Friday, 31 December 2010

Brilliant Orange Review

The symbiosis of football and culture has been explored in many books, but few attain the level of understanding in David Winner’s ‘Brilliant Orange’. Winner meanders from the Dutch distrust of psychoanalysis, through the photography of Hans van der Meer to the inventive use of space Dutch architects have developed all the while weaving in the threads of Ajax, Cruyff and the KNVB and produces a holistic insight into the small country. At the start of the book Winner disclaims that he is fanatical about Dutch football and disavows any sense of impartiality which is fair enough. Given that he sat down to write a 250 page book on the subject this might be taken as read and about as useful a disclaimer as ‘Careful: Coffee may be hot’ but his enthusiasm does leap off the page as he describes Total Football, Netherlands history and the revolution of the 70’s.

The focal point of the book around is the 1974 final where the phenomenal team of Cruyff et al were beaten by West Germany after taking the lead inside the first few minutes and Winner compares the Dutch reaction to the Kennedy assassination. Every single Dutch person knows where they were for The Lost Final. Indeed as he depicts that horrific moment when Muller fumbled the ball into the back of the net the urge to lay down the book and pretend that it didn’t happen is overpowering. The Lost Final is the focal point of the entire book. The evolution of the Ajax team is the magical prelude while all subsequent tournaments have been affected by that lose.

The first part of the book illustrates the politics of the Netherlands following the war into the 60’s and the creation of the famous Ajax of the 70’s under Michels then Winner expands his focus from Ajax to look at the national side and the psychology of the Dutch. Do they actually want to win? Do they have a secret death wish? Is winning even worthwhile if it isn’t done ‘the right way’? Why do the Dutch invariably go to pieces on the big stage? It might be suggested that reading Brilliant Orange after seeing the 2010 World Cup feature a Holland only partly redeemed from ugliness by Robben and Sneijder (in footballing terms only) that this analysis might lose its bite. After all, Cruyff declared that he was supporting Spain for playing the right way while Holland had the footballing equivalent of the Kray brothers in de Jong and van Bommel in midfield. But once again at the final hurdle the Dutch came up short. Put through one-on-one, bearing down on goal at the critical moment the normally lethal Robben fluffed his lines just like the ‘74 and ’78 sides spurning their golden chances.

While not really a book to recommend to anyone who isn’t a football nerd who regards kick-and-rush as socially unacceptable as a fart in a crowded lift, the scope of Brilliant Orange does reach far beyond just football. Winner delves into the Dutch psyche and explores the strange, contradictory nature of its society. Sociology, politics, theology and history are all given space and developed. He theorises on what art and architecture tell us about Dutch society, whether there is any such thing as Dutch national identity and why Ajax considers itself a Jewish club despite all historical evidence. As a reflection of the Dutch character the chapters are numbered non-sequentially. Winner might well be right in his theories about the society and culture, but that doesn’t really matter. The way he muses on the game is rather Dutch itself because it is the way that he does it that makes the book. He writes with elegance and his descriptive passages draw pictures of goals that feel like you were there. Above all he elicits deeply emotional responses which is, after all, the point of writing as well football.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Oh God Its Another 'Arsenal Come Of Age' Blog

Arsenal dominated possession, the game turned into a phsyical midfield battle and was littered with criminal defensive errors. It was everything that a typical Arsenal/Chelsea clash has been over the years. Except it wasn't. It was the polar opposite. Chelsea's devestating counter-attacks, spear-headed by Drogba failed to materialise. Rather than weave ineffectual patterns in front of the Chelsea backline, Song, Walcott and Fabregas cut through and finished clinically. Chelsea were reduced to lumping the ball forward in search of the big man up top and were totally unable to deal with the energy of the Arsenal midfield.

Rarely does a clash between third and fourth assume as much significance in a title race as yesterday. With each side confronting their own personal demons and United already five points clear of both sides, the stakes were set high. Arsenal had to prove that they could win in the big games after a horrific record against the elite clubs both at home and abroad, while Chelsea merely had to prove that they can beat anyone after their current run of form.

