Unlike the previous international break, which came indecently early in the season, I’ve rather enjoyed this one.
It’s helped by there being Rugby World Cup to tuck into, which has proved a feast of sporting goodness, the woeful England performance excluded. Also, with Spurs performing well and quietly progressing up the table, there is none of the usual excessive rumination that can come with a long break between Premier League matches.
I’ve had a few random thoughts in the past few days, covering Andros Townsend and England, Premier League refs and Spurs fixtures. I’ll post them up here, rather than try to force them into longer but ill-fitting blog posts.
A potentially weird run ahead for Spurs
Must Spurs fans agree that it is a little unlucky to be first up against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. While it will take time for his methods to embed, I’m sure the players will be bang up for it. That said, Brendan Rodgers was always successful at translating his grudge against Spurs for being looked over in favour of AVB into strong performances, so I can’t see that it will be any worse. A tricky Saturday lunchtime kick off awaits.
But looking ahead at the fixture list, and the managers under pressure, there seems more than a chance that Klopp won’t be the first debutant manager Mauricio Pochettino ends up facing.
In three games time, we face Aston Villa at White Hart Lane on November 2. Judging by the leaking coming from Tim Sherwood, and the subsequent leaking coming from the club about David Moyes, Tactics Tim’s time may be almost up. It is hard to have much sympathy — he seems an unpleasant individual who isn’t as good a manager as he thinks. It feels like Sherwood is one bad result from the sack, and with Moyes also near an exit from Sociedad, could Villa be trotting out at White Hart Lane with a new manager and a fired up squad?
Too soon? Maybe. But there is more.
On December 5, we travel to West Brom. If you have had the misfortune of watching West Brom this season, it is impossible not to notice that they absolutely stink. Instead of the pumped-up Pulis-ball we saw in the early Stoke years and at Crystal Palace, West Brom are playing dreadful stuff, and incompetently. They are conceding a ton of goals, not scoring many, and the midfield looks devoid of any creativity. West Brom have been quietly dysfunctional for a while now, with Jeremy Peace a sort of poor man’s Daniel Levy, jumping from strategy to strategy and just about getting away with it. But they are right in the thick of it this season, and Pulis doesn’t look like he is enjoying life at the Hawthorns at all. Unless they find a way of tightening up in the next six weeks, I would not be surprised if Pulis walked or Peace pushed him out in favour of someone more willing to go along with whatever strategy the club currently applies in the transfer market.
We follow that match with a visit from Newcastle. Newcastle, and it pains me to say this as they’ve always been my second-favourite Premier League team, are horrific and there has been little or nothing from Steve McClaren to suggest he is the man to turn it around. You’d think Brendan or again someone like Moyes — someone with a chip on their shoulder and a desire to make a difference, rather than someone like the ex-England man who knows his best days are behind him — need to take over that club and get a grip of it. But Mike Ashley is stubborn and will probably give McClaren a bit of time to turn things around, not least as he is so soon into a long-term contract. I’d say though, if Newcastle are still in the bottom three by mid-December, a managerial change would hardly be a massive surprise.
So, it’s all a bit hypothetical, but these things are fun to play out. I suspect Klopp won’t be the sole beneficiary of the New Manager Bounce against Spurs this season.
Time to mic up Premier League refs
One of my favourite parts of the Rugby World Cup has been the ability to hear referees interact with players and other officials.
The highlight was the brilliant Nigel Owens, the most Welsh-sounding person alive, telling off Scotland’s Stuart Hogg at St James’s Park for diving — “Dive like that again and come back in two weeks to play. Watch it”. The Scottish fullback, who’d thrown himself to the ground and knew it, trotted back to his position shaking his head like a naughty schoolboy.
In the Namibia v Georgia match, a slugfest down at Exeter in which two teams high on brutality but low on skill went at it in the most physical fashion, the referee was nevertheless respected when he intervened. “Sorry sir, thank you sir”, the hulking Georgian number 8 responded in almost comic style, like a modern Oliver Twist addressing Mr Bumble.
While the TMO in rugby can slow down the game and be a bit tedious, the ability to hear the referee clears up any doubts about the decision-making process, and invariably it shows the referees in a good light. Keeping across 30 players on the rugby field is almost impossible, but the referees have done a superb job and are respected among players and media.
In cricket, not everyone took to the use of technology when it came in, and the obscure nature of the game initially made the implementation a bit tricky. Adding, say, Hawkeye technology to track the ball, but then ignoring the precise track for a greyer area of “umpire’s call” was a touch weird and caused much chuntering. This summer, for the first time, the interaction between on-field and TV umpires was made public, and it changed the minds of even the most ardent critics on TV and radio. While the decisions themselves remained open to debate, just like in rugby the decision-making process was crystal clear, and showed the umpires to be expertly following procedures and making as accurate judgements as possible with the human eye.
When goalline technology finally came in to the Premier League last season, I thought this would open the floodgates to increasing use of technology. But there seems virtually no demand from media or fans for more technology, despite almost every match feature a blown offside call, perceived inconsistency over yellow cards, or dubious penalty decisions. I guess football’s governing body, which should be leading the roll-out of new technologies, is a bit side-tracked at the moment. Amazingly, even in the Champions League, the supposed pinnacle of club football, there isn’t goalline technology.
To me, the sight of two linesmen crab-stepping up and down the touchline and waving a flag seems totally anachronistic. It is technically impossible to call offside correctly in most cases, as you can’t look in two places at once. Linesmen seem like cyborgs at time, so devoid are they of personality, but actual cyborgs would be better. Using technology to decide offside would be more accurate and would free up the linesmen to actually be assistant referees and improve the all-round officiating. However, I appreciate it will take time to test the technology and ensure it functions properly — for example how to pick up who touched the ball last and whether offside applies or not. But we are almost there.
In the meantime, one thing the FA could do immediately is turn on the microphones so that we can hear the refs make their decision. At the moment, all decisions are seen in a vacuum and so often don’t appear to make much sense. But if you heard a referee, say, warn a player on a yellow card that he was one more foul from being sent off, it would make the perceived leniency crystal clear. Instead of a ref being seen to be inconsistent about the awarding of yellows, he will be shown to be in control of the situation and the players, and also displaying the sort of common sense in trying to keep the contest 11 vs 11 rather than fundamentally altering a game over what me be a rather trivial infringement.
Likewise, when a ref books a player for diving it can seem arbitrary, like the ref who carded Falcao for his dive against Southampton. If we heard the ref’s thinking — “you went down before the contact, throwing yourself into the goalkeeper in a dangerous way, that is a yellow card”, or whatever it was — we would be much more informed, and while we can disagree with the decision, we at least know the logic behind the decision. I don’t like the idea of referees being forced out before hostile media and grilled about each decision, which feels like the direction we are going in.
Of course, people will say in football this live chat would be impossible to broadcast due to the language, but is that really true? Players may eff and blind at the moment, but most will clear it up if they know what they are saying is being heard by kids. And those who don’t will soon learn when they start to be fined or suspended. If the mics pick up a bit of rough language during the action, so be it — it happens in rugby and the commentators apologize and everyone moves on.
I find the current arguments over individual decisions very boring, and there are far more interesting aspects of the game that could be analysed on Match of the Day. There will always be marginal decisions, for example in offside, but if there is a clear and transparent protocol, and effective technology, then we can accept them better and move on. Jose Mourinho will have to find another excuse in future rants.
Andros for England
Roy Hodgson has used 33 players in qualifying for Euro 2016, which seems an awful lot to me. Sure, there will be injuries, and Roy did just go 10 out of 10, but I can’t help thinking this enormous rotation is over complicating what should be a fairly simple selection for the tournament itself.
Let’s face it, the standard of international football isn’t all that high. The pace is generally very slow compared with the Premier League or other top leagues, and teams without that many “good” players can nonetheless be very competitive. While teams with transcendent talent levels like the recent Spanish team may come along once in a while and dominate, normally big tournaments are contested by the most organised and disciplined teams. This can produce surprise winners — like Denmark or Greece — or worthy winners like Germany at the last World Cup. These teams won because they were the best teams, not because they had the best 11 players or best 23-man squads. If that seems like a statement of the obvious, then why do we seem to constantly be engaged in a process of testing out young players and blooding them, when we could just be cementing a core unit and giving it the time it needs to perfectly understand and execute Roy’s game plan?
Take Andros Townsend. He may be blinking useless for Spurs (on the rare occasion that he even gets a game), but he has consistently produced the goods for England. For whatever reason, his ability to run with the ball from deep and take shots works against international defences, and good ones too like Italy. I suspect the pace of the Premier League negates this advantage, but you won’t see much gegenpressing in France next summer. Still, as he is struggling at club level, he may well miss out even though there appears little relationship between his performances for Spurs and England.
Then take Michael Carrick. He has played 33 times for England, and rarely has he dominated the midfield and set the tempo like he has done for years at Manchester United. Again, it may be something to do with the pace of the football, but he just doesn’t look nearly as effective. But, with concerns over the lack of a natural defensive midfield option, he looks likely to get another shot. He is 34 now — so I think we can safely so that what we’ve seen is what we’ll get in international terms.
You would have thought, after years and years and years of seeing Stevie Gerrard and Frank Lampard try but fail to effectively form a midfield combo for England, despite being the best two midfielders in the Premier League, we would have learned to differentiate between club performances and country performances, and accept that the most effective England XI may not be the strongest XI on paper.
So I hope Roy doesn’t experiment with tactics or personnel in the matches between now and the Euros. I want to see the same team, playing the same way, so that when we all rock up in France, England will know exactly what they are doing and are ready to execute when it matters.
(I sent this in to F365 as a letter)