Typical. Just typical. Within weeks of me posting about the rise of “tiki-taka” and the problems this has been causing the game of late it seems the possession-based ideology has been ousted from its prestigious throne, unceremoniously replaced by a boisterous new leader, “the counter attack”.
The season ended with numerous managers adopting the approach to differing, yet at times devastating, effect. Like a mouse trap waiting to be sprung sides have been sitting back and offering possession to the opposition – “Go on take it, be my guest”. From this vantage point they sit patiently, waiting for the opposition to take the bait and fall in to the trap of a false sense of security. It only takes a misplaced pass, a heavy touch, or a crunching tackle and the counter attackers are in full flow.
Quicker than the average man can say “but they only had 30% possession” the ball is retrieved and they are racing towards the opposition’s goal. Bewildered midfielders are left high up the pitch, stranded in no mans land on the wrong side of play. Defenders are thus left outnumbered and can be seen backtracking furiously towards their own goal in search of sanctuary from the fast approaching storm. Such shelter is usually insufficient however as the storm rips through in the form of quick-fire manoeuvring of the ball on its way to it’s final destination between the sticks.
This situation was replayed time and again throughout the latter stages of the campaign as various exponents of the possession-game failed to heed the warning sings. Two fine exponents of the counter, Chelsea and Liverpool, dismantled two fine exponents of at times pedestrian attacking ineptitude, Arsenal and Manchester United, on different occasions.
Perhaps the greatest illustration of the tactics strengths however was offered by Real Madrid in Munich. Their demolition of Guardiola’s Bayern side offered a blueprint from which many will surely try to follow. A solid back four, with two deep-lying playmakers sitting in front capable of spraying passes for the roadrunners DiMaria and Bale to chase out wide, provided the foundation from which Real were able to cut through Bayern’s defence at will.
Next month the stadiums of Brazil, some magnificent and some half built by all accounts, will host the World Cup – a battle-ground for the war between possession and counter attacking. In last summer’s Confederations Cup final a combination of Brazil’s rugged defending, direct attacking and the noise of the Maracana blew Spain away. Whether they will be able do so again remains to be seen.
Watching Bayern Munich perform at Old Trafford was a rare footballing treat. The fluidity of movement, the crispness of the passing, the sweeper keeper are all key components which make the Pep Guardiola ethos as easy on the eye as any the game has seen, at least in the modern era. However, like many a famous catwalk model, despite the almost flawless appearance such a style can at times be fragile beneath the surface. For all their sharp passing and interchanging of positions Bayern struggled to break down David Moyes’ for once organised and defensively cohesive United side.
In theory dominating possession increases the chance of winning as more chances should fall your way to stick the ball between the posts. The great caveat however lies when possession is used not as a weapon to beat the opposition but as a stick to fend them off. United may have finished against Bayern with just 26% possession – the lowest recorded by a home team in the Champions League this season – yet over the course of the 90 mins they created more clear goal scoring opportunities on the counter attack…that is if you class the ball falling to Danny Welbeck in front of goal as a goal scoring opportunity.
The impact Guardiola’s system has had on the game – with Spain, Barcelona, Bayern and ‘Barca-lite’ outfits such as Swansea reaping the rewards of the possession based ideology on various levels – offers backing for its proponents. But it is not for everyone.
Germany and Bayern legend Franz Beckenbauer complained earlier this year that, “In the end, we’ll be unwatchable like Barca. They’ll be passing it backwards on the goal-line. [My vision] is different. If I have the chance to shoot from distance, especially in front of a crowded defence, I’d take it. It’s the most efficient way.”
For me, the problem doesn’t lie with the likes of Bayern who are great exponents. My gripe is with sides who, like moths to a light, have thoughtlessly flown towards the possession-based Land of Narnia without considering whether they are capable of making the journey in the first place. Tika-takas’ outstanding success at national and elite level ensured the whole ideology of the game slowly altered and not always for the greater good.
