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.


No comments: