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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 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 ardous 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”.

Posted in Football

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.

Elekobi
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.

Posted in Football

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.

Posted in Football

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.

 

Posted in Football

The Wife’s Been Playing Away From Home But I Can’t Bring Myself To Leave.

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.

Hardly a marriage made in heaven at the present time.
Hardly a marriage made in heaven at the present time.

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’.

Posted in Football

Premier League Race Wide Open For All The Wrong Reasons.

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.

 

Posted in Football

The Old Man Is Right…He’s Too Bloody Defensive

As comical as the United fan in the video below’s rant was, he has a valid point. Moyes is too defensive. His substitutions against Southampton stank of nerves and a safety first mentality. He might well have seen the sense in replacing Rooney with Smalling as United looked to steal all three points. Get that bus parked were probably his final instructions to the stopper.

The change backfired however. It’s easy for me to say this from the comfort of my own home but attack, especially at a top club like United,  really is the best form of defence. Rooney’s removal not only suffocated United’s attacking threat and ability to retain possession but it served to encourage Saints forward. Like a shark smelling blood they circled the United goal late on and grabbed the goal they duly deserved.