Málaga CF’s relegation again shows perils of poor ownership

Having once been promised the world, Málaga CF will start the 2018/19 season in the Segunda División. Robbie Chalmers takes a look at Abdullah El Thani’s rollercoaster reign as owner.

By Robbie Chalmers

Abdullah El Thani bought the south Spanish side in 2010 with the promise of a challenge for the title. Eight years later however, the club are relegated with the blame laid solely at the foot of the Sheikh’s door.

Malaga is one of Spain’s top tourist attractions with its beautiful vistas, vibrant night life and stylish seaside lifestyle. Standing aloft in the centre is La Rosaleda, an almost magisterial old Spanish ground next to the Guadelmedina River which runs to the city’s thriving harbour. It’s an idyllic location for those who enjoy the high life. One who certainly enjoys the high life is Abdullah El Thani. He’s a Qatari royal and chairman of the privately owned Nasir Bin Abdullah & Sons (NAS Group), one of Qatar’s largest companies. CNN once called him one of the Gulf’s richest men and the long held impression is that Al-Thani possesses incredible wealth. His time at Malaga, however, paints a different picture.

The club’s economic problems were huge in 2010 and the president at the time, Fernando Sanz, saught new financial support via Doha, Qatar which led to meetings with Sheikh Abdullah ben Nasser Al Thani. After some weeks of negotiations, Al Thani became the entity’s new owner in June 2010, being named president on 28th July at the members’ meeting.

At the time of Al-Thani’s takeover the Spanish top flight was dominated by two players and two teams. Ronaldo and Messi were just beginning their decade long rivalry and the two El Clasico sides were more dominant than ever. Pep Guardiola was in charge of one of football’s greatest ever club sides and Real Madrid launched a new Galactico project to counter the Catalans universal success. Despite all this, Al-Thani sounded the alarm and promised quite the vision.

“It will take time, but our objective is for Malaga to be one of the greatest teams in Spain,” Al-Thani also said he decided to buy Malaga rather than Liverpool (which was sold the same year to the Fenway Sports Group for about £300 million).

Al Thani at the La Rosaleda stadium

At first, steps were taken to establish Malaga as a stable La Liga team and players of a more international standard were brought in. Salomón Rondon was sought after by Valencia and Villarreal at a time when both were playing regular Champions League football. The Venezuelan saw a long term project and the chance to be a part of potential revolution and so joined Malaga for a then record £3.5 million pound. Portuguese winger Eliseu also joined the side. Jesualdo Ferreira was appointed as coach but after a poor run that saw them faltering in the relegation zone, they turned to a future Man City favourite; Manuel Pellegrini.

Although the Chilean was posted in the caretaker role this would be the job that gave him a new path back to elite football. Between 2004 and 2009 he guided Villarreal to Champions League football and led them to a semi-final place in 2006. A quarter final place and second place La Liga finish in 2009 got him the Real Madrid job where he was harshly dismissed for Jose Mourinho after one year in charge. Los Blancos always have a reputation for cruel dismissals so a new challenge at Malaga felt deserving of Manuel’s talents. In the January transfer window more players were moved on to make way for bigger names such as centre back Martín Demichelis and former Arsenal attacker Júlio Baptista. They finished the 2010–11 season in 11th place.

The wheels were in motion and the club were being taken more seriously. Their growing exposure helped them strike a deal with Nike as the supplier of the club’s kits and with UNESCO, which, in addition, became the principal sponsor of the club’s kit. Ruud van Nistelrooy, Jérémy Toulalan, Santi Cazorla, Isco, Joaquín and left back Nacho Monreal were all drafted in to help the club qualify for the Champions League in 2012 for the first time in their history after finishing fourth.

With over £80 million spent on players already and the boosted financial resources from European football, Málaga made it to the 2013 Champions League quarter finals. The project reached its peak against German champions Borussia Dortmund. With the first leg ending 0–0 Malaga had a real chance to progress although they were still huge underdogs. Joaquin and Baptista put Malaga 2-1 up with only stoppage time remaining. But football can be a cruel mistress. Two late offside goals by Marco Reus (90+1st minute) and Felipe Santana (90+3rd minute) turned the tables in favour of Jurgen Klopp’s men. Malaga were so disgusted with the officials they made an official complaint to UEFA, but it was eventually dismissed.

This became the pinnacle of Al Thani’s reign and things gradually began to turn for the worse.

Unbeknownst to the fans at the time Malaga were living in an artificial bubble that couldn’t be contained, it turned out they were paying players wages that they could not afford.

Sheikh Abdullah Al Thani stopped ploughing money into the club around this time. This is because his original plan was to buy Malaga as a strategy to purchase more land in the area. The idea was that he could build a sporting city around the football club and turn his investment into a property business as well as a sporting one. Malaga were just a pawn in a bigger scheme. His plan hit a snag as the authorities denied him any planning permission for this project and, after months of appeals, he decided to pull the plug.

