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Thursday, April 09, 2009

"OBSESSION" the English Media

Now you hear some stupid things being said about Liverpool’s devastating loss to Chelski in the first leg of the European Cup quarterfinal, and the stupidest of the stupid seems to be coming from the English media – that's that lunatic fringe that loosely associates itself with journalism.

Nobody else on this planet can match their incredibly acute ability to obsess over the most insignificant of details and I am of the opinion that it costs their national team a sense of balance. Take your pick of psychoses:
  1. The “left midfield" problem
  2. The “Gerrard/Lampard” problem
  3. The “who will partner with Gary Lineker/Alan Shearer/Michael Owen/Wayne Rooney" problem
  4. And the ever-present “England captaincy" problem

Google anything in quotes above and you'll find literally millions of hits, and all of them from the English. These "problems" are, in fact, almost entirely imagined, and so far away from the reality of what has ailed the national team, that you almost suspect foul play. It is as if their intent is to do everything they can to distract themselves from what's actually important. But this ability to obsess also extends to their coverage of club teams.

I give you exhibit A: The Zonal Marking Problem (

This week, every imbecile and his brother, starting with easily the worlds stupidest commentator, the Master of the Obvious, Tommy Smith of ESPN, will have something to say about the so-called "zonal marking" system in use at Liverpool. Why? Because the English football solution to everything is to bludgeon their way through it; if you want to score a goal, hit it long and knock it down Route 1 style. If you want to defend on a set piece, man-mark every single player on the pitch and tackle him 30 seconds before the ball gets there...even if he's on the other side of the park, or making his way down the tunnel for an early shower.

With the English there’s no subtlety, no finesse, no balance. It’s all or nothing. But look carefully at the way Ana Ivanovic of Chelski scored both goals yesterday and you’ll see that it is precisely man marking that got them into trouble.

On the first goal, note how Xavi Alonso is so obsessed with tracking Ivanovic that he scarcely realizes that he has completely turned his back on the incoming ball and by the time he gets his bearings again, she has already lept into the air and headed it home. In fact, Alonso is so obsessed with man-marking that he doesn't even leave the ground to actually challenge the header.

Now I know every coach you’ve ever had has told you that you have keep your marks on set pieces, and of course there is some truth to this. There is always the second touch; so if every defender challenges for the ball and miss (it happens!) and you leave someone unmarked on the second touch, then you have a problem solved by man marking. Or, if, say, all 5 attackers are on the far post, and you do zonal marking that puts 2 defenders on the far post and the others evenly dispersed throughout the box, you'll likely give up a goal. In that case you'd be wise to man mark in that case and put 5 players on the back post with the attackers.

But let me ask you this: what purpose does that serve if the ball doesn’t go to the back post? If a player nobody's ever heard of suddenly makes a run to the near post, and the ball goes near post, now you’ve gone out of your way to make sure you’re man marking and yet you have no shot at achieving your objective which is to make a clearance!

Marking your attacker is not an end, it’s a means to making a clearance – that’s the objective. If the ball's halfway up the field, they can't score on you, so the objective is not to man-mark until you can smell his breath, the objective is to make a clearance.

The second goal by Ivanovic was different – this time Steven Gerrard was the victim, and he too was obsessed with man marking. The difference was that we now know he was already carrying a groin injury and in no position to make a challenge – that’s a mistake on his part and on the part of Benitez for having him out there. But let me ask you this: what about the other 10 idiots in the box for Liverpool?

Were they just out for a stroll on the grass, or were they also playing? The last time I checked, just because your man doesn’t go up for the ball doesn’t mean you can’t either. Not a single other Liverpudlian within 10 feet (and there were several of them) bothered to challenge for the cross. They were all either man marking or zonal marking or magic marking...who the hell knows, but none of them challenged for the ball. The result: the only one who did, the one who's man he was marking actually went for the header, the one who was half injured, made a really weak challenge while everyone else...just...watched.

I’m not saying the headers weren’t good – they were very good, and Ana should be very proud of herself – but the problem Liverpool had on the night was not the zonal marking system, or the man marking was the "let's all watch a beautifully headed goal while nobody does the most important thing you can do when defending a set piece" system.


Just because stupid commentators and even stupider reporters make the comment over and over and over again, doesn’t mean they have any idea what they’re talking about.

