Sunday, 29 April 2012

English football: Substance over Style?

I know we have no chance in the Euros, and I fully stand by what I said about not getting our hopes up. So don't go rushing to comment about my naivety or idiocy just yet. But perhaps Chelsea's inspiring victory over Barca gives us a slender glimmer of hope, at least that we might not embarrass ourselves. In no way am I suggesting that we play the 7-2-1 formation that Chelsea adopted on Tuesday night, but we have seen that the greatest technical ability will not always win. Just ask Mr Idealistic Pep Guardiola

We are far from the best team competing this summer but we're also far from the worst. According to FIFA rankings, we are the 5th best team there, with the others in our group being ranked 16, 17 and 49 in the World. Realistically, you'd maybe say we're 7th best, with teams like France/Italy who had bad World Cups better than us but currently ranked lower.
If we are to have any chance of at least performing respectably, we need to recognise the reality of what we can and can't do. For too long we have enviously dreamed of the technical ability of other nations, lamenting its absence in the players we have at our disposal. Of course we have produced players of intricate skill and creativity like Joe Cole, or vision and passing ability like Paul Scholes, but these are rare - we are never going to have a midfield of Iniesta, Xavi, Mata and Silva. 

The reality is that the bread and butter of our team is built not on skill, technique and close control but on pace, power and passion. We have no chance if we try to emulate Spain because we need to recognise the fact that, as disappointing as it might be, we do not have the technical ability to match it. This doesn't necessarily mean we play ugly or just long-ball, but nor does it mean we attempt tiki-taka because it will not end well. The core of our team, players like Gerrard, Rooney, Lampard, Terry, Cashley, are not going to win us a match, let alone a tournament if we try slow build-up, possession football, waiting for a moment of genius to unlock a defence.

Five or six years ago, Spain came to this realisation, but in reverse. They were physically outmuscled again and again in major tournaments, and consistently failed to perform to their potential. They realised that their strength lay in their pass and move build-up play, not speed or strength. 
The following quote sums up Spain's change of strategy after their latest tournament failure, the '06 World Cup. 

After being eliminated from the competition, Luis Aragon├ęs came to the decision that the team was not physical or tough enough to be able to out-muscle opponents, they therefore opted to start concentrating on monopolising the ball and thus started to employ the tiki-taka - a style characterised by short passing and movement, working the ball through various channels, and maintaining possession.

Spain haven't done too badly since then really. Looking at the examples of Arsenal and Man U might give further weight to the idea. Wenger has created a team of small, skilful players such as Rosicky, Arshavin, Nasri, Walcott. Lots of creativity and nice looking football, but very few trophies. United on the other hand play with a lot of speed and power, still attacking and aggressive but based more on swift counter-attack rather than endless possession, and have dominated English football for 20 years.
Regardless of whether it is Roy Hodgson, Stuart Pearce or Harry Redknapp who leads us in Poland/Ukraine and beyond, we need to play to our strengths and play an English style of football, not a poor attempt at Spanish football.

PS Ben, if you happen to read this blog, I'm sorry, I know this will offend your footballing philosophies.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Is It Possible To Overdose On Sport?

Let's be honest, it has been an absolutely crazy fortnight of sport. Where to begin? No matter which sport takes your fancy, there has been drama, intrigue, upsets, epic performances and records set in them all. 

Let's start with a rarely mentioned sport in this blog: Horse Racing. The Grand National is not an event I've ever taken much notice of before but my recent gambling addiction and the culturally dominant feeling of "you have to bet on the National" prompted me to call the bank manager and pick a couple of random horses to be honoured with 5p bets.

Despite both of my sure-things falling by the 5th fence, there was enough going on to hold my interest. Before the start a major jockey pulled out injured, the favourite threw off his rider then comically ran loose, a couple of false starts and then only 15 of 40 horses actually finishing the course, the best ever finish for a female jockey and the closest photo finish ever. Of course there is the tragedy of two horses being put down and others being injured and retired - a debate I'll leave to writers more experienced and informed than myself

Back-to-back Formula 1 Grand Prix weekends have yielded some surprising results. Normally a Vettel pole and start-to-finish victory wouldn't raise an eyebrow but this season it comes as quite a shock. But the highlight has to be the Chinese Grand Prix of last weekend, where Nico Rosberg claimed both his first pole and first victory of his career.

This weekend's tennis saw Rafa Nadal seal a record 20th ATP Masters 1000 Series, winning in Monte Carlo for an 8th consecutive year, also a record, and in doing so he broke a 7 match losing streak against Djokovic. And then our Fed Cup team epitomise the British sporting paradigm I was talking about in my last post. A new regime under Judy Murray, a strong team with good depth and very encouraging displays led us to the brink of rejoining the World Group for the first time since '93. And then defeat against what is in reality quite a weak Swedish team, and there's that familiar story we all know and love. What did I tell you about getting your hopes up? 

This weekend has also seen the beginning of the Snooker World Championships. Stephen Hendry, the most successful player in the modern era (i.e. when you can't win a world title by winning one match in the pub), came through qualifying and then reeled off his record equalling 3rd Crucible 147 break on the 1st day of the tournament. We've also seen the emergence of the youngest ever player at the finals, 17 year old Luca Brecel.

And what a fortnight of football: A Premiership title wrapped up at 82 minutes at Old Trafford was suddenly torn open for the potential of a late City steal. What odds on Tevez getting the winner next Monday evening? We've also had a few fairly dull and uncontroversial semi-finals. Of course I'm referring to Hearts v Celtic. That huge game aside, there was also a Wembley-based Merseyside derby which proved that Liverpool can win football matches and that Andy Carroll is capable of scoring, an uneventful clash between Spurs and Chelsea which had even John Terry being honest, and then Barcelona proving ineffective when coming forward at the Bridge, before losing at home for the first time in about 5000 matches and surrendering La Liga to Real in last night's El Clasico.
I shouldn't like to ignore the elephant in the room so I'll make mention of the fact that yes Sheffield Wednesday's automatic promotion push is still on after a 95th minute winner on Saturday, but how many times do I have to tell you? Don't get your hopes up.

Oh and as if that wasn't enough, it was the London Marathon today, with a few million people exhausting themselves on our capital's streets in the name of charity or Olympics qualification (for the most part).

If you think this sporting gluttony is about to wind down then may I draw your attention to a few particular days ahead of us this spring and summer:

5/5 - World Snooker Champs + FA Cup Final
13/5 - Premiership final weekend + Spanish Grand Prix
19/5 - Champions League Final + Heineken Cup Final + Championship Playoff Final + England v West Indies 1st Test Match
26/5 - Norway v England (football) + AVIVA Premiership Final + Monaco Grand Prix + England v West Indies 2nd Test Match
9/6 - Roland Garros + Euro 2012 + SA v England Rugby + England v West Indies 3rd Test Match + Canadian Grand Prix (I think this is my favourite date)
16/6 - US Open Golf + Euro 2012 + SA v England Rugby + England v West Indies ODI
1/7 - Wimbledon + Euro 2012 + England v Australia ODI
7/7 - Wimbledon + British Grand Prix + England v Australia ODI

Well, you get the picture, there are also a few test matches against South Africa, a bunch more Grand Prix, a couple of golf and tennis majors, and I'm sure there's something else I'm missing to do with London and 2012 but I can't quite place my finger on it.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Hope Deferred Makes the Sporting Fan Sick

I can safely assume that (with the notable, and appreciated, exception of particularly close family/friends) the vast majority of those that take the time to read what I put on here have some level of interest in sport. And it is also a reasonable assumption that someone with even a passing interest in sport also has a degree of preference for/against particular teams/players. I know someone who isn't exactly gunning for a place on A Question of Sport, but vaguely follows tennis and rugby and has an irrational hatred for Novak Djokovic and the Welsh national team respectively.

Having any form of favouritism or preference for a team or player leads to both euphoria (however infrequently in some cases), and much more inevitably, disappointment. But sporting disappointment and frustration comes in many forms. 

There is a form of disappointment that will be alien to the fans of the perpetually victorious (Barcelona, Djokovic, the All Blacks, etc.) Undeniably they experience defeat, failure and even humiliation on occasion but not that constant, 
resigned disappointment that comes from knowing you are going to lose, and that indeed becoming reality. Losing in the semi-finals or coming only 3rd isn't quite the same as week after week turning up for an ultimately "pointless" Saturday afternoon.
This lad hasn't got used to English
national teams just yet. He will...
But neither that sporadic disappointment of occasional defeats amongst a sea of victories, nor the relentless disappointment of weekly defeats and poor performance compare to the disappointment of your side performing well and getting your hopes up, before falling just short, or collapsing spectacularly. Of course there is that natural up and down of all sporting teams but surely nothing is more frustrating for a fan than inconsistency.
A thrilling run of victories, followed by a home defeat to the team bottom of the league. A decent patch of form then a cup defeat to a lower league team. Reaching the final rounds of a few tournaments then crashing out to a qualifier in the first round.
As British people we of course wisely expect the worst, a realism/pessimism spawned from years of watching our national team fail to meet their potential. How much more frustrating then, when we allow ourselves to believe, to have some hope, to permit just that sneaking faith in the chances of victory and glory, only for the inevitable to happen again. However much we might kick ourselves for allowing hope to conquer realism, we know that it will do the same again next time.

So when England are 233-4, chasing a record 340 against Sri Lanka, don't give hope an inch.
When we're 12-6 up in the second half against a 14-man Wales team, don't give hope an inch.
If Sunday evening comes and an Englishman is leading at Augusta by 5 shots, don't start celebrating until that Green Jacket is wrapped around him like a blanket
And on the 11th June this year, when we beat France and only have to get past Sweden and Ukraine in order to progress, don't let yourself believe. 

There's nothing that will make you sick to the stomach like abandoning your inherently British pessimism and starting to hope against all hope, only for the result to be even worse than you'd ever imagined to start with.