In Defence Of Roy Hodgson

Given that it’s international week and the transfer window has just closed, it’s only natural that the knives are out on Fleet Street.

Newspapers and websites can’t sell copies or harvest clicks with the usual fill of club match reports and transfer rumours, so instead we’ve had a week of attention-seeking columns bemoaning the state of the England team, deriding the Premier League’s poisonous impact on the game and calling for Roy Hodgson’s head on a plate.

It can’t be denied that the English national game is a shambles or that the Three Lions are a joke. The World Cup wasn’t as bad as many made out, but the fact remains that they generally play turgid, unimaginative football and have done for as long as memory serves. Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and, if we are feeling extremely generous, Jack Wilshere aside, there are no English players one can imagine playing with distinction for any of international football’s leading sides.

The Premier League is more concerned with making itself football’s NBA to allow any of its billions of pounds trickle down into the Football League, and the world-famous clubs that populate its upper echelons have too much money at stake to offer more than two or three places in their squads to English kids who will inevitably make youthful mistakes that cost them points. Due to the Premier League’s avarice, the Football League is light-years away from being able to develop these youngsters into top-level international footballers.

These truths are self-evident and it is only right that they are written about and reported on. However, the clamour for the removal of Roy Hodgson is nonsense. As far as I can tell, it based on nothing but nationalistic hubris and fuelled by the need to fill column inches with something eye-catching and controversial.

This is not to say that Hodgson is perfect. He isn’t. It was obvious when he was parachuted in with Euro 2012 looming large that his reign would be divisive and that there would be a time when the esteemed gentlemen of the English press wanted him gone.

After all, Hodgson stands at odds with everything the Premier League and its marketing have conditioned us to want. He is a quiet, awkward and avuncular man with bizarre tics and pragmatic ideas about how football should be played. His career has been a slow-burner; his eventual success the result of the experience gained as an itinerant manager of middling sides, often in unheralded, faraway leagues.

He was never going to be the messianic ideologue that marched into St George’s Park, tore up the FA’s player development manual and started again from scratch, Cruyff-style. Nor was he going to sit in a room full of journalists and give them the jingoistic, delusional quotes they needed to make a saleable story. No-one is disputing either of those facts, though the relevance of the second is questionable.

What is up for discussion is whether or not these mean he should be immediately dismissed after Monday night’s Euro 2016 qualifier against Switzerland.

Even if England lose – and there is every chance they will, especially if the increasingly pointless Wayne Rooney plays instead of Raheem Sterling in the number ten position – Hodgson should remain in charge. There are two obvious and irrefutable reasons why.

The first is that there is no other candidate to do the job. The current bookies’ favourite to replace Hodgson is Gary Neville. His popularity comes from speaking knowledgeably and convincingly on Sky Sports’ football coverage, but he has no management experience and has only coached twice: first for a few months at Bury while studying for his UEFA licences, and then as part of Hodgson’s current regime. There is no evidence to suggest Neville is yet ready to stand on his own two feet as a manager, let alone oversee the root-and-branch reform of English coaching.

Behind Neville in the minds of the bookies are José Mourinho, Gareth Southgate, Glenn Hoddle, Alan Pardew, and Harry Redknapp. Setting Mourinho aside as obviously unattainable and patently unsuited to the task at hand anyway, we are left with a depressing list of hopeless has-beens and never-will-bes. For all his imperfections, Hodgson is obviously a better manager than all of them.

The second reason to keep Hodgson is that he’s perfectly suited to working with this generation of players. As previously stated, the Premier League has long since abandoned England’s youngsters. Talented players in academies all over the country hit a glass ceiling at 18 or 19 and their progression ends right there. Until we find a way to integrate these kids and get them playing every week, we won’t produce players capable of dominating games against the very best – the long-running trend of England players who can run all day but who play with their heads down and their brains disengaged will continue.

We can pretend we live in an ideal world in which a genius would come take the job and immediately unleash a Bielsista combination of tiki-taka and gegenpressing on an unsuspecting and helpless world, but in reality it makes perfect sense for England’s second-tier squad to have a manager who specialises in managing second-tier teams.

