Deep in their roots, but all flowers see the light

Athletic Club de Bilbao head towards the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Andalucía this Sunday to face Granada. Here we look at their recent change in form.

By Danny Wyn Griffith.

Athletic Club de Bilbao head towards the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Andalucía this Sunday to face Granada.

The Los Leones are unbeaten in their last seven outings. They have five wins on the bounce with fifteen goals in that period. They play with the pace and vigour they’ve become renowned for.

They are La Liga’s in-form team, may I add.

Athletic, following a rough ending to September, have crept up the table and currently lie in eighth place heading into this weekend’s round of fixtures.

Ernesto Valverde, who guided the club to Super Cup glory over Barcelona in August, seems to have found that missing ingredient.

His name is Iñaki Williams.

Despite making a handful of appearances last year, he’s burst onto the scene with some scintillating performances this season. The twenty-one year old has six goals in nine games whilst demonstrating some real potential playing both on the wing and centrally for Athletic.

Despite his father being of Ghanaian origin and his mother of Liberian, he qualifies for Athletic’s la cantera policy having been born in the region.

This policy sets them aside in the modern game. They stand defiantly and face the powers that wish to change. La cantera goes against the grain of commercialised-squeezing that consists at most European giants.

It may hold them back from once again becoming a powerhouse of the game, but they are happily set in their ways.

Iñaki has provided the spark for Athletic whilst veteran striker, Artiz Aduriz, leads the line in true la furia style.

Thirty-four year old Aduriz, who scored a hat-trick during the Super Cup win in August, has fifteen goals in as many games this season. He has provided five assists along the way as well – proving he brings an all-round game to leading the line.

Beñat – notoriously known for lacking pace – orchestrates the team in the middle of the field. He keeps the ball ticking over whilst averaging two interceptions and tackles per game, according to whoscored.com. His set-piece prowess gives Athletic an extra weapon in their armoury. He has two goals and four assists in all competitions.

They have ever-present stalwarts such as Aymeric Laporte and Mikel San José at the back. The former provides the calmness, whilst the latter provides grit.

These players make up the backbone of a team who are looking upwards – not downwards.

When Athletic Club get ahead of steam, the region goes into frenzy. I witnessed this first-hand in 2012 when Los Leones knocked Manchester United out of the UEFA Europa League at La Catedral.

Red and white scarves dangled along the cobbled Basque streets. The locals go into true festival mode with their kalimotxos and local music. 

Ernesto Valverde will be hoping that scenes like those and the type he witnessed in August when winning the Super Cup become normality – as they once were in the distant past.

Advertisement

Gareth Bale Absence to Suit Club and Country

Here we look at Gareth Bale’s absence from the Wales squad for the upcoming friendly against Holland this Friday.

By Tommie Collins.

The Cardiff City Stadium looks set to welcome the Oranje for what should be a mouth-watering encounter tonight.

However, is the friendly all it seems on paper?

It’s been an astonishing turnaround in Welsh fortunes over the past eighteen months whilst the Dutch have suffered utter capitulation ever since the impressive showing at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

Wales qualified for Euro 2016 with a game to spare – our first tournament since 1958. The Dutch failed to even manage a play-off place.

However, the crux of this piece is whether Gareth Bale should have been part of the Welsh squad for the upcoming game.

Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale will be missing for the clash despite making his comeback from injury at the weekend in a 3-2 defeat against Seville.

Incidentally, he also pulled out of the last game against the Dutch back in June 2014 citing a leg injury he had been nursing.

Many others and I were not best pleased by his decision back then.

It seemed as though we had another Ryan Giggs on our hands – someone I’ve been critical of in the past for shunning his country numerous times when friendlies came calling.

To make matters worse, Gareth Bale went on a publicity-jaunt to Indonesia of all places during that particular international break.

This was a time when the Welsh squad needed him as we were far from being the finished article.

Nevertheless, I honestly feel that Gareth Bale can be excused for this match as he has almost single-handedly got us through to France.

