Monthly Archives: June 2012

England’s Inquest is a Generation Too Late

It’s finally happened. English football finally seems to have grasped the value of technique in possession of the football. Hodgson’s said it, the tabloids said it, even educated Guardianistas are saying it: Let’s do it. Let’s pass the ball. It’s a valuable insight, and one that could make a huge difference to the way very young English players are coached. Smaller pitches. One and two touch play. Value the ball. We’re waking up to a magnificent piece of criticism based on Peter Kay’s wonderful ‘Ave it!’ advert that simultaneously served as the definitive statement of English football’s value system. The criticism was this: “I don’t get it. He’s a footballer. Why doesn’t he love the ball?”

Jamie Carragher wrote a phenomenal and absolutely accurate piece in the Telegraph about this, a stinging condemnation of English coaching and English footballing attitudes, as well as Hodgson himself. The irony here is that Carragher was hugely welcoming of Hodgson, was rumoured to be a big factor in Benitez’ removal, and is himself the ultimate ‘Ave It!’ footballer, yet as a student of the game his views echo almost exactly Benitez own brilliant article on the subject of English coaching.

However, as welcoming as this awakening is, it sadly still misses the point. The value of possession is not a new lesson. It’s the lesson that the rest of the footballing world learned, digested, implemented and has now moved on from and revolutionised over the last 30 years. It’s a movement that Benitez was a pioneer of with his work at Valencia and Liverpool, and it’s his overall philosophy that has gained such momentum this generation. You see, what the rest of the world has realised, just as we’re learning to value the ball, is that it’s what happens off the ball that now separates the best from the rest.

Already comfortable on the ball, the high-end coaching in the top footballing nations is now focussing on an old revolution that modern fitness training has only now allowed to become ubiquitous, that of pressing. Pressing has become systematic, team-based and highly organised. The revolutionary impact of Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan system, a phenomenal style of play that ultimately destroyed his players physically, has been modified so that the best pressing teams now do it in waves. High intensity and high lines, but for shorter bursts, followed by retreat if the ball is not won back quickly and decisively. This maximises the number of dangerous attacking situations – teams are at their most vulnerable just after a turn-over in possession. In turn this has led to possession becoming a way of regaining energy. Teams run off the ball and rest on it – defending has become the new way of attacking, and attacking the new way of defending. It’s transforming the way the world plays football and I find it incredible to watch, not least seeing the interesting ways different nations are interpreting it, and the new (and indeed old) weapons teams are finding to combat these new approaches.

Take a look at Greece, for example. Lacking the players to compete with this new paradigm, they have found real success by going forward to the past. A return to that most maligned of footballing systems – the Catenaccio of Inter in the 60’s. Unable to get or keep the ball, the Greeks have looked to play almost without the ball at all. This has even succeeded at the very highest levels – Mourinho’s Inter in particular perfected this art of playing without the football, saving their concentration for maintaining team shape and denying space, while saving their energy for set-pieces and devastating bursts when rare counter-attacking opportunities present themselves.
Meanwhile England are realising that players who can pass and receive the ball are fundamental to any success, but are also utterly ignoring the developments following on from that simple truth. Now that the better countries have quality players, they are all focussed on pressing, and how to make it work with the players at their disposal. In the meantime, England are focussing only on what happens when a team actually has the ball, and do not seem to realise that in order to have the ball, you have to have some idea of how to actually get the ball. Stopping our habitual surrendering of possession is only half the problem – that is not the only reason why Hodgson’s England registered such pathetic possession statistics.

Hodgson’s England have no plan to regain the ball. Hodgson himself does not even understand that pressing is a system, let alone how to implement that system with the players at his disposal. He thinks of pressing as no more than closing-down the nearest man, within a system of pure retreat, which is in turn no more than a product of players working hard. Even worse, Hodgson does not even understand how reliant his team’s possession is on having a genuine target man – implementing his own ‘Ave It’ brand of defending and then attempting to build from the hold-up play and knock downs of, err, Danny Welbeck, leaving Carroll on the bench – much as he tried to employ Fernando Torres at Liverpool. Yet this is the man to whom we have entrusted the first core of young English players I can remember who actually understand the fundamentals of possession and who, under someone like Benitez, could be moulded into a genuine force off the ball as well as on it.

Instead, while the rest of the world is finessing it’s pressing we, depressingly, have a coach – who doesn’t understand his single tactical approach of almost 40 years use – explaining that ‘we must do better’ at keeping the ball, as if it were the players fault that long clearances to a front line containing no players with genuine heading or holding-up ability will struggle to get or maintain possession. Meanwhile English football in general is, I think, going to start going in the direction of Arsenal. We will, eventually, get a better coaching and start implementing those kinds of attitudes on the ball, but as with the coverage of Arsenal and Wenger we will claim this is as a kind of English version of Barcelona’s ideas while ignoring the fact that Guardiola’s revolution had relatively little to do with what his players do with the ball. The two approaches could scarcely be more different – Wenger, as a coach, is even more clueless off the ball than Hodgson is, and his teams do not really press at all, let alone systematically. All this means that we are shaping up to produce a generation who can actually finally play possession football, only to find every other nation is either able to aggressively press and take that possession from us as easily as candy from a baby, or meet underdogs like Greece who will frustrate us with organisation and denial of space, with our own team relying on opposition mistakes to regain possession, lacking as we do not only a plan to get the ball, but even the knowledge that getting the ball back actually requires a plan.

The irony is that England has, as already mentioned, an unemployed and phenomenal manager who pioneered the current footballing revolution in the goateed form of Rafael Benitez, who would doubtless be hugely interested in an England project of genuine scope and ambition. This man has the vision and knowledge to implement the kind of structures and the kind of coaching that make Spain, Brazil and Germany the phenomenal teams they are.

If you want to weep for the sickening anti-intellectualism and backward thinking of our country on the whole and how this is destroying our national game – a game in which we must never forget that, in terms of number of children taking up the sport, we are blessed with potential natural resources that only Brazil and Argentina could really rival in terms of raw numbers – look no further than media attitudes towards that manager. While the media laud the virtues of the 4-2-3-1, they still mock the man they vilified for playing that ‘negative’ formation in England. While they gasp at Spain’s aggressive pressing, they still don’t understand that under Benitez Liverpool were playing that way off the ball before Spain had even won a major tournament. While they wonder at the fitness and flexibility of nations and teams employing ruthless rotation systems, they still denigrate the ‘Fat Spanish Waiter’ for his implementation of that system. He, or someone like him, with this new generation, could build something England haven’t had since 1966 – a team at the very cutting edge of modern tactics.

