Archive | November 2015

Manchester United: Or, Watching Pre-Dried Paint

Man Utd are boring, aren’t they?

There have been a few comparisons with Barcelona recently, cries of “tiki-taka” dogging Utd’s every game. Not the good Barca, obviously; fans would kill to see a Messi-Neymar-Suarez axis at Old Trafford, or Villa-Messi-Pedro, and at this point would probably even settle for Jeffren-Bojan-Cuenca (anyone remember them?). Watching their games isn’t like watching paint dry; it’s like watching already dried paint, missing even the thin sliver of anticipation at some form of movement or motion or, frankly, any point.

And the cause of this isn’t the players. Any squad containing Martial, Mata, Herrera, Young, Valencia (yup, he still exists), Darmian, Schweinsteiger and Memphis Depay should be able to play reasonably attractive football, at least some of the time; they are all good players, technically gifted and, in various ways, creative footballers. No, it isn’t the players. It’s what they’re being told to do.

Man Utd’s “philiosophy” isn’t tiki-taka, or even a reasonable interpretation of it. Tiki-taka is about drawing opposition players out of position with a series of short intricate passes, then exploiting that newly-created space. Utd don’t do that. They employ possession as a purely defensive tactic (which, in true tiki-taka, is only one aspect, perhaps even only a by-product, of the style of play), passing almost exclusively sideways and backwards. And this, often, results in fairly sterile games; fairly straightforward, really, but it doesn’t explain why Utd simply can’t look exciting in attack, ever.

Well, happily, and unlike Louis van Gaal apparently, I have the answer.

Man Utd are boring because they play almost exclusively in straight lines.

Hear me out. When a team attacks- a good team- it is, primarily, attempting to gain or create some space which it can exploit, whether out wide, through the centre or whatever. To do this, forwards make various types of runs in varied directions, hoping to pull defenders out of position and so create this space. It might be runs in behind, runs towards the ball, runs to the back or near post or down the sides- whatever. The point is, forwards don’t move in rigid lines, they curve around and cross over and change direction constantly. They move, interchange and overlap, creating fluid patterns which draw defenders into them like miniature whirlpools (when it works, obviously. Some just run around a lot).

Man Utd’s forwards don’t do that. They move in strict, regimented ways, either up and down a touchline or across lateral lines on the pitch. It’s not just the forwards, either; the fullbacks do it too. When does Darmian, for example, vary his runs, make diagonal movements, peel off to run in behind? For Torino, he did it often. For Man Utd, never- because he’s told not to.

The midfield are at it, too; each has a strict and rigid position that they are not allowed to break. Utd’s system has one deep-lying centre midfielder (who moves in a straight line between his centre-backs and the edge of the centre-circle in the opponent’s half), one “box-to-box” midfielder (who moves in a straight line between the centre spot and the opposition penalty spot), and one creative midfielder (who moves across the width of the pitch but rarely, if ever, is allowed to move vertically, say, into the penalty area). Which is fine for keeping possession; all the players know where the other players are, so can play passes without really having to look, and know exactly where their support is when they are in trouble. They don’t lost the ball often, and that, coupled with David de Gea and the still strange reluctance of teams to actually attack them, explains the defensive record.

But when it comes to, well, actually scoring goals, or providing some entertainment… well, any properly organised team can pretty easily defend, because they aren’t really being asked any questions by clever (or any) movement. It’s only a combination of the soporific effect of seeing a hundred sideways passes in a row and the sight of an animated beanpole with a giant afro warming up on the touchline that lets Utd score at all.

Actually, this is being unfair to Man Utd, because one player in the system does have a little freedom, and this player is usually Antony Martial.

