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Euro 2012 Preview: Glimpsing Into the Future

June 7, 2012 6 comments

As we look back over the past 3 weeks worth of Euro 2012 action, in a tournament where the 4-2-3-1 and variations of it dominated the tactical approach, one has to highlight some of the players and teams that deserve to be recognized and name those who fell from the limelight. The Poland/Ukraine event was one of the first major summer football tournaments to play out under the backdrop of strong social media coverage, as supporters and fans never felt closer to the action, even if they were on the other side of the world.

European fans flocked into Poland/Ukraine for the 3 week tournament

The tournament started on June 8 when one of the hosts, Poland, took on Euro 2004 winners Greece. During that year, the Greeks beat hosts Portugal in the opening game. This time around they would not be as lucky or as dominant as Borussia Dortmund’s three Polish players, Robert Lewandowski, Lucas Piszczek and Jakub Błaszczykowski starred in a 2-1 victory. The former scored the opening goal whilst Błaszczykowski scored the winner after the Greeks had equalized in the second half. It would turn out that the opening victory would be invaluable for the hosts as they would go into their final game against Czech Republic needing a win after being tied with the Russians on 4 points. Both sides would go on to progress into the Quarter Finals with the Russians, and the ever impressive Roman Shirokov, beating the Greeks 2-0 and finishing as group winners.

The co-hosts, Poland, impressed viewers with their slick football and ensured qualification to the Quarter Finals

In Group B, also known as the “Group of Death”, at least one of 3 traditional power weights would be eliminated. Whilst it was expected that things would go to the wire, the Portuguese national team and their manager Paulo Bento would go into the final group game facing an uphill struggle, which would prove insurmountable. The Germans, surprisingly beaten by the Oranje in their second game, would comfortably qualify with 6 points, but it would not be enough to overhaul the Dutch national side, who powered through with a fresh-looking Ibrahim Afellay tormenting opposition defenders on one wing and Bayern Munich’s Arjen Robben doing the same on the other. The Barcelona winger, Afellay, could have been on his way out of his club but with the tournament he has had, its unlikely that Tito Vilanova would let him go on the cheap. Bert van Maarwijk was blessed with having a player in the caliber of Rafael van Der Vaart coming off the bench to play in a deep lying play-maker role in the second halves of games, giving the Dutch extra class and control in the middle.

Defending champions Spain would continue to struggle breaking down opponents and scoring goals. They would have to rely on solitary goals to beat Croatia and Italy and would top the group despite being held by Ireland. The much hyped Italy vs Trapattoni duel would be a deciding game in the group but Mario Balotelli and Claudio Marchisio scored goals to give the Italians a 2-1 win and confirm their qualification to the Quarter Finals. The Irish went out despite losing only once. Slaven Bilic bowed out as Croatia manager disappointingly at rock bottom.

Roy Hodgson took a page out of Chelsea’s page in his approach to matches. Whilst this was expected against a rampant France side, during the sides opening match of the group, it was received less well by England supporters, more so than the media, during England’s matches against Ukraine and Sweden. Despite the safety first approach, England bowed out disappointingly scoring just 2 goals in the 3 matches, with Andy Carroll and the controversial John Terry scoring them. Laurent Blanc’s France side were the most impressive side of all in the group stage with Frank Ribery and Karim Benzema starring as they took a clean sweep and topped the group with 9 points. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden proved to be the consistent tournament side as they once again made an impact and finished 2nd to qualify. Zlatan’s deeper play-maker position, similar to a role he has played with Milan during last season, proved to be fruitful for the national side. Ukraine could not match their co-hosts exploits and bowed out at the group stages with their leaky defence proving to give forward players Yevhen Konoplyanka, Andriy Yarmolenko and Andriy Shevchenko too much work to do.

Roy Hodgson already under pressure after early exit

As the tournament wore on in the Quarter Finals, Jogi Loew’s Germany began to hit levels that they had been expected to reach pre-tournament. Mario Gomez, whose scoring exploits off the bench earlier in the tournament earned him a start ahead of Miroslav Klose against Russia, justified his selection by scoring another goal in a dominant German victory. Shirokov would score again for Russia but this time it would be in vain. In the second Quarter Final, Spain would be pitted against Sweden. Vincente Del Bosque’s side were looking to make it 3-major tournament triumphs in a row, but would find strong opposition from the Swedes, until the game turned on its head when captain and talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic bowed out of international football with a red card. Jordi Alba, impressive at left back and soon to be officially confirmed as a Barcelona player, teed off the vibrant Fernando Torres for the second goal as Spain went on to win 3-1.

In the next Quarter Final, hosts Poland’s fairy tale run would end against the impressive Dutch side led by Robin van Persie’s brace. The 18 year old Jetro Willems continues to impress at left back having been a surprise selection at the time the squads were named in May. Finally, perennial rivals France and Italy would face each other yet again. The marauding right-back Mathieu Debuchy would give two assists as Samir Nasri and Adil Rami scored goals to give France a place in the final 4 and stretch their unbeaten run further.

