Friday, October 26, 2012

Pim Verbeek finally shows he has balls by criticising mess he left

Former Socceroos coach Pim Verbeek has been quoted in Qatari media as saying Australian football faces a bleak period as the brightest stars in Australian football history are slowly extinguished.

Well, you'd know, Pim.

His Aussie tenure was marked by Viking-style honesty. Did you ever meet someone so honest that every conversation you had with them ended up revolving around your faults? That's honesty to a fault, and that's Pim Verbeek. And despite their limitations, players like Danny Allsopp and Archie Thompson were hardly likely to produce positive results after such brutal “encouragement”.

How's that "promotion" to Morocco's U-21s working out, Pim?
While his latest assertions verge towards the correct – developing Australian footballers aren't of the same quality as those of fifteen years hence – Australia should still qualify for Brazil if their squad is managed adeptly.

Part of the blame for this dearth of top-end talent can be laid at Verbeek's size twelves. The Dutchman controlled Australia for three years, culminating in a morbid showing in the group of terminal illness at the Big Dance in 2010. During that time, he was relentless in his beliefs: not living in Australia, playing defensive formations and deploying far-flung experience at the expense of A-League promise.

The defining moment of his tenure in Australia wasn't a match, result or player evolution but a formation. In the Socceroos' ignominious defeat to Germany in their first match in South Africa, the team lined up in a 4-6-0 with untested Richard Garcia leading the line from the centre of midfield (and playing hideously out of position).

The Green and Gold Army was not only content but joyful at his departure. His time at the top left football in Australia without a legacy; in a period in which Australian soccer should have been building on the wonderful success of their 2006 World Cup campaign, his refusal to integrate local youth into an aging team was not only short-sighted but almost wilfully negligent.

His half-hidden attempt to parlay short-term Socceroo success into a bigger job was hardly surprising, but still disappointing because he was bequeathed a good team with a chance to establish something of real substance.

Perhaps Verbeek now feels able to comment because he recognises some of the same traits in Australian football as he, it's one-time figurehead, displayed as boss.  Yes, the country's footballing stocks are going through a changing phase, but as a smaller football nation that's the norm.  It's also a phase that was delayed nearly four years during his time in charge.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Shelvey, Suso and Sterling: Liverpool's future

Liverpool's three years of struggle has been not only documented but celebrated. In fact, their primacy over much of English football's history means that the rebuilding efforts of 2012-13 are providing not only column inches, but also the can't-look-away-car-wreck Hard Knocks clone, Being: Liverpool.

The stilted attempt at a fly's-view series has attempted several times to conjur interest where, simply, there is none. The result is that the combination is mildly irritating and yet another rod with which to beat the Reds. Downplayed so far in the farcical docudrama has been the role that the three youngest members of Liverpool's first-team squad (Suso, Shelvey and Sterling) have to play in the rebuilding and rebranding of Liverpool led by the confusing psyche of Brendan Rodgers.

Raheem Sterling is perhaps the best youngster to emerge from the Liverpool youth ranks since poster boy Steven Gerrard. The Jamaica-born tyro has been the brightest of Red spots since being thrust into the starting lineup; it was his goal that earned the Reds a 1-0 win against promoted Reading on Saturday. Shelvey has emerged alongside Joe Allen and Nuri Sahin as the future of a three-man midfield, while Suso adds bite to a lineup that last year seemed very one-paced.

After a start to the season best described as a disheveled, the alliterative trio have been the semi-precious stones – if not diamonds – in Rodgers' rough. The plastic quality that comes with youth has meant that the younger Liverpool players have adapted best to Rodgers' multiform gameplan. There's nothing (much) to be unlearnt. If Rodgers is given time – and indications are that he will be – then this trio should be the offensive trident around which the Reds are based.

The most appealing story around this Liverpool team has been their combative youth and how it has manifested organically into positive steps. Suso, Sterling and Shelvey all came to the club in their teens and have had the opportunity to grow into potential superstars. This is in direct contrast to the modus operandi employed by Rodgers' predecessor Kenny Dalglish, who flung money at flops Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam and, most notably, Andy Carroll.

Just as amateur gardeners tell you that their own produce always tastes better, there's something instinctively pleasant about a club emerging behind home-grown youth. You could argue many of the world's most attractive and successful teams developed naturally and without artifice: Borussia Dortmund, Fergie's Fledglings, Barcelona and ultimately Spain have all benefited from prudent investment that didn't overrun youth development.

Time to develop and instinctively problem-solving the optimal expressions of their gifts in a system placed above the player develops a gestalt creation of interoperability, a unit where understanding evolves naturally rather than being inserted by screaming coaches. It's early days, but the promise of Sterling, Suso and Shelvey offers this chance to the red half of Merseyside.

It's also fortunate that we've got the artificial opposite brewing in West London. QPR boast more talent than anyone outside the top six yet the whole has never felt even the sum of its gifted parts; they're a concoction of tantalising ingredients (and Armand Traore) that hasn't even approached the sum of its parts. The components grind uneasily against one another and the club looks to be staring down at an embarrassing relegation.

There are – of course – exceptions. Real Madrid features two (ish) players who played for the club's youth setup and it's common knowledge that only Micah Richards, Pablo Zabaleta and Joe Hart pre-date Sheikh Mansour at Manchester City. Both teams won their respective leagues last season; the construct that is Paris Saint-Germain looks likely to do the same in Ligue 1 this term. That said, however, both City and PSG have struggled to create a definite identity, while strength of will alone has prevented similar grumblings in the Spanish capital.

We reside in the time of the Team of Champions; but this doesn't mean the end of the Champion Team. In part because of their need to rely on their fledglings, Liverpool are highly unlikely to finish in the top four this year; but that doesn't mean that they won't be worth watching.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Time for UEFA to act strongly on Serbia

After a hard-fought win against Collingwood in 1993, Australian footballer Nicky Winmar turned to the crowd at Victoria park, raised his jersey and pointed at his chest.

Winmar is an indigenous Australian. He had spent the entire 120 minutes of the match being racially abused by the pro-Collingwood crowd. The moment was captured on film by a photographer from the Age newspaper and went the 1993 version of viral: alongside Sir Donald Bradman's final Test dismissal and John Landy helping Ron Clarke, it's perhaps the most famous photograph in Australian sporting history.

It became a cultural landmark, a very visible sign that what black men in AFL had endured to that time was unacceptable. Since then, Australian football has been prominent in the fight against racism in sport. Though it's not been fully eliminated, there's been several high-profile cases which have helped the public consciousness decide that racial abuse should have no place in sport, let alone life.

Danny Rose didn't ask to be abused when he stepped onto the pitch for England's under-21s against Serbia on Monday. He wanted to play football, to win and to play well. Any psychologist will tell you: no matter what the situation, noone ever asks for, nor deserves, abuse based upon the colour of their skin, their sexual preference or religious beliefs. Fabricating allegations of abuse of this kind does happen, but is extremely rare.

Which is why, due to the past history of Serbian fans, UEFA has to take severe action. This has to stop – it's just not OK. With fines seemingly ineffective, this leaves only two options should an investigation prove that Rose was indeed abused (as seems likely): all Serbian home matches should be played either behind closed doors or away from home; or, more simply, Serbia should be banned from International competition.

Erudite journalist Jonathan Wilson suggests a ban might be counterproductive to Serbian football. However the method of transmission, a strong message needs to be delivered: by refusing to acknowledge the wrongdoing – let alone sanction – hardline Ultras, the FFS appears at best recalcitrant and at worst recidivist. UEFA and FIFA can't afford to compromise on this issue.

In the misty realm where international sport and law meet, there really are only a few options to combat societal problems: fines, suspensions and outright boycotts. The first has been tried with only minimal success, meaning that more dramatic steps are required. It's time for the second – or perhaps third – option, no matter what effects it has on future of football in Serbia.   

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Minnows deserve their puncher's chance's lexicon of pugilistic nomenclature defines a “Puncher's Chance” as “[a fighter] who doesn't have a very good chance of beating the other fighter, who is probably more skilled, but could still pull off the win by landing a great punch and knocking his man out”.

Basically, a puncher's chance is what it says on the tin. It was the concept that defined all six Rocky movies (particularly the last) and underlies any sporting contest where one party is heavily favoured. This is never more true than in tournament football, where a 'keeper can get hot or a fluke deflection can win – or lose – a match or even a trophy.

As World Cup qualifying gears up, we're faced once again with the old chestnut of competitive balance in European football. This was brought to a head last week when big-name team England were pitted against San Marino in UEFA Group 8 qualifying. Predictably, the Three Lions put five past a team featuring a pair of brothers who run a moving company.

And, once again we're faced with calls to make principalities like San Marino, the Faroe Islands, Liechtenstein and Andorra undertake pre-qualifying in order just to get a puncher's chance. This doesn't just apply to Europe but also to several small nations in Oceania (perhaps finally consigning Archie Thompson's dubious International goalscoring record to the footnotes of history).

Yes, watching teams drubbed 31-0 may be boring; however, allowing teams that puncher's chance – no matter how infinitesimally small it is – is also the right decision.

Sometimes you have to endure humdrum sport because it's the right thing to do – just think of baseball's regular season. Football truly is the world's game and as a result it behoves FIFA to ensure the World Cup is equally accessible to all countries. For many players – home-leaguers, removalists and soda salesmen – a matchup with Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole will probably represent the highlight of their career.

With each added qualifying game, the puncher's chance decreases. How often can lightning strike?

Sport has become more and more streamlined over the past two decades, football especially so: the past twenty years have seen both the European Cup and UEFA Cup re-organised and rebranded into money-spinning leagues. Were the same to occur at the International level, not only is the park footballer robbed of his moment, but any chance of upset – or even unexpected challenge – is automatically gainsayed.

For a sport so openly seeking egalitarianism (the one defensible reason for the Blatter regime's failure to implement goal-line technology is/was a desire for the sport at the park to played in almost exactly the same way as the World Cup Final), offering everyone the same opportunity is the fairest only way forward.

It's hardly like the lack of competition damages the sport. In contrast, it's likely to inspire youth who on one magical evening got to see a spectacular Wayne Rooney free kick and returns home to practice and improve. That teen could become Rooney mark II; he could also coach his local junior side.

American Samoa has only the remotest puncher's chance of defeating New Zealand in a home-and-home matchup. But they still deserve the opportunity.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

New code of conduct has to help, right?

Last week the English FA handed down the report of its investigation into the racial abuse case levelled at former national team captain John Terry. The 53-page report loosely implies – but stops far short of accusing – Terry, teammate Ashley Cole and Chelsea FC executive David Barnard of contriving evidence to benefit the player's defence.

Cole responded as any normal person would: with a volley of abuse directed at the FA via Twitter.

He has apologised after the FA responded by charging him with misconduct for the insults. However, surely this isn't the main issue. Ashley Cole's rap-sheet of selfish behaviour is extensive and leans heavily on the use of mobile phones. Insults from incredible sources shouldn't hurt simply because their point of origin has – on appearances – so little integrity. The FA should be far more concerned that they suspect two players fabricated evidence in an attempt to avoid justice.

Perhaps as Cole's tweet was the final straw however, as amidst yesterday's palaver surrounding the opening of England's new home base at St George's Park, the FA instituted a new code of conduct applying to all players involved in the national set-up.

Of course it's a good idea, but begs the question: why hasn't this happened sooner? Perhaps these guidelines weren't seen as necessary; maybe those in the corridors of power ultimately realised that definitive expectations both allows players to know where they stand and provides a framework for enforcing social behaviour.

Under the new standards, the FA wouldn't have to charge Cole with the nebulous “misconduct” for his true-to-type Twittering but simply breaching the England player's code of conduct. Hopefully, this clarity will reduce the prevalence of spirit fouls like “actions unbefitting” or “bringing the game into disrepute”. It's a perfectly sensible step forward for English football, which has for too long indulged the selfishness of many star players.

Children need boundaries if they're to grow up to become productive parts of society. So too, it appears, do footballers. Maybe there's a link there.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Three things: Rooney reinvented

Maybe Sir Alex has found his central midfielder

Experts suggested Sir Alex Ferguson fling his summer spending money at a central midfielder with tenacity and passing range. Instead, he thrust an enormous great wodge of cash at former rival Arsene Wenger and made away with Robin van Persie.

This left the centre of Old Trafford manned by the solid but ultimately-misunderstood Michael Carrick, the Premiership's largest pannus (Anderson), the as-yet unfulfilled promise of Tom Cleverley and Paul Scholes' walking frame. What they wouldn't give for a Yohan Cabaye, a Cheick Tiote or Marek Hamsik. A glut up front and then … a gap.

Perhaps no more: the Red Devils went to Newcastle yesterday with a resurgent Wayne Rooney playing in the middle of the park. This allows Shinji Kagawa – perhaps United's most impressive player so far this season – to play in his preferred no. 10 role and Robin van Persie to do what he does best. Although this goes against Coaching 101, which states a coach should play his best player in his best position, there are now credible questions as to whether Rooney is in fact the best player at Old Trafford.

As Rooney enters his ostensible prime, it seems he should be playing in the position which will allow him to have the most success, and that's his favoured second-striker role. Rooney as central-midfielder doesn't feel right, almost a waste of the best English offensive talent of his generation to play him back from goal so far – but it could well be the best method to allow United to win and win often. It certainly helps that Rooney has more talent in his little finger than Anderson in his entire ample body.

Although still mightily effective, Paul Scholes is ancient. This makes Rooney the best centre midfielder at United's disposal. With a surfeit of options ahead, Wayne Rooney may spend the best part of season 2012-13 creating, rather than finishing chances.

Andre Villas-Boas changes goalkeepers, creates controversy

A week after engineering Spurs' first league win at Old Trafford for 23 years and in the midst of some outstanding goalkeeping from Brad Friedel, Andre Villas-Boas changed tack: he started French no. 1 Hugo Lloris between the sticks. Thus, he ended Friedel's remarkable stretch of 310 consecutive starts in what appeared to be somewhat of a capricious choice. Known as a model professional, Friedel took it well – when arrived at White Hart Lane before last season with Heurelho Gomes and Carlo Cudicini, he can't possibly have expected to play every game.

Spurs got the win against a workmanlike Aston Villa side and Lloris claimed the club's first clean sheet of the season.

The result across the pond was curious. Some US TV commentators, most notably Eric Wynalda, were disgusted with the dapper Villas-Boas, claiming Friedel was disrespected and would subsequently look to leave the club.

Villas-Boas can't win. When Lloris didn't play immediately, France coach Didier Deschamps accused the Spurs manager of disrespect. Now, when Friedel is asked to sit – perhaps only for one game – there are others with vested interests (Wynalda and Friedel have commentated together) who sing the opposing song.

The thing is that Friedel is 41 and can't last forever; Lloris was signed to be Spurs' long-term keeper. He has to play. Perhaps Villas-Boas did misjudge how and when to play Lloris, but to suggest that it automatically constitutes disrespect is an awfully long a bow to draw without intimate access to the Tottenham dressing sheds.

Splitting goalkeepers rarely works – just ask Sir Alex Ferguson how the Lindegaard/De Gea horses-for-courses policy is working. Villas-Boas has a pleasant dilemma in having two starting-quality keepers at his disposal. Can't we just be happy for him?

Second season syndrome

Norwich City impressed last year on their promotion to the Premiership. This year they appear to have lost some of the cohesion that made them so formidable in 2011-12. What's the difference?

Although there wasn't a great changeover of personnel, there most major was when Paul Lambert left Carrow Road for Villa Park. It was an acrimonious split and last week both parties alleged that the other was suing them. Before leaving, Lambert refused to pay Grant Holt what the big striker thought he was worth, resulting in the former tyre-fitter issuing a transfer request. The air of optimism that surrounded Norwich City last season has been replaced with one of distress.

The club keeps shopping goals – four to Chelsea on the weekend – and, at the same time, hasn't exuded the same tenacity and fluidity that exemplified Lambert's Canaries. New boss Chris Hughton is a good manager, but earns his money by empowering players in a similar “keep it simple” system to that employed by Harry Redknapp. It may not be enough.

Players play best when they're happy. Holt definitely isn't, as last week he lashed out at Roy Hodgson for failing to recognise his form with an England call-up. He's also the principal leader for the squad. Hughton has to right the ship – quickly – before this season starts to ape the ill-fated 2004-05 term.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Michael Ballack retires

Earlier this week, former Germany captain Michael Ballack retired from all professional football. The most stylish and (sometimes brutally) effective German player of his generation leaves the game permanently at age 36.

Ballack had both the fortune and misfortune of being born five years too late. To look at it another way, he was born five years too early. He could have been a precocious youngster alongside Lothar Matthäus, Jurgen Klinsmann and the greatest years of Oliver Kahn, but was born as the seventies turned. Born half a decade later and he wouldn't have just nurtured the startling Germany team of the home World Cup in 2006 but championed it. Instead, he scraped into the tail of one wonderful era and was moved on before the second blossomed.

In hindsight, this may actually have suited him. As the best player in the country, Ballack enjoyed starring roles at Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern Munich and for Die Mannschaft; after the success of 2006, he moved to Chelsea before concluding his career at Leverkusen. A man betraying precious little self-doubt, the spotlight rests easily on him. He was Germany: it wasn't a burden, just the way things were.

His polished – if not definitive – turn as an analyst for ESPN over the 2012 European Championships only highlighted his readiness to step away from the centre of midfield.

Michael Ballack rarely took a backwards step. And in a weird kind of way, that could be why his mooted move to Toronto FC or the fledgling Western Sydney Wanderers never really made it off the ground. Wage demands might have played a part, but had he wanted to keep playing the monetary terms could have been arranged. Some men are made to be ambassadors, but Michael Ballack just isn't one of them.

Sydney FC signee Alessandro Del Piero will be crucial to the A-League and football's growth in Australia. Without question, he is the best player to ever play in the Antipodes. Ballack is two years younger and fit a role which doesn't necessarily depend on speed. He could have owned the A-League; if Christian Tiffert makes such an impact in Seattle, how deadly would Michael Ballack be? However, doing so – even for reported millions – may have felt like a backward step. At 36, once usefulness at the very top level has been exhausted, the best players must accept a reduced role - one of venerable sage, goodwill ambassador or even figurehead.

Some athletes are engineered to keep going; Del Piero joins his English contemporary David Beckham as the most obvious examples. Ballack probably isn't wired that way, and that's fine – not many have the combination of talent, temperament and stamina to do so. The ultimate cost/benefit analysis all footballers face contrasts desire and depreciation. When that ratio dips too low, it's time to enter the tunnel for the final time.

Michael Ballack leaves the game on his own terms. It couldn't really have happened any other way. However, his luxuriant bouffant and measured analysis on ESPN suggests we will see a lot more of him in the future.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Three things: Where have all the good teams gone?

Are there any great teams in this league?

Table-toppers Chelsea, while capable of sparkling, appear to lack real depth in their midfield. Nonetheless, they remain the team to beat. Manchester City have flattered to deceive so far this season; cross-town nemeses United have struggled mightly, losing at home to Tottenham Hotspur for the first time in Tom Cleverley's lifetime. Arsenal, while appearing more solid than at any time during the past half-dozen years, have only two wins in six.

On results thus far, the league has seven good teams and no great ones. The results may show not so much in English competition – where someone has to win, perhaps even by default – but in Europe.

So far, the most impressive teams in the league have been Everton (see below) and West Bromwich Albion, two clubs who have embraced the possibilities that fiscal conservatism brings.

Six games is a large enough sample size to begin drawing conclusions. The top teams are not performing to their peaks, meaning that a run of good form from a deep team is enough to split the entire competition open.

Everton: no need for Moneyball

David Moyes has long been admired for his ability to conjure great performances from teams which appear as deep as a toddler's wading pool. Over the past half-decade, he's almost exclusively worked on a sell-to-buy program. The team he's assembled over the past year is no different: Mikel Arteta now plays for Arsenal, but begat Nikica Jelavic, while Jack Rodwell's Manchester City jaunt allowed the purchases of Kevin Mirallas and Bryan Oviedo.

Moyes has always been the smartest accumulator of talent in the league and the Toffees now stand at second on the table because of it. Moneyball, thanks to Kenny Dalglish's ill-fated purchases at Liverpool now seems to a verboten concept in the English Premier League: the acquisition of Stewart Downing championed by his oustanding “converted crosses” ratio while at Aston Villa.

Moneyball, the concept, was not about finding statistics which provided the edge but a novel concept of assessing players and their worth in individual situations; finding players that others didn't value. It was about value for money – and Moyes doesn't need it, because his hit rate with acquisitions is so very high. At a reported 19 million pounds, Downing could exemplify little value. Value for money often comes at a lower cost – something Moyes is accustomed to dealing with.

Andre Villas-Boas knows what he's doing

Despite some odd actions, Andre Villas-Boas is a man who knows where his towel is. Despite a vastly different team to the one that Harry Redknapp took into Europe three years straight, there's every possibility that his team is in fact superior to that iteration. Spurs' squad has a leaner, trimmer appearance this season.

Moussa Dembele has justified the interest of Manchesters United and City, Clint Dempsey was perfectly positioned to succeed at a club almost, but not quite, exactly good enough to qualify for the Champions' League and Emmanuel Adebayor is the perfect point man for AVB's offensive schemes. All of this was accomplished while ridding the squad of significant baggage and wages.

Spurs' win at United on Saturday is without question the largest of his English managerial career and shows signs that Spurs can become a viable fifth (or sixth) option in the chase for the Champions League. The squad has depth, balance, youth and experience. They appear to be establishing an identity based upon their smooth midfield. Now all they need is another striker.