Villas-Boas discovers the value of Tom Huddlestone after second-half siege

It wasn’t the precise cross for Gareth Bale’s opening goal, nor his abnormally inaccurate passing in the opening stages of the 2-1 win at Southampton that Andre Villas-Boas will take from this week. It won’t even be the abysmal missed tackle on Dejan Mezga in the 1-1 draw with Maribor on Thursday. No, the value of Tom Huddlestone was evident just minutes after he was withdrawn from Sunday’s game and Tottenham descended into panic-stricken hoof-ball in a desperate attempt to cling onto the three points.

His replacement, Jake Livermore, had a nightmarish 25 minutes in which he was booked for a terrifically late challenge after conceding possession high up the pitch, a product of his dallying on the ball, unsure of what to do with it. Livermore played 38 times under Harry Redknapp last season and to give him his dues, he stuck at his role as anchor man – took the ball off the opposition and handed it to the likes of Luka Modric and Gareth Bale.

Yet, at St Mary’s, his introduction was the catalyst for frenetic, frantic clearances, aimless long balls and some poor choices. In one particular incident the ball bounced off a Southampton head and broke for Livermore, who, without a moments thought, punted the ball 60 yards up field leaving Bale to his left and in acres of space pleading for the ball next time. The game needed composure and cool heads, what it got was a player devoid of the awareness needed to ease Spurs over the finishing line.

Livermore has been a reliable member of the Tottenham squad for the past year-and-a-half and perhaps with a run of games and a rhythm you can only acquire from consistent minutes, he would make better decisions. It is possible that entering the game as Southampton had their tails up spooked him a little. He was also not the only culprit in a poor second half.

Huddlestone in contrast has always provided an air of calm to Spurs’ play. He has his drawbacks and will forever be limited by his athleticism, or lack thereof, and even in a first half in which Nigel Adkins’ side allowed the Tottenham midfield the freedom of St Mary’s, Huddlestone was patchy.

He began with two attempted forward passes that immediately put Spurs on the back foot, as he handed possession to Southampton. But after an uncertain first ten minutes and a firm talking to from Villas-Boas, who gestured for the 26-year-old to settle and calm down, he improved.

Moments later he delivered an inch perfect cross for Bale to guide a header past Artur Boruc and initial concerns over Huddlestone abated. There has never been much doubt that he has a passing range to rival most of his contemporaries, however there are two schools of thought on his use of such skills.

The cynical view is that Huddlestone can only really pass backwards and sideways and the occasional aesthetic 50-yard ball should not mask his otherwise unadventurous approach. Those looking to defend the Nottingham-born midfielder point to the lack of options and static nature of them as the limiting factor.

Against Maribor, much of the game was played at walking pace. This doesn’t help impressions of Huddlestone, who often appears to only operate at walking pace anyway. Yet he did put together a series of progressive balls to Aaron Lennon – his go-to option in years gone by. It must also not be forgotten that before injury curtailed his middle-20s, Huddlestone was a near ever-present the season Spurs made it into the hallowed top four, playing 43 games in midfield.

The criticism that he can never be part of a modern midfield looks flawed when stacked against the 2009-10 example; he has previous – and in a 4-4-2 no less. Of course, the ankle injury that has sidelined him for so long (and is now understood to be a permanent hindrance) slowed his development and in many eyes his movement. Not those of Villas-Boas though, who had this to say in the post-match press conference at Southampton.

“Tom offers so much – this is a player who missed 15 months out through injury, he had extremely harsh setbacks and he has recovered. For him to play three games in a week is very important. Towards 65 to 70 minutes, physically he was feeling the strain so we made the change for Jake.”

And so we return to the options Villas-Boas has at his disposal. With Mousa Dembele out with a hip problem, pace and physical drive is missing in Tottenham’s midfield. Sandro can get forward when instructed to and did a passable impression of a box-to-box midfielder against Maribor, but many will be itching for Dembele’s return. However, with Clint Dempsey operating just off Defoe, buzzing around and claiming second balls, providing the midfield with the energy Gylfi Sigurdsson cannot, the duo of Sandro and Huddlestone has its merits.

It is vital that when these two feature together, Villas-Boas ensures there is pace around them. On Sunday, there was just that as Tottenham rampaged through the Saints in the first half. With Bale, Lennon, Kyle Walker and Jan Vertonghen on the flanks, the club have fast outlets, but often the midfield have struggled to distribute swiftly enough to utilise them. The first 45 minutes saw Huddlestone constantly arc passes to his full-backs and wingers. He may be slow of body, but not of mind or technique, as he stroked the ball first time with precision to his wide men.

If you leave any preconceptions of Huddlestone to one side for a moment, this ability is something so rarely seen in the top-flight. There are not many central midfielders technically adept enough to spread play as accurately as he is able to do and with such insouciant ease.

