Wednesday, 31 January 2007

Don't Cry for the Argentinians

Dont Cry for the Argentinians. Weep for the Insularity of English Managers
By Martin Samuel

There is a lot riding on Javier Mascherano’s proposed loan transfer to Liverpool; far more than the Premiership career of one player. There is the judgment of Alan Pardew, the reputation of Alan Curbishley, indeed the general ability of what we would style the bread-and-butter English managers to be at home at the high end of the modern game. For if Mascherano thrives at Anfield, if he holds the midfield, uses the ball with brio, goes the 90-minute distance, as he did for Argentina during the World Cup, and regains his standing as one of the most promising young players from South America, what will that say about us? What will it say when two of our most highly regarded coaches refused to give him as much as a second look?

Mascherano’s failure to make any impression on the first team at West Ham United is a riddle. Had there been rumours of misbehaviour or poor attitude, it would have been explicable; had there been suggestions that he enjoyed the London nightlife or was excessively morose and homesick, no questions would have been asked. Yet whenever inquiries were made into his commitment or mental state, the response was the same. Nice, quiet lad, does his work, goes home, never complains; no trouble at all.

Then the team sheet would go up and in Mascherano’s place in the heart of midfield would be the usual journeymen suspects: Hayden Mullins and, latterly, Nigel Quashie, a player whose arrival at a football club tends to have roughly the same impact as the promotion of John Reid to a government department.

Under Pardew, Mascherano would watch from the bench, undisturbed, and Curbishley’s arrival served to move him even farther down the pecking order. The former Charlton Athletic manager revived the career of Shaun Newton after suspension for using recreational drugs, reintroduced the calamitous Roy Carroll in goal and took Mark Noble back from loan at Ipswich Town. But the 22-year-old who played every minute of every game for what many insist was the best team at the 2006 World Cup? He remained a spectator.

At which point, Rafael Benítez stepped in. And while opinion may be divided about his consistency in the transfer market, as a Champions League winner and Spanish league champion, the Liverpool manager deserves the benefit of the doubt. Benítez clearly thinks that Mascherano is a player, so much so that his club have fought to overturn Fifa rules to make him available this season. As few like to make enemies of those who run the game, this would suggest that Benítez considers Mascherano worth it.

It would also imply something more: that Benítez, who has monitored the player since his early career with River Plate in Argentina, believes that Mascherano’s previous managers in England did him a disservice. If he is proven right and a world-class performer lay wasted in the reserves of a club who were sinking deeper into relegation quicksand because his managers lacked the invention to make use of him, the shortcomings of certain English traditionalists will have been exposed. This is much more than the average transfer deal.

In recent years, without doubt, English managers have had a raw deal from FA Premier League chairmen. In any other country, a coach with the record of Sam Allardyce at Bolton Wanderers would have been headhunted by a leading club by now. As it is, Allardyce’s name is not even mentioned in the shake-up. Through all the speculation about José Mourinho’s future at Chelsea, there has been no hint that his successor would come from these shores.

Yet Allardyce is no different to Benítez or the Seville coach, Juande Ramos, in that before getting a tilt at the big time, their reputations were for overachieving with smaller clubs. But while Spain will give its coaches a break, to earn respect from the biggest clubs in England a manager must be imported.

It does not appear to matter that Allardyce has frequently chosen to work with foreign players of pedigree and has extracted surprising levels of performance from them, plus a fervent commitment to unfashionable Bolton. His career will remain on hold and the glass ceiling for English managers sits above the fifth Premiership place.

Might Allardyce be the exception, though? Looking at the players he buys — Nicolas Anelka, El-Hadji Diouf, Youri Djorkaeff, Iván Campo, Jay-Jay Okocha, Tal Ben Haim, Stelios Giannakopoulos — Allardyce would appear to have an imagination and appetite for the unconventional that sets him apart from many contemporaries. Certainly, the way Pardew and Curbishley handled Mascherano and his compatriot, Carlos Tévez, does not indicate great empathy with a world outside the lower reaches of the Premiership.

Mascherano, in particular, seems to have been harshly neglected. With Pardew in charge, he made his debut on September 14, 2006, in a 1-0 home defeat by Palermo in the Uefa Cup, in which he was the best passer in the West Ham team. He then took his Premiership bow at home to Newcastle United. West Ham lost 2-0 and he was taken off after 67 minutes. The next weekend he played in the 2-0 defeat away to Manchester City, the last time he was on for a whole game.

He featured on four other occasions, twice taken off with 22 minutes to go and twice brought on as a substitute, in the 84th and 86th minutes. He did not feature under Curbishley. In all, Mascherano played 393 minutes of football for West Ham in five months, compared with 510 minutes for Argentina in five matches during the World Cup. Had José Pekerman, the coach, not contrived to knock out his own team with negative substitutions against Germany, he might even have come to England with a winner’s medal.

If there is mitigation for his treatment at Upton Park, it is that he was finding it hard to adapt to the pace and physical demands of English football. Pardew feared this from the start, which is why he gave him his first game against Italian opponents, thinking that the pace would be more familiar to him.

Unfortunately, Palermo were a huge, brutish team, very English in approach, who stole an away goal and shut up shop. Mascherano was still the pick of it for West Ham, but against Manchester City and, most particularly, Newcastle, when he let Scott Parker run off him for much of the match, he did not seem attuned to the domestic game. As he was allowed just one more start from there, he was hardly given much opportunity to learn.

By the time Curbishley succeeded Pardew, West Ham were in crisis and it could be argued that a lightweight holding midfield player, learning on the job, would not be much use in a fight to the death. Then again, Mascherano could not have been less effective than the West Ham midfield that went down 6-0 away to Reading or lost at home to Watford in the FA Cup last weekend.

Nor would he be alone in making a slow start in English football. Michael Essien, by popular consent one of the players of the season, took a year to settle in at Chelsea, as did Didier Drogba. Even when it was obvious that Andriy Shevchenko was struggling, Mourinho insisted on using him in the hope that he could turn his season around.

By contrast, West Ham gave Mascherano a handful of matches and then bit-parts in games that were already lost. Pardew and, in particular, Curbishley showed scant open-mindedness or understanding of his problems. They will argue that English football showed up Mascherano’s limitations as a player; Benítez may yet counter by showing up uncomfortable limitations closer to home.

Benítez said that Liverpool will provide a better home for Mascherano. “We speak Spanish and play a style of football that suits him,” he claimed. Yet this saga runs deeper than that. There are many managers who overcome the language barrier and if everybody needed to be singing from the same phrasebook, Liverpool’s most recent European Cup win would not have been achieved with a coach still learning the English language.

As for Liverpool’s style, it bypasses midfield more frequently than West Ham’s and has a directness that would be anathema in Argentina. The reason Mascherano has more chance at Anfield is simply because this manager is prepared to believe in him.

Which leaves West Ham where? The new owners are investing transfer funds at a level intended to make an impact, at least, on Uefa Cup places next season, but relegation is still very much a possibility and, either way, such advancement cannot be made using English or English-speaking players alone. Luís Boa Morte, Quashie, Lucas Neill, even the expensive present targets, Matthew Upson, of Birmingham City, and Darren Bent, of Charlton, are all strictly second class when compared with a player who is a regular with Argentina.

If Mascherano succeeds at Anfield, it is the stock of English managers that will have fallen. And chairmen will continue to ask whether a truly ambitious club can afford to place its future in the hands of just any old Alan.

The Times column

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