Putting the ‘Man’ in Manager

It’s been a while since my last post as I’ve been away preparing to take the logical next step for every engineer. Get an MBA. Because if you don’t have one, are you even an engineer? But let’s not go there..

What my preparation did teach me though, is that Human Resources isn’t simply meant to be a shoulder on which the top management rests its gun as it annihilates the minions. Man management or ‘personality’ management (just so that all allegations of sexism can be kept at bay) is an integral part of any leader’s success. Or failure for that matter. Just ask Andre Villas Boas.

I was one of the many people who actually rated him quite highly after his exploits with Porto. When he arrived at Chelsea I truly had great hopes for him and the club. And when he was sacked, obviously John Terry was to blame. Everything that goes wrong at that club somehow seems traceable back to JT’s mischief. But after failing at Tottenham it became clear that AVB had a serious problem convincing the players to buy in to his ideology. The old guard’s stubbornness could be blamed at Chelsea, but at Spurs he was building his own team. The stories of unrest, his volatility in the press and seemingly absurd expulsion of Emmanuel Adebayor to the reserves/ junior team, all pointed to an inability to deal with strong personalities. Although to be fair, Adebayor’s mental age is that of a 5 year old Mario Balotelli. Luck is mostly just good timing, and that’s exactly what Tim Sherwood had. He came in at a time when Spurs had already been thrashed by the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City, so it couldn’t get much worse. All he had to do was bring back the Togolese who now had a point to prove. And we all know how far he will go to do that. Literally. Just ask Arsenal fans. 103 yards I believe it was. Sherwood had an impressive start to his reign but then seemed to run out of the steam that is fuelled by a change in management and all the promise it brings.

The point is this. There’s a reason he’s called the manager and not just the coach. He is in charge of far more than just tactics. An astute tactician will have success with smaller clubs and achieve moderate goals. However, as the stakes are raised, so are the egos. Only the best achieve the best. The problem is when the players not only think they are the best, but also that they know best. That’s where a manager must step in and make decisions that are in the long term interest of the club. Gerardo Martino and Diego Simeone typify this dichotomy. While Martino took charge of a team that has been touted as one of the best in  history, Simeone took over at Atletico in December. That itself should tell you all you need to know. Atleti were diabolical almost. You could bet your house on them blowing it. For cricket fans, they were the quintessential South Africa. Brilliant and dynamic one day, and completely lifeless the next. Diego Simeone had the fans’ support and molded the team in his image as a player. Tough to beat, beating up tough people, and doing a great job all round of causing great discomfort to anyone who confronts them. Martino on the other hand had the friendly uncle vibe with the players. He was trying to fit in as an outsider. Something the Catalan club hadn’t had since the departure of Frank Rijkaard five years earlier. While results went his way, there was a lot of dissent about his playing style. There is said to have been a meeting sometime in December when a senior player demanded things be done a certain way. Whether there is truth to this or not, the general atmosphere around the club hasn’t been right and the players have been affected by it. Tata, for his part, has been unable to insulate them from the vitriol which you could consider a failing. Both teams now sit on the precipice of great euphoria. They are equally close to disastrous tragedy. But whatever happens, Simeone will have proven to be a success and not least for having changed the mentality of Club Atletico de Madrid. They hadn’t beaten Real Madrid for fourteen years. Then they went to the Bernebeu for the Copa del Rey final, and won. That was the defining moment for this team and they never looked back since.

Skipping back across the channel, in the Northwest of England there was another odd couple of managers who showed just how important it is to have the players tweet only good stuff about you. David Moyes took over at Old Trafford while Brendan Rodgers prepared his Liverpool side to bid for a Champions League spot. Fast forward 9 months and Rodgers is praying for West Ham to beat City so that everyone can forget that absolutely heart wrenching Steven Gerrard slip, while Moyes will be watching the final day of the season from the comfort of his lazy boy. The contrast between the two teams was clear as day when they played each other. On one hand, the Merseysiders were playing their heart out for their manager. On the other, you had David Moyes trying to figure out how Sir Alex made Phil Jones look world class while Rio Ferdinand tweeted about how the manager needed to be buying his ‘5’ caps. Brendan Rodgers has managed to galvanize this Liverpool team and Ferguson-esque move, made Jordan Henderson look worth the money. He has got the most out of a team that on paper, should be no higher than fourth. United on the other hand, are about where they should be. Especially if they’re going to play Juan Mata wide on the right. But thats a sob story for another day.

