A game of four quarters

half-time

Half-time. Photo by Alan Myers, http://www.flickr.com

Football is a beautifully simple game. That, more than anything else, accounts for its global appeal. A ball, a scrap of land, a few willing friends and you’ve got yourself a game.

Even at the highest level, played by multimillionaires with their own Twitter emojis, the essence of the game is the same.

As a player, Marco van Basten was a marvel. He was one of the greatest centre forwards of all time, scorer of ‘that goal.’ Now he’s FIFA’s technical director and he’s decided that perhaps the beautiful game is in need of a makeover.

It’s a mystery to me why FIFA needs a technical director. Who is Marco supposed to be directing in a technical sense? Since it’s clearly not what we might call a proper job, the Dutchman has been using his time in it to dream up some radical proposals for changing football.

His proposals include scrapping the offside rule, introducing sin bins, replacing penalty shoot-outs with those run-ups that they used to use in America (when it’s fair to say the U.S. was still getting to grips with this whole soccer thing), and splitting the game into four quarters rather than two halves.

There are many things wrong with football today: diving (by far the ugliest thing in the modern game), saturation TV coverage, match fixing in many parts of the world, ‘third strips,’ and a preponderance of pink boots to name just a few.

But Marco proposes remedies for none of these blights. Instead (as is so depressingly common these days) he goes in search of solutions where no problems exist.

Offside is not a problem in the game, other than when someone asks you to explain the rule. The shifting interpretations of it don’t help either but nonetheless offside does not detract from the spectacle of football.

Sin bins aren’t actually a totally ridiculous idea. They work ok in rugby, which is a sport that has a fairly similar rhythm to football. But yellow and red cards have served the game perfectly well for years. Van Basten suggests that ‘maybe an orange card could be shown that sees a player go out of the game for 10 minutes for incidents that are not heavy enough for a red card.’

The cunning solution currently in place is that incidents not heavy enough for a red are dealt with by a yellow. Again, not really a problem in need of solving.

On his idea for replacing penalties, the Dutch maestro argues: ‘It’s more skill and less luck. It’s maybe a bit more spectacular. It’s more football but it’s still nervous for the player.’ It’s not clear to me that penalties are ‘less football’ but what makes them such a wonderful part of the game is the extreme tension and nerves that they generate.

I’m sure there are many players and ex-players (perhaps Chris Waddle, who still has a penalty orbiting the moon) who would happily see the back of penalty shoot-outs but they are a brutally, agonisingly beautiful part of the game. To lose them would be a tragedy.

Finally, and most incredibly, is the four quarters idea. Van Basten: ‘The coach can have three times with his players during the game.’ Imagine if you’d told Manchester United players that Fergie would have three opportunities during a game to set the hairdryer blowing.

Four quarters would make football a completely different game, the whole rhythm and dynamic would change. Forty five minutes is a perfect length of time for the ebb and flow of a match to be established and develop.

Managers get one opportunity to decisively influence the outcome at half time but they also do so through substitutions and tactical adjustments during the rest of the game. There are lulls in football punctuated by periods of intensity. It is, in short, nothing like basketball.

I haven’t been to a live basketball match but at the other end of the spectrum I have been to a baseball game. It lasted all night. In fact, I left the game around 11:30pm while it remained in progress. Back in a Manhattan bar at midnight, it was still going on.

One half time break is also more than enough punditry and analysis. We don’t need to be cutting back to the studio every twenty odd minutes for the considered thoughts of Ian Wright or Robbie Savage.

So please Marco, leave our game alone. It is fine just exactly as it is (so is the World Cup by the way but that won’t stop FIFA’s relentless quest for money, sorry I mean ‘change’).

It’s a game of two halves; not four quarters.

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Rolling footballers gather penalties from Moss

King Power Stadium

King Power Stadium. Photo by Ungry Young Man http://www.flickr.com

Imagine you had never seen a game of football before, and then you tuned in to Leicester v West Ham yesterday. You would be left feeling a little confused about the rules. I’ve seen a lot of football in my life and I was left utterly baffled by the performance of referee Jon Moss.

The job of refereeing is a hugely difficult one but Mr Moss gathered no credit as he attempted to assess the bodies rolling around him. Firstly, the Vardy red card: did he dive? He certainly took steps to ensure that the defender couldn’t avoid making contact with him and he knew that contact would knock him from his feet (more tax avoidance than tax evasion on the moral continuum).

I wouldn’t call it a dive and the sending off was very harsh.

Next, the penalty awarded to West Ham; Reid falls following a gentle tug from Leicester’s Morgan. A foul? Probably yes on the strictest interpretation of the law but how can Moss penalise that incident when every single corner in the game had produced at least as much if not worse.

The pushing and pulling and general nonsense that accompanies every corner these days should be stamped out but it has to be done by all referees awarding around four penalties per game in the first few weeks of the season. Choosing one incident at random as Moss did is a recipe for chaos and sure enough, he brought about a chaotic climax to the game.

A few minutes later at the other end, Huth goes sprawling in the box after very clearly having his jump impeded. Moss has a look and decides there’s nothing to see here. The rest of us can see a referee that has considerably less grip on the game than Ogbonna had on Huth.

Leicester continue a frenetic scramble for an equaliser and in the very last minute of added time, Schlupp runs into Andy Carroll and, as virtually any man would after running into Andy Carroll, falls over. Moss points to the spot. I’d call it soft but that doesn’t really describe just how lacking in firmness the decision was: it was softer than a blancmange left in front of the fire for ninety minutes.

Moss had clearly reassessed some of his earlier decisions and reached the conclusion that he’d been unduly harsh on Leicester. Here he was restoring justice (and parity) with another incredible decision. Leicester fans left ecstatic and relieved. Bilic left with a rueful smile and a scratch of his head.

A defeat for Leicester could have been a hugely significant moment in the title race but a draw means that not too much momentum is lost. Tonight we’ll find out a lot about Spurs and how they’re dealing with the pressure. If they don’t win at Stoke, they are unlikely to be wearing Premier League winner’s medals next month.

Liverpool’s players still have the chance to claim a medal this season after their remarkable comeback against Dortmund in the Europa League. Yesterday’s 2-1 win away at Bournemouth was even more significant however.

Klopp fielded a young, inexperienced, and experimental team and yet they managed a more comfortable and convincing victory than the scoreline suggests. Liverpool’s first eleven is strong (albeit still in need of strengthening) but there’s doubt as to the depth of the squad. Perhaps some of that doubt is exaggerated.

Money needs to be spent to turn Liverpool into title contenders and Klopp is the right man to spend it. This Premier League season has been thrillingly unpredictable; just imagine what next season might be like with Liverpool resurgent under Klopp, Guardiola arriving at City, and the prospect of Mourinho at Man United.

Talking of resurgence, Rangers made a statement yesterday by beating Celtic in the Scottish Cup semi final at Hampden. The fallen Glasgow giants have completed their rise through the leagues and will return to the top division in Scotland next season after easily winning the Championship.

The hotly debated topic in Scottish football right now is how strong a force Rangers will be upon their return to the SPFL. Hearts have shown that the transition between the two leagues is not particularly onerous for a club with some resources. Celtic will start next season as title favourites but they can expect their old rivals to be genuine challengers.

Will Ronny Deila still be in charge of Celtic when the next Old Firm match is played? I doubt it. The Norwegian’s reign has been distinctly underwhelming and while he’s won the expected league titles (and is likely to do so again this year) his side’s failings in cups and in Europe have put him under severe pressure.

Celtic are on a decline brought about by consistently selling their best players and replacing them with lesser quality. It’s arguable the extent to which that is by necessity but the effect is dispiriting for supporters. It also means that any decent player at the club only expects to be there for a year or two before seeking greater riches and profile elsewhere.

It’s been a similar scenario of late at my dearly beloved Dundee United (with most of our better players ending up at Celtic). We lost the other cup semi final to Hibs and all we have to contemplate now is our impending relegation.

My first blog post of this year heralded forthcoming doom at Tannadice and so it’s coming to pass. I was a teenager at Tannadice the last time we were relegated, in 1995, and it was a sad, sad day. I took my son to his first ever football match there earlier this season and that too was a rather sad day – a dire 1-0 loss to Hearts.

But we football fans never lose heart for long and we’ll be back next season. Supporting a football club is like a marriage, it has to be for better or worse. Surely for we suffering Dundee United fans, things can only get better.

Is football too insular?

 

clive-woodward

Clive Woodward. Photo by Doha Stadium Plus Qatar, http://www.flickr.com

Last month, Europe retained the Ryder Cup. Captain Paul McGinley has been lauded for his leadership, attention to detail, and decision making. One of the things he decided to do was have Alex Ferguson address the team on the eve of the tournament. McGinely didn’t choose Ferguson just because of his legendary powers of inspiration and motivation; he wanted him to talk about something specific: how to deal with being heavy favourites.

By consulting Ferguson, McGinley showed a willingness and ability to look beyond golf to learn lessons and find ways to help his team. He also apparently referenced Team Sky in the Tour de France when talking to his players about how the team would function. My question today is whether, unlike McGinley, football is rather too insular when it comes to learning from other sports? I think it is.

Possibly the most famous example of a football club looking to another sport was the appointment of Clive Woodward as performance director at Southampton in the summer of 2005. Two summer’s earlier Woodward had coached England’s rugby union side to victory in the Rugby World Cup. Like McGinley, Woodward was revered for his attention to detail and desire to learn.

The reaction to Woodward’s appointment was hardly surprising. Henry Winter wrote in The Telegraph: ‘Woodward should go away, avoid interviews, acquire all his coaching badges, learn the ropes and then apply to work as a youth-team coach somewhere.’ Winter seemed miffed that Woodward hadn’t ‘paid his dues’ in football.

What a silly and ignorant attitude. Woodward didn’t pay his dues in football but he certainly paid his coaching dues and acquired outstanding credentials along with a world cup winner’s medal. Winter hailed Sam Allardyce as someone who’s made it to top level management in football by paying the appropriate dues, even driving the ‘Fiesta van’ when youth team coach at Preston North End. Such experiences, Winter writes, ‘cannot be found in the manuals Woodward pores over.’

True – assuming of course that Woodward wasn’t reading a manual on Fiesta vans – but also entirely incidental to being a top class coach. I have a lot of respect for Big Sam and I actually doubt he would share Winter’s attitude. Allardyce has always been a keen student of the game and of sport science. West Ham fans however may be forgiven for occasionally wondering if he wouldn’t be better off coaching a rugby team.

In the same article Winter refers to Mourinho’s apprenticeship under Robson and van Gaal and the information he ‘absorbed’ from them. As apprenticeships go, the special one got a special one but has there ever been a football manager that did more poring over manuals than Mourinho? He seems to have been quite successful.

A superb insight into Woodward’s methods was provided in an interview he gave to the Guardian just before this summer’s World Cup. The subject was penalties; England travelled to Brazil having lost on penalties in six of the past 10 major finals that they had played in.

Woodward recalled an exercise he did with Southampton’s academy players. He asked them to take 10 penalties each. There was no goalkeeper, just two ropes hanging down from the crossbar around three feet inside each post and the aim was to hit as many penalties as possible between the rope and the post. All of the penalties were filmed by four different cameras.

The results were not good. A couple of days later the players were called to a video analysis session. They were shown their ten penalties and for most, each time their run-up, foot position or body shape was different. “Everything was different,” Woodward remembered, “but to kick a stationary ball, you need to have the same routine, to do the same things over and over again.”

The master of that as Woodward pointed out is Jonny Wilkinson, who would spend hours practising, working on his foot position and honing his technique to withstand the most intense pressure. Footballers should do the same and it’s clear that some do but by no means all. The responsibility also rests with the coach though.

According to Woodward: “There’s a big body of football people who are terrified of it, who are saying: ‘You can’t coach this.’ That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard! I think the FA should employ a specialist penalty-kicking coach. And listen: it wouldn’t just make them better penalty-takers but better footballers. The whole team should be doing it. This is about striking a dead ball, but if you strike a dead ball well, you will be able to strike a moving ball better too.”

Woodward lasted just over a year at Southampton and it seems he and his methods were never exactly embraced by the various managers and coaching staff that worked alongside him. Of course the concept of specialist coaches is not entirely absent in football, it’s increasingly common these days to find coaches employed to work specifically with the strikers or defenders and the position of goalkeeping coach has been around for a long time.

I would argue though that the level of such specialisation in football is not as far advanced as it is in other sports such as rugby or American football. One interesting exception is the case of Gianni Vio in Italy. Until a few years ago, Vio worked in a bank but in his spare time he wrote a website devoted to strategies for set-pieces. Eventually he wrote a book as well.

Former Italy goalkeeper Walter Zenga discovered Vio as a result of the book and got in touch. At the time Zenga was coaching Red Star Belgrade. He invited Vio onto his coaching staff in a part-time role. Zenga took Vio with him when he returned to Italy to coach Catania. From there, Vio went to Fiorentina and this summer moved to Milan.

Zenga says of Vio: “He isn’t just a free-kick wizard. He is like having a 15- or 20-goal striker in the team. A 20-goal a season player can get injured. He can get suspended. But there are set-pieces in every game. Always. And he knows how to exploit them best.” Woodward would surely approve.

It doesn’t surprise me in the least that this innovation happened abroad rather than in British football. Arsene Wenger practically professionalised English football when he joined Arsenal in the mid-1990s and even today it seems as though many British footballers fail to appreciate the level of sacrifice required to make the most of their careers as professional athletes.

There’s a lot that British players can learn (and indeed have learned) from their foreign peers but equally there’s a lot that could be learned from other athletes. Anyone who has watched Andy Murray train can only be impressed at his utter devotion to being the best he can possibly be and his willingness to consult various specialists to improve all aspects of his physical and mental performance. I’m sure footballers would also have benefited from watching Woodward put Jonny Wilkinson and co through their paces in preparation for the Rugby World Cup.

Perhaps the biggest benefit that could come of football shedding its insularity would be in the development of kids and young players. There’s so much that kids can learn by playing a wide variety of sports from an early age. The best advocate of this is Judy Murray.

She has a wonderful initiative – Set 4 Sport – which is all about helping parents teach kids agility, balance and coordination, as well as passing and catching, through fun games. Visit the site at www.set4sport.com where you can find out more and download a free book.

The programme was born in Judy’s back garden as she tried to entertain and encourage her sons. As she says: “They went on to become pretty decent tennis players as you know, but Jamie has a 3 handicap at golf and Andy once trialled with Glasgow Rangers.”

So if you have high hopes for your child excelling at football then of course give them a ball and let them play freely and naturally. But don’t just stop there. Wouldn’t it be an exceptional footballer that had the strength of a gymnast, the balance of a boxer, the bravery of a rugby player, the mental strength of a golfer or a tennis player, and the analytical mind of a chess player?

Oh, and one more thing. Make sure they practise penalties.