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

Monday, September 27, 2010

Tactics: Does it matter whom you play first?

The Question: Does it matter whom you play first?

When the fixtures come out, hope your club avoid a newly promoted side and look forward to a quick date with the top four

Florent Malouda of Chelsea
Will the boost to morale Chelsea have enjoyed in racking up a goal difference of 21-1 carry them to glory – or will their lead create a pressure of its own? Photograph: Tony O'Brien/Action Images

Chelsea sit top of the table after five matches, and Sir Alex Ferguson dismisses it because they've had an easy start (West Bromwich Albion, Wigan Athletic, Stoke City, West Ham United, Blackpool). West Ham lie bottom, and Avram Grant explains it by their tough start (Aston Villa, Bolton Wanderers, Manchester United, Chelsea, Stoke). Liverpool fans see their side fifth from bottom and hope it's because they've begun with Arsenal, Manchester City, West Brom, Birmingham and Manchester United.

But given you have to play everybody twice, does it matter? Will the boost to morale Chelsea have presumably enjoyed in racking up a goal difference of 21-1 carry them inevitably to glory? Will West Ham, crushed by early failure, suffer the sort of psychological collapse that led to Derby County and Sunderland (twice) breaking records for sustained awfulness?

Well, perhaps, perhaps not. A lead can be pressure in itself, and a string of tough games in a row, particularly if interspersed with hard Champions League games, could be debilitating. Once momentum goes, the decline can be rapid, as the examples of Newcastle in 1995-96, Manchester United in 1985-86 and Ipswich Town in 1980-81 show. Then again, the size of modern squads and the greater gulf between the quality of teams at the top and at the bottom probably insulates Chelsea for that sort of collapse. And while Derby had five points after 10 games in 2007-08 and went on to collect only six more, the previous season Sheffield United had had only six points but took a further 32 from the remaining 28 matches.

Rollercoaster of promotion

Is it, though, better to play certain sides at certain times of the season? Managers of teams in the Champions League always make a great fuss about whom and where they play after a European break, and that's something to which we'll hopefully return later in the season, but for now let's look at two theories about who it's best to play near the beginning of the season.

Is it a disadvantage to play promoted teams early? At first sight, it seems to make sense that it is best to avoid newly promoted teams near the start of the season. After all, they'll be high on the adrenaline of promotion, and the gloomy mundanity of repeated defeats won't have had time to take effect. Home crowds, delirious just to be in the Premier League, will be large and noisy, before settling to acceptance later in the season. Newly promoted sides tend to lack depth, so the injuries and suspensions that inevitably occur will impact on them more than on larger squads; get them early, though, and that won't have had time to take effect.

And then there are our memories of Hull City's start in their first season up, when they won away at Arsenal, or of Burnley last season beating Manchester United at Turf Moor. After Tottenham Hotspur had drawn at West Brom (and Sunderland lost there) it was said that that was a tricky fixture to get early in the season, almost as though it were axiomatic that you don't want to get a newly promoted side away from home early on. It feels like it should be true.

If points were distributed evenly over a season, after five home games you would expect a side to have picked up 26.32% of the total points it won at home over the course of the season. If they really do perform better early on, they should pick up a higher percentage of their points in the first five games; over the last 10 seasons, newly promoted teams have won 27.31% of their home points in those first five matches – higher than the expected figure, but not extraordinarily so. Burnley, notably, took 12 of the 26 home points they won last season in those first five games, but after five home games in 2004-05, Norwich had just three, and went on to pick up a further 26 in the 14 that remained.

What if we take the home element out of the equation? Is it any harder to play newly promoted teams in the first 10 games of the season? Not really (and given Blackpool and West Brom were part of Chelsea's supposedly easy start, that was already on some level acknowledged). Again, if points were distributed evenly you'd expect a side to win 26.32% of its total points in the first 10 matches; newly promoted sides over the past 10 seasons have picked up 27.49%. Hull took 20 of 35 from its first 10 games in 2008-09, but Leicester City had only five of 33 in 2003-04.

Rhythm of winning

Is it better to play a Big Four side early on? Again, it seems to make sense that it's better to play the best early on, before they've hit their rhythm and while new signings are taking time to settle. It feels as though there ought to be a greater randomness early on, and that should be of advantage to weaker sides, equalising the contest. And, as Ferguson and Arsenal's Arsène Wenger are forever telling us, it's important for top sides to peak at the right time, not in August but in March.

Again, it's easy to remember examples of Big Four teams slipping up early on – not just Burnley beating Manchester United and Hull winning at Arsenal, but Chelsea losing at Wigan or United dropping points at home to Reading and Newcastle. And again, the statistics suggest the theory is a myth.

The whole notion of a Big Four, of course, was called into doubt last season, and we may soon have an acknowledged Big Something-else, so here I've looked at the four seasons between 2005-06 and 2008-09, when the same four teams – Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United – did finish in the top four positions. From the first six games, if points were distributed evenly, you'd expect teams to pick up 6/38 = 15.89% of the points they go on to win over the course of the season. Over that four-season spell, the Big Four picked up 15.31%. So again, the instinctive feeling is confirmed by the figures, but not by enough to make it significant.

What does emerge from those figures, though, is that Manchester United's performances in the opening half-dozen games of the season are weaker than might be expected. They may have collected 15 points from their first six games last year, but that is their best haul in the past decade, and in 2002-03 they collected only seven. Over the last 10 seasons, United have gathered only 13.8% of their total points in the first six games.

So when the fixture list is released, while it may be a slight disadvantage to play a promoted team early, what a side should really be looking for is an early game against Manchester United.

Tactics: How many players can get away with not defending?

How many players can get away with not defending?

September 22, 2010
By Joshua Askew

There are few things more loathed in football than the lazy player. Often construed as arrogant, they appear to against the nature of a team sport with their rejection of the hard labour of defending. Their selfishness means the rest of the team has to work harder to cover them, as if they were playing with only ten men.

A precedent was set in 1966 when Geoff Hurst was picked ahead of Jimmy Greaves for the World Cup final. Greaves had gone into the World Cup as first choice, but suffered a nasty gash on his leg, ruling him out of the quarter and semi-finals. Hurst, who had presumably only been included by Alf Ramsey as an alternate option to Greaves and Roger Hunt, was thrown in against Argentina and scored the only goal. With Greaves fit again for the final, there were loud calls for the return of England’s most prolific striker from the press, yet Ramsey held strong and Hurst scored the only hat-trick in a World Cup final.

