Newly-promoted Swansea City are preparing for life in the most difficult league in world football but Brendan Rodgers has vowed not to abandon the footballing philosophy which has taken the Welsh club this far.
Transfer activity has been rife in South Wales with several new players set to join the squad for pre-season this month, but there are still areas in the team that need strengthening if they are to compete in the Premier League.
The Swans boss started the summer off well, in acquiring the services of former Watford striker, Danny Graham in a £3.5Million deal which saw the striker reject overtures from several other clubs. The 25-year-old was in prolific form last season with an impressive 24 goals in the Championship and is set to be the main man in the Swans attack.
Ever since the departure of Jason Scotland two years ago, Swansea City have struggled to find a striker to spearhead the 4-3-3 formation they utilise. Franco Borini came in on loan from Chelsea in the second half of last season and filled the void, but sadly moved back to his homeland at the start of summer to complete a move to Serie A side, Parma.
Rodgers was left with no other choice but to try and find his replacement.
Danny Graham is that replacement and a fine one at that. The former Carlisle man is a born goal scorer and will feed off the service of Scott Sinclair and Nathan Dyer, but is of course, still unproven at Premier League level.
Tottenham youngster, Steven Caulker, who spent last season on loan with Bristol City is also set to join the club. The 19-year-old defender is being touted as an England player of the future and will be hoping to gain some invaluable Premier League experience at the Liberty Stadium.
Another man linked with a move to the first Welsh side in English Premier League history was former Spain captain and Villareal veteran, Marcos Senna. The 34-year-old held talks with the club but it sadly seems as though the midfield powerhouse will be staying in La Liga after a breakdown in negotiations over wage demands.
This move by Brendan Rodgers was a clear indication of his desire to build on their reputation as the best footballing side in the Championship, and take that style of play into the Premier League.
Senna is like Patrick Vieira in that he is strong in midfield and helps to dictate the game from there, which would work well with the likes of Leon Britton and Joe Allen to play off him.
Rodgers likes his team to build on the philosophy instilled by Roberto Martinez and play a style of football reminiscent of Barcelona and the Spanish national team and Marcos Senna would have been a key figure in the development of the team and their footballing style.
Rodgers is still determined to bring some of that Spanish flair to the club and has targeted Barcelona B striker, Jonathan Soriano as his next purchase. The 25-year-old striker has been in negotiations with the club after finishing last season as top scorer in Spain’s second tier. The 26 goal man is keen to make the move to Wales and compete in the top flight of English football but a fee is still yet to be discussed between the two clubs.
This signing would be another clear indication of the club to not sell out on their footballing principles, as they look to show off their beautiful passing game in the world’s most watched league.
The club have also acquired the services of Benfica goalkeeper Jose Moreira after the departure of Dorus De Vries but reports suggest Rodgers is still keen to add another keeper to the squad this summer.
The transfer window still has a long way to go and there will be more analysis of their activity in due course, but for now, it looks as though Swansea City are keen to build on their Barcelona style philosophy as they attempt to play their way to Premier League survival.
Tactics are crucial to the game of football, as in any sport they determine strategy and prevent on-field chaos. The developments in sports science and a deeper understanding of the game over time has forced tacticians to move with the times and create new methods in the way we play the game, just to keep up.
The game has reached a point of universality, where players are forced to adapt to a more expansive way of playing.
The history of the English game is associated with physicality, classically demonstrated in a rigid 4-4-2 formation that assigns each player a certain role to play in the game. Defenders would traditionally consist of full backs and centre backs, midfielders would consist of wingers, holding midfielders, creative midfielders and so forth. The game has moved on from specialised positional roles and formed a sport based around the ability to adapt to certain situations with players being able to contribute to all aspects of play, be that in an attacking or defensive sense.
The perfect example of this evolution in football tactics is the dominant force in club football right now, Barcelona. They are the pioneers of the perfect model of a 4-3-3 formation defined by passing and positional play.
