Archive | August, 2013

Hypotheticals

30 Aug

In 2006, OJ Simpson, tried to release a book called, I kid you not, “If I Did It, Here’s How It Happened”.  Said tome puts forth a hypothetical description of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson (his ex-wife) and Ronald Goldman, both of whom Simpson himself was tried for the first degree murder of and, ultimately, acquitted.  OJ was at pains to point out (as you would be) that he didn’t actually do it.  But if he did do it, the book explains how it would have happened.  As money-spinning tactics go, it seems a bit high risk to me. Then again, I was the one who didn’t think the Bounty ice-cream would ever be a success; so I can’t always be relied on for sound commercial judgment.

Nevertheless, the premise of the aforementioned yarn is an intriguing on.  Essentially, denying the possibility of a proposition, but then exploring it anyway.  Anyone who read my season’s opening article will know that, sadly, I don’t think Manchester City will win the league this year.  However, in the spirit of the former gridiron star turned wife-slasher novellist, I present to you “Manchester City Won’t Win The League This Year, But if They Do Win it, Here’s How It Will Happen”. 

As with all doomed projects, it involves a 3-point plan:

1.  Learn to stretch teams

A wives’ tale exists in commentary boxes that opposition teams can be tired out by playing possession football.  At the top level, this simply isn’t true.  It’s a misnomer to suggest that premiership teams can be physically worn to the ground.  At peak fitness, a professional footballer is conditioned to be able to last for 180 minutes of high intensity football.  Even allowing for marginal differences in the greater work expended defending rather than attacking[1], it just isn’t enough to have a tangible impact on the outcome of matches.

Teams can be stretched, though.  Pulled out of position.  Tired or not, if you’re defending not in the right place at the right time, even the biggest pair of lungs won’t save you.  If there is one thing City could learn from peering over the fence at their Carrington training ground, it’s how well Manchester United stretch teams.  Too many times last season, City were been unable to break down massed ranks of opposition defence.  The Bank Holiday clash against Cardiff showed that this was a lesson still to be learned.  Pellegrini’s men must work out how to find their way through a stodgy final third.

The reason why Manchester United never seem to have this problem is their fulsome embrace of wing play.  From Andrei Kanchelskis to Antonio Valencia, whenever the Old Trafford middle has looked congested, United take to the pitch edges.  Such was Alex Ferguson’s pious devotion to flanksmen he even tried to play Gabriel Obertan for a while.  City would do well to learn that if you can’t go through a team, you ought to try to go round them.

To this end, the signing of Jesus Navas is a positive step.  The benching of him on the hour-mark at the Cardiff City Stadium, however, was not.  This was exactly the sort of fixture where City struggle.  Away from home against a well-organised team fully prepared to play with a 10-man iron curtain between the ball and their goalmouth.  In any case, one winger isn’t enough.  Anyone who has tried to stretch a jumper knows you need to use both hands.  Stevan Jovetic might provide said width on the other side when Pellegrini decides to throw him into the fray.  Otherwise, selotaping Samir Nasri to a touchline might have to do.  But do it we must.

2.  Stop playing Edin Dzeko from the start

The Sky Sports narrative is clearly one of redemption for Edin Dzeko this year[2].  Underused and destroyed of confidence by mean old Mr Mancini.  Now blossoming in the soft hands and warm eyes of Manuel Pellegrini.  This is all very well if wasn’t nonsense. 

A comparison of Edin Dzeko against the dearly departed Carlos Tevez is as illuminating as it is damning.  Whenever Tevez and Aguerro were given the nod last year, City were unstoppable.  Whenever Dzeko was paired with either from the start, my full replica kit immediately started to feel clammy.  Dzeko’s not a bad option off the bench, for when all bar the kitchen sink needs to be sent goalwards.  But he’s not the starting centre-forward of a title-winning team.

It’s a bit sad at times watching Dzeko try to keep up with the speed of thought and delicacy of touch of messrs Aguerro, Silva, Tevez and now Navas.  It’s like an overly-eager instructor at Sea World is trying to involve a killer whale in one of the dolphin displays.  He’s willing enough but he simply can’t fit through the hoops.  One hopes that Alvaro Negredo can follow the routine a little better in his stead.  Otherwise, too many critical moves will break down around the big Bosnian this season. 

3.  Sign a bloody centre-back!

A bit of an obvious one, but nevertheless…

Going into a premier league season with three centre-backs was a folly that really oughtn’t to have happened.  Now we’re down to one fully fit one.  Given the not inconsiderable funds floating around Eastlands these days, this should be the easiest part of the puzzle to solve.  It needs to be solved quickly, though.  Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain had better be wearing out their Nokia 3310s in order to rectify the problem before September 2nd.

All rise…

It’s too late for us to pass judgment on OJ Simpson’s innocence (and, in any case, Too Good’s entire legal budget for this year has been earmarked for a forthcoming Ashley Cole article…), but there’s still time for Manchester City to change their own guilty verdict.  A smidgeon of the transfer window remains and, better yet, the training ground stays open all season.  Use both wisely and, who knows, this strictly hypothetical tale might just become the truth after all…

Available for a reasonable sum.


[1] And even this is a proposition open to contention.  Strikers actually do more running than defenders in football games.  The average breakdown of distance covered for premiership footballers is as follows:

Striker:                 10 – 12km (6.2 – 7.5 miles)

Midfield:              11 – 14km (6.8 – 8.7 miles)

Defender:             6 – 11km (3.7 – 6.8 miles)

So it’s at least arguable that, in fact, attacking is more tiring than defending.

[2] Evidenced by him bizarrely receiving Sky Man of the Match against Newcastle.  In a game full of star turns (Navas and Aguerro, in particular, were excellent), Dzeko was given the award for a performance that could best be described as “busy but ineffectual”. 

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“Any goal’s a goal”

23 Aug

Do good things come to those who wait?  Or should I strike while the iron is hot?  Should I be wary of Greeks bearing gifts?  Or would it be foolish to look a gift horse in the mouth?  It’s funny how these titbits of advice so often come in polarising pairs.  Hindsight can be a virtue, but ex post rationale is unhelpful at best and actively misleading at its worst.  If I attempt a delicate chip shot and end up duffing it into the keeper’s arms, history may remember it as more prudent if I had just whacked it low and hard.  But this presumes my execution would have been any better with a low blast.  Believe you me, there is every chance I’d have shanked it wide.

I mention this because there seems to be an increasing trend in analyses that some goals are more important than others.  Specifically, the goals that prove decisive to the result.  These are the goals we should value above all others, prevailing wisdom suggests.  These are the golden nuggets of truth in an otherwise opaque world.  

The case in point is Gareth Bale.  In the 21 league games that Spurs won last season, Bale scored in 14 of them (nine of them proving to be the winner). Gareth Bale’s goals win football games.  Gareth Bale’s goals must be important, then.

This is all very well.  But did that make Bale’s goals any harder to score?  Does anyone know at the time which goal in a game will be the most important?  When Borussia Dortmund went 4-1 up against Real Madrid in last season’s Champions League semi-final, which was the most important goal?  The first?  Or the ultimately decisive fourth?  History would have little remembered Gerrard’s “consolation” goal in the 2005 Champions League final were it not for the two more that followed it up.  Now it forms part of one of the greatest comebacks ever.  

Any goal’s a goal.  Making sense of their importance after the event forgets the context that they were all scored in the instance of being.  Nobody knew ahead of time which egg would prove to be golden.  For every team that ran away with a game 5 or 6 nil, there were many other games where a team went 3 goals down then battled back. 

Orator and former goal-hanger of considerable esteem, Gary Winston Lineker, noted that, while the glory often lay with strikers, it could also be most dispiriting position on the pitch.  Even a great striker, averaging a goal every other game, essentially spends 179 minutes not doing what he is supposed to be on the pitch to achieve.  And anyone who’s ever tried to chat up a staunchly Christian girl in a bar will know exactly what three solid hours of failure looks like.

There’s a reason why people go utterly loopy after scoring a goal[1].  It’s because they’re all bloody hard to score.  They’re all, in the words of a famous shampoo peddler, worth it.  Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.

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That goal you scored in 5-aside last night? Jennifer’s very proud of you.

New Season

16 Aug

The premier league is back and I, for one, am more excited than a badger at the start of mating season.  Summer distractions are just that.  Wimbledon, the Ashes, royal babies.  Great, but where is Luis Suarez going?  This is what the Great British public really wants to know.  Some things matter.

I’m like a coiled spring at this time of year.  All torque and potential energy; waiting for those sun-kissed opening games.  Soon the clouds will roll in but, for now, glistening green pitches will play host to new names, new kits and fresh hopes.  Bid your loved ones farewell until next May and settle in.

Football fans display an uncanny ability to overlook the obvious at this time of year in favour of a distinctly autumnal optimism.  Too Good has had its dreams of a brighter future dashed too many times before to be drawn in by this false hope.  Some things remain ever present and the sooner into the 2013-2014 season we recognise that Manchester United will win the bloody league again, the sooner we can make peace with our lot.

I’ve canvassed the opinion of several friends who are knowledgeable about football, as well as one or two Liverpool fans, on who they think will take home the spoils this year.  Everyone seems to think it will be either Chelsea or Manchester City.  The experts conclude similarly – not a single member of the Sky Sports panel plumped for the team from Old Trafford on their Season’s Preview show.  Manchester United seem to carry something of a “Germany in major tournaments” feel to them.  We turn up every single time doing our absolute best to rationalise why they won’t win the thing, which of course they then go on and do.  Sometimes the collective footballing consciousness needs to be shaken by the lapels.

Why it won’t be City…

Appropriately for a team hoping for a Second Coming of the premiership title, Manchester City have signed a player called Jesus.  Navas has almost as many tricks up his sleeve as his Nazareth counterpart. But, like Christ himself, Navas also has an Achilles’ Heel.  Christ’s shortcoming was an inability to fend off betrayal within the ranks of his disciples.  Navas’ is his inability to fend off a wobbly lip when he leaves his hometown of Los Palacios.  One hopes that grizzled premiership defenders don’t decide the best way to test the homesick Sevillan’s resolve is a succession of “welcome to the Premiership” tackles.

Pellegrini did his business early in the summer.  Once Navas was prised from his mother’s apron strings, Fernandinho, Stefan Jovetic and Alvaro Negredo quickly followed to the Etihad.  A lot of talent has arrived along with the new manager.  Winning teams typically grow organically, though, rather than be thrown together.  And it’s uncertain what sort of formation will accommodate these players as well as the pre-existing high flyers.  With the exception of Navas, each, it could be argued, has a comparative or better player already in situ at the club (Fernandinho < Toure, Jovetic < Tevez (who will be a massive loss for City on the pitch), Negredo < Aguerro).  It’s not therefore especially clear how City have improved (other than in depth), despite having quality come through the door.  In any case, City fans better hope it gels quickly.  Title races can’t be won before Christmas, but they can certainly be lost.

Why it won’t be Chelsea…

Chelsea have strengthened primarily in the dugout.  The Mourinho Effect is certainly not a chimera, but nor does it tend to work without a hefty war-chest being put to good use.  As Jose himself once opined, in order to buy the best eggs, you need to shop in Waitrose.  While Abramovic’s munificence has surely been guaranteed to Mourinho, so far the cash register has barely rung.  £18m on Andre Schurrle may prove to be a good spend but it wasn’t the focal striker that Chelsea need.  Schurrle operates mainly from the wing or behind another striker.  What Chelsea require is a number 9 that will lead the attack.  Any of Falcao, Cavani, Lewandowski or Higuaín (or even Roberto Soldado, had an astute Daniel Levy not been on hand to whisk him off to the Lane) would have fitted the bill.   As it is, all of the above have signed elsewhere or re-committed to their current paymasters.  If Mourinho honestly thinks Fernando Torres can do the job after three years now in the wilderness, then he’s exhibiting a blind faith that would make Eileen Drewery blush.

Of course, this position all changes if a certain box-shaped Scouser heads down to London.  Wayne Rooney is no stranger to a transplant and, if he were to bed down quickly and effectively at Stamford Bridge, the complexion of Chelsea’s title challenge would change completely.

Which leaves us with…

Al Pacino’s character in Scarface was keen to point out the necessity of a villain of the piece (‘You need people like me so you can point your fingers and say, “That’s the bad guy”.’).  The redemptive quality of the film arrives when seeing the cocaine-fuelled Montana shot to pieces by a team of assassins.  Unfortunately, football isn’t a motion picture and the bad guys rarely get their comeuppance.  The premier league’s Tony Montana, Manchester United, seem to go home with the spoils year after year.  Yet, mysteriously, pundits and fans alike go into overdrive each pre-season trying to contrive reasons as to why it won’t be Manchester United’s year.

To recall, Manchester United won the league by eleven points last season.  By the end of March, they didn’t even need their foot on the pedal.  Putting this into perspective, no team has ever won the premier league by a wider margin and not retained it the following year[1].  In any case, United nab the title pretty much every year.  The red devils have won the premiership on 13 out of 21 occasions, comfortably the highest win percentage (62%) in any of the big European leagues over the same period[2].  You would be hard-pressed to find a dispassionate statistician conclude anything other than a Manchester United success being the most likely outcome.

United have the best striker in the Premiership who is in the form of his life.  They have a supply line to him that is never choked and, at the time of writing, they still have by far the best current English footballer.

Although United haven’t had a decent central midfield for over half a decade now, it doesn’t seem to bother them.  There’s no reason to assume it will suddenly now start to.  Their backline is looking a bit creaky, but then it did last year and United are unlikely to suffer as badly with injuries again.  Vidic has returned and will likely manage more than 19 games this season.  While Rio Ferdinand’s back is more and more resembling a game of Russian Roulette with intervertebral discs these days, there is the blossoming Phil Jones and the reliable Jonny Evans both very capable of picking up the slack.  Rafael is also a fantastic (and wildly underrated) player.

People want to exclaim Alex Ferguson’s retirement as the death knell to United’s dominance.  This may prove to be the case but I can’t see the players forgetting what he taught them overnight.  There might be a certain atrophy over time but I don’t think Ferguson re-invented the wheel each time he went into the dressing room.  He was responsible for putting together great teams at Old Trafford and he’s left one there now.

Things change, sure.  But less so than is often realised.  You’ll get taxed this year.  Christmas will be a bit underwhelming. People will cry on reality television and it’s going to rain on the bank holiday.  Manchester United, I’m afraid, will most likely win the league.


[1] Chelsea won the 2004-2005 title by 12 points and won again the following year with 8 points to spare.  United won the league in 1999-2000 by a colossal 18 points and won the next year by a comparatively modest 10 points.  In short, not only did both teams defend their league titles, they did so handsomely.

[2] Over the same period of time (21 seasons), Bayern Munich have won the Bundesliga 11 times, Barcelona have won La Liga 10 times,  Juventus have won Serie A seven times and Lyon have won Ligue 1 seven times.

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One more sleep, fellas.