Germainal

Given the absurd levels of staff turnover, the very concept of player loyalty in modern football has frayed to breaking point. Moments of genuine affection between player, club and fans can still be seen, but the irony is that this is probably clearest when that player leaves the club in question. Such a moment occurred in early July, when Valère Germain moved on loan from Monaco to Nice.

Monaco fans’ unreserved adoration for their sometime captain needed little explanation. He was the promising youngster who, having joined the club at the age of 15, was left disconsolate on the pitch at the end of just his second appearance for the first team when it was confirmed that they would be getting relegated. He was the player who stuck around and kept scoring goals in his first full season as a professional despite Monaco teetering to the brink of non-existence.

He was the player who, after Dimitry Rybolovlev’s buyout and despite an influx of new arrivals, was utterly instrumental to Monaco’s 2012-13 Ligue 2 triumph. He was the player who, during a crucial spell after the Christmas break that season, was central to almost every goal Monaco scored. He was the player who, by the season’s end, had accounted for over a third of Monaco’s points with his goals and assists.

Upon promotion Monaco went out and acquired a new strike force. Only once in the two years since was Germain given an extended run in the first team – after Falcao’s season-ending injury back in January 2014. In the nine consecutive matches he started thereafter, Germain scored four, notched two assists and generally played like someone at ease at this level. He may have been starved of minutes during the second half of last season, but the fact that several clubs in France as well as others from Spain, Italy, England and Belgium showed an interest over the summer suggests that his qualities are not in doubt.

Jorge Valdano once said of Raúl that while he might not be a 10/10 in anything, he was a 9/10 in absolutely everything. Although Valère Germain may not be in the same class, he fits the same profile, boasting no significant weaknesses. His technique won’t draw gasps from the crowd, but neither does it let him down, and while his shots lack power, they find the corners with remarkable regularity. He is most effective at centre forward, but he will play capably in any attacking role and at his best he is a remarkable fusion of playmaker and goal poacher.

Amongst other attributes, and despite not being noticeably tall or strong, Germain is very good in the air – mostly because he’s good with his head in another sense: this is a very smart footballer, all intelligent movement and quick anticipation. He’s not the quickest, but he knows when and where to run, both to open up spaces for others and to create chances for himself. It’s easier to plant headers into the top corner when your movement has separated you from whoever was supposed to be getting in your way.

Above all else Germain is a brilliant team player, always seeking the open man, always willing to run himself down, and always content to play whatever role the coach demands of him to the best of his ability without fuss. In this light, his close connection to Monaco’s fans makes more sense. Just as his loyalty to ASM was a throwback to an age when more footballers felt a sense of belonging at any given club, so his lack of pretence is a throwback to a time when fewer footballers had monstrous egos.

As good and as smart as the player may be though, he is just one part of this equation. In a loan deal, like with any transaction, consideration must be paid to where he’s going. Germain was adored by Monaco’s fans but at Nice he’s effectively replacing Alexey Bosetti, the Nice ultras’ on-pitch representative. He might be living and working in the same region, but there is still a change in environment to deal with.

The loan does not have a purchase option, which might suggest that Monaco’s long term plans still have a place in them for Valère Germain. However it is more likely that, for Rybolovlev and company, Nice is merely a shop window. A place where their asset is guaranteed to play games, likely to score goals, and has a chance of increasing in value beyond what Le Gym could ever afford.

Before we get to that stage, however, there is a season to play, and the early signs are promising: Germain told France Football last week that he feels valued in Nice and has settled quickly. Partly this is because some of his new teammates are players he met during his time as a French youth international, but he also expressed pleasure at finding a dressing room where, in contrast to Monaco, everyone speaks French. Events on the pitch seem to reflect this sense of contentment, with Germain scoring three goals in Nice’s first two warm up matches, and the winner in their gala friendly against Napoli last weekend. Nice on the whole have had a strong pre-season, mostly due to the burgeoning on-field relationship between Germain and his colleagues in Nice’s front 3, Alessane Pléa and fellow new recruit Hatem Ben Arfa.

The real test will come when the season starts. For both Nice and Valère Germain that first match promises to be a rather awkward encounter: August the 8th, Allianz Riviera, OGC Nice vs… AS Monaco.

Bobeto

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Some Nice Things that Happened this Year in French Football

PSG 1 Rennes 2

Remember when Rennes could play football? Remember when they could win matches with nine men? Rennes’ form in the last few weeks of the season has been so bad that it is easy to forget just how entertaining they were in the early parts of the campaign. With Julien Féret spraying brilliant passes around in his own inimitable style and Romain Alessandrini staging his own goal of the season competition, Rennes’ matches before Christmas were really worth watching, none more so that their astonishing win in Paris in week 13. Aside from the ridiculousness of the second half, this game makes it into my end-of-season selection for the fact that all three goals were utterly brilliant.

First Romain Alessandrini bashed a screamer in from 25 metres, then Nêne ran on to a fantastic pass from Pastore to clip a beautiful finish over Benoît Costil. Ten minutes after the Rennes goalkeeper was sent off for a lunge at Jérémy Ménez, Rennes retook the lead. PSG were so worried about the potency of Alessandrini’s left foot that when Rennes won a free kick on the edge of the area no-one thought that Julien Féret might take it. But take it he did, and he pushed an intelligent and well placed shot into the bottom corner.

Barely five minutes into the second half Jean II Makoun had one of those brain explosions he is prone to and picked up a second yellow for a pointless foul on Nenê, the first having been awarded for protesting the decision to send Costil off (the cards for Costil and Makoun were the only ones Rennes received all game). Left with 40 minutes to play with nine men, Rennes did not appear to have much of a chance, but despite PSG throwing on more and more attackers (by the game’s end they were playing a 1-0-9 formation) and creating chance after chance the goal would not come.

