Search for a Manager: Erik ten Hag

Another summer, another daily soap drama at FC Hollywood (or FC Miami Vice in this case). This time, the daily soap drama is revolving around the new manager who can start the “Rebuild”. If Netflix gets the rights to the drama going on at Manchester United, they can make a multi-million grossing series. This is an idea which the bosses at Manchester United unironically can get behind because of PR, media interactions and quick profit: the reason they leveraged a buy-out 17 years back.

With the script of Rebuild Season 5 under consideration, Manchester United is in the hunting mode to cast the lead role for the new season with famous German casting director Ralf Rangnick assisting from the outside. Argentine Mauricio Pochettino from French Drama Company Paris St. Germain and talented Erik ten Hag from leading Dutch Production House Ajax Amsterdam are seen as potential candidates to take the lead role. 

Banter aside, now it’s time to do some serious talking. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s sacking prompted Manchester United to move in for the German Ralf Rangnick to take over as interim manager and then take over as an “External Consultant” for two years once his stint as interim manager will be over. In the grey area role as External Consultant, Rangnick (ideally) will advise the club over player recruitment and also pitch in towards finding a suitable manager to take over from him at the end of 2021-2022 season.

It is becoming difficult for Manchester United to poach Mauricio Pochettino from PSG (apparently thanks to a higher release clause) so they have turned their eyes to Erik ten Hag. Despite majority fans not watching more than a handful of Ajax matches (courtesy of a recent poll run by one of the sanest and well-versed analysts covering Manchester United: United Arena; twitter @utdarena), they have a weird notion around him. I don’t want to generalize the perception of the entire fanbase with a twitter poll but in general people (not just Manchester United supporters) have an assumption that the Dutchman Erik ten Hag is all about possession and is like the second coming of Johan Cruyff or have labelled him as the next Louis Van Gaal due to Ajax Amsterdam roots; because their favourite “football content creators” said so who are just peddling their agendas to monetize social media interactions and have complete deficiency when it comes to the topic.

I will try my level best to break this notion about Erik ten Hag and talk about his tactics, managerial philosophy and possible (and realistic) scenarios of how he can manage Manchester United if he really is appointed as next manager. We will dive into where he can flourish, where he can falter (either due to his own shortcomings or the structural issues at United).

So, buckle up and get ready for a bumpy ride.

Erik ten Hag: Managerial Profile

The 52-year-old Dutchman has taken the footballing world by storm with his Ajax side steamrolling oppositions not only in his native Netherlands but even in Europe. Erik is himself an ex-player, having modest success as a centre back. The highlight of his playing career has to be winning the KNVB Cup with FC Twente in the 2000-01 season, his third stint with the Enschede side. Post that, the 31-year-old was considering retirement but eventually played for one more season before hanging his boots at the end of 2001-02 season.

He was immediately appointed as head of youth development at FC Twente, a position which he went on to hold for 4 years. Then, the tragedy struck. The parent company which was financing the running of the club went bankrupt. The club was facing the risk of getting liquidated. An ambitious businessman, Joop Munsterman decided to intervene and save the club. For a while, the club had to look at the academy and make shrewd signings to rebuild the squad. Erik’s work at the academy was praised by his colleagues. The highlight from his 4-year stint as HoYD, working closely with the academy was the promotion of Wout Brama to the senior team (still playing for FC Twente in present day, picking up titles with them and International appearances with Oranje). In 2006, Ten Hag was appointed as the Assistant Manager of FC Twente. In this period, the team saw an upward rise in the table. From reaching yet another KNVB Cup final in 2004, the club eventually finished at 4th place in the 2006-07 season. Yet another 4th place finish in 2007-08 followed. But this time, the club won the European place play-off against Ajax Amsterdam to pick a place in UEFA Champions League qualification rounds. Ten Hag’s work on the side lines as Assistant Manager earned him a new contract and he was then paired with the Englishman Steve McLaren for the start of 2008-09 season.

The era of late 2000s was a period of transition for the big 3 of Netherlands: Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV. Ajax was underperforming due to mismanagement of resources, PSV in turn had a free run at the top in Eredivisie but they were failing at European stage after the highs of 2005 UCL run where they were moments away from a historic final (yes THAT UCL final). Feyenoord also had underlying financial issues which escalated a few years later. It was a time where teams from outside the big 3 tried to claim bragging rights. AZ Alkmaar and FC Twente rose to the challenge with their ambitious projects. AZ had brought in Louis Van Gaal, while FC Twente continued with Steve McLaren and a budding Erik ten Hag as his assistant manager. FC Twente, unseeded in the qualification rounds, eventually navigated their way to the final qualification round. But they were pitted against Arsenal where they ended up losing 6-0 on aggregate. They earned a place in the first round of the UEFA Cup. At domestic level, they earned 2nd place – 11 points adrift of Louis Van Gaal’s AZ Alkmaar. Ten Hag’s work with Twente earned him a move to PSV Eindhoven where he was appointed as Assistant Manager.



In Eindhoven, he was paired with Fred Rutten. PSV improved a lot under the managerial duo, finishing 3rd in the table, 8 points off eventual champions, FC Twente. They reached the Round of 32 of the inaugural UEFA Europa League, while managing a quarter final appearance in the domestic cup. In 2010-11, they again managed 3rd place in Eredivisie but did better in cup competitions – quarter final appearances in both the Europa League and KNVB Cup. It was the 2011-12 season where PSV Eindhoven finally enjoyed success, winning the domestic cup and managing a 3rd place in the league. At the end of the season, the club didn’t extend the contracts of Rutten and Ten Hag. 
The side was praised for having a balanced output – sound in both attacking and defending department while patiently building the game from the wings – reasons why players like Balázs Dzsudzsák, Dries Mertens, Ola Toivonen exploded and ended up as top scorers under the managerial duo while coaching the likes of Georginio Wijnadlum, Kevin Strootman and a young Memphis Depay.

Ten Hag decided to kick start his career as a manager when he took up a job as first team manager at Deventer based side, Go Ahead Eagles, in Eerste Divisie (Dutch 2nd division). He was persuaded to join the side by Marc Overmars, who started his management career as a Technical Director at the club. Erik’s stay at the club lasted for only 1 year but he made it a memorable one. Under him, Go Ahead Eagles earned a promotion back to Eredivisie after a wait of 17 years. Go Ahead Eagles earned praises and attracted attention not only in his native country, but even from abroad.

Matthias Sammer, then sporting director of FC Bayern Munchen, convinced the young manager to move across the border and join the reserves side as manager. With Pep Guardiola at the helm as first team manager, the plan to appoint Erik ten Hag as manager of the reserves side was to keep a continuum between the philosophy of football at all levels of the club so that youngsters who were knocking on the door of the first team shouldn’t find difficulty adapting to the tactical instructions. Ten Hag’s Bayern II competed in Regionalliga Bayern, the regional league for Bavaria, one division below the 3. Liga, the third division in the German football pyramid. Ten Hag’s side fought to win the promotion to third division but always ended up missing it with narrow margins. Ten Hag left Germany after 2 years, returning back to the Netherlands. He took up the role of first team manager cum Sporting Director at Eredivisie side FC Utrecht.

Utrecht was on the verge of bankruptcy multiple times in the 2000s and had to be saved from liquidation at the very last moment by financial injection from potential investors. Even in such conditions, Ten Hag’s side finished 5th in Eredivisie in the 2017-18 season, the club’s highest position in the table since 1981 and they also reached the final of KNVB Cup, losing 2-1 to Feyenoord Rotterdam. Next season was even better for FC Utrecht in the league, as they clinched 4th place and won the European Play off final against AZ Alkmaar in dramatic style.

Ten Hag extended his contract with the club for one more season, but Ajax paid a hefty compensation to appoint him as manager on 23th December, 2017 after sacking Marcel Keizer. Marcel had taken over from Peter Bosz after coming through the ranks at Jong Ajax but was relieved from his duties due to poor results. A penalty loss to FC Twente in the Domestic Cup prompted Ajax’s technical director, Marc Overmars, to pull the plug. It was Overmars yet again who initiated the reunification with Erik ten Hag. 

What happened next is a story which everyone knows. 

According to Ten Hag, Coaching is all about experience. You gain more insights if you have an open mindset. His experience as a Head of Youth Development helped him learn how to integrate youth players at senior level once they are of the right age. His experience under Steve McLaren helped him learn the art of managing emotions and delivering results with respect to raising expectations. His experience under Fred Rutten taught him about “balance”. 

All of these elements which he picked up helped him mature. Erik not only learned from his colleagues but learned from his surroundings. His time in Germany was very fruitful and he learned a lot from the ‘German game’, inculcating various tactical and managerial instructions in his coaching. Now, with experience he has almost perfected himself at Utrecht and Ajax.

In the above clipping, Erik ten Hag has shed light on the realism which he expects from people and how it takes time to perfect things and that you require timing to perfect the things. The excerpt has been taken from Ajax’s Youtube video where Erik goes through 5 game play sequences under him and explains his coaching philopshy and how it is reflected in those game play sequences.

Tactical Analysis 

Attacking Set-up

At FC Utrecht, Ten Hag used a number of formations, 3-4-3, 3-5-2, 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 but his preferred formation was that of 4-4-2 diamond. His front line was led by a certain French-Ivorian with whom he re-united in 2021, Sebastian Haller. Haller was the primary forward and he was supported by one of Nacer Barazite or Bart Ramselaar as number 10 with Ruud Boymans, Patrick Joosten and later on Richario Zivkovic joining in as the secondary striker with Haller up top. When Barazite started as number 10, Ramselaar started as the wide midfielder in the diamond, on the right side- covering the space vacated by the marauding right back, shuttling horizontally to cover up space in the centre and right half wing. This ensured that the width was provided by fullbacks who had to be positionally aware, both in attacking and defensive phases. Ten Hag’s structure allowed for multiple rotations. The single pivot at the base of the diamond often dropped into the back line, with centre backs going wide to avoid getting pressed by opposition’s attackers, forming a back 3. This helped a lot with the build-up. It also encouraged the full-backs to push even further forward and stretch the defence of opposition. The number 10 often rotated with the number eights on either side of the diamond while the second forward dropping deep in areas to create a +1 in midfield helped to create overloads and short passing options in central areas.

