"What do you mean you've hurt 'your' knee, it's Liverpool's knee" - Bill Shankly.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Gerrard on Trial, Rafa and Capello


The trial changed me. It was frightening. I will never celebrate in a bar again - the Liverpool and England star at his most frank

Last updated at 1:01 AM on 26th September 2009

As Steven Gerrard surveyed his surroundings in courtroom 4:1 he was sure of only one thing. Whatever happened, he would not come back here again. 

Steven Gerrard, photographed for Icon magazine

No more mither, as he described it in Liverpool Crown Court, no more situations; change was the only answer. 

Gerrard has never talked about the emotions surrounding the confrontation in a Southport bar that instigated a charge of affray and began an eight-month ordeal but, despite the exoneration of a not guilty verdict, it is clear the episode has left a mark on him.

The judge, Henry Globe, said that the accused could walk away with his reputation intact, and plainly this mattered greatly.

'I’m the sort of player who likes to keep it clean,' Gerrard told me, in a tiny ante-room at Liverpool’s Melwood training ground.

'I was always very decided about the way footballers should behave. I do think it is important. It is not about image, or putting on an act, but I know a lot of kids look up to me, I get a lot of fan mail from them and at the time I thought I’d let them and a lot of other people down, just by being in this position. 

'I was concerned that people wouldn’t think as much of me and that was why the verdict was so crucial. During the trial when the prosecution was having its say there were a couple of days when I was reading the reports and thinking ‘I hope people don’t think that is what I am like.'

Steven Gerrard in training at Melwood with Dirk Kuyt (left) and Glen Johnson (right)

Leading the way: Gerrard in training at Melwood with Dirk Kuyt (left) and Glen Johnson (right) on the eve of Liverpool's match against Hull City

The continued threat of civil action means Gerrard cannot talk about the incident itself, or the accusations made by Marcus McGee, a 34-year-old businessman. He admits that his policy throughout has been to immerse his mind in football, but that has not precluded thoughts on how to ensure this remains an isolated chapter in his life.

'The trial changed me,' he said.'I had to learn from it, learn from being in the wrong place at the wrong time. What hour I am out, where I go out, I will be more careful in future. 

'From now on, if we win 5-1, if I score two goals and we go top of the league, I won’t try to enjoy it in a bar with my mates anymore. I’ll go for a meal and be in my house by half past ten. We get paid very well and there have to be sacrifices.

'Throughout the trial I kept telling myself that whatever happened I would never be back in one of these rooms again. It was not a pleasant place to be, the whole experience was very frightening and intimidating.  

'I have never been through anything like it. I kept thinking of my team-mates away in Thailand playing football, and me being so far from where I should be.

 'I felt part of something 
 more than a football team. 
 I would have been one 
 of them, but I was just 
 better at kicking a ball' 

'Despite the verdict, there was not one minute that was enjoyable, not one moment that made me proud. 

'I regret the situation, I regret not going home when I could have done and I accept that some people will always see this as a blemish on my character, even though I got the outcome I thought I deserved.

'What I would say is that I co-operated, I dealt with it and now I want to put it behind me. There is a balance between trying to be a model professional and living like a monk. 

'You have to be able to let your hair down like anyone else but I have always tried to treat people as they treat me. I think I have had respect because I give respect back. 

'There have been very few instances when I have had problems, but I will think about my spare time, even my holiday time, more carefully now. I reckon I have another six years as a professional footballer. It is not so long to make those choices.'

Liverpool's Steven Gerrard

At home on the pitch: Steven Gerrard celebrates scoring at Bolton

Gerrard’s circumstances felt more extraordinary to those who are acquainted with the man. There are certain footballers – you know who they are – whose appearance accused of violent assault would not have raised an eyebrow. To have Gerrard in the dock was anomalous. 

