Category Archives: Football

Romans, Ancient and Modern

So, the freshly appointed Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio has renounced his fascism.  In spite of being pretty firmly opposed to the views Di Canio has just distanced himself from, I found myself troubled by this.  I shared these thoughts with my Dad, and he encouraged me to share them more widely.

It’s almost impossible, it seems, to have a rational debate about this.   Even the normally voluble biographer of Di Canio, Garbriele Marcotti, became momentarily tongue-tied and evasive when discussing this topic.  Football in Britain is gripped by a narrative of fighting racism, of “zero tolerance” (whatever that means) and of taking a stand.  This has been a difficult path to tread at times and some of those involved are to be congratulated.

But Di Canio is a fascist, not necessarily a racist.  In a country like Britain with little history of extremist politics, it seems hard for people to understand the difference. I would like to see Di Canio’s disregard for democracy challenged, not his non-existent racism.

And then, we should remember that Di Canio comes from a country where the main opposition parties have been communists for much of his lifetime, a country which has consistently had weak democratic governments since the end of fascism, and which has frequently elected an obvious crook, and which only became a nation state in the mid 19th century.  His perspective becomes more understandable, even if objectionable.

People in Britain see fascism through the lens of the Second World War and are seemingly hard-pressed to distinguish it from Nazism.  But fascism’s origins are in ancient Rome, the fasces symbolising the power of a unified state.  I don’t share Di Canio’s (now renounced) politics.  I believe very firmly in some other things, such as empathy, compassion, and diversity – something else we can find inspiration for in classical antiquity:

I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.

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Softening the blow

So, I gather than many Chelsea supporters are less than thrilled that Rafa Benitez is their new coach.  From what I can gather, it’s the way his Liverpool team managed to deflect Jose Mourinho’s juggernaut of a side in the 2005 and 2007 Champions League semi-finals that especially rankles.  Mourinho’s evident bitterness probably doesn’t help, and many recall Benitez’ Liverpool playing rather conservatively too.

That last point may be true – but Benitez proved himself a master of maximising returns from his playing staff.  Both Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard enjoyed the form of their careers (and were both genuinely world class players) under Benitez.  And Benitez’ 2005 Champions League win still stands out as the least likely at least since the 1980s.  It’s easy to forget, but have a quick look through the teams that started that night in Istanbul:

AC Milan

GK 1 Brazil Dida
RB 2 Brazil Cafu
CB 31 Netherlands Jaap Stam
CB 13 Italy Alessandro Nesta
LB 3 Italy Paolo Maldini (c)
DM 21 Italy Andrea Pirlo
RM 8 Italy Gennaro Gattuso
LM 20 Netherlands Clarence Seedorf
AM 22 Brazil Kaká
CF 7 Ukraine Andriy Shevchenko
CF 11 Argentina Hernán Crespo

Liverpool FC

GK 1 Poland Jerzy Dudek
RB 3 Republic of Ireland Steve Finnan
CB 23 England Jamie Carragher
CB 4 Finland Sami Hyypiä
LB 21 Mali Djimi Traoré
DM 14 Spain Xabi Alonso
RM 10 Spain Luis García
CM 8 England Steven Gerrard (c)
LM 6 Norway John Arne Riise
SS 7 Australia Harry Kewell
CF 5 Czech Republic Milan Baroš

 

Aside from the ‘keeper (who himself won 90-odd caps for Brazil), the Milan side is a whos-who of the last decade, while only four or five of the Liverpool side were in Benitez’ long-term plans at all.  So, memories of Benitez are possibly coloured by the fact that the man is a pragmatist, and, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, he had much to be pragmatic about.  However, there are two other aspects of his Liverpool side that I admired.  Firstly, devotion to duty – modelled by Benitez himself.  His side would give everything on the pitch.  And secondly – discipline, tactically and emotionally.  Benitez’ players adopted a system almost robotically and played a very clean game.  In all but emotional discipline therefore, I’d characterise Benitez as a similar coach to Mourinho.  And Benitez’ pragmatism tends to express itself in the form of elaborate tactical plans in any given situation, so, for close observers, it’s compelling stuff.

Now, for all this, and just in case anyone has forgotten, Benitez is also more than capable of getting top players to express themselves.  Never have I seen Liverpool so badly humiliated as when they faced Benitez’ great Valencia in 2002:

Good luck, Rafa.

