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October 2012

Week 11 – The Mancini paradox (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

30 Oct 2012(Tue)

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Roberto Mancini seems forever doomed to have his finest managerial achievements marked by an asterisk. Three consecutive Serie A titles with Internazionale must inevitably be placed into the context of Calciopoli, which literally handed the Nerazzurri a rather unsatisfying first scudetto in 17 years having originally finished third in 2005-06, before effectively ushering several of their major rivals aside for the following two. At Manchester City, for all the terrific drama of those late goals by Edin Džeko and Sergio Agüero, there will always be the “yes, but...” of the Abu Dhabi United Group and the nine, even ten-figure investment that left most in their wake feeling that Financial Fair Play cannot come too soon.

This is all slightly unfair on the former Sampdoria and Lazio star, who continues to endure questions over his credentials more than 11 years after taking his first touchline job at Fiorentina. Mancini was already doing a good job of building a team to succeed in the long term at Inter, and it was hardly his fault if Luciano Moggi et al happened to enjoy picking up the telephone. Similarly, few could begrudge him for accepting the opportunity at Eastlands, after 18 months out of employment and undoubtedly with a hefty contract placed before him to go with the frightening war chest at his disposal to build a world-class team in his own image.

But that said, there is still no escaping the fact that Mancini needs to get the Champions League monkey off his back – for the sake both of his professional reputation and the security of his place within the Emirati owners’ lofty ambitions for City. Repeated frustrations on the European stage – coupled with a bizarre press conference after defeat to Liverpool in 2008 when he announced his intention to quit, before half-heartedly backtracking – ultimately caused Massimo Moratti to lose patience. It hardly helped that Jose Mourinho took over and promptly brought the big trophy back to the San Siro at the second time of asking.

Since moving to Manchester, a group stage exit last term (albeit with ten points accumulated) appears set to be followed by another this. The excuse of successive groups of death simply does not wash, as this too is a consequence of the City oil shock. Their rapid growth period was greedily enjoyed before they could improve their UEFA ranking and thus seeding. Again, Mancini is not to blame for this situation, but he will earn no sympathy by trying to lament it.

Such is the paradox that the managers of the nouveau riche will face. For all the luxuries that the Italian enjoys, the pressures and challenges are enormous – perhaps unique – as well. This is particularly true this season, with the Premier League trophy glistening in the cabinet serving to raise expectations on several levels. While domestic opponents will be divided into those determined to take the City scalp and those who defend with their lives, Sheikh Mansour is already thinking ‘legacy’. The club is already working towards financial and social sustainability off the pitch; Mancini is tasked with creating a dynasty on it.

Starting in pre-season, he has sought to evolve his team by deploying a number of different tactical systems. In a manner reminiscent of his compatriot Claudio Ranieri, who happened to be in charge of Chelsea when Roman Abramovich arrived, this has often been cruelly derided as ‘tinkering’ by a jingoistic British press and public who seem to forget that Sir Alex Ferguson routinely rotates his own starting line-up and adapts the formation to suit. Sometimes Mancini’s adjustments pay off, such as the second half attacking changes that have brought successive league wins over West Bromwich Albion and Swansea City. Sometimes, like the Champions League defeat at Ajax and the dire first half against Swansea on Saturday, they do not.

His evident distrust of classic wingers – Adam Johnson is a case in point – makes it no surprise when City adopt a narrow midfield, but more controversial have been his experiments with a back three. The fact that this shape was used through pre-season up to the Community Shield but has seldom been seen on English shores since suggests that it was a strategy designed for Europe (Juventus have made a success of 3-5-2 in Serie A recently because their opponents tend not to attack with width either, but this is not true of the Premier League paradigm). However, the ‘Italian’ approach has struggled to win either matches or the support of the players.

After the Ajax match, an unusually frank Micah Richards admitted, “It is something that we’ve not worked on a lot. We’re used to a straight four and it’s twice we’ve gone to a back five and conceded... It’s a hard system because we're not used to it and I think the players prefer a 4-4-2, but he’s the manager and we do what he says.” Mancini was typically prickly in response: “If you are a top player, it is not important what system you use. If you don’t understand that, then you are not a top player and you cannot play for a top club
.”

Perhaps the 47-year-old has unwittingly touched upon a problem with his English environment here. The performances of the England national team over the past decade or so have been testament to the way in which our children have been starved of tactical and technical coaching. What comes naturally to Mancini may thus indeed be ‘foreign’ to some of his personnel.

But even if this is true, then it is just another set of circumstances to which he must adapt. As a string of failed Chelsea bosses will attest, managing a super-rich football club is a results business in which objectively ‘good’ results will simply not suffice.

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Vegalta Sendai 3-2 Urawa Reds (Ben Mabley’s blackboard, Goal.com Japan)

24 Oct 2012(Wed)

My latest tactics article for Goal.com Japan looks at defensive width in Saturday’s battle of second versus third in J1.

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23. Vegalta Sendai 3-2 Urawa Reds (J1 matchday 29, 20 October 2012)

Tactically speaking, Saturday’s top-of-the-table fixture was ultimately characterised by the contrasting degrees of success with which the two sides were able to defend narrowly and utilise their spare man at the back. Although Urawa Reds were inches away from completing their comeback at the end of an entertaining second half, the clear advantage that Vegalta Sendai had enjoyed in this tactical battle beforehand was to prove decisive.