"I've gotta' say, the man-marking on that set piece was awful."

"You cannot allow a man that much time and space on a set piece."

Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah...

I've got news for you, you can give a man as much time and space as he wants, even if he's 3 feet in front of your goal as long as you've cleared the ball before it gets to him. And I'll tell you something else - the marking on every set piece in every match that's ever been played in the history of soccer is always been awful. It is physicaly impossible to follow someone around for 30 seconds, find the ball and beat him to it all at the same time. The marking always looks beautiful when you make a clearance. What they really mean by man-marking is man mugging a la John Terry or Marco Materazzi. The next best alternative is to just win the ball.

Your main objective as a defender on any set piece should be to win the ball if it should come within 10 feet of you. If following around some guy on the other team brings you closer to the ball, then by all means follow him around - but chasing shadows can hardly replace the fine art of winning the ball. After all, if your attacker can do it, then why the hell can't you?

It's like those players they always have on the post - the one's who couldn't fit a piece of paper between their feet and the ground on their best vertical leap. We've all seen those goals when some poor fool is holding onto the post for dear life and won't let go, even as the ball slowly rolls 6-inches away from their outstretched foot. If that idiot would forget about "getting on the post" for 3/10ths of a second, let go of the pipe and take one step left or right, he'd have a game saving clearance to his credit, and probably a kiss from the prettiest girl in town waiting for him.

Instead, being a good soldier with no idea how to play the game, he stands on the post and watches as it rolls past his foot.


Because in that moment he loses the ability to rationalize that it's more important to win the ball than it is to do what I've been told, which is to stand on the post. That's when doing your job morphs into our word of the day: obsession. defines it as, “an irrational motive for performing trivial or repetitive actions, even against your will...” That's why Liverpool missed the boat yesterday, and it's the same way these imbeciles in the English media concern themselves with mundane details like the "zonal marking" system, that are so much less important than the main objectives like...oh, I don't know...winning the ball?

"Obsession"...brought to you by the English media.

Friday, January 09, 2009


I’ve never liked Graham Poll as a referee – I know, I know, until he gave the same player three cautions in a single match at the World Cup in 2006, he was the cat’s meow in England. But to me, Poll had been preferred by the powers that be in England for all the wrong reasons. First and foremost he smiled a lot, and smiling makes you look like you’re very calm and have everything under control, which, by the way, is exactly the impression the referees want to give. They also seemed to enjoy that he carried on conversations with players from time to time – even joking with them. That looks good on tv, because nothing makes you look more in control of the situation than if you’re calm enough to have a conversation that doesn’t involve cards, and even joke about it along the way. I’m not intimidated by Roy Keane, or Franky “F—king Four Fingers” Lampard, just look at me, I’m having a laugh with them!

But let’s take the international standard bearer for good refereeing – Pierluigi Collina. Ever see him smile at a player? Ever see him make a joke with any of them? Ever see a game of his get out of hand? And for all the fear he instilled in players throughout his illustrious career as the world best referee (perhaps ever) did you ever see him send a player off? Of course it happened, but usually with good reason, at least you assume so with Collina for one good reason – he gets the calls right no matter what kind of pressure he's under.

At the end of the day, English referees, just like the English FA, are concerned with one thing above all else – the illusion of control. We’ve got it all under control, and we know exactly what we’re doing. And we’ve got the smiliest, most gregarious, charming, take charge referees in the world to go with the smiliest, most exciting, take charge players in the world.

Well, it seems Mr. Poll would beg to differ.

Recently, Mr. Poll went to great lengths to criticize the “Respect” campaign of the FA, which was ostensibly intended to reduce the amount of abuse directed towards the referee allowing him to do his job properly. But wait, wait – there’s more!

It turns out, just with all things coming out of the FA, what they’re saying is almost the exact opposite of what they’re doing. In the opinion of Mr. Poll, this campaign is an effort by the teams to reduce the number of cautions and sendings-off by referees to key players, making them unavailable for matches. There is an easier way to do this. Players could simply be fined by the FA for abusing referees. So why don’t they do this?

As with all things that make no sense in football, just follow the money. What happens to the fan support if half the good players in the team are (rightfully) suspended for accumulation of cautions, or simply serving a 3-match ban for a sending off? And what happens when the television audience isn't happy? Like so many things coming out of the English FA, this is really much ado about nothing.

