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

Are aliens 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. 

Friday, 10 March 2017

Above Head Height scores with tales of faded replica shirts and ten-yard piledrivers

For those of us who have spent much of our lives playing five-a-side while pretending to be our childhood heroes, there’s much to enjoy in Above Head Height, James Brown’s memoir of the not-so beautiful game.

The former Loaded and GQ editor neatly captures the world of smelly socks, bags behind goals, people who run like cartoon characters and middle-aged men in faded replica shirts scrambling over fences and up netting to retrieve lost balls. Brown realises that he’s spent 30-odd years playing five-a-side with men whom he knows very little about beyond their on-pitch personas. It’s a world of characters called Old Geoff, Big Ben, Little John, Sunderland Graham, Charlton Dave and Derby Dave’s brother Andy.

The book contains the odd celebrity anecdote but not too many, such as playing football with the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones in California. There’s a personal story too — the game has certainly helped James following the excesses of the 1990s and he’s now given up alcohol and drugs, instead relying on a fix of tarmac, AstroTurf and wooden gym floors at his Spitalfields of glory.

A lot of this stuff seems familiar; the realisation of a middle-aged man that he’s now got an upturned wok stuffed down his jumper, the desperate attempts to play through injury and his pride at playing with his son. He’s also very good on the seemingly endless street games of childhood headers and volleys while growing up in Leeds and the unsung characters who organise games for decades, keeping payment records and tattered books of phone numbers while always trying to get the numbers even.

Above Head Height should appeal to anyone who's gone home on the tube in a football kit. It’s a book that celebrates the joy of socks and scores after a one-two off the boards. Click on the link for details. 

Monday, 6 March 2017

Body language and modern football: Sanchez and Arsenal no longer hand in glove

Perhaps football clubs should now employ body language experts as well as sports psychologists. Alexis Sanchez is rumoured to have had a training ground row with his Arsenal teammates, resulting in his demotion to the bench against Liverpool. The Chilean's apparent discontent was first identified during glove-gate at Bournemouth. Despite the Gunners recovering from a 0-3 deficit to draw 3-3, at the final whistle Sanchez was spotted throwing his gloves to the ground in the manner of a 'terrible twos' tantrum. 

Short of ripping up a snood in the noughties you couldn't hope for a better display of modern footballing stroppiness. The Sun reported that he was also seen 'waving his arms and shouting to himself' and stormed off down the tunnel looking a bit cross. The Guardian wrote that after being subbed at Swansea Sanchez was seen to "trudge off head down, and sit sulkily without acknowledging his manager." He then pulled a coat hood over his head and hid. And now he's been caught possibly sniggering behind his hand after being subbed in the 5-1 home humiliation by Bayern Munich.

These days footballers' body language is examined with the assiduity we used to apply to Hollywood divas. Every Diego Costa scowl or bib toss is analysed. In 2015 West Brom's Saido Berahino was accused of not smiling when he scored a hat-trick against Gateshead in the FA Cup. While West Ham's Dimitri Payet was also accused of not celebrating by some fans when West Ham equalised against Man United in a League Cup tie this season. 

Call me old-fashioned, but couldn't we have a return to the more traditional body language of footballers? When Eric Cantona was upset by a red card you didn't have to analyse what he did with his collar — he simply kicked a Crystal Palace supporter in the head. West Ham's Paulo Di Canio made rotating signals with his arms suggesting that Harry Redknapp substitute him when he was denied a third penalty appeal against Bradford in 2000. Kevin  Keegan and Billy Bremner ostentatiously threw their shirts to the ground after being sent off in the 1974 Charity Shield. No mistaking how they felt there.

While if Wimbledon's Vinnie Jones was feeling a little nervous he launched himself like an Inter City 125 at Liverpool's Steve McMahon in the 1988 FA Cup Final. If he was feeling a bit more playful he just grabbed Gazza by the testicles.

These days Match of the Day 2 is left analysing facial tics and glove-hurling. Don't mess around with gloves Alexis. If you feel upset with one of your team-mates go at it like team-mates Lee Bowyer and Keiron Dyer did during their infamous Newcastle bundle of 2005 — the sort of body language no-one could misinterpret.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Ibrahimovic: When genius and ego go hand in hand

Zlatan Ibrahimovic always knew he was going to score. There’s a hint of Cantona about the way the Swede has galvanised Man United and helped the club take home an undeserved League Cup. Like Eric, he looks around Old Trafford and thinks is the club big enough for me rather than vice versa. That outstretched arms celebration (the angel of the north-west?) declares never mind the gaffer, I am the Special One. This is a man who can state, in all seriousness, “I am a lion” and casually mentions his 32 trophies in the post-match interviews.

Zlatan might have an ego the size of the Shard (as does Ronaldo who even has his own CR9 crockery) but it is his self-belief that separates him from other players. In his book What Sport Tells Us About Life, former cricketer Ed Smith makes a convincing case that genius, arrogance and even madness are often bedfellows. He agues that Zinedine Zidane headbutted Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup Final partly because he was convinced that he would score the winning goal in his final game. Only when Buffon made a great save from Zidane’s header in the 104th minute, the French talisman short-circuited. Discovering his triumph was not inevitable, Zidane exploded when Materazzi gave him some verbal abuse and was sent off for that infamous butt.

Mathew Syed writes in Bounce how many players and athletes turn to God, believing that Divine help will cause them to succeed. It might not make sense, but the elimination of doubt does seem to have a positive effect in sport. Brian Clough (like Zlatan a number nine) said when he was appointed at Hartlepool: “Age does not count. It’s what you know about football that matters. I know I am better than the 500 or so managers who have been sacked since the war. If they had known anything about the game they wouldn’t have lost their jobs."

Tony Cascarino revealed in his book Full Time how he was beset by doubts, choking when one-on-one with the keeper. You can’t imagine Ibrahimovic hesitating. He knows he will score because in his own mind he is the best. As he said after scoring that late header against Southampton at Wembley: “I look good. I know I look good. I feel fresh. I feel good. I feel like an animal… I came when people thought it was impossible for me to do what I am able to do. It feels good. I am enjoying it. The important thing is what I believed. What I predicted. That is exactly what I am doing.”

Friday, 24 February 2017

Ranieri also a victim of levelling up at the bottom

The brutal sacking of Claudio Ranieri might have made cold economic sense to Leicester's owners, but what price the loss of public affection? Last season many a neutral fan shed a tear at their story; they've now become the side most people want to see relegated. Ranieri was certainly let down by players like Mahrez, Vardy and Drinkwater who didn't match last season's standards and he made some indifferent signings.

But the club has also been the victim of a levelling out of standards among the bottom 14 clubs. Last season they overachieved by 20 per cent and profited from the terrible form of the top six. This season they have underachieved by 20 per cent. That can make a big difference when all the teams have huge sums of TV money to spend and there are no truly bad sides. Is there really that much difference between say Midlands rivals Stoke, West Brom and Leicester? Factor in injuries or loss of form to say Rondon and McAuley and Arnautovic and Shawcross and Albion or Stoke might be fourth from bottom. 

The Premier League used to have whipping boys like Derby in 2007-08  (a record low of 11 points), Sunderland in 2005-06 (15 points) and Aston Villa last season (17 points). Yet it's hard to find a truly bad side now. There's been some terrible defending admittedly, from top and bottom sides, but Sunderland are improving under David Moyes and new bosses Clement and Silva have inspired mini-revivals at Swansea and Hull City and Big Sam will surely improve results at Palace. There are good players too; many a Premier League side would like to recruit Defoe, Sigurdsson, Maguire or Zaha. Perhaps the weakest sides on paper are Bournemouth and Burnley, but they both have inspirational young managers in Eddie Howe and Sean Dyche. Indeed, perhaps Leicester could learn from the example of Burnley. They went down with Dyche, but kept faith in his ability and saw him win promotion and then rise to mid-table in the Premier League. 

Leicester's owners have destroyed some of the romance of the game and should never have sacked Ranieri after what he achieved. But it's the levelling up of the bottom pack outside the top six that has caused the board to panic. The motto of my daughter's school is "always tighten your helmet strings after battle" and that is what Leicester have failed to do this season. In a levelled-out league any lowering in intensity can cause a slump towards the relegation zone and that has cost Claudio his job. 

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Is Mourinho about to become Special again?

There’s a revealing insight in Duncan Hamilton’s Provided You Don’t Kiss Me where Hamilton, then a journalist at the Nottingham Evening Post, wonders why Clough is so excited at beating Leyton Orient to win the Anglo-Scottish Cup with Nottingham Forest in 1976. Clough explains that winning he first trophy is always the most difficult.

Jose Mourinho probably has similar sentiments about the League Cup — he has made a habit of making it his first trophy. During his initial spell at Chelsea the Blues lifted the trophy in 2005, beating Liverpool 3-2. When he returned to Stamford Bridge his side again won the trophy in 2015, beating Spurs 2-0.

It’s possible that Southampton could pull off a Bobby-Stokes-type shock on Sunday and repeat their 1976 FA Cup Final triumph against United. But without the departed Fonte and injured Van Dijk it’s surely doubtful the Saints defence can hold out against Ibrahimovic, a player with a Shard-sized ego, but who produces on the big occasion. Despite United's fixture congestion you'd also expect Mourinho to come up with some winning tactical ploys. 

When Mourinho becomes playful instead of churlish, the signs are he’s on the way to trophies. The master defensive tactician has been mischievously boasting about the attacking football his team are playing. “We were phenomenal, at Man United you have to play in a certain way,” he gushed after a win against Watford. He even called his old charges at Chelsea “very defensive.” The last time he looked this confident was when he started talking at Chelsea about his team being, “Beautiful young eggs, eggs that need a mum, in this case a dad, to take care of them.”

His work has been impressive at United so far. The club has spent a fortune since Ferguson left (Di Maria anyone?) and are still over-reliant on a 35-year-old striker. But since a 4-0 hammering at Chelsea United have gone 16 games unbeaten in the league.

Mourinho made big statements early. He didn’t include World Cup winner Sebastien Schweinsteiger in the squad and dropped Wayne Rooney — though his man management appears to have been good enough to ensure Rooney is still behind the team. He’s refusing to play the £27 million left back Luke Shaw because the men in possession of the shirts are doing well. When Jones and Rojo were doing well as a centre back pairing earlier this season they retained their places.

Above all Jose seems to coaxing the likes of Mata and Herrera into becoming better team players and getting consistent performances from the lesser stars like Valencia. He’s challenged players like Mkhitaryan to produce in his system and they have. While he’s even praising Marouane Fellaini (at some personal risk, the Belgian’s hug after scoring agains Hull nearly smothered the diminutive Mourinho) and emphasizing how important he is to the group.

Should United win the League Cup they could then challenge for the Europa League and FA Cup this season the title next season. At present there’s a jauntiness about Mourinho — he even clapped Blackburn’s goal against United in the FA Cup — that suggests the Special One might be back.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

The key question for Arsenal: what happens to Wenger's duvet coat?

In all the articles on the Wenger succession at Arsenal one crucial question has been missed. What happens to Arsene Wenger’s duvet coat? You know the coat, the padded winter number that Arsene has terrible trouble zipping up, the one that stretches down to his calves. As someone once quipped, he resembles a particularly well-insulated boiler. Arsene looks eminently capable of spending a night alone in the French Alps with just his coat as a bivvy-bag.

If the duvet coat is to go to Arsene's successor then he has to be a very tall gaffer indeed, a man in the Jurgen Klopp or Peter Crouch mould. The coat would simply envelop diminutive bosses like Antonio Conte so the Gunners’ board should immediately being a height requirement into their planning. They can probably rule out Big Sam on the grounds of busted seams.

Other clubs have made similar mistakes. Part of the problem with the botched departure of Alex Ferguson from Manchester United was that David Moyes was not handed Fergie’s black Crombie, worn in his latter-days over a black zipped-up polo-neck, the one that made him look like an elderly Glaswegian bouncer as he squared up to Roberto Mancini.

Wenger’s duvet coat has proved so vital to Arsenal in winning the Wenger Cup (fourth place) over the last decade that it might even be given its own role after his retirement. Perhaps with advances in technology, some sort of Wenger-bot could be created to fit the duvet coat. It could sleep at the training ground and appear in the directors' box, occasionally kicking a water bottle and telling journalists that in England we are always one game away from a crisis. As indeed are Arsenal, unless they identify a plan for the duvet coat.

Friday, 17 February 2017

When good gaffers get mad — the art of lashing out in the technical area

So West Ham boss Slaven Bilic has escaped with an £8000 fine for trashing a TV microphone boom against West Brom. It’s not easy for an irate gaffer to find a new inanimate object to trash near his technical area. Presumably the FA gave Bilic some credit for his innovative choice, rather than just kicking the traditional water bottle.

The FA's decision will inevitably annoy Jose Mourinho who was given a touchline ban after theatrically kicking a water bottle against the Hammers in December. As Bilic quipped after the game: “The problem is that he hit that bottle like — well it was a great volley, to be fair. He should have miskicked it! He hit it too good.”

Water-bottle kicking has also been exploited by Arsene Wenger, who once beat the ground with an imperfectly closed water bottle against Spurs and greeted a disallowed Arsenal goal at Old Trafford by kicking a water bottle only to get his angles all wrong and scoop it up into the air with his right foot.

Hitting the bottle can be a dangerous exercise for the modern gaffer. Tim Sherwood managed to pull a hamstring backheeling a water bottle when Aston Villa drew with Sunderland in 2015

Lashing out can take many forms. Tim Sherwood was also prone to chucking his gilet on the ground in a fit of pique, while more bellicose bosses have taken it out on opposing players. Alan Pardew, then at Newcastle, was banned from the touchline for seven games after going head to head with Hull’s David Meyler in 2014 while Leicester’s Nigel Pearson ‘light-heartedly’ placed his arms around the neck of the prone James McArthur in 2015.

Premier League bosses are uneasily caged in their technical areas; ready to lash out at just about anything that comes close. Perhaps we should credit Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp for resisting the urge to stamp on his own glasses during Liverpool’s recent poor run.