riffingaboutfootball

Opinion on the beautiful game that I have followed to the detriment of my social and work life.

Flamini the foundation for Arsenal’s success

With Arsenal smashing their transfer record on deadline day to bring in Mesut Ozil for £42 million, it is easy to forget he was only one of two midfielders signed this summer by the north London club. A combination of Ozil’s fee and his undoubted international quality meant that the return of Mathieu Flamini on a free transfer was never going to dominate the column inches. However, in recent weeks it has been Flamini, alongside the superb Aaron Ramsey, who has been crucial in Arsenal’s recent run of form.

Arsenal are blessed with an abundance of creative attacking midfielders, with Ozil the pick of the bunch, yet with the return of Flamini they now have a man who operates in exactly the role they have needed for the last few seasons.  Aaron Ramsey unsurprisingly won the majority of the media’s man of the match awards against Swansea on Saturday, but Flamini played an important part once again. The Frenchman will never grab the headlines, but the Gunners are yet to drop a point since he returned to the starting eleven.

While Ozil provided much of the attacking impetus against Swansea, Flamini once again excelled in his clearly defined position shielding the back four. The contrast is sharp between the two players. Ozil is wiry and sleek, gliding away from defenders with ease, whereas Flamini is robust and workmanlike, doggedly breaking up opposition attacks and launching Arsenal on offensives of their own.

The Frenchman was a constant presence in front of the Arsenal defence, hassling and harrying his way through the match. Much has been made of the fitness of Aaron Ramsey in his remarkable run of form, but praise too should go to the 29 year old Flamini who pressed and tackled until the full time whistle. Flamini will rarely beat a man, but he will seldom let his opposite number get past him either, and as such he provides a vital foundation that has been missing at the base of Arsenal’s midfield since the departure of Gilberto Silva.

But Flamini is much more than just a shield for the defence, he provides a level of maturity and experience that Arsenal have been desperately lacking in the centre of the pitch. As viewers of Arsenal’s last few games on television will testify, every time the camera cuts to a shot of Arsenal’s new number 20 he is talking; instructing others, barking orders. Far too frequently the Arsenal midfield has been too quiet, and Flamini provides a near constant stream of noise, encouraging and demanding his team mates to work hard to secure victory.

Flamini is obviously not the most gifted player in the Arsenal squad, yet he has so far excelled in his return to the club he left five years ago. A pass completion rate of 94% against Swansea demonstrates exactly what he is good at. Breaking up play, regaining possession for his side, then passing to the more dynamic, creative players alongside him. His passes are short and simple, rarely more than ten yards, but they are the crucial foundations for the attacks that lead to Arsenal goals.

When Flamini left Arsenal for Milan in 2008, he spoke candidly of his love for the north London side, stating that they were always in his heart. Battling and fighting in the centre of midfield, Flamini’s joy at playing for Arsene Wenger’s side again is clear to see. Arsenal fans are starting to realise their understated summer signing is proving an unlikely hero in their impressive start to the season.

Liverpool lose but spark of Sturridge shows that the Anfield project is advancing.

 

It seems an age has passed since Liverpool visited Old Trafford and emerged rampant 4-1 victors; In fact it was less than four years ago in March 2009. The crushing pressure of the modern football industry means that a club cycles through teams with relative frequency, only four of the Liverpool squad from 2009 are still at Anfield, yet even so the gulf between the two clubs has rarely been greater.

However, under Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool slowly, tentatively, seem to be gaining ground. The woes of the second Dalglish era are gradually being covered over and there are signs, although they were second best on Sunday afternoon, that the jigsaw that is Brendan Rodgers’ Anfield ‘project’ is starting to take shape.

Liverpool enjoyed a relatively successful festive period, picking up convincing wins at home to Sunderland and Fulham and utterly dominating a ragged QPR side at Loftus Road on December 30th. The danger in modern football analysis often seems to be that opinions on a side fluctuate almost entirely to extremes. For example, one week Paul Lambert is praised for bringing a fresh and exciting youthful look to his Aston Villa side after defeating Liverpool, yet within a fortnight Alan Hansen is deriding their inexperience and damning them to the relegation.

 It seems unfashionable to simply define a team as being inconsistent, or just having a ‘bad day at the office’. Instead, the favoured clichés all focus on either exuberant praise or damning criticism. It may appear to be inarticulate to state that a team are ‘doing alright’, but there is a similar inaccuracy in crassly exaggerating a team’s success or plight.

This is precisely the case with what Brendan Rodgers is attempting to achieve at Liverpool. One week they are praised for dispatching Fulham with professional composure, next match they are ridiculed for being thumped by a combative Stoke side. In either case, the verdict on their state as a club has to be complete.

It seems more accurate to detect that such traits are typical of a side beginning to find their feet under relatively new management and with a similarly new approach to playing football. Liverpool’s performance at Old Trafford was in a sense a microcosm of their season: tentative and nervy in the first half, but dangerous in the second. United went in at half time cruising, they went in at full time relieved.

