What's wrong with Wesley Sneijder?
Andre Villas-Boas has faced many difficult questions during his time at Chelsea, but he was probably unprepared for the ones that came his way last week. Porto's president, Nuno Pinto da Costa, had told Portuguese journalists that many of Chelsea's current players were still in touch with Jose Mourinho, the coach who left the club over four years ago.
"He needs time to mold his team," Pinto da Costa said. "He can't do that as long as there are players, as I've heard, who exchange text messages with Mourinho."
Villas-Boas, of course, had to play down the problems. "It's normal," he protested. "I have emotional attachment to the people I have managed in Academica and Porto. And I text them and they text back. It's really normal."
Yet Villas-Boas knows better than anyone, having worked with Mourinho for years, that his relationship with players is far from normal. While often described as a good tactician -- which is certainly true -- Mourinho's main skill is man management. He believes that psychological factors in football are the most important aspect of a player's ability, and his relationship with players is quite extraordinary. Witness the way he wept with Marco Materazzi when set to leave Inter in 2010 -- and this is Materazzi, notorious hardman and Zinedine Zidane wind-up merchant.
A pattern throughout Mourinho's managerial career has been his ability to turn otherwise decent players into top-class performers. There are examples at each club -- at Porto, for example, Paulo Ferreira and Nuno Valente did passable impressions of Cafu and Roberto Carlos when flying down the flanks from full back, and while Ferreira's good form continued under Mourinho at Chelsea, his ability dipped after his compatriot's departure and he's been a backup ever since. Valente became a bit-part player for Everton, before retiring with little fanfare.
At Chelsea, Mourinho had money to spend, and was immediately working with a higher caliber of player. But he transformed Frank Lampard, for example, from a decent all-round midfielder into a player voted the second-best in the world in 2005. Eidur Gudjohnsen was a good forward, but Mourinho somehow got him playing excellently in a central midfield position. Joe Cole played the only good football of his career under Mourinho.
And then there is Inter, where the post-Mourinho dip has been suffered by almost the entire playing squad. But one man sums it up in particular: Wesley Sneijder. His speech at the 2010 Ballon d'Or ceremony showed that strong emotional bond. "It was a pleasure to work with Jose Mourinho, and I want to tell him this on stage, it was a pleasure to work with him," he said. "I feel that he is for me, the best coach in the world." It nearly reduced his former coach to tears again.
"With Jose, success always follows him, but it's not always because he has the best players; it's because he make you believe you are the best players," Sneijder later said. "The confidence and belief he gives you is amazing, and when he is at a club it is his players and staff against the rest of the world."
And though it seems ludicrous to place Sneijder in with some lesser talents who enjoyed a brief Mourinho-dependent spike in form, he hasn't disproved the theory. The Dutchman was a highly promising player at Ajax, but it was difficult to place him among the world's best in a relatively weak league. At Real Madrid, he tasted success with a league title but wasn't always a regular and rarely found himself at the center of the team. Only at Inter in the 2009-10 season was he a consistently world-class performer. To put it frankly, his dip in form since then has lasted longer than his spell of brilliance, so it's natural to assume that this is his "true" level of ability, rather than his 2009-10 form.
Sneijder's drop in performance shouldn't be underestimated. It seemed to start immediately after Mourinho's departure. One of the biggest fallacies in modern football is that Sneijder enjoyed a good 2010 World Cup, based almost solely on the fact that he scored five times. Analyze the goals, and they're a remarkable compilation of simple tap-ins and deflections, alongside one which was so clearly a Felipe Melo own goal that Sneijder must have been slightly embarrassed to have been credited with it. The Netherlands reached the final, but its No. 10 did very little playmaking for a playmaker.
Scoring slightly fortunate goals shouldn't be used to criticize Sneijder, but getting acclaim for his performances at the World Cup might have been the worst thing that could have happened to him. For one thing, he was told by so many people that he deserved to be in the top three for the Ballon d'Or, despite missing out, he probably started to believe the hype. In truth, he'd played well for roughly half of the year before struggling under Rafael Benitez. The Barcelona trio of Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta had been more consistent.
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But more importantly, Sneijder seems to have forgotten the type of player he is. In 2009-10, he was absolutely superb by pulling the strings between the lines, and creating chances for Diego Milito, Samuel Eto'o and Goran Pandev. When used further forward in European competition, he prompted the counterattacks, combining with Milito but leaving the goal scoring to the Argentine. Sneijder scored just four times in the league, and eight in all competitions. He was a playmaker, not a goal scorer.
After finishing joint top of the World Cup goal-scoring charts, Sneijder now seems to think he's a goal scorer. His shots-per-game rate has risen from 2.42 in 2009-10, to 3.38 in 2010-11, to 3.80 in 2011-12. Astonishingly, he's only managed five league goals since Mourinho left.
He complained about his role after the World Cup: "I got frustrated under Benitez. He wanted me to play as a striker," by which he meant high up the pitch behind another forward. But then, Sneijder doesn't want to play much deeper, either. "I don't like playing in central midfield at all," he said elsewhere. "I like to be further forward closer to goal better a second striker than a central midfielder." It all seems very confused, and the likelihood is that Sneijder is trying to shift the blame onto his managers when he's simply been playing poorly.
In fairness, Sneijder does say that his preferred position is behind two strikers, in a 4-3-1-2. That shape has been tried by Claudio Ranieri this season, but the problem with that system is that it places so much of the creative burden on one player, Sneijder. When he's off form, that's difficult to justify, which has resulted in Ranieri playing a 4-3-1-2/4-4-2 compromise, in which Sneijder drifts to the left wing when out of possession, with Javier Zanetti playing either as a right winger or a central midfielder on the opposite side. In truth, Argentine Ricky Alvarez seems more suited to the Sneijder role.
"Sneijder is not a problem but a solution," Ranieri protested on Italian TV this week. But he continued: "I think that an Inter coach is duty-bound to try and integrate players with a special quality, even though by doing that the team is now suffering a lot."
It's easy to read between the lines.
It's not so easy to play between the lines. There's a brilliant player somewhere in Wesley Sneijder, but his current form barely justifies a place in the Inter side, let alone at the heart of it.
Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He runs zonalmarking.net.
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