After a hectic weekend of action both home and abroad, here's what I'm thinking about on this Monday:
1. The rise and rise of Gareth Bale -- The last couple of weeks have seen the buzz on Tottenham's Gareth Bale reach new heights, in no small part thanks to superb back-to-back performances in the Champions League in which he single-handedly eviscerated Inter's back line. However, Bale has actually been sensational all season, picking up where he left off last season and reveling in the attacking freedom he's been afforded at left midfield by manager Harry Redknapp. There's still some debate about whether he might be best stationed at left back long-term, but either way he's fast developing into one of the finest players in the Premiership.
That said, with his profile significantly raised, Tottenham can rightfully expect to brace itself for some bids from the game's biggest clubs come next summer. If reports out of Spain are to be believed, Barcelona and Real Madrid are contemplating launching $80 million bids for him. If they do, Spurs have to seriously consider it. While Bale is a fantastic player, he'd be massively overpriced in that transfer bracket range. With that type of money, Spurs could purchase a ready-made replacement such as Lille's Eden Hazard for $32 million and spend the rest on a true (and needed) world-class striker.
Bale himself is likely content to stay at White Hart Lane -- he's a refreshingly modest, down-to-earth presence in an era of pampered divas, who's promised to stay at Spurs for the length of his contract. All of which is likely to leave Spurs with a very difficult decision to make next summer.
2. MLS playoffs -- The conference final matchups are set, and if anyone doubted the effect of MLS' emphasis on parity, just look at the two matchups. Colorado vs. San Jose and Los Angeles vs. Dallas? It's safe to say no one predicted that as a final foursome before the start of the season.
The Red Bulls' surprising ouster by San Jose leaves the Galaxy as clear favorites. With David Beckham finding the range with his set deliveries, and Edson Buddle and Landon Donovan delivering the firepower, it's hard to bet against Bruce Arena's men landing the MLS Cup. One low-key tweak by Arena in the playoffs -- A.J. DeLaGarza's permanent move to the starting lineup at center back instead of Gregg Berhalter -- has also been key as Los Angeles' back line is far less vulnerable to pace than it used to be.
As for the aesthetic peculiarity of two Western Conference teams (San Jose, Colorado) playing for the Eastern Conference final, it's just another indication the league should do away with the conference playoff setup. Instead, the top-eight teams should be seeded to face each other under one umbrella as opposed to pointlessly labeling them East and West.
3. The sporting director/GM model -- Last week's announcement by new owner John Henry that former Spurs director of football Damien Comolli would be hired as Liverpool's new director of football strategy was a bold and refreshing move. Not necessarily in respect to Comolli himself, but the implementation of a player personnel model that is employed by many of Europe's top clubs and, of course, in major U.S. sports.
Such a business model is largely mistrusted and frowned upon by English clubs, most of whom point to Comolli's time at Spurs as an example of why it does not work. The reality is that in the modern game, a sporting director/GM is a logical move. Given that most club managers rarely end up having the success or longevity of an Alex Ferguson, it makes far more sense for clubs to employ a consistent philosophy in their approach and evaluation of transfer targets -- thereby limiting the downside of major squad overhaul every time a new manager takes the reins. Of course, the main issue with the GM model is that problems can occur when the sporting director and manager do not see eye-to-eye on transfer targets, or when the players signed by that GM do not match the playing style favored by the manager.
As for Comolli, he left Spurs under a cloud of conflict and question marks over his purchases, most of whom have since proved to be a far greater success (including Dimitar Berbatov, Luka Modric, Gareth Bale and Heurelho Gomes) than he was given credit for at the time. While his skill as a talent evaluator remains highly regarded in Europe, Comolli's downfall at Spurs came about largely because he had carte blanche over all transfers and constructed an unbalanced squad. To succeed at Liverpool, he'll need to have a more synergistic relationship with the manager than he did at Spurs and match his player acquisitions to the team's needs. But there's no question NESV should be applauded for making such a progressive appointment.
4. Liverpool shows signs of a pulse -- A few weeks ago, Roy Hodgson's tenure at Liverpool looked to be an utter disaster, and one wondered when there would be a merciful severance for both club and coach alike. Numerous public relations gaffes in his news conferences didn't exactly help Hodgson's cause either. However, with three Premiership wins in a row, including Sunday's 2-0 upset of Chelsea, the club's fortunes seem to be changing -- and not least because Hodgson appears ever so slowly to be revising his thought process.
Despite being criticized for dour, overly negative defensive tactics in Liverpool's horrendous start, Hodgson often stubbornly insisted that he would stick to the tactics that had worked in his 35 years of management. Except that he hasn't -- well, not entirely anyway. During the three-game league winning streak, Liverpool has pressed the opposition when it doesn't have the ball. It's a marked change from the first eight games, when the team dropped off and essentially let the opposition work its approach play unimpeded. Hodgson's tactics are still flawed -- Liverpool continues to drop far too deep defensively, is slow to support going forward and looks bereft of creative offensive play except for flashes of individual brilliance from Fernando Torres or Steven Gerrard -- but at least there's been improvement.
Philosophically, Hodgson still seems far too content to send out a team that aims to soak up the pressure and rely on the counter. It's an approach that will work against bigger teams such as Chelsea that set out to play, but against the Premiership's lesser lights, when there's a need to dictate tempo, Liverpool could still struggle. Hodgson's long-term prospects at Anfield remain in question -- after all, his style of soccer and general reluctance to develop youth doesn't exactly fit the mold of player that Comolli typically targets as a disciple of Arsenal's Arsene Wenger -- but with the team finally moving in the right direction, it's no longer a foregone conclusion that he won't be around.