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.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Less Than Perfect

I read an interview with Richard Scudamore on Saturday. Don’t ask me why, I knew it was only going to annoy me. What did he say? Oh, the usual crap. Regulation is evil. Game 39 was a tip-top idea and it’s the fans’ silly fault it died. People who say the top four is too static have short memories, because Everton finished fourth five years ago. No Richard, we do remember that: we just think it’s not really enough to disprove the point.

One comment stood out though, which – considering this is an interview with Richard Scudamore – is a testament to just what an amazing piece of bullshit it is: ‘There is a huge demand in this game to get your chequebook out, because people actually realise there is an almost perfect correlation between the spend and the league table position. Almost perfect.’

This manages the remarkable twin feat of being half factually wrong, and half factually right yet morally wrong. The correlation is ‘almost’ perfect in the way that Newcastle United ‘almost’ qualified for Europe in 2008/9, but in fact got relegated. Scudamore’s use of the word ‘almost’ is, in his own terms, ‘almost perfect’. Yet whilst the idea that there is strong consistency in the correlation between spend and league table position is clearly untrue, a correlation does exist – and it’s not a good thing.

Scudamore believes anything is a good thing if it encourages more money to flood into Premier League football in any way, regardless of where it comes from or goes, and so in his mind a demonstrable link between investment and success is indeed a good thing. But the flaw in this is so glaring I feel I’m insulting your intelligence by pointing it out: if the correlation is as strong as he says it is, why bother playing the matches? You could just look at the clubs’ balance sheets. The main reason to play the matches seems to be to make all that money back, not to find out who wins.

Despite contriving to lose 1-0 at home to Blackburn yesterday, Villa have finished sixth in the Premier League again, just like we did the last two seasons. We’ve been aided by Hicks and Gillett putting the LOL in Liverpool, but Tottenham and Manchester City have been more of a threat than previously, so it’s been slightly harder to finish sixth this time. We’ve achieved that because money has gone into the team. Despite Barry’s departure, it’s a better squad with a more solid defence and more dimensions to its play. So we’ve spent money to stand still. We’ve spent more money on the same thing. And does that mean it’s worth more? When do we get that money back, exactly?

Scudamore seems to live in a world where the people who put the money in don’t expect to get it back, or if they don’t it’s not his problem. This is, after all, the man who says Manchester United is ‘absolutely one of the best-run clubs in the world’ and finds it ‘quite hard to get animated’ that the club is in debt to hedge funds charging insane interest rates. Let’s see how many clubs go to the wall before he changes his mind, or before the Premier League changes its staff.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Humble Pie

Thankfully results have gone the right way and I can write the post I wanted to write rather than having to think of something else. Two-and-a-half years ago I wrote a post slating Steve McClaren for being the worst England manager ever. I was so bitter at the whole England farrago that I initially wanted to see him fail at middle-ranking Dutch club FC Twente, and oh yes I laughed like everyone else at his cod-Dutch akshent in that early interview. But it’s actually been far more satisfying to watch him succeed.

I have huge respect for what McClaren has done. I’d dismissed him as a managerial lightweight – an impression which he didn’t entirely dispel with his apparent obsession with PR. I still think he was the wrong appointment for England and that his tenure was pretty dismal, but I’m happy to say that I underestimated him. It would have been very easy for him to lurk around, wait for a job to come up at the next Premier League club to get into relegation trouble, and try to rebuild his reputation from there. Instead, he did what very few English managers dare do: he left our nice, comfy, big-man-up-front, honest-physical-game, the-lads-gave-110% football culture and took the plunge into another one.

I’ve often heard it said that the rest of the world sees most English coaches as laughably behind the times. Foreign players have spoken of their amazement at how basic their approach is to training, tactics etc. We moan about English managers not getting given top jobs in their own country: certainly, part of the problem is that the big clubs want managers with a track record, and there aren’t any English managers with a track record any more because they never get jobs at big clubs and so it’s become self-perpetuating. But maybe it’s also because English coaches just aren’t good enough?

