Category Archives: Denmark

The Lost Art of (Defensive) Midfielding

Yesterday, while watching an entertaining collection of mostly off-the-ball incidents involving Danish former Everton and Real Madrid midfielder Thomas Gravesen, I began to consider the importance of controlled aggression in football. It became clear to me that Gravesen, in his both his physical and ‘banteresque’ exchanges with other players, was involved in a strategy of shadow throwing and exaggeration that one is more familiar with in wrestling or pantomime than in modern football. That evening, the Netherlands struggled against Germany, but failed to reach the violent nadir of their performances in World Cup 2010 – especially the final when the inarguably talented but weirdly boring Spain team ground out a win in a game reminiscent of some Christians trying to play keepie-uppie against a team of extremely hungry and irate lions with a penchant for self-loathing.One persuasive narrative to emerge from that night: the Netherlands were seen as anti-footballing villains while Spain were conquering heroes.

There’s little doubt that a rare strain of ultraviolence was embodied by that Holland team, but was that final really the night when, symbolically at least, a non-contact, packed-midfield brand of tiki-taka football was crowned? And, if so, where does this leave the defensively-minded midfielder who’s motivated not only by a desire to turn defence into attack by breaking play up through tackling and distribution, but also – see Gravesen – to turn the course of a game through psychological jostling, cumulative pressure and, yes, the occasional physical attack?

The growing aestheticisation of football, fed by a speed-reading of Barcelona’s fluidity crossed with fantasies of a Harlem Globetrotters-like touch of anti-gravity showiness (Krusty the Klown: ‘they were using a freaking ladder for gods’ sakes’) has perhaps blinded many to the successes of teams more fundamentally grounded in supposedly traditional footballing strategy: put a big lad up front, get it out to the wings and kick anyone who goes towards your goal. For some reason, Real Madrid and Stoke City spring to mind. Barçelona’s efforts to experiment with these ‘sorts of players’ haven’t been hugely successful: Ibrahimovic was a notable failure while Mascherano came in an aggressive, hard-tackling midfield mentalcase but is now someone who slots into defence when one or other of the favoured centre-backs is crocked. The logic of Barça under Guardiola dictated that the target man and the hard-man defensive midfielder must be tamed and domesticated in order to play within the system.

Where’s a defensively-minded midfielder (with a penchant for controlled aggression) to go, though? Strange that such a player, who offers a bulwark for defence, a certain kind of gonzo leadership and, at his best, a hub from which the spokes of successful counterattacking play can project, now finds himself unfashionable and unloved. But, then again, these players are always the least praised, and frequently demonised for their excesses: Roy Keane for his career-ending tackle on Alf-Inge Haaland, Gennaro Gattuso for his headbutt on Joe Jordan – Lee Cattermole for, well, practically everything he does whenever he gets on the pitch. (And then there’s obviously Van Bommel, whose reputation precedes him to the degree that when he fails to hack someone down, he resembles Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, nervously picking around the laboratory in fear of turning into the enormous green anger monster.) To jump away from strictly defensive midfield for a moment, such vilification puts one in mind of another midfielder, though admittedly in a different galaxy from everyone else – both in terms of the quality of the player and the near-operatic tragedy of the excessive event – Zinédine Zidane’s ‘chestbutt’ on Marco Matterrazi in the 2006 World Cup final.

One of the disappointments of Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parenno’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait was its relative silence – Zinédine barely spoke apart from (according to my recollection) telling the ref to go fuck himself at one point. If that film presents the art of midfielding as one of quiet contemplation occasionally punctuated by success, failure and inexplicable violence, the Youtube footage of Gravesen (mostly from his time with Real Madrid and set to broad parpy comedy music) shows the industry with which one goes about creating the sort of legend that leads others – both on and off the field – to refer to a footballer as ‘that psycho’.

Posted by Karl Whitney

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

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Group B: Raconteurs Reconvene

Almost exactly one hundred and ninety-six years ago, a good forty-seven non-seasons before the codification of the Laws of the Game, Percy and Mary Shelley were staying with their friend Lord Byron and physician John Polidori in a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva. Due to the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia the previous year, 1816 was, to all extents and purposes, summerless. With the dismal weather making it impossible to hike or sail, the companions took to sitting around listlessly indoors, occasionally easing their frustration by reading aloud to one another. One night, inspired by excerpts from Tales of the Dead, they decided to hold a competition to see who could write the best horror story over the next few weeks. Reconvening eventually on an appropriately dark and stormy night, Mary dazzled the men with the skeleton of Frankenstein, and Byron told a tale about a vampire which – thanks to an act of gratuitous plagiarism by Polidori – evolved throughout the nineteenth century to become Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And Shelley? Well, according to the version I’ve heard, Shelley started telling a story about a woman who had eyes where her nipples should have been, then ran screaming from the room having frightened himself too much.

You’ve probably guessed from the title that this preamble is a slightly convoluted analogy for Group B. In a tournament arguably overstuffed with the competing football narratives of various nations, the Group of Death perhaps stands out in its surfeit of modern-day sporting mythologies. Germany, as SM pointed out at the weekend, come to Ukraine seeking to convince the world that its new story – of how the ugly winners of old deserve to become the world’s second team – has currency beyond the borders of the Bundesrepublik. Amongst other motivations, Portugal are desperate to demonstrate both that there is life beyond their (slightly staggered) Golden Generation and that Cristiano Ronaldo won’t become yet another of those great players who fail to claim a major international trophy. The Dutch want to correct the image of themselves the World Cup final of 2010 imprinted on the world’s footballing imagination and, as ever, need to add another successful instalment to their long-running saga with Germany. Denmark, as in every competition they’ve reached the finals of since 1992, unsettle opponents with their none-more improbale underdog tale.

After the weekend’s opening games, there’s a real chance that tonight could see eliminations in Group B. With this in mind, I feel I can stretch my metaphor a bit further. Germany are the Mary Shelley of the party. Youngest and with the best long-term prospects, their story is all about an internal antagonism between technocracy and expressiveness, and seeks some form of synthesis to its dialectic of science and nature. This resolution seemed some way off against Portugal, as a much-fancied team laboured to produce the aggressive counter-attack expected of them. In that match, there was something Byronic in the Portuguese performance – a moody railing against history overcast somehow with imtimations of the inevitability of doom. Harold Bloom would have been proud of them but it feels right now as if their story is destined to be heard only by its first audience.

Who, then, are Portugal’s Polidori? Denmark seem the obvious candidate. When the groups were drawn, it seemed as if they’d be the ones sitting in the corner, watching and taking notes as their more talented friends battled to create the perfect Märchen. However, there’s a good chance that the Danes could take those notes and produce something with far more longevity than the Portuguese fragment or the Dutch…well. The Dutch are Shelley, aren’t they? Not for the first time, they bring some spectacular talent to the tournament, but seem to have spooked themselves somewhere along the way. Given the number of chances they made on Saturday against Denmark, their failure to score is scarcely believable, and there’s now enormous psychological pressure on them to perform against their old rivals in Kharkiv tonight. Sadly for Van Persie and co, there appears to be a good chance that they’ll be the ones running out screaming.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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

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