Psychic Shola and Newcastle’s rise

When Shola Ameobi said in April last year that he still dreamed of playing Champions League football with Newcastle, reactions ranged from bemusement to outright howls of derision from some quarters. A topsy turvy summer followed, which saw the arrivals of classy french midfielder Yohan Cabaye from Ligue 1 champions Lille and powerful striker Demba Ba on a free transfer; but the departure of the influential trio of Kevin Nolan, Joey Barton and Jose Enrique – all 3 of them star performers in the club’s first season back in the premiership. Enrique left with the claim that the club would never again challenge for the top 6, a remark that many experts saw no reason to disagree with. Indeed some pundits, perhaps accustomed to the apparent tradition of self destruction at the club, predicted a struggle against relegation for the coming season. Ameobi’s dream of Champions League football seemed to be pure fantasy.

Visionary: Shola predicted the return of European football when no one else would

12 months on from Shola’s derided claim and only goal difference separates the Toon from returning to Europe’s elite competition. An already stellar season – one that has seen a demolition of the champions, an 11 game unbeaten run and not one but twoof the best individual goals seen at St James’ in recent years – could now be capped with what is, aside from winning the league, the ultimate aim of all teams in the division. The heroes of last season may have departed, but new figures have emerged. Ryan Taylor earned cult status after only two games with his freekick against Sunderland. Yohan Cabaye has given the side a touch of genuine class and formed one of the most formidable midfield partnerships in the league alongside Ivorian enforcer Cheik Tiote. Goal machine Demba Ba was at one point the most prolific striker in the league, his 16 goals propelling the team up the division. As a result of the early season performances of these players, United have occupied the European places for the majority of the season. Yet it is only recently that people have truly begun to believe that Champions League football could be a reality, that Shola’s vision could indeed be realised, only one year on.

Digging in: the Toon have fought hard for every point they've earned this season, and deservedly sit in 5th place in the table

This is a result of a sensational run of form that has seen the club win its last 5 league games – a run currently only bettered by Barcelona and Ajax in Europe’s top leagues. While injury and fatigue have understandably begun to affect some of the early season performers, others have exploded into life. Hatem Ben Arfa was used sparingly by manager Alan Pardew at the start of the season as he returned to fitness after a year out through injury, and as he adapted to the defensive responsibilities he was expected to fulfill without the ball. As a result he now looks fresh and back to his dazzling best, scoring and creating in equal measure, most recently running 70 yards with the ball to score against Bolton. In January signing Papiss Cisse, Newcastle possess the most prolific striker in Europe at the moment, the Senegalese hitman averaging a goal every 68 minutes. They certainly seem to have the attack to fire them into the Champions League, but it is also worth noting that the Magpies have only conceded one goal on their current winning run, something that may please Pardew even more than their prolific goalscoring form.

Potent: Shola has watched on as Senegalese goal machines Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse have fired Newcastle into European contention

Newcastle face a tough final run in: the always difficult Stoke, in form relegation battlers Wigan, rivals for 4th place Chelsea, mega rich Manchester City and FA Cup semi finalists Everton. However, if they can maintain their current form there is no reason that the Toon can’t pick up enough points from these games to take fourth place – particularly as rivals Spurs and Chelsea may be distracted by cup competitions. With Europa League qualification seemingly in the bag, bar a complete disaster, the team can attack these final five games knowing that the pressure is off. Certainly the fact that this is even a possibility is beyond the wildest dreams of even the most optimistic Newcastle supporter going into the season. As the apparent experts keep telling us, ‘no one could have predicted this’. No one that is, except Shola Ameobi.

Nonchalant: Shola has made the predictions game look easy

Follow Philip Buckingham on Twitter @philib57 for more Shola Ameobi based analysis of Newcastle United.

A Note on Arsenal

Arsene Wenger has, in recent years, been criticised in the media for tactical stubbornness. Rigidly sticking to a 4-3-3 with short passing key, Wenger’s Arsenal are often praised for the beauty of their play. They are similarly maligned for the system whenever a series of losses strike the team down. Arsenal, it was obvious, struggled earlier this season. They suffered a run of form that suggested they would not be able to mount a serious challenge on the Champions League places. Yet, they now find themselves ahead of Tottenham, once touted as a challenger to the title, in third.

