If Everyone Is Thinking Alike Then Somebody Isn’t Thinking

Watching Bayern Munich perform live a couple of years ago 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.

Welbeck's attempt at bulking up continue to fail as he can't finish his dinner never mind a chance.
Manuel Neuer has reinvented the art of goalkeeping with his high starting position

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.

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. The outstanding success at both international and elite club level of “tika-taka” altered coaches’ perspective of how the game should be played.

Guardiola's use of Messi as a false 9 against United has proved a watershed moment.
Guardiola’s use of Messi as a false 9 against United proved a watershed moment.

Coaches have become obsessed with players being more competent across a range of positions to help dominate ball retention stats. 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 have become False 10’s deep in midfield, wingers have stopped playing wide and full backs now hug the touchline where the winger once lived. 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 – providing balance and cutting edge when it matters. Unfortunately, such exponents are becoming as scarce as hen’s teeth.

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 a luxury and have been replaced by a more practical alternative, with modern players often ticking more than one box.

The change has been truly noticeable of late at no. 10, where the luxury player “enganche” has become a thing of the past. Teams in years gone by would accept poor work rate and a distaste for all things defending from their playmaker as they knew he’d come alive in the final third when it mattered. 10’s 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.

Target men such as Carroll are looked upon with disdain despite their effectiveness when utilised correctly.
Target men such as Carroll are looked upon with disdain despite their effectiveness when utilised correctly.

Gary Neville has talked of Manchester United suffering from an ‘identity crisis’ over the last couple of seasons. 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.

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 watching from behind the sofa as teams such as Sunderland attempt to thread the ball through the eye of the needle when hitting a barn door proves an arduous task.

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”.

Three Things From Scotland v Lithuania and Slovakia

Scotland’s World Cup qualifying tilt stumbled at the first real hurdle, then fell face first at the second. Here are three reasons why:

Strachan has failed to accommodate players in form

After the Denmark friendly in March Strachan said:

“At this moment the way we play is suited for the group of players we have had in the last couple of years. If there are great players that come in, then it might be like Sweden – they play with two up front because they have [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic and he needs someone round about him. Fine, I will do that ”

First thought that springs to mind is if Ibrahimovic “needs someone round about him” up front then Chris Martin surely needs at least one partner, if not 5. But we played with one up in both games.

Strachan’s insistence that Griffiths can’t play competently as a lone front man role leaves the Celtic striker likely benched as long as the status quo remains. We are not in a position to leave a striker scoring 40 goals in a season and playing Champions League football sitting on the bench chewing gum till his jaw hurts. So why not play two strikers from the start?

We are not in a position to leave a striker scoring 40 goals in a season and playing Champions League football chewing gum till his jaw hurts at the back of the dugout however. So why not play two strikers from the start?

Mak and Hamsik highlighted our defensive disarray 

As Marik Hamsik – an internationally renowned player and the fulcrum of an otherwise average Slovakia side – strolled into the box unopposed the lack of defensive organisation from Scotland was painfully revealed for all to see.

Rather than stand tall as Slovakia ramped up the second half pressure Grant Hanley and Russell Martin folded like a pack of cards. Calum Paterson was also left chasing shadows at right back as the home side overloaded his side of the pitch, taking advantage of some atrocious tracking back by Scotland’s wingers on the night.

Maybe a safety in numbers approach with a back five is the way to go. Wales have shown a 3-5-2 can work in international football and with our squad boasting good offensive full backs in the likes of Tierney and Robertson it could work for us too.

The caveat is the severe lack of quality in the centre-half position. We have struggled to pair two solid defenders as long as I can remember, never mind three.

Lack of club connections leaving Scotland lonely

Scotland’s starting line-up on Tuesday night featured 11 players from 9 different clubs, and the two paired at club level (Hanley & Ritchie and Bannan & Fletcher) have only played together for a matter of weeks.

It’s a sign of the times in Scottish football that no SPFL club had more than one player in the starting 11. Clubs have been left hamstrung by the talent drain that has seen a mass exodus of players heading south.

It may play a small part in the grand scheme of things but club teammates can bring a depth of understanding that is hard to achieve at international level. Intuitive partnerships can form at clubs and styles of play perfected that can then break to the surface and benefit their nation.

