Friday, March 26, 2010

Of 'Good Football' and 'Beautiful Football'

Gabrielle Marcotti in an article in the Times elucidated why he thinks good football and beautiful football do not necessarily correlate and on how what constitutes the latter is fundamentally in the eyes of the beholder, a view which I couldn’t have agreed more with. A fascinating case in point is offered by the contrasting fortunes in last season’s Premier League of West Bromwich Albion and Stoke City.

While, West Brom managed at that time by Tony Mowbray played a brand of free flowing football, which I enjoyed watching, Stoke stuck to a more rigid and boisterous approach instilled diligently into them by Tony Pulis. The Baggies, unable to adapt to the rigours of the league and caught up in their seemingly impractical ideals ended the season rooted to the bottom of the table, whereas Stoke who were tipped my most to be certainties for the drop, by adopting a more judicious system, ensured their safety with relative comfort. Stoke’s methods may not appeal to many, but I am sure the fans at the Britannia Stadium would rather watch their team play their present brand of football and enjoy the security of a mid-table finish than watch them employ a more flowing approach and find themselves in a relegation scuffle.

Sam Allardyce, like Pulis, has managed to keep afloat a side of underwhelming footballers thanks largely to a strategy, which even if generating unattractive football in the minds of some has proved mightily effective. In contrast, the likes of Alan Curbishley and George Burley have enjoyed reasonable success with Charlton Athletic and Ipswich Town respectively without overly compromising on the style of play.

At the international level, while Spain won the 2008 European Championship by performing with élan, the previous edition saw Greece adopt a pragmatic approach and emerge as surprise winners. Perceptibly, there are different ways of winning a football game and a manager would want to work within the confines of his squad to produce a type of football that is most effective for his team. Would Greece have won Euro 2004 by trying to play an open style more akin to the Spaniards? I would think not.

Just as some teams have to eschew a dedication to free-flowing football, others need to retain such a commitment, even when faced with the most daunting of prospects. The ultimate aim I would imagine is to play effective football as opposed to football that is merely pleasing to the eyes of some. That brings me to what I consider beautiful, a question which attains greater significance in the backdrop of the forthcoming Champions League quarter-finals tie between Arsenal and Barcelona, a game that pits two teams who play severely enthralling football against each other.

It’s difficult for me to narrow down on any given form of football that I consider most beautiful, for I find beauty in various facets of the game. But I can say with certainty that the pass and move style employed by both Arsenal and Barcelona is something I find utterly satisfying. Between the pair, although the Catalans have enjoyed tremendous success in recent seasons by adopting a fluid system, I believe that Arsenal at their best make an even more exhilarating spectacle. Arsene Wenger’s side though not technically as adept as Barcelona, move the ball quicker and create mesmeric patterns that leave even the viewers feeling a little dizzy.

Simon Barnes in his book, ‘The Meaning Of Sport’, says that you can watch sport out of loyalty; for the pure love of seeing one will against another; in search of narrative; in search of mythic resonance; in search of beauty. I suppose I watch sport for all these reasons and some others, but assuming I was merely searching for beauty, as a sporting contest, the forthcoming tie involving Barcelona and Arsenal is sure to rank amongst the greatest.

A Preview of the Champions League Quarterfinals

Here is a link to my preview of the Champions League quarterfinals.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

From Donovan to Ganguly

Donovan’s loan spell

Landon Donovan returns to MLS after completing his loan spell at Everton. Barring one ignominious moment, which should qualify as one of the misses of the season, Donovan has had an excellent ten week stint. His dynamism and vivacity have proved crucial in Everton’s recovery from an appalling start to the season. It would come as no surprise if one of the bigger clubs in Europe sought to sign him on a permanent basis this summer

Berbatov’s class

Dimitar Berbatov oozed class against Fulham on Sunday. Often criticised for his languorous looking style, Berbatov dropped into the hole behind Rooney to devastating effect. His turn and pass to pick out Rooney for the second of Manchester United’s three goals was particularly notable in a thoroughly majestic performance. The Bulgarian may not be the most prolific of goal scorers, but the intelligence in his passing and movement could be crucial to United in the title run-in.

Alonso’s storming victory

Fernando Alonso stormed to a breathtaking victory at the Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday. Once he passed Sebastian Vettel, whose race was blotted by an exhaust problem to his Red Bull car, Alonso, imperious as ever, finished sixteen seconds ahead of his second placed teammate Felipe Massa. It’s early days yet, but Alonso’s nous coupled with Ferrari’s pace and reliability suggests that the Spaniard is the favourite for this season’s driver’s title.

Beckham’s injury

It would of course be tragic if David Beckham’s career is brought to an end by his ruptured Achilles tendon, but it’s scarcely significant from England’s World Cup standpoint. Although still capable of producing flashes of his old brilliance, Beckham has been past his best for a while now and in my opinion, even if fit, he doesn’t merit a place in England’s squad. The injury gives Capello the freedom to look at younger players with greater pace, players who perhaps deserved a place ahead of Beckham in any event. Adam Johnson of Manchester City, especially on the back of his sumptuous goal against Sunderland on Sunday is one who springs to mind.

Ganguly’s captaincy

Sourav Ganguly’s captaincy in KKR’s opening two games of season 3 of the Indian Premier League has been decidedly impressive. It’s far easier to heap praise on a skipper when his team is winning, but Ganguly’s ability to inspire has withstood the test of time. Particularly in the opening game against Deccan Chargers, Ganguly rung in the changes, innovated with field placing and more than anything else, stayed on the ball while others around him seemed to be drifting when the Chargers looked utterly secure in their run chase. Profligate shot making from the Chargers’ middle order batsmen played its part, but the value of Ganguly’s captaincy mustn’t be underestimated

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The peerless Paul Scholes

Paul Scholes rolled back the years yesterday by producing a flicker of his vintage class in helping Manchester United secure a crucial victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers at the Molineux. In an encounter that was characterised by the mediocrity in the play of both teams, Scholes’ goal represented a rare moment of distinction. Seizing upon an error by Jody Craddock, Scholes, composed as ever, dragged the ball wide of two defenders, before slotting into the bottom right corner with unerring accuracy. With this goal, Scholes joins 18 other players on 100 or more goals, in the Premier League, a landmark which was delayed in its achievement only due to a tactical and seemingly pragmatic shuffle which has seen him positioned deeper in midfield.

Ever since a return to action after recovering from an unusual eye problem in 2006, Scholes has been deployed in a holding role that has seen the goals dry up, if not the class, of which he still has tonnes in reserve. There used to be scores of goals, ranging from finessed headers to full-blooded screamers, but the new role has seen Scholes’ ingenuity restricted to different areas of the pitch. Possessed of pristine touch and an enormously wide range of passing, few have dictated the tempo of a game as well as Scholes has from a position that he was up till then unaccustomed to playing in. Age though had to catch up and particularly this season, he has looked weary and out of pace at times, which seemed to suggest that the end is nigh, but a return to a more familiar position in midfield over the last few games has caused a definite rejuvenation in him.

The goals against Manchester City in the Carling Cup and AC Milan in the Champions League may have had a touch of fortune about them, but they were a product of Scholes’ endeavour to make runs into the box, without abandoning caution, yet with renewed vitality and with a sense of matchless timing. Against Arsenal, in United’s crucial victory, it was only when Carrick and Scholes swapped, with the former shifting to a holding role that United were able to dictate the game and secure victory in a comfortably authoritative manner. His age makes the holding role more suitable, yet his craftiness is put to best use in more advanced positions. Endeavouring to strike a delicate balance, Ferguson has astutely interchanged the position of his midfielders with Scholes tending to start deep, yet shifting further forward over the course of a game in as unconfused a manner as may be possible. Even against Wolves on Saturday, Scholes sat deep to begin with, but as the game wore on and with United struggling to make an impact, Ferguson tweaked his system to ensure a more advanced job for Scholes, which in the end proved the difference.

Scholes himself feels that this could be his last season, but with no obvious replacement available in the squad, a contract is on offer for an additional season, which if Scholes is inclined to carry on, will be signed without any fuss regardless of the finer details, not least the proffered wage. Scholes is one of a kind, a player bereft of modern-day football’s celebrity culture, one possessed with the most imaginative of footballing brains to go with peerless technical polish. No footballer has given me greater pleasure with their exploits on the pitch. Cherish him, whilst he is still there, for there never will be another of his ilk.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Fiver on Bridge, Terry and more

Bridge’s Withdrawal

The consequences of Wayne Bridge’s decision to stay away from international football have been overstated in some quarters. True, if Ashley Cole fails to recover from his injury in time for the World Cup finals, England will be without one of the world’s finest left full backs, but Bridge, even if all was merry between him and Terry, does not represent the ideal replacement. Whilst Bridge is a competent defender, he is ill-equipped to offer consistent attacking width, which England requires of their left back more than most other teams, considering that Steven Gerrard with his natural inclination to drift towards the centre is likely to be deployed on the left of the midfield quartet. Leighton Baines and Stephen Warnock, who are in England’s squad for their friendly against Egypt are both better suited than Bridge to don Cole's role, but their inexperience at the highest level makes me wonder about Phil Neville. Although, Neville has rarely played at left back for Everton, he is no stranger to the position and I would have thought his professionalism and versatility would at the very least have found him a place in the squad.

Terry’s Form

The more direct repercussion of the scandal leading up to Bridge’s withdrawal is John Terry’s abysmal form. Although, the immediate aftermath of the issue’s exposure saw Terry put in a relatively unruffled performance against Burnley, his errors have led to goals in losing causes for Chelsea against Everton, Inter Milan and embarrassingly on Saturday against Manchester City. If Terry’s form continues to spiral downwards, Capello would be forced to look for alternatives, which with Ferdinand’s incessant injury troubles does not bode well for England.

Shawcross’s Tackle

I have watched the video of Ryan Shawcross’s tackle on Aaron Ramsey several times and I am far from convinced of its maliciousness. No doubt, it was a bad tackle and Shawcross thoroughly deserved the red card that he was duly brandished by the referee, but to say that he intended to hurt Ramsey would be excessive, especially on available evidence. Arsenal, of course, will feel hard done by. Ramsey is a superb young talent and it is a terrible shame that he won’t play a part in the title run-in, but Shawcross doesn’t deserve to be maligned purely on the basis of the severity of the injury suffered by Ramsey.

Arsenal’s Recovery

Arsenal, though should take heart from the nature of their comeback after the incident surrounding Ramsey’s injury. The episode itself may have been reminiscent of Martin Taylor’s horrific tackle on Eduardo, two seasons back, but the manner of Arsenal’s recovery against Stoke on Saturday was starkly different from their abject capitulation to Birmingham City. Although the incident was initially met with circumspection, led by an inspired Cesc Fabregas, Arsenal recovered gustily to secure a crucial victory at the Britannia Stadium. Possessing, perhaps the easiest of run-ins amongst the title challengers, with their success against Stoke, Arsenal have ensured that they are in with a great chance of lifting their first piece of silverware since they won the FA Cup in 2005.

Modrić’s goal

Finally, a word on Luka Modrić of whom, I am an unabashed fan. Against Everton, this pass weekend, Modrić apart from putting in a singularly brilliant display capped off a terrific move involving fellow Croats, Niko Kranjčar and Vedran Ćorluka with a chip which was as precise in its execution as it was pristine in its beauty. Breaking free of the shackles of a conventional left sided midfielder, Modrić reemphasised his unique ability to change the rhythm of a game like the great playmakers of years gone by without losing any of the vitality that is essential for survival in modern day football. If Modrić stays free both of injuries and the mysterious virus that has engulfed White Hart Lane, he could play a crucially important role in determining the fascinating race for the final Champions League spot.