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Proof of…something

While I have a certain queasiness about the rapaciousness with which football (soccer) has sucked the life money out of so many other sports (and especially rugby league), and how what used to be a guilty pleasure is now a somehow unavoidable topic of polite conversation, the sport still consumes my imagination.

I recall watching Zlatan Ibrahimovic in his first season at Ajax about 11 years ago.  He was gangly, a misfit, overconfident and yet completely out of tune with his team-mates.  He was comical.  And I was resentful of  the praise he garnered in the 2004 European championships, while the graceful Henrik Larsson seemed to be so undervalued by the Swedish public (even after that diving header against Bulgaria).  And so, like many English football fans, I’ve always had a resistance to the notion that Zlatan is truly a great.  He’s the classic flat-track bully, winning a sequence of domestic titles by crushing smaller opponents, but conspicously failing in the Champions League and in major international tournaments.

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Last night, I finished work late, went to the supermarket, got home, made myself something to eat and sat down with my scrambled eggs and my jetlag late in the first half of England-Sweden.  England-Sweden – a fixture that has never set my pulse racing, and yet, is pregnant with memories.  The summer of 1992 was an poignant one for me, and I picture Graham Taylor’s England sliding out of control.  More importantly, I think of 2002, and watching a rather tedious game with the-then-future-Mrs Finch; and the rematch, 4 years later, which we missed as the by-then-Mrs Finch gave birth to our first daughter Emma; this past summer, being off work and with my family for what was one of the most enjoyable games of Euro 2012.  Alone with my memories, my eggs and my tabasco sauce, I drifted off.

I woke up late in the second half to the noise of a crowd going wild.  Well, going as wild as a Swedish crowd goes.  England’s 2-1 lead somehow pulled back to 3-2 to Sweden.  I saw a beaming Zlatan, fresh from completing a hat-trick.  Bleary-eyed, I focused on the remaining minutes of the game.  And then I saw this:

It’s like Zlatan scored that hat-trick just to wake me up to say, “you won’t want to miss this”.

There’s so much to love about this goal: the breadth of Zlatan’s imagination, his speed of thought, his sudden and total commitment to a wholly improbable outcome, and, yes, his ability to prove me wrong.

Still – he’s never done it in a big game, eh?

update: due to the parlous state of international copyright, these videos are being taken down.  In Sweden, you can see the goal on TV4’s website, once you’ve sat through a minute (literally a minute) of adverts for winter tyres, pasta sauce, digital cameras and various other things you might not actually need.

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Character is what you are in the dark

Liverpool fans locked in at Old Trafford, Manchester

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2009-10 Because you think poor is cool

It’s a curiosity that the coming Premier League season is seen as interesting because, for the first time in many years, the league actually looks slightly weaker than the seaon before.  Several stars have been sucked into what one suspects will prove to be the Real Madrid black hole, and, curiously, Manchester City’s new-found deep pockets seem actually to have reduced transfer activity; not actually depressing the market, but somehow ossifying it.  Still, the Premier League gets written about, and for all our distaste at the Rio Ferdinands, and Ashley Coles, and the diving, the play-acting, the lack of dignity, integrity, perspective or humility, and, well, Rio Ferdinand,  there remains something rather compelling about the competition.

United

The main theme of coverage that I’ve read (and I’ve read rather a lot) is that United will struggle to adapt without Ronaldo’s goals.  The preening, pouting, Portuguese prima donna did, it seems, score quite a few.  I tend to think that this is not the problem facing United at all.  It’s true that the mobility of Ronaldo, Tevez and Rooney (and Anderson and Nani)  gave United a very unusual formation with a number of players attacking at pace from deep-lying positions.  And it was in this formation that Dmitar Berbatov looked really rather lazy.  But with Valencia actually playing on the wing instead of Ronaldo playing as essentially an inside forward, United look likely to play a much more conventional, much more United, 4-4-2.

Michael Owen’s contribution will be that of an impact substitute, for which he is ideally suited.  Being as injury prone as he is, it seems unlikely he will train for full match fitness but rather, to avoid getting injured.  What’s more, we saw a couple of flashes last season of a player who looked to have all the talent of a young Rooney, a young Owen even (whisper it) a young Robbie Fowler.  2009-10 may not be the year that Federico Macheda makes his mark at United – he is only 17 – but he looks genuinely dangerous, and plays in a position where youngsters have frequently had a major impact (to the above list we might add Norman Whiteside, and even Francis Jeffers who performed very well at that age).