Al Thani cut his vast investment into the clubs infrastructure and not only were they unable to bring in any more players but they were unable to keep the stars they had. Málaga have had to sell every year, and it just gets to a point where they couldn’t squeeze more money out of the team, soon there was no talent left. In the summer of 2013, Isco was sold to Real Madrid, Joaquín to Fiorentina and midfielder Jérémy Toulalan to Monaco. The managerial position also changed, with Bernd Schuster taking over from Manuel Pellegrini who left for Manchester City.

In August 2013, Málaga were banned by UEFA, along with other clubs for its debts, so the agency in a statement declared that the club will be excluded from the subsequent competition, for which it would otherwise qualify, in the next four seasons. The ban was, however, eventually downgraded to one season. But still the scars of that night in Dortmund were deeply felt and the mishandling of the clubs finances were coming back to haunt them.

Málaga’s decline continued and they finished lower down the league each season over the past five years. And on 19 April 2018, the Malaga supporter’s worst nightmare was realised. Away to Levante, they hoped to revive their slim survival bid. They were stranded in 20th, 14 points from safety. Málaga conceded a late goal. Emmanuel Boateng sealed their fate and the clubs 10-year stay in La Liga was over. Their dream was over.

In the last decade Málaga were fed an idea that they could become a major force in Spanish football. What’s worse is that Al Thani has pledged to stay on and help Málaga return to the top flight where he says they will “return to their core position”. Perhaps he still harbours plans for a Málaga sporting city project and staying at Málaga Football Club for a few more years may endear him to the powers that be. It may be enough to get his project the go ahead.

Either way, Málaga CF have become an example of how ownership can ruin a club when the football becomes secondary to personal gain. Now they may struggle to make it back to the league they once dreamt of winning.


The Italian phoenix rises from the ashes

Roma swept Barcelona aside to complete one of the tournament’s great comebacks. It’s a result with the potential to reignite Italian football’s challenge to the European elite and leave the recent World Cup disappointment behind.

By Robbie Chalmers

What a night! Well, two nights actually. Roma and Juventus took on Spain’s El Clasico sides in this seasons Champions League quarter finals and after the first leg results, both seemed to be going only one way. Roma, 4-1 down, and Juventus, 3-0 down, faced herculean efforts to turn their ties around as very few, if any, gave them a chance. But they both very nearly made it. Nearly.

The drama at the Bernabeu was ignited by Mario Mandzukic’s goal in the second minute and exploded in the last as Michael Oliver awarded Madrid a penalty, with the very last kick. Gianluigi Buffon was sent off for dissent, Cristiano Ronaldo scored and Real scraped through by the skin of their teeth. The rumblings continued in the aftermath as the Italian press launched astounding criticism of Oliver’s dramatic, but completely correct, call to essentially seal the Old Lady’s fate.

In the midst of all this crazed reaction, outcry of bias and accusation of a Madrid agenda, there is a more important matter to focus on here. AS Roma.

The night before, 1,300km away, Rome’s Stadio Olympico was packed to the hilt with a red sea of noise, flares and belief that tonight could be Roma’s night. But how? The semi-final stages of the competition are often reserved for the elite that dine at the top-table. Bayern, Real, Barcelona and Juventus are the regular occupiers of this stage along with Atletico but they went out before Christmas. Barcelona are unbeaten in La Liga and were many people’s favourites to win the trophy. They had Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, a three goal cushion and fond memories of the hallowed ground they were playing on. After all, it was nine years ago in this very stadium that the Barcelona and Messi dynasty began by winning the trophy. Not since 2010 had another Italian side, other than Juventus, made it to the semi-final stage and not since 1984 had Roma made it that far either. Cue something remarkable.

A similar pattern transpired in the Italian capital as it did in Madrid the following night. Edin Dzeko scored early on, Daniele De Rossi followed up with a cool penalty midway through and Kostas Manolas scored late on to seal a record comeback for an Italian side in Champions League knockout football.

Barcelona were given no reprieve, no penalty and, in all honesty, no time to play. Roma were faster, stronger and more organised. Dzeko was a man possessed, dominating against Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti while this was a game too far for Messi to save his team yet again. At the final whistle an ear-splitting roar of joy erupted from the home crowd as they knew they had witnessed something truly special.

Only on three other occasions has a team overcome a three goal first leg deficit to advance to the next round. The previous was last season’s epic where PSG were beaten 6-1 by, yes… Barcelona.

Praise was universally directed towards one man, Eusebio Di Francesco. Reputations are made on nights like this and he has elevated his ten-fold. Captain De Rossi lauded him for his setup and instructions for the side and after Dzeko’s first goal they never really looked back. Di Francesco was an overachiever at his previous club Sassuolo and he continues to do it at a higher level. He went for it against the Catalans with two up top and three at the back in order to impose themselves in midfield with De Rossi, Naingollan and Strootman. Rarely do we see an Italian side with such an attacking set up in the knockout round, let alone against Barcelona. He has managed to do this all season with a possession style utilised since he joined last summer.