Referees have enormous power in football - no single individual on the pitch has the ability to change the nature of the match the way a referee does. If he calls it tight, it can be an advantage to the skilled teams, but then he gets hammered for getting too involved in the match. If he lets a bunch of stuff go, he's letting the players determine their own fate, but then he gets hammered for letting the match get out of control. At the end of the day, it seems with 99 out of 100 referees, no matter what they do, they get hammered. But by having a "respect" campaign, creating the illusion of an effort by players to be more congenial, it puts MORE pressure on referees not to send them off, even when they deserve it.

Then there's Mike Riley.

Last week Riley took it upon himself to send Frankie-Four-Fingers-Lampard off for a violent conduct in what appeared to be a 50/50 challenge on Xavi Alonso in Chelski's match against Liverpool. Probably scared shirtless, as can be expected of a guy who's 5'5'', 135 pounds sopping wet, and looks like he just came down from the mother ship, in amongst some of the strongest, fastest and hardest men in the game. But the television replays show that Riley, like so many English referees, completely overreacted to the challenge, and sent a player off, basically for going in hard on a tackle. In American football, the pendulum has swung so much in favor of the quarterbacks that if a defensive player blows him a kiss after the ball has left his fingertips, he's likely to get a fine. (Jack Lambert, a hall of fame linebacker for the Pittsburg Steelers, may have said it best when asked what they could do to protect the quarterback more - he promplty responded they could put a skirt on him.)

In the world's football it's different - posession of the ball is a fleeting concept - with every touch the ball is technically within the realm of a player's control, but in reality is there for the taking, and knowing just when and how hard to go in for it, particularly in the EPL, is becoming more and more confusing.

Having been shown the replay later, Riley admitted he got it wrong - that's not the first time he's gotten it wrong, but by my account, the first time he's admitted it. Nevertheless, the damage was done, and one key player for Chelski was sent off, and the tenor of the game was changed for the remainder of the match. Liverpool took their undeserved numerical advantage and pulled off a result that they scarcely deserved, and one that has kept them within striking distance of league leaders Manchester United. On the other side of the dugout, Luis "Felipao" Scolari has been given his marching orders by (The) Roman (Emperor) Abramovich and Chelski have all but conceded that their chances of winning the EPL. The truth is that Abramovich has shown himself to be so fickle, that Riley's error may well have cost Scolari his job, because there's no guarantee that Chelski wouldn't have gone barnstorming through the remainder of the season and/or won the Champions Leauge - now we'll never know.

Is it fair to say that given the freedoms of the "Respect" campaign that Riley may have been too quick to exercise his power (incredibly incorrectly as it turned out?) Do some referees need to be forced to think twice before they reach into their pocket for that terrible red card? I suspect that Poll would not agree with that assessment, but this may have been an unintended consequence of a program designed to protect referees from abuse, when in fact, it appears the one who needed protection against abuse of power, was Frankie Four Fingers.

Friday, December 19, 2008


Let me be clear: I hate calling it “the Champions League”. There are 16 teams left in the competition, and only 5 of them (less than a 1/3) are in fact league champions. I started out watching it when it was still called the European Cup, the previous incarnation of this competition, which was in fact (more than a bit ironically) a CHAMPIONS’ league.

Today, England, Italy, and Spain have produced fully 10 of the remaining 16 teams, and 7 of them are NOT league champions. In fact, 2 of those 10 teams haven’t won their own leagues in at least 18 years. Villareal have only ever won their league once...and that was the Tercera (3rd) Division in 1970 – there isn’t a single player on the books who was even alive at the time…and yes, I’m sorry to have to admit it…my beloved Liverpool hasn’t won an English title since 1990.

So why in the world do they insist on calling it the UEFA Champions League? It makes no sense at all. And if you’ve read this blog before you know that rule #1 in football is this: if it makes no sense on face value, follow the money and you’ll have your answer to what it's all about – no matter how stupid it turns out to be.

In this case, the objective is to explicitly conceal what is so obvious that we have become accustomed to ignoring it. This is, in fact, a “super” league, structured like the domestic sports leagues in North America with divisions, a regular season, and the winner chosen by playoffs – and we’re now in playoffs that will last until May.

