Daniel Taylor’s article on the English game’s attitude to tackling spot-on

Daniel Taylor has written a piece that is noteworthy for the way it calls a spade a spade and demolishes the notion that tackles which break legs are somehow part of a legitimate grey area within football, which can’t be changed too much without sacrificing some of the much-vaunted inner qualities associated with the game.

The article can be read at this link:

https://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2017/mar/25/seamus-coleman-broken-leg-republic-of-ireland-wales

I applaud Daniel Taylor’s unequivocal and brave dissection of the misguided cultural tropes that lie behind tackles such as Taylor’s and injuries such as Coleman’s. A frequent irony of watching British football is the extent to which coaches and players alike justify borderline cheating by way of an opposition “frailty” (“they don’t like it when you get amongst them”), the need to target a particular star player (Gareth Bale in this match), or just good old fashioned Britishness which foreigners wouldn’t understand. For too long audiences were willing to swallow these pretences rather than suggest that any ideal of Britishness that the antagonists were appealing to would have been sorely betrayed by the obvious signs of cheating and gamesmanship that underlay these tackles and their defenders and condoners later on.

This issue cannot stop either until Premier League referees are made to tackle it in a consistent way. Just last week, Alexis Sanchez was potentially seriously injured by a West Brom player, in no small part due to the way the referee had declined to show a yellow card to another West Brom player who had previously upended him in what was a succession of fouls that appeared designed to cow him. Had the referee acted earlier instead of doing service to some misguided concept of “flow”, the tackle on Sanchez would never have happened. Presumably, there were plenty of chances for the referee to intervene in a similar way in the Ireland-Wales match.

Bayern’s penalty against Arsenal highlights need for video refereeing

There was a moment in the Arsenal-Bayern second leg that revealed the injustice caused by UEFA’s continuing reluctance to turn to video technology. At 1-0 to Arsenal, and with the possibility of a comeback at least not entirely snuffed out, Robert Lewandowski broke through the Arsenal defence, inducing Laurent Koscielny into a foul that led to a red card for Arsenal, a penalty for Bayern Munich, and the extinguishing of the tie. None of this would be controversial if it were not for the fact that Lewandowski’s superior instinct as a forward had caused the official to misjudge one of the many moments in which he appears either on or just behind the offside line, or even to be on both simultaneously. It is part of Lewandowki’s skill as a forward to make that line appear so slim as to be non-existent; it is the thankless task of the official to judge whether his foot was millimetres ahed or millimetres behind the line.

However, UEFA cannot be exonerated from blame in the same way. For too long they have placed a disproportionate weight on the “human element” and the “flow” of the game, while ignoring the consequences of these inevitable misjudgements  by their officials. In a game as finely balanced as football, the right call in that circumstances would have maintained Arsenal’s slim hopes; one more goal would have ignited them just as the same time as it panicked Bayern. Football is a game of fine margins, but these margins must arise from the game itself, and replaced by ones created by refereeing errors that UEFA can avoid through the judicious use of video technology.

This task is made even more urgent by the style of play of the best centre forwards in the world. Lewandowksi’s natural tendency to time runs that start from the extreme shoulder of the last man at the very last minute possible increases the likelihood of him being offside at the same time as it makes it difficult for officials to call it correctly. Add to this his prowess as a goalscorer, and you have the threat of games being decided unfairly, with all the consequences that can entail, rather than one in which defenders are rewarded for knowing that half an inch of his boot has overstepped the line.

Southgate’s diagnosis of England’s woes misses the mark

It was baffling, and slightly wearying, to hear the latest opinion by an England manager on why England consistently fail to perform with any sort of cohesive identity in international football. For Southgate, the problem lies in England’s “small-island mentality”, which seems to suggest he thinks they are prone to lacking a certain hardened edge to them that is required to compete with the best in the big tournaments. However, it is worrying that an England manager once again seems unable or unwilling to voice the truth that England’s play reveals deeper structural problems in their national football culture than simply the wrong attitude. For in the way England consistently fail to bring out the best in players who fit in so seamlessly in their multinational club teams, in the manner in which their players seem to resort to the hoof and hit-it long ball tactics that are symptomatic of a team with no real long-term plan of how to train and play, the players reveal that the problem begins in the clubs themselves. Whereas Spain and Germany prioritise their nationals, allowing them fair chances to make it into the youth levels of elite clubs, and thereby to carry a certain style of play from the school-grounds to the national team, English clubs increasingly block places at the top in favour of foreign talent as part of their search for any edge over their rivals. English players who make it at that level are then exposed to continental styles of play in which they thrive, but the crucial thread from the tributaries of the talent pool to the beating heart of English football has been lost. The chance to create an inner language of football connected to the way the game is played at all levels across the country, like the Spanish have done with their superior technique or the Germans have most recently and impressively done by revamping their system after the 2006 World Cup, is lost. The players who come into the national team appear as foreigners disconnected by any congruent national style and lack the know-how to create a certain style of play on the hoof.

If England consistently focus on pressure, or the attitude of the players, they will miss the way their national culture of football is being eroded by the commercial juggernaut of the Premier League. The disconnect between the FA and the Premier League lies at the heart of England’s problems, and is merely another aspect of the stifling impact the money in football is having on the organic enthusiasm for the game. If there are fewer opportunities to make it at the top-end of English football, where the money is greatest, it may be that teenagers and young children eventually turn away from a career in the lower leagues in favour of something more financially attractive. The earlier young children turn away from football, the sooner the next generation will do the same as the tradition of playing football is slowly eroded. This is what English football faces and what must be arrested if the enthusiasm of English fans and infectious love of football in that country is still valued enough by those in charge not to let it wither away.

Oliver’s refereeing hits the bull’s eye

Michael Oliver’s swift and firm reaction to Ander Herrera’s provocative second challenge on Eden Hazard, just moments after he had made clear his disapproval of such tactics to the United captain, was laudatory and must not be allowed to come to be seen as a mistake in hindsight. Oliver’s decision was brave in how early he was prepared to issue a red card to deal with the injustice of a team whose conscious tactic was to repeatedly foul and intimidate Eden Hazard, and nor must the characteristic bard delivered in the guise of innocence by Jose Mourinho be allowed to deter Oliver from acting in such a principled way in the future. At the current rate, he is well on his way to becoming one of the finest referees the English Premier League has had in quite a while, for his refusal to fold in taking big decisions and consistent accuracy in getting them right. For too long now, games have been marred by a combination of appalling refereeing and a tendency for players to treat fair play as nothing more than a slogan. Examples that flit to the mind range from present and past, including Luis Suarez’s recent dive for Barcelona’s crucial fifth goal against PSG to Wayne Rooney’s similar dive in front of an impassioned Old Trafford crowd against Arsenal a few seasons ago, to the deliberate manhandling of Jose Antonio Reyes by a United led by Roy Keane in the heat of the Ferguson years. Far from letting such incidents be characterised as cunning or gladiatorial sport at its finest, Oliver’s refereeing shows a satisfying determination to reveal it for what it really is: cynical cheating that is far from the heroic virtues English football tricks itself into believing it possesses. Given how hard it can be to make such hard decisions, as could be seen by the way the United players physically ganged up on Oliver after he issued the red to Herrera and by how Jose Mourinho publically highlighted his record of issuing (just) penalties and red cards against United this season after the match, Oliver’s willingness to make the right calls appears even more praiseworthy and brave.

The decision was also no more than Jose Mourinho deserved – not only for the nakedly cynical part of his strategy of fouling Hazard, but also for his persistence with his habit of choosing ultra-safe game plans in big games despite the players at his disposal before revelling in the praise showered on him afterwards for his winning habit. Rather than show him as a mercurial, dashing winner with a touch of gold, such continued decisions in big games reveal his character by the way they sacrifice all efforts to create a spectacle in favour of the one-upmanship of the final result. There is also an argument that this is not just the pragmatic tactics of a man who is nonetheless deeply versed in the inner language of the game, and what it means to be a key protagonist in it, but of one who instead occasionally treats football as some kind of conduit to an ongoing spectacle that revolves around him. The red card in this way served as a further satisfying rebuke to Mourinho’s ceaseless antagonism, both how he offered a wry grin straight after the red card and by the bad blood he had created before the fixture in targeting Antonio Conte.

Lest this article come across as entirely critical of Mourinho, however, two caveats must be added. The first is that Michael Cox has written a fascinatingly thought-provoking piece on how Mourinho’s tactics were designed to stop Conte – one that perhaps shows the other side to Mourinho’s big-game tactics, in which tactical preparation, psychology and execution are occasionally combined in hugely impressive fashion. The other is that Mourinho’s comments quite obviously got under the skin of Conte, whose Latin temperament never inspired confidence that his attempt to deflect his barbs would be successful, and which made you wonder whether gamesmanship would triumph over hard-fought success. However, the pre-match backdrop then came to life in gloriously compelling fashion during the match as Conte squared up to Mourinho and perhaps offered the latter a sense that he was beginning to meet his match. The dollop of genuine antipathy was enjoyable to savour and, as long as it doesn’t overheat into the naked and puerile insults that characterised the Mourinho-Guardiola rivalry in Spain, may add a refreshing authenticity to the battles of the Premier League in the future.

Staggered fixtures dull Premier League joy

It has been noticeable over the years how increasingly Premier League games are staggered across the week, presumably as part of the commercial dictates behind the sport. It was already stretching the tolerance of the fans to first divide games between Saturdays and Sundays; but to now divide them across as many as five days of a week, with some on Monday, some on Wednesday, and some not occurring at all, strips the competition of its intensity and makes it hard to follow with any sustained interest. It was news, but not surprising, to hear that Man City had a Premier League game the other day when none of their rivals seemed to have a game at all on that week. Beyond the immediate disorienting effects on fans, there is the loss of a more intangible quality that was associated with the traditional league kick-off time of 3pm on a Saturday and hearkened back to a time when the commercial growth of football did not yet stretch the patience of its fans with gimmicks and over-saturation that dulled the joy of the game. It is perhaps this sense of overload and fatiguing ever-presence of football content which has spurred fans to lose their sense of perspective between football and life, pleasure and work.

Reply to Ian Herbert on Wenger

Ian Herbert recently wrote an article on the Arsenal-Wenger situation, in which he joined the growing number of writers who seem to view the current state of the club as one of crisis presided over by Wenger:

http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/premier-league/arsenals-majority-shareholder-stan-kroenke-more-motivated-by-money-a7619426.html#commentsDiv

I’m slightly shocked by the rapidity with which respectable, balanced football writers are turning on Wenger and striking the same notes as many of the “Wenger Out” brigade. Why have none of them pointed out that there are two ways to view Wenger’s current situation? One is that he is dragging the club inexorably towards professional mediocrity and unrealised ambition; the other is that he at most guilty of a certain tactical stagnation, but that this current dip is a small price to pay next to the long-term financial stability and professional consistency he has brought. Above all in this view is the acknowledgement that his many years of service and contributions to the game deserve a special view to be taken of his “failures”, in which the club and its fans stick by him longer than at other clubs in recognition of how much he has become part of the same emotional journey they are on. The acknowledgement of the possibility of a new story here, in which narratives and inspiring figures are not sacrificed on the altar of a cut-throat professional competition that prides short-termism and financial delusion over all other values, would be gratefully received if voiced by football writers.