The statistics entered surreal territory: PSG had 24 shots, 18 corners, crossed the ball 59 times and on the hour mark hit the woodwork twice during the same attack. Substitute goalkeeper Cheick N’Diaye had the match of his life, repelling everything that PSG threw at him. At the full time whistle the Rennes bench cleared, all hurtling towards N’Diaye to celebrate him like a man who had just saved the penalty that won his side the Champions League. It was quite an afternoon.

Nice 3 Evian 2

Nice’s come back from 0-2 down to win 3-2 in week 18 was first and foremost an excellent game of football, but also a fascinating case-study in momentum, and how it can be generated or quelled. Evian opened up a two-goal lead inside fifteen minutes but Nice, who were on a hot streak of 17 points from their last seven games, hit back immediately. Dario Cvitanich received the ball just outside the area and clipped a superb chip over Bertrand Laquait and into the top corner.

Cvitanich’s goal was excellent, but it was also fascinating to see the effect the nature and timing of the goal, not just the goal itself, had on proceedings. Had Evian held on to their two goal lead for just ten minutes more, and conceded a scrappy goal from a corner they probably would not have been so obviously perturbed. But to concede straight away, and to a goal that brutally yet beautifully exposed the gulf in class between the sides, suggested that this would be Nice’s night. The home side pressed relentlessly against a clearly subdued opponent, and Cvitanich equalised early in the second half with a goal as inglorious as his first was glorious. Nice dominated the rest of the second half and finally got the winner in injury time, 16 year old Neal Maupay controlling Timothée Kolodziejczak’s hopeful cross and powering the ball in for his first goal in Ligue 1 before disappearing amongst a pile of bodies.

Anything Mathieu Valbuena did in 2013.

Already playing at a high level in the first half of the season, Mathieu Valbuena was at the forefront of a cadre of senior players at OM who in 2013 simply played at an astonishing level. André-Pierre Gignac was scoring important goals, Nicolas N’Koulou was stopping dangerous forwards and Steve Mandanda was making saves he had no right to make (his performance away at Lille was that of someone playing the lead role in their own superhero comic book). But Valbuena trumped them all. “Relentless” is rarely a word associated with creators. It is often reserved for goalscorers who cannot be contained, or defensive players who simply will not let themselves be beaten. Yet the only way I can describe Valbuena’s impact on his side is to refer to his relentless creativity. Constantly seeking out space, making himself available for passes and doing the hardest work in football – unlocking packed defences – with very little help. Qualification for the Champions League would trigger an automatic one year extension in Valbuena’s contract at Marseille, and the little man played like someone determined to stay on the south coast.

Samuel Umtiti’s goal at White Hart Lane

Occasionally a goal is scored that no words can fully describe, but that you yearn to read and write about nonetheless. Samuel Umtiti’s equaliser in Lyon’s Europa League tie away at Spurs was just such a goal. Usual attempts at describing this goal would leave me disappointed, but I found that calquéing as much as possible the description of it in l’equipe’s online report amused me, so I wrote it down.

“But the young defender of Lyon will remember for a long time his evening at White Hart Lane because in the 55th minute, he scored an extraordinary goal. Rebuffed by the head of Gallas, the cross of Malbranque bounced before Umtiti who did not ask himself any questions and dispatched a superpowered half-volley into the top corner of the powerless Friedel”

I do not know why this amused me, but it did. For what it’s worth, when I saw Umtiti’s goal live on TV my exact words were “Jesus fucking CHRIST!” Not that the son of God ever hit one this cleanly.

PSG 3 Nice 0

On the 21st of April PSG played Nice at home and recorded a regulation win in their end-of-season stroll to the Ligue 1 title. This match was memorable for two reasons. The first was Renato Civelli, who is massive, going head to head with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is also massive. Both players seemed to enjoy the physical confrontation, so much so that Civelli felt the need just before half time to give Zlatan a little kiss on the neck. It said, “see you in the second half.” Lovely.

This game was also to be remembered for Thiago Silva scoring quite possibly the best disallowed goal of all time. I am still unsure as to how Thiago did it. Joris Delle left a through ball, confident that it would roll out of play. Thiago hurdled the prone Nice keeper and, still going at full pelt, clipped the ball from behind the byline near the edge of the area into the back of the net. Like all the great goals it gets better each time you see it. The most amazing aspect for me was the fact that when the ball bounced it was already over the goal-line. The look on Thiago’s face when he saw the linesman (correctly) signalling for a goal-kick was rather endearing, like a little boy being told that his puppy died.

Also on the weekend of the 20th of April…

The oft-forgotten coda to the story of Thiago’s disallowed goal is that less than 24 hours later Nabil Dirar scored a goal (that did count; it put Monaco 2-0 up against Clermont) in near identical circumstances which was possibly more beautiful for the way the ball span and span along the goal-line until it gripped the turf and rolled in.

However my favourite thing that happened that weekend was Nancy’s 3-1 win over Evian. Nancy scored three goals. The first was a shot that barely crossed the line (if it did), the second was a free shot at the far post from a corner and the third was a shot that barely crossed the line (if it did) from a free shot at the far post from a corner. As I wrote at the time in a brilliant joke that was understood by precisely one person (thank you Raphael), it was a football as classical essay writing: Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis.

The goals of Adrian Mutu

Bear with me. Adrian Mutu made some waves back in August when he claimed that he would score more goals this season than his one-time Juventus team-mate Zlatan Ibrahimovic. That he failed in this particular endeavour should not come as a great surprise. But the Romanian, who either side of his ill-fated spell in the Premier League was one of the most decisive players in Serie A, nonetheless made a huge contribution to keeping Ajaccio in Ligue 1, top-scoring with 11 goals (only one other Ajaccio other player got more than three goals: Chahir Belghazouani, who scored six). Taken in isolation, those goals (more than a quarter of his team’s total of 39) directly earned 10 of Ajaccio’s 40 point total. This is without discussing his role alongside Belghazouani and Johan Cavalli as the technical leader of the side and the attacking and defensive contribution that aspect of his game entailed. Zlatan may have got 30 goals and walked off with the title, but Mutu still deserves a mention for a productive and influential first season in Ligue 1.

Alternative team of the year.

We all knew that Zlatan would score a ton of goals, and it is no great surprise to see guys like Dimitri Payet or Mathieu Valbuena playing to such high standards. This, then, is a team of those who played well beyond a level that could reasonably have been expected (4-3-1-2)

Agassa;
Mandi, Lotiès, Pejčinović, Harek
Krychowiak, Camus, Cavalli
Féret
Aliadière, Modeste

Token nice things that happened elsewhere in Europe this season:

The team you manage is 0-3 up in the final minutes of the first leg of what could have been a far more complicated Champions League knockout tie. Trying to hold onto possession from a corner, your players make a bit of a hash of it and end up ceding possession. What do you do? You threaten to kill your players of course!

If last year you were told that Borussia Dortmund would get to the Champions League Final playing scintillating football and amid incredible drama, you probably would have said, “What?”

It surprised me that Loic Rémy’s goal against Wigan did not come up amid discussions of the Premier League goal of the season. All the other goals mentioned were of a type we have seen before (to take on example: Robin van Persie’s goal against Aston Villa, impressive though it was, was a pale imitation of the similar strikes against Everton and Liverpool while he played for Arsenal). Rémy’s goal against Wigan was like no other goal I have ever seen before. Having run three-quarters of the length of the pitch, he slowed up to get in line with Stéphane M’Bia’s pass and gently pushed the ball into the top corner. The speed with which the ball travelled was totally out of keeping with how Rémy approached the ball and how he struck it, rather like the Noisy Cricket gun from the first Men in Black film. Unassuming, but it packed quite a punch.

For the Love of Playing

Mathieu Valbuena is suddenly everyone’s favourite footballer. The pocket playmaker has at times single-handedly kept Marseille in this year’s Ligue 1 title race, and has been producing excellent performances for France, including spectacular goals against Italy and Georgia.

Much has been made of the fact that Bordeaux supposedly let him go for being too small but while this may have played a part, you can be certain more concrete deficiencies were taken into consideration when they decided to let him go; in the Gironde, they know a thing or two about fantastic footballers that you could fit in a suitcase – more on this later. I am more interested in what happened next: for Valbuena is one of many players in Ligue 1 (and there are many, many more in Ligue 2) to have played in France’s amateur leagues past his 20th birthday.

France’s academy systems, both those run by the clubs and the regional academies  run by the French federation (like Clairefontaine) are feted as the gifts that keep on giving, and this is only fair given how many of their graduates populate the upper echelons of European football. Yet France’s lower divisions and amateur system have produced great talents of their own, as well as rescue some of those who fell through the cracks of the bigger academies. Whatever the criticisms that are leveled at the top level of French football for the competitiveness of French teams in Europe or the faults with Ligue 1, it is undeniable that, in terms of the development of players, every part of the French league system is playing a strong role.

One of the reasons why players from France’s amateur leagues get to Ligue 1 and thrive there so regularly is because the level is not actually that much higher[1]. This can be seen every year during the cup competitions in which teams from the National (3rd division) and CFA leagues (4th and 5th divisions) beat those from higher up the food chain. These wins can take the form of the traditional FA Cup upset – the big boys from the bright lights get roughed up by the plucky amateurs, who sneak a win from a set piece. But I would say that just as frequently the lower-ranked team passes their Ligue 1 opponent off the pitch.

This compactness, arguably the defining feature of the French League system, is a consequence of the economic pragmatism that is found at both ends of the spectrum. Sides at the top (Ligue 1 teams plus those in Ligue 2 whose academies are well known abroad like Le Harve) are constantly selling their best players abroad, and sides at the bottom can only afford squads that are full of young players on smaller contracts. Sid Lowe has repeatedly made the point that the outwardly positive aspect of Spanish youngsters being given a chance at home is simply a consequence of the lack of money in the Spanish game, often in reaction to gross economic mismanagement. In France things are similar, but with the twist that clubs are forced to be financially responsible before they bankrupt themselves by the body that oversees the finances of French football clubs, the DNCG[2]. So the clubs at the bottom are packed with kids because they cannot afford much else. Meanwhile at the top, where the best players move abroad thus keeping the overall level below a certain threshold, clubs are happy to go hunting in the lower leagues to bolster their squads because they cannot afford anything fancier. And because it works; once a certain ‘transfer highway’ is established and proven to be effective the process is self-sustaining. An accelerated example of this process is the way Newcastle repeatedly returned to France to do their shopping once they realised how good and how cheap were the players they could get there.

But aside from the financial aspects, there are many footballing reasons why professional clubs can have great success by turning to players who are impressing in the lower divisions or who had previously had spells in the nether regions of the French league system.

Those who overcome early rejection – for generally players end up at these amateur teams because they failed to make the grade elsewhere, like Valbuena at Bordeaux or Julien Féret in his first stint at Rennes – find that the experience can be enormously useful in terms of mental development. There are countless examples of sportsmen and women whose successes are defined by their early failures, as well as countless examples of super-talented players who have failed to develop to their full potential precisely because they have never experienced these kinds of setbacks.[3]

In the case of the former group, there is often a sense of regret. Bordeaux are deemed to have failed in letting Valbuena go, giving away a player who has since become world class. And the player, while eventually enjoying an excellent career, could have had a longer spell at the top had he followed a smoother route to get there. But I struggle to accept that Bordeaux released him simply because of his size. If Valbuena is one of the best players in the world today, I believe it is because he was forced to acknowledge his faults as a player and subsequently proved to himself that he could conquer them. In other words, he did not succeed despite his detour via the amateur leagues, but because of it.

There is a chance Valbuena could spend his entire career in France because it is only this season that he is receiving media attention from abroad that his level of talent merits[4], and by the start of next season he will be 29 years old. The conventional thinking would suggest that Valbuena is approching the end of his peak, and that at his age there would be little or no resale value. Thus the number of teams who would try to obtain Valbuena’s services is smaller than it should be given how good he is.

