Thursday, October 29, 2009

Mowbray feels the heat

My post this week coincides rather nicely with this wonderful piece by Guardian writer Jonathan Wilson on the concept of “the false nine”. Let me be frank on this; he is to football tactics what Socrates is to philosophy – you don’t really understand the whole concept until you read his work. His book “Inverting the Pyramid” is a must for any football supporter, and I don’t think any fans should be allowed to criticize managers at games unless they have read it. Obviously, I have read it, and therefore I have felt entitled to moan at length about Caley’s 4-5-1 formation this season…although it must be said that there are strange reptilian beasts living in the darkest, deepest caves which haven never seen daylight and who have only the tiniest light-sensing receptors on their face in place of eyes, which would be able to see that those tactics have not worked this season.

Thankfully, Terry Butcher also appears to have seen the light at last, as he sent out a starting XI last weekend with four forwards in it – which promptly scored four goals in the first 25 minutes on the way to a rather stonking 5-1 win. More of the same this weekend at home to Morton please, not least as we come to the end of October without having won a home game in the league yet.

I digress. The reason why I have highlighted “the false nine” article is because, tonight Matthew, I am going to write about Celtic. Now, as I have alluded to previously, I have watched only a morsel of Scottish football this season – but that has included Celtic’s defeat to Rangers, plus their more recent win at Hamilton last Saturday and, more relevantly (is relevantly a word? If not, it should be), the league cup defeat to Hearts. Tony Mowbray and Celtic might go on to regain the league title, you know. I certainly wouldn’t risk betting against them at this stage. But it’s pretty clear that they won’t be winning anything in a hurry if they keep playing like they are at the moment.

For those of you who can’t be bothered scouting the link above, the whole “false nine” thing, basically, is a tactical approach where a team effectively plays with no orthodox centre forward. First introduced by Luciano Spelletti at Roma a few years back, when injuries forced him to deploy a front line which included Francesco Totti (at his non-primadonna best) and a bunch of wingers and attacking midfielders, this set up was adopted by Man Utd’s Champions’ League winning side in 2008, with Rooney, Tevez and Ronaldo all taking turns to drop deep and swap positions, and ultimately it probably peaked last year with Barcelona – as an aside, I disagree with Mr. Wilson’s claim that Barca have stopped playing like that since acquiring Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as when I’ve seen the Blaugrana this season the gangly Swede keeps popping up on the touchline.

One of Mr. Wilson’s other claims is that only the best teams can play it. I have issues with this as well, since Everton played a significant chunk of last season with a striker-less formation and it did them more good than harm. But he is right to say that you have to have the right sort of players. Alex Ferguson has ditched it, because Dimitar-less mobile than a dustbin and with an inferior first touch-Berbatov isn’t the right sort of player, and because he doesn’t have Cristiano Ronaldo to streak inside off the wing and cause mayhem anymore. But when I have seen Celtic this season, it seems to me that Mowbray is determined that a variation of the striker-less system is the way to go. Last night against Hearts, he lined up Chris Killen (like most male New Zealanders, a guy whose physique is more suited to rugby) up front, and the Kiwi kept dropping deep to try and get involved in build-up. Meanwhile, McGeady and Maloney could be found running infield more often than they hugged the touchline, while Zheng Zhi played as a good ol’ fashioned no.10, looking to run into the gaps Killen was supposed to have left.

Frankly, it worked about as well as my attempt to send a rocket to the moon by putting cardboard tail fins on a coca-cola bottle and trying to throw it into orbit. It says everything about where Celtic are going wrong when their best chance in the hour or so they persisted with this battleplan came when Killen flicked on a long punt from the back and Zheng raised clean through but scuffed his shot. Only when the Bhoys went to two up top did chances come by the barrowload; sadly, they came for Georgios Samaras (he who is a dead ringer for the goth in The I.T. Crowd) who managed to bugger up them all. My personal favourite came when he lobbed the keeper and was starting to celebrate when the ball hit the post.

