Tuesday, August 08, 2006

 

Continental Long-Ball

Listening to 2SM’s Talking Football program yesterday, I was pleased to hear a caller extolling the sparkling display of Sydney FC against Perth on Sunday, and, as an aside, lambasting a certain SBS pundit for his criticisms of the Sydney club’s recruitment of Terry Butcher as head coach.

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.

Comments:
Actually, Fozzie has shown an appreciation for the long ball, when it's played by the right team, of course. Only then he calls it something like a "long diagonal ball which bypasses the midfield".

Also I disagree that Sven's departure won't be lamented. The poms love nothing but a good whinge, they're professionals. The tabloids will be sorry to see him go too.

Finally, I disagree that England were one of the least entertaining teams at the World Cup. They were quite entertaining at times. Like a train wreck.

;-)
 
...Also I disagree that Sven's departure won't be lamented. The poms love nothing but a good whinge, they're professionals. The tabloids will be sorry to see him go too....

:-)

Good point. Who'll provide them with their sex scandals now?

...Finally, I disagree that England were one of the least entertaining teams at the World Cup. They were quite entertaining at times. Like a train wreck....

I remember one of the English journos after the Paraguay game (which I went to). Somewhat maliciously I asked him "So, what did you think?" with a grin. He went very red in the face and mumbled "Well...they did just enough." ;-)
 
Should there be a Salary Cap in Football?
Personally I think there should be! It’s just getting to be stupid money in football at the top of the premiership!
It’s always the same teams at the top proving that football success is based purely on money which ruins the idea of it being a sport! They’ve done it in rugby, basketball, hockey and American football and it makes the sports more competitive and better to watch!
I do a little Spread Betting from time to time and most matches don’t hold much surprise who is going to win, its boring! I want to see a team at the bottom pulling off an amazing season beating last seasons winners in a close fought battle!
Make things fair! It shouldn’t be about money!
Plus!
All there is all that money in the premiership and barely any of it stays in the UK so it’s not even helping the economy!
From my Spread Betting, if I ever win big (which is never, I’m unlucky) it’s still nothing compared to the average premiership players weekly wage!
This Rant was brought to you by Spread Betting Spike. 
 
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