The formations were no surprise; Sendai lined up in their usual 4-4-2, with Urawa in Mihailo Petrović’s trademark 3-4-2-1. On paper, this meant that Reds would have three versus two at the back – an advantage similar to that enjoyed by the sweeper-based 3-5-2 systems against the traditional 4-4-2 during the former’s brief European boom in the 1990s. However, the hosts demonstrated their subtle adaptability to opposing styles, plus the willingness of forwards Wilson and Shingo Akamine to rove into deep and/or wide positions, to take advantage of excessive narrowness in the Urawa back three.

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There was an immediate warning after only 50 seconds, when Ryang Yong-Gi’s cross from the left flank flew over the heads of three Urawa players and only just beyond the entirely free Yoshiaki Ota, running in behind Tsukasa Umesaki at the far post. It was not heeded, however, as Vegalta took the lead just a minute later.

Following a throw-in on the Sendai right, Wilson combined with Ota either side of halfway and continued his run along the flank well beyond Umesaki. Akamine began the move close to his two teammates, before embarking upon an unchecked diagonal run from the right touchline to the left of the penalty area. When the cross arrived from Wilson, the Urawa back three – Keisuke Tsuboi, Mitsuru Nagata, and Tomoaki Makino – had again formed a narrow horizontal line stretching only as far as the penalty spot. Akamine had time and space to angle his header at the far post.

The former FC Tokyo man could even have returned the favour from the left flank had he spotted the similar run of his strike partner five minutes later.

With the luxury of a lead and the width provided by the forwards when in possession, Vegalta could afford to defend with two relatively narrow lines of four themselves while Urawa had the ball. This effectively made it four versus three at the back, giving them a spare man too. But where their use of ‘narrowness’ differed was that, in contrast to the visitors, the Sendai defensive four would span the danger zone across the entire width of the 18-yard area.

Reds could not find a way through longitudinally, and whenever they evaded the attentions of either Ota or Ryang to send in crosses, they discovered that the home side’s spare man was now the opposite-side full-back. A typical scenario came after 16 minutes, with Makino and Umesaki high up on the Urawa left. When the latter crossed from left to right, every red shirt had a marker and the covering Park Joo-Sung could head calmly back to Takuto Hayashi.

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Petrović’s side are disciplined enough to quickly recover their shape when caught on the counter, but unfortunately for them, the default itself was again far too narrow when Akamine beat Tsuboi to set Ryang away just after the hour mark. Ahead of him was Wilson, covered by Makino and Nagata, with Yuki Abe rushing back to fend off the run of Ota. But this temporary back three covered merely the width of the penalty arc. As Ryang cut inside, Nagata allowed Wilson to wander completely unmarked towards the left. Makino could not recover the situation in time, and Wilson finished well.

The pattern of the game shifted almost immediately afterwards – Urawa needed to take more risks, and Makino was furthest forward to demonstrate his attacking qualities and halve the deficit. But as they steadily stepped up from the back, any talk of momentum and spare men was rendered insignificant when they failed to deal with a straightforward ball over the top from Naoya Tamura.

The comparatively advanced positions of Makino and Nagata took them out of the play, and when Abe jumped with Vegalta substitute Takayuki Nakahara but neither managed to connect, Wilson was left alone with the covering Tadaaki Hirakawa. The latter’s overcommitted attempt at a challenge saw him easily beaten, and the Brazilian had his second of the afternoon.

Urawa fought back again, and lax marking at a corner allowed Marcio Richardes to quickly make it 3-2. But despite their late rally, Richardes was denied by a brilliant stop from Hayashi and Sendai held on to clinch a deserved win. Now six points off the top in third, Urawa will be rueing the margin for error they recently threw away with those embarrassing home defeats to Gamba Osaka and Consadole Sapporo.

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Week 10 – Perceptions of André Villas-Boas (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

23 Oct 2012(Tue)

The featured match on Foot! Tuesday this week was the 4-2 home defeat for Tottenham Hotspur against Premier League leaders Chelsea.

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While enjoying an unclinkable drink with my father over the summer via FaceTime – unquestionably the most immediately effective means of keeping up with one’s oyakōkō (filial piety) when living 6,000 miles from home; other online video chat services are available – the conversation turned to André Villas-Boas and his prospects as newly-appointed successor to Harry Redknapp at Tottenham Hotspur. A successful businessman whose lengthy career working for Japanese electronics manufacturers was what introduced me to this country in the first place, my Dad was unimpressed with my extolments of AVB’s record at Académica and Porto, and by way of comparison, offered an example from his professional experiences:

“I’ve seen his type loads of times before. It’s like when someone his age gets fast-tracked and put in charge of a company. They feel they have to justify their position and make an immediate impact, so end up changing too much, too soon. Villas-Boas has that same naïveté.”

Certainly, this is a charge that the 35-year-old would be hard pressed to defend were his 256-day spell at Stamford Bridge last season to be placed on trial. As Henry Winter of the Daily Telegraph explains, “His greatest mistake at Chelsea was not understanding the culture of the dressing-room there, the powerful personalities that lurked within. He went for revolution, rather than evolution, and was ultimately ousted by those he sought to change.” Tactically, too, his hurried attempts to introduce a style akin to that which thrilled at Porto were often unsuited to the Chelsea squad. Asking the inspirational but slow John Terry to maintain a high defensive line was the ultimate example of Villas-Boas shoehorning square pegs into round holes.