In going to Twente, McClaren sought to solve both these problems: he’s expanded his horizons beyond the English game (and understandably gone off the radar of the English press) and has started building an impressive track record. The Dutch league may not be as strong as its 1970s glory days, but in terms of the relative strength of its teams it’s not that different to the Premier League. Holland’s small population means that a lot of clubs based in provincial towns have nowhere near the supporter base necessary to bankroll a serious title challenge. These clubs’ best young players are routinely hoovered up by the Big Three – Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord. Until this season, those three between them had won all but two Dutch championships since 1965 – the year Twente were formed from two other clubs. One of those clubs had a championship to its name, from 1926. The modern Twente have never won the title. Until yesterday.

McClaren’s Twente have fought off a resurgent Ajax and dropped just 16 points all season. That’s a superb effort, on a par with what Kenny Dalglish did at Blackburn and without the cash injection – and as I’ve written those words I discover that McClaren made the exact same comparison. Well, he’s entitled to do so. He’s also entitled to tell people like me to piss off, but I offer him my congratulations anyway. If he keeps this up we’ll hear the calls we never heard first time around: McClaren For England.

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Non-Vintage Year

I’m getting a bit fed up with people stating that this Premier League season hasn’t been very good. At first it was just Alan Green, so I didn’t pay any attention because (a) he’s a miserable git and (b) I don’t pay any attention to him anyway. But quite a few commentators and columnists have said it (although not a lot of ordinary fans have – not that I’ve heard).

Admittedly – and yes, this is QUITE a big caveat – I’ve seen very, very few Premier League matches live. Possibly none at all – I don’t have Sky or ESPN and I don’t think I’ve been motivated to make a trip to the pub to watch any games. I’ve been following it in the form of radio and highlights. So my view is up against that of people who have watched loads more of it than I have. But the fact that I’ve enjoyed this season more than any for a while – including last season, which a friend of mine persistently said had been amazing, but which I thought was just pretty good – may be because the actual quality of football on display has been less of a factor for me.

This sounds stupid. But there is clearly more to enjoying football than the quality of the matches: an element of surprise also makes a big contribution, and the two are sometimes mutually exclusive. Surprise results generally require one of the two teams to play either surprisingly well or surprisingly badly, and you can argue that we’ve seen more of the latter than the former in this season’s numerous enjoyable upsets and high-scoring matches. There’s certainly been a lack of consistency – the same Wigan team which beat Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal this season also got spanked 9-1 at Tottenham (and matches like the latter are probably more fun to watch as 15 minutes of highlights than if you witness the entire defensive farrago).

It’s also the case that the title is going to be won by one of the two teams who’ve won it each of the past five seasons, both of whom have won it with better squads. Even the excitement of the ‘race for fourth place’ is fundamentally devalued by the fact that nobody in their right mind should be getting excited about a race for fourth place, and there is something fundamentally wrong with any competition where such excitement is liable to occur. Also, the four teams who’ve been gunning for that have been pretty fallible themselves: Tottenham have been excellent, yet lost to Wolves. Twice.

But to my mind, this creeping inconsistency is making the Premier League more interesting. Consistency was throttling the life out of the division, with its settled top four who often lost insanely small numbers of games per season. This year we’ve had a genuine three-horse race until a couple of weeks ago when Arsenal bottled it, and the title will probably be decided on the final day. It’s still far from clear who the top four will be. A lot of foolish predictions have been made, which adds to the fun.

But perhaps what I’ve enjoyed most about this season isn’t the season itself, but the possibility it’s presented of change in the established order. United might yet win the title and become the first to do it four times in a row, but they’re markedly inferior to the line-ups that won the other three and they’re mired in a hilariously abysmal ownership situation. Chelsea need to be totally refreshed over the next few seasons and seem to be banking on their young players coming good. As I type that, I’ve just watched Daniel Sturridge score an excellent goal against Stoke on MOTD2 but I think the Premier League is gearing up for a sea change and I am happy to let that be my own foolish prediction.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


I was going to write something about Tim Lovejoy, but then I realised that’s what he wants me to do. He’s like international terrorism in that respect. So I’ve decided to write something about how bad we all are at predicting football.