In the 2015/16 season, Utrecht ranked 2nd in the Eredivisie for progressive passes. They also had the 2nd least PPDA score, which suggested that their sides pressed aggressively from the front.  Ten Hag’s desire to have multiple options at 10, using rotations and movement to create passing options between the lines, was key to this. It has been a central theme throughout his coaching career. Ten Hag has always emphasized on off the ball movement of the players, trying to coach them and perfect this ability since these off the ball movements are the key to create so many passing options. Players are drilled hard to create space for others to pass. All of this has to work in tandem. You have to be technically sound on the ball and positionally aware off-the-ball. Even the Goalkeepers have to be proactive in Ten Hag’s set-up, not just rooted to the line but provide an option to start the play from the back and be positionally aware to cover the space behind the high defensive line. Ten Hag believes that you don’t have to keep possession just for the sake of it. According to him, Possession is just a means to an end. You should control the game and try to control the situation of the game in the crucial moments instead of just controlling possession of the ball. After taking the Ajax job in December 2017, Ten Hag converted the fluid 4-3-3 used by his predecessors and converted into a 4-2-3-1 with a fluid front 4. This formation allowed them to be explosive when players eventually bought the philosophy of the coach. While PSV Eindhoven won the Eredivisie, Ajax was playing the long-term game with Ten Hag. Recruitments of veteran Daley Blind and Dusan Tadic provided much needed experience and added 2 players in their peak years in a squad built with younger talents. In the 2018-19 season, Ten Hag’s Ajax steamrolled the opposition. Their run in Europe was the best club experienced in more than 20 years. From the 2nd qualification round of UEFA Champions League to semi-finals, Ajax bested teams which came in their way. Historic victories at Santiago Bernabeu and Allianz Arena, Turin followed with an away victory at newly built Tottenham Hotspurs Stadium in the semi-finals. The Amsterdam side even took a 2-0 lead at Amsterdam Arena. But a hattrick by Lucas Moura in 2nd half knocked out Ajax with Moura’s last goal coming as the last kick of the match. A historic UCL final was so close, yet so far.

The double pivot of Frenkie De Jong and veteran Lasse Schone sat in front of their front 4. De Jong’s ability to carry the ball was very effective in progressing the ball from defensive areas to attacking zones. Dusan Tadic was most regularly used as the central forward in that remarkable Champions League run. Ziyech, Van de Beek and Neres then formed the line of three behind him. Domestically, Tadic often operated from the left, with either Kasper Dolberg or Klaas-Jan Huntelaar starting as the nine. On the right, Ziyech looked to cut back inside on his stronger left foot and shoot, cross or connect with the team’s central attackers. Right-back Noussair Mazraoui provided delayed attacking support while still offering a link to the back line or double pivot by inverting in-field depending on the opposition’s defensive set-up.

On the left, either Neres or Tadic moved inside much earlier, with the latter often operating more as a second centre-forward when he started there. This created significant room for left-back Nicolás Tagliafico to overlap and provide crosses from deeper areas of the field. The double pivot helped cover underneath Tagliafico’s marauding runs up-field. One of them could drop into the back line to support centre-backs Matthijs de Ligt and Daley Blind whenever required. Frenkie De Jong’s ability to beat the opposition’s press effectively helped a lot in building up play in this manner. 

As the number 10, Van de Beek moved intelligently between the lines – but he was most effective from the right inside channel. His movement off the ball in the right half space complemented the width provided by Ziyech, in turn creating room for Tadic to exploit when he attacked from the left or for the central striker to drop into, thereby vacating more space for either the winger or full-back on left side to exploit this vacated space and create numerical superiority. 

That glorious run in the Champions League started a fire sale: De Ligt, De Jong, Van de Beek Ziyech, Dolberg, Neres, Kristensen, Veltman, Sinkgraven, Promes all went to pastures anew. Huntelaar, Schone were phased out. The trio of Ten Hag, Technical Director Marc Overmars and Managing Director Edwin van Der Sar replaced these ongoing very well. Recruiting talented young players with high resale value from abroad and promoting youngsters from reserve and youth sides while also bringing experienced players who made their name in domestic league but struggled abroad.  This overhaul prompted Ten Hag to change his tactical set-up. 4-2-3-1 shape paved the way for 4-3-3. 

Ryan Gravenberch, Devyne Rensch, Jurrien Timber, Per Schuurs (technically not from youth setup but he was bought to be played in Jong Ajax team-reserves initially) were promoted and integrated into the first team; Lisandro Martinez came from Argentina, Edson Alvarez came from Mexico, Antony came from Brazil, Mohammed Kudus came from FC Nordsjaelland, Mohamed Daramy came from FC Kobenhavn, Ray Gorter came from Go Ahead Eagles. Experienced players like Davy Klaasen came from Werder Bremen, Steven Berghuis came from Feyenoord (the transfer completely nullified Berghuis’ status as a cult figure among Feyenoord fans given the rivalry between 2 clubs), Sean Klaiber came from FC Utrecht, Sebastian Haller came from West Ham, Remko Pasveer came from Vitesse to cover for Andre Onana who had to battle a 9-month suspension over the consumption of banned drug. Klaiber and Haller were re-united with Ten Hag after their time at FC Utrecht was fairly successful (although Klaiber suffered a serious knee injury and he has been on the sideline for a long time now). 

Haller is the primary striker while Tadic remains on the left, from where he continues to drift inside. Here he is supported by Blind – another survivor from that Champions League team– who has moved to left-back. Blind’s experience at centre-back allows Ajax to build with a back three. Mazraoui then pushes further forward. The width that Tadic maintains on the left enables the midfielders to push further ahead and make supporting runs around Haller, particularly from Gravenberch on the left. Blind offers cover behind but can also invert while Mazaroui also has the same ability to provide more passing options alongside defensive midfielder Edson Álvarez.

Ajax have also showcased an ability to be flexible in the way they progressed the ball. They can pass their way around the opposition in vertical manner and play a direct brand of football but they also use Haller as a target for longer passes at times as well as using long switches to isolate their devastating wide players.

Defensive Set-up

Without the ball, Ten Hag’s Utrecht mostly dropped into a 4-3-3 shape. The central forwards would defend on the outsides of the front line, around which opponents often looked to build. They could then target the space between centre-back and the aggressive press of the full-backs. The number eights would cover the inside channels, but if the distances were too great or the back line failed to slide over enough, opponents could exploit the spaces and penetrate through these channels. 

Ten Hag’s switch to a 4-3-3 with Ajax has led to a different defensive approach. The striker, mostly Haller (or on loan striker Brian Brobbey who left Ajax for RB Leipzig), stays high rather than dropping deep to cover the opposing team’s pivot. The wingers track runs from opposition’s full-backs/wingers into wide areas, especially if the full-back has aggressively pressed in the inside channels. The number eights cover the inside channels aggressively, too. They will individually jump forward to support the press between the centre-forward and winger. With the wingers supporting back, the central midfield can focus more on the areas ahead of the two centre-backs. The theme around Ten Hag’s defensive approach is that of individual jumping and pressing out of line. Whether that’s a centre-back pushing out to deal with a dropping attacker, or a number eight pushing forward to press a dropping pivot, Ten Hag wants his players to work forward on to the ball – even if it means assertively leaving the line of defence. This puts constant pressure on the ball and, from a compact mid-block, forces the opposition back and away from goal. 

This man-oriented pressing can become a blessing and a burden. And this has been a major issue with Ten Hag’s side. Despite conceding least goals in Eredivisie this season, Ajax have been unable to handle the opposition’s counter attacking players if their counter-press is broken, leaving them completely open on transitions and this is where Ajax doesn’t defend well. While there is a very big gap between the resources available at Ajax and other clubs in the Netherlands and quality of players is miles better, these weaknesses may go under the radar at domestic level but at European level, it has bugged them. Tottenham Hotspurs in 2018-19 UCL campaign, Getafe in 2019-20 UEL, AS Roma in 2020-21 UEL and recently Benfica in 2021-22 UCL Campaign have nullified Ajax’s strengths in attack with their vulnerability in defensive transitions. This is one area where Ten Hag can improve by tweaking a thing or two. 

To summarize, the basic principles of Ten Hag’s coaching philosophy are: 

  1. Create +1 in possession 
  2. Changing positions
  3. Don’t over-use the width of the pitch
  4. Always make off the ball runs and play passes forward and in behind
  5. Make sure that the defence is organized
  6. Immediate pressure on the ball
  7. Get back in shape after a failed pressing trigger
  8. Lure the opponents to the flanks
  9. Manipulate the “space” 
  10. Defend the “space”: zonal marking
  11.  Immediately play the ball towards the goal

Erik ten Hag at Manchester United: a realistic scenario 

As we have seen, Erik ten Hag is a manager who is very flexible in his approach and has learned many things from his colleagues and surroundings over the years. He is a proactive coach and his best comes in a surrounding tailor-made for him, where HE IS THE MAIN MAN. While he is at a stage in his career where he has outgrown the Eredivisie, there still are some shortcomings in his tactical set-up which he has to cut out because those will be amplified in top 5 leagues, with better quality of players, coaches and managers in the opposition teams. In this section, I want to present my personal views on the realistic scenario which can pan out if Ten Hag is actually appointed as Manchester United manager in near future. Now, the selling point to bring Ten Hag to Manchester United will obviously be: 

  1. Manchester United: the brand
  2. Premier League 
  3. Big Transfer Budget and freedom to change squad according to his suitability
  4. A sound person in a technical role to assist him in recruitment and contract extensions.

But in reality, almost every fan knows, deep inside knows that all things will not go hand-in-hand and in case Ten Hag actually ends up at Manchester United, he will also end up underperforming and when patience of fans, board will start to run out- they will abuse the manager and players and not direct their anger at actual people who actually put those players and manager in that weird, infinite loop of under-efficient performances. And that’s how another season of Rebuild will get over and a new cast will be found for Season 6.  

Ten Hag will have to drastically change his instructions given the squad he may inherit. Many players in the squad have poor positional awareness, especially the full-backs and wingers which are the positions where Ten Hag actually rely on using width and in turn create space. First choice goalkeeper although picked up his main selling point of shot stopping after 3 years of underperformance (in the same period, also becoming the highest player on the planet after penning down to a new contract- expiring in *check notes* 2023), his inability to develop other facets of the game- sweeping, coming off the line to claim crosses, passing will be a big hindrance to Ten Hag implementing his principles of building the game from the back. Manchester United lack a lot of profiles in that midfield, a defensive midfielder to screen the defence, a midfielder who can control the pace of the game- when to go up-tempo, when to lower the intensity at which game has to be played and especially someone who helps the team to progress the ball from defence to attack. There is no reliable goal scorer in the squad either. Yes, Manchester United have Cristiano Ronaldo but he is a human being at the end of the day, he can’t beat the concept of time and ageing (and law too). For a long-term project which Manchester United want to work hard on, they have many players who are on the wrong side of the 30 or are losing their value, not only monetary but value in terms of game play too despite their young age. Only the centre back department looks settled but even here, fans have a lot of dislike for a certain someone and that certain someone has the skillset which Ten Hag usually wants in his centre backs. 

The player recruitment is a big grey area. No one knows in principle how Ralf Rangnick will function in a technical role. Given he will have a say, but it will most probably be from the outside as an external consultant (because that’s what his work title will be). Actual power will eventually sit with Richard Arnold (who has worked all these years with Ed Woodward- has zero idea about football and its business side), John Murtough (responsible behind the running of Women’s team- whose running has been abysmal despite the ladies performing well on the pitch for a newly formed team- showcasing that this team is also run as a PR show) and Darren Fletcher promoted way above his ability over many qualified people at the club (a certain Nicky Butt just left days after the reshuffle was announced, it just can’t be a coincidence right?). 

If Ten Hag will inherit such a broken squad at a club where there is no pre-defined hierarchy and no clear means of action then he is also set up to fail just like his predecessors.

When clubs are in a period of transition, they have to think of the long-term goals first and then in the short term. Opposite happens at Manchester United. A year or two isn’t enough to overhaul the squad when you appoint a methodical coach and director to assist him and don’t *efficiently* back them and automatically lose patience as your dwindling mood dictates your decision making. And this has happened with all the previous managers at the club, even if they were good enough to manage the squad or not. 

The people at administration level in Manchester United are very cunning at selling dreams, and fan’s inability to hurt those responsible for this mismanagement because they also want “more”, More this, more that. This is why the owners eventually escape all the flak while fans, media despite knowing the actual people at fault always end up picking their obvious baits, overrating the newcomers to the extent that they raise the expectations way above the actual reality and when reality shows them the mirror, they can’t accept the truth and resort to tribalism and usual toxic, masculine, macho behaviour of many in the fanbase comes out where they stoop down to new lows just to show their anger because “Fans”. And don’t get started with the minority thing, Manchester United has a massive fanbase all over the world, “minority” of this fanbase will still number in hundreds of thousands or even millions- and this isn’t a small number at all. 


Everyone has to take a breather, sit back and look at how they actually want to achieve this “more”. Transparency, which is one thing which both Ten Hag and Rangnick emphasize on, has to be kept at all times; with the board, with the fans, with the players and their entourage. This is a 2-way process. You don’t clap with just one hand after all. And this isn’t with just Ten Hag, Rangnick, Pochettino or any other candidate who will take the seat opposite to Sir Alex Ferguson Stand at Old Trafford. Transparency is very underrated and an important trait to have in general life as well. 

You can’t just go on and assume that things will get fine in a jiffy because “club is massive and biggest in the world”. It is, but in size. Not footballing stature, at least not in the present day. And that is the bitter truth which fans need to accept. A certain someone once said “Facts don’t care about your feelings”.  

Mismanagement can happen with even the biggest of clubs. If you are talking about “Rebuild”, then it has to be completely transparent. No favouritism, no emotion driven decisions. Complete reset- a clean slate. Manchester United needs a clean slate first. If that isn’t achieved then the fans who are getting excited with the news of Ten Hag- consuming the ill-informed content related to him will only get disappointed when he ends up failing (may it be 2 or 3 or 4 or whatever years) and everyone in anger will start dis-crediting his work of the past, achievements for which he had to work his bottoms off.

I’ll love to be proven wrong over my thoughts but my pragmatic self just can’t fathom that a club which hasn’t learned from its past mistakes in these 17 years, out of a sudden, will fix itself and appoint Ten Hag, who will then wave a wand like Voldemort and destroy any team in front of him. “Avada Kedavra” and Manchester United are the champions yayy!

But are they the champions? Are they looking like a team which will become the champion in near future? Are they working towards becoming a club which will become the champion in near future? Are they the club which was once hailed to be loving, caring and welcoming in the present day? 

Are they?

(Credits to The Coaches Voice and Wyscout sponsored Hudl blogs and ofc, the Main Man for the inspiration)

FK Bodo/Glimt: The Northern Light


All sports produce underdog stories. Leicester City wins the Premier League. Iceland makes the World Cup. Kapil Dev leads India to a World Cup victory at the birthplace of Cricket. Billie Beane and his Oakland Athletics perform above their ability with an innovative way of player recruitment.  While such stories are rare — this rarity is what makes them special. Each story is unique in its own way but their rhythms are familiar.

There is, generally, a charismatic coach who dares to take challenges out of his comfort zone. There is either a group of players with something to prove or a squad of homegrown players who dream of reaching the promised land with their local team. Most of the time, there is some sort of behind-the-scenes advantage — an edge that will hold for a year or two until everyone else adopts it — or some bold new style of play that has an element of surprise, a fresh breath of air.

What makes the story written by Bodo/Glimt is that it contains all those elements and many more. Toothbrush, Meditation, Thunder and Lightning — FK Bodo/Glimt is an amalgam of things which may seem weird from the outside when you get to know the context, you will be surprised.

Historically, it was considered that the teams from Northern Norway will never reach the level of their Southern rivals. The discourse was at such a level that there used to be a different Domestic cup involving the participation of teams from the North. The Northern teams were even shunned from participating in the national top league. This excluded the teams from major cities of North Norway: Tromso and Bodo. 

A change of decree in 1963 allowed Northern teams to take part in the Norwegian FA Cup and this change in rule eventually paved the way for the right of inclusion for Northern teams in top flight in 1972. But there was still a sense of bitterness among the people in the North because of this change in rule. 

From 1973 onwards, Norway had three second divisions: two divisions for southern teams and one for northern teams. The first-place holders in the two southern divisions gained instant promotion, but the first-place holder in the northern second division had to compete in play-off matches against the two second-place holders from the south. 

Bodo/Glimt became the first ever team from the North to win the Norwegian FA Cup in 1975, also the first team ever from lower division to win the cup. They also went unbeaten in regular league season yet they ended up losing in promotion play-offs. Now, you can imagine why the people from the North were frustrated. But among this frustration rose a symbol which has become an identity of the club: Toothbrush. 

In a 2nd division match, one fan: Arnulf Bendixen was getting restless at the inability of fans to chant at the top of their voice. He asked for a baton in order to conduct the chanting but he rather got- you guessed it right- a toothbrush from a salesperson sitting in the stands. From then onwards, the toothbrush became a symbol for the supporters.


Eventually, Bodo/Glimt found their way into the top flight. In their debut season at top level, they ended up finishing 2nd in the league, just shy of Lillestrom — who also bested Bodo/Glimt in the cup final. This modest success increased their fan following. A 4 year stay in top flight ended in 1980 which started the darkest period of the club with the club dropping to regional league and losing their professional status.

As they say: at the end of the tunnel, there is light. If the 1980s was darkness, then 1990s was the Lightning for Glimt (which actually translates to Thunder and Lightning). With coach Jan Muri in charge, Glimt was promoted to 1st division. The following season they hired Trond Sollied as coach, and the team won the 1st division in the 1992 season. At last, in 1993, Bodø/Glimt was back in the top-division, and as in the debut season of 1977 they took 2nd place in the league. This time they also managed to win the cup final, defeating Stromsgodset 2-0. The victory in FA Cup was the crowning of three remarkable seasons, going from 2nd division to 2nd place in the top-division in only three years — an achievement rarely seen in the Norwegian league system. 

Over the course of the next decade, the club had a topsy turvy ride — eventually becoming what is called a “Yo-Yo team”. A good league and domestic cup campaign followed by a relegation fight. After a 16 year stay in the top flight, the club suffered relegation yet again. Next few years saw the club shuffling between top division and dropping back to second division Eventually, it resulted in financial difficulties at the club, reaching to the point that club had almost next to zero money and faced the expulsion from 2nd division. And that’s where the fans come in. 

Bodo is a small city with a modest population of just 41,000. They play in a 6,000-seater stadium yet they have a close relation with the fans. Bodo is a city which not only houses the Norwegians but also the indigenous Sami people, Finns and Russians — came together and pitched in to raise money for the club.  In 2012, the club started to lay foundations- from which the entire club and the community is reaping benefits in present day. After enough research and planning, the club decided to take a long-term approach in order to become self-sustainable — laying down a 10-year plan in which they decided that 35% of league minutes are to come from North Norwegian players, of which a certain percentage should be from players who had come all the way through the Academy.

FK Bodo/Glimt started investing more on grassroot level, starting the work with U12 players. Bodo involved 8 grassroot level clubs around their municipality- collectively investing in them and taking cream of the bunch on a 2 days-a-week training schedule at the club to complement their learning at respective clubs at grassroot level. Slowly and steadily, players progress through age categories- eventually reaching U15 level where National league starts and the mandate governs that clubs are allowed to play players from their nearby regions. Thereby, Bodo eventually started getting the cream of the bunch at this level- in line with their long-term goal. 

In 2016, the club assigned Aasmund Bjorkan as first team manager and brought in a relatively unknown Kjetil Knutsen as his assistant. Club suffered yet another relegation from the top flight but the club decided to stick with the duo. Bjorkan paved the way for yet another promotion to top flight but he decided to step down as manager, taking the role of sporting director. Knutsen took over as manager. And this was the start of a fairy tale journey which no one would have even imagined. 

Kjetil Knutsen: Managerial Profile 

Kjetil had moderate success as a manager in lower divisions of Norway before taking up the role of Head of Youth Development at top division side Brann. After leaving this role, Knutsen joined Bodo/Glimt as assistant manager. 