In the Semi Finals, Germany and Spain would face-off yet again in a major tournament. In what would prove to be the game of the tournament, the Germans would finally emerge victorious through a winner by Bayern Munich’s Thomas Muller in extra time. Once again, the Spaniards found it difficult to add width to their game in a match that closely resembled some of Barcelona’s lower points from the previous season. Despite bringing on Pedro and Jesus Navas, Spain failed to overturn a 2-1 deficit late into the game and would not go on and defend their European title. In the other match, France and Holland would face each other for a place in the Final. The French led by the sublime Ribery would prevail 2-1, having been up 2-0 at half time.

July 1st. Olympic Stadium Kiev. The 31st and final match of the last 16-team European Championships. Germany looking to win their first major trophy since 1996 would face France, arguably the most impressive side at Euro 2012. Six months before the tournament started, the French would not have been considered a serious threat whilst the Germans were neck and neck with the Spaniards as favorites. But how time changes it all. Loew’s side wanted to culminate the renaissance of German football, which started with Jurgen Klinsmann, with a major trophy. The French would put up an excellent fight but Ribery, Nasri and Benzema would run out of steam at the final hurdle as Germany would finally win that elusive trophy, after their 2-1 win.

Victorious German manager Loew points at Germany’s first major tournament success since 1996

Team of Euro 2012

Neuer – Debuchy, Badstuber, Rami, Alba – Shirokov, Schweinsteiger, Kroos – Robben, Ribery, Benzema

Notable Mentions

Lloris, Lahm, Marchisio, Błaszczykowski, Afellay, Gomez, Lewandowski

Underachievers

England/Portugal

Did Themselves Proud

Poland/Sweden/Russia

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Case for the Defence: Laurent Koscielny

January 7, 2012 10 comments

In a new series, we will look at players, managers and clubs that have been either rightly or wrongly praised or criticized and analyze whether it has been warranted. The inaugural edition will see Laurent Koscielny’s Arsenal career be put under the microscope.

When Arsene Wenger signed Laurent Koscielny, a relatively unknown name in France let alone abroad, from Lorient in the summer of 2010, the question was whether he would be the man that would shore up the eternally frail and leaky Arsenal defence. Whilst fans and experts alike had been hoping Wenger would dip into the transfer market for a more experienced player, Wenger’s policy of unearthing unknown players seemingly continued.

If his Premier League debut was anything to go on then it perfectly described his first season at the club. A steady and solid performance was marred by a one moment of inconsistency when he was sent off after being handed a second yellow card in stoppage time at Anfield. Tellingly, he received both his yellow cards in stoppage time, a sign of his inexperience at this level playing against arguably smarter opponents, players who had mastered the art of winning decisions. Over a few months, Koscielny was praised for his reading of the game, especially his interceptions of through balls. His style of play mirrored that of a defensive midfielder who was sweeping balls in front of the defence. He was a little eager to step up in front of his direct opponent sometimes, and was either physically bettered or would mis-judge the ball for a split second. Koscielny did not have the physique to allow an attacker to back into him and expect to come out with the ball so he would largely base his game upon coming around his opponent from the back and stealing the ball just before it reached the player. With such an “active” defending style, you may come out the winner 9 times out of 10 but as everyone knows defending is a thankless art as one mistake may be all it takes to concede a goal and be blamed for your team’s loss.

Critics were already out saying he would not be good enough at this level and that Wenger should be out looking for a more able defender to partner Thomas Vermaelen, when the Belgian international returned from injury. To be fair, it did not help Koscielny in his settling in period when Wenger had to chop and change the center back partnership throughout last season. Sebastian Squillaci and Johann Djorou were two of his regular partners at the back. Things looked on the up for Koscielny in the Champions League 2nd Round 1st Leg at home to Barcelona when he was praised for a magnificent performance largely up against Lionel Messi. It helped Arsenal win 2-1. Critics, though, argued he would not be a top drawer defender until those sort of performances of which the young Frenchman was clearly capable of would be more regular and consistent. They were somewhat vindicated within a few days, when Koscielny unfortunately had a starring role in gifting Birmingham City a goal late-on in the Carling Cup Final, a match which dealt a major dent in Arsenal’s season and created a downhill slope from which they were never able to recover. Despite being written off by the end of the season, one man, other than Wenger, who remained vocal in his support for Koscielny was French journalist Juliens Laurens who stated on numerous times throughout the season that Koscielny was highly rated by the manager who wanted to build his defence around him and that there was no way he would be sold. One found it difficult to see how things would improve for the defender during his second season. Most Arsenal fans began calling for a “proper” center back to be signed during the summer, instead of depending on a player who had only 1 season’s worth of experience at Ligue 1 before signing for Arsenal. Despite a mixed season, one of Koscielny’s personal highlights had been getting his first international cap for France, having been called up by Laurent Blanc.

