Friday, 24 February 2017

The Demise of Leicester City

Claudio Ranieri has been sacked by Leicester City, less than a year after their fairy tale story of winning the English Premier League. The sacking has divided opinion already but whatever you think of the sacking and whether the club were right or wrong, you cannot hep but sympathise with the charming Italian.

In my opinion, Ranieri should never have been sacked by Leicester. In only 20 months in charge, Ranieri had earned legend status at the Foxes by masterminding the greatest underdog story in football history. He was almost drinking from the same tap as Arsene Wenger, the tap that allows the manager himself to decide when his time at the club is up and for a new manager to come in and put their stamp on things.

Easy for me to say, I am not a Leicester fan. There will be Leicester fans out there that will think that this is absolutely the correct decision from the football side of things. The Foxes were in serious danger of going down. An unthinkable prospect and quite frankly embarrassing.

Leicester have picked up 1 point in the Premier League this calendar year and what makes even worse reading is that they have scored 0 goals. Ultimately, the manager needs to be accountable for this but Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, hang your heads in shame. Being knocked out of the FA Cup by 10 man Milwall did not help Ranieri's cause. Despite its seemingly lesser importance these days, a competition which could have been a bright spark in a poor season for Leicester.

However, renowned Leicester fan Gary Lineker thinks the sacking is 'unforgivable'. I agree. Not only should he still be there, but why he does not have a statue outside the ground (yet) is baffling.

Take Sean Dyche and Burnley for example. Albeit a brave fight in their first season in the top flight, they were quite clearly not cut out for it. Fast forward a couple of seasons, they have returned as champions of the Championship and with some new additions a very solid Premier League outfit who should survive comfortably.

By no means am I suggesting that relegation is acceptable for Leicester, nor the 'Burnley effect' would definately happen to them, however who's to say Ranieri could not pull it off. The likelihood departures of players such as Vardy, Mahrez, Slimani and Musa would allow strong reinvestment in the squad. Getting in players who know the championship and building a strong home grown squad. Players such as Demarai Gray and Ben Chilwell would benefit strongly from a season in the Championship. 

The loss of N'golo Kante has really hit the champions hard. It looks like he is about to win his second Premier League winners medal in as many years with Chelsea and it is easy to see why. He is such an influential player to have in your team. A team can receive such a boost physically and mentally when they see the energy he brings to the game even with 10 minutes to go. He is a non-stop juggernaut who has been imperative to both Leciester and Chelsea's success.

I believe Kante's rotten attitude in the summer infected a lot of members in the squad. 

Wes Morgan and Robert Huth, who were crucial last season have looked like Sunday League defenders this year. They have thrown in the towel. 

It almost seems like Riyad Mahrez has hardly played this season. He looks like he never wants to receive the ball and you rarely see them jinking runs at the left back that we became so accustomed to seeing last season. 

Despite grabbing a vital goal in Seville on Wednesday night, Jamie Vardy's party has come to an abrupt end. It looks as if he is just waiting on the goals to come to him instead of working for them like he did last year. Playing on the shoulder and getting in behind defenders has been non-existent this season.

What makes Ranieri's sacking even more baffling is the impressive result against Sevilla. Leicester were expected to be overrun by a strong Sevilla side who are flying this season. The Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium has been a fortress for the Spaniards over recent years and the Foxes' away record is shoddy. 2-1 is a fantastic result to bring back to the King Power with the away goal being the vital component.

Despite having a relatively weak group, Leicester's champions League form has been impressive. They qualified from their group with ease with players like Slimani coming to fruition. This was matched by a very good result against Sevilla. It looked as if Ranieri's priority this season was the Champions League and I firmly believe if he was still in charge, Leicester would progress to the quarter finals.

To summarise, from a footballing aspect Ranieri's sacking should not come as too much of a surprise. But the man won this club a title which they had no right to win and created memories for life. Despite being in danger, Leicester had a really chance of progressing far in the Champions League. In the same week as a man who lost his job for eating a pie live on TV, it's hard to keep faith in modern day football. 

Last season, I fell in love with Leicester for their refreshing counter attacking football and their 'never say die' attitude. That affection I had for them is now gone.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Mauricio Pochettino: One of the World's Best

The fans of Southampton may not have known of Mauricio Pochettino when he was appointed in January 2013, but Pep Guardiola did.

“When he (Pochettino) arrived at Espanyol from his first game he was so aggressive and high-pressing and many more things, and the way Mauricio plays is quite similar.”