Aasmund Bjorkan and Kjetil Knutsen formed a great partnership. When Bjorkan stepped down as manager to move upwards as sporting director, he appointed Knutsen as manager. First step which the Knutsen-Bjorkan duo took was to find a new Head of Youth Development. Club had to go overseas, all the way to England to get Gregg Broughton. Gregg had worked as HoYD at Luton Town and Norwich City- seeing the development of players like James Maddison, James Justin, Max Aarons, Jamal Lewis, Ben Chilwell to name a few. 

Kjetil has always tried to ease the expectations of his players, focusing on performance instead of results. He feels that if performance is good and consistent, then results will follow. According to him, focusing on results first and performance second first adds undue stress on the team and is not beneficial in the long run.

Kjetil also brought with him another unknown entity in the footballing world – Bjorn Mannswerk in full capacity to work with the squad. Bjork is a veteran, having served in the Norwegian Air Force: 2 tours of Afghanistan and Libya each which also included various rescue missions. Bjork was brought in to work with the academy players and senior squad to improve on their mental conditioning, using his own experience in the Air Force- right from training in military academy to field assignments.

He has done one-on-one work with the players towards their character development, helping them to control the situation and being in the moment- which Kjetil also emphasises on. While many clubs just do the talking on the same topic, Knutsen actually does the action. He doesn’t force his players to do extra work or run themselves to the ground- for him, all of this should come from within. And it will come only if you are happy and fit- both mentally and physically. And that’s where Meditation comes in. Every team, right from youth to senior level does a 30-minute meditation session before their training. 

The best example of this character development has to be of Ulrik Saltnes, the club captain. Ulrik had lost interest in football and even considered retirement in 2017, facing severe anxiety attacks before the matches. Three years after this onset of anxiety, he led his boyhood team against AC Milan at San Siro in a crunch UEFA Europa League qualification match.

Transparency is yet another thing on which the Norwegian manager has put a lot of emphasis. Players are free to discuss anything- football or non-football. Their voices are heard and respected. This thing in football is taken as a sign of weakness from manager’s point of view elsewhere but it isn’t the case at Bodo/Glimt. Players who have played under Knutsen collectively have appreciated that they have not only improved as a player but they have become a better version of themselves as a human being. 

Tactical Profile 

There is almost a poetic simplicity to the Bodø/Glimt system. One of the main factors contributing towards their success in the last 3 years has been their ability to keep a strong and consistent XI in which everyone knows their exact role. The manager has created a tactic that doesn’t change too much and doesn’t over-complicate things. Players are scouted, recruited or coached from within to fill each role and position. Kjetil Knutsen goes with a standard 4-3-3 shape during possession phase and 4-1-4-1 out of possession. Knutsen’s playing style revolves around dominating the ball using a positional play system in possession and counter pressing the opposition using a high block out of possession. When they have the ball, they try to use the width of the pitch. This allows their positional play to work. They try to control the game by keeping possession of the ball but their passing is direct and vertical.  

Defensive Style 

Knutsen’s team tries to squeeze the opposition into their own half as much as possible. Glimt uses a high block whenever possible and presses the opponents relentlessly. Counter pressing the opponent is a major part of their game. It prevents the opposing players from having time to look and play the ball into the space left behind. The players press with purpose and have the positional awareness to cover each other if necessary. They combine the man-to-man approach of counter-pressing and counter-pressing in certain zones.

When they are pushed back into a mid-block, they revert back to their compact 4-1-4-1 shape. The holding midfielder often has to vary his position creating a 4-5-1 shape at times. If the opposition is not moving the ball forward, one of the central midfielders tries to push forward to press with the striker. The holding midfielder then steps into his place creating a momentary 4-4-2 out of possession.

Build-up Phase

The most common shape Glimt takes up in the build-up phase is 2-3-2-3. The front three pin the opposition’s defensive line back towards their own goal. This allows FK Bodø/Glimt to have numerical superiority in the build-up. They make sure to make the most of this and use it to a devastating effect. It is a relatively simple concept yet incredibly effective.

Glimt made a staggering 1000 progressive runs in the 2020 league season, the team with the next most had 610, almost half of Bodo/Glimt’s tally. Taking these figures in per 90 minutes metric, it tallies up to 31.6 progressive runs which is double the league average in the Eliteserien. This is because of their ability to create and find the free man in the build-up. 

Attacking Phase 

In the middle and final third FK Bodø/Glimt form an asymmetrical 2-3-5 shape. If the play develops quickly then the 2-3-5 shape is formed from the wingers staying wide and the 2 offensive minded midfielders (or #8) occupying the half-spaces. Full backs will occupy the space vacated by the midfielders by inverting into the field, forming the ‘3’ of 2-3-5. 

This 2-3-5 shape is very flexible. If the team was patiently building up from the back but unable to break the lines then the wingers often come inside into the half spaces. The #8’s drop deeper to make a midfield 3. The width must be maintained at all times so full backs end up taking on this responsibility, positioning themselves higher up the pitch and using the width of the pitch.

Third man runs are a key component of Bodo/Glimt’s attacking phase. It requires collective understanding and recognition of the situation (this is where Mannswerk’s work on mental conditioning comes in). The ball can be moved quickly via one-two touches because of the constant passing options available to the players due to their positional play. 

Although Glimt keeps the width at all times, they don’t cross a lot. They rather try to work the ball into the box. They only cross 14.41 times per 90 minutes, the 6th least in the Eliteserien but their crossing efficiency is among the top most percentile. 

Transitional Play

Bodo/Glimt have had the most possession, the greatest number of passes attempted and completed in Eliteserien and least number of long passes attempted. These stats will give you an indication that they are keeping the ball just for the sake of it but the reality is different. Their playing style is direct. They are ruthless and lightning quick on the break, aggressive with and without the ball. (Justifying their name after all). Runners are trained and coached to make marauding runs in transitions which helps them to create overloads and numerical superiority. Two players immediately go wide to offer passing options and three players move in between the defenders. The ball carrier progresses until he pulls a defender in. This simple yet effective set-up has taken Bodo/Glimt to new heights, which even their players and fans couldn’t even imagine. A modest 11th placed finish in their first season back was followed by a 2nd placed finish in the league, narrowly missing out on the title. This ensured that Glimt will take part in Europa League qualification rounds. The squad was made up of majority of players from Northern Norway with many local lads- the likes of Fredrik Andre Bjorkan (son of Aasmund Bjorkan), Patrick Berg- son of Orjan Berg who is a coach at U17 and U19 level and ex-player of the club. His uncles Runar and Arild also played for the club while his grandfather Harald is hailed as the best player to play for the club. Club captain Ulrik Saltnes came all the way from U11 to senior team. Hakon Evjen is another player who came up all the way from U11s to the senior team. Andreas Schjelderup was in U19s when he was signed by FC Nordsjaelland and he became their youngest debutant and scorer. But the Crème de la crème has to be Jens Petter Hauge, who became the first player from this revamped youth system to pick up his senior call up to the National team. Born in a family of die-hard Rossoneri supporters, Jens fulfilled a dream of his father when he played at San Siro. He not only played but scored a brilliant solo goal, even picking up man of the match award despite the fact that AC Milan won the match. A week later, he completed his switch to AC Milan in a then record sale for the Norwegian club.

Their 2020 league campaign started very well, the team yet again defying the odds of relegation. By now, they had perfected their performance and it was starting to reflect in terms of results. A record breaking 26 wins, 3 draws and single defeat and staggering 106 goals scored in just 30 games catapulted them to their maiden league title, becoming the first ever side from Northern Norway to win a league title. A barrage of sales and bringing in replacements from academy coupled with shrewd signings from other clubs brought criticism from many that they cannot retain the title. A third of the 2021 league campaign was up and Glimt was 6th, but they went on a 20-match unbeaten run and eventually won the title yet again. Meanwhile the club was eligible to take part in Champions League qualification rounds. But they dropped from UCL Qualification to UEL Qualification and all the way down to qualification rounds of the newly inaugurated UEFA Europa Conference League. They battled their way to the group stage of the competition, achieving their first ever participation in European competition.

But the story isn’t over here, it’s just the start. Jose Mourinho’s AS Roma, CSKA Sofia and Zorya Luhansk were their opponents. The Roman warriors were bested 6-1 when they travelled all the way to the Arctic Circle. Mind you. SIX GOALS AGAINST ONE GOAL. AGAINST JOSE MOURINHO. AGAINST AS ROMA. The fire in the belly of Roman warriors was of no match to the calm and composed, icy cool persona of this young Bodo/Glimt team. This was the biggest loss of Jose Mourinho’s illustrious career and it came at the hands of a bunch of boys from Norway. A big feat for not only Bodo/Glimt but Norwegian Football. This side carried the fiery aggression like that of Surtur yet they had the ice-cold and calm demeanour of Freya. A 2-2 draw in Rome was enough to win a place in knockout rounds, yet another achievement for the club.

Their opponents in the first knockout round were Celtic led by the mercurial Australian manager Ange Postecoglou who is also leading a renaissance of sorts at the Glaswegian club. This was a clash between 2 sides who utilise a similar tactical set-up and what added fuel to the fire was that Knutsen was actually moments away from joining Celtic’s arch rivals- Rangers when Steven Gerrard departed for Aston Villa. Bodo/Glimt travelled to the Highlands and came back with a 3-1 victory, reminiscing the glorious era of their ancestors who travelled to the same lands and came back with the spoils of victory. A 2-0 victory at Aspmyra Stadion was more than enough to land a place in Round of 16. 

A tricky fixture against Dutch side AZ Alkmaar was awaiting them. First leg was in Bodo which ended in a 2-1 victory, a dramatic 90+1 minute winner from Ola Solbakken. With the home advantage now with AZ Alkmaar, they started on the front foot right from the first minute. Vangelis Pavlidis’ brace was then shadowed by Amahi Pellegrino’s goal for the away side. With the tie at 3-3 aggregate score and away goals rule a thing of the past, the match went into extra time. But this time, it was Glimt who was in the moment and controlling the momentum. A strike by the Icelandic Right Back- Alfons Sampsted was enough to take the aggregate victory in the Netherlands.

