Thursday, January 27, 2011

Gray Matter

Good riddance to Andy Gray and Richard Keys, who have both now gone from Sky after being exposed as not only sexist, but in their plain contempt for Sian Massey on the grounds that she is a woman, arguably also misogynist. Even if you are mad enough to think this is politically correct nonsense, that holding these views shouldn’t bar them from presenting televised sport as long as they don’t express them on-air, that this is the ‘thought police’ at work or some other bullshit, there are other things this affair has highlighted.

Gray and Keys flatly stated that Massey shouldn’t be doing the job because women don’t understand the offside rule. This is a pub-bloke cliché which the two men have clearly never bothered to examine. It’s not that women don’t understand the offside rule, it’s that people who don’t like football (often) don’t understand the offside rule, because they understandably don’t care enough to try. That huge category of ‘people who don’t like football’ contains more women than men, although by no means overwhelmingly so.

The offside rule is not, in fact, on a par with Fermat’s Last Theorem. Anybody who has watched a bit of football can understand what it’s for and how it works. It seems likely that as Sian Massey progressed through the ten levels of officialdom in the English game, someone thought to check that she’d grasped it. It’s a difficult rule to apply: that’s why officials get offside decisions wrong every week. But the difficulty is because you basically have to be looking in two places (the player making the pass and the player receiving it) at once, not because there are any subtle distinctions (unlike fouls, for example, where the referee often has to judge the player’s intent).

To believe offside is in any way complicated involves (a) living in a shockingly limited world, where things that are genuinely complicated do not exist and (b) being too stupid to conceive of genuinely complicated things. Keys and Gray’s comments indicate two men who have spent too long in the football-media bubble where nothing matters except football, apart from football and possibly also football (but not women’s football). You could argue that’s not a flaw considering it’s their job, although I’d disagree. But the comments also indicate two men who are fairly stupid.

Perhaps this is about as surprising as the revelation that a middle-aged former footballer and a middle-aged football presenter have sexist attitudes, but it’s still depressing. Yes, it’s a running joke that professional footballers aren’t known for their intelligence – in Britain at least – and the sharpest ones tend to favour management, so television has to pick from what’s left. And it’s a running joke among football fans that certain pundits lack insight and talk in clichés – it’s become part of the entertainment, in fact. But when it stops being funny, it suddenly seems embarrassing. These are the people who explain the game to us. Can’t we find someone smarter to do it?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Odd Squad

It’s not surprising that football managers haven’t been very receptive to the Premier League’s new squad rules, and have been moaning about them even though they’re exactly the same as the ones the Champions League brought in a while back. Football managers are liable to hate anything which restricts them in any way. Arsene Wenger has been sounding off about them again, claiming that by trying to improve English players they will reduce overall quality in the Premier League.

Yet this doesn’t actually stand up. The ‘homegrown’ aspect of the new rule has attracted most of the attention, especially after England’s poor showing at the World Cup – but as stipulations go, it’s actually quite mild. The players don’t have to be English and they don’t even have to have played in England that long or that young. More than anything, this part of the new rules is aimed at encouraging England’s academies rather than English players per se: it rewards clubs who don’t look for the easy option of buying in proven talent from less wealthy leagues. But there’s still loads of room for managers to buy whatever players they like.

I’d argue that the other aspect of the rules – limiting senior squads – is, in fact, aimed at improving overall quality. I’d like Wenger to explain to me how it helps the quality of any league for it to be possible for a few clubs to hoover up all the best players. Surely the overall quality is best served if the best players are out there playing every Saturday, rather than having a significant percentage of them sitting in the stands. As an Aston Villa fan, it’s galling to see Manchester City buying the players we build our team around and making them into squad players, just because they can afford to do so. I fail to see why any club needs a senior squad of more than 25 players: currently a lot of players are hanging around big clubs waiting for a chance that’ll never come, and surely it’s better for their careers that they’ll now be told whether they figure in the manager’s plans or not.

Wenger bizarrely claimed that Stephen Ireland’s demand for a £2 million payoff on his City contract was somehow caused by the new rules. It’s not, it’s caused by Villa’s unwillingness to sell James Milner. Villa will only accept a deal if a replacement is included. Ireland knows this, and he knows that City have the cash (it’s ten weeks’ salary for Yaya Toure – I think they can spare it). It’s true that we might see players demanding payoffs to leave clubs where they are surplus to requirements, with clubs acquiescing just to avoid paying their huge wages. However, there is a way around this: don’t pay them so much money in the first place.

The idea that this will be to the league’s detriment is somewhat undermined when you realise that most teams meet the requirements as it is. Manchester City are overstaffed but given their transfer activity, some players were bound to realise they weren’t going to get a game and leave regardless of the new rules. Chelsea are short of homegrown talent – as, surprisingly, are Wigan. But that’s about it. Which to me suggests the rules might actually not go far enough.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Don't Call It A Comeback

I know a lot of facts about the World Cup. This because when I was eleven I started collecting the Orbis World Cup ’90 partwork/sticker album hybrid which probably none of you collected. (Certainly nobody at my school collected it – they were all doing Panini – so I had nobody to do swapsies with.) There were about 500 pages in this thing and I read them all. Tragically I think it was destroyed in a loft flood at my parents’, a catastrophe which also nearly took out 200 Transformers comics, but I can still remember loads of it. If you absorb something at that age, it sticks – so that’s why I have in my memory the result of every World Cup final, and the format of every World Cup, and the fact that Indonesia participated in 1938 when they were still called the Dutch East Indies.

At that time I had a vague idea of who the good teams were in international football, and so when I learned the identities of the six teams who had won the World Cup (France have since made it seven), Uruguay were quite clearly the odd man out. They’d gone the longest without a win and, at Italia ’90, were the only ones who hadn’t been seeded. (Guess who got the sixth place instead. Go on. Ah, you’ll never guess – it was Belgium.) At the time Uruguay had become known as a thuggish bunch, like Argentina but without the dazzling flair players who’d enabled their larger neighbours to equal their haul of World Cups. They were like a shambling pisshead in the corner of the pub who claims to have been a world-renowned concert pianist back in the day. Yeah, whatever, Granddad.

This is the year that the shambling pisshead wandered over to the piano and, to everyone’s surprise, knocked out a bloody good tune. Uruguay have had a slightly kind draw, but I can’t help feeling delighted that they’ve got to the semi-finals. They’re still playing quite physically, but their matches haven’t been dominated by niggly fouls as they have been in the past. Instead they’ve set about teams with confidence, put them under pressure and taken their chances well. Although they’re not as flashy as an Argentina side over-praised during this tournament, Uruguay have been at least as effective. (I did say from their first match that Argentina were prone to letting teams have spells of pressure and that they’d be found out by the first good team they played, and not to blow my own trumpet, but LOOK AT ME, I WAS RIGHT.)

Most people seem bitter that Ghana didn’t make the semis (those who’ve got terribly angry about the Suarez handball might like to note that Jack Charlton did the exact same thing against Portugal back in 1966, when it was considered a defender’s right to prevent a goal by giving away a penalty – it wasn’t even a yellow card offence). And yes, it would’ve been exciting to have an African team get there for the first time. But as a sucker for World Cup history, I find it at least as exciting to have Uruguay in the mix at this late stage – possibly more so, because I think it makes the semi-final itself a bit more unpredictable.

Jacob Steinberg rightly pointed out, in response to a comment I made on the Guardian’s daily liveblog, that there’s an unwritten rule that minor and middle-ranking teams can’t get to the World Cup final (the last team to do so was probably Czechoslovakia in 1962). Footballing superpowers in the doldrums sometimes make it – Germany in 2002 is the prime example – but when the likes of Poland, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Sweden, Turkey and South Korea get there, you think ‘Good work, but that’s as far as you go.’ This leads to predictable semi-finals – of the teams I just mentioned, only Croatia have really given their opponents a scare.

