Thursday, July 30, 2009


Latest from Les

With all the uninformed diatribes about the FFA's new 4-3-3 mandate beginning to resemble the onset of tinnitus, it's good to see a mainstream football scribe with a sense of perspective wading into the debate.

As Les correctly asserts, the original 4-3-3 idea started with Brazil, not the Netherlands, and it involved two central strikers, not one. See here for a similar attempt to clarify things.

England started with a 4-3-3 in 1966, but ultimately reverted to the famous wingless 4-4-2 for a very simple reason: the wingers in the squad, all of whom had been tried in the opening round, just hadn't been impressive. It's this sort of consideration, incidentally, that worries me somewhat about the inflexibility of the modus operandi envisaged by Han Berger.

And...the Dutch in 1974. To my mind, the Dutch system in 1974 was one of roles rather than numbers, combined with an incredibly high defensive line which required a very able and alert stopper. And the Dutch had one in Wim Rijsbergen, the real unsung hero of that "Total Football" side. But the basic shape was indeed 4-3-3, and the trend obviously caught on; when the Dutch contested the final of the next World Cup, against Argentina, both sides were using the system. Quite a surprise, since it has rarely been considered a good fit for South American teams. The pendulum swung back, though, with sweeper systems becoming fashionable again until the Arrigo Sacchi-led Milan sides of the late eighties.

With all this in mind, I must respectfully disagree with Les's claim that:

...the 4-3-3, over 40 years on, remains the best and most lethal tactical strategy...

It's currently popular because it's used by the world's best side. But I've always maintained that the best and most effective strategy is simply whatever best fits the individual talents of the players at one's disposal.

Sadly, the second half of Les's piece is somewhat disingenuous, and a good example of how the SBS crew tend to back their mates to the point of gentle hypocrisy (in fairness, the Fox brigade are even worse in this regard, as a rule).

Miron, as is his boss Clive Palmer, is mightily peeved that the FFA switched Gold Coast’s opening game against the Roar from a home to an away fixture.

Les presents this as a justified grievance, but let's be fair here. The draft fixture list had the new franchise playing at home first up, and it was the Gold Coast crew who prematurely paraded this to the media. Plenty of changes are made between a draft and the real thing, and the current petulant gestures of Messrs. Bleiberg and Palmer strike me as attempts to deflect attention from the fact that they may have brought the FFA's switch on themselves, with their earlier ill-timed proclamation.

On the Minniecon thing, Miron also had a point...why should a first choice player, however young, be allowed to be taken away from his club for a youth tournament at a time when his club, and the league, needs him most? Would this happen in other prominent countries? One has to doubt it.

Erm...what happened to all the railing against the European clubs who were refusing to release Australian players for unwisely-timed and largely pointless friendlies, back in the pre-Guus era?

And to finish, some choice irony:

As for Bleiberg having to sit for new exams in order to be able to coach when he has been doing it for 30 or more years already, well, wouldn’t you too be wondering as to why? I know I would.

So would I. And so, in fact, would countless coaches at state league and youth representative level with decades of experience, who are likely to be put through several meaningless hoops...thanks to the new, erm, National Football Curriculum.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


What A-League?

Sound the trumpets: the fifth instalment of the A-League is little more than a week away. And the question must be asked: would you know it?

One would have expected, given the Socceroos' recent qualification for the World Cup and Australia's own bid for the event, that the new league season would have been marketed aggressively. But frankly, in Sydney at least, there has been little fanfare.

The pre-season has been long and almost tedious, although at least some distinguished visitors in Fulham and Wolves have jetted in this time. The frequent trial games have been reasonably well-attended, and most of the clubs seem to have established a core supporter base by now. But I do wonder how many new fans will be attracted, at least in the early rounds.

It's a question, once again, of resources. With the costs associated with a World Cup campaign (let alone a World Cup bid) set to mount, it's not surprising to see the FFA skimping in some areas. And there have been a few subtle advantages resulting from the league's low profile; the initial furore over the Seb Ryall case, for instance, has died down completely. And yes, there are still the other codes to think about. The market is close to saturation point, and hopefully we will see a bigger push once the oval-ball sports go into hibernation.

But has there really been enough of a push so far, with the competition clearly at a vital crossroads? Expansion was undoubtedly necessary, but it carries obvious risks, the main one being that the new franchises will pull the whole league down if crowds fail to materialise. Ensuring that the league presents an attractive face in the existing markets is surely a good way to give the new boys a helping hand.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


We Could Be Heroes

It's been a quiet period in Australian and world football, apart from the usual pre-season friendlies, transfer speculation and early skirmishing in Europe. Hence the lack of posts this past week, and this one is just by way of a plug for a new e-fanzine coming out in August. The brains behind Half-Time Heroes is the indefatigable Eamonn Flanagan of the Nearpost football blog, and writing for the new publication will be, among others, Tony Tannous (the Round Ball Analyst), John of A Seat at the A-League, Bill of The Spawning Salmon, and many others, including your tragic correspondent. Stay tuned.