We will start with the attack – usually the combined trio of Lionel Messi, David Villa and Pedro. Not one of these three players spends the whole 90 minutes in a certain position on the field as Lionel Messi will often start out wide on the right but will regularly drift more central and swap positions with Villa for example. This gives the opposition more to think about and allows Barcelona to create opportunities through intricate passing and movement, allowing Messi more creative freedom in a match.
This is why Zlatan Ibrahaimovich was not incorporated into the philosophy. The Sweden international is a tall, skilful striker that holds the ball up well, which was a tool used to help Messi and Pedro play off him but it was his inability to adapt his game and move out wide that forced Guardiola to re-consider the system.
Ibrahimovich’s replacement was of course, David Villa and it is his efficiency at cutting in from the left or right as a drifting forward that makes him a perfect fit in this attack.
Xavi and Iniesta are the heartbeat of the side that dictate the creative aspect of the game but also press high up the pitch in order to sustain that positional balance high in the opposition half, allowing the attackers to create regular goal scoring opportunities. These two midfielders create the play as a pair, rather than relying on one playmaker to hold a high position and dictate the tempo. This is a role more suited with the old-style playmaker such as Riquelme or Rivaldo as these sorts of attacking midfielders meant team performance in a match would lie heavily on their contribution to the game.
These sorts of playmakers do not have as much involvement in the game as the modern playmaker as they sit higher up the field and only contribute to the offensive aspect of the game. This problem was demonstrated perfectly in Brazil’s recent 0-0 draw with Venezuela in the Copa America, as Brazil played poorly and created few clear cut chances due to their reliance on the performance of Ganso who put in a lacklustre performance in the hole between midfield and attack, a role associated with old-style playmakers such as Riquelme. It is not to say that Ganso is not a good player, as he is brilliant on his day but the performance of the team relies too heavily on his creative input. Modern football calls for a player willing to act as a box-to-box, ball winning play maker and that is exactly what Xavi and Iniesta do.
This is why Luka Modric is currently being linked with every big club in England because his diminutive figure gives him the opportunity to dictate the game in a more hands-on approach.
The new style of midfielder is a pure footballer, a more expansive one who can get from box to box, reminiscent of Roy Keane but who also possesses the vision and passing distribution of Paul Scholes at the same time.
It is also important to point out the contribution of Sergio Busquets in the Barcelona team as the supposed ‘holding’ midfielder contributes a great deal more than just protecting the back four. The 22-year-old acts at the starting point in the three man midfield triangle, distributing the ball to the naturally more creative midfielders. He plays a whole new role in the game than that of a classic holding midfielder such as Claude Makelele, who broke up play but played little role in the fluidity of the passing movement, like Busquets.
The midfield and attack are the creative force behind Guardiola’s Barcelona, which perfectly outline the future of the tactical game but it is also the defence that play a key role in this adaptability.
For starters, full backs were over time gradually becoming wing backs at the bigger clubs, due to their contribution in attacking play but with Dani Alves it seems as though he is almost a right winger at times. The Brazilian’s ability to control the whole of the right flank gives the attackers the opportunity press more narrowly and outnumber the middle of the park, as well as providing width at the same time. This adaptation of the right back brings a new dimension to the role as attacking prowess is becoming a key attribute in their play.
Unlike full-backs, centre-backs are associated with warrior-like figures such as Nemanja Vidic and Carles Puyol but it is noticeable that their partners in defence – Rio Ferdinand and Gerard Pique respectively, are both players with considerable ability on the ball who like to come forward and distribute play. This gives the team the opportunity to bridge the gap between midfield and defence by playing their way from the back. These defensive partnerships are not forged by accident but are down to the footballing philosophies of their respected managers.
Both Sir Alex Ferguson and Pep Guardiola are innovators in the tactical world of football and it is no surprise that they are the mega managers in the world right now.
The future of the game is being conjured by this modern wonder team of Barcelona and their concentration on footballers actually being pure footballers rather than just a right winger for example. The game needs to be played in a more fluid fashion and although a physical and rigid 4-4-2 might be effective for a team like Stoke City, at the highest level of the game it is just becoming too predictable.
This future of the tactical game may insure that players work harder to press the ball and constantly create movement for their fellow teammates but it also means that like Barcelona, there will be more freedom for players to roam from positions and create the football as they see fit.
The game is evolving and the new breed of players are too, as they must be able to adapt to the match situations and be more tactically aware on the field, rather than just sticking to their position and basic positional roles. This revelation at Barcelona is the benchmark for all teams and is the definition of a team game, a team game largely controlled by tactics and the ability to be more expansive in their play and that is what the future holds for football.
The recent Under-17 World Cup came to a disappointing end for the young England lads as they were knocked out by old rivals Germany in the quarter-finals but a display of real footballing character and technical ability, not usually associated with the English game was apparent. The quality of English players has come in for some criticism over the past year since the dreadful display of the senior team in South Africa last summer but this young side showed real verve in their ability to play the beautiful game the right way.
A run to the quarter-finals was a satisfactory achievement for the young Lions, especially after knocking out rivals Argentina along the way and on penalties! In a squad consisting of mainly Liverpool and Manchester City and other Premier League youngsters it was somewhat of a surprise to many on-lookers to see three products of League-two side, Crewe Alexandra in the squad. But if you know of Dario Gradi, then this is no surprise at all.
The Crewe Alexandra youth academy has produced many stars including David Platt, Dean Ashton, Danny Murphy and Wales international David Vaughan but in a modern footballing era controlled by money it is unusual to see a League-two club still having such a fantastic impact on youth development.
It can be considered as somewhat of a crude money-making scheme set up by The Alex in bringing players in at a very tender age and turning them into first team outfits before selling them on for a substantial profit. It is a business model that has served the club well over the years and for many years kept them at a profitable level off the field, which is unusual for non-Premier League sides.
The system is one that has brought a basic financial structure to the club but in a time surrounded by so much debate over the quality of youth set ups in Britain, it equates to so much more than money at Crewe, as this is a club built around pride in developing young talent through the footballing philosophy of Dario Gradi.
Surely it is not possible to compare the youth system at Crewe with the scheme at Ajax or with Barcelona’s La Masia is it? But the thing is, even though they may be miles apart in terms of prestige and world recognition, and of course money, there are an abundance of similarities between the philosophies instilled in them.
The Crewe manager has always taught youngsters the value of actually playing football rather than just trying to win a game. The coaching philosophy of Gradi is all about ball control and the importance of passing and movement off the ball, the key traits associated with the current Barcelona side.
The Ajax youth system is known for its ability to promote the 4-3-3 formation from a very young age and rather than force the youngsters how to understand the tactical ins and outs of the game at such an age, the first rule of Ajax is to enjoy the football. Youth development is all about the enjoyment and giving the young players the freedom to express themselves on the field, a concept that has not been recognised in England until now, except at systems such as the one at Crewe.
New youth initiatives have been implemented by the Football Association allowing kids to have much more freedom on and off the field. Instead of playing 11-a-side league football at below secondary school age, schemes will be set up to promote a better development plan involving more 5-a-side based programmes. The FA Youth Development Review will also create a difficulty for the future of youth schemes at clubs like Crewe as it will allow the bigger clubs to take-on promising youngsters from anywhere at a young age.
These youngsters being scooped up by the biggest clubs may gain access to the top corporate facilities available but in a time when Premier League clubs prefer to spend money on recognised stars, it is unlikely that top clubs will prioritise the needs of their youth players.
Ben Garratt, Nick Powell and Max Clayton are the three Crewe Alex players involved in the England Under-17 tournament in Mexico and are possible stars of the future, whose footballing education under the maestro has been second to none.
For his role in the development of home-grown talent and philosophy of footballing coaching, Gradi has once again been recognised for his achievements in football this season after being presented with the Contribution to League Football Award by the Football League. This is not the first accolade bestowed upon the 69-year-old after 28 years involved with the club but it comes at a time when England are finally starting to realise there is a problem in youth development in the country and acknowledge that the Crewe boss has been a man ahead of the times for many years now.
In 1996, Dario Gradi was very close to becoming Technical Director at the FA and would have had a large say in youth development at clubs throughout the country, but Howard Wilkinson ended up getting the role. 15 years on and Gradi is still producing the next stars of the future with limited resources and the FA are finally doing something about youth development but what if the man ahead of his time had been given his say back in 1996, would England be like Spain, and be the technical kings of world football right now?
When the Mexican winger made the move from Barcelona to North London for a very handsome fee of around €6 million, it was seen as quite a coup for Tottenham Hotspur. Under the tutelage of Juande Ramos, the young Mexican was given opportunities but we all know that Ramos’s time didn’t last too long and in came Mr Redknapp.
The former Portsmouth boss has done an incredible job at White Hart Lane but he has failed in producing the best out of a talented youngster, who has the credentials to be a world beater. The fact is, Giovani has rarely been given any opportunities at all by the Spurs boss and has been shipped out on loan to Ipswich Town, Galatasaray and most recently, Racing Santander.
Giovani is not the first youngster that Redknapp has failed to acknowledge in his time at the Lane as he shipped out, the now growing stars of Kevin-Prince Boateng and Adel Taarabt in his early days at the club, due to not being able to find a way to incorporate them into the team.
Boateng now plays for AC Milan and has earned plaudits across the world of football after a magnificent world cup display in South Africa last summer. Adel Taarabt is of course one of the most promising and sought after youngsters in world football, being linked with the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United. Redknapp, however, seemed unable to spot the talents of these two young midfielders.
If the club were to have kept these players on for longer then surely it would have left them in better stead to challenge for that Champions League spot last season. Also, they may not have been so worried about losing Luka Modric this summer, if they had the genius, Adel Taarabt to fall back on. Truth be told, the Tottenham hierarchy have made a real faux pas in shipping these players out and they run the risk of doing it again with the Mexican prodigy.
Giovani Dos Santos has been criticised by Harry Redknapp for his supposed lack of professionalism.
This sort of attitude from a footballer is not one that will take you far and if the Mexican is wasting his time out and about at nightclubs at the weekend then he is at fault, but for young footballers this is not uncommon. This happens all the time with youngsters who have got cash to splash but the gaffer just has no interest in helping this talent progress and it is difficult to see why.
Anybody who saw the recent Gold Cup and particularly the final between Mexico and USA will have seen the raw talent this 22-year-old possesses and will be disappointed by the stall in his career.
The winger scored an immense winning goal after dribbling the ball around several players, including the goalkeeper before exquisitely chipping the ball into the top corner to secure a 4-2 victory for Mexico and crown themselves Gold Cup champions.
This beautiful goal topped off a man of the match performance by the Tottenham man, in a game where he showed great drive and determination. Every time the ball came to his feet, onlookers and the USA defence knew something was going to happen and every time, it did!
The forward was constantly running towards goal with the ball, dribbling past several players and playing great link-up player with Manchester United revelation, Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez.
At no point did Giovani show any signs of lack of professionalism as he inspired to whole team throughout the match before leading them into the final whistle as champions.
Redknapp surely knows what a talent he has on his hands and must see his quality in training every week and so it baffles spectators as to why he won’t help this young player become the player he is destined to be. Maybe the Spurs boss just does not have the capabilities to guide such players, as was the case with Adel Taarabt and Kevin-Prince Boateng.
Redknapp could not figure out how to use Taarabt in an effective manner and take the risk of playing him in the role behind the striker. A couple years later, he signed Rafael Van Der Vaart who filled that position between midfield and defence, proving he couldn’t create his own superstar bt instead had to fork out cash for an already establish bearer of that role.
It looks as though the same will happen this summer with Giovani Dos Santos, who looks intent on making the switch back to Spanish shores and linking up with Sevilla in a £6.5Million move.
It is impossible to predict the transfer sage of Luka Modric and whether he will go or not, but the fact remains Harry Redknapp will constantly toe the party line – ‘we are not a selling club, we will not sell our best players’. Probability is that Giovani Dos Santos will leave this summer and Redknapp will have lost one of the best young talents to grace the Premier League in a long time, all because the gaffer was too scared to just take a risk on the young lad.
