Manchester United: A Few Scattered Thoughts

Jose drowning in elation.

Jose drowning in elation.

Adding to the noise of United opinion pieces was something I had no intention of doing. Every thought I have about this has been covered by one writer or another. However, I’ve decided to go ahead and invalidate my original position and collate a few scattered takes on some broader issues. The main reasons I’m doing so can be reduced to not wanting to waste a decent caffeine high on a Sunday and because I’m tired of thinking about world politics. As an aside, thank you Dave Chappelle and ATCQ for helping us cope with that last point (I have no ads here, don’t wave that SEO finger at me, buddy).

First off, let’s all hold hands and cozy up around the inviting camp fire of Ander Herrera’s revival. Lawyers messed with the kindling, the club got the matches wet, a Dutchman stacked the wood the wrong way, but finally we have our blaze and it’s oh so beautiful. Ander’s an eager tackler, a dynamic presence able to affect the game at both ends of the pitch and best of all can form a balanced partnership with Paul Pogba. Nothing further needed.

As it pertains to the most infectious smile in the United dressing room since Patrice Evra, it’s been a mixed bag, but it’s so early in his second stint at United patience should not be demanded but assumed. He’s already added elements to our midfield play that had been absent for years. Come August 2017, there will have been a year of reintegration, a summer of proper recuperation and, one hopes, a supporting cast adequately altered according to the requirements of football Mourinho is aiming to play. With these things in mind it would not be a bold suggestion to think that Pogba’s best days at the club are well and truly ahead of him.

On to the dark overlord himself. I still can’t believe that America actually elected him. It’s almost like all the...wait, I’m getting sidetracked here. Jose Mourinho. Yes, that’s the one. To put it all out there I wasn’t enthusiastic about him joining the club when rumours first surfaced. Neither his character nor his brand of football were particularly attractive. The biggest attraction for myself was that his resume and experience were potent enough to smack any player dissention away in a manner not available to David Moyes. While van Gaal had the aggression, conviction and trophies to do so himself, he chose all the wrong hills to die on. At least we got Marcus Rashford and an FA Cup out of the whole [someone from the crowd stands up and screams: “don’t you dare”] process.

Mourinho has improved the style of play to some extent, that’s hard to deny. The problem is that both him and van Gaal play a style of football that can be countered in fairly straightforward ways but to varying degrees of difficulty.

There was a moment in time where you could see how van Gaal wanted to play and it wasn’t ominous and frightening. You just hoped that it would speed up, become more fluid, that clear cut chances would increase without guaranteeing leaking goals at the back. At its most extreme iteration van Gaal’s style shares similarities to Guardiola’s: playing from the back, midfielders manning the defensive line, a tendency to press (albeit far from the cohesive and intensive manner of Klopp or Pochettino), close proximity of player quartets with a winger or inside forward dutifully sticking as far away as possible waiting to be released. It all becomes problematic when you throw positional rigidity and pragmatism-induced conservatism into the mix. Not to mention player quality but that’s another story altogether.

Zlatan also drowning in elation.

Zlatan also drowning in elation.

I won’t attempt to analyze Mourinho’s style. Not only has that been done to death before by clearly more educated people but it’s also of no big concern to me. What I will say, however, is that his talk about ‘the profile of player we want’ during the summer is something that I’m still very much in agreement with. If we accept that him wanting to be at least able to field a solid defensive line and counter in a rapid and effective way then that’s what the transfer policy must try to facilitate.

Bailly and Pogba are transfers that patently fit that profile. Ibrahimovic is a short-term addition. Mkhitaryan is where things become a bit more vague. Actually, that’s an understatement. Mkhitaryan is where things dye their hair orange-red and put a green suit with black question marks [another person from the crowd preemptively chucks an egg] riddled all over the fabric. Add the Luke Shaw and Chris Smalling man management concerns and you begin to worry that he might be using the pimp hand a tad too often.

Returning back to the player profile argument, one player who does not fit the desired style of play (or any modern style for that matter) is Marouane Fellaini. Yes, there’s Ashley Young who’s earning a ton of money to offer not much in return but at least he’s able to control the ball and isn’t slower than an audio recording of paint drying. An audio recording of paint drying chopped and screwed, rather. Please Napoli, you know want to buy him off of us. Do it for the culture.

There’s other players that should make way for one reason or another. Some for their own careers’ sake (hallo Memphis). I assume the club will be moving to make that happen in January and during the next summer transfer window. Beyond player exits it’s been pleasing to see the board make tangible improvements to the youth setup as well as the scouting department. It’s hard to get excited by that when you’re being held at home by a Louis CK lookalike from a universe with only sharp angles but still. Things are generally moving towards a positive direction. Whether Mourinho will still be here in two years’ time to see his vision through is an unknown. Will the manager after him benefit from Mourinho’s tenure? Well, does Rooney’s manager live off the cowardice of a Glaswegian manager currently making a lazy jog away from the ravenous mandibles of relegation?

Kyriacos Nicolaou

Please, Memphis, My Knuckles Don’t Like It When I Punch The Wall

The game against Norwich presented Memphis with an opportunity to remind people why United moved so decisively for him in 2015. United’s overall display was as drab as van Gaal’s worst naysayers have come to associate his teams with. In other words, a perfectly stark canvas for a creative wide forward to draw on. An above-average performance would have inadvertently been upgraded to ‘promising’, an assist would show he can be ‘effective’, a goal, one perhaps stemming from him cutting in from the left, would be labeled ‘dazzling’. Instead, what fans were served was yet another exasperating exhibit of unrealized potential. Another bat swing at an already-smashed pinata bleeding hype all over your expensive rug.

That Norwich’s full-back and midfield pressed him fairly tightly in the first half is a paltry excuse. His decision-making was either poor or just slow to materialize, and his execution of either passes, shots, crosses or dribbles made fans question the exclusion of Ashley Young or Adnan Januzaj. A 10 minute highlight clip I found online contains no Memphis moments bar his second free-kick attempt during the dying moments of the game.

One instance during the game was particularly frustrating. During a transition he found himself running down the left flank and towards the box one-on-one with a Norwich defender. It was the ideal scenario for him to make an impact. Instead he tried to elude the defender by cutting in and then cutting back to the left again, only the move was neither adequately sudden nor was it in any way difficult to read. He was dispossessed as easily as Regan MacNeil surrounded by a swarm of angels.

 

During a conversation with a Dutchman on twitter we both noted that the saddest thing about him at the moment is that a solution is nowhere near obvious. That his confidence is shot is fairly easy to see. He’s visibly trying to make things work which in turn slows his play down even further. It’s no coincidence that his best game in a United shirt was against FC Midtjylland. Granted, they are arguably the worst team United have faced in recent memory, but beyond the opponent’s lack of quality it was the overall tempo of the game which facilitated such a performance from Memphis. He had time to think, space to run into, little threat of being punished on the counter and the cushion of the collective focus that the threat of disqualification had ushered.

That his favourite position is that which Anthony Martial currently dominating from is also quite unfortunate. Excluding the two center-back positions there is no other outfield player as accomplished and as effective as the Frenchman. There has been experimentation all over the pitch. Had Memphis shown signs that he could be effective at number ten or as an out-and-out striker I believe we would have undoubtedly seen more of him. Sadly for all involved that’s not the case.

The other worrying thing is his physical condition. A lot has been said about him bulking up and he himself has denied that it has hindered him in any way. Seeing him play, however, tells a different story. He simply seems to be too stocky to pull off the moves he so clearly has the talent and inclination to pull.

You can see him standing with the ball at his feet labouring over his options or slowly rolling it towards a defender but the quick flick to either side is so telegraphed the ball is intercepted more often than not. He can’t face poor old André Rømer every time, god bless his soul.

I never subscribed to the notion of wanting United to miss out on Champions League football in order to solidify the case for van Gaal’s dismissal. That said, last night’s loss to West Ham might be positive for Memphis. Expectations have been lowered already, but perhaps a Europa League run would suit his strengths.

On the surface it would appear that he requires three things to happen before he even begins justifying the financial outlay: an altered training regime, a less choppy appearance streak and a healthy dose of tranquility. The latter two are naturally intertwined, but he seems to be so aware of what he does and what he wants to achieve that even consecutive starts would do little for him if they are not personally productive.

Most of the criticism of him is now qualified with wishes of future regret, that Memphis kicks on and makes us all eat our words. Perhaps he will do just that. Maybe a managerial shake-up and a tweaked style of play combined with improved decision-making and less time dwelling on the ball can elevate him in a similar manner to Érik Lamela. This is easier said than done, of course, but he’s young and talented enough for one to remain hopeful.

Kyriacos Nicolaou

 

It's Been An Ugly Season And Apollon Limassol Don't Deserve To Win It

It’s been an ugly season. A league that has never been famous for its elegance and overall quality has found it in itself to manifest scenes even uglier than usual this year. And as unsightly as the league has been I can still muster up no courage to craft a case for Apollon Limassol winning it.

If your first thought in reaction to my statement involves the phrase “but no other club has been perfect either” you’re missing the point. A team aspiring to become champions should care little for the merits of its competitors. Not to mention that there’s a difference between perfect and worthy. Perfection is nigh on impossible. A consistently high level of performance is not, however,  and that is the standard a championship-chasing team should aspire to. Even the most ardent Apollon fan would find it difficult to claim that the Limassol club have done that.

Image rights: www.omonoia.com.cy

Image rights: www.omonoia.com.cy

 

Ugly Season

I’m not hasty in my declaration that this season has not been too enjoyable for any particular set of fans. It’s not my aim to discredit the eventual champions. However, one must admit that this season has been as tasty as stale chicken soup left in the Arizona sun for the flies to feast upon.

Where does one begin? The quality of play has ranged from intermittently deliberate to amateurishly haphazard. Apollon perfectly encapsulate that with two games in particular posing themselves as perfect examples: The win over Anorthosis Famagusta at home in February being the former and the game against Omonoia Nicosia yesterday being the latter.

A quick look at the table is all you need to know about the average level of performance this season. Current leaders Apollon (Apoel can leapfrog them if they win against Ermis today) have scored 53 goals in 27 games, a league high, but have conceded a whopping 33 goals. By comparison, they conceded a paltry 19 goals in the regular season last year and an extra 10 during the playoffs for a total of 29. With 5 games to go, there’s nothing to suggest they won’t far exceed that. Meanwhile, Apoel have let in a much more respectable 17 goals this season, but have a scored just 38 goals themselves. They scored a massive 78 goals last season (playoffs included) and conceded just 25. Omonoia have scored one more than Apoel but have let in even more goals than their Nicosia counterparts.

As for the other reasons the league has been distinctly joyless this season, I’ll keep it brief because it isn’t my desire to depress you. Let’s start with the undying and thoroughly justified rumours of match-fixing. Frankly, the situation is getting out of hand. Corruption in Cyprus is an undeniable part of everyday life, but I think these few years, along with the coming one, are the tipping point. Even the prominent and influential New York Times saw it fit to cover the mess that is Cypriot football.

The bombs, threats, UEFA-sourced red flags, corruption and various other bits of nastiness are not alien to Cypriots, but I think there’s one differentiating factor that worsens things even further: the nonchalant fashion in which Marios Panayi’s accusations were swept to the side. For the first time, someone with clandestine knowledge pertaining to football in Cyprus decided to risk their livelihood and, if we’re being honest, well-being, and the authorities raised a single eyebrow and scoffed a sickly ‘we don’t give a toss’ at his and the public’s general direction. Panayi’s motives are wholly irrelevant. We all know that what he said was at the very least adequately factual. The CFA and Mr. Koutsokoumnis will point to Apoel and Apollon’s European endeavours as the sole indicators of Cypriot football’s quality and health. To allow him that would be detrimental and offensive to both the sport and common sense. The CFA’s one (potential) success is entirely political, but we’ll leave that topic for another day.

Furthemore, we’ve seen TV rights segregated and sold to different platforms all to the burden of the average football fan. It costs way too much for someone to have the privilege of watching this congregation of agent-shaped squads battle it out in dated stadia against a background of cynicism-fuelling din of rumours and leaks.

The CFA has dished out bans and fines in a scattergun approach that’s done little to keep hooligans away. It’s only helped to keep more people away from attending their club’s game. As for the ill-fated (one hopes this will not change) attempts of Mr. Ionas Nicolaou to impose slipshod measures that are supposedly aimed at curtailing violence, I have way too little bile and time to cover those properly. May they come up for discussion again.

Finally, the CFA went against both reason and public sentiment and refused to lower the number of teams participating in the league and alter its overall structure. They’re quite similar to FIFA in that regard.

Image rights: www.cfa.com.cy

Image rights: www.cfa.com.cy

 

Contempt for continuity

Here’s my reductive but probably accurate one-liner for the week: any team that’s had 3 different managers before the season’s over does not deserve to win the league. There it is. Does it really need further analysis?

I recently wrote to a friend that stability and continuity are as cherished here as kindness and humanity are in a Katie Hopkins column. I stand by that statement. There’s no need to look up who’s the longest serving manager in the league. At best it’ll be two years. Apollon and Apoel, the league’s two frontrunners, have had their current managers for a couple of weeks and four months respectively. Just think about that.

Regarding Apollon, in terms of vision and transfers, there’s no real evidence that there’s been a cohesive plan about the whole thing. Apollon had a decent squad last season. They finished third and needed a few additions that would both elevate the squad’s quality and help the current members up their level of performance. Instead, players have come and gone in numbers so large it’s baffling.

Not only that, but it seems the club has also served as a vessel for agents. Christos Intzidis  and Doneil Henry were both ‘funnelled’ through the club in shady fashion. Apollon is hardly alone in doing this in Cyprus. Let’s not forget that Doxa Katokopias are run by an agent, Costas Karavidas. Supposedly he’s not acting in that role whilst running the club, but we all know what’s happening here.

The best of a bad bunch

Apoel are probably favourites to win the league and are most likely capable of doing it. As I said earlier, it is not my intent to discredit the eventual champions, but whichever club manages to plod ahead in the least dire manner will be crowned league winners. That’s hardly an endorsement. Apollon can look at their game against Omonoia yesterday as proof of why they shouldn’t feel wronged if they miss out. It was a season low, despite the mitigating circumstances. 4 points in 5 games during the playoffs leave little room for misinterpretation. Worthy of the league? I’m sorry, but they’re far from it.  

Kyriacos Nicolaou

 

The Ignored Value and Ill-treatment of Backroom Staff

You cannot guarantee absolute success when dealing within a law-reigned environment. Even in unlawful settings the word guarantee is as hollow as the moral values of the participants. This applies both in business and in sport. You can, however, legitimately assure that you’re in contention to compete for it, which may also result in partially attaining it.

It was my intention to write a lengthier, more detailed piece about how this relates to football, but I’ll keep it fairly short - for now.

Simply put, the ceaseless acquisition of talent is not a sustainable method of achieving success in the vast majority of leagues and especially in Cyprus. There’s a large number of factors why this is the case, the most obvious being that revenue is insufficient to fund such a high turnover of personnel. Another factor is that constantly laying people off through early contract terminations results in the accumulation of debt and most damningly of all fosters an environment of instability and uncertainty. Confidence suffers, performances suffer.

I could go on about the effects of this type of club management, but I’ll restrict myself to a painfully elementary comment about Cypriot clubs and their backroom staff. Simply put, pay your f*cking employees.

Recently, we’ve seen Apoel Nicosia and Apollon Limassol exchange officiating-related barbs through club statements, press releases and social media accounts. Regardless of the quality of refereeing, which was admittedly lacklustre in two or three incidents, it’s a fairly classless way to conduct yourself as a club. One could argue that they’re a pretty accurate reflection of Cypriot society in general, but let’s exercise our deliciously stubborn right to not swandive into that ever-beckoning rabbithole.

Image rights: www.apollon.com.cy

Image rights: www.apollon.com.cy

Returning to my main point, it was recently announced that both clubs would be penalised by the Cypriot FA and are now subject to fines which must be paid within seven days of them being officially handed out. All nice and well, but one thing has escaped the media’s attention and not for the first time. Clubs casually take decisions which hinder them financially. Sometimes greatly, but more often than not the sums are relatively negligible in the wider context. Well, except if you’re a physio who’s owed three months in wages and your bank seems to have your phone on speed dial.

This is regretfully far from uncommon. Clubs, and the great majority of fans, perceive football to be all about the players. Although the game would not exist without its much recognized protagonists, it also needs its core structure of coaches, doctors, assistants and every other person who helps a team to function properly. The fact that they’re so underappreciated and undervalued reflects very poorly on both the owners’ management skills and the fans’ understanding of how the game works off the pitch.

There’s no need to go on about this any further. Pay your employees and understand that clubs are not charities. Players aren’t there to donate their time and bodies to a club’s cause and neither are the backroom staff. They have families that depend on them, goals that require money to be realized and lives outside of the game. Their marginalization within a club’s structure is a disgrace.

Kyriacos Nicolaou


Sweet Sabotage and Seasonal Sourness: Lessons from the Weekend

The business end of the season has commenced and the top six are desperately trying to eek out a few decent performances like preening cockatiels. Sadly for some of them, not only are their feathers tangled and grimy, but their beaks are scuffed and their necks incapable of bending. Below we take a look at various points from the three games.

Roberto Garcia reaffirms reputation of poor goal-getter

Roberto Garcia didn’t arrive in Cyprus with the greatest stats for a forward. He scored 16 goals in 73 goals for Huesca and a paltry 4 in 34 for Gimnastic. He has other qualities, however, which help his case, but not at the highest level. He’s astoundingly professional, a hard worker and a very competent target man. He can bring the ball down well and his link-up play can enable those around him to prosper. Unfortunately, not only was this not enough for Omonoia on Sunday, but his poor finishing and lack of pace both came to the forefront once more as he could neither fashion a quality chance for himself, nor slot the ball into the net when a couple opportunities fell to his feet. It’s been rumoured that manager Kaiafas does not hold him to a particularly high regard and that’s perhaps dented his confidence even further. I would be very surprised if he remains an Omonoia player past this summer.

image right:  www.  omonoia  .com.cy

image right: www.omonoia.com.cy

Thuram has improved but far from a natural winger

I once had the misfortune of uttering some mildly unflattering comments about a player belonging to a Limassol club in front of his agent. This club may or not may be Apollon. That player may or not be Thuram. The Brazilian forward has not had the best of my times for Apollon and to be perfectly honest it’s hard to pretend that this is a surprise. Why? Because the Brazilian is a forward being played on the wing without having the attributes to be played there. Brazilian football is well-known for it’s disjointed tactical setup. Forwards and wingers don’t generally track back to help with defensive duties, especially at the level of players who find themselves in the lowly Cypriot league at the age of 24. There are lot of things to like about Thuram. He’s conducted himself well on the pitch and generally hasn’t shown much disdain about being played out wide. He’s even improved positionally and his work ethic is fairly high for a forward. He’s even slotted at right wing-back for half a game, despite that particular game’s manic and chaotic nature. The fact remains though. He’s not adept at playing wide. His first touch and spatial awareness out wide are unsatisfactory and his passing lacks accuracy or timing. It must be noted that the latter two attributes have improved greatly since the beginning of the season, but not to a degree where it’s merited for him to become a permanent winger. It’s fine when the game is open and Apollon is countering. His pace and willingness to go toe-to-toe with opposing full-backs can prove lethal when he’s on-song, but in tighter, more tactically demanding games, like the one against Ermis, he becomes fairly anonymous. Hopefully he’ll be given some more time as either a pure forward or one just behind the main attacker.

image rights: www. apollon .com.cy

image rights: www.apollon.com.cy

Isma lacks both sharpness and fitness

Esmaël ‘Isma’ Gonçalves’ second stint on the island comes with minimal hype. He was a January acquisition by a club that’s currently working with a relatively limited budget and boy does it show. Isma does possess some quality. After all, that’s what prompted Apoel to take a bet on him a season earlier. Whatever excitement his loan move from Rio Ave had generated fizzled away after Apoel’s disqualification from the Champions League. At least he looked fit then. That’s not exactly the case now. He appears overweight and this shows not only in terms of pace and stamina, but also in terms of how sharp he is on the pitch. A leaner, more focused Isma would have grabbed a goal against Apollon and would have formed some semblance of a threat against the somewhat shaky Apoel. I’m not sure of his wages, and one would assume they’re not excessively high, but Anorthosi may have a decent forward in their hands if they manage to make him lose weight and maintain his focus. His career stats don’t the story of a clinical finisher, but he has the alleviating excuses of uncertainty and nomadism. He’s had two goals for the Famagusta club so far, but I think he could at least be a 10 goal forward for them. Things are always in flux in Cypriot football so I wouldn’t wager in favour of him being here next season, but let’s see. There’s discreet air of underlying positivity at Anorthosis. There’s the slightest suspicion of safe, careful reconstruction and renewal emanating from the club. The underdog status against the big boys makes for a platform on which calmness can blossom from, although this is somewhat devious and must not become permanent. Next season will be telling for both Anorthosis and some of its players.

image rights: www. apoel fc.com.cy

image rights: www.apoelfc.com.cy

Ermis fully deserve their win

There’s no need for beating around the bush. Ermis’ win is rightful and just.  Mitchell Van der Gaag set his side up as he should and studied the opponent as well as anyone. He sat deep, absorbed Apollon’s lukewarm pressure with consummate ease and countered to a devastating effect. I’d venture to say that the one nil win actually flatters Apollon. For a number of reasons the Limassol club were dire and the effects of this loss will be felt for long, long time. Loss of momentum, losing first place, two major injuries, you name it. It all went wrong for Andones’ team against the boys in red and black. Ermis could have also had a penalty after the ball made contact with Merkis’ arm and might have also been entitled to a goal if Manu’s goal had indeed went over the line completely. And what of Ifeanyi Onyilo’s goal? Say what you want about Vale’s positioning and the defence standing the Nigerian off so much, but you can’t deny the beauty of the strike. Papoulis was the one who came into this game with the reputation of the occasional outside-the-box curler but the Red Star man outdid him and then some. If Ermis repeat their performance against Apollon in the following games it would be quite reasonable to assume that the Nicosia clubs are also under threat against them. The playoffs are shaping up to offer some tasty games ahead.


Nick Ioannou: The Disappointment of Repatriation

An overused and thoroughly outdated meme utilizes a famous Star Wars scene to signify abject disappointment and bitter regret. A middle-aged Obi-Wan Kenobi standing on cooked rock with the privilege of overlooking a wonderfully inviting river of lava, barking ‘you were the chosen one!’ at the Dark Side’s latest signing. ‘You could have been the next George Best, Anakin!’ ‘I’d have benched seven Cristiano Ronaldos for you!’ I hear you saying that the last two quotes may or may not have been uttered by the bearded handsomeness that is Ewan McGregor. I tell you to grow up and check the deleted scenes. It’s all there.

This is pretty much how I felt upon learning that Nick Ioannou, the former Manchester United U18 player, had signed with Cypriot club Apoel. Not that the Nicosia club even remotely get close to the Sith in terms of ominous connotations of sinister machinations and clinical cruelty, but that’s somewhat besides the point. What concerns us here is the motivation of young Nick ‘Anakin’ Ioannou.

Image rights: www.manutd.com

Image rights: www.manutd.com

 

It is unfair to pin your asphyxiatingly high hopes on someone else, let alone a youngster still feeling his way towards maturity. It is also inevitable when we’re talking sports and all the emotional projection that comes along with it. There’s no shame for me here. I know I was not alone in this ultimately unwarranted optimism. Quite a few people I’d spoken to at the time felt that young Nick would usher Cypriot football to a new era. I’m not talking about delusions of tournament wins and kids in Angola rocking the Cypriot national team kit here. Just a flesh-and-bone approval of aspiration. An organic seal that the perennially mocked Cypriot mentality would change course; a sluggish trudge through a swamp of corruption and indiscipline towards a land where hard work and determination are the primary foundations that success, of an ilk that’s gloriously unshackled from the limitations of context, is proudly built upon.

I’d seen precious little of Ioannou for me to have had an objective, complete opinion about his ability as a teen as well as his future potential. A few matches with the U18s were hardly adequate for a proper evaluation. We know he made his debut for the U18s in 2012 at the tender age of 16. Match reports from back then make note of a solid performance against Derby.

He steadily improved since then and seemed to had gained the trust of coach Paul McGuinness. He played both as a center back and a left back whilst at United, being described as player who could be aggressive and combative during the execution of his defensive duties, but also as a defender who felt comfortable on the ball and could bring it out of defence if the opportunity presented itself.

News of United not offering a contract to Ioannou came as a surprise to a lot of people following the younger sides of the club. Less gifted and less competent players had indeed been offered contracts; this made the whole thing a tad suspicious to consider. If he was indeed as promising as people said then why didn’t the club try to renew his contract? He even captained the U18s on his last game for United against Tottenham. Hardly an indication that he wasn’t held in at least decent regard.

I don’t know what happened behind closed doors and this is purely speculation on my part. Either the club did not really rate him or something went down that prevented the club from proceeding with a formal offer for renewal. All evidence points to the latter being the more realistic scenario.

Perhaps he’d unofficially made a demand deemed too excessive by the club or, and this is way more probable, he didn’t want to renew as someone may have convinced him that his future would be better away from Manchester.

Perhaps it was the dire Mancunian weather and the promise of sunshine back home. Perhaps his father, a rather well-known figure amongst sports fans in Cyprus and a formidable center back during his playing days, had already talked to a few clubs back home. Could have been the more than decent money he’s rumoured to be getting at Apoel. Word is that he’s receiving somewhere around 40,000 euros a year with an annual increase until the end of his contract, along with other bonuses. No other Cypriot player at his age is being paid anything near that at the moment so I can understand how that might have swayed him. The final factor that could have acted as a sweetener to the deal would be the promise of playing time in a senior setup. Admittedly he’d have to wait a couple of years before achieving that at United - provided he made the cut. That said, he’s only registered two appearances for Apoel so far. The minimal room for risk at the Nicosia club has not helped his case.

Image rights: http://www.apoelfc.com.cy

Image rights: http://www.apoelfc.com.cy

 

But all that is inconsequential. As someone observing from the outer circles of the sport I felt like a promise was broken. Fans are many things, fickle being the most apparent trait. They’re also hopeful. Hopeful that their out-of-form striker will somehow be touched by the spirit of six deities and score a dozen bicycle kicks against the next opponent not knowing the incredible calamity awaiting them. Hopeful that an Uzbeki trillionaire will put all business acumen to the side and purchase their faltering club. Hopeful that a youngster will evolve into a great player, gracing the first team for years to come. The latter is the general area where Ioannou’s case falls in.

At the worst of scenarios I pictured him learning his trade as a center back at United’s reserve team before a move to a Championship side. The English game is undeniably tough on many levels and would have both sharpened and toughened Ioannou in ways the Cypriot league can never hope to achieve. I truly hope the boy proves me wrong and flourishes here before moving abroad once again. I hope that one day he sends me this article with the sliest of comments accompanying it. I would proudly consume every morsel of that particularly tasty humble pie with great eagerness.

Kyriacos Nicolaou

Apollon can only blame themselves, but Tratos' performance did little to dispel prejudices

In previous posts I’ve written how even an out-of-form Morais is still a non-negligible asset for Apoel. Today he only reinforced that notion with the most tangible contribution possible: a goal in the dying moments against a rival.

It wasn’t a game the neutral will have savoured a great deal. Apoel were to initially play behind closed doors, but that was altered so that retirees, women and children could attend the game. The atmosphere was tepid at best.

Apollon don’t traditionally do well against Apoel in Nicosia. Today appeared to be different. After a somewhat lukewarm first few minutes, Apollon grew into the game and began threatening Apoel by what was a predictable initial approach. They patiently stood off in their own half, absorbed whatever pressure Apoel applied and broke off on counter attacks as quickly as they could muster, often through direct balls to Guie, who was positioned primarily in the middle, or Fotis Papoulis and Thuram on the wings.

During that first twenty minute spell, Apoel captain Constantinos Charalambides attempted to push forward down the right wing but often found himself in a dead end. He was obviously given the freedom to roam towards the center, an area where his through balls for Djebbour had the potential to hurt Apollon, but that didn’t work all too well for him today. Similarly, attacking midfielder De Vincenti didn’t find much joy in his final pass despite him having one of the best chances to score. Unfortunately for him his seemingly simple finish met a good block and the ball was subsequently deflected out for a corner. Both of Apoel’s full-backs, Riice and Mario Sergio, also had chances to open the score but in both occasions their powerful shots fizzed over the bar.

It was Apollon who would have the better and more numerous chances to score, however, and Guie would be at the forefront in most of them. Guie is currently one of Apollon’s most in-form players but you would not have guessed it if today’s game was your first one seeing the Ivorian forward play. It was fairly obvious that Apoel’s center back Kaka had clear instructions to stick tight to Guie, hassle him, disrupt his play and most importantly not let him turn towards the goal with any sort of freedom to run into space. It worked for the first 15 minutes or so but then Apollon varied their offensive play a little by not playing the ball to Guie’s feet all the time and either used their two widemen as offensive outlets or played the ball into space for Guie to latch on to. It worked as Guie had an opportunity to score when he was released down the right by Thuram but his shot was blocked away by Pardo. The oncoming Papoulis was quickly closed down but should have done better with the regained possession regardless.

In terms of midfield performances, many expected Rosa to shine, but he was a tad too cautious and unwilling to be more direct with his passes at times. Next to him in the middle, and though he’s been much maligned this season, Camel Meriem had one of his better games for the blues. His passing was generally accurate, he tackled well when he had to (especially in the first half) and did not shy away from bringing the ball out of his own half even when the midfield area was notably congested.

GSP Stadium. Image source: www.gsp.org.cy

GSP Stadium. Image source: www.gsp.org.cy

Apoel had a significantly better time in keeping possession in the second half. Apollon sat a bit deeper again and invited pressure with their opponents more than happy to oblige. This spell of domination yielded two decent moments for Apoel, one being an Efrem header (off target) and the other a hard, straight shot by De Vincenti which was saved by Vale.

While Apoel appeared to be in complete control and were poised to become even more threatening in the offensive third, the first of the game’s three most noteworthy events took place. In the 71st minute, Apollon’s Guie was released into space with only the keeper to face but was pulled down by Kaka from behind. It was an unambiguously straight red for the Brazilian center back. Thorsten Fink responded immediately by taking Charalambides off for a replacement center back, Carlao.

Apollon quickly utilized their numerical advantage by playing a bit further up the pitch knowing that Apoel were now both lighter in midfield and cautious when breaking in a counter attack. Only 7 minutes after the red card, the second most critical event materialized. A speculative forward pass was ill-judged by the Apoel center backs causing them to sort of clash onto each other. Papoulis showed good anticipation to follow the ball and was duly rewarded by finding himself free in the box with the ball in possession, unchallenged and with only Urko Pardo to deal with. For some inexplicable reason Leontios Tratos decided to blow the whistle for what I can only guess is an inexistent foul by Papoulis who was a metre away from the nearest Apoel player. Papoulis’ facial expression was that of unadulterated frustration and bewilderment. Many fans speak of how hard it is to get decisions to go your way at GSP. Though exaggeration and delusion are no strangers to the soured football fan walking away from a loss, Tratos did absolutely nothing to dispel any prejudices today.

Apollon continued to threaten Apoel but Guie’s profligacy lingered and would come back to haunt them. The game began to lose momentum in the dying moments, players and fans alike accepting the possibility of a draw, but Apollon’s loss of concentration would make all those missed opportunities a bit more difficult to swallow. After Tiago Gomes came on for the largely ineffective Giorgos Efrem and with mere seconds to go for the added time to meet its minimum amount, Apoel scored. Merkis’ professional foul during an Apoel counter made it seem that Apollon would regroup and see the game out, content with the draw and the subsequent point advantage remaining intact. However, Apoel took the foul quickly, passing to Djebbour down the left. He carried the ball forward and crossed while near the byline with right back Nuno Lopes offering little in terms of defensive cover. The remarkably unmarked Nuno Morais comfortably headed the ball in the net utterly demoralizing the Limassol club.

Ioan Andone will undoubtedly be feeling aggrieved after today. Not only did his team come close to winning away against a fierce rival, but they also showed confidence and initiative. Having said that, the performance counts for little when you lose in such fashion. Apollon need to use today as both a springboard to challenge for the title and as a lesson which should be used in future encounters.

The game is not over until the final whistle is blown; Apoel are evidently adequately aware of this. The referee’s sizable blunder earlier in the game may provide some semblance of moral superiority, but that does not affect the scoreboard in any way. Kolokoudias was Andone’s only introduction today but he offered little going forward. Perhaps the Romanian manager didn’t make any other changes so as to not disrupt his team, but in hindsight he could have altered things a little after the red card to solidify his team’s superiority by flooding the midfield or by bringing on some fresh legs. It was jokingly said that Sangoy’s lengthy ban would only help the team play better. After today I’m not quite as certain that is a valid notion. Apollon are a bit more functional, and Sangoy does tend to fade in certain games, but his attacking contribution was sorely missed in a game such as this one. If Apollon are serious about their title challenge they must bow down to the inescapable necessity of being ferociously decisive in front of goal.

Kyriacos Nicolaou

 

 

Nea Salamina vs Apoel Nicosia: Bad decisions go both ways

It’s now been four days since Salamina lost to Apoel and the main message emanating from the reds is that of injustice and partiality. Club official George Constantinou spoke of persisting referee mistakes and asked for solutions, some sort of change to amend the current situation. The manager, former Cypriot international Nicos Panayiotou, proceeded to thank the fans for their ‘stamina’, the patience they’ve shown throughout this difficult season, and said that Salamina will try to win ‘on the pitch’, hinting that external forces are helping other clubs.

Salamina have been on a collision course with the Cypriot FA for some time now. They have stated time and again that the current situation is unbearably slanted, profoundly corrupt. No matter your views on the game itself, it would be incredibly difficult to oppose that view. Whilst other clubs have vocalised their disdain with the current administration, Salamina have been slightly more consistent in their stance. Some clubs bounce between rage and diplomacy, between displeasure and contentment. Salamina appear to have been left with few allies within the system. All things considered, this is a major compliment.

As far as the game is concerned, my view occupies a grey area, as it most often does. Apoel did have a few decisions go in their favour, more conspicuously an offside goal that was allowed to stand, however, it was the gulf in quality between them and Salamina that saw Fink’s men take all three points. Make no mistake, Apoel, despite their rocky and unconvincing performances, still possess talented players able to come on top in individual battles, and at the end of the day, that goes a long way. Conversely, Salamina have often been found wanting, especially when one or two key players become unavailable.

Salamina had to do without Grigalashvili and Diego Leόn: a major depletion of both energy and creativity in midfield. It is already a tough ask to go against Apoel to begin with, but to do so without your captain and recent purchase further raises the height of the hurdle.

Apoel fielded two new players against the reds. Martin Lanig started in midfield, slotting next to Nuno Morais, whilst Valmir Nafiu came on as a substitute later in the game. Lanig performed adequately, sticking close to the players in his zone and tackling ably, especially in one occasion where Apoel had conceded position just outside the opposition penalty box. Lanig’s precise tackle stopped what would be one of Salamina’s numerous counters dead in its tracks. Nafiu had a more anonymous presence, not helped by Apoel’s attempt to lower the game’s tempo and control the proceedings in the last 15 minutes.

Players greet each other before the game begins.

Players greet each other before the game begins.

 

Salamina are on a tight budget and it shows. They have players who can run, but can’t consistently find a teammate with their passes. They have players who can pass well but are slight and easily checked. They have players who are strong and imposing, but are slow and cumbersome. Granted, no team in Cyprus can afford players without any weaknesses whatsoever, but some have managed to obtain players whose limitations are not excessively notable.

Ram Strauss, for example, saved some decent shorts, including a penalty by Djebbour, but scuffed clearances, sliced passes and punched in situations where he should have caught, or at least tried to catch, the ball. Even when in his 6-yard box he chose to fist the ball away, rather than attempt to make it his own, despite the fact that any challenge by a rival would be deemed a foul. His performance and general eccentricity will have done nothing to alleviate some of the stress from the four defenders in front of him.

Speaking of which, Solomon Grimes must be a source of frustration for the Salamina fans. Not because he is the worst player in the squad, but because they must beat themselves over what could have been had Grimes’ decision making and passing were even of an acceptable level.

The general lack of these two attributes from certain Salamina players might have afforded Apoel a less stressful encounter and, ultimately, have denied Salamina from at least the point of a draw. Grimes was not alone in his poor in-game choices. The worst offender, considering he was brought on from the bench and should theoretically have exploited the openness of the game and the tired legs of his opponents, was none other than Pedrito.

It all started promisingly enough, but quickly deteriorated into a farce. Panayiotou initially placed him in a wide position, but he roamed around the pitch as needed the more he grew into the game. His introduction injected some much needed spirit into Salamina’s game, his directness and eagerness to run through congested parts of the pitch a sharp contrast to the stodginess of the first half, but there was no end product. The epitome of this came on the 86th minute where, whilst on a counter attack, Pedrito found himself flanked by two teammates and opposed by only two Apoel players. Outnumbering the opponent players, Pedrito could have quickly passed to Aurelio, who was nearer the goal, unmarked and more likely to latch onto a forward pass, but he passed to his right, towards Henrique. Not only was Henrique further away from goal, but he’s also one of Salamina’s slowest players. Pedrito’s overhit pass only added insult to injury.

On the other side of the token, Apoel had no such problems. Whilst they’re underperforming and aren’t generally very inspiring to watch at the moment, Apoel can rely on a few players for consistency. For example, Nuno Morais, though not playing to his usual high standards, is a model of quiet dependability. He cooly chested the ball to teammates, tackled and marked adequately and generally found a player in a yellow jersey with the vast majority of his passes. In tandem with Lanig, Apoel seem to have stumbled onto a very solid base for the front four to launch attacks from. That being said, Morais should have seen a yellow card during the first half. Salamina were in the middle of a counter (notice a theme here?) when the ball hit his arm. The touch did not stop the ball from reaching a Salamina player so the referee correctly let the attack unfold. However, after the ball went out of play, he should have cautioned the Portuguese midfielder.

Apoel in possession during the first half.

Apoel in possession during the first half.

The reds find themselves in 9th place with 17 points. Considering the performances of the teams above them, Salamina have a right to feel displeased about not being higher up the table. Nicos Panayiotou will undoubtedly seek to improve the team’s displays and, considering the players coming back from injury or suspension, as well as the offensive addition of Jean-Eudes Maurice, I think he’ll manage it. Whether that will translate to more points for the Famagusta club remains to be seen.

Salamina’s need to score more goals marginally outweighs the need to concede fewer of them, so the fact that they have directly addressed that need must be encouraging for their fans. Maurice must justify the excitement generated by his signing, but he is not alone in needing to burden the weight of expectation. Eze and Henrique must up their game. The later’s header straight to Pardo will have done nothing for his confidence, whilst the former’s aimless, at times, runs did nothing to intimidate neither Kaká nor Amorim. However, it must be said that Eze’s movement with the ball away from the box, as infuriating as it was to the home fans, did aid Salamina in retaining possession and slowing things down facilitating a more orthodox attack. With that in mind, even that type of contribution melted away in the second half.

Apoel are within arm’s length from Apollon and will hope that more assured performances and a slip by their Limassol rivals will help them retain the title. Neither Apollon nor Apoel can lay claim to regularly captivating performances, thus it is quite intriguing to see how the second round plays out. Hopefully fans across the island will be treated to a bit more enthusiasm and adventure by the players, but most importantly treated with a bit more respect and decency by the officials. Now wouldn't that be grand.

Kyriacos Nicolaou
 

 

Bernard Mendy: French flair for floundering AEL

January is a busy month for Cypriot teams. Their often hasty dealings during the summer bear fruit during the winter. It’s funnier that way. It seems that agents entrenched in a club’s circle can actually be wrong about the quality of one of their clients.

AEL could not possibly be an exception, especially when considering that they let their manager Ivaylo Petev let go in November. He has been replaced by former Apollon Limassol manager Christakis Christoforou. That in itself deserves an article of its own, but we’ll focus on a different man here.

Christoforou has opted for both experience and versatility in defence. A limited budget, player exits (center back Ricardo Sousa recently left for Gil Vicente) and an underwhelming first round leave little room for unknown quantities or positionally rigid additions.

AEL have found, and promptly signed, a player that fulfills both of those requirements. Bernard Mendy may not be as exciting or as a flashy forward, or even as well-known as some of the players that have strolled through the league, but his signing should not be underestimated.

Mendy has had productive, active seasons for the best part of the last 16 years. His career so far involves stints at Bolton Wanderers, Hull City, Caen and, most notably, Paris Saint-Germain, the club which helped Mendy elevate his career. His performances at the Parisian club did not go unnoticed. He played for Raymond Domenech’s France four times and was unlucky to miss out on the 2006 World Cup, with Willy Sagnol being first choice in right-back at the time.

Mendy and his beautiful family. His wife and daughters: Mel, Kayna, Imane and Malila.

Mendy and his beautiful family. His wife and daughters: Mel, Kayna, Imane and Malila.

 

Perhaps his most famous moment in a France shirt came against Brazil that very year. Being stood off by Roberto Carlos near the halfway line, the Frenchman blitzed past him down the wing, making it seem as if Carlos was flat-footed and cumbersome. Mendy steered inwards, entered the box from the right and skillfully cut the ball back to the cleverly positioned Sylvain Wiltord. Wiltord’s first time left-footed effort went wide, denying Mendy a famous assist.

It would be unreasonable to expect Mendy to possess that lightning quick pace 9 years later, but he should, on paper at least, prove more than adequate in Cyprus, where, if we’re being honest with ourselves, the average player’s physical attributes are not exactly daunting.

If you’re a proponent of the second assist statistic, chalk one up for Bernard Mendy. During the 2 -2 draw in the cup game against Ethnikos Achnas, he fed Caló, who in turn assisted Sardinero’s goal.

Provided he doesn’t feature out of position too often, such as in his first game in an AEL shirt, Mendy should prove to be a more than worthwhile addition to the squad. On top of his skills as a defender, his overall experience will be greatly appreciated in a team sorely missing Edwin Ouon’s presence at the back.

Ouon has only today signed for fierce rivals Apollon Limassol. Both teams have sought to solidify their defensive options and with good cause. It will be interesting to see how both Limassol teams fair after their respective squad alterations. Apollon are 3 points ahead of Apoel at the top, whilst AEL find themselves down in 7th. AEL have been improving at a steady, although perhaps slow rate since the managerial change up, and it will be some time still for Christoforou’s philosophy to be fully implemented. AEL are 5 points away from a top 6 spot. They will undoubtedly strive to achieve a top 6 finish and enter the playoff stage. That will enable them to fight for continental qualification, which, along with winning the domestic cup competition, is surely their number one target. Considering Mendy’s background and first few performances, I think AEL could have done considerably worse in the market. I strongly believe that Mendy will improve after proper integration into the squad. From there it’s up to his teammates to help push AEL towards their goals.

Kyriacos Nicolaou

Thorsten Fink: An Overview

After the home game against Apollon Limassol last season, I thought the Apoel board had nailed it. Granted, Bruno Vale and Giorgos Merkis had a game to forget, but Apoel displayed strong signs that they had improved markedly since the 1st round game which they lost in Limassol. Apoel didn’t sweep their opponents away. What they did was control the vast majority of the game by pressing effectively and prohibiting Apollon from freely expressing their natural counter attacking style - despite Hamdani and Sangoy’s chances.

That game, along with Apoel’s complicated double win, seems a long time ago. Giorgos Donis has been dismissed and replaced by Thorsten Fink. Fink, a former midfielder, is mostly known for his six years playing for Bayern Munich, as well as his time as a German international. He retired in 2006 and quickly proceeded to prolong his involvement in the game under various managerial posts.

As a manager, Fink’s first full time job came with FC Ingolstadt 04 offering him a shot at the helm. The league was in the process of a restructuring and the club had to finish in the top half of the table ( >10th position) in order to qualify for the newly introduced 3rd division. Fink took over in January and managed to far exceed the base requirements for the job by finishing second. Next season didn’t prove as fruitful for Fink; he was fired in April of 2009.

Following Fink’s spell with Ingolstadt was his tenure as FC Basel manager. That is undeniably his managerial peak as of now. Fink took over from Christian Gross, who had a disappointing season the year prior, managing to finish 3rd in the Swiss Super League. Notably, that was the season that saw a young player by the name of Xherdan Shaqiri make his move to the senior team. Shaqiri has recently moved to Inter Milan, having been sold to Bayern Munich from FC Basel in 2012.

image by goal.com

image by goal.com


Basel had a great season. They dominated domestically, winning both the league and Swiss cup. They gathered 9 points in the Europa League group stage, but only finished 3rd behind Roma and Fulham. The following season, Basel integrated Granit Xhaka into the first team, won the league and qualified for the Champions League group stage. Again, they came 3rd, behind Roma and Bayern Munich. Fink would mostly deploy a 4-4-2 with Shaqiri playing as an advanced right-winger, with Marco Streller and Alexander Frei as a more than competent front two.

Basel’s most important season of recent times was a strange one for Thorsten Fink. Few can forget Basel’s games against Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. They drew 3 -3 at Old Trafford and famously defeated United in Switzerland with Streller and Frei both finding the net. It was not Fink who guided Basel to that famous win, however, but his former assistant Heiko Vogel. Fink had left in October to manage Hamburger SV. The Bundesliga was as kind to Fink as the Swiss Super League. He was swiftly fired after a dire run of games brought the team down to 15th place.

There was an incident during Fink’s time at Basel that is somewhat worrying. He allegedly made a racist remark in reference to Fwayo Tembo. I couldn't find more details about this, however, some would deem it unwise to bring a manager with something like this attached to his name, especially to a team that’s had its fair share of racist accusations in recent history. What is pleasing is that already there have been Apoel fans and bloggers bringing this up and expressing a desire for their club to disassociate itself with racists.

Fink’s first press conference involved the usual chatter about how great a club he’s joined, but he also made some interesting points. He appears to be quite ambitious, eagerly conveying his aim of raising the bar at Apoel. It’s important that teams in Cyprus understand the value of this. We have seen our fair share of players and managers joining teams here solely for the wages, having neither the energy levels nor the freshness to contribute to their team. I’m sure I’ll belabour this point in future posts, but I’ll leave it here for now.  Fink made three other points of note. He said he’d like to bring in more young players, without, however, forgetting the need to maintain a balance in the squad. He praised the physical condition of his players, directly referencing the 123 kilometers they completed in their game against Ajax. Finally, he spoke of his desired playing style, saying that a team like Apoel mustn’t always play with counter attacks, but that it also needs to be able to play possession football, a style of football that Apoel is definitely not alien to.

Fink’s press conference can be found here (audio): https://soundcloud.com/robocopgt13/fink-parousiasi

Since then, Apoel has had its first game under its new manager, a cup game against Olympiakos Nicosia, winning one nil away from home. After the game, Fink pulled no punches, saying that Apoel hadn’t played very well, and bemoaned the lack of speed with which his team operated on the pitch.

It would be unwise to rush to judgement. In fact, can he properly be judged at all this season? Barring some horrendous results or performances, Fink will make a proper mark on Apoel next season, when he’ll be able to further shape the squad to his liking. He needs to show that his spell in Basel was not a fluke, that he is truly the manager a great deal of people praised in 2011, a period in which he was briefly touted for the Schalke job. Apoel fans, being true to their Cypriot idiosyncrasies, are not often patient with managers, but seem optimistic for the future and appear to be placing plenty of trust in the board’s decision to hire Fink. Time will soon tell if they are right.

Kyriacos Nicolaou