Pundits on the couch


Sky Sports studio. Photo by: Ross G. Strachan, http://www.flickr.com

Jurgen Klopp is not a man lacking in opinions. He would no doubt make rather a good pundit – he’s knowledgeable about the game, has a good sense of humour, and appears to enjoy robust debate.

His latest sparring partners are the Neville brothers, both of whom have recently been critical (with good reason) of Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius. Klopp was particularly disdainful of Gary Neville, saying: “he showed he struggled with the job to judge players so why do we let him talk about players on TV?”

Well, for a start, ‘we’ don’t. Sky do, and they seem happy with Neville as a pundit and welcomed him back with open arms after his short and unsuccessful sabbatical in Spain. Klopp’s was a bit of a low blow in this case, lower even than the league position occupied by Valencia when Neville was shown the door.

Klopp went on to suggest that Neville is “not interested in helping a Liverpool player I can imagine, but that makes things he says not make more sense.” The German’s English is still a work in (impressive) progress in terms of fully making sense. But again here, the complaint is a strange one.

Why should Gary Neville in his role as a pundit be interested in either helping, or indeed hindering, Liverpool? I’ve not seen all that much of his punditry but by all accounts he does a good job of it and takes a fair, balanced view of things. He’s certainly not been afraid to criticise Manchester United, albeit not quite as harshly as Scholes specialises in.

As a player, Neville gave the impression that he hated Liverpool and the feeling was pretty mutual. One thing that has defined his career however – as player, pundit, and coach – is professionalism. He’s performed each role to the best of his ability, never lacked for effort, and taken it all very, very seriously.

Klopp’s touchiness on the subject of his goalkeeper is indicative of the pressure that affects even the most experienced and accomplished of managers. His decision to drop Karius for the game against Middlesbrough is the clearest evidence that Neville had a point. When Mignolet is deemed the safe choice, then something has gone awry.

Liverpool got back to winning ways on Teesside after recent stutters and even managed to keep a clean sheet. Klopp can feel his decision vindicated, as can Neville his criticism.

Klopp v Neville was not the only manager – pundit square up this week. Mourinho and Owen also clashed over the latter’s comments about Ibrahimovic. Owen said that the Swede was not a long-term solution for Manchester United and commented that at some point the club would have to either find or buy a young player in the mould of Rooney.

Mourinho, who has yet to prove himself a manager for the long-term at any particular club, responded that “Zlatan will score more goals in one season than Michael Owen in three seasons at Man United.”

It is true that Owen wasn’t exactly prolific at United and in many ways he was a stop-gap solution of the kind that he now perceives Ibrahimovic to be. Of course Mourinho’s retort didn’t challenge Owen’s thesis, a sure sign of an argument in the process of being lost.

Owen went on to suggest that “managers are getting awfully touchy.” I don’t think it’s accurate to say getting, it’s always been the case. These two incidents of managers taking exception to the analysis of pundits do highlight a peculiar touchiness on their part. And let’s not forget that these are two of the best and most successful managers in the world.

I’ve made the observation previously this season that Mourinho has been more sullen than swaggering at Old Trafford since he arrived. Perhaps like President-elect Trump, the scale of the task has come as something of a surprise to him.

Klopp meanwhile, is doing his best to downplay rising expectations at Anfield. Liverpool look just about enough like title contenders to experience the pressure that comes with such a label. A few more weeks without Coutinho should answer some questions about how that pressure is being handled by players who are not especially used to it.

Neville and Owen face scrutiny of their performance but not a great deal of pressure. Their seats are comfy ones. Those of Klopp and Mourinho are considerably hotter. Klopp rarely sits in his; such is the manic energy that he exudes on the touchline.

Neville knows the feeling of being in the manager’s seat, and just how uncomfortable it can be. If he ever returns to management, he probably won’t spend much time criticising pundits for doing the job that’s expected of them.

In this instance, Klopp and Mourinho would be better off sitting down, and being quiet.

Is rugby better than football?

Dan Carter

Dan Carter: photo by Quintin Smith http://www.flickr.com

Last week I found myself in some sort of broad agreement with David Beckham. A rather discombobulating experience it was too but nevertheless I must admit to the truth of it.