Villas-Boas was asked whether he believed the lack of height up front affected Tottenham’s ability to keep hold of the ball in a difficult second half. Rather than acknowledge the debate, the Portuguese coach instead took a more abstract view, highlighting the quality of pass the striker receives as the defining factor.

He explained: “It’s a question of technical and tactical ability. We have players of the dimension of Rooney for example and Defoe and people who hold onto the ball very, very well. The ball wasn’t arriving in the proper conditions for any striker to hold onto it. If it arrives under cleaner conditions, Defoe, Crouch, Rooney, all of them are able to hold onto the ball. It’s more a question of talent.

“When you are on the back foot you are trying to come out of situations of pressure. Certainly you need somebody to be there as a reference to hold onto the ball. I wouldn’t measure it on a question of height, I would measure it on a question of tactical and technical ability.”

Reading between the lines, Villas-Boas called for an improvement in service, or at least accuracy, in the delivery of forward balls to Defoe – especially towards the end of the match. In fact, after watching the many aimless clearances, Villas-Boas replaced Defoe with Sigurdsson, a form of grim acceptance that Defoe would be useless without some semblance of service.

And so we come full circle to Huddlestone. His withdrawal was unavoidable but directly correlated with a loss of structure and control on a game Spurs should have won by the halfway point, as composure in midfield was lost and Southampton were handed the initiative.

But it remains to be seen whether Huddlestone will play a key role for Spurs over the remainder of the season. Talk of a need for pace throughout the Villas-Boas model essentially puts an end to any Huddlestone debate. Why continue with the immobile option when others offer a dynamism vital to the modern midfield? Ultimately it comes down to balance: do Huddlestone’s technical attributes outweigh his physical deficiencies? Is there a way to accommodate him when first-choice players are unavailable?

These questions will be going through Villas-Boas’ mind as he assesses the run of fixtures facing Spurs. Norwich in the Capital One Cup, Wigan and Maribor at home followed by a trip to the Premier League champions offer enough of a mix for him to truly understand what Huddlestone can provide.

Villas-Boas didn’t entirely give the impression that he saw a long-term future for Huddlestone at Tottenham, yet Sunday will serve as a reminder that if he is to sell the midfielder – he was a failed medical away from doing so in the summer – there are few players who ooze serenity as much as Huddlestone.

Walker has Bale and Lennon for reference as he looks to rediscover form of last season

On one flank, Tottenham had two established internationals neatly interchanging, working in patterns and flying up and down the pitch. On the other, two international hopefuls, trying to further their cause, building their form for Andre Villas-Boas’ team in a 2-1 win at Southampton.

Gareth Bale and Jan Vertonghen have the makings of a fine full-back and winger combination. The benchmark in the Premier League these days is the marauding duo of Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar at Everton and there is every chance that Tottenham’s left side could be as productive but for the Belgian’s preference for a central role.

Kyle Walker and Aaron Lennon are a slightly different case. The latter is nearing his greatest spell of form for Spurs – somewhat running against the presumption that he would struggle to adapt to Villas-Boas’ preference for inverted wingers (or at least wingers capable of threatening in the middle of the pitch).

His career thus far has been built on the jet-propelled heels that have sent opponents in a spin as he scurries outside them. On Sunday, Lennon created the game’s second goal doing exactly what the management would have wanted; cutting inside his marker and attacking the centre-backs. It was yet further encouragement that Lennon is a far more intelligent wide man than some give him credit.

Walker on the other hand has endured something of a rough ride this campaign. Since bursting into the starting XI at the beginning of last season, ousting Vedran Corluka, a reliable right-back and someone who regularly linked well with Lennon, Walker pushed his way into the England reckoning. There is a myth that his form endured the span of Harry Redknapp’s final season, though.

Whether through fatigue, a collection of niggling injuries or simply a change in the way opposition teams set out against him, he tailed off and was no longer the explosive force he was on his introduction. Despite missing the summer’s European Championship, Walker’s pre-season was patchy before his first-team performances underwhelmed in the opening few games of the Villas-Boas reign.

His mistake for Juan Mata’s second goal and the soft concession of the ball in the build-up to Chelsea’s winner one week ago highlighted the plight of the 22-year-old. He has cut a frustrated figure, bewildered at his loss of form and even made the ill-advised error of responding to a smattering of abuse he received on Twitter following the game.

He later spoke of the incident, telling The Times: “I have seen with Ashley Cole and Ryan Bertrand what has happened and I don’t want to be in that category. I thought I needed to concentrate on my own performance for a few weeks.”

The initially puerile reaction belies his fierce determination to rediscover the form that saw him named the 2012 PFA Young Player of the Year. The self-restraint he demonstrated in deleting his account is admirable, as is the work he is putting in on the training ground.

“They [those on Twitter] did not know how much work I was putting in, not just on match days but throughout the week. I am probably the first one in and the last one out every day. If that means doing gym or some extra swimming, I am prepared to do that to make me a better player.”

