The most underrated footballer in the world in the last decade or so is Cristiano Ronaldo. That may seem like forced contrariness about a player who only this week was awarded three LFP Awards and a red-hot nomination for another Ballon d’Or but it’s true. The Portuguese superstar who cost Real Madrid a record-breaking £80million when £80million was a lot of money is lacking in just and proper dues. To say such a thing is not click-bait, fishing or any modern internetism for being controversial for the sake it. Ronaldo does not get anything like the adulation he deserves.
Part of the reason for this is because he’s Cristiano Ronaldo. That name, much like saying ‘banana’ too many times, has lost all meaning. When we see or hear it, a part of us automatically stops paying attention. Cristiano Ronaldo won a game. Cristiano Ronaldo was man-of-the-match. Cristiano Ronaldo broke a goal-scoring record. So what? McDonald’s sold another burger. Starbucks opened a coffee shop. Joey Barton said something stupid. Why would anything so mundane and predictable deserve special attention or owt but the briefest acknowledgement?
If you buy a Cristiano Ronaldo and put a Cristiano Ronaldo in your team, he will perform his function and help you win games. In the same way a Ferrari or Lamborghini will get you somewhere faster than a Ford Fiesta would. You don’t for instance deserve a pat on the back if you purchase an iPhone and the screen looks nice. It is what it is – extremely good quality kit; essentially you are buying into an expensive brand. And no player on earth screams brand like Ronaldo. Each pristine and well-groomed inch of his waxy Ken doll facade is a focus group consensus on marketability.
It’s all a far cry from the world’s other best player. He is impish, hobbit-like and unassuming. Rather than looking like a perfectly manicured Mr. Universe, Ronaldo’s record-breaking nemesis more resembles a cheeky farmhand with a cheery disposition. You can imagine ruffling a certain Argentine’s hair after a tricksy little dribble; try touching anything on Ronaldo’s head and you will leave with more product on your hands than Avon. The differences are as stark as their goal scoring feats are freakishly similar. One is somehow more relatable and human; the other a CGI special effect.
There is something about Ronaldo that rubs people up the wrong way. A big part of it is his preening narcissism. That’s understandable. After all, no one likes a show off. Exaggerated expressions of brattiness when things don’t go his way don’t help either. He is an ego that needs pricking. Yet both of these outward traits of me-ness belie a level maturity on the pitch that transcends the individual. It could be argued that a very young Ronaldo was a show pony exhibitionist, far too tangled up in his own personal duels and blinkered meanders. But he hasn’t been that player for years now.
Still on 29, Ronaldo has matured into a true leader of men. It so often gets overlooked when focusing on other aspects of his makeup, yet it’s what makes him truly remarkable as a footballer. He shoulders the expectations of the most celebrated club in the world and does so with a profound understanding of what that means. Others may enchant with their excellence but with ultimate dependence on teammates to allow them opportunity and space. Time and again Ronaldo drags his team to victory almost single-handed. His iron will and incorruptible focus doesn’t allow for failure.
The Portuguese is not a little magician who conserves all his energy for moments of impact. Nor does he make each moment of footballing genius look effortless. Ronaldo is working bloody hard all the time. His body looks like that because he sculpted each well-defined muscle through hard f*cking work. And yet the sweat and pain that is manifest in his awesome machinery is used against him. The mighty frame he has trained so hard for is perceived as mechanical. He is cold science whereas others are art.
The truth is that Cristiano Ronaldo is nothing less than a working-class hero. He was brought up in a tin shack in Madeira; his beginnings are the humble as it gets. Ronaldo’s father struggled with alcoholism and died when Cristiano was still in his teens. His mother worked as a cook and cleaner to make ends meet. Everything that he has ever achieved in life has been thoroughly earned. Alas that doesn’t compute because he doesn’t look like a Tevez or a Rooney. He is no less a boy from the streets who made good.
What sets Ronaldo apart is the fighting spirit and ceaseless work ethic you only gain through great hardship. He may look like a male Kardashian but he is the ultimate scrapper; a slight kid from dirt-poor conditions who had to grow up fast to make anything of his life. If his only vice is revelling in his wondrous achievements, who can deny him that? Ronaldo is underrated. Because he is not a machine and none of this gifted to him. He is human and he needs to be loved, just like everybody else does. So appreciate him you bastards.
Written by: Nooruddean
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I recently spent 14 weeks in a cave, researching for a gargantuan project by the name of the Top 100 European Youth Prospects Aged 20 and Under. Apart from likely shaving months off my life and damaging my eyesight in ways I’ll only learn of when I hit 30, it was very rewarding in a number of ways.
