Rashford, Rooney’s absence, and the postmodern problem player.

“He worked really hard and created problems, he had a fantastic shot in the first half with that beautiful save. And then the free-kick is work. Is work, he works everyday, he loves to work. Sometimes training session finishes for the group and he keeps doing his individual work with my assistants.” – José Mourinho

What was striking about this statement, about Marcus Rashford, was that only a few years ago they are the kind of words that would have been used to describe Wayne Rooney. This should have been a season to remember for Manchester United’s captain, racking up new records to make him a (statistical) “great” of one of world football’s titans.

Wayne Rooney 144855cropped

But just as Rooney’s own ageing has come to symbolise the stagnation affecting the post-Ferguson-era United he cannot be guaranteed a place in a game as crucial as an away, first-leg semi-final in a major competition. With Ibrahimovic injured for the foreseeable future, the direct, percentages game of Mourinho’s United has had to be revised. But those revisions cannot include Rooney.

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Manchester City: what strategy should they use to beat Barca?

a quick, pre-game post

Since Manchester City’s myth-making, narrative-forming 3-2 win against 10-man Bayern Munich in the Champions League group stage, I have been thinking – as a neutral and a writer fascinated with the chess of top-level tactics – about how City should learn from that match. If we cast our minds back, it was a remarkable game in that it turned many assumptions that we (are told to) hold about City on their head:

  • That their money and squad means that they ought to be capable of breaking down any team. Bayern’s reorganisation was remarkable in how it frustrated the Citizens after they lost Mehdi Benatia to a red-card in the 20th minute. The tactical narrative is told in the timings of the goals: Aguero scored from the penalty spot in the 21st minute; Alonso equalised in the 40th; Lewandowski poached on the 45th; and then it was a 40 minute wait until Aguero scored 2 goals in the final 5 of the 90. I will return to this point below.
  • The role of Yaya Toure.
    1. Before the game, I posted on social media that I believed that the double pivot in the 4-2-3-1 of Fernando and Lampard was superior to that of Toure and Fernandinho. I stand by this. I have never been convinced by the solidity of the latter partnership, while the former combines the deep-lying playmaking of Lampard and the ball-winning of Fernando. One wins, the other retains. Fernandinho and Toure are both ‘driving’ midfielders. If you want those two in your team, you really have to counter-balance them with an anchoring player in-between (like Fernando).
    2. With Toure suspended, the ‘driving’ runs through the centre weren’t an option. Who, instead, provided those crucial central dribbles? Aguero on the counter, not Toure when pressing forward. Toure’s role in the team, at that time, was in question after a terrible defeat to CSKA Moscow that nearly dumped City out the competition.

To return to my central argument around the timings of the goals, those timings tell the tactical story. At the beginning of the game, Aguero was such a threat on the counter that he caused the excellent Benatia to panic and be red-carded. Bayern’s reorganisation, which brought 2 sucker-punch goals, had the air of alchemy to it. Bayern were then able to retreat into a more rigid, counter-attacking shape for the next 40 minutes of the game. It was this period that was crucial: City could not break through, and it would seem unlikely that they would have with Toure in the side (barring a thundering pile driver, which he is certainly capable of. It is naïve to build your team around the creation of world-class long strikes). City only triumphed when Bayern regained their possessive domination, returned to their short passing game and tried to run the clock down at the end with their tried-and-true style – they were deconstructed by the lethality of Aguero’s stabs to the heart.

This conclusion follows that of point number 1, above. After Mourinho left Chelsea, Roman Abramovich was obsessed with the idea that his Chelsea team should play a high-pressing, short-passing style. He essentially wanted Chelsea to play like Guardiola’s Barcelona team. Hundreds of millions in transfer fees, and several managers, were thrown at this project. In the meantime, Mourinho overcame his bitter rivals at Barcelona with his Inter team through parking the bus, and playing the percentages to the Nth degree. When AVB (the most ideological of all of Abramovic’s post-Mourinho appointments) lost his job, Roberto Di Matteo helmed a Champions League win using Mourinho’s winning strategy at Inter from 2 seasons before. RDM started the new season with a free-flowing attacking team, complete with new signings like Oscar, and the media cooed that Chelsea were finally winning how they ‘should’ be. Of course, RDM lost his job, and was replaced by the squad-rotation master Rafa Benitez, a pragmatist who won them the Europa League as interim manager.

It’s a confusing context that speaks to City’s own bind. Fans and owners assume that, with hundreds of millions being spent, that a certain style must emerge and be deployed, rather than the more pragmatic reality of playing to your strengths and exploiting opponents’ weaknesses. But like Yin and Yang, good and evil, the tiki-taka philosophy of how football should look like is best enjoyed when it comes against its opposite. The paradox of the unstoppable force against the immovable object has produced some of the most intriguing and memorable games in my memory.

When two counter-attacking teams face one another, or two possessive teams face each other, there is quite often a frustration. Both strategies depend on an extreme interpretation of the game. The truth is, the tiki-taka style isn’t ‘attacking’, and the reactive style isn’t ‘defensive’. By keeping the ball, you prevent your opponent from attacking, for instance. This is why Liverpool before their post-Christmas resurgence were so mindnumbing. I don’t automatically find a team sitting in another’s half, sideways passing and committing tactical fouls thrilling, but the assumption seems to be that we should. The philosophy of always keeping the ball, denying the opponent, has lead to terrible fixtures where one team can’t fight and the dominating team don’t use their possession. Keeping the ball, therefore, is a defensive strategy as much as it is an attacking one, and the same is true of its opposite. By choosing to react, savvy football teams have focussed on what few attacks they choose to build, and rely on their opponents making mistakes when in possession.

        To get to Manchester City, it becomes clearer to me that they should focus on the strategy that overcame Bayern, the closest team to their opponents: one of radical counter-attacking that punishes their opponent’s mistakes and extreme defensive line. It’s what Real Madrid did to Bayern last year, in one of the most impressive displays of (rather aggressive) counter-attacking zeal that we will see in club football. After the Bayern game, City were forced to do without Aguero, and played an experimental false-9 formation, with James Milner as the industrious central attacker. It was interesting that in those games, City were able to overcome teams that sat deep against them on a number of occasions, doing just enough to secure a win. I’m not of the belief that with Toure and Aguero in the City team that they are capable of winning with such a strategy against Bayern. It made sense with Milner in the centre because it was unpredictable, so unlike Pellegrini’s City (who last season played more-often with a relentless 4-4-2 formation).

Because Aguero and Edin Dzeko aren’t hard-working or versatile enough to adopt Atletico Madrid’s aggressive 4-4-2 strategy, Pellegrini must be courageous and pragmatic enough to not base his team’s approach on aesthetics. Whether Pellegrini will have the courage to radically exclude Toure or David Silva, who missed City’s win vs. Bayern, is unlikely. And to exclude two of their most talented midfielders also doesn’t seem to be a solution, either. City should look to recent history, and take heart from the fact that an inability to execute a high-press, short-pass style (which they unsuccessfully tried to use to break down Bayern in that crucial 40 minute spell) is not something to be ashamed of.

The ‘Postcolonial’ behind the ‘Premier’ League

Deconstructing Football: 1

[Copyright-Free image courtesy of http://www.odt.org]

When managers, players and commentators call the English Premier League the ‘best in the world’, or even ‘greatest’ league, they do not make a simple statement. Such a contest seems only winnable by the Premier League when looking at viewing figures; this is not an argument I will get sucked into, except that I feel it speaks to something sinister behind the Premier League. The widespread belief in its supremacy over other domestic leagues should worry, as it arguably justifies an unjust situation which speaks to the very structure of modern, ‘global’ football.

Pele famously predicted that there would be an African winner of the FIFA World Cup by the end of the Twentieth Century. We know now that he was, simply, wrong; but what of the last winner of the 20th Century, France? Their ‘rainbow team’ drew on talent from all over French society, especially from former French colonies – Zinedine Zidane from Algeria, for example. Indeed, the ‘rainbow team’ was a highly positive thing in France: this example of a cohesive, wonderful team drawing players from a range of backgrounds helped to contradict and challenge racist politicians such as Jean-Marie Le Pen – the leader of the far-right Fronte Nationale (or FN). It challenged not only the assumption that French society must be judged on its colour, it also speaks to the fact that a ‘footballing culture’ is to do with place, to do with geography and location. It seems a can of worms to argue that the rainbow team were, in-fact, African and not French – that isn’t something I will be drawn into, except that it is this relationship between being French and (for example) Algerian which is of interest.

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Everton scoring all over the pitch

Louis Saha, just after signing for Fulham
Saha - just one forward who Everton cannot rely on - Image via Wikipedia

Outside of the narrative of big spending in Manchester and the red side of Liverpool, one of the more compelling cases in the transfer market this summer has been Everton. They are a side who should ‘on paper’ be in decline, however they have had an excellent start to the season, picking up points from 3 out of their 4 Premier League fixtures – they are 2 points better this season than they were having played the same number of fixtures last season.

Everton have constricted finances due to debt and lack of external investment, and have not been able to spend a decent sum on a single player as they have in previous seasons (Fellaini being an example) – David Moyes has been highly restricted in a financial sense. However, they find themselves having started well, despite the fact the general narrative over the previous seasons has been that they have started poorly and picked up form to lift themselves into the top half, usually into contention for Europe. Whether this trend is simply reversed this season is yet to be decided, but it’s interesting to study in the light of the fact that Everton have a distinct lack of forwards in their squad.

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Taking a little break

No column this week. I’m moving back to university and unless someone can find a recording of the game for me or some kind of repeat stream, not possible. Pity as well because I have been building up to a big loss like this – I assume we were lacklustre tactically speaking. I may write a summary based of the MotD highlights.

Norwich 0 – 1 West Bromwich Albion: “We’ll see”

“I’ve saw it on the tape numerous times and – we’ll see.”Paul Lambert, Norwich manager

Both teams surely felt they had to win, and could do, having had a slow start to the season. Norwich wanted to record their first win, having drawn twice already – Albion had been handed a difficult start to the fixture list and had conceded late in all their August fixtures leading to three losses in a row. Roy Hodgson denied this was evidence of a trend prior to the match.


General shapes - note emphasis on Tierney's arrow

A sombre start to proceedings could be expected, considering that firstly the stadium observed applause for Albion’s academy player Blake Melbourne, who has passed away after illness. Then, a commemorative silence followed for the September 11th 2001 attacks.

However, despite Hodgson’s lack of acknowledgment of trends, another continued: Albion scored early, breaking the sombre atmosphere. Steven Reid had within the first minute played an early cross into the box – this was a theme throughout the match, and it was a similar ball by Nicky Shorey which activated a clever piece of combination play between Albion’s forwards. Shane Long shepherded former Albion centre-back Leon Barnett away, whilst Peter Odemwingie exploited the space and lack of guile between Ritchie De Laet and Tierney. Thus, within 2 minutes Albion had an advantage to which they held onto throughout the match – a similar tale to previous fixtures, but this time a success.

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