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Guillem Balague – Interview

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Guillem Balague is a Spanish football pundit and writer, who has become the recognisable face of La Liga reporting in the UK. Ranging from his work with a number of British papers to his regular appearances on numerous Sky Sports programmes (including Revista De La Liga and his recent Magic of Messi documentary) he is the ever present expert when it comes to the Spanish league. He has now written a biography on Pep Guardiola, Another Way of Winning, which explores one of Barcelona’s greatest ever managers, including his unprecedented haul of fourteen trophies during a remarkable four season tenure. I caught up with Guillem to discuss his new book, as well as his views on Messi, Mourinho and why football fans shouldn’t expect fireworks during the January transfer window.

What made you interested in writing a book on Pep Guardiola?

I wrote a book on Liverpool called ‘A Season on the Brink’ and Orion who were the publishers had been looking for an idea to work on again together. I suggested some but they weren’t sure and then they came up with this idea of the Pep Guardiola book. I said ‘Yes but only if I can talk to him’ but knowing that he wasn’t talking to anybody. So that was the first challenge. But once he allowed me to talk to him and he opened the doors to the changing rooms and sent an e-mail to Ferguson to talk to me then it was a project I obviously wanted to be involved in.

How long did the biography take you to put together?

Twenty years! You don’t get to talk to Pep Guardiola or any of the players when they are not talking to anybody unless you have twenty years of a professional life which is respected and within which they can trust you. So in terms of how you get there, you don’t get there without those twenty years. In terms of the book I started in January last year and started doing interviews until May or so. Then I started writing it for about two months. Once you’ve got all the conversations that have taken place, then it’s just a matter of putting it altogether in a kind of always thinking, in my case anyway, that it is a novel rather than just a biography, with a bit of tension and creating an interesting character, including his strengths and weaknesses, his ying and yang. I don’t know if that came out in the book but that was my intention anyway.

The book opens with a foreword from Sir Alex Ferguson, a manager who some believe to be a contender for greatest of all time. How did this conversation come about?

I obviously wanted to speak with Sir Alex considering he had been in two Champions League finals in Barcelona and I sent an e-mail to Manchester United, who originally never replied. When talking to Pep I said ‘I’d love to talk to Sir Alex’ and he didn’t say anything at the time. The next day I got a call from Ferguson’s secretary saying ‘Do you want to come to Manchester to talk to Sir Alex’ and I’m like ‘Yeah! What happened then?’ and it was because Pep had sent an e-mail saying to Ferguson to get in touch if he wanted to talk to me because he had been more than happy to do so. So I am eternally grateful to both for the opportunity. So I went to the meeting and I was delayed by 45 minutes! But he was in a very good mood. Apparantly everyone was late on that day, including his players because of a traffic problem. So we had a 45 minute talk where it was pretty clear the admiration that Sir Alex had towards Pep. I’ve had interviews before with Ferguson and to me they were some of the best times of my career. The guy makes you feel so comfortable and nonchalant and he’s such a good talker that it really was a privilege.

Would you rate Guardiola amongst the greatest managers in the world, or do you feel he still has more to prove with other clubs first?

I don’t know if there are any other managers in the world who have got 14 titles after 19 months in charge. None. None in the history of the world. Not even close to that. Yes it was with one club but there’s the fact that Ferguson has been at Man Utd for 26 years having won things with Aberdeen. But had he only done the 26 years with Man Utd would people say ‘Ah but could he do it with a different team?’. It also seems to be a different analysis when it’s a manager outside of the Premier League. In the EPL, if you do really, really well you are considered one of the best in the world, but people like Messi as a player, or Guardiola as a manager, have to test themselves in the Romanian League or something to prove that they are the best. Pep has changed football. I wouldn’t enter the equation for who is the best in the world because I’m not interested in that but he has definitely changed football, in the same way that managers like (Louis) van Gaal, (Johan) Cruyff, (Rinus) Michels changed football. It means that you are on the olympus of football no doubt about it.

Where does Guardiola go from here?