Monday, July 20, 2009


In Sydney's Defence

"Time for changing things has finished," said Sydney FC's new coach Vitezslav Lavicka after his side's distinctly unimpressive 1-0 win over Sydney Olympic last night. "It was the worst performance of the whole pre-season."

An honest assessment, and the remark about changing things is pertinent. Three weeks from Sydney's opening game against North Queensland, we are no closer to knowing Lavicka's preferred first eleven, given the changing line-ups throughout the pre-season.

Last night, apart from a brief period of dominance which produced Kofi Danning's goal, things didn't click. Stuart Musialik and Mitchell Prentice were static and ineffective in midfield, John Aloisi was less than impressive up front, and Brendan Gan seems to have lost confidence in himself. But the major worry hanging over Sydney FC in the wake of A-League Season 5 is their still unsettled defence.

In Simon Colosimo they possess a leader at the back, but the former Socceroo is no stranger to injury, and the odds on him acquainting himself with the treatment table at some stage this season must be short (thanks once again, Andy Cole). Colosimo aside, it is the same mix of callow youngsters and converted midfielders that Sydney fans have come to know so well.

Matthew Jurman occupied one of the centre-half positions against his old club Olympic, but although he is quite composed on the ball, his play remains too impetuous. Three times in the course of the game he strolled confidently into midfield, only to hesitate and give the ball away cheaply there. Doing this against more threatening opposition is not to be recommended. In Colosimo's absence the other central defensive slot was filled by a triallist, Thomas Skora, who had a poor game.

Shannon Cole is now a fixture at right-back, but a defender he isn't. It's a pity, in fact, that one of the most promising young attacking players in the A-League may now be forced, as it were, to settle into a defensive role for which he isn't suited. If Sebastian Ryall can emerge unscathed from his legal ordeal, maybe Cole will have the opportunity to push into midfield.

Lavicka appears to have earmarked Byun Sung-Hwan, a new arrival in the A-League, for the other fullback slot. He has won over some of the fans, but I must confess to being unconvinced by the experienced Korean thus far. His positioning looks a little suspect, and his touch can be surprisingly unreliable. Perhaps it's just pre-season nerves.

The word is that Lavicka is still desperately keen to sign another dependable central defender prior to the start of the season. I would argue that this is the least the club needs, if they are to challenge for the top two places in 2009/10.

Saturday, July 18, 2009


Egmond on their Faces

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote:

Whether the FFA or van Egmond himself have acted improperly over the AIS position is a difficult question. If Con Constantine's claims about the matter are true, then he certainly has a legitimate grievance...

Well, it seems that they were, and he did.

Van Egmond has come out of the affair looking a complete fool, but in my view the FFA have, at the very least, acted in bad faith. As an acquaintance pointed out to me today, the FFA supposedly audit the books of the clubs regularly; could they really have been unaware of the details of van Egmond's contract?

One has to question the judgement of Ben Buckley and his crew in the light of a number of recent blunders. It's pertinent, too, to consider the motives behind their desire to dragoon van Egmond into the national setup so quickly: could the influence of the "Dutch mafia" have been a deciding factor here? Pointless to ask that question, really, given that there is basically no-one to guard the guardians at the moment, so to speak.

I doubt that van Egmond's career is "in ruins" just yet, as that Newcastle Herald article suggests, but his judgement in off-field matters will not be trusted again for a long time, and his last-minute appeal to Con Constantine for help does not reflect well on him. He's an able coach, if not quite the superstar that some commentators have been building him into, and he should be able to find employment either here or overseas (perhaps in Asia) before too long.

But the FFA need to learn their lesson. The pizzazz of the 2018/2022 World Cup bid, and the "technical revolution", may have concentrated their minds on national team matters, but they cannot afford to treat clubs in such a cavalier manner if they want football to continue its growth in Australia.

One of the key Crawford reforms was to break the stranglehold of the NSL clubs on the decision-making process, and such a change was long overdue. But the pendulum shouldn't be allowed to swing too far the other way.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


Artificially Enhanced

A couple of days ago, the Australian squad for the Asian U-16 qualifying series in Canberra in October was announced. One thing that immediately catches the eye in the list is that it features no fewer than seven players from the Sutherland Sharks club.

There may be all sorts of factors involved in this apparent anomaly (especially the very healthy player base that the club has to choose from), but can their over-representation be put down, in part, to the artificial pitch they have been using for the last few years?

Seymour Shaw has been a regular destination of mine during this winter's state league peregrinations, and I've been regularly impressed by the crisp football that their brand of artificial turf seems to engender. With true bounce, sufficient give and flexibility for tackles, and just enough friction to simulate a normal grass field in terms of passes along the carpet (if you'll pardon the pun), it has been an outstandingly successful experiment, in my view.

In a segment from the World Game program in 2007, Craig Foster made the bold prediction that youth development at the club would improve dramatically with the introduction of the pitch. It seemed a big call at the time, but it may have been a good one. It should be added, as a caveat, that it is only in the U-14 division of this year's youth league that Sutherland have really dominated; it will be a few years before the effect on the younger players can be properly gauged.

The history of artificial pitches has been one of trial and error, and plenty of false starts. Last year I had the chance to talk to a member of the New Zealand World Cup side of 1982 about their astonishing 5-0 away win over Saudi Arabia, on an artificial pitch, on the way to qualification. He mentioned that despite the result, the Kiwis had found the surface very hard to handle, and that there were blisters all round at the final whistle. The pitch that the Olyroos had to play on in North Korea in their final qualifier for Beijing looked little better.

I was initially sceptical about the Seymour Shaw innovation, but my doubts have been completely allayed after watching plenty of games there over the last couple of years. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that it's the way of the future...especially for clubs that can't afford the level of upkeep (and drainage) that is customary for clubs at the aristocratic end of the scale.

Thursday, July 09, 2009


The Unhappy Medium - brief update

Some time ago I posted a ramble on the problems adapting football to the demands of television, mentioning in passing the way that some other sports are presented on the small screen, including cricket. Last night, watching the first session of the Ashes series on SBS, I was impressed by a recent innovation in the coverage of that particular sport...and moved to suggest a similar novelty in the coverage of football.

The little diagram at the top left of the screen depicting the field placements when a new bowler was introduced is probably old news for regular Sky viewers, but it was the first time I had seen it. A simple, helpful idea, subverting the old TV problem of the necessary focus on the pitch to the exclusion of the outfield.

Why not apply the same idea to football? The tactical setups of the two teams are usually shown at the beginning of games, but if things change during the course of a game, or a substitution is made, TV is often quite slow to indicate the change clearly. Commentators, too, are often too busy calling the play to make the viewers aware of any tactical adjustments.

It needn't be intrusive. A goalkick, for instance, would be an ideal time to flash the original formation on the screen, and display the tactical shift graphically. And who would do it? There are always statisticians on hand at televised games, although organising proper communication between these and the broadcasters might be a delicate operation.

Worth a thought?

Tuesday, July 07, 2009


KNVB-all and End-all - update, Part 2

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the FFA's new curriculum is the mandatory adoption of a 4-3-3 system for the various youth sides. Rather strangely, the formation is described as 1-4-3-3 in the document, in Football-for-Dummies style.

Among the coaches I've talked to recently, there has been a broad consensus that 4-3-3 is not a bad place to start. It is, after all, a flexible formation up to a point, although with some of the intricate variations mentioned by its proponents, one wonders whether there is any need to delineate the formation at all beyond a back four.

The main objection I have to the compulsory use of a single tactical setup for developmental sides is twofold. Firstly, however you twist and shake it, the clever second striker type will probably find himself (or herself - the formation is mandated for the women's sides as well) ill-suited to the formation. In my view, if a coach is good enough to be appointed to a position as coach of a national team, at any level, they should be adaptable enough to accentuate the strengths of their individual players, even if this means altering a default tactical setting.

Secondly, if things clearly aren't working after half an hour, and a tactical change is in order, will coaches feel themselves able to act (as Guus Hiddink famously did against Uruguay in Sydney)? And will the players be able to adapt, if they have been drilled (however well) in a single modus operandi?

There's an interesting phrase in the section of the document dealing with this stipulation, too:

This style (4-3-3) will therefore be mandated for all FFA-controlled development teams.

The wording is a tad ambiguous. Is this simply all the national youth sides (as most would assume), or the teams from the state institutes and so forth as well? It would be good to have some clarification here.

Moving on to the matter of accreditation and rating. First, the preamble:

Multiple entities (e.g. clubs, associations, schools, and private academies) are involved in the development of talented players and we expect that to continue. These entities can differ dramatically in the contribution they make to talent development – but currently the differences are often not readily apparent in advance to potentially talented young players and their parents.

Translation: there are some shonky academies out there taking parents for a ride, and we intend to police them a bit more closely. Laudable.

But "entities" that are genuniely doing much of the youth development grunt-work, especially the state league clubs, are likely to view this whole section of the document askance:

FFA and Member Federations will publicise and actively promote those entities that attain FFA Accreditation and Rating.

Accreditation is to be achieved by:

(e.g. employment of accredited coaches; adherence to FFA curriculum)

And Rating, far more worryingly:

(e.g. improvement in player skills; young players selected for representative teams)

Whoa, whoa. Who selects these teams? And who is responsible for rating? The new State Technical Director, a new position created under the new curriculum to oversee the technical development in the individual states, and the implementation of the curriculum?

The opportunities for cronyism, conflicts of interest and the settling of old scores are obvious.

The big question, of course, is how far the FFA technical crew are prepared to pry into the on-field affairs of the clubs which have been at the coalface of youth development for decades. If they tread gently and supportively, then the curriculum could be a modest success. If they go in all guns blazing, they could create something of a civil war in Australian football.

Saturday, July 04, 2009


Mickey the Manc

The big stories of this European summer transfer market have been the successive splurges of Real Madrid, but Michael Owen's move to Manchester United is a true curve-ball.

Genius or insanity from Sir Alex Ferguson? Perhaps nostalgia would be a better term, but it's hard to see the move working. With Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez gone, some striking power was obviously needed, but a once-great striker for whom "injury-prone" is now virtually a middle name?

More importantly, it's hard to see Owen gelling particularly well with Wayne Rooney, although the latter has been far from an out-and-out striker in recent times. During Owen's annus mirabilis in 2001, he benefited greatly from having a big, powerful target man, in this case the hard-working Emile Heskey, in front of him; without such a figure to play off, he has never looked as effective. Dimitar Berbatov as a partner instead? Perhaps, but the Bulgarian hasn't quite looked settled at Manchester United as yet.

The furious pace which Owen possessed when he scored that dazzling World Cup goal against Argentina in 1998, and a memorable league hat-trick against Newcastle a few months later, is long gone. He might be able to make up for it with the sort of intelligence and positional intuition that distinguished Teddy Sheringham, another striker who moved to United late in his career, but it will be a tough ask.

My abiding image of Owen is of the forlorn, half-fit figure rushing around in search of second balls in England's dire opening game of the 2006 World Cup. He was only 26 at the time, but watching him, one could easily have gotten the impression that he was in his thirties already. He's 29 now, but, as they say, it's "an old 29".

Having said all that, I'd be delighted to see him prove me wrong. Pure, instinctive strikers are such a rare breed that when an outstanding specimen appears, a long and prolific career is all you can wish them.

Thursday, July 02, 2009


Branko Redux

The Newcastle soap opera continues, with Branko Culina taking a second shot at the A-League after the surprise departure of Gary van Egmond.

Culina has a considerable cheer squad within Australian football, with one of his long-term fans welcoming his return with open arms. If he can indeed get Newcastle playing football similar to that of his Sydney United and Sydney Olympic sides during the fading days of the NSL, the fans will be grateful. But if Newcastle's roster is anything like the mish-mash of last season, he will face a tough task.

I remain of the opinion that he wasn't given enough time at Sydney FC, even though, as even Les admits in the above piece, some of the stories about his relations with the players there made one cringe. John Kosmina was clearly destined for the hot seat sooner or later when Frank Lowy took over control of the turned out to be sooner.

But given Culina's unwise recruitment prior to that 2007/08 season, much of it seemingly based on nostalgia rather than good sense, there is cause to be wary in that department. Although I didn't see the Jets' abject collapse against Pohang last week, some of their other performances in the ACL gave the impression that they were a patched-together group playing temporarily above themselves, with impressive leadership provided by Ljubo Milicevic at the back. Culina is taking the reins at a club without a properly settled team, and he will have to choose his troops carefully.

Back to van Egmond for a moment. On the whole, he did a fine job at Newcastle in often intolerably awkward circumstances. They were at a very low ebb when he took over, and yet they were playing the finest football in the league by the end of the 06/07 season. The year after, there was the Mario Jardel embarrassment, not to mention the loss of Nick Carle, Vaughan Coveny and Paul Okon, and yet he took them to the title. The 08/09 season was a wreck, but very little of the blame for that deserved to be laid at van Egmond's feet.

Whether the FFA or van Egmond himself have acted improperly over the AIS position is a difficult question. If Con Constantine's claims about the matter are true, then he certainly has a legitimate grievance...but you never quite know whether to take the Newcastle chairman's statements at face value.

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