Football lives up to the Fantasy of a Brazilian World Cup

What a start. Two days in to the World Cup and we have seen 15 goals across four games with only Cameroon failing to score out of the eight sides involved. Ever four years the hype seems to grow and grow, and it may be early days but the football of the 2014 World Cup looks set to be the best for some time. If only the same could be said of the officials.

Brazil 3 Croatia 1

Kaka belongs to Jesus. I'm sure part of Neymare does. Perhaps not so much.

Kaka belongs to Jesus. I’m sure part of Neymare does. Perhaps not so much.


Weight of expectation is always high for the hosts. Of late perhaps South Africa are the only side to have gone beyond expectation when they failed to win a game and exited in the group stages. In 2006 Germany battled their way to third, before them South Korea knocked out Spain and Italy on their way to the semi-finals, even if Japan only made the 2nd round, and finally France in 1998 were the first hosts since Argentina in 1978. The current Brazil side find themselves in an unusual situation. Not only do they have the weight of a nation’s expectation on their shoulders but a good proportion of the country are far from happy to see the World Cup on their doorstep. Caught between samba and stone throwing the nation still expects victory, if only to banish the evils of 1950 and the Maracanazo. In a variation on the World Cups usual format the winner was decided by a final group of 4. As luck would have it the final game Brazil vs Uruguay, would decide the winner. Needing only a draw Brazil was already in party mode but a 2-1 loss had bitter consequences for the nation. Firstly their all white kit was banished in favour of their now iconic yellow, green and blue. They only had to wait 8 years to win their first World Cup but they’ve waited for 64 years do it at home.

In the past 64 years much better and much more stylish Brazilian sides have featured at World Cups. Some have won and some have lost but all have had the same romantic attraction to the neutral. Brazil’s 014 incarnation is some way short of the fantasy of Jogo Bonito but it does have class. Namely in Neymar and Oscar. Both shone on the opening night. After going down 1-0 thanks to industrious running from Ivica Ollic both Neymar and Oscar looked a little impatient in possession. Neymar’s frustration appeared to be getting the better of him when he was booked for an elbow in the face of Luka Modric. Eventually Brazil got their way. Neymar placing home the first from the edge of the box before converting a controversial penalty and finally Oscar poked home in the final minutes to seal a win. Brazil have topped their group at every World Cup since 1982, if they continue that run they will play the runner up of group B which could be any out of Spain, Holland or Chile.

Mexico 1 Cameroon 0

Giovani dos Santos is not sure how, or why, his goal is ruled out for offside.

Giovani dos Santos is not sure how, or why, his goal is ruled out for offside.

On the face of it this has been the ‘least exciting’ game of the tournament so far. Only 1 goal between two side who will need to get past a functional Croatia side if they want to progress. The caveat in this game was in the tactics. Mexico playing 3-5-2 and Cameroon 4-3-3. The Central Americans are clearly very well drilled by their coach Miguel Herrera; who looks a little like a Mexican ‘Big Sam’. Their wing-backs pushed up very high and former Spurs man Giovani dos Santos dropped off his strike partner Oribe Peralta intelligently. The width of the wing-backs created chances a plenty in the first half and dos Santos had two goals wrongly ruled out for offside – showing he knows when to step in to the penalty area. In the 2nd half dos Santos drew a save from Carl Itanje in the Cameroon goal and Oribe side footed home.

Cameroon however look bemused at how to combat the system. Their attacking wingers were tasked with tracking the wing backs. This left striker Samuel Eto’o completely isolated and the space in behind the wing-back unexploited. If they had been more adventurous they could have left the wide men forwards and dealt with the winb-backs one-on-one. Alas they didn’t and they only really threatened from set pieces where Mexico look exceedingly weak. With Mario Mandzukic returning Croatia will look to use his physicality against the Mexican defence. It will be interesting to see how else they can combat the 3-5-2.

Spain 1 Netherlands 5

The most iconic goal of the tournament so far from Robin van Persie.

The most iconic goal of the tournament so far from Robin van Persie.

To sum up this game in two paragraphs would be impossible. After 40 minutes it looked like same old same old. Spain had pressed, passed, won a penalty and taken a 1-0 lead. Wesley Sneijder had failed to take Holland’s best chance and the Dutch looked 2nd best; as they had in the 2010 final. The game changed when Daley Blind, another wing back, took up possession on the left hand side. His pass was long and diagonal, but far from aimless. He picked out Robin van Persie (Europe’s best number 9?). I’m not sure Blind intended to ‘cross’ the ball and create a headed chance but it was van Persie’s finishing instinct that mean he looped his diving header over Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas. Before the game Rio Ferdinand had spoken of van Persie is always thinking – “how can I score from here” and as quickly as possible. Looking at the replay he could at least have attempted to chest the ball down but the quickest root to goal was the header and the image of the striker flying through the air will be an iconic World Cup image for years to come.