So why the subterfuge? Why pretend it’s a Champions League? You have to go back a few years...
20 years ago, UEFA had a double edged sword on their hands: they had a cash-cow competition with the prestige of producing the Champions of Europe, but they only raked in the moolah if (and only if) big clubs, with a lot of independent prestige, and big television fan bases, survived to reach the latter stages of the competition. The little clubs of Europe had to concede their rightful place in the European Cup because one too many of them were crashing the party right when UEFA was opening the champagne. For UEFA it was a financial nightmare.

To remain a legitimate sporting event, they had to find a way to include all members of UEFA. But to keep it a money growing tree for the foreseeable future, they had to figure out a way to give the biggest clubs in Europe the best chance to make it through to the final rounds of the competition.

Enter the UEFA Champions League.

Case in point: the first 5 European Cups were contested by Real Madrid, and with names like Di Stefano, Pusksas and Bento on the roster, they had enough star power to make the competition a huge success. In those days, European football on television was a rarity, and so most of the money came from the stadium attendances. And because if you were Scottish, the only way you’d likely ever see Real Madrid play was if they came to Hampden Park where you and 150,000 other bravehearts could plunk down a week's salary for tickets to view the match. Fortunately in 1960, the bet paid off, and Madrid beat Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in one of the best European finals in history.

Through the 60’s and 70’s names like Beckenbauer and Cruyff lent their gravitas to the great trophy (3 times each), and through the late 70’s and early 80’s a team that continues to benefit disproportionately from their ancient success, Liverpool, became a household name around the world as something more than just the birthplace of the Beatles. (Speaking of whom, word is only McCartney is a Toffee (scum), while Ringo’s a Red – not a supporter, he just likes the color red – and George and John were disinterested. Harrison once famously said, in the midst of Beatle mania, that there were 3 teams in Liverpool and he liked the other one - brilliant.)

But along came the late 80’s and a couple of communists threw a monkey wrench into this money-making machine that threatened to stop its wheels turning forever: in 1986 Steau Bucharest of Romania took on and beat Barcelona, in Spain no less. And not to be outdone by their fellow eastern Europeans, Red Star Belgrade beat Olympique Marseille in the 1991 final. As if two clubs whose supporters were precluded from purchasing western products wasn’t bad enough, both matches were decided in half-empty stadiums on penalties. The latter was the last year that the competition was strictly a knockout affair. That’s when UEFA said enough is enough and changed the name and structure of the competition to include multiple teams from the same targeted (and by targeted I mean money making) leagues.

But that wasn’t enough for UEFA – because when you make money from something, the only thing you want is more of it. Accordingly, as the years went by, and too often rich clubs with rich fan-bases were matched against European minnows in the late stages, and the mouthwatering match-ups, like the ones we have this year, were too few and far between, the geniuses in Switzerland came up with another wrinkle. The resultant league coefficients and qualifying stages ensured that only a trickle of small fish in the big European pond, made it through to the group stages - they could just forget about the knockout stages altogether.

So what we have today is this: Inter Milan and Man U (can go jump in a lake) are 2 of 5 actual league champions who’ve made it through to the knockout stages, and their reward is playing each other. Meanwhile Lyon, six-times champions of France (on the trot, I might atdd) get to host probably the best team in the world, at the moment, in FC Barcelona. And while Bayern Munich and Sporting Lisbon may both be breathing a sigh of relief at their draws, it’s more than mildly ironic that they’ll be delighted to have drawn one of the remaining league champions, and not one of the non-champion colossuses of Juventus, Real, Chelski, Liverpool, Barcelona or Arsenal. Even Roma, the red-shirted step child of the Serie A titans, would have been preferable to these other behemoths, so I have a sneaking suspicion that this year, we could very well see yet another first, second...even THIRD runner-up winning the so-called Champions League.

For my money, if UEFA are so concerned with tradition and history that they’ll do away with the confetti ridden, fireworks accompanied on-field celebration, and force the losers to form a line of honor in their moment of greatest despair, they’d be better off doing away with the ridiculous concept that this is a champions’ league. Call it what it really is, The European Super League, and leave out all the clowns you don’t want in the competition anyway – what are they going to do, quit UEFA?

Or they could make it an actual European cup, and go back to a single elimination cup competition, and call it the European Cup. In the this case the games will be INFINITELY more interesting because more will be at stake, and in the former case, people from all over the world, that have vicarious skin in the game (like me, for example) will want to watch their teams play against the true cream of the European crop, instead of CFR Cluj-es of the world (and not for nothin' Cluj are also from Romania, from whence all this non-sense started in the first place).