It’s a style we may see Italian teams exercise more in the near future.

Viewers got a glimpse of Maurizio Sarri’s exciting Napoli team this season, Simone Inzaghi has made Lazio second top scorers in Serie A this term and Gennaro Gattuso has added fire into the belly of AC Milan’s limping season. The top six sides in Serie A are all managed by Italian coaches, old and new. And not one of them plays the tradional pragmatic approach as a first choice anymore. Even Juventus sought to bring in more firepower after looking blunt in last season’s final. Contrast that with the failed cautious approach that saw Italy fall at the hands of Sweden and a change of philosophical approach has arisen.

With four Champions league places up for grabs, Italy will have stronger representation next year. No qualifying round means all four will make it to the groups as before often only two would make it. This boost will surely encourage more opportunities for these new managers to test their metal against the very best.

Italy don’t have a financial hold over Europe anymore, but few countries can thrive as much when cast as the underdog. Juventus moving to their own stadium has given them an advantage over the rest but the fact is that Juventus are tenth on the Deliotte Rich list but made it to two finals without the aid of an oil coated billionaire. Roma themselves are well backed by owners but Monchi’s arrival as sporting director last summer shows they are trying to bridge the gap with astute player recruitment. Last night was glimpse at Italian football’s potential.

There is no doubt Juventus and Roma benefited somewhat from a nothing to lose scenario but it also showed how a more proactive approach can work too. A new generation of coaching talent and a stronger Italian presence in Europe mean that an absence of fear and pragmatism could see the Italian game return in a big way.

As Johan Cruyff famously put it: “You play football with your head, and your legs are there to help you.”

Rudi García’s Olympique de Marseille on the Rise Following Recent Struggles

With a return to Champions League football next season nearing ever closer, the disappointment of the last few years could soon be a distant memory for Marseille’s faithful.

By Robbie Chalmers

The French coach has quietly improved the French side with the backing of US businessman Frank McCourt. With a return to Champions League football next season nearing ever closer, the recent disappointment of the last few years could soon be a distant memory.

The second highest number of title wins, most second placed finishes in the country and the first French side to win the European cup. Marseille have a storied history unmatched by most in France’s top flight with success spanning from pre-World War II to Didier Deschamps title win in 2010. Their first title win in 1937 came before rivals PSG were even established and they had the most French Cup wins before the Parisians received a Qatari fuelled cash injection.

Trophée des champions 2011. Image: Wikimedia

The capital club grab all the headlines now. As France’s standout side they can build a team to compete for the UEFA Champions League and attract world class stars like Neymar and Kylian Mbappe. Since their takeover in 2011 they have amassed four league titles, five league cups and three French cups. In the same period Marseilles’ fortunes could not have been more different. Of course the club don’t have the riches to compete with their rivals and their recent league performances emphasise that.

Since their title win eight years ago they have finished 2nd, 10th, 2nd, 6th, 4th, 13th and 5th. Even in that period Monaco have been promoted, won the league and reached the UEFA Champions League semi-finals. And all this was preceded by Lyon’s seven consecutive title wins from 2002 to 2008. The Marseilles have been outshone and have drifted away from the French elite.

In 2016, after the club’s worst league finish in fifteen years, Marseille again sold a number of key personnel due to financial demands and to clear the wage bill ahead of an impending takeover. Goalkeeper Steve Mandanda was club-captain and ended eight years at the club by moving to Crystal Palace, lead centre-back Nicolas N’Koulou moved to rivals Lyon, while striker Michy Batshuayi was sold to Chelsea for a club record fee. Few quality signings were made to replace them and another season of struggles lay ahead. With mass protests in the stands in an already rapturous Marseille ultras following, things looked to get worse. Change was needed, and fast.

Enter Rudi García and Frank McCourt.

Marseille began last season without a permanent manger due to takeover talks that had lasted all summer. In August 2016, it was announced that American businessman Frank McCourt had agreed to buy the club from Margarita Louis-Dreyfus. The purchase deal was completed for a reported price tag of €45 million two months later. Within the next few days, McCourt appointed a new club president in Jacques-Henri Eyraud, employed former Barcelona and Spain goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta as director of sport and, perhaps most pertinently, hired Rudi García as the manager.

Garcia is seen as a fiercely stubborn individual who rules his sides with an iron fist and holds a no nonsense attitude. This authoritative image is only trumped by his drive to play attacking, high energy football – which is not very common in France. His track record in the past makes for impressive reading. He was at the helm of the league and cup winning Lille side in 2011 that boasted Gervinho and a certain Eden Hazard. Winning with a stirring brand of football brought him many accolades including the Ligue 1 coach of the year award. Links to both Arsenal and Liverpool followed.

Eden Hazard. Image: Wikimedia

Champions League qualification was achieved at Lille the next season, despite many players being sold, and in 2013 Roma brought the Frenchman in an attempt to construct a title challenge of their own.

The Giallorossi preceded to win their first ten games in Garcia’s first season, which was a club record. That season Roma finished second to Juventus but, in the end, reached a club record points tally of 85 points. A similar theme followed his two other seasons at the club with strong starts leading to Champions league qualification. Before Garcia arrived the Roman side had not qualified for Europe’s premier club competition since 2010 and they finished 6th prior to his appointment. His track record of improving sides and making them competitive is there for all to see.

McCourt is hoping Garcia can lead Marseille on a similar path; to regular Champions League football. Monaco’s recent title win gives hope to the club that, with enough investment, they too can upset the PSG apple cart. McCourt’s promise to spend €200m in his first two years have helped bring quality with Florien Thauvin and Dimitri Payet, experience with Luis Gustavo and Steve Manadanda (again), as well as promise in Lucas Ocampos, Clinton N’Jie and Morgan Sanson.

Rudi Garcia. Image: Rosi Barreto, Flickr

Payet’s €30m return from West Ham was seen as a big coup and shows that they have the means to attract talented players from a more established league. With half the budget remaining, Garcia has the freedom to build a team going forward and there are already signs of improvement. Currently occupying third placed with just eight games remaining a return to Champions League football is close.

With a revamped stadium, an exciting manager, strong financial backing and a wealth of player potential, Marseille are close to returning to the summit of French football. Where PSG lie in wait to greet them there.

Robbie runs the Football Diet blog, check it out here.

The cult of Marco Reus: A marvellous talent robbed by injuries

Had injuries not blighted him over the years, the German international would be regarded as one of the very best. Robbie Chalmers takes a look at his prodigious talent.

By Robbie Chalmers

The German international signed a new contract keeping him at Borussia Dortmund until 2022. Though had his continuous injuries not blighted him over the years, he would be regarded as one of the very best and who knows where he could have gone.

Marco Reus’s football fate was always destined to tie him with Dortmund. He was born there after all. He started his career at local club Post SV Dortmund in 1994 and after two years he joined the youth ranks of Borussia Dortmund in 1996. After playing for Borussia Dortmund for a decade at various youth levels he left for the U-19 team of Rot Weiss Ahlen in the summer of 2006. It’s during his time there that he settled as an attacking midfielder after previously playing as a striker at Dortmund. In his second year there he broke into Ahlen’s first team, who were in the German third division at the time. He started twice and was featured in 14 matches, scoring two goals. One of his goals came on the last day of the season and propelled the team being promoted to the 2. Bundesliga. Reus had a decisive nature to his game even from an early age but yet, his particular talents of slender pacey, skilful play was not the skills demanded by German Football at the time.

In 2008 Reus watched, along with the rest of the world, the German National Team reach the European Championship final. This was seen as a shock by the nation themselves as it was a side full of ageing players headed by the talismanic captain Michael Ballack. The midfielder embodied the typical German player at that time; physical, pragmatic and mentally resilient with touches of technical quality to boot. Spain won 1-0 to begin the Tiki Taka era of diminutive, technical players who dominated possession. It was after this time Reus began to foray into top flight football. In 2008–09, as a 19-year-old, he had his definitive breakthrough as a professional football player, playing 27 games and scoring four goals. Reus was not the only player to emerge on the road to the 2010 World Cup. Thomas Muller and Mesut Ozil were making their names in the Bundesliga with Bayern and Werder Bremen respectively. This new wave of versatile, technical pacey players who excelled in transitional play were a result of total reform to the German Youth system after the failure of the 2004 European Championships in Portugal.

The new German player was born on the stage of the 2010 World Cup as a refreshing and exciting young Manshaft side swatted England and Argentina aside to make it to the Semi-finals before Spain again stopped them in their tracks. Reus was not at the World Cup but he would help lead the new wave of German player. Reus has the ability to dribble at great speed but make it looks like he’s going for a brisk jog. His facileness is matched by his quick change of direction and dazzlingly quick feet. Capable of player on either wing or as a ten his ability to start attacks from deep and sprint into the box is unmatched at the highest level (save for Ronaldo). This was on show in 2012 in his most successful season when, scoring 18 and assisting 8, he helped Borussia Mönchengladbach secure a place in the UEFA Champions League.

And then the time came. To return home. To Jurgen Klopp’s young Dortmund side who upset the Bavarian establishment to clinch consecutive titles in 2011 and 2012. Former Dortmund creator Tomáš Rosický was Reus’s role model and he emulated his playing style to boot. With Dortmund, Reus won the 2013 DFL-Supercup and the German Cup in 2017. He was the Footballer of the Year in Germany in 2012 and was on the UEFA Team of the Year in 2013. In 2012, Franz Beckenbauer spoke about Reus, along with Mario Götze, saying, “As a classic duo there is nobody better than the prolific Reus and Götze.” In 2013, Reus was ranked as the fourth best footballer in Europe by Bloomberg.

Reus’s talents are not his only attribute but his performances in big games and his resilience. He was outstanding in the clubs run to the 2013 Champions League final. Two assists in a classic against Malaga in the quarters were followed up by a Real Madrid thrashing in the semi final first leg. He ran Xabi Alonso was run raged that night. Few players have Reus’s qualities and even fewer players are as good to watch in full flow. He has Rosicky’s close control and technique, the graceful slalom runs of Hazard or Neymar and the predatory finishing of Frank Lampard (one of the best midfield goal scorers). It is just a shame, not just for a fan like myself but also the neutral viewer, that this player could not grace a World Cup or European Championships due to injuries. Reus doesn’t get the credit he deserves not because he doesn’t play but also because who he plays for. Dortmund are now a semi elite club but don’t have the long standing history there storied European neighbours have. Playing for a club that sells its best talent means many observers will wait until he makes the next step before tapping him up amongst the world best players.

Reus has never had that chance and after signing a new deal until 2022 and he may never now. Links to Real Madrid and Man United three years ago would have been the time to move but as the player has said “Dortmund is my home”. The likes of Le Tissier, Shearer and Totti had talent to play elsewhere and stay. They are revered as legends at their clubs. In an age where players are judged too often by the trophies they have won, perhaps some time is needed to savour the players that make this sport such a joy to watch. The very best players make the game look easy, which is Reus’s fortay.

Marco Reus said last October, “I would give all my money just to be healthy and play football again.”. Football is hoping that he doesn’t have to so he can dazzle us with his talent for a good few years to come.

PSG can beat Real Madrid without Neymar

3-1 down from the first leg, the Brazilian’s absence will no doubt be felt when Cristiano Ronaldo and co. come to town. However many of the players remaining have excelled on this stage before and Unai Emery can find a formula to upset the odds.

By Robbie Chalmers

3-1 down from the first leg, the Brazilians absence will no doubt be felt when Ronaldo and co come to town. However many of the players remaining have excelled on this stage before and Emery can find a formula to upset the odds.

The flood lights were gleaming, the rain was showering down from the heavens as if to add extra gloss to a victory that PSG were well on their way to in last months’ Le Classique against Marseille. The match was already at 3-0 to the Parisians and, as such is the gulf these days between them and the rest, they even dabbled in some exhibitionist football too. Flicks and tricks a plenty not only to show they’re the best but to hammer it home in ostentatious fashion. An experienced matador toying with a young bull that’s of no challenge him.

Then in a flash it happened: an injury. Neymar was clutching his leg after rolling over his ankle. He had been pushed and kicked throughout the match but how ironic is it that the cause of the injury was from his body forgetting to calculate its own movements for a split second instead of the wrath of a frustrated defender. As Neymar was taken off in tears the thought occurred to me that all the money in the world still provides no guarantees in football and that even the most innocuous of incidents can affect the trajectory of even PSG’s stratospheric project.

Despite all the negative headlines attacking Neymar’s attitude and vicarious lifestyle he has produced the goods for PSG on a regular basis this season with 19 goals and 13 assists in the league and 6 goals and 3 assists in Europe. However, he wasn’t bought for this, as Adrian Rabiot stated after the 3-1 first leg lost to Real. Neymar flitted in and out at the Bernabeu doing quite a lot without effecting that much. Sensational dribbles would lead to dead ends and superb individual skill was conducted in isolated areas. After all it demands a lot to guarantee performances at this level, just ask Ronaldo. Real’s star player touched the ball 30 times and scored twice. Ronaldo doesn’t produce Neymar’s star dust but he is an apex predator with an insatiable instinct for goals. So is Neymar’s absence that much of a loss in reality? Perhaps not.

Cristiano Ronaldo in action for Real Madrid. Image: @JanS0L0

PSG will likely line up in a 4-3-3. Thiago Silva my return to the defence in place of Presnel Kimbempe, 21, who started in Madrid. Silva was on the pitch in last season’s 6-1 humiliation at Barcelona and, as a result, his big game mentality was questioned. However, in a game where they need to chase the result perhaps his influence can drive them from the back.

Thiago Motta may return to replace young Lo Celso as the sitting midfielder. His experience will be key to maintaining a balance. If the Italian is not fit in time Lassana Diarra, signed on a free agent in January, would prove a tenacious option in the middle as well. The Verratti-Rabiot partnership could be the difference against a side that may not have Modric or Kroos for Tuesday night.

