Littered with Failure

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (March 20th 2015)

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Over-rated and Over-paid

I admit straight away that I am heading into a minefield of trouble writing today about coaches – for footballers, born ad bred in Africa, those termed managers in England for example are called coaches, so for readers in England especially, I am not talking about the men and women who work with players on technique and much much more, often for poor reward and unsociable hours.

Their work is under-rated and underpaid. I am not talking about them, I am talking about the bosses, gaffers, etc. I do not really like discussing them. I think they earn too much money for the work that they do. In short, I think that their work is over-rated and over-paid as players do most of the work that counts – on the pitch. It is they who must perform to top of their abilities every match, even when the tactics are wrong, they are used wrongly, or played out of position in an outdated and inefficient system that the boss favours despite evidence that it doesnʼt work.

Bluff and Bluster

Coaches dramatise most of the time that the players are playing to instruction when the team is winning, and not playing to instruction when they are losing. They act out their script in the full glare of television, standing by the sidelines, pretending to be taking down notes – those are the smart ones. They scream out instructions that no one on the field hears or understands, and impact little on how the players play.

They ‘pretend’ to those that pay them humongous wages and the fans that ‘hire and fire’ them that they are ‘conducting’ things on the field of play with their sideline dramatisation of moods, and play mental games with referees. From their field-level position by the sideline they have the poorest view of the game and yet they have the final say on their team.

They talk and bluff their way to millions of Dollars, hopping from one failed coaching job to another. They know how to play the media particularly after winning one or two trophies and thereafter earn those outrageously high wages.  

The world of football is full of them – failed coaches!

Extra Dimension

Do not get me wrong, I love coaches. As players we were forced to develop a ‘love’ relationship with them because they held our careers in their hands. That’s why you would hardly ever hear a player criticise or condemn his coach even when he knows the coach may be the worst in the world.

We had a great example in Nigeria. Throughout his coaching stint in the national team none of the players (including those that had trained under obviously much better coaches in Europe) was brave enough to tell the world that the particular coach was so bad he could not even coach himself to control a ball!

Let me admit again that I have never really thought coaches are as important as football makes them out to be, even if I also concede that without them the game would not be the same because of the extra drama and dimension they bring to the game. A successful coach is one who wins championships consistently. His successes are listed in the number of laurels and silverware in his chest of trophies.

A good coach is one who produces teams that often play well, always come close to winning trophies, indeed occasionally win one, but manage to leave their imprint on their teams. There are very few truly successful coaches in the world. You can almost list them on your fingertips. Two excellent examples are José Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson. Another is the recently retired German maestro Jupp Heynckes.

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The Mark of Success

I was actually looking at Mourinho’s records recently and found that since 2000 when he started his coaching career in Portugal he may only have failed to win a trophy twice in the years from then till now, for the different clubs he coached. That is consistency, the true mark of a successful coach who knows how to win trophies and championships.

Good coaches are also few. In this group would be Arsenal’s Arsène Wenger and Manchester United’s Louis van Gaal. They do not win enough trophies consistently to be listed as ‘successful’ in my humble estimation, even if the rest of the world may think otherwise.

Take Wenger. Many of his fans will swear he is one of the best coaches in Europe, if not the world. But his true worth is diminished with the epilepsy of his winning trophies. Until the FA Cup of last season Wenger has failed to win anything for Arsenal in almost a decade!

Successful coaches necessarily double as good coaches! Good coaches are not necessarily successful. Consistently winning trophies makes the difference.

Most other coaches do not fall within either of the two categories above. They are part of the larger population of ‘failed’ coaches! They are the steppingstones for successful coaches! You find them in most teams, hardly ever winning anything, and always been hired and fired during the seasons.

The Nigerian Example

Let me play a dangerous game here and look at the Nigerian experience. I looked through the history of coaches that have handled Nigeria’s team in the past and started to wonder how they ever got there in the first place.

