Manchester United: Why United Must Further Improve Their Midfield

Manchester United suffered through a tough season. After a Premier League title in 2012/2013, United’s season was a sputtering affair. Following years of stability with Alex Ferguson, they moved on to David Moyes who was fired after just one year on the job. The main reason? A seventh place finish that saw the team miss out on not only the Champions League, but the Europa League as well. The strangest part is that all this happened with largely the same team that won it all the year before.

Maybe the reason they struggled was a failure to keep up with the Joneses. Maybe it was because Moyes wasn’t a good fit. But one reason for United’s struggles was their deficiency in the center of the pitch. Their midfield wasn’t the most creative bunch and couldn’t create many goals.

To look at United’s midfield, first you must discern what position Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck play. If you count them as attacking midfielders, and not strikers, then the goal output from United’s midfielders isn’t terrible. If you count them as strikers, then it starts to look bad.

In all reality both are somewhere between an attacking midfielder and a striker. Rooney is tied to a role closer to midfield thanks to Robin van Persie’s presence and Welbeck is tied to a similar role thanks to van Persie and Rooney’s presence.

Let’s, for all intents and purposes, say that both Rooney and Welbeck are forwards, or at the very least not classified as midfielders due to their tendency to play up top for stretches.

After that the midfield consists of the likes of Michael Carrick, Antonio Valencia, Marouane Fellaini, Tom Cleverley, Shinji Kagawa, Ashley Young, Adnan Januzaj and Juan Mata. With the exception of Januzaj and Mata, goals were almost non-existent from this group. And even for those two, the goals weren’t exactly flowing.

Mata, the mid-season addition, and Januzaj, the young sparkplug, contributed a combined 17 goals through scoring and assisting. A solid output considering they only had 29 starts between them.

After that you have misters Carrick, Fellaini, Cleverley, Kagawa, Valencia and Young. Between them they made a combined 103 starts. Between them they contributed 14 goals. That’s simply not good enough for a team with United’s aspirations, and it showed as the defending champs struggled.

The team has already brought in Spanish playmaker Ander Herrera from Athletic Bilbao. He contributed 10 goals in La Liga last season, and while he’ll bring energy and creativity to a team clearly lacking it, United will need more to get back to the summit of the Premier League.

New coach Louis van Gaal has already made a superb signing in Herrera. He’ll need to make more like it if he wants to win silverware in Manchester.

All stats courtesy of http://www.whoscored.com/ unless otherwise noted.

World Cup 2014: Positives from Italy’s Campaign

Italy didn’t experience the best of World Cups – not by their own prestigious standards, or the standards of anyone else for that matter. The Azzurri were eliminated in the group stage with one win and two losses to show for it. One of those losses was to an underrated Costa Rica side, the other loss was marred by near-cannibalism. Regardless, Italy didn’t just miss out on the knockout rounds because of a singular incident (although you could make a case with Suarez’ bite…)  they looked slow and uncreative at times.

Once you get past these maladies, there were some bright spots to be had. Here are a few of them.

Matteo Darmian

The 24 year old Torino right back burst onto the scene in his competitive debut for Italy, combining with Antonio Candreva to terrorize England down the right flank in both team’s opening game. Darmian looked solid defensively as well and was one of six Italians to start every game. The others? Established starters Claudio Marchisio, Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli, Andrea Pirlo and Mario Balotelli. That’s pretty good company for a player who made his international debut just weeks before the tournament began. The performance helps Darmian even more so because it solidifies his hold on the position. With Ignazio Abate unable to hold down the position and Christian Maggio getting older, Italy may have found their right back for the next eight years.

Salvatore Sirigu

At age 36, captain Gianluigi Buffon doesn’t look like he’s slowing down, but at some point he won’t be around to mind the net for the Azzurri. For a while, no keepers embraced the mantle of Buffon’s successor. At one point in time, you could have pegged it on Marco Amelia or Federico Marchetti, but both have fallen by the relative wayside. Now the title firmly belongs to Salvatore Sirigu. The 27 year old shot-stopper is already a full-time starter at French giant PSG, arguably one of the top clubs in the world. Winning games in Ligue 1 and the Champions League is one thing, but winning and playing well at the international level is a completely different animal. Sirigu, starting for an injured Buffon, performed admirably against England in Italy’s win. He looked solid in goal all game, and would have kept a clean sheet had it not been for a smash of a goal from Daniel Sturridge that few goalkeepers could have stopped.

Marco Verratti

Another member of the Italy’s “heir-apparent club” is Verratti. Like his PSG teammate Sirigu, is the long-term replacement for another Azzurri legend, Andrea Pirlo. Unlike Sirigu in goal, you can play more than one midfielder in a game, so Verratti is afforded the rare opportunities to play alongside the man he may one day replace. At 21, he was arguably one of Italy’s best and most consistent players at the World Cup. Like Pirlo, he is a superb passer and regularly is handed starts at the club level ahead of the likes of Javier Pastore and Yohan Cabaye.

Giuseppe Rossi

This isn’t fair, Rossi didn’t make the team that went to Brazil. Nonetheless, he remains a bright spot. Why? Because of the role he will play in the future after Italy’s attacking options faltered in South America. Of the five forwards Cesare Prandelli brought to the World Cup, Alessio Cerci and Lorenzo Insigne only made two substitute appearances. Besides those two, you had the trio of Ciro Immobile, Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli. Immobile, still only 24, looked nothing like the goal-scorer he was at Torino. Cassano looked exceedingly sluggish and seemed to struggle physically. Balotelli’s play meanwhile was once again, mercurial. Except this time, it took a downward trajectory as opposed to his previous positive displays in an Italy shirt. After scoring against England, he was relatively quiet and missed a key chance to score versus Costa Rica. However, his yellow card against Uruguay changed the game in a bad way for the Europeans. This meant, if Italy advanced, they would have been without their most dangerous striker. On top of that Prandelli took him out to avoid going down to ten  men only to see the referee give Claudio Marchisio a straight red a few minutes later. The point I’m making with Rossi is that none of Italy’s strikers wowed anyone in Brazil. Together they managed just a singular goal. Teams need goals to win, and Italy needs players who can get them those goals. Sure, the Azzurri have a superbly talented group of midfielders who can score, but the team needs strikers who can consistently put the ball in the back of the net. They know that they have that in the New Jersey born Rossi.

World Cup 2014: What We Learned From Day 2 of the World Cup

  1. Mexico players could be kicking themselves over those disallowed offside goals

El Tri’s 1-0 win over Cameroon could have been more commanding. A 1-0 result and three points are great for Mexico to open the tournament, but you would have liked to think that the Mexicans would have been more comfortable in terms of qualifying for the next round with a 3-0 or even 2-0 win. The point is that goal differential could be key in Group A. Brazil is obviously the favorite in the group, but should Mexico run into a situation where they are even on points with Croatia and they finish behind the Europeans by virtue of goal differential, they could be “kicking” themselves for not staying onside before scoring, or simply not being happy with the refs.

  1. Brazilians don’t like Diego Costa

All throughout Friday’s Spain/Netherlands heavyweight tilt the local fans relentlessly booed Brazilian-born Costa, who plays for the Spanish. You get the impression that they don’t fancy him all that much.

  1. Spain are definitely trending down

La Roja got exposed big time against the Netherlands, getting burned on numerous occasions on the counter and just looking poor in defense. If there was ever a time to question the defense of the Spaniards, it’s now. It simply wasn’t there for Spain. Another reoccurring issue for Spain is the fact that they were again stymied by a three-man defensive line. Italy has used a three-man back-line to great effect against the Spanish and now Holland has done it as well. The defending champs just looked like the walking dead, the defense especially.

  1. The Dutch are for real

Just as it’s premature to completely count out Spain, it’s probably a little premature to bump the Dutch to co-favorites or favorites. But… the Netherlands annihilated the defending champs. Annihilated.  They look potent and sharp on the counter and simply didn’t allow the Spanish to play the way the Spanish want to, especially in the second half. If this team can beat Spain this convincingly… who knows what they can accomplish?

  1. Chile at their best are entertaining

Chile plays kamikaze football. They press high with numbers up the pitch. When this works, the Chileans can put up a wonky score line. The South Americans will sometimes press everyone forward with the exception of the two center backs, who will sit at mid-field. The entire team plays high up. Because of this they can also be scored on in droves. It’s an ultra-aggressive style of play, but one that has benefited the Chileans so far.

FC Porto: Forming a Starting XI of Players Sold Over the Past Five Years

Portuguese giants Porto are the model of a “feeder club.” They churn out wildly productive players and sell them to other clubs for massive profits. All this while maintaining their status of being one of the more consistently winning clubs in Europe.

FC Porto have even supplied coaches to some of top teams on the continent as Andre Villas-Boas and Jose Mourinho have left The Estádio do Dragão for new pastures.

Here is a starting XI of the best players to leave the Portuguese club in the last five years-

Goalkeeper: Rafael Bracalli

This is the toughest one on the list, mainly because Porto has employed Helton at the club since 2005. The Brazilian has been team captain since 2009, so all the goalkeepers to leave in the last five years have been a stream of back-ups. Rafael gets the nod due to his move to the Greek League, a higher level league than the other departed keepers.

Left Back: Ally Cissokho

The current Liverpool player (on loan from Valencia) was only at the club for a brief spell, but helped them push a Ronaldo-led Manchester United to the edge in the Champions League while also achieving the Portuguese double. After a failed transfer to AC Milan, Cissokho moved to Lyon.

 Center Back: Bruno Alves

Portuguese national team mainstay Bruno Alves spent nine years at Porto, highlighted by a Primeira Liga Player of the Year honor in 2009. He would later move to Zenit St. Petersburg in 2010. He now plays for Fenerbahce in Turkey.

Center Back: Nicolas Otamendi

Argentine international Otamendi is the most recent player to leave Porto on this list. Valencia bought him at the beginning of February and loaned him to Brazilian side Atletico Mineiro. He’ll likely feature for Argentina at this summer’s World Cup.

Right Back: Miguel Lopes

Lopes spent loan spells with European clubs such as Braga and Real Betis before moving permanently to fellow Portuguese giant Sporting CP in a swap for Russian midfielder Marat Izmailov. He’s currently on loan at Cissokho’s former club, Lyon.

Center Midfield: Joao Moutinho

Moutinho is one of the better box-to-box midfielders in the world. Along with Cristiano Ronaldo, he headlines the Portuguese national team’s attacking force. Along with another player on this list, attacker James Rodriguez, he moved to AS Monaco last summer.

Central Midfield: Fredy Guarin

Columbian international Fredy Guarin is another supremely talented box-to-box midfielder to leave Porto recently. Currently plying his trade with Serie A giant Inter Milan, who he initially joined on loan in 2012, he will by vital to Columbia’s hopes at the World Cup.

Central Midfield:  Lucho Gonzalez

Gonzalez gets the nod over Diego and Raul Meireles based purely on the higher fee he fetched when he left the club. The current Al Rayyan player spent two different spells at Porto, winning numerous trophies in the process. He moved to Marseille in 2009 before returning to Portugal in 2012.

Left Forward: James Rodriguez

Rodriguez moved to Monaco with Moutinho for an obnoxious amount of cash, reportedly 70 million euros combined. The principality-based club brought in the two, along with ex-Porto star Radamel Falcao, in their pursuit of Champions League football.

Center Forward: Radamel Falcao

Lissandro Lopez was also in consideration for this spot on the list, but Falcao’s goal scoring prowess gives him the edge. He left Portugal for Atletico Madrid before moving to Ligue 1 this past offseason. Like Guarin and Rodriguez, if healthy, he’ll be a key player for Columbia at the World Cup.

Right Forward: Hulk

The only player on this list to share a name with one of the Avengers, Brazilian international Hulk moved to Zenit, where he currently plays. He is a starter for Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Brazilian squad.

These players represent what could have been for Porto. While they may be missed at the Portuguese club, they were sold for tons of money. And everybody likes money.

Exciting Announcement From the Creator of Knowhitter!

Sports on Terms is coming soon! It will be a soccer/football (whichever term lights your fire) source dedicated to explaining the beautiful game in compact, original videos.

Starting with the most basic, yet crucial, fundamentals and working up to more in-depth topics, Sports on Terms will explain everything from what a “winger” is to how the economy affects not only club teams, but national teams as well.

The website is still a work in progress, but here’s a link to the Youtube channel, which I should warn you, is not complete yet. Be sure to subscribe! The channel is going big places and we want you to be a part of it!

2014 FIFA World Cup Preview: Handicapping Brazil’s Biggest Competition

Brazil is going into the 2014 FIFA World Cup as favorites. Not only are the Brazilians a tremendously talented team with the quality to win a World Cup, they are also the host nation. These two factors put them as one of the favorites, if not the overall favorite. If the Selcao can replicate the form they showed at the Confederations Cup, they could be lifting another trophy.

Here’s a look at the home country’s biggest competitors come next summer.

Spain

The Spanish are the defending champion. That in itself makes them a favorite. Take that and add the quality of the players that Spain’s team is littered with, and La Roja will go far. Spain’s issues are in the back and up front. They still haven’t settled on a number nine, and aren’t the best in central defense. Throw in the fact that Iker Casillas may be rusty and/or slowing down by next summer, and you have some problems. Spain could face problems against complete teams like the Selcao, Germany and Italy. The midfield dominance will win del Bosque’s team some games and keep them in some more, but upper-tier countries will give Spain issues.

Italy

Spain won’t be the only European power that could upset Brazil’s apple cart. The Azzurri will also be strong. Italy may not come off as a side that belongs in the “Spain, Brazil, Argentina, and Germany” discussion, but that may be the best thing possible for the Italians. Since Cesare Prandelli has taken over, the peninsula’s football team has gained a reputation of playing strong in big tournaments. Prandelli likes to use friendlies as a way to experiment with his team, trying different players in different formations. All that experimenting has led strong showings in top competitions. Italy redeemed themselves in Euro 2012 not only by playing Spain tight in two games, but also beating England and demolishing Germany on their way to the final. Italy has performed well in tournaments, but they are also the “bogey” team for many teams. The Italians have never lost to England in a World Cup and are unbeaten against Germany in all competitions. They also hold the distinction of being the first team to figure out how to crack the puzzle that is the Spanish.

Germany

A rare mix of technical efficiency and physical dominance, Germany are one of the favorites in Brazil. Like Spain, their strength is in their midfield. Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos and friends are almost a younger, more athletic version of Spain’s midfield. Sticking to similarities with the Spanish, Germany could have problems at the number nine spot. Miroslav Klose is getting up there in age. There are injury concerns with other strikers, so goals from that spot could be a problem. The Germans will have no issues at the back as Manuel Neuer remains one of the best keepers in the world.

Argentina

Brazil’s closest competition from a geographical, the Argentines’ strength is a ruthless attacking force that includes Angel Di Maria, Erik Lamela, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and, of course, the worlds’ best, Lionel Messi. Argentina’s attack is so absurd, I’m not even going to write about their ok defense. The Argentines’ success will depend on their attack, and to an extent, Messi. If Messi is on, the South American side will be tough to stop. On the other hand, if Messi is injured, or off his game, then this team will be somewhat easier to beat. Argentina’s offense will carry them. Whether that leads to a World Cup remains to be seen.

 

Be sure to check knowhitter on a regular basis for more about the World Cup, and sports in general.

2014 FIFA World Cup Draw: Winners, Losers and Teams that Must be Careful

Winners-

Argentina

An easy group for Lionel Messi and friends. A group of Iran, Nigeria and Bosnia and Herzegovina is the closest thing to a cake walk as you can get. If the French play up to their potential and win Group E. Argentina could be looking at one of Ecuador, Switzerland or Honduras in the next round. (This assuming they win their group. Going out on a limb.)

France

Les Bleus were arguably seeded with weakest of first two, maybe three pots: Switzerland, Ecuador and Honduras.

Columbia

One of the tournament dark horses have drawn the “group of life” with Greece, the Ivory Coast and Japan. The draw isn’t the easiest, but it is certainly doable.

The Group G Winner

Should this be Germany, the winners will take on the runner up out of a group of Belgium, Russia, Algeria and South Korea in the next round. The Germans could be looking at quarterfinal group.

Brazil

Croatia, Mexico and Cameroon isn’t the easiest group, but it surely isn’t the hardest. That group and home-field advantage should allow Brazil to progress with ease.

Italy’s Knockout Round Chances

Group D certainly isn’t easy. Italy was dealt a blow when they were moved to the second pot. They should they win the group, which is something that isn’t out of the question. Then they get the runner-up out of a foursome that includes Colombia, Greece, the Ivory Coast and Japan. Even if Italy was to finish second, the winner of Group C isn’t going to be that much more difficult than the runner-up.

Belgium

Another dark-horse pick who got a kind draw.

Germany

The Germans have the defensive prowess to shut down Portugal Ronaldo. Ghana and the United States will be tough, but if Germany plays to its fantastic potential, they should win this group. Not only that, but they avoided perennial bogey team Italy. The only way the Germans and Italians meet is in the Final.

 

 

Losers-

Spain

La Roja have to play a Chile team who has played them tough recently. The Netherlands aren’t exactly a walk in the park either.

England

Stuck in an awfully tough group with Italy who nipped them at previous Euros as well as goal-scoring Uruguay.

USA

The Americans have a horrendous travel schedule to match a horrendously tough group. Old World Cup friend Ghana, Germany and a Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portugal team, await the Yankees in the group stage. If there was ever a “group of death,” this would be the one.

Group A and B’s runners up

These teams could face Brazil and Spain, respectively, in the semi-finals.

 

 

Teams that have to be careful-

England

Diego Forlan, Edinson Cavani, Luis Suarez and the attacking prowess of the Uruguayans will cause the British many problems. If Luis Suarez has his way against the English the same way he has had against Premier League opposition, it could be a long day for the Three Lions. That’s not to mention a disciplined Italian side that knocked England out of the last European Championships.

 Mexico

The Mexicans may feel like they got an ok draw despite being in a group with Brazil, but games with Cameroon, and especially Croatia, will be tougher than expected.

Portugal

The Portuguese struggled to qualify, and got into the cup mainly on the back of Cristiano Ronaldo. It’s a tough task to shut down Ronaldo, but should it happen, Portugal is very beatable if they’re facing a quality side.

Spain

Chile has played Spain tough. There is the smallest chance that Spain doesn’t get through with Chile and the Dutch progressing. That’s probably not going to happen, but the possibility is there. Problem team Italy could await them in the quarterfinals. Spain has had troubles with the Italians of late.

Argentina

The Argentines will run through their group with ease. After that will be the issue. The team will be riding high entering the next round. A potential knockout round matchup with France could spell trouble for them purely based on the fact that Argentina could hit a wall playing a tough team after obliterating three comparatively less-touted sides.

 

Check back before the World Cup for more analysis on the event.

2014 FIFA World Cup Draw: Teams that Must be Careful

England

Diego Forlan, Edinson Cavani, Luis Suarez and the attacking prowess of the Uruguayans will cause the British many problems. If Luis Suarez has his way against the English the same way he has had against Premier League opposition, it could be a long day for the Three Lions. That’s not to mention a disciplined Italian side that knocked England out of the last European Championships.

 Mexico

The Mexicans may feel like they got an ok draw despite being in a group with Brazil, but games with Cameroon, and especially Croatia, will be tougher than expected.

Portugal

The Portuguese struggled to qualify, and got into the cup mainly on the back of Cristiano Ronaldo. It’s a tough task to shut down Ronaldo, but should it happen, Portugal is very beatable if they’re facing a quality side.  

Spain

Chile has played Spain tough. There is the smallest chance that Spain doesn’t get through with Chile and the Dutch progressing. That’s probably not going to happen, but the possibility is there. Problem team Italy could await them in the quarterfinals. Spain has had troubles with the Italians of late.

Argentina

The Argentines will run through their group with ease. After that will be the issue. The team will be riding high entering the next round. A potential knockout round matchup with France could spell trouble for them purely based on the fact that Argentina could hit a wall playing a tough team after obliterating three comparatively less-touted sides.

 

Check back before the World Cup for more analysis on the event as well as my full piece on the draw. 

2014 FIFA World Cup Draw: Losers

Spain

La Roja have to play a Chile team who has played them tough recently. The Netherlands aren’t exactly a walk in the park either.

England

Stuck in an awfully tough group with Italy who nipped them at previous Euros as well as goal-scoring Uruguay.

USA

The Americans have a horrendous travel schedule to match a horrendously tough group. Old World Cup friend Ghana, Germany and a Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portugal team, await the Yankees in the group stage. If there was ever a “group of death,” this would be the one.

Group A and B’s runners up

These teams could face Brazil and Spain, respectively, in the semi-finals.

 

Check back later for my piece on teams who must be careful.

2014 FIFA World Cup Draw: Winners

Argentina

An easy group for Lionel Messi and friends. A group of Iran, Nigeria and Bosnia and Herzegovina is the closest thing to a cake walk as you can get. If the French play up to their potential and win Group E. Argentina could be looking at one of Ecuador, Switzerland or Honduras in the next round. (This assuming they win their group. Going out on a limb.)

France

Les Bleus were arguably seeded with weakest of first two, maybe three pots: Switzerland, Ecuador and Honduras.

Columbia

One of the tournament dark horses have drawn the “group of life” with Greece, the Ivory Coast and Japan. The draw isn’t the easiest, but it is certainly doable.

The Group G Winner

Should this be Germany, the winners will take on the runner up out of a group of Belgium, Russia, Algeria and South Korea in the next round. The Germans could be looking at quarterfinal group.

Brazil

Croatia, Mexico and Cameroon isn’t the easiest group, but it surely isn’t the hardest. That group and home-field advantage should allow Brazil to progress with ease.

Italy’s Knockout Round Chances

Group D certainly isn’t easy. Italy was dealt a blow when they were moved to the second pot. They should they win the group, which is something that isn’t out of the question. Then they get the runner-up out of a foursome that includes Colombia, Greece, the Ivory Coast and Japan. Even if Italy was to finish second, the winner of Group C isn’t going to be that much more difficult than the runner-up.

Belgium

Another dark-horse pick who got a kind draw.

Germany

The Germans have the defensive prowess to shut down Portugal Ronaldo. Ghana and the United States will be tough, but if Germany plays to its fantastic potential, they should win this group. Not only that, but they avoided perennial bogey team Italy. The only way the Germans and Italians meet is in the Final.

Check back later for the losers of the draw as well as teams that have to be careful.