Emery has a few options for his front three. Cavani is up top either way. On the left Julian Draxler can stake a claim in Neymar’s place or Kylian Mbappe could do after playing there for Monaco at times last season. The young Frenchman has competed with Angel Di Maria for the right wing spot all season and both can excel there against an out of sorts Marcelo. Let’s not forget it was a front three of Draxler, Cavani and Di Maria that beat a superior Barcelona team 4-0 at this stage last year. Any combination of the three could do real damage to Zidane’s side.

Edinson Cavani has a reputation for missing big chances at vital moments but the reality is very different. He has scored 26 goals in 43 appearances in the Champions League with 8 already this season. He scored crucial goals against Chelsea in their last two knockout ties, two against Barcelona in last season’s last 16 and slotted one past Bayern in this year’s group. He will be key against a Varane-Ramos centre back pairing that has fallen short many times of late.

Much will depend on Edinson Cavani. Image: @BenSutherland

Julian Draxler scored in the 4-0 win over Barca last season and has caused havoc against Madrid before. He was man of the match when his Wolfsburg side beat Madrid 2-0 in the quarter final first leg in 2016. Driving in from the left he has similar attributes to Neymar. He dribbles with great speed, is fleet footed and is lethal from range with his passing and shooting. Dani Carvajal is out for the second leg so make shift centre back Nacho will fill the slot which will favour the German.

Kylian Mbappe can play both wings and is still the world’s most talented young player. His record in the last year has been superb. He scored in five of the six knock out matches last season against Manchester City, Borussia Dortmund and Juventus on Monaco’s run to the semi-final. He managed to get the better of excellent full back David Alaba in both matches against Bayern and he can repeat that again against Marcelo.

Former Real Madrid player Di Maria scored two in last year’s Barca victory including a brilliant free kick. The Argentine has replaced Mbappe since the turn of the year and can inflict the same level of damage tonight. More inclined to cut in on his left foot, he can take advantage of Casemiro’s shaky form and, given he is prone to a booking, can put the Brazilian under pressure.

Real Madrid themselves have picked up form despite an underwhelming season by their own lofty standards. The defending champions have suffered in big games this season against Tottenham and Barcelona. Even with positive results against Dortmund, Atletico and PSG they displayed a real lack of structure without the ball and a lack of cohesion in the attacking third. Zidane’s big decision is whether to play Isco behind a front two or stick with the BBC now that Gareth Bale is back. Given the return to form of the later in recent weeks, a 4-3-3 with the BBC up top will be likely. Kroos and Modric may both miss out and that will go a long way to determining who advances.

With a two goal cushion Madrid are still favourites. However, the issues they have could help PSG upset the odds. Emery can still line up a side with players who have done it at this stage before. They can do it without Neymar.

This piece was first published over at Football Diet.

Elite Managers are making their mark in England, but how sustainable is it?

Europe’s finest coaches have swarmed on the Premier League, but will the clubs make the most of it?

By Robbie Chalmers

The English Teams have hit a second wind in Europe’s elite club competition and look well set for a strong challenge. This success has benefited from the talents of Europe’s finest group of coaches, each of whom has had the room to imprint their own philosophy without protest. But will it be a flash in the pan?

Some drubbings, a breathless end to end affair and a tightly contested bout. These are the three categories games in the Champions League knockout stages take. In the decades preceding this year the first leg is generally a cagey, tactical chess match with little real goalmouth action. This season though has continued a recent trend of high pressing, attack minded teams who have no issue taking it to the home side. Porto, along with Besiktas, suffered a 5-0 hammering while Basel were on the end of a predicted 4-0 mauling. Juventus uncharacteristically gave away a two goal lead in a game where they had 40% possession at home whilst Sevilla and Barcelona had to settle for fiddling draws.

The contrast between each game is pertinent as they were all ties in which English clubs partook. Very impressive when given a glance and, looking even further, each team perfectly carried out their managers core tactical blueprints. Man City played head-spinning pressing and possession football to cut down Basel, Tottenham produced a brand of possession themselves with a mix of athleticism and directness that befits Pochettino’s style. Meanwhile, Liverpool countered Porto to oblivion much to Klopp’s pleasure and Conte instilled an intensive defensive display against Barcelona and sought to attack the spaces with three pacey forwards filled with boundless energy. While much of United’s game against Sevilla was about Pogba not starting, much of the focus at the final whistle was directed at a cautious defensive display that lacked any real ambition to commit men forward. These contrasting styles are what make the top end of English football so interesting to watch around the world.

But is this actually a good thing?

Ask any man of football, whether it’s a journalist, ex pro or simply a season ticket holder, what the philosophy of English football is and they may actually struggle to give an answer. If they did, it may be; a physical and direct game, a risky and expansive attacking team with good wing play or a team that simply relies on its superstars to win matches.

The FA has its own philosophy outlined for future generations of players on their official website. However a philosophy doesn’t just count for players but for managers, coaches and even owners. The top clubs in England have been run predominantly by foreign managers from all parts of the world for the last 20 years. The last time English teams dominated European football Ferguson, Wenger, Benitez and Mourinho were at the helm of the old ‘Top Four’. The former two emphasised an attacking game whilst the latter chose more pragmatic means, both methods leading to success. Two of the four won the Champions League while another became a runner up.