*Article also featured on Caught Offside - http://www.caughtoffside.com/2011/06/30/the-giovani-dos-santos-mystery-what-does-tottenham-boss-harry-redknapp-have-against-the-mexican/
The man who made his name as the youngest ever manager in the history of La Liga at the age of 29 and who Guardiola described as the mentor who ‘taught me how to understand the game’ is now being linked with a new job…as Technical Director of INDIA!
How can a coach who taught the greatest philosopher in world football how to understand the way in which the game should be played, be linked with a role that most people in the footballing community don’t even know is currently available and quite frankly don’t even care?
The fact is Juan Manuel Lillo has never truly been credited by world football with the respect and admiration the Barcelona boss bestows upon him.
The Spaniard is a rarity in that he has never actually played professional football as a career but worked his way up as a coach at amateur level from his teenage years. 16 years on from back to back promotions with UD Salamanca, as he guided them from the third to the first division in as many seasons, and Lillo is an experienced coach at the age of 45 who has gained publicity for his unique training methods and footballing ideas. Lillo is seen by many as the founder of the 4–2–3–1 formation, which he frequently used in his early coaching years at Cultural Leonesa, Salamanca and Real Oviedo.
This formation allowed his footballing philosophy to become a reality on the pitch, as he set up his teams to retain possession of the ball and maintain a high position up the field when trying to win the ball back off the opposition. The principal feature of this formation was that it enabled the team to keep the ball –a feature in modern day football that is fundamentally associated with the tiki-taka style of play of Guardiola’s Barcelona.
This set-up allows a five-man midfield to use intricate passing as a way to frustrate the opposition and use Lillo’s philosophy of passing football to its full effect.
There are, however, still differences between the two styles adopted by Lillo’s teams and Guardiola’s Barcelona but the premise of possession football and off the ball positioning still remains and is what drew the two into a friendship of footballing brains.
Many would consider the modern day Barcelona of Messi and friends as the product of Johan Cruyff and the philosophy of ‘total football’ that he has ingrained into the culture of the club. Of course this is true in so many ways but the mastermind behind this current team, Josep Guardiola knows that even though he learnt so much as a player under the tutelage of the Dutchman, the true influence on his footballing education was his mentor, Juanma Lillo.
Ironically, it was actually an 8-0 home defeat to Guardiola’s Barcelona that got Lillo the sack from his last job, as head coach of Almeria. It may have been a humiliating scoreline for an outsider looking in, but in reality it was a vindication of the work Lillo had been doing for the past 20 years as his apprentice had created arguably the greatest footballing side in history and it was down to the footballing principles they had sought after and discussed so passionately throughout the years together.
It is a shame the two have never officially worked together, a partnership in the dugout that would excite any fan of the beautiful game.
Lillo, however, is not a man who can play second fiddle to anyone, as the genius behind the 4–2–3–1 formation is a maverick of the game, who still has so much to give to the world of football.
The Indian Football Federation are keen to bring the experienced tactician into the national team set up, not as manager but as Technical Director, which would give him the sort of control not normally seen in a managerial position in Spain. The position would give him a chance to keep a check over new head coach, Armando Colaco and play a crucial part in the development of Indian football as a whole for generations to come.
The opportunity may sound like an interesting project and the sort of thing that would inspire the innovator to bring new ideas and a new philosophy to the Asian game but for such a talented manager it is not good enough, he deserves so much more.
The ‘maestro’ as Guardiola refers to him, may never get the recognition and respect he warrants in the game but at the tender age of 45, time is still on his side to prove he is good enough to manage one of the top clubs in Europe.
Given the current state of the game and his lack of experience as a player however, this objective is regrettably unlikely.
Even if technical director of India is the best there is to be for the future of Juanma Lillo, then at least those who followed his career will always know he was the man that taught Guardiola how to combine the art and mentality of their footballing philosophy into the greatest footballing side in history.
*This article can also be found at Back Page Football - http://backpagefootball.com/opinion/unsung-hero/