June 28, 2012

Pundit cliche bingo

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An impressive collection of inane and vapid cliches were trotted out tonight with Keown and Shearer in particular drowning out the more thoughtful, and therefore unwelcome, views of Gianluca Vialli.

Martin Keown:

‘Germans are machine-like’

‘Italians are emotional people’

Keown reduces two entire nations down to stereotypes that bared little relevance to what had happened on the pitch. The obvious question is why Humphrey and Keown even needed to be pitch side for these mindless quips as, despite being close to the action, Humphrey offered little extra despite his past work on CBBC, F1 and the 2011 Royal Wedding.

Alan Shearer:

‘He wanted it more’ – here Shearer ignores the good movement of Balotelli, poor positioning of Badstuber and the terrific cross from Cassano instead attributing it to Balotelli simply wanting to score.

Mark Lawrenson:

‘Germany have to score next or it’s all over’ – In an otherwise competent performance from Lawrenson, a slip of the tongue suggested this performance was a fluke, as his stating of the obvious would have had even the least observant spectators sceptical about his contribution.

Special mention also to all the BBC pundits who continue to pat themselves on the back for unearthing the unknown talent of Pirlo, 33, who is now even Shearer’s player of the tournement after successfully watching him for two games in a row now.

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June 28, 2012

Beckham out of Team GB

if Ryan ‘Gave the ball away uncharacteristically there’ Giggs gets a role in this side on ‘merit’ then it makes a lot less sense that Beckham doesn’t make this team.

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June 28, 2012

Why Spain look disjointed at times

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The Spanish side can’t perfectly be divided into Barcelona and Real Madrid players as we sometimes oversimplify, however it can be divided roughly into these two groups. Of course, having a squad consiting three quaters of the two best teams in the world is something of a miracle for any national coach, and something which very rarely occurs. However the side clearly does not destroy and annihilate sides as well as either of the club teams. However, this is less to do with the conventional wisdom that the side ‘lacks Messi’ and is more to do with the greatly disparaging styles of play the players are accustomed to.

When Spain retain the ball in their own half the defenders can be pressed into giving the ball back to the goalkeeper, a universal fact about football. For Barcelona this by default sees the centre backs spread wide either side of the box whilst the full backs push wider and further ahead, and the central defensive midfielder, often Busquets, drops deeper as well as Xavi to provide further link up. This means Victor Valdes becoming effectively another outfield player, and his good footwork will distribute the ball out to the defenders and continue the carousel, until the pressing opposition are disheartened or are exposed for having come too far out of position.

Yet at Madrid their ideology is the polar opposite. Mourinho instills a directness into their play that uses Di Maria and Ronaldo as outballs circling Benzema, whilst Ozil provides link up. The build up play is much more simplistic, with Ramos and Pepe encouraged to launch the ball forward and the side to capitalise on opposition mistakes with their pace and power. Casillas hence has a very different role, as any pressure on the centre backs sees the ball knocked back to the keeper who will take a touch to adjust himself, the centre backs push forward to squeeze the play and make space tighter, whilst Casillas thumps the ball in the direction of the attackers. This approach, though more primitive in it’s make up can be as effective as Barca’s total football, however the polarisation of these two styles is clear, and gives Del Bosque a difficult task. Throw in the other players that make up the side; David Silva and Jordi Alba used to more possession based styles and Torres more familiar with direct play and Del Bosque has a difficult job fitting these players into a cohesive style.

Del Bosque to his credit has chosen to emulate the Barca style of ball retention and tecnhique above power and opportunism. However recreating this is not entirely easy with players that have spent the past two years contesting headers, playing with aggression and putting balls into dangerous areas. The result is as strange hybrid that sees the aforementioned scenario become a convoluted one. For Spain, Xavi if pressed will lay the ball off to Alonso who for lack of options would switch the ball back to the centre backs and himself move forward in anticipation of the ball being delivered long. Ramos will play the ball back to Casillas then, instead moving wide to create space to keep the ball he will jog forward. Casillas is clearly the most unsuited to the tika taka style, and as a goalkeeper this is no real surprise, as he will often hesitate to play a pass, being much more comfortable bashing the ball forward and as far away from his goal as possible. Xavi and Busquets will sigh as their purist hopes of keeping the ball under all circumstances are dashed and the Madrid players will continue unknowingly. Similarly, Xabi Alonso, an epert exponent of the long, accurate pass and the switch to the flanks, will do this without consideration to how it will stretch Spain, and see the reciever of the pass vastly outnumbered by opposition players.

