Thursday, 4 February 2010

Keane’s move to Celtic amongst the biggest shocks of transfer deadline day.

Celtic’s last ditch loan signing of Robbie Keane mean that they will see plenty of that embarrassing half summersault celebration between now and May north of the border.

Celtic fans will be rubbing their hands with excitement following the recruitment of Irish striker Robbie Keane as a last minute deadline day loan deal. It seems that the willingness of current club Spurs to let Keane move, is a sign that the player and former club captain’s services are no longer required at the North London club.

His move is another indication that the player, who seemed destined for the big time when he moved to Italian giants Inter at the tender age of 20, has never really fulfilled the early expectations of him.

First things first though, let consider Keane’s positives, he has scored over a 100 goals in the Premier League, a significant record for any striker. What he perhaps lacks in technical ability is often made up in his willingness to run all day for his team. He almost always gives a 100% to the team cause and given a half a chance on goal will probably score. Keane will and should probably score a hatful for Celtic between now and the rest of the season, and the Irishman will more than likely be a hero to many of the Hoops fans.

However, the move to Celtic proves that Harry Redknapp has realised what Rafael Benitez, Marco Tardelli (Inter’s manager during Keane’s time there) and even David O’Leary had worked out before him. They have realised that Keane’s game depends on the team playing a certain way, in order for him to succeed the team needs to be built around him tactically. When teams play to his strengths this way, and he is the main lynchpin of the team, he will score goals – that is way he was such a success at both Coventry and Wolves. But when asked to play in a system, particularly ones that are based upon a higher standard of play, Keane tends to become marginalised as he has been in Tottenham for most of this season.

Benitez was heavily criticised by his inability to blend Keane into the Liverpool team successfully last season, but Benitez’s main failure was not realising the type of player that Keane was before signing him in the first place. Keane became unstuck at Liverpool as he failed to slot in to a team that were technically of higher quality than he was used to.

His time at Spurs has also seen many high’s and low’s, his most successful period came during his first spell just before his transfer to Liverpool; when he partnered the enigma that is Dimitar Berebatov. In many ways Keane was allowed the freedom to play his own game during this period, as he as the hardworking goalscorer was an excellent foil to the often lazy but technically brilliant Berbatov, who could effectively reward Keane’s hard work on a regular basis with an effective flick or through ball.

This season Spurs have used the Defoe/Crouch paring as their first choice strikers; and whilst it is since the arrival of Crouch that Keane has seen himself marginalised; it is Defoe which has taken his place in the team. Target man Crouch is destined to partner a quick and goal getting forward, for Keane it is unfortunate that Redknapp believes that Defoe is both quicker and a more likely goalscorer than him. There is no doubt that Redknapp if given a choice would keep Keane as a bench warmer, a suitable substitute for his first choice pairing, but the Irishman’s need for regular 1st team football have precluded that from happening for any longer.

Keane has the opportunity with Celtic to be the ‘main man’ again, he will be the star man there, will more than likely score goals in a team which will play to his strengths. Harry Redknapp has said that Keane has not played his last game for Spurs and expects him back for the start of next season; but key element will surely depend on Redkanpp’s ability to offer first team football.

This may lead Keane to review his options; Celtic will of course be on the agenda but this will depend on both the price and Keane’s willingness to move permanently to the SPL. It may just be that the magic of the Celtic rubs off on him and the lure of medals and Champions league football will be enough to keep him. Craig Bellamy a player who spent time on loan at Celtic Park, in a similar vein to Keane; has always said that he was attracted to a permanent deal with the club following his time there.

However, it is more than likely that Keane will head back south in May, in a search of a new opportunity. There will be a host of interested clubs but Spurs’s price and the fact that Keane’s wage is closer to Champions league player than an average Premier League player will leave many out of the running. The likely clubs in the running such as Blackburn, Sunderland, Stoke, Fulham and West Ham, may not be amongst the most glamorous of options, but they all will offer a route for Keane to add to his excellent Premier league goalscoring record.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Landon Donovan’s European Internship

Landon Donovan’s successful start to his Everton career is heightening speculation about an extended stay for the US star in the English Premier League.

Ask your average LA Galaxy fan which player would they be most disappointed to lose to an European club; and the answer quite simply for most will be Landon Donovan. Not the global superstar, ex Man Utd and Real Madrid, England international, David Beckham; who is by far the most well known player in the club’s history. In fact, conversations between Galaxy fans over the past few week or so have focused on Donovan’s performances in the Premier League, rather than the speculation regarding Beckham will he or won’t he retirement post this Summer’s World Cup.

LA Galaxy fans were dismayed by Beckham’s assertions to instigate a move to AC Milan last season. There was a general feeling of disappointment amongst fans of a player who had signed a huge deal to move to LA, but was seemingly reurning very little both on and off the field to the club. Donovan, who joined Everton on loan in early January; is already making Beckham like noises regarding a potential extended stay in the Premier League.

Donovan is quite possibly the most gifted American player of his generation, and and did not receive anywhere near the hype surrounded by compatriot Freddie Adu when first emerging as a player. When Donovan moved to Bayern Leverkusen in 1999, US based followers identified him as the first true potential World-class player produced in the USA; a player who would establish himself at the upper echelons of the European leagues. A player capable of finding home amongst one of the elite ‘big clubs’ of Europe and not amongst one of the marginal clubs like the majority of his US European based compatriots.

However, things did not go according to plan for Donovan, his entry into the Bayern Leverlysen side corresponded with a break up of the successful side, which lost key players such as Ballack to bigger clubs. Donovan’s inability to fulfil his potential and poor form of his home club left him transferred back permanently to the MLS in 2005.

Donovan, who would not have been the first hyped US player to return to his home league after failing to fulfil the promise believed in him, set out to carve out a career in his domestic league. Then last year after establishing himself as the USA’s key player on the international stage and winning plaudits and awards aplenty for his performances in the MLS; Donovan took another crack at Europe, signing for Bayern Munich on loan. But yet again a lack of game time meant he was unable to convince on a European basis that he could cut the mustard.

This season’s loan move to Everton may be a more under the radar move for Donovan, but his early performances have hinted that he may have found a suitable fit in Everton; a club who despite their history and traditions are not immediately as scrutinised by the media as other higher level European clubs. Donovan’s first few games have shown a player which has the capability to become both a success and asset for an EPL side. In particular he will benefit from the small squad roster at Everton, which will give him opportunities for game time.

Donovan’s fit for the EPL is also based on his attributes, his pace in particular will be more use in this league than the Budesliga and will be more than useful to an Everton squad who are at present deficient in this both pace and width.

What Donovan also has in a favour is a good manager in David Moyes, a man who in most cases is able to bring the best out in the player. Moyes has often taken in underperforming but clearly talented individuals and enabled them to reach the true potential; Steven Pienaar are Mikel Arteta being two examples.

Another positive factor is Moyes’s clear knowledge and apparent interest in the US gam. Moyes has brought US national goalkeeper Tim Howard to the club, was responsible for Brian Mcbride’s first and second stint in English football and has also added some US born players to the clubs academy and coaches to the backroom staff. It is also rumoured that Moyes has also cast an eye on US team boss’s son Michael Bradley as a potential future signing for the club.

If Donovan has a successful few months with Everton, there is no doubt that more prominent questions will be asked of the player’s ambitions to mover permanently to the Premier League. The complexity of the issue is that Donovan signed a new Four year deal with LA Galaxy just prior to his leaving for England in December; and whilst contracts are always secondary to player power; the contract does undoubtedly increase the transfer value of the US star.

Everton, may be interested in doing a deal, but will be keen to keep price to a minimum, due to the meagre budget that their manager will more than likely be allocated to do his summer spending. A situation which may put Donovan on the radar of other EPL clubs who would be willing to meet Galaxy’s demands and more than likely increase the player’s salary. However, Donovan may need to learn from the lessons of the past and realise that foregoing a higher salary may be needed to stay at Everton to prove that he is a player capable of meeting the demands and standards of a major European league.

If Donovan does decide to leave, there will be many at LA Galaxy and in the MLS that will compare him to Beckham; as a player who was only too willing to take the money in the US when their value and skills were not required elsewhere, only to jump at the chance when a better alternative was offered. But the club and US soccer in should be grateful to Donovan for spending most of his (best) years in the MLS, contributing to the increasing popularity of the game stateside, Arguably is contribution to the US leagues many will say which has gone a lot further in influence than a certain other LA Galaxy right side midfielder.

TOP 5 US based European players

1. Brad Fridel – a keeper which has been amongst the steadiest in the Premiership over the last decade or so. His inability to establish himself at a regular in Liverpool at the start of his English based career did not preclude him from becoming a mainstay for Blackburn Rovers and now Aston Villa.

2. Tim Howard – another American keeper. Howard’s early exploits at Manchester United hinted towards the fact that Sir Alex Ferguson had found the solution to his longer keeper problem. A glut of mistakes in big matches, left Howard dropped and eventually shipped out to Everton; where regular game time and experience has allowed him to become one of the better keepers in the EPL over the past 3 years or so.

3. Claudia Reyna – A player who enjoyed success in the German, Scottish and English top divisions. He earned a reputation particularly in the Premier League as a talented creative midfielder; his career in England though was blighted by a succession of injuries, which led him back to the MLS before his retirement in 2008.

4. Brian Mcbride – A player who had spells with Preston, Everton and Fulham in the Premier League. Led the line as a target man particularly well for Fulham and maintained a respectable scoring record throughout his time in English Football. Had he joined an English side sooner in his career he may have seen more success.

5. Clint Dempesy- Why do many US players end up at Fulham. Dempsey’s talents have led him to establish himself as a key part of the Cottagers squad, achieving the highest league position in their history last season. A factor, which has fuelled speculation of potential interests of other ‘bigger’ clubs such as Liverpool.

One to Watch Michael Bradley – Despite question about his attitude, Bradley is beginning to show a player which is capable of establishing himself as a one of the best midfielders in the Bundesliga.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Coyle’s Exit leaves Burnley and the rest of Football baffled

Most will be surprised by Owen Coyle’s decision to exit his position as Manager of overperforming Burnley to become the new main man at the nearby Reebok stadium. Many have questioned how a man who in the summer turned down a job with Celtic, a decision even more perplexing when he was born in the East of Glasgow.

In many ways Coyle judgment has been called in to question on why the job at Bolton, currently (in league position terms) a downward step is seen as more attractive than Celtic last summer and Burnley now. One of the big factors that led to Coyle rejecting Celtic’s advances was his so called love for Burnley and in particular the need to complete the job he has started. Few could imagine that less than 6 months later that Coyle has left Burnley for unfancied and relegation fodder Bolton. Bolton is a club who after all up to a few years ago was not dissimilar to Burnley – a dilapidated old stadium, a club living on past glories who had not seen the echelons of the top division for a number of years. And in many ways some will question his wisdom of leaving a seemingly solid and safe position at Burnley to a club who could be described by many as on the wane.

But despite this Coyle has done well in remembering history and in particular how ruthless and fickle football fans and in particular football Chairmen can be. Recent history is littered with examples of young Managers who like Coyle have led their teams against the odds from the Championship to the Premier League. During that time these managers were treated as gods amongst their supporters, and a miracle money generator by the Chairmen. The list may include Aide Boothroyd who miraculously guiding an underfunded and unfancied Watford from the foot of the Championships to the Premier League. Billy Davies who guided Derby to promotion to the Championship in a whirlwind campaign. Or Micky Adams who lead an on the brink of administration Leicester City back to the Premiership in 2002.

All three have much or had much in common with Coyle, they all were young and relatively inexperienced managers who’s talents to motivate their clubs to achieve goals above their expectations quickly, probably ultimately led to their demise. All three managers at one time or another, were touted as the next big thing and would often be mentioned as a candidate by the press when a ‘bigger’ managerial vacancy would arise. But despite this all three have failed (as of yet) to fulfil the early promise that they have showed. In Davies’s case promotion with a threadbare squad which was only lightly invested in to try to retain Premiership status was forgotten as he was booted out a few months into the season, his heroics less than 6 moths earlier seemingly forgotten. For Boothroyd, a man who was able to not only ensure stability at Watford at a time where League One was seemingly inevitable, but to take an average Championship playing squad to the Premiership was not enough. And finally to Adams who led a club on the brink of administration with a scattered playing squad to the Premiership, only to suffer due to the demands of Premiership football.

All three were capable of creating teams who punched above their weight, who then raised expectations for fans and Chairmen above reality. All three suffered from the consequences of achieving as the Specials sang “Too much too soon”.

Coyle will have recognised the parallels of his position with the three managers when assessing his options, some will say he should have stayed put and waited for a bigger job to come up. But there are no guarantees in football and if and when that ‘bigger’ job should arise Coyle’s stock may not be as valuable as it is now.

Coyle knows that both what the best-case scenario is for both Bolton and Burnley. For Burnley he knows that even if the best case scenario of maintaining Premiership status is achieved this season, the challenge next season will be even greater; with a likelihood of 19 clubs with more money to spend on new players to compete against. He also knows that should Burnley be relegated, that despite the obvious forward strides made that they would still find the Championships a challenging place. Burnley if relegated would by no means be the most funded club in the league and would find the battle for promotion back up to the premiership as tough as ever.

Whilst at Bolton he knows that despite the league position there is some grain of stability, that even if they are relegated this season, they would most likely be amongst the favourites to succeed in bouncing straight back up to the Premiership. He knows that at Bolton, he has a platform to show that he is not a one trick pony, and if he achieves a modicum of success that it won’t be long until the really bigger jobs would be back on the agenda – albeit for him in a much more favourable position.

Football is a fickle business, supporters will get on the back of a player or manager following a few underpar performances, Chairman will fire, rehire and recruit as they choose; we should not criticise the likes of Coyle therefore when seeing a challenge and an opportunity, that he has chosen to take it.

O’Neill’s failure in finding a Plan B for Villa

It is often said that the sign of a good manager is how they are able to employ a contingency plan during a match when things may not be going their way. Indeed. Ferguson, Mourinho and Wegner are all classic examples of managers who can use change of tactic or a substitution to alter the course and outcome of a game.

Villa’s recent match with Liverpool ended in a disappointing last gasp defeat for the home side. With the otherwise quiet Torres pouncing on an ounce of good fortune to punish an otherwise steely and comfortable Villa defence. Martin O’Neill in his post match interview commented on how the loss was a ‘cruel defeat’ and how “"everyone in the stadium and on the TV would have said that we (Villa) should have won the game.”

There is an element of truth to this and above all of O’Neill achievements this season should be the way in which he has been able to change the mentality of not only his own players but of the opposition teams of Villa’s abilities and strengths. Villa have now become a side who expects to win regularly against the top opposition. Indeed for great periods of the 1st Half a low in confidence Liverpool played and looked like a team who would be happy to take a draw. This should have been a huge compliment and a nod to indicate that O’Neills vision of achieving Villa’s ultimate goal of Champions League Qualifications is not far away. Liverpool’s attitude and play spoke volumes of the potential change in the balance of power at the top of table, with Benitiez’s side in dire need of 3 points to stay in some kind contact with the top 4, seemingly convinced that a draw would be a good result.

However, as the game progressed, there was an evident change in Liverpool’s confidence. It was becoming clear that despite two excellent saves by Reina, that Villa having failed to find that elusive first goal were running out of ideas. Liverpool became comfortable, and it was clear that the game could only be won by either a mistake or an act of brilliance. In the end it was a bit of both, the failure of Villa to clear an innocuous ball forward by Liverpool, led to Torres finding himself with half a chance to grab the win. Torres who had been marginal throughout the game, and spent most of the time looking unimpressed with the Birmingham snowy weather, was able to show true quality to snatch the win. And in many ways Torres highlights the challenge O’Neill faces, in moulding Villa in to truly believable challenger to the top 4. On the evidence of this game it is clear that O’Neill lacks the tactical nouse to change the direction of Villa’s play when things are not going to plan.

He may have a very good reason not to, as he will probably point out in most cases Plan A works and gets the required result. Plan A, which effectively is built on a steady and organised back four, a stable and workmanlike midfield, with the pace of Agbonlahor excellently complemented by the presence of Carew. The upfront paring are superbly supplied by the pace and crossing of Downing and Milner.

However, despite its effectives, there is very little to suggest that if the plan does not work that he has the players or the ability to change things. Ashley Young is at best the most likely player that can offer Villa genuine variation, but he at best has been inconsistent particularly against quality opposition.

So, where do Villa go now. Well as is likely nowhere; Plan A has worked in the majority of cases on opposing teams below the top 4 and against some above it, Man Utd away for example. This in itself may be enough for Villa to gain that elusive top 4 spot, and gain a place in the Champions league.

The real challenge for O’Neill will be to show both his tactical qualities and his skills in the transfer market that will enable his Villa side to show that it is more than a one trick pony.