But then, of course, there were extenuating circumstances. Every manager has the right to expect the respect of his subordinates, regardless of name or years of service. Under Roman Abramovich, Villas-Boas seemed to have been tasked with rejuvenating the team for the long term while simultaneously ensuring both continued success and improved discipline for the short. This was an impossible, almost oxymoronic combination of demands, and he cut an exasperated figure when he departed Chelsea in March to few tears from those who remained. Naïve he may have been, but the Portuguese was not the sole guilty party.

In taking charge at White Hart Lane, his reputation has thankfully been granted a stay of execution, but redemption will only be found as long as he does not repeat the mistakes of the past. Knives were quickly sharpened in the British press – with whom Redknapp was notoriously popular – after Tottenham’s opening three league matches yielded just two points, but four straight wins thereafter has quietened the dissenters. It was a run that included that famous first three points at Manchester United since Gary Lineker’s winner in 1989, as well as a 2-0 victory over Aston Villa that was more intensely dominant than the final scoreline suggests.

It is early days yet, but Villas-Boas now appears more at ease with himself, his job, and his players at Spurs. In contrast to the narrow, inverted wingers deployed at Chelsea, the Tottenham attacks remain characterised by the flank play of Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon – showing that while AVB may essentially be using his same system, the style has been adapted to suit the abilities of his new squad. A meritocratic approach has offered fair opportunity to players like young Steven Caulker, while Jermain Defoe has adjusted to the demands placed upon him as lone striker to keep last season’s top scorer Emmanuel Adebayor on the bench. The manager issues calm instructions from the technical area; his team happily takes them on board. Successive half-time team talks have borne immediate results.

The one criticism that could have been levelled at the Spurs boss after their 4-2 defeat at the hands of his most recent employers on Saturday was the lack of a Plan B despite the late withdrawals of two key players. Moussa Dembélé’s absence due to a hip injury picked up on international duty denied the home side of the Belgian’s dynamic qualities in linking defence and attack; Tom Huddlestone, who nearly left the club in August, could not compensate in terms of either ability or midfield balance. Bale was compassionately granted last-minute leave for ‘personal reasons’ – his girlfriend had gone into labour – but Clint Dempsey was an unnatural replacement given that Tottenham still looked to play wide across the park.

Things improved slightly from around the half-hour mark when Dempsey switched positions with Gylfi Sigurdsson, to the extent that Lennon was finally brought into the game, but the absentees’ effect on overall balance remained noticeable. Perhaps Villas-Boas will have rued his inability to call upon João Moutinho, a narrowly-missed key target of the summer transfer window, or Rafael van der Vaart, whose departure he sanctioned. He will certainly not have overlooked the irony that Gary Cahill and Juan Mata, together responsible for Chelsea’s first three goals, were players he actually did sign.

But then, this season’s Chelsea are a mighty adversary – able to spend £57m complementing Mata with Eden Hazard and Oscar while Spurs were out shopping for Sigurdsson and Dempsey. Defeat was essentially a matter of individual brilliance and individual errors, but not one for shame. It is telling that while the pre-match headlines were all about the reunion, there has been little or no media criticism of the young Portuguese manager in the aftermath. By following the AVB blueprint and keeping their composure, Tottenham should continue to grow and prosper.

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Week 9b – CULT HEREOS XI (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

16 Oct 2012(Tue)

This Tuesday’s episode of Foot! takes a look at some of the more colourful characters from the 20-year history of the Premier League, continuing with my Cult Heroes XI. (Again, current players have not been taken into consideration.)

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Goalkeeper: Bruce Grobbelaar (Liverpool 1981-94)
The Zimbabwean’s most significant impressions on the Premier League era were his involvement in a match-fixing scandal, in which he was cleared of charges but ordered to pay legal costs in a subsequent libel suit, and an angry shove on young teammate Steve McManaman in a 1993 Merseyside derby. But six Football League titles and a European Cup had already made him an Anfield icon. A rich mix of eccentricity and sheer self-belief was a recipe for unpredictability, most fondly remembered when his ‘jelly legs’ unnerved Francesco Graziani of Roma in the 1984 European Cup final. Jerzy Dudek famously copied Grobbelaar’s performance when Liverpool beat Milan on penalties in 2005.

Right-back: Gary Neville (Manchester United 1992-2011)
It is an enormous credit to the elder Neville brother’s skills in front of the camera that he has confounded expectations to be widely lauded in his role as a television pundit. Throughout his career, the former captain was the picture of partiality – the childhood United fan who still sometimes sat with the supporters when injured and, to their delight, was never afraid to hide his distaste for Liverpool. His father, the brilliantly-named Neville Neville, once interrupted an interview to tell him to tone down his anti-Anfield sentiment. Gary’s reply – “But Dad, I do hate them” – was embodied when he ran to gloat in front of the Liverpool section after Rio Ferdinand’s last-minute winner in 2006.

Centre-back: Paul McGrath (Aston Villa 1989-96)
Aged 29, with dodgy knees and an acknowledged alcohol problem, McGrath’s career was supposed to be up when he fell victim to Sir Alex Ferguson’s purge on the Manchester United drinking culture in 1989. Far from it. Despite hardly being able to train between matches – and occasionally turning up to matches under the influence – the Irishman confirmed his status as one of the best defenders of his generation in seven years with Villa. He was instrumental during their title challenge in the first Premier League season, winning the 1992/93 PFA Player of the Year award, and put in a sensational performance to deny his former employers a domestic treble in the 1994 League Cup final.

