Tactical Preview: Chelsea v QPR

QPR head to Stamford Bridge a clear favourite to lose- and possibly bag a huge shellacking in the process. Though Harry Redknapp’s men are coming off a two-game winning run, they are still second from bottom in the Premier League table- not to mention weak on a number of levels, and this is the wrong time to be visiting a Chelsea side that won’t be in a very forgiving mood.

Last Sunday’s disappointing draw aside, the Blues will remember how threatening QPR can be in the Derby, the Rs winning both in their last visit here two seasons ago and at home in a game more remembered for what horrible things John Terry yelled at Anton Ferdinand. The resulting furore made everyone forget just how poor Chelsea had looked that day, going down to nine men before the half and losing to a Heidar Helguson penalty.Heidar Helguson!

QPR don’t have a high-variance option

One of the more damning indictments of QPR’s football this season is their inability to combine defence and attack. Which is just as good, because a good calculated risk against a team like Chelsea would be to avoid sitting back, and try something that the opposition isn’t expecting. A perfect example was when Everton visited the Bridge a few seasons ago, coming away with a 4-4 draw. It’s certainly a bigger risk, but adds a surprise factor and does give the minnow a bigger window of success, and QPR do happen to boast a fearsome attacking duo in Charlie Austin and Bobby Zamora. One came up with the goods against Villa, the latter has the grit and athleticism to bring Eduardo Vargas into play.

Trouble is, QPR have tried this before, as the ludicrous 3-2 home defeat to Liverpool proved. What’s worrying is that Harry Redknapp’s choice to throw caution to the wind and press Liverpool all over the park still ended up backfiring. His team should have won, but Leroy Fer (usually one of their best players) hit the woodwork twice in the first half alone, and QPR shipped in two goals after the 90th minute to come away with nothing. The Rs only opted for all-out aggression against Liverpool because they didn’t respect their passing game anyway, and may not dare be so brave this time round, especially as…

The Diego Costa party bus is back in town, and Richard Dunne and Steven Caulker are terrified

Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas’ arrival in the summer has given Chelsea a whole new attacking dimension. Gone is the team that struggled down the stretch last season against packed defences, not now that Fabregas can pick defences apart with his vertical passing, one-twos and neat interplay with the fullbacks, and Costa… well…

Caulker and Dunne need help, as they aren’t exactly the speediest defensive pairing on the circuit. Picking up from the previous point, Burnley tried aggressive tactics against Chelsea, and paid the price despite taking an early lead at Turf Moor. All it took was a neat pass from Cesc Fabregas to Branislav Ivanovic… and a finish from Diego Costa.

QPR aren’t built for the counter

Trouble is, even a more cautious QPR could fail to make the grade, having been very average when adopting a more defensive approach, even against teams who struggle to build from the back. QPR looked awkward against both Aston Villa and West Ham, and can count themselves lucky to have pulled away against the Villains just as their opponents were looking to take control.

With two midfielders (Henry and Sandro, for example) sitting in front of their frail back four, only Leroy Fer is left as an attacking outlet in the middle. Redknapp may not have the stones to deploy attacking players like Vargas on the wing, or two strikers up front- a setup that has allowed them to win their last two games. When one thinks of Stamford Bridge upsets, QPR are unlikely to emulate Sunderland’s impressive effort from last season: they haven’t got the defensive mettle and the Blue are much improved. In most things anyway…

Chelsea need a wake up call on set pieces

50% of QPR’s goals in the league this season have come from set pieces, a worrying trend for a team like Chelsea that still has its work cut out ironing out that very weakness. Against Manchester United, it cost Chelsea two deserved points. Now that Manchester City look weak, it would be the wrong time to start dropping points. Manchester United certainly rue the chances they didn’t put away to keep the Citizens at a distance three seasons ago.

Eduardo Vargas v Gary Cahill

A final point concerns last week’s GOAT, Gary Cahill, who for all his talent does occasionally have games where he makes multiple- and often costly- mistakes. He will need to keep a careful eye on Eduardo Vargas who- if Redkapp starts him, and that’s quite an if- will be a major pain in the neck, cutting inside to create one-two scenarios and look for the chink in Chelsea’s armour. The former Universidad de Chile man was woefully misused in Italy, and is slowly putting together a campaign that will justify all the hype we read about him two years ago.

The Elusive Mr Cousins

We first got Kirk Cousins wrong in the 2012 NFL Draft, when the Washington Hogs* were understandably accused of having wasted a draft pick on a second quarterback after trading 5 For Robert Griffin III.

One year on, Cousins had led a comeback against the Baltimore Ravens and deputised for Griffin against the Browns, going 26 of 37 for 329 yards and 2 touchdowns.

But there were a couple of snags, namely Mike Shanahan’s choice to stick with RG3 when 14-0 up against Seattle, when Kirk Cousins was right there on the sidelines. Surely a two-TD lead was a safe enough cushion for the former Spartan?

It’s here that the misunderstanding of Kirk Cousins (if Lauryn Hill can use “miseducation”…) really took off, with the team that really wanted him in the fourth round – yet had far more urgent needs- refusing to play him until it was too late against the Seahawks, or indeed when a very precarious-looking Griffin rushed his rehab to be ready for Week 1 of the 2013 season.

We all know how that went, and so does Cousins, who had been drafted as a competent replacement for just that kind of situation. Perceptions of him would fluctuate wildly over the following 18 months, but one common thread would remain: he would always be misused and misunderstood.

Cousins the Good

Whilst the Washington Peanut Salesmen wouldn’t play Cousins, some members of the media- not to mention the fans- went to the other extreme, seemingly unable to get enough of him. A few supporters even went as far as claiming that he was *better* than the man in front of him on the depth chart, whilst stories abounded in the media about him being worth a first rounder. This goes beyond the usual pipe dreams about reserve signal-callers, who, the logic goes, are just a couple of snaps away from summoning their inner Tom Brady.

Darker forces were at play,too, as the African-American Griffin was already in the process of turning into a media pariah. Though he would certainly do a lot to damage his reputation during the 2013 season, the stories circulating during the previous offseason were downright ridiculous: he was portrayed as greedy for having fans send him unsolicited wedding presents, unfaithful because a story leaked of alleged pictures he sent to a Hooter waitress (never verified) and a punk for wanting to play injured.

It didn’t take long to turn the starter into a glory boy, and Cousins into the worker bee who deserved his own E:45 documentary. Doubtless, there were plenty of people who had a more reasonable grip on reality, seeing the MSU graduate as a mid-round QB prospect whose ceiling didn’t seem to be all that high, but who was a decent pair of hands who had done enough to deserve another chance.

Yet perceptions did not change following three disappointing outings for Cousins in 2013- essentially an audition to see if he could replace the now disappointing RG3 in the long-term. The first round pick conversation continued unabated into the 2014 season, with more and more fans and members of the media clamoring for his inclusion in the starting team, not least Joe Theismann, who argued that Cousins “had always played better” than Griffin. A quick look at even Cousins’ more encouraging games (Cleveland 2012 springs to mind) still shows a flawed player, whose mechanics quickly go haywire when the pressure is cranked up. It became all too easy to forget just how electrifying RGIII had been.

All this media attention was seemingly justified once Cousins took over from Griffin against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 2 of the 2014 season. Cousins went crazy, throwing for big yardage as the Washington Park Ranger Bullies trampled the Jaguars. Jay Gruden himself seemed to drop a few hints to the effect that he was as happy, if not more, to work with Cousins. The former Spartan proceeded to play well against Philadelphia and Seattle, but was disappointing in three outings, including a miserable performance against Arizona where fans started clamoring for Colt McCoy. A bad game against Tennessee later, it was McCoy time in D.C.

Cousins the Bad

From enthroning Cousins as the saviour of the franchise to calling for his head a few weeks later, the fans had gone full circle. For the same rhetoric that had once promoted Cousins had now come back to haunt him, McCoy inheriting the mantle of hidden gem who could grit his team to glory. Even worse, Cousins’ rise had owed more to the fans’ (and possibly his coaches’) unreasonable expectations than his actual talent. Once at the top, he wasn’t expected to play as a fourth-rounder, but as the next Tom Brady. Backup QBs are popular because they haven’t had the chance to draw criticism, leading desperate supporters to project their unreasonable expectations on them, in the hope that they’ll turn into the next hidden Joe Montana. Once their limitations are exposed, however, they’re as food as dead.

Cousins became a victim of the very process that had brought him to prominence: he was promoted beyond his own merits, but was torpedoed once he came up short of these ridiculous expectations. It’s not as if he was terrible, his demotion owing just ad much to the league’s new-found propensity for safe quarterbacking play (far more signal callers are being rated above the 90 mark compared to even a few years ago. Heck, even Austin Davis is making the grade these days) as to the 9 interceptions he threw. What were people honestly expecting, moreover in a team that is in transition anyway? They were just as much in a transition last year as they are now, and yet still chose to gamble on a QB they gave the crown jewels for mere months after his return from major surgery.

Gruden’s choice to roll with McCoy is certainly understandable: he was hoping for a quick turnaround, for the short-term feelgood factor a backup QB can bring. But he did this at the expense of a man his franchise dealt a fourth-rounder, someone who had been brought in to not look bad. It feels like people have never truly treated Cousins on his own merits, and now he gets to watch from the sidelines as McCoy plays a decent game against Dallas, doing things he was more than likely capable of, and was more used to anyway. McCoy himself confessed before the trip to Texas that he still needed to get to know the fiest team offence. And why would he? Someone had been drafted for these emergencies. It is increasingly apparent that this someone may have said goodbye to Washington for good.

*Today’s post will experiment with all the alternative names the Washington franchise should be considering at the moment, seeing as the current one is a derogatory term chosen by an outwardly racist man whose intent was to appeal to Old Dixie, and who also happened to be the last man to desegregate his locker room after the Civil Rights Act was passed. Not all the names will have been in the debate, and some I will have invented for the fun of it. Because the Washington Fired Park Rangers are there to be made fun of. And because George Preston Marshall’s successor is giving him a strong run for his money in the despicable charts. That shouldn’t be possible.


Incubi del fantacalcio: Andrea Consigli

C’è chi passa settimane a studiare statistiche obsolete e trafiletti fuorvianti per sfornare la rosa vincente, e chi preferisce affidarsi al proprio quinto senso e mezzo per scovare quella pepita che nessun’altro ha notato. Ma c’è, naturalmente, anche chi si iscrive ad un campionato all’ultimo minuto, scegliendo di spendere poco sui portieri “perché tanto non valgono nulla”.

Non a caso, lo stesso luminare è stato costretto a raddoppiare il proprio budget saracinesche al primo mercato di riparazione, ormai troppo tardi, però, per evitare certe figuracce, come il -2 rimediato contro l’Inter (sette pugni incassati da un attacco piu’ Jekyll che Hyde), il tris della Lazio e il pareggio di Marco Sau al Mapei, arrivato pochi secondi dopo la prodezza di Zaza. Insomma, tredici gol presi in 7 giornate, e sono pochi se si considera che i prodi di Di Francesco hanno affrontato la bellezza di Juventus, Napoli, Lazio e Fiorentina dopo la disfatta di Milano.

E’ la punizione che tocca a chi crede di poter comprare un portiere a basso costo senza fare caso alla difesa, a chi conta solo sul talento di un giovane ex estremo difensore della nazionale olimpica senza rendersi conto che davanti non ha nemmeno le controfigure di Thuram e Cannavaro, bensì il fratello di quest’ultimo e Cesare Tavernel Terranova. E’ una cosa comprare Consigli al fantacalcio, un’altra ritrovarsi col portiere del Sassuolo.

Come detto, qui non si vuole puntare il dito su Consigli, un estremo difensore di cui si dice un gran bene da tanto tempo, ingiustamente ignorato dalle big nonostante le numerose prodezze con la maglia dell’Atalanta. Se non altro è una sorta di omaggio, la constatazione che il destino di un giocatore è talvolta molto piu’ soggetto al caso di quanto si voglia pensare. Non è certo banale fare buona figura sotto i riflettori e guadagnare un posto in nazionale, ma non lo è nemmeno giocar bene per una squadra provinciale e a tutti i livelli cadetti degli Azzurri. E’ un’ingiustizia non avere l’opportunità di sfondare nel calcio che conta, di mettere in mostra il proprio talento dove può essere notato. Chiamatela sindrome Taibi, che ha passato troppo tempo a Piacenza e troppo poco a Manchester, roccaforte che ha risputato tutti interi giocatori della risma di Veron.

Ora speriamo che Karnezis e Gillet non facciano schifo. E che non finiscano in panchina. In bocca al lupo Andrea!

What Inter can learn from St Etienne

Other than Walter Mazzarri’s woes, last night’s Europa League tie underlined just how a team of Inter Milan’s stature could stand to learn a thing or two from Saint Etienne, who either put into effect or incarnate some methods that a cash-strapped Serie A needs to take an interest in. In the wake of news that Inter Milan are still over 100€ million in debt, the sight of a former trigger-happy coaching graveyard – not to mention relegation struggler- following a manageable yet promising strategy must set alarm bells ringing in Milan. Here are a few of the contrasts that struck me as a youthful and ambitious Saint Etienne side made Inter look like they were playing away:

If you’re not going to compete with the Galacticos, spend efficiently

The post-Champions League hangover didn’t take long to set in at the Giuseppe Meazza, with Massimo Moratti announcing spending cuts to keep Inter in line with the upcoming Financial Fair Play (FFP). With Italy already in decline compared to other, richer leagues, it was time for a rethink.

14-10 Inter- St Etienne 3

Alvaro Pereira upon being asked how he thinks Inter fans view him

If Inter couldn’t be big spenders either on the Italian or the European scene, then they needed to separate themselves from the pack, to find talent where no-one else saw it, develop their own, or at least sign players at market-efficient prices. Think of what the Oakland Athletics have been able to achieve in America, or indeed Udinese, going full Portuguese and reselling their young, cheap, well-scouted talent at exhorbitant prices.

What Inter didn’t want to do was spend in excess of £60 million over a season (that of 2012-13) on a few signings that didn’t really make the team significantly better. There was certainly quality to be found (Samir Handanovic, Rodrigo Palacio, Mateo Kovacic), but also ridiculous clangers (Alvaro Pereira) and overpaid players (Pereira alone cost Inter £10.96 million, Fredy Guarin £9.68), making sure that Inter couldn’t reel in many recruits and properly rejuvenate an ageing squad comfortably past its prime.

Why were Inter waiting in line behind the richer clubs and settling for the last turkey in the shop, and not looking for a value find to trump the competition?

Saint Etienne, for their part, have spent a mere £35.82 million since the 2012-13 season. Obviously, the French market is less affluent, but we’re still talking of the 8th budget in France  regularly overachieving since Christophe Galtier helped the club avoid relegation in 2010, coming in fourth last time round.

That 2012/3 window summarises the situation perfectly, ASSE snatching two exciting playmakers inYohan Mollo and Romain Hamouma, a decent striker in Brandão, one of France’s most dynamic midfielders (Renaud Cohade) and a veteran defender (François Clerc) for a combined £3.52 million. Only one of them -Mollo’s- was a loan, though he has recently signed with the club.

Invest in youth

Surprisingly, the average age of the Inter squad is lower than Saint Etienne’s (transfermarkt has them at 26.2 and 26.8, respectively). Nobody would believe that of the team that gave away Davide Santon to Newcastle for mere peanuts.

St Etienne are, by comparison, a model for many European clubs. One of France’s traditional four youth academies, Les Verts have unleashed Josuha Guilavogui, Faouzi Ghoulam, Allan Saint-Maximin, Kurt Zouma and Ismaël Diomandé, the latter three semi-finalists at the 2011 Gambardella Youth Cup. Not all of them are world beaters, but three have earned big transfers, and two are becoming contributors at the Geoffroy-Guichard, both playing over 180 minutes this year. St Etienne eventually welcomed six members of that Under-19s squad to the A team.

Inter don't want this guy! Nagatomo forever!

Inter don’t want this guy! Nagatomo forever!

Inter’s transgressions are too many to list, but their youth players all seem to go through the same gauntlet of endless loans, insignificant stints and preposterously low transfer fees. Not all these players have to be world-beaters, regular starters are a more than enough. Inter need both youth and development in their squad, not short-term punts on golden oldies looking for a golden parachute. A good example would be Davide Santon: did Inter so desperately need £4.5 million that they couldn’t be bothered to develop a fullback some had (prematurely) compared to Paolo Maldini? What about Faraoni, or Caldirola?

Italy’s Under-21 squad for the Slovakia game spins a sad yarn: Inter owns 4 of its members, but they’re all out on loan. Two more were recently given away. Again, this isn’t markedly different from other Italian clubs, but if you’re short of money and ideas, developing youth can provide a valid alternative, especially when it comes to resale.

Who would you believe had made more money off selling players, the Italian giant, or the French mining town scrapper that came within a few points of relegation back in 2010? Well, since 2012, it’s the giant, but by a whopping £2.97 million. St Etienne brought in £67.25 million over that time, £37.49 coming from Zouma, Guilavogui, Ghoulam and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Inter, for their part, sold most of the crown jewels two years ago, Erick Thohir’s policy of only spending what comes in a mere excercise in self-deception.

If you won’t buy Italian, Buy French

With Europe’s biggest clubs around snapping up most of the recognised star power, and Italian talent generally coming at a premium, clubs like Inter need to look for market inefficiencies in order to boost both squad and books. France is one such example, Newcastle paying £4.4 million for Yohan Cabaye and selling him back for £22, just a million less than what was spent on him, Yanga-Mbiwa, Debuchy, Haïdara, Debuchy and Moussa Sissoko combined.

Yet with the whole continent obsessing over Adrien Rabiot, only Fiorentina zoned in on Benjamin Stambouli, a highly promising young Frenchman. Most French clubs aren’t run by Jean Michel Aulas, and often don’t know how to extract the best price for their young talent: Faouzi Ghoulam’s £4.4 million price tag an example of a downright criminal steal from the Neapolitans. Stambouli himself left for a clip under €6 million, David Ospina for €3.5.

St Etienne, for their part, have been diligently recruiting French for a number of years: Renaud Cohade, Stéphane Ruffier, Benjamin Corgnet, Franck Tabanou, Yohan Mollo and Romain Hamouma being some of the examples. Most of them young, some from recently promoted clubs (and hence at better prices), all good Ligue 1 players. Worst case scenario, Les Verts have a cheap, well-stocked squad. Best case scenario, they compete for the Champions League and keep raking it in as some leave for foreign shores.

Keep your squad stocked

Inter are falling asleep at the wheel. Coach Mazzarri’s choice to play a 3-5-2 isn’t helping, of course, but there is no justification for how the Nerazzurri lack any serious cover at most positions. St Etienne’s sheer numbers are a major boon here. If Hamouma or Corgnet are out, Tabanou and Mollo can come on.

Inter’s barely-rejuvenated squad had seven players out last weekend (joint-most in Italy that weekend), a massive red flag for a team with evident fitness issues, which the club shamefully tried to bemoan after the humiliating 3-0 defeat to Fiorentina, as if it were normal after a whole seven games. Since the 2011/12 season it has become painfully obvious that Inter are stumbling around in the dark, not making any long-term plans or investing in their future. To quote Billy Beane in the movie Moneyball, “If we try to play like the Yankees in here [the boardroom], we’ll lose to the Yankees out there”. I guess Beane had never heard of Cagliari.