A couple of weeks ago, all the talk was of how wonderful Barcelona were: how they’d given Arsenal a taste of their own pass-and-move medicine and were the best team in the whole bloody world. And yes, they did play terrifically well. But I quickly lost patience with all the commentators and pundits droning on and on about how great they were, partly because it was adding nothing to the experience of watching them, but also because we’ve been here before.

When Real Madrid put Manchester United out of Europe in 2003, they were the best team in the world, unbeatable, amazing. Yet they went out to Juventus in the next round and immediately began a three-season slump as the galacticos project collapsed under its own weight. Even with the heavier exposure of the Champions League, we’re still prone to watching one or two great performances by a team and swooning OMG THEY ARE SOOO DREAMY!!! Especially if the team they’ve just beaten is English, because that paves the way for a load of navel-gazing about whether English teams are as good as we think they are.

If I was less of a coward, I might have pointed this out before Barca went down 3-1 at Internazionale on Tuesday night, but I’m not so I waited until now. But anyone who’s ever played any kind of football regularly knows that form is an elusive thing. I’m rubbish at football and even I have my good and bad days, and if I knew how to be as good as I am on a good day all the time, well I’d be slightly less rubbish. This happens to proper footballers too. All too often we seem incapable of remembering this, and forget that we may have just seen a team that their very best.

Quite clearly Barca have it in them to be awesome all over again and win this tie with Inter – they might be the first Barcelona team ever to take inspiration from the exploits of Fulham. But if they do, let’s try to keep calm and not act like we’ve never seen a team play good football before. (That said, all English teams should take note of how Barca’s possession game works – it really is extraordinary.)

Monday, April 05, 2010

Blue Monday

Great – I needed another thing to add to my list of ways in which the Champions League has ruined football, because I currently only have 708. Due to the way that Champions League fixtures now pile up towards the end of the season (and UEFA’s decision to spread the ‘round of 16’ over four weeks), chances are that the week following Easter is always going to have some Champions League action in it. Which means that the grand old tradition of a full programme of fixtures on both Easter Saturday and Easter Monday has gone out of the window. The Football League is running a full programme but the Premier League isn’t bothering.

Perhaps it would have gone that way anyway, as it would mean no fixtures on Sunday and Sky would hate that, and also the big teams cry these days if they are given fixtures 48 hours apart, the poor lambs. There’ve been no New Year’s Day matches for the last two years because it was a bit close to the FA Cup third round, which never used to bother anybody. I know football is more physically demanding at the top level than it used to be, but there is a real benefit to supporters if matches can be played on bank holidays rather than midweek evenings and I think this is a tradition worth keeping. But as I say, the Champions League is doing its best to get in the way.

Couldn’t they just arrange the fixtures anyway and then postpone those involving clubs who are still in the Champions League, as they do with the League Cup final?But then, the FA probably arranged these fixtures on the assumption that all four English clubs would still be in the Champions League at the quarter-final stage, as they were last season and the season before. Fortunately the tournament is finally getting more competitive again, with six nations represented and no more than two from any one country. The British media got terribly excited by the English dominance of the competition’s latter stages, but it was actually rather dull, throwing up overly-familiar fixtures. I used to happily support the English teams in Europe, but at that point I realised their success was running counter to the interests of my own team: it was making them ever richer and more glamorous, thereby consolidating their stranglehold on the top four of the Premier League.

So I started wishing they would fail, which they have, and this pleases me. The Champions League is better for it, and I’m sure Michel Platini will take the credit, although even he probably didn’t expect his revisions to the competition’s format to have quite such an immediate effect. But I would be happier if he’d make it less intrusive. God, I sound like a Daily Express reader – HEY EUROPE! HANDS OFF OUR TRADITIONAL EASTER!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Rights and Wrongs

Good grief – the government has outlined ambitious plans to reform football, and they look pretty good to me – remove vested interests from the FA, encourage supporter ownership of clubs. The Premier League in particular will hate it, because they believe their model needs no justification beyond the fact that it makes lots of money and they resist anything which might break the magic money-making spell.

