Thursday, August 25, 2005

Savage: the "supporter on the pitch"

Blackburn Rovers midfielder Robbie Savage is the "supporter on the pitch".

I remember Blackburn Rovers manager Mark Hughes saying at the time of the Robbie Savage signing that he bought him not only because he thought him a good player, but also because he observed that he is a player who very much play to the crowd. That observation could not be more than apparent last night against Tottenham Hotspur at home. Down to ten men and only minutes left to go for the match, Savage played a short corner to defender Ryan Nelsen and decided to run down the clock, much to the consternation of the Blackburn End, who could quite easily be heard on the television.

Another corner kick was soon won, and after conversing with the crowd he ordered Nelsen off because he wanted to give the supporters what they wanted and try for a corner kick that could finish in a goal. He over hit it and made a complete waste of it in the end, but that intent to treat the supporters to what they wanted is exactly the sort of thing that many clubs would like to have. Robbie Savage could perhaps be called the "supporter on the pitch".

Some good signs: an analysis and evaluation of Blackburn Rovers against Tottenham

The English Premier League fixture between Blackburn Rovers and Tottenham Hotspur ended in a 0-0 draw at Ewood Park in front of a crowd of some 22,000 fans, which will be remembered for the controversy on the pitch rather than the quality of play.

If there is anything that must be said about this match from a Blackburn perspective, it must be said that Rovers could have easily earned the three points, if only there was not a lack of quality up front in the absence of Craig Bellamy and even Matt Jansen. However, that was not to be, despite Rovers having several shots on goal, as opposed to the solitary attempt by Tottenham.

Another thing that perhaps needs mentioning is that it is disappointing that Lucas Neill was sent off for a rash challenge and that an unidentified Blackburn player (probably captain Andy Todd) was spotted allegedly head butting opposition number Robbie Keane on camera, which will no doubt earn some close scrutiny from the authorities. Those incidences were sorely disappointing, to be honest, because before that I thought that we were playing a very clean game and really showing up the critics who think we are nothing but a dirty team. Alas, the negative media barrage looks set to continue.

Here is my analysis of the manager and the players.

Mark Hughes (9): Fair play to the manager for his tactical side of the game this evening. He decided to use the 4-5-1, and despite the seemingly negative formation, there was an attacking bite to it. The formation kept Tottenham under wraps all night, and indeed a win would have been earned had it not been for the lack of quality up front. It was also a smart move to keep the creative Tugay in the defensive midfield role, in favour of the preferred Aaron Mokoena.

Brad Friedel (8): The former United States international really had little to do this evening, but when he was called up to do a job, he did it without too much difficulty.

Lucas Neill (6): He gets his low rating for the sending off late in the match. He played a decent game at right back before that and showed defensive poise and a certain flair in attack.

Ryan Nelsen (7): There were a couple of times that I recall where he looked shaky in defence, and he also missed a quality Robbie Savage set-piece cross that should have been put away, but overall he did a decent job and kept a clean sheet in the heart of defence, so there is little more to criticise him for.

Andy Todd (7): He did his job. There is not much more that I can recall about his performance, other than the fact that he works well with Nelsen in a defensive pairing.

Dominic Matteo (7): The much-maligned left back performed solidly, but showed little attacking ability, which I suppose is no new revelation.

Tugay (8): He very much controlled the game in his defensive midfield position in his very poise and relaxed manner, and showed a great amount of skill and creativity. Not all of his passes were 100% successful, but that is the price to play for someone with his vision. If only he was celebrating 25 years of his life, rather than 35 years.

Brett Emerton (7): The right winger had a good game this evening and there was much to be pleased about his performance, in comparison to recent matches. He had a little bit more confidence in himself this evening, putting in shots and crosses, winning balls and corner kicks, and was a catalyst in attack a few times.

Robbie Savage (7): He played solidly and did his job in the centre of midfield, especially in winning the ball. In addition, he is very much looking fitter than he has been in the past for Rovers and we should start seeing the best of him in the not too distant future.

Steven Reid (7): He was a little bit too anonymous this evening for my liking, especially for a central midfielder, but he did not do much wrong.

Morten Gamst Pedersen (7): He had his usual game on the left wing, where he puts in a cross or two and helps the build-up of attacks. His corner kicks were disappointing this evening, which were mostly over hit.