The consequence of this is a side that preforms with neither the ruthlessness of Real Madrid or the possession obssessed approach of Barcelona. Remarkably though, the Spanish players are so technically adept that possession at around 65% is still almost a norm. Thus, the opposition rarely sees sight of the ball let alone goal scoring chances, whilst the individual creativity of Iniesta, Silva, Xavi and Fabregas usually leads to an opening at the other end, meaning that, depsite lacking cohesion from time to time and appearing disjointed, they are so absurdly good that they are still coasting towards winning this tournament anyway.

Cruyff’s ideology is indoctrinated into Barca players from grass roots level

June 25, 2012

The importance of closing down the deep-lying playmaker

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Italy’s gentle control of England yesterday came from two key factors. The first was the narrowness with which Young and Milner played, being sucked into Italy’s diamond which freed up space for the Italian full backs. The second is that deep-lying playmaker Andrea Pirlo was never pressed or closed down anything like as much as he should have been.

Rooney’s reintroduction to the England squad would be beneficial for numerous reasons. However it was hindering for a few as well. Firstly, the 4-4-1-1 that Hodgson employed with Young behind Wellbeck saw Young working hard behind the ball to ensure players were closed down in possession deep in the middle of the pitch, whilst Welbeck naturally worked hard to press defenders and close players down higher up. However Rooney’s introduction in the place of Young, who shifted to the left, meant a change in the way England defended. As the star player of this side, Rooney appeared unwilling to exert too much effort when he didn’t have the ball. A huge departure from the sacrifical player who would work so hard on the left wing when Ronaldo was at Utd, as Rooney failed to offer much cover or press Pirlo at all, giving him time and space to dictate the game. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the introduction of Carroll as a substitute, whilst definitely providing an aerial threat, as he remarkably brough down goal kick after goal kick from Joe Hart, signalled the end of Wellbeck’s good pressing, essentially meaning that the front two of Carroll with Rooney in behind were putting hardly any pressure on the Italians, particularly Pirlo who had as much space as he needed, when Young, who is clearly unnatural defensively would have at least looked to press him better and make life more difficult.

However, this isn’t the first time English football has been ignorant of where attacks are orchestrated, or where the tempo and nature of a move is built. In the 2009 Champions’ League Final, Barcelona’s midfield carousel famously put the Man Utd side, including Ronaldo, Rooney, Tevez, Berbatov, Scholes, Anderson, Giggs Park and Carrick, at different times, to shame. Utd lined up with Giggs as a number ten linking midfield with attack, however this position, similarly to Rooney’s yesterday was strictly an attacking minded strategy and was ignorant of the effects of the deep lying playmaker; Busquets three years ago, and Pirlo last night. Barcelona’s midfield triangle consisted of the now routinely established Busquets-Iniesta-Xavi, with Busquets deep behind the other two. Utd opted for Carrick-Anderson-Giggs, with Giggs further ahead of the other two. However, Giggs failed to track Busquets at all, and thus Busquets would recieve the ball from the defence and have plenty of time to feed the ball into the two more attacking and skilful midfielders ahead of him, or thread it to the full backs. Of course, it is hard to distinguish whether it is Giggs not doing his job or a lack of player instructions from the manager to put him under pressure, but the fact that Busquets was given so much time to build Barca’s play means it was a failing of Ferguson’s regardless.

Which all begs the question as to why this is ignored. Ferguson’s expertise might be in squad rotation, man management and the culture he pervades, but he is certainly not void of tactical knowledge. Perhaps it is simply that English football does recognise the position of deep lying playmaker, as notably the closest thing we have, Michael Carrick, was ommitted entirely from the squad. Perhaps our 4-4-2 culture is more accustomed to two box to box midfielders, or one destroyer and one creator, neither considering a creative player playing deep. Hence we do not see the need to try to prevent that kind of player from operating.

