The last weekend in European football was marked by three fascinating landmarks for three teams in different countries. What makes ties these three discoveries is the size of the places where the football teams in question are based. The Eredivisie crowned a new champion in the shape of FC Twente, who was led to the title for the first time in its history under the guidance of former England national team manager Steve McClaren. This was a remarkable achievement considering the diminutive nature of the town that the team is drawn from – it is a remarkable tiny place that has a passionate football following. Contrast this to the failing of Hertha Berlin, who was finally relegated from the Bundesliga after challenging for the title only 12 months ago. Another capital city giant managed to achieve a degree of success after a prolonged spell in the doldrums – Paris Saint Germain triumphed in the French Cup to ensure Europa League qualification for next season. These occurrences somewhat typify the popular theory that teams from capital cities tend not to win the biggest European competition – think Berlin, Paris, London, Rome. The obvious caveats would be drawn from Madrid (Real) and Lisbon (Benfica), though one could purport that the reason for both successes were founded upon the interest of the fascist regimes of Franco and Salazar respectively in football – Franco was a well-known Real Madrid fanatic and helped the club to recruit the best players in the world, securing the signature of the legendary Alfredo di Stefano and snatching him away from great rivals Barcelona. Ajax Amsterdam is perhaps the only one to be a genuine anomaly to this finding. While the three achievements over the weekend have little to do with Europe, it does demonstrate, across three leagues, the contrasting fortunes of two capital cities and one tiny town.
Hertha Berlin’s malaise has been as unpredictable as its serious title-challenge a year ago which was fuelled by a defensive football philosophy and the goal-scoring prowess of Andriy Voronin, on loan from Liverpool. The Ukrainian’s form last year was a massive surprise to followers of the Reds, but his game suited Hertha’s style. I doubt that anyone would have predicted that Hertha could sustain its previous season’s form, but the team was hamstrung from the early stages of the season. Losing Voronin, who returned to Liverpool and was later transferred to Dynamo Moscow, as well as fellow terrible hair criminal Marko Pantelic (free to Ajax) meant that the side lacked firepower. Furthermore, the signing of Artur Wichniarek was a move almost doomed to failure from the outset. The Polish striker, brough in to soften the blow of losing Voronin and Pantelic, had previously been at Hertha, scoring 4 times in 44 appearances. After returning to Armina Bielefeld and plundering a personal-best 13 goals last season, Germany’s Old Lady took a gamble and brought him back in. Unsurprisingly, he has been a total disaster, eventually being consigned to the bench and has failed to notch at all this season in 19 appearances. Florian Kringe’s loan move from Dortmund was supposed to add support to the excellent Gojko Kacar, but unfortunately the former broke his metatarsal after just nine minutes in his first match, leaving Kacar rather alone. Veteran defender Josep Simunic left for Hoffenheim, captain Arne Friedrich has been a shell of his former self – a result of being left out of the decisive games of last season in a bizarre move by former manager Lucien Favre, who was replaced at the end of September by Friedhelm Funkel. Funkel inherited a side without its number one goalkeeper, Jaroslav Drobny, who was injured for a couple of months with a torn thigh muscle.
Maybe this was all karma for the apparent ‘sins’ committed by the side last season, where it played a brand of dull, negative and almost depressing football that it is little wonder that the Hertha fans ever returned. Going into the winter break, Hertha languished at the foot of the table with a measly six points from 17 games. Despite this, there has been incredible support from the fans, with an average attendance of 43,750 as it fought in vain to survive. However, there was a grizzly occurrence after Hertha lost a crucial match at home to Nurnberg, as I mentioned a few weeks back, with a minority home fans, most of them Ultras, rioting as the visitors stole a last minute win. There is a genuine fear that the fans will turn their back on the team now that it is confirmed it will compete in the German Zweite-Liga, leaving Berlin without a top-flight side. A respectable away draw at Champions League-chasing Leverkusen sealed the Blue and Whites fate.
One of Berlin’s losses was nearly a massive gain for another capital city side in Holland, as Ajax new-boy Pantelic has struck double-figures for the league’s most prolific side. However, despite an incredible goal difference of +86, including 106 goals for, Martin Jol’s men were unable to secure the league title, with that honour going to FC Twente. The Tukkers may not have the history of Holland’s big three of Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord, but under the tutelage of Steve McClaren, the small town in Holland has exceeded all expectations by lifting the Eredivisie title. How has this happened?
Well, McClaren has stuck loosely to the 4-3-3 system that he inherited when taking charge in 2008, but has crucially instilled a defensive solidity that was lacking. He has also employed a settled first-eleven, with nine players starting more than thirty games – a rare occurrence in today’s game where squad rotation is seen as the optimal strategy. McClaren received an unfair amount of abuse from the English press following the nation’s failure to qualify for Euro 2008, but he has shown flashes of brilliance that led to him getting that job in the first place in the way he has built the side – seven of the first eleven are his own signings, but he has kept the solid spine of goalkeeper Sander Boschker, centre-back Douglas, midfielder Wout Brama and veteran striker Blaise Nkufo and has opted to build around it. The signings of Kenneth Perez, who plays just behind the front three, and Theo Janssen, who along with Brama alternates as a holding midfielder, are just two examples of astute signings from the English manager. Furthermore, he has had to replace some key players in his side – Eljero Elia and Marko Arnautovic moved to Hamburg and Inter Milan respectively last summer, but McClaren brought in wide-midfielder Miroslav Stoch on loan from Chelsea and Costa Rican striker Bryan Ruiz in to replace these two departing stars. It has proved to a huge success – both players left for large transfer fees, Stoch has been an excellent replacement for Elia and Ruiz, a gamble at over £4m has repaid the manager’s faith in him with a bagful of goals, despite having to play out wide to flank Nkufo. In fact, it is hard to categorise both Ruiz and Stoch, who also filled a wide forward role, as inside-forwards, creative wingers or wide-midfielders – they’ve filled the criteria of all three. It is a testament to the teams tactical flexibility that 4-3-3 is a bit of a generalisation of the system it actually employs. The system very much depends on whether it has possession or not. With the ball, it is a 4-2-1-3, with the wide-men pressing high up the pitch against the opposing full-backs. When possession is lost, the system is more comparable to a 4-2-3-1 or even a 4-4-1-1.
It has not been an easy ride for Twente. Losses to the bigger clubs – such as the 3-0 thrashing by Ajax, the narrow but deserved defeat against AZ 1-0 and pretty inept defensive display in the Europa League against Werder Bremen which saw the Tukkers lose 4-1 – all underline the fact that the side is still a work in progress. The Eredivisie is a league where beating the smaller, weaker teams is a totally different prospect to facing the title-challengers – McClaren’s side, as mentioned, has been built on stability and consistency, so switching formations would be rather difficult for the odd game against Ajax, for example. However, McClaren, should he stay at Twente, must come up with a new blueprint for the Champions League, where his side needs to be tactically less naive.
In my opinion, McClaren’s success is a great story. I am delighted that a talented manager has rebuilt his reputation, which was frankly in tatters after the savage attacks of the British media. He has proven that he is not a clown or the ‘wally with a brolly’, but instead the first English manager to win a major European league title since the late Sir Bobby Robson in 1996 with FC Porto. With the lack opportunities afforded to British managers, it is surprising that more of them have not tried their hand abroad. McClaren has been heralded for his training methods in Holland, emphasising fitness routines without the ball which has perhaps been a reason for his sides defensive solidity. With good, young managers such as Mark Hughes and Gareth Southgate out of work, I hope that McClaren’s success acts as motivation for more British managers to try to manage abroad – surely these guys would benefit from stints in leagues other than in England. McClaren’s reputation certainly has – the gamble has paid off and he is now being linked with the job at Hamburg, Wolfsburg and even a return to England at West Ham. I personally think he should stay put and proudly lead the Tukkers into the Champions League.
What the team of the French capital, Paris Saint-Germain, would do for a man like Steve McClaren. The Parisiens languish in mid-table, pretty much certain of survival but unlikely to break into the title picture without a massive overhaul of the squad. In the 1990s, the side was a regular title-challenger, even winning the title in 1994, but these heady heights were less prominent in the last decade, finishing runner-up in 2000 and 2004. Since then, the only solace has been success in the domestic cup competitions, though one could question how serious the Ligue 1 leaders take them. This past weekend, PSG overcame another fallen giant, Monaco, in the Coupe de France final, winning the game in extra-time thanks to a Guillaume Hoarau header. With this welcome victory comes qualification into next season’s Europa League – a prospect that was extremely unlikely given PSG’s current league position of 11th. Looking at the squad, it does have some familiar names – club captain Claude Makelele, former Barcelona winger Ludovic Giuly, PSV’s old goalscorer extraordinaire Mateja Kezman and Lyon’s legendary goalkeeper Gregory Coupet. The only problem is that these guys are all in the twilight of their career. Striker Hoarau, defender Mamadou Sakho and the highly-rated Benin playmaker Stephane Sessegnon are all younger players with bright futures, but given the clubs lack of success, it is almost inevitable that they will be signed up by other clubs in the league or maybe from abroad. The real problem has been the leadership of the club, right from the top at president-level to the revolving door-style nature of the managerial hotseat.
What really places the club in a bad light is its extreme fans. In late February, a PSG fan was attacked by his own fans before PSG’s home loss to Marseille, later dying in hospital. This terrible situation has increased the negative press for the club, prompting the French sports minister to get involved, helping dissolve five violent groups of hooligan fans. Some journalists in France believe that this is not enough – that, in fact, the club itself should be wiped out, setting an example for all to see. Wiping the capital’s only major club would be a monumental gesture by the French authorities, and, to be honest, it is not an outlandish idea. There have been suggestions that a new Paris football club should be set up for those turned off by the constant violence surrounding PSG, which is basically a curse of mistakes made some 30 years ago. In a bid to boost mediocre support, the owners dubbed one end of the stadium the ‘Boulogne Kop’ and slashing prices for this end. It did have the desired effect – fans streamed in – but it was the wrong type of fans: many neo-Nazis set up camp in this end and therefore ensuring the club had little non-white support. Despite the club’s attempt to increase its attendance from ethnic minorities by encouraging them to sit in the opposite end, it actually signalled that the Boulogne Kop was a white-only stand. Unfortunately, the two ends encompass the debate on immigration in the capital – the Auteuil associations argue that they welcome the right to a public life on equal terms; the Boulogne extremists view immigrants as unwelcome and a threat to their jobs, women and football club. This tension has led to some of the worst clashes between fans in Europe. While it is not possible to link it directly, I would suggest that it has hindered the team’s on the pitch performances, with much attention being placed on the stands rather than the football itself.
As mentioned at the start, in the past, politics and ideological beliefs used to significantly influence club and international football. Over time, this has become less of a factor, but PSG’s case is one lasting example of this still having a huge impact on the game. While the rioting in Berlin is inexcusable, the frustration was about on-the-pitch activities, not about exogenous animosity between fans. Until this is rectified, and how I’m not sure, then PSG will never reach the heights of a stable, settled town like Twente Enschede, despite its location as the capital city.