• Tuesday, 27 July 2010

    Not so Jol-ly

    Fulham came calling for Martin Jol after Roy Hodgson departed for Liverpool. He was keen and had agreed personal terms, but Ajax weren't interested in talking turkey. Both points of view are easy to see: the lack of obvious names for a replacement is the obvious one for Ajax while the ongoing financial constraints at the Amsterdam club may hamper Jol's ambition. What does that say about Ajax and the Dutch league as a whole?

    There is virtually no way that Ajax will match last season. Scoring over a hundred league goals in finishing a point behind champions Twente whilst attempting to reduce the squad and wage bill was quite an achievement. The Marco van Basten legacy was a bloated squad full of wasters. Dario Cvitanich was palmed off on Mexican club Pachuca, but takers couldn't be found for the likes of Miralem Sulejmani who cost an eye-watering €16.5m and has done pretty much nothing. Jol clearly doesn't want him at the club or he'd at least have played some games last season. Marko Pantelic has been let go despite his goals as the club couldn't/wouldn't offer him more than one year. His replacement? Serial failure Mido. Mounir El Hamdaoui has joined from AZ, but while expensive imports like Oleguer linger then sales of star players like Gregory van der Wiel (about to join Louis van Gaal's Dutch enclave in Munich) and Maarten Stekelenburg (Arsenal looking to take him on after his stellar World Cup) will have to make up the shortfall, undermining any manager's ability to get into that all-important Champions League group stage (a qualifier against PAOK begins tomorrow) and maybe challenge for the title next season.

    But the same problems afflict the other runners and riders. Twente have always been a selling club. On finishing second two seasons ago, they lost Eljero Elia and Marko Arnautovic. This time, veterans Blaise N'Kufo and Kenneth Perez have gone and new boss Michel Preud'homme has all on to keep hold of Bryan Ruiz. Feyenoord are still undergoing their own financial restructuring as their big money players come to the end of their careers. Roy Makaay and Gio van Bronckhorst have gone and Jon Dahl Tomasson will soon follow. PSV did similarly over the last couple of years while AZ's financial meltdown arrived last season. There are plenty of other sides in trouble too, NAC for one, which will hamper the ambition of any side in the league. It may make it more open in the league, but not in a good way so far as Ajax are concerned.

    Compared to a nice little sinecure in west London, managing any of the big five clubs in the Netherlands looks like a hassle anyone could do without.

    Sunday, 25 July 2010

    France: The backlash begins

    Collective responsibility is the term. That's certainly what Laurent Blanc has dealt out as he has suspended all 23 members of the mutinous French World Cup squad for the upcoming friendly with Norway. Hugo Lloris told L'Equipe "we acted as a team" and it's as a team that they are being punished. So where does Blanc turn for a squad? Robbing himself of the best 23 available to him certainly doesn't help him pick a side, but Raymond Domenech did do him a favour by not picking some sure starters for anyone less bonkers.

    Karim Benzema, legal issues notwithstanding, will spearhead the attack, supported ably by Samir Nasri. If fit, a big if, Lassana Diarra will do the screening job in midfield while so far as goalkeepers go, it looks a straight choice between Sébastien Frey and Monaco's Stephane Ruffier. Then it gets tricky.

    Loic Remy, currently hunted by Lyon and a clutch of Premier League clubs, and Jimmy Briand should both get the nod up front. Hatem Ben Arfa may well get the chance to shine at international level despite a club career in danger of stalling, but the other option is Lorient's highly rated Kevin Gameiro. The centre backs look set to be Laurent Koscielny, newly of Arsenal, and Michael Ciani who played with distinction under Blanc at Bordeaux. Not exactly one for the future, but 30-year old AJA right-back Cedric Hengbart had a wonderful year while Lyon's Aly Cissokho is an option on the left. Tough tackling midfielder Maxime Gonalons, Lyon's French U-21 star, should also figure.

    If it's wild punts you're after, how about Charles N'Zogbia out wide or veteran striker Pierre-Alain Frau who had his best goals return in his career for Lille last season.

    Leaving out 23 of your best players is always going to make things hard, but Blanc has an opportunity to show those would-be mutineers that they're not indispensable and will have to pull their heads in if they want to get back in his good books.

    The Euroballs selection: Ruffier; Hengbart, Koscielny, Ciani, Cissokho; Lassana Diarra, Gonalons; Nasri, Gameiro, Briand; Benzema.

    Monday, 12 July 2010

    What the hell was that?

    We knew Total Football was a thing of the past - Bert van Marwijk's been quite clear on the subject since taking the Dutch job on - but that was ridiculous.

    The inevitable autobiographies will have to be consulted for a proper account of what was said in the Oranje dressing room before the World Cup final of 2010, but it's hard to think that it was anything other than "If them Spaniards try that tippy-tappy nonsense, give 'em a massive boot up the arse", otherwise known as page one of John Beck's coaching manual. Quite why van Marwijk went this way is hard to fathom. The Dutch had waltzed through qualifying, winning every game, and did likewise on their run to the final. The semi-final against Uruguay was a veritable feast of football. From Giovanni van Bronckhorst's screamer of an opener to Maxi Perera's late consolation it was wide open and perhaps therein lies the issue. Uruguay got at the Dutch back four and made it a very nervous 90 minutes.