Pirlo’s control of the game could not have been symbolised any better than by his jog to the ball and dinked penalty into the back of the net, which calmed italy and scared England in equal measure. Nor did his celebration of the goal suggest that it was anything other than certainty, a steely assurance that his side would win. This said everything about the way in which Pirlo controlled the game; with time, space and ease. Yet as much as that is down to Pirlo being majestic, the lack of a player making it difficult for him in anyway whatsoever means that we just as much allowed him to do it.

June 25, 2012

The biggest problem with …

The biggest problem with England is that showing pride is praised. It’s a basic requirement. Like wearing boots, it should be a given. It’s technique and ability that count, nothing else

-Rory Smith. The Times writer hits the nail on the head as to how badly our footballing attitudes are skewed.

June 24, 2012

England v Italy

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England have a realistic chance of competing with Italy today who, despite being technically better (watch Pirlo’s delicate control of the game in midfield), have two maverick geniuses playing as centre forwards in Cassano and Balotelli. Of course, as mavericks they’re equally likely to combine brilliantly to score a stunning goal, as they are to be anonymous for 90 minutes and resort to petulant fouls and getting into scuffles with opposition players (Jon Terry?). Good news for England… sort of.

June 24, 2012

Why Xavi rarely plays a cross field pass

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A number of times against France, Spain would win possession in the middle of the pitch, or in their own half and after a few interchanging passes between the Spainish midfieldiers the ball would often fall to the feet of Xavi with Arbeloa breaking down the right and in an abundance of space, barely being tracked by Clichy, who either hadn’t yet covered from a push on of his own, or had tucked inside too much when he was defending, which would happen frequently as Spain’s control of the ball is often in such tight and concentrated areas. However, Xavi would look up and see the option, yet sparingly use it. Often he’d play a short pass to Xabi Alonso, who would be much more likely to do it himself, but Xavi almost couldn’t bring himself to do it.

The reason for this is a nod to Barcelona’s fluid system, where Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola have conditioned this new age Barca into moving as a team collectively, rather than relying on individuals to further attacks. The small passes ensure that the team, step by step, move cohesively towards the opponents goal. The reason for this is two fold. Firstly, it is the total football vision of attacking, every player interchangable and every player working as one unit, one unit with the shared understading of moving the ball with short passes until a player is presented with the easiest shot possible. The second is that it contributes massively defensively. By moving the ball such small distances, the ball is never far away from the mass of players, where the players are grouped. This means that if possession is conceded, or even if it is retained, the shape of the team is never stretched and so attacks are more fluid, and defensively they never lose possession in an area where there aren’t a large group of players that, by pressing hard, can get the ball back as quickly as possible.

There are a few exceptions to this. Firstly, if the ball is a final ball that puts a striker in, then it is a more risky ball that cuts through the defence perfectly to put an attacker through and will be taken even if it stretches the side, as it will result in a goal scoring chance. Secondly, Dani Alves is used in a kind of cross field pass for Barcelona. However, the crucial difference is that the Barca entourage quickly move over towards him to regain that shape, whilst Spain on the other hand are not as quick to do this or as understanding of this concept, and so a cross field ball isolates the wide player more and loses that fludity and cohesion.

Hence, when Xavi looks up and sees Arbeloa 20 yards away to his right, where Xabi Alonso would slice a ball perfectly out to the flank, there is a response in the Barcelona captain, conditioned by hours and hours of training for the past 21 years, which tells him the pass should be a short one, to keep the side’s shape and honour the idea of fluidity above all else.

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June 20, 2012

Zlatan’s skill helps England

Technical, inventive and with overwhelming flair it is not easy to see why English media have long denounced Zlatan Ibrahimovic as overrated and ‘just another Berbatov’ (which curiously could only be an insult on these shores), as his understanding of the game and technical prowess is ignored instead to ask questions regarding the prioritised English traits of passion and desire. ‘He doesn’t work hard enough to get it back’, the less imaginative ‘he’s lazy’, or that he ‘never comes up with the goods when it matters’ being common accusations that undermine his ability. Whilst the latter is often a pundit’s way of saying they haven’t seen him play outside of a Champions League match against an English team, the points still stick and have stuck in this country, and causes us to uniquely puzzle over why he is so highly regarded.

Ibrahimovic’s acrobatic volley against France means that England avoid Spain in the quarter finals and instead face Italy, the lesser of two evils and a side that although better than England, are not as crushingly overbearing as the Spanish. Yet criticism of the player has come mostly in England where his justified preserving of energy when his team don’t have the ball, perfectly reasonable for a striker, is viewed as laziness or a lack of work ethic, seemingly erasing his sharp technique and skill on the ball.

Yet the striker‘s records are mind blowing. Serie A foreign player of the year four times, Serie A player of the year three times, Serie A top scorer two times and Swedish player of the year for six of the past seven years is just a portion of his trophy room. Furthermore, the seldom cited fact that Ibrahimovic won eight consecutive league titles between 2004 and 2011 with five different teams represents a remarkable feat.  His impact though extends beyond recordable statistics; his unique combination of skill, flair and creativity married with speed, strength and power (evidenced against England when happily bouncing Lescott and Terry off him) make him a truly rare footballer that at his best is altogether unstoppable.

Despite Ibrahimovic’s skilful goal benefitting England by ensuring we favourably avoid Spain, it probably won’t be enough to ensure he is viewed in this country as one of the world’s most exciting players. Unfortunately, this probably says more about English attitudes to football than it does about this footballing genius.

June 19, 2012

Why Milner starting is the right decision

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A bad miss against France, wasteful with the ball against Sweden and an inspired impact from his replacement, Theo Walcott, in that same game would generally dictate that Milner being benched for the game against Ukraine would be fully justified. Yet in the two banks of four, disiplined and structured 4-4-1-1, Milner’s inclusion still makes sense, at least for 65 minutes.

Walcott’s decisive and direct running changed the game for England when they appeared to be losing their grip on a game they had controlled well in the first half. Yet the underlying fact about England v Ukraine is that England go through if they are not beaten. Whilst it is often said to be defensive or even negative to approach a game to avoid defeat, it would be stupid and naive to tactically set up to be more attacking, and as such a tight and organised display from England again is the common sense option. Whilst Walcott demonstrated good linear movement that stretched Sweden out of their shape, he was slow to get back into position when England were defending and would stray out from the midfield line and disrupt the organisation. Milner on the other hand is the hard working defensive player that carries out tactical instruction to a tee, a Jon Walters or Dirk Kuyt. Of course, like those two he is also lacking in technique and flair as was evidenced by his consistent inabilty to beat the first man with his crossing, and his failure to test the left back.

Today’s game however calls for us to not be beaten, as if we are beaten, we are out. Therefore an appraisal of which player is better suited could be gained if we consider which player’s weakness could harm us the most. Milner is more likely to concede possession, through a misplaced pass or bad cross, high up the pitch, whereas Walcott’s lack of positional awareness and indisipline could see Ukraine breach us in that zone, a more dangerous area for them to build attacks.

Furthermore, Whereas the best players in the world can be contained early in a match when a defender is fully concentrating and disiplined, later in a match this is less the case. As such, Walcott’s pace becomes a much more powerful asset when players are tired, concentrating less and thus more suseptible to mistakes, making him a better option for later in the game when his attacking strengths are likely to outweigh his defensive flaws.

On a seperate note, Glen Johnson endured a torrid display against Sweden, at fault for one of the goals and constantly illlustrating why there is a cliche of him being unable to defend, which showed that he can be caught out high up the pitch. As ridiculous as it is that a defender should need protecting, Milner would provide a shield that protects Johnson on the right side, that Walcott would not, thereby suring up that zone of the pitch.

The exception to this logic comes of course if England are behind and a goal is needed, in which case Walcott’s stretching of the play and testing pace, at the sacrifice of sound defensive structure, becomes a risk worth taking.

Glen Johnson makes up his own defensive line v Sweden

June 19, 2012

Cristiano Ronaldo is not …

Cristiano Ronaldo is not the second best player in the world, he is the 12th. The first 11 are the Barcelona players

-Sandro Rosell, Barcelona president on Cristiano Ronaldo. Rosell may be over-estimating Gerard Pique’s unconvincing season however.

Pique: Better