Sunday, 22 June 2014

Gerrard's Sad Face (first 12)

Fine Margins, that's all; England genuflects & Roy gets Woyed by the papers but... Be at least close to the facts...

1) a couple of individual errors really cost us and seems to demean England's defence but there's been a million defensive errors throughout the tournament; it's what's made it so exciting.

2) this is nowhere near as dispiriting an exit as that debacle in the group stages last year... We were abject until the German game (and by then we were merely mediocre to bad).

3) the formation tweak to accommodate sad Rooney didn't work and Roy knew it wouldn't; Scholes was right, Roy's chief error was in not feeling he could drop Rooney. No balls. He might still be our most talented player but it was obvious that he didn't fit with this group of players (a bit like Nasri and France, I suspect); he should have been left out, come on as impact sub. Roy knew it but couldn't know it.

4) a similar scenario with Gerrard; he should have been subbed in both games. He wasn't playing well and should be allowed to. It happens; it doesn't mean the end of the world to substitute the captain. It's not as symbolic as it seems.

5) the real tragedy is that there are no spectacular teams in is World Cup. This is like the Championship; every team more or less less can beat every team. And teams win, not collections of players.

6) Substitutions win too; we have been terrible at substitutions since 1986. We should practice substitutions for Euro 2016.

7) This is an exemplar of globalisation; no country has enough players of the right age and the right ability. They all look shocked to find that out.

8) Italy and Uruguay are both very ordinary. Uruguay has Suarez (and possibly Cavani) who is extraordinary. We don't have anyone extraordinary but we still had more better than average players than most of the teams. This doesn't seem to do us any good. Can't see many Uruguayans or Italians being first choice for England and yet...

9) Where did Baines go?

10) Germany looked good for a while but Portugal look terrible. Ronaldo seems to finally bow to Messi, who shows that a very average team can be elevated. To be fair, he's been fairly terrible too... Dribbling into dead ends timelessly... But... Yes

11) Oh and there's no one quite like Riquelme.

12) You must feel for Barkley and Lallana; getting a game when England are already full of madness, when the blood is already boiling, when their unusual bursts of energy are a sufferance rather than a way of crushing an opponent. That isn't the way to play them; they should have been given a formation around them. As should Stirling. As should Matthew Le Tissier.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

a perfect 10?

If Raheem Sterling is starting in the No. 10 role for England tonight – behind Sturridge in the middle of the attacking three – then that is a startlingly bold move coming from Roy Hodgson. It's one I would never have predicted given his immediate attempt on starting the job to impose the workmanlike, safety-first 4-4-2 that he'd played throughout his career.

Hodgson has already seen Sterling audition for the role in the Premier League with Liverpool – the credit for imagining Sterling as a 10 in the first place has to go to Brendan Rodgers. In pure footballing terms, it makes obvious sense: Sterling is skilful, fast, incredibly hard to dispossess (especially given his size), tactically and positionally intelligent, and while not purely two-footed when the ball comes into him defenders have to stop for a fraction of a second because he's capable of spinning off them either left or right. He's also amazingly cold-blooded for his age: just think of that goal against Man City, putting his foot on the ball and waiting for Kompany and Hart to slide out of his way.

But I was still surprised when I first saw Sterling at the tip of Liverpool's midfield diamond, because he's the kind of player that 99% of the time in British football gets put wide early on in their career and stays there: fast, tricky, good finisher. And black.

Maybe there isn't latent stereotyping at work in football, maybe creative black players are trusted as central playmaker all the time. Maybe I'm missing someone and Sterling isn't the first black No 10 to play for England? (NB John Barnes was shunted left or up front).

I hope he plays as he does for Liverpool – at least reminds Pirlo that he's thirty-five. Sterling will be in a different system to Liverpool against Italy, with two (not three) midfielders behind him, and one (not two) strikers moving ahead of him, creating space and options. But however he plays there is something quietly seismic here: Wayne Rooney pushed left so Sterling can debut in this role in England's first World Cup group game. Rooney's been lined up for this role in behind Sturridge for months. No-one in the press will miss that. Will they notice the other ground he's breaking? Hopefully, and maybe the coaching profession will too.

New Labours

Well, Mark got there first but there's going to be lots written about the Spain vs Netherlands match. It may all come to nothing (it won't) but it certainly felt like an end of an era, even if it's quite hard to settle on exactly what the era was. Tiki-taka ended sometime around Guardiola moving on from Barcelona but the end was coming even before then, when the Italians played Spain in their first match at the Euros. The 4 - 0 in the final was a false number nine for Spain, and more of a freak result than people understood at the time. In the earlier game Italy simply refused Spain's a priori superiority & found no logical incoherence; turns out that that little pass & move game was not beyond everyone else, was dully simple, was just a tactic after all. The spell broken, Italy retained less possession but did so with a swagger.

A few people must have taken notice. Italy weren't all that formidable going forward and so, ultimately, didn't have the firepower required to endure but it was obvious in the 1 - 1 draw that teams with a decent level of proficiency at simple triangles plus some lethal and quick strikers could, in theory, take Spain apart.

Here then, in the experimental cauldron of Brazil, was a time to test the theory.