Spain squeezed the best out of Barcelona, Germany has benefited greatly from the Bayern production line, and of late England have replicated Spurs’ spine and playing style.

The Scottish game has to find a way of getting the most out of its big clubs.

Cross To Bear With The Pros

“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”

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. 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 goes hand in hand with me gratefully accepting the prestigious designation as my amateur football side’s official set-piece taker.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Birmingham City v Manchester City - St Andrew's
A easy catch for the keeper is always met by teammates’ derision.

Whenever I shank a corner, be that behind the goal,  into the keeper’s grateful clutches or over the crowded penalty area and beyond into the gorse bush running alongside the far touchline I feel an overriding sense of shame. I dutifully acknowledge this by raising of a hand and shaking my head for failing my responsibility.

Poor delivery, even at amateur level where practice takes place once a week if we are lucky, is a cardinal sin. This is why I find it incomprehensible why it seems almost blissfully ignored and accepted when a professional player, training on a daily basis for hours on end, repeatedly fails at a seemingly simple task.

When confronted by the likes of Elokobi a winger has no choice but to cross.

A number of factors are to blame for this. In an era where tika-taka reigns 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 play a central role in the winning and losing of games. So when the man designated the responsibility to deliver, 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 heavy weights. 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. The majority settle for mediocrity and reap what they sow as a result whilst your Beckham’s of this world continue to strive for perfection.

Without A Great Pianist A Piano Is Useless.

“It’s all very well having a great pianist playing but it’s no good if you haven’t got anyone to get the piano on the stage in the first place, otherwise the pianist would be standing there with no bloody piano to play.”

Strachan has proved the remedy for Scotland's recent malaise.
Strachan has proved the remedy for Scotland’s recent malaise.

These words were uttered by Ian Holloway in defence of his likening for robust, defensive minded midfielders. But they also strike a cord with me in respect to international football. At club level the great pianist may well be the flair player that provides the key to unlock the opposition’s defence. At international level however, where most teams possess players of sufficient calibre, the pianist sits in the dugout.

The drastic improvements evident in Scotland’s performances since Gordon Strachan replaced the hapless Craig Levein offer a perfect example of the impact a manager can have on a side’s, even at international level, fortunes. Scotland, with the likes of Maloney, Fletcher and Brown at their disposal, have always possessed the men required to get the piano on to the stage. Now with Strachan at the helm we have the talented pianist required to play it.

It has been obvious for some time having watched an abundance of Scottish talent flourish south of the border that their are enough good players to form a cohesive unit capable of producing results. We may not be good enough to challenge your Belgium’s and Germany’s of this world but the current ranking of 63rd with FIFA is surely a false position. With Levein in charge Scotland were like a boxer with one hand tied behind their back, or like Ricky Burns on Saturday night were forced to battle on with a broken jaw. Since Levein was removed though the players have picked themselves up off  the canvas and can now swing freely, safe in the knowledge that 4-6-0 is a thing of the past.

The 2-1 win in Macedonia was proof of the upsurge in performances.
The 2-1 win in Macedonia was proof of the upsurge in performances.

Fixing systemic flaws at grass-roots level, imposing quotas to stop the foreign invasion, or in Scotland’s case finding a novel way to create six-foot-six monsters may well offer the Home Nations long-term improvements in performance. They cannot guarantee success however as other countries, with Belgium a prime example, always seem to progress at a faster rate of knots through more innovative approaches.

Short-term solutions, be that a passionate manager with a clear ideology of how he wants his side to play, can reap dividends though for a country like ours.

Tiki-Taka Is Dead, Long Live The Counter.

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.

Bale and Ronaldo's games are perfectly suited to fast breaks.
Bale and Ronaldo’s games are perfectly suited to fast breaks.

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.

Spain must learn their lesson from last year to avoid a repeat humiliation.
Spain must learn their lesson from last year to avoid a repeat humiliation.

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.


Moyes Must Twist Before The Cards He’s Been Dealt Leave Him Bust.

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.

RVP completed one pass to his strike partner Rooney on Tuesday and even that came courtesy of a kick off.
RVP completed one pass to his strike partner Rooney on Tuesday and even that came courtesy of a kick off.

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. 

Rooney must do more to justify his vast earnings.
Rooney must do more to justify his vast earnings.

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.