I expect Chris Coleman to experiment a little to get a better feel of his squad ahead of this summer’s tournament. I believe the internationals pencilled in for spring needs a steady squad in place ready for France.

Last week saw Chris Coleman build on his ever-increasing cult following. It was fantastic to see him taking a stand against Arsene Wenger for his criticism of Wales playing Aaron Ramsey for the full ninety-minutes against Andorra.

Although when it comes to Gareth Bale, we have to think about our long-term relationship with Real Madrid. His record speaks for itself; therefore we need to be slightly cautious.

Angen cadw’r ddesgil yn wastad’ as we the Welsh would say.

However, it’s refreshing to see us standing up to big-club managers. We were pushed around for many a year by Sir Alex Ferguson when it came to Ryan Giggs but it now seems a distant memory.

Another burning issue with this friendly is the chosen day. It means a long post-work Friday night drive along the A470 for many of North Wales’ loyal supporters.

With Uefa setting the dates I understand that friendlies could have been played on the Saturday. It would have proved a great opportunity to make it slightly easier for those who live beyond the South Wales divide.

I know of many loyal fans who are struggling to make this match due to them using up their work-holiday allocation for the recent qualifiers.

A missed opportunity of sorts, perhaps?

The U21’s match against Armenia at the Bangor University Stadium further complicates matters. It kicks off at the awkward time of 2pm that proves to be another kick in the teeth for the ever-faithful North Walians.

For future reference, Saturday slots would do the trick whilst I hold hope that Gareth Bale’s absence from the friendly fold will be temporary – not permanent.

Keep the faith.

Tommie Collins.

The Smalling Wall

Chris Smalling has enjoyed a rise in stature since Louis van Gaal arrived in Manchester. Here we look at the improvements he’s made.

 

By Danny Wyn Griffith.

Slowly walking off The Etihad turf last November, Chris Smalling’s face was awash with deep regret.

He had just been sent off in the 168th Manchester Derby and given Manchester City the edge in a match they had thus far been second best in. He was jeered off by both sets of fans. A rare site nowadays.

He proved the catalyst in a narrow 1-0 defeat to their local rivals. The Manchester United section went home cursing the Chris Smalling effect.

His first yellow card was needless, whilst the second bordered on career-suicide. That seemed to have guaranteed his departure from Manchester United come the end of the season – I was convinced of it.

Less than a year on from that day at Eastlands, his Manchester United career seems to have been restarted all over again. It was nothing more than a sharp learning curve, it seems. I’ve happily reconsidered my opinion of him since.

He has transformed himself from a nervy-lank into arguably the best performing defender of the English Premier League season so far.

He is Louis van Gaal’s go-to-man when it comes to defensive matters. He’s relished the task at hand without any qualms.

A Chris Smalling that seems to be growing in stature by the game is now marshalling a Manchester United defence that has been ridiculed since the heyday of a Nemanja Vidic/Rio Ferdinand partnership.

Louis van Gaal’s constant reminding of the process can be tiring at times, although he deserves praise for the development he’s overseen in Chris Smalling’s game.

Surprisingly, the Iron Tulip refused to accept any praise when questioned on the matter whilst suggesting the player himself was the one who took the initiative.

He said: “I think that the player when he does things, he does it always by himself.

“I help him with advice and demands, with training sessions, showing images to improve him.

“But he has to be open and he has to perform on the pitch. He does everything himself. The greatest compliment you need to make is to Chris, not to me.”

The difference in Chris Smalling’s defensive statistics since Louis van Gaal arrived underlines the Dutchman’s effect.

Per game – according to whoscored.com he now averages at least 0.8 tackles, 1.2 clearances and an interception more than at any other point during his top-flight career.

He’s developed a bully-type presence when facing Premier League strikers – see Romelu Lukaku last week – whilst every ball crossed into the box seems to have his name on it.

However, a sense of elegance has also been added to his game.

He was renowned for being shaky on the ball. It always seemed like an earthquake was taking place between his feet. He’d receive the ball and get rid of it pronto. If he dared to venture from defence, he was odds-on to turn around and pass back to his closest ally.

Chris Smalling was no Franz Beckenbauer.

Nevertheless, a look at his passing stats since Van Gaal arrived on Manchester highlights a startling improvement in his all-round game.

Since the start of last season, he averages at least 18.6 passes per game more than at any other point in his career whilst averaging an 87.5% pass completion rate.

He finished last season ranked in 20th place with an 88.6% pass completion rate – just behind accomplished passers such as Yaya Toure (17th place – 88.9%) and ahead of Nemanja Matic (36th place – 86.4%).

Evidence of his improvement is there for all to see.

Tomorrow will be the 170th Manchester Derby, and the first that Smalling knowingly heads into as a starter – barring any injury.

He’s a vital part of the backbone that has propelled Manchester United to the higher reaches of the English Premier League of late. He also grabbed a goal during the last meeting between both sides at Old Trafford in April.

The manager even talked him up as a future Manchester United and England captain this past week – further emphasising his sudden importance in the Dutchman’s eyes.

The boy from Greenwich has developed into one of Louis van Gaal’s most trusted confidants and he doesn’t seem to be looking back.

by Danny Wyn Griffith.

Chelsea In Crisis, They Say.

Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea have struggled so far this term. Tommie Collins (@CymroPort) gives his opinion on the matter.

 

By Tommie Collins.

As a long standing Chelsea fan since the 70’s, this so-called crisis amuses me.

The Chelsea team I chose to support because of the white stripe on their shorts – who went 27 years without winning a trophy of note – that previously teetered on the brink of relegation to the old Third Division in 1983 – who sack managers at will – that were European Champions three years ago and won the league at a canter last season.

They are now in the middle of a crisis, apparently.

Chelsea have the most successful manager in their history at the helm – although some beg to differ that we don’t actually have a history.

However, Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea are now languishing in the lower reaches of the English Premier League with rival fans tipping the special, grumpy or sometimes happy one as the next in line for the chop.

Come on, will you – we were a poor side in crisis way back in those heady days of the late 70’s and early 80’s. See above for more details.

Onto this current crisis we go.

We are talking about the team who romped to the title a few months back, with fans and press alike handing out plaudits to the likes of John Terry, Nemanja Matic and Cesc Fabregas – who I had reservations about from the start.

Why you ask? It was nothing to do with Cesc really, it had everything to do with the club’s philosophy of signing young players at will only to loan them out to other clubs – eh let’s just say a certain club that participate in the Dutch Eredivise.

It was the sheer arrogance of the club’s “we’ll buy because we can” attitude. I and many other long-term fans believed youth should have had their chance.

This current crisis is thought to have started back in pre-season – or the lack of it, according to some murmurs.

Too many players have underperformed since. Ivanovic, Matic, Hazard and Fabregas spring to mind. The latter, according to some fans that go week in, week out seems like he just doesn’t have the desire to perform at the top level every match: he’s been having a right mare, actually.

So José the magician is having his first crisis as a manager.

The Eva Carneiro incident has clearly affected him and the club also. In my opinon, José got that wrong.

The indiscriminate substitutions and dropping of players – especially the captain, leader, legend John Terry – suggests that something is wrong in the camp.

The futile attempt to coax John Stones from Everton ended in disaster and gave a message that José can no longer buy anyone he takes a fancy to. This also proved another kick in the teeth for many a youngster waiting in the shadows.

Chelsea have made errors in the past by sacking or not awarding contracts to managers at vital times. The McCreadie incident with the row in the 70’s springs to mind, whilst more recently you have the Carlo Ancelotti dismissal.

Getting rid of Ancelotti was a huge mistake, in my opinion. A mistake the club took a long time to recover from. Therefore, we need to stick with José now.

For some fans, this man can do no wrong and they’re entitled to their opinions, but for me he should toe the line and keep quiet during some situations. If the dressing room holds egos and players want him out, then they are doing a mighty good job of accomplishing it.

In life, we all make mistakes and should show some humility when they are made. I think it’s time for the special one to admit to the former and improve on the latter, perhaps.

