Tuesday, April 28, 2009


In the Zone, Part 2

If there has been one team in recent times that has shown that the age of the man-marker is not dead, it was the Greek side that carried off an extraordinary triumph at Euro 2004.

It was a triumph for underdog fanciers rather than lovers of the beautiful game, admittedly. Otto Rehhagel's men won few points for style, and indeed Paul Gardner, World Soccer's resident frother-at-the-mouth, has made the 2004 Greeks into the footballing devil incarnate, frequently using them as the topic of his monotonous tirades.

Yet as a defensive unit, they were hugely impressive, conceding not a single goal in the knockout phase, against opposition of the quality of France, Portugal and the Czech Republic (with Milan Baros in the sort of form he has rarely shown, either before or since). So how did it all work?

Unlike the Italians of 1982, the Greeks had a resolutely negative (but very effective) sweeper in the mighty Traianos Dellas. The stopper was Michalis Kapsis, detailed to mark the point-man in each side. Konstantinos Katsouranis, nominally a midfielder, often morphed into a central defender at times, leaving the hard-working Theo Zagorakis to take charge in the engine room.

But it was to the side of these central men that the real story played itself out.

Zagorakis was named player of the tournament in the wash-up. Other contenders, in the eyes of many, were the redoubtable Dellas, and Angelos Charisteas with his crucial goals. But none of these really deserved the accolade.

The real player of the tournament, in my view, was the fullback Giourkas Seitaridis, who gave one of the most outstanding performances by a defender in modern times.

While Kapsis was given the job of shadowing the focal point of the attack, Seitaridis, the youngest and quickest of the Greek defenders, had the job of tailing the greyhound in the opposition ranks, be he striker, winger or a combination of the two. And so it was that, in successive games, Seitaridis nullified Thierry Henry, Milan Baros and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Whether they went through the centre or out wide, Seitaridis was always there: harrying, anticipating, tackling when necessary, and committing surprisingly few fouls. Otto Rehhagel had clearly decided that the three attackers in question possessed such pace and trickery that allowing them to be pitted against one of the other, slower, Greek defenders - Kapsis and the left-back Panagiotis Fyssas were both the wrong side of thirty - was asking for trouble. So man-marking it was.

One of the factors I mentioned in my initial piece that discouraged the use of man-marking in modern football was the likelihood of defenders getting worn out, after covering so much ground. At Euro 2004, Rehhagel and Greece found an interesting solution.

They had within their ranks Giorgos Karagounis, a somewhat under-rated midfielder with an uncanny knack for...drawing fouls. Accordingly, the go-to man in attack was Karagounis. A feint here, a swivel there - and down he went. And the Greeks took, it must be said, an eternity over many of their set-pieces at the event.

A necessary breather for the defenders - and the final link in the chain of Greece's crude but remarkably successful strategy.

Monday, April 27, 2009


Who's Afraid? - brief update #16

The ingenuity of the Murdoch football refusers is such that they can manufacture a story even when the story they were hoping for does not eventuate.

No riots? No ethnically-related trouble? Not even a bit of airborne chewing-gum, to whet the appetite of Josh Massoud? No worries. The mere fact that Football NSW quite sensibly (and successfully) chose to limit access to the Sydney United v. Bonnyrigg game is apparently good enough copy. Here we go...

Fans were...locked out by officials....

...a bid to prevent the ethnic-fuelled violence that has occurred between the rivals...

Worth mentioning that said bid was successful? Nah, of course not.

Question: why was this even worth printing, especially given that Tom Smithies had already covered the story in some malicious detail?

Friday, April 24, 2009


In the Zone, Part 1

It's been a while since I've had a general rant about football tactics in these pages, so herewith a lengthy and mildly topical ramble.

Brian Glanville, that dean of British football writing, recently commented at length on the pros and cons of zonal marking/defending. It's a topic worth considering, especially given that the zonal v. man-to-man argument seems to have gone overwhelmingly in favour of the former strategy, if the vast majority of professional teams are anything to go by.

It's even becoming redundant to talk of "sweeper defences", since a 3-5-2/3-4-1-2 system invariably seems to feature three zonal defenders at the back these days, rather than two man-markers and a genuine sweeper. And in any case, a four-in-line defence is becoming more the norm than ever before: as recently as 2002, the two teams that contested the World Cup final played with three defenders and wing-backs. The odds of the same occurring in 2010 would be long indeed.

