Vanity of Defence

by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman,

While there was Chris Wood’s penalty against Fiji and subsequent mild injury distress to distract us during the international break, the stories that most occupied our thoughts were defensive.

This is a tale of two central defenders. One, Pontus Jansson, caused much rumouring when he didn’t play against QPR, and didn’t dance and sing his way through the post-match warm down as usual; then he went and performed memeworthy heroics for Sweden. The other, Giuseppe Bellusci, we found out may not be coming back to Elland Road, as we’d feared; his registration appeared to have been cancelled when he moved to Empoli on loan. Then there was some confusion about whether the cancellation was just a technicality of the loan deal, meaning we might have to have him back next season after all, especially if the reports of Empoli fans squaring up to him after a series of disastrous games are true. So I thought I’d have a look at how he’s playing these days.

Empoli had lost their last five matches, failed to score in five hours, and if they were beaten by Napoli, would equal their worst ever run. Giuseppe Bellusci plays in their defence.

Napoli hold all the cards ahead of kick-off, not least a Kappa kit with sleeves chock full of Kappa logos. Empoli line up wearing Joma, with a cycling shirt collar, and at the end of the line, there he is. He’s scowling. He’s chewing gum. He’s wearing a nose strip like Robbie Fowler.

He’s involved right from the start. Empoli take the kick off and play the ball straight back to Bellusci’s defensive partner Andrea Costa, who tees the ball up for Bellusci to hoof forward like a gridiron punt; Napoli’s forward was alive to it, and turned the play into a 50/50 that Bellusci shied away from, choosing to pass the ball to his left and protect himself from the tackle. It’s only the first ten seconds, but all the signs are that this brave, brave boy hasn’t changed a bit.

Empoli look reasonably secure in the opening minutes, helped by Bellusci turning on the halfway line, and passing back to his keeper, Skorupski; then not helped by him trying to volley a pass to the left, and shanking it to Napoli. To save the situation Bellusci dashes forward to trap Napoli offside, and although he ends up five yards ahead of his fellow defenders’ line, the offside is called.

Uncertainty was growing, and its name was Giuseppe. Receiving the ball from Costa on the edge of his own penalty area, Bellusci is put under mild pressure by two Napoli forwards, and offered a way out by El Hadji, who didn’t know there was a Napoli attacker over his shoulder. Bellusci, looking right at them both, surely did, but gave El Hadji the ball anyway. The ball was nicked off El Hadji’s toe and played towards Costa. Now Costa was under pressure, and as Dries Mertens sprinted onto it, Costa didn’t so much bring him down, as attempt to clear the ball, miss, and kick Mertens in the stomach. Penalty, taken my Mertens, saved by Skorupski’s feet.

That cheered the Empoli fans, behind their ‘Forza Magic Empoli’ banners, but Mertens’ speed was a portent. Soon Napoli were attacking again, Mertens and Callejon in the box, a line of three swarming in support; Bellusci, caught between marking Mertens and rushing to block a shot from Insigne, chooses to lurch for the ball, but the shot never comes. Insigne lays the ball off to Mertens, who gives it to Callejon, and his pass wide is volleyed over by Hamsik. Amid the running off the ball around and behind him, Bellusci looks lost.

In possession, Bellusci still plays with all the self-confidence of a dad up against a team of his kid’s friends, firing long, raking passes for the winger, that he has no chance of ever reaching. He becomes a bystander for Napoli’s opening goal, though. One touch passing on the left wing draws Bellusci’s man Mertens wide, where he passes to Ghoulam, the attacking full-back; his cross goes just over Bellusci’s head, whose leap blocks Costa’s view, and the ball bounces off the second defender to Insigne, who is unmarked and shoots inside the near post. You wonder if Costa and Bellusci communicated; there wasn’t much talking once the ball was in the net, just a lot of defenders not looking at each other, unwilling to face up to the shambles.

For Napoli’s second, five minutes later, we can ignore Bellusci for a while and concentrate on a beautiful free-kick by Dries Mertens. From thirty yards out, as central as it gets, he curled the ball powerfully as near into the top corner as it gets, an arc of triumphant ballistics from his right foot, which seemed to recoil from rather than strike through the ball: in other words, I have no idea how he did it, but it was very, very good.

Napoli were enjoying this; Bellusci and the back four were at times defending in a line across their six-yard line, the two midfielders ahead of them only as far away as the edge of the penalty area. When Empoli were allowed the ball, Napoli calculated there was little threat and stood off, unless the ball made its way to Bellusci, when they crowded him, sniffing for a mistake; at least, they would force a panicked pass that put a teammate in trouble.

