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Euro 2012 diary: Criticism harsh for the Netherlands

Despite qualifying for the tournament as the winners of Qualification Group H Denmark had been earmarked by many as the whipping boys of Group B – on the basis of having fewer well-known players and Nicklas Bendtner. Indeed, for the first 20 minutes of their opener against the Netherlands it appeared that even they believed this prophecy, as they were constantly ceding possession and territory to the Dutch. The Danes, though, were able to get revenge for a 2-0 defeat against the Dutch at the 2010 World Cup.
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Benito Carbone – New cycle and new struggles at Varese

In the past few weeks the amount of press received by Swindon Town boss, Paolo Di Canio has been incredibly high after the sharp suited Italian had a bit of ‘falling out’ with a player on TV. This hasn’t been the only moment of controversy that Swindon fans have had to endure. While Di Canio has garnered all of the attention a former Sheffield Wednesday team mate has also been doing a bit of coaching. Benito Carbone has taken over at Varese, a side that has performed small miracles in the past three seasons, and is looking to continue their fairytale.

Carbone: untried, but not yet untrusted

Carbone: untried, but not yet untrusted

The story begins a short while ago, just a short drive from Varese, Pavia. Carbone was the captain and talisman of the Pavia side. Leading them to safety, then promotion scoring 31 goals in his three years as a player for the club. He was handed the youth team before being asked to take charge of the Pavia first team, leading them to safety again as manager this time – appointed last March – once they had reached the Lega Pro top tier.

This short, sharp successful spell as Pavia first team coach had a number of Serie B clubs interested in his services for this campaign – the most interested being Gubbio and Varese. In the end – as we full well know – it was Varese who convinced Benny to sign a one year contract. Carbone has also been joined by former Varese, QPR and Perugia player Mauro Milanese, who has taken on the role of Sporting Director and has been responsible for the club’s summer transfers.
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Shakhtar Donetsk: How far have they come?

Just over a year ago the Ukranian side Shakhtar Donetsk were lifting the final edition of the UEFA Cup. The ‘miners’ also competed in the 2009/10 edition of the Europa league but were dumped out of the competition by beaten finalists Fulham FC.¬† For all of Shakhtar’s wonderful, short, accurate passing they failed to penetrate the South West Londoner’s organised defence.

Throughout the two legs the Ukrainians failed to use any width to attack Fulham, choosing to cut inside and shoot into a crowded penalty area on almost every occasion. On the few occasions they did contrive to use width and were in behind the defence they scored, if only they had learnt to do this a little more often.

A season on and they have made it to the Champions League group stage, the draw has handed them as good a hand as was possible. They have been drawn against Arsenal, SC Braga and FK Partizan. The group is one they will fancy their chances of getting out of, especially after having taking 6 points from their first 2 games. It has been an intriguing journey, personally, to witness from afar the change in attitude and tactics that they have undergone since I saw them lose at Craven Cottage.

Their performances so far in the Champions League this season suggest that they have transplanted some of their lateral passing for more incisive movement at the attacking end of the pitch. Without winger Ilsinho who has moved back to Brazil and Fernandinho, carrying a long term knee injury, there have been outings for younger Brazilians in the squad such as Douglas Costa, Alex Teixera and Willian. Despite having come a long way since their over intricate passing style that appeared to ultimately result in no gains there are still a number of areas in which they will need to improve if they want to progress further than the 2nd round of the tournament.

Starting from the front, one of the signings made by Lucescu last January was the young Brazilian prodigy Douglas Costa. Costa had been linked with a number of clubs before having a poor season full of off the pitch troubles and then signing for Shakhtar. The young starlet has reined in his tendencies to cut in and shoot, but not enough to give him the real unpredictability required to open up the very best defences. Usually deployed on the right hand side of an attacking three as an inside-out winger, he has been given plenty of license to cut inside but he needs to change his approach at the top level.

Douglas Costa - stays wide without the ball

Douglas Costa - stays wide without the ball

Above we can see, marked in yellow, Costa when he does not have the ball at his feet has the tactical sense to stay close to the touch line and on the full back’s shoulder offering the threat of picking up balls in behind the full back’s inside shoulder. This is very good play for the winger and will cause full backs lots of problems if his team mates can play balls in between centre back and full back for him to run onto.

Douglas Costa in possession, cuts inside

Douglas Costa in possession, cuts inside

However when he does get the ball to feet, we see the same pattern emerging where by he will charge in-field and very often shoot from upwards of 25-30 yards because there is rarely enough space to continue a run or find an accurate pass. In fairness to the lad, on this occasion he feigns to shoot and lays off a nice pass for Luiz Adriano to score with. Willian, who regularly plays as the left winger (also inside-out), has a similar tendency to cut inside too often but usually finds a pass to Jadson or Gai in the centre. Willian’s pass completion rate in the game against Partizan was 91% to Douglas’ meagre 54%.

