Filippo Inzaghi: Thoroughbred Goal Hanger

It may have gone unnoticed to some, but 1st September 2011 will go down as the end of an era for anyone who has followed the staggering career of AC Milan’s Filippo Inzaghi.

The man affectionately known as ‘Mr Champions League’ by many people, was left out of Milan’s 25-man squad for the group stage of this season’s tournament.

Head Coach Massimiliano Allegri called it a “tough choice” after deciding to pick four forwards and going for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Antonio Cassano, Robinho and Pato – citing a calf injury as the main reason for Inzaghi’s omission.

Inzaghi, who’s now 38, was described as “understandably disappointed” by his manager – and I’m sure that will have been magnified by the fact that Gennaro Gattuso has been included in the squad, despite being suspended for the first four matches.

Although I have to say that mentioning the snarling midfielder – banned for an ‘assault’ on Tottenham’s first-team coach Joe Jordan – in the same sentence as Filippo Inzaghi, doesn’t feel quite right under the circumstances.

Inzaghi is a player who deserves huge respect, not the sort of man to court controversy, he’s almost always let his feet do the talking, forging a reputation as one of football’s great goal-poachers – in the right place at the right time so often, you have to wonder whether he can see into the future, or at least a few seconds ahead.

So many times, on Tuesday and Wednesday nights across Europe, we’ve seen Inzaghi wheel away, his face contorted with fevered passion, as he celebrates yet another goal in the UEFA Champions League.

He’s scored 70 European goals in total, 3 less than Raul, the man he’s always battled with for top-spot in the European competition goal-chart.

Raul also boasts 1 more UEFA Champions League medal – winning the competition three times with Real Madrid – but who can forget Inzaghi’s amazing contribution to Milan’s success against Liverpool in 2006/07 Final?

Two goals that encapsulate so much about the Italian – his first, a perfect example of being in the right place at the right time, as a Pirlo free-kick cannoned off his side/shoulder and wrong-footed Pepe Reina – his second goal, the result of a perfectly timed run to receive a defence splitting pass from Kaka, before calmly slipping the ball past the onrushing Liverpool goalkeeper.

Contributions like that have seen Inzaghi amass a stunning array of medals that includes – 2 UEFA Champions League titles, 2 UEFA Super Cups, 3 Serie A titles, 1 Coppa Italia, 1 FIFA Club World Cup, 2 Supercoppa Italiana – not to mention the FIFA World Cup with Italy in 2006.

Inzaghi is also Italy’s and Milan’s all time top goal scorer in European club competition – and, of the many tributes I’ve seen paid to Inzaghi in the last few hours, one which compared him to a British fighter pilot resentated most.

“Pippo Inzaghi, the Douglas Bader of football,” declared Neil Isaacs, the person behind a Twitter account called @SurrealFootball.

Bader, for those who don’t know, served his country with utter distinction during the Second World War, and was as prolific in the skies as Inzaghi is in front of goal – credited with 20 aerial victories, 4 shared victories, 6 probables, 1 shared probable and 11 enemy aircraft damaged.

Of course there are those who’d say if Bader had been caught offside as many times as Inzaghi, the famous fighter pilot wouldn’t have lived to the age of 72.

Sir Alex Ferguson famously once quipped that Inzaghi must have been “born offside” – and I’m sure there are more than a few Assistant Referees in this season’s UEFA Champions League who’ll breath a sigh of relief that Inzaghi won’t be involved in the group stage – few players in history have spent so much time playing on the shoulder of the last defender.

Some fortunate offside decisions over the years have contributed to the belief, held by many, that Inzaghi is a very lucky player, with far less ability than many team-mates – but can you really ‘get lucky’ that often? As any coach of strikers will tell you, being in the position to score a goal is more than half the battle.

It’s been Inzaghi’s trademark since 1992, when he scored his first hit the back of the net for Leffe – right throughout his career Inzaghi has almost always guaranteed goals, even if fitness has sometimes been a problem.