In fact it’s been an altogether discombobulating sort of a week for me regarding former Manchester United players as I’ve caught myself developing a certain respect for Gary Neville and wishing him somewhat well in his endeavours at Valencia.

This is of course a strange sensation because the first rule of being a Liverpool fan is that you hate Gary Neville. I presume myself to still be a Liverpool fan, in fact a reinvigorated one under Mr. Klopp, but it is a peculiar world I appear to have entered. Anyway, back to my bemusement with Beckham …

The issue on which we agree (at least partially) is rugby. It was reported recently that Beckham expressed a preference for going to rugby games over football matches as there is “no nastiness” between fans at the former.

Beckham’s comments came only a month or so after I’d heard something very similar from my brother. It was the day that we took my son to his first ever football match (the subject of my previous post) and it was certainly one to put you off football for life; a rather unfortunate start then for Toma. My brother described it as the worst game he’d ever seen and he’s a man who has seen a lot of football.

After the match finished we hurried back to my Dad’s place in order to watch Scotland v Australia in the quarter final of the Rugby World Cup.  Arriving just in time to open a beer as the national anthems were being sung, my brother said: “Here we go. I think I actually prefer rugby to football these days.”

I confidently predicted that there would be little to enjoy as a Scotland fan over the course of the next 80 minutes. He, being somehow devoid of the pessimism that afflicts most Scottish supporters (of any sport), predicted that we would win.

He was very nearly right. It was a riveting game of rugby that was a million times more entertaining than the dire encounter we’d witnessed at Tannadice earlier in the day. Scotland suffered a familiar – and particularly acute even by our standards – brave defeat courtesy of a dubious late penalty.

The referee, seemingly having realised that he had erred, sprinted to the dressing room immediately upon blowing the final whistle, leaving behind a rather relieved looking Australian side and a thoroughly disconsolate Scottish one.

It was interesting that the ref had felt the need to flee. Had such a situation arisen on a football pitch then his actions would have made perfect sense. On a rugby pitch, less so.

The reason for that is partly why I find myself asking the question, is rugby better than football? On the issue of respect for referees, it undoubtedly is. Would the Scottish players have confronted the referee at the end of the game if he hadn’t exited quicker than Usain Bolt in search of Chicken McNuggets? Possibly, but not aggressively, and they would still have shaken his hand.

At a football match, the ref could expect to find himself surrounded, jostled, sworn at, and generally treated with the sort of respect that Jeremy Kyle specialises in with the guests on his show.

Watch a football match this weekend and see how long it takes for the referee to be abused. And by abused I mean a level of intimidation that would probably warrant an arrest if it occurred on the street. My guess is it will happen before half time. You’re very unlikely to see such behaviour if you’re watching a rugby match.

The same is true off the field as Beckham correctly pointed out. Rugby’s lack of nastiness between rival sets of fans means that they don’t have to be segregated. Alcohol can be sold at the stadiums with little concern that it will fuel violence.

And don’t mistake a lack of nastiness for a lack of atmosphere. Rugby crowds are every bit as partisan and noisy as football ones, they just don’t feel the urge to throw coins at each other for example. They attend matches with some sort of strange notion of enjoying the game rather than revelling in a confected hatred of the opposition support.

Beckham is surely right that a rugby match is generally a better environment to take kids into than a football match. That’s not to say I haven’t seen a few idiots in attendance at rugby games, but they are certainly fewer and further between than those I’ve encountered at the football.

It’s always a remarkable sight to see grown men, beer bellies straining against their replica ‘performance’ tops, shouting obscenities at one of their own players to suggest that said player may have been a little over-enthusiastic in the pie shop and consequently a touch short of pace. There’s usually a profusion of pie being ejected from their own mouths as this tirade proceeds in between bites.

Respect in rugby also applies between players on the field. This is most evident in the lack of the biggest scourge of modern football – diving. Rugby players simply don’t do it, they don’t feign injury, they don’t go in for that sort of gamesmanship. They are, in short (though often very tall), real men.

They would be thoroughly embarrassed to roll around like Robben, swoon like Suarez, or fall like Fabregas. Rugby players apparently retain a sense of shame. It’s something that’s almost entirely absent in football these days. Watch a football match this weekend and you will almost certainly witness at least one blatant dive.

Given all of this, you’d be forgiven for wondering why I bother with football at all. Rugby is a great game and I’m a big fan for the reasons described above and many more. It’s probably 50/50 as to whether the next sporting event I take Toma to is rugby or football.

But I still prefer football. It remains my first and true sporting love. I once took part in a debate at school. The proposition was ‘football requires more skill than rugby.’ I, as captain of the school football team, was arguing in favour of the motion. The captain of the rugby team (a somewhat sturdier schoolboy than I) was my opponent.

I think I won although that may have been largely the result of football being more popular at my school than rugby rather than any particular oratorical brilliance on my part. I remember arguing that it was much easier and more natural for us to use our hands than our feet. We use our hands for writing and for eating (mind you, anyone who’s been in the general vicinity of my attempts to use chopsticks will realise that manipulating things with our hands can still go badly wrong).

I should confess at this point that I’ve never played much rugby, a matter of some regret in all honesty, but it’s always been a healthy sense of self-preservation that has prevented me. I therefore don’t have a full appreciation of the skill that the game involves.

The scrum for instance remains entirely mysterious to me: I’m not sure who thought the best way to restart a game following certain infringements was to require the insertion of heads between rows of buttocks and then have the respective front rows grasp each other as though about to commence a sumo contest before invariably collapsing on top of each other and having to do it all over again.

Football is a simpler game and that is the primary reason for its universal appeal. Anywhere I’ve travelled in the world I’ve seen kids kicking (not throwing) a ball around. In dark alleys in Mumbai, on beaches in Bali, at the edge of the Malaysian jungle, I’ve seen makeshift goalposts and games in progress. It is the global game and anyone can play.

Ultimately, today, I think of rugby v football as a tale of two number 10s. I enjoyed the Rugby World Cup and marvelled at some of the play, especially by the All Blacks. Dan Carter, the New Zealand 10, was the star of the tournament and cemented his position as one of the greatest players (some have argued the case that he’s the greatest) of all time.

Football has its own number 10 who is indisputably the greatest of the current era and quite probably the greatest of all time: Lionel Messi. To watch Carter and Messi is to watch two incredible sportsmen extending the boundaries of their sport. They are both marvels, professionals, and remarkably humble given their talent.

Carter is stronger, faster. Both are immensely quick witted and stunningly intelligent in the way that they play. Both can leave you shaking your head in wonder. But Messi produces that reaction more often and the disbelief is of a different magnitude.

Despite not having played much rugby I could just about conceive of doing what Carter does if I had hours and hours and hours of practice. I have spent hours playing football yet still Messi’s ability remains something that seems to belong to a different realm altogether.

One of Carter’s tackles would probably break my jaw; Messi makes my jaw drop, almost every time he takes to the pitch.

Rugby is a glorious, riotous, and heroic game. But you can’t watch Messi and tell me that football isn’t better.

Leo Messi

Leo Messi: photo by Marc Puig i Perez http://www.flickr.com

The new manager effect?

Jurgen Klopp - new boss of Liverpool Photo by: opelblog www.flickr.com

Jurgen Klopp – new boss of Liverpool
Photo by: opelblog

The self-proclaimed ‘Ordinary One’ swept into Liverpool last week and so began a new era at Anfield. I’m not sure if the Liverpool owners read this blog – they probably don’t have a lot of time in between approving overpriced and underwhelming signings – but if they do they may have noted that in my previous post I mentioned that I had lost all faith in Rodgers and his methods.

Apparently they have now as well although I suspect the availability of Jurgen Klopp was a factor in that loss of faith. Although it rather begs the question as to why the change wasn’t made in the summer, before Rodgers went on another summer spending spree that displayed all the clarity of thought and subtlety of judgement of an overexcited contestant on Supermarket Sweep.

Liverpool’s squad is hardly brimming with world class talent and Klopp inherits a side that is not exactly overflowing with confidence either. The Rodgers era at Anfield resembled Michael Jackson’s moonwalk: there was the appearance of moving forward but in reality we were going backwards.

Klopp entered the fray at White Hart Lane at lunchtime on Saturday after a couple of confident press conference performances. I entered a pub in Dunfermline with my brother at the same time, having arrived in Scotland the previous evening. With the haggis on order, I turned my attention to the big screen to discover what Klopp was about to serve up.

By the time the Knickerbocker Glories arrived (my brother, he practically forced me) there were just enough signs of encouragement to make the meal a modestly happy one. There was perspiration aplenty with a small side of inspiration. In the build up to the game, Liverpool players had spoken of the new boss demanding a few extra yards. In his first game, he got them – Liverpool were apparently the first team to outrun Spurs this season in terms of distance covered.

They ran, but what they were unable to hide was the obvious lack of quality that I referred to above. Coutinho is an honourable exception, but the supporting cast don’t give the impression of having fully learned their lines. Of course Klopp only had a few days to work with the players following the international break so it’s hardly surprising that the new script has not yet been mastered.

In that context a 0-0 draw away at Tottenham represents a decent enough start. Many teams will leave the Lane with less this season. The most encouraging sign came as the Liverpool team left the field. Klopp was there on the pitch, cajoling them, arm around half of them, deep in conversation. The players all looked appreciative and respectful. There’s no question that this is a man that they want to play for already.

How many of those players Klopp ultimately wants to play for him at Anfield remains to be seen. The truth is that not many of them are good enough to turn Liverpool into title challengers and regular participants in the Champions League. Klopp undoubtedly is good enough but to fulfil his ambitions he’ll have to succeed where Rodgers failed most spectacularly – in the transfer market.

The Sky pundits had a bit of a disagreement over the initial Klopp effect: Neville suggested it was little more than a typical new managerial bounce; Carragher claimed that the German had already begun to make his mark on his new squad. I tend to agree with the latter view.

It’s not surprising that a new manager should have some positive effect when taking over. A new voice and some fresh ideas on the training ground should be enough to achieve that in the very short term. Over the slightly longer term though, an unchanged squad of players are likely to deliver a broadly similar set of results.

That’s not to suggest that managers wield only limited influence, far from it. Indeed, I think the best managers have a justifiable claim to be the best paid employees of their clubs. I doubt that Klopp currently is at Liverpool but he’s almost certain to be the man most influential in determining Liverpool’s results between now and the end of the season.

On Saturday I was quite impressed by the new manager effect that Klopp brought to the Liverpool dugout. On Sunday, I went to Tannadice to observe the effect of another new manager: Mixu Paatelainen at Dundee United.

It was also my son’s first ever football match. A big occasion then, and it will be the subject of my next post.

Losing sleep over Liverpool

Old Trafford. Photo by: Paul www.flickr.com

Old Trafford. Photo by: Paul

Why do I do it to myself? I’m still a little tired as I write this, mostly as a result of staying up until 2.30 am on Sunday morning to watch Manchester United v Liverpool. The Greater Manchester police force weren’t the only ones less than impressed at the chosen kick-off time.

I have to presume that the Liverpool players weren’t informed of my commitment in staying up late as they produced a dismal performance from early on. Gloating Manchester United fans should not get too carried away – the performance of your side was only marginally better.

In a blog post last November, I wrote that this fixture ‘is the biggest game in England such is the stature, history and rivalry of the two clubs.’ It didn’t live up to that billing on Saturday. In fact, it came a lot closer to Gary Neville’s quip last year that watching the two sides these days resembled the Dog and Duck versus the Red Lion.

Neville’s observation did not go down well with Van Gaal at the time, who promptly labelled the former Manchester United fullback an “ex-legend.” I wonder if the same now applies to Rio Ferdinand who described Van Gaal’s tactical approach as “not football I enjoy watching” due to it being “really slow going.” The first half was certainly slow going; it wasn’t just tiredness that kept me on the verge of nodding off.

It’s not just ex-Manchester United players that appear to have something of an issue with the current manager.  The build-up to the game was dominated by talk of a rebellion among senior players over training sessions that they deemed to be too structured and that were making them too robotic.

The first half did rather resemble one of those news clips where scientists from Japan unveil their latest life-size robot inventions and seek to demonstrate the dexterity of the machines by having them play football. Lovren, for instance, could certainly use a software upgrade and a bit of reprogramming to approximate the centre half that he was at Southampton.

Apparently some in the Manchester United squad are also unhappy at the amount of time they are required to spend in meetings for video analysis. They should spare a thought for their Liverpool counterparts today, because that video analysis session is not going to make for pleasant viewing.

I imagine the chief analyst gathering the squad together and saying: “we’ve just picked out the sections of the game where we believe a bit of improvement is needed lads. Just press play and I’ll see you in about 93 minutes to take any questions. There’s one small cut for Christian’s goal.”

Brendan Rodgers’ tactics deserve a bit of analysing for a start. Jamie Carragher said post-match: “I don’t understand this obsession with playing 4-3-3,” correctly pointing out that Liverpool have a lot of strikers but a severe lack of wide players. Carragher’s assessment was actually quite generous, Liverpool’s formation was 4-5-1 and Rodgers set his side up looking for a 0-0.

Liverpool also continued to employ Rodgers’ preferred method of playing the ball out from the back. The problem was that most of the time they played it out to a Manchester United player. Don’t get me wrong, I applaud the manager’s desire to play possession football but the current way of doing so invites huge risks because the goalkeeper and centre backs are not comfortable enough on the ball to do it confidently or consistently.

At the other end, Liverpool lack directness and their build up play is too slow, the same issues that Rio Ferdinand identifies in the current Manchester United side. Little wonder then that the game was so ponderous for long periods.

Benteke was an isolated figure up front and despite scoring a spectacular goal, was never given much of an opportunity to put pressure on United’s defence. The creativity of Coutinho was hugely missed (he’s now Liverpool’s most influential player by far) and so of course was the drive of Gerrard.

It was revealed this week that Gerrard almost certainly would have remained at Anfield if he had been offered a coaching post. I find it absolutely astonishing that no such offer was made. In fact, back in November 2014, with Gerrard’s contract situation still unresolved, I wrote in a post that ‘I’m sure an offer will be forthcoming (and would expect it to include the option of a coaching role).’

In Gerrard’s words: “what would have kept me at Liverpool into this season was the chance of shadowing Brendan Rodgers and his staff as well as playing. Those ideas were only mentioned to me after I had announced I was leaving.” How many clubs would have lost a player of the former skipper’s status in such circumstances? Especially a club that was once famous for promoting from within the Anfield boot room.

I wonder what he made of Saturday’s performance. The match kicked off at 2.30 am LA time so Gerrard is likely to be a little tired as well if he tuned in. The man losing sleep this week though must surely be Brendan Rodgers.

The Dog and Duck v The Red Lion preview

Photo by: Seth Anderson www.flickr.com

Photo by: Seth Anderson

Manchester United play Liverpool this weekend in what is always one of the most eagerly anticipated fixtures of the season. Following Manchester United’s lacklustre and “lucky” victory over Southampton last night, Gary Neville suggested the fixture could be “like the Dog and Duck versus the Red Lion” such is the pub-like quality of the two sides at the moment.

Louis van Gaal rather touchily referred to Neville as an “ex-legend” in response. Apparently the Dutchman is already so powerful at Old Trafford that he gets to withdraw legendary status from critical former players. I haven’t seen much of Neville as a pundit but I hear good things about him in that role and I think we can all appreciate the point he was making with some humour.

It was Van Gaal himself that described his side’s win as “lucky” and his players will likely be able to enjoy a light refreshment or two in celebration of climbing to third in the league. I predicted a while ago that Manchester United would comfortably finish in the top four and that’s looking like an increasingly safe bet. So far however, it owes as much to deficiencies elsewhere (Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs) as it does to their own rather laboured efforts.

With no European games to distract him, Van Gaal has all week to prepare his team for Liverpool. Brendan Rodgers however, faces a huge game tonight with Liverpool needing to beat Basel at Anfield to qualify for the knock-out stages of the Champions League. Their recent form remains far from convincing but Rodgers has suggested that his players can write themselves into “club folklore” with a win.

I’m not so sure that a home win over Basel to qualify for the last 16 would really be a folklore worthy achievement given Liverpool’s history in Europe. How many Liverpool fans will refer to ‘Basel 2014’ in future even if we win? I expect it to be close and I’m not hugely optimistic about Liverpool’s chances, I think it might well end up 1-1.

Another man whose legendary status is being called into increasing question is Arsene Wenger. Arsenal’s loss at Stoke was exactly the sort of result and performance that has frustrated Arsenal fans so often in the last few years. The chorus of complaint seems to be growing in volume, frequency, and number of voices.

He may save his job with a top four finish, a run to at least the quarter finals of the Champions League, and bringing Henry back in a coaching role but even with all of that I still wouldn’t be surprised to see him get the chop (or should that be Klopp) at the end of the season.

As some of the big boys struggle, the likes of Southampton and West Ham are scaling up their ambitions. Koeman is doing a great job at Southampton and although I think the top four will prove a stretch too far they could easily hang on for a very creditable fifth or sixth place finish.

West Ham meanwhile are heading north and looking down from Andy Carroll-like heights. Sam Allardyce is a great example of how fickle managerial popularity can be. Not so long ago he seemed about as popular as a Scottish Cup replay in Inverness but now he’s being lauded (rightly) for West Ham’s performances as well as their results. Again, I expect gravity to have its say before the end of the season but I don’t think they will fall too far.

Football is a game full of exaggerations. It is triumph or disaster; fans are either singing the manager’s name or singing for his sacking. Neville of course was exaggerating a little too. But in a week when the Discovery Channel aired Eaten Alive, a show in which a rather foolish individual tried to get himself eaten by a snake but thought better of it with just the tip of his head inside the anaconda’s mouth, Neville is far from alone in the use of exaggeration.

There’s not likely to be too many major discoveries on Sunday. Manchester United and Liverpool are both in rebuilding phases and neither has sufficiently solid foundations as yet. Still, it’s a big game and one that remains worth a little trip to The Dog and Duck.

No more Mr Nice Guys

Photo by: Bradford Timeline www.flickr.com

Photo by: Bradford Timeline

Almost five months on from England’s dismal elimination from the World Cup and the squad have reached a conclusion on what went wrong: apparently they were “too nice.”

Ahead of their match against Slovenia on Saturday, Gary Cahill has said the side has been working on being more aggressive and less naïve. Much of the new emphasis is being credited to Gary Neville, a man that I don’t ever recall being referred to as “too nice” during his playing career.

Cahill describes the required defensive approach as “being aggressive and getting tight – when players are trying to hold the ball up and you’re behind them and they are thinking: ‘What is this guy doing?’”

I must admit it’s a thought that crossed my mind quite often when I played as a centre forward. Some defenders need very little encouragement to ‘get tight.’

I once had a friendly opponent, a practitioner of the not-too-nice school of defending, who suggested that he might be inclined to break my legs (that wasn’t the exact phrase he used). In reply I pointed out that he might first show some inclination to keep up with me (again the phrasing may have been slightly different).

Back in the day I was noted for having a ‘turn of pace’ as they say. I still do; I’m now quite adept at turning from slow to leisurely via dawdling before coming to complete rest. At school though, I was so quick that I briefly caught the eye of the rugby coach. He offered me the chance to play on the wing. I declined on the basis that however quick I was, eventually someone would catch me and thereafter it (and I) would not be pretty.

It’s that sort of fear that Cahill seems to want to inspire in opponents. He argues that since the World Cup, England have become “a lot harder to play against.” That may be true and they have kept clean sheets in their last 5 games but the opposition has got a lot easier. Clean sheets against San Marino and Estonia are nothing to get overly excited about.

Remarkably, Cahill also says that England are learning to play the ball longer when necessary. “Everybody has this philosophy of playing from the back but there are times to think, ‘Hold on, let’s kick up the front for five or 10 minutes.’”

Any time I’ve watched England recently, I can’t honestly say that I’ve been struck by the thought: ‘there they go again with that playing from the back philosophy of theirs.’

Long ball or short, tight or loose, nasty or nice, for this qualifying campaign it doesn’t matter too much for England. By the time they arrive in France though, they are likely to discover that their World Cup failure was not really a question of being too nice.