The central play of both wingers means that Shakhtar were often a very narrow team last season, to get by without the wingers width a lot of attacking play is required from both full backs. Darijo Srna (Right) and Razvan Rat (Left) tend to play very high up the pitch, particularly in games where Shakhtar are dominating possession.

Average positions - Shakhtar Donetsk

Average positions for Shakhtar players (subs ringed in yellow)

There are a number of observations to be made from the pitch map above. First of all, as discussed earlier, the very narrow positions of both wingers (10 & 20) as well as the high positions of the full backs. While Tomas Hubschman (3) plays a very capable role as defensive midfielder he tends to get sucked into the middle of the pitch looking to block off play and intercept passes which leaves tons of space in the channels to be exploited on the counter attack.

Up front Luiz Adriano has shown that he has what it takes to bag goals and has steadily been upping his haul year on year since moving to the Ukraine. He is a versatile player who can play as a traditional number 9 on the shoulder of the last man as well as dropping deep to interchange and link up with Jadson in the hole. He’s not bad with his head either. He has been joined this summer by former Arsenal striker Eduardo, who appears to be rebuilding the career that was on the ropes after that Martin Taylor reducer. The Striker has 4 goals in 7 games so far this season, hopefully he can rediscover the ice cold finish that brought him to the Premier League in 2007.

To round off with a pointlessly interesting statistic, Oleksiy Gai the Shakhtar central midfielder passed to every one of his team mates 2 or more times when they faced SC Braga except to his central midfield partner Tomas Hubschman. I’ve not heard of any John Terry style antics from the pair so we’ll have to assume that this is a sign of their new found commitment to onward rushing attacking play?

The true test of just how far Shakhtar have come will be against a side who play a very similar brand of short passing football next week. They will play Arsenal on consecutive game weeks, first home then away. If they can maintain the kind of passing football I have seen from them over the last 18 months I would like to think that they will win over a few fans from these fine shores. These are the two games I have been most looking forward to in the whole group stage since the draw was made.

Italy leave spaces between their lines (Italy v Mexico 03-06-2010)

It’s difficult to pay any kind of lip service to pre-tournament friendlies; France lost 1-0 against China on Friday, Serbia lost 1-0 to New Zealand last week and England achieved uninspiring and undeserved victories against Mexico and Japan. Except for ensuring that plenty of big name stars will not be appearing at this Summers tournament and giving journalists a look at the new rounder, better, faster, stronger Adidas ball so that they can publish their concerns and condemnations. What have we learnt from these friendlies?

Italy v Mexico first half formation 4-3-3

First half: 4-3-3

Italy boss Marcelo Lippi sent out his side for their first International friendly on Thursday evening, they had played some practice games against local Serie D sides near their training base in Sestriere, Turin. Italy are one of the only sides to have waiting until after the June 1 squad deadline before unveiling any sort of team. Italy lined up in a 4-3-3 formation similar to the one which had taken them through the early rounds of qualification. Di Natale and Iaquinta were to provide with as well as support with Andrea Pirlo playing from deep to try and create.

This plan to wait for any kind of competition appeared to have backfired though, with Italy starting very slowly and conceding a poor goal in the 11th minute to Arsenal’s young striker, Carlos Vela (he didn’t try and chip it this time). The goal came from a communication error between the two Italian centre backs, Bonucci and Cannavaro, Cannavaro was looking to step up to play the Mexican runners offside but Bonucci follows his man into the box after having already lost him.

Italy were unable to keep up with the Mexican full backs, I really hope Mexico continue to play like this when the World Cup starts. Whenever Mexico had won the ball back the full backs bombed up the flanks, Salcido on the left and Aguilar on the right. Marquez sat in front of the two centre backs as a sweeper, yet another attempt to resurrect the role of sweeper.

Italy against Mexico - Second half formation 4-2-3-1

Second half: 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-2-1

To try and counter this Italy were defending very deep as soon as they lost the ball. Forcing Iaquinta and Di Natale to try and pursue the fullbacks, a task that Iaquinta was openly refusing to do stating “He [Lippi] asked me to follow the full back. But if I did this I didn’t have the energy to join the attacks.” Asking his wide men to track back meant that Alberto Gilardino was isolated against 2, or at times 3, centre backs high up the pitch. It was difficult for Italy to maintain possession in any attacking areas and they struggled to put any kind of threatening passing moves together.

