Archive for July, 2006

Man for the Middle

Whatever Alex Ferguson has seen in Michael Carrick that makes him believe that he is the key to unlocking Chelsea’s domestic hegemony, clearly the prescription for his corrective lenses are weaker even that of Sven Goran Eriksson’s. If one were to embark on a self-flagellating (or, if one were not an England fan, simply mean-spirited) attempt to salvage England’s Titanic of a World Cup campaign, one could at least say that Eriksson realised that there was one player who needed to be thrown overboard before the waters lapped too high. That man was Michael Carrick who stood out in England’s midfield only because he played the straight man to Frank Lampard’s slapstick clown. But while as a double act they must have had all of England’s potential opponents clutching at their sides and with tears of delight dribbling down their cheeks, neither offered much to please the true football fan.

Carrick was tentative, unsure, and often absent, and that was in a five-man midfield, specially deployed to make use of the extra man to maintain possession in the midfield. With Manchester United favouring four-four-two, there will be more space, and as such, more responsibilities on the shoulders of the central midfielders. Unfortunately, more space would seem merely to indicate more room in which Mr Carrick will be able to absent himself from the match taking place around him. No, Ferguson is looking at the wrong world cup squad from which to bolster his ragtag midfield. It is not England, as anyone who understands that midfielders must be able to pass intelligently could tell you, but a country who has gone forgotten amid the furore surrounding the decline of Brazil, and the rise and fall of Zinedine Zidane. That midfield is the midfield of the only African team to make it into the second round; Ghana.

That Ghana lost to a fading Brazil team is not an indictment of the Ghanaians, but rather their defence and an outrageous decision by the assistant referee to allow the South Americans to score the second goal which effectively ended the game as a contest. Up until that point, the Ghanaians had been looking like the only team who ere going to score. Brazil were on the back foot, being thoroughly outpaced, muscled and thought by a quicker, stronger and more alert midfield unit. And this was a midfield playing without the player of the group stages, Michael Essien. Essien was suspended after picking up two yellow cards in his first three matches. But in those three matches, the man who has earned a reputation as a thug in his first season at Chelsea showed that, given the reigns of midfield, is worth every penny of the millions of pounds that were shelled out for him. Essien is likely to be joining Shaun Wright-Phillips on the bench for most of next season; the arrival of Michael Ballack, who will surely join funny man Lampard and defensive specialist Claude Makelele on the list of untouchables, means that the Ghanaian may well be the odd one out.

Yet, if Manchester want to find a player to control that midfield, not in the way that Roy Keane did, but with more skill, pace and acumen, then surely Mr Essien is the man Ferguson requires. And if Essien is unavailable, then one of his colleagues from the national team, notably Udinese’s Sully Muntari or Fenerbahçe’s Stephen Appiah. Mention has been made in recent times of Ferguson losing the plot in spectacular fashion. By passing on this trio in favour of underperforming Mr Carrick,  it does seem that these accusations may not be without foundation

World Cup Gripes, Vol. 1

The World Cup has come to a close, Italy have deservedly taken home the trophy for the next four years and as a nation Germany have put on a sparkling show that will set the hosting benchmark for tournaments to come. So what better way to celebrate the conclusion of the grandest festival of the world’s sport than with a list of complaints?

First, though not necessarily foremost, the local commentary. I was forced to watch the 1998 World Cup in the United States, and the flagrant ignorance of the basic rules and terminology of the game evinced by the ABC team has become the touchstone of incompetence in football commentary. It is with this in mind that I declare that unless American punditry has improved exponentially (or the ABC/ESPN crew have all been shot and replaced with speaking androids or Alan Shearer), Japan will never be home to the worst in football commentary. Never, never. However they are pretty uninspiring. The in-game commentary is done by people who seem to have a fair notion of the rules of association football, but clearly lack glasses with prescriptions strong enough to enable them to discern what is actually happening on the field of play. In the final, French substitute Alou Diarra was booked for raising his arm dangerously high in an aerial challenge. The commentators’ first question was ‘Was that Makelele?” Now, given that Alou Diarra is the physical clone of the man he replaced, Patrick Viera, who stands an awkward six foot three, and that Claude Makele is a significantly more compact three foot six, or thereabouts, one would expect anyone with any knowledge of football at this level to tell them apart on sight.

Beyond that, every time the ball went into touch, commentators never seemed sure what was going to happen next. “Oh, it’s a corner!” exclaimed one man in disbelief even though Stevie Wonder himself could have told you that goalkeeper had clearly pushed the ball past the far post. “It would seem that the referee has blown for a foul!” would be declared, with no touch of irony, in moments such as Deco’s attempt to relieve John Heitinga of his leg below the knee.

tonii!Most odious of all was bleach blond grandad chav expat Tony(in the picture to the left), or Tonii as his name reads when converted into the script that Japanese use for all things foreign (or is that just for foreign things of poor taste?). Tony must be well into his fifties and wears enormous plastic-rimmed glasses that must have been nicked from some poor child’s Halloween costume. His hair is has been chemically coaxed a shade of eye-aching yellow that suggests some sort of laboratory accident, rather than peroxide is to blame. If the power were to fail in the studio, doubtless a solar panel could be used to harness the radiation emanating from Tonii’s skull and convert it into electrical energy.

Tonii’s most enlightening comments are along the lines of “The English really enjoy their soccer” and, during halftime of the final, “Ribery is really fast, isn’t he.” To which the rejoinder, from an equally fatuous though better groomed member of the commentary team, was “Wow, yes, he is very fast.”

It makes me long for the vibrant and insightful analysis of the BBC’s Wrighty, Brighty, and, of course, Al.

Enough gripes for one post. More to follow in due course.

ladies and gentlemen…

…we have a match on our hands!

first dubious reffing decision of the day…

Malouda tumbles…

but vindication for materazzi who was unjustly ajudged to have fouled the frenchman comes a few minutes later. the inter milan centre back rises majestically over viera to meet pirlo’s deep corner and power past the hapless barthez.

Italy will meet France in the final

I haven’t seen the match yet; unfortunately it was one of the few matches unavailable on a local station. I was planning to watch the delayed broadcast this evening, but unfortunately the beans were spilt at work. I don’t know the actual score, but i’m not really in the mood to wait any more. Especially as the match involved two teams I never particularly wanted to see in the finals.

Bye bye, England

It is tantalisingly ironic that by far England’s best performance in the tournament saw as its reward another demoralising defeat by penalty kicks. England were the better team for much of this match; they created most of the chances, and, even after Wayne Rooney’s dismissal, looked the likelier team to find the net. England dominated the midfield; Owen Hargreaves was outstanding in the holding role, and after Rooney left the pitch, the Bayern Munich man was easily the most dynamic player on the pitch. Frank Lampard was his usual disappointing self, fluffing his lines to scuff over the bar England’s most presentable chance of the first half. Had he been unfit, as per the wishes of this observer, England might have started with Michael Carrick or even Jermaine Jenas alongside Hargreaves in the centre of midfield. As it was, Lampard was exposed at both ends of the pitch, where his lack of confidence and pace became serious liabilities.

But not liabilities as serious as that of captain David Beckham’s continued presence, ostensibly on the right wing. Beckham has not been a right-winger for his country for some time now, but as long as he was exerting a genuine influence on proceedings, his desire to stray from the touchline could be tolerated. More recently however, his contributions have been pedestrian at best. It is true that he is a fantastic striker of the ball, but he no longer lacks the ability to find the space to send in his trademarks crosses. Beckham has famously never been quick, but his inexhaustible motor took him up and down the touchline with all the assuredness of the little engine that could. But he has not only lost what little pace he may have had, he has lost the ability to chug up and down the field, choosing instead to stroll arbitrarily around the right-hand side of the pitch. As a result, when he receives the ball it is not by the corner flag, or in any zone in line with the penalty area. In fact he receives the ball nowhere useful at all. Instead of launching in crosses from dangerous positions, Beckham’s long balls are often speculative punts from distance, easily dealt with by any halfway competent defence. People claimed Beckham was a one trick pony; now he is a lame one trick pony. Beckham’s free kick delivery is still above average, but is it worth keeping an otherwise useless player on the pitch just because he can kick a mean deadball? Aren’t Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Joe Cole and others all meant to be useful takers of free kicks?

When Aaron Lennon came on for Beckham he immediately changed the way England looked. Suddenly they had penetration down that flank. Suddenly Portugal’s left back had to start to worry, midfielders had to track back, space was opening in the final third of the pitch as Portuguese players had to worry about tracking both Lennon and the space he was unlocking.

In the end, England lost, but at least the future is still bright. Beckham has relinquished his carefully manicured grasp on the captaincy and with it the air of invincibility (read ‘undropablity’) that infuriated much of the England fan base must surely have crumbled and blown away like dust in the wind. Let’s hope that for all his proximity to the debacle of the latter years of the Beckham regime, new England manager Steve McClaren will not be afraid to ring in the changes.

Argentina’s problems of Pekerman’s making

As Argentina soiled their reputation with the ugly scenes that followed Friday’s match against Germany, the truth was they had only themselves to blame for their predicament. Perhaps that guilt was responsible for the collective red mist that descended over the squad from South America as they thundered en masse to engage in fisticuffs with a German team that had allegedly been taunting them after Esteban Cambiasso’s woeful final penalty.

The game was lost on the flanks, where Argentina had little width. Fabricio Coloccini didn’t offer any dynamism going forward, and on the left Carlos Tevez was ineffectual. Tevez appeared to be suffering a case of Eagerbeaveritis. This was his first start in a meaningful match this tournament, and so happy was he to have been taken off his leash that he scampered up and down the pitch, and round and round with the glee of a dog who has just rediscovered his own tail. Tevez was arguably included to trouble the German right back, Arne Friedrich. All he succeeded in was troubling the legions of onlookers wondering how a man who for a year has been far and away the best player in Brazilian football could look so naïve.

The Crespo/Saviola combination had worked wonders for Argentina. The only time in this world cup, before Friday, that they did not start together, was the final game of the already qualified for the second round, manager Jose Pekerman chose to have a closer look at Tevez and Lionel Messi. Argentina did not find the target in that match.

I do wonder what Pekerman was thinking with his substitutions. It is true that goalkeeper Roberto Abbondanzieri’s withdrawal was forced on him by injury. However, withdrawing flagging playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme for defensive midfielder Cambiasso was a flagrant infraction of the rules of beautiful football. And not just because of the hair. Rather, it was because it smacked of a defeatism not associated with Argentinean football, at least not the electrifying football that has been embraced under Pekerman’s reign. It was the sort of tactic you would expect a certain dour-faced, balding man who until recently was leading one of the British nations to have employed; namely thanking your lucky stars for a lead of any sorts, and then bringing off your most creative players and replacing them with destructive ones.

Riquelme was struggling, but had he come off, surely Pablo Aimar, or the ball-keeping talents of Messi were in order. With the possibility always remaining that Germany would equalise, why deprive your team its primary source of game-winning extemporisation? Ever since the squad was named, Argentina has been the source of much jealousy for its attacking depth. Riquelme having an off day? Say hello to Mr Aimar. Saviola dripping over his buck teeth? Time for Mr Messi to save the day. Crespo looking out of sorts. That’s your cue, Mr Tevez.

In fact, it was not Riquelme’s but surely Crespo’s substitution that has been the source of the most post match analysis. Crespo was not particulary effective, but then again he is a player you never want to withdraw. Much like Ronaldo he can drift innocuously for 85 minutes of a match and then nip into beat the offside trap just when the opposition defence has gone to sleep. He is not a player who ever looks lively, but he is a player who will always keep defences honest. Julio Cruz may be a perfectly good player, but there was no need to serve him the call to duty. Tactically it offered nothing new, and as Crespo was not waning, why get rid of him? Surely Pekerman should have waited to see what would happen.

But perhaps the desire to wait was Pekermans’ problem. He robbed his team of its artistry and trusted his defence would see him through to the final whistle. Had he gone for the throat, this match would have been over as a contest before the half. The much discussed frailties of the German defence were there to be exposed, but Pekerman and his Argentina squad failed to rise to the occasion.