Tony Mowbray got the Celtic job mainly on the back of his reputation for making Hibernian and West Brom good to watch, with free-flowing passing football. But never previously has he been up against teams who mostly keep ten men behind the ball against his side. Celtic don’t have the quality to play through the crowded space on the edge of the opposition box, as the delighted Hearts defence discovered last night, and which several other SPL back lines have already learned. But Maloney and McGeady seemed under instruction not to lob in crosses from wide; when these orders were eventually rescinded, it was no surprise that it coincided with the sustained spell of pressure late in the match.

There is a belief going round that, in order to be entertaining, teams have to play on-the-deck passing football. It is widely held, even amongst fans in the Scottish first division. It is also wrong. Think of the way Stoke City are maligned for their, shall we say, “direct” style of play. I’ve seen plenty of their games over the last year and a bit and they got the ball into the box as much as anyone else, and as a consequence created as many chances as anyone else. Their total of 38 league goals last season was fewer than most teams, but it was more than on-the-deck teams such as Sunderland, Middlesbrough and, you’ve guessed it, Tony Mowbray’s West Brom side.

My point is not that long ball is the way to go; it’s that Celtic’s tippy-tappy attempts to become the club equivalent of the Spanish Euro 2008 team are just going to end in failure. While their squad simply doesn’t compare with, for example, Martin O’Neill’s side of six or seven years ago, they still have good enough players to win this league if they play a system that suits them. And that has to involve two up front (like when they beat Hamilton last weekend) and the option to go quickly from back to front if necessary. But with Rangers in crisis, and Celtic looking pretty darn close to it, I still remain a tad hopeful that someone (Hibs?) might bounce out of the pack and mount a third party challenge to the Old Firm duopoly.

Anyone at Celtic Park miss Gordon Strachan yet?


Monday, October 26, 2009

Blast from the past

I'm quite liking the idea of a video every Monday.

Was delighted to find this on YouTube - Spain's winner when they beat Yugoslavia 4-3 at Euro 2000. It's worth it just for Motty going bananas - "It's ALFONSSSSSOOOOOOO!!!"

You know what myself and my co-author were doing that evening? We were sixteen at the time and we missed it because we were ushering in a school play. I knew it was 3-2 to Yugoslavia with only a few minutes to go, and refused for some time to believe that the Spanish had scored twice in injury time. That said, I then watched the highlights three times in a row that night...

In this day and age of conservative tactics, it's worth remembering that, despite that defeat, Yugoslavia went through as well because boring, boring Norway drew 0-0 with Slovenia...


Thursday, October 22, 2009

The death of Scottish football

All right, I admit it...the title is melodramatic at best, utterly inaccurate and ridiculous at worst. All I wanted was a bit of attention!

But considering that, in the last fortnight, Walter Smith has warned that "Scottish football is dying" (or something to that effect), the Old Firm have once more agitated for the opportunity to leave the old fashioned, no longer attractive SPL for the bloated whore that is the English Premier League, Rangers' grand humping at the hands of Unirea Urziceni could not have come at a worst time.

Despite all my moaning and groaning on this blog, even I didn't think it was as bad as this. But, despite my well-known hatred of all things blue and white, this writer was left with his head in his hands for most of the second half on Tuesday night, muttering various phrases which would have shocked and appalled his mother. The goals were a bit unfortunate, but the result was a fair reflection; Rangers were deservedly stuffed by a team with a name that sounds like a sexually transmitted disease, whose home gates are comparable with that of Caley Thistle. I had lambasted Smith before kickoff for playing with only one up front against what appeared to be a diddy side, but who knows - maybe this defensive mentality saved Rangers from a bigger thrashing!

All this in a season that has seen Falkirk knocked out by a team from Liechtenstein, Aberdeen concede five at home to a mid-table Czech side, and Celtic struggle in the Europa League. Not to mention the travails of the national team. I'm not sure whether it is a justifiable metaphor to claim a sport has "died", but let's face it; the patient is not exactly running marathons here - in fact it is wheezing for breath at the effort of putting on its dressing gown.

Everyone associated with Scottish football is at least in agreement for a change - it is a mess, and needs changing. The trouble is that no-one will take a modicum of responsibility for changing it. At domestic level, the repetitiveness of it all is turning off the fans, big style - Rangers and Celtic have swaths of empty seats for most home league games, while I note the attendance for Aberdeen-Hearts last Saturday was 6,000 less than when I went to a game between the two of them at Pitodrie in 2004. As I've said a million times before, when you're playing the same teams four times a season, and most sides are too worried about relegation to risk playing even vaguely entertaining football (I'm not looking for Matrix-type entertainment, I'll happily settle for Terminator Salvation or even Saw VI-type entertainment). But no-one except Rangers and Celtic would agree to expanding the top division, as they'd lose a home gate against one of the big boys. It hasn't occurred to the likes of Aberdeen that their fans tend to come out in huge numbers when they're on a good run, so they might actually get 15,000 in Pittodrie if there is a prospect of them stuffing Queen of the South 5-0.

So they keep twiddling their thumbs, while the Old Firm, in the unique position of being able to exert some power and authority, with the chance to put pressure on the others to make compromises for the good of the game, instead keep going on like a stuck record about abandoning it all for the cash cow across the border. But that ship has long sailed now; the English Premier League is unlikely to be any more marketable with two more big teams, especially when the standard of Rangers and Celtic has fallen to the point where it is comparable with the likes of Hull City, at best. All the Old Firm could bring to English football is sectarianism and a set of demolished city centres (just ask Mancunians). And an Atlantic League? I'll save a rant about that daft idea for another time.

So, in conclusion, the idea of Scottish football "dying" is a ridiculous concept, but it's difficult to remember it being at a nadir such as this. And it's difficult to see how it can bounce back unless somebody involved grows a pair.


Monday, October 19, 2009

Goal of the far

I'm working myself up for another proper blogpost - when I can be bothered - but here, in the meantime, is a goal worth seeing, from Internazionale's Dejan Stankovic at the weekend. It's so simple that it's beautiful...


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Caley Wars: The Manager Strikes Back

I was introduced to a genuinely new experience at the weekend. Sadly, it wasn't the result. Defeat at home (this week to the titans that are Queen of the South) and conceding three goals are becoming awfully familiar. But never has it got to the point where the manager can be seen shouting back at the fans!

Now, up North we are not exactly used to Terry Butcher-type characters in our dugout. In the past we have tended towards quiet coaches, whether because of dignity (Charlie Christie), a mixture of dignity and hangover (Steve Paterson) or just plain incompetence (Craig Brewster). Butcher is another thing entirely. Shortly into his reign it was noticed by many that he is proactive during games, in terms of making changes and shouting instructions. But, with results, and confidence, decaying faster than Michael Jackson’s corpse (too soon?), we got to see another side to TB on Saturday. First, he berated fans for leaving en masse after QOS struck to lead 2-1 with seven minutes left, then he responded to one particularly abusive supporter – who, I understand, deserved what he got – with a curt “f*** off”.

I guess the most surprising thing about TB’s outburst is that these responses happen so rarely. The abuse from the stands at football matches is often horrific, and I can’t imagine being able to take it in my stride, particularly when it is quite clear that football fans actually know jack about the game (if I remember, I will come back to this point later). Some of the slurs that are hurled at coaches and players would be construed as criminal offences if they occurred in the street. It’s easy for us to say “they’re being paid megabucks, they can handle it”, but of course, at Scottish First Division level, footballers are not actually paid these huge salaries, particularly considering that their careers generally last for not much longer than a decade. In addition, I wonder whether that, at larger grounds such as Ibrox or Celtic Park, the general hubbub means that, while widespread disapproval is often made obvious by booing or widespread indecipherable shouting, personal insults are harder to make out than at Caledonian Stadium, where there were only 3,000 spectators on Saturday. I don’t know whether that last point is entirely accurate, though.

On the other hand, one of my favourite hobbies is playing Devil’s Advocate, so let’s look at the flipside. In the 21st century, watching football in the flesh is a pretty expensive thing to do. The fans want to be entertained, and they also want their team to win. However, crap the game is, I have never witnessed a team being booed off after winning (though I bet it does happen on occasions), and equally I have never seen a team booed off after losing 4-3. On the other hand, Caley once more set out in a 4-5-1 formation, and showed a complete lack of flair, creativity and will-to-win. In short, it was boring, and we lost. Is that good value for £15?

And, since I’ve remembered, let’s go back to the “football fans know jack” point of view. While most of the criticisms from the stands border on the ridiculous at the best of times, it is quite clear from my spot a few rows behind the dugout that there is a huge degree of tactical ineptness. Butcher wants ICT to pass the ball from the back, but picks defenders who have the ball control and skills of a paraplegic and midfielders with the creativity of a blind hedgehog who lives in a paper bag. His plan B is the long punt forward – to a striker (Richie Foran) who often does a smashing job of holding the ball up but never has any support. And every home game this season has been exactly the same. The management team are there to optimize the team’s chances of winning, and the players are being paid to go and play as hard as they can (I’m not going to claim that a bad performance is worthy of a slagging, but I firmly believe a lazy one is).

But at Inverness, too many players are not producing the efforts and the management team just won’t change things. And, as much as I deplore the actions of some of my fellow supporters, I have to admit that I exclaimed “this is rubbish, again!” at the dugout myself when Queen’s grabbed their third goal in injury time. And it’s difficult, just now, to see how things can change under the current management.

Of course, it would be just typical if we beat Raith tonight in Kirkcaldy, then embark on a ten match winning run. Not that I would be complaining, mind…


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The English are stealing our goals! No, not really

Lucky old me. I spent Sunday afternoon sitting at ICT's Alba Cup semi-final with Ross County. In the space of a week, I went from Chelsea to Caley. From Didier Drogba to Russell Duncan. From the English Premier League to a competition so crap that no SPL side takes part, and where the only TV coverage is in gaelic. I SkyPlus-ed the game and had a quick shufti at it in the evening, and it would have made more sense if the Flower Pot Men had been commentating on it; "Flob-a-lob-a-lob Inverness...flob-a-lob, flob-a-lob...flob...flobbergoal!". So I have no idea if the commentators thought our goal was a fluke (it blatantly was though, if Rob Eagle meant to score from there then I'm the Queen of Sheba) or what they thought of County's left-back's attempt to decapitate our Irish winger Jonny Hayes with his right elbow, right in front of our dugout, the referee, the standside linesman, the fourth official and most of our support. And of course, the verdict was - a throw in to County.

We won, at least. And home wins for us recently have been as rare as OK! magazine running a story which is actually interesting to someone with more than six brain cells. But it was a hopeless game of football. Literally. This was a football game that was completely without Hope. Only 2,400 turned up, despite it being a derby (the last league encounter between the two attracted 6,000). And, to a man, the 2,400 will all have thought, at least for a moment, "Imagine what else I could have done with my Sunday afternoon". I, for example, could have had more fun looking for a new car, and in particular oggling a beautiful 2006 Jaguar X-Type that I would buy if it wasn't for the fact that any 25 year old who owns a Jaguar deserves to be slapped by everyone he meets. I could also have had more fun doing my taxes. Or going to the dentist. Or being cast into the pits of hell for eternity (as I surely will for announcing proudly to numerous folk how much I love the new Richard Dawkins book).

Sadly, the emotions and feelings mentioned above are becoming rather par for the course this season. Caley, sadly, are the latest team to start playing 4-5-1. It is as if, when they attend coaching seminars, all football managers are hypnotised by Derren Brown (why can't he spell Darren right?) and told "Play one up front, it's the only way that works". Now, in the right hands, 4-5-1 is a deadly weapon. The Portuguese used to utilize it beautifully, with two wingers, Rui Costa (and then Deco) in the hole, and a poacher striker who did bugger all until the ball entered the box. The France team that won a World Cup and a European Championship had a similar system, and they were pretty good to watch. You have to go back a decade to find a Real Madrid side that didn't play 4-5-1 (admittedly with Raul just off the front man) and they are entertainment personified.

But in the hands of lower division clubs, where skill is at a premium but height and strength are more common than a pregnant teenager in Greenock, a 4-5-1 system is boring, boring, boring. The team just packs the midfield, closing down space for the opponents. But, in turn, they will struggle to commit players to attack, and often at this level there is not the pace or quality to play effectively on the break. So imagine how we felt in Inverness on Sunday, when both teams played 4-5-1. Let's just say that if you had a 10 yard restraining order from a midfield player on the other side, you would have been arrested. Sometimes commentators say "you could have driven a bus through that gap", but in this game, you could not have driven a Vespa scooter without hitting someone. And with no time on the ball for anyone, we just saw punts up and down the park. My neck still hurts a bit.

If only the mindless tedium was confined to the Far North. But the SPL, I would argue, is just as dull. Is it too simplistic to say "entertaining football = goals"? It probably is, yet I cannot for the life of me remember a "classic" nil-nil draw. In Scotland's top division this season, 42 matches have produced 7 nil-nil draws. The average number of goals per game is 2.38. Now, I would assume that would be because of the way that, well, everyone else in the league tries to pack their defence when they play the Old Firm in hope of sneaking a 1-0 win or a 0-0 draw, for no-one is good enough (or, at least, has the guts) to play two or three forwards against the big guns, but both Rangers and Celtic are now weak enough that they have severe difficulty breaking down, say, St. Mirren when they put ten behind the ball for the whole game.

Sadly, it turns out that the goal rate is actually lower in the matches the Old Firm are not involved in. Only six SPL games in which Rangers or Celtic have not played have produced four or more goals - interestingly, half of those matches involved St. Johnstone! As far as I can tell, it's the poorest average since the SPL expanded to twelve teams. Yet, down South, the goals are flying in like there's no tomorrow (in Portsmouth's case, that may be because there is no tomorrow). It's not just the big four, either; Man City and Spurs have been whacking them in, and so have Sunderland, while everyone else seems quite happy to risk conceding a few for the sake of scoring a few. Note that Chelsea lost three goals to a Wigan side with two strikers, while Man U nearly lost to a Sunderland team who played two strikers, and did lose to a Burnley team that deployed three. The English Premier League's opening 75 games produced only 2 nil-nils. And it has been glorious to watch. It really has.

So why are there more goals in England? It's simple, of course. It's like the Poll Tax and the oil. In short, we Scots are being screwed, and the evil English are stealing our rightful goals from us! As much as I enjoy utilizing the chip on my shoulder, I suspect it's rather more down other stuff. Maybe it's down to the fact that, in any league, a match between, for example, two of the bottom five teams, is going to be a bit cagey. In Scotland, the bottom five comprises half the first division and nearly half the SPL. In England, it makes up only a quarter. So, maybe, it's because a larger proportion of the Scottish teams have relegation fears to worry about. But, as much as I would like to expand the division, I doubt it. I don't know if it's because English coaches are better at using attacking formations, or because English clubs remember that football is entertainment and that attacking football brings in the punters and the cash, or because Scottish coaches are just a boring bunch of codgers.

All I know is that, when we talk of classic Inverness Caley Thistle teams, we never talk about the ones that played for four years in the SPL. We talk about Steve Paterson's side, with three at the back and two wingers (not wing backs!) in a five man midfield, and two strikers. A team that once beat Ayr United 7-3 in one match, and twice in the same season came from three down to win 4-3 against the same Ayr. A team which would either win 5-0 at home or lose 3-2 and went 144 matches without a nil-nil. And they didn't win a thing. Not a sausage. I reckon that says a heck of a lot, and that it teaches a lesson that Scottish football needs to learn. Because I'm watching more English games than Scottish games, and the chip on my shoulder be damned.