Well, he will go to a club who can win things straightaway. He would want a squad with quality players who can win things but also to play the way that he wants. A club if he can in the Premier League. A club where he feels the infrastructure is right not to just win one year but to keep winning. There are not many clubs like that and everybody knows which clubs it could be.  Everybody wants to know the name of the club but I can guarantee he hasn’t got anything agreed with anybody. We’ll just have to wait.

Times seem very good at the Barcelona at the moment, with the team still unbeaten in the league and Messi making worldwide headlines again after breaking the goalscoring record last year. Would you agree with the suggestion that their success thus far with Vilanova is because he has inherited a fantastic squad and has been more of a caretaker to them?

I think the foundations were put there a long time ago but Guardiola took it to a whole new level. What Tito is doing is continuing that work.  I think it was good that Guardiola left because they had got a little bit stuck. There was so much pressure on him and he had used as much of his own personal resources as he could. He was lacking energy and there were still some big decisions which needed to be taken. All in all it was best that they parted company and somebody else continued the job and Tito has done that. He has helped give Barcelona new levels but based on the foundations that Pep put into the team.

Barcelona have a number of one-club players within their team. Messi signing a lengthy new contract, and Xavi and Puyol recently signed deals to ensure they stay at the Nou Camp until the end of their careers. The possibility is that Barcelona may soon become a one-club team, with all players rising through La Masia and staying with the club throughout their career. Do you believe this is possible?

I don’t think that has ever been the target but you can appreciate when it happens and you have to celebrate it. It was a dream put forward by Van Gaal where he said he’d like to win the Champions League with an all La Masia team. But I don’t think that was ever a target. La Masia certainly adds DNA to the club and to the players which is important for many reasons. The style, the philosophy on the pitch but also because it continues a way of doing and behaving throughout the generations. But what players like Abidal, Keita or Alexis can add may not always be able to be found in La Masia. A brand of player like a tough centre back. Despite Puyol coming from La Masia, they are yet to find a homegrown replacement for him. It’s that mixture of what players from La Masia and outside of it can give you which has always been embraced so I don’t think that’s a target at all but it is definitely to be complimented.

A main talking point in La Liga at the moment comes from one of Barcelona’s rivals, Real Madrid, and the drama between Jose Mourinho and some of his players. Do you think Mourinho has effectively ended any chance of staying with the club for the future? Where do you see him going to?

I don’t think he wants to be manager for a long time anyway and its quite clear his management methods work and are effective but are rather out of date. He wants everybody at the club like the directors, the media, the players and staff to be on their toes constantly and under pressure. I think they’ve reached that point of no return where now it’s either change the squad or change the manager. They may stay together until the end of the season but after that it doesn’t make sense for the whole thing to continue. We’ll have to see where he goes. There’s going to be the inevitable domino effect at the end of the season so we’ll have to see. PSG is a possibility. Some people talk about Chelsea, or City or even Inter he might return to. It just depends on the results of each manager.

Who were some of your favourite players growing up?

Gabino, former Betis and Espanyol. He was a lovely lovely player. A dribbler who was magic. Magic. And who also played for my team of course (Espanyol). And Zidane and Messi would of course be the other ones.

You recently presented ‘The Magic of Messi’ on Sky Sports, a look at Messi’s remarkable career so far, including a look at his record-breaking 2012. Is Messi the best player in the world today? Is he greatest of all time?

He’s the best in the world and one thing that actually surprised us during that show was just how marvellous he actually is. I mean, we look at him every week and every week he seems to break a record and we have to highlight each one. But putting it altogether was like ‘Oh my god! Come on!’. The man is like a joke. Some things that players don’t do in their entire career he has managed to do in twelve months. It was great from that point of view. And is he the best ever? Every era brings up that discussion I suppose, but what’s quite clear is that it has never been harder to be a top player, because teams are more physical and there are more tactics. But he has shown that he can consistently beat everybody, except for on the international stage. Now I don’t think anyone in the world has done that recently but there is an argument to be made that Maradona is the greatest. I think Maradona was more of a complete player than Messi is. Maradona had a 50 meter accurate pass which I don’t think Messi has, but maybe that is because he doesn’t need to have it. Both are electric in their pace but Maradona added more to it. We’re getting there though with Messi. It’s still early days and we should wait until the end of his career to decide but if there was to be one it would be between those two.

