Counting up the Liverpool misses

Photo by: Calcio Mercato www.flickr.com

Photo by: Calcio Mercato
http://www.flickr.com

It’s a little late to be reviewing last weekend’s action (Manchester City v Crystal Palace is just about to kick-off now to start this weekend’s round of fixtures) but the only excuse I can offer is that it’s been a busy week including travelling to Europe for Christmas and New Year. I’m looking forward to watching some games at regular times (whatever such times are these days – I remain a Saturday 3pm traditionalist) and to going to the Dundee derby on New Year’s Day (which kicks off at 12.15).

I was still in Malaysia for the Manchester United v Liverpool game last Sunday and Liverpool are still in their present malaise. If a week is a long time in politics, nine months is an age in football. That’s how long it’s been since the two sides last clashed at Old Trafford. On that occasion Liverpool won 3-0 and the score line didn’t flatter them in the least. This time the score line was reversed and while Liverpool could take some comfort in De Gea being man of the match, they were still thoroughly deservedly beaten.

The most worrying aspect of the defeat was the fact that Manchester United didn’t even have to play superbly well to come away with such a comfortable win. Van Gaal said in midweek that he expects performances to improve despite his team’s recent winning run. Rodgers certainly needs performances to improve as Liverpool’s season stutters further into mediocrity.

Liverpool started the game without a recognised striker on the pitch and Sterling was tasked with leading the line. He played quite well but missed a couple of excellent chances. Balotelli missed considerably more after he came on but to be fair, he was somewhat unlucky to find De Gea in such brilliant form.

Mario is presumably now composing a letter to Santa, asking if he can have a goal for Christmas. There may be some debate in the grotto as to whether the Italian has been a good boy or not this year. There’s less debate that he’s been a bad buy for Rodgers and I wonder if he will still be at Anfield in February. I don’t imagine he’s currently on too many managers’ Christmas shopping lists.

I saw an interesting piece on the BBC website today in which Robbie Savage reviewed all 24 of the signings that Brendan Rodgers has made since becoming Liverpool manager. In total he’s spent £206.5m. Savage identifies just four hits out of the 24 signings – Sturridge, Coutinho, Toure, and Moreno – and I don’t disagree although he’s possibly being a little generous with Toure.

It’s a very poor return on the investment made and I’m increasingly convinced that it’s in the transfer market that managers are made or broken. Rodgers is an excellent coach but much of his current difficulties stem from the failings that he’s made in signing players. The same could be said of Wenger over the past decade or so.

By contrast, if Chelsea win the league this year, the most significant decisions that Mourinho made came before the season started with his signings of Fabregas and Costa. Of course the more money you have the easier such decisions become in theory but you still have to identify the right player at the right time for your team. Ferguson was a master at this until almost the end. His signing of Van Persie was practically a title winning decision on its own but he subsequently failed to perform the surgery that was necessary on that squad, a task that Van Gaal is now pursuing with relish.

The other big talking point from last weekend was diving following Chelsea’s rather theatrical performance against Hull. Diving is the thing that I’d most like to see stamped out of the game and the authorities should simply get tougher with it. Personally I’d like to see dives result in a straight red card and a three game suspension. It would be controversial for sure and there would be a few mistakes made along the way (although these could be reviewed afterwards) but it would definitely bring about a huge reduction in this ugly blight upon the beautiful game.

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Football, skeleton and the sports personality of the year

Gareth Bale. Photo by: Tom Brogan www.flickr.com

Gareth Bale. Photo by: Tom Brogan
http://www.flickr.com

The shortlist for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year has just been announced (http://www.bbc.com/sport/0/sports-personality/30158881) and I hardly recognise anyone on it. I must admit that listening to the radio provides a similar experience for me these days. It seems I’m not quite as up on my gymnastics, swimming and skeleton as I might be (skeleton is one of the many strange events in the Winter Olympics – it’s the one where they hurtle down the slope of ice head-first on what looks like an elevated tea tray).

There’s only one footballer on the list: Gareth Bale. I was very surprised to learn that Bale is the first footballer to be shortlisted since 2009 when Ryan Giggs was not only nominated but won. I’m not sure if other countries have a similar event but I can’t imagine many places in which the national sport would be so significantly under represented. Indeed, Giggs is the only footballer to claim the award in the past decade.

