Sir Alex Ferguson has seen the future, and the future is Borussia Dortmund. The German team have taken their league by storm over the last few years while playing some of the best football in Europe. While there is no individual quality that defines this team, one that stands out is how they are overwhelmingly ‘modern’. They are a team perfectly adapted to the modern football landscape, where footballing intelligence and technical ability are paramount. The team is young and energetic, allowing them to press high up the pitch. Pressing is massive in modern football, so brilliantly illustrated by Barcelona. When Dortmund win the ball back their technical excellence, intelligent movement and the pace of the attacking unit facilitates a rapid and direct style. The result has been some exhilarating football from a young, technical, exciting group of players who have come from relative obscurity to dominate German football.

Ferguson had just bought the player who, while perhaps not the glittering jewel in the Dortmund crown, epitomises their style of play. United’s new man has wonderful technique and blistering pace, but its his footballing intelligence that sets him apart. His movement is sublime, drifting and floating, seemingly above the ebb of the game, popping up anywhere on the pitch, finding space with ease. His arrival is exciting not just as an individual, but as an indication of Ferguson moulding a new United. Throughout the United side you can find young modern players capable of emulating the Dortmund style.

In modern goalkeepers their distribution is a key quality, and David De Gea is one of the best there is.  In Evans and Smalling there is a modern, mobile central defensive partnership that would allow the team to play high up the pitch, unlike the slower Vidic and Ferdinand. When Evra and Rafael play well (which should be more often) they are two of the most attacking and proficient full backs in the league. United’s midfield is seen by many as their Achilles heel. However it is an area of great potential. The still under-rated Michael Carrick is the perfect modern central midfielder, with his excellent reading of the game and passing ability. However the beacon of hope in the midfield is Tom Cleverly. As outlined here,  he is a new breed of modern midfielder who could revolutionise United, as he began to last season before he was injured. And with the addition of Kagawa United have the makings of a fearsome attack. In Kagawa, Rooney, Young, Welbeck and Nani they have direct players of great pace and technique, but above all versatility. With this front six United could see a return to the fluidity in attack of 2008, where Tevez, Rooney and Ronaldo interchanged seamlessly to devastating effect. 2008 was Ferguson’s last great team, and this could be his next.

It has been a slow process, a gradual evolution rather than a violent revolution. But Ferguson has brought together a group of players capable of fast, direct, technical and above all modern football. In the 1-0 defeat to Manchester City that ultimately lead to the loss of the title, United were sluggish and slow, limp and lifeless. They were unambitious and anachronistic. This new group of players Ferguson has nurtured can return the vibrancy and joy to United once again, can lift them from the drudgery of the past into an exciting future. United stalwarts of the past, Vidic, Ferdinand, Scholes, Giggs ect. still have important roles to play. However with the signing of Kagawa, Ferguson is ready to unleash the new United.



2004. There is a party atmosphere in the Amsterdam Arena as Ajax are cruising to a victory over NAC Breda. The ball is played into their gangly young striker with his back to goal, surrounded by defenders. His first touch is poor, taking it towards an onrushing defender. However he manages to outmuscle the defender in the tackle and glide forward, expertly feigning a shot to send two defenders the wrong way. Then he starts to have fun. At the edge of the box, still the whole of the Breda defence to beat he feigns again with his left and moves off at lightning speed on his right. The ball seems to have come under his irrepressible spell as he jinks and dances through the box. An island of cool amongst a sea of chaos he feigns a shot on his right, calmly shifts the ball onto his left and slots the ball in for an astounding individual goal. This is the magic of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Since that remarkable goal Ibra has regularly produce such moments of magic on an incredible march of seven league titles in seven seasons with four different clubs. It seems strange then, that he still divides opinion, attracting as much criticism as adulation.

With Ibra it seems to be an issue of personality, both on and off the pitch. On the pitch he is criticized for his supreme laziness. Critics observe he only emerges into the game when it most suits him, unwilling to sacrifice himself for the ‘greater good’ of the team. However this completely misses the point. Ibrahimovic is not very good at defending, so why should he waste his energy bustling around a la Carlos Tevez, when he could save that energy to do his job- win games. However the problem with this apparent sloth is more that it doesn’t endear Ibra to people. It portrays an arrogance, an ego that is very hard to like, no matter how talented the individual. There is no denying, Ibrahimovic is an arrogant guy and his strange, maverick personality has lead to many problems in his career. He often antagonises teammates for no apparent reason other than his own boredom, with bizarre incidents such as when footage emerged of him karate kicking his Milan teammate Rodney Strasser or when Van der Vaart claimed he deliberately injured him in an international friendly (which led to his departure from Ajax). The fact he seemed to think Pep Guardiola was ‘scared of’ him is evidence that his distinct personality was a major reason for him leaving Barcelona.

While it has caused him some trouble, this exuberant individualism, a throwback to the likes of Chinaglia and Best, it is one of the qualities that makes him so fascinating. The modern football landscape often seems devoid of personality, but Ibra refutes that claim. His gigantic ego and confidence are part of what makes him such a good player as well. In many ways his contradictory and incomprehensible personality defines the way he plays. Tall and strong and in the exact same moment quick and agile, both a bull and a ballerina. It is this all round ability that makes him such a fearsome opponent. He has the physicality and directness to demolish teams, the searing pace to get in behind them and the sheer skill to make goals out of nothing. Sometimes he is defined as a poacher but this couldn’t be further from the truth, his all round hold up play is excellent, expertly bringing other players into the game or picking a pass. And obviously his goalscoring record is phenomenal but not in the simple numbers, which are impressive (broadly averaging a goal every other game in his career), but rather in the incredible range of goals he scores. Acrobatic volleys, simple tap ins, spectacular long range efforts, powerful headers he is both a great goalscorer and a scorer of great goals. With Milan this year he appears to have reached his zenith, leading a decent team to the top of Serie A with 8 assists and 13 goals in just 21 matches, producing countless moments of Ibra magic. It is often said Ronaldo and Messi are on a different planet, but in terms of modern attackers they’re not too far away from Planet Zlatan.

The player has his faults. He can be temperamental, disinterested and infuriatingly anonymous. But they come as part of the Ibrahimovic package and it is some package. At his best he is a literally unstoppable attacking force, one of only a few players who can consistently produce moments of pure inspiration. No matter his detractors they cannot take away his incredible success. Surely no player has ever done what he seems on course to and win eight league titles in eight seasons with five different clubs. He has an unlimited capacity to dazzle and annoy, enthral and infuriate all at once. To watch Ibrahimovic is to be spellbound.

30th of May 2010. Ljubljana, Slovenia. NK Interblock are beaten 3-0 by NK Triglav, relegating NK Interblock to the Slovenian second tier. On the Interblock bench, not even deemed a starter in this crunch match, is a promising young playmaker named Josip Iličić. Fast forward to the 29th of November. Palermo, Italy. Iličić scores his sixth goal of the new season against Roma, looking the most impressive player on the pitch. The year ends with Iličić being linked to Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Chelsea.

Surely a dream of Iličić’s, some far-flung fantasy of a frustrated young footballer? No. This is Iličić’s reality and he is living the dream. The 23 year old escaped his Interblock nightmare when Maribor recognised his potential. He was thrust into the Europa League in July 2010. He scored two goals against Hibernian, and that’s when things started to go right for Josip Iličić. In the next round of the Europa League he scored twice against Palermo. They were so impressed the next day it was confirmed he would sign for Palermo for €2.2m, considerably more than the 80,000 Maribor paid for him only months earlier. Most expected Iličić to be played sparingly in the Italian side including Iličić himself who said “I was ready to wait”. But coach Delio Rossi had other ideas, and showed startling faith in the young, unproven trequartista. Iličić repaid him for this faith with an explosive start to his Serie A career, scoring in back to back games against the giants of Inter and Juventus. He has gone on to score seven goals in sixteen games and has flourished alongside Javier Pastore. Iličić is amongst other eastern Europeans flourishing in Serie A, the most notable being Milos Krasic and Adem Ljajic.

Very much in the mould of Mesut Ozil, Illic glides around the pitch and uses the ball intelligently. He has incredible skill, as seen by this outrageous trick against Chievo.

As well as this football intelligence and skill Illicic posses energy and physicality (he is 6 foot 3). Javier Pastore has undoubtedly been the star of Palermo this season, but Iličić has been revelation. He went from a reserve at a relegated Slovenian club to a star of a Serie A team chasing the Champions League in months. Next? The world.

I wrote this article on Athletic Bilbao for upper90mgazine.

So often lists of promising young players are full of young attacking talents. Easier to spot and stand out individually, skilful wingers and prolific strikers edge out those adept in the under appreciated art of defending. This is a list of the world’s most promising young defenders and defensive midfielders. Instead of the next Messi or Ronaldo, I hope some from this list will become the next Alves or Vidic.

Matt Hummels

21 year old German Hummels has established himself as one of Germany’s most consistent and promising defenders. Playing alongside the also promising Nevin Subotic, they have formed the Bundesliga’s best defence this season, only conceding 10 times. He embodies the modern defender: comfortable with the ball at his feet, excellent positional sense and astute reading of the game. Allied to this are his physical attributes: naturally tall and strong he is rarely beaten in the air and is very quick for a centre back. Hummels seems to be the complete package and could develop into one of world’s best defenders.

Davide Santon

Earmarked for greatness at a very young age, the young Italian full back has struggled to establish himself as a regular for Inter Milan. He has struggled slightly to fulfil his potential, struggling to find consistency and is unlucky to have Maicon in his position. However, Santon is still one of the most talented young defenders in the world. Possessing a maturity beyond his years Santon is precise and composed in his defensive work, and also has the attacking verve required of a modern full back. He is also very versatile: strong with both feet with the pace and skill to play further forward if required. It was Mourinho who spotted his potential and handed him his debut a few days after his 18th birthday. He was tasked with marking the world’s best player at the time, Cristiano Ronaldo. He did so admirably, with the match ending 0-0 and Ronaldo saying he was ‘Impressed….Santon is a great footballer’. High praise indeed and Santon will surely develop into one of the finest full-backs in football.

Sven Bender

Yet another promising young Dortmund player, the German defensive midfielder has got on with the dirty work to allow his more attacking team mates prosper. As outlined in this brilliant article by Defensive Minded, he is not a pure destroyer. Modelled more on players such as Jon Obi Mikel and Sergio Busquets, his game is centred around tactical astuteness and reading the game. Bender sits deep and fills the gaps left by his attacking colleagues and uses his excellent positional sense to intercept the oppositions passes. He also has an important quality in defensive midfielders- height. As Zonal Marking portrays here, with Marouane Fallaini as an example, a defensive midfielder with aerial ability can be a vital asset. Bender is in no way a flashy, but player’s with his solid, unfussy style are becoming ever more vital in the modern game.

Mamadou Sakho

French defender Sakho has been linked with nearly all of Europe’s top clubs, most heavily with Arsenal, always a good indication for a young French player. He is extremely athletic, combining brute strength, height and pace. Rarely beaten on the air or on the ground Sakho’s aggression and physicality makes him a fearsome opponent at the heart of defence. He also possess leadership ability, having already captained his club and country at only 20. A dominating figure, Sakho leads by example with a hard-working, completely committed attitude. If he continues in this vein we could see Sakho growing into the defensive lynchpin in one of Europes top sides.

Yann M’ Vila

Another Frenchman, M’Vila is an extremely talented defensive midfielder. 2010 was a breakthrough year for the powerful midfielder, where a string of top performances for Rennes lead to a France call up, where he established himself as a key component in the new Blanc era. M’Vila plays deep in midfield, disrupting attacks with his physical presence and exceptional ball winning ability. He has also shown the skill to start attacks from his holding role. A dynamic, dominating presence in front of the back four M’Vila could go on to become a world class holding midfielder.

he French European Championship winning side of 1984 will go down as one of the most thrilling teams in football history. Manager Michel Hidalgo imbued an attacking philosophy most obvious in his midfield. As well as two strikers he packed his midfield with no less than three playmakers. The core of this team had made it to the semi-finals of the World Cup in 82 before being sent out by West Germany on penalties after an astonishing 3-3 draw. It was one of the great World Cup matches and despite being on the losing side Michel Platini said ‘That was my most beautiful game. What happened in those two hours encapsulated all the sentiments of life itself. No film or play could ever recapture so many contradictions and emotions. It was complete. So strong. It was fabulous.’ It was an incredible game, and one which France were incredibly unlucky to lose, Hidalgo calling it a ‘great injustice’. The European Championships were the perfect opportunity for the French, as hosts, to gain revenge and add the silverware there wonderful football so justly deserved.
Football Fans Know Better
In goal France had the safe and authoritative Joel Bats, who incredibly was struck with testicular cancer just two years before in 1982, but made a full recovery after surgery. In front of him was a good defence, including the excellent attacking full back Maxime Bossis. At the heart of the defence was the rock solid pairing of centre back Le Roux and libero Patrick Battiston. In that fateful game with West Germany Battiston had a horrific collision with the keeper Schumacher. He lost two teeth, had three cracked ribs and damaged vertebrae, and was unconscious for almost half an hour. Battiston recovered from this career threatening collision to become a rock for the French. However it was in going forward where this team excelled. Strangely, however the side was not blessed with brilliant strikers. Lacombe and Six were both reasonably talented, but were wingers by trade. It was in midfield that the true quality of the team lay. The quartet were nicknamed Le Carre Magique (The Magic Square) and will go down as one of footballs great midfields. Youngster Luis Fernandez ran everywhere and won the ball for the three playmakers around him. Alain Giresse, just 5ft 4in, buzzed around the field with elegance and a sumptuous right foot. Giresse’s Bordeux team-mate Jean Tigana was very skilful and capable of tremendous surging runs, bursting through defences. The crowning jewel of the side was supreme playmaker Michel Platini. He would swagger through games, nonchalantly drifting into space, sitting back and admiring his inch-perfect pass or celebrating after yet another wonderful goal. His manager Hidalgo said ““Michel was a magic lantern; imagination personified…even his feet are intelligent!”. It was a wonderfully fluid set up, with no nominal centre forward. Lacombe and Six would drift wide (as they were both natural wingers), normally running towards the opposition full-back while the midfield would surge forward into the space left by them. This fluidity could only be achieved due to the technique and intelligence of all the players, especially the three playmakers. It suited Platini, in particular, making him free to switch between deeper lying playmaker and centre forward making him nigh on impossible to mark (an early false nine?).

The French began the tournament with a nervous 1-0 win over Denmark. They followed this up however, with impressive victories, 5-0 over Belgium and 3-2 over Yugoslavia with Platini scored six goals in these two games. These six goals portrayed everything that made him such a special player: inspirational bravery, incredible technique and mesmerising all round ability. It seemed he could score by any means, whether its a spectacular diving header or a perfectly struck free kick. The Platini-powered French went onto the semi-finals with Portugal full of confidence. What happened next was one of the best matches in European Championship, perhaps the entire games, history.It was a warm night in Marseille. The Stade Velodrome was packed out to capacity, the crowd bursting with passion and noise, a sea of red white and blue. France went one up in a very clever fashion. With a free-kick just outside the box all eyes were on Platini, but instead up stepped left-back Domergue to smash it into the top corner. France went on to play some excellent, flowing football with Fernandez and Giresse going close to extending their lead. It was Portugal who scored next though through Jordao thanks to some shockingly non-existent French marking. The French poured forward looking for a winner and almost got it, but for Portugal’s keeper Bento’s brilliant double save, first at the legs of Platini, then to parry Didier Six’s shot onto the bar.Extra time was a furious, frenetic affair. Both teams traded goal scoring oppurtunity’s, before Jordao shocked the nation with a volley in the 98th minute. The French were shellshocked, minutes later Nene missed a glorious opportunity to make it three. In the second half the French fight back came. They played like mad men, nothing to lose, streaming forward at all opportunities, driven on perhaps, by nightmares of 82. The equaliser came in the 114th minute. That it came from a deflected Battiston shot and was scored by Domergue, both defenders, illustrated how little the French were holding back. After that there was nothing stopping them. They poured forward like a rising tide, crashing wave upon wave of attack against the Portugese defence, roared on by a vociferous crowd. With minutes left France thought they had scored, but the linesman said the ball hadn’t crossed the line. Portugal launched a counter. Fernandez halted it. He strode forward spreading the ball to Tigana. Tigana went on one of those dazzling, irresistible runs and pulled the ball back for…who else. The majestic, the masterful, the magnificent Michel Platini to smash the ball into the roof of the net. The Stade Velodrome exploded in a tumultuous cacophony of delirium.

France went on to beat Spain somewhat fortuitously in the final in a rather dull game, but the championship was truly won that night in Marseille. This French team was in no way complete. Often defensively naïve and lazy France often rode their luck. But after what happened in 82 France fully deserved their time in the sun. Lead tremendously by Platini (who scored a ridiculous 9 goals in the 5 games) the French played with incredible flair and confidence. They captured the imagination of the football world with their swashbuckling, free flowing style. It all stemmed from Hidalgo’s impassioned commitment to his principles. He laments of todays game that we are ‘killing the art! Where have imagination, instinct and flair gone?’. This marvellous French team fulfilled Hidalgo’s footballing dream ‘My dream is of football that smiles and creates. Beauty and efficiency go hand in hand. I know that might sound silly, but it is what I believe in…’

I wrote this piece for the excellent upper90magazine on Nuri Sahin’s development into one of Europe’s most exciting midfielders.

First things first, I’m not trying to say Dani Alves is the best player in the world. That honour clearly belongs to Lionel Messi, with cases possible for Ronaldo and Xavi. None of them, however, are as complete as Dani Alves. As outlined by Jonathan Wilson here, the full back, and especially the modern attacking version, has come to be one of the most important players in the game. Due to the rise of the 5-man midfield and the subsequent specialisation of midfielders, full back is now the only position where players have large attacking and defensive responsibilities. To say Dani Alves is a key factor in both Barcelona’s defence and attack portrays his incredible ability. It is also a testament to his incredible stamina, and in the current Barca team he is almost playing as a right back and right winger simultaneously. A common misconception about Alves is that because he is so attacking he is poor defensively. This is simply not true. Occasionally he is caught out of position, but with Busquets dropping into defence Barca can cover for him. One on one he is very rarely beaten and his defensive awareness and reading of the game are excellent.

His link-up play (especially with Messi) is amazing to watch and on his regular lung-bursting forward runs he finds the killer ball with incredible regularity.

He bombs forward to such an extent he often scores with his head.

His technique is excellent, especially striking a dead ball.

And sometimes he can produce moments of genius.

There are arguments for Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard being complete footballer’s, and both do have the ability to defend as well as be instrumental in attack. However they are both primarily attacking players and are hindered by too much tracking back. Due to his position and dynamism Alves is able to do both excellently, seamlessly switching between defence and attack. Blessed with seemingly super-human speed and stamina combined with an all round footballing ability, Dani Alves is surely the world’s most complete player.

I wrote this piece for the excellent upper90magazine on Lazio recently if you want to check it out, as well as the rest of their great site.

What is the ‘lazy’ footballer? It seems to be a style of player, a personality as much as a footballing reality. The antithesis of players such as Carlos Tevez, these players are simply unwilling to run hard to win back the ball. Whether this is due to pure laziness, sheer arrogance or complete ignorance, it is hard to tell. However these ‘lazy’ players are often the most talented on the pitch. The three most prominent examples in the modern game would be Andrei Arshavin, Dimitar Berbatov and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. All three are elegant, skillful players capable of match-winning moments of genius. All are brilliant individuals. But fooball is a team sport.

The recent World Cup confirmed a trend in modern tactics: that the team as a whole is more important than any individual, no matter how talented. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are the two most gifted players in the world, and their individual performances weren’t that poor. However they had little impact, due to the failings of their team, whether too open (Argentina) or too defensive (Portugal). Two of the most successful teams- Spain and especially Germany put great emphasis on teamwork and cohesion. Spain, like the current Barcelona team, often pressed high to win the ball back, their forwards willing runners. Two nominal strikers, Podolski and Muller were willing to track back and run for Germany, their demolition of Argentina the most prominent example of a well organised team triumphing over a group of more talented individuals.

The idea that forwards should be willing defenders has its roots in Sacchi and Lobanovskyi’s concept of universality in players- where the team defends and attacks as one, the defenders able to attack and attackers able to defend. As Jonathan Wilson outlines in this article we are seeing a step towards that universality in the increase in defensive forwards.  With the rise of the attacking fullback and increasingly the libero, to counteract these defenders attacking more attackers need to defend. This is seen in many top level clubs, with many talented forwards sacrificed for the teams defensive solidity, prime examples Rooney back when Ronaldo was at United, Eto’o last season and Dirk Kuyt at Liverpool.

None of the trio of lazy players could be seen performing these roles, and their unwillingness or inability to defend has caused them all problems. Arshavin was recently dropped for Theo Walcott in the victory over Chelsea, where Walcott was key in an energetic Arsenal press. If this is a tactic Wenger will continue to use against the big teams, Arshavin could see himself increasingly marginalised. Berbatov really struggled at the start of his United career, coming off worse in comparison with the more energetic Rooney and Tevez. Ferguson has always been a staunch defender of Berbatov, and he said this back in 2009 : “He did more running [against Boro] than most of the other players — even Rooney. It’s his languid style that is deceptive. Berbatov’s way of picking a pass is fantastic. I don’t think we’ve had a player with the beautifully-weighted pass that he can produce since Cantona.’’ Perhaps Fergie is right and Berbatov is unfairly labelled as lazy, but his team selections often suggest otherwise. Berbatov is consistently dropped for big games, with Ferguson preferring the more enterprising Rooney even when he is not fully fit (vs Bayern Munich) or out of form (recently vs Arsenal). Ibrahimovic’s complete un-interest in defending was part of his inability to fit in at Barca and also contributed to a slow start to the season at Milan including a 2-0 defeat to newly promoted Cesena.

It must be remembered that the attacker’s main role is still to score and create goals, and all three excel at this. Running about like a mad man is not the only way to defend as a forward either, especially a lone striker whose movement and threat can occupy both centre-backs, something Ibrahimovic is excellent at. I’m a big fan of all three players, they can be wonderful to watch and fascinating personalities, and it would be sad to see this style of player disappear. Their supreme talent has so far enabled managers to make an exception. However, with modern tactical trends and already evidence of marginalisation we could see the demise of that most enigmatic and frustrating figure-the ‘lazy’ player.


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