And finally the January transfer window has opened up. Do you have any predictions for any big signings you can see happening this month?

There’s not much money available. Big clubs have decided it’s not time to make changes. There will be a lot of big no’s. Villa won’t go. Negredo won’t go. There will just be smaller transfers this month I think. Club’s in La Liga like Espanyol or Betis may sell if bids come in because they need the money, but nothing will be major.

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Everton: The Month That Was (November)

Everton’s first game since last month’s edition of Lowdown was the always electric Merseyside derby. With Liverpool sitting in the bottom half of the league, and Everton coming into the fixture on the back of a five match unbeaten run, there was a justified sense of optimism regarding Everton’s chances. Inevitably, the game was a controversial affair, in no small part due to one Luis Suarez. Taking the spotlight once again, the Uruguayan played a key role in Liverpool’s opening goal, before scoring their second. Following his goal, Suarez celebrated with a theatrical dive in front of Everton’s dugout, a reference to Moyes’ pre-game suggestion that the striker goes to ground too often and easily. Despite the initial setback, the Toffee’s regrouped and pulled two goals back before half-time,  through Osman and the impressive addition Steven Naismith. After an explosively attacking first-half, the two Merseyside clubs failed to find the net at either end during the second period until stoppage time, when a Suarez goal was incorrectly judged as being offside.

A trip to Craven Cottage was next up on Everton’s calendar, and this result best represents why my positive evaluation of Everton’s season thus far is coupled with a hint of disappointment at potential points dropped. The Toffee’s dominated the fixture  in chances created and possession of the ball, yet found themselves behind after a Bryan Ruiz free-kick was turned into the net by Tim Howard. Everton responded in the second half with two goals from the yet again sublime Fellaini (more on him later) and the Blues had seemingly capitalised on their dominant display. However, Steve Sidwell rescued an unlikely point for the Cottagers with a last minute goal, forcing Everton into accepting a fourth draw in a row. On the basis of play in this game, Everton fans must be disappointed to have only walked away with a point from this fixture. This doesn’t come from an undermining of Fulham’s team, as I feel they have established a strong squad this season which could cause a lot of problems in the league. What this stems from is the fact that optimistic Toffee’s have suggested that this may be the season where Everton tread the elite Champion’s League boards again, and if that is to be the case, dominant displays such as the one at Fulham must be taken advantage of. Moyes himself summed this up following the draw, telling BBC Sport: “I’m really frustrated because if I really want to hang on to the boys at the top, I need to win these games when they come along.”

Following Everton’s 2-2 draw against Fulham, Moyes reached the ten game milestone he had suggested in August where a judgement could begin to be made on this season’s performance. As well as sitting in fourth position, the Toffee’s also had the positive record of scoring in all but one of their games, averaging just under two goals per game. Far from the lack of firepower which has eluded Everton in recent seasons, results suggested that the Blue’s had found a scoring formula for the opening ten fixtures. Goals scored however, regardless of how impressive, only tells one half of the story. In the run-up to Moyes’ milestone, Everton registered four draws out of four, despite scoring seven goals. So, as greedy as it may sound coming from an Everton fan enjoying the occupation of a Champion’s League spot, there is the question of ‘what could have been?’ had Everton picked up maximum points when they were within grasp.

Everton returned to Goodison for the first time since the Merseyside derby, and for the sixth straight Premier League game, found themselves conceding first, this time to an Adam Johnson strike for visitor’s Sunderland. Again, Everton dominated the fixture and managed to strike twice for the lead, but unlike their previous result, managed to hang on for the three points. Fellaini was yet again involved in both of Everton’s goals, scoring the first before majestically setting up Jelavic three minutes later.

Everton’s next fixture was away at the Madjeski Stadium, playing a struggling Reading who had yet to chalk up a win in this campaign. Naismith broke Everton’s unenviable six game run of falling behind in every Premier League match, by forcing the ball into the net after ten minutes. The first half played out as expected when looking at Everton’s recent form, with the Toffee’s dominating yet unable to capitalise further on a collection of chances. The squandering of a number of gilt-edged opportunities came back to haunt Everton, with two goals from Adam Le Fondre (one from the penalty spot after a sloppy challenge by Seamus Coleman) handing defeat to the Toffee’s against a side who had until then been unable to register a win this season.

Away from the Premier League, Leon Osman managed to achieve his first England call-up (and a starting position) in England’s international friendly against Sweden. At 31, the midfielder may not represent the long term future of the national side, yet if his club performances have warranted a place, then he has every right to be offered the honour of representing his country. So a huge congratulations to Leon, and the best of luck for his international career.

Also developing this past month at Goodison was the continued success of Marouane Fellaini in Everton’s midfield. Alongside the Belgian’s much deserved plaudits comes the growing rumours of his departure, stemming from his consistency in creating attack after attack for Everton from seemingly nothing. Fellaini himself has acknowledged that his performances have alerted a number of free-spending suitors. His most recent comment on the situation was his wish to play for the best clubs in the world ‘one day’, but that he was patient to stay with a club as ambitious as Everton. Moyes on the other hand, whilst not completely resigning himself to Fellaini’s departure, has indicated that the twenty-four year old’s choice may be out of his hands. This is in no doubt due to Everton’s track record in this area. Like the sales of Lescott, Rooney and Rodwell before, the loss of Fellaini would be the next chapter in a familiar story for Moyes. In each previous instance, however, the Everton manager has recovered from these sales, both by (on the whole) wisely re-investing the budget he has been given to spend and by restarting the development cycle with younger players already within the squad. However, if Moyes et al do lose Fellaini in the immediate future, finding a replacement who can fill the void which the Belgian midfielder’s departure would inevitably leave would take possibly the smartest piece of reinvestment to date if the team are to continue their flirtation with the Premier League’s European places. With the January transfer window just around the corner, this may be an issue that Moyes has to quietly consider.

Everton: The Month That Was (October)

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In last month’s edition of Lowdown, I discussed the apparent ‘Toffee curse’ and whether Everton were finally showing signs of breaking the run of poor early season form which has plagued them in many recent seasons. Well, September was undoubtedly a fantastic month for the Blues, with David Moyes being rewarded for his work by winning the Premier League Manager of the Month. Following an impressive 3-0 victory over Swansea, Everton moved into the top four in the early season table. Signs were very much pointing towards an uncharacteristically strong start to Everton’s campaign.

However, as September drew to a close, Moyes took the decision to choose fitness over form in the club’s Capital One Cup tie with Leeds, to give some of the club’s mainstays a rest. After a muted display, the Blues succumbed to a 2-1 defeat, ending one of this year’s potential cup runs before it had even begun. Moyes received a fair amount of stick on some social media sites, with criticism towards his negative squad choice and apparent lack of ambition in the tournament. Yet the squad themselves should take a large portion of the responsibility for their shock exit. In my opinion, with all due respect to the Elland Road outfit, Everton’s starting eleven included enough talent, such as Coleman, Fellaini and Mirallas, to see off a Championship team.

Six minutes into Everton’s next Premier League fixture, it seemed that the ramifications of the cup defeat would spill over into their league form, after Gastón Ramírez fired newly promoted Southampton into the lead. These fears, however, were emphatically silenced when the Blues responded with  one of their best performances of the campaign so far, with Osman and a Jelavić brace ensuring a 3-1 victory. Following the win, Moyes was quoted as saying he would be happy to pay to watch Everton in their current form. However, quite rightly so, he was also quick to warn that the squad should not get dizzy from their positive results, especially when considering their Capital One Cup loss.

A trip to Wigan’s DW Stadium followed, where Everton had the opportunity to top the table going into the international break. However, the sense of fluidity between the players and their build-up play, which had been key to their previous impressive performances against Swansea and Southampton, seemed absent, as strikes from Arouna Koné and Franco Di Santo twice forced Everton onto the ropes. Fellaini seemed less of a key man, and more of a potential accident in the making, as various petulant outbursts seemed to threaten his chances of lasting the whole game. The most controversial of these was an aerial battle with Maynor Figueroa just before half-time, in which Wigan fans complained that the midfielder had led with an elbow. Personally, I believe the Belgian’s challenge did not warrant a red card, but it was obvious his frustrations were limiting his performance. The once again exceptional Leighton Baines rescued a point for the Blues with a late penalty, after Nikica Jelavić  had equalised in the first half. Incidentally, Baines’ successful conversion from the spot meant he has now scored all nine penalties he has taken in the Premier League.

After the international break, Everton’s next league fixture was away at QPR, a team who had yet to register a win so far in the league and were rooted to the foot of the table. A largely dismal affair started off terribly for the Toffee’s, when a mistake by Phil Neville allowed Junior Hoilett to burst forward and score. The goal was admittedly fortuitous, only beating Tim Howard thanks to a nasty deflection, yet considering the time Hoilett was gifted on the ball and the space he was allowed to run into, the chance was one which should have been snuffed out earlier. Pienaar’s dismissal was of course a major talking point of the game, with Everton’s Facebook page erupting with Toffee fans angry at the unjustified second yellow card. However, despite his second booking being very harsh, he had moments before been warned for a challenge on Hoilett, one which could have easily have been the second yellow which ruled him out of the game and out of the Merseyside derby.

The impressive form of Baines, culminating in his first-team call up to the England squad, was something for Blues fans to cheer about in the past month. Baines’ nod for the start at left-back, a position held with a vice-like grip by Ashley Cole, indicated his possible contention for the position in the near future. Yes it was against San Marino, a team ranked dead last in the FIFA rankings, and it was also in the aftermath of Cole’s bust up with the FA over his offensive tweet, but I personally believe that, regardless of opposition calibre and surrounding incidents, Baines’ inclusion as starting left-back in the England team was thoroughly deserved. Realistically, Baines’ selection does not indicate a full transition as new first-team full back for England, but more likely a chance for Roy Hodgson to experiment with alternatives. Yet Baines’ form this season has helped cement his status as heir to Cole’s seemingly ever-present role in the England team. His performances in the league have thus far been key for Everton’s positive run. According to the EA Sports Player Performance Index, the official rating system of the Premier League, Baines is judged as the third best performing player in the entire division.

Of course, Baines is not the only Toffee feeling confident about his possible international future. Since the retirement of England captain John Terry, an unexpected opportunity has arisen for a centre back to inherit his place. Phil Jagielka, currently with 16 caps, has himself admitted that there is strong competition for the available role, but he is very much putting his name in the hat. Hodgson’s decision to start him against Poland indicated that his chances look good for permanent selection.  At thirty, Jagielka must take his opportunity now to stamp his international legacy, considering younger alternative compatriots Gary Cahill and Ryan Shawcross are also ready to pounce, yet a strong season both domestically and on the international stage (when he is offered the chance) could allow him to make the transition from heir presumptive to permanent centre-back.

By and large, Everton’s performances through October, and in their entire season thus far, can be judged with cautious optimism. The EA Sports PPI rated Everton as the best performing team in the entire division prior to the international break, based on the combined performances of their players. Furthermore, two of Everton’s squad featured in the top five performing Premier League players, the previously mentioned Baines (3rd) and Steven Pienaar (5th).  The team’s form has ranged from impressive highs (the performance against Southampton) to disappointing lows (Pienaar’s dismissal and the team’s subsequent draw with QPR). However, Everton’s results, coupled with Moyes’ managerial award, means that the Toffee’s will go into November in a very strong league position and, hopefully for fellow Blues fans like myself, the ability to carry on their current success.

Is the Toffee curse finally broken?

 

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Read any of the stories on Everton’s positive start to the season and you are bound to come across the term ‘slow-starters’ and how the Toffees are maybe showing signs of deviating from this label they have acquired over David Moyes’ tenure. As an Everton supporter, I have had to get used to hearing this label in reference to my club, and this accusation has been somewhat justified in recent seasons. Whether the poor run of early form happens from game one (such as the 2010-2011 campaign in which Everton amassed just three points from their opening six games) or a few matches later, it has nevertheless become a common trend for the tag to resurface for the blue half of Merseyside.

So far, the Toffees have had their best start to a campaign for five years, improving upon the positive opening they made last season. However, what followed Everton’s solid start last year was a familiar dip in early season form which saw the accumulation of six losses in nine matches. So what is to say that the club will not follow their apparently pre-written script and have to play catch up later on in this season too?

An argument for Everton continuing their impressive start is the return of Steven Pienaar, following his signing of a permanent contract. Last season, on-loan Pienaar had arguably his most impressive campaign for the Toffees, amassing the highest amount of assists (6) from anyone in the squad. This was despite the January acquisition only playing for half of the season, and being cup-tied from the F.A. Cup due to his Tottenham appearances. Following the midfielder’s permanent re-signing this summer, I joined with many other Blues fans in a feeling of genuine excitement that Moyes had re-invested in a player who was and, for all intents and purposes would return to be, a key player in the Everton set-up. A player who had not figured in Tottenham’s first team plans during his short spell at White Hart Lane, due to a combination of injury and competition for places, immediately returned as a key player and an important creative piece in Everton’s squad. An example of a perfect club and player partnership it could be argued.

But of course Pienaar’s success at the tail-end of last season and into the current campaign has not been purely down to his individual talent. The South African has been able to reform the creative partnership he and Leighton Baines have previously thrived in. The duo have been responsible for Everton’s biggest creative threat so far during this campaign. Following Everton’s 2-2 draw with Newcastle, Baines topped the Premier League chart for chances created for teammates (19), a stat made all the more impressive when considering the left-back’s position. Newcastle’s defensive 4-5-1 formation in this game of course aided Baines’ freedom to advance forward, but take nothing away from his impressive build up play with Pienaar, which was directly responsible for the left-back scoring Everton’s first goal.

The emergence of Nikica Jelavic as Everton’s much needed clinical finisher as well as the quick-footed and promising new signing Kevin Miralles also adds to the optimism surrounding Goodison, with the squad showing enough genuine talent to provide a serious top-half push in this campaign, providing of course that their form stays consistent.

Optimism aside however, if I take my fans cap off for a moment, there are definitely potential hurdles in Everton’s continuing campaign. The talk of Marouane Fellaini’s itchy feet, regardless of its level of exaggeration, has led to a number of top clubs keeping a close eye on the Belgian international. Sir Alex Ferguson attended Everton’s draw with Newcastle, sparking rumours of a January interest. Considering United’s need for a long-term central midfield option, and after Fellaini’s star performance against the Red Devils in August, it is a rumour I’d easily, and begrudgingly, believe. Losing a player like Fellaini, who at age twenty-four represents a fantastic long-term prospect for the Toffees, would mean the loss of a strong central figure in the Everton midfield. With all of the excitement surrounding Everton’s attacking options, it is key to have a balance. A ball-winner. One who can snuff out attacks defensively and hold up play to release our own attacking threats. That is not to say that Fellaini is not lacking in the attacking department himself, considering he has already managed to equal his goal scoring tally from the entirety of last season. Keeping Fellaini is a key part of Everton’s potential for this campaign, and the growing uncertainty about external interest could work to unsettle the team and in turn their results.

Injuries could also play a major role in Everton’s ongoing run of form. Darron Gibson, who managed eleven league games for the Blues last season without a single defeat, was ruled out for over a month with a thigh injury following the West Brom game. Striking threat Jelavic was also sidelined for two weeks following a nasty collision with a goalpost against Newcastle in September. If long term injuries were to hit a number of key Everton players, would the remaining squad still manage to perform at the level they have been doing so far this season?

It seems a simple formula. Play well, avoid injuries and resist the interest in your key players. Even if all three of these occur, however, no-one can know for certain how the upcoming few games for Everton will finish. A contentious decision or a defensive mishap could decide a game, regardless of who has performed better on the day. Despite the uncertainty of the beautiful game, I believe that Everton fans can be optimistic about this year’s chances, and hope that they can finally defy the early season hoodoo which has damaged them in recent seasons.