From the Blues point of view what Ancelotti described as a 'difficult moment' is fast becoming a [cliche alert] full blown crisis. Not only because a side that was racking up cricket scores and being hailed as certain champions by third rate hacks back in October are now very much off the pace, but the lack of quality in the squad is also painfully obvious. The core of the squad is mostly the wrong side of thirty and despite the miracles Ancelotti achieved with Milan's aging stars he must be looking enviously at the benches of his rivals. While others have the likes of Berbatov and Balotelli, Carlo must rely on the likes of Bruma and Kakuta to change games. Outside of Alex and possibly Anelkia, this was the first choice XI for Chelsea and they were frighteningly overrun at the Emirates. Others have a wealth of promising youngsters but Stamford Bridge needs an big overhaul, not just a touch-up.

Arsenal however will take huge positives from this game. They beat one of their major rivals, they beat them well and they beat them in a phsyical battle, something they haven't managed in a while. That monkey is very much off their back andd they still have the two Manchester clubs to come to the Emirates. Although the 'crap invincibles' are looking stronger by the week and it may still be beyond this Arsenal side to haul them in, this victory meant a lot more than just three points. United fans watching yesterday should have been praying for a Chelsea victory as this could really spark a charge from Arsenal something Chelsea, even if they won, would have been unlikely to do as they lack the drive, energy and depth of the Gunners. It looks like a case of 'back to the future' as the Ferguson/Wenger rivalry is set to be re-ignited.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

While England Freezes, Serie A Is Hotting Up

This season is turning out to be one of the most bizarre we’ve seen in a long time. The supposedly competitive German league has virtually been decided by Christmas, England are having an (albeit unintentional) winter break and Serie A is turning into the most exciting title race this year. For the first time since 2006 we have a genuinely interesting title race on our hands and, even more amazingly, Inter aren’t involved. AC Milan lead the pack as we enter the break but lost to Roma last weekend, while the chasing pack include a revitalized Juventus and the unlikely duo of Lazio and Napoli. From its heyday of the 80’s and 90’s, Italy has suffered the footballing equivalent of brain-drain but 2010 has been a year of renaissance. An Italian club won the Champions League and Club World Championship (for whatever that’s worth) and the football is becoming watchable once again.

With Benitez being booted after complaining that he needs to add “four or five new players” to the treble winning side in order to compete, Inter would need a coach of (haha) Mourinho-like ability to mount a proper challenge this season. Yes they have too games in hand, but this is not the team with the same self-belief that frustrated Barcelona out of the Champions League. They lag 13 points behind Milan and after five title wins on the spin, it’s actually a relief to think that the Nerazzurri won’t be winning this season. Leaders Milan have been impressive for much of the season with Ibrahimovic in particular looking determined to continue his run of domestic dominance. The Swede has won the title wherever he has been for the past seven years running. However, while Milan have the challenge of the Champions League and Napoli have the tie of the round against Villarreal in the Europa League, Juventus and Lazio have no European commitments. On paper Milan have the best squad but competing on two front coupled with an over-reliance on Ibrahimovic means there is plenty of room for other clubs to have a serious title tilt. Furthermore the addition of Cassano presents Allegri with another problem. How to rotate Robinho, Pato, Ibrahimovic and Cassano and keep all four happy? Ronaldinho will be moved on to make room for Cassano, but the former Sampdoria man will hardly be happy bench-warming like the Brazilian did. The issue will show a lot about Allegri, both tactically in fully utilizing all four and his man-management skills in keeping them happy when dropped.

Napoli and Lazio share the same problem. Both have squads that, on paper are not big enough to challenge for a Scudetto. Lazio in particular have a razor thin squad depth. If either were forced to cope without star players such as Cavani or Hernanes, they could suddenly struggle to maintain their momentum. Despite a squad unlikely to be able to go the distance, both are very well equipped to stake their claim for a place in the Champions League next season. A lot depends on how the upcoming transfer window leaves both clubs. Napoli have made noises about strengthening defensively but may well have larger clubs taking good long looks at influential striker Ezequiel Lavezzi. A big positive for both sides is the mental resilience and ambition of the teams. Even though Krasic turned in a stellar performance for Juve to rob Lazio at the death several weeks ago, the game showed that despite losing this Lazio side has the mentality to go the distance, if not the strength in depth.

