Thursday, August 31, 2006
Yorked! - brief update
From an A-League point of view, the move would be unfortunate; Yorke remains the most marketable face in the competition. From a Sydney FC point of view, there are both positives and negatives; Yorke's quality would be missed, but Terry Butcher's job might become just that little bit easier, in more ways than one.
The Gosford Curse
He simply rolled his eyes, and shook his head in despair.
Despite their excellent performances throughout much of the A-League’s young history, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the Mariners are under some kind of injury curse. Every time the team finds an effective new modus operandi, another player – usually a striker – gets banished to the operating table.
In the run-up to last year’s competition, Nick Mrdja was proving an ideal front-man, scoring two hat-tricks in pre-season games against Queensland and Adelaide (the latter in the brief World Club Championship playoff tournament). Before the start of the regular season, however, Mrdja had been forced out of the team with a knee injury. He would be absent for over a year.
Mrdja was only the first of many. In the course of the season, Stewart Petrie, Tom Pondeljak, even John Hutchinson, who was emerging as a surprisingly prolific makeshift striker, all succumbed to injury. Hutchinson’s case was perhaps the saddest: against Sydney FC in January, he suffered cruciate damage, and missed the rest of a season in which he had greatly enhanced his reputation.
The curse has continued to dog McKinna’s men in 2006/07. Pre-season outings had shown Stewart Petrie and the young Adam Kwasnik to be a fluent combination; I saw the two combine beautifully in the opening half-hour against Perth Glory in the pre-season opener. But, inevitably, Stewart Petrie encountered ankle trouble. He failed to recover in time for the season opener at Aussie Stadium, much to the Mariners’ detriment.
One incident in the second half of Sunday’s game perfectly summed up the Mariners’ luck in recent times.
Andre Gumprecht had dominated the midfield in the first half, and after Iain Fyfe’s goal, the Central Coast side desperately needed Gumprecht’s drive and penetrating runs to propel them towards an equalizer. The throng of Marinators behind the southern goal must have felt a familiar sick feeling in their stomachs when Gumprecht pulled up by the touch-line, and made the signal for a substitution. Hamstring strain.
Not for the first time, their most effective player had to leave the field just at the moment when he was most needed.
Any witch-doctors available up Gosford way?
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
A Quick Learner
It is a tribute to O’Neill that many of those wringing their hands over his departure were the same aficionados of the game who doubted his credentials initially, considering that his experience in rugby would not be sufficiently relevant to the vastly different world of football.
Who were these short-sighted fans? Well, one of them is writing this premature eulogy.
O’Neill was certainly guilty of a few lapses of judgement initially, mainly with regard to the eternal club/country problem faced by the Australian national team. The “Caracas Affair”, in which Mark Viduka and Scott Chipperfield were slapped with club bans for failing to attend a foolishly-scheduled friendly match in Venezuela, was the most salient case.
Yet O’Neill learned so much in such a short time. One particular A-League insider commented to me in mid-2005 that O’Neill was “a very good listener”. Subsequent events certainly tended to confirm this.
The former rugby man oversaw the most rapid period of growth in the Australian game ever, and throughout his term of office he was the affable, dignified, competent face of the game's administration. Those in the media who had found previous heads of Australian football bodies easy prey for their vitriol were stumped by O'Neill's assured manner (and disinterested motives).
O’Neill’s “performance” at the National Press Club luncheon a couple of months ago was emblematic of the approach he brought to football. In a concise, measured yet enthusiastic speech, he outlined the gains that had been made in the last two years, culminating in a successful first A-League season and a memorable World Cup appearance. He stated realistic goals for the Australian game, extolled the benefits (and acknowledged the likely difficulties) associated with the Asian move, and presented a far clearer overall vision for the game’s growth than certain pundits with enormous axes to grind have done over the past few years.
He subsequently fielded the various questions – the first of which, incidentally, was utterly idiotic – with confident ease.
Vale in advance, John O’Neill. You will be much missed.
Tuesday, August 29, 2006
You address your admonitory letter to Mr. Terry Butcher, the new coach of Sydney FC. May I ask why you did not address similar concerns to (a) any other club managers in the A-League, (b) Pierre Littbarski last year, (c) those in charge of technical development at the FFA – the only ones to whom such plangent rhetoric really should be addressed?
Mr. Butcher has been appointed to a post as manager of Sydney Football Club.
Let me repeat that, just to make it abundantly clear: that was Sydney Football Club.
A club manager is beholden to the board, shareholders and fans of his club. He is not beholden to any sporting philosophy favoured by a national sporting organization, still less to the opinions of an individual who has never had any managerial experience of consequence, and whose views do not necessarily reflect those of the aforementioned national body.
Mr. Butcher’s job is to obtain favourable results for his team in whatever manner he sees fit. Fans and media will judge his success or otherwise in this regard.
It is likely that Mr. Butcher will obtain better results if he encourages positive, progressive football, not that this will be the only factor.
Your thesis that Australian football has undergone a total paradigm shift from a physical-based game to an “entertaining, technical and intelligent” style simply does not stand up to analysis. The overwhelming opinion of the world’s football media was that Australia’s chief asset at the World Cup was their physical combativeness, and despite this aspect of our play being, in my opinion, somewhat overstated, there is a solid basis of fact underlying the general conclusion.
Certain statements in your “letter”, to wit…
“Your role must be to help [young Australian players] progress to being quality senior internationals who can take on the world in 2010, and to do so they will need to improve in experience and understanding. A manager offers the former; only a technician the latter.”
“It is pretty simple, really. For the game, you must play entertaining football and develop our best young players technically and tactically.”
…are pretentious, unrealistic and disgracefully patronizing.
Mr. Butcher may well feel he can make a contribution to Australia’s ongoing football development, but in the context of his managerial position at Sydney FC, this is emphatically not a part of his remit.
In short, as a Sydney FC fan, I sincerely hope that Mr. Butcher is able to adapt his squad into an effective, and – yes – entertaining unit. I hope that he proves a sensible tactician, and a shrewd man-manager.
I hope that he pays as little attention as possible to your condescending, naïve twaddle.
Monday, August 28, 2006
Certainly, he took a while to get to grips with the game. Butcher had allowed him to occupy his preferred anchor role in midfield, and in the opening twenty minutes, Yorke took few risks. Staying well behind the strikers and leaving his fellow “screener”, Mark Milligan, to make the runs forward, he was causing a fair few Sydney fans to groan. Could this be the listless, unenterprising Yorke of the latter half of the 2005/06 season come back to haunt us?
In the event, the game against the Mariners was to delineate both the positive and negative aspects of Yorke’s play quite nicely. It’s worth remembering that Yorke was playing his first game for some time, returning to club football after a World Cup performance which had won acclaim in many quarters.
At the start, he did look somewhat off the pace. And you can never force Dwight Yorke to lift his own pace, whatever he may deem it to be at any given time. In yesterday’s game, he chose to remain fairly static in front of the back four at the outset, largely allowing Andre Gumprecht, the Mariners’ very own Roy Keane, to take the initiative in midfield.
Nevertheless, when Yorke did get the ball, he showed all his experience and class. No player in the A-League is better at holding the ball up, and even in the first half against the Mariners he distributed the ball into wide areas expertly.
Those who claim that Yorke simply cannot adapt to a midfield role are mistaken. In the England v. Trinidad & Tobago match at the World Cup, which I attended, Yorke was far more effective in midfield for the West Indians than either Frank Lampard or Steven Gerrard were for England.
But let’s return to Aussie Stadium. In the second half, there was an event which changed the game significantly: Andre Gumprecht was forced to leave the field with a hamstring strain.
Subsequently, we saw Yorke at his imperious best. Strolling through the midfield, glad to be rid of the tenacious German, he escaped the attentions of his markers effortlessly, and distributed the ball superbly.
But Yorke’s Mr. Hyde is never far beneath the surface; once, under no pressure at all, he flicked a sloppy pass across the goalmouth…straight to Mariners striker Adam Kwasnik.
If I had to describe Yorke’s style in a nutshell, I’d go for the phrase lazy class (and I'm not referring to my Year 8 students). Like his close friend Brian Lara, Yorke appears born to play his chosen sport at times, but he insists on playing it his way…and the odd howler, or period of virtual inactivity, is just part of the package.
I can’t speak for my fellow Sydney FC fans, but I’ll take the package, slack passes, occasional indifference and all.
Sunday, August 27, 2006
So often it is just a small change in personnel that can swing a game, and thus it proved with the introduction of Dario Vidosic last night at Suncorp Stadium.
Perth had looked marginally the better side up to that point, thanks largely to the efforts of Leo Bertos on the wings, and Queensland’s abysmal defence at set-pieces. Miron Bleiberg’s team looked short of width and awkwardly balanced, the three centre-forwards constantly getting in each other’s way.