Chiefly, it restored my hope and faith in Chelsea’s youth system, as despite having a frankly horrible track record of developing homegrown players over the last decade, change could well be afoot.
Indeed, a brief check on the typical first XI nowadays sees many top-class purchases from overseas turning out for the Blues, with just John Terry representing the youth academy and what it stands for: hard work, dedication and achievement.
That could change dramatically in the coming seasons, with Jose Mourinho even admitting that three of the players featured in the aforementioned top 100—Lewis Baker, Izzy Brown and Dominic Solanke—should be first-class internationals for England unless he does something horribly, horribly wrong.
A whopping 10 percent of my top 100 youth prospects based in Europe are on the books at Chelsea. I’ve been to watch Chelsea’s youth side tussle, most notably in the FA Youth Cup last season, and impressed was not the word.
Bar Fulham’s Patrick Roberts, who stole the show, I came away from said games wondering just how far many of the players could go; the likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Andreas Christensen showed attributes rarely found in youth-level football.
Mourinho’s admission makes it easy to believe he will try to bring these players into the setup. Indeed, Christensen made his debut against Shrewsbury this week, while Solanke came on as a substitute against Maribor the week before. The intent is there.
The Blues’ involvement in multiple competitions—in addition to Terry’s age, Diego Costa’s hamstrings and the paucity of central midfield quality beyond the starting two—also adds to the optimism that the tide can change at Stamford Bridge.
Jeremie Boga, Lucas Piazon, Kurt Zouma, Charly Musonda, Nathaniel Chalobah and Co. give Mourinho legitimate reason not to dip into the market next summer. The conveyor belt of talent—accumulated largely by poaching from other academies, it must be said—is too strong to ignore.
Christensen could threaten Zouma (seen as more senior) and replace Terry. He’s commanding, smooth on the ball, positionally excellent and leads a superb, organised back line.
Piazon is the complete forward; quick for his size, he drifts wide, cuts in, holds the ball up and, critically, sticks it in the back of the net with aplomb. When Didier Drogba departs at the end of the season, there is no better player to incorporate as the third-choice striker at a one-striker club.
Boga will face the prospect of tussling with Andre Schurrle and Willian at best, with Chelsea likely to look at other options next summer following the inconsistent play of the two this season. It’s easy to see Borussia Dortmund’s resolve being tested with regard to Marco Reus—what a midfield that would be!—but if not, Boga and even Musonda could provide an additional body.
It’s become normal to disregard the Blues as a talent provider, but history and past achievements have precisely nothing to do with the current strengths of the U-21 crop. Mourinho’s comments on Brown, Baker and Solanke can be extended to all 10 selected in the top 100, and you can probably add Nathan Ake into that mix too.
Dismiss the pre-dispositions you had about Chelsea and their ability to create talent; they are no longer applicable and should not haunt the current crop. Look out for a fresh, talented batch in years to come, and if they don’t make it at Stamford Bridge, pray your club picks them up and prospers.
Written by: Sam Tighe
The life of a modern day football manager is an uncertain and stressful one at the best of times.
At its worst it can mean unemployment, and for Arsene Wenger to equate it to living atop a volcano given the fact that any day could be your last really says something of the profession. Sam Allardyce is all too aware of the fragile nature of Premier League football management, but is currently reaping the rewards of a boardroom who have more long-sightedness than many in this day and age.
A banner at Upton Park once read “Fat Sam Out. Killing WHU.” His long-ball football was criticised not only by fans but by his peers too, and when Jose Mourinho described his tactics as 19th century football, many of the fans agreed despite obviously being delighted with the point they had just stolen from one of the Premier League’s biggest clubs. It was a case, at times, of cutting off your nose to spite your face.
While West Ham brought in Teddy Sheringham in order to improve the club’s attacking prowess, many of the plaudits must fall at Big Sam’s feet. He never lost confidence in his vision, and now has a squad that allows him to practice his beloved pragmatism with a little more leverage when it comes to attacking his opponents.
The long-ball tactic is not completely extinct (70 against Manchester City, per WhoScored.com) and to state otherwise would be irresponsible, but in Alex Song, Morgan Amalfitano and a far more involved and influential Stewart Downing, he has a balance in his squad that allows his side to gain a stranglehold in midfield. Throw the robust, hardworking Mark Noble and the lively Enner Valencia into the mix and you really can look at breaking down teams in other ways than through route-one football.
