Monday, December 17, 2007

Well, here we go on another thrilling cycle of boom-and-bust expectations for the England team. After a few weeks of we-can’t-beat-anyone-probably-not-even-Kazakhstan type despair, we’ve got a new manager and we’re talking about winning the World Cup again. What’s doubly ridiculous about this is that we’re already hearing concerns that whilst Fabio Capello may win us some games (I hear he is quite good at that), we won’t do it very stylishly.

Let’s step back from that statement, to make sure we’ve really taken it in: some people are worried that Fabio Capello will destroy the England team’s propensity for playing attractive football. Apart from being a beggars-can’t-be-choosers situation on a par with a group of crack-addicted tramps wondering which Fortnums Christmas hamper to order, how often have you ever seen England play really attractive football?

We’ve only ever pulled it off intermittently. The 4-1 win over Holland in 1996, remember, was followed by the turgid 0-0 against Spain. The 5-1 against Germany (which, though a marvellous result, was full of comedy defending – Germany simply failed to punish ours) was followed by a scrappy 2-0 against Albania. I suspect that if you ask around, you’ll find that most people who aren’t England fans will not think of England as an exciting team to watch.

The fact is, teams tend to play more attractive football when they actually keep the ball, and regardless of any concerns about too many foreigners in the Premiership or players being paid too much, keeping possession has been the England team’s problem for as long as I’ve been watching them. The good performances usually come when we sort that out.

This is why I think Capello is the ideal manager for England right now, because I think he will put an emphasis on possession. I can’t see him going for full-on catenaccio, because England will never make a system like that work, but I think he will want to see tight possession football, and that’s more likely to win games for England than trying to play a sparkling, free-flowing game. Yes, the man was sacked from Real Madrid for winning too defensively. But that’s Real Madrid, who don’t buy defenders because they’re boring. And, lest we forget, Capello’s England haven’t even started playing yet, never mind winning ugly in the predicted fashion.

Apart from anything else, it’s not as if there are other potential managers who could get England playing attractive football – least of all the English candidates, who have had to master the conservative style necessary to hold your own in the Premiership mid-table these days. Harry Redknapp might have managed it, but only by bringing in a bunch of prodigiously talented Africans and Eastern Europeans who suddenly discover hitherto unsuspected English grandparents.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Worst. England manager. Ever.

That’s not just my opinion – the statistics back it up. He has the worst record of anybody to have done the job. He’s dropped 13 points in 16 months’ worth of qualifiers, compared with Eriksson’s 11 dropped in five years. For about two days I’ve had ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ by Joni Mitchell stuck in my head, and it’s suddenly become spookily relevant. I don’t want to say I told you so, but… actually, I do. Many England fans took qualification for granted and failed to see just how much Sven was delivering. This is the all-English alternative. Ah, the pride.

It’s hard not to feel that Sven would’ve got the necessary result against Croatia, given that he did so in the final match of every qualifying campaign and group stage he oversaw. In fact, Eriksson wouldn’t have needed the astonishing lifeline McClaren got. Many England fans banged on about Sven’s ‘passionless’ nature on the sidelines: at least he looked like he was thinking about the game. Against Croatia we saw McClaren stood with his brolly looking for all the world like a man waiting for a bus.

To be fair, Sven’s final matches as manager were deeply unimpressive: the World Cup was a disappointment in terms of performance, although arguably not in terms of achievement. The quarter-finals are about as well as we usually do in these things, unless we’re on home soil. But McClaren has totally failed to eradicate that hangover, offering instead empty gestures and meaningless soundbites. Of course, we’ll have the debate about just how good the team actually is, and we should examine the problems behind the team, but Eriksson did so much more with the same group of players and, Beckham aside, they should be hitting their peak rather than heading into decline.

Though I hate McClaren, I wasn’t one of those who wanted England to lose just to prove myself right. However, if I may take a leaf out of the big ginger fuckwit’s book for a moment and Take The Positives, this may well not be a bad thing. I’d rather we lost out on getting to a Euros, sacked the coach now, and started sorting things out, than stumbled over the line, had a crappy tournament (don’t forget, the group stages are usually harder in the Euros than in the World Cup), ‘kept faith’ with a rubbish manager and got found out in World Cup qualifying. We need a better coach, the ‘golden generation’ need a wake-up call and that’s what we’re hopefully going to get.

We will hear more about the need for ‘pride and passion’. I for one am sick of all this God-for-Harry bollocks that constantly surrounds any debate about the underachievement of the England team. It’s not pride or passion we need, it’s basic competence (although admittedly a bit of hard work wouldn’t go amiss). That’s what delivered our best performances of McClaren’s reign, the wins over Israel and Russia that convinced many people, myself included, that the coach had screwed the wheels back onto a faltering campaign (more by accident than design, given that the best performers were those covering for injuries). We passed and kept the ball well, something which we suddenly seemed incapable of in the final couple of matches. Other teams – Croatia, for one – seem to find this the easiest thing in the world.

That’s where the emphasis should be, and I think we’re more likely to get it from a non-English coach. Obviously, as a Villa fan, I have a vested interest in them not picking Martin O’Neill, who would nevertheless do a great job, I think – and surely the FA won’t want him unless he’s sharpened up those all-important PowerPoint skills. Given that O’Neill apparently doesn’t want the job now, and neither do any of the other prospective candidates, Fabio Capello is already looking a great bet. He immediately declared his keen interest, which proves once and for all that he is indeed mental. However, he’s available, he’s had a lot of success, he favours a creative but cautious approach and he wasn’t afraid to drop superstars when he came in at Real Madrid. He sounds perfect.

Instead of looking for a yes-man, the FA might consider the benefits of his Mourinho-style outbursts in distracting media attention from whatever embarrassing crap they happen to be getting up to that week. Because they will, because the FA never bloody changes. It’s probably too much to hope they’ve learned enough humility to not piss off all the decent candidates this time.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

I must admit to being a little suspicious of all these stories about strife at Chelsea, just because it’s surely what everyone who isn’t a Chelsea fan wants to hear. No more money! Mourinho’s off! Terry’s going with him! Lampard’s agent has found an obscure clause that lets him off his contract for £8 million! Peter Kenyon’s restaurant expense account has been frozen! Etc.

On the other hand, I feel a little vindicated: I’ve been saying for a while that Abramovitch wasn’t going to fund unlimited big-money signings, but given that Abramovitch is unimaginably wealthy, it’s hard to tell. That’s the whole ‘unimaginable’ part of it, you see. My thinking, though, has always been that he’s a businessman and however much cash he ploughs into Chelsea, he does want to get at least some of it back. This judgement was partly based on the fact that I’ve heard talk of a ‘five-year plan’ at Chelsea (although not the kind that Stalin was so fond of), whereby Chelsea would be generating enough money to no longer require the massive cash injections Abramovitch has been administering with his massive cash syringe.

It now seems likely that the £30 million for Shevchenko was the last hurrah of Chelsea’s silly-money era (as it will no doubt be described in the history books), designed to give Abramovitch’s little mate the accolade of world’s most expensive footballer (which looks more like a double-edged sword all the time, but Roman probably meant well). Chelsea have gone from signing the biggest transfer cheques world football has ever seen to griping about whether to offer Bolton more than £2 million for Tal Ben Haim. Vive la difference. It’s hardly surprising if Mourinho is indeed irritated with Abramovitch – but then, as Mourinho was reportedly keen to sign Milan Baros, Abramovitch is also entitled to think that Mourinho has gone absolutely fucking mad.

Villa fans have been dreaming about getting shot of Baros for about a year, and we’ve just been hoping that we could get enough cash for it to not be too embarrassing (annoyingly he reached his 50th appearance for the club against Manchester United last month, thereby obliging Villa to pay another instalment to Liverpool and raising the overall fee to £7 million… sob). Indeed, Villa have taken a leaf out of Chelsea’s book on this transfer: when the tedious Ashley Cole saga reached an impasse, it became a swap deal, enabling both clubs to claim victory. Likewise, if John Carew performs reasonably well for Villa – and he’s made a great start, adding another dimension to the attack by being able to run towards goal and hit the target – it’ll look like we robbed Lyon blind by fobbing off Baros on them, regardless of how much money we wasted on signing Baros in the first place. Thanks for the tip, Kenyon.

Still, if Mourinho does depart as has been widely predicted, I will miss him. He seems to have annoyed more and more people as time goes on, but these people seem to be labouring under the misapprehension that football management is a dignified profession. He does his job well and he’s provided me with a lot of amusement: no complaints. As for Chelsea themselves… well, I don’t want them to go on dominating the Premiership forever, but they always had one thing in their favour as far as I’m concerned: they aren’t a member of G14. See the previous column for why this is a good thing.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

This week the G14 – the cabal of European super-clubs who are diligently attempting to ruin football – could be heard bleating at the appointment of Michel Platini as UEFA president. Yes, he’s mates with Sepp Blatter and that obviously counts against him, but the G14 mainly hates his plan to modify the Champions League (remember: it’s not a league and half the teams in it aren’t champions). Platini wants to reduce the top allocation of Champions League places – the one enjoyed by Italy, Spain and England – from four to three. Given that pretty much everybody agrees that Champions League money has totally distorted the Premiership to the point where only four clubs can conceivably win it, the only people who think this is a bad idea are those involved with those four clubs.

Alex Ferguson bizarrely said he couldn’t see how this would work: either the tournament would have to be made smaller or other countries would get two places. Either he’d been at the red wine when he said this, or he couldn’t be arsed to give it more than two seconds’ thought, because surely it’s obvious that Platini’s thinking is that some clubs from smaller countries can be spared the qualifying round and go straight into the lucrative group phase. This would not damage the tournament at all: you could argue that there would be less quality teams in the group phase under this system, but given that qualifiers FC Copenhagen managed to beat Man Utd this season, they are clearly capable of holding their own.

The fact that the big clubs are complaining that they depend upon Champions League revenue is very telling. They can predict with reasonable confidence that they’ll make it every year and, generally, they do. That shouldn’t be what the European Cup is about. It should be a big achievement just to make it at all. And the UEFA Cup should be a desirable consolation prize, whereas now it’s frankly a load of bollocks: you slog all season to make it to fifth in the table and you’re generally rewarded with a series of defiantly unglamorous trips to Eastern Europe to face hard-tackling teams on churned-up pitches. It’s like playing lower league sides in the FA Cup, only you have to travel further and you’re more likely to get beaten. Forcing some of the big boys to slum it in the UEFA Cup would certainly improve it, perhaps even to the point where someone other than Channel Five bids for the rights to show it.

Being a bit of a tedious sentimentalist when it comes to football, I’d like to have some more underdogs in the Champions League. But the G14 has no interest in underdogs, because their motto is ‘Let’s make sure we win everything there is for ever and ever’. Probably. Outgoing president Lennart Johansson has warned against standing up to the G14, fearing a breakaway, but we can’t let them pull that threat every time something happens which they don’t like. Theirs isn’t the only interest that needs to be catered to. Maybe the underdogs should form their own pan-European cabal. And maybe Villa could form a cabal of formerly great teams with hazy memories of the good old days, along with Nottingham Forest, Ajax and Internazionale.