To dominate the game coaches have become obsessed with players being more competent across a range of positions. It seems everyone on the pitch has slowly edged towards the middle of the park, where the battle for possession is at its most ferocious. Number 9’s have become False 9’s, no.10s drop deeper than ever before, wingers have inverted and full backs now play as where winger once roamed. Herein lies the problem – one Bayern experienced on Tuesday and teams such as Arsenal have often suffered at the hands of.
Players on the whole are becoming Jacks of all the Trades but the masters of none of them. Certain players in certain roles that necessitate a degree of specialism to be performed correctly; such as that of the poacher, target man or holding midfielder; can help to transform a team. Unfortunately such exponents are now frowned upon with much the disdain reserved for those who have exposed themselves in public or enjoyed a Kit-Kat Chunky instead of a protein shake after a gym session.
Bayern were crying out for a true goal poacher on Tuesday with no interest in anything but putting the ball in the net. Yet such a player has been banished as they don’t help boost the passing stats by hanging about up top. For years Arsenal have required a holding midfielder in the Makelele role yet such a water-carrier betrays Wenger’s passion for aesthetically pleasing football.
The words of Paul Scholes should make Wenger think twice but likely will fall on death ears, “The Artetas, the Cazorlas, Rosickys, and Ozil as well, although I know he’s not played for a bit, it seems like they go on the pitch with no discipline. It’s almost as if they say: ‘You four, five midfielders, go out there do what you want. Try and score a goal, a few little nice one-twos, a bit of tippy-tappy football. Don’t bother running back’.”
Such specialist roles are now seen as luxury and have been replaced by a more practical alternative, with modern players often ticking more than one box. For instance, many of the games top players who play as no.9’s such as Luis Suarez, Diego Costa, Sergio Aguero or Zlatan Ibrahimovic have also played or can play out wide or in the hole.
One position where the change has been truly noticeable of late is that of what once truly epitomised the luxury player, the playmaker. Playmakers of the past such as Del Piero and Rivaldo offered a great goal threat and only really looked to impact upon the game in the final third be that by way of assist or goal. Defending was left to the men behind them.
By contrast, their modern counterparts such as Oscar at Chelsea or even Wayne Rooney have become almost as worried about what is going on behind them in a defensive aspect as about what they can do in front of them to break down the opposition. They may be a more hardworking and diligent performer capable of filling in as a central midfielder or out wide when required but the true effectiveness of a player in that role has been reduced as a result of the positional blurring of the lines.
Gary Neville talked of Manchester United suffering from an ‘identity crisis’ at the moment. Yet I would go as far as to tar the whole game with that brush. Too many teams are on a quest for possession domination, the mythical holy grail that cures all ailments and wins trophies. Much like Gollum’s attempts to recover the Ring in the famous trilogy such efforts are surely in vain and can only end in tears.
Differing styles and identities are what make the game great and ethos such as that of Guardiola all the more appreciable. Watching Andy Carroll chest a 40 yard pass out of the air on Monday night to set up a goal after himself bulleting home a header was a welcome change of scene from seeing teams such as Sunderland attempting to pass their way into the goal when their players struggle to pass the length of their arm in the first place. There is more than one way to skin a cat and more football clubs must realise this. As the saying goes, “If everyone is thinking alike then somebody isn’t thinking”.
As he slumped in his chair on the flight home from Greece David Moyes would of been forgiven a rye smile. If he didn’t laugh he must surely have been close to tears. Not in his gravest nightmares could his tenure in charge at the Premier League champions have started so horrendously.
6 defeats in his last 12. Out of every cup bar a miracle. Breaking records left, right and centre albeit mainly the hoodoos many teams have suffered at Old Trafford. If it wasn’t a full-blown crisis it certainly became one Tuesday.
Ferguson could of put a list of managerial names in a big tumbler and had Joe Kinnaer, Berti Vogts or Big Sam “I’d win the double every year at a big club” Allardyce’s name been plucked and anointed the “Chosen One” I doubt things could have went any worse to this point. It truly has been that bad.
United have failed before and will fail again. Yet, under Ferguson and those who went before him failure, especially in Europe, was always tinged with a sense of desperation and characterised by a spectacular, dramatic collapse. With Moyes’ current incarnation failure seems almost accepted however, defeats resembling more a car crash in slow motion than the full on Formula One style implosion with Sky+ on x30 of the past.
Manchester United’s global brand has been built on this sense of adventure. Of a reckless abandon in search of success. Yet, against Olympiakos this was nowhere to be seen. Instead a cautious retreat towards their own goal took place.
Pointlessly passing it sideways across the back four without conviction before aimlessly launching it long into the channel towards no one in particular bore the hallmarks of an amateur side never mind a side intent on conquering Europe.
The flaws in this United squad have been well-documented and are their for all to see. Chris Smalling’s continued presence at full back and Tom Cleverley’s continued presence on the field are nothing short of baffling. Young and Valencia offer one of the blandest wide partnerships to pull on the red shirt in recent memory.
Under Ferguson these cracks were evident. Thumping’s off the new age City home and away and failure to traverse the group stage a couple of years back highlighted systemic flaws in the side’s make up.
Yet, as Ferguson himself has stated “success buys you power” as players know they can trust the man steering the ship. The undying loyalty found in his players as a result ensured blips remained as such before quickly being swept under the carpet.
Moyes unfortunately in the early days of his tenure doesn’t have such success to fall back on and widespread doubt in his abilities seems apparent amongst his players. Tuesday nights tepid display for one bore all the hallmarks of players downing tools.
If he is to recover from the ominous position he finds himself in Moyes has to ignore his instinct to be cautious and follow the attacking blueprint set before him. This isn’t a time to for the man in charge to stick when he can twist.
Unfortunately for Moyes though it seems only a matter of time until the cards he’s been dealt leave him bust.
As my bio suggests being able to cross a ball is something I take pride in. It’s one of the few strings to my bow. My footballing ability is summed up as “as somewhat of a luxury player, capable of anything but usually produces nothing. Doesn’t track back, can’t tackle, can’t head the ball, no pace…but is quite good at corners”. In fact, Opta may or may not have recently reported that 91% of my crosses ‘end up in the mixer’.
Deceptively slow and often shunted to the left wing due to rare left footed tendencies, swinging the ball in early became a force of habit as searing down the line past a full back was never a realistic proposition. Such a reliance has fallen hand in hand with me gratefully accepting the prestigious designation as my amateur football side’s set-piece taker. As the great philosopher Spiderman once claimed though, “with great power comes great responsibility”.
Whenever I shank a corner; be that behind the goal, over everyone’s heads and beyond into the gorse bush running alongside the far touchline, into the keeper’s grateful clutches or onto the dome of the pesky near post defender I feel an overriding sense of shame and the requirement to acknowledge this embarrassment through the raising of a hand and shake of the head for failing my responsibility in miserable fashion. And if I fail to appreciate my pitiful attempt then the glare and potential verbal assault by the centre backs who have waddled forward from their defensive base lets me know for sure how pathetic my delivery was.
Poor delivery, even at amateur level where practice takes place at most once a week, is a cardinal sin. Consequently I find it incomprehensible how it is seems almost blissfully ignored and accepted when a professional player, training on a daily basis for hours, repeatedly makes a dogs dinner of such a seemingly simple task.
A number of factors are to blame for this. In an era where tika-taka is reigning supreme the primeval arts of crossing and corners are receiving less recognition and are often just taken for granted. However, set-pieces still contribute hugely as a simple route to goal and the subsequent winning and losing of games. So when the man designated the responsibility, earning £80,000 a week based on his footballing talent, fails repeatedly questions have to be asked.