Defensively, Mertens was Bellusci’s man, but by simply dropping ten yards, Mertens was unmarked; there were no shortage of attackers racing past him to put Bellusci and Costa in two minds about who and how to mark. They frequently stood together in the penalty area, ready to head clear an incoming cross, but no such cross ever came, as Napoli webbed the ball across the pitch, spider to spider, leaving Empoli’s defenders marking nothing and ready for things that never happened. They maintained a straight line, but almost in silence, as if each was locked in their own separate world.

The third goal came in the 36th minute, as Napoli again passed the ball around between Empoli’s defence and midfield; the ball was switched to Callejon, venturing into the box down the right, and Pasqual’s attempted trip and hand on his shoulder was enough to bring him down for another penalty. There weren’t any arguments from Empoli players, although it looked like they mostly couldn’t be bothered. This time Insigne took it and scored low into the corner.

One thing you could say in Bellusci’s favour was that he had dealt with the simple stuff well; intercepting a loose pass here and there and clearing it, that sort of thing. A few minutes before half-time he jogged back to reach a pass that was deflected away from Mertens, and attempted to turn and pass it to his right-back in one movement; Mertens read the movement and the intention and of course it was underhit anyway, and after Mertens took the ball he swerved left then right around Bellusci, firing a low cross past him that Costa cleared. So now you couldn’t say that in Bellusci’s favour anymore.

Soon after, Mertens dropped all the way into his own half to play a one-two, but for some reason — perhaps he’d been told to mark him properly — now Bellusci was going all the way with him; the pass was played long before he got there, so Bellusci settled for charging at its recipient, Hamsik. Hamsik wasn’t much bothered about that, and curved the ball out wide to Insigne, who checked back and passed into the Bellusci shaped gap Mertens was now running towards. Costa bailed out his absent defensive partner by bodychecking Mertens to the floor.

Half-time was a relief and one half was enough. It’s hard to decide if what I witnessed was a Bellusci effect, but Empoli’s back line bore all the hallmarks of the fragile, incommunicative zone of futility Leeds United’s was with Giuseppe Bellusci in it. As for the player himself, he was tasked with marking one of the hottest strikers in Italy, and managed to pretty much get out of it, by leaving him alone in midfield. On the ball, the illusion of a confident ball-player as ever hid the reality of every Hollywood pass going astray; Napoli’s obvious tactic of targeting him on the ball gave away his cowardice under pressure, as he consistently chose to play a teammate into trouble rather than take responsibility in possession. There wasn’t as much moaning as we were used to, but then the Empoli team in general looked thoroughly resigned to their fates.

So I left them to their fates. Over in Funchal, on the island of Madeira, in the stadium of Leeds United’s old UEFA Cup pals Maritimo, a goal by Cristiano Ronaldo and an own goal by Andreas Granqvist put Portugal 2-0 up on Sweden in a friendly match, and Swedish coach Janne Anderson was making things a bit less friendly, taking off Granqvist so that Pontus Jansson, recently dropped brick-header of Leeds, could play; wearing, as he does for Leeds, shirt number 18.

As befitted a team 2-0 up at home, Portugal began the half passing the ball back and forth across midfield, while Jansson and Helander at the heart of the Swedish back four concentrated on keeping a line in formation. The first contrast with Bellusci and co., though, was the conversation; Jansson was talking, and pointing, and generally looked as if he was meant to be where he was.

While Bellusci had faced Mertens, and not looked up for it, the main man in attack for Portugal gave Jansson a challenge. The first time the ball bounced to Ronaldo, Jansson was on him, up his backside for want of a politer term, nipping the ball off his toe, but stopped by the referee’s whistle; he’d decided no advantage was coming Portugal’s way, and gave a free-kick for an earlier foul by Nyman on Cancelo.

This whole game was, in fact, something of a tribute to Ronaldo. Funchal is his home town, and while he was there the airport was renamed in his honour, and a statue unveiled; I’m sure you’ve seen the statue. This was, as Kool & The Gang might put it, his night, alright.

But there was no question of Jansson letting Ronaldo have his party, and when he next got the ball, near the halfway line, Jansson did it again; up his arse, tap on the ball, and away, leaving Ronaldo leaning as if hurt, stretching his ankle as if he’d had a tap there too, or was looking for a visible excuse for being so easily dispossessed. Their next confrontation was for a cross. Jansson was ahead of Ronaldo, but the ball was just over his head; behind him, though, Ronaldo had seen the rushing figure of Johnsson, the goalkeeper, and was crouching to shield himself from any collision. Johnsson hit Helander and then Ronaldo, and punched the ball clear; Jansson tumbled over Helander, while Ronaldo sat on the floor calling for a penalty, putting on that fake, ‘The whole world is against me’ laughing face of his when one wasn’t given.

Straight away Sweden pulled a goal back. Thelin attacked down the left, cut inside, and his shot was parried by Marafona; Nyman took the loose ball in the penalty area, paused for Viktor Claesson to run inside him, and pushed the ball behind Portugal’s defence, where Claesson swept it into the roof of the net.