It would be unfair to call Jimmy Geaves lazy (although the same could be said for many of the accused), but he lacked the more all-round game of Hurst, he was a specialist, and in this context, it is essentially the same thing.

Arrigo Sacchi has a famous dislike for “the proliferation of specialists” – in his system, “the regista – the playmaker – is whoever had the ball. But if you have Makelele, he can’t do that. He doesn’t have the ideas to do it, although, of course, he’s great at winning the ball.” This dislike for the likes of Claude Makelele can be reversed: if you have a Mr Lazy, he won’t win back the ball. He doesn’t put in the work to do so, although, of course, he’s great at scoring or creating. These principles of universality were imprinted on his great Milan side that won back-to-back European Cups, although, rather disappointingly for a team possessing such massive talents, it won just one scudetto.

Once Sacchi left Milan for an unsuccessful period coaching Italy, Fabio Capello took over and guided the team to three consecutive scudetti and Champions League finals, embarking on a 58-game unbeaten run that earned the side the nickname “Gli Invicibili” (The Invincibles). Rather tellingly, the side possessed two notable new players: Marcel Desailly and Dejan Savicevic. Desailly was a strong defender turned into a defensive midfielder, while Savicevic was a hugely creative if languid forward. Neither player would have played under Sacchi.

The key point is that the subjection of the individual to the collective isn’t necessary so long as there is a balance. Bearing in mind their history, it is rather appropriate then that it is Milan that appear to be embarking on some sort of experiment into how many players they can free from defensive duties.

Against Cesena, Massimilano Allegri opted for a forward line boasting three quarters of his “Fantastic Four” in Ronaldinho, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Alexandre Pato – three creative geniuses capable of turning a match in a second, but who are going to offer little defensively.

fig. 1

In the usual 4-5-1/4-3-3, such as Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, the defensive zones are fairly clear (fig.1). Each player’s responsibility is clear: if the ball comes into your zone, it is up to you to defend it. However when that front three aren’t defending, the task obviously becomes a lot harder. What were reasonably sized zones become a lot larger as the 8 other players are given the task of defending those forwards’ zones as well as their own (fig. 2). This would be a difficult task for even the most energetic of midfielders, so giving it to 32 year-old Gennaro Gattuso and 33 year-old Massimo Ambrosini was never going to work out; too often they were caught in places they wouldn’t need to be if their forwards had contributed to the defensive leg work, leaving Andrea Pirlo, a defender by zone only, alone in midfield against Cesena’s counter-attacking players.

fig. 2

A possible alternative could have been to have Milan’s midfield and defence sit deep, making them difficult to counter against and leave it up to the front three’s genius to score – the zones don’t get stretched because they keep their normal positions, they just ignore the opposition having the ball until they enter their territory. Except then their problem becomes how to score; although creators, none of Ronaldinho, Ibrahimovic and Pato are natural goalscorers, they need someone else to create for. Against Cesena, Ibrahimovic often held up the ball hoping for the midfielders to attack, it didn’t work and would be rendered impossible by the sitting deep proposal. Even when Filippo Inzaghi was introduced as a focal point for the attack, Milan still failed to score. Why? Cesena sat deep and compressed the space the forwards had to work in. However brilliant he is, it is unfair to expect Ronaldinho to get past seven players. The attack needed support and the midfield couldn’t give any without leaving themselves wide open to a counter-attack.

Milan were trapped between a rock and a hard place. The only way they would be able to commit men forward were if their attacking players were going to ensure they wouldn’t get caught out – they didn’t so they couldn’t.

This is the principle which underlined Sacchi’s ideas. If you control the space, you can overload the opposition in defence and attack. Sacchi’s Milan were strictly stationed with just seven metres between each band of players, keeping space for opposition players to a minimum and, when in possession, the defence and midfield close to the attack to give plenty of support. For the system to function at such a high level, the team needed defenders with the ability to attack and attackers with defensive nous. Whether this universality was a result of the system or vice versa is unclear, nevertheless what happened happened and many of the Sacchian principles are still very relevant today.

The bands of Sacchi's Milan stayed close together to compress space.

This idea of Total Football is an obvious ideal, but this kind of system is not the be all and end all – the key point to take from it is to make the pitch small in defence and big in attack – and, for all of Sacchi’s delights, he was aruably bettered by the pragmatic Capello. There’s the possibility that some talents are just worth making exceptions for. The question is who should be given this freedom.

For example, it’s been noted recently that Andrei Arshavin looked reluctant to press and harry defenders like the rest of his teammates against Sporting Braga yet emerged from the game with a goal and two assists. Could it be that his rejection of a task he probably isn’t very good at allows him to conserve energy for something he is good at and also gives him the freedom to find the necessary space to do so? That it is just the one player means there is only a small pocket of space the rest of his team needs to cover, with Milan it’s too big a workload.

I think it’s also important to point out that some players don’t necessarily need to track back to perform a defensive duty. It is rare for a defender to attack (although this could not stay as it is for long) and so the striker doesn’t really need to track back; often their defensive job, particularly lone strikers such as Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba, can be to occupy the centre-backs with their movement, ensuring they don’t get forward.

Equally, a bulky target man can do a defensive job by offering a direct outlet for the defence to simply hoof it up to, rather than giving it straight back to the opposition for another wave of attacks. For instance, Emile Heskey has long been congratulated on his ability to hold the ball up and few games show this better than his performance in England’s 1-0 win over Argentina at the 2002 World Cup – once he was substituted for Teddy Sheringham, England had no one to hold the ball up and faced an onslaught of Argentinian attacks as they continuously squandered possession.

Some players are simply so good that defenders will be unwilling to attack, which also allows them to stay in the zone where they are most effective – it would appear sometimes attack is the best form of defence. A prime example of this is Arjen Robben in the World Cup final: set up against Joan Capdevila, he pinned back the Spanish full-back and had a number of excellent scoring opportunities – Spain had little width on the left and the Netherlands had a brilliant attacker close to goal. What sets these players apart from the likes of Ronaldinho though, is that they are outstanding athletes too, bursting with pace that offers no chance of recovery if a defender gets caught out of position.