No, United’s problem this season will not be goals, but it will be the lack of character in the side.  This team has won a lot recently, but the leadership still seems to come from the remnants of the European champions of 1999: Neville, Giggs and Scholes.  Of the newer breed of United players, who really could be counted on in a crisis?  It took one bad performance (or a great one, depending on your allegiance) against Liverpool for United to slip, and to slip badly.  Had United not recovered against Aston Villa (thanks especially to Macheda), it seems likely that Liverpool would have taken the league last season.  United without Ronaldo unquestionably have less of an aura about them – that in itself is not a problem, as there is plenty of talent to redefine United’s attack.  What is questionable is how much grit they can show, now that they need to.

Chelsea

Once upon a time, Chelsea were the team of fancy-dan entertainers.  They’re now the most workman-like in recent memory.  And as the club has tried to buy entertainers, Shevchenko, Ballack, Deco, so has it been the workhorses, Drogba, Mikel, Essien, who have thrilled.  And now, not even two years since Jose Mourinho left the club, Chelsea are trying their 4th replacement, and Champions League specialist to boot, Carlo Ancelotti. Of his three predecessors, not even Guus Hiddink managed to impress so much as Mourinho, and none of Grant, Scolari or Hiddink have ever been as offensive (morally, that is, not tactically).

Mourinho’s legacy remains a team that naturally grinds out the wins.  Those supporters who only enjoy the sport at its most skillful, or attacking, tend to decry Chelsea as boring.  But those of us who also an appreciation for calculation, professionalism and execution tend to me more admiring.

There might be a question over whether Ancelotti himself will be able to adapt.  Serie A is an awful lot slower than the Premier League, and it’s been noticable that Ancelotti’s Milan were comfortable against English opposition when they managed to control the tempo, but prone to surrender 3-goal leads in Champions League finals when they were not.

What will change about Chelsea is the formation.  It seems clear that Ancelotti will play a midfield diamond with Lampard at the point and two strikers, which presumably means Drogba and Anelka and time on the grass for Daniel Sturridge.  Whether Ancelotti will get anything out of Deco is a tantalising, but presumably Lampard’s position is assured.

Of the “big four”, Chelsea’s squad is the only one that is unquestionably stronger this season, if only because of the absence (at the moment) of long term injuries.  Chelsea spent most of last season without Michael Essien, a hugely influential and highly underrated player.  On top of that, Daniel Sturridge and Yuri Zhirkov have arrived.  Sturridge looks to have the role of understudy to Drogba but Zhirkov has been wanted by Chelsea for over a year and appears likely to start games on the wing. Against these developments is the marginal impact of the African Cup of Nations.  Although Chelsea can expect to have more influential players in Angola than other title contenders, the tournament itself only lasts for 3 weeks.

Chelsea look like very serious contenders once again.  If a weakness does manifest itself under Ancelotti, it may be Chelsea’s old one: away games against opposition prepared to scrap, of whom there are rather a lot in the Premier League.

Arsenal

To lose one Patrick Vieira replacement seems unfortunate, but to lose both Mathieu Flamini and Lassana Diarra (and still not to have replaced them) seems careless.  Arsene Wenger’s clearly brilliant at finding talent, and selling on players at the right time, but he does seem to have a problem in keeping key talent – presumably this is also partly down to Arsenal entering the luxury end of the north London property market just as it crashed.  Whatever the explanation, the problem remains: Arsenal’s midfield has no anchor and until that problem is addressed, one suspects Arsenal will be unable to establsh their rhythm every week, irrespective of opposition and are therefore not in contention to win the league.

And while the sale of the unsettled Adebayor for a massive sum was good business, Arsenal’s attack starts to look unbalanced too: Eduardo, Arshavin, Walcott and Van Persie are all excellent, excellent players.  They all happen to play as inside forward, and of the four, only Walcott really has the mobility to play from a very deep position.  That leaves the plainly-not-good-enough Bendtner leading the Arsenal line.  I even read that Van Persie might be pressed into service as a target man, which seems like a dreadful waste.  Van Persie is surely Berkgamp’s successor, and if that should seem like excessive praise, we should consider that Van Persie is the age now that Bergkamp was when he joined Arsenal following some difficult seasons at Internationale.

