Talking to the Expert Panel : An Asian Cup Preview (Part 1)

January 4, 2015 Leave a comment

The Asian Cup will kick off on January 9th as the hosts, Australia, look to start on the right foot against West Asian hopefuls Kuwait. 32 matches and almost 3 weeks later a new champion will be crowned. Champions Japan will look to retain the trophy and add to their record 4 titles. Korea will look to bounce back after a disappointing World Cup. Uzbekistan will try to begin to realize their potential at this level. West Asian hopefuls Iran, under the guidance of Carlos Quieroz, will look to break a four-decade drought. Established Asian players, including Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, Javad Nekounam, Zheng Zhi and Tim Cahill will be known to most followers. Youngsters like Iraq’s Ali Adnan, UAE’s Ali Mabkhout, Iran’s Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Australia’s Tommy Oar will be looking to etch their names in Asian football history.

With that said, we’ve had the opportunity to speak to a few Asian football experts, whose countries will be taking part at the tournament, for their views and predictions on what lies ahead.

Palestine Flag

Football Palestine, which can be found on , was founded in 2008 with the intent of providing accurate and detailed information about the Palestine national football team to an international audience. Their network, includes a blog, YouTube, and Twitter, is operated by Abdel-Rahman Hamed & Bassil Mikdadi and has been featured in prominent outlets such as Sports Illustrated, Slate, Metro, and BBC. We had the opportunity to have a brief chat with them about the Palestinian national team and Asian Cup in general.

Ahmad El Hassan, your national team manager, recently had to come out to defend himself after backlash from the fans over some of his selections. What happened?

He made some controversial decisions with his squad selection and was probably guilty of not communicating his reasons for making these decisions. El Hassan’s got a very rigid approach – he’s the boss and he wants the players to know that. For example, Hilal Musa helped Palestine qualify and he missed out on the squad because he didn’t show up to training in October (he had a broken hand). The fans are even more upset over the fact that three foreign-based center backs have been left out (Omar Jarun, Javier Cohene, and Daniel Kabir Mustafá) for unknown reasons. Cohene has since come out and said that injury will not allow him to participate although the PFA claimed that he didn’t respond to their calls and emails. Fans were really excited to have forward Matias Jadue on board and he would have been in the squad but some administrative error resulted in his nationality switch being filed incorrectly.

Manager Ahmad El Hassan has come under fire with his Asian Cup 2015 squad selection

Manager Ahmad El Hassan has come under fire with his Asian Cup 2015 squad selection

Considering the backlash, it seems that people back home are taking your participation seriously. What are the expectations for the side?

On paper, this is a very difficult group and the fans are aware of that. That said, Jordan are not the same team they were 18 months ago under Adnan Hamed and Iraq are not displaying the form that crowned them champions in 2007. Both sides haven’t won a game since March and their new coaching appointments are still trying to communicate their ideas to the players. It seems to the fans that if we could escape the game against Japan with a narrow loss then there would be enough points on the table in the next two games. The squad announcement has tempered expectations but with Ashraf Nu’man- maybe the dream scenario can play out.

Was it surprising that you qualified in the first place?

Yes and No. Preparation for the Challenge Cup was less than ideal. Palestine didn’t play any warm-up games, and the Challenge Cup was scheduled on non-FIFA matchdays. A whole host of strikers were ruled out due to injury. That said, Palestine were always favored to make it out of their qualifying group and the way they played in the Challenge Cup it was quite evident that they were the best of the bunch. Palestine has been in the ascendency since late 2011 and Asian Cup qualification via the Challenge Cup path seemed like an attainable goal.

For those who are not familiar with the side tell us what its main strength and weakness is?

We don’t have a lot of options in attack. Mahmoud Eid is the only out-and-out striker in the squad and over the past couple of years the lack of a goal-scorer means Palestine can sometimes struggle to translate good build-up play into results. Mahmoud Eid’s arrival might go some way towards solving this problem. The strength, despite the big name absences, is the defense and by the looks of it Ahmed El Hassan will have the side set up to frustrate the opposition (and the neutral fan).

Does this side have a future or is it just a flash in the pan?

Interesting question. Qualification represents an opportunity for Palestine, even if results don’t go their way in Australia the big game atmosphere will only make them better. Their FIFA ranking will most likely land them in Pot 2 for 2018 World Cup qualifying. This time around they’ll be able to leverage home-field advantage (they have yet to lose at home). I get the feeling that the opportunity is there but a lot depends on administration. The PFA needs to put the right people in charge in order to harness the potential of the players.

Which Palestinian player do you think we should watch out for in Australia?

Abed Jaber. He’s only 21 and at this time last year he wasn’t even on the national team radar but he has single-handedly solved Palestine’s problems at left back.

Which player from the other 15 sides do you think can emerge as a star at this tournament?

Sardar Azmoun of Iran.

How do you think the West Asian sides will do?

Well there are 10 of them so the deck is stacked in our favor. I think this tournament will be won by Australia or Japan and I don’t think that the West Asians in Group A or Group B will advance. My main reason for pessimism is due to the fact that too many national teams are coming into this tournament with new coaches.

Finally, who will win the 2015 Asian Cup?

On paper, Japan should run away with this competition. They are the most talented team in Asia by a country mile. That said, I think Australia – backed by their vociferous home support – could nick it.

Uzbeki Flag

Behzod Nazarov is an expert on Uzbeki football and is a leading journalist and writer in his homeland. He combines that role with his role as media officer of notable club Pakhtakor of Tashkent. He can be found on twitter on

Uzbekistan joined the AFC in 1992, and almost immediately won the Asian Games football tournament 2 years later. Many expected more success to follow but it hasn’t. Why?

Uzbekistan has a lot experienced players who played in the old USSR championship. When they became older we faced problems and couldn`t reach positive results. We faced problems with football schools from a grass-roots level as our best footballers had been educated outside our territories. We have also ben unlucky in crucial moments due to refereeing mistakes against us.

Maxim Shatskikh and Alexander Geynrikh were the stars of the past. Does this team have players on their level?

I think Odil Ahmedov, Server Jeparov, Vitaliy Denisov and Aziz Haydarov can play at a very high level. Denisov is one of the main players at Lokomotiv Moscow. Aziz is captain of Al Shabab. They could show good performances in Australia.

Server Djebarov is Uzbekistan's captain and a player of genuine quality

Server Djebarov is Uzbekistan’s captain and a player of genuine quality

How good is Odil Ahmedov?

I think he is main player of team. He has been playing very well in the Russian Premier League and Europa League during the last few years. If he plays well, the national team can achieve good results.

What is the side’s main strength and weakness?

Main strength is teamwork and midfield of the side. But we have had problems in defense in the last few matches. We are not very strong when it comes to one to one battles on the pitch. We are not so good physically if we compare ourselves with Australia, Japan or Korea Republic.

How far can Uzbekistan go in the tournament?

We can go to the quarterfinals. But at that stage we may face Korea Republic or Australia. All depends on that match.

Is there any team you’d like to avoid?

Australia, Korea Republic and Japan, they are the strongest teams of Asia.

Which Uzbek player do you think will emerge as a star during the Asian Cup?

