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 HasenhĂĽttl, 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.