So, to come to some sort of conclusion, how many players can get away with not defending? Probably just the one, and even that could be ill-advised.

The Biggest Waste of Talent in Football?

The Biggest Waste of Talent in Football

September 12, 2010
By Joshua Askew

Pablo Aimar was doomed to fail the second he burst onto the scene at River Plate and was christened the next in a long line of “New Maradonas”. To be fair, the similarities between the two are closer than most: both have immaculate technique, an incredible imagination and a deceptive burst of pace, and also bear a physical resemblance with their short stature and curly brown hair.

Breaking through the ranks at River Plate at the same time as fellow Diego-lite Javier Saviola, Aimar won every trophy on offer and drew warm praise from Maradona: “Pablo is the only current footballer I’d pay to watch,” said the die-hard Boca man. “He’s been the best player in Argentina over the last couple of years and is even more talented than Riquelme or Saviola. He’s an adorable kid, too.”

Like Maradona, Aimar’s first European port of call was in Spain. Instead of drawing an even greater comparison like Javier Saviola had suffered by moving to Barcelona, he moved to Valencia, a club with a reputation of its own for harbouring great Argentinian players like Mario Kempes, Claudio Lopez and Roberto Ayala.

Aimar became Valencia’s biggest financial outlay at €22m – a risky fee from a financially precarious club for a 21 year-old – and immediately went about repaying the faith shown in him. In an unspectacular front line, Aimar was obviously a class apart. Given the nickname of “Little Clown”, it didn’t do his considerable talent justice. Far from the comedic clumsiness you would expect from a clown, Aimar had a mesmerising effect with the ball; his faultless control coupled with his low centre of gravity allowed him to make subtle movements appear huge, twisting defenders as he pleased in tiny gaps, and possessing a frankly unnatural ability to tame the ball. He appeared to have lived in the hole all his life, showing an awareness beyond his years. The ingenuous way of computing the game, like a chess player always thinking 3 moves ahead – the amount of times he pops up in the box out of nowhere to follow up a goalkeeper’s parry is unnerving. There was a brutal simplicity to him, and a sense that he didn’t quite belong: compared to the uncompromising defence he played alongside, Aimar was small and slight. Football is full of stories of players rejected because of their size, but Pablito was a special case. His shots had a habit of bobbling in front of the goalkeeper, a difficult save, but also giving the impression he didn’t have the power to shoot properly. This weakness made him appear all the more brilliant, as if he was beating nature itself, but would prove his undoing.

While Maradona was small and quick with curly brown hair, he was stocky – he had a power about him. Aimar did not. Hector Cuper made it clear patience was necessary. “Nobody should judge Pablo by his first few games; he’s not our saviour this season but a Valencia player for years.” Despite instantly becoming a fan favourite, Cuper and his successor Rafa Benitez used Aimar sparingly. He needed easing into the Spanish game and neither were about to drop their team-based philosophies for one player. Instead, Aimar was brought on as a substitute once the opposition were tired, when he could find more space and maximise his strengths. This rationing of chances allowed him to adapt and stay fresh and, by the end of Valencia’s first title-winning season under Benitez, Aimar was at his best, arriving at games bursting with energy and scoring key goals against Tenerife and Deportivo, ensuring his starting place.

Aimar’s slight build would be his downfall; cursed by a series of niggling injuries, he would have less and less time to influence Valencia’s play. By the end of his time at Valencia, he would be hospitalised with acute viral meningitis. Having turned down the chance to go to medical school to play for River Plate, it must have been hugely irritating for Aimar to spend so much time around doctors. His injuries meant he was allowed to leave for Zaragoza, where his injury woes would continue. Upon their relegation in 2008, he fled to Benfica for just €6.5m.

After a difficult first season in Portugal, Aimar seems to be enjoying a renaissance under Jorge Jesus. It is a sign of how good Aimar was that Benfica’s Director of Football Manuel Rui Costa, himself a hugely accomplished number 10, picked him out, but also shows how disappointing his career has been: at 30, he’s playing in one of Europe’s lesser leagues. Sadly, it was completely out of his own control, but disappointing all the same.

Lionel Messi is the only player to come close to living up to the “New Maradona” title, but it is a shame that we will never know how close Pablo Aimar could have come.

Tactics: Utilising the full-back

Utilising the full-back

September 6, 2010
By Joshua Askew

If you were to ask people at the turn of the century who they considered to be the most complete players in the Premier League you would most likely get one of two answers: Patrick Vieira or Roy Keane. Fast forward to today and few midfielders would be considered. The rise of the five man midfield has allowed more room for specialist players and most clubs now operate a destroyer-link-attacker trinity rather than the all-action box-to-box midfielder.

In fact, the modern box-to-box midfielder is often accused of doing nothing, mainly due to their need to curb their game. The attacker role is generally off-limits due to them being the furthest player of the three forward, so only appear near one box, and thus they sit next to the destroyer as the link. This role fits a regista better, because their range of passing means they can act as a link without moving from their defensive position, whereas a box-to-box player needs to move forward to link the play, in turn vacating the defensive space, meaning they need to ration their forays from one box to the other.

Liverpool’s capitulation last season has a lot to do with the absence of a link between the defence and attack that Xabi Alonso had previously given them. With Alberto Aquilani injured, Lucas was tasked with replacing the Spaniard, although, due to some early season defensive troubles, he was rarely given the license to get forward. This meant there was little link between the defence and attack so Liverpool struggled to create, while Lucas became known for non-penetrative lateral passing. When given the chance to attack such as against Lille and Benfica, he impressed, but these chances were too sparse.

Who then are the most complete players? Those who can both defend and attack? The best answer is the modern full-back. The explanation of why and how this came about has already been covered by Jonathan Wilson, and so rather than simply retrace his steps I will take a look at the various ways teams play to utilise them, with each operating along the basic principle that you need 3 players back.

