Archive | November, 2010

Bendtner suffers existential doubt

26 Nov

niklas bendtner is a donkey

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Arsenal (a)

22 Nov

match reportMost things in life are invisible. At least to the human eye. Evolution, ageing, climate change; some thing happen too slowly for us to immediately perceive. Other things, such as cellular or quantum events, are too small. And then, sadly, there are those things that are right before our eyes, of sufficient size and at perfect height, that we nevertheless manage to obscure from ourselves.

Whilst the paper talk centres on Arsenal throwing away a two goal lead, the real story is how Tottenham managed to trash the pristine nil-nil state that footballing entropy so patiently provides. If we can understand that, we’ll see how our miraculous recovery was nothing of the sort, that Redknapp’s masterstroke was merely the realigning of the laws of physics and the outcome inevitable.

For that we’ll need to whip out the Tactics Trunk.

the tactics trunk

Unsurprisingly the game hinged on what happened in the centre of midfield. Before the match we’d all speculated on how Redknapp would line them up. Ideally we’d have started with Huddlestone and Modric in the centre. They’d proved, with a combination of unexpected tenacity and by improving the quantity and quality of our possession, that they are capable of holding their own against anyone. But these are fascinating and quite singular players, over the course of the season we’ve seen how hard it is to refashion that axis with the likes of Jenas, the out of form Palacios or the promising but still skittish Sandro.

In the end Redknapp plumped for Jenas and a five man midfield with both Lennon and Bale hugging either touchline. It could have worked but on the day it didn’t. On the day it was possessed of the most hideous geometry, the kind that would cause H.P. Lovecraft to wake up in a sweat and stagger to his typewriter: The shadow over the emirates.

The mismatch was immediately apparent . Wenger sent out two defensive midfielders in Denilson and Song as well as the sprightly and savage Fabregas and Nasri. The key to Arsenal’s success is how well they are able to zerg over the opposition, how easily they manage to isolate the player with the ball and bring him down with superior numbers. In the first half we offered ourselves up to them. People have criticised Modric but if you look at the majority of times he lost the ball, he was in a pretty dire situation. With Bale and Lennon out wide and Jenas and Van der Vaart roving, options were limited whilst Arsenal were swarming all over him. A visual depiction:

arsenal midfield

If you consider the first goal another problem is obvious. We’d formed a bank of five but high up the pitch and without applying any pressure. This left a great space between defence and midfield allowing Arsenal’s runners to penetrate the back four at will and allowing Fabregas ample time to pick out Nasri’s run.

Equally the second goal was the hellish offspring of a disfunctional midfield. Jenas was notionally our most defensive midfielder. He’s eminently capable of the role and alongside Modric you’d expect him to take on those duties. Yet when Arsenal broke he had pushed up into a centre forward position. Their attack was hardly lightning fast but with only Modric tracking back it didn’t have to be. This isn’t to say that Jenas made a mistake or that he hadn’t taken up a good position. It’s the kind of position we’d like to see him in ordinarily; surging forward, box to box etc. But on the day we needed him in a different role, we were making things too easy for them and by the same token hard for ourselves.

So what was the big change after half-time? Arsenal fans will want to tell you that they switched off but that’s nonsense. They continued to play well and were a constant danger. Some lazy pundits will want to tell you that Redknapp made a tactical masterstroke, bringing on Defoe and narrowing our formation. That has something to do with it but fundamentally what changed was that Jenas and Modric grew into their roles and began operating with a modicum of proficiency. That was all it took. For Jenas to hold back a little and harry Fabregas a little more. I read a telling quote earlier today, Jenas was praising Gallas and said, ‘he was a voice in my ear, especially in that second half when the team needed me to sit a little bit more and graft in front of them and try and get around Cesc.’ This is the crux of it. Frankly it’s a little bonkers that he wasn’t doing this initially. Few teams will give Arsenal such licence. Their success in the first half was down to us. Our victory was down to us correcting mistakes that shouldn’t have been made.

We weren’t even particularly good but then we didn’t need to be. There was an inevitability about our goals, as if things were going down hill. So when you see an arsenal fan saying they can’t believe how they lost, tell them you can’t believe we conceded two and played as poorly as we did in that first half.

He was banned for our sins (almost)

10 Nov

Former Prime Minister Thomas Ewart Huddlestone avoided an FA ban yesterday for an alleged stamp on Bolton’s Johan Elmander. Despite predictable howling from the press gallery, it was the correct decision.

At university I attended a course on the link between language and thought (is there a difference between Water and Twater?) and in part about how language can overwrite thought. In football its very easy for reality to be overwritten by sensational press copy. Not only can it cloud your judgement about what you are seeing, but often what you actually see comes prepackaged, prejudged and with a bunch of handy hyperlinks wherein pundits ruminate over what is to be done.

The incident at Bolton came complete with a misleading photograph, scandalised commentary and a raft of worthy articles advocating this and that. Rather than analysing what happened, people gleefully assumed the worst and skipped away into their own self-righteous reverie. If you’d only been following the press line then Huddlestone avoiding a ban would have brought you down to earth with a bump.

But if you take the time to look at it objectively, it was simply not clear whether Huddlestone trod on Elmander deliberately. So to crucify him for this when so many other genuinely insidious stamps go both unpunished and largely uncommented upon is slightly disturbing, if not surprising.

Spurs fans have been quick to condemn Huddlestone; revoking the benefit of the doubt after a couple of unsavoury incidents against Manchester City and FC Twente. Which is understandable. Equally so the impulse to prove your lack of bias by being critical of your own players. And there may well be an upside to it all if the scrutiny he’s been put under, albeit unjustly, helps him avoid actual lapses of judgement in the future – woe-betide him if we see a repeat of his windmill arms against the dutch.

However, as the fabricated furore dies down we’re in danger of missing the real lesson. People have joked that Huddlestone’s stamp against Nigel de Jong was justified as it was against Nigel de Jong. But what of his arm-swinging antics? It’s easy to forget that he had been persistently fouled for about 10 seconds before he finally lashed out. And for the sake of argument, Elmander had slid in dangerously against him, causing Huddlestone to hop out the way. Not to mention that Bolton had been frequently gone a little further than ‘physical’ that afternoon. Consider how Gareth Bale was cynically scythed down in the first few minutes (a reducer, or so I’m told) – the Sky Sports commentators fell just short of lauding the foul.

Huddlestone’s misdemeanours have been retaliatory in nature. He shouldn’t be absolved of any blame but if you’re serious about removing dangerous play, it starts in penalizing the systematic fouls, the gamesmanship, the antagonism that makes matches become so bad-tempered.

Spurs Slash Fiction?

8 Nov

I got to thinking.  Does footballer Slash fiction exist?  It must do.  There’s nary a more homoerotic activity.  Dare I go look for some?  No.  Dare I speculate about what it might look like?  Of course.

Here I have inserted our players’ names into another popular slash-fiction – can you guess which?

~

GARETH BALE felt his leg.  It was broken.

‘We’re completely sealed in!’  MICHAEL DAWSON was frantically clawing at the rock.  ‘GARETH BALE it’s no use!  We’re going to die down here!’

‘Relax, we just need to stay calm, RAFAEL VAN DER VAART knows where we are.  If there’s anyone we can rely on it’s RAFAEL VAN DER VAART.’

‘You’re right.  You’re right.  Stay calm.  Stay calm.’

‘You are calm, yeah?  You’re not just freaking out quietly?’  GARETH BALE asked.

‘No.  I’m calm.  It’s just…’  MICHAEL DAWSON looked at GARETH BALE for a moment then looked away.

‘Just what?’

MICHAEL DAWSON finally turned to face him.  His ginger hair was a mess. ‘Just…’  He trailed off but raised his wand nervously.

‘Nakedus!’

GARETH BALE’s Gryffindor robes vanished in a flash and he was left completely naked.

‘What are you doing?!’

GARETH BALE raised his wand to undo the spell.

‘Expelliarmus!’  MICHAEL DAWSON sent GARETH BALE’s wand flying away across the cave before he could restore his robes.

The two friends looked at each other in stunned silence then MICHAEL DAWSON screwed his face up in horror at what he’d done.  GARETH BALE smiled.

‘It’s ok, it’s ok, I just had to know you were into this.’

‘What?  Huh?  I…?’  MICHAEL DAWSON stammered.

GARETH BALE beckoned him close.  ‘Come.’

MICHAEL DAWSON approached nervously. ‘You know, I can fix your leg.’

‘Leave it broken.’  GARETH BALE winked at his friend.

‘Ok, but just let me… Occulus reparo!’

GARETH BALE’s glasses clicked smartly back together, the crack gone.

‘Thanks.’  He whispered softly.  ‘I wouldn’t want to miss a thing.’

Inter Milan (h)

8 Nov

match reportForget the stars. This result was written in the first 10 minutes at the San Siro two weeks previous. Whilst pundits and the more histrionic fans were lauding Inter’s magnificence or questioning Tottenham’s worthiness, the savvy viewer saw something different.

They would have seen that although Inter had scored a fabulous goal and although Tottenham were understandably shell-shocked, they nevertheless managed to put together their own impressive little move and carve out a chance. They would have seen how Modric was at his semi-disembodied best; able to ghost past opponents as if he were made of smoke, able to re-materialise at will and reclaim the ball. The savvy viewer would have known, as Eto’o converted the penalty and the little Croatian hunkered down on the bench, that Inter were going to be annihilated at White Hart Lane.

There’s not much say that hasn’t been said already. It was a shame that Crouch connected with Bale’s first half cross in the way that he did. It was such an anaemic effort that he’ll probably be judged more for his miss than his goal. Some of the less obvious highlights were the burgeoning relationship between Van der Vaart and Modric and Huddlestone’s captain like performance. He was supremely disciplined, almost patriarchal, encouraging his charges to go play whilst keeping a keen eye out for danger. Redknapp made Huddlestone a first team regular last season and he came on leaps and bounds. This year his responsibilities have increased further and he’s thriving.

But at the end of day, as Van der Vaart said, it was just three points. Three points in a competition we’re probably not going to win. Even so, us fans don’t take home the trophies or the medals, just the memories – and this one was as shiny as they come.

Why we’re morally superior #1

8 Nov

nasri and nani tongues

Manchester United (a)

2 Nov

match reportI rarely dream about football or, if I do, I’m rarely able to remember it – mercifully so, since I’ve usually been drafted in to replace Clive Wilson at left back and am completely out of my depth – But on friday night I had a clear, vivid and almost prophetic dream about saturday’s game. I dreamt the damned united scored a goal that didn’t actually cross the line, I dreamt that familiar feeling of injustice and impotence, like a fish slapping itself against the tiles – but then they scored the rebound anyway. It was time to stop struggling and die quietly.

You don’t need to be some hirsute guru to interpret this dream. For on a profound, subconscious level we know that nothing will go for us at Old Trafford, that it’s an uphill battle where people are flinging faeces down at us. So, in a perverse way, I was glad when Nani scored his goal. We already knew we were in a hopeless situation, it’s important everyone else sees it too.

But the second part of the dream suggests it may not matter. That they’re still too efficient or professional to be beaten let alone overtaken as title contenders. Again this seems to have been bourne out by the match. Whilst they scored a dubious goal it didn’t seem to matter, we did appear to slipping towards a defeat with all the resistance of water in a sink.

So what positives are there? Commentators say we gave a good account of ourselves. Perhaps. It was an even contest, their goals came out of thin air, but did we actually play well? I doubt there are many Spurs fans who believe we did. Conversely Man Utd fans seem more than happy with their team’s performance. Why the disconnect?

Despite the predictable result I think we saw the balance of power shifting towards us, just as it has been over the past few seasons. The overriding factor that is determining these results is not how well United play, but how well we play. Consider the 5-2 calamity the season before last. When we were dominating the game it was down to us, they weren’t poor, we were good. Following the farcical penalty United played well but not without us totally collapsing – what happens depends on us, not them, this is a big change and reflects us taking on the mantle of a big club.

Saturday’s game was a similar affair. We not only gave the ball away more often, we gave away it away cheaply and unnecessarily. We gave the ball away in positions that led to prolonged spells of United possession, they were unable to do much with it but playing with a rather blunted attack we needed the ball as much as possible – when there’s only 1 Keano we need to play the percentages. Had we managed to be less profligate with the ball the entire complexion of the match would have been different.

It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly was behind it: No Huddlestone? Tiredness? Nerves or some other kind of mental weakness? Whatever it is, we’re getting closer to stage were we can go to these big teams and comprehensively beat them. Just a little bit of tweaking…