“When Iniesta scored I was gutted”

Hero?

Mark Van Bommel: Hero?

A “disgrace”, “anti-football”, a game that “shamed” the world. Pundits and the media have been universal in their condemnation of Holland’s tactics in the World Cup final. But do the Dutch really deserve such a slating?

Holland were up against possibly the best international team of the last 20 years. Trying to outplay Spain would have been tactical suicide. To win, Holland had no choice but to stop Spain playing.  That meant pressing and yes, sticking their collective boot in.

It’s not pretty. It’s not nice. But it’s a time honoured football tradition.

Sometimes you win by outplaying your opponents, sometimes by outworking them, and sometimes by stopping them playing. Breaking the game up, making it scrappy, and trying to create something for yourself.

Sure, it doesn’t make for a pretty game for the neutral. But Holland were there to win. They’d missed the memo telling them to just turn up and let the Spanish pass the ball around them.

Nobody has come to represent this approach more than Mark Van Bommel, who has emerged as a media hate figure, epitomising Holland’s supposedly negative tactics. The so-called dirtiest player at the World Cup in fact only received one yellow card. And that was for time wasting.

Dismissed as a referring anomaly, what that disciplinary record actually tells you is that Van Bommel understands what the limits of the game are, how far he can go, and what tactically needs to be done.

Sometimes a player needs to be stuck on his backside. If your opponents are counter attacking, their players streaming forwards, and your team-mates are caught up field, then it’s the right thing to do. Bring him down, stop the game, let your team get their shape.

For all Spain’s elegant possession, they created few clear chances in the game. The two best opportunities both fell to Holland. If Arjen Robben had put either of them away, Holland would be champions, and deserved ones. There would  have been many things to admire. The discipline, the collective resolve, a team buying into a tactical plan and ruthlessly executing it.

When we talk about winning the World Cup in 1966, we don’t talk about how poor the match was. History only remembers who won, not how they got the job done.

When Iniesta scored I was gutted.

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The Chump-ions League

The Chumpions League: "How long til we win the Championship, Carra?"

It’s that time of the year, post World Cup melancholy whilst counting down the Saturdays till the big kick-off. Getting excited about the prospect of attending pre-season friendlies, admiring the groundsman’s handiwork over the summer and tasting the new flavour Pukka pie.

However, one thing I will not be salivating over is Platini’s bloated behemoth that is the Champions League.

What sort of anorak (or perhaps more appropriate for the Chumpions League, corporate suit) is looking forward to a dreary, miserable Tuesday night in October when United are already through and playing a team of reserves against some second rate European no-hopers where the result is meaningless. Answer, no one.

The same teams qualify for the quarters year upon year and continue their monopoly of the game, suckling on the rich teat of the Chumps Leagues’ well of cash. When this teat is removed, clubs are sent into a spiral of decline. (See Leeds for the prime example, and hopefully Liverpool in the next few seasons). The financial situation, even for the clubs that are in the competition every year, is unsustainable. Look at the mounting debts of the leading giants in Europe and the astronomical wages they pay. It’s only going one way, and that is financial disaster.

It has become such an overblown corporate monster that it takes precedent over all other levels of football. (And who drinks Amstel, seriously?) With “The Champions” ringing in their ears, do we seriously expect the likes of Platini and Blatter to give a shit about grassroots and lower league football when they’ve got their cash cow to milk.

Most of the stars expected to flourish in South Africa underperformed and looked well off the pace. I put this down to simply the number of games they are expected to play, and 13 games to win the Chumpions League certainly does not help this situation.

I’m not saying get rid of the Chumpions League permanently, although a name change should be on the cards as its the biggest misnomer in football. I suggest having a straight knockout format, much like the FA Cup, with no Sepp Blatter style seeding to protect the big teams. This would obviously be the fairest solution and lead to much more tense and exciting games.

I’m certain most true football fans would agree with my suggestions. The only problem would be the shortfall of TV money. If you were to disband UEFA, or at least remove some of the overpaid football bureaucrats, and put in place a salary cap, I’m sure a compromise could be reached for the future benefit of the game. Otherwise, I can only see another decade of debt and pointless Champions’ League nights with Jamie Redknapp’s crotch staring at me.

All white on the night

If you had popped down to your local bookies before the World Cup began and put a bet on New Zealand to be the only team to leave South Africa undefeated, not only would you have got very long odds, but by the time you left the store the proverbial men in white coats would have been waiting outside ready to whisk you off to the nearest asylum.