The faith shown by Villas-Boas should also contribute to an upturn in fortunes. Some expected to see Kyle Naughton at right-back, or even Adam Smith for the Thursday night game against Maribor, but Walker was afforded 90 minutes to make amends for the display against Chelsea.

Unfortunately, the overall display from Tottenham in their insipid 1-1 draw with the Slovenian champions made it difficult for Walker, or indeed anyone, to make a noteworthy contribution. Still, his performance appeared more fundamental, less eye-catching, perhaps a conscious return to getting the basics right.

At Southampton, Walker gave a diligent, if patchy display. There were encouraging signs – most notably in the quick, incisive one-two with Lennon that left Danny Fox in a daze and Walker in space to attack the byline and find Jermain Defoe. It really should have been an assist for the right-back had Defoe not uncharacteristically smashed his chance from 12 yards the wrong side of the post.

He wasn’t overly troubled by Adam Lallana, Saints’ captain, who only really found joy when he drifted into central positions, though Walker was caught in possession on a couple of dawdling moments in the second period. There was also the wasted chance to get his name on the scoresheet as he sliced his shot from just inside the box wide of the near post.

The signs are there that he is coming through a difficult period, however, and indeed Walker appears aware enough to understand what he must do.

He explains: “When people know what you are about, it is difficult. They know your game whereas last season I came as a bit of a surprise to everyone. I will keep working and training – doing the extra bit I need to. Hopefully, my form will come back.”

The element of unknown helped Walker build his reputation, now it will take further education to sustain it.

Fortunately he has a couple of players alongside him who have had to go through the very same self-analysis. Lennon and Bale have both had spells where opponents would send two or more men out to mark them and have had to reinvent aspects of their play.

The road may be longer than he likes but Walker is slowly coming out of his slump and adding the strings to the bow that would see him justifiably return alongside Lennon, his partner in crime, to the England team.

Manchester City need Hart, Kompany & Yaya Toure to translate champion spirit to Champions League

This piece was originally on on 24/10/2012

There have been wobbles, dropped points, inexplicable errors and confused tactical shuffles but Manchester City have rediscovered their domestic form, largely thanks to the champion spirit exuded by Edin Dzeko at Craven Cottage and The Hawthorns in recent weeks.

Still absent, though, is a maiden win in Europe following a late capitulation in Madrid and a fortuitous point claimed from Dortmund after one of the most dominant away performances seen at Etihad Stadium in years. The past, however, according to Vincent Kompany, is “irrelevant”.

The Premier League champions take to Amsterdam ArenA on Wednesday night knowing full well that anything other than a win will leave their hopes of qualification from Group D of the Champions League in a perilous state.

For Roberto Mancini, a manager who has never prospered in Europe – two quarter-final appearances with Inter are the sum of six campaigns in Uefa’s premier club competition – three points are essential and he will rely on the influence and inspiration of his three pillars of dependability, Joe Hart, Kompany and Yaya Toure, to guide them through this tricky fixture.

Yet, there are question marks over their reliability after a less than stellar start to 2011-12. Hart was (almost) unbeatable against Dortmund but has looked fallible on his travels, most notably in Poland for England and to some extent in the 3-2 loss to Real Madrid. He may not like it, but Hart has kept just one clean sheet thus far, three fewer than at this stage a year ago.

Yaya Toure, a match-winner on his day, has yet to recapture the form that had many hail the Ivorian as the most complete midfielder in world football last year, whilst Kompany is a shell of the impenetrable wall that led to him being named Premier League Player of the Season as he skippered his side to final day glory.

The trio were vital to the success City enjoyed and although David Silva pitter-pattered to much acclaim, Sergio Aguero banged in crucial goals and Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli entertained in their own unique ways, the steady three that run down the spine of Mancini’s side were consistently brilliant and vice-versa.

Surprisingly Kompany, of all people, has found the going tough this year. The tactical tinkering of Mancini, attempting to integrate a 3-5-2 style and the constant rotation of his full-backs, has undoubtedly created unnecessary problems for his Belgian captain and it has shown on the pitch.

Gone is the sure-footedness that had him labelled as the best centre-half in Europe five months ago and in its place is an uncertainty in his positioning and decision making. His suicidal and clumsy dawdling on the West Brom halfway line indirectly led to James Milner’s sending off and Kompany’s reaction was telling – he knew he’d blundered.

Yaya Toure was fantastic in the Bernabeu, particularly as he careered through the heart of the Madrid defence to lay the ball into Dzeko’s feet for their second goal. However, this was the exception rather than the sight that caused punters to sit back and gasp last year – a sight City fans will be longing for in Amsterdam. The statistics for the hulk of a midfielder are telling: Yaya Toure has been a victim of a shuffle in style.

On average, he hits more shots per game (2.4 to 2), plays more key passes (2 to 1.7) and completes more successful dribbles (1.4 to 1.2) than in the last Premier League season. But defensively, there are fewer interceptions (0.5 to 1.2) and tackles (0.8 to 1.7) – a product of the signing of Javi Garcia, perhaps. Needless to say, Mancini clearly wants the 29-year-old in a more advanced position where he can better utilise his attacking prowess. The problem is adjustment.

Fortunately these teething problems are fixable. Hart has shown some of his best form in Europe, even if you include the late Ronaldo strike that some would put down as his fault. Kompany is too accomplished to struggle for so long – indeed, it is a surprise he hasn’t conquered this malaise already. A traditional Yaya Toure gallop up the field is perhaps the best metaphor for City’s season too – slow to get going, but devastating in full bluster.

Javi Garcia and Silva are ruled out of the game in Holland, meaning the value of Mancini’s three most time-tested commodities is multiplied. They must deliver for the Italian.

Ajax, though winless in Group D, are, aside from the 4-1 reverse to Madrid, undefeated at home and Frank de Boer’s charges will be intent on securing a positive result. The statistics are conflicting, though: the Dutch side haven’t won in three but City have lost three of their last four European away games. Something has to give.

City are fortunate to be able to count on Hart but Mancini warned of continuing an unwelcome trend when asked about his side’s alarming rate of conceding chances to their opposition. In just two Champions League games, the club have faced 50 attempts on goal, prompting the 47-year-old to remark: “It is difficult not to concede chances. We had a bad game against Dortmund, but it is important we don’t give away so many chances to score.”

In truth, it won’t matter how City claim their first win of their second Champions League campaign, something Kompany reiterated in the pre-game press conference: “We’re a very disciplined team and we have shown we have a great capacity to react, and tomorrow is a different game, a different set-up and it’s just important to win.”

A win will not only provide City’s European ambitions with a much-needed shot in the arm, it will complete the transference of a domestic turn of form to a competition they must see the latter stages of. And for that, Mancini needs the three stars to align if City are to ensure last season’s group stage failure is not repeated.

Freund aims to add to cult hero status by taking Tottenham to a new level

A shorter version of the below originally appeared on on 19/10/2012

It was somewhat of a surprise to see Steffen Freund return to Tottenham this summer after he accepted Andre Villas-Boas’ offer to join him on the bench at White Hart Lane as his assistant manager, but that was more down to ignorance than merit.

For Freund arrived with a stellar coaching CV, with spells as an assistant manager for the German U20 team and to Berti Vogts for Nigeria’s African Cup of Nations campaign in 2008, before grasping the role of manager for the U16 and U17 German youth teams.

The 42-year-old spent five years in north London and was a part of the 1999 League Cup victory that is remembered as a rare highlight of an otherwise uninspiring and mediocre decade for the club. Between 1998 and 2003, Freund became something of a cult figure amongst the Spurs faithful mainly thanks to a tireless work ethic and determination and an amiable nature off the pitch.

Fans take to players that commit fully to their club and few others worked as hard for the Lilywhite shirt as Freund. Indeed, David Ginola’s famous anecdote about the German’s incessant instructions to ‘arbeit’, or ‘work’, added to the cult of Freund, a phenomenon that led to a t-shirt designed in honour of the midfielder in the style of the popular US TV sitcom ‘Friends’.

In an era that has increasingly moved away from the days of former players taking management positions, many supporters could be forgiven for thinking the picture of Freund hanging in the Tottenham Hall of Fame would be the closest the German came to a return. But the man who unexpectedly joined the Spurs faithful in the stands wearing his very own autographed shirt from the 1999 final has returned in an official capacity at an exciting time for the club.

“The new academy can’t be compared. It’s a world-class facility,” he explained. “I have my office here and look over the pitches. The conditions are unbelievably good. The previous training ground Spurs Lodge at Chigwell wasn’t bad, but there’s no comparison with what we have here. It’s a dream. It’s an absolutely world-class facility that not many teams have.

“We have a wonderful stadium at White Hart Lane. Now everything is free to build a bigger and even more beautiful stadium. The club is changing and changing.”

After years of mid-table mediocrity with the occasional relegation battle thrown in, ENIC, the current majority shareholder of the club embarked on a long-term mission to bring the club more in line with local rivals Arsenal as well as establish a team capable of challenging for trophies. Though one League Cup triumph in 2007 is the sum of their achievements, regular top-half finishes have shown that progress has been steady and a far cry from the darker days of Freund’s stay at the club.

He says: “On the pitch, in the last few years the team has come fourth or fifth, it’s always up there. When I was a player, we were on average in 9th to 12th place. We were relatively strong in cup games with two FA Cup semi-finals and a League Cup final. Individually, we were well stocked with players, but now it’s an established top-six team, and that makes me happy.”

The squad is barely recognisable to Freund though, as he explains: “I knew most of the players’ names. Ledley King and Robbie Keane were the last ones I played together with. Both are gone, King stopped for health reasons and Keane has moved on.”

