Thursday, 28 June 2012

What is football? (Euro 2012 Portugal v Spain)

There are many ways to enjoy football and all of them are as valid as the other. I personally watch football in the knowledge that for at least ninety percent of the game, not much is going to happen. I spend my time waiting for somebody to do something cool: a goal, a shimmy, a burst of pace, a crunching tackle, a brilliant save, a breathtaking pass or a combination involving four players and so on.

If watching football was looking at the naked night sky, I look for the pinpricks of light. Others, prefer to examine the space between the light. They look for meaning, for patterns and movement. Some define a good game of football by the amount of goalmouth action, intensity of play, the importance of the fixture the technical skill and of course the tactics. Some like tiki-taka while others prefer big diags. Some see football as a narrative while others see it as a bunch of stuff that happens. Some see football as all of those things and some as none. Most, I suspect, see football as a way of relaxing after a hard day at work.

Football, as we have been told from an early age, is a game of opinions and it is this glorious plurality that makes it the compelling spectacle that it is, whether you happen to be enjoying it or not.

The Euro 2012 semi final between Spain and Portugal was a near perfect example of how brilliant and how rubbish football can be, depending entirely upon your point of view. If you like your football to be all action then you may well have found the game boring. If you’re fascinated by the tactics, technique and fluidity of two top class teams then it was a modern classic. If you’re watching a game on the telly and waiting for something cool to happen then you were probably wishing you could change channel while knowing deep down that you can’t. This perhaps is where boredom becomes confused with waiting. They occupy a lot of the same space on their venn diagram but they are two separate states of mind.

Of course, if you’re watching a game live or with a crowd then the dynamic is different, still. Had I taken a detour after work and watched the game in one of the many Portuguese bars in South East London, my experience would have been entirely different. The partisanship of the crowd would have forced me to engage on an emotional level that sitting on my sofa (where I actually watched the game) would never have been achieved. Had I actually been at the game then I may well have left thinking I’d seen a classic, dramatic all or nothing semi final.

So football is not just about plurality but perceptions, sensations and importance. A game can be good or bad for exactly the same reasons or based entirely on how your watch it and upon what state of mind you happen to be in at the time. So the next time someone who disagrees with you about the quality of a match and says that they “can’t believe you were watching the same game”, tell them you weren’t. That should shut them up... for about five seconds.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Euro 2012 - Spain 1 - 1 Italy: The slow death of the striker

Rising ticket prices, corporate types trampling over club's histories, TV schedulers moving games and supporters from pillar to post, Ken Bates. While it is true to say that modern football is rubbish it is also true to say that modern footballers are not.

If you like your soccer a little more hare 'em scare 'em then Spain 1, Italy 1 may have seemed a little too prosaic and pedestrian for you. However, for the rest of us this match epitomised the modern game with both teams lining up with bold and progressive formations that may be replicated, by others, in seasons to come.

Spain, abandoned the principle that a team needs a striker to score goals and Italy are in the process of reintroducing the 3-5-2 formation.

Italy coach, Prandelli may not win Euro 2012 but he bloody deserves a medal for having the audacity to start a football match with Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli up front. These two forward players are the exemplars of maverick footballers. Precocious with the ball and fractious of nature. The combination may not have been entirely successful, on this occasion, but football needs tacticians with the ambition to have both players on the pitch at the same time.

Spain's decision to start the game without Fernando Torres or the Athletic Bilbao striker Fernando Llorente was equally progressive but in a different way. Unlike the uber negative 4-6-0 (otherwise known as the Levein Method) Spain played 4-3-3 with Cesc Fabregas occupying a central role flanked by Andreas Iniesta and David Silva.

For over an hour, both teams played with these unorthodox approaches with Italy surprising everyone who has not been watching Serie A recently by trying to score goals and win the game rather than play negative and steal candy from babies.

At the very start, the Spanish looked a little hesitant in front of goal but, unlike the Italians their bold strategy would be rewarded with a goal. Italy's best chance came in the second half with Balotelli who showed tremendous tenacity in capitalising on a mistake by Sergio Ramos but his inexplicable delay in taking his shot allowed Ramos to win the ball back and rendered the youngster, embarrassed. He was then substituted for an out and out goal scorer in Antonio Di Natale.

And it was the Udinese striker who did what he's paid to do by slotting the ball past Iker Casillas with a glorious open bodied strike thanks to a killer pass from Andrea Pirlo.

But if Pirlo's pass was box office then David Silva's ball to Fabregas for the equaliser was straight out of Hollywood. Having proved his point, Spain coach Del Bosque restored some orthodoxy to proceedings and brought on a striker in Fernando Torres. The Chelsea player's inability to put the game beyond Italy when he had the chance may, if anything, underline the point that strikers are too unreliable and may be consigned to history.

It's possible I'm getting carried away but before the start of Euro 2012, I said in various offices that this tournament may not be about strikers but attacking midfielders. My hypothesis being that front men will only exist to give teams shape and they will not be the primary source of goals. Spain look to be going even further than that and should they retain their European crown by starting with nominal midfielders up front, we may be witnessing the slow death of the striker.

If you enjoyed this post then please consider sharing it.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Profile - Shinji Kagawa

In Shinji Kagawa, Manchester United have signed a distinctive attacking player from Borussia Dortmund who is reminiscent of an enduring favourite.

When the manager of a club that has a very real chance of winning a domestic title on the final game of the season, travels to Berlin, the night before to scout a player, you know he must be serious. So when Manchester United’s Sir Alex Ferguson was seen in the Berlin Olympiastadion on 12th May for the final of the DFB Pokal (German Cup), between Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, it was well known that he was only there to see one man: Shinji Kagawa. To have made that trip on the eve of the big game against Sunderland which may have won him a 13th Premier League championship demonstrated that Sir Alex must have been pretty serious.

If Kagawa knew that his future boss was at the game, prior to emerging from the tunnel that night then he could not have had a better audition. The Japanese international scored in the first three minutes, laid on an assist and had an outstanding game in the central attacking position behind the striker Robert Lewandowski. While the Polish international scored a hat trick in Dortmund’s 5-2 thrashing of Bayern it was very much Kagawa’s final. His variety of passing and ability to create space for himself was a pleasure to behold and it would be of no surprise to learn that Sir Alex saw in Kagawa a player reminiscent of Paul Scholes: capable of unlocking defenses with technique, imagination and killer balls.

Like Scholes he is not one for the sliding tackle. Unlike Scholes he is not given to trying and has only picked up four yellow cards in his seventy one appearances for the Dortmund club.Having said that Jurgen Klopp’s Dortmund team play the pressing game and Kagawa definitely pulls his weight. He is well used to the physical game and after two season being buffeted around by burly Bundesliga defensive midfielders the physicality of the Premier League should hold no terrors for him.

If you have not seen the former Cerezo Osaka player before then the first thing you’ll notice about him is his stance.On the ball he plays with a straight back and his backside closer to the ground than other players. He keeps his chin very high which must help enormously when picking a pass and scanning for teammates. This gives him a somewhat distinctive appearance given his somewhat diminutive stature. It is a very pleasing poise which makes him almost impossible not to like, unless you are an opposition supporter.

Kagawa started his career at Cerezo Osaka and his thirty five goals in fifty four matches were enough to help promote his team to the Japanese First Division. There is a misconception that he was a Japanese second division player when the transfer to Dortmund took place in the Summer of 2010. However, he did start the J-League 1 season at Osaka and played 12 games in the First Division before moving to Germany.

That misunderstanding lead pundits to believe that Kagawa would be slowly and carefully introduced into the Dortmund first team. But Klopp intended no such precaution and started the Japanese international immediately. He played seventeen games before leaving to travel with the Japan national team to the Asian Cup. In that time he scored eight goals, his first was on his third appearance against Wolfsburg, which I'm happy to say I was there to watch. His second and third were in the following game against Dortmund’s local and fierce rivals, Schalke 04. This very quickly elevated his status amongst BVB’s legion of supporters.

His first season was cut short, however, after sustaining a metatarsal fracture during Japan’s ultimately successful Asian Cup tournament. His only other appearance that season was on the last day where he collected his Bundesliga championship winner’s medal. The following season was relatively free of injury and after taking advantage of Mario Götze’s damaged pubic bone (Götze had replaced Kagawa, the season before) Dortmund’s number 23 scored thirteen goals and picked up another championship winners medal. He also helped complete a rare double for Dortmund by inspiring his team to that Cup Final win, a game which proved to be his last for the club.

The move to the Premier League is of no great surprise. English domestic football is very popular in Japan and even in his first season, the feeling was that Kagawa had ambitions beyond Germany. When he hesitated and ultimately declined to sign a contract extension, last season, the writing was on the wall and once those German TV cameras spotted Sir Alex and his right hand man, Mike Phelan, sitting in the Olympiastadion that night in Berlin, the jig was up. Dortmund fans can console themselves with the knowledge a ready made replacement in Marco Reus of Borussia Mönchengladbach, has already joined his boyhood club and will slot in nicely into the space that Kagawa left. United fans can relax, secure in the knowledge that they have a long term  attacking central midfielder to call their own.

As a Dortmund fan, I’m heartbroken to see him go. As a Crystal Palace fan I’m just relieved he did not go to Chelsea.