Category Archives: Tactics

Can Dialectics Break Bricks?

In the reaction to England’s demise, a post-mortem that simultaneously went through the motions and was indulged with great joy (just listen to Chris Waddle’s almost gleeful “We will never, ever learn”), a general sense of proportion and perspective was missing. It is one we have a better chance of gaining now that the group stages are over and we can see in the cold reality of our wallcharts which teams have been successful and which haven’t.

Some, of course, were expected to do well, though it is notable how few of the fancied teams have had it all their own way. Germany, so impressive in the first game against Portugal, had to settle for a draw against Ghana. Only the Netherlands, Colombia, Argentina and Belgium have come through with 100% records, and of those the Netherlands were given a scare against Australia, Argentina needed a last-minute Messi wondergoal to beat Iran, while Belgium have not looked convincing in any of their games. Some of this might be the result of teams taking their foot off the gas for their final group game or making wholesale changes to the team – this was probably the case with France, who made six changes for their game against Ecuador. Of the fancied teams, Spain and Italy are out, Brazil have stumbled, Argentina have looked great because Messi is on form, but as the commentators in their match with Nigeria suggested, look “pretty ordinary” when he doesn’t play. Germany played a perfect game against Portugal and then slowed down a bit.

Allowing for the sparkle of the French and Dutch teams, perhaps the most impressive team thus far has been Colombia, who not only won all their games but have, at +7, the highest goal difference (equal with the Dutch). Their games finished 3-0, 2-1, 4-1. How have they been able to be this effective given they are missing Radamel Falcao, their best player? The answer, or at least part of it,  might be thought of in terms of dialectics. It’s worth roping in Chile here, who have been as remarkable as Colombia. Both of these nations have shown not only that they recognise the dialectical nature of a successful football team, but have been able to marshall the dialectic in different situations, of which Colombia’s loss of Falcao is the perfect example. Their ability to do this has been matched by England’s utter failure in the same regard.

Various reasons have been given for England’s failure: they’re not streetwise enough, they took too many young players, they were too attacking, they didn’t play Rooney in the right position, they couldn’t keep the ball properly, the central defence isn’t up to scratch, they didn’t do enough to entice John Terry back into the team, the Premier League isn’t allowing young English players to come through at the top clubs. All of these undoubtedly had some impact on the team’s showing, yet that very fact suggests that there’s something else, something larger, broader, more general, that they fit into. I think it’s England’s lack of dialectical understanding.

Not being streetwise enough is code for them not wasting time and disrupting the opposition’s rhythm by taking niggly fouls and slowing the game down. Yet this only works as a tactic if you have something positive to offer yourself in response. Being streetwise largely works to nullify an opponent, not give you the edge (unless you can con a referee into giving you a penalty). So while England clearly aren’t streetwise enough, for deeply embedded cultural reasons, they also weren’t brave enough. Some, though, said they were too brave, insofar as they went for an overly-attacking style that left their fragile defence too open. After the Uruguay game in particular, all the commentators seemed to have discovered that Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka weren’t the best centre-half partnership. Chris Waddle suggested that England responded to criticism of their defensive play at Euro 2012 with attacking play at this World Cup. This is the lack of dialectics in a nutshell: one or the other rather than two in a mutually constitutive relationship with one another. Rather, then, than realising that a team can incorporate a certain streetwisdom (someone wondered why England didn’t try to kick Suarez’s dodgy knee) while also playing the direct, exciting counterattacking football that saw them score what was a pretty good goal against Italy, England half-heartedly concocted a plan to nullify Pirlo while hoping that Raheem Sterling could pull something out of the bag. If Sterling’s club manager, Brendan Rodgers, has displayed an admirable flexibility in altering his favoured possession game to better accommodate the counter-attacking prowess of Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez, then England’s attempt to, in the words of one of the Radio 5 commentators, “copy Liverpool” says everything you need to know about the national team: rather than arriving at a game-plan based on the players available, the opposition, and a dialectical conception of a team, they’ll just Ctrl-C Ctrl-V thank you very much.

