Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Football Diary - 31 March to 1 April

It was the Easter weekend and I spent a lot of time outdoors rather than stuck indoors watching the telly. However, I managed to catch a couple of games and these are my impressions.

Bayern Munich 6 (six) Borussia Dortmund 0

31 March 2018
Embed from Getty Images

So on last week’s Sound of Football I said that Bayern were rubbish or at least I strongly inferred as much. Of course, in light of this hammering of Borussia, what I meant was that are rubbish relative to previous Bayern teams. Dortmund, on the other hand, are actually rubbish and have been for a while. Don’t let their recent record under coach Peter Stöger. Dortmund’s unbeaten record was down to a hefty slice of luck and the benefit of playing teams that were or are even worse than they. This result was entirely predictable and there are some who did precisely that.

The match was over as a contest with the score at 5-0 at half time. With Bayern looking ahead to a tough encounter with Sevilla in the Champions League on Tuesday they invoked the unwritten mercy law and only claimed their sixth goal at the end of the match just to show that they could.

After the game Stöger suggested that this beating would be good for the club in the long run as it illustrates the depth of need for change at the club. To begin with, Borussia need a new striker (or keep Batshuayi) a deep lying combative midfielder, another established centre back and probably two new full backs. If they make it to the Champions League then there is a chance that they can recruit of these players in the summer. If not then it will take a little longer. These issues are of greater importance than replacing the coach, to my mind. 

Atlético Madrid 1 Deportivo 0 

1 April 2019 

What is the most striking about watching Atléti at home is have the crowd have bought into the tactics of their coach. They celebrate defensive acts almost like they were goals. After Lucas Hernandez’ clean sheet saving tackle towards the end of this match I was half expecting goal celebration music and his name echoing throughout the stadium by an ecstatic stadium announcer.


Diego Simeone has created a team that seems to revel in clean sheets and that has seeped its way into the culture of the club. There are other coaches trying to do the same thing at other clubs and being met with resistance. After all what most people want is attacking football and goal goals goals.

Moreover, there is a perception that counter-attacking football of which Atléti are the acknowledged masters is a game of slender margins. Indeed, despite turning their penalty box into an exclusion zone for pretty much most of the second half, Depor (coached by Clarence Seedorf) could have scored two goals in the first half but ran out of confidence and talent. 

It’s against the better teams, say Simeone’s detractors, where Atléti’s style can let them down. That said, Simeone keeps winning games and despite a disappointing Champions League campaign are among the favourites to win the Europa League.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Arsenal and the vicious trapezoid

By Ed g2s - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27722655
The trouble with Arsenal is the Emirates. Some Arsenal fans regularly visit this state of the art, enormous modern stadium. They can’t see an empty seat in the house. They know that the waiting list for their season ticket can be measured in years and they wonder why they can’t be more like… well just more.

With each disappointing result or performance the assembled punditry on media, mainstream and social reflect on how the club, under Wenger, are not moving forward. By forward, of course, meaning upward or toward the top of the league.

Outside the Emirates, last Tuesday (07/03), a number of Arsenal fans are declaring through the medium of song that Arsene Wenger: is killing their club. Whoever is working the camera is only using close ups, in the style of J Lee Thompson, director of Battle For The Planet Of the Apes. This technique is often used to make the scene look more expensive and expansive than it appears. Protests, pundits, Arsenal Twitter, Arsenal Fan TV: all these elements cross-over and create a conversation that has narrowed to the tip of an arrow. Which is a shame because a gun metaphor would have been far more appropriate.

From a certain point of view the accusation that Wenger is ‘killing our club’ is absurd. Under the Arsenal manager, the Gunners have gone from being a mostly upper mid table club that play mostly shit football to being, at its peak, an unbeatable blend of grace and physicality with a killer instinct. At their worst they are serial qualifiers for the Champions League and occasional winners of knock out cups. What, to most, is the apex, is to some routine and boring. Boring to the point where people willing to risk ridicule and scorn on social media by appearing as screaming, entitled man-babies on YouTube.