A historic quarter final place sealed and the story is still not complete. And their opponents? *check notes* AS Roma. Time for the Vikings to again defend their land against the Roman invaders. 

50 years ago, who would have thought that any Norwegian team would come this far and that would be a so-called inferior team from the North of Norway. And they achieved it through their own unique way. The goals set in 2012 are fulfilling- Hauge, Berg and Bjorkan are Norway internationals already and many more are in the pipeline to follow their footsteps. But even by their modest standards, the team has punched above their weight. While from the outside, it will look like this is just a once in a lifetime story but in reality, it isn’t. Glimt are here to make their mark on European football and this is just the beginning. 

After all, who in their right mind doesn’t love an underdog story? And to quote a certain someone: THE NORTH REMEMBERS!

Scout Report: Boubacar Kamara

In Aztec culture, there were warriors called ‘Jaguars’ in the middle of the 12th century who fought for their people. They came from the people and they were willing to die for the people. On the other hand, there was another rank of warriors- the elites called ‘Eagles’: they never fought on the front lines but they were the ones who always got the recognition while the Jaguars were the ones who did all the hard work, at times sacrificing themselves for the greater good in complete anonymity. Jaguars were never seekers of glory, for they were the seekers of freedom and victory. Defensive midfield is one such position in modern day football which is just like the Jaguar, for they hold the key to absolute glory or complete downfall

 Defensive midfielders have become an integral part of modern day football and arguably the most important piece of the puzzle which can elevate the level of your team from underachieving glory seekers to Champions of the World. This is a position where players are under a lot of pressure during the match. A small moment of complacency can change the course of an entire match (and season as well). There is a reason that there are not a lot of younger players whose natural position lies in front of the center backs, shielding and anchoring them from the onslaught of opposition’s marauding players because mastering this position requires a lot of experience, a big reason why a lot of midfielders with great technique and positioning sense start to venture into deeper areas of the midfield when they start to hit the peak of their playing career: the likes of Toni Kroos, Marcelo Brozovic et al who used to play in advanced areas of the midfield during their initial years of career were able to make the switch into the deepest areas of the midfield without any issues when they got enough experience at senior level. Plus, their skillset allowed them to excel in their new role as well.

This is a position where the margin of making errors is paper thin, even the slightest of miscalculations while making a tackle or attempting a pass can result in a change of momentum of the match. And this miscalculation will be amplified the most if it results in an error leading to a goal against your team otherwise the immense work done by the defensive midfielders will go unnoticed since they are ‘the Jaguars’ while the other players are ‘the Eagles’.

The stereotype around the position has been deepened by games like FIFA, PES and half cooked information from the media houses that the players doing majority of the work ‘off the ball’ in the midfield are “CDM”, so the midfielders who may have just the tenacity and good physical build will be casually labeled as defensive midfielders. Many times, black midfielders are casually labeled as ’CDM’ despite their strengths lying further up the pitch. Best example being Tanguy Ndombele being labeled as a defensive midfielder by many British pundits or Ngolo Kante having a “CDM” on his FIFA Card while he hasn’t even played as your typical defensive midfielder in his career (many of whom themselves were brilliant players back in the day, which is ironic that they can’t even judge the pros and cons of the player correctly while being in their place many years back).

Rather than limiting the player to a certain area just on the basis of his/her physical build, people should judge them on the basis of their strengths, weaknesses and how that certain player can maximize these strengths in a team which not only increases the player’s output but boosts the morale of the entire team with consistent performances.

One such player who has had a similar impact on his boyhood club is Olympique Marseille’s Boubacar Kamara.

Player Background 

“Bouba”, a nickname given to him by his French mother and Senegalese father, took birth in the city of Marseille. Kamara was born and brought up in a family of hardcore OM supporters, his parents attending every home match. That love was then instilled into a young Bouba as well. At the age of 5, he joined the academy of Olympique de Marseille where he progressed through all the categories, reaching the U19 stage when he was just 15 years of age. Kamara excelled even at the U19 stage despite being the youngest of the bunch. He displayed natural leadership and soon was given the captain’s band. He led his team to the finals of the famed Coupe Gambardella, the cup competition for U19 teams in France. He was soon promoted to OM 2, the reserves team of Olympique de Marseille where he formed a good relationship with then manager Jacques Abardonado who made him an undisputed starter for the reserves team. Soon, the senior team came knocking down on the door. Boubacar Kamara frequently started training with the senior squad and making it into the matchday squads. He finally made his debut for OM against Sochaux-Montbeliard in a Coupe De la Ligue tie where OM lost on penalties. He soon paved his way into the first team, getting more regular minutes under Rudi Garcia. The pinnacle of his OM career has to be the dream run in UEFA Europa League where OM, against all odds, reached the final of 2017-18 edition, at the home ground of their fierce rivals: Olympique de Lyonnais. But, Atletico Madrid proved too strong for this young Marseille side. In less than 5 years, Kamara has already amassed upwards of 100 league games for his boyhood club before turning 22.  

Playing Style 

His statistical profile shows what Kamara is all about; a ball-winner in multiple forms: winning the ball back in the form of interceptions mostly but at times, pressing the opposition players and duelling. The pressing and duelling numbers seem less, but he has great efficiency in both. The 22-year-old is typically Marseille’s deepest midfielder in possession, comfortable in drawing opponents in through ball retention then bypassing them through silky footwork or combinations with teammates. He has a knack of delivering accurate through balls and diagonal long balls to wingers and fullbacks on opposite flanks to provide verticality in possession phase of the game.

 Boubacar Kamara’s percentile numbers for advanced metrics against midfielders in Ligue 1 for 2021-22 season

 Boubacar Kamara’s percentile numbers for advanced metrics against midfielders in Ligue 1 : Last 365 Days

Overall, he is an excellent defensive-minded midfielder. His game sense has developed so much thanks to the plentiful minutes he’s earned at the French club. He started at the senior level as a center-back, but his natural skillset lay further up the pitch, a position where he has excelled now. It was Andre Villas-Boas who regularly played him as a defensive midfielder, shuttling between 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 where he was the player staying back, providing Valentin Rongier to progress the ball further with carries and passing. When playing in a 4-3-3, Kamara’s game shone the strongest, giving him a lot of space and time to start the attacks and protect the defensive line by shielding them during defensive transitions.

On the ball, Kamara handles himself well, and has demonstrated good passing range, vision, and ambition. He is central to Marseille’s build-up play, but this is part and parcel of being the central-most midfielder in the system. Jorge Sampaoli eventually switched to an asymmetrical 3-5-2 shape, where Kamara plays like a #6, typically playing quick, zipped short passes between himself and the teammates around him. He seemingly has a strong understanding of when to pass the ball laterally or vertically.

In possession, Kamara is very conscious of his surroundings, scanning around him before receiving the ball if he can. In this sense, he is quite a press-resistant midfielder, capable of evading pressure and laying off to a more progressive teammate. Outside of his decent progressive abilities as a passer, Kamara is a decent dribbler of the ball, too. The volume and completion rate isn’t the highest but for his role in the team, it is still decent.

One glaring weakness in his game is that he isn’t athletic and agile since his game under various coaches and managers has allowed him to rely on positioning sense rather than raw brute force. He, at times, can be troubled by fast and physical players in open space. But this glaring weakness can be easily fixed with enough experience and coaching. A tenacious box-to-box midfielder alongside him can easily help combat this weakness, which was shown by Morgan Sanson under Andre Villas-Boas. A midfield trio of Kamara, Sanson and Rongier provided a great balance to OM, with Kamara being the watchdog, Sanson being the connector between the watchdog and Rongier who progressed the ball further up the pitch. This resulted in a remarkable comeback to Champions League in 2020 under Villas-Boas.

Now that we are clear about Kamara’s strengths and weaknesses, his style of play should become apparent and derive a logical conclusion that he is an anchorman, with decent ability to recycle possession. He facilitates the progression of the ball rather than progressing the ball himself.

Next destination 

 With an expiring contract and OM signaling his potential suitors than he can be bought for a cut price 10 million euros in January, this is a sensible piece of business for the clubs who are in market for an anchor man and provide them with a young player with loads of experience for his age in a position where calm and composure is of utmost importance.

Host of clubs in Spain, Italy and England have enquired about Kamara’s availability for an immediate transfer during the winter window including the likes of Atletico Madrid, AC Milan, Newcastle United, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Juventus (who have Dennis Zakaria as an alternative in their agenda for winter window)

Many sources have linked him with a potential move to Manchester United who are in desperate requirement of a defensive midfielder with Scott McTominay and Fred being the only players suitable to play in a double pivot but both players lacking the spatial awareness to play as the deepest midfielder, which leaves their CBs exposed and out-numbered during transitional play.

Tactical Analysis: Kamara at Manchester United- a case study

In terms of making a rough comparison, Kamara can provide competition to Fred since both players have the tendency to win back balls by the means of interceptions, duelling along with ball retention. But Kamara has the experience of playing in a deeper role and the footballing iq to excel in the same since this is his natural position .

Comparing the advanced metrics of Kamara and Fred for 2021-22 League Season  


 Comparing the advanced metrics of Kamara and Fred: Last 365 Days

 A like-to-like with Scott McTominay doesn’t make a lot of sense since both players have different skill sets and have always operated in different areas of the midfield, so finding a balance between both will be more sensible than finding a balance between Fred and Kamara who have some common skillset. In terms of comparing the advanced metrics of Boubacar Kamara and Scott McTominay, it is rather surprising that despite playing in the deepest role, Kamara’s possession and attacking numbers are almost equivalent to Scott McTominay who plays in a more offensive role, as a box to box midfielder.  


 Comparing the advanced metrics of Kamara and Scott McTominay: 2021-22 Season 


 Comparing the advanced metrics of Kamara and Scott McTominay: Last 365 Days

While the value of a potential deal is a major mouth-watering aspect, Kamara alone will not cut it. Manchester United’s major issues lies in the progression of the ball from deeper areas of midfield which were covered up by 2 defenders in Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire. Now, with both of them being out of form due to being overworked in the first place, Manchester United don’t have any source of progressive play from deep (yet another example of senseless recruitment).

 Boubacar Kamara will fix the issues of defending transitions and protection to the back 4 given his natural skill set, but Manchester United will need to recruit at least 1 more playmaking central midfielder who can provide the means to control the tempo of the game from deeper areas of midfield.

