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The worst thing about the match…

22 Aug

Manchester United away.  Depressingly predictable.  What’s to say?

Not a lot – although it is worth noting that we are the premier league club with the worst record at Old Trafford.  For a team that is now operating in and around the top four that is almost farcical.   It reveals, I think, a staggering mental weakness.  Few clubs with our aspirations could simultaneously find themselves in such a rut.  Yes, we have been cheated by referees, injuries and timing but it’s the two contrasting psychological profiles that’s the real problem, that ultimately casts one club as the abuser and the other as the abused.

But the past is the past, even if it’s still playing on Sky Sports +1, and we don’t have to worry about going there again until next season.What I’d rather talk about are crowds.  Specifically the bumbling heard of marks they’ve managed to corral into Old Trafford.

Roy Keane complained about the prawn sandwich brigade, but he only had to contend with them munching and slurping away whilst he plied his savage craft.  These days, thanks to specially produced infomercials featuring Simon Callow, they understand the concept of half-time – like the intermission!  This is the theatre of dreams after all.

Now they’ve put away their snacks they can devote their full attention to the show and to those quaint mummers toiling below;  ye olde  mis-shapen lumpen-proles perspiring and cursing in the limelight.  A rumour goes around that Johnny Evans drives a horse drawn cart to training.

What oohing and ahhing.  What premature excitement!  Look Daddy, Wayne (Wayne?) Rooney just did a back heel in the centre circle.  By Jove, he did, cheer son, cheer or Roy Keane will get you.

There’s something soul destroying about watching your team capitulate to mindless shrieks of a typical Take That crowd.

And this is not just a Manchester United problem.  Arsenal supporters (or at least the ones they let into the Emirates) cannot differentiate between a meaningful attack and a wild clearence that goes slightly near that pensive man of letters Theodore Walcott.

Watching football can be a burden.  The TV commentary and analysis is atrocious.  Newspaper reporting has been shown up and taken refuge in the gutter.  Now the plastic fans are conquering our grounds.  Why can’t they be better, why can’t they be like us?  Will we become like them?

Think about Stefan Freund.  Is the age of being able to enjoy a player ironically coming to a close?

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Great De-Presh 2000 and e-lev Round-up

24 Apr

We all thought it would be alright when Huddlestone got here. We all thought that once he rinsed parliament (by which I mean his body) of Disraeli and the Tory filth (by which I mean his injury) all would be right in the Kingdom. Alas strife is a squatter.

On the face of it the return of Huddlestone has restored us to form. The games against Stoke, Real Madrid, Arsenal and West Brom saw some of our best performances of recent weeks as well as a fair return of goals. 2.7 per game in the league to be exact. If we’d maintained that over the season so far we’d have scored 88. A marked improvement.

On the other hand we’ve conceded 2.3 goals a game in that period. Extend that for the season so far and we’d have let in 77. A marked decline. However, that total includes an inordinate number of howlers (cataclysmic errors from Huddlestone, Bale, Gallas plus Benoit Assou-Ekotto’s pulled hamstring) and an inordinate number of near-wonder strikers (Etherington, Jones, Cox) . It’s simply not feasible that that ratio could be kept up over the course of a season – whilst our performances and number of shots suggest the goals tally is no fluke.

The point of the blog is optimism and I think there’s reason to be optimistic and yet…

Above these impressive displays lies aura of chaos. The frequent sucker punches reveal a team playing under massive pressure. Until Defoe goal against West Brom we were desperate; commanding and fluent but desperate when it came to the final ball. Redknapp’s tactics, despite what you have heard, are coherent in theory but unstable over the course of a game. Van der Vaart was widely judged Man of the Match against Arsenal but for significant portions of the game his contribution dwindled to nothing and, worse, his lenient interpretation of ‘right midfield’ left us woefully exposed.

The functionality of the team is fuzzy; too many elements are unpredictable, from how players operate on any given day, to the selection. Rather than things coming together for the grand finale, we’re still winging it. Despite Redknapp showing a degree of faith in Pavlyuchenko, it has not been fully vindicated so we cannot assume it will continue. Despite Huddlestone having a positive impact, it’s not been so overwhelmingly positive to guarantee a settled centre of midfield.

The rain may be easing off but it’s getting perilously close to tea-time.

The Great Depression of 2011: Wigan (away)

2 Apr

The worst thing about watching football is that it can make you feel so powerless. It’s hard to imagine another scenario where we tie our happiness to something we have absolutely no control over – At least they let you choose your lottery numbers.

Watching Tottenham in the league these days is like entering the lottery with an out of date ticket, with numbers somene else has chosen. But you go to check them anyway, just for the sake of it, only to realise that someone has cut off your hands and replaced them with Betamax players. Welcome to the great depression of 2011.

This blog was supposed to be all about positivity but this is a bad time. It’s bad chiefly because things are so good. The squad is great, overflowing with interesting players and we’re having a jolly old european adventure, being praised an lauded the world over. But it’s hard to enjoy these things knowing they’re liable to be taken away in the near future, and it’s hard to endure these dismal league performances knowing that we’re capable of so much more.

I don’t want to analyse the Wigan, it’s best to look ahead, but there is one thing I’ll mention:

Jenas – I found it hard to understand what his role was meant to play today. It’s a common problem with him. Against Arsenal, when he was alongside Modric, he was notionally the more defensive of the two yet when we conceded the second goal he’d pushed up into an excellent but innappropriate attacking position, leaving us over exposed when they counter attacked. The improvement in the second half was in part due to Gallas encouraging him to stay put in front of the defence.

Today, alongside Sandro in a narrow midfield, was surely a great opportunity for him to play on the front foot where he’s best. Yet I recall a passage of play in the first half where Modric was on the attack. He was looking in vain for options and movement from our somnambulistic strikeforce but Jenas, who had pushed forward, decided to casually jog back and reassume a position behind play. I can’t believe it was per Redknapp’s instructions and it didn’t make a lot of sense.

Jenas isn’t playing badly, he’s a relatively consistant performer, but he’s rarely ever in the right place and never at the right time – in contrast to his first couple of seasons with us. Too often he forms a a midfield axis that is less than the sum of its parts. Literally, it’s as if we’ve got two men doing the job of one.

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.

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.

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…