Pochettino was no nonentity however, he did have some footballing pedigree prior to his appointment. He boasts 20 caps for Argentina in his playing days, along with wearing the famous jersey of French giants Paris Saint Germain. He also infamously fouled Michael Owen to give the Three Lions a penalty in the 2002 World Cup. The penalty was converted by David Beckham and England grabbed a 1-0 victory.

Pochettino started his Saints managerial career with a 0-0 draw at home to Everton. Despite only grabbing a point. Southampton impressed. They created a number of chances in the 90 mins but none could be converted. The change of tactics were evident, Southampton had their supporters on the edge of their seats with a high intensity press and attack throughout. The Saints’ defensive line was much higher than we had seen under Pochettino’s predecessor and now teams had to go to the South coast with a strategy of how to effectively play their way out of their own half. Pochettino had emphasised that his full backs push on and help join the attack. Anchor men Morgan Schneiderlin and Jack Cork provided defensive cover for Nathaniel Clyne and Luke Shaw to push forward. It was under Pochettino that Luke Shaw enjoyed arguably the best football of his career. His explosive pace, bravery to take on others and pinpoint crosses into the box that earned him his high profile move to Manchester United in 2014. Clyne and Schneiderlin also flourished under the Argentine and both found themselves with new clubs subsequently in 2015. Kudos to Pochettino, teams near the bottom of the league usually like to stay compact and hit teams on the counter. This 'high pressing' tactic challenged that idea and was refreshing to see. A tried and tested philosophy, which Pochettino has successfully installed into his current crop of players at Tottenham.

Pochettino went on to save Southampton from relegation collecting some impressive results along the way, the home victories over Liverpool and then champions Manchester City spring to mind.

The summer of 2013 allowed Pochettino to really drill his philosophy into his players and bring in a few of his own. He spent £10m on Croatian centre half Dejan Lovren who went on to form a great partnership with skipper Jose Fonte. £12.5m was spent on midfield powerhouse Victor Wanyama from the champions up north Celtic. Wanyama was key to Pochettino's philosophy. The midfielder was tasked with protecting the defensive four, before instigating quick and incisive counter-attacks with smart forward passes. Wanyama has now rejoined Pochettino at Spurs and Lovren became one of Liverpool's three signings from Southampton in the summer of 2014, joining up with England's player of the year in 2016 Adam Lallana and target man Rickie Lambert.

Southampton were a joy to watch. No longer a team lingering around the drop zone but now a stable mid table team pushing for Europe. Southampton finished 8th, just missing out on European football.

'It was around this time that Tottenham came calling. News broke that Tottenham had appointed Pochettino on a 5 year deal taking over from interim manager Tim Sherwood. Daniel Levy has never looked back as Pochettino has created his finest project in management yet with Spurs.

The previous summer had seen director of football mostly squander the £100m generated by Gareth Bale's departure to Real Madrid. Only Christian Eriksen, (and at a push Erik Lamela) remained salvageable from the over half-a-dozen players the club signed.

From the mass, it could be argued Lamela has came to fruition, however he is still a fraction of the potential that his £30m transfer from Roma promised. Christian Eriksen continues to shine, a great technician and a vital part of the 3 behind the sole striker in Pochettino's system. Nacer Chadli acted as a fringe player under Pochettino, however worked hard and scored a few here and there when provided with the opportunity. Paulinho, Soldado, Chiriches, Fazio and Capoue were never fancied by Pochettino upon his arrival.

So how and why is the Argentine one of the world's best managers? For one, he has proved doubters wrong at both Southampton and Spurs.

Football fans alike thought Southampton were certainties for the drop when he arrived. An unknown manager with no premier league experience couldn't save a squad that included Guly Do Prado and Paulo Gazzaniga from the drop could he? But he did. Convincingly.

With Pochettino's impressive work at Southampton and stamping his authority on transfers in his first few months in the job at Spurs, a fresh start and a new direction was imminent. However, it was not the best of starts for Pochettino's new side. After wins in his first two games, including a memorable late goal from new signing Eric Dier at the Boleyn Ground, Spurs only collected 2 wins from their next nine. I seem to remember when Bojan grabbed the winner in a Stoke win at White Hart Lane, the Spurs fans were calling for the new manager's head. Really? This was a transition period.

Spurs went on to finish the season strongly, with Pochettino's philosophy becoming more apparent as the weeks went on. The emergence of Harry Kane, who is now Spurs' main man, was a particular highlight in the 14/15 season.

Spurs challenged for the title the following season, and were pipped to the title by a once in a lifetime phenomenon in Leicester City. Pochettino's high tempo, attacking football was admirable and White Hart Lane became one of the most feared grounds in the Premier League. In a 2-1 victory at the Etihad Stadium, Spurs were recognised as genuine title contenders. The away support worshipped Pochettino at the end of the game, as there was a moment of passion from the man in charge as he walked towards the travelling end lauding his supporters, showing there was another side to the charming man we all recognise.

Credit to Pochettino, he is not afraid to give the young boys a chance. The faith and trust he shows in them is endearing. The standout is obviously the emergence of Spurs man through and through Harry Kane. In 2 and a half seasons, Kane has scored 63 goals. He is a natural finisher, who scores a different range of goals - free kicks, pens, long rangers, tap ins. If anyone is going to come close to Alan Shearer's record, it is him.

Dele Alli was signed in the summer of 2015 from League One outfit MK Dons for around £5m. Alli has been a prominent part of Pochettino's plans, building a good chemistry with Kane and Eriksen when going forward. Alli has shown that he is not short of confidence in his time with Spurs. He has every trait an attacking midfielder needs and more. He can spot a pass, score a goal, his movement off the ball is excellent, and he is a threat in the air. His wonder goal against Crystal palace early 2016 will surely go down as one of the Premier League's great goals. Alli has been Pochettino's best signing, not only for his large contribution to an ever improving Spurs team but for the valuation of the starlet in a few years time. I have no doubt that if Alli does ever move, it will be a £60m+ transfer. Of course, this depends on if Alli stays relatively injury free and continues to develop at a rapid pace.

The likes of Josh Onomah, Harry Winks, and Cameron Carter-Vickers have also made sporadic appearances under Pochettino.

Pochettino's philosophy is unique and refreshing.

Two solid centre halves who are comfortable with the ball at their feet in order to drop it into one of the two holding midfielders or spread it out to the flying wing backs to carry the ball forward. Spurs rarely concede and their defensive record under Pochettino has been impeccable. Alderweireld has been Spurs' second best signing behind Dele Alli. He has built a good understanding with Jan Vertonghen and also pitches in with a few goals from set pieces. Hugo Lloris is one of the best goalkeepers in the world. When he plays it installs confidence in the rest of the side.

Kyle Walker and Danny Rose are playing the best football of their careers in the prime of their careers under the Argentinian. Allowed to get high up the pitch Walker and Rose help Spurs massively in an attacking sense. Their overlapping runs and their explosive pace help providing ammunition for the ruthless Harry Kane. Their form over the last few seasons have not gone unnoticed, both men are now shoe-ins for the full back positions on the international scene.

Moussa Dembele has been labelled the most underrated player in the Premier League and it is hard to argue with that. Despite looking unorthodox, Dembele is a classic holding midfielder. Made even more impressive as he was a striker in his Fulham days. He possesses strength and power, much like his midfield partner Victor Wanyama. What separates Dembele from Wanyama is that Dembele has the knack of carrying the ball from deep in to the opposition third with relative ease. His pace and strength allows him to keep possession of the ball without being tackled. The job of dispossessing the Belgian is made even harder by the fact his dribbling is immense.

The 3 attacking midfielders are trained so well by Pochettino and his staff. Always an option when their teammates are on the ball, they find pockets of space that the opposition find so hard to pick up. Illusive. When the balls are played in to them they are usually on the half turn and driving at the defence or playing clever 'one-twos' eliminating defenders from the attack. Spurs do not play with wingers as such. Players such as Lamela and Son, who are favoured by Pochettino, like to play as inside forwards allowing them to interplay with the central figure of the 3 attacking midfielders and Harry Kane. It also allows more space for the wing backs to drive into when going forward.

Daniel Levy tells the tale of how surprised he was when he met with the players for the first time under Pochettino, and they all shook his hand and showed impeccable respect. Pochettino is not only a mentor on the pitch, but off it also. He demands respect.
Pochettino shot down rumours lately, linking him with Barcelona. Clever on his part as speculation will increase when Luis Enrique departs. Harry Redknapp recently stated that he thinks Spurs will win the league in the next 5 years and it's hard to disagree with the former Spurs boss. Pochettino has a crop of players who will be playing in the prime of their career over the next 5 year period, not to mention the team just keep naturally getting better as the seasons have gone on. If this group of players stay together, with a few marquee additions over the next few summers, it is hard to look past Spurs as premier league champions.

Over only a 4 year period, Pochettino's exemplary man management and unique philosophy makes him one of the world’s best football managers.