There are a number of other examples this season where it has been evident that the manager has either been able to inspire his troops to outperform their rivals or has completely failed to win their confidence and subsequently failed. Manuel Pellegrini too, to a certain extent is a testament to excellent personality management. He has got a group of superstars to sacrifice themselves for the cause. City are now favorites for the title despite having been in patchy form away from home and having to keep up with a 11 game winning streak from Liverpool. That doesn’t just happen with a team performing as a sum of their parts. This year, there has been far less drama about City, with everyone in the camp seemingly happy. Considering the fact the Pellegrini’s English was as good as my Spanish when he first started there, it is all the more commendable that he has got this team to play for him.

No article about man management can be complete without a mention of Harry Redknapp (at least not if your hoping for some eyeballs from England). He seemed to make a conscious decision to ignore the tactics board completely, favoring instead the tried and tested technique of putting an arm around the player’s shoulder to get him to play the way he wanted. While it was definitely not as bad as that, there is no doubt that Harry placed far greater importance on team spirit and inspiration than tactics and worrying about whether to play with three or four at the back. It has proved to be largely successful too, regardless of the fact that he is currently unemployed. Maybe after this season, and more importantly, this article,  someone will offer him a job. I hear the hot seat at White Hart Lane is currently empty. Wonder if he’d be interested..

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Why Tata Martino Is A Good Fit For Barcelona

Tito Vilanova was forced to step down as manager of FC Barcelona after a tragic relapse of his throat cancer. The entire football family is united in their support of him as he prepares to fight the most important battle of his life, again. While everyone is praying for the man who won a record equalling La Liga title scoring 100 points, the club directors have swiftly gone about appointing the new man in charge. Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino will almost certainly be unveiled as the next Barcelona manager by the end of this week. Umm.. Who?

Most people hadn’t heard about him, myself included, before he was linked to the Catalan giants, but now that we have, it makes perfect sense. What better way to maintain continuity than to move from Tito to Tata to triumph, with tenets true to tiki -taka?! (See what I did there?). Various articles which might have otherwise gathered dust somewhere in the annals of the world wide web have been dug up and devoured by thousands of researchers, journalists, and fans alike, to find out just who this new heir to the throne is. The long and short of it is this – Martino is a Newell’s legend, with more than 500 appearances for the club. He played and learned his trade under Marcelo Bielsa. Last season he led them to the Torneo Final championship and his team played attacking, high intensity football. A Bielsista he is, but a fundamentalist like his mentor, he is not. Before Newell’s he was in charge of the Paraguay national team who were quite pragmatic in their approach while on their way to the quarter finals of the 2010 World Cup and finals of the 2011 Copa America.

Verticalidad and High Pressing – The Alignment

Two key tenets that have become the hallmark of Tata’s teams are veticality in possession and high pressure out of it. His most recent Newell’s team was setup so that every time a player had the ball, he would have at least 3 vertical passing options available to him. They build play from the back with swift passing and have an obsession with the ball that will not be alien to the players or followers of Barcelona. This means Sergio Busqets will likely take up an even greater role along with possibly Gerard Pique, in initiating attacks. Ability on the ball is one thing, but it is wasted without movement off the ball. Martino demands this from all his players, once again, not dissimilar to Pep Guardiola’s philosophy of ball retention.