For the man who claimed on his arrival that it had been: “my dream, one day to come back to Spurs,” Freund always kept a close eye on his adopted club, adding: “As Sky often show English football in Germany, they’ve often shown Tottenham in the last few years. For example, I saw a Tottenham v Chelsea 1-1 draw played at White Hart Lane (last season) at an unbelievable tempo. You could see what the players were bringing to the team.

“Now the whole central midfield has changed. Modric and Van der Vaart have gone, while Parker is injured. So there have been a few changes, and a new head coach.”

Villas-Boas’ arrival heralded a new era at Tottenham following the successful period under Harry Redknapp and the three-hour meeting with Freund was enough to convince the German to relinquish his duties as U17 manager.

“We didn’t know each other. But he said directly to me at the first meeting that he wanted a former player. I know at Chelsea he worked with a former player in Di Matteo. He saw a past player as having a positive input,” he says.

“It’s a dream for me to experience all this on the bench. There’s an unbelievable atmosphere. It’s a tight stadium with the fans three to five metres from the pitch. The message for the future of Tottenham is it’s all a big step forward.”

So what of Villas-Boas? The Portuguese had an unhappy spell at London rivals Chelsea, badly damaging his reputation as one of the game’s up-and-coming coaches and painting him in a difficult light. Freund sees it differently though, lavishing praise on the man in charge of the side now fifth in the Premier League following a slow start.

“He has absolute professionalism and organisation,” Freund explains. “He expects that we coaches should all ready, that we arrive earlier at training and leave later, a bit like the situation in Germany. We must work for him, help him where we can, organise everything, the training sessions, note everything down.

“We have meetings, discuss line-ups. We have an open relationship. He asks us in certain situations. I have to say we’ve worked together very well in the last few months. We regularly exchange ideas and discuss situations.

“I personally think every coach is different. He has a clear, open relationship with the players. They go to him. He makes many decisions. My role is to be in constant contact with the players. All the players are important for the team and there’s a situation of respect.

“He has a lot of humour. He has a relationship on a professional basis, but jokes are sometimes made. I think it’s a very pleasant working atmosphere.”

A notable difference to the Redknapp era has been the integration of a number of the younger players in the Spurs ranks, a situation Freund attributes to the work of Tim Sherwood, a protege of the last regime.

“Tim Sherwood is the coach of the Development squad team and is a key link to the professional teams. I think his role is very important in any club. You have to have someone to judge young players and to bring young players through, as has been the case,” he says.

“It was very important in the situation where we had five or six players injured. It was important to have players like Falque, Mason, Carroll and Townsend ready to come straight in, and Kane who is now injured.

“They need time, that’s clear. But we must keep developing them.”

As for the first-team, Spurs have found their stride, finding themselves unbeaten in nine with four consecutive league victories, including the memorable 3-2 triumph at Old Trafford. However, Freund is quick to temper title aspirations, pointing to the unpredictable nature of the Premier League.

He suggests: “It’s too early to say. I think it’s very important not to focus on the end of the season, nor on the outcome of one game. When we dropped points at the beginning of the season, it was said to be all negative, but not for me. I wasn’t down.

“We deserved to get a point when we lost at Newcastle and more points in the next games. Now we’ve won four league games in a row.

“We want to be in the top four. If we win a trophy, that’s great. But there’s no pressure on our ambition at the start.”

The former midfield general has won coveted trophies throughout his time in football: two Bundesliga titles preceded a Champions League win with Borussia Dortmund and sandwiched international success with Germany at the European Championships in 1996. He led the German stars of tomorrow to the final of the 2011 U17 equivalent before claiming third place at the U17 World Cup that same year. In short, he is accustomed to success.

Despite that, Freund is acutely aware of the need to convince not just his employers, but the fans of his and Villas-Boas’ methods. The team received a frosty reception after draws with West Brom and Norwich but there has been a noticeable improvement since then.

He says: “The atmosphere was more positive against Aston Villa. That wasn’t always so when I was a player when the atmosphere would very, very quickly turn negative. Against Aston Villa it was more positive. That pleases me. The team deserves that.

“The team lost a top defender in Ledley King, they were missing the midfield who were injured or sold. I enjoyed the last 20 minutes against Villa. It plays a role that we won at Man Utd. But we were neither in a state of euphoria or pessimism.

“It would be wrong to talk about the championship. It will be great against Chelsea at home. Then there are games against Southampton, Wigan, Man City and Arsenal to come. We should make the most of the experience. At some point, there are defeats to come. It’s a good message for observers that it’s difficult to beat Tottenham. But we mustn’t be euphoric and must keep our feet on the ground.

“We’ve got seven games in twenty days, including two Europa League games against Maribor and the Capital One Cup at Norwich. That’s an extremely hard programme.”

