Monday, 30 April 2012


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I always look forward to the media haranguing the following morning of a football match. Regardless of what occurred, the losing manager more often than not gets hung out to dry and it can't be comfortable reading. Barcelona, the team on everyone's lips at the moment were the team of choice for the past couple of days and the snippets that I have perused over are just ridiculous. To quote Alan Shearer on Al Jazeera after the game: "Barcelona don't have a plan B. Why don't they lump it up into the centre with 10 minutes to go. This intricate passing is all well and good but when you need to win games you need to be direct". Glenn Hoddle on Sky Sports: "They need overlapping players, where's the runs and the diagonal balls over the top?" Jamie 'I know nothing' Redknapp: "Messi was poor"I'm not about to get into a Lionel Messi love-in, as 63 goals in a season speaks for itself, however I am flabbergasted at how such people are employed to judge footballers and create a furore among common-folk just who just repeat the same old dross that they heard post-match. 

Three games stick in my mind which contained so called anti-football against Barcelona. It started in 2008 with Manchester United, 2010 with Inter and 2012 with Chelsea. I may be a Manchester United fan, however I am still a football purist and I've never enjoyed the manner in which it can be defeated by doing the opposite of playing football. Much like 99% of the population despise Stoke's style of play and will freely admit it, many around the country will be praising the 'spirit' of the Chelsea 'performance'. Now I do understand that football is about winning but it is the way in which victories, whether one-legged or two legged, occur to stifle not just a footballing style but an entire philosophy.

When Manchester United drew 0-0 at the Camp Nou in 2008, although I was happy that it didn't end in a defeat, I was still cornered by friends about the way in which it happened. It was that ever present cliché of 'parking the bus'. Other than the early missed penalty, there were only 3 shots from United. Barcelona had 73% possession over 90 minutes which evokes an air of relinquishing possession. I mean these are the best teams in Europe not coming out to play the game and that's disappointing. I wouldn't want to say that they should come out like Mourinho did in his first Clasico and lose 5-0, but you need to perform to some degree when it comes to football. The tactic most certainly should not be to wait and wait and foul and time-waste and then smash and grab. It's horrible viewing for the neutral and for people like me. In 2010 when Inter were drawn against Barcelona, they came from behind in the first leg at home to beat Barcelona 3-1. Their tactics weren't the best but hit Barcelona on the counter and Inter came away with a respectable victory. It was, however, the return leg that is completely mystifying. Let's just start by saying Inter did not have one shot. Not one. Yes Busquets acted like a complete pansy, however disgusting that is to see, it should not be the memorable moment of the game. 'Parking the bus' became a verb after this match and it was 'To Mourinho'. Piqué scoring in the 84th minute was a mere consolation as Barcelona struggled to get through a 4-5-0 formation that didn't come further than the edge of the centre-circle. It was of no surprise to note that Inter amassed 5 yellows and 1 red card.

The Chelsea match is still clear in the minds of many and I'll just start with the stats. This was by far the worst in terms of possession for an opposing team out of the three that I've mentioned. Barcelona had 82% of the ball. Eighty-two. That's ridiculous and a team that can go to the Champions League Final having 18% of the ball are not a team I have much time for. (Seems that Guardiola feels the same because as I write this he has confirmed he is leaving the club at the end of the season). 6 yellow cards and 1 red seems about right with the laughable John 'I'm not that type of player' Terry, brazen with his lies only to come out with his tail between his legs. I'll briefly mention the histrionics of one Didier Drogba in the first leg as well as the constant fouls not picked up by the inexperienced referee in the second. There was also the deliberate hand ball by Drogba that was neither seen by the referee or the television studios for some reason. It was things like this, coupled with the quality of the football that angered me that evening. You simply cannot ask for a plan B when you're from the continent and know you can't beat Chelsea at corners. It's beggars belief to assume that Messi couldn't dribble past 6 players and score. However, this is Chelsea remember and as much as I don't have time for the club in general they're still a decent side. It's not Getafé when it's possible to dribble from the half way line and score, it's a 4-6-0/5-5-0 formation which is nigh-on impossible to penetrate. It wasn't a case of Chelsea relinquishing possession, they just weren't good enough with it. They showed glimpses though and when you have 7 shots on goal, 3 on target but score 2 shows that there is ability there; just not an inkling to use it and that is a shame.