It’s interesting that the government should unveil left-leaning proposals which are sure to be unpopular with football’s governing bodies, because I’d just been thinking about how those governing bodies – along with those of rugby and cricket – had reacted to Ofcom’s challenge to the Sky monopoly. They’ve trotted out their standard protest about how any interference in the free-market model will harm their ability to fund their sports at ‘grassroots level’: a whinge which reminds me very strongly of how right-wingers respond to any tax rise by saying it will ‘hit hard-working families’ to cover for the fact that it actually means less money for the rich. The pay-TV market has resulted in the governing bodies of sport becoming gripped with a right-wing ideology, and unfortunately we can’t vote them out.

I’m not knowledgeable enough to talk about rugby and cricket in this context, and they are undoubtedly less well-off than football. (Although the ECB has again proved itself just as adept as the FA at talking bollocks, stating that ‘Ofcom has failed to understand that cricket fans want to watch a successful product.’ I’ll wager no cricket fan has EVER looked forward to sitting down and watching a successful product. Don’t call it a ‘product’, you pricks.) But it seems odd that the FA needs vast pots of cash to fund the ‘grassroots game’ when the ‘grassroots game’ seemed in somewhat better health back before football got so rich. Perhaps the main reason it needs support now is precisely because football is so rich at the highest levels these days, the grassroots are in danger of being forgotten – in which case the FA’s argument is circular. Money is both the problem and the solution – and if the ‘grassroots game’ is so important, let’s give it a bigger slice of the pie and redress the balance.

It’s now abundantly clear to everyone that the game is unsustainably over-inflated, with an absurd proportion of income spent on players’ wages (I was startled to find a ten-year-old interview with Teddy Sheringham in which he expresses disbelief that some players are getting paid £20,000 per week). The argument that the Premier League needs all this money won’t wash any more. The sports bodies’ desperate plea that the poor are the ones who will really suffer from a slight reduction in the billions washing around football will get little traction, I feel.

Anyway, I’m going to add my own modest proposal to the government’s: my idea for how to sell football TV rights. There was a move in the European courts to preserve competition and avoid the monopoly situation Sky was developing, but it was a ridiculous dog’s-breakfast situation and led to the Setanta disaster, where an attempt to offer ‘value’ to the consumer resulted in the consumer saying ‘No thanks’ to the prospect of shelling out for two subscriptions in order to watch the same amount of matches. If you really want to avoid monopolies, this is what I suggest.

Lump all the major football rights together and assign each chunk of it a value based on how many live matches each one provides and how high-profile those matches are – so, for example, whilst the Football League would provide more matches than getting the rights to cover all England’s games, each England game would pull in more viewers and hence would be worth more. Let’s say, I dunno, the Premier League counts for 30% of All Live Football, the Football League 10%, the Champions League 15%, the Europa League 10%, England 15%, the FA Cup 15% and the League Cup 5%. Or something. Please don’t argue with the specific numbers, they’re semi-arbitrary. (I’d leave major international tournaments out of this, because they’re not part of the regular season.)

Then you’d set a level which was the most football any broadcaster could have at any one time; 50% would seem a sensible level. Broadcasters could launch joint bids if they wanted, and you’d keep all the protected free-to-air events free-to-air. I suppose that could lead to a situation where Sky blows all its wad on the Premier League and puts itself out of the running for the Football League, meaning competition for that would be mild, therefore making the wealth gap between the divisions yet more massive. Also, there’s a potential problem in the fact that rights periods overlap with act other. So how about bringing them all into line? All rights contracts start at the same time and are bid for at the same time, so nobody knows who’s bidding for what. If a broadcaster wins more events than they’re allowed, they have to choose some to pull out of and those ones go to the second-highest bidder.

All right, there’d probably be reasons why you couldn’t do it. Even if there aren’t, the various rights holders would make some up because it would mean making less money. But ultimately, this is only a blog post and mostly exists for me to air my opinions and claim some nebulous moral high ground. It’s not going to HAPPEN.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Ducking and Diving

Yesterday during Man Utd vs Liverpool, a player went down, no foul was given and for the 38,725th time this season someone said/wrote ‘If it’s not a foul, why didn’t the ref book him for diving?’ In this case, the culprit was Paolo Bandini on one of the Guardian’s ever-readable minute-by-minute text commentaries (so much better than the BBC’s, whose attempts at humour often fall terribly flat – Caroline Cheese is their only good writer, and even she’s not up to the standard of Barry Glendenning or the peerless Scott Murray). I don’t want to single Bandini out here, even though I kind of just have: it’s something that everyone seems to say all the time, and may possibly even enter the lexicon of football commentary cliché.