In the Second half Spain were visibly more direct in their passing but Diego Costa again found himself a lone striker up against three defenders. He only really threatened when he won his sides penalty as space in behind was severely limited; unlike when he plays for Atletico Madrid. The Dutch continued to play their game with quick transitions bypassing the workman like midfield of De Jong and De Guzman to reach the forward three of Sneijder, Robben and van Persie as quick as possible. For their second goal it was again a chipped ball from Blind this time to Arjen Robben. Robben showed excellent technique to bring the ball down, hold off two defenders and finish past Casillas in a goal just as brilliant in the first, but probably much less appreciated. From this point onwards the Dutch were unstoppable. van Persie beat the keeper, but not the crossbar, Sneijder delivered a free kick right on to the far post where Stefan De Vrij just happened to be stood.

Spanish problems were confounded by the performance of captain and goalkeeper Iker Casillas. Dropped by Mourinho and reduced to the role of ‘Champions League goalkeeper’ this season; even if Real Madrid did win the title. He is not exactly short of game time or fitness and he is national captain but his place will come under scrutiny this week. He complained of infringement for the third goal but the challenge looke fair and he look unlikely to reach Sneijder’s prefect cross either. In conceding the fourth Casillas’ error looked like the nail in the tiki-taka coffin. For Spain and Barcelona passing the ball back to the goalkeeper is a chance to reset. The two centre backs spread wide to offer a pass and the rest of the team will move towards their standard shape. On this occasion Casillas received the ball with both centre backs available and one forward, van Persie, some 10 yards away from him. An awful first touch changed this to 6 yards, an easy gap for the onrushing striker to make up. That he did to tap home the fourth. Watching the undignified Casillas scramble on all fours in vain to prevent Robben’s second and Holland’s fifth is actually uncomfortable viewing. Fortunately for Casillas he may well end his international career making a sharp stop to deny Robben his hat-trick. Considering the pasting his side received in the second half that is probably the best he can hope for.

In one final moment of humiliation for the Spanish Fernando Torres, the £50 million striker with 5 league goals this year, was presented with an almost open goal. BBC commentator Steve Wilson set Torres up with the line “and it will be tucked in by Torres” and Torres supplied the punchline as he attempted to shift the ball on to his favoured right foot allowing the interception to be made. The contrast with van Persie couldn’t be clearer. While the Dutchman is looking to get the ball in the net as the earliest opportunity his Spanish opponent was keen to give himself the best chance of scoring, by using his right foot, but instead denied himself any chance at all.

Chile 3 Australia 1

Jorge Valdivia, an early contender for hipster football of the World Cup. Needs more of a beard to go with those tattoos.

Jorge Valdivia, an early contender for hipster football of the World Cup. Needs more of a beard to go with those tattoos.

After the shock and awe provided by the Spain vs Netherlands encounter it seemed like it would be hard for Chile and Australia to match the excitement. They didn’t but they did pretty well in trying. Initially it seemed as if the excitement would come from Chile racking up a cricket score against the holders of The Ashes. Australia have been set up to stifle opponents and in the tournaments toughest group they will be keen not to have the pants pulled down. They set up very deep with only Tim Cahill up front. Chile on the other hand could be perhaps the most proactive and attacking side of the tournament.  They often play a back three with attacking wing backs. On this occasion, knowing that the Australia would play a solitary forward, they set up with the same attacking wing-back and what was practically a back two. Marcelo Diaz just in front of the defence and happy to drop in to the back three when required. For the first 15 minutes Chile swarmed forward. Alexis Sanchez showed good composure to finish in a crowded box for the first. For the second it was the Australian’s who did the crowding, towards the ball and the run of Eduardo Vargas, leaving Jorge Valdivia free to take a touch and pick his spot in the roof of the net from the edge of the area.

At this point Australia must have feared the worst but they did better than Cameroon in getting in behind Chile’s wing backs and as theyonly had two centre backs Tim Cahill found more space in the penalty area. Chaill, just 5′ 10″, climbed above Cardiff’s Gary Medel, himself just 5′ 7″, to put Austrlia back in the game. What they would have given for Mark Viduka at his physical best, think World Cup 2006, to get amongst the Chilean defence. Attacks continued in to the second half. Chile’s Claudio Bravo saved well from Mark Bresciano and Eduardo Vargas was denied by a goal-line clearance in the closest we have come to finding the ‘goal line technology’ replay useful. The victory was finally wrapped up in stoppage time by Jean Beausejour of Wigan. In 2010 he was a started at left wing-back but on this occasion he came of the bench. The greatest concerns for Chile will be the threat of a backlash from Spain and the fitness of Arturo Vidal. Vidal is a fantastic footballer and integral to both Chile and his club side Juventus but he is still recovering from knee surgery and when he was substituted he had the demeanour of a man who was pretty pissed off about something.

All in all it has been a great start to football at the World Cup. Although tensions off the field are yet to come to a head and we haven’t had to watch England vs Italy just yet either.


England must tame Lyon, not Johnson, to succeed in Adelaide

Nathan Lyon bowls

Dominating off-spinners ’round the wicket’ line of attack key for England

With a week and a half to go until the 2nd Test Match in Adelaide it is not Mitchell Johnson that England need worry about but Nathan Lyon. The new ‘drop in’ pitch should help to negate the pace, bounce and aggression exhibited by Johnson in Brisbane thus making the way England play Lyon the key to producing a good total.

England will want to level the series ahead of their visit to Perth, a ground where that have not won since 1978, and they must post a first innings total of at least 400; perhaps more. This should be achievable as 3 years ago they posted 620-5 lead by Kevin Pietersen’s 227. To do so they must conquer Lyon and his tactic of bowling round the wicket.

Taking 17-2 and 46-2 this weekend he comfortably out-bowled Graeme Swann thanks, in part, to his round the wicket line. Speaking from personal experience it is interesting, but often frustration line of attack. At best it adds an extra dimension to orthodox off-spin as extra bounce can bring gully in to play and extra turn, from wide of the crease, opening up the angle to bowl a batsman through the gate or have them caught of with edge playing to leg. But at the same time setting a field is difficult and a consistent line and length is imperative.

Lyon has used the angle effectively already this year. At Chester-le-Street this August I witnessed him snare Trott caught short leg playing a wafty flick before dragging Kevin Pietersen wide to have him caught behind – perhaps his finest international wicket – Ian Bell then holed-out to mid off before finally Lyon tied down Jonny Bairstow for what felt like an eternity and trapped him LBW. In Brisbane he picked up two right handers (Bell and Prior) in two balls caught short leg and in the 2nd innings he picked up 2 further wickets – Cook caught behind cutting and Prior, again, caught leg slip.

Nathan Lyon's 1st innings pitch map at Chester-le-Steet earlier this year.

Nathan Lyon’s 1st innings pitch map at Chester-le-Steet earlier this year.

On top of this Lyon has 10 wickets at 25 apiece in his two games at the Adelaide Oval – against South Africa and India. Though admittedly he failed to bowl out the South Africans in the 4th innings in 2012. In 2010, at the same venue, Swann produced 5-91 in similar circumstances which was enough to bowl out the Australians while Xavier Doherty was flayed for 158-1 at almost a run-a-ball. Both sides will want to secure a big lead and give their spinner the license to attack in the 2nd innings.

England’s instinct is to play across the line at Lyon and off the back foot. To prevail they need to remain positive but get forward, perhaps risking LBW on a lower wicket, and continue to pick gaps. If they can milk Lyon they can wrestle control from the Australian bowling attack and post the match winning total they need to expose an Australian batting line-up just as frail as their own.

Nathan Lyon's wagon wheel from Brisbane's 2nd innings.

Nathan Lyon’s wagon wheel from Brisbane’s 2nd innings.

Team SKY’s One Dimensional Approach Weakens British Cycling

Chris Froome (left) and Geraint Thomas (right) compete at The UCI Road World Championships last Sunday

Chris Froome (left) and Geraint Thomas (right) compete at The UCI Road World Championships last Sunday

One day racing is not so much a chink in the armour of British cycling, but a gaping hole. It is the weakness of both the national squad and the domestically based Team SKY.

The problem lies not in a percieved lack of heart or desire that saw all British riders retire at this weeks UCI Road World Championships in Florence but in one dimensional approach of Team SKY. From a tactical perspective Sir Dave Brailsford and his team, including Rod Ellingworth, are yet to find a formula to win. Undeniable excellent over a stage race SKY have yet to truly crack the one day classics and British cycling is weaker for it.

Mark Cavendish did indeed win the 2011 World Championships and he was the last Brit to win a One Day Classic, 2009s Milan San Remo, but rarely does a one day course finish with a flat group sprint. Courses, particularly at the World Championships, often end with short, sharp and decisive climbs like Liege-Bastonge-Liege or long draining cobbled sections; see Paris-Roubaix.

Given the parcours Cavendish was never an option at this weekends World Championship course in Florence. Even so if the course suits Marcel Kittel may now be the worlds fastest bike rider. Even at the 2012 Olympics Cavendish was such an overwhelming favourite on home soil that Great Britain were forced to do all the work and unable to prevent 26 riders escaping the peloton. Applying SKY’s grand tour tactics have proved equally futile. The 2012 Tour de France was won on the back of Sir Bradley Wiggins’ time trialling ability, completely nullified in one day racing unless you have the experience and nous of Fabian Cancellara. Where as this July Chris Froome relied upon being the last man standing on the long gruelling mountain climbs after using tempo to reign in any escapees.

Timing, rather than tempo, is the key to Classics success. Knowing when to conserve energy is just as important as attacking when spending 200km plus in the saddle. Too often SKY/Britain waste valuable energy forcing an unnecessary pace. At the 2012 Olympics Britain were forced to burn all their matches pursuing others and throughout 2013 Classics season SKY were prominent for the first half of a race only to fade come the finish.

SKY apologists will point to luck as a great contributor to one day victory. Of course, but few people will have fallen of a bike more times in a month than Geraint Thomas this spring. If Britain is to challenge it is SKY must decide what to do with Thomas. A natural time-trialist, useful in the Classics for solo attacks, and unlikely to become a Grand Tour contender. Equally Ian Stannard’s 6th at Milan San Remo was Britain’s most notable performance in 2013 but he lacks the punch to finish off the big boys.

One man who might have been fancied was Jonathan Tiernan-Locke. 12 months ago he lit up the Tour of Britain excelling on short punchy climbs before finishing 19th at the Valkenburg World Championships. Impressive; not least as he was riding for Continental team Endura. But poor form at SKY this year has been followed by a ‘a potential discrepancy in his biological passport data’. The issue is his 2012 readings in comparison to 2013 but cheat or not he has not lived up to expectations. His poor year at SKY will probably be rule out of a leading role even with a year of his contract remaining.