So when did the verdict go against man-to-man marking? Probably, initially at least, with the great Milan sides of the late eighties, who represented a break from the Italian catenaccio tradition to some extent. But the ubiquitous well-drilled zonal defences of today were still a long way off, and in fact Argentina (for one) adopted a revised man-markers-and-sweeper system at both the 1994 and 1998 World Cups...mindful, probably, of their success with a similar setup in 1986 (which, in truth, had much more to do with the individual genius of Diego Maradona than their shambolic defence at that event).

Of course, zonal marking has its benefits, and they are considerable. Defenders are less likely to wear themselves out chasing their man around all parts of the pitch (and are therefore less vulnerable to a pacy substitute, for one thing), it is easier to adjust when a first defender has been beaten, and the offside trap - a virtual impossibility with markers and a sweeper - can be a useful defensive weapon.

Yet there are disadvantages to zonal marking. The most obvious one is that a quick positional switch on the part of the attackers can be hard to adjust to quickly; a friend of mine who once had the chance to watch a top Serie A side in training mentioned that the strikers went to great trouble to practice exactly this strategy...and to get the "critical moment" right.

A less obvious one, but one which I think has its effect on the teams of today, is that there seems to be less room for individual enterprise for defenders (even fullbacks) when a team has the ball. Defenders seem loath to break out of the rigidity of a zonal four, even when it would be beneficial (and not especially risky) for them to join in an attack purposefully.

Prior to the Argentinians of 1986, another man-marking side won the World Cup - Italy in 1982. And below, a few observations on their tactics in the final, against West Germany.

The Germans, who also employed a sweeper, incidentally, fielded one genuine striker (Klaus Fischer), a withdrawn striker (Karl-Heinz Rummenigge), and a single winger (Pierre Littbarski), who occasionally switched flanks. All three were man-marked: the stopper Fulvio Collovati took care of Fischer, the teenage Giuseppe Bergomi dealt coolly with Rummenigge, and Claudio Gentile - the most aggressive of the Italian defenders - was shrewdly assigned to the tricky Littbarski.

Although the first half of the game was poor from an entertainment perspective, the Italian defensive shield worked superbly well. And despite all the catenaccio stereotypes, it was not solely negative in intent. The sweeper, Gaetano Scirea, was genuinely libero, moving upfield often, as was the nominal left-back, Antonio Cabrini.

In fact, I would argue that the defenders played more of an attacking role than modern defenders would, especially after Italy scored their opening goal. When the Italians are in possession, even the man-markers are happy to join in appropriately. In the lead-up to the second goal, Marco Tardelli's memorable lunging strike, Cabrini, Bergomi and Scirea are all in the German third. At the same time!

But just before that comes a moment which I think exemplifies some of the virtues of the man-marking system. Off goes the struggling midfielder Wolfgang Dremmler, as the Germans reinforce their attack with the imposing Horst Hrubesch. Immediately, there is a neat switch: Collovati, the tallest of the defenders and the best in the air, moves on to Hrubesch (whose main weapon is his headers). Cabrini, meanwhile, now has a job to do: he begins to look after Fischer.

It is quick, seamless and effective, and a good advertisement for the relative simplicity of the man-marking system. I suspect that a zonal defence would find such an attacking move from the opposition comparatively more difficult to deal with (especially in such a tense game).

If Paolo Rossi was the Italian hero of the tournament, the hero of the final was most definitely Collovati. His marking of both Fischer and Hrubesch was magnificent, but perhaps partly because his role was absolutely clear. Significantly, when the Germans finally score their meaningless goal, Collovati is down injured after a collision with Hrubesch.

Next: a look at the most recent side to have achieved an international triumph (and a startling one at that) with a man-marking system: Greece 2004. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


United Once More

The NSW Premier League is now seven rounds old, and the big story so far has been the blistering pace set by Croatian-backed club Sydney United. They have chalked up six wins out of seven, the most recent being a 6-1 demolition of a foundering APIA-Leichhardt at Edensor Park last Sunday.