In Manchester United's 2009 final it was a rematch of the 2008 semi-final with a completely different outcome. An angry Barcelona came to the final displaying a ruthless style of football championed by their old number 4; Pep Guardiola. From what happened the previous year, I had a sense that this one would be tough. Having Fletcher or not would not have made a difference, as much as United fans would protest. Sometimes you have to take a step back and watch in awe. At times that is what I did, knowing that it was happening against the team I support was painful at first but that subsided as the match went on. Reason being is that Manchester United went there to play. They had 49% possession and this is against a team that can keep the ball for fun. No one tried to Mourinho anyone as this is how the game should be played. Each team having shots in double figures, not too many fouls/yellow cards. This was an enjoyable game for the neutral too. I would rather lose and play well than play in an uber-catenaccio style and win like Capello's Milan in '94.

Arsenal last season at The Emirates surprised everyone, even me, by beating Barcelona. You know what? I was supporting the Blaugrana that evening but had to applaud what Arsenal did. They actually went for it. The defensively weak Arsenal, including Arshavin, went out to play football against the team that are better than most at it. It worked and there are a few that say they were the better team that day. The fact that both teams played actual football that evening negates all of that. Let's be clear though, Barcelona had the better of the chances that game and most of the ball as usual however it's irrelevant as you know that's what is going to come. This was one of two occasions I've been proud of an 'English' team against Barcelona. The other occasion being last years final where United were humbled 3-1. This was the only time in my life I was prepared to lose knowing what had happened for the last three years. It sounds strange and I've been pilloried about it by 'hardcore' fans but it was my two favourite teams playing and I honestly didn't mind who won. I would have been happier if United lifted the trophy but I wasn't as upset as I was in 2009. No where near as upset in fact.

I won't go into details but Bilbao have played and been successful against Barcelona, Real in the Clasico's as well. Even in the Copa Del Rey they were unlucky. They played football but it wasn't suicidal. There are other ways to play against Barcelona than to sit and wait and make the game as annoying as someone refusing to blow their nose and rather sniff every 0.4 minutes. 

Something I learnt in 2008 from playing Pro Evolution Soccer was that you need to play the game not the system. It was back then that a friend of mine would rarely lose by playing the system, a flaw in the game which as much as it isn't, it was a version of cheating. Yet nothing can be done as it's entirely in the rules. You use what's available to you and Chelsea, Inter and Manchester United did. It doesn't feel right and it's all forgotten once a trophy is lifted. Maybe that's why Guardiola is leaving Barcelona at the end of the season. Maybe it's his opinion that he is at the end of a cycle; the most successful cycle Barcelona have had with 13 trophies won in 4 years. Either way, his legacy will be told to generations of children. I for one will be telling my son and he will definitely be telling his son. Sometimes Wikipedia just isn't enough.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Paul Scholes and Manchester United's over-reliance.

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January 8th 2012 was the day that opinions were divided amongst Manchester United fans. Some saw it as a psychological tactic by Sir Alex Ferguson to rally his troops before taking on Manchester City in the FA Cup. Many saw it as an act of desperation considering the Sniejder love-in over the summer that amounted to nothing with the lack of any high profile midfielder joining the ranks. Others, myself included, saw it as the best and only option available albeit I was nearly left with egg on my face considering a couple of lack-lustre moments in that game which brought a 10-man Manchester City within touching distance of a draw.