And Martial is talented, no doubt about it. Quick, stronger than he looks, and an excellent dribbler, I’d quite like him if he hadn’t made a Faustian pact and sold his soul to the Red Devils. Recent criticism of him by, among others, Paul Scholes, was a little unfair- but it is also understandable, and comes about because Martial is being asked to do too much. Being the only player who is actually allowed to dribble, to make runs, to move away from his tramline and act like a careening out-of-control car flying off the sharp bend in the motorway- allowed, in other words, to actually be a forward- he is tasked with, basically, creating enough space for all the other straight-line people to exploit. And he’s 19, in a new league, with a strike partner who both looks and increasingly plays like a potato. Messi and Neymar wouldn’t look brilliant doing that, because it’s practically impossible.

You might argue that this doesn’t matter, given that Utd are third in the table and still in with a shout of qualifying for the next round of the Champions League. Football’s a results business, after all, and endless 1-0s are just as good as 5-0 thumpings…

Except that they aren’t, are they. Football is about entertainment, especially when a team has the quality and resources to be entertaining, especially when a team has the legacy of thrilling Champions League finals and fantastic (if annoying) attacking players and moves. I’m not a Manchester United fan- the most recent Arsenal-Utd game had me laughing for about three days afterwards- but at least it used to be that, when I did watch them, I was entertained. Annoyed, sickened, and often furious, yes, but entertained.

When that’s gone- when football really is about grinding out results, about rigid lines and results above all… well, then, it will be like watching dried paint. Unfulfilling, pointless… and boring.

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Mystic Matt’s Premier League Predictions

Regular readers of my blog (which is the same as saying “imaginary friends” in many ways) will know that, when last we saw him, Mystic Matt was in hiding after several Russian gentlemen objected to his continuous slander of a certain London-based football team. Well, it’s impossible to hide forever, and so Matt has spent the last few months tied to a chair somewhere in Siberia, undergoing the worst torture imaginable: watching all of Manchester United’s games on repeat. However, following recent difficulties on the pitch, the Russians were distracted long enough for Matt to escape (rumours that a certain doctor was involved are, of course, entirely spurious), and so…

He’s back! And ready to type up some Premier League predictions with the fingers he has left…

 

Manchester City 3-1 Liverpool (Sterling (obviously), De Bruyne)

The best attack in the Premier League against Dejan Lovren and Simon Mignolet. Jurgen Klopp has already made an impact at Liverpool, the team looking far more solid and organised under the German than it ever did under the “outstanding” Brendan Rodgers. But his methods will take time to properly implement, especially given the general lack of tactical intelligence inherent in English football, and he seems to lose another key player to injury every week.

The Ginger Messi

The Ginger Messi

The latest, of course, being Mamadou Sakho, who is quite possibly my favourite Premiership player (he’s like a talented Djimi Traore, a phrase which admittedly constitutes one of the signs of the Apocalypse). Without him martialling the backline and providing incisive passes into the front men, Liverpool will struggle both in defence and attack. Man City, on the other hand, have two of the best defenders in the league in Kompany and Otamendi, currently the best Belgian in the Premier League in Kevin De Bruyne, and morality’s Raheem Sterling stepping up in place of the injured Silva. Oh, and Aguero might be back (so might Daniel Sturridge, but only if he avoids being injured by a light breeze in the next couple of days). Still, at least Chelsea are crap…

 

Chelsea 2-1 Norwich City (Willian, Costa; Mbokani)

…but they’re still more than capable of beating Norwich, a team that made Liverpool look half-decent earlier in the season. Whilst Chelsea’s back line is increasingly resembling one of those elderly rock bands that reform after losing all their money and realise that while the wallet’s willing the vocal chords just can’t cut it any more (deep breath), Norwich don’t have enough to really exploit that. Having said that, big powerful strikers do seem to be doing well against John Terry in particular, so Mbokani (or Cameron Jerome, although “striker” isn’t the best word to describe him) could snatch something there. Chelsea have better players, even if one of them spends more time telling people they smell than actually playing football, and after 3-1 defeats to both Southampton and Liverpool, won’t want to let Norwich extend the talk of a Chelsea crisis. See, I managed to get through a whole piece about Chelsea without mentioning how much Jose Mourinho is coming to resemble Peter Finch’s character from Network….

