Monday, 27 September 2010

Baggies Back For Good?

Whisper it quietly, lest their form vanish like a startled deer but West Brom look rather tasty under former Chelsea man Roberto Di Matteo. Nicknamed the “Boing Boing Baggies” for constantly suffering relegation followed by immediate promotion the club are currently sitting pretty in sixth place. While Blackpool hit the headlines by recording a staggering 4-0 win over Wigan, West Brom fell back into old habits as Premiership whipping boys, losing 6-0 to Chelsea but have recovered and made a strong start. Two seasons ago under Mowbray the Baggies were fairly embarrassing finishing with a grand total of 32 points. After six games they’ve already got just under a third of that.

It can hardly be said that West Brom have had an easy start this season either. After Chelsea they’ve drawn with Tottenham and beaten Arsenal in the league as well as Man City in the League Cup. Uzbekistan born winger Peter Odemwingie has been fantastic signing from Locomotiv Moscow, especially pleasing after the disgusting racial abuse he suffered from Locomotiv fans in Russia. Already having scored three goals this season including the winner against Sunderland he provides flair to the West Brom attack. Supported by Graham Dorrans and Chris Brunt the Nigerian international reflects Di Matteo’s desire for a silk over steel approach. Someone should alert the “experts” at Sky to an Italian coach offering exciting football given their penchant for falling back on lazy ethnic stereotypes during the Manchester City-Chelsea game.

Another comparison with Mowbray’s side is the defensive improvement. Last time West Brom were in the Premiership they were conceding at a rate of 1.8 goals a game. Taking out the anomalous Chelsea result that figure drops to a goal a game so far this season. More than that WBA look far composed at the back. Teams could score almost at will against Mowbray’s side. It’s great to see teams wanting to play open, engaging football but in the Premiership it’s an invitation to suicide. In a season which has been notable for debates over the ugly tactics of Wolves and Stoke the fact that a promoted side is looking defensively sharp without having to resort to kicking should be praised.

It is still early in the season and this run of form could peter out but West Brom could well avoid any relegation scrap if Di Matteo manages to not “Phil Brown” everything. Allowing Arsenal back into the game from 3-0 is not a good sign but then not many sides go to the Emirates and bag three in the first place. After so many seasons of bouncing between divisions it would be a refreshing change to see the Baggies cement their place as top flight team. It would be even better to see Genuine Nice GuyTM Di Matteo be the one to do it. The man is ridiculously suave, pleasant and intelligent. Again, whisper it quietly, but this might just be the start of a very good period for the Birmingham club.

Friday, 24 September 2010

The Return Of Marlon King

FTW often has its less proud moments. It’s the type of blog which will occasionally wake up covered in chocolate spread wondering why all the cool blogs weren’t drinking as much. It’s the blog that did that awful thing with the pin cushion at the Christmas party. Therefore as an expert in feeling ashamed, FTW has been musing on Coventry City’s decision to sign known pro-feminist striker Marlon King.

For those who don’t know the history King has 14 offences on his rap sheet including theft, drink driving and most famously sexual assault and assault causing actual bodily harm on a young woman in 2008. He is currently on the sex offenders register. Like many people FTW was slightly sickened to discover that King stepped out of jail and within weeks had landed a contract believed to be around £10,000 per week. But is the moral outrage justified? Our entire penal system is based on the idea that a person can be reformed and once they have come out of jail, in theory, they have paid for their crime.

Part of the anger is based around the fact that a man assaults another person and waltzes out of jail into a £10,000 a week job. The underlying assumption is that footballers in this country are essentially bulletproof. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done previously, if you can play you’ll get the big bucks. It suggests that football clubs lack any morals whatsoever, as they’ll happily take a violent repeat offender if he gets the goals. The argument often given is that footballers are role models, an idea FTW has always been deeply uncomfortable with. These young men did not sign up to be role models, they signed up to play football for money. If they hold themselves to a high moral standard on and off the pitch then fantastic, but no part of their contract demands them to behave in all aspects of their lives. I don’t hold King to be a role model and I sure as hell hope that no other football fan does either. But King served his 18 months in prison. He has paid for what he did.

