Have I been too harsh on Klopp?

anfield

Anfield, photo by SteHLiverpool. http://www.flickr.com

Jurgen Klopp said he was looking forward to a “perfect Sunday” after Liverpool’s comfortable 2-0 win over Spurs on Saturday evening. The German has had few ‘super Sundays’ to enjoy of late, such has been his side’s wretched form in 2017.

The previous week, Liverpool lost away at Hull with a thoroughly abject performance, following which I took to Facebook to vent my frustration. I posted: ‘Liverpool starting to show a rather worrying resemblance to Man U under van Gaal.’ A friend whose opinion I respect on all matters football replied simply: ‘harsh.’

It was a harsh assessment but I still think a fair one. One of Klopp’s mantras is that performance is all since results can’t be controlled. That’s true enough but some of the performances in the last few months have been dire, especially at home against opposition who set out and set up to frustrate.

To some extent it’s a compliment to Liverpool that teams arrive at Anfield intent on ‘parking the bus.’ Sadly, the response of the home team has too often been to double park alongside it; plenty of possession, total territorial supremacy, but precious little damage to the aforementioned bus.

Have Liverpool made progress under Klopp? Yes, undoubtedly. There remains, rightly, more optimism about the future than in the final days of the Rodgers regime. And yet it was revealed recently that Klopp and his predecessor had almost identical records over their first 54 games in charge of the club.

It’s progress but it’s stuttering, unsteady and yet to be fully convincing. Those calling for the German to get on his bike are ludicrously premature (I don’t see any better candidate to take over) but the fact that the suggestion has even been made shows how far Liverpool still have to go in fulfilling their ambitions.

The short-term ambition is Champions League qualification this season and that’s far from a certainty given how competitive the race for the top four is. The resurgent Manchester United have everyone except Chelsea glancing anxiously over their shoulders.

Winning the title never seemed like a very realistic prospect for Liverpool this season and they won’t do so with the current squad. Klopp has begun to mould it to suit his preferences but more radical surgery still needs to be performed.

As a minimum: Mignolet should be sold – he’s a fine shot stopper but exhibits almost no command and authority; a new left back is needed – Milner’s done a sterling and committed job but each passing week demonstrates further that it’s not his natural position; Lucas is not a centre back and should never be played there (surely the ‘Lucas as makeshift defender’ hypothesis has been refuted on enough occasions by now); and playing a genuine centre forward on a regular basis would seem, to me at least, like an old fashioned idea that never should have fallen out of fashion.

The surgery needed on the squad goes well beyond the cosmetic and will come with a hefty price tag. Klopp seemingly assumed that a keyhole operation would suffice but the harsh winter that he’s just endured must surely have persuaded him otherwise.

Next summer’s shopping will be much easier and more pleasant if he’s doing it in the Champions League aisle. The Europa League will not tempt the calibre of player that Liverpool need to attract in order to become genuine title contenders domestically and competitive with the biggest clubs across the continent.

Managerial careers are made and broken in the transfer market, those bi-annual windows of opportunity through which they must reshape their squads. Klopp is (rightly) confident in his ability to develop players once he starts to work with them but it’s important that he finds the best available raw material.

He also needs to demonstrate greater tactical flexibility. His high-energy pressing game works best as a counter-attacking strategy and it’s therefore not a surprise that it’s proving more successful against better sides that have more possession. When Liverpool are forced to create their own attacking momentum, in situations where they face teams happy to sit back and concede possession, they look slow and ponderous.

The opposition is increasingly confident of being able to nullify Liverpool by limiting the ability of Klopp’s side to catch them on the counter-attack with fast breaks. That is a very similar issue to the one that Manchester United had under van Gaal and it’s one that Mourinho is only slowly being able to rectify – aided by astute signings such as Ibrahimovic.

To be fair to Klopp, he has responded to the recent ‘crisis’ in a calm and composed manner. The dispassionate analysis he provides in the aftermath of games is in stark contrast to his somewhat hysterical demeanour on the touchline.

Indeed Klopp recently insisted to journalists: “We will have to take all the criticism from everywhere. You can write what you want at the moment.”

Here, I have. I doubt the Liverpool manager is reading this but if you are Mr Klopp, I hope you consider it harsh but fair.