Along with North Korea and Honduras, the All Whites started their campaign in South Africa as huge underdogs. In a group featuring the World champions Italy, a well-drilled Paraguay and a Slovakian side that impressed in qualification, most pundits saw the Kiwis as whipping boys and predicted a swift return to New Zealand without a point, or even a goal, to show for their efforts.

The omens were not good. In last year’s Confederations Cup the All Whites were trounced 5-0 by Spain and celebrated a goalless draw with Iraq like they had just won a particularly lucrative lottery syndicate. Their manager, Ricki Herbert, was also a survivor from the 1982 World Cup squad that failed to pick up a point from their three group games in Spain.

On top of that, New Zealand didn’t even have a professional league, with their only professional team, Wellington Phoenix, (also managed by Herbert) plying their trade in Australia’s much maligned A-League. With Robbie Fowler still a star turn Down Under, it’s easy to see why.

The players that made up their threadbare squad almost made a mockery of the term journeymen, with an unattached veteran pulling the strings in midfield, a former AFC Wimbledon striker leading the line and a full-time banker, ahem, looking to cash in on their underdog status. Only the All White’s captain, Ryan Nelsen of Blackburn Rovers, was playing at the top-level week in week out, with strikers Rory Fallon and Chris Killen plying their trade in the second tier of English football.

When their Antipodean neighbours were put to the sword by a rampant Germany in their opening fixture, fears grew that New Zealand would suffer the same fate as they prepared to face a Slovakian team that edged a tough qualification group ahead of Slovenia and the Czech Republic.

To the surprise of many observers, New Zealand acquitted themselves well against the technically gifted Slovaks, defending resolutely and passing the ball around in a way that England could only dream of. The match may not have set pulses racing (like Shakira had in the opening ceremony), as two unfancied teams slugged it out in the afternoon sun, but their was certainly no lack of effort or organisation from the All Whites. Winston Reid and Ryan Nelsen were outstanding at the back, coping admirably with the dangerous Robert Vittek and the speedy Vladimir Weiss, while Simon Elliott provided much-needed energy and experience in the middle of the park.

When Slovakia took the lead early in the second-half, New Zealand were expected to crumble and allow the Slovaks to pick up their first win at a World Cup. But the All Whites sensed a record of their own was within their grasp as they searched for an unlikely equalizer. It duly came in the fifth minute of stoppage time, courtesy of a glancing Winston Reid header. Cue delirium on the sidelines and in the stands, as the Kiwis celebrated their first ever point in a World Cup finals.

Next up though was Italy, where normal service would be resumed. Or so we thought. The Azzurri had laboured to a point in their opener against Paraguay and were a pale shadow of the side that lifted the World Cup four years earlier. Still, they had some world-class operators like Danielle De Rossi in their ranks who would eventually break the All Whites’ stubborn resistance.

But Ricki Herbert’s side had other ideas, and even had the temerity to take an unlikely lead through Shane Smeltz’s close-range strike, albeit from an offside position. The Italians were understandably livid, but were later awarded a dubious penalty to level matters so could have few complaints at the final whistle. The heroes of the hour were skipper Ryan Nelsen, who defended the New Zealand goal like it was Helm’s Deep, and the All Whites’ goalkeeper Mark Paston, who produced a series of stunning saves to keep the Italians at bay. West Brom’s Chris Wood was inches away from one of the biggest shocks of World Cup history when he shook of the attentions of an ailing Fabio Cannavaro and steered his shot just wide of the post in the dying minutes. The result was undoubtedly the greatest in the country’s footballing history and poured scorn on those mean-spirited commentators who suggested that New Zealand had no right to be at the World Cup after qualifying from a group featuring such football behemoths as Fiji and New Caledonia.

Going into their third game, New Zealand were level on points with Italy and above Slovakia and had a real chance of progressing beyond the group stage. In the end though, they came up just short, playing out a bore draw with Paraguay in a match that demonstrated their obvious attacking limitations and prompted a spike in the popularity of watching paint dry.

Despite their exit at the group stage, New Zealanders can be more than proud of a group of players who punched well above their weight on the world stage and were the only country to leave South Africa with their unbeaten record intact, a fact set to be immortalised in pub quizzes across the land. Spain may have picked up the trophy,  but New Zealand take home the bragging rights from the 2010 World Cup.

An unlikely hero?

Unlikely...

Dirk Kuyt: An unlikely hero?

In late June, a total of 108 English Premier League based players embarked on a journey to South Africa to represent their national teams. From that list, the media lauded over superstar names such as Fabregas, Rooney, Torres, Van Persie and Tevez. All were expected to play major roles in their respective nation’s quest for glory.

How wrong they we all were.