Welcome as it would be to have new football commentary clichés, as they would slightly dilute the pool of existing ones, can I point out that football players sometimes just fall over? Look at Emile Heskey: he falls over all the time, he doesn’t even need anyone to be near him. It therefore follows that, in a challenge, there might be contact and the player might go over but the ref could still conclude that it was fair contact and didn’t cause the fall. Players often stumble during challenges because there’s more pressure and more to focus on. The player may feel he’s been fouled, he may appeal, he may even have exaggerated the fall – but, being involved in the game, he’s not entirely objective, is he.

Objectivity seems to be at the root of the mentality which says the referee must penalise one player or the other: the idea that one side must be right and the referee should know which it is. However, fouling and diving are the two aspects of the game which can be highly subjective. Sometimes the right decision is obvious, as when a challenge is studs-up or an attacker clearly goes down without being touched, but often the referee’s job is to judge the defender’s intent and the attacker’s honesty. And he’s not a mind-reader, and even if the attacker isn’t actively trying to con him, that might mean the defender is.

It’s always going to be hard to be certain and if the ref’s not sure exactly what he’s just seen, he should err on the side of caution and not penalise either team. I sympathise to an extent with the ‘foul or dive’ lobby, because most of us would like to see diving punished more often – but it is one of the hardest things in football to punish accurately, and I’ve seen strikers booked for being fouled. Essentially, demanding a free kick or booking in every such situation amounts to demanding the establishment of an objective reality where everyone’s view of an incident concurs. Or for referees to make a lot more mistakes than they do already.

Monday, March 15, 2010

It just happened to be last night that I discovered Bet365 run free live streaming of sport, and it just happens that I have a login for Bet365 even though I never bet on sport (I used Bet365 to put a tenner on Klaxons to win the Mercury Music Prize in 2007 and won £70, thankyou very much). So whilst I was polishing a script, I also had a window open with Milan vs Chievo running in it.

The commentary was limited – the Italian pictures were accompanied by what seemed to be some bloke employed by Bet365 to sit there on his own, with no pundit or contact with the action. At one point Chievo had the ball in the net and the commentator had to rely on the scorer’s body language and the fact that the top-left scorebox continued to read 0-0 to realise that it had been ruled out for offside, as the pictures failed to show the referee or linesman to confirm. (It did occur to me that Bet365 might make things more entertaining by getting punters with a stake on the match to commentate. ‘SCORE YOU FACKING USELESS SHOWER OF TWATS, I’VE GOT A MONKEY RIDING ON THIS’ – that sort of thing.)

As a result, when I spotted Beckham pull up in the latter stages it was hard to tell how severe the injury was. One of the times when ex-pro pundits make themselves most useful in the commentary box is when an injury needs to be interpreted: they can often tell the difference between a player who’s coming off as a precaution and one who’s properly knacked something. Our Bet365 commentator was left at a loss as the cameras focused on the match’s tense finale (check Seedorf’s superb winner below, which will likely be seen as a defining moment in Milan’s season should they win the title).

But as the coverage flashed to Beckham’s tearful face as he was loaded onto a stretcher, it became obvious what was happening. With a ruptured achilles tendon it may be difficult for him to come back at all, never mind in time for the World Cup. In that light, he’s almost certainly played his last game for his country – and his rationale for going on loan to Milan was to keep the level of his game high for England, so it’s possible he’s played his last game of top-flight European football too.

It seems a terrible anti-climax for him to go out this way, to an injury picked up under no challenge. But what it does demonstrate is the pressure Beckham put himself under to keep his game up. I was only half-watching the match, and admittedly I was more likely to notice what Beckham was doing than any other player because English commentators on Beckham’s overseas club matches tend to go ‘Oooh BECKHAM’s on the ball’ as soon as it comes to him. But he did work very hard to help break down a Chievo defence which was happy to play on the counter and often had six or seven men in the box. He’d done a lot of running and, as a golden chance to close the gap on Inter seemed to be slipping away, possibly worked that bit too hard for his age.

It’s typical of how Beckham has played ever since his early twenties. One day people will look back at the honesty and commitment of his game and wonder why he got the piss taken out of him so much.

Monday, March 08, 2010

It’s not as if FIFA need anyone to help them look foolish, but Liam Ridgewell, David James and the officials at the Portsmouth-Birmingham match gave them a helping hand at the weekend. Just minutes after the FIFA-backed International Football Association Board announced that new technology would not be brought in to help officials, Ridgewell knocked the ball over the goal-line, but it was disallowed for none of the officials having noticed.

I’ve never been that keen on the notion of bringing in replays or Hawkeye-style goal-line technology. This is partly because I don’t want the game to be slowed down: sports like tennis and rugby can accommodate that sort of thing in their usual pace, but any stoppage in football is an inconvenience, hence the concept of stoppage time. However, I also like the idea that football is played under the same conditions, at whatever level, wherever you are in the world. As the profile of the sport canters away to levels of insane hype, it’s something to hold onto that the European Cup final is a match just like Harrogate Town vs Stalybridge in the Conference North – strip away the context and they are the same thing underneath.

I always think this is a slight flaw in the use of Hawkeye in tennis. It’s a great system and hasn’t adversely affected matches where it’s used – the pauses where players wait for the decision have simply replaced those longueurs caused when players fruitlessly harangued the umpire. However, it’s so technology-intensive that it’s only in place on the show courts at the major tournaments, which effectively means your chance of getting laser-accurate calls depends on how popular you are. Everyone on the outside courts just has to take their chances, so even within the same tournament you’ve got matches happening under different conditions. As if former champions didn’t already have enough cause to be bitter about playing their first-round match on no.2 court. If you had it in football, what level would you install it to? Would you make clubs remove it if they got relegated, or would they be free to use it if they could afford it?

On the other hand, the fitness of top-level footballers has risen so much that maybe we have to acknowledge that the game is different at the highest level. Maybe it’s unreasonable to expect officials to be able to keep up like they used to, and it’s inevitable that they’ll make more mistakes when the game moves faster – unless the officials are backed up by technology. Futhermore, it seems unfair on the officials of televised games to allow their mistakes to be exposed with the benefit of the TV replay: it just puts them under more pressure.

Most of all, though, the introduction of technology would hopefully mean less post-match whingeing about refereeing decisions, and it would definitely mean the end of interminable discussion over whether technology should be introduced. When I think of that, suddenly it seems like a superb idea.

Monday, March 01, 2010

I was going to share with you my plan to sort out football TV rights forever, but I’ve got something else to comment on. Not the Carling Cup final, about which I have nothing to say beyond the Vidic decision being rather questionable, and everyone else in the world has already said that, even Alex Ferguson.

No, I’d like to address this as a sort of open letter to supporters of the Premier League’s Big Four. Like everyone, I was horrified by the injury to Aaron Ramsey at the weekend; it does really upset me to see a player’s potential going to waste whilst they sit on the sidelines, to say nothing of the fear that they’ll never be the same player again. It’s also a great shame for Arsenal, who have taken on a young British talent and done a great job of developing him.

However, I don’t really think anyone is to blame here. If you can bear to watch the incident again (I can’t bring myself to stick the YouTube link here), it’s not even a tackle, because Ramsey doesn’t have the ball: it’s a loose ball, more in the path of Ryan Shawcross than Ramsey, and both players have every right to go for it. Ramsey simply gets there faster and Shawcross has no time to pull out. It’s not malicious, it’s not even rough play – it’s just an awful accident. In a physical game, these things unfortunately happen.

But Arsene Wenger and Arsenal’s supporters have cited this as yet more evidence that their players get roughed up unfairly. One Arsenal supporter I know suggested that the team is actively persecuted in that other teams seem able to get away with it, and I don’t doubt that lots of supporters agree with him.

The thing is, this is common among supporters of all the Big Four. They routinely accused football hacks of being biased: one of the Guardian’s writers noted with amusement that last season he received at least one email accusing him of bias towards AND against each of the Big Four. The managers encourage this: Ferguson with his moans about the fixture list, Benitez with his ‘list of facts’. It’s a standard tactic to create unity, to claim that everyone else is against you, the media don’t like you, the authorities favour other teams.

Personally, I don’t believe any of it. Most of these things have rational explanations. Yes, Ferguson plays mind games with referees, but the reason Manchester United get more injury time when they’re behind at Old Trafford is probably because when teams are winning there, they try to waste time. I was at the Villa game there in December where we won 1-0, and Ferguson was rightly furious that there were only three minutes of injury time. Both sides had made three substitutions and Villa had dragged out a couple of late minor injuries to run down the clock. Nobody mentioned that, because the story was Villa winning at Old Trafford, not United getting ‘lucky’ with another late goal. But that’s how conspiracy theories work: the facts that don’t fit the pattern go unnoticed.

All I want to say to Big Four fans is this: why not enjoy it? This is the golden age. You get to watch great players and your team wins most of the time. You get to participate in the world’s biggest club football tournament whilst the rest of us look on as ‘interested neutrals’ (or disinterested neutrals where most of the interminable group stage is concerned). I know it seems like it’s going to last forever – it certainly does to those of us who remember the days when our club had a vague chance of winning the league at the start of the season – but nothing lasts forever. Eventually things will change, and then you might just regret having spent those years of greatness preoccupied with the injustices – whether real or imagined – that your team suffered.

And with that said, I’ll wish Ramsey a speedy recovery.

Monday, February 22, 2010

I gather that I wasn’t the only person to be taken by surprise by the realisation that the last-16 round of the European Cup (it’s not a league and it’s not just for champions) was being staggered over four weeks, and a total of eight matchdays. This is in order that, if all four teams from one of the big countries makes it to the last 16 (which, as it happens, they haven’t this time), both legs of all eight ties can be televised without clashing. Yes, because what the Champions League really needs is to gain greater exposure and drag on a bit longer.

An immediate example of why this is bullshit has been conveniently provided. In the aftermath of the Crystal Palace-Aston Villa match last weekend, many people suggested that a draw had been a good result for Palace because they need the cash and there was a good chance the replay would be televised. Well, all those people clearly hadn’t noticed that on the night of the replay, ITV will be showing Inter vs Chelsea. The chances of them swapping that for the opportunity to show Villa winning off the back of a dodgy refereeing decision which Neil Warnock will moan on about until Christmas seem slim.

Now, that night should be free for the FA Cup, but instead the Champions League has decided to squat in midweek for a month. It’s personally irritating for me, because I might have been able to watch my own team otherwise. Ask most neutrals which match they’d rather watch and yeah, they’d probably rather watch Inter-Chelsea. But if we followed that logic all the time, we’d never see matches that didn’t involve Global Brand teams and this is, depressingly, the way that football seems to be heading.

One area where I can’t fault UEFA’s strategy is in maintaining a policy of selling at least some of the rights to terrestrial broadcasters. I admit, I’m partly in favour of this because I don’t want to pay for Sky: I don’t have a lot of spare money and I hate Sky. However, it’s undeniable that the Champions League has made itself the main place to see regular games involving England’s biggest clubs for free: UEFA have chipped away at it in recent years, going from the whole tournament being on ITV to Tuesday night’s games being on ITV to ITV getting the juiciest match of the week and Sky getting everything else, but UEFA apparently consider the policy important to keep.

Notably, they have also done so without being forced to or moaning about it – it’s their choice, apparently – and it can only have helped the competition’s prominence. The FA seems to have realised that the same is true of the League Cup, and that if you don’t screen the final on terrestrial TV then within a year nobody can even remember who won it. Seven million viewers for the Manchester derby semi-final suggests that it was a move worth making, and should be a lesson for those asking if the World Cup and European Championships should be allowed to sell some matches to subscription broadcasters. Do it at your peril.

Next time, I will explain how I’d organise football TV rights if I had Brian Clough’s posited job of Supreme Dictator of All Football.