Instead, he will not even be mentioned in the clamour for a new approach that will follow our almost inevitable dismal failure in Brazil (on the large assumption that we even qualify). If there is hope for England I would put my money (not much of it though) on Brendan Rogers, a man who, unlike Liverpool’s two previous managers, is steeped in the modern approach, and might just have the tactical insight and understanding to rebuild based on the strong foundations and promising academy Benitez left there, and may then be in a position to transfer that vision to the national team.

Balotelli and a Bold New Italy

Is there anyone out there who hasn’t loved watching Italy in this tournament? They’ve combined a tournament’s worth of interesting backdrops and subtexts into one team, while also playing some of the most thrilling and enterprising football ever seen from the Azzuri.

The classic Italian footballing virtue of pragmatism hasn’t been abandoned by any means, the team is built on the core of Conte’s Juventus side, with a no-nonsense shaven-headed back four that could have just stepped out of an audition for a new series of Prison Break. Their team spirit is clearly impressive and Prandelli has even managed to get potential mavericks like Cassano and Balotelli focussed and working hard for the greater good. So far, so Italy.

What is new is their aggressive pressing and the speed of thought and quick interplay they exhibit going forward. In my memory, Italian teams have tended towards the patient and conservative, winning the ball back through great organisation but also passivity, sitting back and making themselves impossible to play through, and relying on a few very talented individuals to make the breakthroughs in attack.

This Italy, however, is no longer content to sit and wait. They hunt for the ball, they hunt in packs, and when they get the ball they pass it quickly and incisively within those packs – the flicks, one-twos, clever movement and sheer exhilaration they exhibited was, in that most hoary of footballing clichés, ‘just like watching Brazil’. Watching a 33 year old Pirlo and his telepathic understanding of position nicking the ball from a perspiring German toe before executing yet another inch perfect outside- footed mid-range pass into the path of a scurrying and determined Italian attacker will live on as the enduring image of this tournament, and him the player of the tournament, in a way that recalls Colombia’s Carlos Valderrama at his absolute best.

The interest doesn’t end there. Once more, an Italian team has honed itself into a lethal weapon against the backdrop of a domestic corruption scandal, with Juventus again implicated. This does not strike me as coincidence. Italy are perennial contenders at any major tournament, but with that comes an incredible pressure of domestic expectation. England’s limp quarter-final exit would see an Italian coach sacked, regardless of the quality of the opposition or the personnel available to him. Anything less than a semi-final is a failure and prompts a national inquest from a passionate but intrusive press.

This time, though, the nation again has bigger footballing issues on its mind. It is impossible to expect the best of players given such apparently unfavourable conditions, yet, paradoxically, those conditions force the team into a ‘bond or bust’ mentality, while simultaneously removing that often crippling pressure of expectation. The team has no choice but to stand together against outsiders, knowing also that, just for once, they will not come home as poster-boys for failure if they don’t impress in the latter stages. Like in the 2006 World Cup, the scandal has enabled a group of very talented players with a strong team ethic to concentrate on the primary aim of winning football matches, an aim they have striven for very impressively so far.

My favourite subplot, though, is also my favourite player in this team: Mario Balotelli. Already the man of the tournament in terms of column inches devoted to faux-moralising, he is on the verge of becoming the one thing these Euros have lacked so far – a game changing striker consistently hitting the back of the net. That he does hit the net should not generate the mock surprise it does from those who love to hate him for being a one-man generator of the kind of tedious non-troversy that dominates far too much football coverage these days. Despite the image of him as a brainless hot-head, forever one temper tantrum away from self and team destruction, Balotelli on the ball is the epitome of cool.

Look at his second goal. One of the very best striker’s finishes I’ve seen anywhere this season. Taken early, instinctively, only one touch to bring it under control before powering it into the net. Maybe questions can be asked of the German keeper – but only watching a replay in slow motion. In real time the ball was in the back of the net before it even seemed in a position to be hit. It’s the kind of finish that can only achieved by a confident striker who, whatever his other strengths and weaknesses, needs only the ball and goal to be in reasonable proximity before his one-track mind takes over and his foot, head or miscellaneous body part do the rest.

It’s great to see, and not just for footballing reasons. The spectre of racism has hung over this tournament as it was always going to. The response from football’s governing bodies has, as ever, been morally reprehensible, hypocritical and plain old pathetic. Even in support of Balotelli the Italian press subjected him to a highly objectionable King-Kong cartoon. By scoring that second goal, and then later doing that most Italian of things – hugging his beloved mama – Balotelli has probably done more good in Italy’s fight against racism than FIFA, UEFA or the Italian government have managed in a generation.

That’s not to downplay the importance of politics or structural changes in combating racism- in fact it’s the lack of those kind of real initiatives which make the footballing authorities such an unbridled disgrace on this issue – more to point out that, just as in England, the impact of quality footballers playing quality football can have a genuine and lasting impact on both the perception of and discourse around race. In that sense, it’s even more fortunate that the player in question is Mario Balotelli because, again despite his image, he is an interesting and articulate young man.

All that said, I must take a moment to acknowledge that he does, quite clearly, also have a crazy side. I need to acknowledge it because that’s what I absolutely love about him. He reminds me hugely of Bulgaria’s greatest and possibly moodiest talent – Hristo Stoitchkov. Balotelli is undoubtedly prone to the odd tantrum and some inappropriate reactions, but like Stoitchkov he’s also capable of channelling that fire into performances of devastating brilliance, hard work and real focus.

The celebration for that second goal really showcased this. Yes, it was arguably a stupid yellow card. On the other hand a look at Balotelli’s eyes at that moment ought to strike a little fear into the hearts of Spanish defenders. This was a young man revelling in the brightness of the spotlight he’s had forced upon him ever since his talent became apparent. This was a young man taking the light shone on him, often unjustly, and turning it into a new light coming from within him. He seemed to be signalling to the world: “I am Balotelli, I am here, I am ready and I am dangerous. I can deal with it – can you?”

