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.

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 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: 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.

2013 Confederations Cup Group A Primer

The Confederations Cup is a strange event, a warm up for the following year’s World Cup, and it even takes place in the same country. The Confederations Cup takes the winner of each regional cup (i.e. the winner of the European Championship gets a bid, as does the CONCACAF winner, etc.) as well as the reigning World Cup winner and the host country and throws them into a mini junket of a tournament.

The Confederations Cup is strange; let me re-emphasize, it’s strange. This year’s field features reigning World Cup champ and two-time reigning European Champion Spain. They are clustered in a group with South American champion Uruguay, surprising Oceania winner Tahiti and equally surprising African Cup of Nations winner Nigeria. The other group is the scarier of the two, with host country Brazil, CONCACAF winner Mexico, Asian powerhouse Japan and Italy. Italy is here based on the fact that they finished second in the European championship last summer. Because Spain won the World Cup and last year’s  aforementioned Euros, the team can’t occupy two slots; so Italy, as runners up,  get the Euro spot.

The Cup is strange for a number of reasons. One, participation doesn’t necessarily mean entry to the World Cup the next year. Iraq and Egypt participated in the 2009 Confederations Cup and didn’t appear in the 2010 WC. The second reason that it’s strange is because it’s hard to call this a major worldwide tournament without the usuals in the field. With a smaller field, it’s hard to imagine a tournament with this magnitude and with these implications with only one, or in this case two, of the European giants that dominate the footballing landscape. Or in other words, it’s odd to watch a major tournament and know that you are going to get as many touches on the ball as the entire German, French, Dutch and English national teams are.

The Host

A lot has been made about Brazil’s talent and that talent failing to win a WC in the last decade. The team also failed to win the Olympics last summer, further fueling frustration. But the one thing Brazil has done, and done well in the last decade, tournament-wise, has been winning the Confed Cup (as the kids call it.) Brazil is the two-time defending champion and will look to make it three in a row this summer. While this tournament’s trophy would be nice, I’m sure the South Americans would trade it in in a heartbeat if they could win the cup’s more prestigious “older brother,” if you will, next summer.

Brazilian football is often synonymous with technical genius. Thus everyone expects this of the South American powerhouse, but Brazil’s best asset may be that of its defense. The host nation will deploy some combination of Dani Alves, David Luiz, Marcelo, Dante and skipper Thiago Silva at the back. Any three or four of the group would be among the best in the world.

Prediction- The 19th ranked (lowest in country history) side in the world will have trouble with the tournament’s toughest group. All three teams have the quality and potential to make it to at least the knockout stage, not only in the field, but next summer as well. Brazil will get second in the group and likely bow out to Spain in the next round.

The Dark Horse

The Samurai Blue, as Japan is called, is this year’s dark horse. Like Brazil, they are saddled with the de-facto group of death. However, given the chance in a game Japan is very dangerous. Just ask the French, who the Japanese beat 1-0 in Paris. The Asian bread winners are very technically gifted, led by Manchester United midfielder Shinji Kagawa and free kick master Keisuke Honda.  We’re not talking Andrea Pirlo good, but he’s still better than nine out of ten guys at free kicks. Yasuhito Endo is another to watch on set pieces.

If you give Japan too many set pieces, they will tear your goal to shreds. They could thrive against young, inexperienced squads who foul a bit too often.

Prediction- Japan will give its group a lot of trouble, and could win a game, but third place in the group and a delayed off-season vacation plan is all that’s likely in store for Alberto Zaccheroni’s troops.

The Danger Men Man

Mexico will either be in fine form come Brazil, or gasping for air. The team already drew Nigeria 2-2 on May 31st courtesy of a Chicharito brace and face an away tilt in Jamaica on the fourth of June before playing in Panama three days later against the home country before taking on Costa Rica in Mexico City a mere five days before opening the Confederations Cup against the Italians.

(Gasping for air after reading that sentence aloud.)

El Tri’s previous six games haven’t exactly been a joy ride. All six have been draws. Three of them scoreless draws. Not to mention two of the scoreless ties were at home to Jamaica and the US in World Cup Qualifying. The other three draws were the aforementioned 2-2 deadlock with Nigeria, bailed out by Chicharito’s aforementioned brace. The Mexicans were also bailed out by another Javier Hernandez brace away to Honduras in WCQ and managed a 1-1 draw with Denmark thanks to a penalty. What I’m getting at is that while Mexico has talented players with the likes of Giovani Dos Santos and Javier Aquino, the weight of the team falls on Chicharito. Stop him and you get three points, or at the very least a point by draw.

Prediction- If Chicharito (that’s four usages of the word Chicharito, oops, sorry five usages of that word for all of you playing along at home.) goes on a tear, Mexico has the talent to possibly win the whole thing. But the bold prediction is that they get last, finishing behind Japan in their group by virtue of a Honda free kick in a 1-0 win. Bold indeed.

The Seasoned Bunch

You have Euro 2012 to thank for Italy re-establishing themselves as a worldwide player in the game of football. After a disappointing performance in South Africa in 2010, Italy was picked as nothing more than group-stage fodder by many a talking head in Euro 2012. The Italians shocked everyone by not only holding eventual champion Spain to a draw in the first round, but also knocking out England on penalties as well as dispatching the in-form Germans in the Semi-Final.

Italy is a well-rounded team. They have perhaps the best “spine” in the world. The spine of Gigi Buffon in goal, the center backs Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci in defense, the deep lying playmaking of Pirlo, the industry of Daniele De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio and the ruthless goal scoring of Mario Balotelli. Outside of the spine, Italy has talented players such as Stephan El Shaarawy, Riccardo Montolivo and Ignazio Abate to fill out a talented team sheet.

Italy has been very unspectacular in friendlies as of late. They lost to France in Parma 2-1. They let the Netherlands think they were going to win 1-0 before stealing the latest of equalizers to escape Amsterdam with a draw and split four goals down the middle in a 2-2 draw with the Brazilians in Geneva in late March. Almost any country would take draws against the likes of the Netherlands and Brazil, as well as a close loss to France as a good sign, but when you are of Italy’s standard, more is expected. Even though the team has been uninspiring in friendlies, it hasn’t been as bad as one might think. Italian coach Cesare Prandelli likes to use friendlies to tinker with his lineup, fine tune it and see which players play well together. This strategy seems to have worked thanks to his excellent showing at the most recent Euros and in Italy’s utter domination in WCQ where they have scored three times as many goals as they have let in on their way to sitting atop the group table.

Prediction- Italy has what it takes to win it all. They’ll win their group on the last day of the group stage before beating whichever team finishes second to Spain in Group B, finally triumphing over the Spaniards in the final. All the while being glad that a resurgent German side is watching from their couches.

So just to recap, I have Group A finishing in this order- Italy, Brazil, Japan, Mexico.

Check back soon for my Group B Primer.

How do you think Group A will play out? Tell me in the comments section below. 

Six Things We Learned from Italy After the Netherlands Friendly

(Disclaimer: I don’t profess to know a ton about football. I just love the beautiful game.)

  1. Andrea Pirlo’s genius, pace and the fouls/free kicks he draws. Some people play on a whole other physical level, or a whole other level in terms of speed. The latter is Pirlo. (Also, isn’t it nice that in football/soccer, wherever you’re from, a players is simplified to just one name? Even if he hasn’t shortened his name to one name. Messi is called Messi when his full name is Lionel Messi, etc. Anyways, it lends itself to lazy typers like me, and the rest of the world for that matter.) Pirlo plays the game almost methodically. You know when basketball gurus say that the game has “slowed down” for some players? That’s Pirlo. He slows it down. While the tempo killing can sometimes be hard to watch, the Italian midfield maestro always makes the right pass, even if he has to slow down to do it. Expanding on that, especially in the match against the Dutch, everyone else was going 110 miles an hour (if you will) while Pirlo was cruising at a comfortable 85. The result of this is that a lot of hand checks and fouls that might go un-noticed were noticed as Pirlo drew multiple free kicks by simply playing at the speed he feels comfortable playing. I should also point out his genius. Which he is, by the way. Every game there are about three to four plays where he makes a pass that could open up the defense. If your defense gives Pirlo milk and curds he turns it into Swiss cheese. (Especially if he’s playing against the Swiss.)
  2. Buffon does it again. Where Pirlo makes three or four passes that unlock the defense, Gigi Buffon makes three or four saves that the average Joe keeper wouldn’t make every game. He did this again on multiple occasions against the Dutchmen.
  3. Sub Par? Not to say that the starters were lacking, but the substitutions of Pablo Osvaldo, Alessandro Diamanti, Alberto Gilardino and Marco Verratti certainly changed the game in a positive way.
  4. Slick Whats? The field was very slick in case you didn’t notice. At least half a dozen players hit the turf, one of which quelled a promising Italian attack.
  5. Friendly Strategy. (That faux headline didn’t work, but stick with me.)  Cesare Prandelli certainly isn’t using friendlies to get results. The Italy head-man consistently uses friendly games to test younger players and tinker with different pairings and lineups ahead of major tournaments. He’s using this strategy for the upcoming Confederations Cup as well as the Azzurri’s likely World Cup spot in Brazil in 2014.
  6. It’ll Work. Eventually. Italy’s spearheaded attack of Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Shaaraway seemed to be a bit stagnant in the first half. While the Osvaldo/Diamanti/Gilardino trident worked, the former group will likely be the long and short-term options up front. They’ll figure it out eventually, playing together that is. After all they both play for AC Milan. They’ll be tested and ready by Brazil.

If I missed anything from the game that you thought was mention-worthy, tell me in the comments section.

What American Sports Can Learn From European Football

I’m not going to be the stereotypical American and say, “We are the best!” because that would be… well, stereotypical American thinking.

The American Sports leagues can probably learn a thing or two from Europe’s top Football leagues. I’m not saying that this idea should be implemented, I’m just throwing it out there: regulation.

Regulation — where the bottom three teams from the top league are moved down to the second league in exchange for the top three teams in the second-tier league. This happens yearly in top leagues such as Serie A of Italy, the German Bundesliga and the Barclay’s Premier League in England. Basically almost every top European league.

Obviously baseball would run into problems seeing as the second “rung” of professional baseball in the States is AAA whose teams are owned and operated by the Major League teams. But say that AAA clubs weren’t owned by MLB. This would create and promote a sense of competition and urgency.

It’s every team’s goal to win the World Series. That’s a reality for about 10 teams, an outside shot for maybe four or five more and a pipe dream for the rest. The teams at the bottom have to step it up in order to be competitive to avoid the humiliation of being demoted in favor of Scranton-Wilkes or Salt Lake City. Take the Pirates, for example. The Pirates would have been in AAA ages ago had American sports run the same way. They’d have torn up the high Minors and would have been back in the Majors with a sense of confidence, one that was probably lost after their countless losing seasons in a row.

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