Too often reliant on the admittedly outstanding Luis Suarez in the first half of the season, Liverpool have now the attacking options they so desperately lacked at the start of the campaign. Daniel Sturridge had a flying start to his Liverpool career in the FA Cup, but faced with a far stiffer test at Old Trafford we saw what Liverpool fans should expect.

He took his goal well; pouncing after David De Gea could only palm out a low Steven Gerrard shot, and linked promisingly with Suarez in the final third. At times, however, he was profligate in front of goal; twice firing wide at the near post, and lacked composure when faced with a decent chance to level from a narrow angle.

Sturridge, like Rodgers’ Liverpool side, is by no means the finished article. He will score goals just as Liverpool will win games. Likewise, he will be profligate in front of goal, just as Liverpool will lose matches during the remainder of the season. What both player and club have however, is an opportunity to progress if they remain focussed and aware of their status as a club on the mend.

They are by no means there yet, or even close, but this should not be seen as a calamitous judgement on Rodgers’ work at Anfield. Under his management they are undoubtedly playing better football. Youngsters such as Henderson, Shelvey, and the exciting Raheem Sterling, are performing well on a more regular basis, and the club are certainly moving in a positive direction.

Defeat at the hands of arch rivals Manchester United will no doubt hurt the Anfield faithful, yet they are witnessing a gradual upturn under Rodgers which should, and surely will,  be allowed the time to progress further. With a greater array of striking options and an increasingly impressive team work ethic, there are reasons to be quietly optimistic at Anfield. They aren’t plumbing the depths many lowered them too during their stuttering start to the season. On the other hand, they are not world beaters who will put in a serious challenge for the top four this season. They are ‘doing alright’, and will continue to improve as long as expectations remain accurate. Next up: Norwich City. Suarez hat-trick anyone?

Arsenal show quiet class to progress to the last sixteen.

This midweek, the footballing media was focussed on the failure of last season’s Premier League winners to qualify for the last sixteen of Europe’s top club competition, not to mention the drastic managerial changes brought in by the current holders of the Champions League as defeat in Turin left them teetering on the brink of elimination. Relatively little column inches were left for the other English side who went into Matchday 5 with their Champions League future in doubt. Arsenal wrapped up qualification with quiet composure and confidence; easing through to the knockout rounds with a solid 2-0 victory over French champions Montpellier.

While the managerial upheaval and uncertainty that shrouded Chelsea’s collapse against Juventus was always going to dominate analytical attention, the manner in which Arsenal dispatched Montpellier at the Emirates on Wednesday showed signs that Arsene Wenger’s side have emerged from their brief down turn in form. Arsenal consolidated their win against Spurs with an assured display that will give Arsenal fans plenty of reasons to be optimistic about their forthcoming run of fixtures.

Arsene Wenger commented on the feeling of “massive satisfaction” that progressing from the group stages gave him, partly because he has, in his own words, had his “back to the wall, accused of not spending fortunes”. Wenger should be extremely satisfied that the money Arsenal did use to bring in players over the summer is looking increasingly well spent. Lukas Podolski’s goal will be the moment to stay on in the memory of those watching on Wednesday night, but it was Arsenal’s other forward Wenger signed in the summer, Olivier Giroud, that caught the eye during the Gunners’ victory. Playing against his former club, Giroud didn’t find the back of the net, but played a vital part in the creation of both goals, and demonstrated his ever increasing confidence in an Arsenal shirt.

The former Montpellier man has had an admittedly shaky start to his Arsenal career. He failed to score in his first few matches, including a few glaring misses, and soon found himself kicking his heels on the bench watching Ivorian forward Gervinho lead the line. However, the striker has been resurgent in recent weeks; scoring important goals in the Premier League and in Europe, and his statistics of seven goals and six assists from eleven starts are beginning to back up the prowess he is showing on the pitch.

For Arsenal’s first goal, the Frenchman combined his strength and power with his deftness of touch; rising highest in the penalty area to cushion a knock down header into the path of the onrushing Jack Wilshere. For Podolski’s sublime volley, Giroud sharply dropped off the covering centre back, creating space for him to loft a delightful return pass which Podolski buried with power and precision into the roof of the net. In the North London derby at the weekend, Giroud demonstrated his predatory instincts in the box, sliding home from close range. On Wednesday night Arsenal fans were treated to his versatility, as the burly striker excelled in selflessly creating the two goals that handed Arsenal victory. Arsenal continue to score frequently, but the array of scorers (Walcott 9, Giroud 7, Podolski 7, Gervinho 5, Cazorla 4), will be a welcome relief from when Arsenal qualified a year ago.

While Arsenal  may be heralding their new arrivals; Giroud, Poolski, and the scintillating Santi Cazorla, the confident form of one of the club’s young heroes was also a major factor as the Gunners progressed to the last sixteen. Jack Wilshere’s last Arsenal goal came nearly two years ago against Aston Villa, but the lovely dink over Montpellier’s ‘keeper Jourdren was the sign of a player brimming with confidence and eagerness.

