The Once And Future Cesc

Try not to seemed shocked, when I tell you this.  Are you sitting down?  Cesc Fabregas wants out.  According to Arsenal teammate Bacary Sagna, Fabregas wants the move to Barcelona.

This is obviously a saga that has been going on for at least three years.  Barcelona is not just where he developed skills, it was his childhood team.  In addition to being a fan, Fabregas spent his formative years in La Masia (the same class as Messi and Pique.)  His family is from Catalonia, and he has friends at Barcelona (as well as some Spain teammates.)  His idol, Pep Guardiola is the coach as Barcelona, and it is rumored that this will be Guardiola’s last season in charge.  Get in while the getting is good, because who knows what will come afterwards.

Barcelona did not want to let young Fabregas go.  He was too talented, and Arsenal would pay nothing because he was too young to be under contract.  Fabregas left because he did not think he would get any playing time at Barcelona.  His decision makes sense because both Xavi and Iniesta stood in his way as they do now for Spain.  Nevertheless, the club desperately wants him back.

I am not tactician, but I do not understand why Barcelona is so desperate to get Fabregas back.  Xavi and Iniesta are still fundamental to the squad.  It would take a supreme effort to dislodge either player from the starting XI.  Although theoretically, no one’s starting spot is safe (or in truth 10 of the 11 spots are not safe–no one at Barcelona would dare displace Messi), even at 31-years-old, Xavi is still the conductor of the Barcelona engine.  Iniesta has even more playing time left, and both men work extremely hard.  Fabregas would be going back to play a supporting role.  Meanwhile, at the same time Fabregas is waiting out Xavi and Iniesta, Thiago Alcântara and his brother Rafinha will be breaking down the door to the main squad.

The Guardiola years have been marked by some bad transfers, but the overwrought hang-wringing about it (see: Bleacher Report, or better yet, don’t) generally overlooks the fact that (a) there have also been some excellent signings such as Pique and Dani Alves, and (b) Guardiola has done an excellent job at developing players from Barcelona B who end up displacing their more expensive teammates.  Unless Barcelona begins a rotation policy, which is possible given how thin the side has been, Fabregas will be another bench player.

In other transfer news, Barcelona want to bring in Giuseppe Rossi from Villarreal.  While he is an excellent player and would be a great fit, this column still holds a grudge against him for choosing to play for Italy rather than the United States.  Watch this space to see which side wins the battle.  Like Fabregas, Rossi will have to fight for his spot, this time with David Villa and Pedro.  Although both had dry spells in terms of goals, they were also very important to the Barcelona attack.

Barcelona has also been linked with Javier Pastore, Alexis Sanchez, and as of today Thiago Silva.  Javier Pastore is a pipe dream, I think.  The same problems that acquiring Fabregas present would also plague Pastore, perhaps more so because he did not grow up in La Masia.  And Palermo is not letting Pastore go cheaply.  They want Cristiano Ronaldo money, which is ridiculous, but that club is in serious trouble.

Alexis Sanchez.  It appears that Manchester City (or perhaps United) will get there first.  Great potential, but he has not quite lived up to his hype yet.  Personally, I would like to see him stay with Udinese because otherwise the Italians will tumble out of the Champions League next season. One year of performing well in the Champions League is all he needs to prove himself.

Thiago Silva is an interesting one.  Barcelona desperately need to build up the back; Puyol’s knee problems throughout the season are evidence of that.  Thiago Silva is also one of the best defenders in the world right now.  I would love to see his move to the Camp Nou, but I cannot imagine Milan letting him go.

As for who to sell, the no-brainer is Bojan.  Guardiola has given him chance after chance, and he just hasn’t been able to get it done.  It’s a shame, because he is dyed-in-the-wool Blaugrana.  I think he wants out too.  Jeffren Suarez also looks like he is gone; injuries have played havoc with his career, and while I would be sad to see him go, it looks like Barcelona would rather have the money.  Furthermore, he needs to play full-time, and that is not going to happen when Messi, Villa, Pedro, possibly Rossi, and maybe even others are standing in his way.  Some have suggested selling Villa and Pedro, which seems incredibly short-sighted.  Barcelona are also trying to quash rumors that Thiago Alcântara is on his way out. That would be a huge loss–shades of Fabregas, but this time the club would be responsible.

Whatever the case, the arms race with Madrid has just begun.  Grab some popcorn and enjoy the show.  And if you are new to football, welcome to the silly season.


Whence Klinsmann?

As anger toward Bob Bradley grows, the name on the lips of most US fans is Jürgen Klinsmann.  Since the end of World Cup 2006, a large portion of US fans (perhaps even a majority) have desperately wanted Klinsmann to coach the National Team.  It is agonizing because he twice came this close to signing, but backed out at the eleventh hour.

Klinsmann represents the dream, the what-could-be for American football.  Klinsmann was a great player in his day, a part of a very talented German-led Inter Milan when Serie A was the hands-down greatest league in the world.  He was also a mainstay of the German National Team.  Klinsmann was a major part of the squad that won the 1990 World Cup (where he took one of the most notorious dives in history) and the 1996 European Championship.  In 2004, Klinsmann was named coach of the German National Team following the team’s terrible showing at that year’s European Championship.

Germany does not do terrible showings at international tournaments.  While all other nations, even Brazil, have highs and lows, Germany are always near the top.  Of the seventeen World Cups Germany entered (or West Germany before reunification), Die Mannschaft made the semifinals of all but five.  It was the Germans who beat the Hungarians in 1954 and the Dutch in 1974.  The English striker Gary Lineker said, “Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.”

Germany are infamous for having no flair–not completely untrue, but exaggerated.  The back line is solid, the players are strong, the team just wears opponents down.  Germans are mentally tough (hence they always win when a match goes to penalty kicks.)  Every match is a battle of attrition.  The team is mechanical and efficient, sort of like the German people.  In fact, every stereotype you know about Germans (minus the Nazi stuff) is applicable to German football.

Klinsmann changed that, or at least started the change.  He brought in younger talent and focused on attacking play.  Critics in Germany, including Franz Beckenbauer, lambasted him.  They complained that he was a commuter coach (he lived in the United States), they moaned that he ignored the defense to concentrate on offense, and they expected that Germany would have a poor showing at the 2006 World Cup–in Germany.

The fears were unfounded.  Germany reached the World Cup semifinals before running into Italy, the national bête noire.  For some reason, Germany cannot beat Italy–a complete subversion of the off-pitch reality.  In the 2006 semifinal, after nearly 120 scoreless minutes, Germany collapsed and Italy scored twice.  Still, the German people were pleased with the 3rd place finish and wanted Klinsmann to stay.  Klinsmann resigned and was replaced by his assistant Joachim Löw, who continued both Germany’s style and success.  (Many say that Löw was the brains behind the team from the beginning and Klinsmann was just the face.)  Those with a sense of irony noted that in the 2010 World Cup, the great rivals Germany and Holland switched identities.

At the same time Klinsmann and Löw brought Germany success, the United States National Team crumbled.  As with all World Cups held in Europe, the US did not win a single match (the one draw was a first ever.)  This alone would have been terrible, but it was all the more so, given that just four years earlier, the team reached the quarterfinals where the US outplayed but narrowly lost to Germany.  Bruce Arena coached the US at both tournaments, and was sacked after the 2006 World Cup.

Although a bunch of names were thrown around, US fans wanted Klinsmann, and he in turn wanted to coach the US.  It seemed like a natural fit.  Klinsmann lived in California, he understood and followed both the American game and the world game, he was once one of the world’s top players, he knew how to win, and he was a successful coach.

Unfortunately, it did not work out between Klinsmann and the USSF.  The issues are unclear, although it appears that Klinsmann wanted total control, and Sunil Gulati did not want to give him that control.  As a result the US got Bob Bradley and Klinsmann ended up at Bayern Munich where he did not last a full season.  Klinsmann did not have a bad season by most standards, but Bayern is different.  Klinsmann wanted to rebuild the club, and Bayern agreed so long as it brought instant success.  Bayern, being Germany’s top dog, requires trophies every year, no excuses.  Klinsmann thought in long-term success; he wanted to remake Bayern’s image the way that Cruyff did for Barcelona and Wenger did for Arsenal.  However, his inability to meet the standards that the Bayern hierarchy and fans expected was his downfall.

During the 2010 World Cup, Klinsmann was an analyst for ESPN.  Following the US exit, he delivered on-air a brilliant dissertation on what is structurally wrong with soccer in the United States and what needs to be done to fix it (transcript here.)  This was a not-so-subtle advertisement that he wanted the US national team job.  Klinsmann thinks structurally rather than tactically, which is what the US needs.

The USSF was extremely displeased with the 2010 World Cup campaign, and Gulati barely concealed his anger.  To the angst of most American fans, Bradley’s contract was renewed, which means another four years because World Cups are (foolishly) the only things that matter to the USSF.

Apparently the USSF held talks with Klinsmann, but this is where the story gets tricky because it is a “he said/he won’t say” thing.  According to Klinsmann, the USSF verbally agreed to give him 100% control over basically everything team-related (nothing about youth development though.)  But Klinsmann also said that the USSF would not put it into writing, which meant that Gulati had no intention of giving Klinsmann that kind of control.  Gulati would not comment.  All of this left Bob Bradley even more emasculated than normal.

I tend to believe Klinsmann.  It is near certain that he will never coach the US National Team.  Nevertheless, I want to play devil’s advocate for just a bit.  Among US National Team fans, it is taken as a given that Klinsmann is the right choice.  More than that, there tends to be a belief that Klinsmann is the only alternative to Bob Bradley.  While I certainly believe that Klinsmann is a better alternative, I am concerned this diametric outlook both by US fans and the USSF.  It could well be that neither Klinsmann nor Bradley is a good choice.  Bradley we all understand, but few in this country scrutinize Klinsmann.  It has long been whispered that Löw and not Klinsmann was the tactician in 2006, and post-2006 results seem to back that up.  Furthermore, Klinsmann did not help his case at Bayern (one of the reasons for his sacking was taking Landon Donovan on loan.)  He made more than a few baffling decisions, and ultimately lost the locker room.

Even his now famous ESPN speech was not something completely original; others had said similar things before, although perhaps not as coherently or on as large a platform.  No nation has ever won a World Cup with a foreign-born coach (although given how Americanized Klinsmann has become, nationality seems less of an issue.)  To some extent, one could possibly even sympathize a tiny little bit with the USSF.  Because Klinsmann thinks structurally, his project would require several cycles to succeed if it does so at all, and any progress would hit major bumps along the way, especially since Klinsmann would lack the talent pool of Germany.

Furthermore, his complete control would inevitably cause conflict with MLS, which is something neither MLS nor the USSF want.  The Klinsmann obsession that so many US fans have reminds a bit of the Wenger-mania that plagues Arsenal fans except that Wenger actually has a history of sustained success and therefore has earned some of the free pass he is given.

The fact that the USSF only considered Klinsmann as an alternative to Bradley speaks volumes, and it should bother fans that no one else was considered.  There are other quality coaches out there; even the US produces them.  This lack of imagination calls into question the USSF’s desire to build a winning program.  Football hierarchies have a knack for killing the beautiful game.

I would love to see someone with Klinsmann’s vision, although I am not sure Klinsmann is the right choice.  I am also not sure that someone with his vision should be national coach, as opposed USSF president or director of development.  (I can be convinced though.  Please leave your comments.)  All I know is that the solution to the US woes ain’t Bob Bradley.