The argument about Rooney in between the first two games was also an example of un-dialectical thinking. Rooney is a great player, went one strand, so he can play anywhere. Rooney is our only world-class player, went another, so he should play in his best position. No-one, anywhere, talked about the team, at least not until it was too late. Yes, Rooney is a great player, but football is a team sport. This is something both Chile and Colombia have realised. We might have said before the tournament that Chile have a couple of outstanding – though not world-class – players in Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sanchez; we would probably have said that because those are the two players we know from the Champions League. They have both been excellent, yet even if the Chileans themselves think of this pair in these terms, their game-plans suggest otherwise, or at least suggest that Vidal’s and Sanchez’s abilities can be best utilised – can, perhaps, only be utilised – as part of a coherent collective unit. Colombia offer an even more stark example: they lose their best player before the tournament, which you might think would force them to adopt a more team-minded approach, rather than just relying on Falcao, but what is most remarkable about them is that that team approach, which asks more of the collective in the absence of their main talent, has allowed for individual talent to emerge from it in the form of James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado. What made the Rooney debate such an infuriating one was its simultaneous proximity and distance to this kind of conception of team sport. Commentators talked incessantly of how Rooney should fit into the team but without a sense that the question involves not just what Rooney can bring to the team but also how the team can help Rooney. The debate is not about whether Rooney or Sterling is ‘better’ in the number 10 role, but how their respective individual-nesses and the collective relate to one another in service of the goal of winning the game.

Unfortunately for England, this lack of dialectical thinking is endemic and extends to the relationship between club and country and that between youth and age not just within the first team itself but between that first team, youth teams and youth development. You could argue it’s also present in patriotic politicians pulling funding for grassroots sports facilities while bidding for World Cups and Olympic Games. There’s a certain defensive rigidity that comes from constant failure and constant pressure, and I’m sure that has contributed to the failure of the national team at this tournament. Yet that pressure itself seems partly to exist to shore up the crumbling foundation of a national footballing identity. There has been quite a bit of talk about this in recent days, with references to the current Belgian team and other European sides who have decided on a way of playing and put that into practice at all levels of the game, from under-10s up to the adult first team. The problem, commentators say, with doing that in England is that those who would be tasked with doing so are incapable of settling on a way of playing. If we’ve finally accepted the antiquated nature of the old favourite 4-4-2, these commentators say, do we play 4-3-2-1, 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, or even three centre-backs? How can we answer that, they say, if we don’t know if we want to play a possession-based game or a counter-attacking game? And if we can’t answer that, they say, how do we put practical measures in place, like getting kids to play on smaller pitches to encourage their ball-skills and possession, or focusing on their first touch and movement for counter-attacking?

The attractiveness of those national set-ups where all levels of the game play the same way – Spain being the most obvious recent example – comes less from the methods themselves than the success they have engendered. I balk a little at asking someone at the FA to decide on how English national teams will play for evermore, and balk even more at then asking the same person to implement that plan across the country. I also suspect that the lack of loose, reflexive, dialectical thinking that I’ve been talking about here would be absent, and that a familiar rigidity would gain legitimisation with the addition of some sort of national blue-print; no matter how many times England lost in the group stages, there would be those pointing to the plan and advocating sticking to it. No, what English football needs to discover is a greater suppleness, something displayed the other night against Ivory Coast by none other than the Greeks, who have perfected the limited art of defending en masse and sneaking 1-0 wins since they one-nilled all the way to glory in Euro 2004. Not only do they play defensively, but they’ve been doing so for eight years! If ever there were an example of footballing rigidity, this would surely be it. What then, to make of the sight of Giorgos Karagounis smacking the bar with a thirty-yard pile-driver, or the attacking verve that led them to hit the woodwork in the first half, or the pressing that led to their first goal? I don’t know. It’s possible they’ll go back to their defensive ways in the next round against Costa Rica, and go home. But can you imagine a similar suppleness of mind and change of character in the England team?

Posted by Mark West

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Germany and the Semantics of Position

Watching Germany v Portugal last Monday raised some interesting questions about our perceptions of positioning in football. This is not meant strictly in a tactical sense but more in the way we classify players. FIFA states that a final squad of 23 must be submitted for the tournament, with the only stipulation that it must include three goalkeepers. Beyond that, players are listed as “defenders, midfielders and attackers”. However, do we define this by their shirt numbers, their previous performances, the formation they are placed in or by the space in which they operate on the pitch?