The traditional and modern mix

A simple system used by Manchester United, it pairs a modern full-back in Patrice Evra with a more traditional defensive opposite in Gary Neville, Wes Brown or John O’Shea. After starting his career as a winger, Evra was switched to left-back during an injury crisis at Nice and kept his obvious attacking ability. With Evra going so deep into the opposition’s half, he is inevitably going to get caught high up the pitch occasionally, making solidity in his defensive counterparts a must. None of Neville, Brown and O’Shea could readily be described as an attacking full-back, but each could probably play as a centre-back, which gives United and Evra a solid base to depend on which saw Edwin van der Sar not concede a goal in 14 games. With Ryan Giggs tucking in on the left for Evra to overlap and Valencia wide right, United are able to keep a strong defence and maintain possession without sacrificing width.

The passer and attacker

Similar to the modern and traditional mix in that one attacks and one keeps their position, except for the sitter fulfills an attacking requirement through his ability to pass the ball. Such a Sacchian manager, Rafa Benitez would not have settled for a player had he not offered something defensively and offensively, but was also wary of leaving his defence undermanned. In Fabio Aurelio and Alvaro Arbeloa, Benitez had a pair of full-backs for the 2008/09 who were excellent defensively and gave different options going forward: Arbeloa was the more modern full-back, linking high up the pitch while Fabio Aurelio, with his clean left foot, was the more considered passer – the former a box-to-box defender, the latter a regista.

Like at Manchester United, the players chosen ahead of them were suitable, Dirk Kuyt was naturally a forward and would play narrower, giving Arbeloa more room, and was excellent defensively, helping to cover when Arbeloa got caught out, while Albert Riera was a more natural wideman, capable of offering the width that Liverpool had lacked for years. This is not to say that Fabio Aurelio was not capable of attacking more directly, as his occasional deployment on the left of midfield showed, but he generally only appeared up the pitch when Liverpool were building through possession; contrastingly, Arbeloa didn’t attack like a converted winger such as Evra or Ashley Cole – he was a converted centre-back whose attacking abilities had to be worked on.

In 2009/10, Arbeloa left to be replaced by Glen Johnson – a better attacker but suspect defensively – and Fabio Aurelio was permanently injured, replaced by the promising Emiliano Insua. In Insua and Johnson they had two players capable of offering more direct and higher quality attacking, but also a youngster who needed to be eased in and a player notorious for his defensive lapses. Had just one been introduced, it could have been a lot easier, but Liverpool had a pair of full-backs who needed to learn; for a team whose success had been based on a strong defence, it was tantamount to suicide. When Glen Johnson got injured, Jamie Carragher moved to right-back, creating a modern/traditional pairing, but Insua was clearly tired and the advantage this could have brought didn’t appear.

The asynchronous pair

A few years down the line, with the benefit of experience hopefully improving them defensively, Johnson and Insua could have possibly worked well together, providing they could reach an understanding. That is the issue: having two attacking fullbacks generally requires them to garner a mutual understanding. As Arsenal have shown, with Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna failing to dovetail effectively. Perhaps they could have looked over at their West London rivals to learn a thing or two, as Chelsea managed to master this.

In Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa, Chelsea had two excellent attacking full-backs who managed to develop a partnership that allowed to them to cover one another. When one attacked, the other stayed back, and vice versa. It sounds simple, but is difficult to pull off. Manage to do so and you have a potent and unpredictable attacking force. Cole and Bosingwa allowed Carlo Ancelotti to play a midfield diamond, often creating a 4 vs 2 situation in the centre of midfield, allowing them to maintain possession without sacrificing width.

The system collapsed when Bosingwa got injured. Branislav Ivanovic replaced him and did an admirable job, winning a place in the PFA Team of the Year, but lacked the attacking abilities of his teammate. Manchester United exposed this despite losing 1-0; Antonio Valencia was deployed high up the pitch against Cole while Giggs tucked in on the opposite side, mathcing Chelsea’s four man midfield. Chelsea had little advantage in possession and no width, with Cole not bombing down the wing, while United maintained their’s with Valencia wide. Bosingwa is yet to return from his injury and his return could be of tactical interest.

The centre-half

With it difficult for attacking full-backs to develop a functional understanding and the midfield an area packed with specialists, it makes a certain amount of sense that the midfield destroyer (the best defensive player and probably worst offensively) helps to free the more attacking full-backs. The centre-half was originally the mainly defensive central midfielder in the 2-3-5 who moved backwards into the centre of defence in Herbert Chapman’s WM, but has become, somewhat wrongly, a synonym for the centre-back because of the forced assignment of shirt numbers according to position, meaning the centre-back was wearing the centre-half’s number 5 shirt. Essentially the centre-half is a defender deployed as a midfielder, not unlike the destroyer. With the more fluid football of today, it appears that the centre-half’s switch to centre-back is being replicated mid-match, most notably by Barcelona and Brazil.

This has been expertly covered by Michael Cox of Zonal Marking:

This diagram on the right shows how a switch from a four to a three-man defence when in possession can outwit the opposition. The problem with attacking full-backs at the moment is that they are never completely free to attack, they are always concerned about their defensive responsibilities, especially with the tendency for sides to deploy their most creative players as wingers. With a more reliable three-man defence, they can get to the opposition byline without leaving a huge hole at the back.

A big part of the switch is the role of the wide players on the Yellow side. Rather than stay wide (which would hamper the ability of the full-backs to get forward), they narrow and become almost a conventional front three. This has the effect of narrowing the opposition defence, as their natural markers (the White full-backs) follow them into the centre.

Of course, this opens up a huge amount of space on the flanks, which the full-backs can exploit. This presents a further problem for the Whites, as their wide midfield players are suddenly charged with almost a solely defensive job. If the Yellow full-backs get to the byline and the White wide midfielders track them all the way, the Whites will end up with something approaching a flat back six.

Furthermore, the evolved shape makes it relatively easy for the Yellows to keep possession – the three defenders and holding midfielder should be able to play their way around the two White strikers at the back.

So the advantages can be summarized as:

a) It allows the full-backs freedom to join the attack knowing the defence is covered

b) It makes keeping possession in defence easier

c) It stretches the play high up the pitch

d) If the opposition are playing creative players in wide areas, the centre-backs will be in a position to pick them up immediately.

e) It results in a system with three central forwards, an obvious goal threat

f) The opposition will be confused about who to pick up in wide areas

Tactics: Liberi


September 1, 2010
By Joshua Askew

Liberi are the free ones. It’s a synonym for the sweeper, but, perhaps only because of a larger exposure to it in my native tongue, the English word evokes a more specific image. A player released of marking duties was given the task of clearing up behind the centre-backs, their free status then allowed them to attack. With the rise of the lone striker, the sweeper fell.

The logic now is that, against one striker, one of the centre-backs should stride forward and attack as the sweepers had done.

A centre-back moving forward can be an excellent way of breaking down defences. Their movement into unmarked space causes an issue for the opposing team: break rank to close him down and there’s more space for his teammates, don’t and he could just wander through unopposed.

Thomas Vermaelen has done this regularly for Arsenal to score againstBlackburn and Wigan as has Daniel Agger for Liverpool against West Ham and Blackburn.

There’s also the cases of defenders appearing in the box unexpectedly that can leave the opposing defence unprepared such as in Gerard Pique’s brilliantly taken goal against Internazionale.

However, it is incredibly risky to leave the defence with just one centre-back. For example, in Ji-Sung Park’s goal against ArsenalWilliam Gallas has ventured forward, the impetuous Vermaelen then goes to confront Rooney when Alex Song is closer and leaves Gael Clichy in a 3 vs. 1 situation. With the lone striker also becoming more adept at occpying more than one defender, it is often too risky for the defenders to advance.

Unless of course they can get someone to cover for them. In the specialist’s realm that is midfield, there is usually a player capable of plugging the gap that the advancing defender leaves behind. For instance, former centre-back Alex Song is capable of doing this to cover Vermaelen and can be seen doing so in the video clips. Christian Poulsen has done this for the Danish national team to cover for Agger and Simon Kjaer, and his move to Liverpool could open up the possibility of doing so again at club level. Sergio Busquets does so for Barcelona and Spain to free up Pique while Gilberto Silva does the same for Brazil to benefit Lucio.

This combination of players recreates the act of the sweeper. The ball-playing defender is the more creative attacking player, while the centre-half dropping back is the defensive cover although he instead starts in front of the defence. Former Roma coach Carlo Mazzone makes this point when he says: “That first man in midfield is the modern libero. His movements are similar, but he starts ahead of the defenders and retreats into the shell if needed.”

“You have to stay away from one-on-ones,” Eugenio Fascetti adds. It’s easier to have someone like De Rossi tracking back and acting as libero.”

The role of the false nine should lead to an even greater call for this to happen: Wes Brown and Rio Ferdinand didn’t know what they were meant to do when facing Spalletti’s strikerless Roma side in 2007 and similarly Argentina were left unsure what to do defensively when facing England in 1998 but the latter were happy to burst forward to reasonable success. Universality could breed opposing universality.

Tactics: The Rise of the Sweeper-keeper

The Rise of the Sweeper-keeper

August 28, 2010
By Joshua Askew

It is perhaps an oddity in football that the death of the sweeper role was met with such sadness. In theory, the use of a sweeper is primarily defensive; its extinction should probably be welcomed in an increasingly defensive world. Perhaps it’s the upheaval of the sweeper for a greater emphasis on organisation: the replacement of the brilliance of an individual for the cold machine-like collective. More likely, it was the kind of player that operated in this position. The sweeper needed to read the game exceptionally, position himself accordingly and to tackle when called upon. What’s more, they were adept attackers too,their free status allowing them to arrive in the penalty box if they so wished; even when the classic liberi all but disappeared in the 90′s, the sweeper was still expected to step up into midfield. The best sweepers gave the impression they could play anywhere on the pitch, and they probably could – Franz Beckenbauer started his career as a midfielder and Gaetano Scirea started his as a forward – the kind of players that once would have been made into sweepers are likelier to become a midfielder or full-back now.

Like many positions, the sweeper position is not necessarily dead, but has been recreated in a different form. Think of the classic playmaker: the technically impeccable if lackadaisical creators find space hard to come by in their natural number 10 position in modern football, resulting in the likes of Andrea Pirlo being moved back into a regista role – a position deemed to be dying out in the mid-70′s thanks to box-to-box midfielders, another position deemed unfashionable at the moment. However, unless there is some dramatic changes in the offside rule, it is unlikely we will be see a resurgence of the sweeper in its purest form; instead, their job is done by the goalkeeper.

The origins of the sweeper-keeper can be traced back to the Dutch side that wowed the world at the 1974 World Cup, and the position embodies everything that Total Football was about: even the most specialist player on the pitch must be able to do everything.

With their best goalkeeper Jan van Beveren carrying a knock and feuding with Cruyff, the logical replacement would have been FC Twente’s Piet Schrijvers; instead, Jan Jongbloed of FC Amsterdam was called up. Jongbloed was 34 years of age, had just one cap to his name from a 4-1 defeat to Denmark, and, according to Johnny Rep, “wasn’t that good a goalkeeper.” He appeared to be the luckiest man alive. A goalkeeper picked for his ability with his feet rather than his hands. When FC Amsterdam were losing, Jongbloed would join the attack, and, with the Netherland’s pressing and high line, Michels wanted a keeper who could race out and operate as a sweeper. In Jongbloed, he found his man.

The next stage of development of the sweeper-keeper would come from South America. Mexican Jorge Campos emerged in the 1990s and was the perfect example of the eccentricity of goalkeepers. Despite standing at just 5 ft 6, he became a famous keeper for his acrobatic style and self-designed kits, but also his ability with his feet, often playing as a striker, scoring 14 goals in his first season for Pumas.

However, the more notable development comes from the uncanny lion look-a-like Rene Higuita who is perhaps better known for his trademark scorpion kick. Higuita was the catalyst for the relative success Colombian team of the late 80′s and early 90′s that led Pelé to forecast them as winners of the 1994 World Cup.

Like the 1974 Netherlands side, Colombia pressed high up the pitch and the space behind them was covered by Higuita like Jongbloed had done before him, but with a South American touch. His manager Francisco Maturana wrote shortly before the 1990 World Cup “Jan Jongbloed, the Holland keeper in the 1974 World Cup, also operated as a sweeper. With a difference. The Dutchman came out just to boot the ball into the stands. Higuita can do much more.”

Higuita was an outfield player who happened to also use his hands; he was happy to dribble past and flick it over opposition forwards. This willingness to take on players would also prove an intriguing counterpoint to the argument for sweeper-keepers, shown when Roger Milla robbed Higuita of the ball on the edge of his area and faced an open goal in the second round tie against Cameroon at Italia ’90.

Higuita wasn’t given another chance to strut his stuff on the biggest stage having been refused a visa for the American World Cup after a stint in jail for receiving money as a intermediary in a kidnapping feud between Colombian drug barons Pablo Escobar and Carlos Molina. An interesting man indeed.

There needed to be some kind of hybrid of Higuita and Jongbloed, a balance between unnecessary and risky eccentricity and the relinquishing of possession a hoof into Row Z brings. Fifa would inadvertently support this with the introduction of the passback rule. In an attempt stop the increasingly negative play shown at Italia ’90, they brought in a rule that ensured goalkeepers would have to develop their ability with their feet.

It is somewhat appropriate that Barcelona, a club that only Ajax can rival as being the club most influenced by Johan Cruyff and Total Football, are one of the best developers of the sweeper-keeper in recent years. This is the club where Johan Cruyff, during his stint as manager of the “Dream Team”, considered playing a defender in the place of a goalkeeper so his team would circulate the ball better.

In Victor Valdes and Pepe Reina, they have produced two keepers with the capacity to start a counter-attack with a perfect long kick or throw and calm their defence with a simple but reliable option for a pass and energetic bursts out to act as a sweeper. Even when the former was criticised, they stuck by him because of his talent with the ball and were rewarded with his maturation into an excellent all round goalkeeper.

With universality the likely ideal for football and the increasing need for new unpredictable ways of attacking, the sweeper-keeper will surely only become more widespread. Then, rather predictably, they may well just die out and reappear in 30 years time.

My Favourite Footballer ... Michael Owen

My Favourite Footballer ... Michael Owen

August 20, 2010

This post was written for the excellent The Equaliser‘s My Favourite Footballer series.

I wasn’t a big fan of posters as a child. It didn’t help that my room was incredibly tiny: wall space was at a premium. Nevertheless, I made an exception for one player. Twice. A picture of a home-grown teenager in Liverpool red sat on my wall next to a horrific hand-drawn image in an England shirt. His eyes were the wrong colour and I had misjudged the lining up of his arms with the bottom half of his body, creating a valley on his shoulder where I had gone down then up to correct my mistake. However limited my artistic skills were, he was instantly recognisable by the number 20 on his chest.

Whatever problems I had with posters wasn’t an issue when it came to football shirts. I had plenty of replica shirts, but the most worn one was a fake hand-me-down polyester England number 20.

Unlike some of the players named, Michael Owen’s meteoric rise and subsequent climbdown doesn’t really need recounting. Even those with only a passing interest in football would probably be able to give a basic outline of the story.

Born in Cheshire to former Everton forward Terry Owen, Owen caught the eye of England’s best clubs by smashing Ian Rush’s goalscoring record at Deeside Primary School. His starring role in Liverpool’s 1996 FA Youth Cup win proved he was destined for bigger things and he made his debut a year later at the tail-end of the 1996-97 season, scoring in a 2-1 loss against Wimbledon. An injury to Robbie Fowler forced Roy Evans to throw Owen in at the deep end and Owen took his chance spectacularly, finishing as the Premier League’s joint top scorer with 18 goals and voted the PFA Young Player of the Year.

He was impossible not to love. The way he calmly pushed the ball into the net with the outside of his foot, his twisty runs and the way his shirt was always a few sizes too big for him. He looked like a mischievous little boy against men, making him an instant hit with a childhood me.

His fantastic first full season meant international glory beckoned, and Owen was called up to Glenn Hoddle’s World Cup squad. A goal in a pre-tournament friendly against Morocco increased the calls for him to start for England at the World Cup as well as making him England’s youngest ever goalscorer. He didn’t start the first two games in France, but his cameo goal as a substitute against Romania won him starts against Colombia and, famously, Argentina.

A carefully cushioned pass from Beckham with the outside of his right thigh, shrugging off the wrestling arms of José Chamot, his legs are moving twice as quickly as everyone else’s and his strides are half the length; moving past a stationary Roberto Ayala, he sets himself up perfectly to slot the ball over Carlos Roa. It was one of those moments that imprint themselves on your memory forever. It is Tardelli’s scream or Pele’s pass to Carlos Alberto. A loss for England was a win for Michael Owen.

He continued on his road to glory the next season scoring 23 in 40, but Liverpool were only able to finish 7th, with Owen ending the season with a hamstring injury. Liverpool managed to qualify for Europe the next season despite Owen being out injured for long periods, still managing 12 goals.

Fit again for the 2000-01 season, Liverpool won a treble of trophies. Owen’s finest moment came in the FA Cup final: he robbed Arsenal, plain and simple. They had dominated Liverpool for 90 minutes and, somehow, Owen scored two. He was unnatural. The next season Liverpool finished second and Owen got 28, then the same number in 2002-03. For England, he scored a hat-trick in their 5-1 demolition of Germany. He became Liverpool’s first Ballon D’Or winner and England’s first for twenty years.

Owen’s season in 2003-04 had been plagued by injuries, but he had still managed 19 goals – not enough to stop Gerard Houllier from being sacked but enough to prove he was brilliant as long as he was fit. Then he left.

He was Liverpool’s top scorer for every season he had been at the club, a Ballon D’Or winner, and yet he fled to Real Madrid for £8m and some winger called Antonio Nunez. This wasn’t meant to happen.

Despite my disappointment, I followed Owen’s time in Madrid closely. When he played, he scored – the problem was he didn’t play. He wasn’t a Galactico, he had no business starting ahead of Raul or Ronaldo. An impressive substitute, he still managed 16 goals and had the best goals to minutes ratio in La Liga, only for the arrival of Robinho and Julio Baptista to signal he wasn’t welcome anymore.

The way was paved for a scintillating return to Liverpool. Songs were sung for him at the European Supercup game against CSKA Moscow and everything seemed set. But Benitez baulked at Real Madrid’s asking price: why had a player worth £8million a year ago doubled in price when he had hardly played? The deal collapsed, Owen panicked and went to Newcastle, where he got immediately injured. Upon his return to Anfield, he was jeered with chants of “where were you in Istanbul?” After rushing back from injury to be fit for the World Cup, he injured himself in the first minute of the group stage clash with Sweden and was out for a year. Upon his return, he struggled, culminating in Newcastle’s relegation under his captaincy.

As I watched and understood the game more, Owen became less and less impressive. I didn’t enjoy watching him play anymore; injuries had eroded his talent, he was a has-been. Freddie Shepherd offered to “carry him back” to Liverpool himself, but when the possibility of him returning to Anfield arose, I didn’t want it to happen.

Owen’s problem was entirely of his own making. There was little sentimentality in an Owen return: he’d ensured the club received little from his transfer by running down his contract then expected them to come and pick him up when it didn’t work out. Compare that to Robbie Fowler, who had been forced out of the club by the emergence of Owen: where was God in Istanbul? In the crowd. Fowler’s return was merited for the way he had treated Liverpool, he was a club legend. Owen was not.

On top of this, there was another side to Owen I had overlooked as a child. Re-watching his superb performance against Argentina in 1998, I noticed how quick he was to go to ground – an element shown against the same opposition 4 years later, when winning Beckham his “redemption” penalty, which I had wrongly demonised poor Mauricio Pochettino for. I probably have a higher tolerance of gamesmanship than most people, but it isn’t a positive character trait whichever way you paint it.

What happened a year ago only made his demotion in my eyes more complete. The record-breaking Ballon D’Or-winning striker in what should be the prime of his career had to release a brochure to convince clubs he would be a worthwhile investment. Hull were interested apparently. He had become an embarrassment, a once supremely talented punchline to a joke. How had it come to this and could it get any worse? Oh, yes. He joined Manchester United. If his pathetic brochure hadn’t ruined my view of him, the confirmation of him as a greedy mercenary had. His desperate attempts to force his way into the England set-up was predictably ended by a hamstring injury. In a year, the flaws of my childhood hero had become painfully evident.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Michael Owen stopped being my favourite player, but it’s safe to say that before his move to Man United he was fairly far down the list and, with his subsequent move, he quickly tumbled further down, like the elephant man down the ugly tree. It’s also incredibly hard for me to name who would be my favourite player presently, and so my favourite player is Michael Owen circa 1998, when he was still an exciting striker and I was an easily excitable child.

Rather than a solitary clip of Michael Owen, here’s two which sum up my feelings towards him better than one ever could:

Tactics: Capello’s Mistakes

Capello’s Mistakes

July 15, 2010
By Joshua Askew

For a manager who’s won something everywhere he has been, England must pose a unique challenge for Fabio Capello. Given a squad of players who suffer from the extreme pressure from fans born out of 44 years of failure and a resentment over the money they earn, he’s expected to carve out a team capable of winning trophies – and he did. England were one of the best teams to rise from the stench of qualification. Yes, there were better teams – Spain and Brazil to name just two – but there wasn’t a large amount of quality there. The ease at which they qualified made England’s poor World Cup all the stranger.

Although his record had previously given him some leniency from the pack of bloodhounds we refer to as “the media”, Capello won’t be afforded it for the remainder of his time as England manager. Indeed, it appears that the aura of invincibility that surrounded him has disappeared with England’s humiliating exit, with many newspapers running their own version of “what Fabio did wrong”.

Oddly, the backlash is somewhat justified. Capello made a series of errors that he had solved before. Like many of England’s players, he can do better than this.

The rigid 4-4-2

It’s well known that Capello is a firm believer in the 4-4-2, and there is nothing wrong with playing a 4-4-2 providing it is implemented well. It worked brilliantly for England in qualifying, but there’s a big change between the 4-4-2 from qualifying and the one from South Africa.

In qualifying Rooney dropped back to link up with Gerrard, with one of them taking a position on the left wing, essentially creating a 4-2-3-1 which can be seen here:

And here with Rooney on the left:

This allows England to utilise some of their most talented players where they can perform at their best: Gerrard plays closer to how he does with Liverpool and Ashley Cole has more space in front of him to run into. It also creates a greater fluidity in England’s play.

Average positions against Algeria from the opening 15 minutes

Instead England lined up in a rigid 4-4-2 with Rooney permanently up with Heskey as shown in the average positioning in the first 15 minutes of the game against Algeria. Gerrard gradually came inside more as the game wore on, desperate to have some influence, and England’s other players’ positioning became stranger as they got more distressed, but Rooney always remained up front with Heskey. Meanwhile, Ashley Cole was barely used. He made just 37 passes, with only Heskey, Lennon and substitute Wright-Phillips making less.

The 4-4-2 isn’t outdated as some have suggested – Tottenham have had success last season with it – but such a rigid and unsuited one is.

If Capello was insistent on changing the system then why not to the 4-5-1? As has been pointed out already by many others, all of England’s regular midfielders, except Milner, play regularly in a 4-5-1 at club level and Rooney proved he can lead the line on his own last season. The main problem against Germany was that England were out numbered in centre midfield, usually leaving Mesut Ozil free between the lines; this is an issue against any opposition, but against a German team that are technically better than them, it’s suicidal.

Not playing Michael Carrick

One of the main issues England found against Algeria was that they were struggling to control possession and when they did get possession they were trying to force their passes. An issue that the players appeared to be aware of.

Joe Cole remarked after the Germany match: “Every team I have played for – from West Ham to Chelsea to England – have always wanted to hit the front men as early as possible.

“You won’t get away with that at international level. It’s about technique, k eeping control of the ball, passing and moving.

“Chelsea do that more than other teams in the Premier League, and that’s why they’ve been successful. And it’s the same with Manchester United and Arsenal.

“If you keep the ball then you control the game.

“I was brought up that way and I don’t know why it wasn’t the same for everyone else because that’s always been the way forward. Maybe it’s time to really look at how we are teaching kids to play.”

Carrick is the closest thing that England have to a Xavi or Pirlo: someone who can dictate the tempo of a game. And he proved it in game against Egypt that was very similar to the one against Algeria. Another North African side playing a 3-4-2-1 and controlling possession. Carrick came on in the second half with England 1:0 down and took control of the game, leading England to win 3-1.

Why is it then that Capello didn’t turn to him against Algeria, where England had the same problems as against Egypt? His club form has been terrible throughout 2010 and Capello seemed to be aware of a need for this kind of player, attempting to get Paul Scholes to reconsider his retirement. The question should perhaps be why Capello bothered to take Carrick to South Africa if he had no intention of using him.

How Spain could solve the Robben problem

How Spain could solve the Robben problem

July 11, 2010
By Joshua Askew

Discarded by Real Madrid at the start of the year, Arjen Robben has proved his doubters wrong this season, leading Bayern Munich to a league and cup double and a Champions League final with a a string of spectacular goals against Schalke, Fiorentina and Manchester United, and taking part at the forefront of an emerging tactical trend.

Dubbed an “inverted winger”, Robben is part of a trend that sees wingers operating on the opposite side to that their natural foot should dictate; the left-footed playing on the right and the right-footed on the left.

How is it then that Spain can defend against it?

Use a right-footed left-back

The first example of this (as far as I know) is Rafa Benitez’s deployment of Alvaro Arbeloa at left-back against Barcelona in January 2007. Lionel Messi’s tendency to drift inside was combated by Arbeloa defending on his better foot. This tactic was deployed against Holland at this World Cup by Uruguay. To combat Robben, Martin Caceres was used as a right-footed left-back and was generally comfortable in dealing with him.

The wrong-sided attacker against the wrong-sided defender eliminates the awkardness and shows the attacker outside rather than inside, which is where they don’t want to go. The downside to this is that it impairs the full-back’s ability to provide width in attack, as they’ll have to cut inside on their wrong foot too.

Double up

Inter's stifling of Robben

Another tactic Uruguay employed against Robben, with Alvaro Pereira dropping back to help out Caceres, creating more people for Robben to get past. The observance and transgression of this tactic in dealing with Robben can be seen inhis games against Internazionale and Brazil.

I pointed out in my analysis of Brazil that Felipe Melo would need to help out Michel Bastos if they were going to contain Robben. He didn’t and Michel Bastos was isolated. Forced into fouling Robben, he was fortunate not to be sent off and Dunga replaced him with Gilberto before he definitely was.

Inter, on the other hand, contained him brilliantly. Chivu sent him outside and Cambiasso met him when he came inside, while Pandev tracked Lahm, ensuring he couldn’t pass it back to him.

Defend deep and narrow

A tactic that Spain had trouble with against Ottmar Hitzfeld’s Switzerland. Playing inverted wingers themselves (Iniesta on the left and Silva on the right), Spain’s attacks were incredibly narrow and continually ran into the Swiss defence. It wasn’t until Jesus Navas was introduced that Spain had much width and he, despite looking dangerous, didn’t offer much of an end product.

One of the great things about the inverted winger is that it opens up space for overlapping full-backs. Without them though, the attacks can be too narrow and it’s worth noting that van der Wiel is a converted centre-back and so isn’t that attacking.

Tactics: The possible origins of Brazil’s shape

The possible origins of Brazil’s shape

July 3, 2010
By Joshua Askew

When Carlos Alberto Parreira picked Dunga as his captain for the 1994 World Cup, it was a signal of intent. By making one of the often described most “un-Brazilian” of Brazilians his captain, he showed that he valued substance over style. They won their first World Cup in 24 years, but were heavily criticised for their “un-Brazilian” style.

12 years later, Parreira was given another chance in charge of Brazil and attempted to shoehorn the “Magic Quartet” of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Adriano and Kaka into his team, who were upstaged by Zidane’s France in the quarter-finals.

Out of the “Magic Quartet”, only Kaka appeared in Dunga’s World Cup squad; another signal of intent. Just as Parreira before him, Dunga has come under heavy scrutiny for the perceived negativity of his team – with one of 1982′s beautiful losers Socrates claiming it’s “an affront to our culture” – and their scraping past North Korea will do little to ease the feelings even if their win against the Ivory Coast perhaps should. They have come to South Africa as one of the favourites though, and for good reason: they have a system tailored perfectly to their team.

It has been noted by several people, including by the ever-outstanding Jonathan Wilson, http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/51/Zouna_mista.gifthat the the shape can be explained by the progression of the 4-2-2-2 in Brazilian football, but it also appears to bear resemblance to the progression of the dreaded Catenaccio: Zona Mista.

Once the movement of Total Football had exposed the flaws of Catenaccio’s man marking system, a new way of defending was needed, and so was born the Zona Mista. Translated literally from Italian as mixed zone, the system combined the doubling up of players on attackers from Catenaccio with the zonal marking that allowed them to prevent against deceptive movement. The flexible nature of the system means it can be seen everywhere in a variety of formations but the diagram shows one of the more common deployments of it.

A quick glance at the diagram and the similarities in shape are fairly clear; Luis Fabiano takes the centre forward role, Robinho the second forward slighly to the left, Elano or Ramires can play as shuttling side midfielder, Kaka as the playmaker, Felipe Melo playing slightly ahead of Gilberto Silva in midfield, Michel Bastos as the wing-back and Juan and Lucio as centre backs. The only player who wouldn’t be represented in the picture is right-back Maicon, whose place is taken by a now defunct sweeper.

The systematic doubling up that was a key part of catenaccio is also present in the Brazilian side. Gilberto moves across to the right to help out Maicon while Felipe Melo moves to the left to cover Michel Bastos; the former seems to do it better than the latter which is a potential problem as Michel Bastos is a worse defender than Maicon, usually playing as a winger for Lyon and wasn’t considered good enough at Excelsior at full back. This was evident in the friendlies before the World Cup, but Felipe Melo seems to have improved at this judging by the win over Ivory Coast. How well they pull this off could prove to be a deciding factor in their potential game against the Netherlands: do it badly and Michel Bastos could be shown up by Robben; do it badly and Robben could become isolated, especially as van der Wiel isn’t particularly good going forward.


The 3 man defence is also significant, as is the sweeper, bearing in mind the way Brazil change their shape when attacking. Although the sweeper was effectively killed off by zonal marking and the offside trap, there’s been a renaissance of the centre-half. Originally the centre-midfielder in the 2-3-5 formation, the centre-half was dropped back into the centre of defence in the W-M so centre-backs are often mistakenly referred to as centre-halves. For Brazil, Gilberto drops back to the right of the defence, allowing Michel Bastos and Maicon to bomb forward while Lucio becomes a sweeper.

I don’t believe that Brazil’s shape was consciously developed from the Zona Mista or that Brazil are an unattractive or defensive team despite their critics, I do however find it interesting that they seem so similar to a primarily defensive system.

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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