Either way, let’s just stop with the pretense and give it a name that doesn’t sound as stupid as the Union of European Football Associations Champions League, because it’s a deceptive mouthful that by any other name would not sound as stupid.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


They have Kaka, Seedorf, Pirlo, Ronaldinho, Pato, Shevchenko and soon Beckham - but the one they love the most, the one who eats, breathes and sweats Rossoneri, and the one who may very well be the reason things are not so good in the red half of Milan this year, is their not-so-secret secret weapon. Hiding there in plain sight, until his impact is only fully appreciated in his absence, is a little phenomenon called Gennaro Gattuso.

You've heard of him, you've seen him play and you've told yourself that he's the "heart and soul" of Milan, but be really mean that as the only compliment you could give the least aesthetically appealing member of squad.

Well, here's a post I found on him that is so elegantly constructed, it may just change what's in your heart the next time you utter this compliment.

A link to this site will reside permanently on the left-hand navigation of The Soccer Column, and I hope you enjoy the posts as much as I do...

Friday, December 12, 2008


Much as it pains me to admit it, I don’t think there's a more obvious choice for FIFA World Player of the Year in 2008 than Cristiano Ronaldo. With deference to Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, it’s unlikely that any other player would command the same transfer fee or salary as Ronaldo, and based on his performances in the 2007 and 2008 season, it’s fair to say that this award is well deserved. To me, it appeared Messi had some lingering effects from not being selected as the Europe's best, as he trudged ignominiously through a league match against Valencia last weekend, but it’s also a safe bet that he’s in the running for next year’s Ballon d'Or and FIFA's POTY.

When Cristiano Rolando arrived at Man U as a replacement for David Beckham, few could have imagined that this free-styling bafoon would make it in the man’s game of professional football, and fewer still believed he could do it in England – after all, it’s the last place in the world you’d think such skill on the ball as he has exhibited, would be even possible, let alone appreciated. Fortunately, 17 touches in the span of 3 seconds, fabulously enthralling as it may be, is not why he has been deemed the best in the world.

43 goals in all competitions – that’s why.

At the end of the day, by winning the Champions League with Manchester United, despite missing a penalty and appearing to wilt under the pressure of the big match, Ronaldo’s star shines brightly, and few could argue against him as a worthy recipient.

But what does this say about the balance of power in football?

A brief review of all players of the year since FIFA decided to encroach on the Ballon d’Or’s territory, reveals that EVERY SINGLE ONE was playing, and lighting it up, in either La Liga or the the Serie A.

As a matter of fact, there are only 5 teams who have ever had a world player of the year, and they read like a who’s who of the biggest clubs in the world – the clubs who’s jerseys every young player aspires to wear one day:

AC Milan
Inter Milan
Real Madrid

Financially, although Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelski all fare as well or better than the teams in this aforementioned list, the fact remains that these 5 are the standard bearers in world football in terms of prestige, and FIFA’s bias towards them is an indication of such.

But in 2009, that’s about to change.

For the 4th year in a row, all 4 English teams entered in the Champions League have progressed to the knockout stages – neither La Liga nor the Serie A can boast such league consistency. And moreover, an English team has contested the final for 4 years in a row as well. Last year, the international humiliation was complete when two English teams contested the final – guaranteeing the first English champion since my beloved Liverpool lifted their 5th European Cup in 2005.

So let’s, for the record, take a look at what the EPL can boast in the debate over the best league in the world:

1. 3 of the 4 richest clubs in the world are English (Man U(seless), Arsenal and Liverpool) and the richest of the rich is Manchester United
2. All four of England’s Champions League representatives have contested the final in the last 4 year (2 have won – Liverpool and Man U(re))
3. 2 of the top 10 average stadium attendance teams are English (Man (F) U and Arsenal)
4. Of the 4 leagues who have had players nominated, but never won, the FIFA World Player of the year award, England have the most with 11
5. 25% of ALL PROFITS IN EUROPEAN FOOTBALL are generated in England.

