespread criticism and doubt. Quite seriously, the last fortnight has placed a great deal of pressure on Manuel Pellegrini and his players.

The key question is: can City salvage their season? In a word: yes. It is likely that they will be in contention for at least one title come the end of the season but they must harness the quality they produced in the latter stages of previous successful campaigns right now if they are to do so.

Manchester City v Arsenal - Premier League

Exit from the FA Cup is bound to sting the club’s pride but could in fact represent a blessing in disguise, given the emphasis that will surely be placed on progression in the Champions League next month. What’s more, much of the media scrutiny has been aimed at Chelsea following defeat to Bradford City and with Mourinho branding his team’s shock exodus a “disgrace”, City are set to face the title favourites on Saturday with a chance to capitalise on disharmony in the Blues’ dressing room.

In order to do so, however, City will have to improve their game in the most integral of areas: their scoring of goals. Although the Citizens’ 45 goals already notched this season hardly represents a meagre return, placing them as the second highest scorers in the league behind just Chelsea, who have netted 51, their two title-winning seasons were successful simply because City fans witnessed far more goals contributed by a greater variety of players. If they are to once again catch Chelsea in this campaign fraught with fluctuations in form, they must see the ever-clinical Sergio Aguero’s striking efforts supplemented by others. Recent history reveals why.

In the 2011/12 season, Aguero’s outstanding haul of 23 goals was complemented by the impressive tallies of Edin Dzeko (14) and Mario Balotelli (13), as City banged in 93 goals to win the title on goal difference. Last year, 2013/14, City out-scored their opponents to the title with a staggering 102 goals. Yaya Toure, with 20, Aguero, with 17, Dzeko, with 16, and Alvaro Negredo, with nine, all played their parts. Indeed, the only year in the last three that City haven’t lifted the Premier League trophy was 2012/13, during which they managed only 66 goals.


This season, Aguero has 14 goals already but the form he found before the New Year appears to be drying up, as he contends with niggling injuries that quite plainly reduce his sharpness and decisive involvement in City’s attack. Such is the importance of the player that without him at peak performance, City will get nowhere near last season’s goals record.

The relative lack of support afforded to the Argentine this term in that regard is cause for concern in itself. Toure and Silva are the next highest scorers, with seven and six goals respectively. Given that the two of them, with these fairly unspectacular returns, have been involved in 36% of City’s goals and Aguero 38% on his own, it is clear that City need extra hands (or feet) to help them carry the team’s necessity for more. Enter, Wilfried Bony.

The Ivorian, currently representing his country alongside Toure in Equitorial Guinea, must hit the ground running upon arrival at the Etihad after the Africa Cup of Nations. As the most prolific striker in the Premier League for 2014, scoring 20 goals in the calendar year, there is little question that Bony is a good investment. Capable of finding the net from any range and with either foot or his head, the former Swan will offer good cover for Aguero and may well force Stevan Jovetic – who started the season well but has since faded – and Dzeko to seek first-team football elsewhere.

Ivorian striker Wilfried Bony (C) vies w

Still, whilst establishing City’s reduced goal-scoring as the issue is one thing, the identification of why they are scoring fewer than in previous years is far more essential. Undoubtedly, this question regards the creation of goal-scoring opportunities so far this season, the main provider of which has been Jesus Navas.

The Arsenal game, though not ideal as a microcosmic demonstration of City’s season as a whole, highlighted just how much of an impact this particular shortcoming has cost them on certain occasions. Navas, who has created more chances and assisted more goals (six) than any other City player this season, was consistently able to find space on the right wing to deliver crosses against the Gunners. Almost every attempt he made to find a teammate in the area was poorly executed, often failing to beat the first man, and the isolated figure of Aguero was left frustrated. Milner’s efforts on the other wing were equally fruitless. This is a grave problem for a team that sends over 70% of its attacking play down the wings. It is a part of City’s play that must be ameliorated if they are to set up a suitably tense finale.

That said, 47% of City’s possession comes in the central areas of the pitch and a key element in that territorial domination and chance creation is Silva. The Spaniard, though he has performed reasonably well throughout the season (7.42 according to Whoscored.com), has just two assists to his name. Compare that with Silva’s assist haul for 2011/12 (15 assists) and 2013/14 (nine assists). If much of City’s possession comes through the middle and Silva has only assisted a couple of goals, there is something quite wrong, especially given that Toure has only assisted one. Specifically, the issue seems to lie at the feet of those players just behind him, Fernando and Fernandinho.


The Brazilian duo have been fairly lacklustre in their performances this year, which is troubling after Fernandinho’s highly successful debut season. Although both are designed to destroy more than they are to attack, one of the ingredients that worked so well last term was the seamless link between the defensive and attacking midfielders. Last season, Fernandinho made 1.2 key passes per game – equalling Toure’s average – whereas this season he is making just 0.9 and Fernando a mere 0.5. On top of that, Fernandinho, having been dispossessed just 0.8 times per game last year, has a much higher tendency to lose the ball now, with an average of 1.3 instances of surrendering possession every match. Meanwhile, Fernando loses it 0.9 times a game. As suggested above, however, when he does have the ball, he rarely uses it effectively. For a team that controls most games with an average possession rating of 60%, this malaise in central midfield must be arrested if City are to score more goals and achieve something this season.

Of course, maintaining a solid defensive record is equally important to any effective side and City have benefitted consistently from a strong backline over the last few years. It is no wonder they won the titles they did, with goal differences of +64 and +65 respectively, having found the magic formula of scoring lots and conceding very few. Eliaquim Mangala, some £32 million of investment, has proven unreliable and captain, Vincent Kompany, appears perpetually uncertain of what’s going on behind him just recently. Though they’ve only conceded 22 goals this season, their goal scoring is far less extraordinary than it was in previous campaigns in which they shipped 29 (2011/12) and 37 (2013/14). The truth is that the Premier League champions appear to be missing a certain steel that in those seasons defined their ability to win, no matter how late or how improbable.

A five point deficit does not represent an unsurmountable challenge for City, particularly given their inclination to reserve victory for the final hour. However, they must improve in the areas discussed above if they are to catch a Chelsea side that is –Bradford-shaped blip aside – a veritable winning machine.

Kompany Celebrates mid air

In reality, Man City cannot afford to leave it late this season because their very next match, against Mourinho’s side, could all but decide the direction of the Premier League trophy. The absence of Toure is a significant one but that does not mean City cannot grasp the game and disallow the likes of Fabregas and Hazard the time to play. Their available players must take responsibility and though it is important to avoid being overly cavalier in their approach, this game must be seen as a definitive one in their season. It may not be the one that will see them lift the trophy in dramatic fashion if Aguero once again displays heroics, but it is the one in which they must all exhibit something more if they are to have anything to show for this season come the end.

All statistics are courtesy of Whoscored.com.