Often described as your archetypal ‘1 in 2’ man – he actually averages slightly under that, with 287 goals in 614 matches – but even last season, when he struggled badly with a knee injury, Inzaghi still managed 4 goals in 9 appearances.

Whether he’ll ever add to his UEFA Champions League tally remains to be seen, but just like any good soap-opera exit, the door has been left slightly ajar, with Massimiliano Allegri saying he’ll assess Inzaghi’s fitness again in January and could yet bring him back into the UEFA Champions League squad then, presuming Milan qualify for the knockout phase.

We’re always told football is a ruthless business now, with no room for sentiment – but I can’t help feeling ‘Pippo’ deserves one last chance to knock Raul off his perch.

Although, if we have seen the last of Inzaghi in the world’s premier club competition, it is fitting that his final goals were in a thrilling 2-2 draw against Real Madrid.

Have You Ever Played The Game Though?

A type of snobbery exists in football that I find both patronising and narrow-minded.

Many times in the past I’ve heard several current and ex-footballers, employed in the media, say to a caller or contributor they disagree with…”yeh, but have you ever played the game?”

The most recent time was during a football phone-in at the weekend when Joey Barton had called in to a show co-hosted by Robbie Savage.

For some reason it irritated me a little more than normal when Barton said exactly that to a caller, who’d criticised his reaction to being ‘slapped’ by Arsenal’s Gervinho at the weekend.

As it happens, I reluctantly accept the point that Barton went on to make, which was that if he’d have stayed on his feet, he’d have been doing his team-mates a disservice.

What he meant was that most players struck, however lightly, in the face by an opponent will go to the floor, not because they’re badly hurt, but because they know it’ll result in a red-card for the offender and an advantage for his team.

I don’t like that, I’d rather it didn’t happen, but I can understand it – what I can’t understand is why you need to have ‘played the game’ to get your head round that – hardly rocket science is it?

Do you also need to have ‘played the game’ to understand the difference between a mistimed challenge and one deliberately intended to cause harm?

I don’t believe you do – but it’s a criticism many referees have been subjected to over the years.

What about management? Should the lack of a professional playing career really inhibit the chances of a talented coach fulfilling their potential?

Andre Villas-Boas, appointed Head Coach by Chelsea this summer, is seen by many as a coaching visionary – but he never played professionally.

At just 33 years of age he inspired FC Porto to a league and cup double and the UEFA Europa League last season.

Many of his players spoke of a man who understood what made them tick, a coach who gets the best out of players by trusting them and allowing them to express themselves.

Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich was so impressed that he forked out £13.3m to secure his services – yet many more within the game remain sceptical.

Earlier this summer I heard a radio interview with Graeme Souness, who suggested it was a problem for Villas-Boas that he’d not spent much time working with top players, explaining that you need time in that sort of environment to understand what goes on.

Souness is a man of vast experience, who’s managed in five different countries and won three European Cups as a player, so when he speaks you have to listen, but I’m afraid I still disagree with him.

No doubt similar opinions were expressed about the likes of Carlos Alberto Parreira, Arrigo Sacchi and Guy Roux when they began careers in football management, but all went on to achieve fantastic success despite never playing professional football.

Parreira and Sacchi even came up against each other in the FIFA World Cup Final of 1994 – Parreira becoming the first coach to win the tournament with Brazil since 1970, beating Sacchi’s Italy on penalties in the United States.

Sacchi, a former shoe salesman, was often asked about his lack of playing experience and once replied: “I never realised that in order to become a jockey you have to have been a horse first…”

A quick glance over the pond to U.S sport backs up that theory.

Like the Premier League, the NBA is littered with huge talents, some with equally big egos and eye-watering salaries – but having no experience of playing in that sort of environment doesn’t seem any great barrier to success.

Coaches who never took to a court in the NBA account for just over 40% of the Championship titles ever won.

Examples include Tom Thibodeau (Chicago Bulls) – Gregg Popovich (San Antonio Spurs) – Red Auerbach (ex-Boston Celtics) – John Kundla (ex-Minneapolis Lakers) – Chuck Daly (ex-Detroit Pistons).

Surely the most important thing for any coach in any sport at any level is to understand the game and how to teach the game – dealing with egos and personalities is an issue faced by all sorts of managers in all sorts of professions and is certainly not exclusive to football.

Thankfully supporters don’t need to worry about that side of things, but they do, in many cases, spend thousands of pounds in watching football – they also invest lots of time in their sport and are more knowledgeable than ever, with so much football, from around the world, beamed almost constantly into our living rooms these days.

How insulting is it then to suggest those people can’t have a valid opinion on something to do with football, simply because they’re not one of the extremely fortunate few who get to fulfil their boyhood dream?

We can’t all ‘play the game’, but we can all have opinions on it, and that’s one of things that makes it so great.

Has Torres Already Peaked?

Even before a ball had even kicked in the 2011/12 Premier League, Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas already appeared tired of questions from journalists about the form of Fernando Torres.

Following a pre-season friendly against a Malaysian XI the former FC Porto manager was quoted as saying it had become an “obsession” of the media that he didn’t want to “waste time over”.

The reaction of Villas-Boas is completely understandable – he is an intelligent and media-savvy manager who is simply trying to protect one of his most important players.

Privately though I’d imagine he totally understands the high level of interest in a striker who – so far at least – has done little to justify his £50m price tag.

Villas-Boas will also know that his own chances of succeeding at Stamford Bridge could rely heavily on his ability to get goals from a player who – during the Spaniard’s best days at Liverpool – was one of the most devastating finishers in Premier League history.

To solve a problem it helps to have a clear idea of what’s causing it and that’s where things become so difficult with Torres.

Many theories for his loss have form have been put forward – since it first truly came to prominence – more than a year ago – at the 2010 World Cup.

Even before that tournament his former manager Rafa Benitez had described Torres as “exhausted” on 4th April 2010 – just days before his 2009/10 season was cut short by knee surgery.

It’s understandable then that some people put the lacklustre Torres of 2010/11 down to sheer fatigue – after all this was a man who – by the age of 26 at the end of 2009/10 – had played 365 competitive club matches for Atlético Madrid and Liverpool.

If fatigue is the main problem with Torres a summer of complete rest in 2011 should have helped greatly.

Another theory – and perhaps the most worrying one for Chelsea – is that Torres has already peaked.

Did Liverpool sell at the right time – a player who’d given them his best days?

It wouldn’t be the first time this has happened in recent history.

Robbie Fowler’s best season in terms of club goals scored is a total of 36 in 1995/96 at the age of 21 – he scored 31 the following season aged 22 – but has averaged 9.5 per season after that in English football.

Michael Owen’s best tally for a club season is 28 goals – managed twice in 2001/02 and 2002/03 – between the ages of 21 and 23 – since then he’s averaged 9.9 per season.

Other examples of Premier League strikers at their ‘peak’ provide further food for thought.

Andrew Cole’s best tally for a club season was 34 goals at the age of 22

Alan Shearer’s best tally for a club season was 37 – managed twice in 1994/95 and 1995/96 – between the ages of 24 and 26

Teddy Sheringham’s best tally for a club season in the top flight was 29 goals in 1992/93 at the age of 26

Thierry Henry’s best tally for a club season in the English top flight was 30 goals in 2003/04 at the age of 26.

Some strikers who’ve registered their best Premier League goals tallies at an older age than Torres (27) are Dennis Bergkamp (28), Les Ferdinand (29) and Gianfranco Zola (36).

The sort of longevity enjoyed by those three players inevitably requires a certain amount of luck with injury though – something Torres hasn’t always enjoyed a lot of.

As recently as June – Torres was quoted as saying he’s been “prevented from being in good shape” – and his occasional problems with groin, hamstring and knee injuries at Liverpool were well documented.

That said – he’s averaged 29 league appearances per-season since arriving in England in 2007 – and managed 37 during 2010/11.

Those games last season yielded a total of 10 goals – 9 of them for Liverpool – and that will have to improve this coming season if Torres is to prove the doubters wrong.

This leads on to the final popular theory on Torres – namely that Chelsea and even Spain aren’t playing to the strengths that brought him so much success in front of goal at Atlético Madrid and Liverpool.

Rafa Benitez struck gold with the special relationship that developed between Torres and Steven Gerrard – an almost telepathic understanding so rare at the highest level – but Benitez also made sure that his Liverpool team gave Torres what he needs most – space.

Torres at his best runs at defenders and does much of his work outside the penalty area – even dragging opponents out wide.

He likes quick service from midfield and he doesn’t share the limelight well up-front – just ask Didier Drogba.

The Chelsea of 2010/11 didn’t have the personnel, the formation or even perhaps the will to fully accommodate Torres.

It led to him often looking lost and ineffective – something that’s happened at international level on occasion – dating back much longer.

In 2008 I remember reading an article in which former Liverpool team-mate Alvaro Arbeloa said Spain don’t play to the strengths of Torres.

His goal-scoring record for his country would seem to show there is some truth in this too.

Torres has scored 26 goals in his 86 senior international appearances – that’s a goal every 3.3 games – compare this to his club record at Atlético Madrid and Liverpool of 172 goals in 391 appearances – a goal every 2.2 games.

Spain have flourished even without Torres firing on all cylinders – but the same couldn’t be said of Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea in the latter of half of last season.

The conundrum for Andre Villas-Boas is whether or not to build his new look team around a player who’s either peaked already, or is about to rediscover the sort of form that made him worth £50m in the first place.

With Roman Abramovich understandably keen to avoid a repeat of the Andriy Shevchenko saga – you couldn’t blame Villas-Boas if he were a little ‘obsessed’.

Smalling’s ‘Coming Of Age’ Moment

Every young player that signs for a club the size of Manchester United – however talented – must privately wonder for a moment if they can cut it at Old Trafford.

I would imagine it is a totally natural reaction to the enormity of representing one of the world’s best supported football clubs.

Imagine then the pressure on Chris Smalling this time last year.

At 20 years old and with just 13 Premier League appearances under his belt – the defender was leaving his home city of London for Manchester in a £10m deal.

Fast forward to 28th August 2010 and Smalling made his Premier League debut for Manchester United as a 74th minute substitute in a 3-0 win over West Ham.

Fast forward again to today (8th July 2011) and Smalling has signed a new five-year contract at Old Trafford after impressing for England at the UEFA European U21 Championship.

However – I believe the most signficant date in Smalling’s United career – and the moment he ‘came of age’ at Old Trafford was Saturday 12th February 2011.

Manchester United faced Manchester City at home – without Rio Ferdinand – who’d been injured in the warm-up before United’s last game – a 2-1 defeat at Wolves.

Jonny Evans – who’d replaced Ferdinand at Molineux – was also injured – so Sir Alex Ferguson decided to hand Smalling only his 4th Premier League start for United in one of their biggest games of the season.  

I was fortunate enough to commentate on the game – and it would be fair to say that there was much pre-match talk about whether Smalling could handle the occasion.

As it happened he barely put a foot wrong – turning in a calm, confident and accomplished performance alongside Nemanja Vidic – as United won 2-1.

That match will forever be remembered for one of the goals of the season – Wayne Rooney winning the game for United with a stunning overheard kick. 

Afterwards the media spoke to Smalling in the tunnel at Old Trafford and he came across brilliantly – particularly when a reporter remarked that the best compliment you could give him was that you barely noticed Rio Ferdinand was missing.

His reaction was humble and understated but the shy smile that went with it said to me that this was a young footballer who’d just proved something to himself.