He remains not just one of the most talented footballers of his generation, but one of the most down-to-earth, too. He has dedicated the best years of his career to one club, Liverpool, at a time when the managers of the two most successful teams in the Premier League, Manchester United and Chelsea, would have walked on hot coals to sign him. 

Steven Gerrard leaves Liverpool Crown Court

Testing time: Gerrard leaves Liverpool Crown Court after being found not guilty of affray

Sir Alex Ferguson eulogised him as the natural successor to Roy Keane, Jose Mourinho thought he had dragged a move to Chelsea over the finishing line four years ago, only for Gerrard to stay at Anfield at the eleventh hour. 

He has recently signed a new contract but with each passing season the desperation to win a league championship medal grows more acute. Even with the memory of the most remarkable European Cup final in history, it would be a travesty if Gerrard was to end his career without knowing the feeling of playing for the best team in the land.

'If I never won the league title, there would be regrets and an empty space, I admit it,' he said.'Yet even if Liverpool were no longer challenging I would still find it difficult to leave. I could win 90 per cent of my medals here and one league championship elsewhere and that last medal would not mean as much.

'I’ve been part of this club since I was eight. I remember my first final, the Worthington Cup against Birmingham City in Cardiff. Swarms of people around the coach, me looking out at their faces. 

'It was at that moment I felt I was part of something more than a football team. I would have been one of them, but I was just better at kicking a ball. That could have been me standing on the street. I felt responsible. I still do. 

'If you get on our bus after a defeat and you see me and Jamie Carragher, it is not company you want to be in. The difference is I’ve learned to enjoy that pressure as I get older. 

Steven Gerrard and fellow Liverpool veteran Jamie Carragher

Turkish delight: Gerrard and fellow Liverpool veteran Jamie Carragher celebrate winning the European Cup in Istanbul four years ago

'Now we try to transmit that emotion to the foreign players. We try to explain to them what it means to take 6,000 away to Leeds United on a Tuesday in the Carling Cup, when everyone else says the competition does not matter.'

The other motivational force for Gerrard is his manager at Liverpool, Rafael Benitez. It has not always been a comfortable relationship, Gerrard’s tendency to positional indiscipline – a playground footballer is the most common criticism, always chasing the action – at first grated against Benitez’s equally instinctive desire for order. 

The coach decided he could not trust Gerrard to occupy a position in central midfield and moved him wide. The player did not like it but continued to turn in stunning performances that kept Liverpool in contention for major trophies. 

 'I can have a fantastic 
 game – we’ve won 2-1 in 
 the last minute and I’ve 
 scored both. I come to 
 the dressing-room buzzing 
 ...that's when Rafa starts 
 talking about a throw-in 
 when I pressed too late' 

Over time, they developed mutual respect. Gerrard for Benitez’s meticulous attention to detail and his relentless drive for improvement: Benitez for Gerrard’s match-defining qualities. 

It would be wrong to call Gerrard’s present role at Liverpool a compromise, because that would suggest weakness. But there is something about his placement in the centre, but high up the field where his defensive responsibilities are limited, that is the best of all possible worlds.

'Even after five years with Rafa, I still feel I want to please him, that I want to impress him in every game I play,' Gerrard added.'The great managers are like that. There are a handful operating on a different level and I am lucky enough to play for two of them, Benitez and Fabio Capello. 

'It is when you see what they put in, some of the little things they spot, that you realise how hard they work. Rafa will make a point, and you’ll be thinking, "Has this guy not got a life?" because it seems so minor, but it is what sets him apart.

'I can have a good game – tell you what, I’ll be big-headed, say I’ve had a fantastic game – we’ve won 2-1 in the last minute and I’ve scored both. 

'I come back into the dressing-room and I’m buzzing, bouncing off the walls, thinking "I feel good today", that is when Rafa comes up and starts talking about a throw-in when they changed the play and I pressed far too late. He’ll say: "If you want, we’ll go out there and I’ll show you". 