The Netherlands had van Persie and, especially, Robben, who looks more and more like Phil Mitchell on methedrine but seems quicker than ever; Spain seemed to go backwards in time as he swept past them, you could swear Ramos was hallucinating Franco as he got sucked into that Robben vortex. The Netherlands seemed to win by virtue of winning almost all the, as my Dad would say, "Billy Basic" running races on the pitch. They wanted it more, they had more to give. Spain are skilful but they never saw it coming, especially because I don't think even the Dutch remembered what part they had to play until van Persie's surely symbolic salmon leap to head the equaliser. A good time to score?

In fact, the well played long ball had already featured throughout the Mexico vs Cameroon game, when Mexico simply negated the power of the Cameroon midfield by spraying it diagonally above their heads to smaller, faster wingers. This isn't Allardyce-like physicality creeping into the World Cup; it's a variation of the Bob Paisely anthem: "Its not about the long ball or the short ball, its about the right ball." A simple, self-evident mantra, seemingly rendered obsolete by the Spanish at their prime and now seemingly back with a vengeance via an exemplary Dutch annihilation. What was especially significant is that you felt that more than a few commentators, entranced by the Spanish method, had already written off their 3 - 0 defeat by Brazil as a kind of (inevitable) glitch in the system, a moment of chaos before the return to robotic stability.

But this game was different. This defeat was more like the defeat of New Labour, when eyes suddenly opened and saw the real behind the language and (importantly) felt shame and embarrassment at never having seen it before. When the Left shook Labour as it has become (Miliband surely cannot survive holding The Sun) and heard just a death rattle of capitalism, they understood that the battle was always lost, that the dawn was always false, that this wasn't anything like it seemed to be. New Labour passwords like "Education education education" used simple truths against us, like spells, like short passes, to make us think we were seeing something new and dangerous and left-leaning and familial and homely i.e. something impossible. We knew we couldn't be seeing these things but, for a while, we lived in that dream, failing to notice the monsters of capital being wrapped in layers of targets (even that seems a homely word) and bureaucratic filth. This was National Socialism with all the necessary fetishes that went along with it and, thankfully, less of the outright racism.

Spain wilting like that, under skilfully worked but fairly simplistic Dutch intensity, felt like a rupture in football and it wasn't just the Dutch that ripped Spain apart - all of the first few games have been fought in a kind of anti-Spain tirade of direct, fast, attacking football. It was like everyone was trying to send Spain a message: we no longer believe. Caution has been winded, precision is there in parts (in shots, headers, well-played passes and well-timed runs) but it is no longer an exemplar; teams seem to have finally shrugged and thought that wars can be fought on all kinds of fronts. Even Australia's much abused get-it-on-cahill's-head approach almost worked for the them. I'll bet Zizek's rearranging the words "Spain", "tiki-taka", "The Big Other" as I write...

That 1 - 5* is so significant because maybe everyone is waking up at the same time...

*Of course, I can remember a seemingly significant 1 - 5 at the start of the 21st Century that sadly came to nothing but this just isn't the time...

'The Manner of the Defeat'

Anyone who has read my previous posts here can easily imagine my response to the Dutch demolition of Spain last night. As the TV commentary team kept repeating, more important than the fact of defeat was the manner of the defeat.  I think they meant the quantity of goals - but equally significant was their quality. The buccaneering directness of the Dutch style made for an exhilarating contrast with tiki-taka. If this really is the end of an era, what a way for it to go.

Even during the relatively even first half, there was something different about the match than the typical tiki-taka game. The tension without drama that has characterised most of the matches involving Spain in recent tournaments was entirely absent.  In tiki-taka, goals were excreted rarely and painfully, as if issuing from a constipated bowel. Spain sucked the life out of their opponents (and the game) like a large snake consuming its prey: the outcome was never in any doubt, but the actual killer moments were slow in coming. For the most part, Spain would win by one goal, often the only goal of the game. But last night, instead of being clogged in an endless midfield without a point, the game was open, unpredictable, moving quickly from goalmouth to goalmouth.

The presence of Diego Costa seemed to fatally destabilise the Spanish team. With Costa up front, the  temptation to pass quickly and directly appeared irresistible, undermining the infernal patience necessary for tiki-taka discipline. It has long seemed that tiki-taka Spain can only operate properly with an ineffective centre forward, as if the sacrifice of one player was the price paid for success. This can be the only reason for the otherwise inexplicable introduction of Torres, someone who looks like he's played with shackles on his legs for club and country for years now, when things started to wrong. But by then it was too late; the game had opened up, the goals had been scored, and Torres' only contribution was to fluff an easy chance.

As to the Dutch, they were the very antithesis of tiki-taka. This is a team based around getting the ball up to strikers very quickly. Van Persie's first goal typified this - reminding us, after the short-passing miserliness of tiki-taka, that there can be a beauty and an elegance to the long ball. Arjen Robben, meanwhile, is the very essence of directness. There is something about Robben that makes him hard to love, but last night he showed all the sleek remorselessness of the T-1000 in Terminator II. Robben played like a machine programmed to score - devoid of doubt, ruthless, unstoppable. For those of us who have endured rather than enjoyed Spain's domination, it was hard not to take a sadistic glee in seeing goal after goal going in. The deluge felt like payback for all those hours of football stripped of excitement and goals.