In the second half Lippi changed the system around to what looked more like a 4-2-3-1, bringing on Simone Pepe to play on the right wing, moved Iaquinta further infield towards his favoured left hand side and Maggio came on at right back for Zambrotta. Marchisio was playing from a bit deeper than the other two players attacking players. This change did have the desired effect in the attacking third of the field, Pepe and Iaquinta were able to provide better support for the lone Gilardino. But Mexico dealth with the Italian attacks very well.

The midfield and attack were pushing forward together and pressing well when Mexico had the ball in their own half, but the back four were still rooted to the Italian 18 yard line. There was acres of space between the lines for the Mexican midfielders to pass and move into and they were able to hold onto the ball with few objections from the Italians.

Arrigo Sacchi sums up the need for the team to move as a unit with the following quote: -

“I used to tell my players that, if we played with twenty-five metres from the last defender to the centre-forward, given our ability, nobody could beat us. And thus, the team had to move as a unit up and down the pitch, and also from left to right.”

If the defence are close to the attack then it is difficult to put passes together as easily as Mexico did on Thursday evening. My only thought would be that Italy were worried about the attacking speed and guile of the Mexican players, they have 3 very quick talented young strikers in Vela, Hernandez and Dos Santos. The second goal was setup by Cuauhtémoc Blanco, the oldest player going to the World Cup, he was able to drop off 10-15 yards, turn and put a ball in for Medina to rifle into the net. Bonucci was unsure whether to follow his man into the space or remain in the back four and once the ball had been played Cannavaro was caught ball watching and failed to track Medina back into the box.

Italy will certainly need to work on their passing as well as defensive movement before their first game against Paraguay on June 14. After the game they received a further piece of bad news with Andrea Pirlo likely to miss at least the first two games because of a calf injury, Ricardo Montolivo is the most similar replacement otherwise Lippi will need to redesign his Italy side.

Brazil: An Examination

I had the privilege of watching the Brazilian national team at the Emirates last night. It may have been more of a privilege than I regard it right now; I could well have been watching the team that lift this year’s World Cup. But based on last night, I don’t think that will be the case.

Brazil, as always, contain some of the most talented players in the world. Lucio is still a supreme centre-half (eventhough he will be 32 by the start of the tournament), flawless last night and nearly perfect against a top-form Didier Drogba in the Champions League last week. I don’t think anyoe can truly appreciate the faculties of Maicon until you see him in person; the man is a fantastic athlete and a graceful footballer. The sight of him marauding down the right flank is truly something to behold. And then there is the crown jewel, Kaka; anything of any substance attack-wise flows through him at some point. For me, these three are the best in the team and would be worthy world champions, but they are not going to achieve this status with some of the supporting cast performing as it is.

Robinho, somewhat misguidedly, was awarded man of the match last night, which I presume was only because he finished off a fine move to score Brazil’s second goal and there wasn’t really another obvious candidate. His perfomance other than scoring was limp and ineffective; he had missed an easy chance to score earlier in the second half, his passing was poor and his numerous stepovers amounted to nothing. Robinho, on his day, is among the best; skilful, plenty of trickery, unpredictable- when all these things come together (and he uses his brain too), he’s a frightening prospect for any opposition. Unfortunately these occurences are all too infrequent. Someone asked me: who would you rather have, Robinho or Ronaldinho? And my response was a shrug of the shoulders; in the case of either, it’s easier to predict the toss a coin than if they play well or not. Ronaldinho has had something of a resurgence ins recent months (the most obvious example of this being the first hour against Manchester United a couple of weeks ago); if he carries on like this and Milan put together a late challenge for the Serie A title, Dunga will be under pressure to bring him back into the fold. I think Dunga is reluctant to do so, not least because Ronaldinho doesn’t really fit into his 4-2-2-2 system, but I think he must surely be worth taking a risk (if indeed there is any element of risk) on and including in the final 23, if only to make use of him as an impact substitute.

Past the issue of (supposedly) star men not performing, I think that there are problems with the quality of some of the first team players and a lack of strength in depth in some positions. The most obvious problem seems to be at left back. Michel Bastos played there last night, as he did against England in November, but he doesn’t really convince me; Shaun Wright-Phillips had the beating of him more than once and he might not even make it on England’s plane to South Africa. A high calibre winger with a bit of speed and trickery (not Liam Lawrence) could be troubling for him. Deportivo La Coruna’s Felipe seemed to be favourite to fill the void until injury brought his season to a premature end. Other recent left-back call ups:
- Gilberto; back in Brazil with Cruzeiro after failing miserably with Tottenham. He will be 34 by the start of the tournament and, unless he’s undergone a magical transformation since his time at Spurs, doesn’t seem like the solution to me.
- Kleber: aged 29, plays for Internacional in Brazil. In all honesty, I know nothing about him and can’t say that I’ve seen him play (to my knowledge), but the fact that he’s accrued only 19 international caps in 8 years tells me that he’s never going to be the long-term answer to the problem. He seems to be one of the first ports of call if there’s need for backup and there’s no one better around.
- Andre Santos: aged 26, plays for Fenerbahce. Seemed to first choice last year, playing in the majority of the Confederations Cup games as Brazil won the trophy. I thought he was fairly competent; wasn’t outstanding, but was a decent enough defender and fairly adept at going forward.
- Marcelo: aged 21, Real Madrid. I don’t really know why he’s not the first choice. He’s not the most consistent performer, but is now playing at left back regularly for one of the top clubs in Europe. He does like to get forward though, and I can see how, with Maicon often forward on the opposite side, Dunga might be concerned that both his fullbacks might commit too much to the attack.
Whoever is chosen to start at left back, the position is still one of the weak links of the team.