Finally, the most intriguing challenger is Juventus. With Delneri in charge they have improved dramatically from last season and he is imprinting his style of play (4-4-2 with the emphasis on width) onto the side. Pavel Nedved Milos Krasic in particular has been superb so far. However fights with Gigi Buffon have caused ructions in the Juve camp and trajectory of this season could still go either way for the Old Lady. Without distractions abroad they should mount the most serious title challenge to Milan but it would not be shocking to see them fall off towards the end of the season. Here’s hoping that the current excitement lasts until the end of the season. If there is one league in Europe that needs competition to revitalize itself, it’s Italy.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Champions League Draw Reaction

FTW has few enough reasons to get up in the morning. That nice girl at the bar, the thought of beer and of course the prospect of outliving Sepp Blatter. Anyway, after the night of wild esctasy that was El Clasico FTW has been hiding away in a cave of despair waiting for the only football that will compete with that. The Champions League knock-out stages:

Roma Vs. Shakhtar: Real battle of the big boys is this one. Roma have hardly been setting Serie A alight and while Shakhtar did manage to win their group, it was full of the minnows of Europe; Partizan, Braga and Arsenal. After running Inter very close to the title last year Roma have fallen off somewhat this time around and find themselves in 6th place, ten points behind AC. Shakhtar meanwhile are runaway leaders in Ukraine. Assuming they maintain close to the 12 point gap they’ve established at the top of the table prior to the knockout clashes this should provide a slight boost as they will be able to rest players whereas Roma look set for a long struggle to try and retain Champions League football may be forced to play their strongest XI. Overall, this is a fairly balanced tie but hardly the mouthwatering clash of the round.

Prediction: Shakhtar to progress

AC Milan Vs. Tottenham: Very definitely the clash of the round. Spurs have been the most exciting team to watch by a long distance this year in the competition and will at least fancy their chances against Milan. Although the front line of Ibrahimovic, Robinho and Pato is fairly intimidating, Allegri will not relish the thought of Bale and Lennon charging down the wing. ‘Arry’s side have conceded fair too many in this tournament and will need to be more defensively savvy in the knock-out stages. That being said, going forward they have been unstoppable at times and they have great resilience. Not a team to be discounted even if the first leg in Italy doesn’t go their way. A lot will depend on the injury situation of both clubs between now and then. Spurs have a horrific injury list currently which will hopefully easy up before February while Milan should wrap Zlatan in cotton wool for the later stages.

Prediction: Amazingly enough, Tottenham to progress

Valencia Vs. Schalke: Two teams with very strange seasons. After last season Schalke were expected to push on under Magath and make a serious bid for the title. Instead they find themselves mid-table having stuttered and fluffed their way through the first half of the season. Meanwhile Valencia, having sold off Silva and Villa were expected to struggle but flew out of the traps and enjoyed a superb start to the season. Since then they have slowed down and the results have been mixed at best. Last week they went 3-1 up against Osasuna only to finish 3-3, conceding late goals. Their season in a microcosm. Very difficult to predict which way this one will go and it doesn’t look to be a thrilling tie.

Prediction: Valencia to reach the QF’s

Inter Vs. Bayern: What a difference six months makes. Last seasons finalists meet in the last 16 and both look pale shadows of last year. The all-conquering Inter of Mourinho has been replaced by the ineffective and injury-ravaged Inter of Benitez. Slumping down into 7th place in Serie A Benitez looks to be the first coach since Calciopoli to lose the title with Inter. Sneijder and company look jaded and in need of a rest. While the Dutchman claimed he would “walk into hell” for Jose his relationship with Rafa seems far less close and his form reflects that. Bayern on the other hand also have their problems. Mario Gomez is having a very good season for the Bavarians but Ribery looks out of sorts, Robben has been plagued by injuries and the club is nearly 20 points of the top of the Bundesliga.

Prediction: In the battle of the two clubs in crisis expect the Germans to show more grit and win

Lyon Vs. Real Madrid: After spending nearly £240m on players last summer the sight of Real losing to Lyon was possibly the sweetest imaginable. The joke doing the rounds was “It looks like Ferguson did sell them a virus after all.” This Real are a different proposition. With additional quality in the form of Di Maria and Ozil along with the only Galactico coach in the world they should easily see off Lyon. The French outfit have neither the ability nor the character to compete with the nine-times champions. After this Real’s season really begins.

Prediction: Real to batter Lyon as revenge for last season

Arsenal Vs. Barcelona: It had to happen. It was inevitable. Barcelona were going to draw Arsenal and Messi is going to do his party trick again. This won’t be much of a contest although it must be said that Guardiola probably least wanted Arsenal of all the teams they could draw. Not a great deal to say about this one. On paper Arsenal should give Barcelona a good game, in reality it will be a thumping.