So it appears the only thing left for the EPL to win is the FIFA World Player of the Year, which we should expect shortly, and it's no small irony that he's not English. The fact of the matter is that the balance of power in international club football, if not international football, has gone beyond shifting to England, to now residing in it. Without going on another extended tirade of why I think the England team are crap, I doubt it will translate into the success at the World Cup or European Championships (assuming of course, England qualify) but that’s about the only thing left that we could reasonably use as an argument against English dominance of the game altogether.

Of course Brazil do, and probably forever will, produce better players than the English, and Italians clubs will probably win more in Europe, and La Liga will likely continue to host the biggest stars; but in the terms that matter the most in professional football (that being moolah) there’s no doubt that the balance of power has shifted to England.

(Not for the first time) God save (the rest of us from) the Queen.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


I was watching Barcelona beat up on Valencia this weekend, and I was struck by the extent to which an American commentator, Phil Schoen, was trashing Thierry Henry. Before he had scored his first (of 3) goal(s), Schoen took every opportunity he could to point out how the “old” Thierry Henry would have done this, and the "old" Thierry Henry would have done that. Thankfully, Ray Hudson, that over-enthusiastic former MLS guru had the good sense to point out a couple of things that if Shoen knew a thing about football, would have shut him up...of course, we would have no such luck.

It’s not the first time Henry has been castigated for his performances in Barcelona, but for the life of me I really can’t understand why. All he’s done since he arrived is lead the team in goals in all competitions last year, this despite coming to the club and playing with a back and groin injury his first 3 months, and furthermore, playing in a new position in deference to Samuel Eto’o who, suddenly can do no wrong. I should point out that Shoen (as have other Barca supporters, for that matter) has been critical of him too – go figure. I guess, 90 goals in 119 appearances isn't good enough. For someone who has (clearly) never played the game at probably any level, and certainly not professionally, it’s easy to throw stones at the best players of a generation when your expectations are so out of proportion with the realities of the professional game – it’s a bit like a day-trader thinks it’s easy to make money in stocks when all he’s experienced is a bull market, then when the bears come rumbling through, suddenly nobody knows what they’re doing.

I would beg to differ.

In his first season in the Catalan capital, Henry made 42 appearances, many of them as a substitute, and scored 19 times – that was good enough to lead the team in goals, and a strike rate of nearly a goal every other game, that most strikers would sell their first born children to have. This year, he has 9 goals in 19 appearances, many of those were also as a substitute, but somehow that’s not enough for the likes of Phil Schoen. By comparison, Bojan Krkic has scored 10 in 36 and everybody’s favorite eskimo, Eidur Gudjohnsen has the same number of goals in 53 appearances. Even Lionel Messi has only 40 goals in 89 appearances, a worse scoring rate than Henry, but because everybody loves him at the moment, nobody seems to care that his strike rate is not even the equal of Henry currently, and doesn’t even compare to what Henry did at Arsenal in his physical prime. Eto’o is clearly the gold standard – it kind of makes you wonder why on earth anyone at the club was considering selling him this summer .

There are a lot of reasons why the expectation that Henry would score goals as freely at Barcelona as he did at Arsenal, were a recipe for dashed hopes, but the example of Eto’o, and the case for Henry himself, shows that Barcelona would do well to consider those factors before jumping off the Henry bandwagon just yet.

First, he is at a new club and in a new league. Even the great Zidane had his worst seasons the first seasons he moved to new clubs, and look how he turned out. The EPL, as good as the top teams are, is hardly comparable to La Liga, particularly when it comes to the mid-table teams. Most of them would likely be competing for European places if they were transplanted to another league, but in Spain their quality and skills are mostly in vain. A new team that doesn’t center around Henry makes it impossible for him to get the same level and production of service as before, and knowing your defenders is as important to consistent goal-scoring in Spain as it is anywhere else, so time for adjustment is probably the best prescription for success. The slower pace of the game in Spain probably contributes to fewer goal-scoring opportunities, and different ones, making the need for adjustments even more important.

Second, he is playing out of position – at Arsenal he was a center forward who drifted to the wings to find space for himself, coming back into the middle to score his goals. At Barcelona, he’s got white powder on his heels for all the time he spends starting out on the wings. Defenders are taught to defend from the middle out, so a center forward drifting wide can more easily escape his markers, than a winger working his way in. And even if he played in the middle, there’d be another winger out there taking up the space he normally found for himself at Arsenal. Thus the formation and positioning at Barca presents difficult challenges to scoring in the same way he did at Arsenal. As such, he has to find new ways to be effective – ways he hasn’t had to come up with for probably 7 years. Speaking of which….

Third, Henry is 31 years old. Now he can still run like the wind, and to me he looks the same as he did before, but anyone who’s crossed this terrible threshold in age knows that acceleration, resilience and recovery time all suffer with age, so his appearances will diminish, and as such, so will his goal tally. Furthermore, as you get older, and your body starts to fail you in oh-so-many little ways, you begin to lose confidence in yourself physically – that hesitation is the difference between 20 goals and 30, and another good reason to mitigate our expectations.

Finally, I don’t think Henry’s teammates are looking to him to be the savior as he was at Arsenal, and as such, they seem to use him more as an outlet than as a go to guy. Furthermore, I’ve noticed that Messi can be a bit greedy when he gets past the first defender, which is fine if you’re only value is as a scorer (like Eto’o) but that kid’s value lies as much in what he does to make his teammates better, as the goals he scores. I’ve never seen a guy get a standing ovation from his supporters without even scoring, as he has on several occassions this season, and that’s because everyone can recognize his value even if he’s not tallying goals. The same cannot be said for Henry – I would venture to guess that if you took him off the field, Eto’o and Messi would suffer from more defensive attention, and probably the team's performance wouldn't be so good. Well, look how they did without a fully performing Ronadinho last year.

At the end of the day, perhaps Henry and his Gillette commercial contemporaries (Roger Federer and Tiger Woods) suffer from the same weight of expectations that makes perfectly good results for the average player look like a bad year for them. After all, 226 goals in 369 games is enough to make anyone look like he just came down from Mount Olympus, but does anyone expect Gudjohnsen to score 29 goals in 66 appearances? I doubt it, and if he did, he’d be hailed as a Barca’s unsung hero. But this is Henry’s tally in the blaugrana, and you’d never know that he was performing so much better than his (most of his) teammates by the comments of idiots like Shoen.

Ask yourself this – would you rather have Henry at 70% or Gudjohnsen at 100%? If you’d take the latter, you should probably take up bird-watching, rather than football.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Football today is played faster and harder than in the old days, and there are too many games. To ensure the best results in all competitions, players must be fresh and hungry, and as such, rotated in and out of the starting 11. This, in a nutshell, is the theory of squad rotation.

And it's complete bull$#!^.

Nowhere has it come under more scrutiny than at Liverpool. But if the theory is correct, then it should bear out that players in the pre-rotation era should have either: (1) played less often due to injury and/or (2) been less fresh and (3) gotten worse results.

Take a look at the two tables below on Wikipedia about the Liverpool appearances of Steven Gerrard and Kenny Dalglish (, whose career spans are roughly 20 years apart. If you pull it into a spreadsheet and sort descending by appearances, you'll note the following interesting facts:
  1. In Dalglish’s 7 heaviest years, he averaged 57.4 appearances and a total of 401, whereas Gerrard averaged 48.7 appearances and a total of 341.
  2. In those same 7 years Dalglish had 3 years of 60+ appearances. Gerrard has never had more than 55.
  3. In those same 7 years Dalglish's teams reached 4 European Cup finals and won 3 (Gerrard 2 and 1), reached 4 league cup finals and won 3 (Gerrard 2 and 2) and here's the kicker: Dalglish won the league 4 times, whereas Gerrard's team have finished 2nd once.

Hmm...It seems the rotation theory doesn’t bear out with the two most influential Liverpool players of their respective eras. This doesn't take into account the pitch conditions (have you ever gone 90 minutes in the mud?) the ball technology, or the general improvements in physical fitness. Fair enough, one player does not account for the results of an entire team, but you can continue the comparison to Alan Hansen vs. Jamie Carragher, or Phil Neal to John Arne Riise, and you'll see that it never bears out. Old school players played more and got better results - period.

So what is it about the myth of squad rotation? Why has it been propagated on us when it doesn't bear out in superior results? As with all things that make no sense, do like Woodward and Bernstein and follow the money.

Exactly Why Are There So Many “Cups”?

You guessed it - money. Until 1961, there was only one “major” cup competition in England, the FA Cup, and even then it was 98 years old. The English FA, primarily in existence to manage the England team, are and have been the primary financial beneficiaries of FA Cup revenues, whereas the League Cup has financed the various football leagues.

