Monday, 19 December 2011

17 December 2011: Bristol City 0 Nottingham Forest 0

I always like the Guardian’s “Five things we learnt...” articles, and Jacob Steinberg’s piece on the similarities between Barça and Stoke here stood out particularly.  Why?  Partly because it’s thoughtful and well-written, but mainly because Ross and I have drawn exactly the same parallel before – and arrived at the opposite conclusion.

Surely, surely, being a top manager is about flexibility as much as it’s about philosophical consistency?  I completely understand the argument here and of course there’s something attractive about a manager with a compelling vision – whether that’s Guardiola’s ultimate development of masterplan Cruyff, or Pulis’ “they don’t like it up ‘em” pugnacity.  You don’t want to feel the boss is making it up on the spot.  You do, however, want a manager who can react well, who can set things up brilliantly but then have an alternative or two in mind for when things go wrong.  In fact I’d argue that part of what’s given Guardiola victory in 13 of the 15 competitions he’s entered as Barça coach is that he is a pragmatist, able to adapt to changing situations within games.  Not so much Pulis, whose “more plan A” approach failed on the biggest stage it’s yet been exposed to, this year’s FA Cup final.  Manchester City controlled the game so completely that Stoke were barely able to bring their much-vaunted wingers into play – yet at no point did Pulis, say, sacrifice a big man in the box for a third central midfielder in order to establish some possession.  It simply isn’t how they work.
So I’d criticise the Plan A for its own sake approach – but it’s worth noting that both Pulis and Guardiola have on occasion toyed with fundamentally changing the squad in order to accommodate another plan, by purchasing the likes of creative attacker Tuncay Şanli, or classic ‘big man’ Zlatan Ibrahimovic.   Neither were given a great deal of game time, however – each manager appearing not to trust his man for almost diametrically opposed reasons.  They’d dabbled with the other man’s style of play and they didn’t care for it at all.

The reason I bring all of this up after the kind of stultifyingly boring Championship game that inspired me to set this blog up in the first place is that I think we’re in for a test now.  Derek McInnes has come in and, be fair, started rather brilliantly.  Even after the recent slump, 15 points from his first 10 games is pretty decent for a team struggling at the foot of the table on his arrival.  We’ve looked more confident, more solid and much more dangerous, our best players seeing a lot of the ball and using it well.  But apart from his very first game, we’ve played the same formation every time – 4-5-1 with the flanks, and a controlling CM, vital.  It gave us that great early four-wins-and-a-draw-from-five run.  It gave us a way out of the bottom three.

But recently it’s been less fruitful, with defeats against Middlesbrough and Derby sandwiched by draws, a decent one at Watford and this less than impressive one against relegation fellow-travellers Forest.  One goal in three says that teams have worked us out, worked out who you stop and who you worry about less.  It’s not McInnes’ fault but we’ve few creative players in this side and as such we’re dangerously one-dimensional.
He’ll go into the transfer market, he says, which is fair enough and is the closest he’s come to criticising his inherited squad.  But I think we’ll need to see a bit more than that to keep doing as we’re doing.  Like Pulis, like Guardiola, he’s made small moves in the direction of a Plan B – generally this means bringing Brett Pitman on for a midfielder to create a 4-4-2.  But sadly that’s yet to work and in fact it’s cost us points, done at 0-0 and 1-1 in the games prior to this, both of which were lost.  After 15 or so fairly mediocre 4-4-2 minutes against Forest, Nicky Maynard was replaced by Kalifa Cisse so that 4-5-1 could see out the final spell of the game.

He’s said that actually he prefers two men up top, and that certainly seems to be how his St Johnstone side lined up.  He doesn’t feel he can yet do it with this squad and I sympathise completely – we have too many midfielders who can do one thing well, whether that’s tackle, pass or mark, but not much else, and you need multi-faceted players in a middle two.  But the change over recent weeks has been notable and stark.  Not only are we getting fewer points, we’re doing it against sides who are trying to stop us playing rather than assuming they can impose their own game on us.  This is a compliment of sorts I suppose, our good form’s been noted, but it’s a new problem and will need a new solution.

The next two games are both away: against Coventry, bottom, and Southampton, top.  The first is like Guardiola’s Barça playing Getafe; the second, Pulis’ Stoke playing Manchester City.  They will be very different games.  McInnes is paid to compete in both; it will be fascinating to see how well he does.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

29 November 2011 - Watford 2 Bristol City 2

I should make something clear about my last entry; I’m certainly, certainly not saying there’s anything wrong with preferring the more cerebral players to their dynamic colleagues.  I very often do so myself – I’d always take a Pirlo over a Totti, or an Iniesta over a Villa.  Players who do their bit; who contribute wholeheartedly to a team, who keep themselves at peak fitness, don’t get disciplined on a regular basis, who control a game rather than seek to stamp their mark on it, whilst still having high standards of technical ability – these are the players I’m talking about.  Players I respect the most.

Players like Gary Speed.

I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather have been that week than at a football match. It felt like the natural, right place to be.  At the heart of the football community, the community that had been so shaken that weekend.  I’d been at Bristol Temple Meads station the previous Sunday, still buzzing from the Southampton triumph, when my phone started to go.  And didn’t stop.  That’s just me; I can’t imagine what the day would have been like for someone even remotely close to Speed.

Football did this well.  An appropriately solemn Match of the Day 2 featured the almost unbearably moving spontaneous minute’s applause at Swansea, which set the tone for a rolling week of mourning, at both midweek games like this one and at the following weekend’s fixtures.

The minute’s silence at Vicarage Road, dedicated both to Speed and a member of the armed forces from nearby Northwood who’d lost his life in Afghanistan, was of course immaculately observed.  It’s pleasing how commonplace that is; football fans don’t have a reputation as angels but you rarely hear a silence broken.  There’s something very powerful about twelve thousand or so maintaining complete silence, the sense that a public contract has, just for now, been renegotiated in the service of something bigger.  It’s why I’m a bit ambivalent about the fashion for applause – it was phenomenal at the Liberty Stadium, wonderful, but it lacks the power and therefore I think the significance of a silent gesture.

I think that by the end of the week football was feeling perversely good about itself.  The circumstances were utterly tragic but there was a genuine sense of communion fostered.  Football gets a lot of brickbats, generally from fans of rugby or cricket, and it’s nice to be able to show that we can do dignity, respect and grace.  My concern though is that we extrapolate football fans showed dignity and respect to mean football has a dignified and respectful culture.  Because one week of applause doesn’t make that so.

The culture of football remains enormously disrespectful and pretty undignified.  What’s respectful about Andre Villas-Boas publically berating the latest referee to cost him, as he sees it, three points?  What’s dignified about grown men throwing themselves to the ground in mock-agony, heaving themselves up again and engaging in some elaborate pantomime of imaginary cards, clasped hands and stricken visages?
And where does this come from?  It comes from a desperation to win at all costs.   Whinge, complain, throw yourself around enough and you’ll get something eventually.  Nobody would do it if that wasn’t the case.

The darker side of this though is that football is also about the creation, and exploitation, of weaknesses in the opposition.  When Luis Suarez reacts to Fulham – Fulham! – fans berating him for being a cheat, he’s letting slip a “weakness”, so he’s going to get it all the more.  Any player marked out as different in some way is subject to this.  Terraces are very good at coming up with chants customised to the oddities of an individual player.  That’s fine as far as it goes – these chants can often be witty and they praise as much as condemn – but each chant causes further layers of insularity and, I think, fear to accrete  around the game.

The way to survive is a) not to let on that you’re different and b) not to show a sign of weakness.  But how healthy can that possibly be?  The world outside football is pretty damn diverse, and in general it tries to find a place for people who don’t have the thick carapace to shrug off the crap they get.  Football doesn’t.  It crushes, relentlessly, through its ingrained culture, the smallest difference, and it punishes those who slip or reveal too much of themselves.

I’m not going to speculate on what caused Gary Speed to do what he did.  That isn’t my place.  But one can’t help wondering how football’s boot-camp stiff-upper-lip culture contributed to that public tragedy.  And perhaps football should pause between pats on the back and ask how a man who’d spent his life in football felt he had no option, inside or outside the game, but to take his own life.

Gary Speed had both dignity and respect.  It’s part of why he was so loved.  But perhaps it would be good to promote a culture in which that doesn’t stand out quite so much.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

26 November 2011 - Bristol City 2 Southampton 0

5% of football justifies the remaining 95%.  You spend so much time, money and mental energy on travelling to games, watching 90 minutes of misplaced challenges and defensive errors, come away beaten and wonder what you could have been doing with all that money on all those Saturdays.  But occasionally, along comes a game that reminds you why you do it.  Specifically it reminds you that there are feelings that lucre and relaxed weekends along just won’t give you.

I’m not going to pull the old rhetorical switcheroo here.  This really was one of those afternoons, and to be a bit more specific Albert Adomah’s performance was about as good an attacking display as I’ve ever seen from a home player at Ashton Gate.  It was one of those days where every time he got the ball, the decibels pushed on up as he pushed on forward, and most of the time he justified the expectation, claiming the opening goal and setting Maynard on his way to score the deflected winner.

What those 5% of football matches give you is a buzz that I’m not going to even try to quantify.  There’s no feeling like it and I’d have no idea where to start if asked to explain it to a football sceptic.  It doesn’t have anything to do with the rational mind, it’s all working at what I unscientifically feel must be the back of the brain.  It’s visceral, exhilaration rather than reason.  It’s a diluted version of how players must feel when they hit the back of the net, the feeling they call “better than sex”.  Now, let’s not get carried away here and if I had to choose only one of the two for life then football would go I’m afraid, but there are parallels here – every run of Adomah’s, every raking crossfield pass from Kilkenny, every time Maynard brings the ball under control in the box, the expectancy rises.  Somewhere in the minds of the watching thousands, a gate opens and adrenalin, and hormones, start to pour through, more and more as an attack develops and the chance gets clearer, more and more and higher and louder is the voice and more involuntary are the thrusts forward as we lose control of our bodies and then...


(Or, more commonly, frustration and an unwillingness to look your partner in the eye – but let’s go with ecstasy today.)

I’m convinced that this is why attacking players nearly always win the Player of the Year awards (one goalkeeper and three defenders have one the Ballon d’Or ever.  So no Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi or Dino Zoff, but prizes for Owen, Keegan and Papin).  There’s nothing inherently  more memorable about a goal than a goal-saving tackle, it doesn’t take more skill to do one than the other – indeed given that a striker can take three chances out of eight and be a hero, yet a defender must make eight blocks out of eight in order even to be noticed, one could argue it’s far more difficult.  But we remember the times our bodies got caught up in it all and our mental chemistry was left scrambled.  We go, in the crudes possible terms, for the fuck of the year, which you wouldn’t think you’d get from Lionel Messi to look at him but there you go.

I accept that conceptualising it this way is a bit awkward but it makes me feel even more satisfied that preening gratification-junkie Cristiano Ronaldo spent the entirety of last season coming second.

This, of course, has led to a rise in football journalism of the New Seriousness – of trying to think with the Id rather than the Ego, of looking at the unhighlighted player and saying, look, you thought Man Utd’s treble was largely down to the midfield but it was really Ronnie Johnsen what done it.  I think there’s a belief that highbrow football appreciation should be about more than that, that sophistication demands a different weighting of qualities, that a 45-yard screamer is just a big hit and not, therefore, the Goal of the Tournament winner that Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s effort so manifestly was.  (Tyldesley’s description here of this goal having “a touch of fantasy” makes my case rather eloquently for me, I think.)

It’s a view I have a lot of sympathy for but it’s essentially a sexless position, it’s about being sober, dispassionate, uninvolved and all those other things that make for a great atmosphere at the Emirates every weekend.  A great defensive performance is a thing of beauty, of mastery of a craft, something which can be enjoyed in a professorial manner.  So’s a really, really well-made bed.  It’s not to the detriment of either the defender or the bed that their role will rightly be forgotten come the climax.  Indeed it may seem unfair that they don’t get the recognition they deserve.  But we’ve established that going to football is a mad, mad thing to do, that there are far better ways to spend one’s life.  Rationality, like defending, like owning a bloody good bed, can only take you so far.  At the peak of the peaks you’re deserted by rationality and consumed by joy – and it’s those moments, and who took you there, that you’ll remember for ever.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that when I claimed at the end that Liam Fontaine was the man of the match, I was right to highlight his defensive excellence but I was revealing myself as a bit of a geek.  Because in my hind-brain, which I listen to less than I should, it was Adomah all day long.