Germany offered several good opportunities to explore these questions. Philip Lahm has been the tactical writers’ dream this year, a player who had made a career as a full-back capable of playing on the left or right before his redevelopment as a midfielder last season under Pep Guardiola. Such is Lahm’s versatility, we could label him a defender and a midfielder. He has become so competent in his new holding role that it no longer seems fair to describe as a full-back playing out of position. Thus, through time and a process of reinvention, Lahm has become Bayern Munich and Germany’s Renaissance man, whose sheer ability and intelligence have allowed him to retain his utility at the highest level. Lahm represents Leon Battista Alberti’s humanist maxim that “a man can do all things if he will.”

In the defence itself, Joachim Löw’s decision to field four centre-backs raised eyebrows. This is where the debate between past experience and future deployment comes into play. Here, Benedikt Höwedes and Jerome Boateng, who normally play as centre-backs, were placed on the left and right respectively. It seemed an odd line-up but as the game developed, Boateng showed great resilience in keeping Cristiano Ronaldo under wraps. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise as he has experience playing as a right back, but the extent which it does demonstrates the significance that is easily placed on primary positions.

Boateng has been typecast to a certain extent as more of a central defender and because we associate a particular set of attributes to that position (namely height, heading, strength etc.), it seems unusual that he should be able to deputise so well in another one. Löw would disagree though, as when Mats Hummels came off injured he brought another ‘centre back’ on in Shkodran Mustafi who filled in at right back, with Boateng moving into the centre.

Even Manuel Neuer stretches our perceptions of what a goalkeeper is. He is a great example of a ‘sweeper keeper’, often seen playing well up the pitch, and is a thoroughly modern footballer. Not only is he an expert shot-stopper, his distribution allows Germany quick and calculated build-up from the back. As mentioned above, the only stipulation within World Cup squad is that three goalkeepers are named. Here we have a slight complication. Neuer is different from the rest of his XI because as a goalkeeper he is allowed to use his hands; yet simultaneously he is a key part of Germany’s outfield play, the foundation from where many attacks begin.

In 2010, North Korea famously tried to manipulate the rules by naming an extra striker as a goalkeeper. The gamble backfired with FIFA ruling that he would only be allowed to feature in goal and not outfield. These rules seem a little draconian. Rarely is the third goalkeeper called upon and it would perhaps be fairer to consider the position as simply the man wearing the gloves rather than a fixed role. There are plenty of instances of outfield players going in goal, with some (like Glenn Hoddle) doing it on multiple occasions. Additionally, lest we forget, David James was thrown on as a target man under Stuart Pearce for Manchester City in 2005, while the likes of René Higuita and José Luis Chilavert were set-piece specialists who scored at international level. The boundaries between goalkeepers and outfield players needn’t be as concrete as they are often thought of as being.

Back to Germany though, and perhaps the most telling part of this performance was Löw’s use of the ‘false nine’ system. With a three-pronged attack of Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil and Mario Gotze, Germany looked threatening even when Portugal had 11 men, despite the absence of an out-and-out centre forward. As Seb Crankshaw points out in his recent piece on refereeing, football is a game and therefore, “nothing but a simplified system defined by rules”. As long as we adhere to these rules, the rest is up to the coaches and the players to interpret this system as they see fit. Whether Löw is an innovator or simply a pragmatist is open to debate, but his interpretation of the game certainly merits discussion.

What is particularly likeable about this increasingly popular Germany side is the emphasis on the whole over the individual. Indeed, it seems that they have finally transcended the era of the übermensch. At various points during Germany’s recent history, it has felt like the side has been carried by a supreme individual. Matthäus, Klinsmann, Sammer, Ballack and Klose have all assumed this role at some point and it was the ‘super’ qualities of these players that made Germany perennial challengers. Now Germany play like more of a team, emphasised by the egalitarian false nine system that does not place the focus on any one player but rather relies on a co-operative and fluid style to be most effective. This is of course in complete contrast to the Ronaldo-centric model of Portugal.