I do not expect Bale to add to football’s tally. I think Rory McIlroy may be the early favourite while Lewis Hamilton’s world title triumph at the weekend may make him a contender. I’m not sure how big a following skeleton has in the UK so I probably wouldn’t put too much money on Lizzy Yarnold.

Last year’s winner of the Sports Personality award was Andy Murray (and a very worthy winner he was after his Wimbledon triumph) but he is not shortlisted this year so the trophy will pass to another sport.

Bale has certainly had a magnificent year. He’s settled incredibly well in Spain and looks every inch a star at Real Madrid, a club where Galacticos are expected to shine very brightly. For a sense of how good a player Bale is, just look at what’s happened to Spurs since he left.

He’s produced excellent performances for Wales too of late and I hope he gets the opportunity to display his talent at a World Cup or European Championship.

There’s been some speculation that Bale may return to England in the summer, possibly to Manchester United. He would be a great signing for Van Gaal but I can’t see him wanting to leave Madrid so soon and it would seem strange to me if Real were tempted to part with him at this stage.

The sale of Bale would surprise me but even more surprising was the discovery that tickets for the Sports Personality event, being hosted in Scotland this year, are priced at £45, £55 and £60 plus a 10% service charge. Who on earth is paying that much to go and watch Gary Lineker play some video highlights and hand over a few awards?

It would cost less to watch Bale play at the Bernabeu.

The state of the game

Thierry Henry. Photo by: wonker www.flickr.com

Thierry Henry. Photo by: wonker
http://www.flickr.com

It’s almost 11pm as I sit down to write this so I’m cutting it a little fine today with my blogvember post-a-day challenge. In fact it’s been quite a long hard day and so I was very tempted to just write ‘this is a blog post’ and publish it. But my commitment to you dear reader (sometimes it is just one of you somewhere out there in the big web wide world) and to this challenge is greater than that.

The BBC have just produced their most recent State of the Game report (http://www.bbc.com/sport/0/football/30122051) which appears to be mostly concerned with the amount of time that English players spend on the pitch in the Premier League versus their foreign counterparts.

Apparently ‘the rise, from 32.36% of total playing time in 2013-14 to 36.08% until 1 October, can be solely attributed to newly promoted Burnley, who used just one non-UK player.’ So, around a third then and what are we to make of it?

I’ve often thought that football, and the English Premier League in particular, is one of the clearest examples of globalization in action: it’s watched all over the world, much of the best global talent is attracted to it, huge amounts of money flows in and out of it (often on the whim of club owners), many of its clubs can justifiably consider themselves international brands, there’s concern about the erosion of local identity and culture, and while the top salaries paid by clubs (to star players) are stratospheric many others that they employ (catering staff, cleaners and stewards) often struggle to earn a living wage.

Living and working abroad as I do, I’m hardly an anti-globalisation campaigner and I certainly don’t think that all of the effects of the phenomenon are negative ones. The world has been made smaller or at least to appear so (it still seems pretty big when you’re flying half way round it with two small children) and I was very happy to grow up in an era when international talent was being attracted to British football.

I say British football deliberately because a lot of foreign players play in Scotland as well. Sadly the quality of those foreign players to do is not nearly as high as it was when I was a season ticket holder at Dundee United in my teens. One of the best players that I’ve ever seen play was Brian Laudrup when he played for Rangers. It will be a while before we see talent like his in the Scottish game again.

But what’s happened in Scotland is instructive and the example of Dundee United provides an excellent illustration. We used to have a lot of foreign players in the side. Not outstanding ones like Laudrup but decent players capable of playing in the league. As finances have deteriorated across most of Scottish football, clubs have been forced to rely more on developing young players rather than signing people from abroad.

Recent years have seen some incredible young Scottish talent emerge at Tannadice. Robertson (sold to Hull in the summer) added to his growing reputation with fine performances for Scotland over the past week. Gauld (who joined Sporting Lisbon in the summer) has been dubbed the mini-Messi and is an absolute joy to watch.

The riches of the English Premier League will continue to attract the world’s best for the foreseeable future. It won’t necessarily always be that way though. The league’s bubble could pop if fans eventually start to drift away due to ticket prices and if TV companies begin to re-evaluate the return on investment they’re getting from the eye-watering sums they are paying for the rights to show games.

Clubs are making an effort to develop local talent but even at youth level that talent increasingly has to compete with those from overseas. Making it has become harder but those who do should be better as a result of the more intense competition. At least that’s how the argument goes and it makes intuitive sense but then why has the England team struggled so much of late?

Well, that’s a post in itself (for another day) and the role of foreign players in the English game is only one among many factors. Back at club level, most fans just want to see their team win and they’ll happily embrace anyone that helps make that happen.

Immigration has rarely been a bigger issue in British politics than it is now. I’m not sure the BBC’s report actually tells us much about the state of the game but the influx of foreign footballers -welcomed and revered in towns and cities all over the country – in the last few decades help us better understand both the current state of the UK and globalisation.

The Monday Post – 17/11/14

Photo by: Football Gallery www.flickr.com

Photo by: Football Gallery
http://www.flickr.com

This new format of spreading international games over several days is still taking a bit of getting used to. Some people seem to have just got bored and given up entirely. I was amused to discover that more viewers tuned in for the BBC quiz show Pointless on Saturday night than for ITV’s coverage of England v Slovenia. I’ll let you do your own puns. The quiz show averaged 4.99m viewers with a peak of 7.26m while the football averaged 4.56m with a peak of 6.3m.

By all accounts England were pretty terrible and still won pretty comfortably. It’s not surprising then that interest in this current team and qualifying group is so low.

Rooney won his hundredth cap and scored a penalty. Wellbeck helped himself to a double. All of this happened very shortly after Henderson had scored an own goal to give Slovenia the lead. I’m not sure that there’s much else to say about the game other than that apparently Uefa made the Slovenians travel in a team bus to the stadium despite the fact that they were staying in a hotel just 50 metres away. Meanwhile, over on pointless …

TV producers love to get those shots of teams emerging from the bus and entering the stadium. Most players bounce off the bus with enormous headphones and try to either put their most serious game face on or make a strenuous effort at appearing serene. Some have huge bags and suitcases as though headed for a fortnight on the Costa de Sol while others make do with just a tiny wash bag.

The scene then cuts to the studio where former pros will make their pronouncements: “the boys look relaxed” or the “boys look focused” or “the boys look up for it.” Actually, the boys just got off a bus, that’s all. I wouldn’t read too much into it.

The tendency toward pointless analysis is now reaching such heights that it surely can’t be long before ‘the boys getting off the bus’ becomes subject to video analysis with slow-motion replays and comment being made on the formation.

There are no points available on Tuesday night when Scotland and England clash at Celtic park in what’s likely to be a feisty friendly. Viewing figures will probably be considerably higher than for England v Slovenia.

The other game that I was interested in at the weekend was Italy v Croatia. My love of Italian football has been well documented on this blog but Croatia is my adopted home (and team) as my wife is Croatian.

A 1-1 draw in Italy was a good result for the boys in the tablecloth tops but sadly, like a 70s disco act, Croatian supporters got a bit carried away with their flares. The game was interrupted twice as a result, with the players taken off the field for 10 minutes on the second occasion.

This is not the first time such incidents have occurred with Croatian fans (and they are far from the only ones who treat flares as a routine part of the match day experience) and I think it’s time that the authorities got stricter on stamping out flares at games.

The dangers inherent in lighting a flare in a crowded enclosed space (often with children in the vicinity) are pretty obvious. Speaking about the trouble at the San Siro, Croatia’s coach Niko Kovac said: “I was ashamed and I apologised to the Italians after the game. There were families with children up there.”

Let’s hope in future that Croatia’s considerable flair on the pitch is not overshadowed by a minority of fans who insist on the pointless endeavour of lighting flares in the stands.

Xavi, master of the tika-taka

Photo by: Marc Puig i Perez www.flickr.com

Photo by: Marc Puig i Perez
http://www.flickr.com

The great Xavi Hernandez recently gave an interview to the BBC (you can find it here http://www.bbc.com/sport/0/football/30058904) in which he spoke about his style of play and his favourite British players among other things.

Perhaps more than anyone else, Xavi has become synonymous with the so-called tika-taka style, based on short passes, constant movement and understanding of space, that Barcelona have made famous in his time at the club.

I’ve been privileged to watch Barcelona live three times (two of those games were competitive league fixtures). When I’m telling the grandkids about it someday they’ll likely be awed by the fact that I saw the magnificent Messi, and rightly so, but every time I’ve seen Barcelona Xavi has been the most important player on the park.

If Messi is the virtuoso violinist in the Barca orchestra then Xavi is the conductor. He sets the tempo and the pace and can vary it at will. It’s an extraordinary skill and incredible to watch. If genius exists primarily in simplicity (and I think that’s by and large true) then Xavi is the smartest player on the planet.

“I’ve been a passer since a young age,” he tells the BBC and it shows. Schooled at Barcelona’s La Masia academy since the age of 11, he learned his lessons well. The first time I saw him live I think he gave the ball away once in the entire ninety minutes. To do that while playing simple passes to your full backs is one thing (and he does some of that) but to do it while playing all kinds of inventive ones such as Xavi also does is something else altogether.

He’s been quoted before as saying: “Think quickly, look for spaces. That’s what I do: look for spaces. All day. I’m always looking. All day, all day. Here? No. There? No. People who haven’t played don’t always realise how hard that is. Space, space, space.”

He looks for space more than any other player I’ve ever seen. He has an extraordinary awareness of space and he finds it more regularly than seems possible. He does it all with remarkable composure, seemingly never hurried.

It was recently revealed that Pep Guardiola had practically disowned tika-taka, or at least certain interpretations of it. He said: “I loathe all that passing for the sake of it, all that tika-taka. It’s so much rubbish and has no purpose. You have to pass the ball with a clear intention, with the aim of making it into the opposition’s goal.”

I don’t think Xavi has ever made a pass just for the sake of it. It’s always been with the intention of finding space, to clear a path to goal. If he can’t find the space he’s looking for he’ll aim to keep the ball – perhaps by playing back to one of his defenders – and then move and demand it back to resume his search.

Alex Ferguson had the best description of Barcelona’s passing style: “they get you on that carousel and they leave you dizzy.” That’s what they did to Ferguson’s team in the 2009 Champions League final in Rome. The sides met again in the final two years later at Wembley. Before the game Ferguson claimed that he’d figured out how to stop the carousel but if anything his players came off even dizzier than in 2009. Xavi is the man that makes the carousel spin.

He’s done it for Spain and for Barcelona, winning every honour in the game. Messi is justifiably hailed as the best player in the world and arguably the greatest of all time but Xavi has surely been the most influential footballer of the last decade.

In the BBC interview he says that his favourite British players when he was growing up were Barnes, Gascoigne, and Le Tissier. Each of them had incredible awareness and each of them knew where to find space on a football pitch.

None of them found it as instinctively as Xavi though. He’s 34 now and retirement probably isn’t too far off. When he does leave the field for the last time, he’ll leave behind a space that will be almost impossible to fill.

No way Jose

mourinho

Jose Mourinho. Photo by In Mou We Trust, http://www.flickr.com

Mourinho is a master of tactics. He is particularly adept at using his post-match press conferences tactically in order to deflect attention from poor performances from his side. He was at it again on Saturday following Chelsea’s lacklustre 2-1 win against Queens Park Rangers.

He admitted that his team “did not play well” but he knew very well that the headlines the next day would focus on his comment that “at this moment it’s difficult for us to play at home, though, because playing here is like playing in an empty stadium.” The fans are a bit too quiet for Jose’s liking and it seems his players are suffering as a result.

“I was today looking around and it was empty, but not in terms of people because it was obviously full. That’s what is frustrating.” The emptiness of the full stadium? How very philosophical Jose, and frustrating. Perhaps Chelsea fans thought QPR stood for Quiet Please, Respect.

It’s a cheap shot though, especially aimed at those paying eye-wateringly expensive ticket prices. Managers are happy to laud the fans as the all-important “twelfth man” when they’re winning but as soon as they start losing or performances falter, number 12 is expected to stay behind for extra choir practice.

The cheapest general sale ticket for the game was apparently almost £50 and if I’d paid that much to witness a less than inspiring performance from my team I would feel quite entitled to sit in sulking silence, contemplating why some players who earn £100,000 per week seem to have difficulty in completing a 10 yard pass.

Recently I wrote about the BBC’s price of football survey and the increasing cost of watching football in the UK. Clubs are discovering that eating your cake is somewhat incompatible with having your cake. Higher prices means more money for clubs but as Chelsea Supporters’ Trust chairman Tim Rolls points out, many “young people – who are the most likely to sing and make noise – have been priced out of the game.”

You see Jose, the voice, just like the legs, starts to go a little bit with age. Typically, Mourinho was in no mood for backing down. He subsequently claimed that “we are the team to get less support in home matches. When compared to my previous time I think it’s getting worse.” Maybe the fans have got older compared to last time; maybe prices have got more expensive.

One fan took to Instagram to suggest that Mourinho’s comments were ‘bang out of order’ and received a sympathetic phone call from John Terry in reply. It was reported that Terry told the supporter that he ‘understood the concerns of supporters – but insisted Mourinho had deliberately spoken to stir the home crowd into more obvious displays of passion.’

In return, Chelsea fans might ask the skipper and the gaffer for some more obvious displays of talent.

The great ticket robbery?

 

arsenal-supporters

Arsenal supporters. Photo by jpellgen, http://www.flickr.com

The BBC recently announced the results of their annual ‘Price of Football’ study and there was plenty to chew on in the findings. Not least in the revelation that Manchester United would have to sell 75,715 pies to cover just a week of Falcao’s wages. Coincidentally, a colossal number of pies appear to be what Harry Redknapp thinks Adel Taarabt is spending his wages on.

Overall, and unsurprisingly, the price of watching football in the UK was found to be steep and rising. The study notes that ‘the average price of the cheapest tickets across English football has risen at almost twice the rate of the cost of living since 2011.’ The Football Supporters’ Federation called the increases “completely unacceptable” but it seems that many fans do accept them – Premier League attendances are on the increase.

Remarkably, ‘Charlton’s £150 season ticket is the cheapest in England’s top four divisions. However, Barcelona charge around £103 for their lowest-priced season ticket.’ I’ve seen Barcelona at the Nou Camp twice and it’s a thrilling experience (although it must be said that the catering facilities for example are quite awful). I think I paid about €20 in 2010 for a La Liga game against Malaga and about €27 a year later for a league match against Real Zaragoza. I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing Charlton at the Valley but I imagine it’s a slightly different experience to the Nou Camp.

The report generated some interesting responses. Most interesting of all was the solution that Sunderland came up with. Just a few days after the report was published they played so badly at Southampton that they lost 8-0 and the goalkeeper offered to refund the costs incurred by their fans.

I’ve definitely been to games where I’ve felt as though I’ve deserved some sort of compensation for my attendance – the Berti Vogts era as Scotland boss springs to mind here. It’s surprising that lawyers haven’t cottoned on to this potentially lucrative revenue stream and launched adverts along the lines of: “were you traumatised at the game today? Did the manager make ill-advised substitutions that had a direct and negative effect on your health? Call today for a no win/no fee consultation.”

In midweek, Danny Baker (well worth a follow on Twitter by the way if you’re into that sort of thing @prodnose) questioned why Chelsea fans had bothered to pay expensive prices to see their team demolish Maribor 6-0 in the Champions League. His point wasn’t so much about the prices as about what he sees as the devaluation of the tournament caused by over-expansion. In Baker’s view, a near full-house at Stamford Bridge for such a game represents a triumph of branding by UEFA.

The Champions League is indeed a branding masterclass but it can also be considered a genuinely premium product. While there were some very large victories in the tournament this week due to a huge gulf in resources and quality between opponents, it was not true in all cases. Bayern Munich beat Roma 7-1 and I think most people would consider that a clash between two big European clubs and very much worthy of the Champions League setting.

Roma happen to be my favourite Italian team and I’ve seen them live twice. The first time was in 2009. Roma happened to be playing Juventus the weekend that my wife and I were visiting the eternal city (this, I must confess, was not entirely a coincidence). We arrived in the city late on a Saturday evening, the night before the game and all the ticket offices were shut as was the club shop.

The next day, my wife’s priority, quite rightly and naturally, was sightseeing but mine was to obtain a ticket. By midday, and with several hours of sightseeing already completed, we arrived at the Roma store where match day tickets could be purchased. I waited patiently in a ticket queue that was comprised mostly of tourists. When I got to the front I said: “uno ticket for today’s calcio, grazie.” I like to use a bit of the local lingo where possible.

The Italian woman selling the tickets looked at me and smiled. In that moment I presumed that she was a) impressed by my use of Italian, b) charmed by my Scottish accent, or c) a combination thereof. Looking back I think the smile probably arose from option d) “I know you really want to see this game and thus you’re going to accept the ticket price I’m about to quote you.”

€110.

For a moment I was speechless, in both Italian and English. I turned, crestfallen, to my wife. “I know,” I said, “I can’t pay that much for a ticket.” Her reply astonished me. “Yes, you can. I know you really want to see this game.” She and the Italian woman smiled at each other. “Are you sure?” I asked. “Yes.”

With a slightly trembling hand I offered up my credit card. Still smiling, the Italian woman explained that the only tickets left were in the most expensive part of the stadium. Later, inside the stadium I judged by the empty seats in other areas that this may have been a lie. I left the official Roma store with a slightly dazed sensation and clutching what felt like one of Willy Wonka’s golden tickets.

Roma lost 3-1 and never offered a refund.

photo 1 (1)

That is the most I’ve ever paid for a ticket. Many European clubs have a steeply tiered pricing system with very expensive tickets at one end and very affordable ones at the other. Of course only the biggest clubs with the best players can operate those sorts of pricing policies, other clubs have to be more creative and make more of an effort.

Living abroad, I very rarely get to see my home town team Dundee United these days. The last time I was at Tannadice was on New Year’s Day this year when my brother and I went to see United versus Aberdeen. I paid £25 for the ticket. Scotland in January is generally very wet and very cold.

So it was for the Aberdeen game. We shivered through a 2-1 defeat with the pie and tea providing only a brief respite from the cold and ran back to the car through torrential rain. Happy New Year! In my view £25 is too much to pay for the quality that’s currently being offered in Scotland’s top flight and I wouldn’t be inclined to pay it regularly. I say that despite the fact that my club are currently doing an excellent job of bringing through exciting young players and adopting an entertaining style of play.

photo 2 (1)

To be fair though to United and many other Scottish clubs, they are making some effort to contain prices and improve the experience for fans. United offer some good discounts for kids and seem to do a good job of engaging with season ticket holders. They’ve also started doing some reciprocal deals with other clubs for specific matches to lower prices for away fans.

When I lived in Scotland I was a regular at Hampden for Scotland games. Sadly following Scotland has mostly involved heartache for my entire adult life – I was 17 the last time we qualified for a major championship. The team’s recent resurgence under Gordon Strachan has offered the greatest hope in the entire period since.

It was therefore hugely disappointing that the recent European Championship qualifier against Georgia at Ibrox was played against a backdrop of so many empty seats. The cheapest ticket for the game was £35 and 17,000 empty seats was a stark illustration of how badly the SFA have misjudged the pricing policy for these games. The cheapest tickets for next month’s friendly against England are priced at £50. I think the motivation for staging that game is pretty obvious.

The tartan army have reacted quite furiously to all of this. Online petitions have been launched and t-shirts with the slogan Shafting Fans Always are apparently selling well (people are obviously prepared to pay money to protest at how much money they’re being asked to spend). Recent years have seen quite a lot of progress in supporters taking a stand and getting together to represent themselves.

A lot of clubs have responded, at least to an extent, and given fans more of a role in how they are run. Germany is rightly held up as a model in this regard but there is hope in the UK with the work being done by organisations such as Supporters Direct (http://www.supporters-direct.org/)

Just as the influence of workers has weakened with the erosion of trade union power so the influence of fans has been diluted at many clubs for whom ticket revenue makes up a much smaller proportion of overall revenue than it once did. Football supporters are among the most loyal groups of people anywhere, far more loyal than the average employee or customer is to any particular company.

That loyalty is not without limits though. Any club or football association that continually takes fans for granted will eventually pay a heavy price, when those supporters stop doing so.