We have two young stars – Sardor Rashidov and Jamshid Iskanderov. They can show their potential in Australia. Denisov, Ahmedov and Jeparov showed their levels in previous matches.

Which non-Uzbek player do you think will emerge as a star during the Asian Cup?

So many potential stars. Japan, Korea and Australia have a lot of star players, Iran, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar can play good football. Omar Abdulrahman of UAE and Bualim Khoukhi of Qatar might be the new stars of Asian football.

Who will win the tournament?

I think it will be Australia or Japan.

Iran

Martin-Reza Babry is Editor-in-Chief at Persian Football, a leading source on Iranian football. He is a passionate supporter of Team Melli. He can be found on twitter on .

What are the expectations back home for Team Melli considering the side hasn’t been champions for almost 40 years?

I believe a group stage exit is unfortunately more likely than the title for us this time. However, considering the draw, a semifinal exit would be quite realistic.

Some critics argue that the side is too old and Carlos Queiroz is focusing too much on short-term results. Do you agree with them?

Looking at the chaotic planning by the Iranian football federation, nothing but short-term plans can be implemented by Queiroz. Considering that we will only have played two real friendly matches since the World Cup when we’ll kick off our Asian Cup campaign versus Bahrain, Queiroz can only rely on the core of the team that represented Iran well in Brazil. That he exchanged 10 of the players in his squad since then is even quite experimental already, although it has to be noted the starting 11 will barely be affected by those changes.

Iran’s style of play is no easy on the eye over the last couple of years, but it seems to get results Do you agree with the approach?

The style of play dramatically changed in summer 2013 when Queiroz successfully implemented a very defensive approach. I generally agree with any approach that gets results, the question is if we can approach Bahrain and the UAE the same way we approached South Korea, Nigeria and Argentina.

Carlos Queiroz is tasked with the job of getting results for Team Melli

Carlos Queiroz is tasked with the job of getting results for Team Melli

What is the side’s main strength and weakness?

The main strength is the extreme tactical discipline and excellent defensive organization. Weakness is lack of creativity upfront which in my opinion stems more from the defensive approach and therefore lack of bodies and options upfront due to the lack of risks taken.

If you could avoid one side during the tournament who would it be and why?

Japan, they have the best squad and if their new coach doesn’t do too much wrong, they should be the strongest team.

The side’s preparations has been marred by incompetence by organizers. If Iran gets knocked out at the first stage, what would the consensus be?

My consensus would be the same as for the last decades, that Iran needs a complete overhaul of the complete footballing system, from grassroots over IPL, political framework (eg. military service) to funding of IFF. However, the consensus of the decision makers in Iranian football would be that a good foreign coach is a waste of money.

Any young Iranian player that can emerge as a star in the tournament?

Alireza Jahanbakhsh. He is skillful, energetic and has learned to overtake responsibility at NEC. Only things that could prevent him are the lack of support upfront or the fact that he, like in world cup, could not be part of the starting lineup.

Which non-Iranian player do you think will emerge as a star during the Asian Cup?

I think this could be Son Heung-Min’s big tournament.

What will Queiroz’s legacy be if he parts company with Team Melli at the end of the Asian Cup?

Probably that all the people saying Iran’s football naturally is an attacking one and you can only be successful with such an approach were wrong. Although that case is probably stronger now than after a post Asian Cup departure of Queiroz, which most likely would take place after an unsuccessful tournament.

Who will win the tournament?

Japan.

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Asian Cup 2015 : An Introductory Guide

January 1, 2015 Leave a comment

Japan 2011

If you haven’t been following Asian football closely, then the 2015 Asian Cup is probably a good starting point. The continent’s major tournament, alongside the African Cup of Nations, provides good value for money when it comes to entertainment. The 2015 edition takes place in Australia as the Socceroos aim to become the first hosts to lift the trophy since Japan did it last in 1992. They will have their work cut out against the winner of 4 of the tournament’s last 6 editions, Japan, as well as 2-time winners Korea, 3-time winners Iran, fallen giants and 3-time champions Saudi Arabia, and the winners of the 2007 edition, Iraq. Emerging powers such as Uzbekistan, UAE and Qatar may also have championship ambitions.

Preview

The first round is divided into four groups, with seeded sides with Australia, Team Melli of Iran, Japan and Uzbekistan all seeded. On paper, Groups B and C look evenly balanced, making it difficult to pick the sides that could progress. Group A sees the hosts go up against Korea, Kuwait and Oman. Whilst Group D should see Japan finish first and be joined by Jordan or, more likely, Iraq. Palestine makes its tournament debut and will probably be happy to be there, although it’s had the most stringent of preparations for the competition. Group B should see Uzbekistan progress whilst Saudi Arabia, North Korea and China will probably fight for second spot. Group C is an all-West Asian affair with Iran heading UAE, Bahrain and Qatar. Team Melli does not enjoy playing teams from the Middle East and has been upset in recent years against sides such as Lebanon, Bahrain and Jordan and has been perennially held by Qatar too. This group may go into the final day match-ups before the winners or runners-up are known. In terms of progression, Groups A & B as well as C & D are paired in the Quarter Finals.

Korea and Iran remain traditional power-houses in Asian football, but, especially in the case of the Iranians it is largely based upon reputation. Team Melli last won the tournament in 1976 and only came close once in 1996 when the exciting team led by Ali Daei, Khodadad Azizi and Karim Bagheri finished 3rd after losing on penalty kicks against eventual winners Saudi Arabia in the semi-finals. Nevertheless, Iran remains West Asia’s strongest challengers for the title. If you are looking for a dark-horse then Uzbekistan is destined for far more success than it has achieved so far in Asian football. They have an exciting and attacking line-up and have a genuine superstar in Odil Ahmedov, of Russia’s Krasnodar, who provides the heart-beat of the side.

Odil Ahmedov is Uzbekistan's most important player & one of Asia's finest

Odil Ahmedov is Uzbekistan’s most important player & one of Asia’s finest

If you were a betting man then its best to put your money on the safe choice of Japan. Australia will be buoyed by the home grown but Ante Posteloglou is currently overseeing the rebuilding of an aging Socceroos side. This tournament may come a little early for the Australians in terms of genuinely challenging the Japanese but over the course of 90 minutes (or 120 for that matter) anything can happen.

What You Should Know

• This is the 16th edition of the Asian Cup
• Only 6 times has the hosts won the tournament
• Ali Daei is the record goal-scorer in the finals tournament with 14 goals during 3 editions
• 15 hat tricks have been scored throughout the tournament with 6 of them scored by Iranians and 3 by Japanese players
• 4 Brazilian managers have led teams to win the tournament in the past
• The 2015 Asian Cup may break China’s attendance record from the 2005 edition (31,877 per game)
• Iran and Korea are appearing for a record 13th time
• Palestine is appearing for the first time
• Iran has won the most matches at the Asian Cup (34) and scored the most goals (112)
• Japan has won the tournament for a record 4 times
• Only Australia, North Korea, Uzbekistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Palestine & the UAE will be managed by local head coaches

Debutants Palestine will be carrying the hopes of a nation

Debutants Palestine will be carrying the hopes of a nation

Players to Watch (Key Man / Emerging Talent)

Australia – Mile Jedinak (Crystal Palace) / Tommy Oar (Utrecht)
Korea – Ki Sung Yeung (Swansea) / Son Heung Min (Leverkusen)
Oman – Emad Al Hosni (Saham) / Abdul Aziz Muqbali (Fanja)
Kuwait – Badr Al Mutawa (Qadisiya) / Yousef Nasser (Kazma)
Uzbekistan – Odil Ahmedov (Krasnodar)/ Sardor Rashidov (Bunyodkor)
Saudi Arabia – Naser Al Shamrani (Al Hilal) / Naif Hazazi (Al Shabab)
China – Zheng Zi (Guangzhou) / Zhang Linpeng (Guangzhou)
North Korea – Pak Nam Chol (Sisaket) /Pak Kwang Ryong (Vaduz)
Iran – Ashkan Dejagah (Al Arabi) / Alireza Jahanbakhsh (NEC Nijmegen)
UAE – Omar Abdul Rahman (Al Ain) / Ali Mabkhout (Al Jazira)
Bahrain – Fawzi Ayesh (Al Seleya) / Mohammed Al Tayeb (Al Najma)
Qatar – Khalfan Ibrahim (Al Sadd) / Boualim Khoukhi (Al Arabi)
Japan – Keisuke Honda (Milan) / Gaku Shibasaki (Kashima)
Iraq – Younes Mahmoud (No Club) / Ali Adnan (Caykur Rizespor)
Jordan – Amer Shafi (Al Wahdat) / Khalil Bani Attiah (Al Faisaly)
Palestine – Ashraf Nu’man (Al Faisaly) / Abed Jaber (Hilal Al Quds)

The Final Four

Australia, Uzbekistan, Japan & Iran

Importance of Rooney as Goalscorer for England : Comparing with Charlton & Lineker

November 20, 2014 Leave a comment

Earlier this week, England captain Wayne Rooney hit his 45th and 46th international goals for England. Nevertheless, debate ensues between different camps on how good a player Rooney has been during his career. That question cannot be answered with tangible and objective supporting facts. What can be answered, though, is how important a goalscorer Rooney has been for his country. Graeme Souness had stated, in a post-match discussion for Sky Sports, that Rooney cannot be considered an “England great” regardless of whether he beats Sir Bobby Charlton’s England goal-scoring record. Is that a fair assessment? We will try to shed light onto answering that question by comparing Rooney’s scoring exploits for the Three Lions with that of the current two top goal-scorers, Sir Bobby Charlton and Gary Lineker.

Goals to Game Ratios

In the first instance, Rooney has amassed his 46 goals from 101 matches (0.455 goals per game). Charlton finished his England career on 49 from 106 games (0.46 goals per game). Neither had a better goals to games ratio than Lineker who scored 48 times from only 80 matches (0.6 goals per game). Had Lineker been given another 20 or so games at international level, it is likely that he would have finished closer to 60 goals.

Friendly Matches

Today, international friendly matches are games that a lot of players want to avoid. Managers focus on experimenting far more than they did in the past. Matches are arguably less competitive than they had been too. Nevertheless, goals scored during these matches weigh as much as those scored in more meaningful internationals. With that said, Charlton scored 21 goals during friendlies, almost 43% of his total goal tally. These friendlies do not include the British Home Internationals tournaments though. Today, such a tournament may be classified as a “friendly” tournament but it definitely was not back in the day. Lineker, on the other hand, scored 26 times, a whopping 54% of his total goals, during international friendlies. Rooney has scored 14 goals during international friendlies. That figure is 30% of his total goal tally. Rooney’s goals during friendlies also reflects the earlier assertion about the importance of friendlies in modern football.

Major Tournaments

Whilst Charlton is probably the only player between the three who would have ended his career with an international medal, all three have grabbed headlines during the tournaments that they took part in. In terms of European Championships, Charlton scored once in qualifiers and once in the Finals tournament during his career. Lineker scored 7 times during qualifiers but never managed to score a goal during either of the two tournaments he took part in. Rooney, though, enjoys the European Championships. He has scored 10 times, till date, during qualifiers and 5 times during the Finals tournaments he has participated in.

Gary Lineker is England's most successful major tournament's scorer

Gary Lineker is England’s most successful major tournament’s scorer

In terms of World Cups, Lineker is England’s record goal scorer with 10 goals and is considered one of the greatest goal-scorers in World Cup histories, hitting 6 and 4 goals in consecutive tournaments. That figure is almost 21% of his total goals tally for his country. He added another 5 during the two qualification campaigns that he took part in. Charlton scored 5 times during World Cup qualifiers and added another 2 during the World Cup in 1966. Rooney has had mixed fortunes during World Cup campaigns. He has been prolific during qualifiers, hitting 16 goals. But he has been extremely goal-shy during the Finals, as illustrated by his solitary goal, during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Scoring Important Goals

Some players score goals whilst others score important goals. For the purposes of this analysis, we have defined important goals as scoring the final equalizing goal of the match or scoring the match-winning goal. For instance, if a team wins 2-0 then the goal-scorer of the first goal would be considered the match winner. But if a team wins 2-1 then the goal-scorer of the 2nd goal would be considered the match-winner.

Sir Bobby Charlton scored 16 "crucial" goals for his country

Sir Bobby Charlton scored 16 “crucial” goals for his country

With the above parameters in play, Charlton scored 16 “important goals” during his England career. In other words, on 16 different occasions, his goals directly contributed to draws or wins for his country. Lineker, though, salvaged draws or victories on 22 different occasions. That means 46% of his goals for England were crucial as opposed to 33% of Charlton’s goals. Between the three, Wayne Rooney has had the fewest crucial goals for England with 13 of his goals (28%) falling within the category.

Final Conclusions

Rooney is undoubtedly set to break Sir Bobby Charlton’s England goal-scoring record, sooner rather than later. It’s also likely that he will become England’s most capped player before he retires. As a goal-scorer, his scoring ratio for his country is as good as Charlton’s. Rooney has not “wasted” his goals during international friendlies either. However, his goals have been the least crucial when it came to deciding the outcome of matches when compared to his two counterparts. Gary Lineker holds the honor for being the most influential goal-scorer between the three. Even if he is not England’s record goal-scorer, Lineker is arguably England’s most important goal-scorer, a tag he has further cemented with his impressive 10 goals during two World Cup Finals. Rooney, though, will remain the most important goal scorer of his generation for his country and its hard not to consider him as one of England’s most impressive internationals of all time. But its unlikely he should be talked about in the same vein as the likes of Charlton, Shilton, Sir Bobby Moore, or Lineker, purely based on the notion that his contributions have not resulted in anything of notable significance for his country – or not yet at least.

Where’s Iranian Football Heading?

November 20, 2014 Leave a comment

Team Melli

Iran’s national team, or Team Melli as it is widely known, held its own at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and probably gained a few more neutral fans after their performance against Argentina. Despite going out at the group stage with a solitary point, there were momentary flashes which could have changed the outcome of Iran’s destiny. Nevertheless, the general expectations, from the 75 million national team managers in Iran, had been one of hopeful optimism which would have had Iran on 4 points and scraping through to the second round.

Yesterday

Whilst Team Melli had historically seen itself as one of the leaders in Asian football, and subsequently felt an onus and expectation to attack the opposition whomever they may be (a style perfectly exhibited by teams of the 1970s, as well as the 1996 Asian Cup side and the side that failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2002), the reality had been a stark contrast for a long time. Iran no longer instills the same fear in opponents as it did in the past and the gap between Team Melli and teams, such as the UAE, Uzbekistan, Jordan and Qatar among others, has never been closer. Despite one off results against the likes of Japan and Korea, one could argue the gap between the real pacesetters in Asian football and Iran has never been wider either.

Today

Carlos Quieroz, the Portuguese Team Melli manager, is a man who has been able to produce a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts since he took over the helm. He has developed a mentally robust, defensively compact, counter-attacking team that is at its best when up against stronger opponents. Having taken over a team that had been plagued with an inability to cut open teams and a permanent slow tempo style for many years, Queiroz, a rational man, was at the crossroads going into Iran’s final World Cup Qualifiers against Lebanon, Qatar and South Korea. That is when Iran’s fortunes changed, matched by a distinctively new, more pragmatic, style of football.

Team Melli currently features an aging squad, with a number of key players well past their prime. In fact, one could argue that the side has still not successfully replaced retired stalwarts like Ali Daei, Mehdi Mahdavikia, Ali Karimi, Karim Bagheri, and even the likes of Vahid Hashemian and Rahman Rezaei. Those players formed a strong backbone of the side for a longer period than they probably should have based on their age and the trend is now repeating with a current crop which includes captain Javad Nekounam, Jalal Hosseini, Pejman Montazeri, Andranik Teymourian and even Masoud Shojaei among others. During the recent friendly match at the Azadi Stadium against Korea, Iran’s starting line-up featured 6 players over 30, none of which should realistically expect to feature at the 2018 World Cup even if Iran progresses. In fact, other than goalkeeper Alireza Haghighi (26), utility player Ehsan Hajsafi (24), inside-forward Alireza Jahanbakhsh (21) and possibly Ashkan Dejagah (28) and Reza Ghoochannejad (27) no other member of the starting line-up should be able to make it to the World Cup in Russia other than via a tourist visa. Nevertheless, the over-30s are still forming the backbone of the national team in the short-term in order to keep the side competitive. In contrast, Korea had only called up 2 players, over the age of 30, into their squad for the match. Needless to say, without the aging players in question, it is unlikely that Team Melli would have qualified for the 2014 World Cup. Queiroz, a realist, is under pressure to deliver at least a semi-finals outing at the upcoming Asian Cup, and will utilize that spine to maximize the possibility. However, at what cost to longer term fortunes?

Professional Football a Double-edged Sword

The introduction of “professional” football in 2001 has not reaped the rewards towards the progress of football there. Salaries have been inflated and less players choose to move abroad, even if they may be technically good enough, due to the lifestyle that they are able to have domestically. At most, a few players move on short-term contracts to neighboring Gulf countries such as UAE and Qatar for a short and sweet pay-day. More and more average players make much more money than they would have dreamed of and automatically equate that to having “made” it. This hinders their progress up the footballing ladder. At the end of the day, despite all the success that provincial clubs have in Iran, the “Big Two”, Esteghlal and Persepolis, continue to lure their best players with inflated salaries. Those players rarely if ever continue on the same impressive path that they had been on with their previous clubs. There are exceptions to this trend and they include the likes of Haghighi, Sardar Azmoun, Jahanbakhsh and Saeed Ezatollahi among others who all took the risk to move abroad at a younger age than had been done by any Iranian footballers in the past. This has been a refreshing change and applauded by Quieroz too.

Domestically, the Iran Professional League (IPL) has remained competitive with only Sepahan able to retain the title since the league’s new format at the turn of the century. However, on a continental level, Iran has had 2 losing finalists during this period and no winners. In fact, the last Iranian club to triumph in Asia’s premier club competition was Pas Tehran but that was over 20 years ago at the end of the 1992/93 season. Iran has only had 3 champions at that level since the tournament’s inception in 1967. Korea, on 10, Japan, on 5 and Saudi Arabia, on 4, are all placed ahead of Iran in that respect. On the international level, Team Melli last won the Asian Cup in 1976 and has not appeared in the final since. Is it justified to really classify Iran as being among the strongest footballing nations at Asian level today?

Today Again

This brings us back full circle. Iranians are a demanding people and sometimes their expectations are further from reality than they would like to admit (or even realize). The commendable emergence of volleyball in the country has also cast another shadow over modern football. Iranian football has historically chosen the short-term solution over long-term planning. One could even argue that this may be a culturally-imprinted facet of being Iranian. Needless to say, Iran’s preparations for the recent World Cup was hampered by incompetence, from a federation and organization, point of view. Of course, in typical Iranian fashion, the blame was again deflected upon others, just as was the soap opera that was Queiroz’s contract extension thereafter.

Carlos Queiroz has carefully balanced the resources at hand to keep side competitive

Carlos Queiroz has carefully balanced the resources at hand to keep side competitive

Considering the parameters of existence within the football environment, how fair is it to request one man, Quieroz, to build a long-term legacy? Would football “people” in the country accept a first round elimination at the Asian Cup if it meant introducing an untested, younger generation, of footballers, who had many question marks hanging over their actual ability? Would Quieroz survive to remain at the helm and build a competitive squad for the 2018 World Cup in that scenario? The answer is probably no on both fronts and intense pressure and scrutiny does not help anyone formulate a long-term strategy for footballing development. In fact, its not clear whether Team Melli would be able to build a competitive squad that can qualify for the 2018 World Cup at any rate, regardless of the players it selects. It may be wiser to begin casting an eye towards the 2022 World Cup and possibly, as well as gracefully, concede a step back in the shorter-term. Considering Team Melli’s recent “successes” at Asian level as well as only qualifying for every other World Cup, it may not hamper its standing that much even in the short-term.

Results in the Asian Cup will not really matter unless Iran, surprisingly, at least to this writer, goes further than the Quarter Finals, as that would provide the side a bye towards qualifying for the next installment 4 years down the line. Going up against emerging teams such as the UAE and Qatar as well as Bahrain places Iran in it’s “kryptonite” situation. In the modern era, Team Melli has faced far more problems against Arab opponents, especially those from the Gulf, than sides from the rest of Asia. Expectation will be on Team Melli to attack all 3 opponents but that is not its strong-suit and could result in very close, and nerve-wracking matches that may be decided by a mistake or moment of brilliance, one way or the other.

When is Tomorrow?

For decades, Iranian football had been blessed by technically gifted players, who were arguably superior in that respect to most of their counterparts at Asian level. This carried Iranian football for a long time at the expense of tactical, mental and coaching development (as well as many other off-the-pitch developments). However, the conveyor belt for talent stopped producing such players a long time ago. Masoud Shojaei is probably the last truly gifted technical Iranian player to emerge and he is now the wrong side of 30.

Young  Rubin Kazan forward Sardar Azmoun may be ready to be given more of a starring role

Young Rubin Kazan forward Sardar Azmoun may be ready to be given more of a starring role

However, the time is now for giving more responsibility to emerging future stars Azmoun and Jahanbakhsh, both arguably good enough to start regularly for Team Melli, as well as maybe begin the slow introduction of Atletico Madrid youngster Ezatollahi. It may also be wise to give a real opportunity to players such as Soroush Rafeei (24), Vourya Ghafouri (27) and Omid Ebrahimi (27), all second half subs against Korea, to figure out whether they can step up to international level. Bigger questions exist over which players can emerge to replace both center backs, Hosseini and Montazeri, sooner rather than later, as well as the central midfield duo, Nekounam and, a seemingly out of shape and out of form, Andranik Teymourian, for so long a model of dedication and professionalism in Iranian football. The answers to these questions do not currently exist. Iran’s U-17 team last qualified for the 2013 World Cup, when it progressed to the second round. That squad was more or less elevated to the U-19 Asian age group but failed miserably to qualify for next year’s U-20 World Cup after a disappointing first-round elimination in Myanmar earlier this year. Nevertheless, it is worth keeping an eye on Gholizadeh, Hazami and Moharrami from that batch.

The truth is despite the popular belief, by many, that Iranian football is currently in transition, the process has not really started. Team Melli has pushed back its expiry date for longer than most people could have imagined through the assistance, to a certain degree, of Carlos Quieroz. However, this has delayed the inevitable and painful process of transition, which sides such as Saudi Arabia have been experiencing for almost a decade, and others such as Australia have done a slightly better job of in the last couple of years. It always helps when you have potentially good replacements to step into the older players shoes but that is not looking like it will be the case with Team Melli. The road ahead may be a rude awakening for many followers of the national team.

Messi – How Great?

July 14, 2014 3 comments

Messi Sad

In the aftermath of the 2014 World Cup Finals, there have been two topics on everyone’s lips. Needless to say, the first of these is hailing the German triumph over Argentina in what proved to be a tense and close match-up pitting the tournament’s best two sides. That topic has covered most of the front pages of newspapers and online media alike, and rightly so. However, there has been a second topic, and one that has taken a life of its own. This one has focused on undermining Lionel Messi’s World Cup and general standing in the history of the world’s most popular sport.

To add context to the subject, it is fair to suggest that a large number of experts and non-experts alike (social media has given a voice to the voiceless) had always claimed that to be considered the greatest footballer ever, Messi would have to shine at the World Cup. Most of these people fall into the generation that grew up watching another Argentine legend, Diego Maradona, rather than one which grew up idolizing Pele. Legend has it that Maradona single-handedly, excuse the pun, led the Argentine’s to the trophy in 1986 without the help of a decent set of players around him which included Pumpido, Batista, Burruchaga, Valdano and Ruggeri among others.

Whilst Messi has been the single most dominant player in world football during the last 5 or 6 years, his success both individually and as part of a team has almost entirely happened with his club, Barcelona. The question mark would always hover over the debate as long as Messi did not win the World Cup. Needless to say, Pele largely doesn’t figure in this debate because either “he didn’t play in European football” or he wasn’t alone in leading Brazil to those World Cup titles. Selective criteria does wonders to carve out the results that one is looking for.

So the stage was set for Messi to lead Argentina to the World Cup title in Brazil and cement his position as the undisputed greatest. In the early stages, he did not disappoint. A crucial goal against Bosnia in a tense 2-1 victory, a 90th minute winner against a resilient Iran and a brace against Nigeria in his side’s final group stage game gave Messi 4 goals and the key man behind Argentina’s progress at that stage. In the second round, Messi laid off the assist for Angel Di Maria to score against Switzerland in the last minutes before a potential penalty shoot-out. Against Belgium in the Quarter Finals, Messi produced a tactically astute performance which kept the Belgian defence on their heels throughout the match. However, there was no goal or assist. By the end of the semi-final, the criteria for immortality had been shifted by those posing them. Instead of simply winning the World Cup, Messi now had to do something special, something that I, and many others, were under the impression that he had been doing throughout the World Cup, more or less.

Multiple Ballon D'Ors not enough on their own in settling any doubts over Messi greatness

Multiple Ballon D’Ors not enough on their own in settling any doubts over Messi greatness

There are two explanations for the goal-posts shifting. Firstly, the generational obsession with forwarding one’s own as the greatest of all time poses an insurmountable obstacle. As time passes, legend grows with it too. The emotional connection that is created between idol and object of idolization lasts a lifetime. Secondly, Leo Messi has raised the standards of measurement and analysis to previously unseen levels. Its no longer enough to score a goal, but necessary to put out performances like the famous 4-goal haul in the Champions League against Arsenal regularly. Its no longer sufficient to score 40 goals a season, even though some of the world’s greatest players have never reached that tally, as it would be considered an average or poor season. Those are the criticisms thrown at Messi. Those or simplistic arguments like those put forward, last night during commentary, by BeIN Sports Andy Gray when he stated that he wants to see Messi “move more” and “he doesn’t look happy on the pitch” and “needs to help his defence out”.

Waking up this morning, had you had not watched any of the matches at this summer’s World Cup then you’d be inclined to think that Messi incurred an atrocious World Cup. To add context to the debate, Messi had 4 goals, 3rd in the list after Colombia’s James Rodriguez and Germany’s Thomas Muller. He added 3.3 key passes per game (via WhoScored), only behind Kevin De Bruyne from players who made it past the group stage, equating to 23 clear cut opportunities for teammates, more than any other player, and a World Cup leading 6.6 successful dribbles per game. Despite passing the ball less than Manuel Neuer, a fact widely informed to us today by Castrol Index, he still had more completed passes than either of Arjen Robben or Thomas Muller and averaged more than James Rodriguez or Neymar too. So did Messi have a poor World Cup, like Andy Gray reiterated on numerous occasions during the final? Absolutely not. Was Messi the best player of the tournament? That is probably open to debate, although Robben and Muller definitely had strong cases. James Rodriguez was arguably the type of breakthrough star that the World Cup has had in the past a la Toto Schillachi but his side failed to progress past the Quarter Finals. Neymar may have had a claim if his World Cup had not ended prematurely. Any number of German players could be considered contenders for that pointless award too, but what this World Cup, more than most others in the past, illustrated was the triumph of team over individual. Does it matter who wins the player of the tournament? Does it change anything when all is said and done? Should Messi have been embarrassed, like Gray said he should be, having been selected as the player of the tournament?

All in all, I would like to ask Mr. Gray what criteria he uses to assess players. He’s known to have stated on many occasions in the past that Cristiano Ronaldo is a better player than Leo Messi. To him, I’d like to say that the debate is no longer about Messi or Cristiano, as that train passed a long time ago. It is about Messi or Maradona or Pele. Its unlikely a unanimous or objective conclusion can be reached on this topic. If one factors the importance of the World Cup then Pele is arguably the best player of all time. Winning the World Cup once is one thing but it is not a coincidence that he won it thrice. Maradona’s generation of followers would probably limit the need of winning the World Cup to just one. Messi’s would probably negate it altogether and claim that the Champions League is played at a higher quality each and every season. It may well be. Unfortunately football does not have an easy way of making individuals stand apart from the team. As good as a single player can be, he cannot succeed without the right teammates and manager. This is undebatable. What is certain, though, is that there has never been as much scrutiny, cameras, technology, or analysis involved in football in the history of the game and to stand tall at the end of it all is a feat on its own.