While Muller was in fact the star against Portugal, he is far less assuming than most cast in that narrative role are. His technique is an especially unique one; his beauty is in his graft, his effectiveness derived from his sheer relentlessness. He is not always pleasing on the eye but after Monday’s hat-trick he already has seven World Cup goals to his name at the age of 24. Last year, the German press dubbed him the Raumdeuter (‘space investigator’), a fantastic description of Muller’s distinctive capabilities. As the player most adept at finding and exploiting space on the pitch, he is the embodiment of this shape-shifting side. Mehmet Scholl commented after the game that he “is not a false 9, he’s a crazy 13”, a fitting tribute to Muller.

Spain’s dramatic exit has left a power vacuum in world football and Germany look like one of the strongest European contenders to fill it.  Built on the nucleus of the exciting 2010 side, these players are maturing together and should be reaching their peak at just the right time. Germany will always be there and thereabouts at International competitions, but Löw’s model of co-operative efficiency makes this World Cup an achievable target.

Posted by Hugo Greenhalgh

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

England’s Squad: a myth of reinvention?

So that was that. With curiously little fanfare, and certainly minimal revelation, England’s World Cup squad has been announced to a collective shrug.

On first glance, the squad looks curiously imbalanced. A spluttering cut-and-shut of doe-eyed ingénues ballasted with greybeards Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney – the three remaining stragglers of England’s ersatz ‘Golden Generation’, with all the baggage that entails. And yet, in many ways, this is the most exciting squad England have taken to a tournament since Euro 96 – and certainly the one with the greatest capacity for unpredictability. Back then, only three players (Shearer, Platt and Pearce) remained from Euro 92 and only four had been tainted by inclusion in the final game of Graham Taylor’s disastrous qualifying campaign for USA 94. Like those bound for Brazil, that squad fulfilled a cyclic need for not-quite-realised reinvention. A bright new future, albeit one that featured Steve Howey.

England fans knights

This squad, then, is the latest stab at a well-worn process of lapsed evolution. For eleven of the twenty-three, Brazil will be their first senior international tournament, whilst only six remain from the last World Cup (though, to add a note of depressing caution, five of those started the debacle in Bloemfontein). Much will, rightfully, be made of the trio of Southampton players, but the quartet from Merseyside – Barkley, Sterling, Henderson and Sturridge – may prove to be the boldest and most significant of the new recruits. Barkley, in particular, is an astonishing blend of anachronistic barrel-chested surges and fearsome lunges, and ultra-modern athleticism. If Barkley clicks, it is not hyperbole to suggest he is capable of defining England’s tournament.

Amongst those selected, there is also a refreshing lack of easy narrative – the asinine fuel that turbo-charges much mainstream football coverage. In previous years, pre-tournament injuries, suspensions and agendas have led to a wealth of tedious Homeric tropes about returning heroes and flawed demi-gods – the Fates conspiring against our brave boys yet again. Lampard and Gerrard may be heading to their last tournament, but are doing so in a manner pleadingly undemonstrative (Gerrard, in particular, reciting the Peters-inspired mantra about “the group” on an endless loop). None of the youthful contingent have the capacity for self-combustion of a 1990-vintage Gascoigne, or Wayne Rooney in the midst of his 2006 metatarsal-funk. Indeed, the only member of the squad who lends himself to such conceit is Rickie Lambert – and even then, that’s likely to be restricted to a swathe of “From Macclesfield to the Maracana” headlines than any attempt to cast Kirkby’s finest as a latter-day Hector.

Perhaps the most significant aspect about England’s squad, however, is that this is the first time in a generation a significant percentage of those selected began their career outside of the self-appointed elite. Eight of the players heading to Brazil have worked their way up from Leagues 1 and 2 – a refreshing and necessary antidote to Greg Dyke’s risible notion that player development is linear and uniform, a conceit central to the disingenuous “elite player development” doublespeak behind the deplorable League 3.

If there’s one gripe to be had about this squad, then it is that it represents the type of bet-hedging occupancy of the middle ground that is so euphemistically referred to in both the sporting and political spheres as “pragmatism”. A propensity to position itself nervously between ideological stalls cuts to the core of English football’s longstanding struggle for self-identity. Much has been made in the media about the youthfulness of this squad, yet Hodgson has been reluctant to shake off the midfield comfort blanket of Milner, Gerrard and – perhaps most bewilderingly given the relative poverty of his season – Frank Lampard. Likewise, the squad is split between diminutive tika-taka droids like Wilshere, Sterling and Lallana, and big lads who can run quite fast. Cahill and Smalling, talented players though they are, are not naturally conducive to a policy of playing out from the back, whilst Phil Jones seems to have forged a career largely out of the ability to bench-press a wildebeest rather than any genuine technical fluency. The fear remains that, faced with adversity, any progressive aspirations will be ditched in favour of the well-worn comforts of The Big Diagonal.