Rooney flattered to deceive, Torres has looked like the walking dead and Fabregas has been firmly benched. Instead, a player who has often been looked upon as a joke figure by club and country has come to the fore over the past four weeks. This is a player, very few football fans would have chosen for their ‘World Cup Dream Team’ before the tournament began. A man who this evening, may collect a well-deserved World Cup winners medal. Who? I hear you ask. None other than Dirk Kuyt, of course.

Before you stop reading and burst into a fit of giggles, let me throw some stats at you, if I may. Kuyt has started all six of Holland’s World Cup games, scoring one goal and providing three assists (only one less than the tournament leaders Messi and Schweinsteiger).

He rarely gets substituted and has played in a new left-sided forward position throughout the World Cup.  It was from this position that he made the cross from which Arjen Robben headed Holland’s third and ultimately winning goal in Tuesday’s semi-final against Uruguay. Whilst Robben slid on his knees to celebrate and looked to the heavens, very few praised the quality of Kuyt’s inch-perfect cross.

Kuyt may look out of place in a Dutch team that has traditionally been known for flair and fabulous technique, but it’s his work rate, adaptability and selflessness that make him so important. Don’t just take my word for it. His former club manager and new Inter Milan chief Rafa Benitez once said that: “Dirk is always the first name on my team sheet”. This is a team that features such stellar luminaries of Torres, Gerrard and Mascherano.

On the eve of Tuesday’s huge semi-final against Uruguay, Holland coach Bert van Marwijk echoed Benitez’s comments by saying: “Every player has a period where things don’t work out and Liverpool had a very tough year, but Kuyt is extremely important for us. The way he plays shows his passion and enthusiasm, and that is catching.”

It was no surprise that in that semi-final against Uruguay, with the score delicately hinged at 3-2 to Holland, there was a moment with only seconds remaining on the clock when the South American’s had their last flurry towards the Dutch goal. In a packed penalty area, a Uruguay boot pulled back to unleash a shot at goal, when suddenly a straggly haired player in Orange hurled himself forward to block the incoming shot. Seconds later, the final whistle was blown. Who made that timely match-saving block? No prizes for guessing, Dirk Kuyt.

So, this evening as Messrs Lineker and Chiles eulogise over the likes of Robben, Van Persie and Sneijder during their respective channels pre-match hype, please spare a thought for the unlikeliest of heroes.

The Stephane Guivarc’h award for most disappointing number 9 goes to….

Poor man's Stephane Guivarc’h?

Van Persie and Torres: Poor man's Stephane Guivarc’h?

And so it comes down to this. A man to man battle to between two Premier League stars to find out who wins the coveted Stephane Guivarc’h award for most disappointing World Cup winning forward 2010.

Oddly, both Spain and Holland have got to the final carrying their two star number 9’s. Both have been playing with 10 1/2 men.

So much was made of both these players. Pundits wax lyrical on their technique, pace, strength and clinical finishing. In reality, Torres and Van Persie have both looked slow, clumsy, weak and wayward. Torres, plagued by injury all season, has never really looked like the player who scored for fun in Euro 2008 or the Premier League (though admittedly not last season). Surgery and a lack of match practice in a team devoid of confidence has made him a appear like a shadow of his former self.

Van Persie, on the other hand, has always been plagued by injury. One of the most technically gifted players in Europe, he has looked well off the pace in South Africa. The touch and vision is still there, but the legs aren’t working how they should be. So who has been most disappointing? It’s obvious really. But here is a stat attack from FIFA:

Robin Van Persie

Attempted 152 passes, 90 of which have been successful (59% completion rate).
15 shots in total
Offside 9 times
1 goal
2 assists

Torres stats make for painful reading. But here they are:

Fernando Torres

Attempted 64 passes, 31 of those were completed, (48% pass completion rate).
13 shots in total
Offside once
No goals
No assists

The offiside statistic for Torres is remarkable. He usually plays on the shoulder of the last defender, and his goal against Germany in 2008 was a great finish from that position. During the World Cup he has just not been at the races, a pale imitation of his former self.

But how about some context – here are David Villa’s stats:

David Villa

Attempted passes 219, 148 completed (68%)
He has had 26 shots (Twice as many as Torres)
Offside on two occasions (he plays wider so not surprising)
5 goals
1 assist

So we all know that Torres is having a poor World Cup. But “he has been injured” you say, “he shouldn’t have chopped off his blonde hair, therein lies the power” you cry, Liverpool had a poor year, it’s not down to poor baby faced Fernando.

But what is odd is that this isn’t the first time a team, or in this case two, have reached the World Cup finals with their star striker out of form. Four years ago, Italy couldn’t choose between Gilardino or Toni. France 1998 had the cult figure of Stephane Guivarc’h plowing what must have been the most lonely of lone furrows.

So do you really need a real forward to win a World Cup? I’d have to say probably not, (although David Villa is the hole in my argument, as well as the context). As an old coach always said to me: “If you can shut up shop, the team will always get a chance to nick a goal. You got two results to keep you going, the draw and the win. You got to play percentages in this game, defend well and you’ll always get a chance”.

So who wins the Stephane Guivarc’h award? Afraid it has to go to Fernando Torres. I am sure he will be back though, perhaps not next year just like Rooney, Messi, Ronaldo and Kaka.

But worrying for all those players who failed to impress in South Africa is the fact that a World Cup only comes round every four years, and there are going to be a lot of players needing to prove a point in Brazil – but only one can really write themselves into history.

Having said all that,  Liverpool fans needn’t worry too much, as I’m sure Fernando will pick up next season – at Stamford Bridge.

Too Klose for comfort

Is it his pigeon-like face? Perhaps it’s his early nineties haircut? Or even just a mild case of xenophobia? Whatever the reason, I simply don’t like Miroslav Klose.

Now it’s worth pointing out that my footballing emotions have never been entirely rational. For example, my long standing distrust for any footballer that wears a polo neck under his shirt. Or my unhealthy respect for James Beattie. And now Klose.

It bothers me that he is dangerously close to breaking Ronaldo’s World Cup goal-scoring record and that he is level on World Cup goals with Gerd Müller – a man who plundered an astonishing 68 goals in 62 internationals.

It frustrates me that over the last decade during major tournaments he has been mentioned in the same breath as David Villa, Thierry Henry, and Hernan Crespo. And he has, because he consistently scores goals, and plenty of them, at major international tournaments.  Even if three of those came against Saudi Arabia in 2002.

And that’s the problem. Or at least my problem. He displays all the attributes that highly desirable strikers are rightly lauded for. Reliable, clinical, always in the right place at the right time, with a fantastic goals to games ratio. A rich man’s Franny Jeffers if you will. Unlike many around him, he’s neither cynical, theatrical or petulant. So why is it that I refuse to acknowledge him for what he seemingly is, a great striker?

Team work makes the dream work

I have had an odd relationship with the World Cup this year. Every four years my life was punctuated by the event and spectacle that is the World Cup.

However, this year’s World Cup finished after penalties of the final in 2006. Why? Well as an Italian supporter, that was our moment, and we would be dining out on that (as would the players) for at least another World Cup or two.

This year I have been able to watch the World Cup in South Africa with a pragmatic and analytical approach. My conclusion? Team work makes the dream work. The rise of the team like never before.

The number 10 has long been dead in the modern game: the fantasist, the one man team. Perhaps Messi or Ronaldo could fit that mould, but not at this World Cup.

Gone are the days of Roberto Baggio carrying (on one leg) an average Italian side to a heroically tragic end. Or Maradona pulling the strings in 1986. Even in World Cup 2006 we had Zidane in the last chance saloon, dusting some magic over a terribly awkward French team.

This year we have seen the rise of the team. The premise is slightly odd. “We have always had teams you fool” I can hear you cry; “The Germans! They are always a machine-like team.” Well, not really. Not since 1990 were they really efficient. Even at the Euro’s in 1996 they could not be described as machine-like.

No, this year we have seen that the team must always be greater than the sum of its parts. Germany, Uruguay, Holland. All semi finalists, all nations where the team comes first.

The irony is not lost on me that Holland have a fantastic chance to win their first ever World Cup, even if  the names of Gio Van Bronckorst, Andre Ooijer, Khalid Boularouz and Dirk Kuyt do not compare with those of Johan Cruyff, Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and more in the country’s illustrious football history. But for Holland, team work is making the dream work.

Similarly Germany, the breakout team of this World Cup, have put the team above individuals. Sure, they have some fantastic individual players, but to play the counter attacking football that they do you need disciplined team mates filling in to allow the explosive Muller, Ozil and ahem, Klose, to break out.

What of those who put individuality above the team? Look no further than the current France squad, or to England, who seem mentally incapable of performing on the big stage.

Are the days of individuals carrying a team to World Cup or international glory gone? I think so. European leagues are much stronger, with more global recruitment strategies. Small countries are more tactically aware, space is at a premium and Adidas like to make sure the playing field is as level as possible with lighter balls that mean more unpredictably.

The classic number 10 position hasn’t disappeared from the game, and Messi and Ronaldo will make sure of that, but the number 10 will just have to be another number – ready to add some dream dust to the team work – when appropriate.

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