Martin Jol Can’t Win

30 08 2011

by Adam Bate

More often than not, football managers find themselves in a new job because the previous incumbent had failed to meet expectations. It usually means taking over a team said to be ‘in crisis’ and, if you’re Harry Redknapp, might be something worth mentioning at every available opportunity.

Martin Jol is a manager without this luxury. He has taken over a Fulham side that has exceeded expectations in recent seasons. Roy Hodgson guided the club to a Europa League final in 2010 and Mark Hughes followed this up with an impressive eighth place finish last time around. As a result, Jol could well be on a hiding to nothing – do well and he’s reaping the benefits from the work of others; fail and he must be the man to blame.



Chalkboard Analysis – Positive Start For Wolves

24 08 2011

*A version of this post appeared on WolvesBlog earlier this week.
** All chalkboards courtesy of The Guardian and powered by Opta data.

Five Things We Learned From Wolves vs Fulham – August 21st 2011
by Adam Bate

Johnson to the Rescue

The signing of Roger Johnson has obviously excited Wolves fans. It seems too much to dare to hope that one man can transform last season’s 17th leakiest Premier League defence into a formidable unit. However, he’s made a positive start and he’s done so by doing the things that earned him such praise at Birmingham City – tackling, blocking and intercepting. Johnson managed more successful tackles than any other player on the pitch on Sunday.

Roger Johnson made more successful tackles than any other player

Henry Still Important

The dirty Wolves tag is one that haunted Mick McCarthy and his side for much of the 2010-11 campaign and, for many, Karl Henry personified all that was wrong with that team. The player himself was clearly affected by the controversy but he has begun this season in encouraging form by doing what he does best – tracking runners, pressing the ball and making interceptions. Henry intercepted the ball high up the field on five occasions on Sunday. Astonishingly, this was four more than the entire Fulham team combined. Jol’s side preferred to sit back before pressing the ball but only succeeded in inviting Wolves onto them. The contrast between Henry and one of his chief detractors, Danny Murphy, was stark. The Fulham captain did not attempt let alone succeed in making a tackle in the entire contest.

Contrast Karl Henry's midfield interceptions with the entire Fulham team

Stearman’s Role

The inclusion of Richard Stearman at right-back was arguably the most controversial selection at the start of the season. Kevin Foley remains a firm favourite and Ronald Zubar has become a cult hero. In particular, the case for Foley’s recall was enhanced by an assured second half performance at Ewood Park during which the Irishman completed more passes than any other Wolves player. However, Mick McCarthy has expressed concerns about the size of his midfield and clearly favours Stearman’s height in the back line. Although it was Stephen Ward who made the most high profile interception of the day, Stearman actually made five to Ward’s spectacular one and it was noticeable that he frequently tucked in and won key headers at the far post. Indeed, the heat maps show the contrasting roles that the two full-backs had on Sunday. Stearman had a higher percentage of the ball than Ward in every equivalent zone within Wolves’ half, while the attacking left-back enjoyed an astonishing 51% of his possession in the opposition’s half. Foley may be the ball player but that is not currently the role that McCarthy is looking for from his right-back.

Richard Stearman & Stephen Ward - full-backs with different roles

Shoot, Shoot, Shoot

Wolves’ shoot on sight policy may have veered into the self-indulgent in the second half, with some fairly ambitious efforts, but Jamie O’Hara and Stephen Hunt in particular have added a goal threat from midfield. The twenty shots attempted against Fulham were more than Wolves had managed in any home game last season.

More shot attempts than any home game in 2010-11

Left is Right for Jarvis… not Hunt

Inverted wingers have been de rigueur for several seasons now and Mick McCarthy seems to finally be embracing the trend. Although Matt Jarvis provided the assist for Steven Fletcher against Blackburn with an orthodox cross from the right byline, McCarthy saw enough at Ewood Park to decide to utilise Jarvis and Stephen Hunt on the opposite flanks from the outset against Fulham. He got his reward as both wingers cut inside onto their stronger foot to help set up the goals – with Jarvis even coming inside to fire home for the second. While Jarvis has long enjoyed more success on the left-wing, there had been some debate as to Hunt’s preferred flank but playing from the right appears to allow the busy Irishman greater options with the ball at his feet. Lacking Jarvis’ electric pace, Hunt is less focussed on getting to the byline and more keen to drift around in search of space. This is borne out by the heatmaps that indicate Hunt enjoyed 25% of his possession in central areas compared to Jarvis’s 12%. As with the full-backs, McCarthy appears less concerned with symmetry – instead keen to allow the players to play to their strengths.

Matt Jarvis hugs the touchline while Stephen Hunt roams

Interview with Patrick Collins

23 08 2011

*This is an interview that appeared on Danny Last’s excellent European Football Weekends site on Saturday 20th August 2011.

by Adam Bate

Patrick Collins has been the chief sports writer of the Mail on Sunday since the newspaper’s launch in 1982. He has won the prestigious SJA Sports Writer of the Year award five times across three different decades.

Thanks for talking to EFW. As we speak, the Premier League has just got up and running again. Are you looking forward to the new season?

Yeah it’s always good value isn’t it. I kind of think it comes one month too soon though and can then linger a little too long. I love track and field, for example, but it has been squeezed out. Starting the football season before we’ve played the third Test match doesn’t feel right but football doesn’t give a toss. I’m opposed to the idea of the Premier League. It was conceived in greed and I much prefer the old system where money was distributed more evenly. It was a co-operative. You could get a team like Nottingham Forest or Derby County winning the title. Now there are only four to six who can possibly be competitive.

So it’s fair to say you’re not happy with the direction in which the game is going. There are sheikhs and oligarchs on the one hand, bankruptcy and administration on the other.  Should we be worried?

Yes. Some of the people should not have passed the fit and proper persons test. Thaksin Shinawatra turned up with Amnesty International and other human rights organisations telling us how bad he was and it was just ignored. It was disgraceful. The old directors weren’t great but now it’s shameless. And what’s made the disparity worse are the parachute payments which I think are now £16m a year for three years? The intention is to create a closed shop. Now when people dream about their club they dream of an Abramovich or a passing sheikh. The game is better than that.

But there are still lots of things to enjoy in the game. We have Lionel Messi, right?

Indeed. I don’t think the game has ever been played so well. I’ve never come away from a game feeling quite like I did after the 2011 European Cup Final. It cannot get better than that. The speed and the audacity – I’ve never seen anything like it.

High praise from a Charlton Athletic fan! It’s been a good start to the season. Do you have high hopes under Chris Powell?

He’s a great choice. I hope they can find some money to support him as he’s a nice bloke. Charlton defied the odds under Alan Curbishley and what has happened since shows how it can go wrong. People were saying he had taken us as far as he could when the club was seventh or eighth in the league! A few bad decisions and it was gone – a club that had been seen as so well run too.

Do you still get the chance to go and watch Charlton much?

I go as often as I can and certainly to the big games. If I didn’t have to report I’d go most weeks.

Aside from the Valley, what’s your favourite ground in England?

After all these years, it’s still a thrill going to Old Trafford. The Emirates is an extraordinary stadium and Anfield is Anfield. But strangely the ground I have come to appreciate is Portsmouth’s. I have no obvious affiliation with the club but I always look forward to going. Fratton Park is very old fashioned and looks like it’s about to fall down but I love it.

How about away trips in Europe?

I loved Turin, especially when it was the old Stadio Comunale. I went to the opening of the Stade de France which is a marvellous stadium. You can’t beat the two big Spanish grounds and Celtic Park on a European night is an amazing experience. One slightly different memory that stays with me is watching England play in Bulgaria back in the 1970s. The press table in Sofia was set up about three yards in from the touchline with a little parasol. I remember Trevor Brooking and others crashing into this table. You could hear every tackle – it was a unique experience.

Away from football you’ve been a big supporter of the 2012 Olympics in London. That must be something you’re hugely looking forward to?

What can I say? I believe it’s the biggest and best thing that’s happened to sport in this country. Even this week there were a few mocking stories in the news but people turned out in huge numbers to see Mark Cavendish at the road race test event in Surrey.  There is a passion for it. This will be my tenth summer Olympics and nobody has approached it with this enthusiasm.

So does some of the cynicism about London 2012 frustrate you?

It does! I genuinely think we went into it with the best motives. I know [Lord Sebastian] Coe and it’s the job he was born to do. I remember going up a primitive viewing hatch with him overlooking the site and wondering how he could possibly get this done. It was just wasteland. It was poison. It’s closer to the centre than any Olympics I can remember and it has been completely regenerated. There are good people involved in the construction too. I don’t think it was commercially or politically motivated and the public response has been great. But then, Britain always does events well. I remember the Tour de France prologue a few years back and the crowds were bigger than in France. When athletes do amazing things people get behind them.

And beyond that, do you think you’ll be going out to Brazil to cover the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics?

Oh that’s too far ahead to say! Let’s just say it’s probably not the location the England football team would have chosen.

Are you worried for the future of newspaper journalism then – what do you think the future holds?

Of course it’s worrying. However, those in the print medium were strangely heartened by what happened following the demise of the News of the World. Some thought people just wouldn’t buy another paper but the overall market didn’t noticeably shrink. There’s still a newspaper-buying public out there and we sell an unbelievable amount. I think my own paper is selling two and a quarter million so I’m not one of the absolute doom and gloom brigade.

How has your job changed over the years? Do you feel under more pressure for online hits and selling papers or was it always like that?

Not so much that aspect of it but it is a very different environment from, say, 15 years ago. For a Sunday paper you could get an idea on the Tuesday or Wednesday and know it would be ok for the weekend. Now everyone is so thorough that the idea wouldn’t keep, so it’s ten times harder to write a Sunday column. The emphasis now is on breaking news. You see the banner on the TV channels. It clearly isn’t breaking news but that’s how everyone expects it to be delivered these days.

Twitter is a part of that. I noticed you referred to Joey Barton’s tweets in your column last week. Do you think you’ll ever have a Twitter account?

Absolutely not! This job takes all of my time as it is and most of the grounds are not terribly helpful with Wi-Fi. I genuinely don’t know anything about it and I don’t want to know. I realise that makes me a Luddite but when I see Joey Barton and Robbie Savage are on there I cannot imagine it’s terribly appealing. I know Paul [Hayward] does it now doesn’t he? Paddy Barclay had a book out recently and I went to the launch. I was sitting next to Henry Winter and every so often the phone would come out and he’d be sending these tweets. I must have been incredibly boring.

In the meantime, you’ve still got one of the best jobs in the world haven’t you?

Easily. Golly, I never ever doubt that. I get a terrific kick out of it still. Even this week I was at Edgbaston watching England win the series against India. It’s wonderful seeing an event like that.

Agreed. Thanks for talking to EFW, Patrick.


What if it’s the Players not the Structure?

17 08 2011

by Adam Bate

Even in a non-tournament year the summer inevitably brought scrutiny upon English football. A 2-2 home draw with Switzerland kicked things off and a winless European U21 Championship campaign sent the doom-mongers into overdrive. Hopefully you all had your checklists at the ready because the key points were dutifully covered ad nauseam. We need small sided possession-based games at grassroots level. Where are all the qualified coaches? And why was the construction of the national facility at Burton delayed for so long anyway? 

When there are legitimate factors such as these holding English football back, it can appear disingenuous to focus on more short-terms issues such as the players themselves. But could there be too much emphasis on strategy, systems and structures?

In 2001 the England cricket team once again suffered defeat at the hands of their Australia counterparts. It was a seventh successive Ashes series defeat and, quite understandably, saw calls for a complete overhaul of the English game. Graeme Wright, the editor of the 2002 Wisden almanack, gave this assessment:

“Some argue that the gap between county and Test cricket is so wide that another tier, regional cricket, is needed. It seems unlikely to happen, but its very presence in the debate is further confirmation that the county structure is failing England. There are simply not enough good young English players coming into professional cricket to sustain an environment that produces Test cricketers.”

Less than a decade later, England comprehensively defeated the Australians Down Under for the first time in over twenty years. It was a third Ashes loss in four contests for Australia and prompted a far-reaching review of their game. Losing captain Ricky Ponting said Australian state cricket would come under the microscope as he believed it was not as strong as it needed to be. He also pointed out that club cricket and junior cricket should be investigated. Ponting added: “I think the whole structure of Australian cricket needs looking at. At the moment it appears as though we’re not producing enough high-quality Test cricketers.”

It may seem trite to point out that the loss of Shane Warne, Adam Gilchrist and Glenn McGrath – three ‘once in a lifetime’ players – probably had something to do with it. But this is life. History is written by the winners. The losers are condemned to a period of introspection.

In the world of football, Spain currently leads the way. As a result, the tiki-taka style and Barcelona’s La Masia academy are now the key reference points for all that’s good about the game. However, it is perhaps worth remembering that not so long ago the French model was the one England aspired to. The 1998 World Cup win sparked countless articles extolling the virtues of the Clairefontaine academy near Paris.

Now, undoubtedly, the institution at Clairefontaine is a credit to French football. But the role it played in France’s success was curiously overplayed. Of the World Cup winning side, only Thierry Henry actually attended the facility. Players such as Didier Deschamps, Laurent Blanc, Marcel Desailly and Bixente Lizarazu were veterans of the failed attempt to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. There was also, of course, a genius in the ranks by the name of Zinedine Zidane. No matter. The narrative had been decided. This was a triumph for the French system.

In a world where results are everything, the notion that England can learn from France has started to fade. France’s failure to get beyond the group stages at the 2002 and 2010 World Cups has seen to that. Indeed, a statistic that often gets overlooked when people seek to herald the death of English football is that the national team is one of only four – along with Brazil, Germany and Mexico – to reach the knockout stages of the last four World Cups. Far from being under-achievers, England are instead a model of consistency.

For much of the past decade, the identity of the England football team has been shaped by the dual presence of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard in midfield – dynamic footballers who favour long-range passing and a high tempo approach. The national team now seems likely to go down a different route with the emergence of players such as Jack Wilshere, Tom Cleverley and Josh McEachran that can control the game from the centre of the pitch. All possess excellent technique and favour a short passing game. In other words, they are exactly the sort of players that English football is supposed to be unable to produce. 

This is not to say that England are suddenly going to become world-beaters. And yet, it does highlight the fact that key individuals can help define a football team. The infrastructure of football in England needs to be improved and it is certainly better to address that than merely shrug and wait for world-class players to come along. In the meantime, let’s just keep a bit of perspective the next time an England U21 side struggles to pass the opposition off the park.

Michael Owen & Pippo Inzaghi – The Poacher Clings On

9 08 2011

by Adam Bate

I am now writing as a featured contributor for Life’s a Pitch – the BT football website for big interviews, expert pundits and blogs from the UK’s top writers.

My first piece takes a look at the reasons why – in a world where the poacher is becoming increasingly redundant – Michael Owen and Pippo Inzaghi have been handed contract extensions by two of the biggest clubs on the planet.

You can read the piece by clicking on the link below:


Balotelli, Mancini & The Schizophrenia of the Manager

4 08 2011

by Adam Bate

The brief furore surrounding Mario Balotelli’s fluffed backheel and subsequent substitution by Roberto Mancini left the public divided. Was this just the latest indication of a player on the verge of a mental breakdown or a manager over-reacting to a bit of fun in a pre-season knockabout?

There’s little need to wade further into that debate. Besides, it was the comments of the irate coach himself that really intrigued. Mancini said: “In football you always need to be professional, always serious.”

For anybody who had the pleasure of seeing ‘Mancio’ at the peak of his powers it was quite a statement. The diminutive forward was as imaginative as they come; a cunning player whose creativity knew no bounds – and all done while making it look oh so easy. In short, he was Dimitar Berbatov turned up to eleven.

So what to make of this new-found demand for seriousness? Instinctively, it feels desperately sad. In a world where sheikhs and oligarchs dictate the landscape, a joyless and neutered Mancini is surely the final straw.

And yet, he is in fact just the latest in a long line of players who have sung a different tune once their name has appeared on the office door.

George Graham is remembered for his regimented approach to management. He valued hard-work and commitment above everything. But this was a man who, in his playing days, had fully justified the nickname ‘Stroller’.

He may have had a lackadaisical approach to playing the game but this actually seemed to harden his attitude to similar-minded players when he became a manager. Like the father who knows exactly what his daughter’s boyfriend is after, Graham was quick to dispose of ‘Champagne’ Charlie Nicholas. At Tottenham Hotspur it was the mercurial David Ginola that Graham sought to ease out of the club at the earliest convenience.

When it comes to a manager’s outlook on the game, the player he was would appear to have little bearing on the characteristics he looks for in others. Moreover, it would also seem to have minimal impact on that manager’s tactical outlook too.

Arsene Wenger was a sweeper in his playing days at Strasbourg and in his first season with Arsenal he was happy to utilise a 3-5-2 system. Perhaps he envisaged a player with his intelligence stepping out from the back. However, he soon realised the benefits of the back four he had – as well as the limitations of three stopper centre-backs – and thus made redundant the position in which he used to play.

Sir Alex Ferguson was an out-and-out centre forward with an enviable goalscoring record. These instincts didn’t stop him pioneering one of the first versions of a strikerless formation seen in English football. He had come to recognise that the centre forward of old was dead – winning the Champions League in 2008 with a flexible front three of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez.

Kenny Dalglish, like the two men discussed above, is one of only five men to have coached a team to the Premier League title. Dalglish the player, and indeed Dalglish the Liverpool manager, is remembered as an exponent and advocate of the ‘pass-and-move’ style. But these footballing beliefs were flexible enough for him to create a title-winning side at Blackburn that saw no need for a Dalglish-type player. He instead opted to fashion a simple 4-4-2 with Stuart Ripley and Jason Wilcox as the one-dimensional wingers, together with Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton operating in tandem as old-fashioned number 9s.

These are just the most high profile examples. There can be few men more evangelical in their devotion to the beautiful game than Tony Mowbray. He is a coach who has suffered for his art – overseeing a West Bromwich Albion side that passed their way to relegation before constructing a Celtic side for which defending was little more than an afterthought. Bizarre then that Mowbray had found fame as the classic no-nonsense centre-back – the man who, as Celtic captain, had invented the pre-game huddle, a move in synch with his tub-thumping image.

It would seem that we shouldn’t be surprised by Mancini’s incongruous views regarding the importance of seriousness. Who knows what events might occur in twenty years time. Perhaps we will see a flabbergasted Mario Balotelli berating a young buck for not punishing the opposition with the requisite sobriety?