This viewpoint neglects one of the main advantages of players who only started playing professional football in their early or mid twenties. They received the one thing that all young players need in their late teens and early twenties – regular competitive matches – but not so much that their bodies suffer for it in the long term. Having played less high intensity football at an early age, these players are likely to have deeper careers with later peaks. It would not surprise me if Valbuena was still playing at this level in 2016. By the same token it would not surprise me if someone like, for example, Juan Mata (who has played over 350 professional and international matches before his 25th birthday, often with little or no summer break) eventually saw the physical or mental strain of such exertions reflected in a diminished level of performance.

One other attribute which I often see in players who played in the lower or amateur leagues for much of their development is that they seem to be consummate team players. They have a great understanding of the importance of sacrificing themselves for the collective and above all else they seem to have a great enthusiasm and aptitude for improving the performances of their teammates. This is best exemplified by the performances, especially at international level, of a player who I utterly adore without reservation: the most intelligent centre-forward of the 2000s, a player who has a more beneficial impact on his teammates than any other player I have ever seen, a player who I could talk about endlessly[5], and a player who at the age of 21 was playing amateur football in the German 5th division: Miroslav Klose.

Cheap, unlikely to burn out, possessing an excellent attitude and often capable of improving the level of the players you already have. It does not take a genius to see why footballers from amateur clubs are regularly sought after by professional teams.

One of the stranger joys of contributing to Le50 is the knowledge it is barely half of the story. Right now there are players in their late teens and early twenties, guys almost no-one has heard of, playing amateur football in goodness knows where. Some might have dropped out from regional academies, or been turned away by bigger clubs. Some might be playing at a lower level because it enables them to continue their university studies. Some might simply be playing for their home town (or village) teams, their bodies or minds not yet mature enough for a higher level. In a few years these guys will be stars, playing in Ligue 1 or in top divisions abroad. Some might be playing for France, or Senegal, or Tunisia, playing decisive roles in important matches. All we can do is wait for them. The future is bright, even for those playing in obscurity.

Bobeto


[1] When I was at university in Aix-en-Provence five years ago, I shared a couple of classes with a guy who played in the CFA (I forget who for). He excitedly told me about the high quality on display in the lower reaches, where the emphasis remains on technique rather than physical force and where 1m94 central defenders like him were still expected to be capable of passing the ball reliably.

[2] Of course that is the theory. In reality teams are still susceptible to economic problems, the biggest instance currently being that of Auxerre.

[3] I cannot recommend highly enough Ed Smith’s book ‘What Sport Tells us about Life’. The chapter ‘The Curse of Talent’ features this statement:

“…talent only matures when harnessed within a personality that is capable of self-improvement. And talent, ironically, has a nasty knack of protecting the talented from the urge to self improve. Super-talented young sportsmen, never having needed resilience thus far, often lack the psychological capacity to develop it when life gets tough in the big leagues.”

The player that, to me, sums up this paradox more than any other is Hatem Ben Arfa, who was a superstar by the time he was twelve. The player so good, so talented, that he never needed to learn any different from the beautiful but flawed way of playing he had developed when he was just a child. It is only when you take in to account this aspect of the development of young sportspeople that you realise just how staggeringly exceptional people – never mind players – like Leo Messi are: the top 0.01% of the top 0.01%.

[4] This is an odd way to think about it and one that does not engender fondness on my part. Nonetheless if we are examining the level of “exposure” that players get then there is no doubt that Valbuena has flown under the radar for a very long time.

[5] I probably will write an extended piece on Klose at some point, probably in response to this slanderous piece of nonsense Paul Hayward wrote about him in 2010, an article that irritates me to this day.

The Jolly Green Giant

The permanent half-grin, the vacant air, the plodding gait. No, he does not look like a very good footballer.

The poor first touch, terrible passes and ability to miss even the easiest chances. No, he does not play like a very good footballer.

What is beyond doubt, however, is that Evaeverson Lemos da Silva – Brandão to his friends and football commentators – is the difference between a mediocre team and a very good one. Saint-Etienne minus Brandão are toothless, lacking in invention and incapable of exerting extended pressure on their opponents. Saint-Etienne with Brandão are a goal machine.

The battering ram has turned into a talisman. How?

When Brandão stumbled apologetically on to the Ligue 1 stage with Marseille in January 2009 he was catastrophically bad. His first few training sessions and matches were so poor that it was impossible to say which was his stronger foot. The only thing more surprising than how badly Brandão played when he started was how quickly he became a key part of Marseille’s team. In March, two months into his stint in France, he scored the winner at Caen with a beautifully taken goal. He followed that up with a powerful performance at the Parc des Princes, heavily involved in two of Marseille’s goals in a 3-1 win. The opener was almost entirely the work of the big striker. Taking down a lofted pass, he held off Zoumana Camara and backheeled the ball perfectly into the path of the onrushing Zenden, who scored. Socrates himself could not have done it better. Brandão, scoring goals fairly frequently, finished up with 7 in just half a season. More importantly, his presence created space for Mamadou Niang to exploit. The pair of them kept Marseille in the title chase until a calamitous defeat at home to Lyon with two games to go.

The following season Marseille won the league, and while Lucho Gonzalez received the plaudits for creating their chances and Mamadou Niang for scoring them, neither would have been as productive without the presence of Brandão. He managed only eight goals but developed a habit of scoring in tight matches where no-one else could. Marseille lost only twice with Brandão as a starter, and in both matches (Auxerre at home and Valenciennes away) OM dominated and should have won.

His performances over the year earned him a nomination for the inaugural Ballon d’Eau fraiche of Les Cahiers du football, but that was about as good as it got on the south coast. The expensive arrivals of André-Pierre Gignac and Loïc Rémy meant Brandão was merely an occasional presence, often as substitute, during the first half of the 2010-11 season. Around December he reappeared and performed well as a starter, but that spell was brought to a juddering halt by an accusation of rape in early March of 2011.