Put simply, there’s no English Pep Guardiola on standby, and even if there was, no good would come from giving him a squad as poor as England’s. That might not sound like much of an endorsement for Roy Hodgson, but the truth is no-one’s case is stronger – even now.

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Five Favourites – Grizzly Bear

Colorado [Yellow House - 2006]

Yet Again [Shields - 2012]

While You Wait For The Others [Veckatimest - 2009]

Gun-Shy [Shields]

Plans [Yellow House]

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Steven Gerrard’s Retirement & The End Of The Roy Of The Rovers Era

Steven Gerrard’s retirement from international football will lead to a predictable plethora of praise from fans, managers and his colleagues in the England national team. Any number of talking heads will pop up on television screens and radio programmes to pay tribute to Gerrard’s tireless running, spectacular shooting and never-say-die attitude and remind us that the England team will be poorer without him. The fact that little of what they say is true will have little bearing on proceedings.

The truth is that, except for one game against Hungary in 2010, Gerrard never produced his best performances – the quality of which was always exaggerated anyway – in an England shirt. Whichever position he played, one weakness or another undermined the collective’s structure and set England on course for disaster. Specifically, his lack of composure, positional intelligence or tactical discipline made England appear completely anarchic for the best part of his ‘peak’ years.

While Rafa Benítez realised that the best thing to do was to put two intelligent and disciplined midfielders behind him and turn him loose behind a striker, only Fabio Capello dared to try and repeat the trick at international level. Predictably, replacing Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso with Gareth Barry and Frank Lampard led to a significant drop-off in collective performance.

Not that it mattered. Gerrard’s iconic status has guaranteed his inclusion in every England tournament squad since 2004 but his infuriating weaknesses contributed to the failure of each of those sides. Despite what will be said in the media over the coming hours and days, Gerrard’s international retirement is the best thing that could have happened to the England national team now. If anything, it is long overdue.

It is probably clear by now that I am no fan of Gerrard’s. Any diehard Liverpool fans reading have probably made the assumption that I am a Manchester United fan, tribally obliged to blind myself to their hero’s greatness. I am not. The reality is that Gerrard, perhaps more than any other player in English football history, illustrates and represents our collective failure to understand the beautiful game.

The English interpretation of football has arguably been shaped by three people: Charles Reep, who conducted fundamentally flawed research in the late 1940s and early 1950s and apparently proved that long-ball tactics were the most effective; Charles Hughes, who subsequently took Reep’s findings and made them the foundation for all English coaching; and Rupert Murdoch, whose repugnant but influential newspapers and TV stations have set the tone of our public football debate for decades, while simultaneously establishing celebrity culture as a national obsession.

These influences have popularised every boneheaded idea that continues to hold English football back. Our players, fans and managers almost always agree that the faster the game, the better. Consequently, the spectacular Hollywood Ball has historically been preferred to the more incremental short pass. The thirty-yard screamer is always better than the forward pass that, even after completion, does not guarantee a shot on goal. The 100 miles-per-hour, incident-packed spectacle is superior to a rational, strategic encounter in which both sides have detailed plans and try to execute them.

Indeed, the idea that football matches can be seen as games of strategy primarily dependent on acquirable technical and mental skills, which players and teams can continually work to learn about and improve on, has always been considered something of a joke – an indicator of pretentious pseudo-intellectualism more than anything else. Far more popular is the idea that matches are physical battles and that superior strength, fighting spirit and passion for the shirt will triumph.

Though the tide is turning, this has been the defining characteristic of English football for over a century. It has led to both the fans and the media portraying international games, particularly those against imperial rivals at major tournaments, as all-out war.

The myth of the football match as ‘highly charged battle decided by individuals’ instead of ‘logical strategic game decided by collective cohesion’ led to the creation of Roy Race, better known as Roy of the Rovers. This fictional comic-book character’s rags-to-riches story saw him rise to the pinnacle of the English game and his adventures repeatedly climaxed in decisive individual heroics. Just when all appeared to be lost, Race single-handedly won games for his team, Melchester Rovers.

