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.

Advertisements

Pundits on the couch

sky-sports

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.

Happy birthday Match of the Day

 

match-of-the-day

Match of the Day studio. Photo by Alexander Baxevanis, http://www.flickr.com

So Match of the Day is 50. It is quite simply a British institution. Especially for those of us who grew up without the saturation coverage of football on TV that exists today. It’s a coming of age moment in the UK to finally be allowed to stay up to watch Match of the Day. I don’t actually remember how old I was when that moment happened for me but I do remember the feeling that an important milestone in life had been reached.

A lot has changed since the programme made its debut in 1964 and not just in football. In 1964, Winston Churchill retired from the House of Commons, the Forth Road Bridge opened, The Sun newspaper went into circulation, and the Beatles had a Christmas number one with I Feel Fine. The world record transfer fee at the time was £250,000, paid by Roma to Mantova for Angelo Sormani (no, I’ve never heard of him either). The British transfer record was the £115,000 paid by Manchester United to Torino for the services of Dennis Law.

Apparently, a season ticket to watch Law at Manchester United could be purchased for around £10 – many Manchester United fans probably feel that would be a reasonable price to watch their side for a season now given the level of performance they’ve been producing over the past year or so.

The legendary Law was voted European footballer of the year in 1964 and remains the only Scot to have been awarded the Ballon D’Or. Dalglish finished second in the voting in 1983, losing out to Platini. It’s not altogether clear why Scott Nisbet was overlooked in 1993, a player about whom Walter Smith said: “every pass is an adventure.”

Match of the Day’s first adventure came at Anfield on 22 August 1964. Liverpool beat Arsenal 3-2 and 20,000 viewers tuned in. Those were the days of football at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon and of an average weekly wage in English football’s top division that was less than £40. Today, games are played almost every day of the week and absolutely average players earn £40,000 per week. Those things are made possible, and to some extent necessitated, by the fact that football has grown rich thanks to TV.

Most ‘matches of the weekend’ no longer take place at 3pm on a Saturday (in fact increasingly rarely on a Saturday at all) and so Saturday night highlights are not always the highlight that they once were. Broadcasting football has become a fiercely competitive business and to mark Match of the Day’s 50th year, BBC bosses have given instructions to pundits to be more opinionated and animated. They did this after signing Phil Neville as a pundit which is a bit like a manager saying his side needs to score more goals and then announcing the signing of a couple of centre halves.

Mark Cole, head of football at the BBC (that sounds like a great job by the way and an impressive business card) said recently: “anyone on that panel of punditry should have played top-flight football and that’s our position.” So does that mean that Mourinho and Wenger need not apply?

It’s well accepted that great players don’t necessarily make great managers and most footballers who currently offer their animated, or otherwise, opinions are not really very good pundits (Shearer barely became animated when he scored far less when dissecting the finer tactical details of Stoke versus West Ham). If anybody can remember anything remotely enlightening courtesy of Mark Lawrenson then answers on a postcard please or preferably in the comments section below.

Such has been the poor overall quality that Hansen came to be seen as something of a sage despite most of his contributions amounting to little more than correctly labelling terrible defending as “terrible.” He also famously and wrongly proclaimed that “you can’t win anything with kids” which wasn’t true about the Manchester United side he was referring to or indeed the Dundee Sunday Boys League where my own (modest) skills were honed.

Without doubt the best pundit in the business is another man whose skills first flourished in Dundee: Gordon Strachan. What makes Strachan the perfect pundit? Well, for a start, he’s genuinely insightful. He has a wonderful knowledge and appreciation of the game, especially its tactical variances and subtleties. He tells it like it is but without going over the top. He can judge a player, team or manager harshly yet still sympathetically. Listening to Strachan I generally learn something and that is almost never the case with any of the other pundits currently occupying their comfy sofas.

Oh, and Strachan is also witty; hilarious in fact. He brings humour to his analysis and this quality has been most apparent in his post-match interviews as a manager. He was once asked: “So, Gordon, in what areas do you think Middlesbrough were better than you today?” His reply: “What areas? Mainly that big green one out there.”

One reporter seeking a post-match comment asked him: “Gordon, can we have a quick word please?” Strachan said: “velocity” and walked off. That’s just brilliant. I would love to go to the pub with Strachan after a game and discuss it over a pint or two. How many other pundits would you say the same of?

There’s a gap in the market for a football show that has the feel of intelligent people discussing the game in a way that can be both serious and light-hearted. Sky’s Soccer Saturday does the pub-like banter pretty well but falls rather short on insight despite having a truly great presenter in Jeff Stelling.

One of the interesting developments of recent years is that sources of really intelligent analysis have emerged from outside the game. The best example of this is Michael Cox, whose website Zonal Marking (www.zonalmarking.net) was ‘inspired by the standard of punditry on British television,’ that is to say how ‘terrible’ it is and Cox’s correct assumption that he could do much better. The huge popularity of the site, and the fact that he now writes for many other publications, indicates that thousands of football fans want the type of analysis offered by Zonal Marking.

Instead of providing that analysis most football shows have decided that the answer lies in massively increased use of technical gadgetry (Match of the Day is actually an honourable exception to this for the most part). What this seems to involve is a couple of confused looking blokes standing in front of something that resembles a gigantic iPad and getting carried away with placing circles around players, drawing arrows, and highlighting random sections of the pitch.

Usually, after an inordinate amount of knob twiddling and freeze framing, the pundits will conclude with something like: “so yeah, Rooney’s taken a touch and smashed it into the net.” Well, thanks lads, I’d spotted that all by myself when you first played the video of the goal at normal speed and unadorned by your creative markings.

So if the BBC is looking for advice on the next 50 years of Match of the Day (they haven’t asked incidentally but that’s never stopped me dispensing advice in the past) I would suggest: forget technology, hire Gordon Strachan, and look for real intelligence rather than just top-flight football experience in your pundits. Otherwise, there’s a risk of Match of the Day suffering the same fate as another BBC show that launched in 1964 – Top of the Pops.