 Given, Ralf Rangnick still has very little say in the decision making at the club (ironically he was brought for same after leaving his ongoing project at Lokomotiv Moscow abruptly) and his insistence on keeping up with his 4-2-2-2 vertical shape during build-up, Kamara alone will not solve all the issues in the midfield which Manchester United have, at best he can add some quality and depth and provide neck to neck competition to Fred (in ideal scenario: a Boubacar Kamara-Scott McTominay pivot will be more stable and do the work on temporary basis but an upgrade on Scott McTominay is due).

 Along with Kamara, Manchester United desperately need a player who can help them progress the ball from deeper areas of midfield, taking the primary load of ball progression from their CBs and LB, dictate the tempo of the game and have a good defensive contribution as an icing on the cake. A host of players who fit the criteria are surprisingly available with the likes of Bruno Guimaraes, Aurelien Tchouameni on the market already. Ismael Bennacer, despite his recent injury issues, has a good amount of quality and ticks all the criteria. Some out of the box options for the same can be Florian Grillistch who, again is available on a free transfer- having conveyed his decision to leave TSG Hoffenheim. Maxime Lopez is having a stellar season for Sassuolo. Cheick Doucoure is another youngster shining in Ligue 1, playing a crucial role in midfield for RC Lens.

 Now, the onus is on the higher ups of Manchester United to first figure out how they actually want to run the club first, whether run it like a superclub and buy the biggest names only or step by step fix the issues patiently and accelerate this process when others are showing the signs of transition period. Just as Ralf Rangnick said in a recent Coaches Voice conference: “You can’t have a little bit of this, little bit of that and expect that your football club will grow”.

The fan culture in England has been built on the same ever since the Etonians kicked the ball on their school field yet Manchester United have now gone on to hire a person who is polar opposite of it and very rigid is his stance of building a team. Again, questions about what the club actually wants to do should be asked by the fans rather than “sign someone @ManUnited” on social media.

Manchester United is doing the same for the last 10 years, they had Sir Alex Ferguson for the initial period to steer them clear but after his retirement as manager, Manchester United have still not figured out how they want to do their business which has become their primary motive. Despite spending upwards of billion in every possible currency, they are still years behind their arch rivals in England and Europe while many other clubs are also catching up with them with a fraction of resources. Even from a business point of view, it is a bad sign. You can show the skewed financial figures about revenue and the interactions on social media to the investors at year end meetings but the inefficiency of managing your resources, not only financial but human resources is catching up. You cannot cover these cracks in the foundation with a band-aid anymore when everyone around you is upgrading with changing times (either ethically or unethically- in most of the cases unethically; is a topic for another day).  

The Goddess has blessed Bergamo: rise of Atalanta BC

It is said that La Dea– the Goddess Atalanta herself lives in the mountains of Bergamo, looking after the town and providing her blessings to the town folks. Situated in the heart of Lombardy, Bergamo has a deep connection to the old Celtic tribes who first moved into the region. The Bergamo faithful still to this date carry that Celtic blood in them. An industrial town, Bergamo is the heart of the construction and infrastructure industry of Italy. The town derives it’s spirit from the Greek Goddess-Atalanta (which translates to ‘equality’ from Latin) who grew out to be an able hunter and runner- known through her tales of Calydonian boar hunt, Argonauts and their hunt for the Golden Fleece. 

The spirit of the Goddess resonated in the town. It is channelled perfectly by the football team situated at the heart of the city and every citizen. Named after the Goddess herself- Atalanta BC is at the lips of every football fanatic in recent times. Their playing style depicts the character of the Goddess herself- an able runner (given how Atalanta plays a high tempo football and cover every blade of grass on the pitch) out in the wild to hunt the mighty boars by the use of her will and wits (given how strategically the club is run in modern day and competes at top level with a lesser wage budget than many clubs in English Championship- the SECOND tier of English football pyramid). 

Rise of the Goddess to the top 

Atalanta BC was founded by high school students of the town in 1907. The ethos on which the football club was founded was to inculcate the importance of physical exercise in the youth- the ethos which club has followed throughout its existence. The club is known as the ‘factory’ among the followers of Calcio due to their work done in developing youth players through their famed youth system. Historically, the club struggled in the 2nd division of the Italian football pyramid throughout the 1920s and 1930s but they achieved a historic promotion to Serie A in 1937. They came crashing down to newly structured Serie B after just one season. But they built a core of players which came from the youth ranks and again achieved the promotion in 1940- this time winning Serie B. 1940s proved to be a great decade for an underdog team which even drew comparisons to Grande Torino– the famed Torino side which won laurels in 1940s.

By this time, Atalanta had become a regular in first division- achieving a club high position of 5th in Serie A during the 1947-48 season. The 1950s also saw the same upward rise but a false match fixing allegation saw the club get demoted to Serie B and a points deduction. But against all the odds, the team won the Serie B title- resonating the undying spirit of the Goddess and the town folks itself. This promotion was the start of yet another journey for this budding club. The highest point in this journey was winning the Coppa Italia title in 1963- defeating Torino with a score line of 3-1. This victory ensured the first and only title in the club’s history. The victors of 1963 again consisted of a core made up of players who came up from the youth ranks. From here, the club could not sustain this rise and it went in a downward spiral throughout the 1970s- becoming a yo-yo club, shuttling between Serie A and Serie B. Even in this period, the club didn’t stop investing and putting it’s trust on the youth. The lowest point in club’s history came at the start of 1980s when the club suffered the ignominy of relegation from Serie B- dropping to Serie C1 in 1981. Despite playing in lower divisions- the club churned out players who eventually became the core of the Azzuri– Italian National team which enjoyed the spoils of victory in 1982 FIFA World Cup.

his trust in youth did pay off when the club dug its way out from the depths of lower division and looming bankruptcy and reached back to the promise land- Serie A in 1984 where they again stayed for 3 seasons before suffering a relegation in 1987. A series of dismal performances in 2nd phase of 1986-87 season saw the club crashing down but a fairy tale run in Coppa Italia saw the club 180 minutes away from glory. Only one team stood in their way- Napoli led by the God himself, Diego Maradona. It was the battle of 2 Gods in Coppa Italia but the rejuvenated Napoli side spearheaded by D10S himself saw the club win a historic double- Serie A and Coppa Italia. With Napoli winning the Serie A and ensuring a place in European Cup (precursor to UEFA Champions League), a relegated Atalanta side became eligible to play in European Cup Winners Cup. This young team again made history, reaching the semi finals of the competition while playing in 2nd division, the highest position a team playing outside of top division has achieved in the history of all UEFA Competitions. Atalanta suffered a 4-2 defeat to Belgian side KV Mechelen who would go on to win the competition. The club immediately won the promotion to Serie A and a 6th place finish in the 1989-90 season saw the club reach UEFA Cup for first time in club’s history. Another fairy tale run in European competition followed in 1990-91 UEFA Cup where they reached Quarter Finals of the competition. They were eliminated by the eventual winners and their local rivals- Inter Milan.

The rise in fame of Italian football during 1990s saw Atalanta shift from their policy of inculcating youth players in senior team and they tried to go towards the path of glory- buying expensive stars which eventually backfired and saw the club suffer from various relegations and promotions during the 1990s and 2000s. The best moment during this tumultuous period was a local Filippo Inzhagi winning capocannoniere (Serie A’s top scorer award) during 1996-97 season and another cup final appearance in which they lost to Fiorentina, led by the mercurial Gabriel Batistuta. 

2000s also saw the same trend of yo-yoing between first and second division. Changing players and coaches without giving them ample chances saw the club incur a massive financial strain which eventually led to local entrepreneur and ex- Atalanta player Antonio Percassi take over the reigns of the club in 2010. 

Percassi hit a reset button- bringing the old ethos on which club was built upon and tried to mend the wrongs of the past. He believed in long-term stability and glory over short term gains. After winning the promotion to Serie A in 2011, the club worked towards building a stable foundation to work upon in the near future without compromising on the principles on which the club was carved out. Being a local, boyhood fan and ex-player, Peracassi understood what the club means for the people of Bergamo and what Bergamo as a town means for its people and the club. Peracassi started many welfare programs with the club, helping to mend the past bruises and re-building the relationship with the community and the Ultras- who are known throughout Italy for their notoriety.

It is known that whenever a new child takes birth in Bergamo, the club personally delivers a jersey for the newborn- taking ‘Teach them young, teach them right’ motto to another level. Like a phoenix, the club was rising from the ashes- reborn with a new ambition and purpose. This was just the beginning of another fairy tale. It wouldn’t have been possible without the hard work of the fans, the president and the coach- Mister Gasperini. 

Gian Piero Gasperini: Manager Profile 

The 63-year old enjoyed a fairly successful playing career, coming from the youth ranks of his boyhood club-Juventus and playing with the likes of Paolo Rossi and Sergio Brio in the Primavera squad. He never made an appearance for Juventus but he played for Serie B sides- Reggiana and Palermo, with whom he reached the Coppa Italia final in 1979. A fairly successful career with Palermo saw him move to Pescara and play in Serie A from 1985 to 1990. After retiring in 1993 at the age of 35, Gian Piero pushed to become a coach.

One year later, he was at Juventus again, this time starting his career as a coach with the Bianconeri. He managed all possible age groups in the youth system of Juventus, right from U14 to the Primavera (U-20) squad. In 2003, he left Juventus to start his career as a manager- taking over a young Crotone squad which was playing in Serie C1. In his first season, Gasperini won the promotion to Serie B via play-offs. He stayed for 2 more years with the Crotone side- pushing above their weight in 2nd division.

In 2006, he joined Genoa who were also struggling in 2nd division, pushing hard to win a promotion. In his first season with the Rossoblu, Gasperini won the promotion with Genoa, thus foraying into Serie A as a manager. In 2008-09 season, Genoa combined shrewd signings with Gasperini’s penchant of pushing his players to perform above their capabilities which resulted in the club finishing 5th in the table, missing out on a potential Champions League qualification due to an inferior goal difference (Fiorentina hence qualified after finishing 4th). This was the club’s best ever finish in 19 years. Gasperini re-launched the careers of a certain Thiago Motta and Diego Milito, both of whom were then snapped up by Inter Milan and became core members of a treble winning squad. Gasperini’s achievement earned him rave reviews from even the elite managers and comparisons with the Great Zdenek Zeman were also there because of some similarities in their management styles, building tactical systems according to the best output of players present and playing a rather expansive, high tempo football focusing on overloads from wide areas. 

