Why Sam Allardyce Will Be The Next England Manager

On Saturday I went to the West Ham vs Manchester City game. As you’re no doubt aware, the home side ran rings around the champions for an hour and deservedly took the three points after surviving a late City onslaught. It was a good, hard-fought match and it told us a lot about both sides.

Like most neutrals, I spent most of the game looking at City and wondering how Sheikh Mansour could possibly have spent so many hundreds of millions of pounds and ended up with only three super-talented players. A couple of days after the event, however, I’m thinking only about West Ham and Sam Allardyce and the latter’s seemingly inevitable ascent to the England job in 2016. It may seem improbable but the wheels are already in motion and if all goes to plan then there’s little anyone can do to stop it.

The most important factor in Allardyce’s favour is that the tabloid press has it in for Roy Hodgson. It’s always going to be hard to win the hearts of the hacks that spend their working lives filling the red tops with hateful half-truths when you’re a courteous, avuncular and slightly odd-looking middle-aged journeyman. It’s next to impossible when you’re all of those things and also a hate figure for the one of the two Premier League clubs which drives most traffic to all major football news sites.

It doesn’t matter that Hodgson is in the process of helping a talented new generation into international football, that he’s got them playing attractive, incisive and possession-heavy football and that he’s won every Euro 2016 qualifier so far. It doesn’t matter that the only reasons England went out of the 2014 World Cup at the first hurdle are that they got stuck in by far the hardest group and that Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge forgot to pack their shooting boots.

What matters is that Hodgson looks a bit funny, gives journalists unexciting, modest quotes and did a bad job at Liverpool once. Short of winning Euro 2016 – spoiler: England don’t win Euro 2016 – there’s nothing Hodgson can do to save himself.

Allardyce knows that he has two years to build his case to be the next England manager. His name has been in the mix for about a decade now – since the latter days of Sven-Göran Eriksson’s tenure, at least – and the biggest objection to him getting the job has always been the style of football he favours, it being obvious that it only works if you’re an underdog looking to punch above your weight.

Like Hodgson, Allardyce failed at the only big English club he’d ever been trusted to work at because he managed them as though they were the minnows he’d just left behind. Overly wedded to a style of training that improved less-talented players basically by taking all on-pitch agency away from them, he reduced good, creative players to predictably programmed robots and a team that should have been proactive, inventive and potent to one that was exactly the opposite.

The difference between Allardyce and Hodgson is that while everyone remembers that Big Sam did a bad job at Newcastle, the fact remains that no major national newspaper, magazine or website attempts to curry favour on a daily basis by consciously pandering to Newcastle fans. Few journalists outside the North East will view Allardyce’s England reign through the red mist that inevitably colours most coverage of Hodgson.

It’s true that Allardyce became and remains seen as a firefighter – the guy your club hires if its low-budget squad lands itself in a relegation scrap and leaves the fans relishing the distant prospect of perpetual mid-table security. The job he did at Blackburn did little to change that perception and, until now, it’s been the same story at West Ham.

Indeed, the main reason Big Sam’s England candidacy seems so outlandish is that for most of the summer he was on the brink of being sacked by the Hammers. Most Irons fans have always vocally opposed his trademark route-one hoofball and the results that would in Allardyce’s mind have justified the means rarely arrived, which inevitably put him at loggerheads with Davids Gold and Sullivan.

He survived for two reasons. Firstly because although West Ham were unspeakably awful on a regular basis last season, injuries to their strikers and the disappointing form of big money signings like Matt Jarvis and Stewart Downing meant that having a good season was nigh-on impossible. This year, all of his signings have hit the ground running.

The second reason is that Gold and Sullivan, showing the kind of restraint that we don’t often see from owners, kept in mind that despite everything that had gone wrong, Allardyce is still a talented manager. He has a good eye for talent, understands how football works and leaves no stone unturned when trying to improve his side. The chairmen told Allardyce his job was safe on the proviso that the style of play became more attractive.

To Allardyce’s credit, he listened and accepted their criticism as constructive. They weren’t asking him to change any more than they were challenging him to improve. To play more expansively would be mutually beneficial: not only could he improve West Ham’s fortunes, if he was successful with a new style then he could rehabilitate his image as a tactical dinosaur, thereby giving him a good chance of getting the dream job he must surely have given up on.

Watching West Ham on Saturday, it was hard to believe that they were coached by the same man who had failed so miserably at Newcastle, let alone one who declared that “pretty football has never won anything” while Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona were hoovering up trophies with play that was as elegant as it was effective, and while the same core of players were European champions and newly crowned World Cup winners with Spain.

The Hammers were everything the Allardyce’s Newcastle should have been. Their diamond midfield was simultaneously fluid and structured, the attacking combinations were imaginative and productive and both of their goals were the result of intelligent passing moves and composed finishes. Most encouragingly, it wasn’t a surprise that they played so well: they have been excellent in all of their games since Allardyce switched to the diamond and Alex Song, Diafra Sakho and Enner Valencia came into the side. The importance of the new arrivals can’t be overstated.

On Sunday morning, the Allardyce For England bandwagon began moving as Fleet Street’s best and brightest (ahem) debated his suitability as a successor to Hodgson on Sky Sports’ Sunday Supplement. They were testing the water, putting the idea out there, seeing how the public responded. Judging from Twitter (ahem #2), the popular answer seems to be “he couldn’t be any worse than Roy”, which is exactly the kind of answer the Sunday Supplement chaps like: it shows that their organised campaign against Hodgson is doing the trick.

If a week is a long time in politics then two years is an eternity in football, but with Harry Redknapp’s stock falling further with every passing week, Gary Neville still wet behind the ears and every other English manager barely worthy of discussion, Big Sam must know that if he can keep this unexpected surge of momentum going on the pitch and rely on the media to beatify him off it – as they did Redknapp in the last days of the Fabio Capello era – then the job is his to lose.

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Rayo Vallecano 0-2 FC Barcelona: Tactical Review

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Paris Saint-Germain 3-2 FC Barcelona: Tactical Review

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Lionel Messi: A Superhero In Flux

This article originally appeared on BarcaBlaugranes.com.

Every superhero story follows the same basic pattern: we meet the protagonist when he or she is young and witness them discover and experiment with their powers, before a tragedy imbues them with a sense purpose and spurs them on to change the world.

Later, we see what happens as they come to terms with being effortlessly more capable than everyone else. Invariably, the world changes and so does the protagonist. Things get nastier and being a superhero stops being fun. The protagonist has heartfelt conversations with their friends and family about whether or not they should give up, disappear and try to live a normal existence elsewhere.

It turns out that the choice isn’t really theirs: the world needs them to be superheroes whether they want to or not. This realisation is usually the final piece in the jigsaw and once the protagonist has come to terms with it, they put the cape back on and start enjoying their powers again.

They never quite recapture the youthful joy which made the initial phases of discovery and growth so exciting, but they learn to refine their abilities and use them as efficiently and effectively as possible. They usually do this by teaming up with others to form all-conquering partnerships or teams which maximise the abilities of all involved.

Lionel Messi is probably the closest thing that has ever existed to a superhero. No-one who was there when the five-year-old Messi first played for Grandoli FC in the Rosario barrio of General Las Heras will ever forget it. He might as well have lifted a parked car above his head or jumped over one of the tower blocks around the corner from the small, mosquito-covered pitch. It was instantly obvious that little Leo was destined for greatness.

Over the years that followed, Messi lived in the shadow of his incredible ability. He hadn’t yet fully mastered it, but he knew that he was special and could easily do things that other people could only dream of. Football remained a passion more than a profession, but he knew that one day the secret would get out and his natural ability would make him famous.

The tragic event that changed everything came when he was 13, when he left his family and friends and moved halfway across the world to enter FC Barcelona’s academy. It might not sound so bad in retrospect, but for a painfully shy boy who struggled badly with anxiety and depended on his immediate relatives for almost everything, it was a hammer blow. Like every superhero, however, Messi harnessed his pain and used it as fuel for the fire that burned inside him, driving him on to succeed while others fell by the wayside.

By the time Messi was promoted to the Barcelona first team, he was as dedicated as he was gifted and there was no stopping him. Even though he had achieved virtually nothing in the game, his teammates respected him. They knew they were in the presence of a supernatural talent. “This award says I’m the best player in the world,” Ronaldinho said when accepting the 2005 Ballon d’Or, “But I’m not even the best player at Barcelona.”

Everyone knows what happens next. Messi became the best player in the world and arguably the best ever to have kicked a ball. At 27, he has won everything there is to win at club level on several occasions. He was a couple of missed chances away from winning the 2014 World Cup, a tournament in which he dragged a drab Argentina side to the final almost single-handedly. On Saturday he scored his 400th career goal.

Despite this, there is a sense that all is not well with Messi. Having started so young, he now has a disproportionate number of miles on the clock for a player of his age. His last season was disrupted by injuries and off-field problems. After years of spectacular success the wheels came off at Barça, where Tata Martino, Messi’s own handpicked manager, failed to motivate and maintain him and the rest of the team.

The malaise continued into the World Cup. Although he scored four of Argentina’s goals at the World Cup and set up another two – eventually winning the Golden Ball as FIFA’s player of the tournament – his performances were underwhelming. He looked short of breath, lacking in acceleration and unable to dribble past whole teams at will in the manner which his fans have come to expect. The impression was that he wasn’t having fun on the pitch any more.

The truth is that the world had changed – and so had he.

When Messi first broke into Barcelona’s first team, football was much more anarchic than it is today. Even though clubs as big as Barça held a huge advantage over other domestic rivals, most teams still came to places like the Nou Camp and played for a win. There was no such thing as ‘parking the bus’. Teams occasionally placed all eleven men behind the ball to protect a result, but to do so for entire matches, with painstaking organisation and limitless defensive resolve, was unheard of.

It helped that Messi, the new kid on the block, had world-renowned attackers to work with and learn from. Ronaldinho famously took Messi under his wing both on and off the pitch, while the likes of Samuel Eto’o, Thierry Henry and David Villa occupied defenders and the openness of the opposition gave Messi space and time in which to maximise his unbelievable ability.

Messi became the best inside-forward in the world, then the best striker, and eventually the best playmaker. Barça’s fluidity meant that he could often move between each of those roles in a single game, dropping into pockets of space and driving at defences from different angles, playing perfect passes to teammates in goalscoring positions or arriving in them himself.

Although he was always Pep Guardiola’s Barça’s best player, the team wasn’t really his. The strings were pulled by Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta and either Yaya Touré or Sergio Busquets in midfield and by Guardiola from the dugout. Messi, the best attacker in the world, was the icing on the cake: the gift from the gods that turned the best team in the world into the best team in history.

After a while, football became so easy for Messi that he stopped celebrating goals. He had responded to his early strikes with instinctive glee and slight disbelief, as if totally overwhelmed by the happiness he felt in those moments. By 2012, when he was regularly scoring a couple of goals in every game, he was often unmoved, barely mustering a smile when the ball hit the back of the net.

He started chipping goalkeepers whenever he was one-on-one, as though he was tired of simply rolling the ball past them and into the bottom corner. Never one for unnecessary flair, he started trying backheels and roulettes, seemingly because he wanted to know if whatever he tried would work automatically. He was in the form of his life, breaking scoring records left, right and centre, but at times he just looked bored.

Inevitably, things began to unravel. Barça’s opponents became increasingly solid defensively and learned how to exploit a well-documented vulnerability to counter-attacks. Guardiola walked away, exhausted. Tito Vilanova, a huge influence on Messi, succeeded Pep, but he was soon gone, taken from his job by the illness that would eventually take his life. Martino followed, but he couldn’t stop the ravages of time turning key players like Xavi, Iniesta, Carles Puyoland Dani Alves into passengers.

As importantly, Martino couldn’t stop Messi deciding to become his own person. When Guardiola became Barça manager, he tasked physiotherapist Juanjo Brau with devising a personal programme for Messi that regulated almost every aspect of his life: what to eat, when to eat it; what to drink, when to drink it; what to stretch, when to stretch it; when to sleep, how to sleep. Brau followed him everywhere ensuring that he stuck to the regime. No lifestyle choice that could be left to Messi was his to take. He was more or less a robot.

Under Tata, Brau was ‘promoted’ and no longer worked with Messi. Although Messi said he stuck to the regime, there was no-one making sure that he did. Slowly but surely, the muscle injuries that had plagued his career before Brau began shadowing him came back. It was obvious that Messi wasn’t following his programme – but, at the same time, completely understandable.

Always a family man, he had become a father for the first time and was spending all of his available time with his son and his girlfriend. He was clearly very happy away from the pitch, probably for the first time since he left Rosario as a child. After years of giving everything to Barça, football was no longer his life; it was his livelihood, his passion and his superpower, but not his number one priority.

Despite this sea change, Messi found himself carrying Barça, scoring and making almost all of the side’s goals. David Villa had declined sharply and been sold; Pedro Rodríguez was horribly out of form; Alexis Sánchez and Cesc Fàbregas were clearly talented but didn’t quite fit in, and their unreliability placed even more pressure on Messi’s shoulders.

As if that wasn’t stressful enough, the board were toying with the idea of selling him. The club had always been good to Messi, paying for the growth hormone injections that allowed him to make it as a footballer and ensuring that his status as the world’s best player was matched by his pay packet, but the board were intent on heading in another direction with Neymar as the team’s new symbol.

Suddenly, being a superhero was anything but fun. Messi always wanted to stay at Barça but he made his feelings clear: if Sandro Rosell and company wanted him gone, all they had to do was say and he would pack his bags and leave. For a while it seemed not only that Messi might be forced out, but that he might actually welcome a change of surroundings.

Everything has changed this season, however. Rosell’s departure, a new contract signed in May and the system devised by new manager Luis Enrique seem to have combined to make Messi realise that even if he wanted to walk away from Barça, it never really was up to him to decide whose superhero he was. Barça need him more than words can say. The club is where he belongs and where his ability is best served. Maybe the World Cup made him understand that to take his superpowers elsewhere would be to lessen them.

This happy realisation has arrived, as it usually does in superhero literature, with a timely replenishment in the supporting cast. Fresh impetus has been provided by Luis Enrique’s arrival and a host of new signings. Luis Suárez has yet to come into the team, but it’s easy to see where he will fit in when his ban ends. Neymar has stepped up to the plate, too. The Brazilian had a tough debut campaign in La Liga but has developed splendidly and is now a player worthy of sharing the limelight with Messi.

It’s not a surprise that the new Barça have looked like a work in progress in most of their matches at the start of this season, but it’s even less surprising that Messi has been brilliant regardless. He has started deeper, playing as a classic number ten more than as a false nine or an inside-forward, but despite being relatively far from the goal he has still scored five times and racked up eight assists in the opening seven games.

Messi’s understandings with Busquets and Neymar have come to the fore. The former knows when and where to give Messi the ball, while the latter knows when and where to run to receive his defence-splitting passes. The three have already combined for four goals this season. Messi’s unmatched intelligence has also made it easy for Munir and Sandro to come into the team as orthodox strikers.

Some observers have looked at Cristiano Ronaldo’s superior goalscoring figures and compared them to Messi’s to prove that the current holder of the Ballon d’Or has a clear advantage in their ongoing personal duel, but this is nonsense. Messi’s new role means that it would be wrong to judge him purely on goalscoring: when one looks at combined goals and assists numbers, Messi leads Ronaldo. As ever, the difference is that Messi doesn’t only contribute as an individual: he makes his teammates better too.

Another popular complaint from Messi’s critics is that he no longer scores goals as breathtaking as the classic solo slaloms against Getafe, Real Zaragoza and Real Madrid, to name just a few. There might be something in that, but if there is it’s not his fault: circumstances dictate that these days he spends more time picking the lock instead of blowing the door off its hinges. Regardless of his method, there’s no doubt that Messi is still capable of deciding any game in a second.

Perhaps Messi’s critics just haven’t seen enough superhero films. If they had, they’d know better than to write off the protagonist. In the end, he always comes out on top.

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FC Barcelona 6-0 Granada CF: Tactical Review

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Málaga CF 0-0 FC Barcelona: Tactical Review

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Aphex Twin – Syro

It must have been 2005 or 2006 when I discovered the music of Aphex Twin. I was 16 or 17 and I found out about it the way a lot of music fans in my generation did: via Radiohead’s Kid A and the barrage of marketing material that followed the album’s release in 2000. I remember listening to it for the first time in my parents’ car on a road trip to see family in Scotland and, like a good many people hearing it for the first time, thinking ‘What the fucking hell is this?’

It spoke another language – one from a place that I didn’t know existed and could barely imagine. If I was to understand Kid A – and I desperately wanted to – I would have to find that place and learn that language. I spent the next few months reading about and listening to the artists that had influenced the band’s thinking during that time. I read about DJ Shadow, Charles Mingus, Olivier Messiaen and many other greats. One artist seemed to be cited more than any other: Aphex Twin, real name Richard D. James.

I started from the beginning and over the course of a few months ploughed through just about everything James had released. Obviously, it was a steep learning curve. Growing up on a musical diet of Britpop, Top of the Pops and the begrudgingly tolerated classical loved by my grandfather hadn’t prepared me for anything as abstract as Selected Ambient Works Volume II or as abrasive as much of the material on Drukqs.

Eventually, though, I acquired the taste and enjoyed the music. Despite their sparseness, the early ambient releases were vividly evocative and undeniably gorgeous. The more diverse mid-90s releases were multi-layered and emotionally engaging on a level that I didn’t know rave-influenced drum and bass could be. Windowlicker and Come To Daddy, the ironic singles released in response to his growing fame, were clearly joke tracks but still contained enough substance to be worth revisiting.

For a 90s kid who had grown up during the End Of History, this was amazing. I’d come to accept the idea that everything that could be done in art, literature, music – in life – had been done. Culture as I knew and understood it was corporate to the core and there was no idea that hadn’t been reverse-engineered and monetised. Concepts like originality existed to be sneered at. It was impossible to come up with an original idea, we were told: the best anyone could aim to do was to affect to produce original work ironically, all while lifting liberally from the past.

The music of Aphex Twin convinced me that this was all complete nonsense. He wasn’t the first electronic musician, but he was the first I’d heard that made electronic music that seemed to follow in the footsteps of Mozart rather than those of Giorgio Moroder. As pretentious as that sounds, that was how I interpreted it.

Inevitably, I wanted more. In the months and years that followed, I moved on to Autechre, Squarepusher, Boards of Canada and other luminaries of the mid-90s Warp Records back catalogue, and from there to more contemporary releases from Fennesz, Four Tet and Flying Lotus as well as techno artists like Modeselektor, Monolake and Alex Smoke. Almost all of this widened my eyes at first, but eventually sunk in and revealed its essential beauty.

The original trigger for all of this, Kid A, seems exponentially less opaque and hostile now. When Radiohead were being promoted as if they had reinvented the wheel, James had said that he didn’t see what all the fuss was about. Of course he didn’t: he and many others had been producing far more experimental music away from the mainstream for decades beforehand. Next to their output, Radiohead’s seemed almost twee; lovely in its own way, but undeniably a watered down and attractively repackaged version of the original ideas.

This brings us nicely onto Syro, the new Aphex Twin album.

Listening to music after weeks spent excitedly waiting to hear it for the first time is perhaps the worst way to absorb it, so I’ve given it a few days and several plays and let my thoughts settle before putting them into writing.

As one would expect, Syro is incredibly well made, bursting with ideas and energy. The music itself is very good: it’s as complex, diverse and detailed as ever. The songwriting on every track is excellent. Every Richard D. James hallmark is here, from the opening track’s demented, insistent vocals and skittering, glitch beats to the freaked-out drum and bass of 180db_, to the unexpectedly moving prepared piano piece that draws the album to a close.

There’s something that’s stopping me loving Syro, though. It struck me immediately as too welcoming, too melodic, too accessible and the more I listen to it the more it bothers me that there’s nothing here that stops me in my tracks and makes me wonder what the hell it is that I’ve just heard.

It’s all too familiar. We’ve had demented, insistent vocals and skittering, glitch beats before on Windowlicker, freaked-out drum and bass from Richard D. James Album onwards and unexpectedly moving prepared piano on Drukqs. James’ songwriting may be excellent but it feels somehow wrong that he has released and heavily promoted an album that consists of little more than some melodic tracks featuring his favourite compositional tricks.

Something in me says it shouldn’t be possible to play a new Aphex Twin album and experience nostalgia, but that is what happens with Syro. Most of the songs could have appeared on any mid-90s Aphex Twin release, while some of its melodies and textures seem to have been lifted straight out of Autechre’s Incunabula or Squarepusher’s Hard Normal Daddy, Warp classics that their makers now consider so quaint as to be unlistenable.

Aphex Twin has somehow become ‘retro’ and that’s just not right on a very basic level. He’s not supposed to be electronic music’s equivalent of The Strokes, repackaging the best bits of a romanticised past and presenting them as shiny and new so that younger generations can experience for themselves the thrill their elders had the first time around.

He’s supposed to be making the music of the future. He’s supposed to be the guy the electronica version of The Strokes copies. He’s supposed to be the original. On Syro, he’s a parody of himself. He’s Aphex Twin Lite.

Perhaps his form has let him down. After so many years of electronic music that’s been made with ProTools, Cubase and Ableton, music produced almost entirely with analogue equipment is always going to seem old hat at best, downright gimmicky at worst. In James’ capable hands the result is commendably listenable and engaging, but ultimately insubstantial.

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