How have they achieved this sudden turnaround? The reality is that Wenger, criticized previously for not changing the system, has managed to subtly tweak the manner in which his side play, without anyone really noticing. Ironically, the most maligned of players in a much maligned system, Theo Walcott, is the lynchpin to the manner in which Arsenal now play. Who can forget the jeers that greeted Walcott in the Emirates a mere few months ago? Wenger, buoyed by the emergence of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who can certainly be considered one of the better young players of the season, decided to shift the manner in which Walcott approached his right-sided role.

A right-winger Theo Walcott is not. Often quoted in the press as having a desire to play through the middle, Walcott has spent the last several years being forced into a wide-role by Wenger, in an attempt to convert him as a player. As a viewer of football, I’ve often been unwilling to criticise Walcott for any issues he may have with a final ball. He clearly has ability, I have often thought, and it should be down to Wenger to integrate him in a manner that uses these abilities to success.

Then he did. Since that point, Walcott has gone on a rampage. Three goals set-up in the 7-1 victory over Blackburn. Two goals scored against Tottenham, in a performance that has since characterized the turnaround in Arsenal’s season. Six victories on the bounce. Arsenal, previously famed for their ability to tear opposition apart under Wenger, once again look threatening.

Wenger has made two key changes to the manner in which his side play. Firstly, and most importantly, Walcott has been shifted in his positioning along the front line. Now essentially inhabiting a role akin to an inside-right in the traditional 2-3-5, Walcott plays far more centrally than previously. Playing on the shoulder of both left and center back, Walcott is frequently played in behind the defence, rather than needing to run at them. With the ball, he has only two real duties, playing the ball across the face of goal or having a strike himself. In this position, he is ruthless. He has been for years, one simply has to look at the performance against Croatia all those years ago. Walcott was, it seems, right all along. He is lost on the wing, but centrally, you can understand why Wenger spent £9 million on the young Walcott in early 2006.

The second major shift is one I thought was likelier earlier in the season, given the departure of Fabregas, and one that has been to the major benefit of Walcott. Arsenal have, despite their sheer ability to retain possession when necessary, become far more direct in their play into the final third. This has allowed the pacey Walcott to often catch defences unaware, with penetrating balls from the midfield contributing significantly to his ability to flourish in the inside-right position.

The midfield three have relished this change in demand. Song, arguably the best defensive midfielder plying his trade in England, has remained willing to sit deep as Arteta and the reborn Rosicky play further up the pitch. Rosicky, who I was concerned temporarily had improved as a ploy for a new deal, has become a key figure in the new Arsenal. The man looks the player Wenger felt he originally signed. The goal against Spurs was a touch of class that probably provided the confidence he had been lacking in recent months.

We stand, therefore, on what I feel is a precipice. Wenger could act conservatively, and recruit in the summer according to his previous tactics. Alternatively, he could plunge into the depths of the new system, and prepare Arsenal for the season ahead according to this. On current form, Champions League football is very nearly assured. Building a team around Walcott’s new role could bode well for the next season. With the unmentioned but integral Van Persie being supplied by inside-right Walcott, Arsenal could find themselves seriously challenging for honours next season. Wenger must commit to this new-found success, and unleash Walcott in this position alone henceforth.

The English Game: Conservatism, Rigidity and Failure

After every international failure, the media in England hold an inquest as to what went wrong. Last Thursday night, on Channel 5, there was a moment that I felt summed up a significant segment of the issues with the country’s footballing psyche. As Aurtenetxe, ostensibly Athletic Club’s right-back, jinxed his way through the Manchester United defence, eventually crafting a goal scoring opportunity for himself, Stan Collymore questioned why a player in his position should find himself in that part of the pitch. Collymore was, sadly, an unwitting participant in an incredibly salient moment in English football. One in which an analyst, supposedly an expert at football, revealed beliefs that had been eradicated almost a generation earlier on the continent.

When Michels introduced totaalvoetbal through his Ajax side in the early part of the 1970s, people heralded a revolution in football thinking. For the two seasons running between 1971 and 1973, Michels’ Ajax did not only not lose a single home game, but achieved total domination, with a record of 46 victories. They were also clearly the best side on a european stage, clinching three European Cups in a row. This innovation, centered around Cruyff’s ability and willingness to move around the pitch, playmaking on behalf of the team, despite his supposed role as a center forward, would eventually become the foundation in ideology for the 1974 Dutch national side, arguably one of the better sides not to have won the World Cup at a given tournament. Coasting past teams such as Argentina and Brazil with great ease, the Dutch were eventually defeated by a West German side who stifled Cruyff’s creativity enough to snatch victory.

What, you may ask, does totaalvoetbal have to do with Athletic Club, English football and Stan Collymore? The answer lies in the very question. Would Bielsa look at the Dutch national side of 1974 and see them as intrinsically linked with his Bilbao side? Probably not. He would see them as an influence on football on the continent, but be well aware of the differences between how his side play football and that of Michels. He would, however, understand why the generation of footballers he manages have amongst their ranks right-backs who break forward and threaten the goal. He would understand the innovations of Michels’ team and the segments of the game which directly derive from their tactics. He would not, as Collymore did, question why a right back would be so close to the goal, in the center of the pitch.

Collymore is, in essence, symptomatic of the issues with English football. This is not to say that he alone is at fault in the world of English punditry. One merely has to look at the manner in which David Luiz has been treated since his arrival on the island. Oft derided for his ability to run with the ball and pose a direct threat to the opposition net, as it does not agree with the stereotype of the center back, Luiz will often find himself blamed for mistakes other defensive team mates have made. When Luiz goes forward, is he not simply attempting to have a hand to play in football’s ultimate aim, which is the scoring of goals to win matches? If he feels confident enough to contribute in this regard, Michels would encourage him to attack. The onus should fall on team mates to cover where gaps have arisen. This positional interchange is one of the key tenets of the totaalvoetbal that arose almost forty years ago. The level of success Luiz often has in these advanced positions should be evidence enough of the reasonability of this sort of play. Yet debate still arises over whether Luiz is not a midfielder, or if he’s a bad defender. The answer is neither, his attacking abilities do not render his defensive abilities null and void. The debate does nothing but symbolise English football’s unwillingness to accept tactical and footballing realities that are simply part of the game elsewhere in the world.

This positional simplicity is compounded by the debate that operates on the other end of the scale. Wayne Rooney is the prime example of this. The number of times commentators have questioned what Wayne Rooney’s ‘best position’ is number in the hundreds by this point, when, to any observer not blinded by the rigid roles ascribed to players in the country, it is quite clear that Rooney’s best position is simply on the pitch. He operates wherever he chooses to down the spine of the team, and that is partly why he is the best player in the country. He is simultaneously creator and goalscorer, operating effectively in both midfield and attack. To do what most pundits seem to desire, and tether him to a rope that allows him to operate within 18 yards of the goalmouth, would be to neuter the nation’s most exciting talent.

As if to symbolize the immense success of innovation, Javi Martinez, ostensibly a central midfielder, has been deployed at the center of defence for Athletic Club this season. This allows play to be built from the back. Another debatably successful side, Barcelona, have done the same, fielding Mascherano in a frequently used three-man defence, providing an immensely deep-lying playmaker. Any attempt to institute this in England would, you feel, be derided. Manchester City’s attempts to play three men in defence earlier this season, without a playmaker, were seen as some sort of tactical deviancy. Over from Italy comes this man, wearing scarves and trying ridiculous things. Three men at the back? Alf Ramsey would not stand for this.

English football, is, to a large degree, suffering from this rigid sense of positional play that the rest of the world has long forgotten. It does not even just apply to the obvious, however. Mancini’s attempts to have Manchester City’s defenders zonal mark from corners were oft derided by commentary teams. This despite the level of success the team would achieve from this ploy. City would, by February of this year, only have conceded two goals from corners this season, and beyond this, they had a positive aggregate goals from corner count of +10. Scoring 12, they are clearly aware of frailties to exploit in other team’s corner defending, even when the success of their defence is discounted.

Where does this English deference to rigid positional understandings come from? Jonathan Wilson, in Inverting the Pyramid, clearly reveals a history to a lack of English tactical innovation that belies trends around the world. Long after other nations had begun to abandon the W-M, England rigidly stuck to this formation. This would, of course, lead to the loss against Hungary that revealed England’s no longer dominant position in the footballing world. The man marking used in this game simply did not work, as the center-half had no idea how to deal with a deep-lying Hidegkuti.

Maybe it is a series of failed attempts to depart from this tradition that causes English football to remain so rigid. Admittedly, steps have been taken and a fluid front four is becoming more commonplace in the English game. The conservative nature of the media that surrounds the game, however, does not inspire confidence in this regard. One feels as though the generation of players commenting on the game will be nothing but a hindrance to the innovation necessary for English success on a European and international scale. Criticism comes for anyone attempting anything truly new. Flexibility and fluidity are probably footballing buzz-words on the continent. It is time for English football to accept, adapt and take charge.

Follow Amitai Winehouse on Twitter (@awinehouse1).