Sunday, 20 April 2014

Does world football really value African players?

Yaya Toure's comments earlier this week set the cat amongst the pigeons. He thinks he is not regarded as highly as other players because he is from Africa. This came on the back of similar comments from his team-mate Samir Nasri.

Some have viewed this as egotism - that, in their view, he isn't as good as he seems to think he is. Others have claimed that one only needs to look at the fawning of pundits every week on Match of the Day and from fans that he is highly appreciated. Toure, as it happens, acknowledged that the fans really did recognise him.

When people make points like this they assume they are disagreeing with one another - but they may not be. It may be that this is one of those rare occasions where everyone is right. They also miss the wider point that Toure was making that it isn't just him that he is being undervalued but, rather, that players from the African continent (and, I'd wager, particularly from West Africa) are generally undervalued.

(NB: Talking about Africa as a single entity is rarely a wise decision! In this instance, I'm taking Toure's views at face value i.e. that football doesn't view talent from anywhere in Africa in the same way they view talent from across South America or Europe. Clearly West Africa, in particular, has - in recent years - produced the most talent. East Africa - typically - has not produced a huge amount of footballing talent and neither has Southern Africa barring a few exceptions. The Northern African states - the Maghreb and Egypt - similarly suffer from the issues that Toure identifies e.g. they are not taken seriously by the wider footballing elite).

It may be that Toure is suffering from mild delusions of grandeur (he is, in my view, one of the top 10 or 15 players in the world but he probably isn't in the top three). It may be that many fans do recognise his ability. It may also be the case that football - generally - does not value African players as highly as it does European players or South American players. See? Everyone is right.

We know - from Kuper and Szymanski - that footballers from certain nations are over-valued in the transfer market (England, Holland and Brazil spring to mind). It shouldn't be too much of a leap of faith to think that individuals from elsewhere in the world, therefore, are under-valued because of where they are from. Brazil, and Brazilians, hold a special place in the hearts and minds of world football. No one ever looked stupid praising a Brazilian footballer or voting for him in an award.

Toure is, to an extent, hurt by the era he is playing in. Messi and Ronaldo are, at present, a cut above everyone else playing the game and there are a glut of superb players waiting in the wings for third place in the Ballon d'Or stakes (Ribery, Suarez, Ibrahimovic, Iniesta, Neymar et al). Indeed, some would say other midfielders are better than him (Kroos, Schweinsteiger, Busquets etc),

Consider those for a second more: Imagine if Busquets, Xavi, Schweinsteiger or Gerrard had had the season domestically that Toure is having: Third highest scorer in the league (from a deep-lying midfield position), the highest dead-ball conversion rate, the most passes, the most passes in the opposition half, the highest passing accuracy rate and the most goals from free kicks? Is it beyond the realms of possibility that such a level of performance from a European midfielder would get them into the top three of the Ballon d'Or? 

Looking at the FIFA World Player of the Year between 1991 (when it was established) until 2009 (it merged with the Ballon d'Or in 2010)

  • Only two players from the continent of Africa have finished in the top three (on three occasions): Weah won in 1995, he was runner up in 1996, and Eto'o was third in 2005.
  • During that time, England have had a third place in 1991 (Lineker), third place in 1996 (Shearer), two second places for Beckham (1999 and 2001) and a second place for Lampard in 2005.
  • The Netherlands had one winner (Marco van Basten, 1992) and two third places (Bergkamp in 1993 and 1997).
  • Non-Europeans won in 1994 (Romario), 1995 (Weah), 1996 (Ronaldo), 1997 (Ronaldo), 1999 (Rivaldo), 2002 (Ronaldo), 2004 (Ronaldinho), 2005 (Ronaldinho), 2007 (Kaka), 2009 (Messi).
Since the rules changed for the Ballon d'Or in 1995 (where non-Europeans could win the award):
  • Weah won in 1995. No other African was in the top three between 1995 and 2009
  • England had a third place in 1996 (Shearer), a third place in 1999 (Beckham), a winner in 2001 (Owen), and took 2nd and 3rd place in 2005 (Lampard and Gerrard).
  • Non-Europeans won in 1995 (Weah), 1997 (Ronaldo), 1999 (Rivaldo), 2002 (Ronaldo), 2005 (Ronaldinho), 2007 (Kaka).
And since the awards merged no African has been in the top three (though given the carve-up between Messi - three wins and one runner up - and Ronaldo - two runners up and one win this shouldn't be so surprising).

This doesn't prove anything though it does perhaps suggest that when players from certain backgrounds do well they are rewarded. There is, of course, an element of luck to this, and it may be that the really fine African players over the last twenty years have been unlucky to miss out. They may have peaked domestically in a year when (say) Spain won a major international trophy or, like Toure, they may have peaked at a time when numerous other players hit higher heights.

Others will point to the fact that African nations have not - typically - done well in the World Cup between 1990 and 2010. Quarter Finals for Cameroon (1990), Senegal (2002), and Ghana (2010) being the furthest any African nation has got. People will point to this and say that in World Cup years it is understandable that African players are overlooked. That only, however, explains the World Cup years.

At the same time, good performances in the European Championships seem to help individuals into the top three whereas good performances in the Copa America or African Cup of Nations are not. When a player is named Copa America player of the year and also wins a major award it is usually down to some feat or other they have achieved in the domestic or European continental game.

Consider that since 1991, the only players who have won the Copa America player of the year and a major international award are two Brazilians playing for Barcelona (Ronaldo 1997, Rivaldo 1999). The other players who have won - Rodriguez, Goycochea, Francescoli, Guevara, Adriano, Robinho and Luis Suarez - weren't in the top 3 for either global award. Clearly - given what we know about representation in the lists of African players - this is also true of the African Cup of Nations most valuable player.