It is tough, but for a man synonymous with hardwork and with a record littered with success, Tottenham should be grateful to have the cult of Freund once again back among the ranks.

Interview conducted by Victor Vago

Bale is no cheat but he risks becoming a target like Suarez if he continues to dive

This piece originally appeared on on 16/10/2012

Let’s set the stall out early: Luis Suarez dives. Gareth Bale dives. Danny Welbeck, Ashley Young, Steven Gerrard and Eden Hazard dive. It is a problem that has plagued English (and world) football for at least the last 50 years and, just like clockwork, the tiresome debate has arisen again thanks to a series of incidents in the last two weeks.

But, where Liverpool’s No.7 largely aims to cheat his opponents, there is at least (for the most part) a thought process behind the Tottenham star’s capers.

There was an argument put forth that, while Suarez drew criticism from around the globe this past week for the embarrassing (and highly entertaining) attempt to con Lee Mason into giving a penalty to Liverpool, Bale escaped similar condemnation for incidents against Aston Villa and Scotland. At present, Suarez is the more evolved diver with the much more questionable character thanks to his own contemptuous acts.

Observers are split into two factions when it comes to Bale, regardless of their affiliation with Tottenham or otherwise. He is either just another cheat, a scourge on the game and as bad as the rest of them, or someone who has received one too many whacks to his ankles and is just looking to preserve his career.

That is the picture that Bale himself paints in one of many candid assessments of his own antics, remarking: “Whenever a challenge does come in I’m more likely to try and get out of the way and not get hurt rather than get hurt.”

In fairness, there are not many players in world football with the ability to run with the ball at near top speed and, when you’re clipped or tripped, injuries happen. Charlie Adam’s crude season-ending challenge on Bale when at Blackpool springs to mind, as does his pointless hack in a pre-season friendly against Tottenham in July.

Likewise, there are few footballers with the close control, trickery and total disdain for the reputation of centre-backs than Suarez. He induced more fouls than any other Premier League player in 2011-12 while Bale was 33rd in the list, which, I suppose, backs up his claim that he tries to avoid contact.

Bale’s propensity for taking a tumble appears on the rise this year but many shepherds of the Welshman’s reputation believe that it is a product of being kicked around the pitch for 90 minutes. Bale said it himself after the FA Cup tie with Stevenage, describing his tumbling as a means of avoiding injury: “I try not to get in the way of tackles. If people want to say I’m diving then they can but I’m trying to get out of the way and save myself, my career.”

This was certainly the case when a long chase resulted in the 23-year-old plunging to the turf in anticipation of the swinging boot of Brad Guzan. When it didn’t arrive, the American goalkeeper chuckled as he returned to his goal while Bale skidded across the surface opting not to appeal.

Of course, his reluctance to scream “foul” could be part of the ploy and it is a nigh-on-impossible task to genuinely work out if he is cheating or merely frightened of being sidelined. There are examples of him diving and of him being taken out and as such it is probably somewhere in between.

It is not as easy to defend Suarez, though, and, indeed, many of the most staunch Liverpudlians choose instead to draw comparisons with other offenders and ask why the Uruguayan receives a raw deal. Much like the boy who cried wolf, nowadays the forward is almost brazenly ignored by officials for even the most blatant of fouls.

Robert Huth’s stamp was clear violent conduct and a red card might well have helped Liverpool to three points, whereas Norwich City’s solution to the Suarez puzzle had echoes of Sebastian Chabal’s slaying of Chris Masoe (Google it).

But there have been incidents this year – dives at Anfield against Stoke City and Arsenal as well as countless others in the two years that he has spent on Merseyside. Those in charge, and we as onlookers, should analyse each incident in isolation, yet, when the same name pops up, a reputation is born and supercedes rational thinking.

One belief must be questioned, though. This is not part of a nationwide agenda to bedevil Suarez. The idea that Latin and Mediterranean foreigners have blighted the game on these shores with their dark arts may have shreds of truth but gives them too much credit.

Diving has been part of English football for decades – Manchester City’s Francis Lee was described by referees’ chief Keith Hackett as someone with a “reputation of falling down easily” and the 13 penalties that he netted from his top-scoring 33 goals in 1971-72 season are often cited as evidence – despite contrary reports claiming that only two were won by Lee himself.

But that is neither here nor there: Diving did not suddenly surface with the influx of foreign footballers. It may have exacerbated the problem but this was undoubtedly magnified by the introduction of the Sky Sports era and its endless replays. Suarez was herded into the nefarious bracket of a “cancer on the game” by Jim Boyce, Fifa vice-president, a slight more extreme than anyone in the domestic game dare peddle.

Yet, until the game’s authorities step in and attempt to implement a cure for the most infuriating facet of gamesmanship, Suarez will keep trying to con his counterparts with Bale not far behind. In such a high-stakes environment, the threat of a mere yellow card is not much of a deterrent.

