Sunday, 31 October 2010

Quarter Season Review

Best Player: Honourable mentions go to Chamakh who has settled in well at Arsenal, demonstrated by how little they have missed perma-crock van Persie so far this season (see quote of the season) as well as Tevez at Manchester City. However for several reasons this one goes to Nani. About 18 months ago the idea of the Portuguese winger having such an impact for United was laughable. He has been crucial for United so far this season, chipping in seven goals and another seven assists, without which the team would most certainly not be in third. Also, given the media storm surrounding the Rooney saga, the emergence of Hernandez and the goals of Berbatov, Nani has gone largely unlauded despite being the clubs and indeed possibly the leagues best player.

Best Signing: The tiny Mexican Hernandez comes in with a shout, already having scored six this season. Gyan is a very good signing for Sunderland and will hopefully go on to fulfil his potential in England. Chamakh gets another mention for the same reasons mentioned above. However the stand-out signing of the season so far has to be Rafael van der Vaart. The Dutchman has delighted since arriving, scoring in every game he has played at White Hart Lane and adding a whole new creative dimension to Spurs play. All this for only £8m as well.

Best Manager: Very difficult to call between Roberto Di Matteo and Chris Hughton. Both managing promoted sides and have gotten West Brom and Newcastle up into 6th and 7th respectively. Both have had their golden moments, West Brom beating Arsenal and claiming points at Spurs and Manchester United while Newcastle have thrashed Aston Villa 6-0 and even more pleasing for their fans trounced rivals Sunderland 5-1 at home. Incredibly hard to call but this one goes to Di Matteo as his side could move up into 4th if they win their game in hand against Blackpool, a fantastic achievement after 10 games.

The Over Performers: Hard to ignore the fantastic starts made by West Brom and Newcastle but Blackpool were expected to be the punching bag of this season. Instead with a quarter of the season gone they have played well and as a team. They have recorded good victories against Wigan and Liverpool. Furthermore they can feel incredibly hard done by to get nothing against Man City. It’s still unlikely that the Tangerines can avoid the drop but great to see every promoted side being competitive. After Derby got 11 points in the 2007/08 season the fear was a gulf could really widen between established and new sides. West Brom, Newcastle and Blackpool are proving this isn’t the case this season.

The Under Performers: Liverpool. This one is a no brainer. Even now, despite new owners and moving up to 12th after beating Bolton the season has so far been tragic for the Reds. Uncle Woy and his signings such as Poulsen and Konchesky have been underwhelming so far. Worse, Torres and Gerrard look utterly spent. After giving every last drop in the 2008/09 season and still coming up short the pair seem more than a little crushed by the drop in the clubs standing.

Champions: Chelsea. The question looks to be how much they will win by.

Best “Yoof” Player: Smalling has looked solid for United, Wilshire continues to develop nicely for Arsenal but the outstanding Yoofer of the season has been Everton’s Seamus Coleman. As with Rodwell and Gosling, Everton seem to just keep producing bright local prospects.

Quote of the season: “RvP to be out for 10 days” – Arsenal club statement after the Dutchman injured himself on August 28th.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Watching In America

Sometimes it takes a child to show us the way. FTW is unfortunately stuck in the sporting wilderness of Washington D.C. for the next few months. Waking up at 7am in order to watch the Spurs vs. Everton game I was joined by a number of Americans all curious about the way nobody was using their hands. Amid the calls of “terrible play coach!” and “did you see the way he sacked that guy?!” I was called upon to explain what was going on. After patiently clarifying that the teams were not actually called Autonomy and Chang merely the sponsors (a sadly poignant statement about the priorities of the Premiership) I was asked why only three substitutes were allowed. At first questioning the natural order of three subs was like asking why dyed hair and huge boots go together. That’s the way it has always been.

However, the longer I thought about it the more it might be an idea to increase the number of substitutes allowed in a game. The idea has been tossed around in the Italian league for a while but I never thought about the implications the change would bring. Just changing from three to four would result in a new tactical dimension in football. As things currently stand most managers are loathe to switch their team around before half-time and indeed many wait until 60 minutes before making alterations. Partly the reason for this is to safeguard against injuries sustained or players going into the referee’s book. Taking off player A before half-time means restricts your tactical options later given that your subs bench has decreased to six and only two can be used. Increasing the number of substitutions allowed would create a greater tactical flexibility for managers to exploit. Substitutions form an essential part of the game. The number of players on the bench has increased so why not the number of changes permitted?