Even better was his reaction to the win. Commentators have already moaned about it (and laughably so, having been castigated for his emotional over-reactions he is now being accused of excessive coldness – as is often the case with Balotelli it’s become criticism for criticism’s sake rather than anything based on a real transgression) but where some saw a lack of emotion or engagement with his team mates I got a sense of maturity and focus. It’s not that Balotelli was unconcerned or unhappy – it’s that he was already mentally moving on to Spain. He was seeing his surroundings, feeling like he belonged, and already turning to the far more important next step of actually winning rather than just getting there.

Maybe this is all just hyperbole, but it’s sometimes easy to forget that Balotelli is still just 21. He would not be the first young man to forge a better focus out of the furnace of youthful controversy. In this sense, the unpleasant treatment he’s received may actually help him in the long run. That’s not to justify it, more to point out that those with strength of mind can turn the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune into a real core of strength. Compare this to Wayne Rooney whose tantrums and tears have continually been excused and indulged, and we have on the one hand an incredible talent whose focus seems increasingly to be drifting away, a man who no longer seems to have the mentality to fulfil the genius he exhibited in his teenage years. On the other we have a player baptised in hardship, subject to abuse, racist and otherwise, and all sorts of speculation and attack from friends as much as enemies, but who now looks increasingly ready to channel both his talent and his temper into football’s ultimate difference maker: scoring goals.

Posted by Seb Crankshaw


Italy – A Primer

In Trento, English poet Matthew Gregory interviews Alan Maglio about Italian footballing philosophy, the variety of contemporary Serie A and Cesare Prandelli’s approach to Euro 2012:


MG: Something very interesting in the Italy-Spain match was the use of Daniele De Rossi as a ‘creative sweeper’. I can’t immediately recall a player in my lifetime taking up that role. It was a very crafty modification from Prandelli, as I think Spain were expecting Italy to play deep and try to counter attack, but be limited by their passing options at the back. With De Rossi, they had a real passer in a very unusual position! It allowed the Italians to release their second playmaker, Pirlo, and the forwards, as soon as they won the ball. Perhaps Matthias Sammer used to play a similar role for Germany? Do you think they’ll continue with this system during the England game? Or will that require a whole new set-up?

AM: I think that De Rossi played with great determination against Spain in that position unusual for him; in my opinion Prandelli will use him again in front of the defence. We must consider that Chiellini had an injury in the final minutes of the game against Ireland, so it will be very important to keep quality players also at the back. The example of Sammer is right, normally quality midfielders can be switched back in a more defensive role at the end of their careers, when athletic energies and the ability to run for long part of the matches starts to fade (another similar example in German teams could also be Lothar Mathaus in the national team and his last years at Bayern Munchen, when he led his team to a Uefa Cup).

I think Italy-England will be a very balanced game, unpredictable in the final result. For sure the Italian team is not the best ever, many players are inexperienced to play at this level… Bonucci, Giaccherini, Nocerino, Abate…. I had good impressions of Marchisio and Balzaretti. The Englandteam looks fresh and young, Carroll and Welbeck were impressive against Sweden, now that Rooney is back in the game Hodgson (who knows Italian football well) can mix young talents and experienced players.

MG: Pirlo has been for the Italians what the Spanish call Xavi, the ‘titiritero’, the puppeteer, or puppet master. His assist for Di Natale against Spain was indicative of what he is. England very rarely possess a player like that, or if they do, they tend to leave them back at home. The one thing that Pirlo seems to embody is harmony: as if the world can wait while he gets things right. And he sets the example for the rest of the team. That’s something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit in general while I’ve been in Italy. A friend of mine, from Lithuania, made an interesting observation. He noticed that Sorrento tomatoes would lose their flavour if not cut precisely – easily done, in fact, almost impossible not to do, if you know little about the Sorrento tomato. The juice floods out of a few vessels in the fruit. He proposed that if an atomic scientist were to analyse the way that any good home-cook of the area sliced the Sorrento tomato, he would find a molecular harmony in the incision. I can’t exactly confirm that, but, you know. I thought it was wonderfully illustrative of something about Italy. In comparison, there is a noticeable kind of ‘discord’, when I think of English teams in my lifetime, a volatile energy that can either be successful, catching the opposition unawares with the vigour and speed of the assault, or it leads to things like that Germany game in the last World Cup! Under Roy Hodgson, at least there seems to be a noticeable calm over the team. But not on the pitch, still, I don’t think, and perhaps there never will be the same kind of composure I see in Italy or Spain, or the Germans at their most magisterial. But I wonder why?

AM: Pirlo is a unique player, one of the key men in the 2006 World Cup and many Champions League editions for AC Milan. Last year the Rossoneri didn’t want to renew his contract – after disappointing for Italy at 2010 WC, many thought that his talent was fading. So he went to Juventus for no money, with a new contract signed with the Bianconeri. Juve desperately needed to refound the team after Serie B and anonymous seasons in Serie A. They couldn’t choose anyone better: Pirlo played a magnificent season, reasoning for a team full of fast men on the wings and athletic players on midfield. In the national team Pirlo shows his talent at his best, even if is not so fast as WC 2006, he still can play the ball under his great vision suggesting the movements to all the team. Spain’s ideal is to play with a goalkeeper and 10 players like Pirlo, bypassing the idea of defenders, midfielders or forwards. Iniesta and Xavi are the best expression of this updated version of football that looks back to Dutch football of the 70s, when everybody must do everything. In English tradition the spirit is different, football is very fast and athletic, it’s difficult for Pirlos or Xavis to come out and play in the national team, maybe a good expression of that kind of player was Gascoigne, but sadly his career was too short and underrated for the talent he had.

MG: Something I’ve become more and more aware of is the diversity of tactical approaches in Serie A. A universal ‘Italian’ style doesn’t seem to be applicable to the league. Juventus, this year, for instance, played very differently to the two Milan clubs, who, in turn, played very differently to SSC Napoli. In fact, when I think of those four teams, there is very little to unite them as being recognisably Italian. Juventus and Inter seem to contain some of the older traits, but with more contemporary variation. I couldn’t spot an overwhelmingly universal system, like catenaccio or the patient possession play, that outsiders immediately think of when they consider Italian football. Napoli’s three-pronged counter-attack, with the two South Americans and Hamsik, was explosive, while Juventus in their midfield play were very expansive and enterprising. Who do you think Prandelli has learnt the most from, in terms of league football?