At this point it is customary for the author to put forth a robust defence of the boy Wenger, possibly by providing data on Arsenal’s seasonal transfer spend by comparison to their contemporaries. However, this does not really help to change people’s minds. You’re either for Wenger or agin him. The heart of the argument is Wenger himself. He is Arsenal. There can’t be an inch of marble left untouched by his hand. Wenger has made the club what it is and frankly for some that is no longer sufficient. They look across at their free-scoring London rivals to the west and in the north west of England and ask “Why can’t this be us?”.

In short, Arsenal are close, agonisingly so but not close enough. And under Wenger they may never be close enough. Not necessarily because he isn’t up to it (although that’s possible) but because Arsenal aren't wired that way. They occupy that mini tier of clubs that are better at football than most but not quite as good as the three (and it’s normally three) above them. It is a tier of one: the Arsenal tier. Clubs in this tier struggle against clubs in the tier above but what really keeps them in that tier is the occasional poor result against Watford. It is a comfortable place in which to be and one assumes that the collection of old and new money that owns Arsenal FC are comfortable with the arrangement. If not they would have sacked him.

So there it is. A circle so vicious, its inside so tortured, that it has punched itself into a trapezoid. Those that appreciate the remarkable feat of Arsene Wenger keeping this traditional club at the European top table, year after year can only shake their heads in frustration at their Arsenal supporting brethren (and it does seem to be mostly brethren) who, in turn, look on with envious eyes at their Chelsea supporting workmates. Thanks to the innovation of Social Media it is an anguish the rest of us can all enjoy.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

It's back to the Bundesliga! A look forward

The Bundesliga's month long winter break ends on Friday when Bayern Munich head south to the Black Forest and SC Freiberg. The German top flight continues to generate interest despite its, frankly deserved, reputation for having a procession for a title race.

Bayern Munich are not called the Recordmeister for nothing. The Bavarians have won ten Bundesliga titles since the turn of the century. I apologise for churning out a by now tedious cliché but the club is run with an ruthless efficiency. It is said that the last dragon from the beforetime sits beneath the Allianz Arena and belches countless medallions of pure gold. Others say that the club's singleminded desire to win along with clever recruitment and sensible, well timed decisions has kept them above the rest. Either explanation is as plausible as the other.

Already the league leaders have taken a bite out of one of their potential rivals for the future by securing the services of defender Niklas Sulé and midfielder Sebastian Rudy of of Hoffenheim. One of the numerous axes that fans of other German keep in their sheds to grind against Bayern is how they sign players from rivals in order to keep them down. This is a comforting trope which could be levelled at a number of other clubs in the German top flight but because Bayern keep winning (and in fairness because they kind of do it) it is one that is levelled at the Munich club more than anyone else.

Suffice to say then that Bayern are there to be shot at and shot down. Especially this season since they are in a period of modest transition following the departure of their former coach Pep Guardiola who is having his brain melted by the assemblage of Pakleds in English football.

Carlo Ancelotti is a serial winner of shiny things for a succession of clubs and is without doubt the best man to replace Pep. But the change of beat he set was bound to upset the Bayern squad's rhythm. Such was the intensity of the last three years that Bayern players are not quite able to rouse themselves in the same manner. They're still good though and should overcome their title rivals. Especially after plunging their flag so emphatically in the ground at their upstart challengers, Leipzig at the end of the first half of the season in December.

Well that's not quite the case because Bayern's 3-0 win over this season surprise challengers was actually in Munich but certainly a statement was made and that statement was "we win big games like this and you don't.. at least not yet and not at all if we have anything to do with it." Pretty clunky statement if you ask me.

Anyhoo that defeat, while certainly a setback in terms of morale, takes little away for Leipzig's debut in the Bundesliga. This hated club that exists in the main to sell energy drink and flouts the Bundesliga's own ownership rules has been infuriating its detractors even further by being really good. Players like Naby Keita and Emil Forsberg and Timo Werner have captured the attention of the football watching public and with the exception of a spectacular dive from Werner against Schalke in a good way.

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Under coach Ralph Hasenhüttl, Leipzig are slick and rapid. They don't want a lot of time with the ball and use it effectively when they have it. They've been brilliant frankly. Better than anyone expected. Despite the not inconsiderable sums they spent assembling their squad no one thought they would be second in the table by the winterpause. Instead they have shown up Bayern's more illustrious, authentic and traditional competitors.

