Barcelona 5-0 Levante: Tactical Review

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Discussing Ángel Correa On Sports Tonight Live

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Barcelona 3-1 Atlético Madrid: Tactical Review

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Real Sociedad 1-0 Barcelona: Tactical Review

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Steven Gerrard: A Liverpool Legend But Not An All-Time Great

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The announcement that Steven Gerrard will leave Liverpool at the end of the season has led to a predictable outpouring of unanimous praise. The next five months will doubtless bring more of the same and every goal he scores will be celebrated raucously due to the real possibility that it will be his last.

As much as anything else, there’s an enormous sadness that the Gerrard era is coming to a close, and no-one has been more acutely affected by this melancholy than Gerrard himself. In an age in which shameless mercenarism is the norm, it’s refreshing to see a player who genuinely cares about and understands the club he represents. That’s an intangible quality Liverpool will never replace.

Throughout an interview with Liverpool’s in-house TV channel in which he explained his decision to move on, Gerrard looked as though he would burst into tears. When told that Hillsborough campaigner Margaret Aspinall had described him as “more than a footballer for this city”, his expression became pained and he slumped forward in his seat, exhaling very deliberately so as to prevent complete emotional meltdown. It’s impossible not to feel extremely sorry for him.

His reaction and that of Liverpool fans en masse is understandable. Few players in any place at any time will have a club career as storied as Gerrard’s. He became Liverpool captain at 23, scored for the Reds in several cup finals and his performances in the 2005 Champions League final and 2006 FA Cup final are widely interpreted as two of the most heroic individual showings of all-time.

Thanks to skyrocketing ticket prices and the ever-worsening state of grassroots football in England, Gerrard will probably be one of the last to make the journey from boy on the terrace to hero on the pitch. His refusal to move to a super-club where he would almost certainly win the silverware that eluded him at Liverpool makes him unique, and for his loyalty alone his cultural value is multiplied exponentially.

Liverpool fans are absolutely right to praise and to worship Gerrard. He’s one of their own, a home-grown kid who sincerely loves the club and has proven his commitment beyond question. He’s been a mainstay for seventeen years, scored lots of important and spectacular goals and won a few trophies along the way. If that doesn’t qualify someone for hero status nothing does.

All of the above said, some of the admiration has been almost criminally hyperbolic. Not just this week, but right from the very start. For the entirety of his career he has had to do half as much as every other player to get twice as much acclaim. It’s one thing to say he’s a Liverpool legend, which he is, and another to say he was one of the best players in the world, which he most certainly never was.

It’s baffling that almost everyone criticises the British sports media for its overt jingoism and favouritism – search Twitter for ‘Andy Townsend’ on any Champions League night – but a certain minority becomes offended at the suggestion that the almost Stalinist Sky Sports hype machine has led to the inflation of Gerrard’s status.

That’s not to say that only British people rate Gerrard highly. Through my travels and via the magic of the internet it’s become apparent that he’s revered worldwide, but it certainly seems to be true that suggesting that he was at times a pretty lousy footballer will only enrage a subsection of the British.

Given that it’s been almost impossible for UK commentators to criticise Gerrard for the vast majority of his career, that’s not a surprise. When he plays badly in televised matches, we hear British pundits say bizarre things like “Steven Gerrard is playing passes to players who are not where they should be.” (© Robbie Fowler, 2014) This kind of selective stupidity has been intolerable and it has led to a significant distortion of the facts.

First and foremost, there’s the oft-repeated mythology about Gerrard’s unparalleled performances in big games. It’s sometimes said that he won the 2005 Champions League and the 2006 FA Cup by himself. This is, at best, disrespectful to his teammates, his manager, the coaching staff and everyone else who worked incredibly hard to achieve those victories.

In this mythos it’s almost never acknowledged that Liverpool didn’t actually win or even control either of those finals: both were settled on penalties after dramatic 3-3 draws in which Liverpool very nearly lost. Leaving aside the fact that winning on penalties barely counts as winning at all, it seems a bit odd that the most peerless big-game player of all time came so close to losing the very matches in which he apparently proved his greatness beyond all doubt.

What’s more, Gerrard didn’t start playing well on either occasion until his team was behind or on the verge of defeat. In Istanbul in particular, Liverpool’s first-half annihilation was partly down to his poor performance. He spent the first forty-five minutes chasing shadows and made two mistakes in just a few seconds that led directly to the third Milan goal.

Yes, he showed remarkable resolve and courage to score and to instil in his teammates the belief and confidence to come back, but that doesn’t absolve him of all blame for mistakes that led to the team’s original predicament. The real heroes of Istanbul are arguably Didi Hamann and Jerzy Dudek: Hamann for neutralising Kaká and Dudek for somehow saving from Shevchenko from two yards and then for stopping two kicks in the shootout. A decade on, the two are footnotes in the Istanbul story and Gerrard is its protagonist.

A year later, Gerrard gave what is generally recognised as the greatest individual performance of his career in a 3-3 draw against West Ham. I will repeat that last bit: a 3-3 draw against West Ham. Admittedly, he scored two spectacular goals and set up another with a breathtaking pass but, and this may sound churlish, the most dependable big-game player ever should mercilessly destroy underdog opponents with a midfield two of Nigel Reo-Coker and Carl Fletcher.

As it was, Gerrard and Liverpool had no control over the game, West Ham poured forward at every opportunity and it could realistically have ended up any score. Even after Gerrard’s instantly iconic last-minute long-ranger, the Hammers had much better chances to win the game before the shootout lottery again came out in Liverpool’s favour.

While Gerrard will be remembered primarily for what happened in Istanbul and Cardiff and for the rocket against Olympiakos, those moments aren’t representative of his career and we shouldn’t pretend that they are. When the chips were down for club and country, he often failed to perform. He usually reproduced the first half performance from Istanbul, but didn’t save face by repeating the second half.

It’s almost completely forgotten, for example, that Rafa Benítez once substituted Gerrard in a Merseyside derby because his intense desire to win was making him play like an idiot. The Liverpool fans booed as Lucas Leiva replaced the club captain, but the Brazilian gave the team much more control in midfield and the Reds won the game. “Sometimes you need to play with the brain and not the heart,” Benítez said afterwards.

What happened to Gerrard’s mind in that game was not unusual. While all about him were keeping their heads, he very frequently lost his. Just as often as he galvanised his side, he spooked his colleagues and sent them into blind panic, particularly with England. On more than one occasion, he went one further and torpedoed his own team with a moment of complete insanity.

No other elite midfielder has given as many decisive assists to opposition strikers in big games as Gerrard. No other top-level player regularly became so consumed with the need to do everything at once that he almost completely lost the ability to do anything at all. No-one else has ever screamed “This does not fucking slip!” at his teammates before literally slipping over at the least opportune moment.

None of the above is to say that Gerrard was a bad footballer. He clearly wasn’t. Nor was he always a loose cannon, just as likely to smash a screamer in at one end of the pitch as he was to hand the opponents the initiative at the other. Just to make it clear: he was for the most part a very good player, an excellent professional and, in his later years, a strong and responsible leader, whose overall contribution was positive.

But – and this is a big ‘but’ – Gerrard was fatally flawed in such a way that precluded him from ever being considered a genuinely great player. His gung-ho style was all-or-nothing, anachronistic and often disastrous. While most fans love watching players like him because they guarantee some kind of spectacle, the modern game has evolved to favour an entirely different kind of midfielder.

Over the last decade, mastery of the ball in tight spaces, trust in the collective and an advanced understanding of strategy have become the most vital parts of every midfielder’s arsenal. Gerrard increasingly stood out as a top-level midfielder who not only possessed none of those qualities but as one who epitomised their polar opposites.

This has not gone unnoticed. Despite the media’s insistence that he was the most complete midfielder around, Gerrard became recognised by some as the world’s greatest Roy of the Rovers tribute act: always running around chasing opponents like a headless chicken, refusing simple passes in order to punt long diagonals which flew miles over his teammates’ heads, and shooting from all distances and angles in a bid to be the match-saving hero. It’s amazing when it works, but most of the time it doesn’t.

That he played his most productive football with Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso behind him has also been duly noted. As an attacker free to play his natural game close to the opposition goal, he was incredibly effective, and Liverpool benefitted from the gaps he used to leave in midfield being filled by the two most suitable players for that task in the world. Were it not for the fact that Fernando Torres has hamstrings made out of glass, Liverpool very probably would have won the title and Gerrard would deservedly have lifted the trophy he wanted most.

Ultimately, however, Gerrard ends his Premier League career as both a club legend and a cautionary tale. He was a product of his time and place – the inevitable end result of latent talent being fed into a terrible coaching system based on the outdated and undeveloped long-ball ideas espoused by Charles Reep and Charles Hughes and a product of a culture that still values individual heroism over collective triumph.

A Liverpool fan I know once lamented that Gerrard hadn’t been born in the Netherlands, saying “He’d have turned out like Neeskens.” As it was, he was Liverpool’s very own lobotomised Lothar Matthäus, at least until Brendan Rodgers turned him into a competent playmaker for a couple of years. He’s given the Reds more great memories than any other player in recent memory and for that he will remain an icon forever – but it’d be great if we could drop the pretence that he was ever one of the best players in the world.

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Twenty Music Releases I Liked In 2014

Fatima Al Qadiri – Asiatisch

Al Qadiri calls her album “a virtual road trip through imagined China” and that’s a pretty perfect description. In the way that all new destinations are, Asiatisch is strikingly beautiful, intriguingly peculiar and overflowing with odd twists on the familiar.

Aphex Twin – Syro

Yeah, I bitched and moaned about Syro‘s flaws when it came out – and if I’m honest I still wish it was more of a leap into the unknown – but even when Richard D. James is staying firmly within in his comfort zone, he’s miles ahead of all peers and pretenders.

Carla Bozulich – Boy

A snarly, murky and beautifully crafted noise-rock masterpiece from one of U.S. underground’s most unique artists. One to explore and get happily lost in.

Mac DeMarco – Salad Days

Unashamedly nostalgic and sunny collections of lo-fi jangle-pop songs normally have me hammering the skip button, but DeMarco’s songwriting and wit elevated Salad Days well above the ordinary.

Fear Of Men – Loom

A welcome and endlessly rewarding helping of stripped-down and straightforward pop-rock, Loom is a splendid debut containing plenty of hints that greater things are to come.

Fennesz – Bécs

I can’t describe the beauty of Christian Fennesz’s lengthy ambient creations with words so I’m not even going to try. Just listen.

Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!

Five albums and several EPs into his career, FlyLo has lost none of his ability to innovate and to surprise with free-form jazz-fusion/electronica compositions. After 2012’s slow-moving, texture-focused Until The Quiet Comes, You’re Dead! was a punchy return to immediacy, percussion and constant forward momentum.

Ben Frost – A U R O R A

Perhaps not quite as visceral or unsettling as the drone demigod’s most recent releases, which almost literally blow the listener away, A U R O R A nonetheless presents the best aspects of Frost’s uncompromising and brutal soundscapes in arguably the most balanced, listenable fashion since 2003’s Steel Wound.

Goat – Commune

An album with a backwards-looking rock aesthetic that in the hands of most bands would make me want to slam my head in a car door for half an hour. Instead, Commune imbued me with an almost physical need to see Goat live. (And yes, Raj, you were right about Goat. Have a biscuit and shut up.)

Gobby – Wakng Thrst for Seeping Banhee

In a review giving Wakng Thrst for Seeping Banhee a rare five out of five, Tiny Mix Tapes described the album as “sub-granular rubble made up of consolidated swaths of formerly familiar songs and life experiences, alongside the industrial rails of frequently missed downbeats and propulsive bursts […] a barely-listenable, haphazard refraction of musical ontology.” Basically, it’s a glorious fucked-up mess and you should dive right in.

Grouper – Ruins

Having released five excellent albums in the last four years, Liz Harris is laying waste to the notion that great art, above all other elements, requires time to develop. Minimal, bleak and evocative as always, Ruins sees Harris dispense with the reverb and other assorted effects that have characterised recent Grouper releases. The result is as lovely as anything else she has made.

The Notwist – Close To The Glass

After a decade in which electronica-tinged indie-rock has been done to death and then some, it was a very pleasant surprise to hear an album that made the genre sound fresh and vital again.

Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness

The A.V. Club’s album of 2014 and deservedly so, Burn Your Fire is an arresting disc of down-in-the-mouth singer-songwriter alt-rock that achieves so much more than that description suggests it should.

Real Estate – Atlas

“Holy smokes, Batman! Another jangly U.S. indie-rock album?! Where’s all the abstract hippie whale-song shit?”

“Go fuck yourself, Robin.”

Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross – Gone Girl: Soundtrack from the Motion Picture

In a soundtrack of characteristic nuance and depth, Reznor and Ross capture the hellish see-sawing between domestic pseudo-bliss and very real claustrophobic terror that pervades both Gillian Flynn’s novel and David Fincher’s film. What’s more, they present a version of the story we can enjoy without going anywhere near the deeply problematic all-women-are-crazy-and-lie-about-rape stuff.

St. Vincent – St. Vincent

I make no secret of the fact that I wanted to hate St. Vincent. I read the fawning reviews before I heard the album and they made me want to vomit. Up to this point, Annie Clark’s music – Strange Mercy in particular – had always struck me as overproduced and monotonous hipster shit with the lyrical grace of a How To Assemble Your New Shed manual and, for reasons I don’t fully understand, I wanted St. Vincent to carry on that trend. Instead, it was a massive leap forward for Clark and I really liked it, which was both nice and kind of frustrating.

Swans – To Be Kind

It seems paradoxical that in an era in which music has become increasingly seen as ‘content’ and its makers have been advised to make their ‘content’ shorter, simpler and, if possible, stupider, four genuinely amazing triple-albums have been released to universal acclaim. First Joanna Newsom released Have One On Me, then Swans put out The Seer, and then The Knife gave us Shaking The Habitual. Now we have To Be Kind, which over the course of its 121 minutes sees Swans once again rise to the absolute pinnacle of long-form noise-rock.

Todd Terje – It’s Album Time

Brendan Husebo sold It’s Album Time to me as “defining the new sound of Norwegian dance music” and, I have to admit, it didn’t seem like a particularly big achievement. I didn’t even realise there was such a thing as Norwegian dance music – it’s so expensive to go out in Oslo that getting shitfaced and dancing around in a club with your mates every Friday night struck me as a niche hobby that could only be available to Norway’s 1%, who were unlikely to develop a subculture of any real scope or value. Maybe that’s true, I don’t know. What I do know is that Brendan was right to recommend It’s Album Time – it’s tremendous.

tUnE-yArDs – Nikki Nack

After the unexpected global success of 2011’s w h o k i l l, Merrill Garbus had a considerable problem. The question of how to follow an album that was so wildly experimental but also so incredibly popular nearly broke her. As the confessional opening track on Nikki Nack tells us, her solution in the end was to leave the w h o k i l l aesthetic behind and Find A New Way. She chose a very good new way.

Warpaint – Warpaint

It’s always great when a zeitgeisty band produces a long-awaited second album that surpasses their much-vaunted debut. Everything about Warpaint suggests that its makers will be around for years to come.

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Almost Mute: Why Ángel Correa Deserves His Wings

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