AM: Prandelli is involving in the national team a lot of Juventus players, basically the whole defence of the Bianconeri. Antonio Conte won the last Serie A also with a very solid defence in the team. So Buffon, Barzagli, Chiellini and Bonucci for Italy is in fact the Juventus back rank, Pirlo, Giaccherini and Marchisio the middle line. Good players form other teams are Maggio from Napoli, a very fast winger, Di Natale from Udinese (underrated player at international level, but probably the best and most talented Italian forward we have in Serie A), Thiago Motta from PSG (ex-Inter) who seems a bit tired and probably will not play versus England. Keep in mind Nocerino from AC Milan, if he will have a chance to play, he can be a very good surprise, last year Milan bought him from Palermo for €500.000 and he became since day one a decisive player in the midfield, scoring 10(!) goals in the last Serie A. Prandelli should give him a chance in my opinion!

MG: Yes, I like Di Natale. A real predator of the old school. And though he plays for Udinese, he’s from Napoli, isn’t he? It’s interesting, that the defence and the midfield is largely from Juventus, a northern team, notable for their organisation and composure, and the attack, Cassano, Di Natale and Balotelli, are by origin, of the south. I’ve never been to Bari or Palermo, but I’ve lived in Napoli for a little while, and I wouldn’t say organisation or composure were traits of that city! A far cry from Torino. There is a real culture of street football in Napoli, where all public space essentially takes on new chaotic dimensions of football space in an instant, like in Brazil or Argentina. I don’t suppose it’s quite the same in the more orderly cities of the north. It seems illustrative of life in this country that Italy’s most adventurous, reckless forward players, Cassano and Balotelli are southerners, from the streets of Bari and Palermo, while the linchpins are from the unruffled north. A very interesting dynamic, and not one that’s always true, but in this case, it seems to be.

Posted by Matthew Gregory with Alan Maglio

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It’s Human Nature

I think anybody who saw France’s capitulation to Spain can agree that Florent Malouda, a footballer who is to footballing what Adam Mars-Jones and Philip Hensher are to novel-writing, should have made at least some effort to pick up Xabi Alonso as he burst forward to get on the end of Jordi Alba’s cross and score the first goal of the evening. ITV’s Jamie Carragher took very little time to highlight Malouda’s utter disinterest in shoring up his side’s flimsy defence during the half-time punditry, and – had I been born in Dijon rather than Darlington – I’d be pretty adamant that the Chelsea something-or-other should never pull on the bleu ever again. That said, I was astounded by Roy Keane’s contribution to the analysis. He began in typically Keanian spirit, saying somthing along the lines that any professional should have internalised the idea that tracking back when one’s team is in trouble is a fundamental part of the game. However, this swiftly turned into generalisation. ‘It’s human nature,’ he blurted, in his (arguably reasonable) concern to make sure that Adrian Chiles knew what he was talking about.

Is it ‘human nature’? There’s a Marxian approach to Darwin that says the wrong elements of Origin of Species were emphasised in Victorian Britain, as ‘competition’ was elevated above ‘mutual aid’ in an effort to naturalise certain basic principles of industrial capitalism. Certainly, evolutionary science might do well to play up the theory that we’re hard-wired to help each other out rather than to snipe, undermine, and generally look after our own ends. It might serve as a corrective to lunk-headed Mail blog commentary about ‘common sense’, at least, and we might begin to put to bed timewasting hair-splitters such as ‘altruism is really just another form of selfishness’. However, Keane – who I’m normally a big fan of – got under my skin tonight. The implication wasn’t that providing assistance to those in need of it is an inherent human trait, I think – it was that football-mindedness is something we’re all secretly given to. It was a claim for the game’s universality based in its alleged similarity to lived experience which, to me, demeans football’s particularity, cutting away the aspects that make it different from other team sports.

The claim that football is somehow a pure analogue of human experience in general doesn’t work for me. It might serve as a pathway into broader concerns, but its inital spark lies in its difference rather than in its similarity. By that, I mean that it produces a skewed image of what-we-do-the-rest-of-the-time which serves as a vantage point onto the everyday: that’s to say that modernist poetry or painting offer more valid points of comparison than realist fiction or drama. Every attempt to make football into a simile for day-to-day life falls short somehow, and I’d be willing to bet that we’d turn our backs on it pretty fast if a point-for-point metaphorical exchange was possible. Of course, social factors are huge influences on how football is played in a given location, but these are the starting points of tactical trajectories rather than objects of unimpeded mimesis.

By Joe Kennedy

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I can’t help it, I had a dream..

Last night I slept soundly. One linear dream. The final of Euro 2012.

England 3-1 Germany. It was 3-0 at one point. Ashley Young lashed the third in from the edge of the box. Germany got one back in the 77th minute: the superego coming back in to tell me not to count my fantasy chickens. Still, Stevie G lifted arguably the most aesthetically pleasing cup of them all, the Henri Delaunay trophy, above his head.

Okay, so it can’t happen in real life, principally because if we did meet the Germans it would be the semis – as every Englishman and his dog will have drummed into them between now and Sunday presuming (enter your own unpredictability of football cliche here) that the Merkel-backed Deutsch Nationalmannschaft satisfy every last Twitter witticist and UKIP coffee morning across the land by kicking the Greeks out of the euro.

Apart from the opposition and the ‘fact’ that the game seemed to be played at a 1996-vintage Wembley in my dream, I didn’t laugh at the preposterous nature of the outcome upon my waking (which occurred when I was genuinely “rudely awoken by the dustman”, thus completing this script of early nineties boyhood fandom.)

I have already skirted the argument that your subconscious never gives up hope, even if Stewart Downing makes the final 23, so this dream may herald nothing. However, the point is my consciousness no longer finds the holding of a candle an incredibly stupid thing to do (and Downing for one hasn’t got so much as a sniff of Ukrainian grass seed). My heart’s been broken before, as you can probably tell. But Roy Hodgson has a point when he tells us we can dream again, and not just because his lick and polish persona evokes a bygone time of pre-Moneybags United football when unheralded and unfancied teams could, and did, win silverware.