Now persona non grata, Marseille loaned him first to Cruzeiro (where he bombed) and then to Gremio (where he did a little better, getting more games and grabbing a few goals). Marseille were desperate to sign another centre forward that winter but their failure to do so meant Brandão once again was back in the team. Not that it was much of a team. Playing comatose football, OM finished the season 10th, barely winning any games from February onwards. Brandão scored OM’s solitary goals in the only two highlights – at Inter in the Champions League last 16 and an improbable Coupe de la Ligue Final win over Lyon – but he was so poor for the rest of 2011-12 that it came as no surprise when he was released at the end of his contract that summer. Two years on from his best season in France, with other players generally taking the plaudits for his good performances even when he was at his best at OM, two months past his 32nd birthday and with the police investigation into the 2011 rape accusation still ongoing[1], it was assumed that Brandão was damaged goods.

When Saint-Etienne, whose squad was light on centre-forwards, signed him a week into the 2012-13 season the whole thing was treated like a bit of a joke. Sainté had received the dud prize at the raffle. Six months later those who laughed, including myself, look more ridiculous than Brandão ever did, ponytail or no ponytail.

The Brandão from 2010 is back. His presence on the pitch transforms his teammates, providing space and options where previously there were none. He can be an out-ball for defenders, and even when a clearance is made aimlessly and Brandão cannot win the aerial contest, his forcefulness in competing for it prevents the opposition from recycling possession as quickly as they would like. The ten seconds here and there his bulk can earn while his teammates reset their defence are invaluable when multiplied over the course of a season. At the other end of the pitch, he can be a facilitator for moving the attack twenty metres forward. Sainté can bypass crowded central midfield areas when they have possession 40 metres out by searching out Brandão directly, and even when they do not use him, his presence invariably concerns the deepest opposition midfielder. This creates space for Sainté’s midfield, so as bizarre as it sounds, a big and clumsy centre-forward is helping his team retain possession in the final third of the pitch. And while Brandão’s technical failings are legendary, he makes up for that by taking up positions to occupy the opposition central defence both outside the box, preventing them from paying sufficient attention to the other threats Sainté pose, and inside the box, where he can get on the end of crosses (although his finishing can leave something to be desired)

Normally teams would combat the presence of a big but slow centre forward by playing a high defensive line, but because Sainté have the pace of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang high up on the left flank, and because in Renaud Cohade they have a player capable of playing precise passes to expose space behind defences, this is not a viable option.[2]

Aubameyang was initially reticent about playing in a wide role but his excellent performances early in the season with Brandão leading the line, as well as the difficulties he had in the run up to Christmas from a centre-forward position when the Brazilian was injured, have convinced him that tracking the opposition right-back now and then is a small price to pay for a lot more space and many more goals when attacking.[3]

So his presence helps give Sainté’s defence time, helps them get the ball forward from any starting point on the pitch, helps them retain possession high up the pitch and gives their main goal threat the space to do what he does best. Unsurprisingly, the statistics reflect the impression Brandão has made; Saint-Etienne have thus far played 26 matches in the 2012-13 season, winning 12, drawing 8 and losing 6.

12 games with Brandão starting: 10 wins, 2 draws, 0 defeats, scored 25, conceded 4.

6 games with Brandão featuring as a substitute: 1 win, 4 draws, 1 defeat, scored 8, conceded 6.

8 games without Brandão: 1 win, 2 draws, 5 defeats, scored 7, conceded 9.

Try arguing with that.[4]

Brandão’s physical playing style and age means his body creaks more frequently these days, but if he can continue to exert such an influence on Sainté’s Ligue 1 campaign, qualification for the Champions League[5] is not out of the question. And they will do everything to keep him fit for their Coupe de la Ligue final against Rennes. Quite apart from his importance to their game plan, the big Brazilian has played 12 matches in the competition and is yet to lose a match, winning the trophy in 2010 and again in 2012 when he scored the winner in the final.

I really like Brandão. I like what he can tell us, unwittingly, about the game we love. That no matter how limited a player, a smart coach can extract a lot out of them by playing to their strengths. That the Aubameyangs, the Cinderellas of the (foot)ball, would be nothing without the souped-up pumpkins that get them there.

Above all I like Brandão because he brings down one of the last living sauropods of football cliché: that a centre-forward should be judged by the number of goals he scores. Wrong! If it has to come down to numbers, then a centre-forward’s goal tally is almost irrelevant. He or she must be judged instead by the number of goals his team scores when he plays. I like Brandão because he is proof that even in the most selfish position on the pitch, nothing comes before the team.

Bobeto


[1] He was cleared of these accusations in November 2012.

[2] This raises the question of how exactly teams should go about countering Saint-Etienne’s attacking variation. One counter-intuitive idea might be to field three central defenders, something rarely seen in Ligue 1 currently, with a slightly defensive right wing-back. The extra man at the back would mean defensive midfielders would be less worried about Brandão’s presence, enabling them to either press Sainté’s midfield or at the very least occupy more of the terrain they seek to exploit. The combination of a wing-back and a wide-ish central defender covering him might be enough to look after the pace and goal threat of Aubameyang.

[3] Theo Walcott, to name at random an adherent of the “I am a centre-forward, I want to play centre-forward” line, would do well to look at Aubameyang’s stats this season.

[4] OK, so I have not gone through minute by minute to analyse goals scored and conceded with Brandão on the pitch and with him absent. Saint-Etienne have scored goals in matches after he was subbed off (part of the first category) and before he was subbed on (part of the second category), but the sample size is still big enough to be considered valid, and it took me hours trawling through the guardian football stats pages to get what I do have. So bite me. On the subject of sources, the Marseille-related parts of this text would have been much harder to put together without http://www.om-passion.com. Their stats pages are a vast and easy-to-use (provided you speak French) gold mine of information, so a big well done and thank you to them.

[5] And Brandão has a habit of saving his best for the Champions League, as Chelsea, Spartak Moscow and Inter fans would be unhappy to testify.

ZlatanBall

The pattern is a familiar one: a group of talented footballers and a proven coach, powerless to prevent themselves from falling into the same trap. Like a dying man refusing treatment because he believes that only a miracle from God can save him, PSG look like they are falling into the trap of letting the blinding talent of Zlatan Ibrahimovic define their destiny. The league titles and his astonishing goalscoring record in Italian football are proof that while you do not have to smash the ball long to Zlatan, such is his talent that it works.

Just because you can does not mean you have to. The first time this concept really struck me was during a Europa League Last-16 tie between Braga and Liverpool in March 2011. Liverpool brought Andy Carroll on early in the second half and something very funny happened. Just as some deride Barcelona for passing for the sake of passing, forgetting that there exists a small cage at the end of the field where the ball is meant to go, Liverpool started smashing the ball in the vague direction of their big centre forward, oblivious to the fact that they were losing and needed a goal.

Again and again, from any point on the pitch, the ball was sent flying towards Carroll. He won most of his aerial challenges – which probably explains why Liverpool’s players continued the tactic – but the second ball almost always fell to a Braga player and the Portuguese side, who were clearly happy with their 1-0 lead, would take their time playing the ball upfield where, once Liverpool regained possession, the cycle would start again.

Whether you are hitting it long to Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Andy Carroll it always seems to be for the lack of a better idea. The former will be more effective than the latter, but both smack of a certain desperation, in much the same way that many teams losing with a few minutes to go will crowd the penalty area, drop football-shaped bombs on it and hope for the best.

In Britain the debate between the long ball game and a short passing one is often done in reference to bravery regardless of the wider point that is being made. When trying to break down Inter’s blanket defence in 2010, Barcelona’s refusal to lump it into the box meant they were branded as cowards (I still do not understand this point but I saw it made often enough). And when Sid Lowe (and later Gary Neville) praised Barcelona’s approach they highlighted how brave the players have to be to keep playing their way when put under enormous pressure by the opposition. Similarly England’s refusal to trust their own technique in favour of brute force apparently leaves them open to criticism for the cowardly way they eschew responsibility and surrender (never forget to include your war references!) meekly to the opposition. However you feel about it, it seems, the ‘right’ way is brave, and the ‘wrong’ way is cowardly.

I never saw the debate in those terms. In fact I am skeptical as to how important bravery is to football in any context. A goalkeeper diving at the feet of an attacker is not being brave because he or she is almost certainly not thinking about the consequences of being hurt at all – think of the endless interviews with athletes across all sports in which they state how, in the heat of competition, instinct and training take over. And a coach who adopts a ‘brave’ tactic is simply doing what they feel is the most likely to increase to probability of their side winning.

Nor did I see it being about the ability or lack thereof to play a short-passing game. Swansea, and Leon Britton in particular, should have laid this notion to rest in the cemetery for football clichés. Britton may have made an impression very young before he turned professional, but given his career trajectory one would be hard-pressed to describe his as an exceptional talent (within the world of professional football at least). Most of Swansea’s players fit a similar template. Their players are not as good as the ones who play for the England national team, for instance. It is stated so often that the England national team are awful at the short passing game that no-one even questions such a statement. But I am not sure we can actually say this because I cannot remember seeing them even attempt it[1]. The difference with Britton is that he and his team mates were asked to keep the ball. And he and his team mates resolved to try just that.

From my perspective the decisive element is will. The will to overcome the temptation to hit the ball long when under pressure, when you have a obvious target man, when you’re short of time and seemingly obliged to get the ball forward as quickly as possible or all three. The will to try and the will to persevere.

In the short term a long ball may get you a goal, win you a game or, if Zlatan is on the end of a bunch them, win you a league title. But where do you intend to go? Stoke have for their aim nothing more than avoiding relegation, for which their strategy has proven perfectly adequate. However for PSG a Ligue 1 title is not even the minimum requirement. A serious challenge for the Champions League on a yearly basis is what QSI will expect in return for their outlay. And playing Zlatanball, as we have seen fairly regularly over the last decade, will not get you beyond the quarter-finals.

Hitting the ball long is enough of a temptation on its own without having a target like Ibrahimovic. When Thiago Silva picks up the ball just outside his penalty area and sees Zlatan trotting into space 50 metres away he may as well be seeing a body with a miniature of the Ligue 1 trophy for a head. Hit that and the real thing is theirs, like in a shooting gallery at a theme park. But falling into that trap means not spending game time developing and practising the more subtle strategies[2] that PSG will need if they are to avoid becoming so predictable that they fail to make an impact in the competition that really counts.

Bobeto


[1] In the game against Poland, to use a recent example, short passes often missed their target, notably a number to Glen Johnson that went directly out of play. These seemed to be the result of Johnson not being able to react quickly enough to the shock of someone within 10 metres of him passing him the ball. A player who is expecting a short pass is better able to deal with it, regardless of his level of technique.

[2] A useful example is Athletic Bilbao in Marcelo Bielsa’s first season. They had Fernando Llorente as a potential target, but (in the Europa League games I was able to watch, at least) largely eschewed hitting the ball to him from deep positions. There was an awareness that taking the easy option of getting the ball to him aerially would become predictable. Rather than exploit his physique primarily as a way of getting the ball to the edge of the penalty area from within their own half, they could use him more effectively with passes along the ground from the first 10-15 metres of the opposition half. The shorter pass had less chance of being misdirected, and was easier to control too. Llorente’s physique meant that the defender still had no way of reaching the ball from behind him, but this way Llorente could quickly play ‘wall passes’ into onrushing midfielders (or in Athletic’s case, defenders!). And as if those advantages were not enough, it meant that when Athletic did go to Llorente directly the opposing defenders were less prepared for it (Rio Ferdinand being the most illustrious example).

Ligue 1 2012-13 Season Preview. Sort of.

The new Ligue 1 season starts tonight (!), and while most of the attention is focused on the capital I say “PSG, schmee-ess-gee”. There are several more interesting stories to follow in the coming season, and here are four that I found it easiest to write about.

Life on Mars: Marseille

Marseille, both the town and the football team, were not put on this earth to make sense. But even by their own bonkers standards last season was pretty weird. Most analysts backed them to retain their league title, and at the very least be challenging for it during the run in. I don’t think anyone predicted what actually happened: the club’s form going off the end of a cliff, Didier Deschamps losing the will to try anything to stem the bleeding and all but losing the will to live on the sidelines despite an absurdly flukey run to the Champions League quarter finals where, playing at the level of a pub team, they were dismissed by Bayern Munich. André Ayew’s development stagnated, new signing Jérémy Morel had a tough introduction, and amazingly, the always reliable Benoit Cheyrou had an absolute shocker of a season.

Coach Elie Baup has taken a lot of flak before the season has even begun, most of it related to his less than stellar managerial record to date. His perceived deficiencies notwithstanding, it’s all but inconceivable that a talented squad can play quite as badly again, but at the same time it is hard to escape the conclusion that OM’s season rests on the form and fitness of Loïc Remy. Capable of providing width, dragging defenders all over the inside-forward channels, being a target man, poking in half-chances from close in or smacking them in from 25 metres out, Marseille’s one international-class forward will have to play out of his skin to keep his team competitive. Don’t be surprised if he manages to head in one of his own crosses this season.

The one-man formation: Bordeaux

Mariano was probably the signing of the last winter transfer window. His presence permitted Bordeaux to switch to a system with wing-backs and the team jumped from 10th in January to fifth (and a Europa League place) by the season’s end, losing just three games in the process. The juxtaposition between their performances with a back three and a back four was noticeable, to say the least.

The squad is fairly thin, so an injury to a key player (particularly the two wingbacks, Nguemo and Plasil, a quartet that forms the engine of the team) would give them a serious headache, but if they can stay fit then another tilt at a European place is not out of the question. In pre-season Francis Gillot has also introduced a 4-2-3-1, but the overall effect will be the same: one of the defensive midfielders will drop back and Mariano and Trémoulinas will be encouraged to do what they do best and attack. If Bordeaux begin the new season anywhere near the level at which they ended the last one (performances that earned them six straight wins), and start demonstrating an ability to break down defensive teams more easily, then a progressive campaign in the league and some success in the cups is on the cards.

Coping with loss: Valenciennes and Nice

Over the last few years some of the best football in France can be found in a small town down the road from Lille: Valenciennes. Their progressive play earned former coach Philippe Montanier a shot at taking over Real Sociedad, and successor Daniel Sanchez has kept things going with a similar style, all quick passes and smooth counter-attacks. But with Carlos Sanchez leaving on a free and Renaud Cohade moving to St Etienne, a key part of the Valenciennes engine has been lost. It will be very interesting to see if Foued Kadir and Gaël Danic will be able to create as many chances now that the men responsible for winning the ball back (Sanchez) and providing them with it in space high up the pitch (Cohade) are gone.

Nice have also lost a key man, arguably the single most decisive player for any club in the division: Anthony Mounier. Acquired for a scandalously low price by Montpelier, his incisive running and ability to create chance after chance will be terribly missed at Nice. Unlike Valenciennes, however, Nice have moved quickly to replace the men who are leaving. The excellent David Ospina was expected to leave (and may yet do so) but Nice brought in France’s under-21 goalkeeper Joris Delle, an excellent piece of business and probably a good move for the player too who was bound to leave Metz even before they were relegated the National. Dario Cvitanich is probably an upgrade on the Abu Dhabi-bound Eric Mouloungui. The hardest job of all, replacing Mounier, falls on Eric Bauthéac who has joined after a solid first season in Ligue 1 at Dijon.

Awesome twosome: Romain Hamouma and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

At the start of last season Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was an inconsistent but talented forward who had yet to really make a mark. He’s now a star, the poster boy of the 2012 Cup of Nations and the man whose goals propelled St Etienne to 7th place, their highest finish in five years.

This season the resident Neymar impersonator of Ligue 1 should be able to increase his tally, with Romain Hamouma added to the mix. Hamouma has been linked with just about every team in Ligue 1 over the last year after his impressive first season at Caen, and if the two can create an effective partnership quickly then expect lots of goals.

Sainté have now had several very good transfer windows in succession and the combination of smart acquisitions and a productive youth system means Christophe Galtier has a strong team that, with a little luck, could be capable of finishing the season ahead of rivals Lyon for the first time in twenty years.

Bobeto

Honesty, or How to Lose Twitter Followers and Annoy People

This time last year, after the takeover of PSG by the Qatar Investment Authority, I voiced my concerns about how the steady and promising progress PSG had been making over the preceding two years could be blown out of the water by the wholesale upheaval that normally arrives with takeovers by the megarich.

I wasn’t worried that PSG would suffer in the fashion of Blackburn Rovers or Racing Santander. QIA are clearly a professional outfit with clear ideas about what they want and how to achieve it. This, specifically the fact that PSG are a small element in a much bigger game, became part of the problem – more on this later.

But there was something incredibly positive about the direction PSG were going in before QIA came in; no longer blindly throwing money at perceived underperformance and instead exploiting the considerable resources at their disposal, most notably their location atop the goldmine of young talent also known as the Île de France. This slow and quiet (by Parisian standards) evolution featured many aspects that I like to see in the club game. There was patience on the part of the directors, shown in the way that Kombouaré was retained after a tricky first season, a decision rewarded by much improved performances in 2010-2011. There was faith in youth embodied by Mamadou Sakho and Clément Chantôme, with more young players seemingly on the way towards the first team. There was an overall atmosphere of patience, being able to enjoy the skill of Nenê, the renaissance of Bodmer and the development of the players from the youth team without fretting if those players went off the boil for a few games.

The aesthetically pleasing and rapidly developing Chantôme has been forgotten. Sakho too has been dropped after a dip in form, something that is unacceptable in the brutality of the modern Champions League and the teams that inhabit its strange parallel universe. That is unfortunate. What is worse is that it looks increasingly likely that a brilliant generation of young players from the under-17 and under-19 youth sides, who won their respective titles last season, won’t even get the chance that Chantôme and Sakho did. In 2010-2011 some of the best from the under-19 side were knocking on the door of the first team. But Jean-Christophe Bahebeck has barely featured this term and Loick Landre and Neeskens Kebano have disappeared from sight. Alphonse Areola faces the prospect of being behind Salvatore Sirigu for the next decade or being forced to move if he is to have even a chance at fulfilling his vast potential.

All of those positives have vanished, or are at risk. All I’m left with is gripes.

The fact that this was, in many ways, unnecessary. The Qatari money could have been used to simply find, train and then retain the players PSG have on their doorstep (and when it comes to producing elite footballers, the Île de France is the gift that keeps on giving). The most successful teams often played football that was both successful and aesthetically pleasing because their players had been playing together for years before they even made the first team. Now, with PSG seemingly committed to buying in talent from wherever they can, how many of the best kids in Paris will want to join PSG in the first place? They already knew that the facilities are as good or better at Le Havre or Rennes or Sochaux. That was enough of an incentive without PSG putting up huge, expensive barriers to their first team too.

The fact that it was also unnecessary in the wider context of Ligue 1. Without wanting to riff on Jonathan Johnson’s pain any further, the Ligue 1 title last year was won by a relegation candidate, whose entire budget for 2010-11 was less than what PSG paid for Pastore alone. If you use a sledgehammer to crack a nut, you can at least enjoy the nut once you’re finished. If you use a Qatari-bought steamroller to crack one, all you’ll do is crush it into the burning tarmac. If winning Ligue 1 convincingly is the minimum requirement, what enjoyment can be gained from such a victory? And if the competitive balance of the league is destroyed, who benefits from this? There will be teams that manage to challenge PSG, but not very many of them. The last five years have shown us that almost anyone can mount a title push in Ligue 1. This balance, the extent of which is unique in Europe’s big leagues[1], is one of the best things about football in France today. PSG forcing the other teams with means to play catch-up might make French teams more competitive in European competition, but someone with outmoded views on this like myself won’t think that a price worth paying for what will be lost in return.

The fact that any titles won will be followed by nothing but discussions about money.

The fact that PSG will be expected to win every single game, that no pleasure can be taken in enjoying the performance of the team should they lose or draw[2].

The fact that Leonardo has gone from being one of the nice guys of football to just another hard-nosed businessman who not only thinks you have to act as mean as possible to succeed but boasts about his transformation.

The fact that PSG can (and as the case of Nicholas Douchez has shown, will) bring in players and then let them rot.

The fact that they fired a symbol of the club, Antoine Kombouaré, while they were top of the league.

The fact that this decision was, in the new context of PSG and the way football seems to be moving in the Champions League era, entirely logical.

Above all else, the fact that owning PSG is a fraction of Qatar’s PR offensive to ensure that they keep the rights to host the 2022 World Cup. That’s what really did it for me. The relationships that Louis Nicollin or Dave Whelan (or in less positive instances, Mike Ashley or Waldemar Kita) have with their clubs could be considered at worst vanity projects, but there is indisputably a link between owner and team, where the former has a genuine care for the latter. The worst that can happen is a megalomania that loses the owner his money[3]. At the other end of the extreme you have faceless holding corporations (like Colony Capital, for instance) that, theoretically, can administer the team free from the whims of an unhinged president[4].   The Qatari takeover means PSG fit neither model. Like their sponsoring of Barcelona, owning PSG is a marketing ploy among many others: turn a potential giant into a European power to show how their presence is good for football. For QIA, PSG is a stage that needs to be traversed, an asset that serves a strategic purpose but is itself of such little value in the bigger picture that it is almost worthless. A tiny pawn on a super-sized chessboard[5].

Before the takeover I felt that PSG could, with patience from the management, development of the talent in the youth teams and a bit of luck, go on to win a Ligue 1 title in the next few years. As it is they will probably win several. This will cost a great deal of money, but compare the price of that to the value of the under-17s and under-19s making good on their potential. If nothing else, that title would have been ours. And even if they had won nothing we could have enjoyed watching them develop. Trophies for PSG are now guaranteed but, for me[6], whatever they win now will be QIA’s first, and PSG’s second.

Bobeto


[1] I would say that only the Netherlands comes remotely close.

[2] See any La Liga messageboard if you are in any doubt about how depressing this type of fandom is.

[3] The club can lose out financially too but this is fairly rare.

[4] Of course some of these anonymous owners are not quite as anonymous as they’d like due to their incompetence.

[5] This situation, as almost all of you will be aware, is not too dissimilar from PSG’s situation when canal+ took over the team in the early 1990s. Their ownership of PSG also went beyond the club itself. So what’s the difference between now and then? Why kick up a fuss now? Well for a start I was three then, not a good age for critical reflection. When your extended family send you brightly-coloured things with mysterious, never-before-seen players wearing mysterious, never-before-seen strips, it’s hard not to be captivated by it.

It is worth stating at this point that criticising a club for being ‘artificial’ is pointless. No football clubs were created by God. Some of the most history and tradition-laden clubs were created because someone had a stadium and no team to put in it. PSG owe their existence to being in a similar position but on a larger scale: not just a stadium, an entire city (both in general terms in 1970 and then with a televisual bent in the late 80s). What came to define these teams was not how or why they came to be, but what they came to represent. Before the Qatari takeover it looked like PSG were finally moving beyond the canal+ era, away from the artificial stage that every club goes through in its early history and into a future with locals on the pitch as well as in the stands. This is the beating heart of club football, although these days it beats rather weakly. At PSG, the heartbeat is getting fainter and fainter.

[6] I’m expecting a lot of abuse for this piece, but I can only stress that this is my personal viewpoint. You may not agree with me, but if I don’t care anymore then I don’t care anymore, and arguing about it will change nothing. I’m not saying that other people should feel the same way. Watching football is an emotional activity, and people who continue to support PSG are simply being emotionally honest. In admitting that I no longer care when I watch them, so am I. This is neither good nor bad, it’s just the way things are.