At the back, Vermaelen arrives with a solid (if overstated) reputation from Ajax, but one suspects that they days of a Sami Hyypia arriving unheralded from the Eredivise are over.  Who was the last player to arrive from the Dutch league and genuinely impress?  (And how many have not lived up to their reputations?).  Touré does not seem to be such a terrible loss, but the lack of a commanding figure in their defence seems yet another glaring deficiency with the current Arsenal squad.

For all this, Arsenal have some incredible talent which is still improving, and Arsenal themselves may be better than last season – but that amounts to achieving Champions League qualification a little more comfortably, and little else.

Liverpool

For all my biases, and whatever the distribution of silverware looked like, I am sure it is my head that tells me that Liverpool were the best team in England last season – my heart, like that of so many Liverpool supporters, didn’t dare believe it.  But it was true.  When Liverpool’s dip came, it was shallow but long, and so far more costly than United’s brief but total collapse.  Meanwhile Liverpool’s peaks were far higher than any other team (the humiliation of United at Old Trafford, the ending of Chelsea’s marathon unbeaten run, beating Real Madrid by 5 goals on aggregate, putting 5 past Aston Villa etc.).

The experts told us that Liverpool needed Gerrard and Torres to play every game to have a chance.  Not true: had Gerrard and Torres played every game, no one else would have had a chance.  Liverpool’s record in the 14 games they did start together?  Won 12, drew 2.

Since Benitez found this formation, with Gerrard playing off Torres as a supporting striker, Liverpool have performed extremely well, but in order for it to work, it relied on one of the best midfield platforms in the league: the partnership of Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano.  Alonso, of course, has been swept up in the Madrid vortex (and Mascherano’s head was at least turned by Barcelona’s attentions).  And although Liverpool moved decisively to buy the highly regarded Alberto Aquilani, it remains to be seen if he can fill an Alonso-sized hole.  From what I know of Aquilani, he is much more of a box-to-box ball carrier.  Liverpool really need someone who does all their best work in the centre-circle.

Alonso’s quick and tidy distribution to Gerrard was important in establishing the latter as the attacking force he was last season, but it was Alonso’s outlandish talent for seeing and delivering cross-field balls that also helped made the reputations of Kuyt and Riera as attacking wide players of substance.  Both frequently received the ball to (or near) feet and in plenty of space.  It remains to be seen if anyone else will be able to do the same at Liverpool.

The only obvious weakness in Liverpool’s squad last season were the fullbacks.  Arbeloa is a big game player (ask Ronaldo, or Ronaldinho), but Liverpool lost their points in the small games and Arbeloa seems a good fit with Madrid.  Dossena, who resembles a barrel-chested Adam Sandler, seemed uncomfortable doing the basic fullback chores, although he delighted in playing further up the pitch.  Aurelio remains injury prone, Degen we didn’t see, and Matt Damon lookalike Steve Finnan was sold to Espanyol.   The bright point was the emergence of Emiliano Insua to challenge Aurelio for the left-back position.  And now, the acquisition of Glen Johnson leaves the defence looking very balanced and adds even more willing pace to the right side of Liverpool’s attack.

Will Liverpool press on?  We will know quickly.  2008-9 was a serious challenge from Liverpool partly because they started so well (and had a fair bit of luck) , with 35 points after 14 games.  Liverpool have tended to be slow starters, and if they display that tendency this year, the whole season threatens to be an anti-climax.

Manchester City

“Money doesn’t talk, it swears” – Bob Dylan might have been describing Citeh’s transfer policy, but so much profanity has come from the club, that in discussing the likely destination for the Premier League title we probably need to consider them too.  Probably.

Mark Hughes was a manager of tremendous promise and I tend to feel sorry for him.  If given the opportunity to manage a club with an unlimited budget, it might seem rather unambitious to turn the challenge down.  But where Hughes impressed (me, at least) was the way he quickly made his mark at Blackburn, taking over from Souness and creating a disciplined and stiff defence at the start of the 2004-5 season.