At Euro 2012, England have actually been playing to their strengths and playing quite well. Okay, there is nothing world-beating about us, but then the same can be said of the (albeit defeated) World Cup finalists Germany in 2002, or indeed World Cup winners Italy in 2006. Panned by the newspapers, England’s performance against Ukraine was pretty sound by my judgement. An ugly host-shaped banana-skin well avoided, unlike at Euro 1992.

The realistic (nee ‘lower’) expectations have served England well. Individuals in the team appear to have bought into the need to unite. We have all realised that the sum of our parts is not enough – finally rejecting the arrogant mindset of players and fans alike; one that has caused us to come a cropper during every tournament summer for the last ten years. What’s more, there is competition for places, everyone wants to work for each other and those that have come in have performed their well-defined jobs to the best of their ability – see Andy Carroll’s incredible 90 mins against Sweden, or of course Theo Walcott’s game-changing cameo in the same encounter.

Additionally, all these performances feel like they owe as much to the manager as to the individual, something you could not say when Beckham refused to give up against Greece in 2002 or when a young Wayne Rooney destroyed Croatia in 2004. To me, it’s considerably more reminiscent of Venables’ tactical masterstroke of introducing Jamie Redknapp v Scotland in 1996 (sorry, here come the nineties again).

Every player has been doing their bit – putting a shift in is, after all, what we’re supposed to do best. Only James Milner has really disappointed.  Given that four of our five goals have come from the right and he has contributed squat towards any of them then he has to go down as the prime candidate for the axe. (But then has he really been that bad? What does anyone expect of him? To track back? He’s done that.) Thankfully Glen Johnson has had the tournament of his life.

All that means is that I’m well on the way to my hopes being raised ahead of another quarter-final. But then the memories come flooding back and the bitten-so-many-times-that-shyness-should-be-considered-progress heart dampens the spirits. We haven’t beaten a “major” nation at an international tournament since Argentina in 2002, and even that was a group game. You want to say history means nothing, but past failure must be in the souls of those players as much as mine.

Then again, we had never beaten Sweden in a competitive fixture til Roy came along.

Our QF opponents Italy looked superb against Spain but had clearly raised their game against Del Bosque’s team, judging by their more workmanlike performances against Croatia and Ireland. However, we should not draw confidence from the opposition: renewed hope should come from within. You may be able to name fewer members of the Azzurri than ever before but don’t let that fog your judgement – Italy could quite conceivably win the tournament.

But – excuse the axiom – Sunday is 50/50. It is the hardest quarter-final to call and that is good enough for me. Mr Hodgson, you’ve literally got me dreaming.

Posted by Gregg Morgan

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Irish Fans, Disenchantment with Trap and Why Roy Keane Has A Point (Sort of)

I came back home from Poland this week after a tournament that was both an unforgettable social experience and a thoroughly miserable one from a footballing point of view for an Irish fan. Right now I am desirous only of watching the rest of the tournament from the comfort of my couch. One thing I was surprised at on returning was the extent of the impression we — the Irish fans — made on people; it was palpable in Poland all right, where the hosts and the Irish engaged in an almost embarrassing, if endearing, level of mutual admiration, but the number of YouTube videos documenting the now famous looping rendition of ‘The Fields of Athenry’ was something I was not prepared for. It also got me thinking again of something I have asked myself before — most recently after the 4-0 defeat by Spain: would I trade in this universal admiration for Irish fans for a stronger, more formidable team and footballing culture?

In a way, there need not have to be a choice. Roy Keane was pilloried for attacking the fans in the midst of the Spain game, having woefully misread the singing as placid acceptance of a terrible performance. If anything, it was a mournfully defiant plaint that marked the inevitable passing of the Ireland team out of the tournament — and I would suggest, subconsciously, the passing of Irish football into the wilderness, if the rot is not soon stopped. There was an underlying sense among the fans that this might be the last chance we get for some time for Irish football to appear on the highest stage. Keane thought we were there for the sing-song and presumably wanted us to voice more discontent at what was an insultingly abject performance. He would have a point in suggesting that Ireland fans should be more vocal in expressing their disappointment but the timing and the manner of his outburst indicates that he just doesn’t get fans. That’s hardly surprising, given the man who once criticised some Manchester United fans as there for the prawn sandwiches has probably not stood on a terrace in over two decades.

Keane’s comments are in line with his anger over squandering a two-goal lead away to the Netherlands in September 2000 to draw a 2-2 and his disgust at Ireland’s poor preparation at Saipan ahead of the World Cup two years later. His timing in all three of these cases though has been questionable. Roy doesn’t do diplomacy, it is true, but you sense that had he chosen his battles better, he might have won the war. Many Irish fans — even those that stood by Mick McCarthy ten years ago — supported Keane’s stance against the FAI, but now that he has attacked them, the bridges are irredeemably burnt. Turning on the fans was a step too far.

Before the tournament, I voiced a little scepticism over whether Ireland fans were actually the ‘best in the world’. I still hold to that, mainly because I think it’s a sterile argument. Even within the same club and the same national team’s support, there are divergences in style, attitude and intensity. Ireland’s reputation derives in the main from the fact that the fans like to party and do so in a good-humoured, friendly and often hilariously surreal way. With a few exceptions, the culture of supporting a country these days is a far gentler one than in the club game; when teams convene for a tournament like the Euros, carnival is the prevailing tone and atmosphere. In Poland at least — the geographical division meant two separate tournaments were effectively being held — Ireland fans were probably the most visible and impressive in this respect, though the hosts came a close second. That said, we had a lot to learn from the way Croatian ultras lit up the stadium in Poznan with illegally smuggled flares and the Spanish outsang us for stretches of the match in Gdansk too (though that was easily done when their team were walloping us so). Both groups of supporters — with the exception of the small minority of Croats who racially abused Mario Balotelli — were similarly good-humoured and friendly. The Italians likewise, even if their fans lacked the charisma and the verve of the other three countries in the group — you get the sense Italians who follow the national team are more genteel and more casual than those who follow the clubs.