The beginning of the 2011/2012 season started well in a post-Scholes Manchester United, with the side keeping their faith in youth plus experience. A good pre-season which included beating a 7/10 Barcelona side and a customary comeback in the Charity shield was followed by wins against West Brom, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Bolton.

- Surprisingly the toughest test was against West Brom and United were lucky to come away with a win after De Gea's howler. Considering the opposition, a game such as this was not going to trouble United's midfield or make any observers aware of the seed that was planted upon Scholes hanging up his boots.

- Spurs were without Modric, King, Parker and Adebayor so once again, this was not a game that would have proved too tricky. All the goals did come in the second half but a midfield of Livermore and Kranjcar was never really going to trouble anyone at United, especially when their game changers (not including Bale) were not playing.

- Against Arsenal, regardless of the scoreline, cracks did appear. Maybe it was the way that Arsenal play but a team that looked extremely weak; Jenkinson (remember him?) and Traore as full backs and Coquelin in midfield still managed to score two plus miss a penalty. Looking at Arsenal's bench makes even worse reading when they have Giles Sunu and Oguzhan Ozyakup as backup. Proof that this was the best team available yet still managed some twenty shots at goal. Only five less than United.

- The Bolton game I have covered in a previous post but I shall surmise it by saying Bolton didn't deserve to lose 5-0. On the day, the better team won but five goals to no reply was flattering.

- When a real test came along at the Estadio Da Luz against Benfica, it became apparent that the lack of stern opposition had papered over the cracks. A very disappointing performance from United as they couldn't create anything and the lack of a player to dictate the play was discerning to say the least. For if it was not for a wonder strike by Ryan Giggs, this game would have changed the back pages the following morning.

The run up of 23 games from that Benfica game up until the end of 2011 yielded 13 wins, 5 draws and 5 losses. That's not the mark of champions when you dissect it like I will. Discounting cup wins over Leeds and Aldershot, the Chelsea game was a surprise result with a few refereeing decisions going against them. United didn't control the game as you would expect and I haven't seen an end-to-end game like that against a top side that wasn't Arsenal in a while. De Gea had a good game and Chelsea had good chances (the Torres miss included) to put this game away. It's an unfortunate place to be when a midfield that contains Frank Lampard can dominate, and that's what occurred against Fletcher and Anderson. The former clearly not fit and the latter just disappointing once again. This isn't to say that United should have lost as only one side took their chances whereas Chelsea were profligate. In the next few games there were draws against Stoke, Basle and Liverpool a tough win over Otelul Galati and the 6-1 embarrassment against City. In all of those games, there was no one to take the game to the opposition. A midfield shorn of an 8/10 player was becoming clearer and clearer and a lack thereof exposing a weak defence in front of a pubescent goalkeeper.

Going forward from those games, United were embarrassed at home by Crystal Palace, couldn't beat Benfica once again, failed to put away the chances against Newcastle and were outplayed away to Basle. My personal opinion was that it was this game that made Ferguson speak to Scholes and convince him to make a U-turn on his retirement only 6 months prior. In and around those games there were wins against Everton, Sunderland, Swansea , Otelul Galati (another struggle) and Aston Villa. In all of the league games mentioned, they were only won by a single goal. I won't go and say the games were undeserved wins as that's not fair on the efforts of the players. What I will say is that bar the Aston Villa game, United did not dominate as they should and would have done in years gone by. A smash and grab against Everton, an own goal against Sunderland and a tough win over Swansea is not a nice place to be when you are reigning champions.