Steven Gerrard celebrates with Fernando Torres

White hot: Gerrard celebrates with Fernando Torres after the Spaniard's goal at West Ham

'Or you’ll have a run of 10 games when you’re in form and flying and he’ll pop you a DVD of your recent play and it’s broken up into sections good and bad. And you’re thinking, "Hang on, bad? I didn’t do anything wrong". But you’ll watch it and you’re out of position in one match, or you pressed late or you let a man go at a set-piece. You wonder when the guy sleeps. 

'At first when he did things like that, I’d be asking, "Has he not watched my last 150 games for Liverpool?" There is a danger that you think he has it in for you because he pulls you so much. 

'When he arrived, he would keep saying to me "Left foot, left foot" or I’d shoot and he would say "hit the target" and I’m thinking, "Look, mate, I’m trying to hit the f***ing target". 

 'I lie in my room looking 
 forward even to the team 
 meetings and training just 
 to be in Fabio Capello’s 
 company, because you 
 get so much from him'

'I would say to people "I'm 26 – if he doesn’t think my left foot’s working now, it’s never going to work" but then a few weeks later I scored with my left and he came up with a little smile and said "lucky goal today, left foot and it hit the target" and then the penny dropped. 

'Finally, I realised it was the way he helped push you on and as a player you either recognised it or fought it and, with these guys, if you fight it there is only one winner.

'I think that was why I adapted to Fabio Capello slightly better than some of the England players because his style was similar to what I had experienced with Rafa. He has that same way of keeping your feet on the ground in the moments when you’re thinking you are a bit good. 

'I loved that after the win against Croatia in Zagreb, Capello’s first thoughts were what we could have done better. My mates who were watching the game were on a high about the performance, which is how it should be for fans, but he was already onto the next match. 

'After we beat Slovenia in the friendly recently he was going round everybody during the warm down, telling them where they could improve and what they did right. 

Steven Gerrard lines up for England against Slovakia

Kicking king: Gerrard lines up for England against Slovakia

'Everyone was tired, really players just want to relax after matches, but he was still looking to drive us on and, however you may feel about it at the time, when you take a step back from it, that energy is refreshing. 

'You look at a guy like Capello and sense he can help you achieve something. He is a manager I’ve always liked. I’ve seen him on the sidelines for Juventus and Roma and thought he looked a class act, I’ve read his book and when he got the job I immediately felt it could be our turning point.

'I don’t want to retire and have the highlight of my England career a quarter-final lost on penalties. I want to look back on achievement, on a great team. I used to go down to England knowing it was not right, lying in my room for seven days with a tricky game ahead, driving myself mad. 

Steven Gerrard

Flying: Gerrard in trademark Roy of the Rovers pose

'Everyone was on our case and we had too much thinking time. I wasn’t sure I could run a game, I wasn't sure where I would be playing or what the manager really wanted from me. 

'There was a lot of self-doubt. Now I lie in my room looking forward even to the team meetings and training just to be in Capello’s company, because you get so much from him.

'He won’t be inviting you to dinner or the pictures, and he is not the guy you want to cross if you’ve had a bad game, but he is not as stone-hard as he is made out to be. He does pat you on the back as well. 

'People ask me what I would like to do after football and I’d love to be a manager, but then I wonder if I could ever be as good as those guys because it is 24/7, it’s their life, there is nothing else and I don’t think I could be crazy like that. 

'I like to switch off after games. I’ve got two daughters. I like to play golf. I think of Rafa and in five years I have never had a conversation with him that was not about football; Capello the same. They fascinate me, those people. 

'When I get talking to John Terry or Wayne Rooney, I am always asking about their managers, how they work, how they interact with the players. I’ll pull Gary Lewin, the England physiotherapist, and ask him about Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. 

'On Friday, I love getting home, sitting on the couch, turning Sky Sports News on and listening to all the interviews coming in from the training grounds, just to hear these characters talking about football. I don’t know if I could be that obsessed. Jamie Carragher, now he could, definitely.' 