Many people in Coventry have been upset by the arrival of King. The Coventry Telegraph reported that season tickets have been returned as a result of the move. The rationale is that Coventry City is part of the community and does a lot of good work within the community, work undermined by having a sex offender on the books. By signing King, the club shows that it values goals and on the pitch success more than promoting an anti-domestic violence stance.

Having had initially the same reaction of disgust to King’s return to football as others, FTW has found itself in an awkward position. On the one hand King is (supposedly) rehabilitated and should be given another chance at a new club to prove himself. Against that is the argument about the message it sends about any club willing to sign a striker on the sex offenders register. King’s return to football raises a host of ethical and social questions to which there are no black and white answers.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Review of "Foul!" By Andrew Jennings

Just so you poor readers don’t have to read every football book going Football This Weekend (FTW) will be reviewing all football related literature that it can get its grubby mitts on. And of course where else would we start than with a book that talks very little about actual football? Andrew Jennings’ “Foul!” is an exploration of the dark side of FIFA. “Foul!” is not a book for those who want to read about the game itself. It’s about the finance and money side. It analyses how breath-taking levels of corruption infest the organisation. That FIFA is bent comes as no surprise to anyone but Jennings work systematically deconstructs the scams that have been running since Havelange became FIFA president. You’ll find far more about the Antiguan under 23’s side than Brazil or Italy in this one. But even so, in the football world, it is still a frankly staggering book. At times you feel queasy. Jennings batters you with facts and crimes.

The bunch of crooks and thieves named and shamed includes Sepp Blatter, Jack Warner and Joao Havelange as well as dozens of others who make up the top levels of FIFA. Jennings show how they have repeatedly committed fraud, vote rigging and bribery since 1974. To quote “Filthy Glasses” blogger Alex Di Mascio “In more civilised countries these people would be strung up from lampposts.”

Honestly, this isn’t an easy read. Firstly there’s a barrage of acronyms and names to deal with. The main culprits are easy enough to remember but keeping track of who is embezzling what from where is quite difficult. There are time-lines, lists of names with descriptions and appendixes at the back of the book which help somewhat. But really that isn’t the point of this book in any case.

Jennings manages to maintain (for the most part) a fairly level tone. He reports his side of the story without much in the way of moral outrage. The tub-thumping is left to the reader. And that is what should be taken away from “Foul!” Reading the book should leave a bubbling pit of anger. Exactly who did what is hard to remember but its impossible not to get caught up in the wave of sheer disgust that Jennings discovers.

The biggest single complaint of the average fan today is the amount of money which is infecting the game. No wonder when the people running the game have their snouts so deep in the trough. If FIFA ever get taken to court and the light is let into the Zurich HQ the only phrase needed will be “show trial”. Blatter and his cronies should be removed from office and forced to pay 1919-style reparations for the damage they have done.

Not a book for the casual football fan, but for the diehards a must read. As a final thought I’ll chime in on the note Jennings ends his work with. Where’s the money Sepp? Why not open up the books to external investigation? What are you hiding Sepp?

Monday, 20 September 2010

United Need Queiroz More Than Ever

There cannot be no question that United leaking seven goals in three games so far this season is pure coincidence. It’s a problem and a serious one at that. Disregarding the brilliance of Berbatov netting a hat-trick to finally beat Liverpool the United defence needs some tuning up if they want to offer a title challenge to the current juggernaut of Chelsea. The ever reliable tabloid gossip has been suggesting that Carlos Queiroz is coming back to the United for the third time. If true, there can be no sweeter news to United fans. Despite the way his tenure as Portugal manager ended and the embarrassing lack of goals the side produced Queiroz remains one of the best defensive coaches around.

When Ferguson last had Queiroz at his side United went on to win a league and European Cup double. Victories based on a ruthless defence. Worryingly for fans, all of the players who formed that back five remain at the club. It must be said that Brown and Ferdinand have had long term injury problems and the replacements of O’Shea and Evans remain unconvincing against the best but the deterioration in efficiency is obvious.

O’Shea has performed admirably in the RB role for several years until the end of last season. His current form is worrying but he remains a quality defender despite this slump. Evans on the other hand has been entirely inadequate for a title-challenging side. Bullied into numerous mistakes by Zamora and several times was badly caught out by the out-of-form Torres. The youngster has bags of potential and could still become a “Rolls-Royce” Centre Back but this season he isn’t good enough for United if they want to win serious trophies.