Teams often talk of being among ‘the best four teams in the world’ when they make the semi-finals, but this is patently untrue. It’s a knock-out competition, and although you’re entitled to call yourself the best if you win it because winning it is bastard hard, it’s perfectly possible to get a soft draw and a fairly easy route to the semis. I don’t think it makes you much more likely to win the thing than you were at the start. The only way I can see an African team winning the World Cup is by building a reputation as a world-class team before the tournament (as Holland did in 1974, having been utter no-hopers at previous World Cups).

Uruguay’s glorious history is a long, long way in the past, but I think those two stars on the shirt still count for something, even though most of the men who earned them are dead. Psychology counts for a lot in sport, especially when the matches get as big as this, and I’d give Uruguay a chance of making this World Cup final that I wouldn’t have given any other country outside FIFA’s current ten top-ranked teams. That’s what makes this the tastiest semi-final line-up since 1990, for my money – I really think any of the four could make it (Portugal were never going to get there in 2006, in my opinion) and any of them would be an exciting winner: Spain and Holland because they’re the best teams never to have won it, Germany because their young team has been such a revelation, Uruguay because they’d be the most out-of-the-blue winner since 1954. A World Cup which has largely been judged non-vintage could well pull off a last-minute coup.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Big in Japan

The Asian teams are among those having a good World Cup, which has enabled British pundits to patronise them once again. Last night at half-time in the Denmark-Japan game, Alan Shearer’s analysis of Japan’s fine, fluid, attacking performance stated that ‘this is the only way they know how to play’. This is further evidence that Shearer doesn’t bother to do any research before his punditry appearances on the BBC, because I’d previously seen a grand total of 55 minutes of Japan at these finals and that alone told me Shearer’s analysis was manifestly untrue.

Japan have played a very smart group stage indeed. Having beaten Cameroon in their first match, they clearly realised that a win over Holland was neither likely nor strictly necessary. As Denmark had gone down 2-0 to Holland, the crucial thing for Japan was to avoid losing to the Dutch more heavily than that: a three- or four-goal defeat would have massacred their goal difference. So they set up for a draw and came away with a 1-0 defeat.

When Denmark only beat Cameroon by a single goal, it was clear Japan’s strategy had paid off: with a one-goal advantage, a draw with Denmark in the last game would put them through. All the pressure was on Denmark and they cracked. Accordingly, Alan, it was a quite different approach we saw from Japan – higher-tempo, hassling and getting men forward – and it worked very well. This seemed to cause some surprise: surely you’d expect Denmark to do better? We have after all heard of more of their players, so it stands to reason.

In a globalised football world pundits seem to have become lazier, blithely assuming the good players will come to their attention. Yet this World Cup seems intent on springing surprises. People often complain that the World Cup has lost some of its allure because (a) the Premier League is full of foreign stars and (b) the ones who haven’t come to England can be seen in the Champions League or the other big European leagues, which are all televised here. However, I think this tournament will make one or two names currently unknown to UK audiences very famous.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Rip It Up And Start Again

I’ve been posting here less because I’ve been doing World Cup stuff for MSN, but I had to get this off my chest so here it is.

There’s precious little balance when it comes to discussion of the England football team. When I scribble these blog posts, I do try to bring some balance – I don’t believe it’s our birthright to win the World Cup, neither do I believe we are inherently rubbish. But after the game against Algeria, even I am inclined to advocate a clear-out of the team.

The term ‘golden generation’ has always been used ambivalently – in fact, I can’t recall ever having heard it used to earnestly describe Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard, Ferdinand, Rooney et al. More often, it’s been used ironically or in the context of them having failed to live up to their potential. Yet individually these players have all shown high quality, which accounts for successive England coaches’ persistence in trying to create a high-quality team out of them.