Two of the greatest footballers of all time, Pele and Maradona

Two of the greatest footballers of all time, Pele and Maradona

What this summer’s World Cup did more than anything else is to have re-ignited the passion for the international game. The World Cup does matter. It matters a lot. It is the pinnacle of football. Ask any German footballer if they’d trade last night’s trophy in exchange for multiple Champions Leagues and league titles till the end of their career and the answer would be no. But what that means is that the debate over the greatest footballer of all time will probably remain inconclusive – for now. Simply put, there are far too many variables involved that makes it difficult to conclusively provide a single objective answer. Messi is great. Without a doubt. There will be a generation (this one) that will strongly put forward his case to be the greatest of all time when another contender to the tag comes along in 30 years time. By then, its likely that noises emanating from the Maradona camp would have died down just as had been the case with Pele’s. What we can’t argue about is that we are lucky to be witnessing someone of that caliber play right in front of our eyes, week after week, sometimes twice weekly. Its questionable that even Maradona or Pele’s greatest proponents had the privilege to watch and observe their hero play so often in an era with limited television coverage. Just to be having this debate right now is a testament to Messi’s greatness, barely at the age of 27.

Ruben Rochina: Frustratingly Good or Deceivingly Bad?

January 20, 2014 1 comment

Rochina

When Ruben Rochina joined Blackburn Rovers at the end of the winter transfer window in 2011, Rovers were still a Premier League outfit. Lots of hype surrounded the young Spaniard’s move from Barcelona B. Three years down the line and Rochina has just made a second temporary move away from the club, in the form of a loan move to Spanish outfit Rayo Vallecano. If he impresses, the club hold an option to purchase him from Rovers. The move has been met by a split reaction from the Rovers faithful. Some feel Rochina has never had a fair chance and produces more than he’s given credit for, whilst others feel he is not needed by Rovers. This article will look to inspect his performances for Rovers and compare them to some of his colleagues during the period at the club.

Analysis

Having made only 1 start in the half season that followed, its best to begin analyzing Rochina’s performances from the beginning of the 2011/12 season, his first full season at the club. However, we will present statistics that oversee his whole time at the club. Firstly, let’s look at his overall career stats at the club.

Ruben Total Stats

What becomes clear is that during the 3 years he has spent at the club, he’s only started 29 matches, during which he scored 11 times and made 3 assists. These are acceptable numbers for a second forward, and in reality better than any other player currently at the club except for Jordan Rhodes. His shooting ratio sees him hit a total of 110 shots, keeping 45 on target. Once again, the conversion rates, whilst not up to par for a top striker (which is not his role in the side nor the argument in question here) are acceptable for a second forward, an attacking midfielder or inside forward, all roles which he has played in for the side.

In order to analyze closer the impact that Rochina had during the games he took part in (and those which he did not) it makes sense to look at how the club fared during the period. With that in mind, the following table has been formulated:

Rochina Starting Stats

Strikingly, what jumps out first is the fact that Rovers have had a winning record (or at the very least an on par one if one is technical) in each competition that Rochina has started in more than 2 matches. He only started one match during the second half of the season after he joined the club in 2011. Even in the relegation campaign of 2011/12, Rovers had an acceptable 12 points from the 9 games which he started in, losing only three times. Based on that record, Rovers would have had 51 points throughout a 38 match campaign and needless to say would have stayed up that season. In short, Blackburn took twice as many points that season when Ruben Rochina started than when he did not. Coincidence? It is inconclusive to directly correlate Rovers plight with Rochina’s appearances. However, it is one factor that should be kept in mind as one continues to assess the situation.

In 2012/13, during the club’s return to the Championship, Rovers best form “coincided” with Rochina starting games again. The club only lost 3 times when he started and the run included 5 wins. His starts formed more than one third of the club’s total league wins that season. Based on that ratio, the club would have had 75 points by the end of the season, enough for a play-off spot. Critics will again argue that this is coincidental and inconclusive.

Going further, Rochina appeared from the substitutes bench on countless occasions during his 3 years at the club. The table below describes the state of the match the moment Rochina stepped onto the pitch (from the 2011/12 season onwards) and compares the end result at the full time whistle.

Ruben Off Bench

Ruben Rochina came off the bench a total of 22 times during this period. The team was in a winning position twice before he was subbed in and continued to hold on for the result. The team was drawing matches 8 times when he was subbed on and turned the result to victory on 4 occasions, drew another 2 and lost the last 2 games. Finally, when subbed in during losing positions, Rochina helped turn 1 of the losses into a draw. However, to be fair, 7 of those losses were in the Premier League.

Adding Perspective

In the 2011/12 relegation campaign of the Premier League, Rochina scored 6 times from 13 starts in all competition (2 goals in the Premier League). Yakubu was top scorer that season with 18 and Junior Hoilett was next on 7 goals. The Spaniards 6 goals came from only 13 shots on target, on the back of a 35% shots on target ratio. On the other hand, Hoilett scored his 7 goals from 23 shots on target, which had emanated on the back of 69 shots in total. There is nothing outstanding about Rochina’s performances that season however nevertheless he had a respectable record which still stood out among his team-mates. That coupled with the fact that Rovers did better when he started matches adds food for thought. Keep in mind that Rochina was 21 for the majority of that campaign.

The 2012/13 campaign is the one which is bitter for proponents of Rochina. He had a stop-start campaign under a number of managers and found himself out of favor yet again towards the end of the season as he was loaned out to Real Zaragoza. However, his performances and numbers probably did not warrant that treatment. Despite featuring for only a part of the campaign, starting only 11 times in the league, he was the club’s joint second top scorer with Colin Kazim-Richards on 5 goals. His 3 assists were also the second highest in the whole squad. He also suffered 48 fouls in the league campaign which was second only to Kazim (50) despite the latter starting almost twice as many games (25). This illustrates that Rochina was a threat to opposition defenders who targeted him by fouling him when they could not stop him fairly. Unfortunately comprehensive passing stats were not compiled for the Championship until the current 2013/14 season so one cannot undertake further intensive analysis and comparison with him teammates. However, his performances in 2012/13 at Championship level do at the very least justify calls by supporters who believed Rochina should have played more games and did not receive the chances he probably deserved over the course of a full campaign in order to silence his critics.

A section of Rochina’s critics argue that he gives the ball away too much. However, in the 2013/14 season, his passing success ratio which stood at 83% is still higher than fan favorite David Dunn who had a 74% success ratio. At the same time, Rochina had a total of 1.6 key passes per game, 3rd highest in the side after Tom Cairney (2.6) and Alan Judge (1.7). David Dunn makes 1.2 key passes per game (WhoScored). Whilst the data is not conclusive due to the number of matches played, it still adds unbiased context to the overall conclusions that have to be drawn.