A further advantage of the increased number of changes is the possibilities for youth development. In theory the additional sub would be used by managers to blood younger players when a game is being convincingly won. Admittedly blooding youngsters in dead rubbers isn’t ideal and there is already the Carling “Yoof Development” Cup for this. It is likely that the extra substitute will be for tactical rather than experience purposes. However this is a preferable situation. Giving managers greater control over the game should again theoretically improve the standard of games.

In the main, the rules of football require tweaking rather than radical change. Increasing the number of substitutes is one of the more extreme changes I would advocate looking at. But increasingly it seems like a way to allow mangers more control, give player more rest and gently breaking younger players into the first team squad. An idea that deserves more attention in Britain.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Rooney Or Ferguson? Easy Choice

It’s hard to imagine more startling news in the football world than Rooney demanding to leave United. In one day Liverpool and their troubles, both on and off pitch, have been relegated to the back pages. Details are unclear but it seems that the Rooney/Ferguson relationship has deteriorated to the point that Old Trafford just isn’t big enough for the two of them. This is a situation we’ve seen a fair few times before with Ferguson. Beckham, Keane, Stam and Schmeichel have all fallen foul of the fiery Scot. Only Schmeichel managed to stay at the club, after having to offer an unreserved apology to Ferguson.

The key issue for Manchester United is the long term stability of the club. The most common phrase heard when among United fans is “No player is bigger than the club” (apart from “My Gawd, isn’t the M1 traffic going to be awful on Saturday?”). United have been the dominant side in English football since the creation of the Premier League and the success has carried on despite losing Robson, Keane, Cantona and Beckham as well as other big names along the way. However with each departure the Manchester faithful have had the assurance that Ferguson will go on and rebuild. This time, at best it is hard to imagine him going for much more than two or three years. Rooney on the other hand could continue for a good six or seven years at the top level. This is potentially the first time that the star has clashed with the manager and could serve the club best in the long run.

However if the reports are true that Rooney has essentially challenged the club to choose between him and Ferguson the board has only one logical choice. It would be a sucker-punch to lose Rooney but the alternative is to become Real Madrid in the early 00’s. Raul in particular was as powerful as any manager during that era including World Cup and multiple Champions League winner Vincente del Bosque. If Rooney were to successfully face down Ferguson and survive what possible chance does any incoming manager have of dealing with player power?

Secondly there is the possibility that Rooney isn’t going to recover from this slump. In the past few months Rooney has publically urinated, cheated on his pregnant wife, played terribly and then contradicted his manager after he tried to protect him. These could be seen as the signs of a young man struggling with life and lashing out at those around him.

It would be genuinely tragic if Rooney fails to recover the form of 34 club goals last season. However he has emphatically gone off the rails in the last few months in a way reminiscent of (cliché alert) Gascoigne. Rooney might just have reached his peak value for United last season. Cashing in while the memory of his ability for the club is fresh might be the logical move. Above all the Glazers cannot afford to value the commercial appeal of Wayne Rooney above that of Alex Ferguson.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Gloomy Uncle Roy And The Shame Of The Premier League

This article has been deliberately delayed in order to offer a sober assessment of the situation at Liverpool. The problems at Liverpool are systemic and deep and the problems are both on and off the field. The first section deals with whether Hodgson should remain as manager. The second looks at how the Premier League failed Liverpool FC since the Hicks and Gillett takeover.

Should Liverpool Keep Hodgson?

Put simply, yes. Uncle Woy was a solid choice after Benitez and he remains so. With a very influential manager leaving, coming off the back of a poor season and a squad in transition a steadying hand was needed. Hodgson is able to provide this. The horrific start is the fault of the players more than the manager.

The current debate in the papers and on internet forums is whether Benitez should have gone and if Hodgson should have succeeded him. Frankly its irrelevant by now. Arresting the Merseyside slide seems an impossible task given how the team is playing. Jonathan (SP) Wilson noted in Sports Illustrated how woeful Liverpool’s defending was against Blackpool. The space the visitors found in the opposing half was inexcusable. That isn’t something a manager should have to contend with at this level. Every player in that side has played at senior international level. Even with no manager Poulsen, Meireles and Gerrard should know to cover that danger zone.

