Sunderland 2010/11 preview

Sunderland's line-up in the 2009 pre-season friendly with Atletico Madrid

Steve Bruce’s Sunderland begin their fourth consecutive season in the Premier League against that other noughties yo-yo club, Birmingham City.

After taking over from the beleaguered Ricky Sbragia last summer, the former Wigan Athletic manager steered a squad ravaged by injury to 13th place, and two early cup exits.

While another summer has been/is being spent shearing the squad of its Roy Keane-era high-earners, arrivals have also been forthcoming.

With four young talents set to continue their exciting developments (Jack Colback, Jordan Henderson, David Meyler and Martyn Waghorn), and Darren Bent aware now is the time for more permanent England duties, the Black Cats must target a Europa League spot.

2009/10 begin in a blaze of pre-season friendlies. Chief among them was the game against eventual Europa League victors, Atlético Madrid, which Sunderland won 2-0. Continue reading

Marko Pantelić

Pantelić's position in a typical 2009/10 Ajax XI.

It’s unlikely anyone has a passport bearing more wrinkles than the Serbian striker’s.

Cravings for a long-term deal went unfulfilled by cash-strapped Ajax and leave the veteran hunting what would be his 12th club.

Changing team doesn’t just involve moving city for Pantelić, as the 31-year-old tends to combine a change of scenery with a change of country.

His passport has also been stamped in exotic climes while on international duty – summons which have only arrived in great frequency recently.

Capped 34 times, Pantelić has scored for his country in the Czech Republic, Ireland, Algeria, and South Africa.

Goals have also been scored in European club competition; outfits from Albania, Croatia, Moldova, Romania, Russia and Slovenia the victims. Continue reading

Rostov 1-3 Zenit St Petersburg

Rostov's starting XI. This Christmas tree style played into the hands of Zenit, who exploited the large amount of space between the two sets of three in front of the defence. With Adamov dropping, Lebedenko veering inside & Anđelković surging forward, Rostov descended into a - defensive-minded - Marcelo Bielsa-esque 3-3-4!

Yesterday evening, Zenit St. Petersburg continued their unstoppable march towards the Russian title, beating Rostov on the road.

Luciano Spalletti’s side overcame a stern test in the form of the flourishing Rostov, tasting another success on the ground where they secured the Russian Cup two months back.

After vanquishing both Spartak and CSKA Moscow at their Olimp-2 stadium, I had hoped to see some study resistance from the hosts.

Perhaps this confidence was misplaced – a 3-2 loss at Dinamo Moscow acted as precursor to this true acid-test, a defeat characterised by daft defensive lapses, and two moments of individual genius from Roman Adamov and Igor Lebendenko.

The latter has thoroughly impressed this season, teaming superbly with Dušan Anđelković down the left. But another to have caught the eye, Bosnia’s Mersudin Ahmetović, settled for a spot on the bench here.

Unsurprisingly, the home side sought to attack down that aforementioned potent flank.

The tactic involved Lebedenko cutting inside on his right foot, carrying it fastly but aimlessly towards the right-channel, thus disguising the return ball to the Serb’s overlap. Continue reading

Can Barça cater for Keita?

A second-string XI, one which incorporates Keita.

Seydou Keita will never generate the amount of shirt sales his more illustrious colleagues do. The Malian international isn’t just a tidy wave-breaker either, as he does an incredible amount of work off-ball. With Barcelona cavorting in a fluid 4-3-3, penetrative gaps for the opposition to expose often appear.

Keita excels in filling this unglamorous space, preventing oppositional counters, and ensuring the more gifted cogs in Pep Guardiola’s machine stay in the warzone.

The 30-year-old is also the master of surprise; making timed ghosts into the box while Lionel Messi and his width-maintaining flankers stretch the defence and draw two zonal markers apiece.

Keita doesn’t necessarily have to receive the ball on these darts. By dragging the second bank of an opposition’s 4-5-1 even deeper, he allows Xavi to pick passes, or the sanguine Gerard Piqué to stride forward. Continue reading

Mainz out to avoid second season syndrome

André Schürrle - remember the name!

Last season may have been a resounding success for Die Nullfünfer, but forecasting such an achievement before a ball was kicked would have you seen sectioned.

Entering the Bundesliga from its feeder division with the lowest wage bill and a meagre 20,000-seater stadium, the board hurled even more obstacles in the team’s path by firing coach Jørn Andersen.

Either foreknowledged beyond the realms of other mere mortals, or, taking the cheap option, U19 coach Thomas Tuchel was handed the reigns on the season’s eve.

This gave Mainz another awkward looking record – the league’s youngest coach. Yet to be fair to the directors, they backed the 36-year-old to the hilt, and boy did it pay off. Continue reading

Groß problems at Stuttgart?

Current VfB Stuttgart coach Christian Gross

Stuttgart have picked up the box labelled ‘our midfielders‘, turned it upside down, and given it an almighty shake.

Alexander Hleb (back to Barcelona),Roberto  Hilbert (Beşiktaş) and Martin Lanig (Köln) are all gone, and Sami Khedira, so impressive in the recent World Cup and U21 European Championships, appears Bernabéu-bound.

However, these losses aren’t necessarily all negatives – Hleb was painfully inconsistent, Lanig was deputy in the defensive midfield position to the classy Christian Träsch, while it seems Hilbert and Khedira have been or will be replaced directly. Continue reading

McClaren’s new-ish Wolfsburg

2010/11 Wolfsburg in a 4-4-2?

Steve McClaren, via transfer director Dieter Hoeneß, has set his VfL Wolfsburg revolution to full steam ahead.

For starters, Obafemi Martins, a peripheral figure last season, has been sold to Rubin Kazan. This was the right move for all concerned, with the Nigerian striker never settling in Germany.

As Lorenz-Günter Köstner stuck by Felix Magath’s 4-3-1-2, last season’s Plan B tended to be an injection of width, rendering the former Inter striker surplus to requirements.

Also shown the door have been Jan Šimůnek, an unexceptional full-back from the Czech Republic, and South American midfielder Jonathan Santana. Continue reading

Thirty-two tastes of tactics

Marcelo Bielsa, Chile coach at World Cup 2010

Listing catch-all formations runs the risk of disengaging the context in which they were used.

Nevertheless, this is generally more applicable to the club game, but international managers must foist an unconditional style upon their sides.

Infrequent contact and matches mean training camps focus upon reacclimatising to the coach’s methods: there’s just too little time before games to adequately prepare new, finicky masterplans.

The World Cup, where opponents are often discovered several days before the encounter itself, illustrates the difference between the international and club game.

Based on World Cup 2010, I’ve captured the essence of each national team’s current tactics and formation. Here are my attempts to encapsulate the findings in browser-friendly pen profiles. Continue reading

League action in USA and Russia

On Friday, ESPN UK provided subscribers with live coverage of Alania Vladikavkaz against Zenit St Petersburg in the Russian top flight, before airing the Chicago Fire-Real Salt Lake MLS match.

Alania Vladikavkaz vs Zenit St Petersburg, 09/07/10

Both ties were similar – Luciano Spalletti’s Zenit top the Russian Premier League, while Real are Major League Soccer’s team to beat. In comparison, Alania and Chicago both linger in the lower echelons of their respective divisions.

Unsurprisingly, that aforementioned duo showed their lofty positions to be no coincidence, brushing aside their opponents by scorelines of 3-1 and 1-0 respectively.

Neither Vladikavkaz or the Fire appeared overwhelmingly blunt up top, yet defensive lapses proved the undoing of two teams in 4-4-1-1 systems.

Both sides accepted their underdogs roles pre-match, so therefore picked XIs capable of sitting and stifling in disciplined banks. Continue reading

Moscow sides and Rubin trail Zenit

Followers of thermal-clad football rejoice – Russia’s Premier League resumes in full after its break this Thursday!

In spite of bidding to host its 2018 edition, Eastern Europe’s stellar division is ignoring the ongoing World Cup.

The RFUs calendar runs from March to December, and deprivation of fatigued South Africa-starring personnel could therefore impact on the eventual standings.

Overtaking leaders Zenit St. Petersburg side is a primary mission for at least five clubs during the second half of the season, with the recent UEFA Cup champions by far and away the league’s best side.

Defending champions Rubin Kazan began the campaign intent on escaping their (2010/11) Champions League group, and scooping a third successive title. Continue reading