Conclusions

Ruben Rochina is probably unlikely to play for Blackburn Rovers again. His legacy will pose questions of “what if” from whichever perspective you look at it. His supporters will argue that he offered something different from within the Rovers squad, at the very least at Championship level, and that his performances warranted more opportunities. His critics will admit that although talented, he frustrated them with the lack of end product. The statistics presented today undermine parts of the latter’s argument. It is almost certain that Rochina could have provided more to the club, such is his potential. However, when a young 22 year old foreign player who has been part of the most tumultuous period in the club’s modern history has not been given the opportunity to play more than 5 consecutive matches at any given time, it is difficult to criticize him, when a number of his teammates have been given far more opportunities to cement a place in the side despite far less end product. Looking at his performances and the club’s results during the period, at different levels, critics would surely be harsh to argue that he did not deserve more opportunities in an unsettled Rovers side.

Other criticisms include the fact that he failed to cement a place in the side under most of the managers at the club. The flip side of the argument is which of those managers has been a success? Other than Gary Bowyer, who whilst generally supported by most sections of the fans largely due to a new long-term patient vision that most have taken up after the roller-coaster recent past, all the previous managers were unanimous failures. Even Bowyer has enough critics over a number of aspects of his reign that should at the very least undermine this argument as definitive.

Games are won by goals. Rochina has had a direct impact on wins through his goals and assists during his time at the club. Whilst there was room for improvement, critics would be hard pressed to name a replacement who took Rochina’s spot in the side and contributed to more either directly or indirectly where the club fared better. At the same time, how many times can facts be called “coincidental” within the realms of one argument?

Manchester United’s Central Midfield Exposed

September 13, 2013 2 comments

Man Utd CM

As the new Premier League season got under way, Manchester United began the defence of their title in unfamiliar territory. For the first time in the league’s history, Sir Alex Ferguson would not be at the club’s helm. Some would argue that the Scot’s achievements during the last few years at his club were among his greatest ever. The argument is based upon a widely circulated notion that the current squad is not the best he’s ever had, especially as it does not possess a dominant or quality central midfield partnership. There were even calls for David Moyes, the new manager, to sign 2 recognized central midfielders during the summer transfer window. He ended up with one, his former Everton player, the Belgian Marouane Fellaini.

The purpose of this article is to analyze the criticisms laid above both objectively and tangibly. In order to do that, we will establish a few facts and put the “performances” of the central midfield under the microscope on a match-by-match basis over during the course of their title winning season in 2012/13. Whilst it is unlikely that a conclusive assessment to either extreme may be formed, it is more than likely that both sides of the argument would become clearer to the audience, who can, consequently, provide educated assessments on the subject.

Who Played There in 2012/13?

Manchester United’s main central midfield partnership last season saw Michael Carrick team up with Tom Cleverley. A third player joined them quite often as Ferguson favored going with 3 in midfield during many of the games (either as a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3). However, the said player would usually play in an advanced role, something Wayne Rooney grew accustomed to. The statistics below exhibit some key stats from the players who filled the 2 deeper midfield roles last season. Phil Jones sat ahead of the defence in a few matches, however also played in central defence and right back and therefore did not complete enough matches in the former role to warrant inclusion.

CM Stats Man United

Michael Carrick was almost an ever-present last season. For many, he was the unsung hero of United’s success and has vastly improved over the past 2 seasons. He has begun contributing defensively, an aspect of his game which had a lot to be desired for in the past. Cleverley started the season brightly but critics argued that he faded as the season went on into a crucial period. Giggs and Scholes offered experienced heads as partners for Carrick and between each other posted impressive contributions, or so it seemed. Brazilian, Anderson, continues to frustrate critics and onlookers. Although technically brilliant, his lack of consistency has prevented him from settling into a regular role in his favored central midfield position.

What We Learn from the Statistics

Carrick proved to be United's best performer from central midfielder in almost every category

Carrick proved to be United’s best performer from central midfielder in almost every category

Michael Carrick comes up in the top 20 in the Premier League from central midfield when it comes to interceptions made. At the same time, in terms of tackling he placed in the top 30 from central midfield. His overall placing in each of those categories is significantly higher when it comes to actual interceptions and tackles as many of his counterparts played far less games but places higher due to the per game ratios used. In terms of assists, he comfortably placed himself in the top 10 from the position. Carrick also provided the 3rd most number of passes per game and in fact the most total number of passes completed in the Premier League. Interestingly, 37% of his passes were forward ones whilst only 8% of them backwards. His percentage of passes forward was higher than that of Santi Cazorla, Mikael Arteta, Yaya Toure or Steven Gerrard among others. The Englishman has been dogged by criticism over his career with respect to the type of passes he undertakes. As he has aged, the criticism has waned and the level of appreciation for his talents increased. He’s currently arguably the best (and maybe only) true English central midfielder in the ilk of a Spaniard like Xabi Alonso or Xavi.

Assessing Performances in Game-Time

Its difficult to review the above statistics and make a conclusive assessment, one way or the other, in terms of United’s central midfield. What may help would be to statistically review their performances head-to-head against counterparts in the Premier League during the course of last season. With that in mind, we’ve assessed all those games and highlighted a sample size which looks at a variety of matches, from wins, to draws as well as defeats defeats, both home and away, in environments that may be more telling for the reader.

In April, towards the end of the season, but crucially before they had clinched the title, United took on West Ham at Upton Park. During that game they came up against the imposing duo of Mohammed Diame and Gary O’Neill. West Ham’s partnership attempted almost half the number of passes of their counterparts. Almost every key aspect of a contest between the two partnerships was more or less similar. Although Diame did score a crucial goal which gained the home side a draw. West Ham also put in slightly better work in the middle when it came to intercepting balls from United. Although that could also be partly due to the amount of passes through attempted by the away side.

Man Utd West Ham

Giggs attempts to tussle against Toure in the derby

Giggs attempts to tussle against Toure in the derby

A few days earlier, United hosted noisy neighbors Manchester City at Old Trafford. It was set to be a huge step towards winning back the title but by the time the full time whistle was heard, Man City had clawed themselves back into the title race, albeit in vain. United’s central midfield succeeded with 86% of their passes whilst their City counterparts led by Yaya Toure hit 88%. United were on the defensive foot and this was further exhibited with the central midfield achieving 12 tackles and 7 interceptions as opposed to 5 and 2 respectively for the visitors. They also turned the ball over 3 times to their opponents whilst City’s partnership were immaculate in that respect. City went on to win 2-1 at Old Trafford. The earlier match up between the two was at the Etihad Stadium on December 9, 2012. Again, Man City fared a little better than United in the passing accuracy game with 82% against 78%, although the number of passes attempted was far more balanced this time around. Almost every other stat was on par with each other in the area. However, City contributed a goal from the area even though United succeeded with 2 key passes from the deeper position against City’s nil. The game was balanced just as the midfield battle seemed to be, but United took the victory with a last-gasp goal by Robin van Persie.

Man Utd Man City

Other key clashes included United’s February clash with QPR at Old Trafford. United ran out 2-0 winners and this included one goal from central midfield, a rarity for the home side. Passing accuracy was 77% in the middle of the park for both sides, even though United attempted more passes through their central midfielders. QPR were a bit more “cavalier” from that part of the pitch and completed 2 key passes against 1 but this also meant they turned the ball over 5 times in the crucial area against the solitary time United did so.

