Front and Centre

Suarez

Suarez, 9. Photo by Marc Puig i Perez http://www.flickr.com

Football, like many other things in life, is subject to shifting fashions, and I’m not just referring to the design of the multiple kits that teams deem necessary these days. There are tactical fashions too, many of which have been shaped by Barcelona over the last decade or so.

The Barcelona side built around Xavi and Messi set the template for fluid attacking football that has been much imitated but with rather sporadic success since those doing the imitating have been attempting to do so without the aforementioned superstars.

One consequence of the fashion to play tiki-taka has been a reduced influence for what we might call the traditional centre forward.

With Messi playing as a ‘false 9’ (something that Totti was already doing at Roma incidentally), Barcelona became one of the greatest sides of all time without much need for a true 9 – just ask Ibrahimovic.

But when Barcelona signed Suarez in 2014, it signified the end of the tiki-taka era and the introduction of a more direct style at the Camp Nou to take advantage of the fearsome Messi-Suarez-Neymar (MSN) frontline. Messi and Neymar would float around as fluidly as ever, while Suarez would be exactly where you would expect a number 9 to be: front and centre.

I’ve written before that Barcelona have shifted the focus of their game to the forward trio rather than the midfield trio, which (when led by Xavi) used to create the “passing carousel” that caused such anguish to Sir Alex.

The Catalans may not be quite as dominant as a few years ago but where they lead others remain inclined to follow. Look at the top of the Premier League: Chelsea (Costa), Tottenham (Kane), and Manchester City (Aguero). Number 9s (even if that’s not always the number on their back) are enjoying a renaissance.

Interestingly, the fourth placed team in the Premier League remain tactically closer to a tiki-taka style of play. Roberto Firmino is many things but he is not a centre forward. Nevertheless, he has played as the focal point of Liverpool’s attack (in a false-ish 9 position) for most of the season.

Sturridge has been a combination of injured (as usual) or out of form and in any case is not in the same class as Costa, Kane and Aguero. The best that can be said of Origi is that he remains a work in progress with unfulfilled potential.

It’s unclear as to whether Klopp does not sufficiently trust his centre forwards to play them regularly or if his preferred tactical set-up has little need for them. Firmino, Coutinho and Mane (plus Lallana to a lesser extent) are tasked with bringing both creativity and cutting edge to Liverpool’s attack.

They’ve done so very erratically – Liverpool have struggled to break down lesser teams but are still currently the highest scoring side in the league. The main problem at Anfield is not the particular style favoured by Klopp but the lack of variability and adaptability on days when it’s not proving effective.

The absence of a true 9 in many games has hampered Liverpool’s ability to play more directly and pose a different sort of challenge to defences that are both packed and deep. The Liverpool boss should prioritise the signing of a centre forward in the summer, especially with Sturridge seemingly poised to leave.

Further down the league, the role of world-class strikers cannot be understated. Most of the progress made by Manchester United under Mourinho is due to the signing of Ibrahimovic, he who Barcelona struggled to fit into their tiki-taka rhythm.

Similarly, where would Everton be without Lukaku? At the other end of the table, Sunderland would be in considerably more trouble without Defoe. Arsenal have laboured for years now without a truly exceptional number 9 (and a few other missing numbers); Giroud is unfairly scapegoated on occasion but he’s no Costa or Kane.

Barcelona’s tiki-taka influenced the game defensively as well as in an attacking sense. Many teams sought more defensive cover and rigidity to guard against the shape-shifting nature of Barca’s movement. Strikers were primarily tasked with being the first line of defence and one was judged to suffice for such a mission.

4-5-1 thus became a common formation – sometimes of a more attacking disposition, often less so. It could be subtle, even at times sophisticated, but it was rarely swashbuckling. It tended to be dull though, particularly when 4-5-1 lined up against 4-5-1.

There is, no doubt, an art to defending (really there is PSG) but the artistry in football is primarily to be found at the other end of the pitch. A player such as Mascherano can paint in broad brushes but those with the talent of Messi and Neymar produce the masterpieces.

As in art, fashions change and usually they hark back to something that’s come before. The return to fashion of the centre forward is worth celebrating; welcome back number 9, may you cease to be false.

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En France

France 2016

Euro 2016, France. Photo by Brigitte Djajasasmita, http://www.flickr.com

My favourite scene of all in Only Fools and Horses has the two Trotter brothers in their trusty van, driving through the French countryside. Del professes his love for duck a l’orange and asks Rodney: “how do you say duck in French bruv?” Rodney pauses then replies: “it’s canard Del.” Try saying it out loud if you don’t get it.

And so it is with predicting the winner of the European Championships which commence later tonight in France with the hosts taking on Romania. The French are many people’s favourites and that’s understandable given their strong and balanced squad plus home advantage.

Since hosts don’t have to qualify it’s always difficult to assess their form ahead of a tournament. The ease with which they beat Scotland last week told us more about our travails than French prospects of triumph.

We Scots have been looking on with envy as the rest of the home nations have crossed the Channel to do battle against Europe’s best. And Albania.

Indeed, the last time we made it to a major tournament was in France, the World Cup of ’98. I was still a teenager, with a Kurt Cobain poster on my wall, and had recently moved to England. The Scotland team did as usual: almost beat Brazil then exited meekly.

We had a tough qualifying group for France ’16 but we still should have edged out the Irish for a play-off spot. I expect most of the home nations to return home pretty quickly with the exception of England.

I don’t think they’ll win it (they don’t look like a squad who could handle the pressure of going all the way) but it wouldn’t surprise me to see them in the semi finals. England are suspect at the back, which is true of most teams in the competition, but they have considerable talent and options up front. Personally I wouldn’t start Rooney but Hodgson will and the balance of the side will be disrupted as a consequence.

I see some of the England fans have already been making friends and influencing people. They’ve been on the receiving end of some tear gas and more tears will surely follow when the inevitable defeat on penalties comes to pass.

Elsewhere, the Spanish and the Italians both arrive somewhat uncertain and potentially underestimated. Conte will squeeze every ounce of sweat out of his side but he lacks a really menacing goal scorer. The Spanish are trying to evolve their tiki-taka style in the absence of Xavi, the man around whom the whole system once revolved at both club and national level.

Belgium are ranked highly but I’m not convinced they’re ready to breakthrough and actually claim a title. My tip then is the Germans. Betting against Germany rarely pays dividends and I don’t recommend it on this occasion. They were poor against Scotland twice in qualifying but they have quality throughout the spine of their side and, more importantly, they know how to win.

It promises to be an exciting month and for those of us watching from afar, a tiring one. Many of the games kick-off at 3am Malaysian time. I’m much older than a teenager now, so I’ll have to pace myself.

Gerrard v Xavi

Gerrard pic

Steven Gerrard celebrates. Photo by: terceroinf fmiralcamp http://www.flickr.com

Steven Gerrard and Xavi Hernandez were both born in 1980 (the same year that I was born). Last Saturday, Gerrard celebrated his 35th birthday; Xavi celebrated winning the Spanish Cup. Gerrard had hoped that his own celebrations would coincide with an appearance in the FA Cup final at Wembley but Liverpool’s miserable end of season form put paid to any chance of that.

Gerrard and Xavi are two magnificent midfielders who have both been one club men until now (both are off to enjoy end of career pay days in foreign fields) and have shaped the game in their respective nations over the course of my adult life.

These two players have been one club men in an era of very few such men. Gerrard and Xavi both made their debuts in 1998 just three years after the Bosman ruling came into effect. Club loyalty became almost as hard to find as any sense of shame in Sepp Blatter.

Loyalty plus greatness leads to legendary status and both Gerrard and Xavi leave as club legends. They have embodied Liverpool and Barcelona for more than a decade and a half, defining the sides of which they were a part. They are both inspirational, selfless, and winners. They are also very different players.

The first word that comes to mind when I think of Gerrard is drive; relentless and intense drive. At his peak, he imposed his will on the game and the opposition, seemingly everywhere, always committed to advancing and avoiding retreat. He would charge from box to box, brushing aside most that stood in his way, and with the goal anywhere in sight, unleash a ferocious shot that invariably induced panic in goalkeepers.

Gerrard snapped into tackles and won many more than he lost. As a captain he preferred to lead by example and cajole those around him; very rarely did you see Gerrard launch the sort of violent tirades that were the stock in trade of someone like Roy Keane.

The red mist would descend on occasion however. Gerrard’s sending off against Manchester United at Anfield in March was a dreadful loss of control from a player of his experience. Liverpool’s season never really recovered from that result and performance. The depressing finale to the season meant that Gerrard did not get the opportunity to add one more medal to his collection.

The most famous and cherished of that collection is undoubtedly the Champions League winner’s medal from that extraordinary night in Istanbul. It’s that game which ensures Gerrard’s name at least warrants mention in debates about the greatest Liverpool player of all time. He somehow turned disaster into triumph with a rampaging performance that caused AC Milan to wilt just as they were expecting to waltz to an easy victory.

I’m not sure which set of players were more stunned at the end but Gerrard knew he had risen to the occasion in a once in a lifetime experience. I was left shaking my head in disbelief as I think were most people watching.

The one medal that has eluded Gerrard in his career is a league championship medal. Nobody would have believed that a Liverpool player making their debut in 1998 and being at the club for 17 years would leave without having won the league.

The club came close last year and let’s not blame it on Gerrard’s slip. People seem to forget that Chelsea won that game 2-0 and did so quite comfortably. 3-3 at Crystal Palace was a much bigger and more significant stumble. Last season’s title charge now looks more and more like the combination of Suarez’s superlative form and glaring deficiencies elsewhere in the league.

If failing to win the league is one major regret for Gerrard then the other must be his lack of international success as part of England’s so-called (and rather misnamed) ‘golden generation.’ The golden generation scarcely got near bronze far less gold, and silver linings have been thin on the ground.

Gerrard had a fine England career but like the team generally, struggled to impose himself on the international scene at the very highest level. Gerrard is a technically sound but not supremely gifted footballer. The same is true of virtually all the players that Gerrard has lined up with for England.

The technical shortcomings of the England squad have been a constant lament following international tournaments. Usually, the complaint is that English players ‘cannot pass the ball’ and are ‘unable to keep possession.’

They are guilty of the second charge but it’s not because they lack the ability to pass the ball. Watch Gerrard ping a long pass at his best and it’s every bit as accurate and assured as what Pirlo, or Ribery or Xavi will produce. He can play cleverly weighted short passes as well including defence splitting through balls. So, if passing is not the issue for Gerrard and England then what is?

In a word: movement. Throughout Gerrard’s career, the movement of the Spanish, the Germans, the Dutch, the Italians, the leading South American nations and many other countries (think of a small nation such as Croatia for example) has consistently been vastly superior to that of the English national team.

Xavi embodies this difference. Watch Xavi play – it is especially clear when you watch him live – and you realise that the vast majority of the passes that he plays are incredibly simple. I could be successful with 90 – 95% of them. The key difference is in his movement and the movement of the players around him. For Barcelona and for Spain, just about every time Xavi receives the ball he has more options available than Gerrard has had for Liverpool and England.

Xavi in space. Photo by: Marc Puig i Perez www.flickr.com

Xavi in space. Photo by: Marc Puig i Perez
http://www.flickr.com

The intricate triangles that define tiki taka are created by movement and a sophisticated level of spatial awareness. This is what many English players lack and this is what leads them to concede possession so often.  Xavi meanwhile has arguably the greatest awareness of space in the game. That helps to explain why he always seems to have a little extra time on the ball and a conveniently simple set of passing options.

The game has got quicker over the course of Xavi and Gerrard’s careers, players have become more athletic, and defensive systems have become harder to break down. Each of these factors means that there is an increased premium on the ability to create and exploit space. Xavi is the master of it and so it’s little surprise that Barcelona have been the club side with the defining style of play of the last 15 years or so while Spain can justifiably claim that accolade at the international level.

Xavi is a more technically accomplished footballer than Gerrard. His Barcelona and Spanish teammates are, for the most part, more technically accomplished that Gerrard’s Liverpool and England colleagues but more importantly, Xavi and his teammates have grown up with a different understanding of how to play football. The key to that understanding is the movement of players off the ball to create space and provide options for the player in possession.

How many times have you seen Gerrrad receive the ball, turn, and then look up pleadingly for even a solitary passing option? When Xavi receives the ball and turns, he scarcely needs to look up because he knows not only that options will be available but what those options are likely to be.

Tiki taka has recently been refined, not abandoned as some (including even Guardiola) have suggested. This season Barcelona have been more direct and as I’ve suggested elsewhere, their game is now primarily built on their front three rather than their midfield three as used to be the case.

Xavi, like Gerrard, has not featured as regularly this season. He has often found himself starting on the bench. The Croatian Rakitic has had an excellent debut season at the Nou Camp, taking on much of Xavi’s role while also bringing a more muscular presence to the Barcelona midfield. It is to the immense credit of both Xavi and Gerrard that they have accepted their reduced roles with the utmost grace and professionalism.

These two are team players, always prepared to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Gerrard in particular has often played out of position and has usually excelled where others are often found sulking. Teammates should consider themselves very fortunate indeed to have played alongside these greats of the modern game.

Both received farewells befitting of their legendary status. It was very sad all the same to witness Liverpool collapse so abjectly in Gerrard’s last game away at Stoke. Nobody could ever accuse him of abject collapse though and he salvaged professional pride with a characteristically committed performance and a coolly taken goal.

Xavi may yet walk away from the Nou Camp with a treble to celebrate. He and his side are two thirds of the way there and face Juventus in the Champions League final on Saturday. The Italian’s are masters at denying space but I expect Barcelona to find just enough to win.

After that, Xavi will head east (rather bizarrely in my view) to play for Al Sadd in Qatar. Gerrard is taking his Hollywood passes to Los Angeles and will be lining up for LA Galaxy.

La Liga and the English Premier League are the biggest two leagues in the world right now. Xavi and Gerrard have been at the heart of the action in those leagues for almost two decades. Jetting off to different continents they can both reflect on the huge mark they have made on the European game. How interesting it would have been to see Gerrard try his luck in Spain or Xavi attempt to conduct the midfield for an English premiership team.

Gerrard is good enough and intelligent enough that he would have adapted to a new style of play. Xavi is so good that any team he joined would probably have adapted to his version of the game and the space that he at once sees and creates.

What game were you watching?

West Ham - David Cameron's a fan. Or maybe not.

West Ham – David Cameron’s a fan. Or maybe not.

I was watching West Brom v Liverpool this weekend and so, I presume, was Brendan Rodgers. He was certainly present on the touchline but the game he witnessed seemed to be a bit different to the one that was beamed into my living room.

Rodgers described Liverpool’s performance as “outstanding,” a claim that I would describe as outlandish. There was one genuinely outstanding moment when Ibe burst past several opponents and cracked a shot against the bar but otherwise Liverpool lacked the creativity to break down the massed ranks of Albion’s defence.

Liverpool enjoyed plenty of possession (a whopping 74% apparently) but did little with it. Coutinho found himself dropping deeper and deeper in a bid to try and influence the game and West Brom were delighted to watch his gradual retreat away from their penalty area.

Gerrard was composed but not commanding while alongside him Henderson was demonstrating that a £100k/week footballer is not necessarily an outstanding footballer. To be fair, Henderson is much improved since his arrival at Anfield but he has a long way still to go before he starts bossing games consistently in the way that Gerrard did in his prime.

In the post-match interview Henderson said: “we’ve just got to keep playing like that until the end of the season.” That should please Hull ahead of tonight’s game.

Louis Van Gaal meanwhile only had to watch his side warm-up to pass judgment on their performance in the 3-0 defeat to Everton. “I had already the feeling and my colleagues Ryan Giggs and Albert Stuivenberg had the feeling because the warm up was not so good as usual.”

I wonder if Van Gaal watched the warm-up or just relied on reports from his assistants. It’s unusual for a manager to watch the warm-up and even more unusual for them to conduct it. They probably should though, at least every so often, just to keep the players on their toes.

Warm-ups have become more sophisticated over the years. I remember the days when they consisted of little more than a few leisurely stretches and then lining up to batter the ball at the goalkeeper (usually with about four or five people shooting at once). Now there’s generally much greater intensity and some small sided games to simulate what players are about to encounter.

I suspect that Van Gaal will at least have warmed his players’ ears up at half-time with some strong words on their performance.

Arsenal fans found themselves watching and chanting “boring, boring Chelsea” at the weekend as their side were held to a 0-0 draw by Mourinho’s champions-elect. The Chelsea manager’s response was classic: “Boring is 10 years without a title.” 1-0 to the Mourinho I think Arsenal fans.

John Terry later stuck the boot in again, saying: “Possession and tippy-tappy football’s great, but if you are not winning games you’re not going to win the league.” Tippy-tappy is one of the great insults of British football, often employed at youth games by the ‘let’s get it up the park’ brigade on the touchlines.

There’s no doubt that Wenger aims for Arsenal to play in the tiki taka style of Barcelona but the line between tiki taka and tippy-tappy is a fine one. Even Barcelona these days are opting for a more direct and muscular version of tiki taka. Arsenal should take note as the Gunners still lack the necessary firepower to win the league.

This weekend highlighted the fact that we all see games differently. It’s one of the things that make football so interesting. One man’s ‘outstanding’ is another man’s ‘mediocre.’ One man’s ‘boring’ is another man’s ‘winning.’ One man’s ‘tiki taka’ is another man’s ‘tippy-tappy.’

It can be difficult to agree what we’re watching, but at least we know who we’re watching. Right, David Cameron?