Steven Gerrard was the real-life version of Roy Race; the inevitable result of all of these cultural imperfections. A gifted youngster from English football’s only real hotbed, the predominantly working class North West, he received years of coaching that had little if anything to do with the reality of modern football and grew up believing that individualist miracles, be they long distance strikes, improbable long-range passes or courageous drives through the middle of the pitch, were the solution to any collective hardship.

Like many English footballers of his generation, Gerrard has often given the impression that in his mind he is not playing a ball-game on a large field of green grass but rather charging through a battlefield while the enemy’s artillery guns rain shells down upon him and everyone around him. His frenzied and illogical but unstoppable forward energy always seemed analogous to that of a soldier stepping off the landing craft on D-Day, desperate to barge their way through hell on earth to safety at any cost.

Instead of acting as a hindrance, this defining characteristic was identified as a sign that he really cared and endeared him to coaches and fans. Eventually, it made him a global superstar. His refusal to play at anything other than 100 miles-per-hour, in addition to his ability to score spectacular goals with incredibly clean right-footed strikes of the ball, elevated him to godlike status.

Consequently, he has captained Liverpool since 2003 and has been an automatic starter for England since around the same time – this despite the fact that football has been moving slowly but surely away from this style of play for the majority of his career. I have seen it said that for most of his career he was a brilliant 1980s footballer playing in the wrong era. This seems a fair assessment.

He certainly appeared like the right man in the right place at the wrong time between the years of 2004 and 2008, when Gerrard more than David Beckham was England’s go-to midfielder. His famous energy combined with his infamous lack of composure to create infuriating headless-chicken acts that left huge gaps in the centre of the pitch and handed the initiative to England’s more methodical, intelligent opponents.

He was shifted out to the right and then to the left as Sven-Göran Eriksson, Steve McClaren and Fabio Capello continually tried to build a team that had some kind of structure in the middle of the park, but repeatedly found their ideas shot down as sacrilege by an incredulous media in thrall to Gerrard’s heroism and, more importantly, by the fact that wherever he was told to play, he always ended up charging around in the centre anyway.

The greatest unspeakable truth about Gerrard’s career is that his presence in central midfield in big games has more often inspired panic in his teammates rather than trust, even at Liverpool. The burden he felt, the fear of letting his friends and family down, routinely meant that he lost the plot on the field even more than usual and tried to win matches single-handedly. He was everywhere at once in the attacking phase and nowhere when the ball turned over. Rafa Benítez, the manager who best understood him, knew this was a recurring problem and famously substituted him in a Merseyside derby because he would not play like a rational human being.

This is not to suggest that these failings were unique to Gerrard. Thierry Henry was once asked what the biggest strength was of English footballers. “Their passion,” he replied. He was then asked what their biggest weakness was and he answered again “their passion.” It goes without saying that the same applies to Wayne Rooney, for example.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that Gerrard never became a fully rounded box-to-box midfielder capable of passing accurately with either foot, of reliably out-thinking top-class opponents or of choosing not to set up the opposition striker for important goals in must-win matches. That said, his later years have seen a vast improvement. While many players decline as they get older and lose the ability to cover every blade of grass, Gerrard has actually got better.

At the age of 31, shorn of the ability to run around like a total idiot for 90 minutes, he suddenly understood that football has become a precise game of positioning, technique and speed of thought. The last two seasons under the management of Brendan Rodgers have seen the Liverpool captain become a good deep-lying playmaker. As long as he has two runners alongside him, he has time to make a decision and use his now reliably accurate long-passing to dictate games.

By retiring from international football, Gerrard will undoubtedly give himself another season or two to do this job at Liverpool. I wish him every success in that role. At the same time, it is high time English football and the national team in particular turned its back on this throwback type of midfielder and focused its energy on finally trusting youngsters more suited to the modern international game.

After all, Gerrard’s 114-game international career came at the expense of Paul Scholes’, Michael Carrick’s, Leon Britton’s, Jack Cork’s, Josh McEachran’s and so on. There are many more like them who fell through the cracks. As previously stated, it does appear that the tide is turning. There are modern midfielders coming through and it finally seems like they might get the game-time they need to develop.