It is eternally frustrating that other ‘cancers’ are left to fester, though, and perhaps it is more lamentable to see managers deploy ‘destroyers’ to foul and stop dangerous opponents by any means necessary – but that is another argument for another day.

The sad fact is that Suarez will conceivably have to live with this treatment for the rest of his playing days. It is a great shame that such a talented player will need to summon every ounce of his ability just to get what is sometimes justifiably his inside a penalty box. But, as the architect of his own downfall, his two years at Anfield should provide a lesson for Bale, whose excuses will only stand up for so long.

Formidable Cech continues to display his worth as one of the last of Chelsea’s old guard

This piece originally appeared on on 3/10/2012

On paper, at least, Chelsea cruised to a 4-0 win away at Nordsjaelland on Tuesday night, but the scoreline masked a spell of pressure that the European champions owed a debt of gratitude to Petr Cech for repelling – and not for the first time in his illustrious time at the club.

At Parken Stadium, with the home side trailing 1-0, Nicolai Stockholm and Joshua John tested the Czech shot-stopper. The first two efforts were comfortable for Cech but the third had him scrambling to his left and clawing a curling, dipping effort from John out of the top corner. In short, it was a world-class save.

On Saturday at the Emirates Stadium, with his team leading 2-1, Cech tipped another goalbound effort, this time a Lukas Podolski header, out of the furthest reaches of his net. He had no right to deny the German an equalising goal, just as he had no right to prevent Nordsjaelland pulling level on Tuesday.

Perhaps it is no surprise to see Cech in such convincing form. He has, after all, been a mainstay of the Chelsea machine and has done this for eight years – we have grown accustomed to his excellence.

Add his inspirational Champions League displays en route to capturing the game’s greatest prize and you have a No.1 in full flow. He is confident, assured and the foundation on which Chelsea are now built.

For, over this summer, the club has undergone major surgery. Gone – or at the least, marginalised – are many of the old guard as the club look to smooth the transition from old to new.

Oscar and Eden Hazard joined Juan Mata to provide an attacking trio brimming with skill and invention, easing the gradual decline and worth of Frank Lampard. The goals his career was noted for should be spread evenly across the board and indeed cover the malaise Fernando Torres is suffering.

At the back David Luiz and Gary Cahill look primed to strike up an understanding able to cushion the weight of John Terry’s eventual retirement. Even at left-back, Ryan Bertrand already looks the natural heir to Ashley Cole.

It seems strange to talk of Cech as part of the ‘old guard’ at Chelsea but in many ways he is. Of the starting XI in Denmark, only Cole and Lampard are older and Cech is very much one of the senior pros in Roberto Di Matteo’s squad.

Signed from Rennes in 2004 for £7 million, the then-22-year-old dislodged Carlo Cudicini, a terrace favourite, and embarked on a debut campaign that leaked just 15 league goals.

Even now, aged 30, he remains relatively young in a goalkeeping context. The agility is certainly still there and remains remarkable for a man of such stature, while his footwork is trusty.

He is vocal and commands his penalty box better than the majority of Europe’s keepers – arguably the most important facet of a modern day keeper, once you get past the requisite shot-stopping ability.

He is not without his flaws though: An inexplicable handling error under pressure from his own Czech Republic team-mate at Euro 2012 handed Greece a way back into their group game, whilst a similar mistake at Wigan last season cost his side two points. There were parallels with both goals – each time Cech was called to gather a low cross in among a scrum of bodies – an understandable mental scar borne from the skull fracture he sustained at Reading in October 2006 prevented him averting the danger.

It took Cech a long time to recover from that horrific injury and his confidence was noticeably shaken. The broken nose he received against Blackburn in late 2011 preceded another dip in form and this points to an entirely expected fragility in his make-up.

But taking the whole package leaves Chelsea with a dependable goalkeeper capable of making saves very few can and although his form dipped in the last couple of years, he was invigorated by the backs-to-the-wall journey through Europe in 2011-12. He has recaptured the poise last seen in the Jose Mourinho years at Stamford Bridge – the days of going 1025 minutes without conceding a goal.

It would be remiss not to cast a glance to Atletico Madrid’s on loan Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois given the topic of goalkeeping replacements. The 20-year-old looks a carbon copy of Cech with his almost skeletal gait and has racked up an impressive CV in his year and a bit in the Spanish capital.

Winning the Europa League provided Courtois with a fateful meeting with Chelsea in the European Super Cup – a one-off game that he impressed in as Atletico demolished the new-look Blues 4-1 in Monaco.

Whether he will be ready to press Cech for the No.1 shirt remains to be seen, though the current occupier of the gloves at Stamford Bridge has been effusive in his praise for his understudy: “If you look around Europe and you look at the goalkeepers with top quality that you would expect for a Premier League team, then there are not many as talented as Thibaut is. He is one of the best talents in European football.”

