ESPN BLOG: Ever Banega is the perfect piece to Inter Milan’s midfield puzzle

An oft-repeated complaint from Inter Milan’s 2015-16 season reads as follows: coach Roberto Mancini will be unable to achieve his tactical dreams if the club fails to add another skillful player to the midfield mix.

Manchester City’s Yaya Toure and Lazio’s Antonio Candreva and Lucas Biglia have all been linked to the Nerazzurri in recent weeks, but Mancini may have already found the player he so desires in Argentine midfielder Ever Banega, who joined the club this summer on a free transfer.

Banega isn’t just a capable playmaker, he may well be the signing that makes the team gel and takes Inter’s ailing attack (the club only managed only 50 goals last season, seventh in Serie A) to the next level.

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Growing pains: Belgium and Switzerland analysed (Part 2): Pas de la Petite Bière…

There are plenty of positives Belgians can glean from the 2014 World Cup: they are one of only four teams to qualify to the second round with maximum points, and forced 16 saves in second round cliffhanger against the United States. Even in the wake of their elimination, Belgians have generally consoled themselves with the oft-repeated mantra that they possess one heck of a golden generation, and that is was only pipped by an elite side at the quarter final stage.

But it is just that collection of talent that keeps Marc Wilmots from obtaining a positive grade- or even from making a case for renewed faith in his tenure. Considering the squad he had at his disposal, he simply should have done better, and using a quarter-final elimination to a presumably elite side like Argentina as a cop-out only makes it worse, as the Red Devils are likely to stick to someone who won’t be able to plan Belgium’s rise to elite status.

On paper, there is nothing wrong with how Belgium or Wilmots did ( just look at how Italy, England or Spain fared) but there is something to be said about how the manager failed to muster a coherent gameplan against an Argentinian side weakened by injuries to Angel di Maria and Sergio Aguero, not to mention its own poor play.

With the likes of Martin Demichelis starting in central defence, one could have argued that Los Albicelestes were there for the taking. Could some direct running at the clever-but-slow Citizen stopper bring down the Argentinian back line? We will never truly know, as Belgium favoured their usual cumbersome build-up down the wings, peppering the box with the kind of crosses Demichelis feasts on, despite his stocky build.

Even worse, Wilmots once again failed to provide the attack with a good option down the middle, or even to allow his trio of attacking midfielders much leeway in swapping positions and/or combining together. As a result, Hazard was strung out on the left and Mirallas on the right, with De Bruyne left to mop up as best he could, or even pick balls up deep and attempt a few doomed forays of his own.

Wilmots must surely have had his reasons for this- possibly to leave room for Witsel and Fellaini to make late runs in the centre- but he must surely have realized the futility of this arrangement after four games? Why not use a player who specialises in these kinds of runs like De Bruyne, or the pace of someone like Divock Origi?

Though the latter’s first touch was atrocious against Argentina, he could have been provided with a few neat passes behind the defence, or even a partner with which to try the one-two and beat Demichelis for pace. Instead, Origi got the usual dose of Route One and back-to-goal football, only this time he was up against an opponent experienced enough to not let him run rings round him off the knock down, something Algeria had allowed him to do with abandon.

Considering how this new generation of Belgian superstars has been taught to play the ball on the deck, the complete absence of any semblance of quick, accurate interplay throughout the World Cup was just shocking. It was understandable for a nervy debut against a disciplined, clever opponent like Algeria, but downright unacceptable five games in, even with Argentina at the other end.

Wilmots’ failure extends to other facets of Les Diables’ performance. Total Football taught us long ago that a team should aim to compress space whilst in defence, and open it up at the other end. In this light, Belgium weren’t just ineffective, they were grossly inefficient: how else do you justify a 4-2-3-1 when the two deeper midfielders don’t put pressure on the opposition, or adequately shield the defence? Whether it was Witsel or Fellaini, Dembele or Defour, the Red Devils have never found a combination that could provide satisfactory cover to the back four. To compound problems, Steven Defour’s sending off against South Korea also owes a lot to how often he was out of position, a fault he shared with his teammates.

Wilmots’ management errors also extend to the wings- where his choice of fullbacks ultimately penalised the side. True, Jan Vertonghen got better as the tournament went on- even providing two dangerous crosses against Argentina. But he was also very wasteful against the United States, and not quite capable to capitalise on the numerous balls that were fed to him in dangerous positions.

Vertonghen may have played his heart out (as he did against Manchester United at Old Trafford two years ago), but he was not the speedy, composed (remember the penalty he conceded to Algeria?) option Belgium needed out there, somebody capable of stretching opposing defences and taking defenders out of the picture. Instead, he fit right into the lumbering tactics Wilmots seems to favour, where the objective seemed to pack as many players into the box before going for the cross.

It was even worse on the right, where Toby Alderweireld looked nothing if not lost, another talented central defender who, whilst not utterly unaccustomed to playing on the wing, was clearly unable to play at a top level. The truth is that world-class teams aren’t entirely made-up of world-class players, and there has to be a compromise, especially when Belgium didn’t need their best players out there, just two capable fullbacks who knew how to provide Hazard, Mertens & Co with an outlet down the flanks.

Could Guillaume Gillet – who scored a screamer against Croatia in the qualifiers – have been an option, instead of falling progressively down the pecking order? What of Laurent Ciman and Antony Vanden Borre, who were also included in the squad but barely got any time on the pitch? Vanden Borre may well hold the key to the personnel debate, as even he was rarely able to get forward in his one shot at glory against South Korea. Maybe it was all down to tactics after all, with Wilmots picking the players that suited them the best. For a tournament where the best teams have often boasted quality wing-backs, this may well have been short-sighted of him.

Fingers will doubtless be pointed at the players themselves, or rather at their relative inexperience: barring Daniel Van Buyten, not a single player in the squad had been to a major tournament before.

This is certainly true to a point, as can be seen by how certain midfielders (Hazard) were only too keen to take on multiple opponents in small pockets of space, something England fans can relate to. Yet when given the chance, de Rode Duivels often didn’t show the nerves some would associate with a first bite at the cherry. For example, Belgium couldn’t stop scoring at crucial moments, whether it was in the dying minutes (Russia), extra time (the USA), when a goal behind (Algeria) or under pressure (South Korea).

It is of course too easy to simply blame the system and give the players a pass. One man who was expected to leave his mark, Eden Hazard, was subbed off late in the quarter final having failed to do much except make the crucial goal against Russia. Too often he was allowed to stare down multiple markers and slow Belgium’s attack down to a snail’s pace.

Then again, it is equally unusual that Hazard was so unsupported (those full-backs again), or indeed that his teammates seemed surprised even when he DID make a breakthrough, as witnessed by the complete lack of movement in the box. Chelsea’s players certainly don’t stand on ceremony when Eden does his thing on the wing. It looks like Wilmots has abdicated part of his responsibilities, allowing his attackers to freelance at will.

This may well work against the likes of Wales, Scotland, Serbia and Croatia, all countries whose sights are invariably set on their own feet. Wilmots can certainly point to the deflection which allowed Argentina to take the lead – and he did- as a case of bad luck, but he can hardly lament the fact that Belgium generally failed to convince against packed opposition defences, even in the qualifiers.

Admittedly, Wilmots also got a lot of things right, starting from the substitutions that were able to turn numerous games on their heads: both goals against Algeria came from the bench, as did Romelu Lukaku’s splendid performance against the USA. But there is a flipside: why was a manager who seemed to get his subs right always get his starting lineups wrong? Why did he start Chadli against Algeria after he’d had such a poor season in London? Furthermore, such success could never be repeated indefinitely, especially not for a manger who relied on fresh legs rather than a Plan B.

Granted, it’s never easy to instil discipline in players who rarely meet over two years before being asked to surpass themselves in a short period of time on the world’s biggest stage. Then again, the international manager doesn’t have to be a tactical genius, nor go for complicated, revolutionary systems. Bielsa and Sacchi are two examples of when a certain style can get be too complicated or does not fit its components. What has tended to work are tactics that are comparatively easy to put in place, and then repeatedly drilled over a period of a few weeks. Wilmots could only provide the simplicity, but neither the effectiveness nor an alternative.

Wilmots can point to the good job he did keeping players out of sick bay, employing physiotherapist Lieven Maesschalk to great effect. Wilmots credits Maesschalk with his own speedy recovery from major surgery, a brave call as his doctors had tried to impose a lengthy stop. It is arguable that Maesschalk did a good job keeping the Red Devils fit and injury-free, likely boosting Vincent Kompany’s chances of playing in the second round. Only Christian Benteke’s grave injury slipped through his fingers, though it is debatable to what extend Wilmots can hold his injury up as handicap: the Villa Striker barely scored in the 2013 portion of the last campaign, and would have doubtless struggled to make something of his manager’s schemes anyway.