Keep the faith.

Tommie Collins.

Tommie with José last season.

More is Expected, Memphis.

Memphis Depay hasn’t been at his best of late. Here, we look at the the reasons behind his form.

 

By Danny Wyn Griffith.

“He’s our new boy on the wing, Memphis Depay…” sang Manchester United fans to the Because I Got High – Afroman tune whilst building up to their first away match of the season at Villa Park in August.

Two months on, Memphis Depay could be dropped for this Saturday’s Barclays Premier League clash at Goodison Park, according to numerous reports.

The Dutchman arrived in Manchester with high expectations following a twenty-five goal return at PSV Eindhoven last season. So far, things haven’t materialised to that extent having twice been substituted at half-time in his past six appearances for Louis van Gaal’s side.

It definitely seems as if Depay has found the pace and demand of the English game difficult thus far, having excelled in the UEFA Champions League.

His stats seem to back-up the thought that he’s currently more adept to European opposition. His UEFA Champions League stats show he’s had 1.9 shots, 0.6 dribbles and a key-pass per game more compared to his showings in the English Premier League, according to whoscored.com.

He has three goals in four European games, compared to just one in eight domestically. The cross he provided for Marouane Fellaini’s late header against Club Brugge in August is his only assist of the season – the match he scored two of his four United goals, in fact.

However, reports have emerged that exterior aspects might be hampering his game with a reported dressing-down having been given to him by United’s assistant, Ryan Giggs.

Although Louis van Gaal warned of a potential bedding-in period being required, stories of this sort were not expected so early on in his Manchester United career – despite past off-field problems.

He himself already seems quite wary of the demands asked of him when recently questioned about the difference between the English and Dutch league in leading Dutch newspaper, De Telegraaf.

He said: “There are a lot of games in Manchester. There are very few rest days and on training days you are mainly concerned with recovering.

“It’s heavy, two games a week, always at a high level, and my body has to get used to that.”

Memphis seemed to be a confident and carefree soul when he took PSV to the Eredivise title last season.

This season, he seems to have had his wings clipped.

Louis van Gaal’s reserved playing style and the increased competitive nature of the Premier League haven’t helped matters. You also wonder if he’s taken too much for granted early on in his Red Devils career.

However, a reprieve in Ashley Young’s knock might see him given another opportunity to impress this Saturday.

If he does, United fans might just be going home high on Holland’s finest.

American in Alkmaar

Billy Beane, former first draft Major League Baseball pick turned Sporting Analytics enthusiast, has made his first and much-anticipated venture into Football…

 

By Danny Wyn Griffith.

Billy Beane, former first draft Major League Baseball pick turned Sporting Analytics enthusiast, has made his first and much-anticipated venture into Football in an Official Adviser capacity for Dutch Eredivisie club, AZ Alkmaar.

Ever since a best-selling book called Moneyball – about his ideology and antics as General Manager of The Oakland A’s – was converted into a Hollywood film back in 2011, his name has been attached to folklore by the Sporting Economics and Analytics field.

Having Brad Pitt play his character in the film may have had a part to play in it. Although, for everyone that’s taken an extra interest in his achievements within Baseball management – they quickly look past this coincidence.

Over the past fifteen years, the Oakland A’s went on to reach the play-offs eight times despite having the fifth or sixth lowest budget among the 30 teams involved in the Baseball Major Leagues.

Looking at long-term achievements, there is no Football equivalent to Baseball’s Oakland A’s.

Currently, it’s like 6th placed English Premier League side Southampton selling their prized assets last summer, but doing so each year for fifteen years whilst still achieving a top-six finish nearly every season.

Forgetting English Football and looking across the shores, Borussia Dortmund is another potential example. However, even they’ve shown this season it’s pretty much inconceivable a bad-patch may come along by doing exactly that.

Billy Beane has been able to maintain performance levels by trading players at the right time, and for the right amounts. To put it simpler, he uses data analysis to find value that may not strike the eye at first view.