There were even murmurs that the Great Scot- Sir Alex Ferguson also looked at Gasperini as his replacement at Manchester United. His glorious time with Genoa eventually came to an end and Gasperini embarked on a new adventure- joining Inter Milan. But with lofty ambitions of the club and Gasperini’s rather patient and long-term stability thinking didn’t align After a series of bad results, he was relieved from his duties. 

Gasperini then took the reins of a struggling Palermo where he helped them provide some stability. Highlight of his short stint at the Sicilian side (this time as a manager) has to be consistent performances of their captain and legend- Fabrizio Miccoli giving great goal scoring returns which also earned him a callup to the National team, 9 years after his last call up and cap for the Azzuri

In 2013, Genoa again sought Gasperini’s services. His second stint at the club wasn’t as successful as the first stint but he brought a much-needed stability to the side which was struggling both on and off the pitch, providing them with an identity on the pitch. 

With Atalanta looking for a manager who can take them one step further after building a stable foundation in the last 5 years, they turned their eyes to Mister Gasperini in what was the beginning of a romantic story- full of ups and downs. 

Gasperini’s personnel was not merely turned into gold in an instance. Instead, the manager’s biggest feat was to create a consistent and successful game model imprinted upon the virgin goddess Atalanta’s virtues, the same virtues on which the football club was existing- the same virtues on which the entire town has survived. 

Fearlessness, a by-product of the wilderness the goddess was bred in. 

Speed, an essential quality of every one of her quests, such as when she challenged her suitors to a foot race, confident in being able to outrun each and every one of them.  

Survival instinct, manifested in the knack for hunting that Atalanta inherited from the bear that suckled her from birth, and that she later perfected after being found and nurtured by hunters. 

Atalanta: Tactical Analysis

“I posted a picture of a wolf pack in the changing room. There are wolves at the front, some in the middle and one at the back. The ones up front can set the pace in the beginning. The next wolves are the strongest, they are the ones who must protect everyone if they are attacked. The ones in the centre are always protected.

“Then there are another five strong ones further back to protect an attack from there. The last one is the boss and he ensures no one is left behind. He keeps everyone united and is always prepared to run everywhere; to protect the whole group. The message is that a leader doesn’t just stay up front; he takes care of the team and this is what I want from my players.” This is how Gasperini has managed this Atalanta side, not just tactical drills but also instilling that mentality in the players. “Defending makes you invincible, but if you want to win, you must attack.’- Gasperini once quoted the Art of War proverb to his team in one of the training sessions, which are said to be so intense that match days eventually just feel like a holiday. Gasperini doesn’t like players who don’t work hard, in his words- he is scared of those players; for the players need to struggle; from those struggles the victors are born. 

Tactically, Gasperini is known for using a fluid 3–4–3 formation and a spectacular high-risk hyper-offensive-minded possession-based system, which relies on the versatility of his midfielders and front line. His team’s playing style places more focus on scoring goals, off-the-ball movement and quick, short passes on the ground, and less focus on long balls and the defensive aspect of the game. As such, at times his trademark 3–4–3 system resembles a 3–4–1–2, 3–2–4–1, 3–5–2, or 3–4–2–1 formation, with energetic overlapping attacking wing-backs in lieu of wide midfielders, that provide width along the flanks and push up the pitch when going forward. They make a 3-2-3-2 shape during the build-up phase, building passing triangles and creating overloads in the required area of the pitch where numerical advantage is needed. He has also been known to use a 4–3–3 or 4–2–3–1 on occasion.

The 3-2-3-2 shape makes it easy for Atalanta to create space through rotational play. The players are close to one another, and know that their rotations are based on the shape of the diamond. Therefore, it gives structure to their rotations. Where Atalanta truly excel with these diamonds is when they are anchored by one of their three centre-backs, and it allows their attacking midfielder with an option to drift in the middle of the pitch and rotate into the diamonds to create a 5 v 4 in these areas. From this position as an attacking-midfielder, the player should always be available to sustain a forward phase of play by dropping into the diamond where needed.

When defending off the ball, his teams are also known for the use of heavy pressing, but also apply elements of fluid man-marking across the entire pitch and often switch to a 5–4–1 or 5-3-2 formation defensively. They try to outnumber their opponents at all times and win the ball as quickly as possible.

Gasperini favours using hard-working and highly physical two-way players in midfield rather than a deep-lying playmaker, but also quick, talented, technical, diminutive, slender, elusive, and creative players upfront, in order to implement his system effectively; he has also been known to use a larger and more physical centre-forward upfront on occasion, who is good in the air. 

While this kind of playing style has been successful for Gasperini at Genoa and now Atalanta, Gasperini has also attracted the criticisms of pundits if he can actually manage an established footballing giant with his current set-up (which he can but due patience is needed from the top authorities). 

Since the players always try to follow the ball, the defensive shape often gets disoriented and gaps are formed. These gaps are exploited by creative and intelligent players. They play a high block, with balls over the top of their relatively slow defenders causing them problems. Players need to stay at their concentration peak and the highest levels of mental and physical state throughout the whole match as one lapse can collapse their system. 

And that is where the club comes. Atalanta have roughly relied on the principles of ‘Moneyball’- finding undervalued players who statistically were at par with many established players but went under the radar and honing them under Gasperini’s management. Other than this smart recruitment where they scouted the central European countries and Scandinavia where teams usually followed the principles on which Gasperini set up his tactics, Atalanta and Gasperini also relied on the youth academy and a highly structured loaning system where they closely monitored the activity of players to either sell for a profit or integrate in first team. 

Despite selling many of their key players over the years, Atalanta have made a hefty profit and have spent in a sensible manner in which their running cost also hasn’t impacted their financial security and has kept them equally competitive.

Rise of the Goddess to the top (continued)

A poor start to his Atalanta reign almost saw him get relieved from duties but a series of crucial victories against AS Roma and SSC Napoli bought Gasperini some added time. But this added time was enough for his players to get accumulated to a change in system which eventually saw Atalanta finish 4th in the table, their highest ever finish since the 1947-48 season and qualification for UEFA Europa League, 26 years after they last played in Europe. The 2017-18 season saw Atalanta wreak havoc in Europe- getting 6/6 wins in Europe in the group stage which consisted of Lyon, Everton and Apollon Limassol. They took the fight to Borussia Dortmund in Round of 32 who were among the favourites to reach the final of the competition. A 7th place and semi final appearance in Coppa Italia capped off a successful season for the ambitious Atalanta side. 2018-19 also started very well and Gasperini took them to 3rd place in the table with a final appearance in Coppa Italia- losing to Lazio in the end. This was the best finish in the club’s history, making the club eligible to play in UEFA Champions League for the first time in club’s history. 

Despite losing some key players and utilising the newly revamped loan system to raise money- Gasperini’s side made many shrewd signings along the way who didn’t take a lot of time to get settled- raising money, keeping the investment and wage budget in check and not losing their competitive edge. The 2019-20 season also started in the same fashion- a juggernaut Atalanta side stomped the yard in Italy, scoring a lot (conceding a lot also)- very different from the stereotype of football in Italy being ‘defensive’. In Champions League, Atalanta was making their debut against Manchester City, Shaktar Donestk and a rejuvenated Dinamo Zagreb- then spearheaded by present day RB Leipzig talisman Dani Olmo, who really gave the Bergamo based side a lot of trouble in Atalanta’s debut match- which they lost 4-0. Not the start the Italian side expected. Next up was the trip to Manchester, another 4-0 drubbing and the dream of progressing from group stage was at the stage of shattering. 

But did I tell you that this team was blessed by the Goddess and possessed the wrath of the same? When everything looked against them, they fought back and did they conquer? Yes. They somehow qualified from the group stage by securing 2nd place with a massive victory against Dinamo Zagreb. San Siro was roaring (since Atalanta’s Gewiss Stadium didn’t meet UEFA’s expectations). Right at the stadium of their arch rivals, this young side was celebrating a massive victory in the Champions League. Next up was Valencia- then led by Marcelino.

Boy, did this Atalanta side dismantled the slight favourites in this tie at San Siro! A 4-0 drubbing saw a packed San Sir erupt in joy. The eruption in Bergamo was even more massive than the one witnessed in Milan. But it was February 2020. The Atalanta-Valencia match proved to be the ground zero for the spread of Covid-19 in Lombardy. The tears of joy soon turned into the tears of sorrow as Bergamo was badly hit by the virus.

The army was deployed on the streets of Bergamo, which a few days back were resonating with the sound of the club’s anthem, were now full of the sound of ambulance sirens- to help carry the ones who could not survive the scare and provide them a dignified burial. In this time of sorrow, the football club kept everyone together and stepped up when it mattered the most. A resounding 4-3 victory in Valencia in an empty Estadio Mestalla saw the debutants reach the quarter final before football was halted worldwide (just like various other activities). The club was at the pinnacle in it’s 113-year old history at the worst possible time, where they could not celebrate this achievement with the fans who stuck by them through thick and thin. 

For the hunters Gasperini trained and never ran away from a challenge. In soulless empty stadiums, they kept on playing amidst the scare of contracting the virus and the fatigue due to bio-bubble, away from their families. The 2020-21 season also started in similar fashion but this time every victory carried even more weight, for now they were truly playing to ease the pain of thousands in the town. Another 3rd place finish in a very tight competition ensured that the team embraced its divine inheritance to establish itself in Serie A’s Mount Olympus, guided by its very own King Midas, Giampiero Gasperini, able to turn every player passing through Bergamo into gold. From the youth to veterans from Europe’s deepest trenches. 

All thanks to the advancements in modern day science that viruses can be countered and defeated. Now, the faithfuls of Atalanta BC can see their beloved team play in Bergamo, under the shiny lights against the biggest teams. On Wednesday, the ‘wolfpack’ as Gasperini calls his squad will again go on a hunting trip- this time in the fabled land of Manchester, a decade after the first rumours about ‘Gasperson’ taking over the reins at Manchester United arose. For the Goddess and her cult of Ultras will be on the hunt of not a boar but a Devil. 