Hodgson’s successes haven’t come in big footballing countries. He won the Swedish league with Halmstads and then Malmo FF, followed much later by the Danish title at Copenhagen. To ridicule, as many have these achievements because they weren’t done at big clubs is to miss the point. Hodgson has been around the footballing block and deserves respect, something that the players at Liverpool seem to not be giving him. What Uncle Woy brings is a solid shape and organised team, something Liverpool crave right now. The system and training methods may be repetitive and boring but they took Fulham to a Europa League final beating Juventus on the way. That wasn’t a fluke. If the system works for Fulham it can work as well for Liverpool if the players let it. The players don’t seem to want to pull together for the man.

The current body language of the team suggests not only a team in free-fall, but one that cannot summon up the will to change that situation. On the one hand it’s the job of the manager to motivate the team but Benitez hardly came across as a great man-manager, he barely registered as competent in that department and yet the team worked like dogs for him. Secondly sheer professional pride should come into play. It might be sad if some of these players aren’t good enough to wear the shirt of Liverpool. It’s far worse if they simply don’t care.

This is a team which badly needs to return to the basics in terms of defending and organisation. The job of Hodgson is to stop the rot and, given time and more crucially the good-will of the players, he is more than capable of doing so. He has made some errors tactically, most notably against Manchester City but he has inherited a squad that seems to have already given up. This blog was delayed after the Blackpool defeat because I wanted to think properly about whether Hodgson does deserve to keep his job. It’s not a popular view and it’s not the easier answer but Roy needs to be retained and the players need to give him the respect and hunger they showed to Rafa Benitez.

Who Do We Blame For The Financial Meltdown?

The easiest target would be Hicks and Gillett. Of course they are disgusting parasites which need to be removed before Liverpool can begin to heal. But the real problem is that they were allowed to take over in the first place. The Premier League has been shameful in its silence over the way the Americans loaned money to buy the club then loaded that very debt onto the club, crippling it for the foreseeable future, at least until another rich boy comes along wanting his new toy.

In a video released by the “Spirit of Shankly” supporters branch one Liverpool fan claims “it was never about the club, it was about money, it was about profit, it was about greed.” Well...yes. Of course it was. Tom Hicks and George Gillett had never shown an interest in football in their entire lives until they took over Liverpool. What did people expect? They’re bastards but frankly we should never have expected anything better from them. The Premier League on the other hand is supposed to give a damn about the state of the game. It is reasonable to expect it to try and safeguard our clubs against these parasites. Their role in the farce has been largely ignored. Scudamore et al need to be named and shamed for what is happening to Liverpool and Manchester United.

The fit and proper test has already passed noted human rights abuser Thaksin Shinawatra. So if those who abuse human rights are allowed to own clubs, what exactly is the test for then? Why to safeguard the economic future of our clubs of course. Great! So why were Hicks and Gillett allowed to unleash their full incompetence at one of our most historic clubs? If the Thai dictator didn’t constitute and unfit and improper person and neither do Hicks and Gillett, loading debt onto the club as they did exactly who is the FA preventing from owning clubs here? You don’t need ethics, you don’t need to a “football man” and you don’t seem to even have the money to buy the club.

A little bit of ethical thinking would go a long way in modern football but even if we grudgingly accept that that is not what we’re here to judge our owners on can we at least say that buying the club with money you do not have is frankly insane? The FA is here to protect the game. They have failed time and again, not just since 1992 but ever since football in this country has become professional. They need to own up to these failings before another Liverpool situation is allowed to happen.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

"Englischer Fussball"

Off the bat it must be said that the problem for me in reviewing “Englischer Fussball” is remaining unbiased. I have been reading Honigstein in the Guardian for years and as a weekly columnist on German football he is excellent. I found it very engaging and well-written but I was already predisposed to liking the book. Therefore feel free to take this review with a pinch of salt.

Each chapter is fairly short and self-contained, generally dealing with a specific issue in English football. However several broad themes run throughout the book. Commercialisation, hooliganism and relations with foreigners recur in most chapters. Honigstein obviously likes much of English football but seems bemused by the attitude we have to our stars, our clubs and our managers. The way that clubs have been taking advantage of fans since the start of the 20th century is laid out in devastatingly simple language. Only a few weeks ago fans of Dortmund and Stuttgart boycotted the derby game in protest at a rise in ticket prices. The idea of fans of Liverpool and United or Arsenal and Spurs doing the same is unimaginable. The sight of the North-West derby being played to an empty stadium would be front page news in every paper but the quasi-religious fervour of the British fan prevents any such boycott happening.