From time-to-time, a player comes along that has his value to a team-sport demeaned because he may be suspect to injuries, say. It’s here that Billy Beane saw a gap in the Baseball market and decided to exploit it.

He picked up on a theory by Kansas-born Bill James that on-base percentage within Baseball was overlooked and underappreciated, therefore moved to take advantage of it – and thoroughly did.

Factory worker James studied Baseball in his spare time. He went on to achieve bestsellers when his scribbles and thoughts were eventually sold as books.

James stated that ‘his books were outside baseball and shows you what the sport looks like if you take a step back from it and study it intensely.’

In Football though, it would be harder to spot an undervalued part of the game given the fast pace it is played at. It’s not a stop-start sport like Baseball.

However, dead-ball situations are sections of the game where Billy Beane and Bill James’ methods could make a difference. You’re able to take that step back and analyse the situation from a free-kick or corner.

If AZ were expecting Billy Beane to make an immediate impact, it is during these situations he may be able to achieve his first positive progressions within Football.

Scoring rates from free-kicks and corners are incredibly low to think that so much concentration is given to these situations.

As Ben Lyttleton of Soccernomics and The Guardian recently stated, Cristiano Ronaldo had failed to convert any of his previous 54 free-kick attempts as of the 26th of March 2015. (Typically though, he scored his first of the season as I uploaded this piece.)

The brilliant Soccernomics book has a theory that you have a better chance of scoring from dead-ball situations if you play it short to a teammate. The reasoning being that a number of players are holed up in the wall or marking in the box; therefore it allows space to develop in other areas of the opposition’s final-third.

Dutch Football followers might just pick up on the increased numbers of AZ short-corners or free-kicks over the coming year, perhaps.

Billy Beane’s success isn’t only down to his and James’ own ideology. He places emphasis on ‘making sure he is always the dumbest guy in the room.’

He decided to surround himself with people that were experts in their own field, may it be Baseball or not. One of his staff, Farhan Zaidi, had a PHD in Behavioural Economics but no thorough knowledge of the sport. He is now the General Manager of the LA Dodgers.

Billy Beane bringing analytic ideology into Football will not be a completely new experience, though. Nowadays, most top-tiered teams have statistical analysis specialists employed throughout their clubs.

Surprisingly perhaps, but it was Sam Allardyce at Bolton Wanderers in 1999 who first placed more emphasis on employing good statisticians, rather than good players – not that he was able to afford any.

Bolton were known as overachievers during Allardyce’s eight years in the North West of England. They saw seasoned veterans like Jay Jay Okocha and Ivan Campo arrive cheaply to great effect. Billy Beane has had similar success with older athletes across the Atlantic.

One of his analysts at the time, Mike Forde (later went onto become Chelsea’s Performance Director) found that ‘the ball changed hands 400 times during a match, on average.

Allardyce was apparently infatuated by this stat, and emphasised the importance of instantly switching to defensive positions once the ball was lost.

People with an outside view of the game have more reason to pick up on these aspects as they look at the game differently to a coach.

Therefore, Allardyce’s decision to employ statisticians paid dividends – similar to Billy Beane’s at The Oakland A’s.

Beane’s contract with The Oakland A’s comes to an end in 2019. Afterwards, he intends to become involved in English Football, per The Guardian. If his plans come to fruition, English Football might be given the statistical shake-up of a lifetime.

Firstly though, the influence he has around the cheese markets of Alkmaar will bear much influence on his future intentions.

By @dannywgriffith.

Some info sourced from The Guardian articles and the Soccernomics book.

The Basque Gem of Manchester

Drinking Kalimotxos with Basque locals after Manchester United’s defeat to Athletic Bilbao, whilst praising a certain Ander Herrera..

By Danny Wyn Griffith.

Ander Herrera first came to my attention during the Europa League tie against Athletic Bilbao in 2012.

He dominated the midfield during both ties, and emphasised Marcelo Bielsa’s philosophy at the San Mamés with his industrious performance.

A mate and myself were left praising him and his team whilst drinking Kalimotxos (Pints of Red wine and Coke) with locals after the 2-1 second leg defeat on that night in Bilbao.