Despite defeating Bayern, Dortmund have been unable to string any results together. Injuries, defensive confusion and individual errors have resulted in coach Thomas Tuchel finding himself under pressure. If Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang returns from Gabon unscathed. If they can keep Marco Reus fit and stop opponents from tactically fouling the fuck out of Ousmane Dembélé then they can beat anyone. Schalke 04 should be a lot further up the table than they are but had a terrible start to the season under new coach Markus Weinzierl.

Borussia Mönchengladbach, in hindsight, should have got shot of their coach, André Schubert, much sooner but cannot be faulted for staying loyal to him after he bailed them out last season. They replaced him over the break with Dieter Hecking who was earlier let go by Wolfsburg, a club now gearing themselves up for a far more modest ambitions now that their parent company Volkswagen are cutting their budget.

Bayer Leverkusen... well to be kind, the dual pressure of Bundesliga and Champions League I think always causes them problems. They do, however, have in Julian Brandt my favourite Bundesliga player. I very much hope to see him making suckers of opposition defences between now and May. I am convinced that the future belongs to Hertha BSC now they have some funding and seem to be back in control of their own destiny. They're grim to watch but bastard hard to beat. FC Köln are at at the right end of the table after several years of patient management. But they rely a little too much on the goals of Anthony Modeste for me.

Special mention should go to Hoffenheim and the 12 year old coach Julian Nagelsmann, the only team to go unbeaten all through the first half of the season. They draw way too many games to be title challengers but it would be something of a bummer were they not to play in Europe next season.

This post was written while listening to this album.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Giroud scored a great goal but was a great goal scored?

The virtue of making your own luck is as axiomatic in life as it is in football. Arsenal's French striker Olivier Giroud's sensational scorpion kick goal had a fair slice of luck but his technique, imagination and sheer audacity earned him all the luck he needed in order to pull it off. The goal came in the first half of what was in truth a routine Arsenal win over a Crystal Palace team in a bad run of form and adjusting to a new manager. The move that led to the goal began with a misplaced pass from Palace's Jason Puncheon.

It was a sequence of events that started with a text book example of swift transition followed by an inaccurate cross compensated by a moment of brilliance. Giroud flicked the ball from behind him, over his head and passed a diving from Palace 'keeper Wayne Hennessy who was the definition of despairing. The striker acknowledged his good fortune with the finish after the match, referring to "maximum luck" but no reasonable person should deny him any congratulations he garners as a result.

However, the goal does allow us to consider the nature of what a truly great goal is and is not. Giroud's finish was sublime but the odds on making that kind of contact and making it work are tiny, even when executed by a top professional. Was there too high an element of fluke for it to be among the best goals you will see?

Despite the great skill from Giroud (and Henrickh Mkhitaryan of Manchester United who scored a goal just like it on Boxing Day) the variables involved in scoring this kind of goal are so great that there is too much luck for it to be classed as a proper worldy. The timing and placement of the cross and the inability of Giroud to see what he's doing make it shot in a million. It is unlikely that such moves are rehearsed on the training ground. There is far too much to go wrong.

It maybe gruff and churlish but I would not criticise Arsene Wenger for bemoaning the quality of Alexis Sanchez' cross and jeopardising a perfectly good goal-scoring opportunity from a blistering counter attack. By this way of thinking it can be argued that a true world class goal should demonstrate the talent of the individual players working in combination with their team to achieve what they set out to do. Improvised and inspired corrections of mistakes are not enough.

By that argument perhaps Alex Iwobi's goal to put Arsenal 2-0 up was a better goal. After all it came about after a period of sustained pressure on all parts of the Palace defence. This was a goal made by hours of drills, and match practice. It may not have been spectacular but certainly was not freaky.

Who of us want to live in that kind of a world? Surely the whole point of watching football, beyond partisanship, is to witness and celebrate goal like Giroud's goal. Yes he was lucky. Yes he may try it a hundred times again and miss every time but the beauty of football is its ability to fashion such moments. Moments that render all the hours spent on the training ground moot, albeit for a second. Let us hope that Alexis Sanchez continues to send his crosses behind the last man.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

EFL Chief faces tough questions over Football League restructure at Supporters Summit

As a follow up to my post in the spring on the importance of supporter involvement in the proposed revamping of the English Football League, it is encouraging to learn that EFL chairman Ian Lenagan will answer questions at the Supporters Summit on 16th July.