The resources are even more so now

Each coach at England’s top 5 teams presently has had between 18 months to four years at the helm to build their own side. Abramovich at Chelsea no longer groans at the sight of less than attractive football given Pep’s Barcelona team have become more and more of a distant memory and also his purse strings have tightened slightly. Guardiola himself was reportedly given the chance to give his input on signings and procedures before he came in at City and is now reaping the rewards. Mourinho was cast in as the all-knowing salvation to save them from the drab Van Gaal years (which is saying a lot) and Klopp was a too good to miss opportunity for Liverpool. Pochettino is the perhaps the exception here. The Argentine was a more organic appointment as he was a manager on the up who has taken the club with him on his personal upward curve. When you feel you’ve got a once in a decade quality manager you’re going to make it work. And to make it work make them happy: give them total control.

With clubs adopting a more short term approach by bringing in a manager to instil a philosophy to the club, rather than bring in a man that’s suits a pre-existing ideology; the long term thinking becomes secondary.

Poor results are over exaggerated in the media, fans have become more impatient and a manager’s job, particularly at the top, becomes a trap door hidden under a glossy carpet. Young academy players are given less and less chance at these teams as the elite managers aren’t allowed the luxury of risk. None at the moment are English born either so they have no inherent desire to give them chance in the hope of developing future talent of their own country. Young players are seeking more chances abroad with young Jadon Sancho making his first appearance for Borussia Dortmund two weeks after signing whilst previously going unused at City. Pep has talked up the use of Diaz and Foden as top young prospects but the Spaniards shelf life at top clubs, like Mourinho, is between 2-4 years. After they go, then what? The short term success could be undercut by a gruelling transition period after another face aims to build a side in his own eyes.

For instance Jose was tipped to replace Rijkaard at Barcelona in 2008 and even had an interview to which the club’s representatives were very impressed. But he wasn’t for them. He didn’t fall into their model. Yes the Catalans are very dedicated to the way they play putting him at a disadvantage but Jose was the man of the moment. The best around. Yet they decided to go with the man who had no top flight experience, but a deep rooted understanding of their philosophy.

Clubs like Sevilla and Villarreal do well to bring in managers with the right profile also. The same example can be made when Joachim Löw was promoted after Klinsmann left the German national team. The Bundesliga also has a long history of promoting from within, with both Bayern and Dortmund very keen to fight it out for 30 year old Julian Nagelsmann at Hoffenheim after they finished fourth last season. It’s his first professional job and yet they see that his methods benefit the way the clubs are modelled. And as we know Germany and Spain are still pretty good at football despite inferior resources.

In the meantime top clubs from England continue to benefit from these master coaches so long as they have the control. But in the end the results falter and the managers depart under the cloud off dizzying expectations because, with so many clubs after four trophies, they can’t all be equally successful.

And with that, English clubs will need to go back to the drawing board and start again as a new solutions man arrives to wipe the slate clean.

Superscouts and their growing influence on how clubs are run

With clubs placing scouts all over the globe, those individuals with a track record of finding the next world stars are more in demand than ever. Delve into the world of superscouts..

By Robbie Chalmers

With clubs able to place scouts all over the globe, those individuals with a track record of finding the next world stars are more in demand than ever. The Superscouts and their growing influence mean they may run teams in the future, rendering a manager’s role obsolete.

Don’t pay for the talent. You pay a talent that finds other talent. There’s a quote about teaching a man to fish you will have heard a million times before. As German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer would put it, “Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.”

A phrase very much in-keeping with the spirit of the beautiful game. The greatest players and managers can conjure moments that transcend the sport and inspire a generation to re-think what’s possible. The quote is also well attributed to another footballing pastime; scouting. Finding the new Mbappe or Dembele before anyone else is more difficult than ever, with video technology covering all corners of the globe. Scouts are located on every continent charged with finding the diamond in the rough. The need to find players like this is becoming more and more important within a football economy that doubled in inflation after Neymar’s move to PSG.

The role of the manager involves coaching, recruiting, scouting, negotiating contracts and dealing with the press among other things. The high demand placed on one person may be too much to bare for some. In years gone by such a model was normal for the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, but now the landscape has changed. Owners and Chairmen of clubs have looked for ways to delegate the role before. In the 90’s in England there was Gianluca Vialli’s so-so stint as part player-manager at Chelsea, while Liverpool had similar results appointing Gerard Houllier and Roy Evans as co-managers. Kenny Dalgleish and John Barnes had a failed spell as co-managers at Celtic at the turn of the millennia.