In a piece for the Sunday Independent last week, Dion Fanning cast aspersions on the Irish fans’ ‘festival of eejitry’. While Fanning was trying to make some valid points targeting both the Irish media and FAI CEO John Delaney, he caught the fans in some muddled, pious crossfire. Not least his decrying the abundant drinking that was going on — Ireland’s binge-drinking culture is definitely a worrying phenomenon but choosing as exemplary a tournament where fans of all sixteen countries were overindulging is just weird. But his point about the self-professed best fans in the world being an embodiment of Irish self-regard was spot on. It might seem churlish to say so but this self-regard has a corrosive flipside, one which results in Irish people sacrificing necessary social friction for the sake of maintaing an amiable front. Irish people want to be loved by people — including each other — and this has resulted in generations of cosy consensus that has paralysed the country in a self-prophesying conservatism. We saw it with the re-election of Fianna Fáil to government at the 2007 election, just at the moment when it was increasingly clear Bertie Ahern and the party were mired in endemic corruption; we have since seen it with the way austerity has failed to spark any mass indignation of note. It would be a stretch to say that Roy Keane is indicative of a counter-current against this consensus but more of his dissenting is probably needed. What isn’t needed is his indelicacy of expressing it, because the Irish don’t like indelicacy much.

Like Keane, I have long thought Irish football should be held to higher standards, even at a moment like the present when we clearly don’t have the personnel we had in the past. Expecting to qualify for a major tournament is not an outlandish demand, especially as we have reached play-offs for six out the last nine, qualifying for two. If we can go so far so often, why not expect us to go just a little further? During the Italy match, the fan’s ire was directed at Keane and there were no audible murmurings of anti-Trapattoni dissent. I don’t think that will ever come either, however unhappy the fans might be. Irish fans — and people in general — would recoil from subjecting a 73-year-old man to public vilification, however increasingly Lear-like he becomes in his dismissals of all suggestions of his footballing mortality. Many Irish people were repelled by the way the hapless Stephen Staunton was pilloried by the tabloid media; Stan was probably the worst manager ever an Irish team had to labour under but he should never have been put in the position he was.

The wave of dissent against Trapattoni is instead likely to be expressed by abstention. The FAI has already had difficulty filling the Aviva Stadium for competitive and friendly matches alike, creating a few financial jitters along the way as it hopes to recoup its part of the investment in the new stadium. Admittedly, the cause wasn’t helped by a relatively unglamorous Euro 2012 qualifying group, where Russia, Slovakia, Armenia, Macedonia and Andorra were the visitors. But the dreariness of watching Trapattoni’s Ireland play compounds things too and you expect the crowds to thin out as the performances and the results inevitably worsen in the qualifiers for World Cup 2014. Ireland play Germany in Dublin in October and there is little in our most recent performances to suggest we will avoid a humiliation on home soil. Personally, I have resolved not to spend another penny supporting Ireland, either home or away — the fact I live in Paris means both demand travelling — while Trapattoni is in charge. There are probably many like me. It is a shame because there are some very attractive away weekends and home matches in that group — trips to Germany, Sweden and Austria among them. The prospect of abject performances and possible heavy defeats though makes you loth to go. It’s a tough group even for a team in the right frame of mind but an Ireland without Trap could give it a decent go. As it stands though Ireland look doomed. Germany look set to be their usual rampant self in qualifiers and Sweden are also shaping up to be the country’s best side in decades, having shown some fleeting glimpses of brilliance in Ukraine. Ireland have been generally comfortable against Scandinavian teams over the past two decades but Sweden also have the ineffable ability to hoover up points against medium and weak opposition — something Ireland, even under Trapattoni’s pragmatism have rarely been able to perfect.

Ireland fans reconciled themselves to Trapattoni’s unsightly, outdated football for as long as there was a possibility of some glory in return. After Poland, that possibility has now been exhausted. The argument that Ireland simply don’t have the players is one as bankrupt as Trapattoni’s tactics — he leaves more talented players like Darron Gibson, Shane Long and James McClean on the bench while refusing to call up others such as Ciarán Clarke, Séamus Coleman and Wes Holohan. Trapattoni’s lack of trust in Irish footballers has stifled any possible creativity in the team — Brian Kerr and Mick McCarthy got Irish teams not much more talented playing some good football, with results into the bag too. The current crop can definitely punch above their weight in a way unimaginable to their veteran manager. Irish fans now find themselves in the invidious position familiar to fans of Blackburn and Aston Villa over the past season — saddled with a manager bringing the team up a dead-end, they nonetheless don’t want to see them lose. The prospect of a tough group and progressively low attendances will sooner or later result in Trapattoni’s departure. By then, it will probably be too late to salvage the fight for a trip to Brazil. That may have been sitting at the back of Ireland fans’ minds when they sang that rousing rendition of ‘The Fields of Athenry’ in Gdansk.

Posted by Oliver Farry

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

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Football – Better than the real world

In Season Four of Curb Your Enthusiasm, one of the main story arcs involves Larry’s ham-fisted attempts to sleep with another woman (something his beleaguered wife promised him he could do if they remained married for ten years). After a number of disastrous, ultimately futile encounters, Larry ends up in the dressing room of an enamoured co-star (he’s starring in a production of, erm, The Producers – long story). As they get down to business, Larry notices a photo of George W. Bush on the table behind them. Dejected, he realises that he cannot go through with the affair.

You’ve got a picture of Pulis in your dressing room?

Things like this rarely happen in football. Like the wider world in which it exists, football plays host to innumerate competing ideologies, on as well as off the pitch. Yet, while it can often be difficult for people to overcome their differences in this regard in the real world, compromises are made in football all the time. Many of us fret about the corporatist nature of the modern game and the machinations involved at the highest level. UEFA’s decision to fine Nicklas Bendtner €100,000 for his Paddy Power Underpants Charleston does not seem in and of itself excessive. When placed in the context of the €20,000 fine handed to Porto last April for the racist conduct of their fans in a Europa League game against Man City, it tells you all you need to know about what really matters to the fellows in charge. We still tune in for all the games though. If a political party carried on in such a manner, we’d roll our eyes and allow ourselves a pat on the back for having distanced ourselves from such a shower of charlatans in the first place. Things become a little more complicated when the foot soldier is Zlatan Ibrahimovic rattling in an utterly sensational volley rather than a defiant Tory councillor fleeing the area to which she was elected for gentler bourgeois pastures.

However, it’s really only when you cast a glance at the pitch itself that you really see the differences between football and the real world. As we trundle through an era where the only question seems to be who can best guide our harried consumer souls through more and more state-supported capitalism, it’s nice sometimes to sit back and watch something unexpected happen. Like Greece advancing at the expense of much-favoured (and far more powerful) Russia. Furthermore, it’s possible to admire their competing ideologies in equal measure; Greece’s dogged attempts to prevent the fan having anything like a meaningful aesthetic experience, Russia’s firm, unending commitment to tactical anarchy. In the real world, where it can often seem, as Karl has pointed out, that nothing ever changes, these surprises can sustain us. The underdog can triumph in football in a way that  looks increasingly unlikely to occur in modern politics.