It seemed like business as usual against Wolves, QPR and Fulham as not one of the teams really tested United with a goals ratio of 11 for and 1 against proving as such. The home game against Wigan contained the controversial sending off of Connor Sammon and the 5-0 win most probably wouldn't have been as such considering United were only 1-0 up until the sending off (on 40 mins). Also of note was that during this time Carrick and Valencia were both in defence due to injuries to Ferdinand, Vidic and Evans. Fitting that in the away tie against the same opposition did United look like the team from November/December, however we shall come to that. Reason being as I need to mention the games against Blackburn at home and Newcastle away. In both of these games United were dominated by their opposition. A weakened team was put out against Blackburn and even on paper it looked wrong. An oversight was Carrick/Jones against Yakubu as he would overpower both with ease, something he actually did. Rafael in midfield was another anomaly considering Anderson and the apparent talent Pogba were warming the bench. De Gea's beginning of the season jitters came back to haunt him and he was subsequently dropped after this match after failing to handle a corner for Blackburn's winner. Another oversight considering his poor build against a powerful side such as Blackburn. 

The Newcastle game is the most poignant for many when the midfield was completely outclassed. I'm sure Scholes had already re-signed at this point and he was needed now more than ever. Everything I have said above stems from having a mediocre centre of the midfield. Bereft of such a thing starves the goalscorers in the team and also exposes the back line. It is no secret that United were conceding more shots on goal than anyone in the league and the midfield was nowhere to be seen when it came to Cabaye and Tioté. They dominated the game and United have never cried out more for someone to keep the ball and distribute with aplomb. 

Scholes's return was announced prior to kick off for the Manchester City game in the FA Cup which was a timely boost coming off the back of two successive and humiliating defeats. Considering what happened at Old Trafford against the same opposition, this could have been another banana skin on the road to retaining the title. Yet United took the lead before Kompany was sent off. The game finished 3-2 with Scholes entering the fray on 60 minutes and helping United keep their lead; something they had been missing all season. He may have made a few stray passes but you can't put the blame just on one man for allowing Manchester City back into the game.
From this game up until Wednesday's match against Wigan, United won every single game bar 1 that Scholes started in. United only dropped points to Liverpool in the FA Cup when he had already gone off, the 3-3 draw against Chelsea and the fleeting appearance against Ajax. Patrick Vieira called United desperate in recalling Scholes to the side and however effective his appearances have been, desperation is still a word that can be used as long as the end product is victory. 
Against Wigan, United haven't looked that bad since Scholes wasn't playing and ironically he wasn't. They couldn't control the game, there was no one to take the ball and make a telling pass. I won't take away from the fact that Wigan were excellent throughout and stifled United in possession. However that happens nearly every week so it is not an excuse. This game reminded me of Basle away. Giggs starting in centre midfield has always worried me and he made a 90+% passing completion player look mediocre. Yes, Carrick had nothing to offer without Scholes by his side and that's testament to the talent that Scholes possesses. 

He is the figurative player I have mentioned throughout; the player that plays the 60 yard passes to our wingers, the player that takes it away from Ferdinand/Evans before they make their trademark hollywood pass that never reaches it's intended destination, and more importantly, the player who helps Wayne Rooney get goals. These tasks are not taken care of by any of his understudies and it's a telling problem that Sir Alex Ferguson is living with on a daily basis. There is no way that he can play every game and he was rested against Wigan for the reason of 3 games in a week. It's an issue that will continue to remain when a 37 year old is United's most important current player. The hole he leaves behind when not playing is more of a gorge than a hole and how long can it go on that a team of Manchester United's stature can rely on such a player? You have to remember that he will eventually retire properly and even if he carries on for another year or so, how good will he continue to be? Something needs to be done come the end of the season and whatever that may be this is an awkward situation to be in when there is such a reliance on a player who shouldn't even be playing.


Monday, 2 April 2012

Fabrice Muamba: Bringing the football world together for all the wrong reasons

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I'll always remember the moment I heard the news. In my hotel room on my brother's stag in Marbella my Uncle walks in and says "have you heard about the Spurs game?" Now I've heard quips like that many times in my life and naturally my answer was "no, what's happened?" automatically thinking that someone is losing by a large amount of goals. His next words were "Fabrice Muamba...." and at that exact moment not one ounce of me was ready for what would be said next. My subconscious went through the usual process of elimination in my head by first coming up with a list of options: goal from the halfway line, own goal, bicycle kick, sent off etc but I was not prepared for the tail-end of my Uncle's sentence: "....collapsed on the pitch and the game has been abandoned". My heart sank and I still can't recall what was being said prior to these words being uttered. In an instant my mind cast back to 2003 when Marc Vivien-Foe succumbed to the same fate. Difference being, I was actually watching that game and I've only felt that weird sensation when learning of a relative passing away. To see someone fighting for their life is one thing, but to watch them pretty much pass away is horrible viewing. I'll never forget that match against Columbia.

Muamba's path was different to Foe's, he survived for one thing and it's being hailed as a 'miracle' and you're not wrong. He saw the light and effectively died multiple times, only for the perseverance of the medical teams is he still allowed to be on Earth with us. In an odd way, the man to thank for this is Petr Cech. In 2006 Cech received a terrible head injury and changed the game for emergency services within football forever: a classic case of being reactive rather than proactive. When Cech had been tended to by the physios present, he had to wait for 30 minutes for an ambulance. Only after multiple complaints did he eventually get to an emergency room for them to find out he'd smashed his skull. It was clear there is only so much a physio can do in these circumstances and this was the catalyst to the abundance of medical options at football matches now. Doctors at football matches are now trained in how to diagnose much faster and find a solution just as fast as it is this quick thinking that can save lives. Also a reason why difibrillators are now commonplace at stadiums  However this does begs the question: "If that level of medical help was available in 2003, would Foe still be around?".

Amid the furore of Muamba's situation, there did seem to be an air of sensationalism. People just using the '#prayforMuamba' hashtag in order to get followers or for someone famous person to retweet them was just ridiculous. Somewhat odd behaviour when another human being is dying and you're asking for twitter love. This was merely a slight downside when compared to the 'trolls' out there. In fairness, the term 'troll' never looked right but after this it couldn't be more apt. Enter Liam Stacey, a boy that openly mocked Muamba's collapse and followed up with racial slurs. Once he had been exposed, his first reaction was to claim that his account had been hacked. Only to weep like a child in court as he was jailed for 56 days for being a complete and utter imbecile. I'm pretty sure that's the fastest I've seen a member of the public be tried and subsequently jailed and it's a great option to have. Lessons can be learned here for all that bring hate to twitter as even I have been accustomed to the occasional Piers Morgan jibe.

When the footballing world in this country was going through a bad time with racism being the ball and chain clamped around its ankle, it took a moment of genuine shock to change everything. Ever since the Evra/Suarez and Terry/Ferdinand debacles there has been some form of racism-related news story accompanying the back pages every single week. From ex-footballers to current footballers all receiving some sort of abuse it can only be described as embarrassing. First a laughing stock on the pitch, now matters off it are even more prevalent in the news. I'm of the belief that racism will always exist, however minor it may be and the optimists among you may disagree but remember that someone can not like the colour of your skin either.

So it's ironic that the colour of Muamba's skin had nothing to do with the collective support everyone had. It didn't matter that he was the same colour as the footballers and pundits getting abused. All that was of concern was that a fellow peer/person needed help and that's exactly what he got. It took a player to come close to death for the majority of fans in this country to come together and it was a sight to behold. It didn't even affect people just from England as fans from across the globe added their tributes along with many footballers in foreign lands. It's just a shame that it takes something of this magnitude to peel away the stupid-ness of footballing life in order to reveal that it is just a game. We're euphoric in victory and dejected in defeat however it's a case of going on to the next one. So do not fret as there will always be another game, another match to hold on to the hope of scoring one more than the opposition. Make no mistake, there will always be people with sub-human levels of I.Q but that's what sets you apart, that's why you can view them as imbecilic and that's why you're better than them. That's why I believe we can get past this.

Football is now in a better place in this country. Confidence hasn't been completely restored but it's a great way in order for everyone to move on. Well, until John Terry gets tried and everyone forgets how, for a brief moment, Muamba changed everything.