Tackling the Issue…

8 10 2010

Now that I have some free time on my hands again, I am hoping to resume blogging more frequently. Anyway, there is an ongoing issue which I wish to pass comment on.

The issue is tackling in football. The problem has been highlighted by two offenders in the past week, Nigel De Jong and Karl Henry. Everyone seems to be having their say on the issue, from Danny Murphy to FIFA. This, of course, isn’t the first time the problem has been raised, Arsene Wenger is constantly moaning about the tackles on his players (Eduardo and Ramsey for instance).

There are various issues to consider though, and the condemnation of certain individuals is, in some instances, completely deserved, but in others, completely wrong. Let me explain. Karl Henry, the Wolves captain, has, in his career, received two red cards. The second was last weekend following a bad lunge on Jordi Gomez. Of course, this has come quickly on the back of a rough match against Newcastle (of which more will be said shortly) and breaking Bobby Zamora’s leg in an innocuous tackle. It has become convenient in the media to portray Wolves as a ‘dirty’ team, with Henry chief amongst their offenders. However, lets look at the case for Henry. Ok, so there can be little argument about the red card last weekend. It was a bad, unnecessary tackle which fully deserved a red card. However, the ‘rough’ tactics dished out on Joey Barton and Newcastle? Please. The statistics will tell you that Newcastle actually committed more fouls than Wolves did in the match, and the media circus will tell you that the criticism was generated by an Alan Shearer (formerly of Newcastle) piece on Match of the Day. Is it any surprise to see that Mr Shearer picked up on tackles against his Newcastle team? I think not. Indeed, I remember Shearer as many things, but I cannot, however hard I try, remember him as a ‘squeaky-clean’ player. He liked to rough things up as much as anyone. He was just clever enough to get away with it.

With regard the Bobby Zamora incident, there is little to be said about it, and it should not reflect upon Karl Henry at all. It was a completely innocuous challenge, and indeed, a perfectly fair one, which unfortunately happened to break Zamora’s leg. Indeed, if we compare this tackle with Steve Sidwell’s on Adlene Guedioura, which broke the Wolves midfielder’s leg and received no media attention at all, then we see that Henry and Wolves have been victimised to some degree.

For me, Karl Henry, whilst deserving to get sent off last weekend, has had a tough rap in the opening months of this season. Nigel De Jong however, hasn’t. He wasn’t even booked for his lunge on Hatem Ben Arfa last weekend. He was only booked for his chest high assault on Xabi Alonso in the World Cup final. Both warranted red cards. Neither got them. Apparently, Nigel De Jong has never been sent off in his career. Which is, quite frankly, ridiculous. De Jong has a reputation within football, Bert Van Marwijk has spotted this and quickly dropped him from the Dutch national team. He is a much dirtier player than his rap sheet suggests.

Herein lies the crux of the problem. Referees have a tough time ascertaining ‘tackles’ from ‘bad tackles’ from ‘violent conduct’ from ‘simulation’. Sometimes in football, accidents genuinely do happen. Witness Ryan Shawcross’ response to the sight of Aaron Ramsey crumpled in a heap with his leg in tatters for proof that things can happen which are part and parcel of football. Similarly, the Zamora incident was a complete accident, in which two committed professionals were fighting for the ball.

I have read various things about this problem with tackling, and, for me, Danny Murphy’s assessment is the worst. His accusation that the players are extensions of their managers is non-sensical. He claims that “If you have a manager like Roy Hodgson in charge you don’t get discipline problems”, with the implication being that more sedate managers are the ones who have fewer discipline problems, conveniently forgetting that it was the same Roy Hodgson who saw Joe Cole sent off early into his competitive Liverpool debut. Wolves, along with Stoke and Blackburn, represent the no-nonsense approach of their respective managers. Murphy therefore has the misfortune of implying that Messrs McCarthy, Pulis and Alladyce actually have some sort of innate desire to see their players flying recklessly into tackles and injuring other professionals. Which is of course rubbish. Murphy also suggests that the players get too pumped up before the match, and let off this enthusiasm on the pitch. I’d like to meet a professional footballer who isn’t pumped up before playing a match, and then I’d like to ask him why he isn’t pumped up. As a fan, using the notion of ‘being pumped up’ as a criticism seems odd, indeed, I want my team to be pumped up and prepared for the match, because in any form of football, you know that if you aren’t pumped up then your opponent will be.

Another argument I have seen in the comments to this damning piece on Henry, suggests that the English game is full of players who are competitive and committed, rather than being skilful and technically able. There is, I feel, a degree of truth in this argument, but I see no reason why this should be the case. Steven Gerrard, as with so many things, is a case in point. He is as skilful and able as any other player in the world, but also knows how to tackle, and also should have been dismissed for an errant elbow last weekend. He is an all round player who can do the ‘dirty’ stuff too. Tackling, let us not forget, is part and parcel of football. Indeed, even the wonderful Spain team know how to tackle, with the likes of Xavi, Xabi Alonso and Andres Iniesta all capable of mixing it up. You cannot, after all, become world and European champions simply by playing pretty football.

We cannot outlaw tackling, and indeed, we should not outlaw tackling. Every professional knows that there is an element of risk involved in playing football. Injuries occur, whether via another player or otherwise. Everybody knows this. The trouble is that as long as there are bad tackles made there is always going to be a call for change. The hypocrisy is that those leading the calls for change are the ones who also insist that it is a physical game and that tackling is part and parcel of what the viewing public pay to see. There is not much which really needs to change. Yes, the referees could use more help, especially for the cases they miss, but this is a wider, technological issue. What really needs to change is the media’s response to the issue. This is the one thing that football authorities cannot change. This is the one thing which perhaps needs to the most.


Plain Stupid…

21 08 2010

Right, so I’m in a bit of a bad mood. Just a warning before I launch into what I’m expecting will be quite a short tirade against stupidity. The reason for my bad mood? Well, I’m struggling with my dissertation, finding myself lacking enthusiasm, passion and motivation for my chosen subject. The fact that I chose this subject myself and I still don’t really care about it only adds to my ill-temper. If we add to this that at the current moment England are being outplayed by Pakistan at the Oval, and it becomes clear to see why my mood isn’t great.

Anyway, that’s just a little warning. The real thing which has tipped me over the edge is this. Which follows my discovery of this. Which comes months after this.

Right. Let’s get one thing straight very quickly. Animals cannot ‘predict’ anything. They almost certainly do not understand the notion of ‘sport’, let alone have any distinguishable ability to predict results. They are animals for crying out loud. Now, I don’t wish to seem a Scrooge about this, and it was a bit of fun during the World Cup, which took away from the abject performances of our own national team. However, with more and more people trying to jump on the prediction bandwagon, the joke got tired quickly. So can we please stop it?

The dog on SkySports does nothing more than simply run up to a bowl of food, and commence eating it. This isn’t clever, it isn’t anything more than a dog eating food. No skill, prediction or talent involved. How can we, as intellectual creatures, think that there is anything more to it than that is completely beyond me. The dog predicts nothing. The octopus predicted nothing. They have no concept of prediction. They are just living their lives. So can we please, please stop thinking that animals can predict things? They can’t. It isn’t even entertaining, it’s just odd. The moment has been and gone. Lets stop jumping on animal bandwagons and find something intelligent to use as entertainment. Please.

The Underlying Problem…

29 06 2010

For me, Capello has got it right. His comments about the dearth of English quality coming through the ranks of the top teams really do hit the nail squarely on the head. And it is this which ties in with what I wrote a couple of days ago. The big guns of the England team (Terry, Lampard, Ferdinand, Gerrard) are all on their way out. They should be peripheral figures come the European Championships in 2012 (assuming, of course, that England make it there). The absence of good young players is a concern for Fabio, and only serves to prove, I think, that England should consider themselves at best a mediocre team.

Don’t get me wrong, there is, as Capello has acknowledged, some potential. Jack Wilshere and Kieron Gibbs of Arsenal look promising, but still too raw for the pressures of international football. Likewise Dan Gosling and Jack Rodwell at Everton look to have potential. However, these cases are few and far between. That Capello has admitted he would have taken Zamora if he had been fit is indicative of the level this country is at in footballing terms. Zamora had a good season, don’t get me wrong, but he is not a world-class striker, and never has been. One good season does not compensate for the comparatively poor ones which went before (I think he scored only a handful of goals the season before last in pretty much the same Fulham team).

There is no-one coming through the ranks at the top sides which makes you sit up and think that England may have a bright future. FIFA’s home-grown players initiative may help the cause of the English youth, but being an obligatory name on a squad sheet is very different to being a regular club starter with world-class potential. And herein lies the problem, working out what else can be done? If the genuinely world-class talent isn’t there, there is nothing that can be done about it. All the top clubs are scouting kids as young as 7 or 8, and signing them up. The clubs put these kids through the ranks, teach them and train them in the ways of football, and yet they very often fail to make the grade as a top-class pro. They are just not good enough.

There’s an old footballing mantra which says that if you are good enough, you are old enough. The reason Rooney was picked for the Everton team was because he was good enough for it. Likewise there is a reason why the top teams do not have many Englishmen in them. Because of this, the national team is forced to take players to major tournaments who are not world-class, but are either peripheral club figures (Joe Cole, Shaun Wright-Phillips), or just patently not good enough (Matthew Upson or Emile Heskey). Hence, really it should be no surprise that we struggled to a 4-1 defeat in the last 16 tie.

The footballing future of England is not bright, it is barely a dull glow. All the problems in terms of tactics and team selections which I wrote about the other day do matter, but if there is nothing coming through the ranks for the future then these problems become almost minor. It has been very frustrating to hear the commentators talking about the ‘next big thing’ from other nations throughout the tournament, all the while wondering where our ‘next big thing’ is. The point is, our last ‘big things’ have thus far failed, and whilst Rooney (still without a World Cup goal) and Walcott (not even on the plane) may have to carry this label for a little while longer, this expectation is on two players who (especially in the latter’s case) have thus far failed to prove anything more than the fact that they are pretty good  club players. The concern for England should not be about this years failure, it should be about the likely failure in years to come.

Bitter Reality…

27 06 2010

After writing about the fall of France last week, it seems only just that I also write about England’s continuing failing on the world stage. England’s hopes of World Cup glory, almost fatally extinguished when Emile Heskey lunged into Rio Ferdinand before the tournament started, finally ended with a 4-1 defeat to the Germans.

There are numerous things to write about England, and most will be in the next few days. I have just a few thoughts on the state of the national team. The first is that the squad Fabio Capello took to South Africa was flawed. Taking two centre-backs who have had at best mediocre seasons (Carragher and Upson) , and with two nursing continuing injuries (Ferdinand and King), leaving John Terry to fight the world’s best forwards almost alone. Taking and continually using players who have pace but no end product (Wright-Phillips and Lennon), whilst leaving Adam Johnson, a natural left-footed option, at home was frustrating.

This moves me onto the selection process. The continual use of Heskey as a striking option whilst leaving Crouch (who has somewhere near a 1 in 2 goal/game ratio) on the bench was mightily frustrating. The absence of Joe Cole from much of the tournament must also be questioned, although in his outings, he failed to show much to prove he was the solution to England’s ailments. The selection of Carragher and King was bemusing, and ultimately failed to inspire confidence in Matthew Upson, who had a solid, if not spectacular qualifying campaign as John Terry’s defensive partner. Likewise picking, and then dropping Rob Green was another poor moment from Capello. Indeed, his substitutions failed to inspire confidence, further highlighting the limitations of the squad as a whole.

However, the personnel could, and should have worked, in the right system. This is where Capello, who is, let us not forget, one of the games great managers, ultimately came undone. Starting with the bemusing selection of Steven Gerrard, the newly appointed captain, on the left of midfield, and there is only one conclusion to reach: Capello was wrong. Argentina play Messi in his favourite position. Brazil play Robinho in his favourite position (and he once again looks like a world beater after being played out of position in England). Spain play Xavi in has favourite position. The point is made I feel. For Capello to fail to recognise Gerrard’s potential in the English central midfield position seems to be almost scarily naive. The clamour for him to play behind Rooney was there for a reason, yet ignored by Capello.

Moving onto the continued insistence of using wide players. In theory I have nothing against pacy wide men. They can pull the game forward and inspire the crowd and team. So using Aaron Lennon and Shaun Wright-Phillips was not, in itself a bad thing (despite SWP having a mediocre season in and out of Man City’s team). The failure to utilise their pacy potential was a fault in the team. Too often the men were there but not used by the English central midfielders. If England were to use them to stretch teams, then they failed to put this plan into practise. Too often these men were ignored or crowded out. The times they got the ball they had to move inside to allow the attacking intent of the full-backs to shine through. On those rare occasions they managed to beat their man, they had little or no substantial end product.

We have frequently been told about the ‘golden generation’ which seems to consist of Gerrard, Lampard, Terry, Ferdinand and Rooney. All failed to have an impact at this tournament (although, to give Ferdinand his due, he never even got there). The label was never going to help the England team, but the frustration is that the players never seem to give the same for their country as their clubs. For me it seems that the players go from being the big fish in their respective club ponds to the international set-up. They all think they are the big thing with the ability to take on the world, without working out the element of being in a ‘team’. There are not enough good team players who are content with being second-fiddle to the big players. They do not work in the same way they do with their clubs because they are used to there being someone who will do the covering for them. At international level there is not this escape.

If we add this to what seems to be a genuinely paralysing fear of playing for England, then the recipe is there for failure. Capello has failed to overcome this international paralysis, despite appearances to the contrary in qualifying. However, for me there is something else which has to change, namely the national psyche.

For too long we have been told how good our players are, and have expected them to be world-beaters. It is time we as a public realised that these players and this team are not a top-four side. They are barely a top 16 side. That is the bitter reality. I feel that if the expectation is dropped by the public, then this will have a beneficial effect on the team. We have, for too long expected too much from the England team. For the 2012 European championships we need to have a lower expectation. A quarter-final might be our best result. Let us not forget that this is pretty much the same team which failed to qualify for the last Euros. They have done little to convince as anything other than a mediocre team, so the irrational expectation and demand that they do well in tournaments is foolish at best. Let England aim for the 1/4 finals in the Euros. That should be enough. We do not have a world class team. We do have world class players, but the two are very different things. Until the two demonstrate that they have been successfully melded together over a continued period of time, we the public, should accept that we are not that good an international side.

The fall and fall…

18 06 2010

There was something almost poetic about it last night. As his team struggled to a 2-0 defeat, Thierry Henry sat desolate on the bench, huddled up against the South African chill. The irony is that Henry’s plight mimics his country’s almost exactly. Here was a player, once the best in the world, who now struggles to command any authority either on the pitch or off of it. That Domenech, the under pressure French coach (who incidentally is leaving after the finals) chose to ignore Henry when his team were so struggling to show any form of creative intent is a sign that, despite picking him for one last hurrah, Henry’s international career is all but over.

Lacking the pace which once made him so feared, Henry must now rely on his close control and speed of thought. But increasingly the signs are that even these are deserting him. A peripheral figure now at Barcelona, the rumours abound that he will move to America to see out the remaining few years of his career. Of course Wenger spotted this a long time ago, and sold him (to much consternation from the Arsenal fans) to Barcelona, much in the same way he sold Vieira a few years before. Wenger had spotted that both were at the top of their career hills. The only way was down. Indeed for Henry, his one significant moment for club or country in recent times was the infamous handball against Ireland last autumn. That is what he has become.

Yet many do not despise him for that handball. There is, I feel, more a sense of pity growing for him. People are feeling sorry for him. Once the outstanding player in England and Europe, Henry would score goals for fun, and make very able players look foolish. Now his star is waning, to the point of going out. The parallels are there to be seen. France, for so long reliant upon the skill of Zidane and Henry and who won the World Cup and European Cup in two balmy years for French football, and who only lost the last World Cup on penalties, are now struggling to get out of their group, having struggled to get into their group in the first place. Where once Zidane lit up the pitch, Ribery now fails to do the same, despite being the stand-out Frenchman. Where once Henry terrorised defences, Anelka, Cisse et al now have all the scariness of the Easter Bunny. France just are no longer a force in world football.

Don’t get me wrong, the players they have are good players. They are not world-class though, even the talented Ribery would not get into most world XI’s. The manager is pretty rubbish, and it seems a minor miracle that he has stayed in his job so long. When he had Zidane and co to inspire his team it was easy for Domenech. Now it isn’t. The next manager is going to have a tough job restoring France to former glory.

I don’t lament the fall and fall of France. I do lament the fall of Henry. It should not be forgotten what he gave to football. An integral part of Arsene Wenger’s fluid passing footballing team for many teams, Henry scored all sorts of goals, and dazzled crowds across the world. The end of his career is nigh, but we should all remember his impact upon football. And, despite his handball, Henry should be remembered as one of the great sportsmen, on and off the pitch. The trouble is, that one moment in Paris last year will tarnish how he is remembered by the sport. It shouldn’t, but it will.

World in Motion…

11 06 2010

And so, after months of waiting, after months of hearing everyone from the PM (probably) down to the postman speculating about it, and after months of ill-conceived hype, the World Cup kicks off today. Which is great if, like me you love football. Perhaps not so great if you are one of the many who doesn’t enjoy watching or hearing about the game, or indeed, having it stuffed down your throat by every television and radio channel this side of Mars. Fortunately Big Brother began again on Wednesday, so perhaps there is an alternative to watching the football after all. If you enjoy watching nobodies wasting their lives in a fish-bowl environment.

Anyway, regardless of what you think about football, you cannot begrudge the impact the sport has worldwide. Let us not forget that South Africa is a country which is still rebuilding, which is still trying to overcome racism issues, violence issues and medical issues. Let us not forget that in the grand scheme of things 20 years since the end of apartheid isn’t really that long. But also let us not forget that winning the World Cup bid has transformed the country. On a practical level, infrastructure has been forced to improve, with roads, rail and other transport links all having to be upgraded. Tourism facilities have also had to be improved to cope with the sheer number of people expected to be in the country for the next month. These are not temporary changes. Yes, they have been done for the World Cup, but it is the legacy which is of even greater significance. Add to this the windfall the country will receive  from tourism and FIFA and this money will surely help development even further.

The World Cup will also unite the country, just as the Rugby World Cup did back in 1994. It will make South Africa a place where there are, at least for a month, no class divides and no racial divides. There is just a love for the sport. A passion which is stronger than all the divides in even the most deeply divided places.

The lasting memory of my trip to Africa five years ago was playing football with the local school children in a rural village nestled in the heart of a small mountain range. The smiles on their faces, the enjoyment of the sport and the freedom they had whilst playing was just a joy to behold. This was a village in rural Tanzania, and yet I would expect the reaction to be the same almost worldwide. Show some children a football and they will know what to do with it. You only have to look at the multi-cultural nature of the British leagues to know that this is true. Football has the unique power to pull people together, to inspire people and to overcome, at least temporarily, any problems.

I’m not sure there are many things in the world which could place the delegates of North and South Korea next to each other, but football managed it a few days ago when Sepp Blatter (of whom I have been more than critical) was talking about a similar thing. For all people may dislike the sport because of the growing commercialism associated with it (recently health agencies were critical of FIFA for having so many unhealthy sponsors of the tournament), you cannot begrudge the power of the sport. I’m hoping that this tournament will be a success, remembered for all the right reasons. I’m also hoping that the legacy of the tournament will live longer than the memory of it.

Keep Playing Up…

22 04 2010

So I’ve not written anything on here for a couple of weeks due largely to the ever-increasing amount of work I seem to have, as well as my continued political apathy. However, today I’ve hit a brick wall in terms of the essay I’m trying to write, and instead of sitting there getting more and more frustrated with it, I have instead decided to voice my thoughts on one recurring news story. Namely Portsmouth football club.

Today the club have been denied the right to play in Europe next season for playing in the FA Cup final. As they are playing Chelsea, who are guaranteed European football next term, Pompey would normally therefore qualify for the Europa League. Except that, because they are in administration, they didn’t/couldn’t file the necessary paperwork to allow them to compete in the Europa League by the deadline. When they got to the final, they then appealed this decision to not allow them to compete in Europe, which has, today, been rejected.

Which is good news. Portsmouth are £120 million in debt. They have problems falling out of every orifice they have going. They have been docked points by the Premier League for going into administration. They are the perfect example of how not to run a football club. And, the most annoying part is that they have moaned about it every step of the way. They haven’t simply accepted their plight and got on with it.

Avram Grant complained that it was unfair to dock points for going into administration earlier in the year. Except that those are the rules. The same rules that every team in the football leagues has to play to. Today Andrew Andronikou has complained that it’s “wrong” that supporters are denied the right to watch their team play in the Europa League. Except that those are the rules, there was a deadline, and Pompey missed it. Simple as. Andronikou shouldn’t blame the league, he should blame the club.

Portsmouth are in trouble, yes. But they should take their punishment properly, accept their lot and get on with it. The club really doesn’t have anyone to blame but themselves. They deserve to go down (they were, after all, bottom even before they had their points deduction). They do not deserve to have their situation rewarded with European football. This isn’t about the fans as much as it is about the club. Blaming other people is not the answer. The frustration is that you continually hear from people associated with the club that they are the victims. Which they aren’t. The club is in the position it’s in due to poor financial management, and if the news about Asmir Begovich is anything to go by, this mismanagement is continuing despite the problems.

Portsmouth should be held to account for all their debt. They should be held up as a footballing beacon to every other club living beyond it’s means (today it’s Hull City). Tomorrow it will be someone else. They should not be rewarded for their faults, nor should exceptions be made for them. They should be necessarily punished for the outrageous mismanagement of their finances. No exceptions made. Not for them, not for anyone.