There is a danger, in putting forward this argument, of falling into dangerous territory. Living in Ireland, I’ve grown tired of the phrase ‘this great (insert sport here) achievement has helped us forget all the doom and the gloom’. It is frightening how often it is employed. I’m not suggesting for a second that football, or any other sport, be used to mask the depressing nature of what passes for political and societal discourse in the modern world. I simply think it’s interesting how we act so differently in these different spheres. If you disagree with, or dislike, someone’s political perspective, you will do your best to explain why in a calm, rational fashion. If you dislike a pundit, a manager, or especially a footballer, you shout ‘WANKER’ and other assorted niceties at the television screen. In football, you can square your antipathy towards asset-stripping oligarchs and your love of Didier Drogba in a way that can never happen in the real world. But most importantly of all, in football, sometimes the good guys win.

Posted by Flann MacGowan

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

Euro 2012 – Some Reflections So Far

The knockout rounds begin tomorrow night in Warsaw as the Czech Republic, who looked extremely unlikely to make it out of the groups after a wretched opening against Russia, take on a Portugal side whose progression has likewise been fraught with difficulty. UEFA have given us a night off: although SotB’s writers have avoided anything like programmatic analysis of the competition – sorry, Group A – it seems a good time to take stock of what’s happened so far. Obviously, these thoughts reflect my impressions alone…

Without a single goalless match or a genuine dead-rubber encounter, it’s fair to say that Euro 2012 has exceeded expectations up to this point. Yet a few factors typical of major tournaments have been missing. A particularly glaring absence is that of a player coming out of nowhere to catch the eye and provoke transfer speculation. Mario Gomez’s elegant finishing has caught the vast majority of the English audience unawares, and a number of defenders (particularly Theodor Gebre Selassie, Mathieu Debuchy and Joleon Lescott) have attracted admiration from press and fans alike. However, no individual has really impressed themselves on the collective imagination with the force of ’96-vintage Karel Poborsky. Robert Lewandowski looked the part for Poland against Greece but couldn’t lift the co-hosts to a performance that would see them out of Group A, and – despite scoring three goals – the hotly-tipped Alan Dzagoev will have no opportunity to test himself against stronger opposition. Danny Welbeck’s goal against Sweden won’t be forgotten in a hurry by English supporters, but he laboured in Donetsk last night and might well make way for Andy Carroll against Italy on Sunday.

Some might point out that this situation reflects an increasing emphasis on teamwork resulting from the attempts of various coaches to either emulate or find ways of countering Spain’s almost mechanical keep-ball. It’s beyond doubt that England have benefited significantly from Roy Hodgson’s prioritisation of the collective over the individual, even though many – including several SotB writers – have found the end product slightly unappealing. While blessed with emerging talent, Germany have also been more impressive as a unit than as a showcase of flamboyant individualism, an approach which turned out to be especially rewarding against the Netherlands. As cliched as it may sound, the latter’s atrocious collapse came about due to Bert van Marwijk’s inability to reign in the egotism of his team’s most gifted players: the Dutch exit made their lame showing in Euro ’96 look like a textbook case of group communication and self-sacrifice. For different reasons, and in spite of Giovanni Trappatoni’s supposed insistence on graft and discipline, Ireland also lacked coherence. Gaps yawned between their defence and midfield and their midfield and attack, and a priority for their World Cup qualification campaign must be the discovery of a way of efficiently linking play without becoming overreliant on a generically ‘creative’ midfielder.

Another absence, and one which harks back rather pleasingly to the old eight-team European Championships, has been that of a true underdog. Even Greece, on paper the weakest team remaining in the competition, are seen as having a reasonable chance of giving Germany a run for their money when the teams meet in Gdansk on Friday night. This idea is carried by a number of narratives, from the prosaic (as football fans, we’re oddly given to believing that a particular tactical approach is an inherent national characteristic, and we all remember what happened in Portugal in 2004) to the political (Greece will want to demonstrate to Germany that Angela Merkel has no sway over what happens on the pitch). Meanwhile, English fans are playing the underdog card in a moderately annoying case of reverse psychology, even though the team contains several players who were considered – and not only in England – potential world champions in 2006 and 2010. It’s genuinely hard to call any of the quarter-finals with any certainty, and the fact that only Ireland and Sweden kicked off their final group games with no hope of advancing is representative of the general evenness of the competition.

At this stage, Spain remain the team to fear. I didn’t see their game against Croatia, but a friend’s Facebook status the following day – ‘Spain are so good at football they’re rubbish at football’ – is suggestive of how they throttled Slaven Bilic’s impressive side. However, there have been cracks – Vicente del Bosque’s decision to start with no strikers at all against Italy hardly came off, and hinted at a complacency regarding the efficiency of tiki-taka. No stratagem lasts forever no matter how brilliant its functionaries, and many of the survivors of the group stages  – particularly Germany and an England under fire for being technically-bereft – will feel they have a point to make against them. Their quarter-final opponents, France, have had an inconsistent tournament so far, but possess both the firepower to trouble Iker Cassilas and the kind of midfield aggression that may force Xavi and Iniesta into one of their occasional off-days.

To sum up, it’s been a slightly strange affair so far, but there’s been more than enough to talk about. Democratic and difficult to predict, Poland – Ukraine 2012 offers plenty as the stakes are upped and the shoot-out orders decided upon.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

Ghost Goals, and Other Ontological Problems

Looking back on the tournament, my favourite moment of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was when Luis Suarez chose to manually block Dominic Adiyiah’s header, thus denying Ghana a certain goal and – in a slightly convoluted way involving a missed penalty and a shoot-out – sending his Uruguay side to the semi-finals. With an arguably typical lack of contrition, Suarez claimed to have made ‘the save of the tournament’ when asked about his actions after the game: he was aware, it would seem, of the severity of his rule-breaking but simultaneously ironised it. Why did he do this? I suspect that the tongue-in-cheek nature of his response arose out of an intuition that apologising would be inauthentic, and could in no way represent a genuine desire to have acted otherwise in the first place. His original calculation had been one that judged that his intended violation could incur no punishment severe enough to damage his team to a degree likely to gift the match to Ghana, a nimble application of game theory which reveals that the ‘laws’ of football have a hidden expansion pack which make the dimensions of the sport much more complex than they are generally claimed to be.