The threat to his position will grow as Courtois ages but the biggest danger lies in the hands of Di Matteo. History has taught us that replacing a goalkeeper is both the most important and difficult problem a manager must solve.

It took Sir Alex Ferguson six years to finally replace Peter Schmeichel and you could argue Arsene Wenger has never found David Seaman’s successor. Everyone associated with Chelsea will hope for a seamless transition when Cech’s time runs out.

But he is a stalwart. A veteran at 30, with 378 appearances to his name and 95 international caps. He signed a new four-year deal in the summer and already holds the club record for appearances made by a foreign player.

It will inevitably be a formidable task to replace him when he does end his association with the club, but for now, Chelsea will be delighted to retain this valued member of the old guard.

Revitalised Rooney can offer a timely shot in the arm for Manchester United

This piece originally appeared on on 2/10/2012

As Wayne Rooney strode onto the field in place of Ryan Giggs on Saturday, expectation and hope was high. He was supposed to inspire Manchester United to the type of rousing comeback the club are so synonymous with and although he created Nani’s goal, ultimately 45 minutes were too few for him to prevent a surprise home defeat to Tottenham.

He did, however, give cause for excitement, as much through his performance as his demeanour. He looked more lean than in August and moved with the sort of snap that was conspicuous in its absence in the first two games of this campaign.

The gruesome wound he suffered against Fulham may have kept him away from first-team action for a month but Rooney now looks like the player many expected to see after a gruelling pre-season. Though on the losing side on Saturday, his man of the match comeback against Newcastle in midweek suggested the time away has replenished his appetite. Gone was the lethargy and granite boots and in their place the reliable first touch and athleticism presumed of the Merseysider. Perhaps his enforced absence was a wake-up call for the 26-year-old.

Other factors may have caused Rooney to refocus in his time off; namely Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa. Two years ago Rooney was embroiled in a contract dispute that seemed to pave the way for an exit from Old Trafford, as he cited concerns over the quality of the squad. He did eventually backtrack and United have since spent considerably in the transfer market.

The latest big money arrivals have, in differing ways, had a telling impact. Van Persie’s hat-trick at Southampton rescued what stood to be an embarrassing and damaging defeat while Kagawa has scored twice and delivered one of the most impressive debuts seen on these shores for many a year.

Rooney now has genuine world-class competition for his place in the United team and though it is unlikely he will struggle to get minutes for his club, former team-mate Nicky Butt agrees that this should galvanize the striker.

“When you play at a big club and you’re a big player you have got to expect competition,” he told MUTV.

“Everyone expects that at this club and if you don’t expect that, you shouldn’t be here. No-one’s got a given right to play every week. I’m sure Wayne will thrive on the competition for places and he’s still one of our top players if not the top player we’ve got here.”

Despite their flickering brilliance, United have yet to get going. They have dropped six points from 18 – to Everton and Tottenham – and have yet to dominate any of their eight fixtures. Indeed, in a season in which reclaiming their Premier League crown is priority, there are grounds for concern.

Yet Rooney’s second-half display against Spurs should invigorate the Red Devils and he has the chance against CFR Cluj on Tuesday night to reassert his position as a key figure for Sir Alex Ferguson.

You could be mistaken for thinking David Beckham had replaced Giggs at half-time on Saturday, such was the quality of the cross Rooney delivered to Nani, and the near-perfect free-kick he swung onto Brad Friedel’s post was of a similar vintage. While inside the box, he came alive, pouncing on a loose ball, swivelling and striking a shot inches wide.

Ultimately Rooney’s impact didn’t retrieve the situation for United but that can largely be apportioned to a porous backline that has now shipped 10 goals in eight games. With injuries forcing Ferguson’s hand in that particular department, it is reasonable to expect an improvement as the season wears on. And while goals have not been an area of concern – the chemistry has as Van Persie’s arrival inevitably poses questions as to the most effective line-up and shape.

All of the above should eventually fall into place, as Butt explains: “Whether it’s Wayne, Van Persie, Chicharito or Danny [Welbeck], whoever it’s going to be, they have just got to go out there and do their best for themselves and the team and if they do that and work hard in training, everything will work out for United this year.”

Such confidence is a bi-product of working with Ferguson for 12 years and few would suggest United will not bounce back and resume their habit of winning football matches. With Rooney’s return to fitness coinciding neatly with this unexpected setback – few suspected Spurs could shake a 23-year hoodoo, not least Sir Alex – expect Rooney to grasp his Champions League opportunity with both hands.

Tuesday night’s trip to Romania is a fantastic opportunity for Rooney to fly the colours of his flag and net his first goal of the season. Ferguson will look at October and November and recognise the importance of fixtures against Chelsea, Arsenal and Newcastle and inevitably give Rooney the minutes he needs to fine-tune his body. Should he add form to his focus, Rooney will deliver the shot in the arm United need as they hunt another trophy-laden season. First stop – ensure another Champions League group stage exit is averted.