Given Chris Froome’s comments the 2016 Olympics are undoubtedly a goal for himself and Britain. This leaves two World Championships and two and a half seasons for SKY to gain valuable experience and Brailsford and co. a new set of tactics. Because quite frankly 2013 was not good enough.

Using FourFourTwo Stats Zone to pick your Fantasy Football side

Football magazine FourFourTwo have recently release the 2013/14 update for their Stats Zone app and brought the stats to your internet browser. The depth and breadth of the app is simply mind boggling. Every pass, shot, tackle, block, dribble, foul and even ‘error’ from the top leagues in England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France is available almost in realtime courtesy of Opta. That is the important part for Fanatasy Football fans – Opta.

The ‘Fantasy Premier League’ run on the Official Premier League website uses exactly the same Opta stats and the Stats Zone app making it a valuable resource for any Fantasy Manager looking to get the edge. Let’s have a look at some examples from Gameweek One

Ricky van Wolfswinkel vs Iago Aspas

Both van Wolfswinkel and Aspas were making their Premier League debuts last week and both forwards will set you back 7 million in game. Aspas outscored van Wolfswinkel 7 points to 6 even without scoring. Here is why:

FourFourTwo Stats Zone, Ricky van Wolfswinkel, Iago Aspas

van Wolfswinkel the poacher vs Aspas the all-rounder

Both dashboards show each players every interaction with the ball good or bad and attacking and defensive. Despite scoring a goal, worth 4 points, van Wolfswinkel did little else. The orange inverted ‘v’ displaying his weak aerial ability potentially an issue for a Norwich side so used to the combative Grant Holt. Despite this one of his two successful ‘aerial duels’ produced his goal. With only 7 successful passes van Wolfswinkel’s potential for bonus points is severely limited.

Aspas on the other hand finds himself in a side that hoards the ball, perfect for an attacking midfielder, demonstrating his potential for assists and why he gained 2 bonus points. Of his 30 successful passes 5 lead to scoring opportunities and one of those was Daniel Sturridge’s goal; giving the Spaniard 3 further points. But, here lies the conundrum, without the assist Aspas would only make 5 points to van Wolfswinkel’s 6.

Who to pick is reliant upon the Bonus Points System. This where the Stats Zone is so useful. The competition rules state:

A new Bonus Points System (BPS) has been created which utilises a range of statistics to create a BPS score for every player. The three best performing players in each match will be awarded bonus points. 3 points will be awarded to the highest scoring player, 2 to the second best and 1 to the third.

And those points are calculated on almost every statistics available from Opta – an appearance, a goal (weighted in favour of forwards), assists, clean sheets, saves, saving penalties, completing crosses, creating chances, clearances and blocks, tackles, winning goals and pass completion. While points are deducted for conceding or missing a penalty, red & yellow cards, missing the target, making errors, conceding possession and being caught offside.

And here we see why van Wolfswinkel’s poaching is not likely to gain as many points as Aspas. Unusually for Fantasy Football it is a system that rewards all-round and even defensive play, rather than goals an assists. Hence why Simon Mignolet’s clean sheet, penalty save and 5 further saves gave him 15 bonus points and the full 3 points on offer for his performance.

Liverpool - Full details

Liverpool – a good example of how the bonus points (BPS) will be spread

Branislav Ivanovic

FourFourTwo Stats Zone, Branislav Ivanovic

Ivanovic vs Hull City and Aston Villa.

One potential star of the BPS is Branislav Ivanovic. Already against Hull City and Aston Villa he displayed both sound defensive ability and good ball retention. His performance against Aston Villa was enough to take 2 bonus point behind the colossal Christian Benteke. The awarding of defensive points has been re-vamped to reward resilient defending. This could lead to a defender ‘under the cosh’  taking maximum bonus points.

Edin Dzeko

Dzeko didn't score against Newcastle but he looked threatening.

Dzeko didn’t score against Newcastle but he looked threatening.

Finally, a tip for next week. Manchester City’s Edin Dzeko didn’t score last week from his 8 attempts on goal but he did pick up an assists. And at 7.5 million, compared to Robin van Persie’s 14 million, he is a comparative bargain. Manuel Pellegrini appears to be a fan and with fixtures coming up against Cardiff, Hull and Stoke he could be a valuable points scorer.

Hopefully I’ll do this next week before the transfer deadline.

Pep to Bayern: 5 Talking Points

Pep Guardiola - the next Bayern Munich manager.

Pep Guardiola – the next Bayern Munich manager.

There we go the biggest news of the January transfer window is that an unemployed manager is going to Germany at the end of the season. Who would have thought it? But what will life be like for Pep Guardiola away from Barcelona? Here are 5 key/important/interesting questions to be pondered/answered/asked.

1. Will he deploy a False Nine?

Much has been made of Lionel Messi’s deployment as a single lone striker who withdraws deep in to the midfield at Barcelona. No side plays the system better than Barca and no individual plays the position better than Messi. Could Guardiola employ the same system at Bayern?

Arjen Robben is too direct to mimic the role as is Franck Ribery. While Mario Gomez is an out-and-out poacher. Perhaps Mario Mandzukic, who has 9 goals in 15 games this season, could adjust his game or the exciting Toni Kroos could push further forwards. Most likely Pep would have to look outside the current squad for such a player.

2. Will Javi Martinez be his key player?

Yes Martinez and Guardiola are both Spanish but the importance of Martinez extends beyond shared nationality and language. Firstly will Martinez be deployed as a midfielder, as he currently is, or as a centre back; as he was by Marcelo Bielsa. In midfield Martinez could sit at the base of a midfield 3 and drop deep in to defence like Sergio Busquets at Barcelona.

In defence Martinez was at his best when given the freedom to push in to midfield and orchestrate attacking moves. It made for some exhilarating football at Athletic Bilbao and Guardiola is accustomed to fielding players such as Javier Mascherano and Busquets at centre back.

3. Has Pep done this just to spite Chelsea?

Chelsea and Bayern were certainly the two biggest clubs available to Guardiola at this moment in time. It didn’t take a genius to work out that Rafa Benitez was appointed ‘Interim Manager’ for a reason. Chelsea were desperate to leave the door open for Guardiola come the end of the season. Now they will have to wait at least 3 years.

Apparently even Jose Mourinho is surprised that he didn’t end up at either Chelsea or Manchester City. Maybe he is holding out for the Man United job? Maybe he wants to get away from Jose Mourinho who is more likely to head to England than Germany for his next job? On that note…

4. Will Jurgen Klopp’s Dortmund take on the Real Madrid role?

This isn’t a direct transition but broadly Dortmund play fast incisive football while Bayern are more patient. Indeed only Barca see more of the ball than Bayern in Europe’s top 5 leagues. Fans of Manchester City will vouch for Dortmund’s attacking abilities.

Since Jupp Heynckes took charge of Bayern in 2011 he has played Dortmund 5 times, lost 3, drawn 1 and won only 1 in the German Super Cup. Not since February 2010 have Bayern triumphed in the league. If anyone can challenge Bayern it will be Dortmund. Dortmund too boast a stronger German influence and broader public support than the widely disliked Bayern.

5. Will it be the same for Pep away from Barca?

Of course not. This is a completely new challenge for Guardiola. His career is defined by one club on and off the field and now he must rise to the challenges of a new one in a foreign country. For the time being he does not speak German, though he does have some time learn, and Bayern don’t have quite the same identity as Barca.

Bayern may well represent Bavaria as a region but they don’t have an equivalent to the més que un club philosophy. Sure they produce some great German players, including the irresistible Toni Kroos, but they are also rely upon their financial power to take the strongest players off their closest rivals; think Ballack and recently Neuer, Mandzukic and Gomez. If anything Dortmund have a stronger club identity; as proved by Nuri Sahin’s recent return.

The best part: we won’t know about any of this until next season. Hurray!

The Combine Pass Play guide to Football on Twitter.

This week’s post was inspired by Lauren Laverne’s (DJ, ex-member of 90s indie girlband and all-round good person) Observer article on the purpose of Twitter. And today’s “triumphant” return of Joey Barton to Twitter *groan*.

Lavern’s Twitter article was followed by a number of well-known Twitter persons making their suggestions of who to follow. Among them I noticed a chronic lack of of football related accounts. Boxer Amir Khan chose the king of evil Piers Morgan (more on that later) who in turn recommended Rio Ferdinand who himself plugged the Telegraph’s Henry Winter. Comedian Tim Key suggested the until recently dormant Joey Barton and that was about it. Of all those mentioned I follow just the comedian Key and Winter; the latter I have long thought about ditching.

Personally I don’t go for the celebrity element of Twitter. The rich and famous (footballers included) often mistake Twitter for the cliched ‘I’m going to tell you what I ate for lunch world’ that it is often disregarded as. I have tried following footballers, mainly Middlebsrough players, but their timelines just become a constant stream of poor grammar, pointless hashtags, self-loathing and Nando’s. Like so:

13:45 – Training was SO #cold this morning
13:47 – So #bored I could die @ReserveGoalkeeper @OverPricedStiker @TrickyWinger Fancy a movie #Fancyalaugh
13:55 – Thanks for the suggestion guys of to watch American Pie the Reunion expecting major #lolz
14:30 – Stiflers mum #lolz
14:57 – pie was wiked. time for NANDOS #chicken

I for one do not wish to read that crap. If one thin annoys me more than anything on Twitter it is the use of pointless hashtags. They are creeping in to our life in unimaginably annoying ways. I see them on Facebook despite them serving no purpose to the admittedly poor Facebook experience. On Twitter they should be used to represent the group of Tweets on a single event. For example the Champions League final should attract hastags like #CLFinal #CFC #Bayern. That way all associated tweets can be easily searched for. Instead they have become some sort of internet buzz-word. Take this lamentable effort from Joey Barton:

@Joey7Barton: Anyone who got done by the “going to pick TO” bit there have obviously not been following me long…….. #dullards #stopmakingiteasy

The ‘hashtaging’ of “dullards” is pointless. Why? Are we expected so search the whole of Twitter to see everyone who has been labelled a dullard by every jumped up prick on the internet? Probably not. Therefore the use of the hashtags in his tweet are utterly pointless and downright annoying. Rant over.