Steven Gerrard collects his MBE at Buckingham Palace with wife Alex Curran

My princess: Gerrard collects his MBE at Buckingham Palace with wife Alex Curran

As if by magic, Carragher interrupts, mockingly telling his friend to make sure the article is about Liverpool,'not bloody England.' 

We settle for a bit of both. Gerrard talks about his exceptional understanding with Wayne Rooney at international level, and reminisces about the first time they met, in a Merseyside derby.

 'When I get talking to John
 Terry or Wayne Rooney, 
 I'm always asking about 
 their managers, how 
 they work, how they 
 interact with the players' 

'We had our hands around each other’s throats because of my tackle on Gary Naysmith,' Gerrard recalled.'He was 17, it was his first derby, he charged up, straight into the melee. I remember thinking, "Who the f***’s this? He’s a bit up for it." 

'He was a man in a boy's body. At the end it was forgotten. The best players are like that. If someone cannot forget what has happened once the final whistle has gone, they are not man enough to play. I’ve kicked many people, been kicked by a few, too, and the best ones never mention it. Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira were brilliant like that. Boot you all day, then "all the best" and move on.'

And moving on is what Gerrard is about, too. He looks around the featureless little interview room and compares it to a cell or a police interrogation office.

'I think people now realise the truth of what happened,' he concludes,'apart from every away fan in the country.' 

It is a nice line and he grins: but don’t be fooled into thinking Steven Gerrard will ever look back on this period in his life and laugh.

Torres's Story

Exclusive: My secrets, by Fernando Torres

Published 23:36 13/09/09 By James Fletcher 

Penny Lane must have seemed a million miles away from Madrid to the young Spanish schoolboy.

So too, the ‘Yellow Submarine’ that Fernando Torres sang about with his brother as they recited Beatles hits passed down from their father Jose.

Indeed, ‘El Nino’, would not even have known who the Fab Four were given his tender years or what it was they were singing about. But he loved their tunes all the same. And that was all that mattered.

Had anyone told him just how intricately linked he would ultimately become with Liverpool’s most famous sons and he would have laughed it off as madness. Liverpool? He’d never even heard of it. Yet the city was to become his second home. His future. The platform for his footballing dreams and the Beatles back catalogue was to become his Bible.

He said: “One of the biggest problems I faced when I first moved to Liverpool was the language barrier. My English was limited to the classes I had taken at school in Fuenlabrada. You think you know a bit of English and that you can get by but when you actually arrive in England you soon realise that you haven’t really got a clue.

“I was told to be honest and say; ‘I didn’t catch that, could you say it again?’ but the truth is I didn’t always take that advice. I nearly always just mumbled a ‘no’. That’s what I did whenever I was in the supermarket and was asked if I wanted ‘cash back’. It’s not something we have in Spain and I had no idea what it was. It was three months before I knew what they were talking about.

“One afternoon, the way back from having lunch we decided to go shopping. I’d been told about Costco and so we decided to go in and have a look. As we were going through the door, the security guard stopped. We assumed he was asking for a member’s card that we didn’t have and so, not be able to explain in English, we just turned and left without a word. The next day I was told if you’re not a member you can’t shop there.

“Two people were vital during my first few days in the city: Rob and Alan, the English teachers Liverpool laid on for me. One of the things they used to make me do was ring people in response to adverts in the paper. You’d get on the phone and ask about a puppy for sale, or that kitten being advertised, or the price of a second hand car.

“The idea was to get me used to speaking in English on the phone but at first the idea terrified me. So much so that I would panic when I didn’t understand something and find myself having to ring Pepe Reina.

“The car radio became my constant travelling companion. Every morning on my way to training at Melwood, I would listen and try to concentrate on what was being said. At first I only understood a few words but bit by bit I could feel myself improving. As I went past billboards I would try to translate them, too, and with every passing day I was getting better and better.

“Some nights, I even dared to pick up the phone and order food. When it turned up, it was nearly always what I wanted. When we were in hotels preparing for games I watched films in English with the subtitles on. The other thing I always carried with me was ‘English Training’ on my Nintendo DS - language games and exercises that helped me develop my English.

“I was terrified at the prospect of having to have a conversation on the phone. Imagine how much worse it is when that conversation is with the fire service! My smoke alarm kept going off in the house I was renting and one afternoon I got a call. I just about worked out that the man on the other end was from the local fire station but I didn’t understand anything else. A few minutes later a fire engine turned up at the house, packed with fireman thinking they were being called into action.

“They came three times in three days before they worked out that the smoke from cooking was causing the alarm to go off prematurely. The next time the alarm went off, they called me first to check whether they really did have to set off again.”

“I like the Beatles a lot. Before I ever imagined that I would end up in Liverpool, I listened to their songs. Now I’ve rediscovered them because listening to them has helped me to pick up the language more quickly. My favourite songs are ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Yellow Submarine’.”

A giant 51-foot long, 15-foot high, 18 tons steel Yellow Submarine, replica built to commemorate the famous song, greeted Torres upon arrival at Liverpool’s John Lennon Airport.

Torres found himself immersed in Liverpool’s history, it’s culture, walking the famous streets, from Princess Dock to Victoria Street, taking time to enjoy Matthew Street and the Beatles tour, though he is still to visit the Cavern Club.

“What can I say about the legendary band, a symbol of the city? There’s not much I can add, although it did strike me that – despite what you might imagine – people in Liverpool aren’t constantly talking about the Beatles and their success,” he added.

“People have an enormous amount of respect and admiration for them, because everyone in London is conscious of the fact that the Beatles and Liverpool FC have taken the name of the city round the world.”

Torres is not your average footballer. There will be no tabloid tales of bad boy behaviour, no sordid nightclub tales or weekly pictures of his latest supercar. Nights in playing cards, watching television with his stunning wife Olalla Dominguez Liste, or even a bit of DIY? Now you’re talking.

He explained: “I’m very much a homely person. I am at my most comfortable and relaxed there. One of my favourite moments each day, matches permitting, is the evening stroll with Olalla (my wife) and our two dogs. They’re English bulldogs, a male called Pomo and a female called Llanta. We have found a couple of parks near where we live that are relaxed and peaceful, offering a real escape.

“At home, we spend time playing board games with friends and family. When it comes to Monopoly, Scatergory, or Hotel, there are real battles. For a change, we sometimes play cards, even though I’m not one for the typical footballer’s game like poker or the games played with a 40-card Spanish deck, like mus or pocha. But I do enjoy playing brisca and tute, Spanish games similar to trumps.

“Television is an alternative and I like to be up to date with what’s going on in the world, and not just the sports news. My favourite programmes are ‘The Dog Whisperer’ and ‘Super Nanny’.

“I love Stanley Park, the one that divides Anfield and Goodison and which I got to know when I went to film the Spanish number 9 advert for Nike there. I’ve also been to Chester, and to Formby on the coast where, weather permitting, I like to devour a Flake 99, with raspberry sauce.

“We have adapted perfectly to Liverpool but when it comes to eating we still follow a Spanish timetable. Eating at English times still feels too early so we started arranging barbeques. A few of us got together along with Mikel Arteta from Everton. One Sunday we started eating in the garden, it was a sunny day with the odd cloud and we didn’t think anything of it....until the heavens opened and it started snowing. Yes, snowing! Since then, the slightest sign of bad weather and we set up in the garage instead.

“During my first few months in Liverpool I seemed to be permanently surrounded by hammers, screwdrivers, pliers and spanners as I discovered a new hubby: putting together furniture. There were tools everywhere.

“In Spain I hadn’t put together a single wardrobe but here in England I found myself in the position where I either had to get on and do it or the box would just gather dust. Sometimes, I would end up getting so irritated I would end up crawling to bed shattered – but with the world done.

“My determination to finish the job off meant that one night in 2007 I didn’t finish until the small hours. I had come home in a bad mood after we had lost 1-0 at home to Olympic Marseilles in the Champions League. I decided the best way to work the frustration out of my system was to put together two pieces of furniture for the living room. By the time I had finished it was 4am.

“I haven’t experienced Liverpool’s nightlife. I have been out a couple of times to eat after Champions League matches and you can see there’s a lot going on. One thing that does surprise me is that no one seems to wear a coat. Everyone is done up and dressed to impress but few of them wrap up warm, even though the temperature can’t be much above freezing. One thing that I would like to do is watch a game in the pub. Everyone tells me about the passion with which fans follow matches between pints.”

Tactics: The Diamond Formation

The Question: Is the midfield diamond here to stay and how do you counter it?

It's been adopted by Chelsea and Inter, but will this curious tactic stand the test of time in its latest inception?

Didier Drogba and Deco during a training session at Stamford Bridge today

Didier Drogba and Deco during a training session at Stamford Bridge today. Photograph: Steven Paston/Action Images

After years of being out of fashion in western Europe, the midfield diamond is back. Chelsea have rumbled to three straight league victories at the start of the season, despite pundits pointing out their lack of width, and wondering just how effective they can continue to be. Internazionale manager Jose Mourinho, who is regarded in the UK as a high priest of 4-3-3, reverted to 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield during his side's 1-1 draw against Bari at the weekend. Previously its popularity has proved fleeting - will this time be any different?

A history lesson

The diamond is curious in that it emerged piecemeal over time; it is not part of the grand sweep of tactical history. It never seems to have been anybody's big idea, but was rather a bi-product of other forces and, generally speaking, it has never hung around for long, which suggests it may have limited applicability. The first team self-consciously to arrange their midfield four with one deep, one creating and two shuttling seems to have been Flamengo, where it began as an expedient compromise in a process that began shortly before the second world war.

As part of his plans to develop the club, Flamengo's president José Bastos Padilha sought a European coach. He found one in the Hungarian Dori Kurschner, who was only too glad to escape anti-Semitism in his homeland. He arrived in Rio de Janeiro in 1937, but his attempts to introduce the W-M (3-2-2-3) were scuppered by a football culture suspicious of anything that might stifle natural creativity and improvisation.

Players, fans and journalists were openly mocking, their doubts fanned into rebellion by the assistant coach, Flavio Costa, who had been moved aside to make way for Kurschner. Having finished second in the Carioca championship in 1937, Flamengo lost 2-0 to Vasco da Gama in the opening game of the following season, the inaugural match at Padilha's new Estadio da Gavea, and Kurschner was sacked. After a brief time at Botafogo, he contracted a virus and died in 1941.

Costa, meanwhile, resumed his role as Flamengo coach. He had slowly become convinced of the merits of the W-M, but having been so scornful, could not admit as much, so claimed to have come up with a whole new system – the diagonal. Essentially, he took the central square of the W-M and tipped it so it became a rhombus, with the inside-left advanced just behind the centre-forward in the ponta da lanca (point of the lance) position Pele would make so famous, the inside-right a little deeper, the left-half a little deeper again, and the right-half sitting just in front of the back three (or of course, the formation could be flipped on its y-axis to make the right side more attacking).

Of course, even within the W-M, it had been common for one of the inside-forwards to be more attacking, or one of the wing-halves to be more defensive – at Arsenal in the 1930s for instance, the left-half Wilf Copping played deep, allowing Jack Crayston, the right-half, more licence. But Costa formalised it, and as Flamengo were successful, his rhombus midfield spread. Gradually, though, the rhombus was tipped a little more, until 3-1-2-1-3 became 4-2-4, the system with which Brazil won the World Cup in 1958.

The diamond then disappeared from view, only springing up again in the sixties. It became common within the 4-2-4 for one of the midfielders to sit, as cover in front of the back four – Antonio Rattin of Argentina being a fine early example. Gradually, forwards began to drop deeper. Argentina, reacting to the shock of being beaten 6-1 by Czechoslovakia at the 1958 World Cup by experimenting with defensive tactics, were among the pioneers. Their obsession with the No10 remained, though, and so by the 1966 World Cup, with Rattin holding, and Ermindo Onega operating as a playmaker, the diamond was beginning to re-emerge.

England lost 1-0 to a defensive Argentina in the Maracana in 1964 in the Mundialito, a four-team tournament also including Brazil and Portugal. Alf Ramsey would never have admitted it, but that defeat seems to have persuaded him down the route of pragmatism. He abandoned 4-2-4 for 4-3-3, before ultimately adopting what Nobby Stiles termed a 4-1-3-2. The Manchester United midfielder anchored in front of the back four, with Alan Ball, Bobby Charlton and Martin Peters all given licence to push on and join the front two.

That formation, a close cousin of the diamond, had already been common for a couple of years in the USSR, where Viktor Maslov, developing the notion of pressing at Dynamo Kyiv, deployed the veteran defender Vasyl Turyanchyk to 'break the waves' in front of the back four. In a team in which every player had defensive duties, only Andriy Biba, Maslov said, "retained the full rights of democracy". He was, in other words, the equivalent of the Argentinian playmaker, given a free role in what was effectively a 4-3-1-2.

It is that shape, with a holder and a playmaker flanked by two shuttling players – carilleros, as they are known in Argentina, the only country, seemingly, to give the role a specific name – that really forms the basis of the modern conception of the diamond. Strangely, though, only Argentina adopted it on a wide scale. Elsewhere a club side may play a diamond for a year or two, but it is a fad that soon fades; in the Argentinian league, although there are experiments with double-playmakers (such as Huracan played last season: a 4-3-2-1) or two holders (which I've seen described, rather neatly, as a double-Pacman), 4-3-1-2 remains the default formation.

Problems with the diamond

To European eyes, unused to seeing an artist provided with a three-man midfield stage on which to perform, that is, at least initially, refreshing. Argentina's historical notion of the default way of playing, equally, with its ready division into playmakers and holders has equipped them well for the modern trend towards four-band formations (which makes it all the more frustrating that Diego Maradona seems so reluctant to use one with the national team).

But there are difficulties. The first game I saw in Argentina was River Plate against Independiente in November 2007. Both teams played 4-3-1-2, and both teams cancelled; each seemingly waiting for their respective playmakers, Ariel Ortega and Daniel Montenegro, to do something. Neither did, and the game ended in a tame 1-1 draw that probably would have slipped from the memory had it not been my first visit to the Monumental. It was admittedly, a mid-table fixture, but the wider point was clear: the danger of playing through one creative source (in River's case in that game, bafflingly, for Diego Buonanotte was playing as a support striker and surely could have dropped deeper), is that a single stream is easily dammed. The diamond's lack of width only exacerbates the problem.

You wonder as well whether Argentina remains so caught up in the debate over the viability of the playmaker, and with producing creators (and thus Pacmen to stop them) that other areas get rather overlooked. Playing a 4-2-3-1 – and ignoring the spats that have ruled certain players out - Argentina would have, by some distance, the best middle five in the world (two of Javier Mascherano, Esteban Cambiasso, Sebastian Battaglia and Fernando Gago; three of Leo Messi, Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, Juan Román Riquelme, or even Javier Pastore), but are deficient in every other area.

My own doubts about the diamond crystallised one night in Belgrade in October 2002. Yugoslavia had played a diamond against Italy the previous Saturday, and had succeeded in frustrating them, drawing 1-1. They set out with the same shape that Wednesday against Finland, and found themselves outplayed in the first half as Finland's two wide midfielders in an orthodox 4-4-2, Mika Nurmela and Joonas Kolkka, revelled in the open spaces on the flanks. Yugoslavia may have enjoyed the bulk of possession, but they became so paranoid about their vulnerability to wide counters that they were able to do little with it, and were fortunate still to be level at half-time. A quick switch to 3-5-2 soon solved that (and freed Sinisa Mihajlovic - playing by that stage of his career as a centre-back - from actually having to do any defending), and they won 2-0.

Can Chelsea make it work in the Premier League?

Given the tendency within the diamond to predictability, it seemed to me fine as a defensive formation, but of less use to a team who needed to take the initiative. Gradually, though, particularly from watching Argentinian football, I've become less sceptical. The issue really is thecarilleros. If they get too narrow, as Yugoslavia did that night, then a team is vulnerable wide, and its numerical advantage in the centre is outweighed by the fact that everybody is packed into so tight a space that passing options become limited.

If they can retain some width – and it is notable that Chelsea this season have twice in the league, and in the Community Shield, used Florent Malouda, a winger, as the left carillero – and so ensure the system is a 4-3-1-2, then that is less of a problem. If those carilleros and/or the full-backs (and Chelsea have two – three if you include Yuri Zhirkov – attacking full-backs) can also get forward, given confidence to do so by the central midfield holder, that relieves some of the creative burden from the player at the tip of the diamond.

Chelsea also have the variation offered by the asymmetry introduced by Guus Hiddink. The second striker plays slightly to the right of Drogba – that was clear when Kalou partnered him at Sunderland, and still evident in Anelka's role at Fulham – which encourages the left carrillero to advance, something that is difficult for orthodox symmetrical formations to pick up, and which stimulates a very necessary flexibility.

How to smash the diamond

So, how can the diamond be countered? The lack of width remains the flaw, and the key is to try to shift the battle from the centre to the flanks. Hull rode their luck to an extent on the opening day, but it is no coincidence that it was their 4-5-1 rather than the 4-4-2 of Sunderland and Fulham that came closest to stopping Chelsea.

Midfielders played wide and high stop the advances of the full-backs, while a hard-tackling trio in the centre will at least make Chelsea fight for possession, while shielding the back four when Chelsea have possession. In addition, a team's wide midfielders block Chelsea's full-backs, their own full-backs should be free to either become an extra man in midfield or provide additional defensive cover.

The narrowness of the diamond is a flaw, but no system is without them. The issue really is how many sides are able to engage them those wide areas. So far the inherent weakness in the system has been over-ridden by Chelsea's dominance in the centre. It's all very well pointing at where the space may be, but largely irrelevant – from an attacking point of view – if you can't get the ball, and by playing with, effectively, four central midfielders, Chelsea are ensuring they enjoy the bulk of possession.

Their football may never produce the geometric rhapsodies of, say, Arsenal at their best, but certainly while Didier Drogba remains in form (and in the country: he, Michael Essien, Salomon Kalou and Mikel Jon Obi will all be in Angola in January for the African Cup of Nations), Chelsea look capable of overwhelming opponents, that frontline of attack backed up by a prodigious second wave from midfield.

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Quote of the moment

Defying belief however, is a market Benitez has cornered quite well. The moment you think Benitez is clueless, he defies it by pulling off a result of majesty, like the one achieved in Madrid. The moment he is hailed a genius, he masterminds toothless surrender to a team going nowhere. In the ongoing Anfield power struggle, just when he was cornered by the firing squad, the Spaniard's demise at Liverpool looking practically assured with the ominous suspension of betting by the bookmakers, he squeezes out through a narrow trapdoor and eliminates Rick Parry. Rafa Benitez is Keyzer Soze.
- Just Football blog: The Curious Beast that is Football 28 Feb 2009