Prediction: Messi will decide how many he wants to score before the game. And then he’ll go out and do it

Marseille Vs. Manchester United: United should feel fairly confident about progressing but they’ve hardly set the world alight this year. Most likely they will secure qualification by the skin of their teeth while somehow trying to pretend that they are trying to conserve energy for the later rounds. Unbeaten and top of the league, conceding only one goal in the whole group stage United should look more comfortable than they have in games but this is not the swashbuckling United of ’99 or the Ronaldo inspired version of ’08. This is a United built on solidarity rather than flair. Possibly the dullest tie of the round.

Prediction: United to qualify without actually playing well

Copenhagen Vs. Chelsea: In theory Chelsea have drawn the weakest team left in the competition but if Drogba is fit Chelsea would choose to play Arsenal every week and Copenhagen should not be underestimated. While coming from a weaker league and only managing a point against Barcelona in the group stages they deserved more from those encounters. A fairly tough side Copenhagen can at least expect to compete with Chelsea on a physical basis if not a technical one. Chelsea will expect to progress easily and they should still do so but the Danes should not be written off just yet.

Prediction: Chelsea to win but be surprised by the quality of the Danes

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Brucelli Sounds Like A Pasta To Me

Allardyce might be the one to complain about having an English name but if Steve Bruce were Stephan Brucelli would the Sunderland manager still be that fat bloke with the broken nose? After mixed stints at Birmingham and Wigan at Sunderland Bruce is putting together a team that, on their day, hands out hidings even to the big boys. Despite remaining frustratingly inconsistent Sunderland look poised to assume the Everton or Aston Villa role in the Premiership i.e. the team which continues to compete on a much smaller budget than those around it and, with just that little bit more investment, could push for a Champions League place.

Rarely does one hear about Bruce’s record in the transfer market but on reflection it’s really quite impressive. Every manager makes blunders and the former defender has as well but he has a knack of spotting under-used talents at another club and bringing out the best in them. At Birmingham Christophe Dugarry excelled in the 2002-03 season and propelled Birmingham to finish in 13th place. At Wigan Bruce signed Wilson Palacios and Antonio Valencia for a combined total believed to be in the region of £2.5m. The pair were later sold on for a combined price of £28m to Tottenham and Manchester United respectively, a phenomenal return on investment. At Sunderland Bruce called Darren Bent his “best bit of business ever” after the striker netted 25 times in the 2009/10 campaign. This season Bent has begun a very promising partnership with Gyan following the World Cup, ably supported by the on loan Danny Welbeck. Very few players have managed to score for the northerners this season but their front line is decidedly menacing at any team.

Furthermore Bruce is getting the best out of centre-back pairing Michael Turner and Titus Bramble. Sunderland have the best defensive record outside the top five. They have conceded the same number as Arsenal despite the utter thrashing that they suffered at the hands of Newcastle. Bramble used to be considered to be a huge flop as a player, yet under the tutelage of Bruce at Wigan and then Sunderland he has become a very important leader on the pitch. The team looks settled and there is a good mixture of youth in the likes of Jordan Henderson and experience with Bolo Zenden. Sunderland seem like a Spurs a few years ago. They are wildly inconsistent, short of the quality and squad depth needed but play (mostly) very enjoyable football to watch. For every 0-0 with Fulham there is a 3-0 evisceration of Chelsea.

Sadly, as explored a few weeks ago Bolton lack the financial clout to sustain themselves at this level. Sunderland however are a different proposition. They can’t compete with Manchester City (who can?) but they have spent £16.5m on Bent and £13m Gyan. If they can maintain this level of performance and finish 7th or higher then, with some smart acquisitions over the summer, they could be a genuine surprise package next season. Crucially they are defensively stable, a vital pre-requisite to any strong campaign. Champions League qualification remains a pipe dream but if Sunderland manage to become like Everton or Villa, occupying fifth or sixth for a few seasons Bruce has the ability to spot cheaper talents that might, with a big slice of luck, at least give them a fair tilt at the Promised Land.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Mike Ashley Strikes Again!

The top of the Guardian football page reads “Breaking news: Chris Hughton sacked as manager of Newcastle ...” and the sheer tragic predictability comes crashing down. Mike Ashley strikes again. After an embarrassing season resulting in relegation Hughton’s Newcastle ran riot in the Championship and lie 11th at the half-way point this year. If you had offered 11th place two years later to Newcastle fans after their final day defeat to Villa they would have accepted even faster than Ashley changes managers. Yet instead of being praised for a damn good job in the last 18 months, Hughton has been unceremoniously dumped.