Koscielny in a mis-hap leading to Birmingham goal in Carling Cup Final 2011

What had Wenger seen in him when he signed him? Looking at the stats, during the 2009/10 season with Lorient, Koscielny had 2.3 tackles per game, the 8th highest rate for center backs in Ligue 1. However, in terms of interceptions, standing at 4.5 per game, he had the highest rate for center backs in the league and the second highest overall, falling short by 0.3 interceptions per game. He also added 9.4 clearances per game, again the second highest in the league for center backs as well as overall. It was clear that Koscielny’s reading of the game and mobility to get in front of the attacker was at the fore of Wenger’s decision to sign him. By the end of the 2010/11 season with Arsenal, Koscielny undertook 2 tackles per game, which left him 16th overall between all center backs, not a good return for a player playing for a side in the Champions League positions. His interception rate had dropped to 2.8 per game, but in the faster paced Premier League, this was still the 3rd highest rate for center backs and 8th overall. Impressively, he also had the 5th highest number of off-sides won in the league, again another characteristic that labels him as an active stopper rather than a passive cover-type defender. He is always on the edge of pushing the ante and moving forward to attack the ball, a beautiful sight in defending when he pulls it off, but a disaster leaving him on his back when he fails to be successful in his attempts. Unfortunately, the latter happened one too many times during his first season in Arsenal. Finally, in terms of clearances, he had 6.9 per game, making him 32nd overall in a league where no nonsense defending is quite popular and a measure of how fans rate their old-school “British defenders”.

By the end of the proceeding summer transfer window, Arsenal had signed experienced German international defender Per Mertesacker who had 80 caps for the German national team as, seemingly, the long-term partner for Vermaelen who was on the verge of a return. Whether that helped play a role in spurring Koscielny to be more focused on the pitch is moot. Despite starting the early season well, Koscielny was involved in two of Arsenal’s most humiliating losses of the season, 8-2 at Manchester United and 4-3 at Blackburn Rovers, scoring an own goal in the latter. It seemed like things were as they had been at the end of the previous season and the Frenchman’s Arsenal career may be coming to a standstill. However, a short-term injury to Vermaelen gave Koscielny one more chance and this time he forged a solid partnership with Mertesacker, forming the backbone of Arsenal’s recovery from near the bottom of the table to their current position in and around the Champions League spots. Contrary to tradition, Arsenal also qualified comfortably from their Champions League group and avoided a customary clash with Barcelona, at least for now. With the summer that Arsenal have had, losing two of, arguably, their three world class players, in Fabregas and Nasri, they have done marvelously well in remaining competitive after an early-season faltering start that had many questioning whether Arsene Wenger should remain in charge. Koscielny has played a starring role this season and has been Arsenal’s steadiest defender at a time when their defence has been badly hit by injuries, as a result of which Vermaelen has had to play at left back at times, Koscielny has filled in at right back for a few games, young Coquelin has also slotted in at full back, whilst Djorou has had a few decent games at right back too.

By early January, Koscielny ranked 1st in the league in between center backs for tackles at 2.7 per game, 1st in the league between center backs for interceptions with 2.8 per game, 2nd overall with 1.6 off-sides won per game and 30th overall with 5.7 clearances per game. Had Arsenal played a bit more like Stoke and had a less passing style of football, Koscielny’s clearance figures would surely have been higher too. What those figures exhibit is that Koscielny has remained consistent and improved steadily, especially in the tackling department, adding almost 1 extra successful tackle per game, which is significant at this level in a season when the league’s general level of defending has arguably deteriorated. Statistically, he is in the current team of the season, whichever angle you look at it from, even though he may not win as much plaudits compared to some of the media’s favorite players, based upon reputation. He has improved his figures in most of the categories analyzed which is as much as Wenger could’ve asked of him this season. Most impressively has been his success at not only reading the game well but ensuring that he comes in from behind the attacker and cut out the ball, something which was not coming off as much last season. He no longer is brushed off the ball as easily and it’s clear to see his confidence in his own ability to perform is higher than its ever been. He now actually believes that he belongs in the Arsenal team. He’s had a few man of the match performances this season, namely at the Velodrome at Marseille where he was magnificent as well as at Stamford Bridge, against Chelsea, where despite conceding 3 goals, Koscielny was one of the key performers who helped Arsenal overcome a late Chelsea revival.

If Koscielny continues to perform as he has this season then sights like this will be virtually non-existant

Despite huge questions marks lingering over the signing of Koscielny, Arsene Wenger stood by his man at each and every cross-roads. He continuously praised him and had faith that the now 26 year old would be a key component of the Arsenal back-line, almost to a point of ridicule. Wenger’s belief that mobility can better serve than physique for center backs as football moves forward has begin to be vindicated with both Vermaelen and Koscielny having strong attributes in that respect. Question marks never stood against the Belgian’s quality but over his injury proneness. Koscielny, however, has had to respond to criticism since entering English football, but it is safe to say that if he keeps performing as he is this season, then he would have quashed them comprehensively by the end of the season.