There are two telling statistics that will explain just how the side have developed this year. 70 percent of their passes are short, with only 16 percent being long balls. They are also relying less heavily on crosses into a target man, with only six percent being crossed balls. They have scored 10 goals from open play and six from set-pieces, which shows a tilt in the direction of which this club is going. As far as paying West Ham spectators are concerned, long may it continue.
Much of the criticism that was levelled at Sam Allardyce was steeped in genuine concern, and the fact was that the paying fans of the club were the ones who had to sit through some of the “19th century football” that Mourinho was talking about. Now they are getting to see what a team who have solidified themselves in the Premier League and are putting a greater emphasis on entertainment can do.
When at the start of the year Carlo Ancelotti constantly embraced the term “balance”—something that was lacking from his Real Madrid squad—all the way back in London, Big Sam was searching for his own form of balance. That appears to have been found now and is starting to pay dividends.
West Ham football club too must be afforded credit due to the fact that they stuck with their man, drowned out the noise created by a section of fans and the media and stuck to their guns. They’ve built a team together instead of uprooting their manager, changing backroom staff and refusing to believe that there are and always will be more issues at play than what the manager of a football club says and does.
Big Sam has seen turbulent times during his tenure at Upton Park but it would seem that, based on recent results, he has made it to the other side of these troubles with a new squad, a new style of football and a brand new set of ambitions.
Written by Robbie Dunne
I once saw David Byrne from Talking Heads play live as a support act for Paul Weller. As he lined up his backing vocalists up to sing “Road to Nowhere,” with the precision of an Arsenal’s early nineties defence, a waft of dry ice came across the stage. He stopped singing, shouted “did I ask for f**king ice?!?” numerous times, then walked off stage.
I think Hull City should start adopting this tactic until they get some coverage on the games they play.
You could be forgiven for thinking that Hull hadn’t participated in their previous two games against Arsenal and Liverpool. It must be even more galling for Tigers fans when they are currently only three points behind both these teams. Draws against two potential top-four (probably five) teams were excellent away results for the club, but they were overshadowed by their opposition’s media presence.
The main talking point from the Arsenal game was Danny Welbeck’s last-gasp equaliser, but even that was eclipsed by Arsene Wenger’s interview with Jacqui Oatley—which was a Christian Bale-standard of obnoxiousness. His acerbic answers to a genuine question about why he is allergic to buying quality defenders seemed to touch a nerve. Cue the autopsy of every word he/she said as to whether it was rude, sexist, unprofessional or not.
The talking points from the Liverpool game were all about one man: Mario Ballotelli. Why is it always him? Well, mainly because you never stop talking about him. He’s one open goal miss away from going postal and filling even more column inches.
So what about Hull? are they really that dull? Does Steve Bruce have to do The Goonies “truffle shuffle” on the sidelines just to get you to notice them?
In both the Arsenal and Liverpool games the Tigers defended well. Wenger complained that Hull rarely came out of their own half, but isn’t football about playing to your strengths? With strong acquisitions like Mohamed Diame, who has scored four goals in five games, credit should be given to Hull for improving the squad and collecting unexpected points.
November brings Southampton, Burnley, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United for Hull. In terms of hyperbole, they all have better stories than the Yorkshire-based team which will capture the headlines.
Southampton “still in shock that they’re good after selling half the team”; Burnley “patronising pat on the head, in a bless em’ they tried way”; Spurs “Oh god they’ll have to play in Milton Keynes soon” and, well, Manchester United don’t need a reason to be in the press—they just always are.
Hull City’s chairman is doing his part in getting the club noticed. His recent outburst on Football Focus about refusing to spend any more money on the squad until he is allowed to change their name to Hull Tigers, have been dismissed as “empty threats.”
There is something to be said about progressing quietly under the radar, but as Oscar Wilde once said “there is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
I look forward to seeing how far up the Mariah Carey scale Hull can go.
Written by: Laura Jones
Sven-Goran Eriksson’s first match in charge of England was memorable for many reasons. It was the first home international to be played outside of Wembley since 1973, and the future World and European Champions, Spain, were comfortably beaten by three goals to nil.
But what created more interest was the decision to offer debuts to both Chris Powell and Michael Ball, as the newly appointed Swedish coach quickly discovered how few quality left backs he could call upon. Thankfully, Arsene Wenger resolved that particular issue by successfully converting Ashley Cole from a winger to a defender.