The 4-2-2-2 system has been much lauded and the players are familiar with it and slip into position with ease, but is it not perhaps too conservative? If any country can actually put the shackles on Maicon and make him think about defending more than attacking, then the use of two holding players becomes redundant. The way I see it, Gilberto Silva’s function is to drop into a centre back position, whilst one of the existing centre backs pushes out wide to cover a vacated full back position. The 4-2-2-2 can often end up looking like this:

< -Lucio Juan Bastos
Maicon Gilberto Melo
Kaka Robinho

Brazil are too reliant on Maicon and attacking down the right. If he’s off-form or a team set up defensively to counter his threat, then there’s not a lot of attacking thrust coming from elsewhere. In qualification they drew 7 times; 4 of these were 0-0 draws at home. There is a distinct lack of imagination coming from other areas; Kaka was often forced yesterday to go backwards when in possession, as there wasn’t enough coming up to support him. Ramires offered nothing- he simply seems to be there as a security net for Maicon roaming forward, protecting the area immediately behind him as he blasts forward. Brazil played were a much more effective attacking unit when Dani Alves replaced Ramires. I would guess that in the vast majority of Brazil games I’ve seen over the 2010 qualification period, Alves has been brought on to play with Maicon. I can’t understand Dunga’s apparent reluctance to start them together, when it evidently works. Perhaps he just thinks it would be less effective from the outset and Dani Alves has more of an impact coming off the bench to change the tempo of the side. I think it must surely be worth starting both of them; Alves is a much more capable and invtentive player than either Ramires or Elano. Strikeforce is another problem. Luis Fabiano is a world class centre forward, but is currently injured, as he has been for most of the season. Adriano replaced him last night and might as well have not bothered making the journey from Brazil for all the work he put in. The system relies on using a target man-esque striker, but beyond Fabiano they are lacking in this position.

A (Tentative) Guide on How to beat Brazil:
- Shut down Maicon. Much easier to say than it is to do, but I think this is integral to success. Teams need to be defensively sound and not afford him the space to get down the flank. For example, sticking a hard-working winger who’ll track back on him (someone in the Park Ji-Sung mould) should limit his threat. The only alternative is to perhaps go completely in the other direction and stick someone high up on the left and leave them there; Maicon would think twice about marauding forward if Robben or Messi were left in space down his side.
- They don’t like a target man, or at least Juan doesn’t. Juan seemed quite uncomfortable yesterday with the balls played into Kevin Doyle: he’s not the biggest centre-back in the world, and didn’t seem to enjoy Doyle having his back to him holding up the ball. I think he would be very tested and exposed against someone with more presence than Doyle (someone like Emile Heskey, maybe?)
- Attack their left. As I’ve pointed out, left back is a bit of problem for them- none of the potential solutions are brilliant defenders and good wide men will cause problems for them down that flank.
- Move the ball quickly in midfield. The two holding players are not the quickest; age is catching up with Gilberto Silva, and both he and Melo would have received bookings last night if the game weren’t a friendly, for poorly timed, sloppy challenges. Snappy, accurate passing could be their undoing (I think if they met tomorrow Spain would beat them).
- Don’t try and beat them. For the first hour last night, Ireland had Brazil contained (I don’t really count the first Brazil goal as any sort of breakthrough; it was an unfortunate own goal and Robinho was offside in the build up). They sat back with 8 men behind the ball, pumping it up to Doyle to hold up- they did not dare to be the least bit adventurous. Eventually, they could not keep up the intensity of their pressing, Brazil started to assert themselves on the game more and eased through the last half hour. But as their 7 draws in qualifying show, if a team can keep up a solid defence for 90 minutes, Brazil aren’t necessarily going to break through.

So, I don’t think Brazil will win the World Cup (and with me having said so and written this article on it, they’re almost certain to.) Discuss.