Off the ball, the team holds a high line and tries to regain possession as close to the opposition goal as possible. While this was a key feature of the Catalans’ success previously, the level of pressing had dropped off considerably under Tito Vilanova. This resulted in the defense being exposed to a far higher pressure than in previous years, exposing their weakness in the area. Martino’s task will be to re-invigorate the team and how Xavi will cope with this increased work load remains to be seen.

Unlike Bielsa, Martino is willing to change his system to maximize the strengths of his players, but much like his mentor’s, his teams are in danger of being exhausted by the intensity that is demanded of them. At Barcelona, he will have one of the most talented squads in the world but also one of the smallest (in more ways than one) at his disposal and he will need to deepen the squad while using rotation to keep them fresh. The sale of Thiago in light of this seems like an even worse decision. But that’s a discussion for another day.

No prior European experience – The Risk

The one conclusion everybody is eager to jump to is that he will be a failure because he hasn’t ‘proven himself’ in Europe. He hasn’t managed a club in Europe and certainly hasn’t dealt with the kind of worldwide exposure that comes with being the manager of such an illustrious and successful club.

Rewind to the summer of 2008. Pep Guardiola was named manager of this very club, without any prior experience in coaching at the top level, not just in Europe but anywhere. Andre Villas Boas was supposedly the best thing since sliced bread when he was presented at Stamford Bridge. He left six months later with his reputation in tatters. Vicente del Bosque had only managed Real Madrid B before taking charge of the senior team and leading them to Champions League success. The other front runner for the Barcelona job was Luis Enrique. A club legend, and a fairly logical choice from the point of view of continuity, with him having led Barcelona B to third place in the Spanish second tier. His spell in charge of Roma however, was far from successful and he has only recently got back into coaching having signed a contract with Celta Vigo six weeks ago. Yet, many believe he would have been a better choice. Because a third place in La Segunda is more impressive than an Argentine League title, or a runners-up medal at the Copa America, or 14 years in management as opposed to 4.

The point is this. Appointing a new manager, any manager comes with its share of risks. Its always a gamble, and whether it will pay off or not is anybody’s guess. What is important though, is that the decision is made for the right reasons. In the present, you can only make a decision based on what you know, and what we know is, Tata Martino is a proper football man. He has the acumen to win titles, and his philosophy is in line with what the club envisage. To dismiss him without consideration merely for the fact that his achievements came in an arena we don’t pay attention to, is myopic.

Rosell’s Legacy begins here – The Politics

In the weeks before the unfortunate announcement of Tito’s relapse, there had been an ugly war brewing between Sandro Rosell and Pep Guardiola. Accusations were made and denied, and all this was the backdrop for Thiago Alcantara’s tranfer to Bayern Munich. The incumbent president hasn’t done much to enhance his reputation since winning the elections but has seemed to be hell bent on tarnishing Joan Laporta’s legacy. Barca enjoyed one of their most glorious periods under his stewardship, and Rosell has used various tactics to undermine those achievements. Tito Vilanova was by extension, a part of that regime. Now, finally, Tata Martino will be identified as Rosell’s major contribution to the club’s future. In that light, it should follow that the new manager gets the full support of the board financially and otherwise.

The financial results of the club have been released only a few hours ago and the official club statement is that the transfer of Neymar has not affected the available budget for this summer. That’s €50 million available to the new man, hopefully to sign a centre-back among others. Along with Neymar this team will be distinctly different from its predecessor in a way that no team over the last 5 years has been. A lot had been made of the importance of continuity when Guardiola left, and Tito was welcomed by the team and fans with open arms. The style of play stayed true to the basic ‘Cruyff-ian’ principles while incorporating subtle changes within the system. That was part of the reason Luis Enrique was such a favorite among fans and media to be next in line. However, last season probably showed that Barcelona may need to reinvent themselves in order remain at the top of European football. There was a sense that continuity might not be the best thing for the club at this point in time, and this is something that works itself beautifully into the narrative of Rosell wanting to leave his mark as President on the history of the club.