Centre-back: David May (Manchester United 1994-2003)
History has been a little cruel to May, whose fine performances for United in their run to the Premier League title and Champions League semi-finals in 1996/97 saw him called up to the full England squad. But injuries and the arrival of players like Wes Brown and Jaap Stam left him as a peripheral figure in the squad. No worries – he quickly found another niche as the club’s cheerleader, joyously conducting the European champions’ celebrations at the Nou Camp in 1999 and shamelessly climbing onto the trophy stand to ensure he was at the centre of every photograph despite not having played a minute in the tournament.

Left-back: Julian Dicks (West Ham United 1998-93/1994-99)
Dicks was perhaps an easy figure for fans to identify with, preparing for matches as he did with a diet of cigarettes and fried English breakfasts. Hammers boss Harry Redknapp even said the chairman was “off his rocker” for sanctioning the Bristolian’s return to Upton Park in 1994, such was the extent of his weight gain during a year away at Liverpool. But the man who had missed 12 league games through suspensions in 1992/93 matured into an inspirational all-round presence, even scoring 10 league goals in 1995/96 as he helped West Ham establish themselves in the Premier League, equalling Bobby Moore’s record of four ‘Hammer of the Year’ awards along the way.

Midfield: Jeremy Goss (Norwich City 1983-96)
Little Norwich actually topped the table for most of the inaugural Premier League season before eventually finishing third. A member of their FA Youth Cup-winning side back in 1983, Jeremy Goss had a growing reputation for spectacular goals and sealed his permanent place in Canaries folklore during their debut (and as yet only) European campaign in 1993/94. A second round UEFA Cup tie against Bayern Munich was expected to signal the end of the adventure, but Goss met a defensive header from Lothar Matthäus with the sweetest volley from 20 yards to send Norwich en route to a shock 2-1 win at the Olympic Stadium. He scored again in the home leg to secure their progression 3-2 on aggregate.

Midfield: Steffen Freund (Tottenham Hotspur 1998-2003)
Now back at White Hart Lane as assistant manager, the German was never the most technically gifted midfielder but his skills at riling opposing players and fans were second to none, while his work rate made him a real favourite with Spurs fans. Freund’s failure to score a single goal during five years in London became an ongoing joke, but his finest hour arrived in 1999 with victory in the League Cup final against Leicester City. After retiring, he was famously spotting wearing his original League Cup final shirt when supporting Tottenham with the away fans at Old Trafford.

Midfield: Paul Merson (Arsenal 1985-97, Aston Villa 1998-2002)
Much of Merson’s career was a battle against addiction – be it alcohol, cocaine, or gambling – but his flamboyant playing skills and bubbly personality captured the hearts of fans wherever he went. His greatest successes came early on at Arsenal, winning the league title in 1990/91, a domestic cup double in 1993, and the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1994. After a spell in rehab, he enjoyed a renaissance in his thirties, playing in the 1998 World Cup before helping Villa to the 2000 FA Cup final and Portsmouth to promotion. He is now known for his excitable punditry and erroneous predictions on Sky Sports.

In the hole: Matt le Tissier (Southampton 1986-2002)
‘Le God’ is usually remembered as a scorer of great goals. His languid, 35-lob over Blackburn Rovers goalkeeper and former Saints teammate Tim Flowers was so good that it not only won the BBC’s 1994/95 ‘Goal of the Season’, but even the home fans at Ewood Park applauded at the time. But he was also a great goalscorer, netting 30 times in 1993/94 and breaking the 20-goal barrier on three other occasions throughout a 16-year career loyally spent keeping Southampton in the top flight despite constant interest from bigger clubs. Even Xavi once said, “the man I absolutely loved watching as a kid was Matt le Tissier”.

Striker: Niall Quinn (Sunderland 1996-2002)
193cm Quinn had a fine career with Arsenal, Manchester City, and Ireland – the latter extending from Euro ’88 right up to the World Cup in 2002. But as he wrote in his autobiography, “Sunderland got under my skin.” A lethal big man, little man partnership with Kevin Phillips sent the Wearside outfit storming back into the Premier League with successive seventh-place finishes in 1999/2000 and 2000/01. He then repeated the trick as chairman, injecting the funds to spark another revival after relegation in 2006. His generosity was exemplified soon afterwards when he forked out over £8,000 to enable stranded Sunderland fans to return home from an away match at Cardiff City by taxi.

Striker: Ali Dia (Southampton 1996)
Not so much a cult hero for any one club, but for English football fans as a whole. Dia was, quite simply, a conman. Having got his mate to impersonate George Weah on the telephone, Southampton manager Graeme Souness was sufficiently convinced to offer ‘Weah’s cousin’ and ‘former Paris Saint-Germain star’ Dia a trial. Such was the Saints’ lack of strikers that 24 hours after arriving, he was even named on the bench for a home match against Leeds United, and it was only when the Senegalese entered the fray that Souness realised he had been duped. After 53 minutes spent running about “like Bambi on ice”, in the words of Matt le Tissier, the substitute was substituted, never to be seen again.


Would this team beat my Bad Boys XI? Who are your favourite cult heroes that didn’t make the cut? Let us know your comments below.

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Week 9a – BAD BOYS XI (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

15 Oct 2012(Mon)

This Tuesday’s episode of Foot! takes a look at some of the more colourful characters from the 20-year history of the Premier League, starting with my Bad Boys XI. (John Terry fans will be pleased to know that current players have not been taken into consideration.)

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Goalkeeper: Mark Bosnich (Aston Villa 1992-99, Manchester United 1999-2001, Chelsea 2001-03)
Having forged a reputation as an excellent shot-stopper during seven seasons with Aston Villa, Bosnich was given the dream opportunity of succeeding Peter Schmeichel at Old Trafford in 1999. But he immediately blotted his copybook when he was arrested for an incident outside a strip club on his stag night, being released on bail only just in time to make it to the wedding, and was demoted to third choice after a season littered with fitness issues. His playing career effectively ended with a failed drugs test at Chelsea, and the Australian spent much of his thirties in the grip of a severe cocaine addiction.

Right-back: Tomáš Řepka (West Ham United 2001-06)
Tough-tackling Řepka was West Ham’s record signing when he arrived from Fiorentina for £5.5 million in September 2001. He made an immediate impact, dismissed for two bookings on his debut against Middlesbrough before repeating the trick on his third appearance in a 7-1 thrashing at Blackburn Rovers. In all, the Czech Republic international’s professional career brought a total of 19 red cards, including an infamous assault on a television cameraman after returning to Sparta Prague in 2007.

Centre-back: Neil Ruddock (Tottenham Hotspur 1992-93, Liverpool 1993-98, West Ham United 1998-2000)
Ruddock may not have had the boyish good looks of the other Liverpool ‘Spice Boys’, but he certainly enjoyed the brief overlap between English football’s traditional drinking and nouveau glamour cultures. His generation was “earning tons of money, driving Ferraris, and bedding Page 3 girls before anyone else”. On the pitch, the former Spurs defender was an uncompromising hard man no matter what the occasion, fracturing Peter Beardsley’s jaw in a testimonial before breaking both of Andy Cole’s legs in a reserve match with Manchester United. He later joked, “I didn't mean to break both of his legs if I’m honest. I only meant to break one.”

Centre-back: Tony Adams (Arsenal 1983-2002)
Adams served as captain at Highbury for 14 years, but his path to legendary status was far from easy. Found more than four times over the legal drink-drive limit after crashing his car into a wall in 1990, ‘Mr. Arsenal’ spent two months in prison but his alcohol problems continued to spiral out of control thereafter. A drunken fight with teammate Ray Parlour in a Pizza Hut restaurant preceded a six-week bender following England’s elimination from Euro ’96. To his great credit, he then confessed his addiction publicly and finally turned his life around under the guidance of new Gunners boss Arsene Wenger.

Left-back: Ben Thatcher (Wimbledon 1996-2000, Tottenham Hotspur 2000-03, Leicester City 2003-04, Manchester City 2004-07)
There have been few on-the-pitch incidents in Premier League history quite as shocking as Thatcher’s sudden assault on Portsmouth’s Pedro Mendes in August 2006. Challenging for the ball near the touchline, the Manchester City full-back smashed his elbow into Mendes’s face, sending the Portuguese international sprawling unconscious into the advertising hoardings. He was given oxygen at pitchside and suffered a seizure on his way to hospital. Thatcher was banned for eight games; his career ending at Ipswich Town in 2010 after he refused manager Roy Keane’s demands to relocate closer to the city.

Midfield: Vinnie Jones (Wimbledon 1986-89/1992-98)
Jones’s remarkable post-playing career as a movie tough guy has taken him from Britain (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) to the United States (Gone in 60 Seconds) and even Japan (Survive Style 5+). But his screen debut actually came back in 1992 as the face of Soccer’s Hard Men, a controversial video extolling the virtues of violent tacklers that earned him a record £20,000 fine from the Football Association. His justification was that he had “taken violence off the terracing and onto the pitch”, most notoriously by grabbing Paul Gascoigne by the testicles and a dangerous challenge that effectively ended the career of Gary Stevens.

Midfield: Roy Keane (Nottingham Forest 1990-93, Manchester United 1993-2005)
Keane denied himself the opportunity to demonstrate his considerable playing prowess at the 2002 World Cup after an “earth-shattering” four-letter tirade at manager Mick McCarthy in protest at the Republic of Ireland’s training preparations. The most infamous of his 11 red cards in 12 years at Old Trafford was for a cold, calculated stamp on the knee of Alf-Inge Håland in a 2001 Manchester derby. Keane later admitted in his autobiography that this was a deliberate act of revenge for a previous incident with Håland, earning himself a further five-game suspension to go with the three matches he had served at the time.

Midfield: Dennis Wise (Chelsea 1990-2001, Leicester City 2001-02)
A Chelsea hero for 11 years, 168cm Wise was labelled by Sir Alex Ferguson a man who “could start a fight in an empty house”. The midfielder narrowly escaped prison in 1995 after appealing a three-month sentence for assaulting a taxi driver, before serving fully 15 games’ worth of suspensions in the 1998-99 season alone – including an accusation of biting Marcelino Elena of Mallorca. He was later fired by Leicester City after breaking the nose and jaw of teammate Callum Davidson during a pre-season tour of Finland in 2002.

In the hole: Eric Cantona (Leeds United 1992, Manchester United 1992-97)
In a forward line that shows how easily the lines of ‘bad boy’ and ‘cult hero’ can be blurred, Cantona was the original enfant terrible. In France, Cantona was already persona non grata after punching international teammate Bruno Martini, throwing a ball at a referee, and calling each member of the disciplinary committee an ‘idiot’ at the subsequent hearing. He successfully resurrected his career in England, but while United fans will rightly remember him for inspiring four titles in five seasons to begin their period of dominance, others prefer to recount his red card at Crystal Palace in 1995; dramatically followed up by a kung-fu kick at a supporter that saw him banned for eight months.

Striker: Paolo di Canio (Sheffield Wednesday 1997-99, West Ham United 1999-2003, Charlton Athletic 2003-04)
The self-proclaimed fascist arrived in the UK after falling out with both Giovanni Trappattoni at Juventus and Fabio Capello at Milan. His impassioned style made him a favourite with fans of Celtic, Sheffield Wednesday, and West Ham, but for all Di Canio’s brilliance, his greatest impression on English football was ‘that’ push on referee Paul Alcock after seeing red against Arsenal in 1998. While most onlookers sniggered at the comedic fashion in which the match official stumbled to the ground, the FA failed to see the funny side and banned the Italian for fully 11 games.

Striker: Duncan Ferguson (Everton 1994-98/2000-06, Newcastle United 1999-2000)
‘Big Dunc’ may be an Everton legend, but it takes a special sort of nutter to earn a jail sentence for something he did on the pitch. This came at Rangers, when a brutal head-butt on John McStay resulted in a fourth assault conviction and three months behind bars. Ferguson is the joint Premier League record holder with eight red cards, including a seven-game ban for punching Paul Scharner and brawling with Pascal Chimbonda of Wigan Athletic in 2006. He was also once exiled from Goodison Park for two months for fighting with manager David Moyes.


Would this team beat my Cult Heroes XI? Who are your favourite bad boys that didn’t make the cut? Let us know your comments below.

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Week 8: The cost of devotion (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

10 Oct 2012(Wed)

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It will surely come as no surprise to anyone who has observed my impressive physique on Foot! (or even in the photograph on this page, for that matter) to learn that I am a man obsessed with maintaining my body at the peak of physical fitness. It therefore delights me that, in Health and Sports Day, Japan has an entire public holiday devoted to this philosophy and I always make a point of embracing the opportunity to the full. This year, I spent a most pleasurable long weekend with friends enjoying lots of food, drink, and Formula One at the Japanese Grand Prix. The hard seats at Turn 2 may have left a little to be desired in terms of outright comfort, but that was more than compensated for by the realisation that this is one of those wonderful, matsuri-like occasions where it is socially acceptable to partake of a beer or two before noon.

Immediately striking upon arriving at Suzuka is the sheer enthusiasm and devotion with which Japanese motor racing fans embrace the availability of team and driver merchandise. While a price tag of 4,000 yen for some McLaren Mercedes socks was slightly beyond my own budget, I did feel a little left out – traitorous, even – upon entering the stand in my civvies to notice that not a single other person in the vicinity was without their officially-endorsed baseball caps, teamwear, flags, or (most commonly) combinations thereof. From my vantage point, it made for a fantastically colourful backdrop as this excited patchwork of different loyalties stretched from the main grandstand on the far side to the S-Curves and beyond on my left.

Thinking about it, there wasn’t much reason why F1 should have been any exception. J. League crowds are sometimes criticised for their uniformity but at least they keep singing and, in terms of sheer colour, the monolithic walls of yellow at Vegalta Sendai or Reds in Urawa – to give just two examples – outstrip all but a small minority of cases in the historical footballing centres of Europe. And this in spite of the fact that Japanese replica football shirts typically cost upwards of 10,000 yen, plus anything up to a whopping 4,500 yen just for a name and number on the back.

To put this in context, it is considered expensive in the United Kingdom when Premier League jerseys are priced at £40-45 – currently around 5,000-5,600 yen. Official names and numbers are usually no more than £12 (1,500 yen). And unlike Japan, it is always worth shopping around as there is a good chance of finding campaigns such as free shirt printing, or significantly discounted prices midway through the season. Put simply, it is essentially far cheaper for a football fan in Japan to order their merchandise all the way from England than it is to walk down the road to their local sports shop – even the cost of shipping is offset by an exemption on the UK’s 20% sales tax (included in the prices above) for customers outside the European Union.

This even holds true if we ignore the impact of the high yen/low pound and apply a ‘normal’, pre-Lehman exchange rate. When I asked the owner of a local football retailer in Osaka as to why this should be, his answer implied that his hands were frustratingly tied by a supply situation that would almost certainly be rendered impossible by the stricter competition laws in Europe. Those who determine the prices, of course, will counter that their policies are justified by the basic principles of market economics – if so many match-going fans are willing to pay five figures for their football shirts, then that is what they are worth.

However, this disparity only suits Brits as long as they stay at home. The recent Arsenal-Chelsea clash set a new Premier League record as the cheapest adult ticket was priced at £62. In today’s money, that works out at fully 8,000 yen – four times the price of an equivalent seat in J1. But in terms of the actual dent felt in the British person’s wallet, it is probably more accurate to apply the typical pre-Lehman rate of 200 yen to the pound, thus giving an eye-watering 12,400 yen.

The Gunners are far from unique. It was once a source of pride and obvious benefit to Manchester United supporters that their team’s successes in the Premier League’s first decade came in spite of a ticketing scheme that was the fifth or sixth cheapest in the top flight. The cold-hearted ownership of the Glazer family has since seen prices rise by an average of 55%, more than three times the rate of inflation, between 2005 and 2011. Straining financial burdens are passed on to fans across the country, even in the lower divisions. Admission at my tiny local team, Taunton Town, in the eighth-tier Evo-Stick Southern Football League Division 1 South & West, is now £7; comparable, say, to the infinitely more attractive J2 side Matsumoto Yamaga.

Again, English club chairmen will point to the economical logic of selling their ‘product’ at a value accepted by the ‘consumer’. But another look at the stands immediately reveals that this is at the risk of cultural sustainability. The average age of a Premier League match-goer is now 41. In stark contrast to the J. League, there are few young people as fathers cannot afford to take their families and students cannot afford to take themselves. Meanwhile, older fans who had been attending matches all their lives are being priced out too; their places taken by day-trippers given the once-unthinkable opportunity of general admission tickets to big matches but unable to contribute to the chorus. Stadiums grow ever quieter, often embarrassingly so.

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Vissel Kobe 2-3 Cerezo Osaka (Ben Mabley’s blackboard, Goal.com)

3 Oct 2012(Wed)

My latest J. League tactics article for Goal.com features a terrific comeback by 10-man Cerezo Osaka against local rivals Vissel Kobe.

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22. Vissel Kobe 2-3 Cerezo Osaka (J1 matchday 27, 29 September 2012)

Cerezo lined up for this Kansai derby in their usual 4-2-3-1 system, with Vissel nominally a 4-4-2 but with Keijiro Ogawa a dangerously roving presence from the left-hand side and forwards Ken Tokura and Yoshito Okubo both dropping deep to help out the midfield.

The game began with the visitors passing the ball around nicely, mixing up the play with accurate cross-field balls and knock-downs from the lone striker, Kempes. Their midfield fluidity created an early chance for the Brazilian from Hotaru Yamaguchi’s cross. But twice in the opening 17 minutes, Kobe were able to take advantage of situations where Cerezo had committed men forwards to counter attack along their own right flank, where the play was congested, before developing into the wide open space on the left to score.

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For the opener, Yoshito Okubo took possession just inside his own half but found his path forwards blocked off by the energetic pressing of Fabio Simplicio, so held the ball up – allowing three teammates to advance – before releasing it to the right-back Hiroto Mogi. His accurate ball over the top of the Cerezo volante fell perfectly for Tokura, whose fine control took him fractionally away from Kota Fujimoto and attracted the attentions of Teruyuki Moniwa. This provided just the window Ogawa required, having continued his diagonal run across from the vacant left side, to squeeze inside Daisuke Takahashi and collect Tokura’s pass for the opener.

The second was perhaps a little fortunate, given that Okubo initially opted to shoot from Ogawa’s right-sided cross rather than pass to the unmarked Takahito Soma. But Kim Jin-Hyeon’s parry fell to Tokura, who this time had been the one to trigger things from the halfway line, and he crossed to give left-back Soma an open goal.

Cerezo quickly pulled one back when Yusuke Maruhashi’s long-range, mukaiten effort was spilled by Kenta Tokushige into the path of Simplicio, still forward from a Yamaguchi free kick taken ten seconds previously. This seemed to settle them down somewhat, controlling possession for long periods without being caught in behind. However, they created few chances for themselves either. Their wide play was focused on the left, where Vissel had men to cover, while Yamaguchi tended to come inside from the flank on which they might have found space behind Ogawa and Soma. The centre grew congested, with the hosts defending relatively deeply and affording Yoichiro Kakitani little room to manoeuvre.

The second period was essentially shaped by the contrasting attitudes of the two managers at half time. Akira Nishino’s Kobe were told to maintain a compact 4-4-2 formation in anticipation of a Cerezo onslaught. But what this really did was to invite it, with Levir Culpi instructing his men to up the tempo but keep playing their game as they were, he said, the better team. The visitors were able to play the ball between the Kobe lines, found space for both full-backs to advance, and looked dangerous when switching the play across the pitch.

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This phase of play ought to have ended when Maruhashi foolishly slid in on Takuya Nozawa and earned himself a red card for his troubles. The fact that it didn’t was because neither side deviated from the approach with which they had begun the half. Culpi kept as close to his original system as possible by switching to a 4-2-1-2, sacrificing the hold-up play of Kempes for the movement of Kenyu Sugimoto alongside Kakitani, with Heberty now sat centrally between them and the two volante. Cerezo were now more vulnerable to the counter when they attacked the flanks, but this was an acceptable risk as they were still a goal behind.

With Kobe making little or no attempt to utilise their numerical advantage and dominate possession, the manner of the equaliser was predictable; albeit impressively worked. Now an attacking left-back, Takahiro Ogihara sent the ball forward to Kakitani, who combined between the Vissel lines with Sugimoto and Heberty before breaking left, where Cerezo actually had a man spare. Kakitani didn’t need the return ball to Ogihara, however, as his cross flew over the heads of the entire back four – lined up neatly but uselessly on the six-yard line – and onto that of Simplicio to score at the far post.

Nishino finally tried to mix things up in midfield, introducing Ryota Morioka onto the left, bringing Nozawa into the centre, and switching Ogawa across to target Ogihara’s flank. But it was a Cerezo replacement, Takuma Edamura, who made the decisive impact just three minutes after relieving Heberty of his central duties. Kazumichi Takagi, another Vissel substitute, embarrassingly misjudged a bouncing ball to allow the on-loan midfielder in behind. Edamura was without support and still had a lot to do, but smashed an unstoppable shot into the near-side top corner of the net for a well-deserved winner.