Yes there has been a slight dip in form. There have been a couple of bad results, including getting thumped 5-1 by Bolton. Since they beat Arsenal they have taken only two points from a possible fifteen. But Hughton masterminded victories over Arsenal and Everton as well as utterly thumping both Aston Villa (6-0) and arch-rivals Sunderland (5-1). They’re a stable and well organized side. Tiote is one of the signings of the season. Until his encounter with De Jong Ben Arfa looked a very promising young player. Andy Carroll received a call-up to the national team off the back of recent performances. Nolan and Barton have both been highly impressive.

Some have argued that Hughton should have been given a long contract in order to fully focus on his job. Why? He was doing just fine without the guarantee of a huge pay-off if Ashley decided to go all Alan Sugar. But the reason given for the firing was that the club wanted someone with “more top-flight experience.” People like Keegan or Kinnear then? Or how about Allardyce? If Newcastle had stuck with the experienced Big Sam they would not have been relegated in the first place. Incidentally, can anyone guess the position Newcastle were in when they sacked Allardyce? That’s right, they were in 11th!

One of the most depressing factors in the Hughton sacking is the inevitability. He was a dead-man walking although exactly why was never clear. Similarly Benitez at Inter, Hodgson at Liverpool and Mancini at City all look destined for the chop. Whether they deserve it is another matter, but there are just so many managers who are nailed on to get fired without a good chance at their respective clubs. Ancelotti is also having trouble with Abramovich and has publically stated that he is not in control of the team. The four above have had a combined total of less than three and a half years at their clubs. Not exactly time to mould the team to their playing style. Hodgson is coping with the loss of Mascherano and aging team leaders in Carragher and Gerrard and is replacing an immensely popular manager. Ironically so is Benitez. Mancini has been given phenomenal amounts of money but that many new players need time to gel. Ancelotti has hardly had money to splash and key players are in need of replacing.

Hughton’s sacking is symptomatic of how utterly insane the relationship between managers and owners has become at many clubs.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

FIFA: Footballs Cancer

How do we stop it? How can we grab FIFA by the throat and say enough is enough. This article, while timed to come out alongside the results for the host nations for 2018 and 2022 is not a response to who won. It’s a response to the tired predictable corruption that accompanied the process. We saw the Prime Minister of Britain debased himself by chatting up known crooks like Jack Warner, the most detestable man in football, an amazing achievement given that Blatter exists. Where does it end?

This is an organisation that has been found out repeatedly to be corrupt. Even with the latest revelations that have resulted in the suspension of Adamu and Temarii the response from FIFA has not been contrition. No, of course not. It has been to ask investigative journalists “how dare you?” The most depressing facet of the whole spectacle is that there doesn’t seem to be a way to break the stranglehold the Executive Committee (ExCo) have over football. Blatter was chosen by Havelange precisely because he wouldn’t expose the corruption of the previous President, given that he was complicit. It is foolish to think that when Blatter leaves office he will allow his successor to shine some light onto his crimes.

FTW has many faults. It has been known to be hypocritical and nowhere is this more obvious than today. Had England won the bid for the world cup the police would even now be asking why FTW was racing naked through the streets in an ecstatic haze. It is not difficult to imagine the drunken joy of Russians and the stone cold sober pleasure of Qataris about the news. Of course they’re happy, they should be. FTW was in South Africa for the last world cup and it was a phenomenal experience. An entire country celebrating football was something that will never be forgotten. This is not to criticise the choices of Russia and Qatar as hosts. FTW will leave it to others to do that.

No, this is to say that, whoever had won it would have been a victory of corruption. It is one thing to not have the best bid and lose. It is another to know that whether your bid is the best doesn’t actually matter. And that goes for every nation that bid, not just England. And the process looks set to go on. There seems no chance that the bids for 2026 and 2030 won’t be exactly the same. The best hope I can see to break FIFA’s stranglehold would be the withdrawal of Brazil or England or another footballing powerhouse. The loss of a genuine name like that would really rock the power structure in FIFA. But of course it won’t happen any time soon.

So the whole farce goes on. Within minutes of the results being announced someone tweeted “Cry havoc and let loose the dogs of investigative journalism.” Amen. Lets just hope that something may change one day.