Man Utd QPR

Sandro and Carrick chase the ball in their match-up last season

Sandro and Carrick chase the ball in their match-up last season

United’s two clashes with Tottenham were both interesting and revealing. The first one took place at the end of September, 2012, at Old Trafford. Spurs central midfield is far more physical in nature and much more aggressive. Spurs were happy to sit back and let United dominate the play in that area instead choosing to go in hard with tackles and intercept the ball in key areas, launching quick counter attacks. United’s central midfield attempted almost 3 times as many passes as the visitors, with an 89% accuracy, which exhibits the fact that a lot of the passing took place in deeper and safe areas. Spurs on the under hand used a quick tempo, ran with the ball far more from central midfield and hit an 84%% pass accuracy in the area. However, they intercepted the ball 13 times, more than 3 times the figure United’s duo achieved. They intercepted the ball twice as many times as the hosts as well. Interestingly, they also hit 4 key passes in the game and that is an impressive achievement by any measure by any central midfield of two players, especially as they only had a total of 56 passes, as opposed to United’s 256, through which the home side only achieved 2 key passes. Spurs ended up winning 3-2 thanks to an assist directly coming from the central midfield. The return game was in January at White Hart Lane and this time around Spurs were far more adventurous, and the possession stats in the area were much more balanced with Spurs passing it around more through their duo. Furthermore, Spurs succeeded with 5 key passes, another high figure as opposed to the 1 that United’s partnership achieved. United succeeded with twice as many tackles in the area and were dispossessed less and turned the ball over less than the opponents. The final result was a draw.

Man Utd Spurs

Other close encounters including those against Swansea and Norwich away, in the first half of the season. United failed to win either, drawing against the former and losing against the latter. But little or no blame can be attached to the central midfield when one looks at the stats. They were better in possession, and dominated passing too. They achieved more key passes in both matches. They also out-tackled their counterparts.

Man Utd Swansea Norwich

United’s away clash at St. James Park, historically a difficult place for the visitors in October, 2012, was another interesting match-up when it came to central midfield. Newcastle’s partnership of Tiote and Cabaye, on paper look a good combination, albeit both physically on the small side. United’s partnership were just about more accurate in the passing department, getting close to 87% success there. Interestingly, Newcastle’s central midfield had 5 key passes and also had more interceptions and less turnovers. They still lost the game 3-0 and this included a rare goal contribution from United’s partnership.

Man Utd Newcastle

Finally, Manchester United’s two-games at Merseyside against Liverpool and Everton provided a similar pattern of stats. Firstly, against the blues in August, United’s partnership attempted almost two and a half times as many passes and were far more accurate with the ball than their opponents. They also out-tackled their counterparts whilst the other key stats were similar, except a key assist from Everton which resulted in the only goal of the match. Against the reds, United saw less of the ball in the area. Almost every other key stat was shared there too. This time around Liverpool scored a goal through one of its central midfielders. Nevertheless, United won 2-1.

Man Utd Merseyside

Drawing Conclusions

What have we learned having put Manchester United’s central midfield under the microscope? Its difficult to be definitive in providing a final assessment to the initial question posed in the article. However, it is possible to deduce certain realities when it comes to the topic at hand.

1) Manchester United did not provide consistency to its ideal central midfield partnership last season. This could partly be down to availability but at the same time, Sir Alex Ferguson’s insistence on squad rotation made it difficult for at least 1 of the spots in the partnership to be filled consistently. However, looking at the performances and stats of some of the players, one could argue that other than Michael Carrick no one really warranted a regular spot in the position either.

2) Goals were hard to come by from the position. Only 7 goals from 81 starts (including some starts for Anderson, Giggs and Cleverly in other positions) and 32 sub appearances. To put this into perspective Marouane Fellaini scored 11 times on his own last season, England captain Steven Gerrard scored 9 times, Newcastle’s Cabaye and Arsenal’s Arteta had 6 each, whilst Liverpool’s maligned central midfielder Josh Henderson contributed 5 from 18 starts. However as a partnership, United did not get out-scored by their direct opponents in the games they played (7 goals against 7).

3) In the creativity department, United’s central midfielders contributed 6 assists between them over the course of the season. To put this into context, Yaya Toure had 5 on his own throughout last season. Swansea’s De Guzman had 6, whilst Fellaini had 5. Steven Gerrard led all central midfielders with 9 last season. United’s total of 6 was shared between 3 players (with a further 3 not contributing), and was led by Carrick’s 4 assists.

4) Although they were rarely “out-fought” in head-to-head match-ups, the stats show that over the course of the season, when it came to the defensive side of the game, the numbers posted were solid but not spectacular. Other than Carrick, no other player broke the 2 per game ratio when it came to tackles and interceptions and only 1 other player broke the 50 passes per game ratio. On first inspection that suggests that Carrick plays the ball while his partner works harder to get it back or get into the box to contribute the finishing touches to an attack. However, this was not the case as none of his partners were prolific or improved upon his defensive numbers. However, as a partnership over the course of the season United’s central midfield posted 30% less tackles than their direct opponents and just under 40% less interceptions.

5) Five central midfield partnerships hit double figures when it came to tackles successful against Man United in a game. United’s only managed to do so once.

6) On a game to game basis United’s central midfield were not sloppy in possession dominating the passing 31 times. The 7 occasions during which they were “out-passed” included Arsenal (a), Chelsea (h), Everton (h), Spurs (a), Wigan (a), Man City (h) and Liverpool (a).

7) The Carrick – Cleverley starting partnership was the most successful one followed by Carrick – Scholes. In fact, Carrick formed one-half of the 4 most successful partnerships they had. Ryan Giggs formed the least successful partnership over the course of the season when he teamed up with Carrick, seeing United lose half the games they started together.

Successful Partnerships Man Utd

8) Whilst United’s partnership usually keeps their counterparts on par with themselves, they do not dominate them either other than in the passing department.

9) United’s partnerships turned the ball over more than their counterparts over the course of the season.

10) On 6 occasions did United’s central midfielders post 100+ passes in a game. Carrick did so 4 times whilst Scholes twice. In fact, against against Spurs at home and Villa away they both had 100+ games. Carrick’s season high 134 during the latter, whilst Scholes high was 148 against the former.

Full Season Man Utd CM vs Stats

Final Thoughts

It is harsh to suggest that Manchester United’s central midfield is its Achilles Heel. However, when you look at the fact that they are the champions and have the league’s top scorer as well as one of its meanest defenses, it is also difficult to suggest other positions that should be strengthened ahead of the central midfield. A lack of goals and final-third creativity is evident. At the same time, whilst most of the other 19 sides in the Premier League have a favored partnership in the middle of the park, United have failed to cement one. This may largely be attributed to Ferguson’s style of management. Moyes may choose a different avenue and rotate less in key areas such as this.

Fellaini

Furthermore, the signing of Marouane Fellaini brings both goals and assists into the side as well as better defensive numbers than all of United’s current midfielders, even though some of his numbers had been posted through playing in a more advanced role. Nevertheless, a Carrick – Fellaini partnership may be what significantly improves United’s central midfield allowing it to dominate its opponents far more in that area.

With special thanks to Who Scored for their range of statistics on the 2012/13 Premier League season