Any doubts that Wilshere’s return might be tentative have been firmly quashed by the determination and energy the midfielder has shown in his performances since returning to the side. Wilshere was a dominant force in the heart of the Arsenal side on Wednesday, frequently linking up the play from deep, yet equally often sliding into tackles with all the bite and vigour he possessed when he initially broke into the Arsenal first team. The unqualified joy etched on his face as he wheeled away after putting Arsenal ahead will be mirrored on the faces of the Gunners’ supporters if his form continues to rise.

Arsenal’s recent seasons have been defined by greatly varying peaks and troughs in form. This season looks no different. After Arsenal’s defeat to Norwich, the backlash against the players and manager was bitter, yet after victory in the North London derby and qualification for the knockout rounds, the mood in the red half of North London is once again buoyant. The footballing attention is fixed firmly on the managerial musical chairs in West London, and all at Arsenal will be hoping it remains there for a good while to come. The Gunners often are at their best when flying just out of the radar of the journalists searching for dramatic headlines; quietly continuing to improve and consolidate performances week by week.

With qualification assured for the latter stages of the Champions League, the focus until the New Year can be on climbing up the table. If Wenger’s side can keep hold of the calmness and composed quality that they displayed against Montpellier, the football press will have to turn the spotlight on the Emirates. For now, Arsenal will enjoy playing out of the limelight.

Will Walcott’s striking woes be properly resolved at Arsenal?

Theo Walcott may want to play as a central striker, but for Arsenal he appears a  more useful attacking option out wide.

It has been over two months since stories first emerged about the difficulties surrounding Theo Walcott’s contract negotiations, yet, with almost a third of the Premier League season gone, there is still no indication that a deal has been agreed between the club and the Arsenal striker. Talks over extending the 23-year-old’s contract apparently hinge not on money, but on the very word just used to describe him: striker.

Throughout the faltering negotiations, Walcott has insisted that his wages are not the issue. Rather it is a question of his role in the squad, or, more specifically, on the pitch itself, that  lies behind no new terms being finalised. Walcott has pressed to be played through the middle for months, but his bit part involvement in Arsenal’s season to date will surely not have convinced him that his wishes will soon be granted.

A common opinion is that Walcott is not able to play in a central striking position for Arsenal because of deficiencies in his technique. It is clear that he has not developed to the levels that those at Arsenal thought he would reach when he was signed in 2006. In the six years he has been at Arsenal, the England international has made over 150 appearances, yet found the net only 28 times.

At his best, Walcott can be devastatingly unplayable. Frightening pace is undoubtedly his key asset, and over the last few years he has put in memorable performances for club and country. Many will recall his superb hat-trick against Croatia in 2008, or his quick-fire brace in Arsenal’s 5-2 demolition of Spurs in last season’s North London derby at the Emirates.

However, in truth, these performances for Arsenal have been too infrequent. He is criticised by those who regularly watch the Gunners for solely using his pace to get past opponents and, more condemningly, for his poor decision making in the final third. Walcott could never be lambasted for being a selfish player, as frequently he shies away from striking at goal, choosing instead to pass to a team-mate.

It would be naïve solely to praise this trait in his game. From one perspective it is unselfishness, but from another it is passing responsibility. While being unselfish is a highly desirable asset for a footballer, the top strikers in the world all display a similar ruthless streak when presented with a chance to get a shot away; something that Walcott does not seem to possess.

Arsene Wenger has stated many times that he holds hope that Walcott can emulate his idol Thierry Henry. Like Walcott, Henry was initially deployed as a wide player under Wenger, before moving inside and becoming one of the most fearsome strikers in world football. However, Henry was a consistently Arsenal’s leading scorer during his time at Arsenal, whereas Walcott has yet to reach double figures in a Premier League season for the club, despite playing all but three games in the competition last season.

Walcott possesses Henry’s lightening speed, but has yet to find the Frenchman’s clinical calmness in front of goal; a fact exemplified by his glaring miss in the final minutes of Arsenal’s recent Champions League draw with Shalke 04, a chance that Henry would have surely slotted home. At his peak, Henry was almost guaranteed to finish when through on goal with just the keeper to beat. Walcott has shown increasing composure in recent matches, yet is still a long way from the unruffled consistency in front of goal that is needed to become a regular goal scorer.

It is easy to be too critical of Walcott, and regularly the young forward is condemned to an unfair extent. A lot of the frustration that emerges in criticism of him stems from a realisation of the promise and potential he does show. Walcott may be inconsistent, but it is clear to see that he is agonisingly close to being the potent attacking threat many long for him to become. His potential is indubitable, but whether or not he can fulfil such promise at Arsenal is becoming more and more unlikely due to the style in which the Gunners play.

As football grows increasingly consumed by possession, the role of a striker that plays off the shoulder of the last defender looks progressively more threatened. Particularly at a club like Arsenal, where the footballing philosophy centres around keeping hold of the ball and playing chiefly in the opposition’s half. When sides play  against Arsenal they frequently sit deep and restrict space, looking to get forward on the counter attack where they can expose Arsenal’s persistent defensive frailties. Consequently, a striker such as summer signing Olivier Giroud is a more suitable candidate for the central forward role as his strength in and around the penalty area can create opportunities for the Gunners’ wealth of talented attacking midfielders.