This has failed. Rooney aside, the players in question are almost thirty or over thirty. I don’t see the point in giving most of them another chance to come good. They’ve had several and when it’s come to the big tournaments they’ve under-performed. They also seem to be getting worse. I’m no longer interested in the reasons why this happens. Nobody seems able to fix it, so the reasons are academic. I just want them gone.

Even if you do want to look for reasons, I’m coming to the conclusion that the problems can’t be fixed if certain players stay in the team. Admittedly, this highly scientific analysis is based on the fact that I’ve decided I don’t like them despite never having met them. But it’s about attitude on the pitch. It’s notable that Beckham has left a hole in the squad. A hyped-up multimillionaire he may be, but he always played like an honest trier who loved turning out for England. By contrast, the likes of Gerrard, Lampard, Terry and Ashley Cole all seem to have peculiar ego problems – and I think it goes deeper than the often-identified complacency of cosseted players.

Many pundits adore Gerrard and believe that if England could harness his strengths we’d be awesome, but perhaps he thrives at Liverpool because there’s no question that he will always be the fans’ hero there. He’s become symbolic of the entire club, and modest as he is in interviews, the way he plays suggests a need for matches to be all about him. I’d suggest that this is why he’s never the same player with England (and why he might not succeed at another club).

I’m not going to psychoanalyse the lot of them, but if the personalities are the problem it would explain why nothing has really changed. You can change the system but you can’t change personalities. So I’m advocating that we just get rid. I don’t buy this idea that the next generation isn’t good enough – I think we need to give them a chance. Other teams have done better than England with more limited resources in recent years, so it doesn’t automatically follow that dumping our ‘best’ players will make us worse. (The next generation might be better than you think, anyway – England recently beat Spain in the final of the Under-17 European Championship.)

Granted, we might beat Slovenia comfortably on Wednesday and this will all look less important, but at this point nothing less than a semi-final will convince me that these players deserve another chance. I’d keep Rooney, due to his talent and the fact that I generally like his attitude (which made it all the more disappointing to see him grumping at fans who had spent thousands of pounds to travel across the globe to watch that rubbish on Friday night). But the other big names, mostly, have had their time. Watching them clod about the pitch yet again, inexplicably misplacing simple passes, failing to achieve any penetration into the box, I just wanted them gone. The fact that we so often seemed outnumbered on the pitch gave me a strong suspicion that England just weren’t working as hard as the opposition, which isn’t good enough.

Rip it up and start again. Let’s see if we can assemble a whole team of good honest triers. Ideally ones who can focus for the whole match and pass the ball competently, but right now I’m not picky.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Natural Selection

I think the England World Cup squad may yet throw up a few surprises, mainly because people are generally talking about it in terms of a first-choice XI we already more or less know, and then eleven understudies. (And a third-choice goalkeeper of course. As an aside, could people please stop all this DO WE RLY NEED 3 KEEPERS? gibberish that rears its head at every tournament? Of course you need three keepers – it’s unlikely that you’ll use them all but if you only take two and one gets crocked or suspended, the team will spend the next match shitting themselves at the possibility of the second-choice keeper going the same way. Do you want to watch England play an hour of a World Cup semi-final with John Terry in nets? Do you want to see it go to penalties? All right, if you don’t support England it might be funny, but the point remains that you’d have to be a gibbering idiot to take only two keepers to a tournament.)

Now, where was I? Yes – the way we talk about the squad suggests a need to have one player to back up every position. I don’t believe this is necessary. Eriksson’s biggest mistake in picking his 2006 squad wasn’t selecting Walcott (although it seems odd now that he nominally went as a striker, rather than a midfielder), but taking Jermaine Jenas. Presumably he was included as cover for Lampard but it struck me at the time that you don’t need cover for Lampard, because his absence would enable you to move Gerrard into his preferred position. If Gerrard and Lampard were both injured, Joe Cole could play there. (Downing was in the squad and could have covered the left wing.) By dumping a midfielder, Eriksson could have taken the five strikers he clearly needed.