    Spain were not about to be afforded that luxury. Instead, they were to booted as hard as possible and as often as possible. Referee Howard Webb set his stall out early with a flurry of cards - yellow only - and he seemed determined to keep it at eleven-a-side. Nigel de Jong's Jackie Chan impression would surely have secured a straight dismissal in any game other than a World Cup final. Plenty of other challenges were right on the borderline as well, but it was only when Johnny Heitinga pulled down Andres Iniesta when the red card appeared. It was one of the tamer fouls of the evening, but the letter of the law demanded a yellow and it duly appeared, Heitinga's second. Webb's no Graham Poll, so two was deemed enough for a dismissal. This isn't to lambast Webb. Overall, he did a decent job, but faced with the petulant and the thuggish, perhaps a tougher stance early on might have calmed it down rather than see it escalate.

    Heitinga's absence allowed Iniesta the space to fire Spain ahead in extra time and he too picked up a booking for taking his shirt off. The law is an ass sometimes and certainly didn't help Webb on this occasion. The goalscorer's t-shirt bore a tribute to the late Dani Jarque. That's obviously a bookable offence. In the end, just three of the Dutch starting XI avoided a caution.

    The roots of this go back a while. The most whiny, bitchy, petulant game in living memory was in Nuremburg in the last World Cup where the Dutch took on Portugal saw 16 cautions dished out and four players were dismissed. They lost that one 1-0 too, which tells you all you need to know about what happens when they revert to such tactics. They've got the talent to win without resorting to the kind of stuff we saw at the weekend, but nobody is lamenting the fact they lost after such a cynical display.

    Saturday, 3 July 2010

    Van Marwijk wins battle of the pragmatists

    The Netherlands v Brazil. One of the classics. Total Football v Brazilian brilliance. Even the 1974 World Cup clash between these two sides in Hannover - effectively a quarter-final coming, as it did, at the end of the second group stage - seems fresh in the memory given the scintillating football on show.

    Times have changed. Bert van Marwijk would love to play Total Football, but given that he's got Ooijer, Kuyt and van Bommel to work with rather than Neeskens, Cruyff and Rep, it's going to be difficult. Likewise Brazil, though they could probably play that 1982 style were it not for Dunga and his dogged devotion to doing it his way. His way had been pretty effective, if not exactly pleasing on the eye, but anyone who saw him play can have been under no illusion that it was ever going to be anything other than this.

    The two sides lined up with identical formations, the very much in vogue 4-2-3-1, and the fear was that they'd cancel each other out. Needless to say, there are special players on either side and it was clear from the off who Brazil had identified as the main Dutch danger. Arjen Robben, for it was him, got his first boot from behind inside three minutes as Dani Alves, as the cliché goes, 'let him know he was there'. It presaged a first half that was less football fiesta than Fight Club. Johnny Heitinga gave Robinho a boot up in the air, Robben was being kicked black and blue and Mark van Bommel was doing what he does best, i.e. foul everyone, wind everyone up and try to referee the game.

    Some football did break out. Heitinga was caught terribly flat-footed and Gregory van der Wiel out of position as Felipe Melo's delicious through ball found Robinho who tucked it past Maarten Stekelenberg. The Dutch keeper pulled off one of the saves of the tournament to deny Kaka later in the first half, but as they trooped off for the interval, it felt very much like Brazil's to lose. Robben's frustration was obvious. He constantly had four men on him, some a little too close, as when Michel Bastos should have seen a second yellow for a particularly malicious foul. Contact doesn't have to be huge for Robben to go down wailing and this was further winding the Brazilians up. From the free-kick, Wesley Sniejder got it back off Robben and curled it goalwards where a huge communication breakdown saw Melo nick it past Julio Cesar for the leveller.

    Brazil lost their shit. Melo was at fault again for the second Dutch goal, Sneijder left alone in the box to nod in from five yards before the Brazilian enforcer was sent off for stamping on Robben. Bastos had already been withdrawn by Dunga before he got himself dismissed. The Dutch should have finished it off when Klaas-Jan Huntelaar dallied too long over picking a pass in the box and the cover got back, but they closed it out with relative ease.

    Dunga would have faced a stiff task to keep his job even if he'd won the competition. Losing in the quarters made his departure inevitable and it was announced within hours of the final whistle. Van Marwijk, on the other hand, has a bit more freedom. All those years of tippy-tappy football brought no reward as the nation chased the halcyon days of the mid-70s. Van Marwijk has brought organisation, solidity and unity and it's got the Netherlands a lot further. Whether he'll be loved back home for it is a matter for a day when the euphoria of beating Brazil has worn off.