Secondly the gulf between the midfield and back four against Liverpool was huge at times. Fletcher is a terrier but his all-round game offers far more than just energy and therefore he requires freedom to attack while Giggs is hardly the defensive shield needed. The less said about Scholes’ tackling the better.

Queiroz had some unorthodox techniques for training the United backline but they worked. Gary Neville recalls being ambushed around Carrington, United’s training ground by Queiroz who would give on the spot quizzes or show videos to tighten up mistakes. At first the players were suspicious and hesitant but soon the treatment paid dividends. Whatever works to tighten a leaking defence must be done and fast, otherwise United will watch Ancelotti claim another title.

We all want to see the teams like the United of ’99 with the “you score three, we’ll get four” philosophy, but that doesn’t work n Europe anymore. The 1999 triumph was built on unrelenting attacking drive but owed as much to luck as it did to ability. No English side in the last two decades has had the brilliance of Guardiola’s Barcelona yet even Messi et al couldn’t by-pass Mourinho’s Inter defence in what Jonathan Wilson argues will become viewed as a seminal moment in football history. United won’t win without a proper defence and that relies on the return of Queiroz.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

More Time For Mourinho

Of all the clubs in Europe the one least known for having patience with losers is Real Madrid. The expectation on Mourinho is to immediately displace Barcelona as champions and more importantly win a tenth European Cup. More than any other club Madrid holds the big cup as part of its identity. The whole club is obsessed with one goal: ‘La Decima’, the tenth. However, this may be a season where madridistas have to suck it up and accept that even the best coach on earth (believe me, saying that isn’t pleasant) needs more than one season.

Already Madrid have made an erratic start to the season, the opening day draw with Malaga only forgotten due to Barcelona being beaten by Hercules at home. The game against Ajax on Wednesday was peculiar to watch to those familiar with typical Mourinho teams. A great game which could either have ended 2-2 or 10-0. Madrid deserved their victory but this wasn’t the machine-like performances that Mourinho crafted at Chelsea and towards the end of his tenure at Inter. The ruthlessness wasn’t there in front of goal, Ronaldo in particular being wasteful and Madrid were defensively suspect. Ajax had more than their fair share of chances to take something from the game. The one thing that is supposedly almost guaranteed with Jose is you won’t concede many.

Critics will suggest I’m being too harsh. After all, three games in and Madrid have conceded a total of zero goals. However, although they didn’t concede against Ajax this was much more due to luck and the class of Casillas rather than Madrid defending well as a unit. Whether Mourinho has the time this season to impress his vision on this team is questionable. The Inter of 2008/9 was nowhere near to the treble-winning side a year later. Yes, a number of superb players were brought in over that summer and yes, this Real squad is (on paper) even better than the side Jose left behind but there was more than just the squad that generated the success in Milan. Mourinho needed to make the side his own, get them playing his way. This Madrid side is evidently not doing that yet.

Whatever you personally feel about the Portuguese, he virtually guarantees success wherever he goes and Madrid will prove no different if the fans and the board show the faith in keeping him even if he finishes this season empty-handed. The terraces have already shown they don’t particularly care for the man or the way he plays football but there is a grudging respect, based on the idea that, while it might not be pretty it’ll be effective. Now is the time for a small amount of sanity in the Bernabeu, to realise that if Mourinho doesn’t provide the success, who else is there to take on Pep’s Golden Boys? Real Madrid has the feeling of a whole community collectively biting its tongue. For the sake of the team they need to keep on doing so, possibly through another barren season.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Wolves: Get Tough Or Die?

It’s a matter of fact, not opinion, that there is a right way and a wrong way to play football. The right way is attacking, flowing football. The wrong way is the winning at all costs approach. The approach that inspired catenaccio and fouling Pele out of the 1966 World Cup. Recently the media has been discussing the rights and wrongs of the current Wolves squad and whether they are downright dirty or merely physical, whether they are going out to deliberately hurt or remove players from play. That is fairly well trodden territory by now. Whatever answer one prefers, the long term debate to be had is how McCarthy evolves this side.

