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.