Wolves’ boo-boys – a monster of the club’s own making

26 10 2011

by Adam Bate

It’s been a tough week to be a Wolves fan.

The revulsion towards the behaviour of a significant section of Wolves supporters has been widespread – and the criticism has been coming from all angles.

The Guardian’s Barry Glendenning tweeted that the fans were “clowns”, ESPN’s Daniel Pountney suggested they “grow up” and the WSC message boards were alive with the hot topic: “Are Wolves fans fickle?”

But this was nothing compared to the assessment of those within the club itself. Mick McCarthy labelled his detractors “mindless idiots” while captain Roger Johnson had already called the fans “a disgrace”.

Everything points to the conclusion that Wolves fans are ungrateful characters who believe they have a divine right to success.

But there are two sides to this particular story. And although those within the club will now allow people to run with the idea of a small club and its over-demanding fans, for those living in this one-club city a very different picture emerges.

After all, there are many who remember the words of Jez Moxey, the club’s chief executive, back in March of this year when he told supporters:

“The aim is to get us back where everyone thinks we belong. We are kidding ourselves if we think we can usurp Manchester United, but we think we can get to just below that level – in the top three, four or five clubs where we can be competing in Europe.”

It was a remarkable claim as it far outweighed even the long-term ambitions of many a hardcore supporter. And while McCarthy was slightly more pragmatic, his comments in May appeared to buy into the idea of speedy progress:

“Every year I’ve been here we’ve improved. If we survive then I won’t be looking for that experience again – I’ll be looking for the experience of trying to finish in the top ten rather than out of the bottom three.”

When survival did come that month – with just three minutes to spare – the club was quick to announce a breathtaking redevelopment of Molineux that would see three of the four stands rebuilt.

To the surprise of many, it was reported that plans had been drafted that could see the capacity increased to an astonishing 50,000 seats.

The message was clear – this is a club going places – and supporters in a city badly hit by the financial crisis were encouraged to snap up the limited number of season tickets that would be available while Molineux’s capacity would be reduced due to the redevelopment.

Given these grand plans, there was some disappointment when only three players were signed in the summer.

Dorus de Vries joined on a free transfer as a reserve keeper, Roger Johnson arrived to much fanfare and Jamie O’Hara – a key member of the team that had survived on the last day – saw his loan deal made permanent.

But again the word from the club was emphatic. Chairman Steve Morgan told fans in an interview on BBC Radio WM earlier this month that Wolves were the fifth biggest net spenders in the Premier League over the past three seasons having spent more than £40million on new players.

It was a case of horrible timing. On the field, Wolves were embarking on their worst run of defeats in more than a quarter of a century.

Five matches were lost, with the team two goals down by half-time at home to QPR and Newcastle as well as losing the Black Country derby to West Bromwich Albion by two goals to nil.

When this scoreline looked set to be repeated against newly-promoted Swansea, things reached tipping point.

Nothing anybody says will convince people there was anything constructive about the chants heard at Molineux on Saturday.

But those season ticket holders did not pluck their grand ideas from thin air.

For the so-called 3Ms – Moxey, McCarthy and Morgan – this is a monster of their own making.


Rooney – Should he stay or should he go?

19 10 2011

This piece appears in full on TEAMtalk.

The last week has surely confirmed what we all knew already – Wayne Rooney is the most divisive figure in English football.

Wading through the views of journalists, ex-pros and – of course – the TEAMtalk Your Say boards, there appears to be no real consensus of opinion.

While Harry Redknapp and Alan Shearer have been quick to rubbish suggestions that England’s star man should stay at home for Euro 2012, others are calling for Fabio Capello to write him off as a talented liability.

Motormouth Stan Collymore and World Cup winner George Cohen believe Rooney should be dumped from the squad and seem to have the public on their side.

At the time of writing, a Sky Sports poll suggests 68% do not want Rooney selected for England.


Del Bosque right not to shoehorn in Silva

12 10 2011

by Adam Bate

This piece appears in full on TEAMtalk.

It’s easy to feel sympathy for David Silva when he speaks of feeling like a “supporting actor” with the Spanish national team. Silva has certainly been the star man in Manchester City’s ensemble cast so far this season.

But surely with the talent at Vincente del Bosque’s disposal, the Spain coach can be forgiven for not putting Silva centre-stage.

It is one of the curiosities of international football – teams are constructed that see world-class performers left out of the side while lesser lights in other positions are automatic picks.


What’s the Truth about Serie A?

5 10 2011

by Adam Bate

Sam Wallace (The Independent): “You go to Stoke, they’ve got an identity. You go to Bolton and that club’s got an identity. When I watch Serie A you don’t feel that so much about the smaller clubs there.”

Shaun Custis (The Sun): “You watch Serie A do you? I didn’t think people did that anymore. Genuinely, I didn’t.”

Neil Ashton (Daily Mail): “If you watch the last couple of weeks both the games have been 0-0 draws.”

Shaun Custis (The Sun): “Italian football has dropped off the map. You do get the feeling there is so much more competition in this country – you do feel that teams at the bottom can win the big games at any point.”

Sunday Supplement, Sky Sports, 25/09/2011

It’s quite an exchange and while it kicked up a storm on Twitter it may well have tapped into a common view among English football fans.

Thankfully, some of these views can be challenged by looking at the statistics.


Neil Ashton’s facile point that the recent televised games had ended goalless suggests he is of the view that there are fewer goals scored in Italian football. Is this true?

In short, yes it is. Over the past three seasons there have been 2935 goals in Serie A at an average of 2.57 per game. In the Premier League there have been 3058 goals at an average of 2.68 per game.

Interestingly, however, Ashton may be surprised to note that in two of the past three seasons there have been more goalless draws in the Premier League than in Serie A. In total, in the last three completed seasons there have been 98 goalless draws in England compared to 82 in Italy.

So why are there both more goals and more goalless draws in the Premier League than in Serie A? That may have something to do with the heavy beatings that the top teams in England are capable of dishing out on a regular basis – and it strikes at the heart of the debate about competitiveness…


Custis’s claim that the teams at the bottom of the Premier League can win the big games at any point is an interesting one.

If it were true that England’s weakest sides were getting better results against the top teams than their Italian equivalent then that would certainly indicate a greater competitiveness. But it isn’t true.

Comparing the results of the bottom three sides against the top three sides in both England and Italy is revealing in so much as what it does not reveal. It does not bring to light these miraculous results that justify Custis’s “feeling” he gets.

In 2010-11 the three relegated teams from the Premier League (Birmingham City, Blackpool and West Ham United) managed one win, three draws and 14 defeats against England’s top three (Man Utd, Chelsea and Man City).

That one win was for Birmingham against Chelsea (memorable for you Shaun?) and, admittedly, it’s one more than the Serie A sides managed. However, Italy’s bottom three (Bari, Brescia and Sampdoria) did get seven draws against Serie A’s top three (Milan, Inter and Napoli) meaning that they took more points off the top sides than their English equivalent.

Perhaps Custis and co were hinting at a more general competitiveness than is shown in the results. But a look at other key performance indicators only serves to highlight the competitiveness of the Italian league.

The spread of average possession stats for 2010-11 – per the WhoScored website using Opta statistics – show a greater disparity in England (38% to 60%) than in Italy (43% to 59%).

The pass completion rates tell a similar story. The spread in England is from 64% to 84% but in Italy there is remarkably consistent with Lecce bottom of the pile with a respectable 73%.

It’s a similar story so far in 2011-12 and the early indications are that Serie A is set for a wide open title race with just three points separating the top eight.

It adds weight to the argument of Italian football expert James Horncastle when he says: “At this moment in time Serie A is the most competitive it’s ever been.”


The notion of identity is a more difficult matter to prove. And yet, it should come as no surprise that an English person should detect a greater sense of identity among English clubs.

Sam Wallace points out Bolton Wanderers are a club that he sees as having a clear identity – but one wonders whether this identity resonates among the Italian public?

It’s tempting to conclude that this supposed contrast between England and Italy reveals nothing more than the journalist’s own ignorance.

Perhaps it’s best to leave the final word on this topic to James Richardson, former presenter of Football Italia on Channel 4, who says: “There is no country with a stronger regional identity than Italy and it is absolutely expressed through the clubs.”

Stoke City: Evolution?

25 09 2011

by Adam Bate

It was no surprise to hear Jon Champion use the term “Neanderthal” to describe the Stoke experience on ESPN at the weekend. After all, when it comes to Stoke City, everyone seems to be pre-occupied with the notion of evolution.

This time last year, the man often seen as the personification of Stoke’s direct approach launched not a throw-in but a defence of his club’s style. Rory Delap said: “People go on about us being a long-ball team and relying on set-pieces. Well, we had to do a job to get in the league and stay in the league, but now we are looking to progress. But it won’t be an immediate change, it has to be slow.”

Speaking after Stoke’s stunning 5-0 FA Cup semi final triumph at Wembley in April, Tony Pulis was also keen to articulate the idea of an evolutionary side. Pulis said: “The team that won this semi-final is much different to the one which started out in the Premier League two and a half seasons ago in that we have become more expansive. It’s a case of evolution not revolution.”

Perhaps this is a good time to clarify this is no hatchet job on Stoke City’s style of play. The idea that there is a right way to play football is a risible concept. Beauty can be found in a tiki-taka passing move, a fast counter-attack or a long-ball through the middle. This piece merely seeks to answer the question – ‘Is Stoke’s style of play evolving?’

The first port of call should probably be to look at the Opta statistics for ‘short passing’. Although the quality of ‘style of play’ remains subjective, these stats are usually considered to be indicative of an aesthetically pleasing brand of football. Indeed, a feature of the better sides has been the number of short passes they have played per game.

For 2009-10 Arsenal topped the table for short passes ahead of Manchester United and Chelsea and this pattern was repeated again last season. This is in line with the widely held belief that Arsenal are a nice team to watch – better than their results would indicate. The start of this season has seen Manchester City climb to the top of the short passing table. This supports the idea of a team that is evolving and indulging in a more expansive game with better players.

Number of Short Passes per game: 2009-10, 2010-11, 2011-12 (part)

The evidence for the evolution of Stoke City’s style of play is somewhat more flimsy. Stoke City were at the bottom of the short passing table in 2009-10, 2010-11 and have already taken up their customary place after the early exchanges of the 2011-12 season. What’s more, there is a remarkable consistency. Stoke played an average of 215 short passes a game in 2009-10, then 220 a game last season and 221 a game this campaign. Well I guess they do say evolution is something that takes place over millions of years.

Another key performance indicator in terms of style is the ‘Goals from Open Play’ statistic. The common belief that Stoke rely on set-pieces should not preclude success from open play situations. And yet, while the top four of the ‘Goals from Open Play’ table for 2009-10 exactly mirrored (in order) the actual league table, Stoke languished down in 17th. Last season saw only a particularly turgid Birmingham side score fewer goals from open play. So far this season it is only the luckless Swansea that have failed to score as many as Stoke from open play.

But the key for Stoke fans must be that the team’s results are going in the right direction. Stoke have finished between 11th and 13th in their first three Premier League seasons and it would be no surprise if the team significantly improved on that showing this time around. And the key to that has to be the improvement in personnel:

While four of the starting eleven remain the same, the superiority of the current side is clear. This is further highlighted by the presence of high profile players such as Wilson Palacios and Matthew Upson on the bench.

So given the improvement in the quality of players, perhaps the real question ought to be: ‘Why is Stoke City’s style of play not evolving?’

It would seem the real evolution of the side has been in buying better players to play the same way rather than actually changing the style. Peter Crouch is the T-1000 model Terminator; an upgrade on Big Mama Sidibe. Elsewhere in the team, there is Jonathan Woodgate – regarded by some as the greatest defender England nearly had. He has impressed but, importantly, only within the framework of Stoke’s style – Woodgate completed just 14 passes against Manchester United.

One suspects Tony Pulis has realised this is the best way forward. He has experimented with introducing players such as Eidur Gudjohnsen and Tuncay to play between the lines and these players have been unable to be assimilated into the collective.

As a result, it would seem that Stoke’s real evolution may well be in purchasing superior players to fit into their already effective system. But don’t expect that to stop people inside and outside the club paying lip service to the God of style.

Loyalty? The Football Fan is a Hypocrite

9 09 2011


by Adam Bate

Welcome to September. It’s the month in which we say goodbye to summer and football fans everywhere say hello to the squad of players they now know they’ll be stuck with until January. The transfer window has shut but the recriminations continue. And Arsenal fans etch the date of 7 April into their diaries – the day on which Samir Nasri will return to the stadium that he found just a smidgeon too quiet for his tastes.

Nasri is not a popular boy at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium. He didn’t show any loyalty, you see. Oh sure, he spoke of a desire to win ‘trophies’ but in the world of football we are only too familiar with that little euphemism. Let’s assume a doubling of his salary helped smooth the deal.

The Arsenal message boards were suitably apoplectic. Cesc Fabregas had moved to Barcelona for love. That the Catalan giants happen to be the finest team on the planet and not exactly notorious for rewarding their superstars with nuts and berries was to miss the point. The judgement was clear – Nasri’s betrayal was beneath contempt.

Such is the myopia of the football fan that you would be forgiven for thinking every playing squad in the land had been assembled without assistance. But Arsenal’s squad, like others, was not acquired by cherry-picking a handful of talented young scamps found kicking a can in the local park. Instead, their charges were acquired from Southampton, Charlton and Cardiff; from Auxerre, Lille and Marseille.


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.