Four World Cups on and suddenly there is now an abundance of talent available in either full-back position for the England manager, and pleasingly they are all experiencing first-team football at their respective Premier League clubs—injury permitting.
No longer is Kieran Gibbs a deputy to Gael Clichy, or Ryan Bertrand languishing in the Chelsea Reserves. Luke Shaw has made the move to better himself alongside the likes of Angel Di Maria and Daley Blind, while Calum Chambers features regularly in the Champions League for Arsenal.
The transformation in little over a decade has been phenomenal. And it has taken place despite continual investment in foreign players. The advent of Financial Fair Play and home grown player quotas could potentially have impacted on an increasing trust in England-eligible players, but that would ignore the recent acquisitions from abroad of Daryl Janmaat, Cesar Azpilicueta and Alberto Moreno.
There is no denying the positive effect that Ashley Cole has made on the perception of the full back role, though. Before the widespread introduction of the 4-2-3-1 formation, the relationship between the defender and wide midfield player ahead of him was rather straightforward—you fed the ball to a pacey trickster who would glide past his marker, or alternatively you’d create an overlap.
With the gradual decline of the old-fashioned winger, more often than not the full-back is now presented with acres of space to exploit. Ashley Cole’s impressive reserves of energy afforded him the luxury to attack and defend in equal measure, which enabled his manager to strengthen the midfield battleground with an additional body.
The fact that like Cole, Gibbs and Danny Rose were also once aspiring wingers, coached into the role of full-back, it has in some ways made the position more desirable to play in. No longer is the position restrictive in terms of its potential for attacking rewards. You needn’t look any further than England’s current incumbent, Leighton Baines, for evidence of that.
Last weekend I witnessed the most technically proficient defender I have ever seen in League Two. On loan from Bolton Wanderers, Andy Kellett demonstrated the composure and awareness of a seasoned central midfield player. His exquisite first touch and pin-point delivery earned him Man of the Match recognition in his maiden home start for Plymouth Argyle.
His tender frame and lack of defensive instinct suggested the role of full-back was one he had not craved as a youngster, but considering his thoughtfulness in possession there is certainly enough to suggest that he can be coached into the role, much like Ashley Cole previously.
The other interesting aspect when dissecting the number of Englishmen currently plying their trade in a full-back role are those who look destined to blossom in a centre-back role in the longer term, but are capitalising on a less risky route into the first team.
Offensively speaking, the recent criticisms of Calum Chambers’ performances against San Marino and Estonia were largely fair. And the same could be levied against John Stones, who likewise lacks genuine quality when crossing into the box, or the skill to go beyond a marker.
However, their dependability defensively and their undoubted promise has offered sufficient encouragement to both their respective club and national managers to persevere with them. One Englishman—criminally overlooked in his prime—endured an almost identical start to his career. Jamie Carragher was forced to play at right- and left-back for much of Gerard Houllier’s reign, until he finally usurped Stephane Henchoz in the centre under Rafa Benitez’s expert tutelage.
His education in the art of defending could only be enhanced by learning other roles within the team. Being exposed to quality opposition at an earlier age allowed him to develop at a rate faster than could be achieved in reserve-team football.
With the full-back role becoming more decisive and its occupiers more diverse, I was keen to understand what may be happening at a grassroots level. Plymouth may not be famed for its football, but while Southampton are receiving plaudits for its youth structure, people ought to be mindful from whom they picked up Jack Stephens and Sam Gallagher.
Dan Gill, 30, was once an attacking midfield player before being encouraged to play at right full-back when representing Plymouth Argyle at U-14 level. Having twice won the South West Counties District titles as a player and now manager, I queried how he decided on his full-back selections: “I had weak options at full back and a lot of midfielders trialling. So I tried a couple of other lads at full back as they had displayed the rationale required for playing the role”.
Fresh from returning with a 100 percent record at last summer’s Isle of Wight festival, I questioned if there was an increasing trend in full-backs demonstrating the attributes of orthodox wingers: “I would say that due to the fact that formations have changed and teams tend to now pack the midfield and play three up front (4-3-3), this encourages the full backs to play as wing backs and burst forward as much as they can”.
Given how quickly the media and fans alike bemoan the lack of English talent breaking through it feels as though this particular moment should be cherished. Competition for places can only breed further individual development, and the continual raising of the bar will surely permeate through to the younger age groups.
That four of the ten photographed above have this week been shortlisted for UEFA’s Golden Boy Award only serves to emphasise the advantageous position we currently find ourselves in. For now we must pray that their playing time at club level remains so consistent.
