I had the brilliant opportunity to interview Graham Hunter, a well respected journalist of Spanish football fame, with a number of questions ranging from Spain, La Liga, Pep Guardiola, Liverpool and his beloved Aberdeen.
Firstly Graham, have some journalists got it right with the predicted end of Spanish dominance with Barca/Real Madrid beaten to submission by the Germans in the Champions League and the national side losing to Brazil in the Confederation Cup?
I don’t know. I don’t know who those journos are, don’t know how you define dominance.
Not long ago if you did an end of term report when Spain reached Confederations Final, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona reached UEFA Champions League semi-final for the third straight year, when Spain u21’s retained Euro and when Spain u17’s and u19’s both did reasonably well in their summer Championships, I think it would have been looked upon as a B+ year.
In light of what has gone before, there were some clear flaws. I would say that tiredness is the main factor. Spain, on form, are still, easily, the best side in the world. To their credit, Nick, they have always said that if they are not on form, or tired, then they are beatable. We saw that in Brazil and particularly in Bayern Munich v Barca in the Champions League Semifinal.
Perhaps the big answer to your question relies on two separate things.
1 – Do Barca and Real Madrid buy adequately this summer. If so, look out.
2 – Can Spain show better husbandry of their resources when it comes to qualifying and then playing in World Cup? What roles for Cazorla, Martinez, Carvajal, Isco, Mata? How does being at Atleti Madrid suit Villa? Where will Torres play and how much? How to handle the ageing of Xavi and when/how to use him. These will answer your central question.
Will Pep Guardiola revolutionise Bayern from top to bottom (ie: Youth set-up, etc) or will he just fine tune an already formidable club?
Obviously I don’t know for sure because I’ve not seen what he’s seen when taking over. But the Pep philosophy that I know means the latter. He didn’t revolutionise Barca when he took over. Just made three or four things obligatory and central to the daily philosophy and reaped the benefits.
Bayern hired him not to change much but to teach things which help them dominate for five, six years. So it’s how he fits, how he wins over the players [for whom he doesn’t hold the same awe as those he took over at Camp Nou] and how he manages relationships, and how he manages the media/directors there. His football philosophy, his intelligence and his hard work will be fine there. So, no revolution.
I’m disappointed Thiaga has left Barca for Bayern but I felt maybe he’s now being held back by Xavi (who still has a big part to play at the Camp Nou by the way) in a similar way Guardiola held back a young Xavi. Discuss.
However you look at it the Thiago situation hasn’t been handled well, particularly in terms of anticipating what was coming. I note how many people think Thiago is indispensable now he’s gone. My own view is that he held the potential to be extremely important at Barca but I don’t think Xavi has anything to do with it. Xavi is still a miles, miles more important and better footballer than Thiago. His progression was much more affected by Iniesta, Busi and Cesc.
Honestly, I think that Thiago’s long term progression will/should be down the middle, in a four or in a three. Like an attacking Busquets but he makes errors. Not errors solely of youth because this is a guy with 100 games for Barca. He’s been needing to learn, make fewer self induced errors and not to play things the way he wanted to. Perhaps, for Thiago, Pep is just the right guy. I think the progression of Thiago as a footballer is far more important than whether Bayern get to benefit from that or not.
In due course, as Xavi plays fewer matches, out of necessity, the club want Fabregas to play in his position. If they now lose Fabregas as well as Thiago then Barca have handled the whole thing badly. If it works as they plan then I’m simply looking forward to watching Samper, Sergi Roberto and Patric develop in those midfield roles. Good luck to Thiago, I very much hope he thrives.
I have my own theories but why do you think very few English Premier League players move to La Liga, whilst there has been a steady influx of Spanish players the other way?
Fear, lack of talent, unwillingness or inability to learn the language. Complacency, overpriced, too high wages. It’s sad.
We’ve had Thiago, Isco et all. Who is the next big young star in the making in Spain?
Hopefully from: the Fernandez brothers at Madrid, especially Alex, Albert Moreno at Sevilla, Oliver at Atleti Madrid, Samper, Dongou and Patric from Barca. There are others, much more obvious, candidates but these are the ones I’ll be watching closely.
Jose Mourinho was a bit of a ‘marmite’ figure in Spain. Has he changed any since his first time in charge of Chelsea?
I thought he’d changed radically. More mistakes, a weather vane [vain] for unnecessary polemic, rather than what he used to do at Chelsea to take pressure off players.
He took things a lot, lot more personally, rather than being ‘ahead’ of the game he tried to give that impression when he wasn’t.
Worst of all he hit a seam of managerial form in season 2011/12 got decisions right, coached well, ended up not causing so many unnecessary rows, won a great title victory … And then ripped all he did right up into tatters and started getting it wrong again. Gave me the impression of a top manager suffering from some burnout and a midlife crisis. Hope Chelsea get better form him than Real Madrid did.
I love visiting the Camp Nou but it rarely has an English type atmosphere. Which is the most atmospheric ground in La Liga?
Depends on the day and on the game for the highs. But you rarely go wrong at the Calderon, on form Betis and Sevilla are pretty nifty. I really like the Osasuna crowd, always up for it, and when Athletic Club are on song the fans are really noisy.
Barca to retain La Liga next season or Real to come roaring back? Any surprise packages?
Not keen on predictions till market closed. I am hopeful that even though Falcao got sold, At Madrid can be strong domestically and abroad.
Asier Illaramendi to Real for €30m. Value for money or a huge gamble?
Good, organised player. Would be in favour of signing him if I were a tech director but not at that price. No.
Neymar is coming to Europe. You excited by the prospect?
Excited by what skills he has. Interested in his development. Happy to hear that he’s a good pro and a decent fella. But I’m not someone who believes he was the priority signing for this current Barca and I’m sceptical, although open minded, about how he and Messi work … More off the pitch and in terms of the ‘top dog’ over the next couple seasons.
Good luck to Neymar though. He can play a bit [would like him to lose some of the throwing himself about though].
Sad to see Malaga being picked apart after the thrills they gave us in Europe last season. Can they bounce back with Bernd Schuster at the helm?
It’s not so much about Bernd, although if he is fully focussed and on form they’ve picked a guy who knows what he’s doing.
Three key things matter:
1 – The owner needs to start behaving responsibly
2 – When you lose a great organiser and great leader like Pellegrini, you notice it.
3 – The loss of talent compared to what they can afford to buy has been damaging. If they can steady the ship and sign astutely plus promote from youth then I hope they have a fun season.
What do you think of Falcao’s departure to Monaco? I think it’s totally money driven and sad to see such a talent leaving for a league not ranked amongst the top.
I don’t think like that. If it were me and I had his talent then, for sure, I’d not have done what he has.
However, I respect the right of a top player to choose his destiny and, moreover, he bears no responsibility for the quality of La Liga’s football versus the quality of Ligue 1.
How will the teams promoted to La Liga fair next season?
On a personal note, how will Aspas and Luis Alberto do at Liverpool next season? I guess Luis Alberto is more one for the future.
Aspas will entertain and infuriate but he’ll get past players, he’ll have a go at goal, he’ll give the fans some hope of entertainment. Plus Liverpool will have more solutions now compared to the number of drawn matches last season.
I hope Luis Alberto thrives under Brendan (Rodgers). I think he’s a talent, I think that when he assimilates what English footy is like I’m hopeful that he’ll shine, particularly in his timing about when to arrive in and around edge of box.
Do you get back to Pittodrie much these days?
Not bloody often enough. I miss it badly. But whenever I’m home I go. Really, really miss it.
How will Aberdeen fair next season?
I’m hopeful. Think well of the new manager. Saw his second game in charge and really enjoyed it. He’s kept some good footballers, especially Ryan Jack, and we’ve signed well. We’ll do better this season than last. For sure. Should finish second. Think we will.
Graham is the author of Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World. I’ve just finished reading it and I have to admit it’s a stunning read from start to finish. It does what it says in the title and gives you a unique insight into arguably the greatest team of all time. A must read for any football supporter.
CREDITS: Graham Hunter image from The Final Third