The Special One another poor season away from being yesterday’s man

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Originally featured on Back Page Football.

The dubious accolade for the Premier League’s biggest flop presented a number of viable, unfortunate nominees last season. There were misfiring strikers, such as Roberto Soldado or Ricky van Wolfswinkel, expensive but underwhelming signings, Erik Lamela and Marouane Fellaini, and mismanaged clubs, such as Fulham and Cardiff City. There was also David Moyes.

The former Manchester United manager was perhaps the most popular choice for the season’s biggest flop. Moyes presided over a disastrous campaign, devoid of any positive developments, where every occurrence, from the United’s falling stock price to the upsurge of Everton, his former club, seemed to further convey his inadequacy. When Moyes’ hellish year eventually ended, he was no more sacked than put of his misery.

While it would be impossible to dispute that Moyes’ time as Manchester United manager was anything but an unmitigated disaster, there is an argument to be made that he does not qualify as the worst flop of last season. The concept of being a flop is based on prior expectation not aligning with the subsequent reality. So while United underperformed last season, almost every other aspect of the season, from the team’s final position, points total and record against the top teams, was in line with David Moyes’ managerial career.

A more fitting recipient of such an unwanted distinction was not even among the nominees. José Mourinho, Chelsea manager and ‘Special One’, returned to England from Real Madrid last summer to great fanfare from football fans and media outlets alike. At his opening press conference, Mourinho re-anointed himself as the ‘Happy One’, spoke of staying at Chelsea for years to come and of a repaired relationship with owner Roman Abramovich.

He also dismissed reports that he wanted to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson as United manager and generally seemed humble and content. A more mature version of the brash Mourinho that first arrived at Chelsea in 2004, and nothing like the man whom had apparently waged civil war in his previous position. ‘I am where I want to be’, Mourinho said. ‘I wouldn’t change it for anything. It’s my job and the job I want. It is the job I was offered and I accepted immediately’.

Mourinho seemed primed to return Chelsea to the pinnacle of English football. In the six-year spell since he left, the Blues, despite achieving European success, won just a single league title. The power vacuum created by Ferguson’s retirement partly resulted in the most open title race for years. It also provided Mourinho the opportunity to stake his claim as English football’s dominant figure, as he had threatened to do during his previous spell in the Premier League.

However, Mourinho was neither special nor happy. Chelsea endured a fruitless season, finishing third and exiting the Champion’s League in the semi-finals, the fourth time in four years Mourinho’s teams have lost at that stage of the competition. It was also the first time in his career that he had experienced consecutive trophy-less campaigns. To further compound Mourinho’s misery, his former club Real Madrid, seemingly bounded by his departure, and guided by Carlo Ancelotti, very much the anti-Mourinho, finally achieved La Décima.

Throughout the domestic season, Mourinho talked down his side’s chances of success. After winning 1-0 away to eventual champions Manchester City last February, Mourinho said: ‘The title race is between two horses and a little horse that needs milk and needs to learn how to jump’. In this bizarre analogy, Chelsea, a club fuelled by a Russian oligarch’s millions, the recent European champions, team of internationals with the average age of twenty-eight, were the underdogs. Liverpool’s surge for the title, consisting of a sixteen game unbeaten run, made further mockery of Mourinho’s theory.

Steven Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea will long be remembered as the defining moment of the 2013/14 season. Combined with Liverpool’s subsequent collapse against Crystal Palace, the narrative has since been that the Merseyside club bottled their chance to win a first league title in twenty-four years. However, despite the dramatic de-railing of Liverpool’s season, there is an argument to be made that it was in fact Chelsea who squandered the greater chance of glory.

Last season, Mourinho’s side were undefeated against the top four, winning five of their six games. Yet Sunderland were the only other team to take more points from the top ten teams than those in bottom half. This trend was particularly telling during the title run-in, where Chelsea continued to drop points against struggling teams. Mourinho’s side lost away to Aston Villa and Crystal Palace, at home to Sunderland and drew with Norwich City. Six points from these games would have secured Chelsea the league crown.

Mourinho attempted to pin the blame for his team’s woes on a number of variants, from misfiring strikers to poor refereeing to, without even a hint of irony, the opposition’s defensive, ‘19th century’ tactics. However, perhaps the real reason lies in Mourinho’s footballing philosophy. Spanish journalist Diego Torres’ book, The Special One: The Dark Side of José Mourinho covers Mourinho’s time at Real Madrid and provides a dark, fascinating insight into the Chelsea manager’s methods and mindset.

The book depicts Mourinho as calculated, manipulative and extremely paranoid, a fish out of water, attempting to mould every facet of one of the world’s biggest football clubs to fit his own personality. Torres paints the Chelsea manager as a controlling, power mad, Machiavellian war monger, with a manic fixation on controlling media narrative. There are a number of telling passages in relation to Mourinho’s tactical outlook.

After the 2011 Copa Del Rey Final, where Madrid defeated Barcelona in extra-time: ‘he puffed out his chest … repeating, ‘This is football! This is football!’ The final reaffirmed his belief that a very good way of playing football is to give the ball and the initiative to the opposition’. Torres also said that Mourinho: ‘Insisted to his players that possession of the ball does not have value in itself and, if not treated with extreme care, at times can be dangerous’ Following Chelsea’s defeat to Sunderland last December, Mourinho essentially validated Torres’ tactical insight, saying: ‘It’s something I don’t want to do, to play more counterattacking, but I’m giving it serious thought. If I want to win 1-0 I think I can as I think it is one of the easiest things in football. It is not so difficult, as you don’t give players the chance to express themselves’.

This method has brought Mourinho great success, including two Champion’s Leagues and four league titles in four countries. However, will it be possible, in an era where tactical flexibility is ever-growing in importance, to further this success with such a dogmatic, one-dimensional outlook? How long will it be before English teams realise the path to defeating Mourinho potentially lays in playing him at his own tactical game? Those that done so last year, such as Sunderland, West Ham and Aston Villa, recorded positive results. Meanwhile, Liverpool and Manchester City dominated possession, but were defeated in both games against the London club.

Chelsea do however look a more formidable prospect for the forthcoming season as they are significantly bolstered by summer signings Diego Costa, Cesc Fàbregas and Filipe Luís, and the return of Thibaut Courtois. Yet this also means that, if his team ends another campaign trophy-less, Mourinho’s excuses will no longer have any semblance of validity. No more talk of little horses or misfiring strikers.

Mourinho dismissed Torres’ book as a work of fiction. If the author did in fact entirely fabricate events from the Chelsea manager’s time in Spain, then he should be working in Hollywood, rather than Spanish broadsheet El País. However, if even a percentage is true, then Mourinho’s best days may be in the past. If we take the Portuguese’s career in two halves, divided by the time he moved to Madrid in 2010, then the latter period is considerably less successful.

If the trend continues, then the ‘Special One’ may have run out of road, tactically and personally. If Mourinho can no longer guarantee success, conflict is almost certain. And, if Chelsea have a repeat of last season, one imagines it will not be long before Mourinho and Abramovich clash again. This could be the defining campaign of José Mourinho’s managerial career.

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Ugly Brazil team unworthy of World Cup glory

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Originally published by Back Page Football 4/6/2014.

Dutch football legend Johan Cruyff was appalled after watching his country play Spain in the World Cup final four years ago. Referring to the Netherlands as: ‘ugly, vulgar, hard, hermetic’ Cruyff, the iconic leader and symbol of the great total-football Netherlands and Ajax teams of the 1970s, and architect of the current style of Barcelona and Spain, said the Dutch: ‘were playing anti-football’.

The Netherlands kicked and hacked their way through a gruelling 120 minutes, committing twenty-eight fouls, receiving eight yellow cards and had, fortuitously, just one player dismissed. The team, rather than the wonderful attacking Dutch sides of the past, featuring players such as Cruyff, Dennis Bergkamp and Marco Van Basten, was typified by the aggression and gamesmanship of players such Mark Van Bommel and Nigel De Jong. The classic, romantic image of technical, graceful Netherlands teams was firmly dented when de Jong karate-kicked Spain’s Xabi Alonso.

Spain still prevailed though, winning 1-0 thanks to an extra-time goal from Andrés Iniesta. The tournament had been dour, the final was ugly but the Spanish were worthy winners, a measure of saving grace for an otherwise forgettable month of football. The 2014 World Cup does not require such redemption as it is on course to be widely considered as the best tournament in recent memory.

Within this festival of football there have been some disappointments. The most notable being Luis Suarez’s bite, the performance of some European teams and the petty squabbling among the Ghana and Cameroon sides. However, the biggest disappointment of the tournament, with the possible exception of one hungry Uruguayan, has been the Brazil national team.

The hosts, with the exception of golden boy Neymar, have failed to adequately contribute to their own party or come close to playing the type of samba football synonymous with the country. Following their controversial, unconvincing opening victory over Croatia, Brazil laboured to a goalless draw with Mexico and secured top spot in Group A with a 4-1 victory over hapless Cameroon. They now face Colombia in the quarter-final after eliminating Chile in a dramatic penalty shoot-out.

For those who watched last summer’s Confederation Cup, the sight of a functional, aggressive, hard pressing Brazil team, relying on some Neymar magic to save the day, will be familiar. Indeed, there has not been a Brazil team to fit the romantic image, forged by the great teams of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, in over thirty years. It has been well documented that the 1982 World Cup team are considered the last to match the famous ideal of Brazilian jogo bonito.

That Brazil side, featuring some of the country’s greatest ever players such as Zico, Socrates and Falcão, were playing exhilarating, fluid attacking football. However, their defensive failings were exposed by a Paolo Rossi hat-trick as they crashed out 3-2, in the second group stage, to eventual winners Italy. Zico said the game was ‘the day football died’.

While that description may be dramatic, subsequent Brazil teams, such the teams that won the World Cup in 1994 and 2002, have been more functional than fantastic. Each side have had ultra-attacking full backs, a plethora of defensive midfielders and individual brilliance from a star forward. However, if one ascribes to Zico’s view that the classic, romantic Brazilian nature of football died in 1982, then the current side must resemble the equivalent of Brazilian football zombies.

Brazil now treats the centre circle as though it is a shark infested lake, repeatedly hoofing long balls into the opposition final third in hope something will land for Neymar. They attempted almost sixty long passes against Cameroon and again in the second-round tie with Chile. In both games they played just a handful of through balls and against Cameroon their main pass combination was between midfielder Luis Gustavo and central defender David Luiz.

Neymar said this week:

The games are very hotly contested and equal and whoever shows the most commitment is the winner. Brazil didn’t come to put on a show, we came to win.

Further evidence, if any was needed, that the image of beautiful Brazilian football now borders on myth. This team is built on an ethos of ‘commitment’, which seemingly extends to their embarrassingly overly emotional rendition of the national anthem and crying before penalty shootouts.

Brazil are also committed to a tactical plan that involves pumping the ball as far down the pitch as they possibly can, abjectly defending, physically bullying the opposition and desperately relying on Neymar. The defence is creaky, the midfield lacks incision, and gets bypassed anyway, and to claim Fred is misfiring would be incorrect because that involve the striker actually shooting.

One may argue that Brazil do not have the required personnel to play an expansion, attacking game. That it is foolish to imagine Luis Gustavo, Paulinho and Hulk could play like Zico, Socrates or Ronaldinho. However, we have seen apparent lesser teams, such as Costa Rica, Algeria and Mexico, play in an attacking style with cohesion, neat passing and tactical discipline. The current Brazil side may not have to tools to mirror the famed teams of the past, but that does not automatically mean they should resort to playing like the Wimbledon teams of the 1980s and 90’s.

Regardless of whether one is viewing through a purist or pragmatist prism, Brazil verge between being ineffectual, ugly and, at times, difficult to comprehend, typified by David Luiz. In the 73rd minute of the host’s game with Cameroon, Luiz, the most expensive defender in the world, stepped onto a misplaced opposition header around thirty-five yards from his own goal. Brazil was leading 3-1 against a dispirited team who had already been eliminated.

However, Luiz, under no opposition pressure, rather than taking the ball down, playing a short pass or even attempting to pick out one of his attacking teammates, aimlessly smashed a volley seventy yards down the pitch. If this was to occur during an over forties Sunday league match it would be a needless waste of possession. However, this was a Brazilian player with undoubted technical ability, in the World Cup in Brazil, and in a situation that presented vast scope for personal expression. In this context, the act was infuriating, nonsensical and dispiriting.

Next up for Brazil is South American rivals Colombia in Friday’s quarter-final in Fortaleza. Los Cafeteros have comfortably dispatched each side they have faced thus far and have, arguably, the tournament’s star performer in the form of James Rodriguez. The Monaco forward has been a revelation and, with Brazil’s defensive midfielder Luis Gustavo suspended, could be in line to continue his heroics. Colombia looked primed to provide the Seleção with their toughest test of the tournament so far and cause a potential upset.

Cruyff was asked, prior to the World Cup final in 2010, if the Netherlands would mirror Inter Milan’s defensive performance in their aggregate victory over Barcelona in that year’s Champions League semi-final.

I said no, no way at all. I said no, not because I hate this style… I said no because I thought that my country wouldn’t dare to and would never renounce their style. I said no because, without having great players like those of the past, the team has its own style.

This Brazil team has seemingly taken such a path, but they are neither pragmatic nor purist. They instead resemble a parody and perversion of past Seleção sides and the supposed footballing ideals of a country regarded as the spiritual home of the beautiful game.

A victory for Brazil would be a triumph for FIFA and the ruling establishment within the country, both of whom will wish to use a sixth World Cup title as a way to paper over the failings of the tournament’s organisation, corruption allegations and the plundering of Brazil’s economy and poorest citizens. A final perversion, but this time also serving to distract from the failings of the Seleção, and an unfitting outcome to a wonderful festival of football.

England and Uruguay – Football Pioneers

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Originally published by Back Page Football 18/06/2014.

The fixture between Uruguay and England on Thursday in Sao Paulo is set to be the pivotal fixture in Group D. Both sides lost their opening games so another defeat for either will spell the end of their campaign.

However, the match will also be notable for a number other reasons. It will feature the country that invented football against the first great international team. England and Uruguay are two nations that have had sharply contrasting international football success, despite radically different resources. It could also be billed as a battle between each team’s most high-profile players, Wayne Rooney and Luis Suarez.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter may have claimed that China is the birthplace of football, but, for the rest of us, there can be no denying that the version we all recognise was devised and first organised in English public schools in the 19th century. The students of these schools were a mixture of children of the old money, aristocracy, and the nouveu riche, middle class of the Industrial Revolution. Disobedience and violence was omnipresent among a large group of boys in a confined space.

The Victorian establishment were fixated with physical well-being and how it translated into living a healthy life for the country’s future power brokers. Games, such as football, would also provide an opportunity for the unruly youth to channel their energies into a cohesive exercise. Rather than kicking and chasing each other, they could kick and chase a ball around a field.

Football continued to develop and grow in popularity. The Football Association was formed and codified the game in 1863 and the first FA Cup final, in 1871, was won by Wanderers, a team of former Harrow public schoolboys. However, from beginnings as an aristocratic, amateur pastime, football, in the final decades of the 19th century, became colonised by the masses. The shortening of the industrial working week, combined with a rise in disposable income, gave forum for both participants and spectators. Clubs and leagues sprang up, particularly around Lancashire’s industrial hive, and football began spreading further south, before being exported throughout the world.

Wayne Rooney and Roy Hodgson

The story of the development of football is, in essence, the story of industrialisation and modernisation. England was the first country to experience mass industrialisation and through its global spanning formal and informal empire, the game grew. Throughout this vast empire, from Bilbao to Belfast, Glasgow to St Petersburg and Budapest to Sao Paulo, the spread of football can be sourced to the British expatriates organising games amongst themselves, as curious natives looked on

William Leslie Poole, a Scottish P.E. teacher at an English School in Montevideo, is credited with beginning the spread of football in Uruguay. Poole founded Albion Football Club in 1893, originally as a branch of the Albion’s cricket club. The pattern of football’s shift from being the mainstay of the elite minority, to working class dominance was accelerated in Uruguay by the country’s rapid industrialisation and droves of European settlers in the country in the late 19th century. In 1903 Nacional, a club founded by Hispanic students in Montevideo, represented Uruguay, against Argentina in Buenos Aires, in one of the country’s first international games and won 3-2.

Twenty seven years later Uruguay again faced Argentina. This time the tie between the neighbours was in Montevideo in the inaugural World Cup Final. Ninety-three thousand supporters crammed into Estadio Centenario to see the hosts win 4-2. FIFA had awarded them the staging of the tournament due to a consensus that the country was the best team in the world. Uruguay had won gold at the 1924 Olympics in Paris, where they beat Switzerland 3-0, and retained their title at the 1928 games in Amsterdam, again victorious over Argentina. La Celeste had also won six of the previous twelve Copa Américas, but it was the World Cup final win which firmly cemented Uruguay’s place as international football’s first great team

The Parisian crowd, at the 1924 Olympics, were enthralled by the skills of the South American team. Uruguay, unlike their opponents, played a short passing game. Gabriel Hanot, a French journalist, summed up the spectators’ appreciation, writing: ‘They created a beautiful football, elegant but at the same time varied, rapid, powerful, effective’. In an excerpt taken from David Goldblatt’s book, The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football, Hanot was less kind towards English footballers. ‘Before these fine athletes, who are to the English professionals like Arab thoroughbreds next to farm horses, the Swiss were disconcerted’.

That estimation of the talents of English players may seem unfair, however, at the time, the country, was in a state of deliberate international football isolation. They declined entry to football at the Olympic Games during the 1920s, the World Cup tournaments in the 1930s and only played internationals with other ‘Home’ countries. When England first entered the tournament, in Brazil in 1950, the decedents of the beautiful game’s inventers received an earthshattering shock.

England, with players such as Billy Wright and Tom Finney, were perceived as favourites for their maiden World Cup. However, the ‘Kings of Football’ failed to advance from the initial group stage and lost 1-0 to USA, a team of part-time players. A seismic result, perhaps born out of England’s hubris regarding the game they had invented and one which would leave long-lasting scars. England had given the world football, but, in part due to their lofty isolation, they had been surpassed. Uruguay would win the tournament with perhaps the most iconic underdog result in World Cup history. In front of two-hundred-thousand fans at the Maracanã stadium, in the tournament’s final game, hosts Brazil succumbed to a 3-2 loss.

Luis Suarez Uruguay

Uruguay, with a population of just under three and a half million, is international football’s most successful country. They have won twenty titles in total, the most recent being the Copa América in 2011 and finished fourth at the last World Cup. If Uruguay is international football’s great over-achievers, the popular consensus has long been that England has been under-achievers at international level.

England’s World Cup win on home soil in 1966 is the only international title for the country which gave football to the world. Some would consider this a meagre return for a country with such seemingly superior resources. England’s population is sixteen times that of Uruguay, the country boasts a prominent domestic league and have produced great players. However, according to journalist Simon Kuper and economist Stefan Szymanski, authors ofWhy England Lose: and Other Curious Phenomena Explained, the tag of international underachievers is false. ‘The sad fact is that England are a good team that does better than most. This means they are not likely to win many tournaments, and they don’t’.

The authors use statistical data in an attempt to explain, among other things, the performance of the England national team. Their findings conclude that England’s win percentage, between 1970 and 2007, is on average 67 per cent, never lower than 62 per cent, and never higher than 70 per cent. A consistent and credible performance but, considering Brazil win on average 80 per cent of their games, England’s win percentage is not enough to achieve international glory. From 1981 to 2001, it was the tenth best in the World, hardly grounds for being labelled underachievers.

Statistical data may be able to debunk the idea of England underperforming on the international stage, however, for many fans, the sense that the anointed ‘Golden Generation’ underachieved still lingers. The final remnants of this crop of players, in the form of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney, face their potential last stand on Thursday against Uruguay. The sense of underachievement is undoubtedly felt more in relation to Rooney than his teammates.

Indeed, it could be argued, that many have given up on Rooney, including England manager Roy Hodgson. The Manchester United forward was shifted to the left-wing in the 2-1 loss to Italy. He provided an excellent assist for Daniel Sturridge’s goal, but was unable to provide adequate defensive cover for left-back Leighton Baines.

This failure to perform a tactically disciplined role is a common feature of Rooney’s performances, but, as Irish Independent journalist Dion Fanning said: ‘Hodgson asked too much of him in Manaus when he was delegated to work up and down the left-wing, something he would struggle with on a mild October evening, let alone a suffocating night in the Amazon rainforest’.

It was not meant to be this way for Rooney. After his outstanding performances at Euro 2004 he became the great hope. A boy who played like a man, Rooney was raw, powerful, boundlessly energetic, possessing the fighting spirit English fans yearn for, but with the skillset of a South American.

Rooney’s former manager, David Moyes, said: ‘Wayne was the last of the classic street footballers’. The Liverpudlian is a product of the English urban working class and football’s colonisation by the masses and perhaps the ultimate embodiment of the street footballer. The decline of playing football in the street is seemingly mirrored by Rooney’s plight.

Whereas, Rooney was once the chosen one, he’s now the square peg. He is seemingly too famous to omit from the starting eleven, but no longer trusted to be the team’s focal point. Rooney’s only escape from this football purgatory will be a starring performance against Uruguay. If he cannot do this, it could be the last World Cup stand for the last of the street footballers.

If the teenage Rooney promised so much, the opposite was perhaps the case for his Uruguayan counterpart. Luis Suarez was not a child prodigy, but he is also a product of the urban working class, as he told journalist Sid Lowe: ‘I played in the streets with my friends, barefooted. That was the way we lived’. Simon Kuper said when the forward moved to Ajax, in 2007 aged 20, Marco Van Basten said that: ‘He can’t really play soccer’. The Liverpool forward, has since dramatically improved.

The popular consensus is that Rooney peaked at Suarez’s age; however the Uruguayan shows no sign of plateauing. In tandem with his supreme skills and spatial awareness, Suarez embodies his country’s fighting spirit, la garra charrua, named after the indigenous Uruguayan population. If Suarez is fit to play on Thursday, there is no chance of him being shunted out to the wings.

Hodgson said this week that: ‘You can be a great player in your league but for the world to recognise you are one of the all-time greats you have got to do it at the World Cup’. The England manager was speaking in relation to Suarez but perhaps he is also addressing Wayne Rooney. Indeed his comments could relate to the fortunes of both countries on the international stage.

Thursday’s game will be crucial for the World Cup fortunes of England and Uruguay, a chance for their most famous sons to make the telling difference, perhaps Rooney’s last, and another chapter in their long and proud football history.

Roy’s reliance on Rooney could ruin England’s slim chances

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Originally published by Back Page Football 26/5/2014.

Wayne Rooney’s role, as in previous tournaments, could prove crucial to England’s chances at the World Cup in Brazil. England manager Roy Hodgson said last week that Rooney: ‘knows the eyes, certainly of England, if not the rest of the world, are going to be on him’.

However, this has been the case in previous World Cups and each time the Manchester United forward has failed to deliver. Would England be better served without their perceived talisman? And should Hodgson take heed the lessons from previous tournaments regarding Rooney’s likelihood to deliver on the game’s highest stage?

It could be argued that the different stages in Rooney’s career are linked to respective World Cups. In 2006 he was raw but immensely talented. ‘The White Pele’, despite carrying a metatarsal injury, was seen as the spark to ignite the so-called ‘Golden Generation’. Rooney featured in four games, failed to score and was sent off in England’s quarter final loss to Portugal.

However, the striker was largely given the benefit of the doubt. His dismissal was impetuous, and ultimately costly for his side, but he was young and not perceived to be at peak fitness during the tournament. While the memory of his performance at Euro 2004, where he scored four goals in four games, was still fresh in the public consciousness. His time to shine on the world football’s greatest stage would surely come.

Over the next four years, at club level, Rooney won three Premier Leagues, a Champion’s League title and, in the season leading up to the South Africa World Cup, had his most prolific season. Rooney, Scoring 34 goals in 44 games, became the focal point of United’s attack after the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo. No longer subjugating himself for the betterment of Ronaldo, Rooney was seemingly liberated to become the player many thought, or hoped, he would become. The spectre of injury again loomed prior to the World Cup, but Rooney was fit enough to start every game.

If the Rooney of the 2006 World Cup was talented and raw, but combustible and unrefined, 2010 Rooney represented the player at his peak. Or at least it should have. Rooney again failed to score, as England impotently exited in the second round to Germany. Isolated up front, physically, and, as it would later transpire, mentally out of sorts, the forward seemed unable to carry the burden of an expectant public and a jaded team.

Which leads to the current scenario facing Hodgson and England ahead of next month’s World Cup. Which Rooney will show up? How does England extract the maximum from Rooney? And is doing such automatically related to the fortunes of the side?

The United striker appears more focused and prepared than in previous tournaments, saying: ‘I feel good. I am settled at home with my family… I feel this is the really last big one that I feel will probably get the best out of me. I feel ready, fresh and as good as I can do to go into this tournament’. A sentiment that was echoed by Hodgson: ‘He knows what a good player he is… and he’ll do everything he can to make certain he brings out his best qualities’.

Rooney’s former United teammate, Paul Scholes said last week that: ‘to get the very best from Wayne in Rio, the manager needs to tell him: ‘Don’t bother running back. Stay centre-forward. That’s your job in my team’. However, that has not been Rooney’s role in the team. And when Rooney has played as the lone striker, particularly in 2010, he has cut a frustrated, forlorn figure, starved of service and lacking the tactical discipline to ‘stay centre-forward’.

The blistering form of Daniel Sturridge, for the majority of the Premier League season, means that Hodgson is likely to deploy Rooney in the No.10 role, behind the Liverpool striker and centrally in a 4-2-3-1 formation. This is his position for United and the natural fit for his attacking skill set. When the team lose possession the player in Rooney’s position would be expected to put pressure on the opposition’s midfield schemer. However, Rooney has proven in the past to be unable to do this against top class opposition.

The basis of the breakdown in the relationship between Rooney and Sir Alex Ferguson can be linked to the player’s inability to perform this tactically disciplined role. It has been well documented that the pair fell out after Rooney was dropped from the starting line-up of last season’s Champion’s League second-round exit to Real Madrid. While it was a shock at the time, Ferguson’s choice was justified when one considers the two games that perhaps most crucially shaped his decision; the tie’s first leg and the 2011 Champion’s League final against Barcelona.

In the 2011 final Rooney was set the task of pressing and tracking Sergio Busquets, Barcelona’s deepest lying midfielder and initial instigator of their attacks. Rooney scored a wonderful goal to level the score, but never got close to the Busquets, who found his more offensively effective teammates time and time again.Barcelona won comfortably 3-1.

Ferguson, two years later, was therefore unwilling to deploy Rooney in the same role to subdue Madrid’s Xabi Alonso. With Robin Van Persie’s status as United’s lone striker firmly cemented, Rooney started the first leg, a 1-1 draw at the Bernabéu, on the right side of midfield. His job, when Madrid had possession, was to provide cover for full-back Rafael. This proved unsuccessful as the Brazilian full-back had a night to forget. Madrid players targeted United’s right side, with their equalising goal coming from a cross Rooney failed to close down.

In the second-leg Rooney was replaced by Nani, who scored before being harshly sent off, while Danny Welbeck effectively stifled Alonso, Real Madrid’s dynamo. The entire tie turned when Welbeck was moved to the wing following Nani’s dismissal, Alonso now had the freedom to operate and Madrid quickly scored twice. In the game’s aftermath it emerged that Rooney was furious at being dropped, but Ferguson made a rational decision. He had a more prolific striker in Van Persie. And felt he could not rely on Rooney to perform a tactically disciplined role, in a game against high quality opposition, who are proficient in retaining the ball. What other choice, than dropping Rooney, had Ferguson got?

Hodgson faces a similar dilemma for next month’s World Cup in Brazil. England’s first game, against Italy in the jungle of Manaus, will prove decisive. Assuming Hodgson will play Sturridge in the central striker’s position, can Rooney be trusted to disrupt the majestic Andrea Pirlo? All evidence would suggest not.Rooney’s ability, when in possession of the ball, is not in question, despite not hitting the individual heights of his one-time rival Ronaldo. However, England will undoubtedly seed possession to Italy. The country’s chance of progression could be greater improved by dropping their talisman.

Paul Scholes suggested that the England management team lack the ‘balls’ to drop Rooney. While that may be the case, it is perhaps more likely that England, and many English fans, are still bound to the idea of the player they thought Wayne Rooney was going to become when he burst onto the international stage ten years ago. Yet it has become apparent that their idealised version of Rooney as a world-class, game changing, decisive operator, in the mould of Ronaldo or Messi, will not come to fruition. The England starting eleven would be collectively stronger for his absence.

However, this will not happen. Roy Hodgson is not Sir Alex Ferguson and Rooney will once again carry the hopes of a nation into another campaign. Rationality would suggest this is adverse, but football fans tend not to deal in rationality. Rooney represents something more than just an elite footballer. He was, and for some still is, the embodiment of a nation’s hopes. ‘The White Pele’, the one to finally end the years of pain.

To fully concede defeat in him would be to admit the near misses, hard-luck stories and glorious failures were, in fact, due to a relative mediocrity at a game they invented. Rooney is still the great hope, but it’s the hope that kills you.

Costa on the cusp of greatness

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Originally published on Back Page Football 19/5/2014.

The popular consensus ahead of next month’s World Cup in Brazil is that the tournament can be the defining moment in Barcelona forward Lionel Messi’s career.

If the Argentina captain can propel his country to glory, on enemy soil, it will be hard pressed to argue against the inevitable proclamations that the diminutive genius is the greatest footballer of all time. However, even if Argentina fall short, Messi’s place among the pantheon of the game’s greats has long been assured. The next two months will go some way to defining Messi career, but it will not be the definitive estimate of his career.

Messi’s Atletico Madrid rival, striker Diego Costa, is, however, facing the prospect of a career defining period. It would be foolish to suggest the striker can, or ever will be able to put himself on par with Messi. However, Costa has a unique opportunity to capture the game’s greatest prizes and thus secure his standing as a peak operator.

The striker has had a stunning season, scoring 36 goals in 50 appearances and driving his club to an historic league title and Champion’s League final. A reoccurrence of a niggling hamstring injury prevented Costa from pushing his team over the line in last night’s La Liga decider against Barcelona. The striker went from been visibly distraught to elation upon his side capturing the unlikely title.

However, with part one of the double complete, Costa’s prime focus will be on a swift return for Saturday’s Champions League final against city rivals Real Madrid. In what may prove to be a tight encounter, Costa’s power and proficiency could be the decisive factor, as it was when the two sides met last September. The striker scored the only goal as Atletico won at the Bernabéu for first time in the league for 34 years, spoiling Gareth Bale’s debut and upstaging Cristiano Ronaldo.

Regardless of whether Costa can return for the culmination of Atletico’s improbable season, his power, intensity and proficiency have embodied the qualities of Diego Simeone’s side. Costa is reported to be on the verge of a €40 million move to Chelsea, and, if so, the Champion’s League final will be a fitting end to his time with Atletico. Saturday’s final, and next month’s world cup, could mark the beginning of the next stage of Costa’s career.

‘Costa is not Spanish’ chanted the Real Madrid fans as their team lost last year to their great rivals. And while the striker may not be Spanish in their eyes, he holds a Spanish Passport and within five months he would make his debut for the World and European Champions. Costa had made just two friendly appearances for his native country and was not included in Luiz Felipe Scolari’s squad for last year’s Confederation Cup, despite Brazil’s relative lack of quality centre-forwards. As he had not appeared in a competitive game, Costa was free to choose which country to represent.

When Brazil came calling again last autumn it was too late. ‘When I heard there was interest from Spain I began to imagine things, to think: ‘Why not?’ the striker said in March, in an interview with Spanish-based journalist Sid Lowe. ‘It was a privilege that the world champions want you, a privilege to be able to help the great players they have. I felt very important. I valued it a lot’. Therein lays the basis of Costa’s decision. Whereas he felt undervalued by Brazil, when he was just a promising striker, Spain’s interest reflected his new status and Costa’s decision represented his new-found place at the cusp of the game’s elite players. He chose perceived loyalty and estimation of his personal value over national allegiance, or the emotional pull of potentially winning the World Cup in the country of his birth.

It was a bold statement and one which irked Scolari, who said ‘He is turning his back on a dream of millions, to represent our national team, the five-time champions in a World Cup in Brazil’. The Brazil manager is clearly bullish about Costa’s defection to their key rivals. Yet one can only imagine Big Phil,when he announced his squad with just two centre-forwards, was left wondering what might have been. Costa, with his incisive movement, powerful running and clinical finishing, would have been the ideal focal point of his attack. And perfect foil for Brazilian golden boy Neymar.

Indeed, it is telling that Chelsea, the club team that perhaps most closely resemble Brazil, see Costa as the missing piece in their side. Both Chelsea and Brazil are built on a solid defence with an industrious midfield. At their best they are both direct, fast and hard pressing, with a sprinkling of individual flair, with Belgium’s Eden Hazard being Chelsea’s equivalent of Neymar. On July 14th, the day after the World Cup final, will Scolari, as his Chelsea counterpart José Mourinho has done all season, be ruing the absence of a world class centre-forward?

Costa himself was largely anonymous during his adopted country’s friendly win over Italy in March and, until the World Cup begins, it is unclear exactly how the striker fits into Spain’s tiki-taka system. However, even if it is by virtue of denying their main rivals of his quality, Spain is set to profit from Brazil’s loss as Costa could prove the tournament’s decisive figure.

From international cast-off and second choice Atletico striker, to a Spanish, and potential, European and World champion, in less than a year. Costa is on the cusp of the game’s greatest prizes, and cementing his place on football’s elite stage.