In this regard, the squad is perhaps representative of where English football currently finds itself. Faced with a Premier League ‘product’ that long ago lurched into self-parody, the egalitarian Germanic model of fan ownership is lauded with increasing volume. Simultaneously, the governing bodies’ (and, depressingly, large number of fans’) weirdly deferential and destructive infatuation with a perennially-doomed model of 20th Century American capitalism – the market will fix it, because the market must fix it – continues to strangle the prospect of culture-change at birth. This squad has the potential to either define a new direction for English football, or to lurch back towards the worst of old habits. Whether it does so will depend primarily on the courage and conviction of the manager. Over to you, Roy.

Posted by Ron Hamilton

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

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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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He’s thick but he’s struck it rich…

England’s victory last night has provoked a very predictable tapestry of reactions. For some, coming from behind to beat Sweden was a triumph of Three-Lionsism, of ‘grit’, ‘perseverance’ and ‘steel’. For others, the win was achieved thanks to Roy Hodgson’s team being marginally less mediocre than the Swedes; moreover, this account holds, England have fallen back on dinosaur tactics – hit it at the big man, etc – which will be exposed by the subtleties of the Spanish or Croatian midfielders likely to be encountered in the first knock-out round.

Neither of these analyses ring particularly true. The last English performance with any ‘grit’ of note at the finals of an international tournament was, to my recollection, the 1-0 defeat of Argentina in Sapporo ten years ago: Stevie G, John Terry and Wayne Rooney are all remarkably good at wearing the mask of indominability, and have found this attribute in themselves regularly at club level, but have rarely imposed their famed determination when the national team have found themselves in the soup. When they fall behind, there’s a fine line between panic and resolve, and England tend to fall on the wrong side of it. Last night, though, their response to Sweden’s second goal was admirably unflapped, and was helped along by Hodgson’s decision to remove James Milner – one of those English players who does a great job of looking incredibly involved while contributing the square root of nothing – for the supposedly fairweather Theo Walcott. Walcott’s equaliser and assist for Danny Welbeck’s beautifully-improvised winner both represented a calm, almost casual attitude to adversity which, if it can be maintained, may well come to be one of the most likeable aspects of the new-look team.

The contrasting narrative – that luck and hoofball won England the game – is similarly flawed. I don’t think I’ve been so impressed by an English performance since the 4-1 victory in Zagreb late in 2008, and it was the combination of physical presence and artisanal intelligence that made this the case. There was nothing aimless about the aerial balls to the excellent Andy Carroll last night, while if Xavi or Andrea Pirlo had played the cross Steven Gerrard did for Carroll’s opener there would be widespread lamenting at the inability of English football to produce accurate mid-range passes. In turn, the Geordie – who reminds me, oddly, of Christian Vieri at times – and Welbeck are both smart players who know how to use their respective forms of awkwardness (while not particularly robust, the Manchester United stiker’s long limbs and flexibility make him an extremely frustrating player to tackle) to infuriate defenders into making mistakes. A team of any philosophy playing properly to its strengths (even the Wimbledon side of the late eighties) are a real joy to watch, and the notion that reasonably direct football with good link play from proper forwards is less pleasurable for the spectator than false-nined tiki-taka or Brazilian/ Nikian Joga Bonito is at best a canard.

England, as the clip up top suggests, were The Fall last night, making an implicit case for recognising that everyday folk knowledge is full of its own instances of flair while simultaneously dismissing the romanticisation of those styles we supposedly ‘can’t do’ as a bit Hampstead. As my brother once put it, watching a Stoke winger bursting into space on the end of a flick-on is a far better experience – as far as sheer excitement goes – than watching Wenger’s Arsenal when they’re off-colour and over-technical. Roy Hodgson might not be Pep Guardiola, but he certainly has the intelligence to recognise that throwing the baby out with the tactical bathwater is probably the worst thing an England manager could do at this moment in time.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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Spain Retrieve their Spear

For all Spain’s intricate passing, dominance of zones and aggressive defending what destroyed Irish hope was a simple spear thrust – a Fernando Torres straight through the heart. Despite the romantic image of the nation, Spain play football like the Borg would if they ever assimilated the game. There is something devastatingly robotic, and hypnotic, about their play. They keep the ball tentatively out of your reach. They rock you from side to side like a babe-in arms. They lull you into a kind of dazed weariness and then suddenly pounce with either a precision pass to the feet of a man between the lines or a through-ball of the kind Torres put such a superb finish on for the 3rd goal.

It’s telling that the Spanish nail in Ireland’s expertly-laid coffin wasn’t hammered in until the 49th minute. Spain are in no hurry to finish you off. They’d rather wear you down and let you finish yourself off. Like a boxer with the longer reach already ahead on points they’ll shield themselves from your flurries and simply wait for the opponent to force their guard down, in this case an opponent attempting to painstakingly form a small, green rectangle every time Spain stepped forward. Xavi, Iniesta and Alonso all personify this approach, players who value possession like a philatelist does a penny black, artful yet full of repetition, low scoring yet absolutely devastating.

Then there’s the Spanish defence. I can already hear a generic British pundit scoffing about their ‘get-at-ability’ but the fact is that their back four isn’t intended to defend as other nations do. The Spanish philosophy is ironclad within its supposed flexibility: they will not compromise on pressing, on possession, on defending with a high-line – and why should they? They are the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, having unified all the belts. Seen in this light Arbeloa, Ramos, Pique and Alba all fit like gloves. All have recovery pace. All keep possession with monotonous reliability. Three are genuine threats in attack, Arbeloa the slouch in merely being decent, consistent and occasionally dangerous. Even then, he’s a phenomenal defender by any standards, new or old, with a solidity and level of concentration few can match. How many can claim to have kept a Messi, even if a 90% fit one, in their pockets?

Torres is the black sheep of this family. In a Borg football team, he’s a man with a spear in the final stages of a hunt for dangerous prey. When he hesitates, he fails. He must act with absolute faith in his instincts, and when he does we all know why he is such a born killer: because when he is in that zone, his instincts almost never fail him. But even instincts must be honed. In this, Torres has Rafa Benitez and Xavi Valero to thank for the intellectual honing of his finishing at Liverpool. His first goal spoke not only of the power of instinct, but also of Valero’s dossier of goalkeeping weaknesses. Given was exposed at the near post, caught flat on his feet. A static keeper of the old school outdone by the early shot.

The dilemma for Spain is that the thrust in their system usually comes from the ‘3’ in the ‘4-2-3-1’, and this tends to work better when the front man is also a player who hoards possession when it comes into feet. It sucks the defenders towards him when the ‘1’ drops off the line, creating space for the ‘3’ to run into. With Torres up front they often struggle to find their rhythm. Torres is playing his own, ancient, deadly game but the regularity with which he gives it away is a problem. Very often his best contribution comes by not touching the ball at all –moving constantly to provide the ever-present shadow of a threat in behind.

What perhaps made the key difference today was the way Spain interpreted their 4-3-3 formation, with Iniesta, Silva and Torres almost forming a diamond shape with Xavi playing more, but not quite, like a No. 10. With the solidity of Alonso and Busquets in front of the CBs Arbeloa and Alba were to all intents and purposes playing as traditional wingers but for one crucial difference – a favouring of possession over crossing, which is a very low-percentage pass.

Time after time, Ireland punted it forward vaguely towards Keane only to have a Spanish head or foot intercept it around the half-way line, and send it neatly on its way to another Spanish foot. If you’re going to play this way, and against Barҫa it’s surely as good a bet as any, then you need to go all out for it. Look at Stoke. They barely have a player who doesn’t look like a body double for a Rocky training montage, and only a handful less than six feet tall. They ignore midfield, the players there almost becoming auxiliary centre-backs.

They have pace on the wings, consistent crossing, a big tall guy who can keep it and a big tall fast guy who can smack it one. It’s brutal football, but like a club to the head it isn’t pleasant to be on the end of. Ireland never had any kind of chance by in any way trying to meet the Spanish on their terms. This Spain team, and the players at club level, face an Ireland pretty much every single time they play. They’ve gotten very, very good at opening one up, letting it twitch for a bit and then stabbing the bit that makes it all work.

Jack Charlton and Niall Quinn would most likely still have lost, but at the very least Spain would have been wary of giving away set-pieces, and on the stereotypical rainy night, with a weak, lenient and underdog-friendly ref, Charltonian tactics could have worked. Keane up front alone was never going to score without a player of surgical precision behind him. The only player I can think of for the Irish who matches that bill is Stephen Ireland, and his mentality has gone on vacation to the extent that he didn’t even make it into a very skill-deficient Irish squad.

As it was, the Irish huffed and puffed a bit, showed enough resilience in the earlier stages to retain their dignity, but ultimately went out as everyone, themselves likely included, expected. Meanwhile Spain look a dead certainty to reach the final again, quite possibly to meet Germany in a reprise of 2008 .

Meanwhile Spain still have their primitively artful enigma to consider. When they’re in synch, Torres and Spainp rovide a combination of astounding lethality, the dark magic of deadly instinct courting the hideous efficiency of a machine-mind. Today’s formation might make the relationship a wedding, and if that happens both Chelsea and Spain will remain teams to be feared.

It is heartening to see Torres back, though. As a Liverpool fan I should theoretically be feeling some sort of betrayal or hatred towards him but, seriously, he plays football like the kid inside you wants to play football. Same as Ronaldo or Messi. If the part of your soul that still loves the game like you did as a child doesn’t rejoice to see Torres’ little skip to get it onto his right foot for his sublime 2nd then it must surely have died long ago, and if that’s the case, why continue to torture yourself with a sport devoid of all joy? Spain play football like an old-grand master plays chess, and yes, they will always be more deadly, but a lot of their deadliness lies in their ability to wield those human spears. To put those kinds of players in positions where their instinct can’t help but take-over. To weld the primitive to the futuristic and create a hybrid of the kind that lives through the ages.

Posted by Seb Crankshaw

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

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Tactocratic Rationalism

Alex posted something brief in response to my post from earlier today, and it sparked off further thoughts on the post-Wilsonian terms of ‘intelligent’ discussion of the game. Watching the match together last night, we found ourselves (perhaps put off by some of the inane aerial camera work, and stoked by A’s excellent recent interview with Terry Eagleton) talking about the problematic way in which the public intellectual is conceived of in Britain right now. There are few non-academic or semi-academic intellectuals with a significant public profile who engage with emergent radical voices in political theory; rather, the thinkers deemed relevant by publishers – and ‘visionary’ by reviewers – are those who affirm the political status quo by emphasising how the fantastic technological and neurobiological things which occur within its frontiers redeem it and increase its sphere of possibilities. Chatting with Karl and Flann earlier on today, we were soon referring to this phenomenon as Gladwellism; it strikes me now that there’s an element of this technocratic thinking in some of those long, earnest discussions of tactics which occur on the Guardian sports pages.

Again, I’m not saying that Wilson himself isn’t a great student of football, and one of his particular strengths as an analyst of tactical development is a willingness to historicise. When the discussion becomes entirely about subtle shifts occurring within the game today, however, you can’t help but feel that there’s a scramble for cultural capital happening: that is, football – as a mass-cultural phenomenon which has always had powerful implications for our understanding of public space in modernity – becomes subject to a specialist’s pernicketiness. Abstracted from the real social contexts in which it occurs, it gets translated into microeconomies of highly-focused knowledge. This reflects Gladwellism, where important technological developments which many theorists regard as the commons of late modernity, are reappropriated as dinner-party staples.

I’ve written today about football and its complex dynamics of ownership and opposition in The Quietus and find myself this evening wishing I had a copy of Simon Kuper’s Football Against the Enemy to read against Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid. Wilson, I feel, has a similar sociological and anthropological impulse to Kuper, but it’s precisely these elements of his work (which were particularly accentuated in his book on football in post-communist Europe, Behind the Curtain) which are often overlooked by his fanbase. At the moment, it appears as if there are two parallel discussions of Euro 2012 taking place – one about fan behaviour which often seems to entrench differences between Western and Central Europe, and another, technocratic, one about tactics which vacuum-seals football from social contexts.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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