The number of footballer plays I actually follow is now just 3. Spanish ‘wonderkid’ Iker Muniain, who tweets exclusively in Spanish, Seamus Coleman, not sure why, and Middlesbrough players Jason Steele and Joe Bennett. About the most interesting thing that has come from this is the fact that Joe Bennett, a left back, spends the majority of games watching other left back ie. Marcelo, Koralov, Cole etc. Instead I prefer the comment and analysis from the wider football community.

Before my list of top 10 people to follow a word of advice. Avoid @piersmorgan like the plague. Sometimes I wonder if he exists purely to piss me off? His endless “banter” with famous sporting types namely Micheal Owen, Gary Linekar, Michael Vaughan etc. annoys me no end. This is a man who used to write used to write a weekly Daily Mail article which would regularly lurch from “Wenger OUT” to “Arsene I’m so Sorry” to “Weneger definitely OUT!” back to “Arsene: An Apology” and on and on and on. The man has such a seemingly narrow view of sport it is unbelievable.

Enough about the world’s biggest ego here are the top 10 Combine, Pass, Play Twitter recommendations (plus a few others)

10. @ZonalMarking – Michael Cox, football journalist. Cox is a football fanatic with an in-depth insight in to the world of football tactics. He began by starting his own football tactics sight and now he writes insightful articles for a number of websites.

9. @iainmacintosh – Iain Macintosh, football journalist. Owner of the most prominent footballinf ‘hex’ on Twitter that often reduces free scoring strikers, such as Edin Dzeko, in to nervous goal-shy wrecks. He often makes regular references to Star Wars and The Lord of The Rings; on Sunday he described Newcastle’s Mike Williamson as an Ent. Like myself, he can lose days to games of Football Manager.

8. @rikkileaks – Richard Swarbrick, artist. Richard is responsible for a number of beautiful animations including this wonderful version of Barcelona 5 Real Madrid 0. The videos created by hand frame by frame. You might just recognise them from the header above. Recently he has been creating one off stills that can be found on his Twitter feed. Other “making football beautiful” accounts include @bootifulgame@ongoalscored and @miniboro_dotcom.

7. @TheBig_Sam – Not Sam Alladyce, spoof account. Normally I’d advise to avoid spoof accounts like the plague. They are often run by egoistical idiots who recycle the same rubbish internet jokes and pictures. The difference with @TheBig_Sam is that he is consistently funny, rude, outrageous and disgusting. Although if you are a little sensitive and don’t want to know what Big Sam does to his wife in the bedroom its best to avoid this one.

6. @Okwonga – Musa Okwonga, journalist. Musa is quite like anyone else on this list or the world of football journalism. Firstly he is black and secondly he is bisexual. As a result he offers a quite different and more knowledgeable angle on race and homosexuality issues in football. Add to that he is a fantastic football writer and he becomes and essential to any Twitter football fan.

5. Any specialist League website. eg @InsideLaLiga or @SerieAFFC. These websites are often run by committed amateurs with a passion for the game willing to sacrifice their own free time to write about football. There are plenty of them but the two above are two of my favourites.

4. @honigstein, Raphael Honigstein, journalist. The Guardian’s resident German football expert. He is in fact German but he possesses a way with the English language that most can only dream of. On his appearances on Football Weekly he often displays his wit and knowledge in equal measures. Special mentions to other Guardian foreign contributors @PhillipeAuclair (France) and @Fernando_Duarte (Brazil)

3. @sidlowe – Sid Lowe, author and journalist. Probably the hardest working hack in the business. Based in Madrid he is fluent in Spanish and had a doctorate in History but he still fins the time to produce and ungodly amount of articles on Spanish football, although mainly on Real and Barca, that are all to the highest quality. Warning he will occasionally tweet in Spanish! @davidjaca is also a friendly and approachable Spanish expert.

2. @Jonawils – Jonathan Wilson, author and journalist. Author of the football tactics masterpiece ‘Inverting the Pyramid’, the renowned journalist responsible for the Guardian’s ‘The Question’ series and now editor of the excellent football periodical The Blizzard (@blzzrd). If a more knowledgeable football journalist exists I would like to meet him. A must follow for ANY football fan.

1. Anyone! The beauty of Twitter, as discussed above, is that you make of it what you want. As a Middlesbrough fan I follow a myriad of random fans, local journalists and former players. These include journalists from the Northern Echo like @scottwilsonecho and @untypicalboro from the Evening Gazette for team news and live updates on games. If I had to pick out the most interesting fan it would be @BoroYouths who regularly tweets updates from reserve and under 18s matches on top of first team games. Former players turned pundits I follow include @GaizkaMendieta6 now on Sky and @robbiemustoe from ESPN. If you search for a topic related to your club and start following a few accounts you will find a number of others with useful tweets. Its very much like every door open give another 100 to choose from.

Get out there and get following someone more interesting than Ferdinand, Barton and Piers BLOODY Morgan!

Athletic, Bielsa and Muniain


Iker Muniain scores Athletic’s third goal as the hapless Rafael looks on.

I’m not sure when, where or indeed how it started but somewhere along the line I became aware of Athletic Club Bilbao and now I think I might be obsessed.