It may be for an ulterior motive, but Sandro Rosell and the club hierarchy should get behind Martino right from the beginning. The Argentine will not care, at least initially. He is getting ready to confront the biggest challenge of his professional life. Taking over at one of the biggest clubs in the world is intimidating enough, but having to do it half-way into preseason will mean he can use all the help he can get.

Good luck Tata, and welcome to Barcelona!

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2012-13 Season Review – In case you were in the Stone Age last year.

If you want to know what bitter-sweet feels like, ask Jupp Heynckes. Every time the poor fellow wins the Champions League, it turns out he’s out of a job for next season. It happened with Real Madrid in ’98, when … Continue reading

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Dortmund v Malaga – The Fairytale that wasn’t

A game of two halves, and stoppage time (like every other game, ever).
I wasn’t going to watch it, but a rerun of a missed episode of ‘Suits’ (which by the way is ridiculously good) spilled over into game time and I thought what the heck, maybe ill catch just ten minutes of the game before going to bed. I know, it was stupid to think I could watch *just* ten minutes, but my shameless lack of self-control is a discussion for another day.

First Half

Malaga started well, putting pressure on the ball and restricting Dortmund’s natural style of play. With 25 minutes gone, the tree trunk that is Julio Baptista chested down a ball to Joaquin who played what seemed like an accidental one two with Isco, who among other things, was bald. Schmelzer (the guy with the catwoman mask) slid in to block the shot but by the time his slide ended in row F, the ball was nestling in the bottom corner of the net with Malaga fans in raptures. Away goal. As good as 0-2.

But Dortmund rarely fail to score at the Signal Iduna Park and five minutes from half-time, they leveled the score on the night. Retrieving the ball inside their own half, the ball was played neatly to Goetze who found Reus in an awkward position, with the ball being played slightly behind his run. What ensued what obscenely brilliant. A mid-air back-heel flick on (I told you, it was quite good) played into the path of Lewandowski who rounded the ‘keeper cleverly before finishing. 1-1.

Second Half

The second half saw some great saves pulled off by Willy Caballero to deny Goetze and Reus, and Dortmund really started to look like they believed they were going out. Each passing second saw writers (except this one) beginning to bring to life the amazing story of this Andalucian club who seemingly picked the short straw in the draw for filthy rich Arab owners. They got the looney tune, who isn’t sure what he wants to do with his new toy. Months of unpaid wages, having to sell their best players and amidst it all stood Manuel Pellegrini like Russell Crowe in the Gladiator, rallying his men and fighting off the circling assassins. Malaga stood firm as Dortmund failed to build any sort of momentum or rhythm to play their usually exhilarating football. Then with eight minutes of normal time remaining, it was over. Eliseu tapped the ball into the net after quick break from what looked like an offside position and the celebrations began. The debutantes were going through! Jurgen Klopp looked visibly shaken as did his young team. Two away goals. The home side now needed to score twice in about ten minutes. Something they hadn’t done over the last 170.

Matts Hummels came on and Klopp’s boys poured forward, piling on the pressure. This was no holds barred, as draining physically as mentally for the players.

Stoppage Time

4 added minutes. Demichelis had had a very good game up to this point. Hummels played the ball into the box and the Argentine smashed a huge chunk of air out of the penalty area. The ball, however fell to Subotic, who true to his name managed to sabotage the move from six yards out before Reus took charge of things and made it 2-2. A final flicker before being extinguished, perhaps. Turns out, it was a simple three step plan. Step 1 – Score. Step 2 – Score again. Step 3 – Create the most awesome and painful human pile-up ever seen. The third goal came from one third of the team being offside, but since that rule’s being treated as more of general guideline by referees these days it was no biggie. Reus poked the ball to Santana who proceeded to blow the roof off the stadium. 66,000 fans had almost literally willed the ball into the net. 3-2! 4 exhilarating minutes for Dortmund, 4 spine chilling minutes for Malaga.