That's Better, Siasia smiles

What made Berti Vogts, Bora Milutinović, Festus Onigbinde, Shuaibu Amodu, Samson Siasia, Lars Lagerbäck, and many others qualified to coach the team? Were they successful, good or failed coaches at the points of their engagement? Take Clemens Westerhof for example. Although he certainly played a part in Nigeriaʼs second success in the African Cup of Nations in 1994, on what basis was he hired in 1990?

He was a nobody in coaching before he got the job. He spent 5 years before he won the African Cup of Nations and led Nigeria to qualify for the country’s first World Cup. By all standards that is a great achievement that should define the man. But it did not.

It has been 20 years since he left the country. In that time he has coached other teams and won absolutely nothing. He has not even remotely come close to his Nigerian ‘achievements’.

Culprits

So who is that coach who would take on any team and transform them into winners? That’s the man African countries need – a coach with records of tangible achievements that can be counted in trophies and cups, and not one that has no records of any sort, or has Pyrrhic records!

By the way, I am just ranting about coaches after watching Mourinho lose to Laurent Blanc in the European Champions League. What a ‘bad’ match that was with the referee, Bjorn Kuipers – referee with previous form of controversies – as the worst culprit on the night.

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Decoded At Last

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (November 5th 2014)

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Enigma

It is Wednesday night. I have just watched my favourite football club in the world, but strangely I am in a rather melancholic mood. I watched ‘my team’ trounce Amsterdamʼs finest Ajax FC in the ongoing European Champions League. It was a very exciting and very entertaining match. I should be feeling great, yet, I feel empty inside.

The best football player of all time, in my humble estimation, Lionel Messi, scored a brace as usual and equalled Raúl González Blancoʼs European Champions League record of highest number of goals scored by an individual – 71. He achieved that feat in just 90 matches. It took Raúl – 66 goals for Real Madrid and 5 for Schalke – 142 matches to reach that tally. But hot on their heels is Messiʼs contender for best player, Cristiano Ronaldo, trailing by just one goal – albeit from 17 matches more than the mercurial Argentinian.

I should be happy, but, the match against Ajax was revealing. All is not well with FC Barçelona.

The Greatest?

This season they have left most of their fans hungry for the Barçelona of old – the team that won everything in club football in the world. They also contributed the largest number of players to a Spanish national team that won the World Cup in 2010.

In the past 10 years Barçelona have been the team to beat in global club football with unforgettable memories of performances beyond description. In terms of actual performance, for a period of years, the rest of the world was playing catch-up. Without being disrespectful to any one of the other great clubs in Europe and South America, at their best, Barçelona stood alone far and away better than the best the rest of the world had to offer.

The System

The secret to their monumental achievements was a system and football philosophy implanted, nurtured and perfected in the club’s academy – La Masia. It was then brought to fruition as a generation of exceptional players came through that academy, augmented by shrewd purchases along the way. It also required a great coach schooled in Barçelona’s ways. All these ingredients combined at the same time to deliver a sumptuous feast of football.

Personally, it is in the work perfected by coach Pep Guardiola that I started to have a fuller appreciation of how a coach can truly impact a team, how the daily grind of training sessions could transform into a playing style and system that become entrenched as a culture in the performance of a team, and etched into the psyche of their followers. Now I understand and appreciate Sir Alex Ferguson, José Mourinho, and Tihomir Jelisavčić1 – the shamefully neglected architect of Nigeria’s first African Cup of Nations triumph – even better.

Tiki Taka

That was the birth of the phenomenon called Tiki Taka, an intricate ‘dance’ movement like no other with the ball: quick short one-two passes, endless, seamless movements and interchange of positions, back and forth, leaving in their wake a perplexed, bemused and confused opposition struggling to keep pace.

Match after match of the Barcelona brand of football rattled and embarrassed coaches and dazzled the world. Playing some of the ‘weirdest’ and unconventional football imaginable, Barçelona’s midfield tore through opposing teams’ defences like a knife through butter. Never had the world seen such a display and such a team that performs with such elegance and ‘arrogance’, completely dominating every match with effortless running and ball possession. They were a delight to watch and a nightmare to confront.

Deciphering the Code

So, last season, when Barçelona failed to win any silverware many felt it was due more to ‘winning-fatigue’ rather than because Tiki Taka had been finally decoded. Now we know that there was more to it. The football ‘laboratories’ of some of the big clubs in Europe had not been asleep, They had been very busy and on full throttle to find an antidote to the Barça epidemic.

At the same time, in order to stay one step ahead and sustain their invincibility, Barçelona took some steps that may now have backfired. Most significant amongst several of them was the exit of coach Pep Guardiola and the departure to fight a sadly losing battle against cancer of his successor, Tito Vilanova. That resulted in the appointment of a new coach – one not brought up on Barçelona’s philosophy and culture. The Tata Martino experiment failed and Barça returned to a coach brought up the Barça way.

But there were other problems – the ‘reinforcement’ of the Barçelona striking force. Last season the hugely talented Brazilian Neymar Jnr joined Lionel Messi upfront. The combination had not fully clicked before, this season. Now former Ajax and Liverpool FC striker Luis Suárez Díaz has been added to the mix. On paper it may look like a dream striking partnership, but the reality after three matches is that in order to accommodate these new players that are not nurtured on the diet of the Camp Nou style and philosophy, Barçelona’s playing style has had to change.

Laid Bare

Last Wednesday night, against Ajax Amsterdam FC, the ‘new’ FC Barçelona was laid bare. It is nothing like the Barça of old. Gone is the intricate ball possession that defines Tiki Taka. Gone are the endless running, the pressing and the hot pursuits every time the team loses possession. Gone is the creative ingenuity of a team playing without an outright striker but conjuring a whole array of striking and free scoring options from mid-field.

Gone is the team that played with the patience of a vulture, probing, teasing and taunting opponents to pry open even the tightest and hardest defences. Gone is the team that dictates how every match is played, and, even in occasionally losing, usually is the better team.

Slowly but surely, the demystification of FC Barçelona is taking hold. The team has not won any silverware in two seasons and several big European clubs appear now to have their number – Real Madrid, Atlético de Madrid, Bayern Munich. Even Celta Vigo, a team at the bottom rung of La Liga, defeated them last week so tamely and so easily it was hard and painful to watch.

Do not get me wrong. FC Barçelona are not finished. Far from it. After all, they defeated Ajax and barring any disaster will qualify easily for the round of 16 of the Champions League.

Decoded

They have only lost their edge. They have dropped from their place as the best team on the planet and rejoined the league of the great teams in Europe. They no longer stand ‘alone and apart’ at the very top of world football.

It was inevitable that the ‘end’ would come one day, but for many of us it is coming too soon! I still love my Barça, but even I must admit that the end is in sight for the philosophy of football that made FC Barçelona the best team that ever played football – the team that the world stood still and watched every time they stepped out to dance to the beat of Tiki Taka.

For now I can only celebrate in muted anticipation of what would happen next to my beloved club. My Barça have been decoded!

1Jelisavčić coached the Super-Eagles from 1974 until 1978. We won the next edition in 1980, coached by Otto Gloria, but the foundations of that triumph were laid by Jelisavčić.

Football Returns – And Not Before Time

By Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (August 21st 2014)

The Morning After

Segun at Wembley

It is the morning after. I am counting the number of the victors and the vanquished! I am quite aware that the premiership is a marathon race and not a sprints event. In a sprint a fractional faulty start would have a catastrophic consequence. Not so in a marathon.

Arsenal clearly illustrate this from the marathon race of the EPL last season when they started off disastrously with a loss at the Emirates to Aston Villa. Many did not think they could recover from it but a few matches down the line they not only recovered but began a sensational climb that would see them come within touching distance of winning the league trophy but for some injuries to key players and a dip in form (probably due to fatigue) to their talisman – the man that anchored that resurgence – Mesut Özil.

The Missing Elixir

After last Saturday, Manchester United FC must now be taking some consolation and lessons from Arsenalʼs experience. They have also started the 2014-15 Barclays Premier League on the worst possible note – losing their first match on home ground, under the tutelage of a manager whose credentials were considered good enough to succeed the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson.

To the horror and consternation of their supporters Manchester United FC put up an ordinary performance that left their millions of global fans wondering where Sir Alex kept the concoction that made Manchester United FC a fighting machine throughout his time as manager! This used to be a team whose cutting edge was fighting until the last second. The number of matches won in the last few seconds, or minutes of many of their matches, is innumerable.

Last Saturday night the team looked like a wandering ghost of its past. Ok, so, it is still only the morning after the first round of the league. It may be premature to start to draw conclusions, even though the twilight of dawn may already be revealing the faint outlines of what the rest of the season may look like. 

So, Manchester United must be looking at the script of the Gunnersʼ formula last season. Doubt, fear and worry have crept into their pre-season excitement and the magical turn-around promised by Louis Van Gaal’s entry.

What happens this weekend when they face Sunderland FC away from home is going to be critical. Will the great Manchester United recover? That is the million-Dollar question that has everyone of their millions of supporters worldwide tottering on the edge of anxiety.

I have only one comment to make from my observatory. Manchester United may consider looking closer at the performances of David De Gea Quintana since he joined the team last season from Atlético de Madrid. Every team that will win the championship must have a very safe pair of hands in their goal! De Gea has been ‘leaking’ at the wrong times. I need not say more!

Quick off the blocks – Manchester City and Chelsea

On the other hand their city rivals, Manchester City FC came off the blocks steaming! Their two-goal margin against Newcastle United was emphatic. It sent a clear message to the rest of the league and testified to their current status as defending champions. They simply took off from where they left off the last season, with an even stronger and more confident squad.

But Chelsea look impressive too. With the introduction of Diego Costa at the head of the attacking pyramid Chelsea have injected pace, sharpness and very intelligent movements off the ball in attack that will drastically alter the style of the team. We saw it already in the first match. They played masterfully like champions!

The Blues change their style!

Only José Mourinho’s Chelsea FC bettered the start of Manchester City FC with a highly entertaining performance in the match against Burnley FC that had everything including some beautiful goals.

One goal, in particular, will resonate for the rest of the season – a beauty that came off the boots of André Schürrle from a series of quick interchange of passes from midfield involving Cesc Fàbregas and Eden Hazard,  seamless movements and a final superb visionary lob that tore apart the helpless and hapless defence of Burnley FC, the German striker was left clear to deliver a low cross from the right flank to the far side of goal beyond a bewildered Newcastle goalkeeper Tim Krul. It was a superb goal signalling Chelsea’s intent to be serious contenders again for the title.

My only comment on Chelsea is their refreshingly different style this time around. Far from their usual boringly defensive system that had typified Mourinho’s philosophy in past years, we saw an uncharacteristically freely attacking Chelsea playing at an incredibly delightful fast pace.

Beyond that, Mourinho has typically again commenced his mind games. He delivered the first salvo at a recent press conference with some snide remarks aimed at his greatest threat to the league title this season – Arsène Wenger!

Wenger has not responded. I guess his players will do the replying for him on the field when both their teams meet.

The Gunners on course!

Arsenal FC played well last weekend. But they were lucky to have won their first after struggling against a hard-fighting Crystal Palace FC until the dying seconds of the match.

The presence of Alexis Sánchez to compliment the array of attacking options (Aaron Ramsey, Olivier Giroud) has added an exciting new dimension to the front-line. Alexis’ dazzling pace, dribbling skills, superb vision and finishing power up front will pose plenty of trouble for most opposing defenders.

When Mesut Özil finally returns to form and gets back into the team, the full potency of the new Arsenal FCʼs attacking arsenal will be revealed for all to see.

Liverpool FC – again?

I have deliberately not written anything about Liverpool FC so far this season because I do not see them, still, as possible champions. They won their first match at home against Southampton FC but did not look really convincing.

One of the most successful teams in the history of English football have had their ups and downs in past seasons. In 2012 crept like thieves to win the League Cup but have not maintained that sparkle until last season again when with the mercurial Luis Suárez they could have stolen the championship title at the tail end.

They have joined Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal at the top of the league table as day breaks on the championship.

Segun at Wembley

So far, so good, the EPL has lived to expectations!