I think what you want are a few players in the squad who can cover a few positions in case of injury, and that leaves some spaces free for players who can offer different options. This was Eriksson’s other biggest problem – the lack of a plan B. As Graham Taylor said during the friendly with Japan on Sunday, at this level you need flexibility. In that match Fabio Capello experimented with a 4-3-3 with two cut-inside wingers on either side of Rooney, which is a good idea what with him being amazing playing for Man Utd in that position and what with England having no shortage of wingers at the moment.

In that situation it’d be good to have both Joe Cole and Adam Johnson available – especially because if we played one on each wing we could have Cole and Johnson on one flank and Johnson and Cole down the other, which would be brilliant. But there isn’t room in the squad for both of them and Gerrard, Lampard, Barry, Carrick/Huddlestone, Milner AND two right wingers, is there?

I think there is. We’ve only got one recognised right-back in the squad. Jamie Carragher is officially covering for him, but there’s also Milner, who has played there for Villa several times. With that in mind, Carragher can provide cover at centre-back too – so how many centre-backs do we need? Capello might decide that Ferdinand’s fitness is so precarious that he wants plenty of cover there, but if he could make do with four centre-backs (including Carragher) that would free up space in midfield – enough to accommodate an extra winger.

This of course ignores what should be Capello’s top priority: the narrative. For a successful World Cup we need players with narrative potential, and Cole (J) and Johnson (A) happen to have the best narratives in the squad: the potential comeback (even better, Cole seems to have played his last game for his club) and the rise from nowhere. Who cares about positions and systems? You have to take both of them. Chuck out Carrick if need be, his narrative’s rubbish.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Friendly Fire

I love the willingness of football pundits, columnists and fans to pick apart the minutiae of any football match. The fact that Italian television cheaply fills its airtime with hours of football discussion fills me with admiration. So it’s with great affection that I remark how hilarious it is that anybody is trying to find anything of significance in England’s game with Mexico the other night.

Yes, I watched along with millions of others in the deluded belief that I might come away better informed about how England would play and what their chances were. We were kidding ourselves. This was a pre-World Cup friendly. They are ostensibly rehearsals for the tournament, but when have you ever seen a team carry forward the form they’ve shown in friendlies to the competition?

England’s record in this area suggests we should actually hope for awful results, with the classic being the defeat to Uruguay and the draw with Tunisia before the 1990 tournament. Similarly the 1-1 with South Korea in 2002 was actually an indication that the Koreans were better than we thought. You can go right back to 1982, when a fine England side drew with Iceland before the finals. An honourable mention for a pre-Euro ’96 game so crap it didn’t even count as a full international – England 1, Hong Kong XI 0. I’d like to know what odds you could’ve got on England beating Holland 4-1 after that game.

Meanwhile England’s final match before the last World Cup, with Jamaica lined up to provide an inkling of what the group game against Trinidad and Tobago might bring, saw a 6-0 thrashing which bore no relation to the agonising 2-0 grind a couple of weeks later. I’m glad Fabio Capello hasn’t fallen into the trap of arranging meetings with weak opponents against whom England can flatter to deceive, with both matches being against teams who are actually going to the tournament and have just as much invested in playing well. (Diego Maradona, by contrast, boasted of the quality in his Argentina side after a 5-0 win against... Canada. I’m not ruling out a glory run for Argentina, but let’s see how good they are in a real game.)

At least we’re not alone in this. Portugal drew 0-0 with Cape Verde. Australia only managed to beat New Zealand with a goal four minutes into injury time. Their press laid into them afterwards with statements beginning ‘If they’re going to play like this in the tournament...’ But they almost certainly won’t. It’s just empty chatter to fill the time until the tournament begins. Much like this post.