Steven Gerrard is finally gone. With his departure, the curtain falls on the Roy of the Rovers era. It is time to move English football forward. As the man himself said, this must not fucking slip.

Steven Gerrard’s major tournament career

Euro 2000Group stage exit – England showed no ability to keep and circulate the ball and ended up trying to contain Romania in a state of panic. Gerrard made a substitute appearance in England’s backs-to-the-wall victory over Germany but did not feature in any other games.

World Cup 2002 – Quarter final exit – England showed no ability to keep and circulate the ball and ended up trying to contain Brazil in a state of panic. Gerrard missed the tournament through injury but played one of his best-ever games in England’s 5-1 victory away to Germany in qualifying.

Euro 2004Quarter Final exit – England showed no ability to keep and circulate the ball and ended up trying to contain Portugal in a state of panic. Gerrard made a crucial mistake leading to France’s winner in the first group game and continually looked ill at ease in a ridiculously open midfield alongside Frank Lampard, David Beckham and Paul Scholes.

World Cup 2006Quarter Final exit – England showed no ability to keep and circulate the ball and ended up trying to contain Portugal in a state of panic. Gerrard scored goals vs Sweden and Trinidad & Tobago but his partnership with Lampard went beyond any description of ‘bad’. Gerrard missed penalty vs Portugal in shootout defeat.

Euro 2008Failed to qualify – England showed no ability to keep and circulate the ball and ended up trying to contain Croatia in a state of panic. Gerrard began qualifying as a right-sided midfielder but, once again, the midfield had no coherence and was repeatedly outplayed by more intelligent opponents. Gerrard finished the campaign with one of the very worst international displays of his career in England’s 3-2 defeat vs Croatia.

World Cup 2010Round of 16 exit – Capello’s England attempted to play with a more modern high-line style but still showed no ability to keep and circulate the ball and ended up playing straight into the hands of a reinvigorated Germany’s counterattacking strategy. Gerrard had performed splendidly in qualifying, having been given a relatively free role on the left-flank – he and Rooney benefited from the use of Gareth Barry and Emile Heskey as disciplined and reliable pivots. Gerrard scored in the tournament opener vs the United States but the rest of his tournament was inconsistent at best. His positional sense was once again criticised after left-back Ashley Cole suffered due to a lack of protection.

Euro 2012Quarter Final exit – England showed no ability to keep and circulate the ball and ended up trying to contain Italy in a state of panic. The ageing Gerrard was more positionally disciplined but more-or-less non-existent without the ball. To his credit he provided high-quality set pieces and assisted goals in that manner, but offered little else.

World Cup 2014Group Stage exit – A consciously progressive England side quickly reverted to type against Italy, parking the bus and allowing a high quality opponent too many opportunities to score. Gerrard was criticised for his failure to support the overrun Leighton Baines. After another defeat to Uruguay, Gerrard was blamed, perhaps harshly, for both of Luis Suárez’s goals. Even though he was unfortunate, there was no denying that it was another poor midfield display.

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Lallana, Lambert & Ince Show That English Football Is On The Mend

It seems to be accepted as fact these days that English football is irreparably broken. The Premier League has sucked up all of the cash from the lower levels and effectively killed off the grassroots game. Our biggest clubs have ceased to be steadily developed regional powers run on self-sustaining business models and English footballers rarely have a conventional career path of incremental growth and, worryingly, seem to be washed up or burned out before they reach 30 years of age.

Instead, the Premier League’s oligarch-owned superpowers hoover up the best English talent while the players are still in their mid-to-late teens, only to let them rot and squander their potential in ‘Elite Development Squads’, comfortably away from the first team football that they need in order to reach the heights in their mid-to-late twenties.

The likes of Grant Holt, Rickie Lambert and Adam Lallana, all of whom spent the early parts of their careers learning the game in the lower leagues, are seen as flukes – the lucky few who bathed in pigswill and somehow ended up smelling of roses.

In reality, the three are examples to every youth teamer in the Premier League. They represent proof of what talent can achieve if it chooses to play the long game: to drop down the pyramid, stay focused and play every week instead of signing for a top-four club in the vain hope that, one day, enough first team stars might come down with the flu to allow them a spot on the bench for a Cup game.

Now, there are two important points to concede here before we go any further. Firstly and most obviously, the financial packages on offer are inevitably going to convince most youngsters to chase the Champions League dream. When any eighteen year-old is offered terms that mean he and his family will never have to work again, of course he’s going to sign the contract as quickly as possible and never look back.

Secondly, it is undeniably true that the standard of coaching is undoubtedly higher for Manchester United’s youth team than it is for, say, Rotherham United’s first team. When it comes to educating a player and preparing him for Champions League football – the standard that every young player aims to reach – there’s no comparison.

While both of those things are true, it does seem that they have taken an unjustified precedence in the minds of a generation of English youngsters. Unless a player is as ludicrously talented as Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets or Raphaël Varane, it’s highly unlikely that they’ll be ready to play elite-level football before they’re 23 or 24 without getting embarrassed. There’s no substitute for first team football and the benefits of being patient while learning the ropes are numerous.

Between the ages of 20 and 22, Andrea Pirlo played 38 games for Reggina and Brescia. David Villa spent his early years playing for Sporting Gijón and Real Zaragoza and didn’t experience Champions League football until his second season with Valencia, by which time he was 24. Thiago Silva didn’t get his big European move to Milan until he too was 24, albeit partly because earlier spells with Porto and Dynamo Moscow had been curtailed by a life-threatening case of tuberculosis.

None of the above rushed their development and all reached legendary status because of their willingness to wait – to hone their skills away from the spotlight in order to make sure that, when the world’s attention was finally focused on them, they were more than ready. The last decade in English football has been a long, monotonous lesson in talent mismanagement and a sad example of youthful greed. Thankfully, the penny seems to be dropping.

The cautionary tales of players like Michael Woods, Tom Taiwo and John Bostock, all of whom moved for sizeable fees as teenagers but found their paths to first team football permanently blocked, are finally being understood. So too those of players like Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney and Phil Jones, who played Champions League football right from the beginning but have spent their careers being used as team sport’s equivalent of a Swiss Army knife, doing two or three jobs per season instead of refining their talents in their preferred role.

Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert moving to Liverpool should be welcomed as a sign that English football is getting back on course – that the traditional and correct path of player development is starting to be followed logically once again. The same goes for the transfer of Tom Ince, a talented youngster who has correctly realised that his ability is going to develop best in Hull City’s first team as opposed to Internazionale’s reserves.

Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling and Jon Flanagan have been brilliantly handled by Brendan Rodgers and should continue on their upward trajectory next season. Nathaniel Clyne, Jack Cork and James Ward-Prowse will come on leaps and bounds playing every week at Southampton. Ditto Jonjo Shelvey at Swansea, John Stones at Everton and Connor Wickham at Sunderland. Nick Powell, Ravel Morrison and Patrick Bamford will make loan moves and continue to play regularly. It’s all rather exciting in an understated way.

Of course, none of this means that everything that was wrong has now been fixed and that England are going to re-emerge as a force on the international scene, their players spoken of in hushed tones and their performances regarded by the rest of the world with absolute awe. It just means that we are learning how to develop talent again. It’s just a beginning and it could well lead to nothing – but it could also be the start of a successful era.

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Lionel Messi vs Thibaut Courtois: Bad Miss Or Great Save?

Towards the end of Argentina’s 1-0 victory over Belgium in Saturday’s World Cup quarter final, a quick break sent Lionel Messi through on goal, one-on-one with Thibaut Courtois. He was almost all alone in the Belgian half and seemingly had all the time in the world to weigh up his options and choose the best one, making the score 2-0 and killing the game in the process.

Miraculously, he failed to score. Courtois raced from his goal, narrowed the angles and saved Messi’s shot with his right shoulder. The score stayed at 1-0 and the match stayed alive for another minute or so until the final whistle confirmed Argentina’s victory.

The next morning I tweeted this:

Inevitably, people responded saying that I was wrong not to give Courtois the credit he deserves for making one of the saves of the tournament, that Messi’s attempt was hardly worthy of comparison with the worst of Danny Welbeck’s efforts and, most intriguingly, that it can’t have been both a bad miss and a great save.

The logic of that argument is pretty straightforward: if it’s a bad attempt, it shouldn’t require great goalkeeping to stop it. That seems indisputable. However, what’s overlooked here is that a one-on-one, more than anything else, is a battle of wits. It’s not simply up to the shooter to pick his spot and for the keeper to react in time to stop the ball before it passes him. It’s the goalkeeper’s job to induce a mistake: if it’s a great save, it’s entirely because he made the striker finish badly.

One-on-ones are about mental strength, speed of thought and control, and the person who best displays these qualities wins. All of the best one-on-one finishers understand that the key to beating the goalkeeper is to make sure that the power in the situation stays with them. If the keeper gains any power by rushing them, then they aren’t doing their job properly. Doing the job properly means the goalkeeper never has a chance to tip the scales in his favour.

Ronaldo – O Fenômeno, not Cristiano – used his famous double step-over technique to make sure the goalkeeper, never knowing whether the Brazilian was about to shoot or go round him on either side, stopped dead, thereby taking himself out of the game. Romário used speed, technique and supreme awareness of angles to give the man between the posts no time to anticipate the shot or to react to it. Ruud Van Nistelrooy was a master at giving himself a split second to read the goalkeeper’s movement and to then put the ball out of his reach.

Lionel Messi, as you well know by now, is the planet’s pre-eminent goalscorer and probably the best footballer ever to play the game. His mastery when one-on-one is a big reason why. That’s not to say that he’s infallible or that he has never missed one – I’ve seen him run through on goal, convince the goalkeeper to go to ground and then inexplicably scoop his shot wide – but when the pressure is on, Messi usually delivers.

When everyone else’s heart is pounding so hard it feels like it might burst through their ribcage like the chestburster in Alien, Messi’s is beating nice and slowly, no faster than when he’s sitting eating dinner with his family. He concentrates, waits for the keeper to make a move and then puts the ball the other side – or, if he feels like it, over him. Messi is always calm, unhurried and calculated in his execution. That’s why he succeeds – and why the weakness of his attempt versus Courtois was so surprising.

As Messi takes the pass and turns towards goal, he has not one but two looks over his shoulder to make sure that Axel Witsel, the last Belgian defender, isn’t going to catch him. This is perhaps normal for most players but it’s unlike Messi, who usually trusts his acceleration to carry him away from any pursuing opponent. That double-check means that, although he’s motoring towards goal, he hasn’t yet thought about what he’ll do next.

As he nears the penalty area, Messi slows to give himself time to pick his spot but Courtois has read his intentions and has timed his forward advance perfectly. When Messi lifts his head, he sees not a helpless ant in the path of a juggernaut but a huge figure taking gigantic steps forward, with his arms outstretched and his eyes fixed on the ball. There is now almost no way to score with a shot.

If Messi had afforded himself another millisecond or two, he would have realised that and noticed that all he had to do was keep running and take the ball slightly to the right. The momentum of Courtois’ advance would have left the keeper in no man’s land and the striker with an open goal. Instead, he was everything he usually is not: tense, rushed and tactless.

Only aware of Courtois in front and of Witsel behind, he sees no alternative and tries to lift the ball over the keeper, guessing that he will drop in anticipation of the low finish under his body. However, the big Belgian stands tall and, in Schmeichel-esque fashion, throws himself forward and spreads his limbs. Messi’s stabbed shot hits Courtois’ shoulder and bounces out to safety.

Like all the best goalkeepers, Courtois snatched control of the situation away from the forward and induced an error. He eliminated Messi’s huge advantage through a combination of timing, speed and physical intimidation. Against insurmountable odds, he won the battle of wits. For that, he deserves every plaudit that comes his way.

That said, it’s ultimately Messi’s fault that he didn’t score. He had the ball at his feet, the opposition half to himself and as much time as he could possibly want to take full advantage. Too concerned about being caught in a sprint, he didn’t allow himself the time he needed to find the right solution to the problem in front of him. He allowed the goalkeeper to dictate terms. He chose a finish he would normally never consider. In short, he finished like Welbeck.

A bad miss? A great save? It’s both – and inherently so.

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On Arjen Robben, Diving & The Definition Of Cheating

to cheat
  1. to act dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage.

Yesterday, we were once again treated to the sight of Arjen Robben diving to help his team get the result they needed. For most of the Netherlands’ match against Mexico, he seemed keener to win a penalty than to try and score via the more traditional and direct method of kicking the ball into the goal. That he tried to get a spot-kick several times and eventually managed to do so made it particularly difficult to accept. Even worse was that, deep down, we knew he would succeed all along.

As often as we have seen Robben cut in from the right and power a shot past a helpless goalkeeper, we have seen him knock the ball past a defender and fall to the floor before spinning round, arms outstretched, entreating the officials to award him a penalty. This habit has come to define him as much as his considerable footballing ability: he will always remain a player whose many victories are tarnished in the eyes of many by the manner in which his opponents were defeated.

Now, Robben is undeniably a cheat. He fits the definition to a tee: he consistently and shamelessly ‘acts dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage.’ The internet is full of videos and .gifs of him throwing himself over non-existent tackles, howling as though his injuries require life-saving medical intervention and then bouncing straight back up again when he realises that his thespian efforts will go unrewarded.

That said, there is a distinction to be made between this:

And this:

It’s one thing to go to ground when the defender hasn’t even tried to make a challenge – or for the attacker to initiate contact, Ashley Young-style – and another entirely to provoke and exploit a defensive mistake in the manner that Robben did against Mexico.

It is the aim of every attacker to exploit defensive mistakes if and when they are made – including outstretched legs in the penalty box. A defensive mistake is what it is: to leave a trailing leg in contemporary top-level football is every bit as stupid as charging forward twenty yards and leaving a gaping hole for an opposition player to run into.

It follows, then, that if an attacking player can spot a gap in a back four, run through it and score a goal, he can recognise a stupid attempt at a tackle when he sees one and make sure it’s punished accordingly. As a skilled chess player and an astute football tactician (he apparently proposed the 5-3-2 system the Dutch have used in this World Cup), Robben knows this and understands that even though his direct route to goal may be blocked, he can still score – more-or-less – by provoking and punishing a defensive error.

That being the case, Robben is not to blame for Mexico’s defeat. Rafa Márquez, whose lunge it was that he used to win the match-winning penalty, is directly responsible. He committed an act of bone-headed idiocy unbecoming of most youth-teamers, let alone a man of his experience and on-pitch intelligence. If he doesn’t stick his foot in, one of his colleagues takes possession of the ball, punts it down the field and the teams play extra time.

Miguel Herrera, simultaneously Mexico’s manager, mascot and cheerleader, is also culpable to some extent. There’s no way a coach of his standing can say that he was unaware of Robben’s history of histrionics, yet his tactical choices gave Robben every chance to dive and to dictate the result.

It’s obvious that if you surrender the midfield battle with thirty minutes left on the clock and elect to pack your own penalty box with defenders that 1. Robben will spend the next half hour dribbling into the area looking for legs over which to throw himself and 2. he will eventually find one and throw himself over it.

In the end, it doesn’t matter that Márquez’s challenge didn’t make significant contact. It doesn’t matter that it was Robben’s third attempt to con the referee into awarding the Netherlands a spot kick. It doesn’t matter that he’s been pulling the same underhand tricks for over ten years and is still getting away with them.

Ultimately, Mexico had plenty of warnings and yet they didn’t alter their approach to prevent him from doing what he does best. It’s a shame and it’s unsavoury as hell, but what Robben did – on this occasion, at least – wasn’t cheating. He just punished a defensive mistake.

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Argentina’s Tactical Problems: Foreseeable & Likely To Be Fatal

It should be obvious to everyone who has watched Argentina’s matches that the systems Alejandro Sabella’s team has so far used have not worked. The 5-3-2 experiment in the Bosnia & Herzegovina game was correctly halted at half-time but the 4-3-3 has looked little better in the last two-and-a-half games. The genius of Lionel Messi has dug them out of holes but it is a bit embarrassing that they have needed Messi to bail them out against Bosnia & Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria. They were rather hoping that they would be able to hold that trump card in reserve until they faced Brazil in the final.

Argentina’s problems are many but can be simplified, and though they are simple, they are no less serious. In short: they have no attacking structure and not much in the way of defensive cohesion. They are a collection of brilliant individuals but not a good team.

As I wrote before the tournament:

From a tactical point of view, too, Argentina are at a disadvantage. They are likely to play a very vertical counter-attacking game, sitting deep and springing forward with Ángel Di María, Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuaín as well as Messi, an approach which maximises the four’s individual ability by allowing them lots of space with which to work, but one that has no recent history of success at this level. There is not a great deal on the bench that suggests they are going to be capable of changing their approach should an opponent park the bus.

Alejandro Sabella’s men are likely to carry on the tradition established by sides like Jogi Löw’s Germany and José Mourinho’s Real Madrid, whose shock-and-awe reactivism destroyed most opponents who allowed themselves to be suckered in to playing high up the pitch, but collapsed when sides twigged what was going on and simply sat deep and refused to be drawn out. Romania, a limited side who will not be at the World Cup Finals, held Argentina to a goalless draw in March by doing exactly that.

So it has proved. Javier Mascherano and Fernando Gago, the two deep midfielders, don’t offer anything in the offensive phase; Messi, Higuaín and Agüero don’t do anything defensively; Pablo Zabaleta and Marcos Rojo rarely do much of anything at either end.

In open play, the creative burden seems to have been placed wholly on Lionel Messi and Ángel Di María, while getting the big guys on the end of set-pieces remains a secondary ploy. If the opposition simply crowd out Messi and Di María, they shut Argentina down. It is impossible for a side to win a World Cup if it is that easy to neutralise their attack.

Furthermore, every team Argentina faced in the group stage carved out incredibly good goalscoring opportunities. Bosnia & Herzegovina were unlucky to only register one, Iran could have had two or three and Nigeria’s two goals were just reward for their prowess on the break and Argentina’s lethargy in defence. The better sides they face later in the competition will be able to shut them down and pick them off with relative ease.

With all of the above being the case, what can Argentina do to prevent elimination? What will probably happen is that Ezequiel Lavezzi, formerly of Napoli and Paris Saint-Germain fame but currently best known for squirting his isotonic drink into Sabella’s face during the match against Nigeria, will take the now-injured Agüero’s place.

Lavezzi will demonstrate his usual hyperactivity, moving all over the attacking third and receiving the ball in wide positions, creating central space for Messi and Di María to move into, while also making diagonal runs between full-back and centre-back, a run Messi’s colleagues at Barcelona make regularly and one that allows Messi to lift the ball over the defence and give the runner a clear shot on goal, as is his wont. It could be that simple: a simple injection of energy could transform Argentina.

I would go one step further and introduce another playmaker in place of Gago – another mobile passer, like Lucas Biglia or Enzo Pérez but in an ideal world the absent Éver Banega, to take the ball and make something happen from the centre of the pitch. A third creator would mean that the opposition cannot just surround Messi and Di Maríá and know that, bar a moment of genius from the former, a goal is almost certainly not going to come. It would also give Higuaín the space to play as a lone striker, something he has done at club level for years.


To me it seems a no-brainer, but a coach as cautious as Sabella would probably perceive too much risk in switching to a variant of 4-2-3-1 that this team has never played together. Admittedly, that reason is as valid as any could be – but unless they address their obvious problems, they will find themselves on the plane home very soon. If Switzerland boss Ottmar Hitzfeld plays his cards right – as he did when his unfancied side beat eventual champions Spain 1-0 in the last World Cup – then it could all be over for Sabella, Messi and company on Tuesday.

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