Sunday, January 31, 2010


Ange v. the Lads - another update

One wonders whether Brisbane felt a metaphorical weight lifting off their collective shoulders with the departure of the last of the Farina cronies. Danny Tiatto, with his plainly unprofessional comments during the week, seemed to be asking to be released.

And last night, they showed that they have the makings of a reasonable team for next year, now that Operation Expel Drinking Buddies has been brought to a successful conclusion. The conversion of Michael Zullo into a fullback is still in the experimental stage, but there were enough signs that he and Tommy Oar could form a potent combination on the left. Luke DeVere is growing in confidence, and Matt McKay seems to be rediscovering some form in midfield.

Brisbane might have been lucky to win in a sense, given Sydney's domination of possession and territory. On the other hand, Clint Bolton and Shannon Cole should both have been sent off in the course of the game, which gives the result a whiff of justice.

Most importantly of all, from Ange Postecoglou's point of view, there was a real enthusiasm about the home side's play, which produced a very entertaining game despite the low scoreline. Sydney played their part as well, continuing to commit men to attack even as Brisbane began to look more dangerous in the second period.

If there is a lacuna for Brisbane, it is surely in the centre of midfield, where the acquisition of a truly experienced anchorman should be a priority for Postecoglou in the off-season. Adam Sarota showed glimpses of quality but his passing left much to be desired; McKay has always preferred attack to defence, and would hardly be suited to the role of a "tempo" player. David Dodd, too, is not quite up to it.

It is tempting to say that, results aside, Postecoglou has done what he was hired to do. However, next season will represent the real test.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Juve Getting Jiggy

For once, a post of pure, shameless comic relief.

I've always been a fan of the double-entendre headline, ever since reading Fritz Spiegl's hilarious collection of misprints and unintentional gaffes from English papers, which included a report of an Everton player being taken off the field with a pulled musicle.

This, however, tops the lot. To get the gag, one needs to be aware that Juventus are commonly known as "La Vecchia Signora" (the Old Lady), and that BATE Borisov are the champions of Belarus. Something tells me that a clever editor slipped that one through under the radar.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


Pyramid Power, Part 3

In the last instalment of these ruminations on Jonathan Wilson's excellent book: the question of perhaps the most important tactical innovation of all, namely the sweeper.

Wilson's coverage of the topic is extensive, beginning with the birth of the idea in Switzerland in the 1930s, when Karl Rappan introduced his verrou system. Throughout the book, Wilson makes reference to "the right of the weak" - the legitimacy of an overtly defensive strategy when one is faced by stronger opposition. More on this later.

After his habitual digression on similar developments in Russian football, Wilson moves to Italy and the famous catenaccio sides of the 1960s, especially Helenio Herrera's Inter Milan. Although Herrera's side is broadly despised these days (and in some ways justifiably), Wilson is right to include a discussion of the attacking innovation that the Inter of the mid-60s introduced, namely:

[Giacinto] Facchetti was the key, and it was he who gave Herrera his best defence against the accusations of negativity. "I invented catenaccio," Herrera said. "The problem is that most of the ones who copied me copied me wrongly. They forgot to include the attacking principles that my catenaccio included. I had Picchi as sweeper, yes, but I also had Facchetti, the first full-back to score as many goals as a forward."

Check out the end of this for an example of Facchetti's scoring prowess...and two rather unsavoury examples of nerazzurro gamesmanship prior to that.

It was partly the success of Facchetti as an attacking force (see Wilson's diagram on page 185) that precipitated the development of the aggressive sweeper. Wilson justifiably gives pride of place to Velibor Vasovic, the elegant captain of the Ajax side of the late sixties and early seventies, whose mobile, adroit play at the back made a fine foil to the technical virtuosity and tremendous acceleration of Johan Cruyff at the other end.

When watching matches from the seventies, I am always struck by how fluid the defensive units are, compared with contemporary ones. Yet fluidity does not necessarily equal disorganisation, and many sides of the era boasted forward-striding sweepers who managed to contribute in defence as well.

Wilson describes in some detail the return of the four-in-line defence to Italian football under the impetus of Arrigo Sacchi's great Milan sides, but in my view the return to static rather than dynamic sweepers predated that, and actually accelerated the return to vogue of a flat back four.

A comparison between the 1982 and 1986 World Cup finals is instructive in this respect. Italy in 1982 had a very mobile libero in Gaetano Scirea, and West Germany's Uli Stielike was likewise willing to join in attacks. Fast forward four years, and the respective free men at the back, Jose-Luis Brown and Dietmar Jakobs, were resolutely negative. Denmark's Morten Olsen, who played so magisterially at that 1986 tournament (and just prior to it), was perhaps the last of the great attacking sweepers.

And sixteen years on, the sweeper had virtually vanished. Again, two teams with three at the back contesting the World Cup final, but it is essentially a three-in-line defence (even if Carsten Ramelow occasionally operated as an old-fashioned sweeper for the Germans).

"A sweeper? How quaint!" quipped a wag on one of my football forum haunts, in response to some criticism of the FFA's 4-3-3 mandate on the grounds that it would exclude talented sweeper-style players. Yes, it seems to be a thing of the past now. Yet the "right of the weak" still exists, and who has exercised that right most effectively in recent years? Surely Greece, who won Euro 2004 against all odds with...the anachronism of a sweeper system.

Traianos Dellas was the man on that occasion, and he was a negative (if extremely effective) libero. But is there still room for a return of the attacker from deep? I think so, and I hope so. The current rigidity of defensive systems is making football increasingly bland, and some inventive manager may decide to spark a new system into life. There are still occasional goals scored when defenders surge through the middle, and they are a joy to watch; may Micah Richards' enterprising goal against Blackburn last weekend (25 seconds into this) start a trend.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


We Could Be Heroes - update #5

It's that time of the month again (no, not that one). The Half-Time Heroes are back in action, with Shane Davis lamenting Australia's defensive decline, Stuart Randall running the rule over Rafa, and Russ Gibbs presenting a comprehensive review of this season's W-League. Well worth a read.

Monday, January 18, 2010


Absent Alex

It's always a pleasure watching a game of football in the company of Tony Tannous, whose football judgements are so unfailingly accurate. Yesterday, just prior to the start of the Sydney v. Gold Coast encounter, I expressed my view that it would be a close-fought game. Tony grimaced and replied, "Sydney without Brosque...". No more needed to be said.

Of course, he was right. Sydney were badly outplayed and Gold Coast thoroughly deserved their victory, achieved despite a real off-night for the normally deadly Shane Smeltz. Michael Thwaite was commanding in midfield, taking advantage of Steve Corica's traditional late-season decline, and Zenon Caravella was full of ideas beside him. Joel Porter's deciding goal was a beauty.

Yet how much more of a game it would have been had Alex Brosque been fit. The visiting side's central defensive pairing was so manifestly short of pace that the sort of smooth, quick movement that characterised the Brosque-Bridge partnership early in the season would undoubtedly have caused problems. Instead, John Aloisi, too static once again, was easily snuffed out in the target-man role.

Tony made the further observation at half-time that even young Chris Payne would be a better option up front than Aloisi, given Sydney's system of play. Sure enough, when the youngster came on (for Bridge, rather than Aloisi), he made two chances for himself in quick succession, although inexperience and a heavy touch conspired to rob him of the better of the two.

That sluggishness in the final third, which Steve Corica commented on as well, was just as evident against a fading Perth last week. The sad truth is that for as long as Aloisi is in the side, Sydney are immeasurably less mobile up front. As a marquee gamble, the signing of the November 16 hero has failed; at present, Alex Brosque is worth inestimably more to Vitezslav Lavicka's side than the million-dollar man.

The run-in to the finals, and the race for the automatic Asian Champions League spot, now looks a delicious prospect, especially with Melbourne looking so fluent and confident against Perth. Sydney are still a good outside bet, with Brosque to return well before the vital last-round game against Melbourne.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Pyramid Power, Part 2

One of the best aspects of Jonathan Wilson's book is that he does not simply rely on glib, widespread assessments of the teams of yesteryear. And this is best exemplified in his remarks on past Brazilian teams.

The introduction of the 4-2-4 by Vicente Feola's Brazil in the 1958 World Cup, and its shift to 4-3-3 for the 1962 instalment, are well-known. But Wilson goes to some lengths to show that the 4-2-4 developed gradually from the old W-M formation...and that it wasn't quite as simple as just the three lines.

Having watched a couple of Brazil's games from that 1958 tournament, I have to agree with him. The general view is that the left-winger, Mario Zagallo, dropped back into a deeper position in the later tournament, constituting a tactical adjustment. He was further back in 1962, but it's clear even in Sweden that he was operating not at all like a traditional winger. He scuttles back and forth along the touchline, now helping out his full-back, and now making an unexpected appearance in the opposition penalty area, memorably so after a sweet inter-passing move in the first half of the semi-final against France. One could, in fact, call Zagallo the first of the modern wide players.

Then there's the question of Bellini, the centre-back who doubles as a half-back at times in 1958. In him, the remnants of the W-M are visible; even in 1966, Bobby Moore sometimes appears to be more a half-back than a central defender, playing off Jack Charlton and providing a vital link to the midfield. The days of a super-strict four-in-line defence were still some way off.

Now to probably the most famous World Cup side of all, the great Brazilian team of 1970. I've now managed to track down and watch all of their games from Mexico, and although their football was often exhilarating, my feelings about the side are somewhat mixed. The defence was, more often than not, a wreck, and the only two teams to really take the game to them were England (who were a little unlucky to lose) and Peru (whose defence was even more porous than Brazil's). So whence their mythical status? As Wilson perceptively comments, the arrival of colour television played a huge part here. And there was another factor:

It was exuberant, it was brilliant...but it marked the end of the age of football's innocence. In club football, in Europe at least, that era had ended much earlier, but in Mexico, the heat and the altitude combined to make pressing or any kind of systematic closing down of opponents impossible. For the last time in major competition, there was space, and Brazil had a team perfectly equipped to make the best use of it.

In fact, I would argue (as I have before, to general shock and dismay) that the Brazil 1970 side would have been overrun by any of the top three teams at the 1974 World Cup, had they been magically transported four years into the future.

But another small feature of the 1970 team which is not so commonly mentioned is that it presaged the demise of the pure winger in Brazilian football. Wilson, in his excellent diagram on page 261, makes this clear.

Garrincha, the hero of 1958 and 1962, may have been incomparably brilliant in his time, but by 1966 his style - sticking resolutely to one wing, and relying mainly on trickery to swerve past his man - came a cropper against a fluent and well-organised Hungarian side. Jairzinho, the 1970 hero, started on the opposite wing in that game, and based his game mainly around pace and strength. He was, in fact, a converted centre-forward, and later in that game he did move into the middle. In 1970, he did so frequently.

The other "winger" of 1970, Rivelino, was a No.10 by inclination, and started two of Brazil's games in Mexico in the centre. By 1974, both Jairzinho and Rivelino were stationed in the middle of the park, and Brazil had begun the era of the attacking full-back. Fast forward to 1982, and there was the first of the 4-2-2-2 formations that Brazil became famous for, although the deeper midfield pair were nowhere near as defensive as the 1994 duo of Dunga and Mauro Silva. Further on, to 2002, and the era of the winger was long forgotten; it was three central defenders, with wing-backs left to patrol the flanks on their own.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


Mr. Ten Per Cent Right - another update

Oh dear, he's at it again.

And rarely has even Craig Foster penned such illogical, insulting drivel. The lengths to which the SBS brains trust will go to denigrate the local game, while twisting the facts to exculpate the Dutch brigade, is extraordinary.

Each time a home-based side has played an Asian Cup qualifier the performance has been concerning...

Except when, erm, Graham Arnold was in charge in 2006. But we'll ignore that bit.

Pim Verbeek pointed out that Australia had "lost control of the midfield" late in the first half against Kuwait...

Let's look at the composition of that Socceroo midfield. Luke Wilkshire, Mile Jedinak, Dario Vidosic, Mile Sterjovski, Nick Carle. Of these, one is based in the A-League, and he has been there for little over half a year, after a decade spent in Europe. To use Australia's midfield decline towards the end of the game as evidence of the limited tactical sophistication of A-League coaches is, well, shameless.

An obvious question arises, too: given that Verbeek felt Australia were being overrun in midfield towards the end of the first half, why didn't he do anything to counter this in the second?

Yes, there are problems with the A-League. As usual, Foster is about ten per cent right. But to blame the failings of a Verbeek-led side with several overseas-based players in the line-up on A-League coaches is typically disingenuous...not to mention par for the SBS course.

Thursday, January 07, 2010


Decline of the Second String

It's hard to say whether last night's draw with Kuwait consitutes a point gained or two lost. Normally, one would say that squandering a two-goal lead indicates the latter. But given how poorly the Socceroos played in the second half, the former comes into consideration too.

An instructive comparison can be made with another second-string Socceroo performance, against Bahrain in 2006 (our first game as a member of the Asian confederation, in fact). Then, Australia rose from the ashes in the second half, playing with verve, invention and determination to carry off an important win.

Last night's second-half effort could hardly have been more different. Pim Verbeek showed once more not only that is he committed to his dreary 4-2-3-1 system, but that he is painfully slow to make effective substitutions when the system is no longer working so well.

The Socceroos tired badly in the second period, and yet the only change prior to the last minutes was the replacement of an ineffective Mile Sterjovski with an out-of-position Nikita Rukavytsya. True, the FC Twente man did drift infield now and then, switching positions with Archie Thompson, but the combination between these two had looked awkward even at the 2008 Olympics.

Luke Wilkshire and Mile Jedinak had bossed the midfield convincingly for most of the first period, but they ceded this area to Kuwait as the game dragged on, with Jedinak looking weary almost from the second half kick-off. And nothing was done to counter the Kuwaitis' tactic of getting in behind Dean Heffernan on the left, which allowed them to penetrate time and again in the second 45 minutes.

Cast your minds back to that Bahrain game: there, a crucial half-time substitution gave the 'roos fresh ideas, a new shape and much greater impetus in the final third. Brett Holman gave probably his best performance ever for the Socceroos, providing excellent movement and fine link-play.

It was just that mobility which the Socceroos so badly lacked last night, after the break. The Kuwaitis' off-the-ball movement in the second period was smooth and effective; Australia's was vertical, one-dimensional and easily countered.

Will Verbeek show any more imagination, or courage, in South Africa?

Wednesday, January 06, 2010


Pyramid Power, Part 1

Jonathan Wilson, who writes a detailed and thought-provoking blog on the Guardian website, has written perhaps the most talked-about football book of the last few years in Inverting the Pyramid, and your tragic correspondent has finally gotten around to reading it.

There is no debating the book's importance. Wilson set himself the task of presenting a comprehensive history of the evolution of football tactics, and the result is a fascinating, informative and provocative volume whose small faults are far outweighed by its virtues. It deserves, in fact, a comprehensive review: herewith an overview, and a look at some details in future instalments.

In less capable hands, a history of tactics could have been disappointingly dry. However, Wilson manages to work in plenty of anecdotes and character sketches in the midst of his clear descriptions and sharp analysis. He is awake to the wider context of the game as well, but instead of the prolix sociological ramblings of David Goldblatt, there are simply brief and apposite references to the cultural background of various football innovations.

Significantly, where Goldblatt regularly seeks comparisons with politics and the theatre, a favourite analogy of Wilson's is chess, which fits his theme well. (Incidentally, it's interesting that some trends in the world of chess echoed those of football...for example, Italian catenaccio reached its apogee during the reign of the ultra-cautious Tigran Petrosian as world chess champion in the mid-sixties. Petrosian, incidentally, was a dedicated football fan. But I digress.)

Occasionally Wilson gets polemical, particularly regarding the continual failure of English football to acknowledge and learn from the developments taking place beyond the channel. In the second of two chapters named "The English Pragmatism", the authorial voice comes through particularly strongly, with Wilson launching a withering attack on the progenitor of the long-ball philosophy, Charles Reep, and his influential alumnus, Charlie Hughes. Not that this attack is at all unwarranted.

Elsewhere, value judgements are few, and there is a sensible admission that "negative" tactics can be legitimate when teams have fewer resources than their peers. Wilson's reach is broad, and although he spends a little too much time documenting the developments in the former Soviet Union, at the expense of (for instance) France and Germany, the breadth of his coverage is impressive.

The diagrams dotted throughout the book are both welcome and detailed, especially as the book moves towards the present, and greater fluidity becomes the norm. There is also a liberal (occasionally excessive) sprinkling of quotes, and these recollections from the practitioners and inventors of tactical systems provide plenty of colour.

There are the usual few typos and misspellings, not to mention a couple of factual errors (including an absolute shocker on page 297), but these are minor flaws in the broad scheme of things.

Still to come: a look at some of Wilson's specific analyses, with some tragic reflections.

Sunday, January 03, 2010


Archie the Third

Before the 2006 World Cup, it was Archie Thompson. In between, there were Bruce Djite's delusions of grandeur. Now, a recalcitrant Joel Griffiths has become the latest to attempt to hold his A-League club to ransom over a career move of doubtful value.

Griffiths' indiscipline in China has cost him precious game time, but even had he starred at Beijing Guoan, would a 30-year-old striker with a record of blowing his top in pressure situations really come into consideration for Pim Verbeek's final 23? Griffiths certainly seems to think so, and appears prepared to defy his club over it.

Con Constantine's reputation for intransigence means that Griffiths will probably receive some sympathy, but if he does choose to skip training and sulk, he hardly deserves any. The awkward placement of the A-League season vis-a-vis the World Cup may be a problem, but it scarcely justifies such brinkmanship.

In this instance, Constantine and Branko Culina are fully entitled to play hardball. The constant denigration of the A-League from certain quarters seems to have emboldened some players in their dealings with the clubs, but with the Asian drain slowly gathering momentum, A-League clubs have never had a greater need to stand their ground on player contracts.

Friday, January 01, 2010


Advantage Disadvantage

One of my eternal pet peeves in football is referees' failure to "play the advantage", to allow the attacking side to continue with a move after an "unsuccessful" foul on one of their number. This is partly because I believe stoppages in football should be kept to an absolute minimum, and partly because I prefer seeing goals scored from open play rather than set plays.

However, a recent perusal of an old World Cup game gave me cause to think that there are particular situations where playing the advantage is not appropriate. But it needs a canny, alert referee to make the right judgement.

The game in question was the spiteful, if very exciting, Italy v. Holland game from the second stage of the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. This was a semi-final in all but name, and presented not only a fascinating clash of styles, but two contrasting halves, the first dominated by the Italians, the second by the Dutch. But it was an incident towards the end of the first half that provided an object lesson in the occasional perils of "the advantage".

The foul tally has been adding up, and the referee, a certain Angel Martinez, has already winked at plenty of rough play. When Aarie Haan of Holland receives the ball by the left touchline, three Italians immediately rush to him, and one can sense that something nasty is about to take place.

As it happens, the Italian holding midfielder Romeo Benetti dives in quite recklessly on Haan, who manages to evade the tackle (and serious injury) just in time. In rushes another Italian midfielder, Renato Zaccarelli, who prepares to emulate his colleague. Haan has had enough, and decides to get his retaliation in first: he slams his studs into Zaccarelli's leg, an offence for which he should really have been sent off. The referee books no-one...and subsequently loses control of the game.

Here is the point: Mr. Martinez clearly decided that since Haan had escaped unscathed from Benetti's foul, the Dutch momentum should have been allowed to continue. But it was quite clear, in this particular instance, that more dangerous tackles would be flying in very quickly. The sensible thing would have been to blow the whistle, caution Benetti, and gently advise both sides to cool it a little.

Of course, there are times when failure to allow the advantage is even enough to influence the course of the game: I chronicled one such instance here. Portugal v. North Korea...but, as it happens, there was another classic instance of advantage gone wrong in a game between Portugal and the other Korea at the 2002 World Cup.

Portugal's Joao Pinto was dismissed in that game for a horrible foul on a young Park Ji-Sung (see here). But what had happened was this: tempers were already flaring, and Pinto himself had just been the victim of a violent foul; thus incensed, he rushed on, desperate to retain possession, and slammed into Park with a two-footed shocker which, as Craig Foster rightly commented at the time, might have ended Park's career.

Again: this was a case where the Argentinian referee should definitely have stopped play earlier. This was in fact a more clear-cut case, since the Portuguese were by no means assured of possession following the initial foul.

It's a tough call, but perhaps a good rule of thumb is this: the more at stake, the less advantage.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?