 

Everton 3- 0 Aston Villa (Lukaku (2), Kone)

Everton are in a good place right now. Keeping John Stones at the club over the summer and signing the excellent Gerard Deulofeu (who has scored 5 goals for Spain Under-21s in the last two games) were both excellent pieces of business, and with their passing game, so stale last season, has shown signs of rediscovering its zip and zing this

After all, they couldn't even beat Chelsea...

After all, they couldn’t even beat Chelsea…

season. Defensive injuries apart, they should prove too much for an Aston Villa side that approached last summer’s transfer window like a twelve-year-old who’s discovered Football Manager for the first time. Admittedly, they looked much better against Swansea than they have at any other point this season, possibly due to having a manager who realises it takes more to build a team than a gilet, but they’re still weak in both defence and attack and have Alan Hutton in the starting line-up. Expect Lukaku to avoid Micah Richards, who’s actually half-decent, and pull onto Ciaran Clark/ Joleon Lescott, who aren’t.

 

Newcastle United 2-2 Leicester City (Wijnaldum, Sissoko; Mahrez (2))

Will Jamie Vardy break a Premier League record? Nope- partly because he might not shake off an injury, partly because fairy tales don’t happen in football (oh, Stevie…). Leicester, though, have been brilliant this season. Mahrez has obviously been their creative spark, but Kante, Schlupp, Albrighton and Kasper Schmeichel have been excellent too, and Claudio Raneiri has deservedly shaken off all the critics who deem getting Chelsea into second place somehow proof that he’s rubbish. As for Newcastle… well, sometimes the league table does lie, and they’re better than the 17th place they currently find themselves in. Steve Maclaren is another manager who’s been unfairly pilloried by the media, and despite the annual inexplicable loss to Sunderland the Magpies have looked pretty decent in recent weeks. With the aforementioned Leicester players facing off against Mitrovic, Wijnaldum, Sissoko and the superb if mercurial Florian Thauvin, expect lots of goals in this one.

Some Premier League thoughts

It’s been a while, but I thought I’d share a few thoughts about the Premier League so far.

Man City look good…

There are some players that you want to hate, but can’t quite bring yourself to. Maybe they’re a bit rubbish but seem like nice people (the Jose Enrique/ Peter Crouch syndrome); maybe they cost you a title by slipping at the worst possible moment but were bloody good in their day (oh, Stevie…). And then there are those who seem like petty, egotistical, badly-advised arseholes who nevertheless happen to be fantastic players. Raheem Sterling is one of them.

Still can't get over this. Why, Stevie?

Still can’t get over this. Why, Stevie?

He’s been brilliant at times this season, dovetailing with Aguero, Silva, and Bony, beating full-backs for fun and proving tactically intelligent to boot. Along with the also-excellent De Bruyne, who seems out to prove some form of point to an ex-manager who didn’t think he was good enough, he’s given City another dimension this season. Added to the acquisition of Nicholas Otamendi, and with Fabian “U-Turn” Delph still to come, this team is going places, and with style.

Unless they still have a bit of the old Man City in them, in which case they’ll somehow manage to mess it up.

 

…but Man Utd don’t…

Pragmatism can be an excellent trait. If you’re starving in a forest, for example, with nothing to eat except your elderly relative who, let’s face it, won’t last much longer anyway, well, pragmatism will save your life (and quite possibly keep a therapist in business further down the line, so there’s that). When you’re Manchester United, when you’ve spent hundreds of millions of pounds, and when pragmatism takes the form, still, of lumping a ball up to Fellaini, well, it’s not so admirable. Frankly, despite being fourth, that United are still scraping out wins whilst looking stodgy and dull is a bit concerning.

There’s an argument to be had, as well, that Van Gaal isn’t even being pragmatic with his stifling style of play. Pragmatism (in football) is about taking the best route to victory, no matter the ethics or unwritten rules it breaks. Being incredibly boring, with a squad containing Depay, Mata, Herrera, Schweinsteiger, Darmian and the genuinely Henry-like Martial… well, there’s probably a better way for them to play than passing it back to Chris (Michael?) Smalling every twenty seconds.

 

…and Chelsea are even worse…

What the hell is going on at Chelsea?

I’m not a Mourinho fan. Not in the slightest. But even I’m starting to feel sorry for a man who, at times, seems like

No, Jose, they aren't out to get you...

No, Jose, they aren’t out to get you…

he’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Some of his decisions- dropping Matic for Mikel (which is like, on the opening night of a Led Zeppelin tour, replacing Jimmy Page with Mr Blobby), persisting with a clearly struggling Ivanovic, the whole Eva Carneiro debacle, buying Radamael Falcao- have been bewildering, so much so that you wonder if he’s channelling Willy Wonka without any of the magic. Add that to the paranoia, and there’s some inkling as to why things are derailing…

But then, you have to look at the players too. When they have played, Matic and Fabregas have been shadows of what they were last season, Hazard even more so. Ivanovic seems to have deteriorated faster than a molecule of Hydrogen-7. Terry, who looked impervious last season (admittedly with a great deal of midfield protection in front of him)…well, if he was a Grand National horse, the boltgun would be being loaded by now, however much that might get me the Robbie Savage treatment.* All the defensive solidity exhibited – well, not just this season, but by every single Mourinho team that’s ever existed- it’s gone, in the blink of an eye.

Not that it won’t get sorted out in short order. But still, enjoy while it lasts.

 

Speaking of which…

Isn’t the Premier League odd?

On the one hand, it just seems a bit…well, dull, this season. Leicester (and the usual City and Arsenal) aside, a lot of the games have been a bit turgid, a bit lacking in quality, a bit blood-and-thunder without the usual excitement these things bring. There aren’t many games I can think of that will go down as classics- maybe the Arsenal-Man Utd game, maybe Newcastle’s 6-2, maybe a couple of Leicester’s comebacks. But otherwise, it seems to have been a case of teams cancelling each other out (possibly because everyone wants to play on the counter-attack these days, so everyone sits too deep and can’t break down packed defences)…

And on the other hand, have you seen some of the players mid-table clubs have managed to get? Stoke now have Shaqiri to push alongside Bojan (who I really, really like). Newcastle have Florian Thauvin. Swansea have Andre Ayew. Saido Mane looks excellent for Southampton. And, perhaps best of all, West Ham have managed to lure Dimitri Payer to the Boleyn Ground, the best player in France last season (sorry, Zlatan) who already looks a cut above in terms of class. Add that to Salomon Rondon, Gerard Deulofeu, and Yohann Cabaye, and the Premier League, at least on paper, looks better than it has for a long time.

 

There are some early relegation candidates…

Bournemouth might be the unluckiest club in the league. Having lost half of their first-team to long term injuries, having lost to Liverpool thanks to an incredibly offside goal and a wrongly-disallowed effort of their own, and having by far the lowest budget of any of the league teams, their goalkeeper goes and does this. They’re on course to join Burnley and Blackpool in the elite “Teams you didn’t really want to go down but did” club, almost certainly not just because of the alliteration.

Aston Villa are crap. That’s all that really needs to be said, there; their defence is poor, their midfield is poor, and their strikers are poor as well. Remi Garde (see, Villa, I can spell his name right) has a hell of a job.

As does Sam Allardyce, the man with chip onn his shoulder so big that it could feed a family for a fortnight. This isn’t a new observation- it holds true for the last three seasons, at least- but Sunderland are awful. Their defenders, indeed, have managed to reach a new peak of awfulness which makes it look like they’re just vessels controlled by small alien life-forms who’ve never seen football before but quite enjoy the round white thing going past the tall man with the disbelieving expression on his face. I mean, of course they beat Newcastle, but even George “Tax-Credit-Defeat” Osborne could have predicted that one.

 

And the obligatory Liverpool analysis…

Here seen sorting out the EU crisis in his spare time

Here seen sorting out the EU crisis in his spare time

Klopp is fantastic. That is all.

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