Thanks to some rather clumsy PR, and starting from a position of not being able to offer Champions League football, Manchester City have struggled to attract players who are at the top level, and bring Chelsea’s achievement as chequebook champions into focus.  Chelsea, primarily under Ranieri, built a squad to last of young, hungry and professional players.  City, by contrast, appear only able to attract the dissatisfied or the avaricious senior professional and have ended up negotiating transfer fees with clubs well aware that an extra £10 million on the fee would mean a lot more to them than it would to City’s owners.

There have been experts who dismiss City on the grounds that only a handful of their burgeoning squad would make it into a first XI at one of the “big four”.  It’s considerably more than a  handful – cases can be made for Given, Touré, Barry, Ireland, Wright-Philips, Robinho, Adebayour, and possibly Tevez.  How many Arsenal players, by contrast, would make it into a first XI at Liverpool, Chelsea or United?  Fabregas, Arshavin, Van Persie, and maybe Walcott and a fit Rosicky?  (A year ago I would have had Clichy, Sagna and Gallas on that list, but not after last season).

And so, while that doesn’t seem to be a bad start for City, the squad is hopelessly lopsided with forwards, and City have struggled to attract the quality of defender they need.  It’s staggering to think that a fee of around £15 million is now being discussed for a solid player like Matthew Upson, who 13 years ago cost Arsenal a then astonishing £1 million from Luton’s reserves but who has never shown the ability of a Terry or a Lescott.  What is so very wrong with this picture is that there are players emerging at City with genuine potential who it seems are unlikely to progress much further – Micah Richards would presumably be the greatest loser should City sign Upson.  In midfield, will the talent of Michael Johnson have the chance to develop in the way that Stephen Ireland’s has?  It seems unlikely.

It is hard to take Manchester City’s credentials for the league seriously.  What about a top-four finish, which would at least allow them to build with more purpose, and in the immediate aftermath of the ultimate sporting shop-window, the World Cup?  Arsenal might look vulnerable, but I expect they still have enough experience to get through the season ahead of City.

Everton

In fact, as serious a challenge for 4th place might come from Everton, who cannot possibly suffer so many injuries to attacking players as they did last season.  Moyes committed, settled and motivated side now has a large number of attacking options (Saha, Jo, Vaughan, Cahill) and even the apparently humdrum players such as Leon Osman chip in with several goals each season.  Everton have a swashbuckling fullback in Leighton Baines on one side, and perhaps the least adventurous player in the league, Tony Hibbert, on the other.  Provided that Lescott has not been too unsettled by Manchester City’s offer to double his salary, I expect Everton to be Arsenal’s biggest rival for fourth place.

Predictions?

The odds I have seen quoted make Chelsea favourites for the title at 21/10, with United at 5/2.   I dismiss Arsenal’s chances, and so 10/1 is not very interesting (similarly 14/1 for Manchester City), but I’ve seen Liverpool quoted at 4/1.  Considering that this is a team that did league doubles over both United and Chelsea last season in spite of several injuries to their star striker, that seems fairly attractive.

And so, for all the many questions the new season poses, I make this one the most important: just how much will Liverpool miss this man?

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Goal of the season?

Anyone see a better goal than this effort from everyone’s 4th favourite league?

Or indeed, did anyone hear a worse commentary?

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Roy Keane and the Isolation of One’s Own Convictions

How often is it that there is an article about football that really makes you think? I tend to read the football press in the immediate aftermath of Liverpool victories and avoid it at all other times.  But an article in the Independent today, the rather unpromisingly titled, How the Wearside messiah lost the plot in just 40 days, is a wonderful insight into an intriguing figure, Roy Keane.

Keane is arguably the outstanding player in Britain of the last 20 years: a brutish winner, occasionally a malevolent presence, and memorably described “a force of nature” .   In 2006, he went into management, and emerged as a calm, measured and thoughtful man.  Immediately successful, he achieved the holy grail of middle-ranking English clubs – promotion to the Premier League – in unlikely circumstances and at the first attempt.  All the while, he appeared level-headed and soft-spoken.

And so his abrupt departure after 5 erratic weeks is curious.  It almost seems that Keane’s internal dialogue wouldn’t allow him to go along with the grinding banality of football management,  the excessive celebrations and the public excuses for poor failures: giving succor to those who didn’t, by Keane’s measure, deserve it.

The despicable Eamonn Dunphy (ghost writer of Keane’s wretched autobiography) accused Keane of “beginning to believe the Roy Keane mythology”.  Rather, it seems that Keane was incapable of believing any mythology at all.

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