That was Ronaldo’s cue to leave and take a standing ovation. It was three minutes before the hour mark, when he might have been expected to pack it in, ahead of Real Madrid’s next matches; Sweden’s goal, and this whole new Jansson situation that had limited his touches since half-time, may have encouraged him to take his leave a few minutes early. Quaresma took his place; Jansson, with albeit with only one tackle, filed Ronaldo alongside Ibrahimovic on his list of ‘top players I can tell people I dominated (even if I’m exaggerating)’.

Quaresma went off out wide, either wing, leaving Jansson and Helander looking after Eder. He was put through on goal by a pass from out wide and, as Johnsson spread his arms to block a shot, Jansson darted across and got to the ball first, sending it out to his right-back, business like, unruffled. He also took charge of a long ball over Helander, passing it back to Johnsson then quickly reorganising the back four.

Claesson scored an equaliser, diving to get a toe on a corner scuffed to the near post, flicking the ball past a surprised goalkeeper. Ronaldo, on the sidelines, must have been glad to be out of the action, while furious at seeing his special night spoiled. It sparked Portugal into life again, Quaresma’s cross for Eder nodded backwards over the striker by Jansson, a crucial flick that left Eder heading empty air into the back of the net. Quaresma to Eder was now the main danger, and Jansson and Helander responded by playing closer to him, talking through his and their movements constantly, doubling up whenever the ball swung across the box, and swapping sides so Jansson was first in line to Quaresma’s crosses and Eder’s main marker. When Jansson was pulled out of defence, to deal with Pizzi, he was quickly covered and then straight back into position as the ball went out wide.

A Quaresma corner was dangerous; Jansson rose above everybody to head it forty yards clear. A minute later Quaresma received the ball to the right of the penalty area; Jansson took the ball off his toe as he tried to control it, swished around his own left-back Hult, and was brought down by Quaresma, winning a free-kick.

Quick reorganisation with Jansson at its heart dealt with a counter attack in added time by Portugal, then Claesson set Hult away down the left wing with a deft back-heel. Hult was fast, and soon in the penalty area, where his cross was low, and in the middle, Cancelo killed it — almost. He got a firm instep on the ball, then watched it roll slowly into his own net; 3-2 to Sweden, and Ronaldo was not happy. Happily for us, the TV director had a replay of his reaction to the goal; the ball crossed the line mid gum-chew, and Ronaldo just stared, his jaw slack, his lower lip well and truly pushed out.

The record books will show that, without Jansson, Sweden lost 2-0, and with him, they won 3-0, and upset Ronaldo; in truth Jansson only played a small part in all that, but an important one. Putting him back to back with Bellusci is a stark education; one, sullen and weak, all bombast with nothing to back it; the other, confident and efficient, an organiser in control, of himself and those around him.

Swedish website Fotboll Skanalen pointed out the 3-0 scoreline in Jansson’s favour, and he was happy to lap that up. “Yes, so then I am among the best in Europe, haha,” he said. He’d already dismissed Portugal, the European Champions, as not all that and a bag of chips. “No, but it was a good second half, and then perhaps Portugal relaxed a little. Ronaldo went out and it died a little.”

He didn’t mention anything about a tight hamstring, or how he he might feel if, on his return to Yorkshire after a warm night in Portugal bossing Ronaldo and Quaresma about, he would still be in the pecking order behind Liam Cooper. Whether his non-appearance against Reading was a silent communication of those feelings is a matter for conspiracy theorists right now.

Giuseppe Bellusci was also dropped to the bench for Empoli’s next game, away to Roma, missing from their side for only the fourth time in thirty matches. It didn’t do much good; they lost 2-0, to goals by Dzeko, their seventh consecutive defeat. It was the worst possible result for Empoli fans; it pushed them further towards the relegation places, and probably pushed Bellusci’s self-confidence back towards the stratosphere. Knowing him, all he will have learned from his exile on the bench, was that he would definitely have stopped Dzeko from scoring, if he’d been playing.

What Jansson’s exile will have taught him is another question. Putting the hamstring injury aside, he wasn’t going to play against Reading anyway, meaning Cooper’s missed clearance for Kermorgant’s goal would still have happened, as would his kick to Reece Oxford’s head. Jansson will have seen little to make him forget that he was his country’s talismanic saviour in midweek, that he took the game away from Cristiano Ronaldo, that in the stands it’s his name being sung every game, whether he’s on the pitch or not.

And nor, perhaps, should he. If he does share an egotistical streak with Bellusci, he at least does not share the wide yellowness that was more aura than streak around Giuseppe. On the pitch, for Leeds or Sweden, he’s a leader, an organiser, a fearless and effective defender. It’s up to him, though, to make sure he’s on the pitch.

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From The Square Ball magazine 2016/17 issue 09