Top 5: Great Assists

28 05 2010
We’ve been looking for a decent reason to put up the Guti back heel for some time. Here’s a hastily complied list of great assists, giving us the perfect seamless excuse…
Ok, not strictly an assist, but what a pass…

Ramón Quiroga – Peru vs Poland – 1978

26 05 2010
As England fans, most of us have grown up on a diet of very straight laced goalkeepers. Whilst Jens Lehmann is urinating behind goals and throwing opposition forwards boots onto the roof of the net, we’ve had David Seaman’s pony tail, David James playing computer games a little bit too much and Rob Green hilariously having England’s Number 6 stitched into his gloves. 

Any excuse for a Jens Lehmann video…

It is fair to say that no one does crazy goalkeepers quite like the South Americans. Rene Higuita, Jose Luis Chilavert and Jorge Campos easily roll off the tongue. One man often gets forgotten though, Ramón Quiroga may not have had the longevity of madness as the others, but his performance for Peru against Poland at the 1978 World Cup deserves to be celebrated. Kindly, the short video below begins with a very good save, luckily for us it also includes a few other things. I don’t know what I prefer, the Boris Johnson-esque rugby tackle, his amusing reaction to the referees card, or the cackling commentator in the background…

Top 5: Italia ’90 Moments

26 05 2010

 Italia ’90 is one of my favourite World Cups, the great players involved, the official song that sent shivers down the spine and the sensational haircuts sported by the protagonists. The tournament sadly didn’t go to plan. Instead of an England vs Italy final pitching Roberto Baggio against Paul Gascoigne, we had the brutally efficient Germans against the barbaric Argentinians, both of whom arrived in the final on penalty shoot outs in games they should have lost. The final fittingly featured the first two sendings off in a World Cup Final and was decided by a German penalty. Anyway, bitter rant aside, here are my top 5 moments from this tournament…


Roberto Baggio’s goal against Czech Republic

From the gentle, swaying symmetry of the run, to the delicate drop of the shoulder before the exquisite finish, everything about this goal was so perfect.  It was the goal Nessun Dorma was meant to accompany and it marked the arrival of Il Divino Codino at the tournament.


The Cameroon team’s efforts  in stopping Claudio Cannigia in the opening game

Those who referred to Cameroon as a ‘breath of fresh air’ in Italia ’90 were almost certainly football romantics and definitely not from Argentina. Their 1-0 win over the defending champions in the opening game was down in no small part to their robust approach to defending (given Argentina’s performance against the Italy and Germany later on in the tournament, no sympathy is due), which is perfectly summed up by the two unsuccessful attempts to stop Claudio Cannigia and the final successful one.  


Frank Rijkaard spitting in Rudi Voller’s ear

There’s no love lost between Holland and Germany (those darn continentals can be such a fractious bunch) and this bad tempered clash finally came to a head with Rijkaard and Voller being sent off for a spot of handbags. Rijkaard’s timing and accuracy were typically Dutch, while the look on Rudi’s face when he realises what Frank has done to his favourite mullet is priceless.


David Platt’s last minute winner against Belgium

Make no mistake, this game was pretty turgid. England were appalling (I recently saw a rerun of the entire fixture on ESPN, for those of you questioning my memory skills), with the exception of Scifo’s shooting it had few highlights. But the conga-inducing finish by Platt means England fans will always remember this game fondly.  Gazza’s surging run to win the free kick should be taken in the context of two hours played in Italian summer heat, what an engine that boy had.


Gazza’s Tears

I’m sure you don’t need a youtube clip to picture this. Having picked up a booking for a frankly atrocious and unnecessary tackle against Belgium, Gazza went into the semi final against Germany knowing one booking would see him miss the final. There are many enduring images from that night, Lineker’s look to the bench, Bobby Robson wistfully staring at his feet and Gazza’s anguish written all over his face. It’s only when you look back at Italia ’90, you realise what a talent he was. A genuine box to box midfielder, who would put his foot in when needed, but could also ghost through the opposition like they weren’t there.

Tactics at the World Cup – A Look Back and Forth

25 05 2010

When you think of the  World Cup what comes to mind? Maybe it is 1966 and all that, Pele’s near misses in ’70, the Hand of God in ’86? Maybe its Tardelli’s celebration or even Roger Milla’s. However, as well all the magical moments it is worth remembering that, traditionally, the World Cup is often a showcase for tactical innovation too.

From an English perspective, the 6-3 Wembley defeat at the hands of Hungary in 1953 is often considered the watershed moment. The first time England had been beaten at home by continental opposition.. and it was a thrashing, both technically and tactically. The rematch in Hungary only served to highlight the point as England were stuffed 7-1. However, it was the 1954 World Cup that gave the Hungarians the chance to showcase their team to the world.

England vs Hungary 1953 – WM vs embryonic 4-2-4

The Miracle of Berne, a first defeat in 37 games, may have denied Puskas et al their World Cup win in ’54 but the tournament still served as a reminder they were streets ahead. By withdrawing the centre-forward in the then ubiquitous WM formation to a deeper playmaking role, Gusztav Sebes’ Hungarians were able to control games and cause significant confusion for their opponents. The centre-half simply did not know who to mark as the WM faced this newfangled formation. As Jonathan Wilson points out in Inverting The Pyramid – ”Two full-backs, two central defensive presences, two players running the middle and four up front: the Hungarian system was a hair’s-breadth from 4-2-4”. They had invented the formation of the future.

The Hungarian coach Bela Guttmann claimed that his leaving Honved for Sao Paolo in 1956 saw the 4-2-4 transported to South America. The lineage of the formation is far less clear than that. However, the next two World Cups were won with Brazil, aided by the stunning wingplay of Garrincha, using variants of that famous formation first unleashed on the world by the Hungarians years earlier.

By 1966, wing wizards were the last thing on the agenda. The greatest month in England’s footballing history can be remembered in terms of a Russian linesman and Kenneth Wolstenholme’s commentary but it was as much a tactical victory for Sir Alf Ramsey as anything else. Like Viktor Maslov had discovered in the Soviet Union almost simultaneously, Ramsey had realised the benefits of tucking his wide men inside to become de facto right and left-midfielders as opposed to out and out wingers. In doing so, his side was able to dominate the midfield, with the added bonus of Nobby Stiles being able to sit deeper as a holding midfielder with no real creative responsibility. The ‘Wingless Wonders’ were born. As Ramsey put it: ”To have two players stuck wide on the flanks, is a luxury which can virtually leave a side with 9 men when the game is going against them”. The new formation saw England able to defeat an Argentina side in the quarter finals that had baffled them in the Maracana two years earlier, before going on to defeat Portugal and Germany to lift the Jules Rimet Trophy.

Eight years on, it was the turn of the giants of South America to be humbled. It was an eye-opening experience for both Argentina and Brazil as they found themselves given lessons in the Total Football being served up by the great Dutch side of ’74. Argentina were beaten 4-0..

A 2-0 win over Brazil followed. In many ways, the flexibility of the Dutch system had its forerunners in the Brazilian teams of years gone by. However, the possession game had been fused with a more high tempo pressing style and the results were astounding. As Tim Vickery points out, they also left a long-term impression on the humbled World Champions of the time:

”Johan Cruyff.. has often lamented that Brazil have turned into an overly pragmatic, counter-attacking team, but Cruyff’s superb Holland side of 1974 played its part in that process. They beat Brazil.. in that World Cup and the pressure they put on the ball left a huge impression on Brazilian coaches. Brazil decided that in order to face the European challenge their players would have to be bigger, stronger, faster, more explosive”.

Dunga’s Brazil perhaps has its roots therefore, in a footballing lesson taught nearly 36 years earlier. His counterpart Maradona is, one could argue, faced with a similar history lesson in attempting to get the best out of Lionel Messi for Argentina. In 1986, Carlos Bilardo took his Argentine side to Mexico on an unimpressive run of form despite the presence of the finest footballer on the planet within his ranks. He decided, maybe in desperation, to unveil to the world a new formation in order to bring success – the 3-5-2.

Bilardo’s reasoning was that with teams no longer using wingers then there was no real need for full-backs – they could be converted to midfielders and played higher up the field. By the Quarter Finals, Maradona was operating as a support striker making it closer to a 3-5-1-1. As Bilardo put it: ”When we went out to play like that, it took the world by surprise because they didn’t know the details of the system”. The rest as they say is history as it took them all the way to World Cup victory.

By the time of the next World Cup in 1990, with the wide midfielders in the system now perhaps more accurately decribed as wing-backs, variants of Bilardo’s formation were all the rage. Even Brazil and England, previously wedded to their back 4’s, were now experimenting with 3 at the back on the grandest of stages. The World Cup as a driver of change once again? It made sense on two counts – firstly, the desire to mimic success; secondly, the desire to ‘match-up’ in order to eliminate any tactical advantage for the opponent.

In more recent times, it may be considered harder than ever to spring a tactical surprise (We still see innovation – even in calamity, Rene Higuita’s antics in 1990 could be considered a forerunner to the sweeper-keepers of the backpass rule era). Things are more homogenised though as cultural diversity diminishes. Almost all the teams at major tournaments have at least a handful of players with experience of top level European football. Furthermore, when you consider the  increase in video evidence and improved scouting in the modern game, you may conclude there is no reason for major tournaments to be the focal point for tactical innovation they once were. For example, the driving force for the decline of 3 at the back probably came from the 4-5-1 in high level club football.  

And yet, as recently as 2004, the European Championship victory of Otto Rehhagel’s man-marking Greek side could be seen, perhaps more than anything else, as a monumental tactical triumph. It has not proven an influential tactic, frankly appearing to be more of a one-off. As the UEFA Technical Director Andy Roxburgh memorably put it though, ”the Greeks had posed a problem the rest of the world had forgotten how to solve”….. Could we see such a thing in South Africa this Summer?

Tactically speaking, the side which is attracting most excitement among afficionados is probably Chile. The Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa has them playing his trademark 3-3-1-3 formation and they certainly qualified in style, playing a fluid attacking system.

My personal view is that whilst tactically interesting, we could just as easily be talking about spectacular failure as success. With David Pizarro on board you could argue it may have been different but the fear has to be that their defensive frailties could well be exposed by Switzerland let alone Spain. Bielsa attempted a variant of this formation with Argentina in 2002. They had more possession, more chances and more corners than any other side in the group stages but still found themselves on their way home. In striving for width high up the field and control of midfield possession, they found themselves vulnerable at the back. Tactically, it would be a shame if one of the teams attempting something different was to do so again but the possibility cannot be ruled out.

A more likely candidate to go all the way in South Africa whilst playing a curious system has to be Brazil.

Dunga has built a team playing an almost unique assymetrical formation with one centre forward and a winger, Robinho, playing high up the field on the left. There is no like for like player on the other flank with Ramires instead operating as a right-midfielder. Of course, this suits Dunga as it will allow him cover for when Maicon (or Dani Alves) advance forward. Thus he has width as well as retaining the element of defensive control he wants centrally. Their strength will lie on the counter-attack as evidenced by the 2nd and 3rd goals against Italy at the Confederations Cup last year:

It may be that this assymetrical approach of Brazil’s – providing a variety of threats to suit the players available – will be the tactic of this World Cup. Intriguingly however, the biggest weakness facing a side that prefers to soak up pressure and hit the opposition fast on the break, is the possibility of coming up against a side that refuses to engage and relies on ultra defensive tactics. Their first opponents will be a North Korea side that shackled Paraguay reasonably effectively last month and against whom even a 1-0 victory could bring disquiet back in Rio de Janeiro. Fascinating.

Elsewhere, we may well be looking to two of the most maligned coaches at the World Cup for the most talked about formations on view. Focus on Maradona’s handling of Messi is inevitable and will most likely remain a talking point for as long as Argentina are in the competition. The traditional Argentine 4-3-1-2 with the playmaking ‘enganche‘ as the ‘1’ has been abandoned in favour of what, to English eyes, will be a very familiar 4-4-2.. even down to the defensive full-backs. Clearly the relationship between Veron and Messi will be key, but with Veron’s legs unlikely to last the pace, the real fascination could be how the formation adapts if they go deep in the competition.

Maradona’s chief rival for ‘most eccentric coach in the tournament’ is France’s Raymond Domenech and he is another capable of springing a surprise. The loss of Diarra presents a quandary for the coach and there is speculation he could utilise a 4-3-3 with Malouda and Gourcuff in midfield. This would be a significant tactical shift and an untypically attacking reaction to the problem, but in a very winnable group it could well be the making of the French side. 

There are others of course. Are Paraguay set to make a 3-4-3 work? Will North Korea’s defensive strategy be the talk of the early stages in the so-called Group of Death? Closer to home, in the possible absence of Gareth Barry could England be set to reinvent the box-to-box midfielder with Lampard and Milner in midfield?

Whatever happens in South Africa you can be sure coaches everywhere will be picking the bones out of it, analysing it and ruminating upon it for some time to come. What new problems will sides pose? What solutions can be found? We’ll soon find out, and I cannot wait…

Putting a dampener on Blackpool’s wonderful weekend..

24 05 2010

Blackpool manager Ian Holloway

After a dream weekend for Blackpool fans it didn’t take long for the bookmakers to make them odds on for relegation. Talk about putting a dampener on things. We here at Ghostgoal are excited at prospect of seeing the tangerines in the top flight.. but we thought it might be an idea to speak to a fan well-schooled in life spent yo-yo-ing between the Championship and the Premiership. So we emailed a friend of ours, Andrew Benbow, a West Bromwich Albion fan, to discuss it.. I say discuss.. what we got was an essay, but we loved it:

On promotion to the Premiership the mind turns to Only Fools And Horses – ‘we are millionaires!! What now?’
For many fans of newly promoted teams it’s a question that predictably turns into ‘what’s the point?’ Fans are repeatedly told that the Premiership is the Best League in the World, the Only Place to Be, the Promised Land. Yet without a generous billionaire promotion offers little more than an often fleeting possibility to see how the other half live.
Blackpool fans will currently be experiencing the unbridled optimism that a long-awaited promotion brings, yet deep down they will know that the best that they can hope for is to finish 15th. In their heart of hearts, they will know that what they have currently achieved is the potential, and the money, to try be able to push for promotion back into the Premiership following their inevitable relegation.
Five of the last seven play off winners have been relegated the year after, with Hull surviving one more year and West Ham bucking the trend. So the relegation may not be next year, it may even not be the year after (I’m looking at you Stoke) but it will certainly come before they get into the Champions League, it will even come before they get a chance to get into the Europa League.
When the hangover kicks in (I suspect this will be in November, when the optimism is crushed by a pitiful 2-0 home defeat to Bolton) the realisation dawns – being in the Premiership’s only benefits are the chance to be on Match of the Day and more games to be on TV. Whilst there you will be roundly patronised by pundits who don’t know that your best player is left footed and have no idea who your first XI are, yet will freely criticise when they are dropped ahead of an inevitable slaughtering by one of the big four.
Being in the Premiership is a chance to see some of the best players in the world, and see them beat you week in week out. You will soon be wondering if another fruitless trip to a sparkling away ground is really better than a hard-fought win at Deepdale. You will see that looking to get promoted is a true goal, and that praying that a team goes bust and two others are just awful so you can scrape 17th is not really anything to celebrate as what follows? Another desperate attempt to get 17th.
For Blackpool, the Premiership has been the goal of their clubs, but what is the goal now? Being a yo-yo club at the start of the decade was to hear the refrain, ‘we could be the next Charlton!’ At the best of times, this always seemed a hollow refrain offering the chance to finish 12th again, and again, until the fans get restless and the club panics. Look at Stoke fans now, angry at Pulis for the way they play, at Bolton fans wanting to see better football and it is easy to see that survival in the Premiership is not true success.
We are in a unique period in the history of football, one in which even the fans of teams such as Everton have given up on ever being close to winning the title. One in which the team tenth in the Premiership beating the team in second is a huge upset. Even when the team in tenth is at home. One in which the FA Cup has become less important that being fourth in a competition. One in which success is self-perpetuating and every other team is left hoping for an Arab Sheik.
How long can fans follow teams with the realisation that they are there to make up the numbers? This is shown in the utter domination of the media by the big four, arguably plus Spurs and Man City, and is one of the oddities of the current environment – it ignores the fact that more people support the other 86 teams.
Yet attendances remain high, fans buy shirts, and football is more popular than ever. Some things never change, and there’s always next year…
* The writer is a bitter West Bromwich Albion fan, expecting to get relegated next year. He has just renewed his season ticket.

Diego Maradona – Argentina vs Belgium – 1982

20 05 2010

It is one of the most iconic football photographs of all time, an image that sums up the power Maradona held over mere mortals during his career, photographic evidence that one man is capable of single-handedly lifting an entire nation to World Cup glory. But in this age of football pragmatism, where we bestow the title of ‘Special One’ to the most negative coach in a generation, it seems as good a time as any to ask, what in God’s name were the Belgian defenders doing?

From a tactical point of view I think we can see that number six, Franky Vercauteren, is looking to track back and support his full back. From his position he’s trying to steer Maradona down the line and prevent him from coming aside and hurting them (as he did to the Belgians 4 years later). It is also possible to justify the position of the the follicly supreme number 10 Ludo Coeck, who is cutting off a route inside for Maradona. After that it is quite clear that tactics, formation and indeed common sense have gone out the window, they’ve all been replaced with the blind fear that only the great players can inspire in an opposition team.

This photo demonstrates perfectly a secondary effect that having a player like Maradona or Zidane has on a team. At the point this photo was taken fifty percent of the Argentinian side were umarked in vast tracts of the Nou Camp, ready to take full advantage of the situation created by the simpe presence of Maradona. There are few players at the upcoming World Cup who can have a similar effect, it is perhaps fitting then that Maradona will seek to use Lionel Messi to have a similar effect on the opposition in South Africa this summer.

The Battle of Santiago – Chile vs Italy – 1962

19 05 2010
One of the World Cup’s most memorable matches, for all the wrong reasons, but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining. The first foul was 12 seconds in, the first sending off was after 8 minutes. Remarkably, there were only 2 sendings off in total, both for Italy. David Coleman had particularly strong words:
“The most stupid, appalling, disgusting and disgraceful exhibition of football, possibly in the history of the game”.
This was the first time the two nations had played each other, but tension had been brewing between the coutries leading up to the game. In 1960, the Valdivia earthquake, the most powerful earthquake ever recored, killed over 6,000 and caused untold damage in Chile, heavily disrupting their preparations for the World Cup. On visiting Chile in the weeks leading up to the World Cup, two Italian journalists reportedly sent home less than favourable stories about Santiago, describing it as a poverty-stricken hell hole full of loose women. The reports were heavily exaggerated by the Chilean press and the two journalists were forced to flee the country in fear of their lives. An Argentinian journalist, mistaken as an Italian was brutally beaten up in a Santiago bar, illustrating the anger of the Santiagans. 
The game itself views like a compilation of horrible tackles. The police had to enter the pitch, firstly to escort a red carded player off the pitch and regularly in the second half to break up the players. The sly punch at 1:10 is probably my favourite, or possibly the drop kick at 2:10….