Happily ever after… Sort of

This was an outstanding game. Brutally cruel on the men from the south of Spain, but with time, the anguish will give way to immense pride and joy over what they’ve achieved in their first season in Europe’s premier competition (Yes, yes, even better than the Premier League). No one gave them a chance in a group containing AC Milan. No one gave them a chance against Porto in the round of 16 and no one gave them a chance against the (then) German champions Borussia Dortmund. Had it not been for human error (and nothing else) on the referee’s part, they would have shown up everyone to be complete fools.

As for Dortmund, once Jurgen Klopp has returned to Earth from his supercharged state of excitement he and the players will realize what they’ve done. They’ve booked a place in the semi finals of the Champions League where they will come up against some traditional European powerhouses, the heavyweights of the game (or of course PSG). But the real achievement is that while they may not be favorites against any of those teams, they will most certainly not be the underdogs.

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The Marvel that is, El Clasico!

Imagine the Premier League is Loki from, The Avengers. La Liga is Tony Stark, and they’re having *that* famous conversation.

PL: “I have many top quality clubs leading to an Army of highly competitive, high profile matches”

LL: “We have a Clasico”

Yup. El Clasico is the Hulk (not to be confused with the enormous monster that plays for Zenit) of football matches. Its gigantic. You can hear it coming from a distance, and it leaves a trail of destruction and euphoria in equal measure, in its wake. Its a match that transcends primary loyalties in Spain. Everyone is expected to take sides in this one. The one guy who doesn’t, is almost always accused of having done exactly that. In that respect, the referee had a decent game last night. Not too many poor decisions.

Top Two in the World, Slugging it out

In the years since that devastating 5-0 loss at the hands of Barcelona in the Camp Nou, Madrid have managed to close the gap considerably on their most bitter rivals. With a team already bursting at the seams with talent, Jose Mourinho has moulded them into a finely tuned machined, specifically calibrated to beat the Catalans. It seems to have become something of an obsession for him. Of course on the other side of the great divide, the burning desire to vanquish their fiercest rivals from the capital is equally strong. The Copa del Rey is admittedly low on the priority list for a club competing in two other more significant competitions. But when it comes to Los Blancos, nothing less than a win is acceptable. A loss in the Copa is not the end of the world. A loss, and subsequent elimination at the hands of Real Madrid is unthinkable. The fact that this is Real Madrid, makes the Copa del Rey Final the single most important goal. At least for now.

This sort of competition has driven both these teams to such extraordinary levels of excellence that they’re the only ones who can consistently compete with each other now. It is said that La Liga is a two-horse race (although this year, its different) but these two teams are at such an exalted state of brilliance, that they’d probably finish as the top two in every other league. Yes, even *that* one. No other team has to score nigh on 100 points to win a league title. That’s what the Championship winning sides in Spain for the last two seasons have done. A win is routine. A draw is a loss. A loss, is cataclysmic. The standards that they have been setting can only be matched by them. This is mirrored in the most talked about, almost tennis-like individual rivalry between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. One scores a hat-trick, the other scores 4. The stats are absurd. The skill, unmatched.

This is why when the two behemoths meet, it is an epic battle. Both teams are accustomed to opponents sitting back, trying to play safe. There’s an occasional brave but ultimately futile attempt at taking them on. But in El Clasico, both teams genuinely believe that they can win the game. The tactics vary and little intricate details are tweaked in every game, but the broader strategy remains the same. Both teams have a go at each other, at full speed. 100% committed in every challenge, and every chance. The fact that these are some of the best footballers on the planet giving it their all, is what has made their recent clashes so incredibly exciting.

The Perfect Example

The game last night was strange for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the absence of any significant contribution from the world’s two best players. Secondly, there was no pre-match storm-in-a-tea-cup kind of press conference where Jose Mourinho complained about the referee, the schedule of play, the weather or that he was served cold tea earlier in the day. The build up was relatively calm, but the game itself lived up to the hype I just created above. It was unusually open, and there were chances for both teams. It ended 1-1, but it could so easily have been 7-7.