Atalanta BC is a model club for not only the ambitious underdogs but fallen giants, behemoths of the clubs who have lost their identity, who want to achieve the things in their fashion and opposite to that of the direction which modern football has gone. For Atalanta is one of the best examples of “Another football is possible”

“Siamo sempre insieme a te. Non ti lasceremo mai. Devi sempre solo vincere. Devi sempre solo vincere .Dai Dea. Non Mollare per gli ultra. Per gli ultra. Dai vinci per noi”.

“We are always with you. We will never leave. You simply always have to win. Come on Goddess. Don’t give up on Ultras. For the Ultras. Come on, win for US.”

The Champions. But at what cost?

“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport. Soon the science will not only be able to slow down the ageing of the cells, soon the science will fix the cells to the state and so we will become eternal. Only accidents, crimes, wars, will still kill us but unfortunately, crimes, wars, will multiply. I love football. Thank you.”These were the words spoken by Eric Cantona when he came to accept the UEFA’s president award at UEFA’s award ceremony in 2019 -cladded in a simple working-class attire at a strict ‘Bow Tie’ kind of event. These words seemed like a rambling from a senile old man at that time- a man who was ready to give away his entire footballing career over ‘kungfu kicking’ a racist in the stand and standing true to his intentions, who retired from football in what you call the peak years of a player- just to find the true meaning of Life by visiting and living in the places from where his ancestors came to France- Barcelona and Sardinia. Eric carries the blood of his rebel grandparents who fought against the Francoist Army of Spain just before the onset of the ‘2nd Great War’- the war which was supposed to end all wars.

Eric Cantona receiving the UEFA President’s award at the 2019 ceremony in Nyon, Switzerland

These words which came from the mouth of a ‘mad man’ did depict the meaning in which this sport (and in turn the world in general) was going towards. Eric quoted the words from the play of King Lear, written by the Great William Shakespeare- depicting the treachery the Duke of Gloucester faced because of the kindness he showed to King Lear. This treachery came in the form of King’s own blood- his daughter Regan and her husband who blinded the Duke. The son who Duke thought was the real traitor- then proved to be the innocent one and this innocence came at the price of Duke driving this son away. The ‘supporters’ are the flies– who are subjected to ‘sportful’ cruelty by the ‘God’ who are likened to immature, uncaring and unjust children i.e the people in power, may it be in football or in other places.

National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Amidst all the drama that has ensued because of the ‘greed’ of the elites governing the game, we have reached a stage where there is no saint on either side- there is no Heaven or Hell on this Earth– as Shakespeare depicted in King Lear. Same meaning was also depicted by Ronnie James Dio of Black Sabbath on their album by the name of ‘Heaven and Hell’. Everyone is somehow in the game to earn their own gains.

All of this exploitation in football is happening at the expense of that one entity because of which this ‘beautiful game’ is null and void- the 12th man of the game: the fans. The past 18 months without fans in the stands coupled with the ravenousness of people at upper echelons have shown one thing- this game is becoming soulless day by day. With such a hostile environment revolving around the world of football in these troubling times, the spirit of the game is still living in the hearts of the people who look up to the game as a means of escape from similar problems which have now engulfed the game too. Even in such troubling times, football has helped people to liberate them from their personal troubles. The rich want to keep the riches from the game among themselves only. But the sheer unpredictability in the game of football still cannot be substituted with these riches. You will always have the underdogs providing an upset or two- ALWAYS.  

One such upset has been in the form of a small club from the country of Moldova (or Transnistria from where this club actually is). Sheriff Tiraspol recently qualified for the Group Stage of UEFA Champions League by defeating Dinamo Zagreb in the final qualifying round of the competition. While very few people know about Moldova (which sadly is one of the most insecure places for women to live on this Earth- a hub of a billion-dollar illegal trafficking empire), even few people know about Transnistria.

Backdrop of Presidential Palace in Transnistria

Sheriff comes from a town called Tiraspol which is near to the Ukrainian border and home to more than 500,000 people. While everyone from around the world was celebrating the success of Sheriff Tiraspol reaching UCL proper, there was no such celebration in Moldova. Tiraspol is the capital of a self-declared country called Transnistria- created amidst the break away of Soviet Russia. While rest of Moldova wanted to align with Romania, Transnistria became a break away from rest of Moldova- opting to keep the Russian speakers and making all possible bodies to run a fully functional government under the supervision of KGB and Russian Army- who still to this date provide free gas and electricity to the disputed land despite not officially recognizing them as an independent country. 

Despite this disconnect, the Moldovan national team play their national fixtures at the home ground of FC Sheriff Tiraspol- which lies in an entirely different world, which is kind of ironic. The club itself is owned by a company called Sheriff LLC, controlled indirectly by the same KGB agents who made the entity of Transnistria, a company which has earned a big chunk of it’s wealth through the same illegal smuggling and trafficking. This much wealth has also broken any competition which exists in the domestic league- with Sheriff winning 17 out of last 19 league campaigns- boasting a squad of international players from South America and Africa without following any player registration rules while the rest of the league has to make way with players coming from a 175th ranked country on FIFA rankings in Moldova. The sporting complex made by Sheriff is among the few modern structures present in the city while the rest of the city still lives in age old Soviet era architectural structures- making it look like a Dystopian world. 

FC Sheriff Sporting Complex with the city of Tiraspol in backdrop

While a small team like Sheriff making it to the UEFA Champions League has been heralded by many but people do not know about the truth of their actual existence. And they have been pitted in Group D against the likes of Real Madrid (controlled by the person who was the brainchild of European Super League), Inter Milan (owned by the Chinese business family of Sunings who are indirectly controlled by the state of China- known for it’s oppression of Uighur Muslims), Shakhtar Donetsk (owned by an Oligarch who himself has had ties with organized crime families in Europe). It isn’t the Group D of UCL which is full of chaos, the Group A of the same competition is filled with teams like Manchester City, PSG, RB Leipzig and Club Brugge- owned by again questionable people (and in turn states). Not only UCL is full of such chaos but UEL Group Stage is also full with same chaos- Group A involving Rangers, Sparta Prague and further comprising of Lyon, Brondby; Group C including Legia Warsaw, Leicester City, Napoli, Spartak Moscow and Group D containing of Royal Antwerp, Eintracht Frankfurt, Fenerbahce, Olympiakos. But what tops all of this is the real troublesome group in the competition- Group E which encompasses Galatasaray, Lazio, Lokomotiv Moscow and Marseille. All the aforementioned clubs either are known for their notorious fan groups who have indirect ties to some questionable authorities or have ownerships who are directly or indirectly associated with wrong doing happening around the world. With the return of fans, tensions will be high in the stands and these unwanted tensions could have been easily avoided if proper structure which didn’t involve any inequality was present and followed.

This chaos on a humanitarian level is disguised by the slogan of ‘Football for All’ by the governing bodies who will pledge that there is ‘no need for unwanted politics in the sport’ yet shake hands with those people who WANT to use the sport to remove the stains of their unwanted politics. The players representing the fans and clubs, taking part in such elite competitions are hailed as ‘People’s Champion’. But this tag of ‘Champion’ is coming at what cost? And how will they be the ‘Champion’ if the ‘people’ aren’t there at all? These accidents, these wars, these crimes have been killing the people (both in physical and mental aspect) but they ARE multiplying. What more must we do to put an end to all of this?

Sport is meant for entertainment and has always been seen as an escape from day-to-day life. ‘Calcio’ was made by the partisans of Florence during the Renaissance Era who wanted to pass their leisure time by bonding through sport. From this ‘Calcio’ did football evolve which was taken to different countries by the Englishman- workers, elites alike. Football became a way to break boundaries. Whether you are sitting on your sofa or standing in Stretford End or Curva Sud or Nordkurve, these 90 mins are an escape from those obligations which swallow you entirely through your life. If we actually want to make “Football for All” become true- we HAVE to initiate these difficult conversations. We just cannot hide behind the ‘keep football and politics separate’ banner and ignore the wrongdoings despite knowing deep down that these wrongdoings are affecting people around the world and they are happening under the pretext of Football.

When we talk about our Heroes– we should discuss about them in entirety- their strengths, their flaws, their good deeds, their wrong deeds. Only then we can actually push towards equality that everyone craves for, not only in football but in life as well. Someone close to me once said that what makes us ‘Human’ is that we commit mistakes, but we also learn from them and try to perfect ourselves through those experiences. For we have the power of thinking beyond boundaries but we also have the will and guts to know what is right and wrong and a voice to raise our thoughts but one thing which is dear to us is freedom.  

“Emancipate youselves for mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds” uttered Bob Marley on ‘Redemption Song’. Another one of his quotes says “Football is freedom, a whole new universe”. Football was one way through which Bob Marley found his freedom in his life and one of the ways to keep himself close to ‘Jah’ (the God).

Who would have thought that 40 years after his premature death, his words will resonate on another level with the atmosphere around the world. Same way, the words sung by Black Sabbath also resonate on another level and the words spoken by Eric Cantona in 2019 are also finding it’s true essence with the socio-economic impact this pandemic has brought on the world and has accelerated the same impact which was there in pre-Covid world as well but we, the people somehow ignored it.

In Norse Mythology, Ragnarok is said to be the end of all means- to purge the Nine Realms present on Yggdrasil (the sacred Tree of life) of all impurities. Ragnarok translates to the ‘Doom of the Gods’ from Old Norse. Ragnarok is preceded by the cruelty of nature on man amidst moral chaos, the same nature on which man showed cruelty. The stars will dim, the sun will darken and realms will go under the sea but they will rise again, free of all impurities and the people will live together in a hall- roofed with gold.

Football can be said to suffer from an inevitable Ragnarok also. It is at that stage of moral chaos at this time. As depicted in Richard Wagner’s opera named Goetterdaemmerung, Ragnarok is said to be the ‘Twilight of the Gods’. These are the same ‘gods’ Eric Cantona equated to modern day ownership in football through Shakespeare’s writings. Tupac Shakur once said that Death is not the greatest loss in life. The Greatest Loss is what dies inside while being alive. Never surrender.

Otro futbol es posible


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