Thursday, 18 May 2017

Out damned spot! In praise of the penalty

It's been a good week for penalty incidents. First Southampton's Fraser Forster put off Liverpool's James Milner by standing right in front of him as Milner attempted to place the ball on the spot. Forster towered over Milner and just his sheer size must have intimidated the left-back. Then James Ward-Prowse delayed things further by taking a drink from a bottle in the back of the goal, receiving a yellow card. When Milner did finally get to take the spot kick he hit it hard and low, but Forster guessed right to pull off a fine save, having successfully out-psyched the taker. It's wasn't quite Corinithian spirit, but most fans do like good bit of gamesmanship. 

Perhaps the most famous bit of penalty gamesmanship was Liverpool's Bruce Grobbelaar performing his "'spaghetti legs" routine — wobbling his legs in mock terror —  in the 1984 European Cup Final, forcing AS Roma's Graziani to graze the top of the bar with his kick. More recently in the Bundesliga in 2015, Augsburg goalkeeper Marwin Hitz slyly damaged the penalty spot by raking his studs on the turf. Cologne's taker Anthony Modeste slipped on the area Hitz had damaged and missed. Hitz later apologised and was, bizarrely, billed £89 by Cologne for damaging their pitch. 

This week we also saw Riyad Mahrez have a penalty ruled out for Leicester at Man City for taking two touches. As his standing foot slipped Mahrez inadvertantly kicked the ball against his other foot while shooting. Although he still netted referee Bobby Madley disallowed it, proved that all referees are really the spiritual descendants of Blakey from On The Buses. Madley was technically correct, but since Mahrez wasn't trying to get an advantage, most footbal fans would have preferred him to pretend he hadn't seen it and let the goal stand.

The final penalty drama came with a penalty shoot out between Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield in the Play-Off Semi-Final. Huddersfield custodian Danny Ward saved Forestieri's penalty and then provided the memorable sight of a goalkeeper in pink kit running the length of the pitch to do a knee-slide before the delirious Terriers' fans. Of course an £80 million final or vital Premier League points shouldn't really depend on whether your man bottles it from ten yards or the keeper performs a little skulduggery or makes a great save — but it's certainly fun for the rest of us. 

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Can Moyes get his mojo back?

Do managers lose confidence in the way that players do? Sunderland's David Moyes looks thoroughly chastened after relegation and you wonder if he's ever recovered from his traumatic season at Manchester United, where he didn't actually do that much worse than Luis Van Gaal. Having various current and ex-United legends leaking stories to the press portraying him as an amateur in Fergie's shoes can't have helped his self-belief. 

Who now recalls that Match of the Day clip of Moyes arriving at Everton? When David Ginola looked a bit sulky after getting subbed, Moyes rushed over to remonstrate with the player and point out with a jabbing Glaswegian finger who was in charge. It was Moyes who signed players such as Seamus Coleman, Tim Cahill, Leighton Baines and Marouane Fellaini for Everton. The club had ten years of top half finishes and managed to finish fourth and reach the Champions League qualifying round in 2004-05 on very limited resources.

Yet after sackings at Man United and Real Sociedad he's looked tired of the struggle at Sunderland. He gave the players an excuse to underperform after two games by saying the club was in a relegation struggle.While signing players from his old clubs looked too conservative. Paddy McNair is a promising centre back to judge by his time at Old Trafford and a good signing long term, but signing Everton old boys Pienaar, Anichebe and Oviedo merely strengthened the belief he had run out of ideas. Add to that the signing of Joleon Lescott, which after his troubles at Aston Villa with defending and texting images of fast cars last season, was the transfer equivalent of a suicide note. 

His attempt at dressing-room type 'banter' with the Sun's Vicki Sparks merely made him look even more reactionary and landed an FA charge. While he's not been helped by Hull's new boss Marco Silva coming in to the job and reshaping the side with seven imaginative signings after selling his best players Snodgrass and Livermore.

You would trust the dynamic Everton boss to rebuild Sunderland. But can the current David Moyes do the job? It's hard not to feel sorry for Moyesy. He's a man who looks like he needs a break from the game to get his hunger and confidence back. If he is entrusted with the Sunderland job next season he needs to find his positivity again. 

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Are Galactico gaffers like Guardiola and Klopp given more leeway?

Sam Allardici must have been having a chuckle into his large glass of wine this weekend. Big gruff British Sam is not to everyone's taste. But while his Palace side completed a treble of wins against Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool, two of the Premier League's more exalted foreign gaffers, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, were struggling. 

Admittedly Pep's Man City were unlucky to lose to Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final, hitting the post and bar late on. But Guardiola could end up the season without a trophy and if Man United beat them in their next fixture, finish outside the top four. 

Pep's first move was to oust a decent double league-winning goalkeeper in Joe Hart and replace him with Claudio Bravo, who can pass the ball out with his feet, but can sometimes let shots go straight through him. In the recent TV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall, there was a preposterous German architect who declared that stairs ruined his designs. You can imagine Guardiola similarly insisting that a bog-standard shot-stopping keeper is an offence against footballing impressionism. 

City are more a forward line than a team. Pep's other major defensive signing was John Stones, a fine ball-playing centre back but a player still learning when to hit Row Z. Manuel Pellegrini was sacked at Man City after winning the League Cup and finishing fourth, having won the title the previous season. You sense that such harsh standards won't be applied to Guardiola because of the trophies he has won at Barcelona and Bayern Munich. 

Meanwhile Jurgen Klopp might be a lovely bloke, but he still hasn't solved the problems at goalkeeper and centre back that he inherited from Brendan Rodgers. New 'keeper Karius has been dropped and Matip and Klaven haven't brought stability at the back. Ironically Klopp's best Liverpool centre back Mamadou Sakho is now on loan at Crystal Palace. Sakho was incorrectly suspended for 30 days by Uefa in April 2006 for taking a banned substance (Uefa later quashed the charges) forcing him to miss the Europa League Final. Then he was frozen out by Klopp, apparently after tardiness on a pre-season tour last summer. Sir Alex Ferguson might have been a disciplinarian, but he could also find ways of bending rules in order to keep his best players. Klopp also let go Christian Benteke who scored twice for Palace against Liverpool. 

So Guardiola and Klopp do not look much further forward than their predecessors in the task of turning their sides into trophy machines. It's likely they will both eventually succeed, but they are also lucky that their reputations have left them immune to the harsh demands placed upon their predecessors. There are questions to answer and both men might have to do something more readily associated with British gaffers and get back to the basics of a Big Sam-style strong spine.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Could aliens be trying to kidnap Jose's brain?

It's not often you find a link between Jose Mourinho and Star Trek. After Man United's draw against Everton Jose Mourinho said of Luke Shaw: "He had a good performance, but  it was with his body and my brain. Because he was in front of me and I made every decision for him." 

Which reminded me of Spock's Brain, one of the most infamous Star Trek episodes ever made and commonly thought to be the worst of the original series. In Spock's Brain a mysterious female alien arrives on the bridge of the USS Enterprise, incapacitates the crew and surgically removes Spock's brain. Luckily Dr McCoy manages to keep Spock's brainless body functioning and Captain Kirk manages to ascertain that Spock's brain is being used as a computer to run an underground city on the planet Sigma Draconis V1. Luckily Dr McCoy, fired up with alien knowledge from the city's Teacher, manages to perform a reverse brain transplant and restore Spock's brain into his body.

Mourinho's all-powerful brain seems to have similar properties to Spock's brain, which makes you wonder if there are currently alien races planning to kidnap Jose's brain and use it as the controller of their underground city, or at least to gee up an under-performing left-back. It's something for Nasa to work on.

Perhaps the most accurate summation of Mourinho's comments came from Ian Wright on Match of the Day 2, who suggested that Shaw had had a successful career at Southampton before Mourinho, earning a £30m move to Man United, and that Jose was, "having himself." While Shaw himself probably wishes that Jose's brain was somewhere in the Sigma Draconis system. Most illogical, Captain.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Saturday, 3pm: 50 Eternal Delights of Modern Football

The international break sees many Premier League fans taking the chance to watch some real football. A literary accompaniment to your grass roots game might come from Saturday, 3pm: 50 Eternal Delights of Modern Football by Daniel Gray. It’s a great read and what Gray gets over is that for all the crass commercialisation of modern football, there are still many pleasures that remain eternal.

His list of fifty football delights include the pleasures of seeing floodlights illuminating a ground in a strange town on a winter’s night, of talking to an old man about football and watching his eyes glaze over as he becomes young again remembering some icon of the 1950s, and of striking up a football conversation at some cousin’s ill-timed wedding.

Gray relishes the quirky side of football, seeing a ground from the train; how hitting the bar seems to bring so much promise to a performance; how crowds love to jeer a pass that goes straight out of play; stubby physiotherapists racing each other on to the pitch to treat their injured stars after a crunching block tackle; seeing a team bus on the motorway and listening to the results in the car. Gray muses about the characters that inhabit catering vans and watching disparate fans gather at a junction station where hope and dread mingle.

He particularly enjoys scorelines in brackets. If a side has scored 7 (seven) it elicits a strange sympathy for the humiliated opposition: “We enjoy the horror, but we also try to put ourselves in the shoes of the bracketed supporters. Are they pig-sick distraught or giddy at the gallows? Throwing scarves in service station bins or sinking delirious pints somewhere warm? Convinced of relegation, or starting to imagine a tight back-to-basics one-nil win next Saturday?”

Daniel Gray can wheel away in triumph, to use one of his favourite bits of footballese. Saturday, 3pm is a beautifully-written book and a worthy addition to your pre-match routine.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Should we have a transfer window for managers?

Aitor Karanka's sacking by by Middlesbrough proves that with ten games to go, just about any club in Premier Lague trouble will now sack their boss in a desperate and the hope ofsome kind of 'new manager bounce'. Even Claudio Ranieri wasn't isolated from the tin-tack. Which just indicates what a dysfunctional industry football is. 

There's a case for having a transfer window (or sacking window?)  for managers. If gaffers could only be sacked in the summer or in January that would surely be better for the long-term future of the game, Under my system they would be allowed to resign at any time they wanted, but that would be a matter for the manager to judge. If the players and fans knew they were stuck with the same boss for the rest of the season then they would have to get behind the man or woman in the dugout.

In their book Why England Lose & Other Curious Football Phenomenon Explained (later re-published as Soccernomicsauthors Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski look at the panic-driven nature of most managerial appointments. "The new manager is hired in a mad rush," they write. He is interviewed cursorily and is often under-qualified and appointed because he is available and has achieved good results in the recent past. Above all, "He is chosen not for his managerial skills but because his name, appearance and skills at public relations are expected to impress the club's fans, players and media."

Craig Shakespeare has certainly done well in his first three games as Leicester's manager. He's been appointed for the rest of the season, but it's fair to say the Leicester board have stumbled on a solution rather than having a considered process for Ranieri's succession. Middlesbrough have opted for a similar stop-gap solution, appointing assistant Steve Agnew as caretaker manager.

Sacking a manager late in the season fails just as often as it succeeds. Leicester and Boro have sacked the managers who won the Premier League (Ranieri) and promotion (Karanka) in the previous season, in favour of caretakers who are untried at both management and working the transfer market. There has to be a better way to run an industry. 

Monday, 13 March 2017

Niasse, Carroll and Schneiderlin prove there's still value to be had in the transfer window

Clubs desperate to improve had to be creative in the January transfer window. The weekend's standout performances suggest there is still value to be had in the market. Signing an on-loan out-of-favour striker was the route taken by Hull City, and it's paid off in the form of Oumar Niasse, who scored twice against Swansea and has hit four so far for the Tigers. 

Niasse wasn't even given a shirt number at the start of the season, despite being the then third most expensive signing in Everton's history at £13.5 million from Lokomotiv Moscow in January 2016. Niasse was only given 152 minutes of football by Roberto Martinez and new manager Ronald Koeman clearly didn't fancy him either. It's hard to imagine another industry where a £13.5 million investment would be written off so easily. That's been to Hull's benefit though, as the striker has also scored against Man United and Liverpool and looks both angry and grateful to be at a club where he is wanted.

Niasse scored twice against Swansea, who themselves have benefited from a couple of shrewd signings by new manager Paul Clement. Tom Carroll was a promising young English reserve who got the odd Europa League game at Spurs. But given first-team football, he's blossomed into a real attacking threat. He fits well into Swansea's passing style and has also been swinging in delicious crosses for Llorente to head home, such as the brace the Spanish striker scored against Burnley. At 24 Carroll hasn't played enough regular football and Swansea are benefiting from his hunger. Not a bad punt at £4.5 million. 

Clement also made another shrewd signing, bagging left back Martin Olsson, a Swedish international, from Norwich City. Olsson had nine seasons of Premiership experience with Blackburn and Norwich, but seldom made the headlines. Swansea got him for around £4 million and he has added stability to the defence and scored against Burnley a fortnight ago. Not a bad price for a 28-year-old international left back.

One final case for a bargain signing, if you can call a £20m fee rising to  £24 million a bargain, was the performance of Morgan Schneiderlin in Everton's 3-0 win over West Brom. He was essential to Southampton and in 2012-13 made more interceptions in the Premier League than any other player. His old Saints manager Maurico Pochettino made strenuous efforts to sign him for Spurs, before he eventually joined Manchester United for £25 million in 2015. Yet United appeared drunk on midfielders, already having Carrick and signing Fellaini, Schweinsteiger and Pogba to compete with Schneiderlin. 

He got just 11 minutes playing time under Jose Mourinho this season, but is one of those metronome defensive midfielders like N'Golo Kante who help their whole team perform. Everton boss Koeman knew all about him from their season together at Southampton. The French midfielder scored his first goal against West Brom with a skilful jinked finish and was diligent all around the pitch, breaking up moves and instigating counter attacks and is set to be a key man at Goodison. 

There is still value to be had in the market and Hull, Swansea and Everton all appear to have improved their sides through judicious dealing in the notoriously difficult January transfer window.