Barcelona lacked the control that they have become known for as Madrid pressed them high up the pitch and stayed compact defensively. The loss of Ramos and Pepe was more than made up for by 19 year old Raphael Varane. I doubt either of the two veterans would have put in a better performance than the Frenchman. He was a colossal presence in defense, and somewhat fittingly also scored the goal that keeps the tie evenly balanced. Madrid created most of their chances by pressuring Barcelona and forcing them into errors rather than swift counters when an opposition attack broke down. The Barcelona defense, Gerard Pique in particular, did a fair job of averting the trademark three or four pass move ending in a goal for Real.

The second half saw Barcelona exert more control on the ball and they got a somewhat fortunate goal after which they started creating more opportunities by taking advantage of the space left by Madrid committing more players to attack. Pedro somehow missed a great chance when he forgot to shoot as he broke away from the defense, and when he did, it was wide from 5 yards out. Messi had one of his quietest games yet and Fabregas, despite scoring the goal, seemed to station himself too high to help with ball retention sometimes.

Madrid had problems of their own, with Ronaldo and Benzema both missing some great opportunities to score. Xabi Alonso managed to go 89 minutes without getting a booking, and Carvalho could have been sent off for a second yellow had the referee spotted his great piece of cricket fielding.

Overall both teams will be both happy and disappointed. The home team can take heart in the performance but the away goal could prove vital and Mourinho will not be excessively pleased with the score draw. Barcelona will be more than happy with the result. They start the second leg, winning, with the score at 0-0. The performance though, lacked a bit of dynamism and focus. Possibly because it was a Cup game or for whatever other reason, they lacked a crispness in the passing.

Both teams will claim to be satisfied with the result. Both teams will know they could have done much better. The second leg, will be excruciatingly close. This should be fun. There’s a maximum of four more of these epic encounters possible this season and I say there’s no such thing as ‘too many Clasicos’. Bring. It. On!

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The Miracle in Madrid

Unai Emery is back in Spain and this time in charge of a stuttering Sevilla team which spectacularly beat Real Madrid at the start of the season but has then faded away. The reason I say he’s back in Spain is because of course he was the Valencia coach until last season, at the end of which he was sacked. For coming 3rd! And for the 3rd season running too, despite losing his best players year after year, namely Davids Silva and Villa and Juan Mata. In any other league that would be more than enough to keep him in charge, even get a raise maybe. But Valencia had hit the glass ceiling. They couldn’t do better. To beat the Big 2 and break their dominance of the top 2 spots in La Liga was a step too far. It simply could not be done. The financial muscle combined with the vulgar riches of talent they have at their disposal means that no team in Spain other than those 2 realistically set the target of being crowned champions.

This is where the gravity of what Atletico Madrid have achieved so far this season begins to dawn on you. Until far too long in the season people kept dismissing them as an ‘early’ season spark who would fade away eventually. As recently as the first match day of December, when they had meekly lost another derby to their local rivals, the slightly more well known Real Madrid, were they still a “flash in the pan”. A subsequent loss to the imperious Catalans too contributed to the general sentiment that they were very good, but not quite that good. But the Rojiblancos haven’t been handed a copy of the script. They refuse to go away. 10 wins out of 10 at the Vicente Calderon have seen them not only hold on to second place in the table, but even consolidate it with a 7 point lead over the stumbling Real. Its been fun to watch too, with Diego Simeone at the helm of things, a few talented individuals and one Radamel Falcao.

Managerial Stability

Atletico have had a long list of managers in the recent past. When the club President publicly declared his support for the manager was about the time he was expected to start looking for a new job. Simeone was brought in in December 2011. As an ex-player he understood to a certain extent the nature of the club and the team. He soon began to build the team in his own image. Resilient and gritty but lethal. With the acquisition of Falcao the blow of losing Sergio Aguero was more than compensated for. Atletico always seemed to have a great team on paper but somehow could never translate that into performances and results. Simeone found a way and prospered.