It feels so cruel to heap all this criticism on Wilmots, Belgium’s very own last Mohican: his was the overhead kick against hosts Japan in the 2002 World Cup, a tournament where he gave a frankly average Belgian squad its only semblance of star power. Wilmots is a father figure to the players, something that can be witnessed in Les Diables au Coeur, a wonderful fly-on-the-wall documentary produced by television channel RTBF during the qualifiers. It is here that we can fully gauge exactly how much he has done for this young team, from the constant bantering and playful fines (late players had to pay for a round of, yes, champagne) to the constructive criticism and stern approach a leader sometimes need to employ. Gone is the dressing room instability, which ranged from Hazard’s bickering with then-manager Georges Leekens (which included an open letter essentially questioning his non-selection) to the formation of language and, yes, league-based factions in the locker room, which included the “Frenchie”, Dutch, Walloon and Flemish groups.

That said, Wilmots’ biggest legacy will always be how he gave a whole nation its pride back. Five missed tournaments in a row had caused untold damage to the country’s fans, emptying the stadiums and promulgating a sense of farce and futility that was hard to shake off. There were Stijn Stijnen’s dumb threats to Ronaldo when Belgium visited Portugal: rather than have his legs broken (as Stijnen had promised), the Ballon D’or winner helped Portugal to a 4-0 cakewalk.

The talent Wilmots could count on isn’t enough to dismiss his achievements either, especially as predecessor George Leekens botched the previous qualifying campaign with a well-endowed (if not as much as this one) squad by drawing at home to the likes of Turkey and Austria. Belgium used to be the laughing stock that was desperate enough to go for a part-time Dick Advocaat, only to be jilted by the Dutchman as soon as a better offer was made to him.

Belgium have a lot to thank Wilmots for, yet it doesn’t look like they will improve under him. Inexperience is not enough to justify why this side didn’t go far enough. When you have a Top-10 side in terms of quality, the quarter finals are around par for the course, and it is up to the manager to help the side make that extra step. It is often not the most talented teams who come home with the trophy (just ask the 2004 Greek squad, or the 2006 Azzurri), but the better coached ones. Whilst Wilmots helped the Red Devils get rid of their losing mentality, Belgium need someone who can win games, not just avoid losing them.


Growing pains: Belgium and Switzerland analysed (Part 1)

With the quarter finals just 24 hours away it’s not too early to look back and analyse two sides that have largely disappointed in this World Cup: Belgium and Switzerland.

On the surface, both countries had a lot in common coming into the tournament, ranging from their poor recent form (Belgium having failed to qualify to a major tournament in five attempts) to the sudden emergence of a talented core of skilful youngsters, most of them plying their trade in Europe’s top leagues.

Even more newsworthy was the latter’s foreign extraction; their Albanian, Congolese and even Indonesian roots blending with the local multilingual culture to create a heady mix- ranging from Romelu Lukaku’s perfect Flemish to the Swiss attack’s Balkan make-up. Echoes of France’s stunning propaganda coup from 1998 were not far away, though few were expecting either side to go all the way.

That said, nobody expected the quality on offer to be so disappointing, something that became apparent when Switzerland went down with all hands on board against France in a 5-2 drubbing. Though La Nati ultimately survived its group and Belgium were able to come up with a much-improved performance to knock out the USA, it is obvious that both sides are also brought together by an inability to kick their golden generations into gear.

Switzerland – the object of this first part- eventually went out to Argentina after a moment of magic from Lionel Messi, who teed up Di Maria’s superb finish after a dazzling run from midfield. Whilst the quality at its disposal may not have been the same as Belgium’s (Xerdan Shaqiri is no Kevin De Bruyne, let alone Eden Hazard), La Nati has undoubtedly been the more disappointing of the two sides.

Hitzfeld’s team only truly kicked into gear in their third group game, when Xerdan Shaqiri scored a rather unexpected hat-trick to send his team through to the second round. Beyond that there was little to write home about: La Nati was horrific against France in a 5-2 thrashing and unconvincing in their last-gasp win over Ecuador. The Argentina game saw them create very little against a side chronically uncomfortable versus counter-attacks and utterly dependent on Messi’s ability to beat one, two, sometimes even three opponents to create mismatches. What does it say about the Swiss that Iran were far more convincing against Argentina?

Blame Dzemaili all you want for that missed chance (and it was a truly awful header), but not without including Hitzfeld in the firing line. His team simply never looked comfortable on the ball, and made a number of elementary mistakes in possession that had Swiss fans reaching for the sick bag. The players should definitely share a portion of the blame, but it is hard to avoid the feeling that their coach tried to get them to fit his rigid system, and not adapt to what he had at his disposal.

How can a midfield play so badly when it boasts a good destroyer (Behrami), an occasionally-great regista (Inler), as well as three young, explosive playmakers in Xhaka, Shaqiri and Mehmedi? Pointing the finger at the players is too easy, especially when Switzerland were so reminiscent of England back in 2004 and 2006, with Shaqiri playing the role of Wayne the Saviour. Conservative tactical choices and a lack of cohesion ended up doing for these teams, despite the wealth of talent waiting in the wings for a chance to shine.

The Swiss defence’s many weaknesses- and the need to make up for them- are hardly an excuse. Switzerland’s cause wasn’t hampered by a supposedly defensive approach; rather by the cautious and unimaginative attacking football they played. The Argentina game was an exception, but even then the Swiss midfielders were incapable of finding each other regularly when on the counter. At least Iran forced a one-on-one with Romero. The USA nearly broke Belgian hearts by finding Chris Wondolowski in the box with mere seconds to go in normal time. Switzerland only created something once Argentina had taken the lead: unfortunately Dzemaili could do no better than hit the post from four feet out.

Even worse is the fact that Switzerland could count on one of the better full-back pairings in the World Cup, with the metronomical Stephan Lichtsteiner on the right and the dominant Ricardo Rodriguez on the opposite wing- this at a time when many are waxing lyrical about the importance of just that position.

The importance of Rodriguez’s devastating forays became apparent against Ecuador, when his work down the left served up the winner on a plate for Haris Seferovic. Lichsteiner, for his part, has been impressive at Juventus, and even has a knack for scoring goals in Serie A. Why weren’t they more involved in Switzerland’s attacking play, and how is it that the midfield looked so cumbersome when working the ball forward?

Defenders of Hitzfeld could also point to the attack’s middling play as an extenuating circumstance, made up of the very local-sounding Drmic, Seferovic, Mehmedi and Gavranovic. There is little doubt this group did not pass muster, especially when you consider that Gavranovic didn’t play a minute and Mehmedi was used as a winger. But it’s hardly fair to put it all on their shoulders. They weren’t clinical, but didn’t exactly have a ton of service either.

A telling stat is that Gokhan Inler was Infostrada Sport’s 13th most wasteful finisher, taking a shocking seven shots during the group stages without ever scoring. More worrying than his lack of accuracy is the fact that Switzerland were counting on Inler to get the job done- or were, rather, unable to thread the ball through to someone better. Seferovic was, moreover, able to punch it in when it mattered the most against Ecuador.

The truth is, then, that Switzerland’s pathological inability to create anything against organised and motivated opponents (Honduras already had a foot on the plane home) has a lot more to do with manager Ottmar Hitzfeld, who was shaken by the devastating news that his brother had passed away the night before the Argentina game.

Hitzfeld was the manager with Champions League pedigree who was supposed to put Switzerland back on track after a disastrous group-stage elimination at the 2008 European Championship, which Switzerland hosted along with Austria. It is never easy for a club coach to come in and stamp his authority in a national setup- only Marcello Lippi and Vicente Del Bosque have managed to win both the World Cup and the Champions League since the latter’s inception in the early 1990’s.

Yet Hitzfeld had six years to leave his mark, and every step forward was followed by several in the wrong direction: a good example being when Switzerland crashed out of the 2010 World Cup group stages after famously defeating eventual champions Spain in their opening game. Hitzfeld also qualified his side for this World Cup- yet failed to reach the 2012 European Championship and was even responsible for a humiliating defeat at the hands of Luxembourg.

Even when boarding the plane to Brazil, the whole squad already knew that former Lazio manager Vladimir Petkovic would be taking over as soon as the tournament was over. Far from reinforcing Hitzfeld’s position it seemed to undermine his authority even more. Petkovic wasn’t just his polar opposite, but likely what La Nati needed the most: somebody who has grown as a player and manager in the cantons, and someone who knows this country’s football culture well enough to build around its crown jewels.