Last night they won over a whole new bunch of football fans as they glided in to Old Trafford and played 90 minutes of sparkling and fearless football. For long periods their hosts didn’t get a kick and much praise has to be heaped on goalkeeper David De Gea for keeping his side in the two-legged tie. Everything about Athletic was fantastic from the 8,000 fans making all of the noise inside the stadium to the 11 players on the field and of course their manager Marcelo Bielsa who prowled up and down his technical area pausing only to crouch to the ground to consider his next move.

Much of Bielsa’s attraction is in the obsessive nature of his attitude towards football. From his intricate analysis of games to his some times bizarre and unorthodox training techniques there is so much to love. But, above all this is his tactics. To describe them in words is almost impossible. In defence the side lined up in 4-5-1 to stifle Manchester United and give themselves a spare man at the back. Man-to-man pressing gave United no time or space to retain possession and they often gave away the ball as soon as the had won it. But once Athletic won the ball the game became fascinating. Watching the game from the halfway line it was easy to see the variety of movement and unpredictable nature of Athletic’s play.

Much of Bielsa’s game is designed to create 2 vs 1 or 3 vs 2 situations against United defenders. This was evident from the Basque sides first goal. Down the left hand side Iker Muniain rode Rafael’s challenge and play was quickly switched to the right hand side. Right-back Andoni Iraloa shaped to shoot but laid the ball wide to Markel Suseata to cross to the unmarked Llorente to head home. Athletic’s most common method of attack saw full backs Iraola and Aurtenetxe flying up the field with Aurtenetxe often joining Llorente in the penalty area when the ball was played wide down the right hand side. There was also evidence of Bielsa’s 3-3-1-3 formation which made his Chile side so popular. The formation was not without weakness as Ashley Young looked to exploit the space often left behind Aurtenetxe but on the left flank Park Ji-Sung simply did not have the pace to do the same.

Although, Bielsa’s pressing requires 90 minutes of hard running from all 10 outfield players and Los Leones ran their hearts out. Numerous players had spoken prior to the game about how it was the biggest of their lives and each of them kept their word and not only worked tirelessly but produced scintillating football. At the back Javi Martinez showed the gap in ability between himself and Phil Jones; England’s highest rated midfield prospect. Cool and composed in possession thanks to his early career as a central midfielder last night he showed his defensive positioning is more than capable of containing the likes of Wayne Rooney. In the midfield Oscar de Marcos and Ander Herrera both aged just 22 showed they could not only retain possession but also carve chances in the final third. Both playing in their first full season in the first team they proved their understanding when Herrera lobbed the entire Unite defence allowing de Marcos to slot past David de Gea; scoring one of the finest goals I have ever seen at a live game.

In attack Fernando Llorente documented all the traits expected from arguably the world’s best targetman. His physical presence was too much for whoever played at centre back for the Red Devils. If Llorente was good then 19 year old forward Iker Muniain was outstanding. Scoring the third the diminutive Spaniard also had a hand in the build up to the first two goals. Starting on the left hand side of the front he often drifted in field and produced the finest saves from goalkeeper de Gea. Muniain’s goal in the 90th minute was testament to the sides tireless running. Following another good save from de Gea, Rafael dawdled towards the ball seemingly unaware that Muniain was approaching behind him and despite giving the Brazilian a ten yard head-start only Muniain looked like he wanted the ball and he more than deserved his goal.

The players on the field were only matched in passion and enthusiasm by the 8,000 or more Athletic fans who scarfed waved, and chanted relentlessly for much more than the 90 minutes. Half an hour before kick-off while the United end remained virtually empty Athletic fans set out to show their unrivaled passion . Even after Wayne Rooney had given United the lead the visiting fans were drowning out the home fans. When Llorente grabbed the equaliser it soon became apparent that a number of Athletic fans had infiltrated the home end and were not afraid of showing their delight to the home fans.

If ever an example was needed to highlight English football fans ignorance of modern football it was the two sets of supporters reaction to back passes. When Athletic played the ball back to Gorka Irazioz, which they often did, their fans would applaud their sides patience and encourage their fetish for the ball. Meanwhile on the rare occasions United did the same fans stood up not to applaud but to harass their players for a supposedly pointless and counter-productive pass. This said David de Gea’s distribution was nothing less than atrocious. When Athletic pressed the defence and cut off his short option the goalkeeper was forced to kick waywardly long towards an attack dwarfed by Athletic’s defence.

The score may have only been 3-2 but the style in which Athletic completed the victory and the performance that de Gea was required to put in to keep his side in the tie only added to the domination. Having sat attended the game with a United season ticket holder even he was at first amazed by the flexiblity and style of Athletic and later in awe of one of the best away performances he had witnessed at Old Trafford. Next week Athletic know that if they can score they will force their opponents to chase 3 goals for qualification and another intriguing tie awaits.

Further Reading

What to expect from Athletic Bilbao: Width, youth and goals

Fernando Llorente – The Basque Powerhouse centre-forward.

Question: Which three Spanish top flight clubs have competed in every single year of the country’s top flight competition since its creation in 1929? ‘Well easy’ you might say ‘Real Madrid, Barcelona and … er … um … Valencia?’ Of course this would be wrong. The third is Athletic Club Bilbao. Tucked away on the northern coast of Spain the club nicknamed Les Leones have never been relegated from La Liga in the process winning 8 titles and 23 Copa del Ray titles which is all the more remarkable when you consider their rather extreme youth policy or cantera.

Athletic’s cantera policy is an unwritten rule of the club. It is not written partly because it is so hard to define and partly because it would almost certainly be illegal in the modern European Union. The general understanding of the rule is that only player “developed” inside the Basque region of northern Spain and southern France can represent the club. The policy has varied over the years to at times include just the city of Bilbao itself but it is now recognised that only player whose football development took place in the Basque County are eligible to represent the club. As a result Athletic are one of the most unique clubs in Europe with an unshakable national identity.  As Barcelona represent the people of Catalonia Athletic are the club of the Basques. Long before the rule of General Franco the club had represented the Basque people in their fight for independence from the Spanish crown.

The fact that Bilbao use the English ‘Athletic’ in their named rather than the Spainish ‘Atlético is not insignificant as the club is intrinsically linked with the English game; incidentally Athlético Madrid was formed by the Basque community of Madrid. Like  most countries the pioneers of Spanish football came from Britain. When football arrived in the latter part of the 19th century the city of Bilbao and the immediate area had industrialised far quicker than the rest of Spain enabling the club to became the early powerhouse of Spanish football. British ship builders, from Southampton, and miners, from Sunderland, had brought the game over in the 1890s and by Athletic Bilbao was formed by locals in 1902 who adopted their pioneers red and white stripped jerseys. The English link has stuck.

One could even go as far as calling Athletic Spain’s ‘most English club’. Strength, pace and power are all attributes that Athletic’s players possess in abundance. Further the phrase ‘the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain’ could easily be altered to be more factual and read ‘the rain in Spain falls mainly in Bilbao’ as annual rainfall of 47 inches is in fact 15 inches more per year than Manchester itself. No side in La Liga has scored more headed goals than Athletic this season making them a true ‘danger from set pieces’ side. The classic example of Basque football is surely Fernando Llorente. Llorente has scored 35 La Liga headers since 2003, more than any other player, and is Athletic’s top scorer for the past four seasons with 15 goals so far this season. He possesses all the attributes of the classic target man and the touch an poise of a modern striker. Currently there is no comparison in the English game but Llorente’s nearest cousin would perhaps be Alan Shearer; except 5 inches taller.

Among the traditional big strong Athletic players such as Llorente, club captain Carlos Gurpegui and Gaizka Torquero a new generation of stylish creatives is emerging. Highly rated players such as Javi Martinez and Iker Munian have already made their break-through in to the Spanish national team; with the later making his debut just last week against Venezuela. Muniain is an exciting dribbler with an eye for a defence splitting pass just 19 and pint sized compared to Llorente but already he is a star of the Basque side. Last season he won the La Liga breakthrough player of the year and this year new coach Marcelo Bielsa has given him even greater freedom to produce scintillating football that could see Athletic in to the Champions League next season. Muniain forms part of a creative trio alongside winger Markel Suseata, 24, and playmaker Ander Herrera, 22, that rotate fluidly behind Llorente.

The defence is also a strong mix of youth an experience. Gorka Irazioz has been goalkeeper for a number of seasons and he lines up behind Spanish international and right back Andoni Iraloa alongside converted centre back Javi Martinez, 23, and his partner Fernando Amorebieta, or Mikel San Jose formely of Liverpool, and 20 year old left back Jon Aurtenetxe. Since the arrival of Bielsa the defence has played a high line with Irazioz not afraid of sweeping up behind them although against Barcelona and Real Madrid the team has sat deep and counter which will most likely be their tactic against United.

Coach, Marcelo Bielsa arrived at the club in the summer following a decade managing the national sides of Argentina and then Chile. His time with his native Argentina was disappointing but at Chile Bielsa came in to his own. Playing an ultra attacking 3-3-1-3 with players like Alexis Sanchez, Mauricio Isla and Arturo Vidal. Sadly Bielsa has dropped the 3 at the back policy but in his currently favoured 4-5-1 formation the wingers often push forward to create a very wide 4-3-3. Fluidity is the goal of any Bielsa side with players expected to perform multiple tasks. While at Argentina Bielsa was slaughtered by press and fans alike for dropping the talismanic play-maker Juan Riquelme due to the static and one dimensional style of play. One of the more significant changes of Bielsa’s regime has to move Javi Martinez from midfield to centre-back. Martinez is big enough to perform the role and is also very comfortable on the ball and as a result the side has kept hold of the ball with more effiancy than in the past.

Athletic’s away form in Europe this season has been indifferent. They were perhaps fortunate to make the group stages of the tournament. Facing a tough trip to Tranbzonspor following a 0-0 at their home ground, the San Mamés, the side were yet to adjust to Bielsa’s style. Fortunately for Athletic following Fernebache’s disqualification from the Champions League Trabzonspor were promoted to Europe’s premier competition thus giving Athletic a bye in to the group stages. In the group stages they went undefeated at home and lost one away game at PSG going down 4-2 and first knock-out they lost 2-1 to Lokomotiv Moscow. Travelling to Old Trafford is Athletic’s biggest European tie for some but a trip to Old Trafford is a significant test despite United’s  poor home form this season.

Further reading: