Thursday, July 12, 2012

Friendly Rivalries and Footballing Reasons

After the Euros, and at a time when L'Equipe is running breaking news items on the number of Ligue 1 teams' Academy players to have passed their Bac, it can feel like there is a lack of football.


There is an actual tournament going on right now, the U19 European Championships, where today's semi-finals will see England meet Greece (15.45 CET) and Spain meet France (19.00 CET) - and the Olympics are coming (more on that later, please try to avoid bringing a bag); but there's an absolute riot of meaningless lopsided match-ups going on as teams try to run off the holiday weight, integrate new players, in some cases new managers, and make everyone feel better about themselves before the serious stuff kicks off in August.

Yesterday, in a pre-season friendly, PSG beat Austrian third division side Sportverein Stegersbach 9-0, in one of those matches that tips over from being sport to outright bullying.  Austria is currently playing host to several football teams fond of airmiles and Sachertorte, with Manchester City and Lyon also in place, having people over to stay such as CSKA Moscow, Al-Hilal, Dynamo Dresden, Beskitas etc.

The general approach for French teams seems to be like a lot of people's holiday plans for a year - one 'proper' trip away (probably to Austria), a couple of weekend breaks, and some days out in the local vicinity.  On the day-trip front, there's a Corsican mini-league featuring AC Ajaccio, Bastia, Calvi and Gazelec before Bastia nip home to put the kettle on in case Liverpool do actually show up on 4 August (nothing on their website); MHSC are also saving up the travel budget with short jaunts out to Mende, Avignon and Nice before the big trip to the US, where they will prepare for the Trophee de Champions by playing Kansas City Sport (24 July) while Lyon will be seeking to have an impact on Montreal.

However, as with the difference between tourists and travellers, the hardcore pre-season tour now has to include at least three continents, with China and the US preferred destinations purely for footballing reasons.  Manchester United are hitting South Africa, China and Scandinavia; Arsenal are throwing in Malaysia (where they will play MCFC) and Hong Kong; and PSG are popping over to America, presumably miffed not to be part of the Trophee de Champions match between MHSC and OL, which this year will continue the tradition of being played in a Francophone country by taking place at New York's Red Bull Arena.  Liverpool, Spurs, Villa and Stoke are all heading over the US as well.

Pre-season friendlies can be a double-edged sword - the footballing reasons behind the multi-continent tour are clear but there's a decent chance the whole team will be suffering from jetlag and earache after all that flying around and won't know where the hell they are from one day to the next; also, while beating anyone 9-0 must be a nice feeling, that result will (rightly) be seen as meaningless, as the top team is expected to be, well, top - but an unexpected loss to the minnow of choice can be taken more seriously.  OK, Guingamp and Istres are in Ligue 2, they're not mugs, but those 0-1 losses are still a bit embarrassing for Evian and Toulouse respectively.  This could explain why the first friendly is usually a gimme - Stegersbach, for example, or Arsenal kicking things off with a gentle 45 minutes against Southampton - if you are the first team on the calendar for one of the big boys, you're considered to be cannon fodder. 

But there are some intriguing match-ups in there - some in the far-flung footballing reasons part of the tour, such as the aforementioned Manchester City v Arsenal (China) and Chelsea v PSG (New York), but also in the European City Break category; Benfica are taking on both Lille and Marseille, Lyon play Athletic Bilbao, MHSC go to Espanyol Barcelona, while Stripey Barcelona will take on PSG and Manchester United.  There's maybe some 'U and Non-U' going on here - purely for footballing reasons, of course.  

Yesterday also saw Les Bleues beating Russia 3-0 in a pre-'lympics friendly; a slightly more testing occasion than their previous match against Romania (6-0), as Russia did actually manage a couple of shots on goal. National team friendlies can suffer from the same problems as club ones - flying around all over the place (Spain), meaningless hammerings (see below), worrying defeats (Switzerland v Germany), visiting South Americans getting used to the weather before the 'lympics (Denmark v Brazil, Russia v Uruguay), and footballing reasons (Spain again, playing South Korea and China).  There is also the added issue that such matches are factored into the totally logical FIFA Rankings, which currently have England in 4th and Brazil in 11th. 

Pre-Euros, the same unqualified names turned up time and again to act as pacemaker for the teams heading for Polkraine, such as Estonia, beaten in turn by Croatia (3-1), Ukraine (4-0) and France (4-0).  Estonia, of course, only lost out on a place at the Euros by losing a play-off to the Republic of Ireland, so the tournament collectively dodged a bullet there.  Also, we learned something very important from England's two 1-0 wins against Norway and Belgium, namely that Cahill can't play football with a broken jaw.

But when there is nothing else on, we will watch - and in France, as Canal+ scrabbles around in vain for some football to show before being Ligue-less next season, and Direct 8 continues its cheerful support of the women's game, we can watch - and have that conversation again...

England: We beat Spain!
Spain: It was a friendly.
England: But...we beat Spain!
Spain: It was a friendly. We don't care.
England: But...we beat Spain!
Spain: Kiss our silverware, losers.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

PSG - A Tale of Two Selections

Lavezzi in, Ceara out, Chantome going, Sakho sulking; PSG's mercato can only get more interesting.  Having looked at Montpellier's preferred starters for 2011/12 with a view to assessing their situation for next season, doing the same analysis for PSG was a bit more complicated.  The managerial change during the winter break gives a clear cut-off at the halfway point of 2011/12, in terms of selection and formation.

Data comes from L'Equipe's teamsheets and formation graphics, so may not be 100%, but you get the idea.

Kombouaré set his team up in a 4-2-3-1 (barring a 4-4-2 in the opening game, Hoarau's only start in 2011), his preferred starters shown in the graphic:
In defence, Ceara got 15 starts, also covering at LB, Camara 12, Sakho 10, Tiene 11, with alternatives provided by Bisevac and Jallet (8 - Jallet also appearing on the RW), Lugano and Armand (6).

In midfield, Matuidi had 12 starts, Bodmer 12 (mostly in a holding role but initially in the attacking three) and Sissoko 9.  The front four was very consistent over the games Kombouaré was in charge - Nene 18, Menez 17, Pastore 16, and Kevin Gameiro was the only outfield player to start all 19 games.

Then came winter, and Ancelotti - there's a Christmas tree joke in here but I'm damned if I can find it - his preferred formation a 4-3-3, and starters per the graphic:
 It was the back four that changed the most - of Kombouaré's preferred starters, only Sakho held on, with 10 starts (and is muttering darkly about doing one if another central defender arrives, a view with which we may have some sympathy if the rumours are true and that CB is EBJT) - Jallet was promoted to first choice RB (with another two starts on the right wing), and January signings Alex Costa (15) and Maxwell (13) were immediately installed as fixtures. Bisevac stayed fairly level with 9 starts, but Camara was downgraded to 5 and Ceara to 2; his contract has now been terminated.

Another new boy strode confidently into midfield, Thiago Motta getting 14 starts, but the change in formation meant less disruption here, Matuidi and Sissoko both holding steady with 13, and Bodmer managing 9 as cover.  Clément Chantôme, who had got 7 starts at the start of the season under Kombouaré, started only once under the new boss, and now looks to be on his way to Lyon.

In attack, the usual suspects Nene (17), Menez (16) and Pastore (14) were regulars, with rotation employed if Ancelotti actually picked a striker - the big difference was that this was not, as before, always Gameiro; he got only 8 starts in 2012, Guillaume Hoarau (who I was surprised to find is 28) got 6, and was the preferred sub option (10 as opposed to Gameiro's 6) when Ancelotti changed things up.

Ancelotti has hinted (warning - includes auto-start video) that Gameiro will have more joy next season but the poor guy looks a bit crumpled - as well as causing frustration week-to-week, Ancelotti's formation change probably killed his chances of going to the Euros; 9 goals in 2011 (he was competing with Giroud to be top scorer) collapsed to 2 in 2012.

The purchase of Lavezzi is interesting - it could mean that Ancelotti wants to be able to rotate more with the CL to play, but what effects this will have are unclear; it could dislodge Nene, or push him into the centre if the strikerless 4-3-3 is retained; or Menez could suffer, with his manager recently stepping away from the FFF disciplinary panel issue and also saying, rather exasperatedly, that he'd rather Jeremy didn't pick up "12-13" cards a season for arguing with referees. That number was not picked out of the air - his Ligue record was in fact 12. Cover seems the most likely explanation if PSG are to make a better job of competing in Europe than they did last season, but the window well open and the frique there to be spent, this will not be the end of the story for PSG.

Click here for a visualisation of the selections throughout last season (another visual that works as well as a pillowcase cover design as for information purposes).  

Note: the formation creator used above is and also allows for the creation of fantasy teams; Death Metal Rovers? Check. Coalition Cabinet DisUnited? Check - if you can name more than four of them.  Have fun.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Whither Montpellier?

The transfer window is swinging gently in the breeze, Giroud has relocated to the Francophone enclave that is Arsenal FC, LouLou has come over all sensible (for now) about the target for next season, and René  Girard is seeking to apply the rumoured €15m received for Ligue 1's best striker last year in doubling up in a couple of areas to prepare for fighting on several fronts in 2012/13 including, alleluia, the Champions League.

So far, MHSC have added winger Anthony Mounier (€3.5m) from Nice, striker Gaetan Charbonnier (€1.5m) from Angers, and defender Daniel Congré  (tbc) from Toulouse.  Several loanees are back, the most likely of which to feature next season should be Bengali Fode Koita (4 sub appearances before going to Lens in January), and there are rumours that striker Emmanuel Herrera will be coming in from Union Espanola in Chile.

Having trawled through the full list of L'Equipe's team formations by match, the usual starting team (number of starts in brackets) for MHSC in 2011/12 was:

With apologies for playing the RB so far forward, but I couldn't fit them in on a single line. And the holding mids might be the wrong way around a bit. Anyway.

The key position to cover will of course be the CF - Camara and Utaka stood in once apiece when Olive was on the naughty step, but both have their own preferred positions, and with Dernis having moved on to Brest, Camara's claim on the right would presumably solidify.  Charbonnier claimed on signing that he would be happy to be a back-up striker, but that was before the Giroud deal was closed; if Herrera comes in, and/or Victor Hugo Montaño comes back (another rumour), that would look like a shared position. The purchase of Mounier, a left-winger, might suggest that Utaka could move to the CF position but it seems more likely that they will cover the left between them; a further covering option for either side would be Karim Ait-Fana (5 starts left, 2 right, 5 subs at both), and Montpellier's very own Lolcat Remy Cabella can slot in as well (5 starts right, 13 subs across the park).

In central midfield, Belhanda is the obvious first choice but Cabella has covered there in CAN / ban situations.  Girard has also, where necessary, moved to a 4-3-3 playing all three of his most-used holders (Estrada, Saihi, Marveaux) as the middle three.  Stambouli's versatility comes in useful here, starting and subbing on both as holding mid and centre back, and Romain Pitau (35, having agreed a one-year extension) is available also.

At the back, the go-to four are Bedimo, Hilton, Yanga-Mbiwa and Bocaly; Hilton moving across to cover for his captain, Stambouli / El-Kaoutari slotting in for him, and Cyril Jeunechamp covering both full-back positions as necessary.  The purchase of Congré gave rise to concerns that Mapou might be off to pastures new - nothing is confirmed as yet, but rumour has it he has signed an extension on his contract (otherwise due to end next year): if he stays, this would allow for more rotation in multiple competitions; if he goes, Congré is a good replacement, and can also play at right-back.  If Bedimo goes, as is also rumoured, despite only signing last summer, that could be a bigger problem - Jeunechamp has extended his contract for another season but he's not getting any younger (36), so having an alternative at LB would appear necessary anyway. 

LouLou recently set out his suspiciously reasonable targets for 2012/13 - top five or six in the league, 'pourquoi pas une petite coupe', finishing third in the CL group and going into the Europa League.  Given some of his previous pronouncements, this restraint is a little surprising, but having actually gone and bloody won the title, MHSC are no longer the annoying kid kicking the big boys on the shins and running away; they've got something to defend - and lose - now.

So, while most focus is rightly on replacing Giroud up front, I would also like to see alternative back-up at the left side of defence - if no more preferred starters leave, that would give options in every position and the flexibility of younger players such as Stambouli, Cabella, and Ait-Fana who have not been, until now, majority starters will be very useful.

I will now stand by and watch as the midfield is sold as a package deal to Newcastle, if my predictions history is anything to go by.  When does the window close?