Arsenal’s number 14 can be a blistering attacking threat, but in the current Arsenal system he is much more effective when played out on the flank where he has more space to use his dangerous pace. Walcott has frequently stated he would be disappointed if he had to leave Arsenal, but his best chance at moving centrally as a striker may be found by moving on from the Emirates.

In Defence of the Defence: The Changing Nature of Defending in Modern Football

Danny Mills, summarising for BBC Radio 5 Live’s commentary of Arsenal’s 3-3 draw with Fulham on Saturday, despairingly commented that “the art of defending seems to have gone completely out of the window”. Various statistics corroborate Mills’, not uncommon, view on the standard of defending in the modern game. Almost a decade ago, the average number of goals per game in the 2003-04 season was 2.66. Last year the figure was 2.80. With eleven games played in this season’s Premier League, the average is currently 2.82.

The steady incline of goals scored has steepened in the last few years: In the 2008-09 campaign, after eleven games, a total of 246 goals had been scored in the Premier League. At present, despite Reading and Sunderland having only played ten matches, the twenty top-flight sides have found the back of the net 307 times already. Chelsea, four years ago, conceded an average of 9.8 shots per game, whereas this season the figure is 13.1. More shots, and consequently more goals, occur on a regular basis in the Premier League.

On the one hand, the statistics point to greater attacking potency, but the competing nature of attacking and defending therefore suggests a growing deficiency among those playing in the back line. It seems clear that defenders are no longer up to the job; their standards have slipped and they are now getting rightly exposed weekly on the football field. This argument is a popular one, but in reality is far too simplistic. Football may be a simple game, but the reason why Premier League defences are looking more and more leaky is surely more complex than defenders plainly not being good enough.

In fact, there are numerous reasons. Primarily though, it is a question of mindset. Managers and fans alike are now consumed by the power of possession. The statistics most regularly cited in newspaper columns and by post match pundits are those which determine which team has retained the ball for the longest. Barcelona, in recent years, have been the shining example, conquering European and World Football by holding on to the ball for the vast majority of the ninety minutes. As such, the most highly rated players in the world game are those who are expert at looking after the ball.

Consequently, the demand for defenders who are comfortable in possession has risen exponentially. Centre backs in the modern game are urged to bring the ball out of defence; to be the anchor for the team to keep the ball. For those playing at the heart of the defence, the remit is no longer to get it clear. Rather than finding the elusive ‘Row Z’, the centre back is now encouraged to recycle possession and accordingly to not be afraid to carry the ball forward into midfield.

Thus, the modern day defender’s key qualities are no longer superb aerial prowess, or ruthless determination to make last ditch tackles. These are undoubtedly important, and it would be churlish to emphasise the change in defending in such broad binary terms, but ability on the ball is now prized just as highly, a definite disparity from the earlier years of the Premier League. This emphasis on possession has grown to the extent that midfielders are often found filling in at the centre of the defence, notably Michael Carrick at Manchester United in recent months. A greater focus on defending with the ball has accordingly led to the recognised art of defending being sidelined; the safest way to not concede goals is not to concede possession. You can’t score if you don’t have the ball, therefore retaining the ball is vital for defenders in the modern era.

In addition, teams in the Premier League frequently now play with less natural width. Wingers are being transformed into inside forwards, and thus marauding full backs are required to provide width in support of attacks. This is all very well from an attacking perspective, but when the ball is lost, the remaining member of the back four are clearly left more exposed. Such exposure is not aided by the fact that the infamous ‘Makelele’ role is less and less common; a holding midfielder solely focussed on breaking up opposition attacks, as midfielders are now required to be more rounded, their performances aiming at more balanced offensive and defensive efforts.

A case for the defence then, lies in the changing attitudes towards how the game should be played. Football is no exception to the trends of fashion, and currently the trend is firmly to play in a fluent, creative form that is attractive and, importantly, attacking. Winning through stubborn defending is now chastised as winning ‘ugly’, and as a consequence, the traditional school of defending is disappearing from the beautiful game.

Comment on Champions League Matchday 4.

Another action packed Champions League midweek has raced by and, over the two evenings, there is one result that leaps out. On Wednesday night, a sell out crowd at Parkhead witnessed an heroic Celtic side overcome the European might of Barcelona. Despite having a measly 16.4% of possession, the Hoops defended superbly and dispatched the few chances that they got clinically.

Tony Watt will receive immense praise for the assurity he displayed when he slotted past Victor Valdes, but Victor Wanyama, the scorer of Celtic’s opening goal, showed last night precisely why Neil Lennon values him in excess of £20m. A powerful, combative midfielder with an eye for goal, Wanyama excelled in exalted company in the centre of the park.

Credit too must go to Fraser Forster; the burly ‘keeper pulled off a string of spectacular saves to enhance the growing calls for an established place within the England set up. Lennon described the victory over the Catalan giants as “up there with anything I have achieved”, for everyone who saw the spectacle unfold in Scotland last night, it will surely be up there with anything they have ever witnessed on a football field.

Although the miraculous scenes at Parkhead were undoubtedly the highlight, the quality of entertainment throughout the tournament over the last two days has demonstrated precisely why it remains the premier club competition in the world. Each week has been full of exciting contests and plenty of goals. In years gone by, the group stage has been frequently a rather drab affair with the European heavyweights steam rolling through with two games to spare. This year only one side, Manchester United, have a 100% record and their games have been far from dull. With two matches left to play, historically dominant sides such as AC Milan, Real Madrid, and Juventus are far from certain to qualify.

Similarly, there are a number of less experienced, less renowned teams that are making an impressive impact on the European stage. Cash strapped Malaga have played vibrant, fearless attacking football, and consequently sit unbeaten atop a feisty Group C. Similarly, German champions Borussia Dortmund, who were unceremoniously dumped out of the competition last year at the first hurdle, lead Group D, having accrued 4 points over their two matches against Real Madrid. Dortmund, like Malaga, commit men forward quickly and aren’t afraid of leaving themselves exposed at the back when they rampage up the field. In a similar fashion to the Spanish side, Dortmund look odds on to progress to the last 16. Attacking football in this years competition seems not only to be entertaining, but also effective.

However, in the case of Manchester City, it appears rather that focus on defending should be Roberto Mancini’s main concern as they stare down the barrel of a second consecutive first round exit. A spirited Ajax side found themselves 2-0 up inside twenty minutes at the Etihad thanks to defensive marking that would put many Sunday League sides to shame. For Sim De Jong’s opening goal, City defenders’ reactions were fatally slow, allowing the Ajax skipper to slide home from close range. For De Jong’s second, Yaya Toure inexplicably allowed his man to run right across him to power a brilliant flick header past Joe Hart. City have now conceded nine goals in this year’s competition. The embarrassment of riches they possess in the striking department will not be enough to save them if they continue to defend in this manner.

While Manchester United have qualified and their City counterparts face probable elimination, safe passage to the knockout rounds is much more in the balance for Arsenal and Chelsea. Both London clubs currently occupy qualifying positions, but neither are assured of going through yet. Chelsea were once again fluent and attractive going forward, yet once again conceded twice. Shakhtar possess great talent in the likes of Willian and Fernandinho, but Chelsea still have yet to face a Juventus side who displayed complete dominance in their 4-0 dispatching of Nordsjaelland.

The combination of Oscar, Mata, Hazard and Torres will strike fear into any side they face in this year’s competition, but the sloppy defending which allowed Shakhtar to score two carbon copy goals on Wednesday will have to be looked into before they face Juventus’ own attacking triumvirate of Marchisio, Vidal, Quagliarella, and the increasingly influential Giovinco. Arsenal too, despite the absence of the pitiful Andre Santos, conceded twice on Tuesday night and must be similarly wary of the dangers of letting a lead slip if they are to progress. With competition for places in the central striker role at a premium, Wenger must hope that his threadbare defensive resources stay in tact for the visit of Montpellier. Lots to ponder, but also look forward to, as the group stages reach their conclusion.

Guilty or not, Mark Clattenburg is receiving punishment already.

Mark Clattenburg’s employers, the PGMO (Professional Game Match Officials) stop officials from doing any media duties, thus the chances of him, or indeed any referee, appearing in an interview are minimal. Reportedly hated by players for his distinctly ‘blokey’ attitude on the pitch, while heckled from those in the stands for sporting an all year tan despite being from the north east, Clattenburg is derided by many for being a referee who likes the limelight. Regardless of his attitude towards being recognised in public, the manner in which his controversial performance at Stamford Bridge last week has been dealt with would leave anyone wishing they could stay indoors and keep the curtains firmly drawn.

Investigations into whether or not Clattenburg used “inappropriate language” towards Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel are ongoing, therefore it would be presumptuous to comment on the possibility of his guilt without being in full possession of the facts. However, the public nature of the investigation into Clattenburg has received criticism from many involved in the game, and rightly so.  Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger condemned Chelsea for going “public with little proof”, while Swansea boss Michael Laudrup bemoaned that the uproar has gone on for “too many days, so there are too many times to talk about it”.

These two points of view combine to form a damning verdict, not on Clattenburg or the players involved in the dispute, but on the broader manner in which modern football is becoming dominated by matters which have very little to do with twenty two men kicking a ball about for ninety minutes.

In a week which saw two of the most extraordinary cup ties in recent years, Arsenal’s ludicrous 7-5 victory at Reading and Chelsea’s extraordinary 5-4 triumph over Manchester United at Stamford Bridge, the back pages were still centrally focussed on Mark Clattenburg. The return of truly thrilling cup football was overshadowed across most of the daily papers by archival incidents of Clattenburg’s past refereeing mistakes and photos of him emerging from his home. According to sources close to him, Clattenburg has been under immense pressure over the last week.

This is hardly surprising; with a sixteenth month old baby at home, the presence of news crews sprawled on his front lawn is both insensitive and invasive. Guilty or not, the man is clearly already suffering, and as he is still under siege from certain sections of the media, a return to refereeing this weekend would clearly be ill advised, serving up another excuse for discussion to centre once more about his reputation rather than the score line and quality of the match he takes charge of.

If Chelsea have reason to believe that Clattenburg called one of their players a “Spanish tw*t” and another a “monkey”, then an enquiry into Clattenburg’s conduct is a necessity. However, one could be forgiven for thinking that, given the length and impact that the John Terry case has had on football in the last year, it would have been better for the sake of all parties involved; Chelsea, the FA, and Clattenburg himself, if the investigation had taken place behind closed doors.

Rain renders England’s qualifier in Poland a farcical non event.

On Friday evening the fact that England played World Cup Qualifier against San Marino was seen by some as farcical. Discussions of the possibility of a pre-qualifying tournament for teams such as San Marino, ranked rock bottom of the FIFA World Rankings, having never won a competitive fixture, were once again justifiably raised. If the match on Friday was preposterous, with England enjoying 86% of possession while San Marino packed all eleven men behind the ball, then Tuesday night’s  events in Warsaw were downright comical.

By 9:00pm local time, torrential rain and high winds had turned the surface of the £400 million pound national stadium to a waterlogged marsh, and, despite the referee and FIFA’s best efforts, the match was officially postponed at 10:05pm. Some might say that very few matches in the footballing world could have gone ahead after such weather, but when the fact that the national stadium in Warsaw has a state of the art retractable roof, presumably designed for use in precisely these circumstances, it is somewhat ridiculous that the match did not take place.

However, for all the farcical, frustrating events in Poland, there was undoubtedly a humorous silver lining to be found on the particularly dark rain-filled cloud that hung over the evening. Those that stuck by ITV’s coverage of the developments in Warsaw were rewarded by the excruciatingly painful, yet bizarrely entertaining efforts of Adrian Chiles and his panel of wise men to desperately keep the conversation and blokey ‘banter’ flowing until an official verdict had been reached as to whether the game would go ahead.

Tuning in to ITV at 8:15 one might have been dismayed at the lack of football being played, but such any expression of disappointment would surely have been transformed to a wry smirk as Roy Keane had to respond to Chiles’ query “What is the difference between heavy rain and a downpour?” without being able to physically ram the presenter’s head through the glass window behind him so he could decide for himself.

In addition, would it really have been more entertaining to watch England pass the ball sideways and backwards with all their usual vigour and upbeat tempo, than to witness a Polish man, clearly no stranger to a pie, gleefully sidestep a couple of hefty stewards before diving headlong into a five metre slide on his stomach across the marshy centre circle? I think not. Similarly, it is unlikely a more amusing refereeing performance will ever be seen again in an International match. Not since Graham Poll suddenly realised he couldn’t actually count has the man in black created so much mirth.

The long awaited pitch inspection at 8:00pm involved said official, Gianlucha Rochhi throwing a ball about a bit in the centre circle, and watching with apparent dismay as each time it fell to earth and remained unsurprisingly stationary. Mr Rochhi may has well have been hurling a medicine ball around the centre of the park, yet even those ironically cheering in the stands each time the ball thudded to the sodden turf could not fail to be amused when Rochhi returned forty five minutes later, simply to repeat the feat once again.

Silver linings aplenty then, but, while the ludicrous events in Poland provided mild irritation and cynical laughter for those watching at home, for the fans inside the stadium the evening was a much sourer, undoubtedly damper, occasion. The fact that the roof wasn’t closed hours beforehand is preposterous. Even if the Polish had brought out their best Michael Fish impersonator for the evening’s weather forecast, it was clear long before kick off that the deluge would not be brief. It emerged last night that those with the big shiny remote control that could shut the roof were not able to act until given explicit permission without the presence of the FIFA match delegate.

The FIFA match delegate in question did not arrive in the national stadium until an hour before kick off, by which point the proverbial horse had bolted, leaving the stable door swinging due to thee high winds which swirled over Warsaw. The roof could not be shut in the rain, the rain did not stop, the match did not go ahead. The progression of events was so frustratingly simple to see, yet it took over an hour for the match to be officially postponed, much to the chagrin of those who had paid hefty sums to travel to the stadium.

For all involved this was an embarrassing affair, but, while the players could return to their hotel rooms, the FIFA officials could prepare for Wednesday, and those of us watching at home could simply switch the channel, for the supporters inside the stadium it was a lengthy, frankly insulting, shambles. Many fans will not be able to go to Wednesday’s game, and will be out of Poland and out of pocket by the time it kicks off. Because of a roof not being closed in bad weather, despite that being its sole purpose, thousands will miss the match. Without doubt, lessons must be learnt from such a disappointing fiasco of an evening. While we at home may have laughed at the farcical situation and switched over to The Great British Bake Off, for those who travelled to Warsaw, events on Tuesday will have left a decidedly sour taste in the mouth.

Craig Levein must acknowledge Scotland’s sour start to survive.

Craig Levein may not be disheartened by Scotland’s start to their World Cup Qualifying campaign, but the Tartan Army have every reason to be. 

After drawing 1-1 away from home in a World Cup Qualifier, one could be forgiven for expecting Macedonia’s head coach, Cedomir Janevski, to be positive; Macedonia have never qualified for a major tournament since their establishment as a playing nation following the split from Yugoslavia in 1993. Only the last batch of FIFA rankings saw them enter the top 100 nations; they currently sit 97th in the footballing world order.

Taking this into account, to the untrained eye it would seem surprising that Janevski’s principle emotion after Tuesday night’s draw at Hampden Park was one of disappointment; regret that they were not flying back from Scotland with all three points safely secured in the overhead locker. Although Nikolche Noveski appeared offside when he tucked in the game’s opening goal after only eleven minutes, the visitors had sufficient threat, particularly in Ivan Trichkovski and the lively Agim Ibraimi, to merit their lead and to justify Janevski’s post match comments bemoaning having to settle for a draw.

Like Janevski, Scotland manager Craig Levein admitted to being “a touch disappointed”, but defiantly added that he was “not downhearted in the slightest”. Levein should definitely feel disappointed that his side failed to dispose of a Macedonia outfit whose only victory in the last year was a 1-0 home result again Lithuania in an international friendly. Far more concerning for Scottish supporters to hear is his second remark. Levein bolstered his steadfast lack of downheartedness by assuring that “we can play better than that and will do in our next match.”

While all signs point to Scotland as a nation being disappointed by the draw with Macedonia, evidence to back up Levein’s upbeat perspective on future matches looks distinctly scarce. Scotland’s last competitive victory was just a month later than Macedonia’s, a 1-0 triumph away to lowly Lichtenstein. In arguably the toughest World Cup Qualification group Scotland’s performances so far have failed to deliver, never mind inspire. The worry is that, with the possible exception of matches against a Wales side that continues to plummet to new depths under Chris Coleman, looking at the fixtures to come, it is hard to see Scotland amassing many more points than the two they currently have.

Belgium, Croatia, and a return trip to Serbia all await Levein’s men before this time next year and it is difficult to see where the points are going to come from. All three opposing sides are of sufficient standard to appear in Brazil in two years time, yet for Scotland it is their own side they should be focussing on in what will be an uphill struggle to give body to what many are already dashing as empty words spoken by  Levein on Tuesday evening.

Levein himself must take responsibility for some of the problems the Scottish national side are encountering at the moment. While the general downturn in Scottish football’s fortunes is patently due to wider problems, on the field the current Scotland side are frequently frustrating to watch; they are lackadaisical at the back and, more damningly, lack fluency and creativity going forward. Macedonia frequently created good chances, often orchestrated by the experienced Goran Pandev, and numerous times the outstanding Allan McGregor had to save well from midfielders bursting into the area. Conversely, Scotland’s best chances came from set plays, or simply swinging the ball into the area hoping substitute Jordan Rhodes’ excellent movement could reap some kind of reward.

For this aspect of Tuesday’s display, the responsibility has to rest with Levein. In a match Scotland really needed to win, at home against beatable opposition, Levein went with just the one recognised striker in the shape of Kenny Miller. Miller did score, but his simple finish shouldn’t mask his movement, or lack thereof, which failed to stretch a stubborn Macedonian defence. The striker’s goal was just his 17th at international level, but playing his club football for Vancouver Whitecaps at the age of 32, many would question whether he should even have been on the field to score at all.

Steven Fletcher of Sunderland would, to a neutral, appear to be the obvious choice to lead the line. Levein however has stated Fletcher will never appear again for the national side while he is in charge, a remark stemming from a dispute that began last year. Highly rated Jordan Rhodes eventually entered the fray with 24 minutes remaining after the Tartan Army had been chanting for a striker for some time. Levein feels that Rhodes needs protecting at international level but, for a striker who has scored just shy of 100 career goals, such a statement must be incredibly frustrating, particularly when Scotland have totalled just 13 points from their last possible 33, scoring only 10 goals under Levein in the process. Levein must realise that goals are needed, and, in spite of personal differences, Rhodes and Fletcher are strikers that could provide them.

Scotland need a change of emphasis, and fast, if they are to have any chance of qualifying for Brazil 2014. Hampton Park can be an intimidating stadium to play away in, and Scotland must ensure it becomes so, not simply by being defensively tighter, but by being more expansive and expressive when going forward. True, Levein is not blessed with attacking talent, but in Rhodes, Adam, and Maloney to name a few, he has sufficient forward threat to merit a more aggressive attacking outlook at home. When all is said and done, Scotland need to throw greater intent behind their attacking approach and actively begin matches at home looking to threaten opposition as a priority, rather than keep them out. Such an outlook, demanded by the fans, is crucial to Levein’s survival and, more importantly, Scotland’s survival as a competitive force in Group A.

Anyone who witnessed Tuesday’s draw would have been left in no doubt as to fans’ opinions of Scotland under Levein. If the boos at Macedonia’s opening goal were damaging to Levein’s prospects in charge, the cacophony of negativity that greeted the final whistle could be seen as the first of the nails in Levein’s proverbial coffin. The fans clearly do not share the manager’s positive sentiments, and with a far from united dressing room, the last thing Levein needs is further aggravation from the stands.

Yet aggravation is what he will undoubtedly receive unless he changes his, and the side’s, approach to their remaining qualifiers. Levein is a passionate, experienced manager in Scottish football, but this is surely the hardest challenge he has faced to date. “We have to get victories at some point, I accept that” said Levein on Tuesday. “Playing away from home and sitting in might suit us.” At this rate Levein very well might not be the man making such tactical decisions by the time those fixtures arrive. The road to Brazil 2014 has only just begun but, unless things improve, it looks like it will be a dead end for Scotland.

Is patience possible at stuttering Liverpool?

In John W Henry’s open letter to fans earlier this week, Liverpool’s principal owner stressed that patience was essential given Liverpool’s opening to the premier league season: their worst since 1962. So far, they have amassed just a single point from their opening three games; a combative 2-2 draw with Manchester City undermined by an opening day defeat away at West Bromwich Albion and, much more damningly, a 2-0 defeat to Arsenal at Anfield.

In his open letter, Henry stated that Liverpool were “still in the process of reversing the errors of previous regimes”, adding that such a process “will not happen overnight”. This may seem an obvious statement to make, but in an age where top level football demands quick transformation, it will be a hard statement to swallow for the Anfield faithful.

 A large scale restructuring of any top flight club depends so much on time. In Liverpool’s case, the impact of such a change has been seen on and off the pitch. In the transfer market Brendan Rodgers’ club have fared poorly. A host of experienced players were sent packing, from the long serving Dirk Kuyt, to the only recently acquired Charlie Adam,  while replacements were not greatly forthcoming. Perhaps the most catastrophic, not to mention comical, of their transfer activity, was allowing Andy Carroll to leave on loan for a season, leaving the club with just two established strikers in their first team squad. Rodgers dug himself into a rather large hole by pronouncing that he would be an “idiot” to let Carroll depart without finding adequate replacement, yet, to the headline writers’ joy, Carroll went on his merry way and Clint Dempsey trundled off to Tottenham Hotspur. Crossed wires between manager and owners were all too evident, as those upstairs at Anfield couldn’t sanction the cost of Dempsey given his age.

In his letter, Henry announced firmly that Liverpool’s ambitions “do not lie in cementing a mid-table place with expensive, short-term quick fixes that will only contribute for a couple of years” but rather in “developing our own players”. Clearly a reference to the club’s refusal to shell out for Dempsey, approaching his 30th birthday. In intention, this statement is surely a pleasing one for any club to hear but, in reality, it is no longer a realistic possibility in the modern game. Dempsey may be 29, but more importantly he is a proven premier league goal scorer; precisely what Liverpool lack. Luis Suarez, comfortably Liverpool’s main goal threat, is not an out and out finisher, despite what his outstanding record in the Dutch league may suggest. The Uruguayan is deployed far more effectively as an old fashioned inside forward, playing alongside a central striker. Fabio Borini, signed from Roma, is similarly built, and furthermore lacks any experience of top flight English football. Liverpool desperately need greater strength in depth, and fast, to prevent such a poor run of form continuing.

The aforementioned poor start to the season cannot be neglected. It is all very well for Henry to affirm that the club is financially “healthier” than in previous years, but, as any Arsenal fan will affirm, financial health does not necessarily correspond with trophies. While Rodgers has adeptly shown he is capable of achieving results with a smaller squad on a more limited budget; his Swansea side performed admirably in their debut season in the top flight, at Liverpool he faces a much greater pressure. The Swans were tipped for relegation last year, so their 11th placed finish was seen as an incredible feat. The fact that they achieved such mid table security playing a brand of football which played pass masters Arsenal off the park mid season earned them even more plaudits, and rightly so.

At Liverpool however, Rodgers was always going to be under tough scrutiny from the start. Managing expectations at a newly promoted side is nothing compared to doing so at a club whose expectant fans demand a swift return to the top four. Liverpool undoubtedly are a great club with a tremendous glittering history, but such an illustrious past should by no means dupe anyone at the club; fans, players, or staff, into thinking that the Liverpool side of today are in a fit state to be challenging for honours at the present or in the immediate future.

 What is needed, above all, is time for Henry’s policy to take effect, but it remains to be seen whether this is a realistic possibility. In a footballing era where the managers of last season’s Champions League and Premier League winners; Roberto di Matteo at Chelsea and Roberto Mancini at Manchester City respectively, would both surely have parted company with their clubs had they finished in the runners up position, the scope for allowing fallow seasons devoted to club development is almost negligible.

Liverpool only need glance at last weekend’s opposition to see the dangers of such a policy. As Messrs Van Persie and Fabregas, and, more worryingly, Nasri and Song, have shown, the modern day footballing star frequently will move on to greater wages and greater opportunities for trophies if such success isn’t forthcoming at their present club. Liverpool may hope that Brendan Rodgers can be the next Sir Alex Ferguson, staying for a long tenure and implementing his own footballing philosophy, but the real worry should be that the next Steven Gerrard, whoever he may be, may not stick around long enough for the club to re-emerge from the ever lengthening shadow of its glorious former self. Patience, so often seen as a virtue, has seen its much maligned opposite impatience emerge as the dominating force in modern football. Testing times for all at Anfield.

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