The Supporters Summit is an event organised by the Football Supporter's Federation and Supporters Direct. It will be held at Wembley Stadium. More information can be found via this link.

So far the league restructuring has not gathered much traction and the EFL has not demonstrated if there is any appetite for the proposed expansion of the league to 100 teams among the supporters. 

In the meantime the new format for the EFL Trophy has been announced which is supposed to include invited Premier League and some Championship clubs fielding under 21 sides. Clubs are only invited if they have category one youth academies. The trouble is that reportedly half of the 16 clubs originally asked to join have already declined the invitation.

The fact that the EFL announced the new format without seemingly checking if the invited clubs would be likely to accept should be a matter of concern for many fans of EFL clubs. Invitations have now been extended to more clubs from the Championship. However, the new format has met with some hostility and it does not reflect well upon the league that very little the groundwork seems to have been done before making the announcement.

The EFL Trophy, under its numerous guises, remains a popular competition which has been running for 33 years. It represents a chance for second and third tier clubs to play is a meaningful cup final at Wembley. The competition is the recent subject of a Euro 2016 meme as it began to occur to people that the Portugal international defender Jose Fonte has a European Championship and an EFL Trophy medal.
The concern from fans seems to be about the potential watering down of the competition and the possibility that it might prevent lower division clubs from the chance of their big day out. The argument for including under 21 teams is that it will make for an effective proving ground for young English players as they try to break into Premier League first teams.

Perhaps Mr Lenagan will be able to explain the thinking behind the format changes and in turn supporters will be able to impress upon him the importance of the supporters, who are key stakeholders in the EFL, involvement in restructuring the Football League.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Euro 2016 Diary - England: What is to be done?

A photo posted by UEFA EURO 2016 (@uefaeuro) on
It is fair to say that recent political events may lead to a change of relationship between a large number of English and their national team. As one of the many millions who were on the wrong end of the EU referendum on 23rd June I am reevaluating my feelings towards the country of my birth and its national football team.

Supporting England has always been problematic for me. I have never been comfortable with what I call the typical expression of English nationalism. Now that England is heading into a political direction to which I am fundamentally opposed I do not know if I will ever really be able to get behind England again. This is my choice and my problem. However, I do not believe I am alone.

That being said, were I to be more positive you could make a case for the national team unifying our divided nation either through success on the field or contempt for its dismal failures. Analysing their latest debagging at the hands of Iceland is difficult. Did they fail because the players just aren't good enough or was it because the manager got the tactics wrong? Are Iceland's players better than England's or better organised or both?

I believe that the mainstream consensus within the media and at the English FA is that the players are of sufficient quality that they, with proper management, can "punch their weight" as the FA's Chief Executive would put it. England's defeat has been put down to them freezing or being too scared to play to their maximum which, with the sort of conceit characteristic of the English, would have been enough to beat Iceland. This of course presupposes that Iceland's players are not as good as England's and that I suspect is a view against which you could strongly argue.

Nevertheless, the FA have announced that full time psychologists will travel with England in the future for international tournaments. Dr Steve Peters is the author of best selling self help book The Chimp Paradox and has worked with Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton and Ronnie O'Sullivan. He has hitherto been engaged by England on a part time basis. Perhaps he or people like him can relieve the tension in the English legs.

But whether the players will ever be are good enough to go deep in international tournaments remains to be seen. The Elite Player Performance Plan  (EPPP) is still in it's infancy and we have yet to see if it will bear fruit. The plan has been strongly criticised for undermining local youth systems with may in turn produce fewer players. However, if it is successful then surely in time we'll see a broader pools of decent professionals with whom the England manager can choose.

EPPP is still in its infancy and it is too soon to determine as to whether or not they are a success. It is certainly not the time to be looking to restructure the system at this stage without at least giving it a chance to fail.

It should also be borne in mind that many of the current Wales squad learned their trade in England. This suggests that the English system is perfectly capable of producing players that, with the right management can succeed right now. If England can produce a team capable of getting to the semi final of the Euros then surely England can produce a team capable of getting to the semi final of the Euros?

As comforting as it may be for disgruntled and disenfranchised England fans, I am not quite willing to accept that the England players are rubbish. I look at the team and see a bunch of decent professionals who, given the right conditions, can manage what Iceland and Wales achieved and that is to get the best out of themselves. This is the lesson to be learned from the Iceland result and I believe that in some ways the defeat should to be as instructive to England as the 7-1 loss to Hungary in 1954.

Whether England will ever be good enough to win the World Cup or European Championships is not the point. What matters is that they give their best and depart with dignity Sadly they have failed to do so under Roy Hodgson. 

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Euro 2016 Diary: England draw again

A photo posted by UEFA EURO 2016 (@uefaeuro) on

Unlike Wales, England are generally pretty good at qualifying for major international tournaments. However, also unlike Wales, England are not very good at playing in major international tournaments. Once again the England team succumbed to a draw despite on the opening day of a summer tournament. What makes this draw particularly frustrating for England fans is that for once, their team was involved in an enjoyable game which they really should have won.

In the mind of this Englishman before kick off a draw was a decent result. In Russia, England faced a fancied and traditionally strong football nation. With the exception of Roman Neustädter, the entire Russian squad play in the Russian League which is not available to most people in the UK. Any first hand knowledge of their players is restricted to Russophiles and those in the football media that watch Russian teams in the Champions League and the Euro 2016 qualifiers and it is likely that many of those correspondents do not report on the England team. It was therefore difficult to asses the challenge faced by Russia until the game was actually played.

To my eyes, it looked very much like England dominated most of the match. Certainly in the first half England enjoyed most of the possession and put it to good use by creating plenty of chances. According to the stats, Hodgson's team had over twice as many shots on goal and the Russian 'keeper Igor Akinfeev had to make four saves, one of which was from the top draw.

However, it would be wrong to suggest that Russia for dormant in this match. They out tackled England, made more pass interceptions and held a more solid back line which caught the English forwards offside five times. None of with takes away from the fact that they conceded enough chances to lose the game comfortably. Their last gasp equaliser came as a result of a horrific mis match between Danny Rose and Vasili Berezutski at the far post. This is a consequence of utilising attacking full backs who lack complete defensive attributes and poor organisation which comes from the pressure of of defending a one goal lead.

England should have been over the horizon by half time and that sadly for England is the difference between an average team and a good team.  It need hardly be emphasised that in a tournament in which you have three games to do your work you cannot afford to waste great goalscoring oppurtinities by shooting straight at the goalkeeper If you can't put your chances away then you need to be strong enough defensively to keep a clean sheet and England just do not roll that way (neither, I suspect, do most teams on this tournament). As encouraging as it was to watch some of England's build up play, particularly from Adam Lallana, they will not go deep in this tournament unless they adhere to that truism.

Inevitably, blame falls on Roy Hodgson. The England manager does not enjoy the greatest popularity. Some think his tactics are boring, outdated or otherwise unsuitable. Others say that his tactics are boring, outdated or otherwise unsuitable to disguise to themselves and others that they do not like him. Hodgson's reputation as good coach exists outside England and it is likely that short of winning Euro 2016, it will remain so.

I think Hodgson understands that if England want to win Euro 2016 they will need to set up in more than one formation depending on the type of opposition. Unfortunately, England present the appearance of a coach that does not know his best formation. One thing we can be sure that he can be sure of is Wayne Rooney, whom he played in midfield to some affect against Russia, and Jack Wilshere with whom he replaced Rooney shortly after Eric Dier's goal. This was either a sensible move if you think that England should have pressed for the second goal or a disaster if you think England should have sat back and protected their lead.

For many England fans and commentators, substituting Rooney under any circumstances, is a terrible idea unless he is injured.  Irrespective of the wisdom of Hodgson's decision last night, this is a stupid point of view. The Manchester United captain is a fine player but is not and should not be regarded as a talisman.

Recriminations and robust defences of Hodgson are irrelevant unless you're trying to sell something. He is the England coach and if England build on this performance and beat Wales and/or Slovakia he will most likely stay that way. If this proves to be England's peak then Roy will be gone. After all, to get knocked out of one major tournament at the group stage may be regarded as a misfortune. To get knocked out of two seems more like carelessness.