Having guided them to Europa League and European Super Cup success, they started the current season extremely strongly, briefly even topping the table. A lot was made last season about Real Madrid having the possibility of winning the league title without having to beat Barcelona. A similar case can be made for Atletico and second place so far. Their home form is the best in the league and both their remaining games against the traditional giants are at home. If they can get some points in those games, and with the way Real Madrid seem to have thrown in the towel in the league to pursue other fantasies, it seems second place for them can be a realistic goal. Simeone has been the key figure here, not having to deal with the constant threat of losing his job. So far, it has been smooth sailing, relatively, and it remains to be seen how they react if and when they do hit a bad patch. That will be the true test of this team, but Simeone has shown that he is more than capable of motivating his players to achieve greater success.

Key Players, other than Falcao

Felipe Luis has been immense at left back. He’s technically sound and has been a great acquisition for the team. His importance was probably most obvious in the disastrous Madrid derby where he was ruled out at the last minute and Juanfran had to switch to the left. The match was and still remains one of the biggest let-downs of the season but Atletico were exposed with their defense thrown off balance by the Brazilian’s exclusion. Further forward, Arda Turan is the one providing the attacking impetus to the team. The Turk has had a great season playing wide on the left contributing with 4 goals and 6 assists in the league so far. While the most glamorous of Atletico’s forwards is obviously Falcao, Diego Costa and Adrian Lopez have also played important parts in shouldering the scoring responsibilities. Adrian especially is a great young talent and played alongside Juan Mata in the European Championship winning under 21 Spain side.

Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and defender Diego Godin have also been an integral part of keeping scorers at bay, with the second best defensive record in the league. Only Malaga have conceded fewer goals than them.

Incredible Achievement but Job only Half Done

Overall, Atletico have found a rhythm that has previously only been associated with Barcelona and Real Madrid. Maybe they’ve stolen it from the latter who are having monumental problems in the league, failing to win as many as 8 matches already so far. At half time in the season, Atletico are well and truly contenders to finish second. The title is far from decided and Barcelona have had a troublesome February in the past few seasons where injuries and fatigue seem to start catching up with them, yet it seems very difficult for anyone but them to win it. But while the world has been focusing on the steamroller from Catalunya or the circus at the Bernebeu (with a fun new story emerging almost every other day), Atletico have kept up the pace. Without much of the media glare and most of the money that the other two have, they have built a team that is genuinely feared. Nobody wants to play them. Not even Barcelona.

While Simeone has built a formidable side, it would be very easy for them to get carried away with their ‘achievements’ so far by say, reading this flattering piece and resting on their laurels. They need to remain grounded and realize that they have to do it all again in 2013 and understand that second place in Spain commands a lot more respect if it doesn’t go to one of them. Its so much more than just a Champions League place. The second half of the season will no doubt be tougher with a greater pressure building on them with each passing week. The expectations will be greater and so will the reward. They still have the Europa League and Copa del Rey to look forward to, but it would be doing a great disservice to Simeone and his men if they didn’t celebrate a second place almost as fervently. To have been consistently better than one of the most expensively assembled and talent-packed team in the world over the course of an entire season, to my mind is an outstanding achievement. There is still a long way to go and a lot will depend their top players, but having seemingly convinced “El Tigre” to stay at least till the end of the season, the next Madrid derby could well turn out to be the most high-stakes, high-profile match of the season.

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How to Sound like a Football Nerd.

First of all, congratulations to everyone on getting to 2013. The Mayans look pretty stupid from this side of the calendar.

But getting back to football, there is so much information these days that everyone (including yours truly) has an opinion on everything. A lot of message boards on various blogs have long running and passionate arguments about whether one player really is better than the next. So let’s get right to it. What I’m doing here is basically a summary of the things that are being said about the hot topics of the football world. Sort of a newbie’s guide to sounding fashionable when you’re with your football geek friends arguing about whether Luis Suarez should have been sent off against Man United (subtle prediction there for the well-informed).