There are examples of this method being tried abroad as a long term strategy. From there, Directors of Football were appointed to manage between the training ground and the board room. However this proved problematic for some. Harry Redknapp, not the most flexible of coaches it must be said, reportedly quit his as manager of Portsmouth in 2004 after falling out with new Director of Football Velimir Zajec. Even with speed bumps along the road, the vision of a delegated management strategy still gathers pace today.

Sven Mislintat (left) alongside BVB Sporting Director Michael Zorc (right).

The biggest addition for Arsenal last year was not a player but a Head of Recruitment. Sven Mislintat was brought in by the Gunners having spent eight years at Borussia Dortmund finding some of the finest players to emerge in recent seasons. The German is responsible for bringing the likes of Mats Hummels, Jakub Blaszyczkowski, Neven Subotic, Sven Bender, Robert Lewandowski, Shinji Kagawa, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Ousmane Dembele to the German giants.

Working on a smaller budget in comparison to the rest of Europe’s elite, the Head Scout attracted the interest of domestic rivals Bayern Munich two years ago. Mislintat also came close to leaving Dormund in 2017 after falling out with the former Dortmund head coach, Thomas Tuchel, after a disagreement over a potential signing. The situation got to such a state, that for a while Mislintat stayed away from the club’s training facilities all together. However, Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke saw Tuchel out the door two days after winning the German Cup while Sven remained. It was a strong statement of where the power lied behind the scenes and how highly regarded he was at the Westfalenstadion. His work there was a big factor in how the team managed to stay competitive, despite constant departures to key players.

Another fine example is Ramon Rodriguez Verdejo – better known as Monchi. The son of a joiner in the shipyards of San Francisco in Cadiz, Monchi is a former Sevilla player for the B team and played over 100 times for the first team as well as being a team mate of Diego Maradona. In the summer of 2000 he became Sevilla’s sporting director and things haven’t been the same since.

They had just been relegated at the time and were in great financial difficulty. Prior to Monchi’s arrival, the club had won four trophies and had never won a European title. During his time there they won five Europa Leagues, went through nine managers and three club presidents, yet the Head of Recruitment remained.

It’s Monchi’s eye for untapped potential in their early twenties that makes him stand out. Getting players before they blossom is an achievement but doing so on a budget even more so. Dani Alves was brought in as a winger/playmaker at best but became one of the all-time great full backs and sold for a £25m plus profit. Rakitic was bought for less than £3m and sold for £17m a year later with both players winning the treble at Barcelona. Monchi said both these players were included in his personal Sevilla IX. Palop in goal; Alves, Fazio, Caceres, Adriano at the back; Rakitic, Baptista, Keita and Poulsen in midfield; with Luis Fabiano and Bacca up front. All this talent were bought for £23.5m and were all sold for just over £150m.

It’s this type of sharp eye that saw the Spaniard receive offers from across Europe. It was Roma he rocked up at last summer and his influence was immediately felt. He was asked what players they would look to sign, to explain why Mohamed Salah was allowed to leave with so little fight and what their future transfer strategy was. Questions that are typically aimed at the Manager, were aimed at the Sporting Director. With new manager Di Francesco arriving only last summer too, both men were starting on an even basis. But it was Monchi who was chosen as the transfer guru.

Monchi upon joining AS Roma

It is a concept that can be seen a lot more in other sports, such as American Football. NFL teams also have a dilution of power with a similar relationship between a general manager and coach. Simply put, no one is indispensable.

Another example of the use of statistics and science as a form of analysis is the Oakland Athletics baseball season in 2002. General Manager Billy Beane and Assistant General Manager Peter Brand, faced with the franchise’s most limited budget for players, built a team of undervalued talent by taking a sophisticated sabermetric approach towards scouting and analysing players, instead of the opinions of experienced baseball men from the recruitment team. Beane faced strong objections from both the Head Coach and the recruitment team but eventually inspired one of the most historic seasons in baseball history. Football is beginning to follow suit.

Arsene Wenger is a great theorist of the game and mirrors this opinion. Just as a company’s grows in size they feel a stronger need to guarantee results. So oversite is a must. Not just in sports but in all forms of business.

Arsene Wenger said: “I am convinced that in ten to 15 years it will not necessarily be a football specialist who will be the manager of the club. He will have so many scientist around him who bring out the team to play on Saturday. It will be more a management specialist, than a football specialist because the football decisions will be made by technological analysers.”

Football clubs are less willing to hand one man all the power simply because, were he to depart, the upheaval causes the whole mechanism to slow down. Football clubs don’t want mass changes after the coach leaves which is why we see more and more clubs hiring their own scouts and analysts. And it’s a view shared by Wenger when it comes to the future of football.

The manager of the future will not even need a football background, because his or her decisions will be based on science and technology. The manager will no longer be the all-powerful leader, but instead one of many cogs in a well-oiled machine. The desire for superscouts as the go-to guys for bringing in talent will only grow with time, especially by clubs owners who want more control over how their team is run.

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