Thursday, July 26, 2012

Familiarity does not breed contempt

07/11/10 Cardiff V Swansea, Championship, Card...
Joe Allen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
After weeks of speculation, it is now confirmed that Liverpool are genuinely interested in signing Joe Allen from Swansea. One can understand the rationale in Brendan Rodgers going after Allen. The only midfielder currently at Liverpool who can slot straight into Rodgers' philosophy of keeping possession in midfield, is the Brazilian Lucas Leiva, the under-rated midfielder who is returning after 6 months sidelined by injury. A midfield axis of Allen, Leiva and  Steven Gerrard certainly ensures strong foundations for Rodgers's plans to control the game from the centre.

However, another factor that stands out in the bid is that Rodgers clearly prefers to sign players he has already worked with. Much to the chagrin of Swansea chairman Huw Jenkins, Rodgers seems to have scant regard for the agreement by which he wasn't supposed to sign any Swansea players for 12 months after becoming Liverpool manager.

The first player that Rodgers seriously bid for upon taking charge at Liverpool, was Gylfi Sigurdsson, a roaring success when he was on loan with the Swans for the latter half of last season. The first player actually signed was Fabio Borini, another footballer who played under Rodgers at Swansea. Throw into the mix some rumours linking Liverpool with Scott Sinclair, and one might start to wonder if a stint at Swansea is the only prerequisite for any player joining the club this season.

If Rodgers is looking for players to fit into the tactical spectrum of possession and pressing, he might find several cheaper alternatives on the continent. Maybe Rodgers puts a premium on working with players that he knows already and are guaranteed to understand his instructions. In this regard, Rodgers is joined by many other managers in the modern game who also prefer to work with either players they have already managed, or players from leagues and regions they are extremely comfortable with.

Michael Laudrup
Michael Laudrup (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
For starters, take Rodgers' immediate successor at Swansea, Danish legend Michael Laudrup. Laudrup's first three signings at his new club have been attacking midfielders Michu and Jonathan de Guzman along with central defender Chico.

Michu had an exceptional last season at Rayo Vallecano, scoring 15 goals from midfield in 37 appearances. Laudrup's first hand experience of La Liga enabled him to snap up Michu before other more ambitious clubs could have swooped in.

De Guzman is another signing from La Liga. His performances at Villarreal weren't necessarily from the top drawer, but Laudrup cleary believes the Canadian can replicate the form he showed playing under him at Mallorca in the 2010-11 season. Chico is another player who was also signed for Mallorca by Laudrup.

In his nomadic managerial career so far, Mark Hughes has also shown a penchant for signing players he has worked with at previous clubs. Already at QPR, Hughes has re-united the strike-force from his previous club Fulham. Andy Johnson was the first signing of the summer transfer window, following in the footsteps of Bobby Zamora, Hughes' first signing of the winter transfer window.

When he was manager at Manchester City, two of the first players Hughes signed were Craig Bellamy and Roque Santa Cruz. Both strikers had extremely successful spells at Blackburn under the guidance of Hughes.

Signing familiar players is hardly the preserve of only mid-table managers. Even the most successful managers find solace in signing players they have worked with before, or players from leagues of which they have an in-depth understanding.

English: Liverpool footballer Xabi Alonso. ‪No...
Xabi Alonso (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Throughout his tenure at Liverpool, Rafa Benitez made consistent raids in Spain with mixed results. His first five signings included Xabi Alonso, Luis Garcia, Fernando Morientes, Antonio Nunez and Mauricio Pellegrino. His later additions from Spain included Fabio Aurelio, Mark Gonzalez, Fernando Torres and Maxi Rodriguez. 

While Garcia and Rodriguez had their fair share of moments chipping in with crucial goals and assists, Alonso and Torres were clearly the best players signed from Spain by Benitez. The only consolation for Liverpool when the two left Anfield, were the huge profits made on sales of both the players. The less said about the other Spanish imports the better.

Outside of his Spanish imports, the two signings that made the biggest impact under Benitez were Javier Mascherano and Dirk Kuyt. His other signings from the continent and within the premier league were either average or poor.

Many would say after Pep Guardiola's sabbatical, that Jose Mourinho is the best active club manager right now. The special one also has a preference for the familiar when building his new teams.

José Mourinho
Jose Mourinho (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
On his arrival at Chelsea in 2004, his first two signings were defenders Ricardo Carvalho and Paulo Ferreira from FC Porto, where he had won the treble including the Champions League. Carvalho's excellent reading of the game made him the perfect foil for John Terry. Many seem to forget that in his first two seasons Ferreira was also a crucial part of the backline, and was more than handy contributing further up the pitch as well. Another countryman Thiago also weighed in with his fair share of goals in Mourinho's first campaign at Stamford Bridge.

Mourinho's stay at Inter Milan was an exception, where Mourinho instilled a combination of tactical discipline and tough mentality to win the treble with basically the same team that Roberto Mancini left behind.

However on arrival at Real Madrid, Mourinho went back to some of his old stomping grounds. With the squad already featuring compatriots Pepe and Cristiano Ronaldo, Mourinho further boosted the Portuguese contingent at the club. He was re-united with Carvalho for the third time in his career at the Bernabeu, and then signed Benfica's best players in Fabio Coentrao and Angel Di Maria. He also went back to the Premier League to sign Alvaro Arbeloa from Liverpool. These signings enabled Mourinho to organize lines on both ends of the pitch, where players have excellent chemistry with each other. The manager and squad have already delivered one Spanish League and one Spanish Cup, and more trophies are expected this season, with many considering Real Madrid early favourites for the Champions League.

There are also examples where an affliction for the familiar have had led to terrible results. After his managerial spell at Celtic, Gordon Strachan just couldn't see past Scottish players. He signed a whole host of them at Middlesbrough and almost got the club relegated from the Championship. Roy Keane seemed to believe in only signing two categories of players - Manchester United failures of Irishmen. Keane nearly got Sunderland relegated from the Premier League, and nearly repeated the feat with Ipswich in the Championship. Neither Strachan nor Keane are likely to get another job in top flight management.

Perhaps this is not such a surprising trend in football. In the modern game, even the best managers seem to have a cycle of two to three years at a club. When instant success is expected by boards and supporters, the easiest solution often appears to be signing the players that managers have confidence in. In fact, these decisions also work out in the best interests of players. It would make perfect sense for a player to follow a manager they love and respect, rather than risking their place under a new manager with different ideas.

Ultimately players and managers are, like most human beings, creatures of habit. Irrespective of the quality of the player, and despite having no guarantee of success, when it comes to transfers in football, familiarity does not breed contempt.

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