Feel free to insert your own line about how Karl Henry “Isn’t that type of player” with regards to the tackle which broke Zamora’s leg. Personally I regard it as without intent and football is still a physical contest where you earn your right to play. If teams want to go rough they must pay the penalties of cards, fines, bans etc. However as Stoke and Wolves are proving going in hard is a strategy that can benefit. Stoke are already a safe feature of the Premiership and Wolves are more than well enough equipped to survive the dangerous second season. The teams coming up from the Championship seemingly have the choice, get tough or die. Those who tried to actually play pleasing, open football such as West Brom under Mowbray just get mown down at the top level.

It is forgivable for teams to want to impose themselves physically onto a contest in order to try and compete with the big boys. I don’t believe that McCarthy and Pulis send players out to hurt others. It’s a physicality born of necessity. But although I respect and admire the job that Pulis has done at Stoke but I would always rather watch a side managed by Roberto Martinez or Owen Coyle, managers who believe in flair.

The Leeds side of Peter Lorimer or Rattin’s Argentina showed the benefits of the harder side of the game. The Netherlands didn’t exactly try for samba football against Spain . It can bring trophies and success (admittedly less so now with rule modifications and the tightening of refereeing standards) but to go back to the original point it is the wrong way to play football. Fans can be forgiven for wanting to turn up and get a win but it isn’t something to inspire. Not suggesting that Wolves turn into Barcelona overnight but bringing in players such as Wilshire for Bolton last year shows commitment to winning and winning with style.

Expecting newly promoted sides to come out and play football as Wenger demands is silly. They haven’t had the millions that comes with season after season of top flight football and they survival is all its about. But when a side has been playing in the Premiership for more than a few years, fans deserve to see a move away from Sam Allardyce style football.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Good Result But Not Much To Learn From England Vs. Bulgaria

It’s amazing that some English journalists don’t sustain whiplash from their knee-jerk reactions after each England game. England can definitely play 4-4-2 successfully. The Defoe-Rooney partnership does work. Joe Hart is the answer. As a nation England could do with the collective equivalent of counting to ten before judging any performance.

The conclusions that can actually be drawn from the Bulgaria game are tenuous at best. Rooney and Defoe did link up well, partly due to the more withdrawn role that Capello asked Rooney to play but the Bulgarian defence was poor and unable to deal with Rooney’s movement or Defoe’s pace. Having previously failed, the partnership needs a sterner test than accommodating opposition on home soil. Similarly Joe Hart does look like he is turning into a very solid ‘keeper but the biggest threat to his goal was Glen Johnson. It is far too soon for the Setanta commentator to be talking about him earning more caps than Shilton.

The formation issue is more complex. The vogue which is sweeping football fans everywhere is 4-2-3-1, particularly with two featuring a double pivot of the tough tackler and the deep-lying playmaker a la Gattuso and Pirlo for AC Milan in the mid 00’s or the Liverpool version of Mascherano and Alonso. This pivot a) forms a box with the centre-backs which congests the danger zone that the opposition is attempting to occupy and b) creates a triangle with the driving presence of a dominant trequartista or number 10 such as Kaka or Gerrard.

The problem facing England is whether the necessary personnel exist which enable this system. Gerrard has proved at Liverpool that he is capable of playing this role behind Torres, while Rooney was effectively dropping off against Bulgaria and finding space to dictate play. The double pivot presents a bigger challenge. Under Capello the deep-lying playmaker role has been filled by Barry whenever he has been available. Other options include Michael Carrick who is suffering a serious loss of form for both club and country, Huddlestone or Jack Wilshire. Neither Barry nor Carrick are good enough at the crunch requiring time and space on the ball in order to dictate games which is denied at the top level. Huddlestone and Wilshire both lack the necessary experience. Wilshire in particular looks a very good prospect but both are highly unlikely to be ready by 2012.

Finally there is the destroyer role. In all honesty, not one England player could compete with Gattuso, Mascherano or even Sergio Busquets. The positional discipline and ability to read the game that all of the above have in spades is not present in any current or prospective player for England. This role is the nub of the problem with England adopting the 4-2-3-1 role. Against Germany we saw how easily the midfield was bypassed on the counter-attack. In short, come back Owen Hargreaves, your country needs you.

A decent performance against a poor Bulgarian outfit has been subjected to a level of (inept) analysis that it doesn’t really merit. Rooney is regaining fitness, Defore and Walcott are both really quick and Hart is a confident and competent goalkeeper. Wonderful. Until we bring in two decent deep-lying midfielders, we will continue without silverware.