Having all day every day to practice the skill is a luxury only awarded to those at the highest level yet many continue to find that crossing a football into the danger zone from the corner flag is as difficult as crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a dingy. The likes of Beckham and Gerrard, who could put it on a sixpence from 30 yards, are testament to the motto that practice makes perfect with regard to delivering a great ball. This ability didn’t arrive through luck but through countless hours spent whipping in cross after cross after cross.
Repetition makes any task easier, be that playing video games or lifting weight. The inner drive to be the best they possible can is what separates the great set-piece takers and crossers of a ball from others at the top level. With elite coaching available to players nowadays there really is no excuse.
A few weeks back Man United launched in 81 crosses to no avail. That served to emphasise just how uncomfortable and inept some players are when asked to cross a ball. Chris Smalling, for instance, when hitting the byline looks as uncomfortable as a man arriving at a sword fight with a baguette. He can be excused slightly as he is a defender out of his comfort zone. For others though it just boils down to the fact that they become lazy and settle for mediocrity whilst your Beckham’s of this world continue to strive for perfection.
If ever the relationship a football fan enjoys with their club could be described as a marriage then my relationship with Rangers offers the ideal analogy. I took my vows as a 5-year-old in the Broomloan Rear, infatuated by the skills of Laudrup and Gascoigne. In the beginning it looked like a marriage made in heaven. Rangers swept aside all before them in style. 9 in a row. It seemed too be good true. And it was. What was once a fruitful partnership on my part has more recently become a relationship characterised by a vindictive sense of betrayal that has left me a broken man.
It all started months back when it became clear all was not rosy in the Govan garden. Like a suspicious partner scanning their wife’s phone to clear my mind of any doubt about their form away from home I delved deeper in search of the truth. Instead of finding what I hoped for however I stumbled upon the equivalent of some alarming texts and a dodgy looking friends list on Snapchat. Left heartbroken I begun to question whether the relationship was worth continuation or whether it was time to call in the divorce lawyers.
Thankfully some marriage counselling with Football Manager reaffirmed my love for the club. Guiding the club back to the top flight and the European stage brought back memories of the good old days when we couldn’t get enough of each other. The spark was reignited. Such was my devotion I even managed to watch 90 minutes of turgid action against Forfar.
Then out of nowhere vicious rumours started to circle. The wife had been playing away with that sneaky pair Craig Whyte and Charles Green. Again. I refused to believe it. I thought they were long gone. I decided I’d be blissfully ignorant and give this one a miss. But then I caught Green scrambling out the bedroom window after coming for second helpings with the wife and I found Whyte’s clothes scattered over the floor. As if that wasn’t enough I checked the bank account only to find she’d went on a reckless spending spree and splurged £20million on nothing of any particular use behind my back. To my dismay I discovered that a significant portion of that outlay had been hoovered up by the best man Mr McCoist.
With that evidence we were back to square one. I’d had enough. She’s wasn’t worth the hassle. Bags were packed and a one-way ticket to the glamorous English Premier League was purchased. For reasons unbeknown to me or those around me I couldn’t bring myself to leave though. No matter how hard I tried to fight it something intangible stopped me walking out the door. Don’t ask me why but in the end I stopped fighting.
For all her infidelity with shady characters and the excess baggage that this diva carries around she’s worth the hassle, if only for those incredible nights of passion that for now may be non-existent but will surely return on a more consistent basis once our troubles are behind us. The wise words of Cantona resonate soundly: ‘You may change your wife, your politics, your religion – but never, never can you change your football team’.
Fernando Torres’ dramatic late goal this afternoon helped Chelsea grab hold of Arsenal’s coattails in menacing fashion. Mourinho, or Pardew-lite as he may well now be known after his excitable leap into the home support post winner, looked every bit the ‘Happy One’. The ‘Happiest One’ however with that late goal could well be David Moyes. He must be grateful and a little surprised to see the title favourites, Manchester City, sitting only two points above his motley crew despite the thrashing his side experienced at the Etihad.
The title race is wide open for all the wrong reasons as every side is lacking despite spending heavily. Ozil-inspired Arsenal have started strong but resemble a dormant volcano waiting to explode. Their obvious frailties are sure to boil over at some point you would of thought. Mourinho will be content with his lot as his side haven’t hit top form yet sit right in contention. When compared to his previous reign they lack the fear factor his old side were characterised by though. The effects of Old Father Time has meant the magnificent spine of Cech-Terry-Lampard-Drogba has been replaced by Older Cech-Older Terry-Older Lampard-No One. El Nino may have bagged today but talk of his return to form is nothing sort of ridiculous given the barren spells that have followed his previous reincarnations.
On their day City are the strongest side in the league by some margin yet they are still woefully short in certain areas as Bayern brutally exposed. Mr Pellegrini is a charming fellow. Whether he can rule with the authority required at a top top side is unclear though. Points are being chucked away for fun by City with no real repercussions as of yet.
Liverpool and Spurs both look strong but surely will not last the distance. The door is wide open for Moyes to take a tilt at the title but his side bereft of true confidence look set to stumble through his first campaign at the helm.
The winner of this year’s title race won’t go down as a magnificent side, just the best of a bad bunch. Who knows, it could be Southampton’s to lose.
Man United are struggling, that much is clear. Fellaini has looked laboured and all to similar to his midfield partner Carrick since his arrival. Too many cooks spoil the broth and when both sit in front of the back four with little intent to press forward and offer inventive ingredients the recipe is disastrous, or in the words of Gordon Ramsay a ****** nightmare.
Nowadays a midfielder must be able to do everything…pass, shoot, tackle, dribble, head, run, pass some more, run some more. They must not only be a jack of all trades but a master of them. The once infamous “Makelele role” has all but disappeared as statistical analysis increased the search for maximum contributions from all eleven players. As a result, complete performers in the middle of the park are becoming all the more common. The likes of Ilkay Gundogan, Bastain Schweinsteiger, Yaya Toure and more recently Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey showcase the full midfield package.
United can only look on with envious eyes however as despite the arrival of the big Belgian they still lack that all-conquering midfield general. Don’t get me wrong, Fellaini and Carrick (in particular) are good players. When paired however it just doesn’t look compatible. They are too similar in style as they both look to shield the back four first and foremost with no real attacking intent. Neither have scored or assisted a goal this season and rarely have they looked like changing that stat. For that reason goals from open play have been frugal for the Old Trafford side who dearly crave a midfield threat.
I’ve always thought Fellaini looks at his most effective up front where long diagonal balls can be aimed in the direction of his bulking 6 foot 4 inch frame. No better was this illustrated than the opening day of last season when he bullied the United back four, chesting balls out of the air with apparent ease before bagging a late winner with a powerful header. With RVP and Rooney filling the attacking roles though it is clear Moyes plans to continue with Fellaini patrolling the middle of the park. In the middle his aerial prowess is somewhat subdued, instead he offers a bland sideways passing game much like the metronomic Carrick.
The game, especially in midfield, is all about having the right blend. One sits, the other presses forward. Or more recently, both do both. Both can’t sit though. The age it took for Fellaini to sign on the dotted line signals that Moyes may have been sceptical as to pairing him with Carrick for that reason. United, with Carrick keeping the back door locked through his clever intercepting and reading of the game, needed someone who could unlock the opposition in the final third.
The game has moved on at the top level and centre midfielders are required to probe and play vertical passes to beat the heavy press that many teams now use to suffocate their opponents. Clever players such as Cazorla and in fact United’s own Kagawa offer such creativity. Anderson, the chubby Brazilian, has at times looked capable as he likes to drive forward. Shame he drives forward with the speed of a Fiat Punto though.
I think Moyes realised this problem. Any of the coveted Fabregas, Thiago or Ander could well have remedied the problems which are mounting in Manchester to some degree. None arrived though so for the time being United, much like me who is home alone for the next few weeks, may well struggle to cook up anything of substance.