When Vidosic arrived, things finally started to click. Shifting between the left wing and a position behind the strikers, he played pivotal roles in the first two Queensland goals, and gave the Perth defence a torrid time throughout. He also showed a maturity wholly unexpected from a player making his first competitive appearance at senior level.
Skills, pace, tenacity and vision are the first qualities that one normally looks for when determining the likelihood of a young player making the grade, but the more nebulous quality of footballing intelligence is perhaps a surer guide. And against Perth, Vidosic demonstrated it in spades.
For the first Queensland goal, his chest-down to Milicic was unselfishly shrewd. Receiving an aerial ball in an advanced position, even with back to goal, most youngsters would surely seek to turn their man, or take a couple of touches before laying the ball off. Vidosic made a quick, accurate judgement of the situation, and Milicic was able to force the ball through for Simon Lynch to slam the ball home.
The second goal was the kind that all players treasure; Vidosic was able to supply the finish to a move that he himself initiated. But it was the manner of the finish that was particularly impressive. It was not just a tap-in; the cross from Lynch was hard and low, and Vidosic’s touch needed to be sure. In the heat of a first senior appearance, plenty of neophytes would no doubt have opted to bang the ball home, and consequently missed their kick completely (I’ve seen it happen, folks). Vidosic, slightly off-balance, calmly nudged it past the flailing Aleks Vrteski, sacrificing elegance for certainty.
Queensland would appear to have a youngster of considerable acumen and enviable temperament on their books. Definitely one to watch.
Saturday, August 26, 2006
A Brazilian Beginning
Of the three Brazilians Melbourne fielded last night, one won their first-half penalty, the other scored their second goal, and the third was their best player of the night.
Alessandro, the attacking left back, showed plenty of verve. Like just about all Brazilian left-backs, he never misses an opportunity to get forward (often neglecting his defensive duties as a result, admittedly), and the skills he showed in winning the penalty – and earlier, come to that – were dazzling. Once or twice he couldn’t complement his pleasing skills with an appropriate pass, but he hardly did significantly worse than his colleagues in this regard.
Claudinho, a replacement for Fred in the second half, had few opportunities to show his wares. The lack of a link-man between Melbourne’s midfield and attack was glaring in the second half following Fred’s departure, and this lacuna resulted in the front-men being badly isolated for much of the time. Nevertheless, Claudinho gave the fans two moments to remember; his well-taken goal (which should, it must be said, have been disallowed for an earlier foul), and a stunning turn of pace towards the close, when he beat two Adelaide defenders out of sight and forced a good save from Robert Bajic.
But it was Fred who was the most impressive of the three. Always on the move and always inventive, he provided the creative spark in midfield which made Melbourne appear the better side for much of the evening. After he was replaced, Melbourne’s tactics became more and more basic, and Adelaide, particularly after the arrival of Costanzo (who should have been on from the beginning), took the initiative.
Brazil, with its endless supply of gifted players and its often financially irresponsible clubs, may become a fertile hunting ground for the A-League before too long. The Australian quality of life, the likelihood of one’s salary being paid on time, and the attractions of the major cities could prove just the incentives we need to woo some players capable of providing some of the on-field sparkle that the A-League needs.
Friday, August 25, 2006
Let’s Get Physical – Update
The second half of Murray’s article deals with the sporting behaviour of the Australian team, by comparison with some of the more successful nations at the event. Although I take issue with his squeaky-clean portrayal of the Brazilians (after all, Les was in Munich to see the Brazil v. Australia game, didn’t he find a few of the Brazilian tumbles a tad, erm, egregious?), the basic thrust of his argument is valid.
In my opinion, he is on less firm ground when he generalizes the desire to win in gentlemanly fashion to the Australian sporting public in general. I don’t believe this is the case, and it is perhaps because Australia occupies such an impressively high rank in most sporting codes that we are prepared to make excuses for our own athletes’ reprehensible behaviour at times, while damning the foreigners without trial.
Take the case of international cricket. The vastly successful Australian team has been at the top of the cricketing tree for some considerable time, and the reflected glory that the team bestows has resulted in a good deal of casuistry in recent times.
Countless excuses were offered for the foolish, selfish involvement with sub-continental bookies on the part of Mark Waugh and Shane Warne; the other players involved were unequivocally lambasted. Likewise, after the first Muralitharan “incident”, foreign bowlers with suspect actions were regularly put under the microscope by the Australian media and fans, while Brett Lee’s blatantly illegal bouncers tended to escape notice.
Another brief point: it was a commonplace in the era before neutral umpires to state that the sub-continental umps were crooked beyond belief. Biased they doubtless were, but some Australian umpires were little better in terms of favouring their own – a fact that was never admitted in the Australian media.
The match which most directly led to the use of neutral umpires, in fact, was the disgraceful final test of the Australia v. South Africa series in 1993/94, in which the South Africans suffered some ludicrous LBW decisions at the hands of Darrell Hair (yes, the same fellow who’s been in the news recently) and Terry Prue.
Perhaps it is simply the case that when a national team has reached the pinnacle of any sport, their fans become even more jealously protective of the players. I have found that Australian football fans are, on the whole, more even-handed than the passionate followers of other sports in this country. Even among those who were furious at the manner of Australia’s exit from the World Cup (and that makes about 99.9%), there were plenty who were prepared to admit that Marco Materazzi’s earlier dismissal was somewhat harsh – and that Marco Bresciano’s fall was somewhat theatrical.
Yes, Australian footballers and football fans do tend to be more ethical and fair-minded than those of some other nations. But let's not pretend that this is a universal trend in Australian sport. It isn't.
Thursday, August 24, 2006
Tribal Minds, Part 2
George Orwell’s aversion to the institution of international football was, in fact, quite understandable when you consider some of the events surrounding the first three World Cups (the only three to have been played before he wrote his article). In 1930, Uruguay’s victory over their River Plate rivals Argentina was marked by riots in Buenos Aires. The shadow of European fascism hung menacingly over the two subsequent tournaments, with the Anschluss of 1938 resulting in Austria’s best players representing Hitler’s Germany.
Prior to the mid-fifties, it’s reasonable to conclude, I think, that the World Cup was largely a vehicle for the expression of national chauvinism. Each of the first four “finals” (the 1950 event technically didn’t have one, but the Brazil v. Uruguay match was a final in all but name) were reflective of either strong regional rivalry and bitterness, or current political struggles. Even the tournament of 1954, where Puskas’s Hungary had such a dazzling impact, might well have become a rallying cry in the incipient Cold War, had Hungary triumphed.
To my mind, it was the 1958 tournament which, in some ways, saved the competition.
Firstly, it set in stone the sensible format which was to last until 1974. The previous two postwar World Cups had suffered from ludicrous formats and lopsided match loading (Uruguay played only four games in winning the 1950 tournament), and the four-team round robin group system, with knockouts used thereafter, remains in place today. The complement of teams has doubled, but the basic method of whittling down the competitors is unchanged.
Secondly, and very importantly, the tournament in Sweden at last featured a final between teams from two different continents, neither of whom had an axe to grind politically. Brazil, after the disaster of 1950, clearly felt it had something to prove on the pitch, but there were no historical grudges towards their opponents.
And after the final, there was the ultimate gesture, one which has, to my knowledge, never been repeated, despite the goodwill it engendered. After their victory, the Brazilians set off on a triumphant lap around the stadium, first carrying their own flag, then the Swedish flag. Simply good PR, you might say, but this was the sort of thing that was desperately needed in international football’s showpiece event.
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
Lest we forget, Littbarski’s side took out the knockout qualifying tournament for the World Club Championship, won through to the event itself in Tahiti, and then posted some effective performances in the pre-season cup – particularly a hard-fought 2-0 win over the Mariners in Gosford, in which the team looked organized and determined. The semi-final loss to Perth, when Sydney FC’s striking options were severely limited, caused few hearts to flutter, or minds to doubt Littbarski’s acumen.
Then came the season proper, and around the turn of the year, the fans’ enthusiasm for the Littbarski methods was gradually beginning to whittle away.
It was my opinion at the time, and it is still is now, that the main reason for this change can be summarized in two words: Dwight Yorke.
Don’t get me wrong here; Yorke was, by and large, arguably Sydney’s best player last season, pace Carney, Ceccoli, Bolton and Corica. The quality of his first touch, his passing and his shielding abilities was undeniable, even if his commitment (or lack thereof) sometimes caused concern. The problem with Yorke’s arrival was that it necessitated a change to a successful pattern.
Although Yorke did play in the aforementioned pre-season victory over the Mariners, most of Sydney FC’s early outings saw David Zdrilic – pre-injury – partnering Saso Petrovski in attack. Despite what many have said, with the hindrance of hindsight, this was a fluent, well-matched partnership. But Yorke’s signing promised greater things still; here was one of European football’s most experienced strikers, ready to apply his finishes to the lead-up work of Carney, Corica and the rest. So, who was going to make way for him?