Following their memorable 2006 title success, United underwhelmed in 2007 and 2008, showing only flashes of quality football, and the atmosphere at Edensor was nothing like what it used to be in NSL days. This season, they have been playing with confidence and class, and the crowd support at King Tom has been brilliant. And the United fans of my acquaintance have offered a simple explanation for the change: Ante Milicic.

Milicic is one of those Australian players who I always felt was capable of achieving more than he ultimately did in the game. In the 1993 World Youth Cup, held in Australia of course, he shone, combining strength and power with neat skills and a keen eye for goal. Genuine finishers are so rare in Australian football that Milicic may have ensured himself a long stay in the national side, had he tasted more success in Europe.

It was not to be, but "Tezza" returned to become perhaps the most prized striker (pace Damian Mori) in the local game, spearheading Sydney Olympic's title win in 2002 and Parramatta's run to the grand final in 2004, among other achievements. Although he failed to really fire in the A-League, his two well-taken goals against Indonesia in a Socceroo friendly in 2005 constituted a timely reminder of his pedigree.

Now he has returned to his old stamping ground as player-coach, and the fans have welcomed him with open arms. There have been some good additions to the playing stocks as well: David Zdrilic, away from the pressure and the boardroom chaos at Sydney FC, looks comfortable and effective operating in midfield, and the experienced Croatian journeyman Davor Bajsic has shown admirable nous and finesse in the early rounds. There are some good youngsters in the mix as well, notably the attacking right-back Dominic Rossi and Vedran Janjetovic, one of the most promising young goalkeepers in the country.

Luka Glavas, who has not really kicked on since his star turn in the 2006 final, has been amongst the goals this time around, and appears to have improved his back-to-goal play considerably...perhaps the tutelage of Milicic is having its effect here.

This weekend's game with promoted Bonnyrigg White Eagles will be the first encounter between the two since the lamentable events of 2005, and Football NSW has wisely decreed that the gates will only be open to Bonnyrigg season-ticket holders (and the usual corporate crew). Whether this will keep out determined trouble-makers is open to debate, but the crowd support at Edensor so far has been, by all accounts, exuberant rather than aggressive...I doubt that there will be any serious incidents (and I certainly hope not).

I should add, however, that articles such as this from Tom Smithies are hardly likely to help. Tarring all the fans of the two clubs with the same brush, as Smithies does in his final paragraph, is deeply unfair.

Monday, April 20, 2009


The Stupidity of Six

Unfortunately, the absurd six-team finals idea has been implemented. And there, dare I say, goes the competitive credibility of the A-League.

Any league in which a team from the lower half of the table can potentially win the competition, with a few good results in a one-off finals series, rates pretty low in the integrity stakes. The motives of the FFA are quite understandable, the main one being the concern about sharp drop-offs in gate revenue once a team has no chance of making the finals. But there's the top half of the table to consider as well, and the fact that finishing in third place is now only marginally more advantageous than scraping into sixth will cause gnashing of teeth aplenty come January.

The A-League is still a young league, and there must, of course, be a judicious balance between competitive purity and fan appeasement. But a six-team finals series goes way too far towards the latter extreme.

Continuing with the four-team system was, presumably, considered likely to produce too many dead games. Fair enough. But the logical response to this problem would have been to introduce the mathematically elegant, and eminently fair, five-team structure (check the first comment on this post - Shane Davis on the money once again).

Instead the A-League has been saddled with an unbalanced, cack-handed coda which will ultimately produce confusion and anger among the fans, and quite possibly derision from the other codes.

The FFA have blundered badly on this one.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Game, Set-Piece and Match

This morning's thriller between Liverpool and Chelsea was the sort of game that occurs only once every European season, if that. A high-profile knockout game which captivates the fans and infuriates the coaches in about equal measure.

These two sides have produced some grim encounters over the last few years, but this one bore no resemblance to the unbearably tight aerial slugfests of the recent past. With respect to Jorge Valdano, this particular stick had no excrement hanging from it.

Full credit to Chelsea for pulling themselves up by the bootstraps in the second half, but there are some serious question marks hovering over their defence, especially with a daunting semi-final against the fluent, incisive Barca side to come.

If there was an object lesson to be drawn from the game, it was the value of variety, as well as accuracy, from set-pieces. In a game such as this, where fierce challenges were bound to produce plenty of fouls, set-pieces were always going to play their part. And Fabio Aurelio gave a masterclass in the opening period.

His first delivery from deep on the right was floated into the box superbly; well-weighted, and at an ideal height. The result was plenty of concern in the Chelsea box, and a panicky dash off his line from Peter Cech...who has never been quite the same player since his debilitating head injury (just ask Turkey).

When the Liverpool left-back found himself over another dead ball in a similar position, Cech had clearly readied himself for another dangerous delivery in the same area...leaving the near post unguarded. And the kick (and goal) was an absolute gem, a perfect example of out-thinking the opposition keeper.

Comes the third kick, from a similar position, and the Chelsea defence is in total disarray. Will he go the near post? Another floater? It was the latter, perfectly delivered again, and the uncertainty and panic in the minds of the Chelsea defence surely contributed to the clumsy foul on Xabi Alonso that produced the penalty.

Then, the second half, and Chelsea too showed that they could bamboozle their opposition from a dead-ball situation.

Soon after the first goal (for which Pepe Reina received more blame than he deserved, frankly, the deflection coming so late), a 25-yard free kick for the home side, just to the right of centre. Didier Drogba takes it, and it's a traditional inside-of-the-foot curver, just missing the right-hand upright.

A few minutes later: same situation, same position. This time, three different Chelsea players converge on the ball, and Reina is partly unsighted by the jumble of bodies hovering around the area (not to mention the wall). And the kick is the exact opposite: a scorching outside-of-the-foot rocket, which Reina sees late and is helpless to stop.

So much for the set-pieces. Can Chelsea get past Guardiola's brilliant unit?

I think the odds have been stacked against them by the suspension to Ashley Cole for the first leg. On his day, Cole is capable of nullifying even the finest wingers, as Cristiano Ronaldo would remember from the Euro 2004 quarter-final. Without him, Chelsea might find Lionel Messi impossible to contain. Cech, too, has become a weak link for Guus Hiddink's side.

I'm picking Barca, although Hiddink's motivational powers are not to be underestimated. In any event, given the quality of football they have purveyed all season, it would be only fitting if Barca were to lift the trophy in Rome.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


The Song Remains the Same - another update

The belittling of the A-League continues apace at SBS, with their blogger-in-chief now essaying an apologia on behalf of Pim Verbeek, interspersed with various digs at the national competition. It's becoming distinctly tiresome.

Perhaps Peter Turnbull's comments - coming in the wake of the Mariners' lamentable collapse against Kawasaki last week - were on the harsh side. But Verbeek's constant message that a move back to the A-League will leave you languishing in the international wilderness has already had its effect: Sasa Ognenovski would have been a shoe-in for most home-based Socceroo squads, and although John Hutchinson's decision to throw in his lot with Malta is hardly a devastating loss, it is a straw in the wind nonetheless.

Fink has some curious ideas about Verbeek's priorities:

It is certainly in Verbeek’s remit as men’s national coach to say what he thinks about footballing standards in this country...

I would have thought that part of his remit would be to improve the footballing standards in Australia, certainly. But to exercise zero tact when referring to the national league from which he will be regularly drawing troops, whether he likes it or not? Hardly.

And in the following paragraph:

He’s worked in Europe and Asia at some big clubs and with big managers. He knows what he’s talking about. So let’s collectively listen up and take away some knowledge in the process...

We are treated to cultural cringe writ large, combined with a much-inflated impression of Verbeek's level of experience.

And so to the obligatory derision of the A-League:

Right now – and that’s an important caveat – the A-League simply isn’t good enough. We’ve seen it in the ACL on a fairly consistent basis...

This would be the same Asian Champions League in which an Australian club, whose resources were dwarfed by those of almost all its opponents, reached the final last season?

...while the infrequent hit-outs of our Diet Socceroos (the A-Leaguers) have been underwhelming to say the least.

The classic SBS paradox.

When it's an Australian (or British) coach, it's all the coach's fault. When the coach hails from elsewhere, it must be those darn players.

Thursday, April 09, 2009


The Front Foot - update

Partly with the Socceroos' recent performances in mind, the mantra that a defensive posture is absolutely necessary when facing peer opposition away from home is hardening into a truism for many Australian football followers. Happily, two matches this week demonstrated quite clearly that this dreary philosophy is not universal...nor is it the only path to a successful result.

First case in point: Newcastle's Asian Champions League encounter with Japanese club Nagoya Grampus. Given Newcastle's current internal squabbles and general squad uncertainty, one could have forgiven Gary van Egmond for adopting a cautious approach against the J-League stalwarts. Nothing of the sort; the Jets vibrantly took the game to the Japanese side in the first half, and were rewarded with a deserved goal and a rattled opposition. The decision to push Tarek Elrich further up the park proved an inspired one, as Nagoya simply failed to deal with his trademark acceleration.

In the second half the game lapsed into the pattern that most would no doubt have expected, with Nagoya coming forward in numbers and Newcastle maintaining a tight defence (in which Ljubo Milicevic, whatever his outbursts last week, was superb). But Nagoya had clearly found the fire in their collective belly rather too late, and the final balls were strangely feeble. In the end, it took a foolish challenge from Adam Griffiths and a delightful free kick to salvage a point for the home side.

Next up: the fascinating UEFA Champions League quarter-final first leg between Manchester United and Porto.

Perhaps encouraged by United's shaky recent record, Porto came flying out of the blocks away from home, and played some scintillating football in the opening twenty minutes. Even the disastrous error from Bruno Alves which gifted United a goal didn't take the wind out of Porto's sails, and they could well have scored three or four goals in the opening half, but for some alert work from Edwin van der Sar.

Given where Porto's strengths lie, it was excellent strategy from Jesualdo Ferreira...and it appears to have inspired a future opponent of United's as well.

As in Nagoya, the second half followed a more predictable rhythm, with United dominating possession and Porto attacking mainly on the counter. But something interesting happened: whenever the United midfielders were presented with the option of either a release out wide for a cross (usually linking with an overlapping run from John O'Shea) or a weighted ball through the middle, they went for the former...almost certainly, I would think, because it is the low-risk option as far as a breakaway is concerned. Would they have been that circumspect had Porto not thrown the kitchen sink at the hosts in the first period?

Danny Blanchflower summed up the Porto/Newcastle Jets strategy perfectly when he described how his unfancied Northern Ireland side, which amazingly reached the World Cup quarter-finals in 1958, would approach the tournament. "We'll equalise before the other team has scored," he quipped.

Happy Easter to all from TFT.

Monday, April 06, 2009


Egypt Calling

Jan Versleijen's Young Socceroos have drawn a tough group in September's U-20 World Cup in Egypt. As well as perennial high-flyers Brazil, there are the Czechs, runners-up in the 2007 event, and CONCACAF loose cannon Costa Rica.

The youngsters' performance at this event will be interesting to watch, for a number of reasons. To start with, it will be an early barometer of whether the new national youth league is achieving its object, from a technical point of view; the majority of the players taking part have been plucked from the A-League youth squads, with a few European-based starlets such as Peter Cvetanovski and James Holland set to be added as the tournament nears.

Australia's recent record at youth events has been decidedly poor. The 2005 Young Socceroos failed to advance from a less-than-daunting opening round group, being embarrassingly outclassed by the Dutch hosts along the way. Many of these same players formed the core of the 2008 Olyroos who made such a dismal impression in China. Of course, Australia failed to qualify for the 2007 U-20 World Cup...as Ange Postecoglou and Craig Foster remember all too well. The 2005 Joeys, too, were eliminated after their first two games in Peru.

I don't think, however, that the key problem has been the players being produced; rather, too little faith has been shown in the players of late, with the result that path-of-least-resistance football seems to be the order of the day at the big events. Versleijen and his charges did well to qualify in the sweltering heat of the Gulf; will they have the confidence to take the game to their opponents in Port Said?

One player who might be one to watch in Egypt is Manchester United's young Italian striker Federico Macheda, who scored a screamer of a goal to give United victory over Aston Villa yesterday. On seeing it, I was instantly reminded of another brilliant goal by a promising teenage player almost thirty years ago, a near mirror-image of Macheda's strike. Not that I would wish the succession of tragedies that marred Justin Fashanu's life and career on the young Macheda. Absit omen.

Saturday, April 04, 2009


Get Over the Elbows

The early dismissal of Italy's Giampaolo Pazzini in this week's World Cup qualifier against Ireland was another reminder that referees badly need to develop some common sense in the matter of raised elbows. Cristiano's similarly absurd red card in the A-League grand final leapt immediately to mind.

Commenting on the red card for Pazzini at half-time, SBS's Tony Palumbo made two salient points: firstly, that if players are to be dismissed for such "offences" then there's hardly any point going up for a header at all. Secondly, that Pazzini would almost certainly not have been sent off but for the blood pouring from John O'Shea's gashed face.

Yet the appearance of blood does not necessarily indicate that an offence has been committed. Countless small cuts are endured when players go up for a 50-50 aerial ball, and the heads collide (this is one of the reasons why I suggested a fundamental change to the game's rules in a piece some time ago).

I repeat what I wrote in regard to the Cristiano incident: when going up for a header, some thrust from the elbows to give extra elevation is absolutely normal, and indeed necessary. Unless the elbows are swinging wildly, or the player has clearly targeted the head of an opponent, there is no way that such arm movement should attract any sanction. As Craig Foster correctly pointed out, Pazzini could not have even had O'Shea in his line of vision when he went up for the ball.

It's a cliché, of course, but it's an apt comment in this case: refs must know the game as well as just the rules.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009


Flicking the Switch

Nearly there. Very nearly there. And maybe the tickets can be booked in a few hours' time.

Yet for the first half of tonight's game, it looked like being anything but a triumphant evening. Scott McDonald showed once again that the lone striker position is inimical to him, Jason Culina and Carl Valeri pitifully failed to push forward from their anchor positions, and Australia lacked even the semblance of urgency.

It was, in fact, a replay of some recent Socceroo performances...away from home.

There has been plenty of speculation recently about Pim Verbeek's ability to "flick the switch" from what appears to be his preferred approach - the safety-first, lone-striker, double-anchor stonewall - to the sort of football that fans actually like to see. For 45 minutes this evening, the news looked bad. But there were comforting signs in the second period.

Nevertheless, it was surely a strategical error not to pressure the Uzbeks more in the opening half. Yes, they had just come off an impressive win against Qatar, but it was plain even in the first half that the Uzbek defenders were decidedly vulnerable when placed under real pressure. Culina reverted to his all-too-familiar method of pivoting prettily before knocking an easy ball back to the defenders, while Valeri never ventured too far from base. Richard Garcia was a disappointment on the right, and Mark Bresciano did not really come to life until after the break.

Credit once again to the back four, however, who did sterling work to keep the Uzbeks quiet in the first period, when they were still confident. Luke Wilkshire did a splendid job on Jasur Hasanov, the player who caused him many problems in Tashkent. Although Michael Beauchamp was twice caught out early on, as he again gave doubts as to his international credentials, he did improve as the half wore on. And Lucas Neill was once again an imperious leader.

So to the second half: Australia spurred themselves into action, but for some time it looked unlikely to work, given the fact that the visitors had settled (in previous home games against Qatar, Australia did not give their opponents the opportunity to get comfortable). Ironically, too, Australia's initiative didn't really reach serious proportions until that stinging volley from Culina, who had been so insipid in the first half.

Verbeek betrays his conservative instincts with his substitutions; When Josh Kennedy was finally introduced, it was at the expense of...another striker, rather than the peripheral Garcia. Nevertheless, given that Garcia eventually won the (somewhat debatable) penalty, one shouldn't complain too loudly.

Two goals then, a rousing performance from Bresciano, and the crowd can go home happy. Verbeek has shown that he can indeed flick the switch...eventually. He left it late to do so, but he does deserve approbation for his more adventurous approach in the second period.

And what of Uzbekistan? Their campaign is back in jeopardy, and Mirdjalal Kasimov can be disappointed with some of his potential game-breakers; Farhod Tadjiyev, the hero against Qatar, was obviously struggling with his slight injury, but Server Djeparov ultimately failed to make the most of his time on the ball, and his delivery from set-pieces, though consistent (unlike that of Luke Wilkshire) was too predictable. Timur Kapadze left it until injury time to make one of those unexpected runs into the area that were such a feature of his play at the Asian Cup. And Hasanov was, on this occasion, a cipher.

South Africa is within touching distance, and it feels pretty good.

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