Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Mixu's Killie have style, but need substance

Argh, this blog entry is hideously late. Sorry about that - I do now have two weeks holiday and therefore considerably more free time in which to spout the horrendous drivel that this blog is all about. The flip side is that last week was a mare work-wise, getting every loose end tied up so I can put my feet up. Figuratively speaking, anyway.

For my first action on finishing work on Friday evening was to drive to Glasgow in preparation for Inverness' away game at Killie on Saturday, followed by the joys of the City of Manchester Stadium on Sunday - those of you who watched that game on the box will understand that, whilst the early red card was a shame and denied us a real contest, the opportunity to see Arsenal pass it around against ten men was, well, rather special. The insistence of the Mancunian support (who really all do sound like Liam Gallagher, and display the same levels of intelligence) that their own team were being royally shafted, against all logic, was also special, in its own way.

And on top of it all, my bluenose companion from Glasgow, dragged to Rugby Park on Saturday but an extremely willing accomplice for the following day's trip south, spent most of the time constantly checking his iPhone for updates from Celtic Park. Although his joyous raving after Rangers' 3-1 win was almost unbearable, it was a necessary evil - Celtic's half-time lead had left him on the brink of committing hara-kiri, which in turn would have deprived me of a lift back up the M6.

So, it was one heck of a weekend of football, and it's only appropriate that I use this entry to discuss the most glamorous, exciting, sexy part of it.

That's right. I'm going to talk about Kilmarnock.

Cup winners under Bobby Williamson in 1997, Killie fans have not really had much to shout about since, particularly since Jim Jefferies' brand of football won enough points to consistently preserve SPL status, but not enough plaudits to fill Rugby Park - it's 18,128 capacity is only a monument to the glory days of the sixties, and was only a quarter-filled on Saturday. Kilmarnock have spent seventeen consecutive seasons in the top flight, with a few fourth placed finishes and the aforementioned cup win along the way, but with finances tighter, fewer exciting young players (especially of the standard of Steven Naismith and Kris Boyd) and reduced income, Killie's priority these days is simply to stay up. Last winter, Jefferies left after eight seasons, and his replacement, Tangoman Calderwood, kept them up on only the last day, but left because he didn't fancy more dogfights against the drop.

Step in big Mixu Paatelainen, who might not be the most astute coach in the country, but is almost certainly the cuddliest. As Only An Excuse joked when Mixu was still a player, "Rangers have Broxy the Bear, Celtic have Hoopy the Huddle Hound, and Hibs have Mixu Paatelainen". Mixu came to Hibs in January 2009 with a good reputation from guiding little Cowdenbeath up the ranks, and then some success in his native Finland. He attempted to provide Easter Road with a brand of attractive, passing football...and failed miserably, let down by the inflated egos of his players, a lack of quality or organization at the back and by having no plan B (this may sound familiar to John Collins and John Hughes, and might yet be the fate of Colin Calderwood also).

So Mixu arrived at Rugby Park this summer, a little bit older and, one hopes, a little wiser. Given a budget for the playing squad which would barely feed a family of four for a week, I tipped Killie to go down this season. The big Finn has done his best to get round that with loan signings - young defenders Ben Gordon (from Chelsea) and Momo Sissoko (from Udinese in Italy) - who looks like Sol Bamba did at Dunfermline; big and athletic, but also clumsy and accident-prone, so Mixu will hope to mould him into the Sol Bamba who has done okay at Hibs - plus young forward Harry Forrester (Aston Villa) and his own countryman Alexei Eremenko, a skilful, technically gifted central midfielder with an eye for a pass and an outstanding set-piece delivery. Add in a couple of Portuguese players - winger David Silva (no, not the one at Man City, trust me) and forward Rui Miguel, who got Killie's consolation goal on Saturday, and perhaps there is a squad that can avoid a descent into the first division that might condemn the club, shackled by an estimated £12 million of debt, to a Dundee-esque fate.

And from my vantage point in the away end, Mixu's insistence on trying to make his side play well is fairly admirable. Killie lined up 4-5-1, with three central midfielders - Eremenko, Manuel Pascali and Craig Bryson - who are all useful ball players, each looking to play the killer pass. His wide players, David Silva and Liam Kelly, were clearly detailed to come inside to allow overlapping from the full-backs. It looked quite good. In the middle third.

It's the problems Kilmarnock face in the other two thirds of the pitch which explain why they lost to Caley Thistle on Saturday, and why they currently lie tenth in the table. Their centre midfield are good at keeping the ball - but there is no ball winner there, no hard man to break up play or to win it back. So their defence is over-exposed whenever the opposition breaks, particuarly with the pace that Inverness have in attack. Moreover, the system relies on playing the ball out of defence on the ground - a good idea when Gerard Pique is your centre-back, but not when it is Frazer Wright, who was pick-pocketed by Jonny Hayes for the critical second goal for the visitors at the weekend. It isn't the first blunder they've had at the back this year, and it is unlikely to be the last.

But the even bigger issue is surely up front. I've made plain in previous blogs my belief that a goalscorer is everything for a team in the bottom half, and Mixu must wish he could play himself up front, or alternatively Kevin Kyle, who left for Hearts in the summer. Connor Sammon, the Irishman currently leading the line, is, well, an ordinary striker - ordinary speed, ordinary feet, ordinary in the air, ordinary at holding up the ball, ordinary at finishing. He is not a poor player, but he offers nothing special. Kilmarnock have a decent supply line for a centre-forward, but they need one who can take advantage of it.

We've only played nine games so far in the league, so it is a bit early for judgements on Mixu's Killie revolution. He is likely to get a bit of time to implement his ideas - his chairman does not sack coaches easily, and St. Mirren look so inept they are surely favourites for the drop currently. But a cynic would say the lower half of the SPL is not the place for his style of football, and you can't help thinking that Mixu Paatelainen is likely to go the same way at Kilmarnock as he did at Hibernian.


Friday, October 15, 2010

4-6-NO! Spain game shouldn't cover up Czech disaster

On reflection, I thought it best if I held off from blogging after Scotland's loss in Prague last week, at least until after the Spain match. Two reasons for this: first, I knew it would turn into a massive rant about the shear stupidity and ridiculousness of playing 4-6-0, and into a massive character assassination of national coach Craig Levein; Second, I knew that if I slaughtered him, and Scotland produced an epic upset win over the world champions a few days later, I would look like a complete pillock.

So I waited, and I waited, and on Tuesday night we got our tactics spot on, we gave a very good Spanish side a heck of a fright, and came very close to an unlikely point. Even the best sides, having blown a two goal lead away from home in front of a veracious home crowd, might have suffered a massive loss of belief; it's a marker of just how good this Spain team are that, in those circumstances, they responded by moving up a couple of gears and pressing for a win that they probably won't actually need. Scotland were superb though, to a man - except maybe for Steven Whittaker (who in addition to giving away a penalty and getting a foolish red card also failed to tuck in and pick up Iniesta for Spain's second goal). Over the two matches, Allan McGregor, often an object of my scorn, has shown form and consistency suggesting that he really is an international class goalkeeper, and that Craig Gordon might now be Scotland's second choice between the sticks.

But it shouldn't take our attention away from the shame of the match three days earlier.Whilst working in psychiatry last year, I met a Dutchman who had travelled over (and been sectioned) because he was completely, utterly convinced that he was King of Scotland. This is despite a Dutch name, a blatant Dutch accent, and absolutely no ties whatsoever to this country. But despite all the logic and reasoning to the contrary, this man could not be swayed - he knew he was right.

I'm not saying Craig Levein needs to be sectioned...though I would be lying if I said the thought hadn't crossed my mind...but when he sent out his outfield players in a 4-6-0 formation, I soon thought of that Dutchman. Every pundit, every fan, everyone knew it couldn't work - every time we would play the ball out of defence it would instantly come back. All it would do was guarantee a "Scotland nil" outcome. And so our fears were confirmed. But Levein, despite all the evidence suggesting otherwise, remained (and remains) absolutely certain that this was the right way to play. Ten thousand Scotland fans, having forked out decent money in poor economic times to go and cheer on their national team, were treated to watching the Czech Republic play football, and watching the away side doing their level best, often through foul means rather than fair, to stop football being played. It was embarrassing and shameful, and even more so for the fact that Levein was neither embarrassed nor ashamed.

Would we have done better with a more open system? I personally think so; this Czech side are but a shadow of their predecessors from the last decade. But we didn't try, so we'll never know. Scotland were too conservative tactically in Lithuania, too conservative tactically in Prague, and too complacent tactically against Liechtenstein at Hampden. We only have eight matches; Levein can't afford to get it wrong three times out of every four.

What the Spain game showed is that whilst we might still be a little deficient in terms of quality, the attitude and backbone is there - these Scotland players care in a way that they rarely showed in the days of Burley. These guys want to play for their country. They even showed that in the way they stuck steadfastly to the ill-conceived masterplan in Prague. Craig Levein has eleven months to strategize for the next step of a campaign where he probably now needs consecutive wins over the Czechs and Lithuania at home, and Liechtenstein away, to get us into second place. Scotland's campaign so far has proven that, if we don't make it, it will be his fault, and only his fault.


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

McGhee next for the chop?

No wonder Mark McGhee had a massive rant to the Aberdeen Evening Express about the apparent unfairness of John Hughes' exit from Hibs. Though the club finished fourth in the table last season, Hibernian's form in 2010 had been poor, and they were without a league win since opening day and the supporters were baying for his head. McGhee is all too aware that the Aberdeen support are turning against him, and his side have picked up only one point from the last fifteen - if the Dons board use the same logic as their Leith equivalents, big Mark could be next for a P45.

McGhee will point out to anyone who will listen that he has been given no funds for his squad, and that when he took over in the summer of 2009 he was left a splintering squad which, in hindsight, had blatantly overachieved under Tangoman Jimmy Calderwood. But that doesn't account for the sheer malaise that has enveloped his side. I don't normally tune in to Radio Scotland at the end of a Saturday matchday - generally because I don't want to hear anything more about an Inverness defeat, and because there is always the risk of having my ears polluted by Jim Traynor, Scottish football's answer to Rush Limbaugh - but the combination of a Caley win and the fact that the only CD in my car was the new Gorillaz album (a bit of a disappointment, frankly; Demon Days is far superior) led me to make an exception to the rule last weekend. Therefore I was treated to McGhee's post-match interview - a window to the soul if there ever was one.

Having just watched Aberdeen toil for 90 minutes on their way to defeat in the Highlands, it was hardly music to the ears of the Red Army, as their coach insisted that he was "not worried in the slightest" about recent form, as "I was missing seven players today, players which provide our flair" - which was a curious excuse, as Inverness were missing six of their own, and centre-back Nicola Vujadinovic hardly counts as a creative fulcrum. His team selection hardly inspired confidence either; he claimed Zander Diamond (who is a shadow of the player he was five years ago) could make the Scotland squad if he made fewer mistakes, and the entertainment highlight was his explanation for changing goalkeepers - "It was windy and Mark Howard is a better kicker than Jamie Langfield". Firstly, it was slightly breezy at best, and secondly, Howard's kicking does not make up for his complete lack of any goalkeeping ability. This is the man who was unable to get into the St. Mirren team last year, and who managed to punch a corner into his own net at Tannadice last month. On Saturday he added to his "reputation" by completely misjudging a Jonny Hayes cross that looped straight into the net - TV replays show that he didn't even manage a half-decent flap at the ball, instead taking a weird skip and jump as it sailed over his head.

And besides, whoever picked a goalkeeper for his ability to kick?

And to cap it all, the back line was a fiasco. The aforementioned Diamond had a mare; so too did his fellow centre back, Jerel Ifil, whose perm gave him the appearance of a 1970s porn star. Certainly his understanding of the word "tackle" was different to those of the other players. Meanwhile, on the left, Andrew Considine looked exactly like what he is - a central defender playing out of position. I bet Hayes isn't the first winger to tear him a new backside this season, and he won't be the last.

McGhee might actually believe that he shouldn't be judged until his injury list is shorter. However, following the international break, his side have back-to-back home games against Hearts and Hibs (the latter may be under Jimmy Calderwood himself by then). If the results aren't coming, he might not be around long enough to see the likes of Andrius Velicka get to fitness. He has only two ways of staying in the Aberdeen job beyond Christmas - a remarkable turnaround in form, or a board inhibited by the cost of firing him.


Monday, October 4, 2010

Hughes leaves Hibs

Blast it. I knew I should have written about "the inevitable demise of John Hughes" last week. But, just as I have finally gotten round to it, it's too late. What's the past tense of "demise"? "Demised"?. If so, then John Hughes has demised. Or, for those who speak English, he has gone by that strange method called "mutual consent" (I have previously pointed out on this blog that this sounds more like the defence argument in a rape trial than a way of dismissing an employee, but it's such a good line that I thought I should use it again). Not surprising though, as, for a team with a manager nicknamed Yogi, there had been a lot of Boo Boos on the pitch...all right, I'll get my coat...

Hibs chairman Rod Petrie possesses not the Midas touch, but the Mediocrity touch; whatever he brings to Easter Road appears to become, well, a bit so-so, ever since Tony Mowbray left. It's probably a curse from the same witch-doctor who has condemned all Hibs goalkeepers to be incapable of catching a cold. Yet imagine if Petrie had gone to a fortune teller in the back streets of Leith in October 2006, just after Mowbray's departure...

Petrie: "I've lost an outstanding young manager, and so many of our star young players are leaving en masse for bigger things - Thomson, Whittaker, Brown, Riordan, O'Connor, Murphy, Murray. How on earth are we going to cope for the next few years?"

Strange woman in tent charging a quid to read palms: "Let me look into my crystal ball...I see that, in the next four years you will win the league cup, bring Riordan and Murray back, entice Liam Miller to play for the club, and receive a million pounds for selling your star striker. And you will build a beautiful new stand which will win many plaudits for the way it makes Easter Road look less like a dump."

Petrie: "The League Cup?! A new stand?! A million pounds?! Liam Miller?! What could possibly go wrong? (Skips out of the tent, singing Sunshine on Leith)

Strange woman: "Wait! But in four years you will be third from bottom, there will be no team spirit, Riordan will be only half the player he was, and you'll have just sacked John Hughes...damn, he's gone. Oh well, he'll find out soon enough. I'll just have to go back to my day job of dispensing methadone."

So where do Hibs go from here? The club has become the football equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing; Lots of big names, but none of them would be there if they had managed to succeed somewhere else. Hughes' replacement will have a tough task to get performances out of this bunch, not least because of the huge egos on the pitch and the high expectations in the stands. Jimmy Calderwood is the bookies' favourite currently; I'm not convinced that he could do much better, but I can't think of any better options. I can envisage the advert the club are drawing up for the post: "Requires huge swathes of self-belief, and/or masochistic tendencies".

Anyway, there's plenty of dark clouds over Leith this week, and not a touch of sunshine.