In the end, Littbarski decided not to sacrifice either of his pre-season marksmen for the opening game against Melbourne, and it proved a poor move. Carney was dropped to the bench, depriving the team of some much-needed width, and Sydney were comprehensively outplayed. Archie Thompson, that evening, showed the sort of form that Socceroo fans wish he would display more often.
From that point on, Littbarski never found a workable system. Thanks to the quality of the personnel, the team marched on to second place – and then, memorably, to victory in the grand final – but the triumph had been achieved in painful and messy fashion.
This season, Sydney’s warm-up performances have been highly encouraging. After narrow victories over Newcastle and Queensland, Terry Butcher’s team brushed Perth Glory aside in style at WIN Stadium, and the loss to Adelaide, which can be ascribed largely to Alvin Ceccoli’s dismissal, hardly dampened the spirits of the Cove.
But, ominously, Yorke has yet to be integrated into the team.
Where is he to be used? He prefers midfield these days, and some have suggested (quite sensibly, in my opinion) that Mark Milligan should return to right-back, displacing the uncertain Iain Fyfe, allowing Yorke to partner Terry McFlynn in the engine room, as he did at times last season. But Milligan won plenty of admirers in his new midfield role on Wednesday night, and Butcher may well be inclined to keep him there.
Up front, David Zdrilic showed some of his old form against Newcastle on Saturday, and deserves at least consideration for a starting place. Petrovski has looked good in the pre-season as well, despite being used in an uncongenial lone-striker role; will there be enough room for Yorke up front?
Playmaker? Well, both Steve Corica and – more surprisingly – David Carney have thrived in that area of the park of late, and would both surely be more mobile than Yorke, if not quite blessed with his touch and vision.
Every problem, we hear, is also an opportunity. But, to use the famous expression from Yes, Prime Minister, Terry Butcher might find that Yorke’s return to Sydney FC will present him with some insoluble opportunities, as it did Pierre Littbarski last year.
As a Sydney man, I sincerely hope not. But those currently in raptures about Sydney FC’s recent performances should perhaps exercise a little caution. Butcher, like Littbarski, may yet end up getting tactically yorked.
Tuesday, August 22, 2006
Tribal Minds, Part 1
Orwell was, of course, somewhat irrationally ill-disposed to organized sport, perhaps (an armchair psychiatrist might say) because of his joyless experiences at a typically sport-obsessed British preparatory school.
His view on the Dinamo tour, which is now spoken of in quite reverent terms by football historians, was that it caused only ill-will between England and Russia, and reinforced the nationalist feelings which, according to Orwell, are always tied up with international sport.
A few phrases from the essay are worth quoting, partly as a striking counterpoint to the various platitudes regularly uttered by FIFA worthies about sport as a force for international understanding. To wit:
“I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield.”
“If you wanted to add to the vast fund of ill-will existing in the world at this moment, you could hardly do it better than by a series of football matches between Jews and Arabs, Germans and Czechs, Indians and British, Russians and Poles, and Italians and Yugoslavs…”
Although the history of international football is littered with examples of violence attending rivalry at international level (the “Soccer War” between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969 being the nastiest example), I think it’s fair to say that Orwell has, by and large, been proven wrong.
Although never free from controversy, the World Cup rarely inflames nationalistic passions to an unmanageable extent, and does a great deal to promote easy and playful interaction among the fans. In Stuttgart, during this year’s World Cup, I was genuinely touched by the evident goodwill between the Australian and Croatian fans even after the dramatic group decider. Elsewhere, I saw Dutch fans partying together with Argentina supporters before their first-round match in Frankfurt, and a contingent of Japanese fans trying out their limited English on some willing Australians in the train to Kaiserslautern.
But the World Cup was not always like this; the early editions of the tournament were beset by “incidents”, not to mention insidious political influences at play throughout (particularly in 1934, when the tournament was held in fascist Italy). What happened to change this?
There are a variety of reasons, of course, but in the next instalment I’d like to offer a partial theory of sorts, centering around the 1958 tournament in Sweden, which I consider a real turning point in the competition’s history.
Monday, August 21, 2006
Ray Chesterton, the veteran rugby league hack at Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, is one such scribbler, and recently he penned a typically sneering piece deriding the crowd numbers at the Australia v. Kuwait game last Wednesday. When one considers that 32,000 turned up to a game between an ersatz Socceroos side and less than formidable opposition, you could say that his point was, well, laughable. As a post-World Cup counter-punch, it was a risibly feeble one, and a quick laugh is about all it deserved.
Imagine my surprise, then, at seeing the venerable Les Murray, at the beginning of yesterday’s increasingly threadbare The World Game program, launch an embittered attack on Chesterton, delivered in Murray’s usual portentous tones. Full of painful prose and awkward metaphors, Murray’s onslaught merely served to imply that Chesterton’s drivel was worthy of such an impassioned reply.
In truth, all it served to do was to make Murray look overblown and foolish.
Both Chesterton and Murray are, of course, preaching to the long-ago converted, and neither Chesterton’s silly sniping nor Murray’s literate invective will have changed any minds. But when SBS is regularly hinting to us that the other football codes are fearful of football’s continued advance in Australia, an editorial which gave every indication of righteous panic was surely poor PR, at best.
The sad truth is that, in football terms, SBS is in real danger of becoming irrelevant, and, quite understandably, Murray must be pained by this. His network has, in recent times, been the only media outlet prepared to give football a fair go in coverage terms – the disgraceful shafting of the game by Seven should never, ever be forgotten – yet the market has deprived SBS of almost all its crown jewels, and the World Game program now comes across as an ill-digested hodge-podge of futile polls, inane chatter and occasionally insightful but often half-baked analysis.
In a future post, I intend to offer some suggestions as to how SBS might be able to remain a useful and popular purveyor of football coverage and analysis, but in the meantime, they could surely show a little more dignity in the face of attacks from the likes of Ray Chesterton.
At the moment, sad to say, Les Murray gives the impression of being more afraid than the assorted rugby hecklers.
Sunday, August 20, 2006
Gardner’s thesis was basically that the tournament was a misnomer and a fraud. The surface was artificial turf (public liability considerations, no doubt, precluded the use of a real “street”). The games were played in a mini-stadium, filled with advertising, assorted paraphernalia and, as Gardner noted with disdain, deafening noise from the PA.
“I experienced, in little more than an hour, a concentrated dose of just about everything that is taking away [football’s] purity and dignity – and, ultimately, its value,” was Gardner’s glum summary.
Of course, this sanitized, anodyne version of “street football” is simply futsal à la mode. It bears no relation to the improvised, yet fiercely competitive version of the game which, we are told, gave the likes of Diego Maradona and Zinedine Zidane their basic footballing education.
Those who chiefly ascribe the successes of nations such as Brazil, Argentina and latterly France to their development systems – and yes, you know who I’m referring to – tend to ignore the phenomenon of street football. And yet, in its pure, unsupervised form, it forces youngsters to find ways out of tight situations, it forces them to deal with less-than-ideal conditions, and it breeds a winning mentality (although it should be added, as a brief caveat, that it often appears to inculcate the various cheating techniques at an early age as well).
When I was living in France in the mid-nineties, I was always surprised by the large number of games that sprung up out of nowhere on the bumpy streets of the small towns. Cars did occasionally pass, but they treated the youngsters with understanding (the state of the roads often meant that speeds could hardly exceed about 30 k.p.h. anyway).
In many western countries, progress, in the shape of good roads and recourse to litigation, has meant the decline of street football. Lamentable, perhaps, but countries like France, where a structured youth system is on offer once the kids have learned their bit on the asphalt or cobblestone, represent something of a happy medium.
Certainly, the happy chaos of street football is a part of our sport to be cherished, and moves in some countries towards providing specific areas in major cities where kids can simply kick a ball around, in relative safety and at their own discretion, are welcome.
The “World Street Football Festival”, however, appears to have been just another gimmick.
Saturday, August 19, 2006
Continental Long-Ball - brief update
I've just watched the first half of Sheffield United v. Liverpool in the Premiership. For the opening twenty minutes, one side was playing with a singular dearth of ideas, pumping long balls forward for the strikers to chase and bypassing the midfield completely. The other was adopting a more measured approach, building slowly from the back and making good use of the midfield.
Which of these was Liverpool, the wonderfully cosmopolitan side with a Spanish manager, and which was Sheffield United, the side full of journeymen from the English second tier?
Erm, the team playing the long-ball rubbish was Liverpool.
The Fake Break
It was generally the Australian attacks that brought the crowd to life, but for one moment in the second half they raised their voices in unison. It was not a cheer that echoed around the arena, however, but a prolonged boo.
The occasion was a Kuwaiti attack, one of a few the Gulf side managed in the second half. A player in blue was dancing around the eighteen-yard box, desperately searching for an opening. The boos quickly became deafening.
Why the jeering? Because Jade North, following an aerial challenge, had remained in a heap on the ground while the Kuwaitis advanced on goal.
No doubt the crowd felt that “etiquette” required the Kuwaitis to propel the ball into touch, thereby allowing North to receive some attention.
To my mind, though, the booing had the whiff of hypocrisy about it. Many, many commentators and fans, in Australia and elsewhere, excoriated the Italian champions for their time-wasting antics during the recent World Cup; all too often, we were told, a member of the azzurri hit the deck and stayed there after a relatively innocuous challenge; it was, apparently, just a ploy to stifle the temporary initiative gained by the opposition, a cynical means of slowing down the play.
Very true, of course, but the Italians were far from the only guilty parties. Those who blasted Marcello Lippi’s men for their “fake injuries” during the final should remember that it was France’s Thierry Henry who set the tone, taking an eternity to return to the play after he ran into Fabio Cannavaro shortly after the opening whistle.
As for Jade North on Wednesday night, he was back in the fray within half a minute, looking none the worse for the knock.
So to the matter of “etiquette”. Should the side without the injured player feel obliged to put the ball into touch?
In my opinion, absolutely not. The simple question I would ask is: how is this different from a situation in which a player has temporarily gone off for an injury? In each case, one team has a transient numerical advantage, and this should be accepted as a normal part of the game. In the case of the crumpled on-field player, once a stoppage has occurred, the player will have ample time to leave the field if he genuinely needs treatment. The chances of him actually being physically endangered by a continuation of play (which should really be the only consideration) are minimal.
If a player has clearly suffered a serious, incapacitating blow, then sportsmanship would dictate that the opposition should halt the play (the most famous example of this being Paolo di Canio’s generous spurning of an open goal when Everton’s ’keeper Paul Gerrard lay howling in pain on the turf).
As for the side with the “injured” player putting the ball into touch…well, of course, there’s not much that can be done about it. But there have been recent moves towards allowing referees to decide whether a throw back to the perhaps superficially afflicted side is really necessary.
A welcome innovation, in my view. What began as a sporting custom has now become hopelessly open to abuse, and with more physical demands being placed on players than ever before, subtle means of conserving energy – not just for the “injured” player, but for the whole team – are likely to become far more popular.
The latter stages of the World Cup, and the final in particular, suffered from far too many stoppages due to utterly inconsequential “injuries”.
Let’s keep ’em honest – as far as possible.
Friday, August 18, 2006
Lessons from the Gulf
They’re not a bad barometer of competition in Asia. Far from one of the powerhouses of the region, they nevertheless have a respectable football history, having qualified for the World Cup in 1982, and, famously, knocked China out of the reckoning for the 2006 tournament (much to FIFA’s chagrin, one suspects).
On Wednesday night, they exemplified many of the virtues of the western – read Arab – Asian nations, while revealing some of the archetypal deficiencies.
Perhaps the most surprising, and notable, facet of their play was that they were not short of pace. The early balls launched in the direction of Archie Thompson on the left indicated that Graham Arnold perhaps hoped to use Thompson’s speed off the mark to catch the Kuwaitis out at the back. It didn’t work; the mobile and intelligent Yaqobu Abdullah ensured that Thompson rarely reached the by-line.
There were some impressive displays of individual skill from the side in blue. The understandably defensive posture of the Kuwaitis meant that these were generally displayed on the break, but on occasion they looked moderately dangerous. Individualism tended to take precedence over teamwork at times, however, and with the exception of a delicate move around the 18-yard box early in the second half, there was little evidence of effective combination in attack.
Their penchant for tricks extended itself to the defence as well, and I often felt that the defenders were being unnecessarily elaborate. One or two of the defensive back-heels and shimmies in the first half came within a whisker of setting an Australian attacker clean through on goal. Having said that, it was heartening to see a few of the Kuwaiti players trying a few runs out of defence; the adventurous left-sider Fahad Shaheen will be one of the players to keep an eye on in the return leg.
Australia clearly expected to make something out of their numerous set-pieces and long throws, but with one or two exceptions the Kuwaitis did fairly well in their own mixer. Perhaps their chief deficiency in defence was a tendency towards hesitancy and confusion when two players had the option to go for the same ball, a fault which was superbly exploited by Brosque and Carney in the move which led to Travis Dodd’s goal.
Up front, it was noticeable that Al-Hamad, supposedly one of the star players, rarely got into the game (he barely had a kick in the first half). A more physical player than his fellows, he was simply cancelled out by the strong Australian back three for much of the evening. Clearly, as expected, Australia will have the edge in the physical department against the west Asians.
Lastly, mention should be made of the fine goalkeeper, Nawaf Al-Khaldi. He produced a couple of excellent saves and dealt adequately, if not entirely convincingly, with crosses. One of Kuwait’s best players of the night, without doubt.
Thursday, August 17, 2006
There have been certain noises, mainly emanating from south of the Murray, carrying the message that Graham Arnold’s squad was far too biased towards Sydney FC.
The starting eleven on the night contained five Sydney players, and no more than two from any other club. The first two substitutes were also from the harbour city club, and they replaced two non-Sydneysiders in Thompson and Griffiths. Seven of Terry Butcher’s men on the pitch!
As a matter of fact, there should have been seven right from the start.
It’s all very well to have representation from a variety of A-League clubs, but with minimal preparation time and a less-than-ideal collection of players, it was favourable – maybe even ideal – to feature a team mainly made up of players who have gelled at club level.
This has been shown time and again in the past; memorably, at the 1986 World Cup, Dinamo Kiev’s legendary manager Valeri Lobanovski took charge of an unsettled USSR team, not long before the tournament. His answer to the various tactical problems within the team? He simply filled it up with Kiev players. The Russians’ opening game featured no fewer than nine players from the Ukraine club. The result? They won 6-0!
The Socceroo team improved considerably last night once Petrovski and Brosque arrived. Archie Thompson, uncomfortable on the wing, was failing to combine effectively with Joel Griffiths, who was picked somewhat mistakenly in a front-man role.
Once Petrovski arrived, the attack possessed a player capable of holding the ball up, and new options appeared. Petrovski scored a goal, should have been awarded a penalty, and worried the Kuwaiti defence far more than had the rusty Griffiths.
Brosque did not have the most influential of cameos, but he did generally attract two defenders to him, thereby creating space for the others. Some of the switching of positions which we have seen from Brosque and Carney during Sydney FC’s pre-season games was evident again last night.
Travis Dodd may have eventually provided the decisive impact against Kuwait, but the team’s revival late in the second half owed much to the fact that the players on the pitch understood, and gelled with, each other.
Wednesday, August 16, 2006
Arnie’s First Test
The squad with which we hope to do it is perhaps less than ideal, but Kuwait’s recent form suggests we should have enough quality to get over the line comfortably.
Everyone has had a crack at picking their team for tonight, and I’ll have a go later in this article. But first, some general observations.
The excisions from the larger squad of 22 were, again, puzzling. Mark Bridge should never have made the squad in the first place, but Adrian Leijer was perhaps a better option in defence than either Valkanis or Fyfe. Alex Wilkinson, too, could consider himself a little unlucky, even if he only made the preliminary squad due to Spase Dilevski’s injury. Can Jade North really be rated ahead of Wilkinson at the moment?
And so, to what we’re left with. The squad is still far too left-leaning (and I’m not referring to their political affiliations), and the lack of a commanding anchorman in midfield is clear. Stuart Musialik should probably be given the gig, although Mark Milligan’s move into midfield for Sydney FC might provoke a knee-jerk reaction from Arnold. In truth, Milligan has hardly been solid for the A-League champions, leaving most of the defensive legwork in midfield to his more tenacious colleague Terry McFlynn.
One would expect Arnold to stick with the flexible 3-4-3 (or 3-6-1, if you like) favoured by Hiddink, in which case Alex Brosque should start up front on the left. Saso Petrovski, the only player in the squad suited to the target-man role, should appear at the apex of the formation. So who’s going on the right?
It would appear, since Archie Thompson has been named vice-captain, that he will start; one hopes that Arnold will not waste him in the sort of position which left him thrashing around to little effect against Greece earlier this year. For the moment, let’s put Thompson on the right (he would be better placed on the left, but then so would most of the attacking players in the squad), although I rather think David Carney, wrong foot and all, would be a wiser choice, leaving Thompson as an impact option from the bench.
The centre of defence is a worry. Arnold has indicated – thanks for the heads up, Shane – that Kevin Muscat is likely to start in the centre of a back three; presumably, Milligan and Valkanis will complete the trio. I shudder to think of Iain Fyfe starting in a competitive international match, but it just might happen…
Alvin Ceccoli, so adept at covering the entirety of the left flank as he showed last season, should start in the left wing-back role. On the right, Travis Dodd would seem to be the most natural choice. Not afraid to do his share of defensive work, the Adelaide winger has been in fine form early in the season and probably merits a start. It is, sadly, more likely that Arnold will fall back once again on the over-rated Jade North.
Steve Corica is the obvious candidate to partner Musialik in the centre. Always constructive, always instrumental, he was at the heart of things during Sydney’s recent impressive demolition of Perth, even if Alex Brosque and David Carney received most of the acclamation afterwards (not that it was undeserved). Kristian Sarkies makes a useful understudy, and deserves some game time, I feel.
The team I would pick:
Bolton; Muscat, Milligan, Valkanis; Dodd, Musialik, Corica, Ceccoli; Carney, Petrovski, Brosque.
The team Graham Arnold is likely to pick, in my opinion:
Bolton: Milligan, Muscat, Valkanis; North, Musialik, Corica, Ceccoli; Thompson, Petrovski, Brosque.
Tuesday, August 15, 2006
Bye Bye Becks, Part 2
Sadly, England were ploddingly ordinary for the rest of the afternoon, and their reliance on Beckham was partly to blame. They were quite happy with the lack of genuine penetration on either wing, so long as they could call upon Beckham (and others) to provide the telling aerial balls. But with Peter Crouch clumsy in the air and Michael Owen far from fit, they made little impact.
It was the next game, against Trinidad, that revealed an interesting possibility for Beckham.
Much of the game progressed in similar fashion to the Paraguay encounter. Long balls, hopeful knockdowns, misses from Crouch, toil without reward from Owen. I’ve described the whole sorry tale elsewhere. To give credit where it’s due, Eriksson’s substitutions gave the England side renewed vigour, and they necessitated in a surprisingly effective tactical switch.
Jamie Carragher, playing on the right side of defence in the absence of Gary Neville, made way for the speedy Aaron Lennon. Lennon took up his accustomed position on the right wing, and Beckham moved to right-back.
For the final half-hour, England’s captain looked as comfortable and effective as he had in years, in my opinion.
True, Trinidad and Tobago are not the most daunting of opposition. True, Beckham did not have to deal with a winger of class. But in so many ways, the role suited him; he was able to deliver accurate long balls from deep, he was able to use his fine positional sense to overlap efficiently, and he carried out his (few) defensive duties calmly and adroitly.
Lennon’s pace and agility meant he was frequently double-marked, and Beckham was quick to exploit this. From a slightly withdrawn position on the right, he played key roles in both of England’s goals.
England are not significantly blessed in the right-back department at present. Gary Neville is nearing the end of his career, Jamie Carragher seems to prefer the centre-half role these days, and Tony Hibbert has probably missed the boat. Why not Beckham as right-back for England, in the fullness of time? He lacks pace, to be sure, but he may be able to make light of this against all but the quickest wide men; his positional judgement, after all, is excellent.
This way, England would be able to field a true, penetrating right-winger while still availing themselves of Beckham’s dead-ball prowess.
One for Steve McLaren to consider…if he hasn’t done so already.
Monday, August 14, 2006
Cliché Central, Part 2
I would be a rich man indeed if I had a dollar for every time this phrase was used, in Australian journals, in close proximity to the name of a certain Dutch coach.
Any substitution, tactical shift, even selection (or non-selection) that has a positive effect on the performance of the team can attract the above accolade, particularly if the coach is one favoured by the writer (or commentator, although 99% of “masterstrokes” are only acknowledged as such in retrospect).
Sadly, we are generally not told exactly why the decision in question had such a positive effect. Did it give the team much-needed width? Provide support for an isolated striker? Nullify the opposition’s most effective player? Or was it simply a lucky gamble?
In my humble opinion, the majority of “masterstrokes” owe more to the subsequent intervention of Lady Luck than anything else. To paraphrase Richie Benaud: “Management is 90% luck and 10% skill…but don’t try it without that 10%”.
“...failed to clear their lines...”
Somehow I always think of Robbie Fowler and his infamous sniffing celebration when I hear this phrase. The chaos following a set-piece usually renders any concept of a defensive “line” rather subjective in any case. Why not just “failed to clear (the ball)”, “failed to get the ball upfield”, “failed to get the ball out of the area”?
This one, of course, is not specific to football. Amazing that none of the other bywords for smoothness are ever used with reference to admirable footballing technique. How come we’ve never heard of “baby’s bum skills”?
“...shuffled the pack...”
I must make a small confession here; I too have been guilty of falling back on this phrase. But there are many other ways to express alterations to the line-up. “Made some changes”, “rested X and Y”, “gave P and Q a start”, “decided to use his reserves”, “altered his line-up”, and so forth.
After all, we don’t want to give the impression that football managers are merely card-players, and hence gamblers, do we? They are, after all, capable of masterstrokes.
Any I've missed, fellow tragics?
Sunday, August 13, 2006
Bye Bye Becks, Part 1
McLaren will surely have to do more than just this to live up to Glanville’s always stringent standards. The move is, in any case, largely symbolic: a break from the Eriksson era, in which the England side were far too reliant on the Real Madrid man.
England scored six goals at the World Cup, and Beckham was centrally involved in four of them. His precise set-pieces proved the ultimate undoing of both Paraguay and Ecuador, and his devilishly accurate crossing helped to subdue the brave Trinidadians. But he inhibits England’s style, when used in his preferred right midfield role; without him, there will surely be more emphasis on speed down the flanks.
Beckham has had an interesting international career. It is greatly to his credit that he rescued his reputation after the disaster of 1998, when his hot-headedness compelled his side to cling on against Argentina with ten men for so long. An inspirational performance in England’s final qualifier for the 2002 tournament, in which the rest of his team played abysmally, won over many of his erstwhile critics: England’s qualification, famously, was achieved via one of Beckham’s sumptuous free-kicks.
He was less than devastating at the tournament itself, but this was mainly due to a serious injury he had suffered a couple of months prior to the event; not for the first time, he was perhaps brought back into action with undue haste. At least he had the satisfaction of revenge against Argentina, though.
Then came 2004, and the missed penalties. The rumblings of discontent, dormant for so long, began to resurface; to make matters worse, some new options for England’s right midfield position were emerging. Shaun Wright-Phillips was clearly a worthy candidate for the role, and soon afterwards Aaron Lennon joined the list.
It didn’t help, either, that Beckham had chosen to pursue his career outside the Premiership. There has always been an ambivalent (at best) attitude to foreign-based players wearing the three lions, as the case of Owen Hargreaves has shown only too plainly.
In the next instalment, an analysis of Beckham’s performance at Germany 2006 – and a possible new use for him at international level in the future.
Saturday, August 12, 2006
Making the Numbers Count
I feel that, perversely, the manager with eleven men is faced with by far the more difficult job. Little blame seems to attach to the manager if the side with ten has a handful of goals thumped past them, but if the side with the extra man fails to score, questions are asked of the man in the dugout. Why was X not brought on? Why did Y not push upfield? Why did you persist with just the lone striker? (That last question could have been asked of a fair few high-profile managers at the recent World Cup…)
From all the eleven v. ten encounters I’ve seen, one principle seems clear. If you have a numerical advantage, use the full width of the pitch.
“Using the width” is obviously an important facet of play in any case, but with eleven men it becomes even more important; stretching the play means forcing the remaining nine opposition outfielders to tire themselves out far more quickly, and often creates a shortage of men in the middle if a winger gets double-marked.
I witnessed a classic display of how to play with a man more in the Korea v. Togo game at the World Cup, which I’ve previously hailed as a marvellous spectacle from the off-field point of view. After Togo’s captain received his second yellow, the Koreans worked the ball over to the wings at every opportunity, regularly drawing defenders out of the centre; it was just this strategy which produced the winning goal, the striker Ahn finding space around the 18-yard area in which to pick his shot, and score.
John Kosmina was not so successful on Friday evening, although he did eventually come away with the points.
Following the dismissal of Alvin Ceccoli, Terry Butcher had sensibly altered his formation to suit the situation; the new fullbacks, Milligan and Topor-Stanley, were now effectively covering their entire respective flanks, allowing the remaining midfielders to close down the centre of the field. With Topor-Stanley – full of energy after a relatively undemanding first half – running furiously on the left flank, it was difficult for anyone not counting heads to tell that Sydney were a man down.
In this situation, the obvious strategy for Adelaide would surely have been to work the balls into the outside channels at every opportunity, especially with Sydney’s full-backs constantly pushing upfield. But Jason Spagnuolo, on the left, who had been a constant menace in the first half, hardly got a touch in the second; and Travis Dodd, on the right, actually dropped infield after a brief touchline chat with Kosmina.
Significantly, when Adelaide finally did score, it was from a corner won by Spagnuolo, released down the left for the first time in the second half.
Wingers…where would we be without ’em?
Friday, August 11, 2006
A Glorious Blur
“It’s all a bit of a blur, so much has happened over the last several weeks,” commented the lanky frontman, who was little more than a name even to state league aficionados until recently.
I doubt he will be an instant hit; it may take him some time to adjust to the higher standard of the A-League, where defenders will not mark him as loosely as they did for much of the NSW state league finals series. But he has a lot going for him: two good feet (although he favours his right), impressive pace and the ability to create chances out of relatively little. His frail build may work against him to some extent, but not irreparably so.
One wonders whether he will fit snugly into Perth’s style of play, however. The WA club currently possesses two influential wingers in Leo Bertos and (when he finally gets a start) Stan Lazaridis, and one would expect that the majority of the service for the strikers will be coming from out wide.
Glavas, even with his height, is not at his best in the air; from what I saw of him, he thrives more on intelligent through-balls from central midfield, which allow him to use his pace and shooting ability to good effect.
Neither is he the typical “second striker”, working just off a front-man, making quick dashes through the channels or lurking around for the cut-backs.
Perth’s lack of a true creator in midfield was glaringly apparent on Sunday night. David Micevski and Mark Robinson were simply not up to the task, and although Josip Magdic again showed considerable enthusiasm and a few good touches when he came on, I doubt he will set the league alight in the way that Nick Ward did last year. Given the likely want of supply from central midfield, Glavas might find things hard going at first.
But he has the confidence of youth, and the spur of his recent performances. I’m sure he will provide Perth fans will some good memories this season.
And put it this way, at least he’ll be better than Brian Deane. That much is surely beyond dispute.
Thursday, August 10, 2006
Cliché Central - brief update
What I want to know is, what actually happens when half-time gets stroked? And do we get to watch?
And if one of the coaches makes an influential substitution at the interval, does it then become the masterstroke of half-time?
Let's Get Physical
This annoyed me somewhat at first. After all, the Socceroos had showed tactical flexibility, some good passing movement and commendable defensive organization at the World Cup. But all the comments of World Soccer’s correspondents seemed to overstate the old, if not entirely inaccurate, stereotype. To wit:
“[Australia’s] physical, organized approach was always going to go down well in a European World Cup…”
“Australia, appearing at only their second finals…played to their physical strengths…”
“[Guus Hiddink] has often said Australia’s principal asset is their physical strength, and sure enough they were aggressive and direct from the off [against Japan]…”
“Brazil, faced by an Australian team prepared to graft and grind their way to a draw…”
“Direct play” is often used as a synonym for long balls towards the strikers. And for “graft and grind”, read fouls aplenty. Somewhat unfair on Australia; the fouls did stack up during the Australia v. Brazil game, but trust me, I was there, many of the fouls given (and that is the proper word) to Brazil during that game were, in fact, perfectly legitimate tackles.
So should we be up in arms about this characterization of Australia’s performance?
Well, yes and no. For one thing, our two “results” at the tournament might have owed something to defensive organization, fitness, and the finishing ability of certain players, but it was the addition of some tall and strong timber up front which really turned the games against both Croatia and Japan. In other words, the “physical” tag, when applied to Australia’s successes, is partly justified.
Secondly, there is something of an advantage in being dismissed as a “physical” team, particularly when there are other, unacknowledged virtues possessed by the team in question.
In Les Murray’s recent autobiography, he told the amusing story of Frank Arok’s successful mind games before a crucial World Cup qualifier against Israel. Arok had hinted, or rather threatened, that the Socceroos would play a fearsomely combative game, shoving their way to victory if they couldn’t prevail by skill and enterprise. The Israelis, duly “warned”, picked a team of hard nuts, thereby failing to play to their strengths.
The strengths of our new Asian rivals are chiefly speed and skill, the latter applying particularly to the Arab nations. Saudi Arabia may still be a little green – if you’ll pardon the pun – at international level, but they possess players of delightful skill, such as former Asian Player of the Year Nawaf Al-Temyat, a playmaker of great elegance and sure touch.
If our future AFC opponents were induced to field teams of greater strength and less subtlety against us, in the hope of fighting perceived force with force, they would probably be playing into our hands.
So let’s embrace our physicality, up to a point. As a reputation, it has its benefits.
Wednesday, August 09, 2006
Cliché Central, Part 1
Football journalism, and commentary, is becoming distinctly jaded. Descriptions of players, games, goals, saves, near-misses, individual performances, and even passes have a uniformity that is more noticeable by the year. The increasing popularity of the game, and the consequent conversion of jack-of-all-sports journalists into football columnists, has resulted in a reliance on sloppy descriptions and silly clichés.
Herewith an examination of a few of them, and some alternative suggestions.
“...on the stroke of half-time...”
This one is applied automatically these days to any goals, near-misses, send-offs etc. that occur between the 40th minute and the interval. The original effect of the phrase, with its overtones of a disastrous setback just before a rest, has been thoroughly worn away through over-use.
If it’s too prosaic to state the exact minute in which the incident occurred, “just before the interval”, “a few minutes (or, if we want to be punctilious, one/two/three minutes) before the break”, “in first-half stoppage time”, “shortly before half-time”, are just a few of the possible alternatives – sacrificing trite melodrama for modest accuracy.
A similar creature is:
“...in the dying seconds/minutes...”
The mortality rate of small units of time has surged in recent years.
Although generally applied to injury time, significant occurrences which fall within the 85th-90th minute period have also commonly attracted this phrase, which always raises a groan.
Some alternatives, excepting again the more precise descriptions: “in injury time” (As simple as that? You’re kidding!), “with only a couple of minutes left”, “just before the close”, “near the end of stoppage time”.
You will notice that I haven’t included “deep into injury time”...which is fast becoming a cliché in its own right.
“...a teasing cross/centre...”
Images of the ball making sarcastic jokes at the expense of the defenders’ mothers as it comes over from the wing pop into one’s mind.
Was the cross accurate? Looping? Flat? Horizontal or diagonal? At an awkward height for a clearing header? From the by-line or from in front of the defenders?
Dunno, but, by Gawd, it was a teaser!
“...a slide-rule pass...”
Andrea Pirlo, Didi Hamann, Clarence Seedorf and others know how to use their geometry sets, you see.
Once again, there are many worthwhile things that can be written or said about a good pass. Diagonal? Long or short? Premeditated or instinctive? Defence-splitting? (A borderline cliché, that one.) Behind the fullback? Timed to coincide with the run of an alert forward?
Most passes, however, tend not to be analysed further than a slide-rule can reach.
“...a clinical finish...”
This is the worst and most nauseating of them all.
Originally just a quirky medical analogy for an accurate finish, the ghastly phrase is now ubiquitous. A quick dip into the nearest thesaurus would at least give you words like accurate, precise, deft and well-placed. Another look at the goal might give you further options: near-post, far-post, narrow-angled, firmly-struck, curved, long-range, calm, instinctive...and so on. It is football journalism, rather than a ball at the feet of a striker, that needs a trip to the clinic.
More to come soon, folks.
Tuesday, August 08, 2006
What was perhaps most pleasing of all was that the caller in question was clearly of continental European descent. Clearly, Craig Foster’s constant, strident anti-English tirades have not just annoyed those of us who claim Anglo-Saxon ancestry (in case anyone’s interested, I’m Jewish on one side and a mix of English and Scottish on the other).
Foster’s angry reaction to Butcher’s appointment was both predictable and premature. His understandable aversion to the current style of the English national side, and the English game in general, he shares with many of us. But his knee-jerk rejection of anything remotely British in origin when it comes to football only seems to date from his assumption of the chief analyst role at SBS. Whether the prevailing culture at the broadcaster has influenced the tenor of his punditry is a matter for (perhaps fruitless) speculation.
As for Foster’s oft-repeated axiom that the English fail miserably to develop young players, just yesterday I watched a virtual Manchester United B side, featuring many products of the youth system, play brightly and intelligently to defeat a club regularly commended by Foster – Ajax Amsterdam.
The supreme irony is that the current trends in the English game are, in my opinion, due primarily to the contributions of two characters from the continent. I refer to Gerard Houllier, erstwhile manager of Liverpool, and Sven-Goran Eriksson, whose departure from the England manager’s chair was surely lamented by very few.
In the late nineties – the era when Foster made his entry into English football, incidentally – the game there was undergoing something of a revival. The two Uniteds, Manchester and Newcastle, were playing positive, exciting football. The national team, spearheaded by Shearer and Gascoigne, had made a good impression at Euro 96. The sterile, violent post-Heysel years were fast becoming a mere memory.
But successful teams breed imitation, and a team that employed often horribly dreary tactics went on an inspired cup run in 2000/01. Liverpool’s direct, old-fashioned style paid off in a big way.
A brief description of their strategy will suffice; I’m sure most readers will remember only too well. The ball was generally launched out of defence for Emile Heskey, transformed from the fast, front-running forward he had been at Leicester into a near-stationary target-man figure. He would knock it down for Michael Owen to chase, or ease it back so that the likes of Steven Gerrard could use their shooting power from distance.
Of course, that Liverpool side did produce some good football; Gary McAllister, in midfield, proved wonderfully creative in the twilight of his career, and Dietmar Hamann’s clever through-balls from deep were often a joy to behold. Yet the essential modus operandi of the side was as outlined above.
Sven-Goran Eriksson was quick to take notice. Heskey and Owen became England’s regular front pairing, and their telling roles in England’s famous 5-1 victory over the Germans in a crucial World Cup qualifier set England’s tactics for the subsequent few years almost in stone. From that time onwards, Eriksson has made only superficial changes to his basic tactical approach.
The legacy of Houllier – whose Liverpool side foundered under him post-2001 – and Eriksson was there for all to see at the World Cup in Germany. Unimaginative, inflexible and unambitious, England were one of the worst teams in the tournament from an entertainment point of view. What’s more, players who didn’t quite fit into the Eriksson “scheme”, such as the lively young opportunist Jermain Defoe, were stubbornly left out of the squad by the Swede.
Craig Foster has a point when he asserts that the current English style is not one we should be seeking to emulate. But before he dismisses coaches like Terry Butcher merely on the basis of their nationality, he should perhaps pause to consider that the coaches who have had the most significant influence in shaping the current stultifying, reactionary English style, are not from the British Isles.
Monday, August 07, 2006
The Carney Conundrum
Pierre Littbarski’s use of Carney last season exasperated many of the fans. Here was perhaps our most potent attacking player, full of tricks, pace and acumen, and yet he was constantly being forced to cut inside onto his far stronger left foot in order to deliver a telling cross or shot.
He did, it’s true, successfully force his way into shooting positions on the edge of the area quite often, and notched an impressive tally of goals for a midfielder. Nevertheless, when he clearly possessed the pace to regularly beat most right-backs in the league and deliver crosses with his better peg, few considered the right wing a wise choice for Carney.
In the opening games of Sydney’s 2006/07 campaign, Terry Butcher has adopted Pierre Littbarski’s deployment of the blond midfielder; perhaps the arrival of Alex Brosque, another winger of pace and copious technical ability who favours the left, has forced his hand. Yet in the course of the pre-season bonus round match against Perth last night, another possibility for Carney emerged.
Languishing on the right as per usual and seeing little of the ball, Carney was on the move after a quarter of an hour. Now he was popping up on the left wing, playing in tandem with Brosque, now he was to be seen alongside Milligan and McFlynn in defensive midfield. On about 25 minutes, he finally settled, in a place he had not often been seen last year for any length of time: just behind the front-line.
Much to my surprise, Carney looked very much the part in a playmaker role. He made significant contributions to the first two Sydney goals, and although his magnificent feint and cross for the third goal arose – joy of joys! – from his taking up a position on the left, he had gotten there via a diagonal run from the centre.
The search for David Carney’s true position should be of interest not only to Sydney FC aficionados, but to Socceroo fans as well. Few would deny that the youngster is likely to be part of the Australian squad in future years, and deciding on the best way to utilize his abundant talents will be an important task for future Socceroo supremos.
As for Sydney FC supporters, and the Cove in particular, they will always cheer for Super Dave, wherever on the pitch he may be.
Sunday, August 06, 2006
The Extra Mile
I had the good fortune to witness not only Sydney United’s comprehensive NSW Premier League grand final victory over Blacktown, but also their two lead-up matches, including the dramatic preliminary final against Bankstown. In all three games, Jedinak was very, very impressive.
At the grand final, a knowledgeable Sydney United fan informed me that Jedinak had been so poor during his initial stint at United that he had been regularly jeered by the often unforgiving fans. Rough treatment for an 18-year-old, you’d have to say. But, continued my source, after a period in the Croatian National League with Varteks, Jedinak had returned a transformed player.
He formed part of Australia’s 2003 World Youth Championship squad, among a host of current A-Leaguers including Alex Brosque, Jonti Richter and Spase Dilevski. Although Jedinak was singled out for praise by Ange Postecoglou prior to the tournament, he only started the first two matches, missing the historic victory over Brazil and only making a late substitute appearance in the second-round loss to the UAE.
When he returned to United, in other words, he was something of an unknown quantity.
Perhaps the most pleasing feature of Jedinak’s game is his superb judgement of the aerial ball. United kept the upper hand during the first half of the aforementioned preliminary final at Melita Stadium for an instructive reason: Bankstown’s ’keeper, Josevski, booted his goalkicks straight down the centre of the park, with little variation; Jedinak, with monotonous regularity, got perfectly into position and won the headers. After a while, United’s forwards were quite happy to take some speculative whacks at goal, safe in the knowledge that the ball would be coming back their way before too long.
In the final, Blacktown must have hoped that their own midfield enforcer, Ivan Zelic, would give them an aerial edge in the centre. It didn’t happen; Mile Jedinak’s positioning and anticipation were immaculate, and Zelic barely got a sniff. Eventually, Jedinak’s continued domination irritated Zelic to the extent that he quite unnecessarily clattered into the United man, when the latter had once again secured pole position for a header.
Jedinak is not short of ability on the ground as well; he distributes quickly and without ado, and is capable of holding onto the ball under pressure when required. And he can play the “killer balls”, too; United’s first goal against Blacktown was the result of a cleverly-weighted through-ball from Jedinak to Ben Vidaic, who rode Ivan Necevski’s attempted interception and crossed for the day’s hero, Luka Glavas, to open the scoring.
Vince Grella currently fulfils the holding role in midfield most effectively for the Socceroos, having grown into the role after some indifferent initial performances. Among the younger players, most would nominate the likes of Neil Kilkenny and Stuart Musialik as possibilities for the role in the future. But if Jedinak can get some decent game time in a league of sufficient quality (and with all respect to the NSW Premier League, it doesn’t quite fit the bill), we may well be adding his name to the list of applicants in the years to come.
Saturday, August 05, 2006
The Fog of War
This is the stage of the competition immediately before the league phase (the big payoff), so the two-leg ties are always fiercely competitive. The first two qualifying rounds tend to consist of one-sided ties in which the champions of Malta, Luxembourg and other countries without corrupt leagues tend to be knocked over. The third round always throws up some interesting clashes.
This year, there’s Arsenal v. Dinamo Zagreb – not an easy start for the London side at their swanky new stadium – and Dinamo Kiev v. Fenerbahce, among others. But the pick of the bunch is surely Milan v. Red Star Belgrade. These two sides, both of whom have a distinguished record in the old European Cup, played one of the most extraordinary ties in the history of the competition, in late 1988.
Thanks mainly to Bosman and the wage spiral, the Eastern European clubs are no longer the force they were in international events. Back in 1988, the Belgrade club – Crvena Zvezda to its supporters – still possessed such great players as Dragan Stojkovic and Dejan Savicevic, plus a young Robert Prosinecki. Stojkovic is now Red Star’s chairman, while Savicevic, a few years after the 1988 encounter between the two clubs, moved to Milan himself.
Milan were heavy favourites for the tie, though; they could field the three magnificent Dutchmen, Gullit, Rijkaard and van Basten, who had gloriously won the European Championship with Holland only a few months earlier.
The first leg was played at the San Siro. Milan pressured for most of the evening but could not make much progress against the resilient Red Star defence (which would, a couple of years later, keep the star-studded Marseille attack scoreless in the 1991 final). Red Star shocked the home team with a goal on the break soon after half-time. An equalizer came quickly, but Milan failed to find a winner: it ended 1-1, and the Yugoslavs went back home to their intimidating Marakana stadium with the upper hand.
The return leg was played two weeks later. Savicevic opened the scoring after brilliant lead-up work by Stojkovic, and Milan’s veteran striker Pietro Paolo Virdis, who had scored Milan’s goal in the opening leg, was sent off for throwing a punch at Goran Juric. On the hour mark, it looked like Red Star were about to pull off an impressive upset; they were 2-1 ahead on aggregate, with an extra man. Then the weather intervened.
A heavy fog had blanketed the Marakana, and on 65 minutes, German referee Pauly decided that play was no longer possible. The match, much to Milan’s relief, was called off. “The fog saved them,” Stojkovic recently commented.
The very next day, the teams took to the field for the replay. Milan were without Virdis, and Ruud Gullit, not entirely fit, started on the bench. Nevertheless, the rossoneri scored first through van Basten, late in the first half; Stojkovic replied with a penalty a few minutes later.
It was a bruising encounter, and Roberto Donadoni, now manager of Italy following Marcello Lippi’s post-World Cup exit, was injured in a heavy collision which resulted in him swallowing his tongue; the alertness and skill of Red Star’s physio, who was forced to break Donadoni’s jaw to open the airway, may well have saved his life.
The match went to penalties. The home side would have to be favourites in such a situation, you would think; yet Giovanni Galli, Milan’s keeper, kept out the efforts of Savicevic and the substitute Mrkela…and his club advanced.
In the end, Milan would romp home to a 4-0 victory in the final, and would become a dominant force in European football for the next few years. Few now remember how very close they came to being knocked out of the 1989 European Cup before the quarter-finals.
How things have changed. In the current competition, most observers would give Red Star, now without the outstanding youngster Nemanja Vidic, only the merest chance of knocking off the formidable, cosmopolitan Milan team which features two of Italy’s key World Cup men, Gennaro Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo. But Stojkovic, distinguished veteran of 1988, has promised that the crowd will witness “a true spectacle” when Milan comes to Belgrade again.
Friday, August 04, 2006
A Cool Head on the Coast
He has arrived at the ideal time, and at the ideal club; the Central Coast Mariners were in need of a versatile defender, and an experienced campaigner to balance the club’s preponderance of youthful players.
Every Australian fan rejoiced with Viddy as he put away that penalty in Sydney. Written off as too old and too slow towards the end of the Farina era, Vidmar played superbly throughout the two legs against Uruguay, with the determination of a man who had been denied his ticket to the World Cup on three previous occasions.
It made his later, inevitable withdrawal from the World Cup squad all the more poignant, for the fans as well as Vidmar himself. No player would have taken the field to more raucous cheers in Kaiserslautern, had his heart condition not intervened.
In many ways, the club he has left, NAC Breda, has been the salvation of Vidmar’s career. After an abortive first crack at Europe, during which he spent most of his time on the bench at Ekeren in Belgium, he crept back to Adelaide City. It was NAC Breda – then the home of Graham Arnold – who brought him back to Europe, on the recommendation of his compatriot. And he thrived.
Towards the end of his European stretch, Vidmar was indeed looking tired and unconvincing in his Socceroo appearances. His stints at Middlesbrough and Cardiff City were marked by long periods on the outer, and his lack of match sharpness was all too apparent when he donned the Green and Gold.
Then came NAC Breda again.
Vidmar moved back to Holland in 2005, and gained form and confidence at his erstwhile club. Australia’s new manager, despite howls from the fans that the old defensive brigade needed to be ditched without delay, kept faith with his Dutch-domiciled left-back. He was to be repaid in spades on the 16th of November.
Returning now to the matter of the Mariners. Their defensive options, as I mentioned earlier, were limited; Vuko Tomasevic, the nominal left-back, may well prove better suited to a midfield role, and the centre of defence looks somewhat flimsy in the absence of Beauchamp.
An experienced defender capable of playing either on the left or in the centre is a godsend.
No-one is ever too keen to cheer for members of opposing teams, but let’s hope Viddy is given a warm reception on his first visit to each of the A-League’s home grounds.
It is the least he deserves.
Thursday, August 03, 2006
A-League Anticipation, Part 8
New Zealand Knights
Plenty of movement at last season’s cellar club. Last year’s squad, packed with honest, unspectacular journeymen, has been transformed into a cosmopolitan group with a number of interesting new signings.
Two of them, right-sided Ghanaian midfielder Malik Buari and Portuguese frontman Dani Rodrigues, have impressed observers greatly in the pre-season cup. Another African, Jonas Salley, has apparently added considerable defensive solidity in midfield.
Jonti Richter is an excellent acquisition for the Knights. Wonderfully incisive for Queensland at times last season, Richter is a thoroughly adequate replacement for the departed Jeremy Brockie. The New Zealand side often looked most effective last year playing down the flanks, with Caravella, Hickey and Brockie able to get the better of a number of opposing full-backs. Hickey is still there (although Caravella’s contract has not been renewed), and Richter is likely to make plenty of inroads this season.
Richard Johnson and Scot Gemmill are two other handy additions to the squad; both prefer to operate in central midfield. Gemmill comes with ample experience of top-level football in England – I always considered him a solid, intelligent player during his Everton days – while Johnson proved himself a tidy, versatile performer with the Jets last season.
In my opinion, the Knights could do with one more striker. Sean Devine was simply not up to standard last year, and Adam Casey is as yet somewhat inexperienced. It might be possible to use Richter in a supporting role, but I feel this would be a waste; he is far more effective out wide.
The defence looks something of a problem area as well, although they have so far proved quite resilient. Young Sime Kovacevic has given a good account of himself, but one wonders whether Paul Nevin would prefer to have a more experienced reserve for the likely starting pair of Bunce and van Eijs. And, with only one place in the squad yet to be filled, it might even be better for Nevin to acquire a reserve full-back or utility defender rather than an extra striker; the full-backs, Bazeley and Duruz, are currently without a viable replacement.
It goes without saying that the A-League would greatly benefit from a more competitive New Zealand Knights this term. The early signs are that we are not to be disappointed.
Wednesday, August 02, 2006
The Local 22
Several players appear to have been chosen on little more than reputation, there are a number of surprising omissions, and the balance of the squad leaves much to be desired.
Let’s take a look at it, from back to front (as it were).
Clint Bolton and Danny Vukovic were clearly the outstanding goalkeepers of the A-League’s first season. No quibbles on that score.
Michael Valkanis enjoyed one fine run of form for Adelaide United, was picked for the squad to face Bahrain, and since then his form has clearly dipped. He was poor in the finals series, particularly against Sydney FC, and his inclusion ahead of the central defender who played majestically throughout the finals, Sydney’s Mark Rudan, beggars belief.
Iain Fyfe made a provisional Socceroo squad way back in mid-2005 after some fine pre-season efforts for Sydney FC. Has Graham Arnold actually seen any of Fyfe’s blunder-ridden performances since then, or has he just picked the young defender on the basis of past achievements?
Another one apparently picked on reputation is Jade North, who routinely appears in second-string Socceroo squads these days despite having done next to nothing to justify his reputation for quite some time.
I have never seen a squad with such an offensively-minded crop of midfield players. Every one of the eight midfielders is by inclination an attacker, with the exception of Newcastle’s Stuart Musialik; should he not be chosen to tidy up in front of the defence on August 16, the thought that Kevin Muscat or Iain Fyfe will be counted on at international level in midfield is not comforting.
Did Angelo Costanzo, so solid for Adelaide throughout last season, not come into consideration?
And does our new manager have something against right-sided players? Carney, Brosque, Dodd, Lazaridis and McKay are all best suited to the left. Who covers the right side, then? Spase Dilevski, maybe, but he is hardly a true winger.
Now we come to the forward line.
How can Mark Bridge, who failed even to make a good impression in the NSW state league, be picked ahead of the likes of Adam Kwasnik, who has been in such incisive form for the Central Coast Mariners in the pre-season? Not to mention Ante Milicic, still a finisher of class and poise, as he showed last year against Indonesia.
One final comment: I have mentioned earlier how disappointed I was at the lack of overseas-based players in the squad; with the start of the Italian season now to be delayed by two weeks, would it not be possible to secure the services of either Marco Bresciano or Vince Grella?
The current situation, in which we are obliged to rely on locally-based players, is, of course, far from ideal. But the squad picked by Graham Arnold is, in my opinion, even further from ideal.
Tuesday, August 01, 2006
A-League Anticipation, Part 7
The club from the state of Tardistan has, to its credit, looked beyond the traditional hunting-grounds for A-League newcomers, and acquired three players from Brazil. All three have experience in the always chaotic national championship, and will hopefully render Ernie Merrick’s progressive recruitment policy successful from an entertainment point of view, at least.
A fellow football tragic recently mentioned to me that there were plenty of players in Brazil and Argentina, suffering with clubs who pay them poorly and irregularly, who would welcome a move to the A-League. I have no doubt that he is right, and I hope that Fred, Claudinho and Alessandro are not the last South Americans to grace our national competition.
Otherwise, there has been little change to last season’s squad, with Archie Thompson and the unpopular Danny Allsopp likely to lead the line once again. The early indications are that Merrick, despite the new Latin tinge to the squad, will place a good deal of faith in the long ball out of defence once more, an approach which will surely require the presence of Allsopp.
Kevin Muscat’s move into midfield during the pre-season cup is somewhat puzzling. Perhaps Merrick felt that Melbourne lacked bite and tenacity in this area last season (I, for one, wouldn’t disagree), but I doubt whether Muscat, at his age, has what it takes to play the holding role in midfield for 90 minutes. Grant Brebner may prove a better choice.
Another new arrival at the club is Adrian Caceres, who showed plenty of promise last season for Perth. In collusion with Alessandro – who is, it would seem, one of those adventurous left-backs to be found on every street corner in Brazil – he could provide some much-needed sharpness on the left for the Victory.
From an Australian perspective, it would be good to see Kristian Sarkies excel in the playmaker role with Melbourne this season. He showed only glimpses of his potential in 2005/06, but if given the right support and allowed to play his natural game, he could be devastatingly effective.
Much will depend, I feel, on the general approach adopted by Merrick. The current make-up of the squad surely points to the likely efficacy of a short-passing game, and significant use of the wide avenues.
Reports of Melbourne’s singularly unsuccessful pre-season games, however, would tend to suggest that this is not occurring…yet.