Written by: Steve Clift
Marouane Fellaini’s Manchester United Renaissance is Ideal, But Consistency is Key to a Long-Term Future at Old Trafford
When Manchester United went into the half-time break at the Hawthorns, something clicked inside Louis Van Gaal’s devious mind. For all their possession, United faced a one-goal deficit and had barely threatened the West Brom goal in a tame first half display which saw them out-fought by a dogged Baggies side.
Enter: Marouane Fellaini. The Belgian’s arrival was met by groans from most of the Red Devils fanbase after a torrid 12 months which had seen him become something of a laughing stock at the club. But they were in for a shock; Fellaini’s arrival completely changed the game.
United were no longer second-best in the midfield battle, with the 26-year-old making his mark straight away with a fierce right-footed drive into the roof of the net. The post-mortem of Van Gaal’s decision was that he had realised United’s lack of physicality in the first half. He stated in his post-match press conference: “(I knew) after 30 minutes. And then I said (to Fellaini) to look what Herrera is doing because I want you to play. We have to look also for physical talents and maybe that’s our problem.”
The presence Fellaini was able to bring to the match gave them a different dimension, making some United fans realise that the Belgian could have a future at the club after all. Despite being seen as a £27 million flop and something of an on-field scapegoat for David Moyes’ failed reign, it is obvious Fellaini is able to offer this United side attributes which the other midfielders don’t possess.
On paper, the United midfield looks extremely lightweight. Daley Blind is their holding midfielder but is still quite slender, young and has a lot to learn about the role, meaning he is by no means feared by any opposition—yet. Ander Herrera has been a fine addition to the squad but in the brutal Premier League, his similarly slim stature will get found out in certain fixtures, without much protection behind him. The same can be said for Juan Mata this season, as he has not looked like the same player who once won Chelsea’s player of the year award, after a superb start to his United career.
Van Gaal realised this when United’s midfield were being bullied by West Brom and his renewed faith in Fellaini continued at home to Chelsea. After almost letting him move to Napoli in the summer, it appears the Dutchman has had a re-think as experience in a tough Premier League has taught him that physicality in midfield is almost a necessity. It’s nice to be able to field a midfield full of neat and tidy playmakers, but having the correct balance is key in that area of the pitch.
Fellaini was able to win over yet more of his critics with a fine shackling job on the in-form Chelsea schemer, Cesc Fabregas. The Spaniard has been unstoppable since moving to Stamford Bridge from Barcelona in the summer, which prompted Van Gaal to field Fellaini from the start for the first time. The Belgian was given two jobs: the first one was to man-mark Fabregas whenever Chelsea were in possession, in order to stop him having an influence on the game, and secondly, Fellaini was asked to run in behind the Chelsea midfield to drag Fabregas and Nemanja Matic out of position.
The plan worked. Fellaini was able to get plenty of joy on the left-hand side of United’s midfield three as the Red Devils went toe-to-toe with the league leaders. His link-up play in the first half with the lively Adnan Januzaj and Luke Shaw was a particular highlight, but the major plus point was that Fabregas was barely able to string a pass together, particularly in the first half where he completed just 11 in total, due to Fellaini’s pressure.
Even in the second half when Chelsea were dominant, the Belgian worked extremely hard, despite not being the most mobile. The 4-3-3 formation which gives him licence to join attacks and wreak havoc in-and-around the penalty area suits his game perfectly.
Now we know Van Gaal desires a physical presence in his team, it appears Fellaini may have a big role to play in the coming months. The question is: is he good enough to nail down a long-term position in this United side? I’m not so sure.
There is still plenty of work for him to do in that regards. His short, two-game renaissance has been great and all, but if Van Gaal has only started contemplating the lack of physicality and dominant figures in United’s midfield, surely he is currently just a short-term fix.
When the January and summer transfer window roll around, we will have our answer as to how much faith Van Gaal really has in Fellaini. He will want to bring his own players in which fit his philosophy perfectly, eventually. Kevin Strootman and Arturo Vidal have been the names on every United fans lips in recent months but there are a number of other options should the manager dip into his hefty transfer kitty once more.
But for now, having Fellaini at Old Trafford is no longer a hindrance, it is a massive help, which is a welcome relief after a forgettable start to his United career. He has started to win the fans over and you can see the confidence beginning to flow as he finally feels as if he has a role in this team.
He still has a lot of work to do to nail down his place in the long-term, so he can’t afford to rest on his laurels. The performances must keep coming.
Written by: Tim Simon