Shefki Kuqi (7): The likeable striker tried his heart out, but it was obvious to see why he was signed as a back-up striker. His first touch is atrocious, and had it been better, he would have scored a couple of goals. Credit must be given to him for getting into good positions, though, and he makes a welcome change from the whinging and moaning of Paul Dickov at the referee, who consequently breaks up any chance of continuity in Rovers' style of play.

Jemal Johnson (6): He was a late substitute for Kuqi and was not on the field long enough to make an impression on me. He gets the default rating of six.

Aaron Mokoena (6): He was the late substitute for the injured Andy Todd and had little chance of making an impression, so he also gets a default rating.

In conclusion, the match was very heartening from a Blackburn Rovers perspective, despite the lack of a cutting wedge in attack and only earning a point in a scoreless draw at the end. To keep Tottenham Hotspur under wraps and pull the strings attacking wise is a good sign of things to come.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Souness way

The coupling of Newcastle United and Graeme Souness is a match made in heaven.

I am often amused, and bemused, by the lack of respect that some sections of Newcastle United supporters give their manager Graeme Souness, although I do acknowledge that he has performed poorly so far. Having witnessed his period at Blackburn Rovers, I know that he is a good manager. He did get the Rovers promoted to the English Premier League in 2001, and managed sixth in the Premiership for the season 2002/2003 only two years later, and that itself was no fluke. He had built up a very good squad that played very well as a team and looked like they could move onwards.

Alas, it was not meant to be, with Rovers finishing becoming a bottom half team soon after that. You see, Souness has a nasty habit of falling out with players, and the departures of the likes of David Dunn and Andrew Cole on the cheap seriously hurt the club. (The departure of the almost irreplaceable Damien Duff also hurt the team, but that was not Souness’ fault, to be fair.) Now, this might not be a problem if he could replace such players with quality, but some forays into the transfer market, such as Corrado Grabbi and Barry Ferguson, during his tenure turned out to be shocking wastes of money, ensuring that the well of transfer money dried up. In the end, this lack of backing (albeit justifiably) by the Blackburn board forced the team towards a downward spiral that ended up transforming Souness into an absolute madman. For example, he played that lump of a defender with no attacking ability, Dominic Matteo, on the left wing shortly before moving on last season).

That is not a problem at Newcastle, however. Souness is afforded the luxury of being able to fall out with players, move them on, and use the club's large financial pool to replace those players with quality. He certainly is prone to buying players that end up a total waste of money, but that will not cripple Newcastle like it did Blackburn. Just give the man time to build up a squad, which he is already on the way to completing with quality signings such as Scott Parker and (especially) Emre. Some extra strikers are obviously needed, and once Souness does that, in addition to strengthening competition for some of the other positions, I suspect the genius of signing Souness as manager will shine through. (Did I just commend chairman Freddy Shepherd?! I will try not to do that again!)

I would never want Graeme Souness back at Blackburn ever again, because Mark Hughes is showing himself to be tactically superior and able to improve the players' abilities substantially, which is doing wonders at the moment and is right for a club that does not have the financial resources it once had. However, he is certainly right for Newcastle because he is a manager who needs to spend money, and given the right backing he can attract the big names and the right sort of players (ie. players in his image) easily enough to mould a spectacular team and develop an aesthetically pleasing style of play. He just needs the time and support from the club at all levels (including the supporters) to turn the club into a great force once again.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Don't panic just yet: an analysis and evaluation of Blackburn Rovers at Upton Park

The situation for Blackburn Rovers at the moment looks very depressing, but there is no reason to panic after only one English Premier League game just yet, according to this Rovers supporter.

Watching today's game English Premiership game between Blackburn Rovers and West Ham live on television from "Down Under" I was, like all Rovers supporters, jumping for joy when captain Andy Todd put us in front against West Ham at Upton Park in the 18th minute today. It really looked like we were well on our way to victory since we were playing so well. However, the game fell apart after that with Rovers conceding three goals, and I put the sole blame on the players for not putting up a decent fight in the 3-1 loss.

Before going into an analysis and evaluation of the manager and each player, I would like to say that on the tactical front I am not convinced that we can sustain playing a 4-4-2 formation for 90 minutes, because defensively we were far too exposed. Admittedly, there is a bit of an argument to the contrary due to our first 45 minutes, but despite playing well early on and keeping a clean sheet in the first half, there were a couple of occasions when we were completely muddled defensively and could easily have let two goals past us: West Ham's poor finishing was the friend that saved us.

In addition, we really did miss Ryan Nelsen today. Despite having no previous English Premiership experience when signed last January, he really was the main reason for our fantastic defensive performances in the second half of last season. That is why I think there is no reason to push the "panic button" just yet: we had such an imposing player who almost single-handedly took the team away from relegation last season on the sidelines, and besides, today really was an atypical "bad day at the office" that is bound to come once in a while for teams outside the top four.

Now here is my analysis and evaluation of the manager and each player who spent time on the pitch.

Mark Hughes (7): I thought his management and tactical analysis was fairly good today. It was the players who failed to carry out their duties, and I seriously hope he gives the players a good spraying.

He started off with a 4-4-2 formation, and that seemed to work well, since we were on top for the first 25 minutes or so. In the second half, he saw the game slipping away from us at 1-1, and so he decided to take Shefki Kuqi off and Vratislav Gresko on, playing a 4-5-1 with Aaron Mokoena as the defensive midfielder. It was a move that put me at ease, since I am very comfortable watching us play like that, but it was not to be with Mokoena having an unusually bad day and was responsible for West Ham's second goal by being beaten by the goalscorer he was marking.

After that, Hughes took off Mokoena for Paul Dickov to put us back into a 4-4-2, which I thought was the right move to try and get back into the game, but we could not get things back together after that.

Despite an overall good performance, Hughes gets negative marks for keeping an unfit Craig Bellamy on the pitch for the whole 90 minutes.

Brad Friedel (7): He let three goals past him, but that was more the fault of the defence than his own, so he gets a high rating amongst a lot of poor ratings.

Lucas Neill (8): I thought he had a very good day in defence, and added a lot to Rovers' attack down the right.

Andy Todd (5): He was beaten for pace regularly, was partially responsible for West Ham's first goal, and did not look up to the task all game. He only gets his five rating for the goal he scored in the 18th minute.

Aaron Mokoena (5): He was doing a halfway decent job on Ted Sherringham in the first half, roughing the old man up, but upon moving to defensive midfield, he really looked poor and was responsible for West Ham's second goal.

Dominic Matteo (6): He was not all that bad at left back and then at centre back. He did not stand out for me, which was a good thing today, actually.

Brett Emerton (5): He looked alright in the first half, doing some good things, getting in amongst the play, but got progressively worse as the game went on and in the end looked absolutely awful. His terrible pass from the bottom right corner into the defensive box gifted the Londoners their third goal, which sealed the game.

Steven Reid (6): He gets a six for being solid, but no more.

Robbie Savage (6): He gets a six for being solid and for making some good tackles which helped us along at times, and also for encouraging his team mates to get on with the game when the referee made some hard decisions.

Morten Gamst Pedersen (7): I am being generous in his rating because he did provide the corner kick cross for Andy Todd's goal, and he did trouble the opposition quite a bit too, but he was far too inaccurate most of the time.

Shefki Kuqi (6): He was mostly invisible and anonymous, but did some decent things, held up the ball a bit, and was strong in the air. His touch needs working on, though.

Craig Bellamy (5): He was missing all game and should not have played the 90 minutes, but it must be kept in mind that he has not had a proper pre-season, which undoubtedly hampered his form.

Vratislav Gresko (6): He was a substitute and did alright at left back, like Matteo, but I wish he would stop whinging at the referees and get on with the game.

Paul Dickov (4): He did nothing in his short time on the ground but whinge at the referees, which really ruined any continuity in our game. He was a bit unlucky to be red carded for his late tackle, which was not vicious, but I am glad he got it all the same, because his constant whinging infuriates me and it will be good not have him off the team for whatever number of games he is out for.

In conclusion, today's match was a damning performance and the wakeup call that Rovers needed. Hopefully manager Mark Hughes can seize on this performance and get the best out of the team in the coming weeks. There is no need to panic just yet, especially when the team looks to have a better attack (which was displayed in glimpses), while every Rovers supporter knows that Hughes' Blackburn can produce first class defensive performances regularly.