Understandably tired by the sheer amount of time they spent trying to defend their lead, the Kobe players had no answer. The overt intention to hold onto what they had was a mistake often seen during Nishino’s lengthy reign at Gamba Osaka, and after four straight defeats, the 57-year-old will be casting a nervous eye over his shoulder at his former charges. Saturday’s results left Vissel just four points above the drop zone.

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Week 7: No apologies (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

2 Oct 2012(Tue)

Some Foot! viewers were taken aback a few weeks ago when I explained that John Terry isn’t quite universally popular in his native England. Some Japanese Chelsea fans still seem to think I’m lying and it’s just a personal vendetta. Ho hum. Below is this week's Premier League column, originally published in Japanese.

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“Last Sunday, I was involved in what can only be described as an ugly verbal altercation with Anton Ferdinand of Queens Park Rangers during our Premier League match at Loftus Road. In doing so, I acted in a manner unbefitting of my position as captain of Chelsea Football Club and the England national team, and as a role model to young fans of a sport in which we aim to abide by the principles of ‘fair play’.

“During our heated exchange, at no point did I ever intentionally aim racist abuse at Anton, but I am aware that this was not how it was perceived by him or by certain other observers. For this, I take full responsibility. I would like to publically and unreservedly apologise first and foremost to Anton, as well as to Queens Park Rangers, Chelsea, the Premier League, the Football Association, and every supporter who witnessed my actions either at the ground or on television.

“Racism has absolutely no place in either football or society at large, and I will accept any punishment that the Football Association may wish to issue.”

Of course, John Terry never said these words. Nor was any observer of English football in the slightest bit surprised by the lack of such a statement. But this is all the humility that the Chelsea defender would have needed to show in order to nip the issue in the bud last October and even begin restoring his own personal reputation. Instead, it has been allowed, for fully 11 months and counting, to not so much bring football into disrepute as drag it through some of the muddiest front-page newspaper headlines it has known for two decades or more.

Some viewers of Foot! were taken aback a few weeks ago when I described the twice-fired England captain as ‘arrogant’ and ‘disliked’, but in truth, my critique was only about 20% opinion, 80% fact. To raise such points on British television would be like announcing in Japan that Japanese people tend to eat rice quite regularly. Back in the UK, Terry’s belated reaction last week to the FA’s dutiful investigation into the Ferdinand affair provoked near-universal disdain. His attempt to shift the blame onto the FA for forcing his international retirement was a tiresome, predictable reminder of the sky-high regard in which ‘JT’ holds himself.

In the Daily Telegraph, Henry Winter wrote: “John Terry claimed on Sunday night that the Football Association had made his position in the England squad ‘untenable’. Nonsense. Terry was the author of his own downfall. Too many scrapes, too many embarrassments... Whether it was the Wayne Bridge saga, the dispute with Anton Ferdinand and subsequent fallout with Rio Ferdinand or the impression he gave that the England armband belonged to him, Terry had become a toxic asset in international week.”

Daniel Taylor of The Guardian added, “John Terry quits with a broken heart but he is no victim. The FA has been pretty good to the former England captain, given the seriousness of the allegations against him, and it has a duty to convene its own inquiry... Will there be sympathy? Terry being Terry, probably not a huge deal. The fact is that Terry, over time, has become firmly established as one of football’s bad guys. There is a pretty thick file to corroborate why.”

The FA was right to follow up Terry’s legal acquittal because its burden of proof, scope of responsibility, and precise charges raised differed to that of a court of law. That said, its own half-hearted actions have undeniably been a contributing factor in this unhappy, enduring saga. The idea that the criminal trial be adjourned until after Euro 2012 should never even have been entertained. Fabio Capello may have quit as England manager after Terry was stripped of the captaincy, but in failing to fully exclude him from national team selection for the duration of his legal proceedings, the FA had actually ignored its own unwritten rules. Terry himself had previously been subjected to such a ban from the England U-21 side back in 2002.

In purely playing terms, his loss to Roy Hodgson will be significant – even at 31 – because of the England manager’s emphasis on defensive organisation within a relatively deep back four. This is a system in which Terry excels – it emphasises his qualities as a centre-back without exposing his lack of speed on the turn – as he showed again for much of Chelsea’s 2-1 win at Arsenal on Saturday (this week’s featured match on Foot!). England are not currently blessed with a rich array of alternatives, and the difference between the 1-0 win over Ukraine in Euro 2012 (with Terry) and the 1-1 draw against the same opponents at Wembley last month (without) was stark.

Nor is Terry the only English footballer whose personality tests supporters’ patience. In an age of teenage millionaires and attitudes, names such as Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, and Ashley Cole have all become embroiled in both unsavoury incidents off the field and bitter arguments over huge sums of money with their clubs.

But Terry, who prides himself on being a leader on the pitch, is still the undisputed leader in this regard too. As Winter writes, “Terry’s unpopularity will remain. He embodies much of the arrogance and ego that alienates many people from modern football.” England probably won’t win a trophy for many years, but the fact that Terry can no longer be the man to lift it will offer comfort for the vast majority of those hoping to savour the memory if and when it comes.

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