Much of the book fills you with shame about the state of our game. Honigstein systematically dismantles most of what we feel is good about our national game. The myths that English players don’t dive, have a unique sense of fair play and compete like “real men” are put through the wringer. The German paints a picture where the technical wizards of the game have suffered time and again in England. The hard-men have been preferred over the flair players for far too long and Honigstein blames the World Cup victory in 1966. Manager Alf Ramsey went for what could kindly be called functional football over skilful ball-players, setting the tone for the next fifty years in the domestic game. Honigstein points out just how many technicians have suffered since ’66. Names like Frank Worthington, Rodney Marsh and Charlie George were cruelly overlooked when compared to the likes of Nobby Stiles or Jack Charlton. The urge to apologise is so strong because the words are so uncomfortably accurate.

British relations with foreigners are complex and not particularly noble. Honigstein is ruthless in pointing out the hypocrisy of the English, particularly the press. Match of the Day still regularly ignores incidents of Wayne Rooney or Steven Gerrard tumbling in the box but with gleefully replay Drogba or van Persie doing the same. Overall the book shows a Jekyll and Hyde league. On the one hand the Premiership has developed into the biggest money machine in the world. It has attracted the best stars, regularly dominates in Europe and is played at the most breathless pace imaginable. The flip side is a nation stuck in the tactical wilderness, more willing to rely on bruisers and kick-and-rush than a more technical Latin style of play. There is so much to like about English football that the failings come across as even more glaring than they otherwise would.

As previously mentioned, my status as a Raphael Honigstein fanboy disqualifies this review from any sort of professionalism, but nonetheless it’s an excellent read and the foreign perspective on our game is refreshing and intelligent. Buy the book. It’s worth it.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Where Have We Seen This Film Before?

At times it feels like those who write about the Premiership could quite easily get away with looking back to an old article and just using Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V. Some things just don’t change. Richard Keys and Jamie Redknapp will continue their unspoken love while the third, unwelcome analyst becomes the awkward third wheel. Dimitar Berbatov will always be branded as a laconic genius when it works and a lazy git when it doesn’t. And Didier Drogba will score against Arsenal. Like night following day the Ivorian has caused Wenger more nightmares than Almunia coming for a cross.

What more is there to say about today’s match? Well on the bright side, after Fabregas makes the pre-programmed migration of the Iberian footballer over to Spain, Arsenal already have a ready-made replacement. Samir Nasri has always given his best performances in an Arsenal shirt when Fabregas isn’t playing. He revels in the role that Fabregas occupies and offers consolation about the loss of the world cup winner. While it must be frustrating for Wenger, unable to have both Nasri and Fabregas on song simultaneously, there must be some relief in knowing that Nasri is creatively able to step up. Nasri is not on the same level as Fabregas but when Guardiola drops off the huge bag of money in exchange for Arsene’s seven year babysitting service the money least doesn’t need to be used to find the new creative spark.

The other positive to come out of today’s game is that Drogba is going to be 33 by the end of the season. His reign of terror will soon be over. But if Wenger switched to the currently fashionable 4-2-3-1 featuring two proper holding midfielders Chelsea would have been significantly less effective on the counter. Alex Song is becoming a solid defensive shield but Wilshire was played too deep and doesn’t yet have the tactical and positional awareness to perform the role.

It’s a constant puzzle that the two of the most successful managers in the Premiership era (Wenger and Ferguson) are actually not that clever tactically. Ferguson struggled for years in Europe trying to persevere with inadequate 4-4-2 while Wenger seems to be wilfully making the same mistakes repeatedly against top level opposition. Chelsea and United have used the same counter-attacking strategy against Arsenal for the past few seasons. The pattern always remains the same. Arsenal dominate possession and space but get sucker-punched on the break. Going forward everyone knows the wonderful football the Londoners are capable of playing but the problem is the lack of anyone who can read the game in the way Roy Keane or Claude Makelele.

FTW tries to always avoid footballing clichés and refuses to ever use the words “Arsenal need to buy a big strong centre-back”. That isn’t the problem. Without Queiroz Manchester United look significantly worse defensively and Wenger has the exact same issue. The players are good enough but against the top teams Arsenal are being tactically beaten before they even set foot on the pitch.