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are a vague summary of what this author has noticed, sometimes made up, and in no way should be expected to be verified factually. Also, this might contain a lot phrases in quotes.

Here it is. Top subjects and what to say about them!

1. Swansea/Michu : These guys are the proverbial ‘surprise package’ of the season. Playing in the most popular league in the world (apparently), they’re a team everyone now knows of. They play beautiful football, although not so much against Chelsea the other night, and have a peach of a striker/midfielder in Michu. Ah yes, the Spaniard that’s making Fernando Torres look like a 10 year old riding a bicycle blindfolded and seems like the intelligent pick in a fantasy team. You can call him a deep-lying striker, a goal scoring midfielder or a striker. You’d be right every time.

Also, they’re Welsh. Which is kinda cool.

2. Ballon d’Or : Lionel Messi has just won this award for the fourth consecutive year and suddenly all sorts of statistics have been uncovered. He’s the only one to have won it 4 times, which surely puts him ‘right up there’ (which is where, exactly?) with the best ever. As with anything to do with Messi’s success, this too comes with its dose of ‘Ronaldo should have won it’. The smart ones are calling it a Popularity contest with it being voted for by players and coaches in addition to journalists. We all know how unbiased that’s going to be with almost everyone voting for personal favorites based on country/club bias. The really smart ones are questioning the very need for individual awards in a team sport. Use phrases such as “The team is greater than the sum of its parts” or the more mundane “They win as a team and they lose as a team”, to sound like you know what you’re talking about.

Either way, Messi, Ronaldo, Iniesta are all extremely special players. To say one is shit while the other is the greatest player ever born on this side of the milky way is what really makes you sound like a retard.

3. Borussia Dortmund : First really noticed when Manchester United signed Shinji Kagawa, the double German champions are now the flavor of the season with people easily pronouncing tough Polish names like Lewandowski and Blaszczykowski (yes, I had to google that to spell it right). It would be fun to see how those names are mutilated by commentators in England, should they get some much talked about moves to the Premier League. They are definitely easy on the eye (the team I mean, not so much the player per se), and after coming out of the Group of Death in the Champions League with wins over the English Champions, they now have ‘pedigree’. Because we all know you’re not proven talent until you’ve ripped an English team apart. Mario Gotze and Marco Reus are always safe bets to pick out for special praise.

4. Andrea Pirlo : The now-bearded genius has shot to delayed stardom worldwide after a glittering Euro 2012 performance where he almost outshone Andres Iniesta. He seems to have been profoundly affected by the defeat to Spain and hasn’t shaved since, prompting some people to notice the scary similarities between him and Chuck Norris. He is genuinely brilliant in the way he reads the game and helped Juventus to their historic unbeaten Serie A season before going to Poland and Ukraine.

The truly elite in armchair football punditry would have picked him for the aforementioned farce that is, the Ballon d’Or. ‘The Metronome’ and the Man who makes them ‘tick’ and the observation that he ‘dictates the play’ are all socially acceptable forms of describing the Italian.

5. The ‘False 9’ position : This one is particularly smart and shows that you have an insight into the game. Initially used as a term to describe the seemingly indescribable position of the aforementioned Mr. Messi now every one’s using it when they see a guy who’s generally supposed to be scoring goals, dropping deep to get the ball. Its an immensely interesting tactical observation no doubt, but it has given rise to an annoying number of ‘false 10’s’. I think I even saw someone mention a player as an ideal ‘false 6’! I mean I’m all for getting a greater understanding of the game but that one’s dropping a bit too deep, if you know what I mean. Point is, describing a role or position by a shirt number holds you in good stead amongst the intellectuals.

With that, you’re set. Of course the only time you might actually use this is if you meet an extremely attractive member of the opposite (or same, whatever floats your boat) sex, who’s really into football and want to impress. That’s when you’ll think, “Ah yes!! All that time scrolling through innumerable blogs on the internet wasn’t such a waste after all”. Or not…

Posted in Champions League, English Premier League, Humor, La Liga, Opinion | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments