Managing Expectations

As Manchester City took on Barcelona at the Etihad this week, it marked 15 years since City took on Macclesfield in what is now League 1. I imagine if you had told fans then, that in 15 years’ time they would be taking on Barcelona in the second stage of the Champions League after finishing runners up to Manchester United a season after winning the top tier of English Football, you would have been laughed at and ridiculed, and potentially sectioned. Yet they did not look out of place, and they look as though they are here to stay in the higher reaches of the footballing ether, perhaps progressing further.

In contrast, after taking over the helm at Blackburn Rovers the poultry farmers, Venkys, announced that they would bring Champions League football within a number of years back in 2011 – at the time, Blackburn were in mid-table and had reportedly made an offer to sign superstar Ronaldinho – so not to massive a statement. However, they had just sacked an established manager and replaced him with an inexperienced coach, lost the entire boardroom, and started to lose the faith and trust of the fans. In many ways, the claim was no more far-fetched than the reality of what has happened to Manchester City.

Since making the claim, Blackburn have tumbled from the Premier League; lost the majority of their ‘star’ players; replaced these with a Portuguese contingent along with a number of experienced senior players to work on the promotion project; gone through a whole raft of manager; lost countless lifelong fans in the process, and generally been a laughing stock to all not related to the club. As a result of this, you could say expectations have changed and ambitions have had to be recalibrated. At the minute, the chances of Blackburn taking on Barcelona are about as remote as they would have seemed to Manchester City fans back in 1999 (whilst their neighbours where on their way to lifting ‘Ole Big Ears).

Back in 2010 under the management of Sam Allardyce and following a successful relegation battle and a season of stabilising, ambitious expectations would have been a cup run and perhaps a glimmer of hope of the Europa League – if offered the prospect of maybe making the play-offs at an outside chance, most supporters would likely, and rightly, have been furious at the thought.

Fast forward to the current day, where Blackburn sit just outside of the play-offs but unable to string any sort of play-off-worthy winning run together, and the majority of Blackburn fans would tell you they are relatively happy with that. Given that the club very nearly faced a second successive relegation last time out, this is to be expected. The credit for this goes to Gary Bowyer.

After stepping in and doing a job which saved Blackburn from that relegation last season, Bowyer was given the job permanently, seemingly with a target more based on the wage bill than the league table. The job he has done so far has been admirable as well impressive. He has managed to reduce the wage bill significantly at the expense of losing some of the more senior players, and he has replaced them with young and hungry talent who like to get the ball down and play it. He has also been faced with the issue of continued speculation of the sale of the prized asset Jordan Rhodes, the off-field rumours and unrest with certain players, and other players being dragged through the media on alleged match-fixing allegations – but despite all this, he has the team sat within touching distance of the play-offs (in 10th 7 points off 6th), still hold of Rhodes, and playing a much better brand off football than has been seen in recent years. The squad is young, talented and raw, but most of all, it is showing commitment, passion and a drive to play the game the ‘proper’ way.

For many, myself included, although the play-offs are very much still achievable, it would be a step too far too soon. The squad has only really been together for 6-8 months and is only just beginning to click, and it has yet to really reach its true potential. If we were to achieve promotion, there is a worry and a danger that this could be a step backward – results would be difficult to come by; fans may get restless again; frustrations may get vented towards the owners again (who incidentally must take credit for the teams current position thanks to their trust in Bowyer, their acknowledgement that Rhodes should be kept at all costs, and most of all, there acceptance to take a step back and stop interfering – perhaps more importantly, their decision to relieve Shebby Singh from his duties); and as a result, the owners may make a knee-jerk reactions and sack Bowyer – undoing all the good work that has been done in the last ten months or so.

Looking at the bigger picture, a third season in the Championship would allow Bowyer to further build his squad, further install his footballing beliefs, and further allow the team to integrate and hopefully show what they are capable if. Preferably demonstrating this by achieving automatic promotion and avoiding the play-offs. It may not be next season, or the season after that, but if it puts the club on a better, more sustainable, financial footing, allows for better football to be played, and allows for the evolution of a squad, I’m happy to wait and still have a football club to go and support every week.

A third season in the Championship, may for many, be seen as a disappointed but it could be a building block to a brighter future – maybe not on the scale of Manchester City’s rise to playing Barcelona; but who knows, 15 years is a long time, and I bet at the end of that game at Macclesfield the Manchester City fans would have settled for a further season lower down the leagues if it meant a greater rise to a greater success.

Driving Ferrari’s like Fiat’s

It is a British stereotype that any young attacking player who is not an out an out striker, or who does commend the role of out and out striker due to his lack of years, gets farmed out wide on the wing. In the last two decades, as the world of football has matured and progressed, England has stood still. As the role of the number 10 has become integral around the world, here in England we still rarely use it to its full capabilities, with only a select few managers knowing how to implement it correctly.

Number 10’s have existed throughout the century and have been known to win games and wow crowds, but in England, it is almost a new phenomenon. Look below the Premier League and it is still a rarity to see that number 10 in the hole behind the striker. In England, there seems a reluctance to try something new and play a man behind the front man/men, viewing it as a kamikaze move which will leave a space in midfield and allow the opposition to dominate the midfield. I understand that the cost of losing games is high, but the price of the poor football it can sometimes encourage is potentially a bigger price to pay.

In recent seasons, the number 10 trequartista has come to life somewhat with teams in the northern reaches of the league table opting to employ a man behind the striker as part of an attacking three, rather than what is often perceived as a negative lone striker with a man behind. Look at Chelsea now and they play with one front man, with a trio of players behind him who could be described as number 10’s; it’s a similar story at Arsenal with Giroud leading the line, and a mixture of Ozil, Cazorla and Wilshire sitting behind him creating attacking chances, and playing creative and exciting football. Meanwhile, in the north, one of the best trequartista’s of recent years is still being farmed out wide.

Last season, Juan Mata was Chelsea’s player of the year. For the past few seasons, he has been a dream-team definite with his assists and goals – but this season he was seen surplus to Jose’s requirements, possibly because of his lack of pace and defensive qualities, which wouldn’t suit his style of play. To get out and back playing again, this is a World Cup year after-all, he jumped at the chance to move north to reigning Champions Manchester United. It looked a match made in heaven – Rooney and Van Persie up front, with Mata just behind supplying the ammunition and unlocking defences. In any other season it would have been seen as a Championship defining signing which would strike fear in to any opposition. An attacking line up of Rooney, Van Persie and Mata, with a midfield to compensate with the attacking commitments. But this is not a typical Manchester United team.

One month in to his Manchester United career and Mata has yet to make an impact. True to stereotype, Moyes has not known how to deploy a number 10 effectively, and as a result Juan Mata has found himself stranded out wide. He is not a winger; he does not possess the pace of a winger, and how many times in his career have you seen him beat a man and whip a ball in to the box? This shouldn’t be a shock to United fans though: Shinji Kagawa has found himself in a similar situation – either he couldn’t get on to the pitch or he was played out of position on it – you don’t be the success he was at Dortmund without some pedigree and talent.

Against Fulham, Manchester United played a record number of balls in to the box, and only managed two goals, neither directly from a cross. If you keep attempting something and it doesn’t work, surely it is a symbol to change the method? Surely the method has to be changed when you have a player like Mata on the pitch who is at his best when he is played through the middle and given the chance to unlock the defence? What is possibly even crazier is that Moyes then opted to bring on an out and out winger, and play him at right back. Juan Mata must think that things have gone from bad to worse – at Chelsea he couldn’t get a game; at United he is played out of position and made to look average and inept.

The problem isn’t Mata though, it is David Moyes style, perhaps as a result of his history in management. During his time at Everton, Moyes was accused of being too negative at times, and not committing to win games, preferring to settle for the draw rather than risk the defeat. For a team like Everton, whom he saved from relegation and established as a top 8 side, this is understandable, to an extent, but for Manchester United it is not. To be Manchester United manager, you have to commit to winning games – you would never see Ferguson opting to not lose a game over winning with the chance of losing. Moyes needs to change his approach, and rather than sizing the opposition up, let them worry about cancelling him out.

From personal experience of football management via Championship Manager, you can take a team from mediocrity to the upper reaches of the league by tactically neutralising the opposition, but you cannot go all the way to the title – for 3 consecutive seasons I adopted the approach of setting up in light of the opposition rather than taking the game to them, and not once did I win the league, or the Champions League. It’s a strange comparison, but I think there is some truth in it. When Barcelona play Real Madrid, doe s either team set up not to lose, or do both teams go for it?

This season is a write off for Manchester United, with the only thing left for them to compete for being the Champions League – which is a long shot at best. Is there really anything for Moyes to lose in going for it and taking the game to opponents each week? What is to say that a fluent attacking United side can’t progress in the Champions League? Secondly, much has been said about the break-up of the Vidic-Ferdinand partnership – now is the time to start blooding Smalling and Jones and Evans together; Smalling and Jones were bought for big money but neither has had the opportunity to prove themselves in their natural position. Moyes didn’t spend big on them, so he has very little to lose from playing them together, but massive plaudits to gain from doing so.

I heard a statement today that made me think: It took Ferguson so many years to knock Liverpool ‘off their perch’, come the end of the season, Liverpool may be back on it unless something changes – so much work to achieve something, to have it crumble away almost instantly.