Along with many others, I wanted Ghana to win that game. It was a tough choice – Uruguay had also been one of the tournament’s more likeable sides – but the possibility of seeing an African team through to the semi-finals of a World Cup for the first time ever swayed me. Indeed, I was initially furious with Suarez for his indiscretion, and racked my brain for ways in which Uruguay might be adequately punished – perhaps the shoot-out result could be scrubbed, and a goal awarded to Adiyiah, I thought. After a little consideration, however, this began to make sense only within a rather particular sense of what ‘fairness’ constitutes. For the game’s greater good – or the greater goods that the game might bring about – it started to appear better that these unpredictable violations and errors of official judgement be maintained within football’s broader ontological structure.

Of course, that World Cup had already provided a significant example of how football’s essence can very often be glimpsed in those instances when the ontological blueprint is smudged. With Germany leading England 2-1 in the first knockout round, Frank Lampard’s shot came off the crossbar and landed behind the line. The referee and linesmen did not spot the ‘goal’; the rest – Germany subjecting their rivals to a humiliating lesson in pace and invention – is history. Of course, the English media cried out for digital technology to be used for making close line-calls, and laced their editorial with spurious objectivity by pointing out that the issue of Geoff Hurst’s disputed goal in the 1966 World Cup Final could also be settled conclusively.

At the time, I didn’t agree with this (the denial of a goal to Lampard was actually pretty amusing), and the Ukrainian ‘ghost goal’ last night has failed to convince me differently. Football is, of course, on one hand a set of comprehensively-codified rules which dictate what can and can’t be done with the ball by the twenty-two men on the pitch. But this is a limited phenomenology. For the full effect of football to be appreciated, one needs to think about those moments in which an infraction is felt most deeply and why such an impression is made. Ghost goals are, as their name suggests, an uncanny experience: they’re neither of nor not-of the game, and problematise our somewhat neurotic attempts to describe sporting boundaries. The affect they bring about is strangely similar to that which comes about when a piece of fiction exceeds or rearranges the terms of its diegesis or narrative world, namely the ‘shudder’ that Theodor Adorno describes in Kafka and which is also one of the most notable responses people have to Beckett and Alain Robbe-Grillet. It’s also a staple of some forms of fantasy literature, and is linked fundamentally to the more self-reflective ontological jolts of postmodern literature and cinema.

Essentially, what I’m arguing is that much of football’s force as a public experience rests on the moments when it transgresses itself. There are obvious instances of this – every one of the game’s sociopolitical ramifications, to begin with – and there are those which are inscribed in its very fabric precisely because they are not the rules. Goal-line technology is, to cite a common and perfectly valid objection, yet another form of technocracy-in-action, and will deny the strange nobility of human error its part. More worrying, I think, is the threat that it will remove part of the ontological chafing that gives football, which is secretly always more than ‘just’ football and the rule-book, its real allure.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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If You Can’t Be Good, Be Lucky

There are two ways you could see tonight’s starting line-up against Ukraine. One is to give Hodgson the benefit of the doubt. To praise him for sticking with youth in the form of Welbeck, and picking an apparently very mobile and versatile frontline with the potential for great movement and interchange of position, with the possibility of a Gerrard run from deep an ever-lurking threat. The other is to suggest it’s another example of Hodgson, and England’s previously mentioned inferiority complex. It pandered to the star player mentality that has long plagued the national side. Welbeck was given the nod to benefit Rooney, a player who long hasn’t played more than sporadically well for England, in a position where Gerrard is arguably the finest England have produced in many years.

In that earlier article I argued that Carroll would be Hodgson’s centre-piece. In that I’ve perhaps been proven wrong, but it’s intriguing that, just like at Liverpool, Hodgson’s tactics still involved playing to a target man’s strengths, even though we had none on the pitch until the 80th minute. Feeding off scraps from clearances, set-pieces and an emphasis on early, deep crosses are Carroll territory. This is not the diet that Rooney and Welbeck thrive on at club level. This means I’m inclined towards the latter view – it was not boldness that guided Hodgson’s hand tonight, but conservatism.

Ukraine were superior on the night, and would have gone through comfortably but for poor finishing. England struggled to regain possession – as predicted there was little to no pressing and Gerrard left gaps in midfield that Ukraine exploited with monotonous regularity. Hodgson did nothing to alter this, instead doing what he always does – entirely predictable like-for-like substitutions. At least Walcott’s made sense in terms of bringing on sheer pace against a tiring defence for a team needing to attack, but ultimately neither sub did much to alter the dynamic of the game. England were better after a woeful first half but Ukraine still had the better of the play.

What is encouraging for Hodgson and England is that whatever god(s) deserted him at Liverpool appear to be smiling on him again with a sunny benevolence, at least for the time-being. A colossal stroke of luck came with the disallowed Ukraine goal after a shocking piece of officiating to miss the ball clearly going over the line – what exactly is it that the new touchline officials do? This was preceded by the two deflections that saw Rooney finish an unmissable chance, thereby justifying the inclusion of a player who did little else of note on the night, scoring from the pass of another player who was involved in most of our play going forward but also the source of many of our problems in midfield. England fans must hope for a kick-start in confidence to the both of them, because tactically neither will be used any differently, and any problems they cause are highly unlikely to be addressed. Carroll for Welbeck is the only likely change for the quarter–final against Italy.

Underestimating the Italians due to relief at avoiding Spain would be a fatal mistake. Italy are capable of sustaining better possession and creating more dangerous pressure than Ukraine did tonight. Italy have formidable players in almost every position – it’s hard to imagine their defence leaking the kind of goal Ukraine did tonight, nor is it likely that their forwards will be so forgiving when it comes to pulling the trigger. Undoubtedly no country would rather face Spain than Italy at the moment, but Italy will still be a huge test of Hodgson’s England. I do not expect to outplay them, but if you can’t be good, be lucky – and Hodgson will be hoping that the Ukraine match didn’t use up whatever he has left.

Posted by Seb Crankshaw

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