Long ball Louis

Louis van Gaal - Vanchester poster. Photo by: Mikey www.flickr.com

Louis van Gaal – Vanchester poster. Photo by: Mikey
http://www.flickr.com

Paul Scholes said this week that watching Manchester United has been “miserable” at times this season, and he gets paid to do it as a pundit. Pity the poor punters who are paying for the privilege.

Manchester United’s style of play has come under increased scrutiny since Sam Allardyce labelled them a “long-ball” side after their late equaliser against West Ham. Louis van Gaal’s reaction was as surprising as it was revealing: he turned up at a press conference clutching a dossier of stats from the game in a bid to prove big Sam mistaken. The Louis doth protest too much, methinks.

For a man who always appears so supremely self-confident it was a gesture of remarkable insecurity and weakness. Could you ever imagine Sir Alex responding in such a way? He never did because he never felt the need to publicly justify himself.

Manchester United’s players still don’t seem very comfortable with the manager’s tactics. For the first three months or so that could be understood and forgiven, not least because the Dutchman was implementing quite significant changes in playing style, including moving away from the reliance on 4-4-2. By now, with the quality of players he has at his disposal, there should be much more fluency and coherence in his side’s play.

I wonder if Van Gaal’s slightly hysterical reaction to Allardyce’s claims is a sign that he has begun to doubt himself just a little. There’s no doubt that he’s frustrated with the way his side is performing. The midweek win over Burnley didn’t provide much comfort.

Chris Smalling revealed that Van Gaal had been “shocked” at half-time by how poor the first half display was. I’m not sure that too many others were though, including the Old Trafford faithful who have got used to generous helpings of mediocrity to accompany their prawn sandwiches this season.

The Van Gaal stat attack had a touch of the Rafa Benitez ‘facts’ fiasco about it. It is not a flattering comparison for the Dutchman. Instead of handing out tactical diagrams to the media, the Manchester United boss would find his time better served going over them for longer with his players. His players frequently look as bemused as the journalists that attended the educational press conference.

Despite United’s dodgy defence most of the recent questions have focused on the misfiring strike force. Falcao’s loan is looking decidedly subprime while Van Persie’s prime looks to be some way behind him. Rooney has been shunted to midfield in order for Falcao and Van Persie to be paired together up front but it doesn’t seem to be working.

The Colombian and the Dutchman are too similar. Either would benefit from playing alongside Rooney but neither appears to enjoy the current set-up. Both are penalty box predators; they don’t get too involved in build up play. In the absence of Rooney dropping off the front to link with the midfield it is inevitable that the ball will hit the strikers from deeper. Whether most of those constitute long balls or long passes (the statisticians make a clear distinction) is not really the point.

Is Rooney wasted in midfield? By and large I think he is although it’s certainly not his fault. He’s shown himself to be willing to play there and has more than enough quality to do so. Some of Rooney’s natural dynamism is curtailed in midfield though and he’s not experienced enough in the position to control games in the way that you would expect a player of his quality to.

Every time that Rooney lines up in midfield it’s a reminder that Manchester United have never replaced Scholes. They should have signed someone such as Modric when he left Spurs. Fabregas would also have fitted the bill perfectly. Fellaini, alas, does not.

The summer spending spree did bring the creativity of Di Maria to Manchester and after a spectacular start his recent struggles have been a bit of a surprise. He was one of the best players at the World Cup in Brazil and he’s most suited to roaming quite freely in a role similar to the one that Bale plays now at Real Madrid and used to play at Tottenham. Di Maria’s stuttering form seems to be setting the tone for the rest of the side.

For all the dark clouds supposedly gathering over Old Trafford, Van Gaal can still point to the fact that his team are in third place in the table and on course for a return to the Champions League. The fact that they are tells you a lot about inadequacies elsewhere.

West Ham probably won’t be playing in Europe next season but that hasn’t stopped Allardyce claiming that there is no coach in the Premier League as sophisticated as him these days. It’s a bold claim but it’s perhaps not as outlandish as it first sounds. He has been around at the top level for a long time and has always been known as a keen student of the game not least on the sports science side of it.

With his tie loosened, his extensive frame, and his furious gum chewing, Big Sam doesn’t look quite as sophisticated as Mourinho, Wenger or even Van Gaal and that may be one reason he’s not credited with the level of sophistication that he feels he’s due.

When Van Gaal used more direct tactics at certain stages of games at the World Cup, he was hailed for his tactical flexibility. When Big Sam does the same, it tends to be dismissed as unreconstructed directness of the old school. Let’s not forget that Manchester United’s directness at Upton Park brought an equaliser.

Van Gaal’s team remains a work in progress with more emphasis so far on work than progress. Under Moyes, Old Trafford lost its fear factor for visiting sides; Van Gaal’s tactical tinkering hasn’t yet brought it back. That’s the long and the short of it.

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.