United officials also took note, and finally completed the deal two years on from the humbling defeat in the Basque Country.

Given his mesmerising recent performances for Manchester United, the mind-boggling question is – How did Ander Herrera become United’s “odd man out” in the first place?

Nearly seven months ago on a sunny afternoon in the M16 0RA area against QPR, United fans sensed the much-needed complete midfielder had finally been delivered.

Ander Herrera of the Basque Country produced a swashbuckling performance in which he produced a goal and gave glimpse to midfield capabilities not seen since the heyday of the legendary, and particularly hard-to-replace, Paul Scholes.

Ander went on to start cementing his first-team place, and despite the patchy form United kept producing, his new venture seemed rosy.

This was until a fractured rib against West Ham brought a stop to his progress at the end of September. He was not seen for a month afterwards, until he made his comeback during the Monday night match against West Bromwich Albion.

According to reports, he picked up another knock on the ribs during the first half, and was hauled off at half time. His replacement, Marouane Fellaini, made an instant impact with a goal-scoring second-half performance and the rest was history.

Fellaini, ridiculed throughout his Manchester United career thus far, had now become indispensable in Louis Van Gaal’s eyes.

Herrera was reintroduced to the line-up nine days on against Hull City and produced an assist on his return. This would prove to be a false dawn, though.

He was pulled out of the starting line-up after the unconvincing 2-1 victory away at Southampton, in which he was substituted after 51mins, and was only seen from the beginning against lowly Yeovil Town over the course of the next two months.

To make matters worse for Herrera, The Iron Tulip reached an opinion that he was too much of a risk taker for a team looking for results, rather than performances.

What must be remembered is Ander Herrera was the main standout performer for Manchester United on that cold evening in Yeovil. He produced a 20yard effort rewarding of the man seen as Paul Scholes’ replacement, which lifted United past the League One strugglers.

However, Louis Van Gaal had other ideas. He proceeded to drop Wayne Rooney into a midfield three – sometimes as the holding-midfielder – and kept Herrera watching on from the bench.

His absence came around the same time his name was dragged into a match-fixing case going back to his time with Real Zaragoza. This might have been Van Gaal’s way of taking him out of the limelight. Who knows?

Herrera’s reprieve came due to an unfortunate injury picked up by Daley Blind during the first-half against Burnley under the Old Trafford lights on February 11th. On came Herrera, and he hasn’t looked back since.

You’d expect a player to be out-of-touch given the lack of competitive playing time he’d seen over the previous two months. However, it became immediately clear that Herrera is a natural footballer. His “off the cuff” instincts and effort outweigh any lack of match sharpness that his absence might have caused.

He built on his encouraging cameo performance against Burnley by scoring in the next two matches away at Preston and Swansea, respectively.

Ander Herrera has been a mainstay in United’s midfield ever-since. Deservedly so, may I add.

United’s renaissance could be put down to recent stability and Van Gaal’s firm choice on formation more than anything else. However, Ander Herrera’s reintroduction coinciding with the run of form should not be ignored.

In my eyes, he’s the fine definition of a complete-midfielder. He brings box-to-box elements to a midfield that has looked static – to say the least – over the last few years.

In addition, his eye for that final ball certainly cannot be faulted. Look no further than the pass he produced for Juan Mata’s opener away at Anfield. The link-up play and “brotherly-love” United’s midfield Spaniards put on show that afternoon is something the Red Army should get giddy about.

Manchester United fans would have been forgiven if they thought the International Break had come along at the wrong time, given the form on show.

They were to be proven wrong though, as Herrera and co. produced another solid performance against Aston Villa this past weekend.

It might have been Rooney’s stunning finish that stole the headlines, but it was Herrera’s brace which emphasised his importance to this current United side.

In this form, he is truly un-droppable. The Basque gem of Manchester is certainly here to stay.

 

By @dannywgriffith.

 

Info used above sourced from whoscored.com and physioroom.com. Picture sourced from guardian.co.uk.

 

%d bloggers like this: