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Posts Tagged ‘Samir Handanovic’

Better than you think: Samir Handanovic.

Samir Handanovic is rightly recognised as one of the most improved goalkeepers in Europe. Udinese have conceded just seven Serie A goals with the 6’5” Slovenian keeping net this season, and last season he saved six penalty kicks. No, that isn’t a typo. Obviously there’s more to being a great ‘keeper than saving penalties (look at Mark Crossley) but the stat displays says a lot about Handanovic.

His size definitely helps, but you’ve got to be agile to size a well-placed penalty. Most players will try to hit their penalties in the bottom corner, well out of reach for most goalkeepers. Not that all of the penalties Handanovic faced last season were perfectly placed, but they certainly weren’t all scuffed mishits.

Composure is very important in these situations. The onus is on the striker to score, but a calm, composed goalkeeper has a far better chance of making a penalty save than a shaky, erratic one. Keeping calm allows a ‘keeper to read his opponent’s body language and get a better idea of where the ball’s going to go. Such strong anticipation is another of Handanovic’s finest points.

Handanovic has no obvious physical or mental weaknesses. He has no qualms about rushing off his line and bravely diving at oncoming strikers’ feet and his reflexes are second-to-none. It seems like Samir makes a blinding point-black save every time I watch him play, and he’s approaching an Edwin van der Sar level of proficiency with the ball at his feet.

Aside from his outstanding penalty record, Handanovic went 704 minutes without conceding a goal between February 5th and March 20th last season. In a team known for its swashbuckling attacking style and disregard for defence, this statistic doesn’t require elaboration.

Atalanta coach Stefano Colantuono has called him the best goalkeeper in Europe, and Handanovic’s excellent form has seen him receive plaudits from around the globe. There’s no doubt that he’s a fantastic, match-winning goalkeeper, but how does the 27-year-old compare with the world’s best?

In Italy, Gianluigi Buffon is the obvious benchmark. Gig has been one of the most dominant ‘keepers in the world for years and, aged 33, should have a few more years of top-level performances left in him. I don’t need to discuss the guy’s legendary status; I’m sure you already know plenty about his accolades.

Buffon is the complete ‘keeper, and Handanovic’s self-confessed idol. The problem with Buffon, however, is that he hasn’t looked the same since recovering from an injury sustained at the 2010 World Cup. He missed a huge chunk of last season and has re-established himself at Juventus, but he hasn’t been the exceptional ‘keeper of old. I’d expect Buffon’s old self to return soon and his performances haven’t been bad, they just haven’t been as out of this world as we’ve come to expect.

Elsewhere on the peninsula, there’s Napoli’s Morgan De Sanctis. Highly-regarded by the Partenopei, De Sanctis is often referred to as “Italy’s second-best goalkeeper.” I can get behind that. De Sanctis is particularly impressive in one-on-one situations, but I don’t think he can match Handanovic for reflexes and exuberance.

Federico Marchetti has had an excellent start to life at Lazio after spending last season on the sidelines at Cagliari. Marchetti, 28, has only been a Serie A ‘keeper since 2008, and I think it’s too early to consider him one of the best. Julio Cesar? Not the player he was a few seasons ago. Christian Abbiati? Solid but unspectacular. Maarten Stekelenburg? Hasn’t really done it at Roma.

The English Premier league is awash with goalkeeping talent. I regard Liverpool’s Pepe Reina as the best in the league. His consistently outstanding performances have, at times, been the only thing preventing the Reds descending into total farce, but he still commits the odd error every now and then.

Petr Cech, in my eyes, hasn’t been the same since Stephen Hunt almost kicked his head off in 2006. Cech is still undeniably very, very good and can still make brilliant saves but has played hesitantly since his injury. The Cech of 2011 is reluctant to dive at strikers’ feet and looks bothered by having to come off his line and claim a cross. It’s only natural for such an injury to have a long-lasting psychological affect, and while I still think Cech is world-class he’s lacking the bravery that used to make him truly special.

Manchester City’s Joe Hart is ever improving and an excellent shot-stopper, but he’s still raw. He’s yet to suffer the wrath of the savage English press when they’re out for blood and I don’t think it’s right to call him one of the world’s best until his mental strength is significantly tested. Just look what happened to Robert Green and Paul Robinson.

Hugo Lloris, France’s best goalkeeper, is a definite contender for the “world’s best” title. The likes of Arsenal have been courting Lloris for years, but he looks set to remain a Lyon player for the foreseeable future. An incredible athlete and a commanding presence in the box, Lloris is a ‘keeper of the highest calibre and one any team would be delighted to have.

How about the Germans? Manuel Neuer is settling into life with Bayern Munich after a difficult start and looks set to be number one for club and country for years to come. Elsewhere Rene Adler and Tim Wiese are very good ‘keepers in their own right, but neither are performing at a level comparable to Handanovic at the moment.

Arguing Handanovic’s status as a top, top ‘keeper gets difficult as soon as you reach La Liga. Iker Casillas is regarded by many as the best goalkeeper in the world, and for good reason. The Spanish #1 is an icon for Real Madrid and Spain and routinely pulls-off outstanding saves like they come naturally to him. He puts his body on the line week after week and his performances have won Real plenty of games over the year.

Victor Valdes is almost as good. Far removed from the clanger-prone buffoon of old, Valdes has become an integral part of a Barcelona team that could be argued as being the greatest club side in history. Not just an excellent shot-stopper, Valdes is brilliant with the ball at his feet and passes like a central midfielder. Hardly surprised for a La Masia graduate.

How does Handanovic compare to all of the above? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. I’m convinced he’s a better ‘keeper than most I’ve mentioned, but it’ll take a few more years of excellence before he’s comparable to Buffon and Casillas in-particular. That said, I can’t think of another goalie I’d rather have playing for my team at the moment.

Data: whoscored.com.

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Trendsetter: Udinese's Giampaolo Pozzo.

Udinese’s success is nothing short of remarkable given their finances. The Zebrette earned €41m in revenue last season, a tiny figure compared to Inter (€225m), Milan (€208m) and Roma (€123m), all of who are currently below Udinese in the league. Their average attendance is just 15,000, their TV income (€26m) is a quarter of Juventus and Milan’s and last season’s total gate receipts (€3.6m) was 34-times smaller than Manchester United’s.

Despite all this, Udinese’s year-end accounts usually show a profit of around €6-8m. How do they accomplish this with such small revenue streams? By selling players. The Bianconeri have, over the past 10 years, received a staggering net profit of €112m from buying and selling players. They have perfect the “buy low, sell high,” model, and are cable to compete at the highest level because of it.

Club president Giampaolo Pozzo first implemented the strategy in the 1990s. Udinese’s tiny budget made it impossible to compete with the bigger clubs for transfer fees and wages, forcing Pozzo to find a more financially-efficient way of lifting the club’s league position.

The system is similar to Arsenal’s only far more efficient. Udinese eschew inflated fees and wages (Antonio Di Natale, €20k p/w, is the club’s highest earner) and spend their resources on scouting and networking instead. The Zebrette currently employ over 50 scouts and have ties with literally hundreds of local contacts worldwide. It costs just €4m p/a to maintain this scouting network, and this is almost repaid by the €3.6m Udinese earn annually from loaning players out.

It’s estimated that Udinese have a stake in over 120 players worldwide. They supplied an astonishing 14 loanees to bolster Granada’s promotion campaign last season and have leant the new La Liga side a further five players this term. Furthermore, Udinese own another 32 players who are currently on loan at or co-owned by other clubs.

The system is quick and efficient. Udinese send vast quantities of young players out on loan every season to aid their growth and thus boost their market value. It’s an effective money-spinner and a method of developing quality players without parting with swathes of cash. As an example, Samir Handanovic was signed on a free transfer in 2004. He is now considered among the world’s best ‘keepers after loan spells at Treviso, Lazio and Rimini and an extended spell in the Udinese XI, and will command a seven-figure fee if (when?) he leaves.

I think it’s a very honourable way of achieving success. Bring in a player with good potential for a nominal fee and train him until he’s ready for the first team or developed to a point where he can achieve success at a lower or higher level. It’s certainly more admirable than the tasteless Chelsea/Man City model and a clever way of doing business.

I’m surprised more clubs haven’t adopted such a model. There’s Arsenal, of course, and Newcastle United are beginning to benefit from their growing scouting network. Borussia Dortmund have built a successful team by purchasing unheralded players and tapping into their potential. Other that, I’m at a loss.

Financial Fair Play’s implementation will surely see more clubs follow Udinese’s lead. Soon it’ll make much more sense to scout and sign young players on the cheap rather than splurdge millions on Andy Carroll and Fernando Torres. FFP will level the playing field, and I can’t decide if that’s good for Udinese or not. The Bianconeri’s system has been in-place for years so they should have an immediate advantage, but what’ll happen to them when transfer fees (their primary income source) start falling?

The Udinese system isn’t perfect though. Its one major disadvantage is that cannot feasibly hold on to star players for longer than a couple of seasons. Di Natale is the obvious exception, but the Zebrette are in no financial position to reject big money bids for their prized assets.

Three of the club’s best players (Alexis Sanchez, Gokhan Inler & Christian Zapata) left during the summer, and the trend is only going to continue. Udinese are usually able to replace their stars with shrewd signings which usually negates the above argument, but it’s hard to see them progressing until they’re in a position to hond onto their top players.

Regardless, some excellent players have passed through Udinese over the years. Here are some of the Friuli farm’s biggest success stories:-

Antonio Di Natale

Why not start with the obvious? Toto, even at 34, is the peninsula’s most feared goal-getters. Signed from relegated Empoli in 2004, Di Natale has notched 143 goals in 280 Bianconeri appearances. This season’s 13 from 17 mark a healthy return for the ex-Azzurri forward, who has scored 28 and 29 goals in his last two Serie A campaigns. Loyal (he turned down a huge Juventus contract in 2010) and dependable, Udinese will struggle when Di Natale eventually retires.

Oliver Bierhoff

Anybody who watched football in the ‘90s should be familiar with Bierhoff. The German striker was playing for Serie B’s Ascoli when Udinese signed him in 1995. Three years later he was Serie A’s top scorer and a full international. Bierhoff went on to Scudetto success with AC Milan and was a 1996 European Championship winner.

David Pizzaro

A wonderfully talented deep-lying playmaker who is criminally underrated outside of Italy, Pizarro signed for buttons from Santiago Wanderers in 1999 and was Udinese’s heartbeat until a 2005 transfer to Inter. Known for his Xavi-esque passing ability, Pizzaro’s post-Udine career has seen him win a Scudetto (with Inter) and three Coppa Italias (one with Inter, two with Roma). One of my favourite players.

Sulley Muntari & Asamoah Gyan

The two Ghanians arrived in Udine within a year of each other. Both stayed for five years and experienced varying levels of success. Muntari was a huge success, establishing himself as the club’s midfield enforcer and made over 120 Serie A appearances. He signed for Portsmouth for an estimated €9m in 2007. Gyan, on the other hand, only ever played 39 games for Udinese, but the club still earned an €8m from Rennes for his services in 2008.

Felipe

Few players epitomise the Udinese model’s success like the Brazilian defender. Felipe joined the Zebrette’s youth system as a 15-year old in 1999 and had joined the senior squad by 2002. He was a key member of the Bianconeri’s Champions League squad in 2005-06, but fell out of favour in 2009 and was sold to Fiorentina for €6m last year. Felipe made 175 appearances in all competitions for Udinese but hasn’t established himself in Florence.

Alexis Sanchez

The Chilean forward’s sale is one of the Udinese model’s greatest successes. Signed in 2006 but immediately loaned to River Plate and Colo Colo, Sanchez didn’t make his Udinese debut until 2008. He came of age last season after switching from the wing to playing as Di Natale’s supporting trequartista. Barcelona paid €26m plus bonuses for his services after a 12-goal haul last season.

* For more on Udinese’s finances please check out this typically fascinating article from The Swiss Ramble: Udinese Selling Their Way To The Top.

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Can veteran striker Antonio Di Natale help bring the Scudetto to Udine?

Aside from an unrecognised pre-FIGC championship in 1896, Udinese’s closest brush with Scudetto success game in 1954-55. Hopes weren’t high going into the season: the Bianconeri had finished 16th the previous year, staving-off relegation with two play-off draws. Another season of struggle was expected, and Udine did little to defy the expectations in the early stages.

They started the season at home to champions Inter and were beaten 2-0. A 3-1 defeat at Napoli followed, and Udinese suffered a humiliating 5-0 drubbing at Catania next. Shipping goals and rooted to the bottom, Udinese were in trouble already. This changed with the signing of Umberto Pinardi, a defender previously of Juventus and Como.

Pinardi’s arrival provided the attack-minded Bianconeri with improved balance and defensive solidity. Udinese ran-out 3-0 winners over Genoa in Pinardi’s debut and only lost another three games all-season, the last of which came on December 12th (2-0 vs. Sampdoria). The defensive strengthening had had an obvious immediate impact.

Game after game drew Udinese closer and closer to table-topping Milan. The Scudetto race opened-up, and a Bianconeri hot streak moved them to within four points of the title favourites by May 1st, 1955. The teams met in Udine for a vital contest on that date, with Milan on 39 points and Udinese on 35. Anxiety filled the Stadio Moretti, but the Zebrette tifosi knew they were within touching distance of a first Serie A championship. The excitement was palpable.

Disaster struck in the game’s early stages when Udinese ‘keeper Gianni Romano was stretchered off after a collision with Gunnar Nordahl, Milan’s Swedish forward. Substitutions weren’t allowed in 1955, so the Bianconeri were forced to solider-on against the strongest team in the league with just 10 men.

Instead of capitulating, Udinese rallied. They showed incredible grinta and fire to battle through the 90 minutes, and they emerged with a miraculous 3-2 victory. Now the title race was well and truly on. The momentum was with Udinese, and all they had to do was overturn a one-point deficit to claim the Scudetto.

Sadly, Udinese lost their form. Milan collected 9 points from their last 5 games, and the Bianconeri couldn’t keep-up the pace. Dropped points to Pro Patria, Novara and Torino proved decisive, and Udinese finished on 44 points (four short of Milan’s 48).

Udinese have come close since, finishing fourth in 1956-57 and 2004-05 and third in 1997-98. Nothing, however, has matched the excitement of the 1954-55 title race. They finished a superb fourth last season, thrilling the peninsula with some of the most exciting, attacking football in Europe but ultimately finishing 16 points behind champions Milan. This season, however, I believe that Udinese have the potential to mount their strongest title challenge since 1955.

The Bianconeri have conceded just seven league goals this season. That’s an average of 0.5 goals per game: a marked improvement on last year’s still-respectable 1.13. Udinese’s average goals scored has decreased from 1.71 to 1.29, reflecting a shift in coach Francesco Guidolin’s philosophy. Udinese have added defensive steel with compromising much of their attacking verve.

The three starting centre-backs – Danilo, Maurizio Domizzi and Mehdi Benatia – are having excellent seasons, but they aren’t the only reason for Udinese’s new watertight defence. ‘Keeper Samir Handanovic must now be considered among the best in the world. The 27-year-old Slovenian has looked unbeatable at times over the past few seasons, and he’ll surely be the subject of some big money bids next summer. Udinese have the best defence in Italy (Lazio are second with 11 conceded), and Handanovic’s form has been a huge contributing factor.

Udinese are currently second in Serie A, level with leaders Juventus on points (30). Their next two fixtures should give us an idea of their title credentials. Udinese face Lazio on Sunday and Juventus ahead of the winter break on Wednesday. The Zebrette have already played Milan, Inter, Napoli and Roma, but these games could be the toughest of their season so far.

Antonio Conte’s Juventus haven’t steamrolled their way to the top of the league, but they’re efficient, functional and undefeated. The young coach has made an excellent start to top-tier management, and Udinese will do well to keep their dominant midfielders (Pirlo, Vidal, Marchisio et al.).

Lazio, meanwhile, have a new lethal spearhead in Miroslav Klose and a rock-solid defence. Edy Reja’s men are just two points behind Udinese and are one of Serie A’s toughest teams to beat, having lost just twice all season. Udinese must match these teams if they’re to make a serious Scudetto bid. This is one of the most competitive leagues in recent years, and there’ll be plenty of teams waiting to take Undinese’s place if they stumble.

Much of the Bianconeri’s success hinges on their talisman, Antonio Di Natale. Guidolin’s 3-5-1-1 system is designed to feed the ageing striker, and Udinese are highly reliant on his goals. Toto has struck 10 times in Serie A this season; 56% of Udinese’s total (18). Wing-backs Dusan Basta and Pablo Armero are next in line with three each. Antonio Floro Flores, Di Natale’s deputy, is yet to score in nine appearances.

The statistics say everything about Toto’s importance, and a long-term injury would likely derail Udinese’s title hopes. Still, the Bianconeri have a balanced XI with a solid defence, drive on the flanks and a midfield blend of guile and grinta. Udinese’s intangibles make the team a sum greater than their parts, and a bit of luck should see them push Juve & co. all the way to the wire.

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