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Welcome to the European Super League

Champions League Ball

Champions League ball. Photo by Prakash, http://www.flickr.com

The new European Super League will kick-off in the 2018-19 season. It won’t be called the European Super League of course but that’s essentially what it will be. Yes, the latest Champions League revamp takes us even closer to the long-cherished dream of many of the Continent’s biggest teams and their sponsors.

The so-called ‘Big Four’ leagues (Spain, England, Germany, and Italy) will each get four guaranteed spots in the Champions League group stage. The big winner in this set-up (stitch-up) is Italy’s Serie A, which currently struggles to get a third side in via the play-offs. No such problems shortly.

The big losers? Well, just about everybody else; the smaller nations and those teams that can actually call themselves champions in their domestic leagues, their path to the group stage just became a little more arduous again.

UEFA’s website lists the 11 values that the organisation ‘works and acts in accordance with.’ The first of these is referred to as ‘Football First’ and states: ‘in everything that we do, football must always be the first and most important element that we take into consideration. Football is a game before being a product, a sport before being a market, a show before being a business.’

Excellent, very worthy stuff. So presumably, this latest decision was made entirely in accordance with the football first value that UEFA holds so dear. It was a decision made in order to promote football as a game, sport and show rather than as a product, market and business.

It’s probably just a by-product of the decision that the product will be more valuable, the market will be expanded, and the business deals will be bigger. That will make for happy chairman at big clubs and happy executives at sponsors and broadcasters paying the big money to keep the whole bloated circus on the road.

In a previous post on the Champions League I said the tournament was reaching a cross-road whereby it would have to decide if it was going to be a competition or a cartel. The Cambridge English dictionary defines a cartel as ‘a group of similar independent companies who join together to control prices and limit competition.’

Football first in the sense of big guys first (as well as second, third and fourth). Some of the big clubs had made even loftier demands: that access be given to historically successful clubs for instance. The Milan teams were particularly keen on that idea. Mind you, as a Liverpool fan …

While the big cheese’s carve up the pie in ever-more self-serving ways, the small fries are left to scoop up whatever crumbs fall from the top table.

But unity at least is preserved among the footballing family, and talk of the big clubs breaking away on their own dies down for a year or two until the next round of negotiations begin. UEFA itself clings on to its seat at the table. But for how long?

It’s interesting that all of this takes place against the backdrop of Brexit. The wider European integration project has never looked less certain but football, as always, is different. Ever closer union, at least among those already united, is the UEFA mantra.

Domestic football must seem so parochial to some of these clubs, a rather unfortunate distraction, much like international football. Nationalism was not left behind somewhere towards the end of the last century though; in Britain, its component parts, and throughout Europe as a whole, it is once again on the march.

Understandably, that causes a degree of alarm but it is a perfectly natural response to an alienating globalisation and an elite, particularly in Europe, who have been blindly dismissive of common concerns. Those who walk the corridors of power find themselves confused.

UEFA thinks football is different. Fans must want the big teams playing each other all the time. Manchester United fans want to face Barcelona, not Bournemouth. Maybe, maybe not.

Right now Old Trafford sells out for both so it’s hard to say. Local rivalries remain fiercest though as we’ll no doubt see this weekend in Manchester – even if Jose and Pep provide a sprinkling of continental intrigue.

I was interested to read a piece by Paul Scholes today in which he says: ‘I don’t find elite football as interesting to watch any more, especially in England.’ He goes on to suggest that ‘it’s all about money and sponsorship in England these days rather than football, rather than entertainment.’(https://www.theguardian.com/football/2016/sep/05/paul-scholes-non-league-football-premier-league)

He prefers watching Salford, the non-league club he part-owns, to Manchester United. He wasn’t alone last season; Salford probably gained a few more fans during the Van Gaal era at Old Trafford.

Those fans have a choice as to how they want their football, just as the citizens of democracies retain some say over the type of communities they want to be a part of.

Brexit was the bursting of the European political bubble. The European football bubble continues to inflate but one day, it too will experience a sharp and spectacular puncture.

Pepe – A Real Disgrace

Pepe

Pepe: passing the ball or controlling it? Photo by DSanchez17 http://www.flickr.com

I have to be honest, I wasn’t that excited about the Champions League final last weekend. The match kicked off at 2:45am in Malaysia and I was unsure about getting up to watch it (the middle of the night matches seem to exact a harsher toll than they once did; the price of ageing).

I went to bed without setting my alarm and decided that if I happened to wake up during the night while the game was on then I would get up. I woke up at 3:30am.

Thus I caught the second half, extra time, and penalties before returning to bed, exhausted, around 5:30am. What I saw in this nocturnal interlude was a very spirited and composed performance from Atletico (the job that Simeone has done is truly immense) a rather insipid showing from Real, and, from Pepe, one of the most outrageous displays of cheating I’ve ever seen.

It’s unlikely that Pepe is a reader of this blog but just in case you are reading this Mr. Ferreira, you are a complete and utter disgrace. Your pantomime performance was pitiful and clearly the concept of shame is entirely unfamiliar to you.

Once upon a time, football was a man’s game played by men who would never, ever have dreamed of feigning injury in the way you did repeatedly in Milan. It’s called cheating and you are both a charlatan and a cheat.

It’s incredible that you weren’t sent off, for which we can blame referee Clattenburg who shook his head at you in disgust but inexplicably failed to wave his red card in your direction. Football will not rid itself of the sort of antics that you exemplify until referees and the sport’s authorities start punishing them much more severely.

If it were up to me you would be banned from the group stages of next year’s tournament as an absolute minimum (and possibly made to walk the streets of Madrid wearing a sandwich board with the words ‘I am a charlatan and a cheat’).

‘Bringing the game into disrepute’ has become an increasingly catch-all charge issued by the authorities and yet your performance in one of the game’s most high profile occasions has gone completely unpunished. I have rarely seen football more in disrepute than it was last Saturday as you clutched your face in mock agony.

Football is the beautiful game but it has some depressingly ugly sides and you represent one of the ugliest of them all. Stop diving, stop cheating, and stop acting (an activity at which you display precious little skill) like a spoilt brat.

Acting is not the only activity for which Pepe shows little aptitude, football is another. His clumsy concession of the penalty in the second half summed up his shortcomings as a defender: rash, reckless, and lacking in composure.

How Pepe gets a game for Real Madrid is surely one of the wonders of the modern world.

But he does and Real must accept responsibility for him. Clubs are very concerned about their image these days and Pepe is an employee who brought shame upon his employers last Saturday.

Did they discipline him? I very much doubt it; not with all the celebrating to be done and selfies to be taken. So, the referee failed to punish him on the pitch, the authorities failed to punish him retrospectively, and it’s unlikely that he’s been called to account by his club.

Perhaps Pepe’s conscience has been pricked by the backlash that’s followed his actions but more likely he’s still grinning inanely, looking up at his selfie stick. Take a look in the mirror instead Pepe and see what the rest of us see in you: a real disgrace.

A Tale of Two Cities

Champions League logo

Champions League logo. Photo by Ver en vivo En Directo  www.flickr.com

Manchester City have just qualified for the semi finals of the Champions League for the first time in their history. Leicester City are on the brink of winning the Premier League for the first time in theirs.

The first of these history making feats is not exactly unexpected, and arguably overdue given the investment that has gone into it; the other one, should it come to pass, would qualify as a footballing ‘black swan’ and rank among the most remarkable achievements in the history of English football.

The city of Leicester will host Champions League football next season, the city of Manchester might not (although it probably will unless West Ham produce something exceptional).

Leicester are about to gatecrash a party at which many of the other guests will view them with a haughty disregard. Recently, European football’s biggest clubs have returned to banging one of their favourite old drums: Champions League reform.

For the big boys (and some of the old European aristocracy such as AC Milan, who can hardly be called a continental power at the moment), reform means even greater levels of protection for themselves and further movement along the road towards a European Super League.

‘Super’ in this context is used decidedly flexibly, and would include quite a few clubs such as the aforementioned AC, whose justification for a seat at the top table currently rests on a very flimsy stool. Manchetser United are another club whose stool appears to contain a wobbly leg or two.

But, they protest: “we are big clubs, with history, and pedigree.” True enough, yet size, history, and pedigree do not win football matches by themselves. Quality is a more likely guarantor of that and it is in scare supply at the San Siro and Old Trafford.

Wherever there are concentrations of power, you are likely to find significant levels of self-interested decision-making. In the upper echelons of European football, power is concentrated in the hands of relatively few clubs. Those who are not part of the elite group are expected to content themselves with crumbs that fall from the top table.

The big clubs would prefer to raise the table and put it further out of the reach of the little guys for whom they have increasingly little time. It has been reported that some of the big clubs (led by the faded pair of giants in Milan) are going so far as to push a proposal that they be given automatic entry into the Champions League without bothering with such inconveniences as actually qualifying for it.

Why should AC have to prove themselves over and over again when they’ve already shown that they used to be a good side. Once upon a time. Ok, it’s getting to be quite a long time ago now, but still. Why should upstarts like Leicester get to compete in the Champions League if all they’ve done is beat all the other teams in England to become champions?

Spare a thought for poor old Man U, they’ve won the league lots of times; it’s just that they’re not going to win it this time. It sounds laughable of course but these guys are serious and they always are when it comes to money.

Tennis has its wildcards they assert. Wimbledon can, and does, offer a few places in the main draw for those who haven’t fully earned it on merit. Usually it’s a couple of plucky local youngsters who don’t detain their opponents for very long and some spots are reserved for bigger names who might be returning from injury for example.

The wildcard system has plenty of critics in tennis (personally I’d get rid of it) but Europe’s big football clubs want to go much further than Wimbledon is permitted to: they want to control most, if not the entire draw of the tournament. Teams would no longer qualify for the Champions League, they would be invited.

No doubt letters of invitation (perfumed with the sweet smelling scent of money) would arrive at the great palaces of European football, the San Siro and Old Trafford among them. I’m not so sure about Leicester’s King Power stadium.

They may soon be champions but in Europe they are neither kings nor powerful.

The powers that be, and who have long been, are tightening their grip on that power. Even ‘new money’ big clubs such as Chelsea, Manchester City, and PSG are seen as brash neighbours, tolerated perhaps but hardly welcomed.

Manchester City are likely to line up in this year’s Champions League semi finals alongside the old money glamour of Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Real Madrid. Next season, Leicester will be expected to take a brief look around before leaving quickly and quietly without causing much of a scene.

I’m a conservative sort of a guy but I’m not one to say that modern football is rubbish and wouldn’t it be great if we could just return to the good old days (whenever and wherever they happened to be). I’m a big fan of the Champions League – it often produces outstanding matches and entertainment. I’m less of a fan of the cartel that the big clubs are seeking to create.

Ultimately, we who pay the piper (by going to the games or subscribing to the sports channels) will at least be entitled to request a tune. We might have to wait behind the broadcasters and the sponsors though, whose requests come written on larger cheques.

The next time we hear that famous anthem of the Champions League, we should ask ourselves: do we want a cartel or do we want a competition?

Scottish football’s cold harsh winter in Europe

Barcelona v Celtic

Barcelona v Celtic in the Champions League Photo: Marc Puig i Perez http://www.flickr.com

Celtic’s rather dismal failure to qualify for the Champions League group stage has heaped pressure on manager Ronny Deila and prompted the now annual round of introspection in the Scottish game that follows such results.

The Scottish champions were careless in the first leg against Malmo and, by their own admission, scarcely turned up in the second. Deila suggested that his players underperformed on account of “wanting it too much.” Scott Brown admitted to being “ashamed” afterwards; an honest assessment from an honest player.

So, just how bad have we become in Europe? The honest truth is that the performance of most Scottish clubs in European competition has been less than impressive for quite a long time now and not much has changed this season.

St Johnstone lost to a team from Armenia (that’s quite shameful since Armenia are ranked 24 places below Scotland in UEFA’s coefficient rankings). Inverness Caley lost to Romanian opponents (a lot less shameful than St Johnstone’s effort since Romania are ranked nine places above us). Aberdeen deserve some credit for a decent run (including an excellent victory over my Croatian team, Rijeka)  but still passed up a good opportunity to reach the Europa League group stage by losing to a side from Kazakhstan (Kazakhstan currently sit just three places below us in the rankings).

The problems of Scottish football are well documented and there are no quick or easy fixes. Our current coefficient ranking is 24th out of 54 UEFA member organisations. That’s an interesting ranking, not least because next year’s European Championships will be contested by 24 nations for the first time. The coefficient ranking is based on the performance of club sides in European competition and it gives a good overall indication of the state of the game across Europe. We probably are around the 24th best footballing nation in Europe right now.

Will we therefore be one of the 24 qualifiers for Euro 2016 in France? Things were looking very positive on that front until Friday night’s inept display in Georgia. To be fair, it was the first such display under Gordon Strachan. Prior to that game, he was rightly raking in plaudits for the job he’s done as Scotland boss.

He didn’t initiate a revolution; he stuck by a core group of players that he trusts, gave them some confidence, added a dash of freedom to express themselves and we seemed at long last to find ourselves competitive in a qualifying group (and a pretty tough group at that).

I’ve looked at the last three rounds of fixtures in the group, starting with tonight’s game against Germany at Hampden, and predicted the results of all the teams still in with a chance of qualifying. By my estimates, Germany will comfortably finish top with Poland in second place while we will finish the group in third place, just marginally ahead of the Republic of Ireland. If I’m right, then a play-off would then await.

I’m predicting a 2-0 win for Germany tonight and partly for that reason I’m not intending to get up at 2:45am to watch the game. Nothing will be decided tonight, but with three qualifying games to go we are definitely entering what Sir Alex would refer to as ‘squeaky bum time.’ And trust me, bums don’t come much squeakier than those of the tartan army. If we can somehow squeak a point, I’ll be delighted with that.

Overall, Strachan has shown that solid (even, at times, entertaining) performances can be coached out of our current squad. His coaching ability is the single biggest difference that has made us more competitive in this qualifying campaign compared to almost any other in recent memory, at least since the famous double victory over France in our ultimately failed bid to reach Euro 2008.

Coaches are important then but the stark fact remains that we need better players, both in the national side and in our top club sides. Wales are on course to qualify for Euro 2016 thanks, in large part, to having a world class player in Gareth Bale leading their attack. Developing such players will take time, investment, and cultural change – all things we’ve known for a long time.

One thing that might also help would be a switch to summer football in Scotland, something that’s been much discussed but never gained too much momentum. I used to be a sceptic but I’ve changed my mind since I left Scotland to live in the tropics. I now go back once a year and in the last couple of years it has been for Christmas. I always go to a game when I’m back. At that time of year, it’s always freezing, usually wet, and the pitches look like beaches (but not of the tropical variety).

Those are not great conditions to play football in and they are not good conditions to watch football in either. So, buckets and spades at the ready, I’m advocating summer football in Scotland. Traditionalists be reassured, we won’t notice that much difference since “summer” in Scotland tends towards the cold and the wet anyway.

Summer football won’t happen in Scotland any time soon but let’s hope that at least some Scottish players are playing football next summer – in France.

Make mine a treble: watching the Champions League final in a bar in Hong Kong

Champions League final

I was in Hong Kong last weekend for a romantic break with my wife. Remarkably, she did not consider going out at 2.30am to watch the Champions League final a romantic activity befitting of such a weekend. I was thus alone when I took my seat at the ‘Forever Lounge’ bar for the game.

I’m not exaggerating when I say ‘my seat.’ I had enquired at around 10pm if they were going to be showing the game and they said yes but there were only a few seats left and I would have to pay a deposit to reserve one. I handed over 100 Hong Kong dollars while my wife looked at me in bemusement. “It’s the Champions League final darling,” is all I could offer by way of explanation.

When the match kicked off, I gauged the bar to be reasonably evenly split in terms of support for the two teams. There were few replica tops on display (I only counted one Juve top and two Barcelona ones) and the opening goal for Barcelona seemed to excite roughly half of the patrons. It came as quite a surprise when the Juventus equaliser sparked celebrations that were wilder and more widespread.

But back to the opening goal. It was well crafted from Barcelona’s point of view but it was a disaster for Juve. Rakitic was given so much space just outside the six yard box and must have been amazed to be given such a simple opportunity to score after just three minutes. I had written previously that the Italians are ‘masters of denying space.’ Ah, the dangers of predictive punditry. Undeterred, I took to Facebook with a short update – ‘Prediction: game over.’ And I was right, sort of.

Barcelona should have had the game wrapped up by half time. The Rakitic goal was a prelude to a series of further clear cut chances. It was mostly the brilliance of Buffon in the Juve goal that ensured the game wasn’t over by the time the referee blew for the interval. I remained confident in my prediction but had just the tiniest amount of doubt.

At half time I had a chance to reflect on a few things that had struck me so far. The biggest surprise about the game was how open it was. Most of the credit for that goes to Juventus who had chosen to try and attack rather than sit in and seek to nullify Barcelona. I had expected more defensive tactics from the Italians and had anticipated (wrongly as it turned out) that they would start with only one man up front.

It was no surprise that Barca were dominant in terms of possession but their speed on the break was remarkable. Messi, Suarez, and Neymar are not actually the quickest front three but they move the ball incredibly fast and have developed an excellent understanding over the course of their first season playing together.

Another intriguing factor about the first half was that Juve’s 4-4-2 formation with a narrow midfield gave them a man advantage in the middle of the park but they were entirely unable to dominate the Barcelona midfield three. The hype that surrounds Pogba is not unjustified but he is not yet able to control a game at this level by himself.

A few other thoughts occurred to me at half time. Firstly, when did Messi acquire his tattoo sleeve? It was the first time that I’d spotted it and it seemed incongruous with his boyish image. On a related note, where do these players get their hair cut? The match was a parade of ridiculous hairstyles – Pogba, Neymar, and Alves chief among them. And why was Barca’s assistant manager dressed in denim? It’s the Champions League final, even the pundits put on their Sunday (or Saturday night) best for this game.

As I was pondering all of this a curious thing happened. Sat across from me was a group of three guys sharing a bucket of beer. They finished one bucket and the waitress promptly delivered another one. Upon its arrival, one of the guys took a bottle of beer out and proceeded to spend the next minute attempting to open it with his teeth. He eventually succeeded and spat out the bottle top triumphantly.

This display of machismo was rather undone however when he then took the bottle and shared it among the three small glasses that were on the table. It seemed like a lot of effort for a third of a bottle of beer.

The second half began with Barcelona looking to prove me right in my prediction. Neymar missed an excellent chance from a Messi cross and that was the first of three chances for his side in the opening ten minutes of the second period. Once again, the game could and should have been all over.

But then, all of a sudden, my prediction appeared in some jeopardy as Juventus found an equaliser. A low ball into the box was struck towards goal by a swivelling Tevez, the goalkeeper could only parry the ball out and Morata pounced to sweep the ball home. Having a second striker on hand to follow up and score from a rebound illustrated the benefit of playing with two up front (something for coaches to reflect on in an era that’s seen an increasing use of just a solitary striker).

This was clearly now the key moment in the game. Could Juve build some momentum behind their equaliser? Would Barcelona’s confidence start to ebb? Was I going to end up with egg on my face for predicting the winner a mere three minutes into the game?

It didn’t take long to realise that my face would remain egg free. Barcelona regained their rhythm almost immediately and while Juventus continued to pose a sporadic threat it was the Catalans who remained thoroughly in control. Juve did continue to try and press and take the initiative but in doing so they left themselves exposed on the break and it was thus that Suarez restored his side’s lead. Messi was the creator, running directly at and past several defenders before driving a shot that Buffon could only push into the path of a grateful Suarez.

I was relieved and very shortly thereafter my prediction seemed entirely safe when Neymar nodded home a cross. His celebrations were cut short though with the referee correctly ruling that Neymar had used not only head but also hand in the act of scoring. The ‘goal’ was disallowed. In truth Neymar had made a terrible mess of an easy chance.

The game still had a good flow to it and Juventus edged forward in search of a second goal of their own. Time and again however they left themselves short at the back and Barca were able to break with four or five players facing three Juve defenders. The Italians survived these breaks until the very end when Neymar did get his name on the score sheet from yet another incisive Catalan counter attack.

With that the European Cup was headed back to Barcelona and I was headed back to the hotel to get to bed at 5am.

Last season Barcelona didn’t win any trophies and many wondered if it was the end of an era at the Nou Camp or at least the beginning of the end. This season they have a treble to their name – La Liga, Spanish Cup and Champions League. They are without doubt the best club side of this century and the scary thought for rivals is that they may not even have fulfilled their full potential yet. Messi has been revitalised since the turn of the year and at his best he is close to unstoppable.

I’ll make an early prediction for next season’s Champions League: if anyone knocks out Barcelona they will win the tournament.

One final observation on my trip to Hong Kong, it was made in the gents. Over recent years there has been a worldwide move to improve men’s accuracy in the urinal. This has generally involved drawing a target on the point of the urinal that the authorities would prefer that we hit (sometimes it’s a fly, sometimes a frog, or sometimes just an X marks the spot).

In Hong Kong, several establishments have installed small goalposts in the urinal with a ball suspended on string from the crossbar. I think goal line technology would be required to determine whether or not my shot did in fact cross the line.

Carragher is wrong; Bale should stay at Real Madrid

Gareth Bale Picture by DSanchez17 www.flickr.com

Gareth Bale
Picture by DSanchez17
http://www.flickr.com

I’m a great admirer of Jamie Carragher. He was an excellent footballer, an inspirational Liverpool captain, and by all accounts he’s turning out to be a very fine pundit. I haven’t seen much of his punditry but I did read an article he wrote recently under the headline: ‘Gareth Bale should come home to the Premier League’ (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-3083586/JAMIE-CARRAGHER-Gareth-Bale-come-home-Premier-League-s-fight-t-win-Real-Madrid.html). Carragher is wrong and he’s mistaken in just about every line of argument he makes.

Here I consider each of the arguments that Carragher makes (I counted 15 in all) as to why Bale should bail out of Madrid and return to the welcoming arms of one of the Premier League’s premier teams.

  1. Bale would be assured legendary status elsewhere.

Possibly, but hardly a foregone conclusion. It’s not even obvious that he would be the most important player at the club if he signed for Manchester United, Manchester City or Chelsea. Besides, for the moment, Bale does not appear to want to be a legend elsewhere; he wants to be a legend at Real Madrid.

It is only twelve months since he scored in the Champions League final against Real’s city rivals to help his team land their coveted 10th European Cup win. It capped a magnificent first season for the Welshman in Madrid. He seemed well on the way to legendary status at the time. His star has undoubtedly dimmed in the Madrid galaxy since then but the notoriously fickle fans at the Bernabeu who have turned on Bale can swing back just as quickly to revering him.

  1. The Madrid fans love a scapegoat and Bale is now it.

It’s true that they do and Bale has been suffering at the hands of the white hanky brigade but he’s far from alone. The Madrid fans prefer a whole herd of scapegoats and Casillas and Ancelotti both currently find themselves in that pen as well. The goalkeeper and the manager are also both more likely to leave Madrid this summer than Bale in my opinion.

  1. Bale currently appears timid, lacking in confidence and has lost his spark.

This description would be apt for several Real Madrid performances of late. Since the turn of the year the team has not been functioning well and Bale’s confidence has understandably dropped along with many of his teammates (although I don’t think Ronaldo has ever had any problems in the confidence department). But are we really now suggesting that when a player loses confidence and a bit of spark the only thing to do is change clubs?

Confidence comes and goes even for the very best players in the world. It can come again for Bale as a Real Madrid player.

  1. This is about Bale’s career; no one benefits from him being unhappy.

One indifferent season does not define a career. This is not a career-defining summer for Gareth Bale. He’s 25 years old, playing for the club of his dreams, and challenging for trophies (he’s also a multimillionaire). If that’s unhappiness, I’ll take a bit of that thank you very much.

Bale may well decide to return to the Premier League at some point in the future and he has many years at the top of the game still ahead of him. It’s not an option he needs to take up right now.

  1. Bale can never compete with Ronaldo setting the agenda at Real Madrid.

True, he can’t, but I don’t believe he’s trying to. I’ve never met Gareth Bale but for the most expensive footballer in the world he seems like a remarkably humble guy. He knows who is king in Madrid and that he is merely a prince. Ronaldo could do more to help Bale (and the rest of the team) if he was a little less preening and self-absorbed. The Portuguese is a remarkable talent but not a natural leader.

  1. Bale will be measured against other world record signings at Madrid such as Ronaldo, Zidane and Figo.

Carragher’s implication is that Bale cannot hope to compare. He’s not as good as any of the three mentioned above and quite possibly never will be. The point though is that Bale has enough confidence that he wants to be measured against that sort of talent. He wants to be better and he’s pushed himself out of his comfort zone in a bid to improve. In my view there’s no doubt that he’s become a more complete player since he moved to Spain.

  1. Madrid is a culture shock for a shy boy like Bale, especially with the expectation to win the league and the Champions League every year.

It would be a major surprise if moving to a new country did not prove to be a bit of a culture shock. As an expat, I have some experience of this. Indeed, my wife and I had a bit of a culture shock when we visited Madrid. We decided to go out and see what Madrid nightlife had to offer. We turned up at a bar around midnight (thinking that things start a little later in Spain) only to discover that we were the only ones there. Apparently the locals don’t make an appearance until around 2am, after they’ve finished their dinner.

If Bale signed for one of the big English clubs he would face a similar level of expectation. They will all be eyeing the title next season and see themselves as at least contenders (with the possible exception of Manchester City) in the Champions League. Bale has nowhere to run or hide from expectation.

  1. Bale’s personality is not coming to the fore at Madrid.

I’m not entirely sure what Gareth Bale’s personality is and I’d be surprised if Carragher has a much better idea. Bale has never been the most demonstrative of players; he’s not one for shouting or screaming and being overly dramatic about things. He tends to let his football do the talking. Sadly, admittedly, some of that talk has been gibberish of late.

The only concern about Bale’s personality is if it’s leading him to become isolated at the Bernabeu. It’s widely reported that his Spanish remains about as good as my Croatian (that is to say not very – and I don’t even know how to say “not very” in Croatian) and that’s probably the most important thing for him to work on. This summer he should take a holiday, in Spain, and spend much of it taking Spanish lessons.

  1. One of the big English clubs would have been a step-up from Spurs but not such a huge one as Real Madrid.

This seems like more of an argument for not going to Madrid in the first place. Carragher is right of course, Real are bigger and better than any club in England right now and the culture shock wouldn’t have arisen if Bale had joined another English club.

But why reign in his ambition? He thought he was good enough to play for Real Madrid and he’s proved that he is. Even with his less impressive form this season, Bale has remained a regular starter at Real. Ancelotti trusts him and Bale trusted himself to play at that level.

  1. The Premier League has lost too many players to La Liga recently – Ronaldo, Alonso, Suarez – and Bale coming back would balance things a little.

This one’s easy, why should Gareth Bale care about that?

  1. Bale would have more influence in the Premier League than he has in La Liga.

Influence is a tough thing to measure. It may be the case that the style of play in England would suit Bale better (I think that’s true of attacking players more generally) but the influence he’s had in Spain should not be underestimated. Bale is one of those players who force the opposition to think about how they’ll cope with him just by his presence on the team sheet.

  1. Bale would automatically improve any English side he joined.

That’s true and there would be no shortage of suitors if he was put up for sale but let’s not forget that Bale improved the Real Madrid team when he joined. He’s kept his place in the team on merit. It is arguable that one of the big English clubs would build their team around him if he joined them in a way that Madrid won’t but I don’t think Bale sees that as necessary.

  1. He’s not been a failure at Madrid – he’s won 4 medals – so could return to England with his head held high.

He certainly could but those four medals tell a very important story. He wouldn’t have collected four medals at any of the top English clubs in the last two seasons and he almost certainly wouldn’t (yet) be a Champions League winner if he’d opted to stay in the Premier League rather than join Real.

Bale wants to be challenging for the biggest prizes in the game and there’s not many better places to do that from. In fact, there’s only one and it’s not in England. I don’t think Bale will be joining Barcelona any time soon though.

  1. Real Madrid does not suit everyone – think of Kaka, Robben and Sneijder.

That’s true of any club. Look at what happened to Torres after he left Liverpool. Bale has chosen to do it ‘his way’ at the Bernabeu and if he can make it there, he’ll make it anywhere. It’s a tough test for any player and probably the most demanding stage for a footballer to perform on. Bale hasn’t gone there to be an understudy and he can consider himself a headline act in his own right.

  1. It would be good to see Bale playing with happiness again.

On this point, Carragher and I agree. I just happen to believe that he can find happiness again at Real Madrid.

A year ago Bale was preparing for a Madrid derby Champions League final. He scored a crucial goal in that game. The Real Madrid fans waved white flags rather than white hankies and chanted his name. Platini put a Champions League winner’s medal around his neck.

This year he wears the burden of his record transfer fee around his neck. There will be no all-Spanish Champions League final this season, no medal to add to Bale’s collection. I’m sure he’ll watch the game on TV and wish he was there.

But if he wants to be back in the Champions League final next year he’d be better off staying in Madrid than heading back to England.