But win player of the tournament at the European Championships and you are pretty much bound to be in the top three of the big global awards: Sammer in 1996 (Ballon d'Or winner), Zidane in 2000 (Ballon d'Or runner up; Fifa World Player of the Year), Iniesta in 2012 (Ballon d'Or third place). The only two not to finish in the top three of a global aware were Zagorakis in 2004 and, astonishingly, Xavi in 2008.

I don't think Toure and Nasri's comments were controversial and, even if they are, sometimes controversy makes us consider an issue more deeply than we might otherwise.

Rightly or wrongly football does seem to treat African players differently. With African players - particularly West African players - certain attributes are disproportionately looked for and lauded: power, pace, strength etc. We know that European clubs have become fixated, in their West African scouting, on a particular type of player. This phenomenon is described by Tom Vernon - a fountain of knowledge on West African football - is the Papa Bouba Diop template. Having seen the success of the likes of Diop, Essien, Mikel et al means that scouts in Africa instinctively look for forceful holding midfielders. European clubs, therefore, overlook the next generation of players like Okocha, Abedi Pele et al to the point where such players barely exist at all or are not focused upon by the coaches in those nations.

Toure is a finer player than Diop, Essien or Mikel. He can do everything that they could do to a higher standard and rather a lot more besides. I wonder, however, if he is suffering from that typecast. African central midfielders are, so the story goes, powerful enforcers. Toure can be. But he also has superb vision, a wonderful range of passing and a cuteness to his play that few midfielders anywhere in the world enjoy.

Is Toure under-rated by the global game? I would say yes.

Two questions to finish on: If Drogba had been Dutch would he have won a major award? If Toure was Brazilian would he have done same? I can't help but feel the answer to both of those questions is yes.


Monday, 7 April 2014

What price experience?

Six games ago I read a piece on a leading football website saying the wheels of Liverpool's title charge would come off soon enough. Three away games on the spin - Southampton (a bogey team of the Reds), Manchester United (Old Trafford wins are a still a rarity for Liverpool), and plucky Cardiff - might lead to Liverpool getting no points from those games.

Presumably the author thought that Sunderland would be the easiest of the five games (in fact it was arguably the most difficult) whilst Spurs might avenge their defeat - nay their slaying! - earlier in the season. Sherwood's common bloody sense would win the day where AvB's thinking had got him in to hot water. The writer, from memory, hadn't given much thought to the West Ham game.  It was thought that those five games would see Liverpool dropping back to fourth or, even, fifth. It was conceivable that Liverpool would take a handful of points. Bubbles would be burst and the Scousers would be put back in their box. 

Six games later, six wins later. 20 goals in favour. Liverpool - even those of us who are worried that at the end of the storm is another storm - are top of the tree and have, for the moment at least, their fate in their hands.

That isn't to say that they are favourites for the title. Manchester City - with their games in hand, with their battle nous, with Yaya Toure and with the fillip of Aguero returning - must be and the bookies seem to concur. Betting against Mourinho is a generally a game for mugs and fools even though his mindgames, this year, are so deep that Rosgers and Pellegrini must think they've walked onto the set of 'Inception'

There will likely be twists and turns in the title race - wins here, inexplicable losses there, late goals, disputed penalties and all that jazz.  Liverpool's last title race was all but crucified by Andrei Arshavin of Arsenal and Federico Macheda of Manchester United. All those years ago few had worried about Michael Thomas drifting through the dark Merseyside night, few thought it would be Bruce's header that got United on their way to the title, most are still amazed that Liverpool beat Blackburn to put the 94/95 title on a platter for United only for Miklosko to play the game of his life for West Ham, and fewer still saw that game against QPR coming before Aguero pulled the title out of the hat.

It is always the ones you least expect who are lurking in the shadows with a stiletto waiting to end your waltz to silverware. There is plenty of room for someone to write history - and it is likely a black swan. 

One of the hoary canards, however, is that Liverpool lack experience in this situation. It is true that this group of players, led by this manager, have not been involved in the white heat of a title race together. That, however, is true of Manchester City too who have a new manager in place. It is largely true of Chelsea who only have Terry, Cech and Lampard from Mourinho's last title triumph. 

Of course, both Manchester City and Chelsea have cohorts of players who have played together in a successful title race.

Of Chelsea's team, ČechIvanović, Cole, Mikel, Lampard, Terry, and Hilário all played in 2009/10 season (Matić was a squad player).

Of Manchester City's squad, Richards, Kompany, Zabaleta, Lescott, Milner, Kolarov, Nasri, Silva, Clichy, Hart, 
Pantilimon, Toure, Džeko, and Aguero all played in 2011/12.

Both have men who have won other championships with other clubs beside. 

Liverpool haven't won the league title in many a long year but they have a cohort of players who have been involved in a title challenge with Liverpool (Agger, Škrtel, Gerrard and Lucas) who saw Liverpool finish 2nd to United in 2008/09. Moreover, they have three men who have won the league in England (Toure with Arsenal in 03/04 and City in 11/12, Johnson with Chelsea in 04/05, and Sturridge with Chelsea in 09/10).

As well as this, Škrtel (Russian league 2006/7), Cissokho (Portuguese league 08/09), Sakho (French league 2012/13) and Suarez (Dutch league 2010/11 - though he left halfway through the season) have all been part of championship winning teams in major European leagues. Numerous players have won other national league titles or equivalents (Agger, Toure, Lucas, Suarez, Coates). It isn't quite the case that Liverpool's players haven't got experience. It is the case that they haven't together - but how much does that matter?

Comparing to other teams who won the league for the first time in a long-time this Liverpool fair well.

  • Leeds - in 1991/92 - had three league winners in their midsty (Lukic, Strachan and Cantona).
  • Manchester United - in 1992/93 - had Schmeical (who had won in Denmark), McClair (Scotland), and Cantona (France and with Leeds the previous year).
  • Blackburn Rovers - in 1994/95 - had only the on loan Witschge and Batty (who was injured and refused a medal).
  • Arsenal - in 1997/98 - had a group of players from their triumphs of the early 90s (Bould, Winterburn, Dixon, Adams) as well as Viera (Milan), Bergkamp (Ajax), Petit (Monaco) and Grimandi (Monaco).
  • Chelsea - in 2004/05 - had a group of players who had won league titles elsewhere: Makelele and Geremi with Real Madrid, Kezman and Robben for PSV, Carvalho and Ferreira for Porto.
  • Manchester City - in 2011/12 - had a larger cohort of previous title winners. Bridge (Chelsea), Kompany (Anderlecht x2), Dzeko (Wolfsburg), Hargreaves (Bayern, Manchester United), Clichy (Arsenal), Tevez (Manchester United), Balotelli (Internazionale), Toure (Barcelona) and de Jong (Ajax)
This shows, pretty simply, how much football has changed in the last 20 or so years. Given the globalisation of football, most teams at the top end of the league will have numerous players who have won major leagues in their career playing for them. It seems positively quaint that Leeds United had three league title winners in their squad.

Perhaps more significantly though is where the teams finished the season before they won the league.
  • Leeds United: 4th in 1990/91 (Arsenal, Liverpool and Crystal Palace were ahead of them. Only Arsenal were in the top four in Leeds' title year).
  • Manchester United: 2nd in 1991/92 (Leeds won)
  • Blackburn Rovers: 2nd in 1993/94 (2nd to Manchester United)
  • Arsenal: 3rd in 1996/8 (Manchester United and Newcastle United finished ahead of them)
  • Chelsea: 2nd in 2003/4 (Arsenal won the league)
  • Manchester City: 3rd in 2011/12 (Manchester United and Chelsea finished ahead of them).
There is an old fisherman's tale that one must lose the league title before one wins it. The above seems to suggest that this isn't utter nonsense although it isn't a hard and fast rule. All the teams were close to winning the title before they did get their hands on the prize properly.

Liverpool finished 7th last year with 61 points and 16 wins. The previous three years the club had finished 7th in 09/10 (63pts/18 wins), 6th in 10/11 (58pts/17 wins), 8th in 11/12 (52pts/14 wins).

To win the league will be an astonishing turnaround especially given the strength at the top end of the league. A team that has not - despite its illustrious history, large crowds, spending, and star players - been in the top five since it finished 2nd in 2008/09 even being in the running for the league with five games to go in this era is worthy of comment.

It may be, however, that the experience of winning isn't the important part here. Agger, Škrtel, Gerrard and Lucas have all experienced a title run in and saw their best efforts dashed. Subsequently, they have seen the club fall away from those heights when the promised land was in sight. They've seen managers come and go and talent after talent leave the club. They've seen the club almost go into administration before it was saved at the last. Might it just be that it is this experience - the experience of missing out and falling, the years in the wilderness - that has made these men (and others) battle-hardened? 

Possibly. Sometimes what you need is a grizzled old head that has been through the wars and come out the other side. Gerrard hasn't won the league but he has lost it before. One imagines he won't be keen to do so again.

Rodgers, perversely, seems more at ease as the pressure comes on him. The Brentisms seem to be being replaced by measured answers. The team is flying, playing well, winning games and in control - for now. The pressure is unexpected and novel. Even a Devon Loch style finish would likely see the team finish third which is beyond the expectations of most fans and commentators. 

Will Liverpool do it? The odds are that they will be overhauled by the blues of Manchester but the likelihood of the Redmen pulling off a title win becomes a little more likely with every win that happens. Will it be down to experience? No. It'll be down to squad depth and, ultimately, money. Plus ca change...


Sunday, 6 April 2014

Leigh Griffiths

A few years ago I was part of a five-a-side game at Portobello (on the North East of Edinburgh). One week we were down to eight men and having the usual debate about whether or not eight men in their late 20s could, in fact, run around for 60 minutes without the occasional respite of going in goals.

Two younger lads came over and said they'd spotted we were short and they'd be happy to make up the numbers. We delightedly agreed and one of these terrors went on each team.

The first was - by some margin - better than everyone else on the pitch. The second - a bleach blonde wunderkind - could do things with a ball that I don't think I'd seen outside Youtube compilations. He dominated the game. In the early stages he was content being better than everyone and winning the game on his own, running the show. As the game progressed he went to another level pulling out tricks and flicks and scoring ever more ridiculous goals. 

At the end I went over, shook their hands and said 'You should be a pro'. He laughed, thanked me and walked off. His mate said 'do you not know who he is? That's Leigh Griffiths'.

On the bus home I googled him. He was the top scorer in Scotland's Division 1 with Livingston. He's wracked up - at that time - twenty goals in a season. This jarred. I've played against lads who went on to a higher level than Scotland's Division 1. I've seen players at higher levels who didn't have the innate talent of this kid. I thought maybe it was the old application vs skill conundrum.

In another fives game I played with one of the scouts for Hearts and asked about Griffiths. He chuckled and said everyone in Scottish football knew Griffiths but he'd always been too troublesome. Too many issues. Not worth the risk. It was this scout's view Griffiths had the talent to be a Scotland international and the ability to play at a high level in England. The trouble was the baggage. The trouble wasn't on the pitch.

A couple of years later I found myself at a corporate hospitality thing at Dundee United vs Rangers. An MSP with a background in journalism was my jovial company and he said the same thing. 'Daft wee laddie. All the talent in the world, mind'.

Since then Griffiths has moved to England, been loaned back to his boyhood team (scoring bucketloads as he went), made his international debut and signed for Celtic.

The predictions - on both sides - were right. He did have the talent. He's playing reasonably for Celtic, scoring goals and has worn the navy blue. He has though consistently found his way into trouble - on and off the pitch.

The previous misdemeanours - the screaming at a McDonald's worker for putting gherkins on his Happy Meal etc - are significantly less serious than the video that is doing the rounds this morning of him seeming to sing (with many other Hibs fans) a racist song about Hearts' former great, Rudi Skacel.

Sad as it is that anyone thinks that 'refugee' is a term of abuse, something to mock, or something to be ashamed of: there are serious consequences for him and his new club. Celtic - who were warned about Griffiths by many (including many of their fans who are shaking their heads today) - now require to discipline him. I expect that they shall both swiftly and harshly.

They - and others in Scottish football - have had to deal with chanting that the club and the law (rightly or wrongly) view as inappropriate. All Celtic's hard work and - at times - tumultuous negotiations with the Green Brigade will now be compared to how they deal with a reasonably senior player engaging in an allegedly racist singsong. I think they will come down on him like a ton of bricks and expect most supporters to back that. He may well leave the club. That is probably the best and worst option available.

But this comes back to a wider point. Many of our talented youngsters come from very difficult backgrounds. Fame and fortune can corrupt many and it is amazing they corrupt so few in football. English football has lost many talents because they weren't managed or cared for properly. Griffiths may be about to join that roll call. Not good for him or for Scottish football. We need talented players playing at their best. 

Did I see this coming? Yes. Not this incident but something. It seemed preordained. How many other international prospects hang around five a side games looking for a kickabout? How many others are avoided by clubs because they aren't worth the bother?

A fine player, yes, but one who consistently makes regrettable choices. All sadly predictable and, in every sense of the word, very sad 


Thursday, 27 March 2014

Arsenal and the future

Arsenal are an odd club. Then again, I suppose all clubs are.

In many ways their fans are hyper-rational. In a world where they are competing with billionaires who can almost buy the league the club has done remarkably well to remain in the top four. In a world where most clubs who build a stadium are relegated they have managed to compete consistently whilst others around them simply haven't had to deal with the same pressures. Their fans understand the difficulties the club faces - rich rivals, financial pressures, trying not to bankrupt themselves in the transfer market - and accept them. Given those difficulties, and despite the guffawing of other fans, they realise that fourth is a decent position. In fact they will be the ones guffawing in the long-run when the Russian oligarchs and the Emirs leave and Arsenal's careful approach to financial management wins out.

At the same time, in many ways their fans are even more irrational than other fans. They ignore that the club seems to suffer injury crises more than their opponents (is that because Wenger buys injury prone players or because something is happening at training? Or both?). They explain away what AvB would have described as ''expressive results' against title rivals. They ignore that Arsenal should, despite all against them, should be benefiting from incumbency (all of their major rivals have a manager who has been in post for under 2 seasons). They should be reaping the rewards of the vision that Wenger has been formulating for years. It is difficult to overstate - given Wenger's genius - how much incumbency should help him. It is astonishing that it doesn't.

On the one hand, Arsenal have arguably been more consistent than in previous years. They have generally played very well, have - at points - been scintillating and if they beat Manchester City this weekend they'll be just about back in the title race. On how good the Gunners have been? For all Liverpool fans will crow over their own 5-1 win at Anfield they shouldn't forget just how good Arsenal were when at the Emirates earlier in the season (or the week after the 5-1 in the FA Cup). Arsenal are, surely, favourites to the FA Cup. The long awaited trophy - the jam tomorrow of all these years - may be just around the corner.

On the other hand, the reverses they have suffered at City (3-6), Liverpool (1-5) and Chelsea (0-6) seem that they are further away than ever. Yes, all teams lose games but few teams - few teams as fine as this Arsenal - get thumped like that. This suggests, in the biggest games, that they are disintegrating. Each of the results can be explained away - Liverpool played exceptionally well, Chelsea started well and capitalised on Oxlade-Chamberlain's idiocy and the referee's error to ruthless effect - but it is difficult not to conclude there is a troubling pattern there.

What happens next? If Arsenal win the FA Cup, and finish fourth or better (which is still probable), the calls for Wenger's head will diminish to nothing. The long wait will be over. The pressure will land, assuming the Reds do not win the league, on Rodgers. Where's your trophy, Brendan? It will be his albatross. Wenger's careful approach will be vindicated. Those who wrote obituaries for Wenger's career will laud him.

If Arsenal do not win the FA but finish fourth the grumbles will continue but he will be safe. Better the devil you know and all that.

If, somehow, they do not win the FA Cup and are gazmped by Everton then surely the cries will become louder. Martinez will already have outshone Moyes and he will, with little resource, have outsmarted Wenger. Wiser heads than mine will say ''shouldn't Martinez jazz up Arsenal?', 'couldn't he get Cazorla, Ozil, and Wilshere swinging?'.

Perhaps the man who is most important in all of this is Sir Alex Ferguson. Arsenal will see what has occurred at Manchester United when they failed to replace him adequately or plan for the future.
 They will be terrified that the same will occur after Wenger. There is no obvious Paisley to his Shankly. There are plenty of men who could become the Souness, McGuinness, or Moyes of Arsenal. It is easier to mess up the next appointment than it is to stick with a man who has served the club so well.

Admittedly, Arsenal's squad is stronger than the one Moyes inherited but there is a risk that the next man will try to overhaul Wenger's work or slump in his shadow. Wenger dominates Arsenal in an impressive and quiet way. The next man will not have it easy. The club, who have been so careful for so long, are unlikely to throw a gauntlet at a man they are unsure of. 
Given Wenger's importance to the entire club and its image of itself the man who is most likely to keep him in a job come what may is his old adversary from the North. Even when he has gone, he's still the most important man in the room.


Wednesday, 19 March 2014

The Pride of all Europe? The cock of the North?

For twenty long years, the words Manchester United have struck fear in the hearts and souls of opposing fans. Fans of other clubs would worry about playing them. Stomachs would churn on the morning of the match wondering what might occur. Wins at home against them were occasional. Wins at Old Trafford rarer still. Even if you managed to best them on the day it was likely they would beat you in that long marathon to May.

Those matches in the early months of the new year were their stomping ground. They would either churn out routine wins against teams their rivals thought as banana skins or pull off astonishing reverses. Find yourself 2-0 up against Manchester United? You've sown the wind, now reap the hurricane. The early months of the calendar year were where they marched off in front or reeled in the leader. This was their time of year.

How has it come to this? Their descent to mediocrity has been dizzying. Teams are no longer fearful going to Old Trafford. Indeed, Liverpool at the weekend looked like they were playing at home. Five years ago, in a dizzying run to second, Liverpool beat United 4-1 in front of the Stretford End but that result flattered the Reds. Sunday was a subjugation.

The reigning champions of England sit in seventh place in the league with 9 games to play. At present, it seems more likely they will be overtaken by Southampton rather than catch Everton or Spurs.

In December I wrote this piece on Moyes. I stand by it all. Moyes is now living, not dreaming, the impossible dream. He has made errors, he has been dealt a bad hand (the squad was hauled to the championship by Ferguson's genius) but not as bad a hand as he is currently playing.

Last summer, he tried to fill a hole that Ferguson failed to fill in central midfield. Moyes' intentions were good. He tried to sign Fabregas, Thiago, Herrera, Ozil and de Rossi. He failed to land any of those big fish. He landed - at an inflated price - Marouane Fellaini.

Fellaini is not as bad a player as some try to make out nor is he the carthorse that too many United fans think. He has become a scapegoat and emblematic Moyes' travails at the club. 

Fellaini is in fact a very fine player, one who has played consistently well at a decent level in the English Premier League, and one who will likely be an integral part of an exquisite Belgian team at this year's World Cup. He is not, for me, in the class of the other players that Manchester United were trying to sign last year. Nor is he the answer to their problems in central midfield. Hell, Mata is playing considerably worse than Fellaini but this is largely attributed to Moyes rather than the Spaniard.

There are rumours in the press of an unprecedented transfer war chest. Moyes will sign, apparently, Barkley, Shaw, William Carvalho, Kroos, Gundogan and others besides. The board has backed Moyes already. If he lasts till the summer it is likely they will back him again.  

The problem is simple. If the new manager of Manchester United - safely in the Champions League and champions of England - couldn't convince high calibre players to move to Alderley Edge then how will he manage it this summer?

There are only three ways.

The first is that Moyes could convince these players about some long term goal or vision he has for the club. Other managers, over the years, have convinced talented players to come to a team outside the Champions League because of some better future they are building. They get in the player's ear. They get in his head. 'You'll be the star, son. The number one. The Capto tut di Capi. Come to Manchester, son. You won't regret it. We'll be the making of each other. Your name will be in fucking lights. They'll build a statue one day'. This was common in the days of Shankly, Clough and Review but is less common in these mercenary days. Moreover, it doesn't seem to be the sort of role where Moyes is likely to succeed in.

If he can't charm them, he could pay them - stuff their mouths with gold. 
Paris Saint-Germain, Anzhi Makhachkala, Manchester City and Chelsea have all bought superstar players on the promise that one day the medals will follow the money. United could do that.

The third - and this is rabbit out of the hat stuff - is to somehow win the Champions League. Fourth now looks a long way away for Manchester United. The only way back into the European elite is to win Big Ears. They could - if they manage to overturn a two goal deficit tonight - go down the Benitez's Liverpool or di Matteo's Chelsea route. That, looking at the other teams, looks unlikely.

Liverpool will tell you that glorious histories do not always help. Very few players want to play for a club that used to be good. You have to become creative in the market. You have to pay more. You have to hope that those in the Champions League look elsewhere.

It seems to me if he is to rebuild Manchester United this summer that either he will have to stuff the player's mouths with gold or look outwith the usual suspects. I doubt that the Manchester United faithful will accept sub-par players. They may have to do so.

There are some Moyes apologists out there. Good on them but there is a difference between supporting the manager blindly and not admitting his mistakes or pointing out his flaws.

This isn't some work experience cabin boy left in charge of the ocean liner temporarily. This is a highly experienced manger essentially hand picked by arguably the greatest manager in the history of the game. A man who has been trusted to spend over £65m on two players. A man with a six year contract. A man who was allowed to sack his backroom staff and bring in his own men.

We should hold him to account over his signings. His bizarre tactics at points. His hapless efforts with the media. His inability to solve the riddle that stumped Ferguson (how do you replace Scholes)? His inability to get Mata playing and, in fact, playing him out of position. His inability to get van Persie flying. His inability to drop big players His decision to sack the backroom team that served Ferguson so well. That isn't to say he must be sacked but we shouldn't give him an easy ride because we want British managers to succeed.

My guess is they wouldn't be so keen to rush to his defence if he were Portuguese or Spanish. British managers generally get an easier ride. We would be pointing out the above and more besides if he were a foreigner.

United have a lot going for it. There are world-class players. It is a club of global magnitude. The wages are high. The Premier League is attractive. There are hyper talented youngsters. But there are significant doubts that Moyes is the manager who can clear out the dreck from the squad and rebuild it to anywhere near its recent glory. If he cannot do that, the club will struggle long-term. If he can do that that will be a remarkable turn of events.

In 1992, Manchester United came to Anfield and were beaten. Liverpool fans chanted ''You lost the league on Merseyside'. The tide of history had turned. Liverpool fans so used to singing 'Championes' at their hated rivals from the other end of the East Lancs Road were unknowingly acknowledging that they had been overtaken.

This weekend when I crowed Liverpool's victory Manchester United fans tweeted me 'we've won the league twenty times'. That, if I am honest, has been Liverpool's role over recent years - to remind United of their glorious past.

It seems to me that Moyes is not Manchester United's Paisley nor is he the equivalent of Clough at Leeds United. Rather he is Manchester United's Souness. The man who isn't a bad manager but who cannot stem decline and, instead, accelerates it. Last year, it looked impossible to replace Ferguson. There were better choices but now Manchester United are in a hell of a bind - stick with a man who will likely fail or go down the route of managerial churn.


Friday, 14 March 2014

Too little, too young?

The managers of the bigger clubs in England must frequently look around Europe and think of the ones who got away. I've thought this for a while and this fine piece by Rory Smith got me thinking.

David Moyes, as he looks to overhaul his Manchester United squad this summer, must look at players around Europe who used to play for Manchester United and who left before they reached their potential. In some instances, this was down to personal ambition (Pogba), a desire to move home (Piqué) or an inability to get into the first team (Ljajić,Tošić, Rossi).

Including substitute performances, between them they played fewer than 50 games for Manchester United.

Brendan Rodgers has consistently noted his small squad (although, it should be remembered, there are a fair chunk of Liverpool players out on loan at present including a couple he bought) but he too might look at some players who are playing at a high standard who were once at Anfield. Given the problems at the heart of Liverpool's defence it isn't fanciful to think that Mikel San J
osé (now at Athletic Bilbao) and Gabriel Paletta (now at Parma) wouldn't have been useful. Emiliano Insúa, a squad player at Atletico Madrid, surely would bolster the troublesome left-back position.

Including substitute performances, between them they played 70 games for Liverpool - sparked upwards by Insua's 40-plus appearances in 2009/10.

Of course, I focused on Liverpool and Manchester United because of the big game this weekend. I don't bet on my own team but there's value in a Liverpool win. If you are bet minded and fancy a flutter click here but an examination of other leading clubs in England would tell a similar story. The same could be said of other clubs around Europe (cf. Sergio Canales)

So, what's the problem? Both clubs had better players available at the time and, rather than consign these lads to a lifetime of run outs in the Carling Cup. It may even be argued that the clubs have better players now or, at least, the ability to buy such players should they need to.

The problem is an increasing one for the globalised game. The bigger clubs want to bring in lots of young talent but only a small percentage of those players will make it to the first team.

In the instances above, the players have gone on to make a mockery of the decisions made by their former owners. They used the experience for their own benefit. Others, however, have been less lucky, Pacheco has been the next big thing at Liverpool for years now. Nemeth, for all the buzz around him, never got near the first team and has bounced around since. Vladimir Weiss, a young gun at Manchester City and a loan star at Rangers, is now playing in the Qatari league (aged 24).

This trawler like approach does lead to gems being discovered. Pogba, undoubtedly, was a gem that slipped through the net. Liverpool will benefit from Sterling's youthful move from QPR and will likely benefit from Ibe's move. In some instances - like Paletta and Ljajic - the players will shine elsewhere and will likely have benefitted from their time at an elite club during their development. In some instances though the stagnation - the lack of games at a young age - will stunt their development.

So what should clubs do? In this Moneyball era no club wants to buy a player at top dollar in their mid-20s. They'd much rather buy them at 18 and either sell them in their late 20s having got their best years whilst also making a huge profit. Moreover, the thought of missing out on a star to a competitor is one that will make manager's lose sleep like a phonecall from a player outside Chinawhites.

Unless and unitl UEFA, or FIFA, introduced tighter limits on the number of players a club can stockpile (this would have the other positive effect of talent being more evenly distributed and make leagues more competitive) this is something we will have to leave to the clubs.
It seems too much to ask clubs to leave players alone to develop as other clubs will swoop in their place. As Smith identifies, there seem to be two ways forward here:
First, encourage clubs to leave players at their club of origin until they are ready to put them into the first team squad.

Second, clubs to continue the process of loaning players out to clubs they know well and trust to develop the players.

I can't think of any other business that would operate in such a way. Look at major corporations and their selection policies. They seem to be far better at talent evaluation than football clubs are. That should change - for the good of the clubs and, more so, for the good of the players. 

It is pleasing, as a football fan, to see the likes of San Jose, Paletta and Insua playing well around Europe. It is disappointing as a Liverpool fan to think what they could have done for Liverpool over the years. 


Wednesday, 12 March 2014


Currently a bit under the weather so the blog is on hiatus.

Sorry! Hopefully back next week


Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Alan Pardew's headbutt

My initial reaction to the Pardew headbutt was a little like that of Crocodile Dundee upon seeing a small knife. 'That's not a headbutt! This is a headbutt'

In fact, Big Dunc was outdone by Zidane. If you are going to headbutt someone you may as well knock them on to the floor in a World Cup Final. Pardew's nuzzle looks positively cuddly by comparison.

I was going to write something lengthy on this but pretty much everything has been written. Yes, managers should be held to a higher standard than players. Yes, it will be difficult for him to discipline players now. Yes, we are all going to hell in a handcart.

In my view, Pardew is lucky to be in a job. I'm not sure he should be sacked but it wouldn't have surprised or upset me if he had lost his job. He is probably lucky to have the owner, and contract, that he does. Other owners would not be so indulgent to this sort of thing. He's also been lucky that Vladimir Putin has kept him off the front pages and Sol Campbell has kept him off the back pages. Lucky generals, after all, have their uses. Ashley probably knows that.

Pardew strikes me as the man in the pub who is all mouth and no trousers. The chap who is all too keen to have a go at someone who has spilled his pint. The cringeworthy voice droning on about welfare reform whilst everyone else is trying to have a quiet pint and watch the football. The chap who is all too happy to start a fight but then hides behind the bouncer or his pal when the bigger boy turns around. His type are all too common across the UK. We all know them. They are in every pub in the land. This one just happens to manage a football club.

It is unfashionable - particularly in a family blog like this - to say it would have been beneficial to this particular overgrown man-child's development if the Hull players and various other interlopers had allowed David Meyler to give Pardew a hiding that he so richly deserves and probably needs. It probably is, sadly, the only lesson he would understand (especially given his Johnny Big Time act seems to come out on an almost annual basis). A fine? A ban? Soon enough he'll make an arse of himself on the touchline again.

His consistently shoddy behaviour on the touchline will likely mean he will not manage one of the league's leading clubs or, and he is occasionally whispered as such, lead England. I've always rated him as a manager but, in the big jobs, it isn't just the manager that counts but the man as well.


Sunday, 2 March 2014

Sol Campbell and the England captaincy

One imagines that Alan Pardew will be toasting Sulzeer Jeremiah Campbell this morning. Campbell has claimed that 'I believe if I was white, I would have been England captain for more than ten years - it's as simple as that'.
He goes on to say the following things:

  • I think the FA wished I was white. I had the credibility, performance-wise, to be captain.
  • I was consistently in the heart of defence and I was a club captain early in my career.
  • I don't think it will change because they don't want it to and probably the majority of fans don't want it either.
  • It's alright to have black captains and mixed race in the Under 18s and Under 21s but not for the full national side - there is a ceiling and although no one has ever said it, I believe it's made of glass
  • Owen was a fantastic forward but nowhere near being a captain. It was embarrassing. I kept asking myself 'what have I done?'
The cynics in the crowd will note that Mr Campbell has a book for sale and, well, controversy sells. No doubt! That doesn't make the claim any less important and, if true, any less true. It is my view that if someone suggests a level of institutionalised racism that we should take that allegation extremely seriously.

As we have seen with the Suarez case a few seasons ago, the Terry case, Hodgson's non-selection of Rio Ferdinand at Euro 2012, the Paul Elliott/Richard Rufus clash, and Hodgson's 'monkey' joke racism is still a live issue in English football and that the way football, and the footballing establishment, deals with race is convoluted and complex.

First things first. As an England fan, I find the assertion that I would have a problem with a black England captain or that I don't want a black England captain offensive. Some may contend that I am part of a minority and that Campbell is right - that the majority of England fans don't want it.

Whilst, sadly, there are still some racist loons amongst English fandom (and, I'd guess, the fanbases of most nations) I don't see any evidential basis for the claim. We can, unless Campbell can substantiate that claim, file that slander under nonsense.

Secondly, again, there have been black England captains - Paul Ince (7 times), Rio Ferdinand (7 times), Sol Campbell (3 times) - so, to be pedantic, clearly it is ''alright' to have black England captains. Moving beyond pedantry, there is clearly a difference between captaining on occasion and being selected as the full-time captain of England. It is also imporant to note that there has never been an incumbent black captain - Ince captained the team but only in the absence of three successive captains (Pearce, Platt, and Shearer); Campbell captained the team in the absence of Shearer; and Ferdinand did so in the absence of Beckham and Terry.

I'd contend that Ince, Campbell and Ferdinand were all eminently suitable to be the incumbent captain but it isn't as if the alternatives were appalling or obviously out there choices.

Tony Adams was, very briefly, incumbent captain in 1996. He was replaced by Alan Shearer, England's leading player and the most obvious contender, until his international retirement in 2000. As talented as Campbell undoubtedly was he was unlikely to be a serious contender so early in his England career and Shearer was the obvious choice.

The next decision seems to be the one that would be most obviously problematic here. Should Campbell have been made incumbent captain in 2000 or was David Beckham the right choice?

Beckham captained England under Peter Taylor's one game in charge. That one game saw many elder statesmen dropped for that game - Tony Adams, Martin Keown, Paul Ince, Denis Wise etc. Campbell didn't play in that game against Italy and Beckham was chosen (perhaps in his stead).

The next game England played, under Sven Goran Eriksen, appointed Beckham again as captain pointing to his performance in the Italy game. It seems, looking at the media coverage at the time, that Eriksen wasn't clear in whether Beckham was permanent captain but hoped that he would be.

And, as it turns out, he was - growing into the role over the next 6 years. Campbell was a stalwart during Beckham's time but was superseded by the Terry/Ferdinand partnership from 2004 onwards.

A few points remain:

The point about Owen is a false one. He was selected as vice captain by Eriksen but only captained England on three occasions during Campbell's career (Owen captained England nine times but a good chunk of those were after Campbell's England career finished. One of those three games was at Anfield). Whilst Campbell may to many (including myself) have been a preferable choice to Owen I don't believe Owen is as obviously an outrageous a selection as Campbell suggests.

The second point which still requires to be examined is - does the FA put pressure on managers to make certain selections? It seems to be the case that the selection of the captain is the choice of the manager alone. There is no evidence, so far as I am aware, that the FA puts pressure on managers to make certain selections and, if they do, such pressure is applied on a racial basis.

If such evidence was to come to light then, sure, that would be repugnant and deplorable but in the absence of such evidence we cannot assume its existence. If such evidence did exist we would have to view the England managers over the last two decades as supine moral dwarves. Indeed, the evidence seems to point the other way - that high level figures in the FA want to intervene but do not (Lord Triesmann has noted he would have preferred Capello to select Rio Ferdinand as captain but ultimately that decision was for Capello to make). There were stories in 2004 that such pressure was put on managers but it was always unclear as to which manager the stories referred to

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is the issue of subconscious selection. In this scenario, England managers looking at two strong candidates (one black, one white) will select the white player because of subconscious biases. There may be something in that but, again, that is conjecture and probably worthy of academic consideration.

Plenty of fine men who could have been England captain more often will wish they had worn that armband more often. Lampard, the ultimate establishment candidate, has been England captain twice. Charlton, arguably England's finest player, wore the arm band three times.

In my view, Campbell should have been England captain on more occasions than he was. That is equally true of other players of his era (both black and white). There is also little doubt racism is still an issue in English football. That said, there is - at this stage - little evidence that Campbell's accusations are correct. We should ask for him to bring forward more evidence because this is an issue of fundamental importance to all who care about the game. However, without that evidence, we cannot assume guilt.


Monday, 24 February 2014

Playing the referee

Football clubs are becoming ever more sophisticated in their approach to games. We know this to be true. The days of a crafty cigarette at half-time are, at the highest level, long gone. The days of pre-match meals of chicken and beans (a la Alan Shearer) are behind us too. Hell, poor old Tom Huddlestone had to give up tomato ketchup.

Teams will often have - alongside the manager, assistant manager, keeping coaches, first team coaches, and scouts - any number of individuals doing certain jobs: head of performance, head of conditioning, doctors, physiotherapists, masseurs, rehab specialists, sports scientists, nutritionists, sports therapists, dietitians, psychologists and individuals involved in opposition analysis (or spies as anyone with a bit of dash would call them).

Clubs sign up to ProZone. They track the movements of their players during matches via GPS (and are wise to the shuttle runs at corners to boost figures). They fit players with heart rate monitors. Hydration is understood. Periodisation of training is used. Kits become more advanced to wick sweat away. Tactics and systems are advancing at a dizzying speed. Altitude tents are erected to help players. Horse placenta is used on the injuries of leading players. No doubt, soon enough if not already, there will be sleep consultants at clubs. Every last detail is covered to the point of minutiae.

All bar one. The referee.
Last week we heard bleating from both Arsenal and Manchester City that referees changed games against them. In the past, Liverpool, Manchester United, Celtic and Chelsea have all submitted similar grumbles. It isn't as though Pellegrini or Wenger's moaning was out of kilter with other clubs. They were, in fact, the most recent examples of a trend that has become more and more evident over the years: that British clubs (stacked with foreign players, mind) all too often cannot adapt to referees from the continent. Indeed, this isn't just a club thing - it is a routine excuse for international matches involving the Home Nations as well.

Following the Demichelis and Szczęsny sendings off not only did the managers complain about the referee but, moreover, the golf club of ex-pros in the press and in the pundit rooms were ranting and raving about referees from the continent. They referee in different ways.They focus on different things. They allow certain behaviours whilst not allowing others. 
The assumption seems to be that the referees should change their interpretation of the laws as a British side is involved. This may fit into the wider arrogance that our clubs, and our football elite, have about our perceived standing in the world game. This may fit into a wider conceit that we play football properly and our referees adjudicate it properly whilst those referees from the continent are more lackadaisical in approach. They aren't pukka. They allow things like diving which, of course, doesn't happen in Britain nor do British players do it.

Clearly this is balderdash and blow. If British teams know, in advance, that they have a certain referee then it seems odd that there is no obvious adaptation to the way they referee. Surely, if the larger clubs have ''Heads of Opposition Analysis'' it shouldn't be beyond them to look at referees? Surely if millions of pounds depend on the decisions a referee may or may not give it is sensible to consider their approach to the game? 

It is clear that some clubs do get former professional referees, and in some instance current referees, along to training to speak to players but surely analysis of referees in games coming up makes sense: How does he interpret certain fouls? What does he clamp down on? What does he tolerate? Does he like players talking to him or does that rub him up the wrong way? Does he explain decisions? Does the team have any player who speaks his native language? Look at his last twenty games: How many penalties has he given and what for? How many yellow cards has he given and what for? What does he give fouls for? Does he generally allow the game to flow or does he look to get involved?

This has happened in rugby - admittedly a sport where the interpretation of the rules is probably more obviously different between individuals - for many years. Sir Clive Woodward made it an integral part of England's build-up and tried to ensure that they played the referee. If the referee didn't like certain things happening at the breakdown area, the players were instructed beforehand not to indulge in those behaviours. They then practised accordingly. The mantra of the England rugby world cup winning team was 'Think Correctly Under Pressure'. Did Demichelis think correctly under pressure last week? Did 
Szczęsny? As Michael Ballack said, when the other commentators were complaining about the rule, ''don't do it''. It seemed like a truism. It was but it should have rung like a bell in English football.

Ultimately, it is stupid, it is arrogant and it is unreasonable  to expect a referee from (say) Italy to change the way he referees one particular game simply because an English, or British, team is involved. The referee has been brought up in a particular culture of football, has played in that culture, has refereed in that culture and (presumably) has excelled there. He is likely to bring his own interpretation, shaped by that culture, to games. He has likely refereed hundreds, if not thousands, of games at numerous levels. Many of these games will have been televised. It shouldn't be impossible to learn about him.

Moreover, if footballers can adapt to shifts in tactics, defensive formation and pressing strategies from game to game (as desired by the manager) then it shouldn't be beyond the ken of a team to play to the referee. If you know he doesn't like grappling in the box at corners, as Ballack says don't do it (or pick players less likely to do it). 
If he clamps down on dissent tell your team to can the backchat and ensure it is only the captain speaking to him. Simple stuff. It seems especially bonkers given the huge amount of preparation, analysis and support clubs now ask for from their backroom staff.

As two posts ago, I agree with Stein that '
If you're good enough, the referee doesn't matter'. It would seem to me that teams can make themselves better, or better able to win, by understanding the referee better. Until British clubs realise this it is likely we'll hear rather more moaning about the referees and see our clubs' ribbons around Big Ears.