Tired of being chicks on the end of the FA’s regurgitated seconds, they started their own cup competition – the League Cup. Fixture congestion was initially addressed by following the lead of the European Cup and playing night matches under floodlights mid-week. (FA Cup fixtures are almost exclusively on weekends).

Up until the advent of satellite television, football revenue came primarily from ticket sales to matches, and as such, clubs looked for any excuse they could find to play matches on their empty grounds. FA Cup matches that end in ties are replayed, not because it makes any sense from a sporting perspective, but to double the revenue from the fixture. In the end, it's all a big money grab.

Today, the money in English football comes from television rights to 2 competitions: the Champions League, and the EPL. Ticket sales are a proportionally significant source of income to only those clubs with the biggest stadiums, and even they continue to build more and more capacity, but mostly that's with the hope of hosting a European final or an international match, which can be a big payday.

There is a risk of injury in any football match, but the risk of having a Gerrard-less Liverpool UCL fixture at any given moment far outweighs the value of playing him, and all 10 of the other best players in the team, in a meaningless cup tie, even if they're better served in sporting terms by creating continuity and keeping changes to the squad to a minimum.

Squad Rotation? What Squad Rotation?

The first team in the EPL to espouse the squad rotation system was Manchester United, whose incorporation in the early 90's meant they had the cash to go after many quality players without prostituting themselves in meaningless cup competitions.

The 1998-1999 season is considered the squad rotation gold standard, when they won the league, the European Cup and the FA Cup. Ignominiously absent from the trophy cabinet that season was the League Cup. On their payroll that year Man U(seless) had Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Any one of those strikers would have been considered a first team automatic in 9 out of 10 EPL teams. Playing all 4 at the same time was out of the question, so they had to be rotated to keep them all pleased, right?


Solskjaer and Sheringham didn't start any important games together, and Ole was an ever present that year only in…(drum roll)…the League Cup, which the club clearly bottled. With games in all 4 competitions early on in the season, it is only THEN that we saw the so-called squad rotation. For the most part, in matches that mattered (i.e. EPL and UCL), they paired Yorke and Cole and never looked back, with notable exceptions when the pairing wasn't producing goals. That didn't happen too often. Significantly both Sheringham and Solskjaer made more appearances that season as substitutes than as regulars.

The problem with squad rotation is two-fold: if you have an obvious best line-up, then it's difficult for the team as a whole to take games seriously when that best line-up is not in place. As a result you get wayward performances from everyone, even the substitutes – never mind the regulars. By creating a line-up based sense of priority, the players have the impression that some games are to be taken for granted, and can lose when they should definitely win.

Sound familiar to any Liverpool supporters out there?

Even in the FA Cup final that year, Sheringham only came on as a substitute for an injured Roy Keane, albeit to great effect. Suspended for the Champions League final, Keane and Scholes were replaced by Beckham and Butt in the middle (Jesper Blomqvist took Beckham's place on the right.) The Butt/Beckham pairing nearly cost United the Cup until they were saved by the super-subs Sheringham and Solskjaer. But it's important to remember that they came on as substitutes, and were not rotated into the starting line-up.

The Other Problem with Squad Rotation

The second problem with squad rotation is the simplest - the best team is not on the field. Even the best line-up will have collective fluctuations in form, and as such results may vary. The pressure is then greater on the best line-up when they are on the field because the expectation is that this result must be achieved now because it cannot be guaranteed later. Some players perform well under those circumstances, and some do not. But constantly leaving your best 11 off the field, reduces your chance of getting the best result on it.

If you're playing Liverpool, and two names are not in the line-up (say, Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres) no matter who else is on the field, the opponent cannot help but get a sense of optimism that they might otherwise not have. One advantage of being one of the bigger teams in the country is that if the result is not in sight at a certain point, the energy and commitment of the opponents, while they start out ready to run through brick walls, quickly dissipates when it looks like order is restored. In other words, they bag it.

But if teams always feel they're in with a chance because the best line-up isn't on the field, it becomes a never-ending struggle to get results against even the worst teams in the league, and it is in this area that Liverpool have failed miserably since the end of the Boot Room dynasty.

Protecting the energy and fitness of players who stink does little to ensure results, unless by results, you mean bad ones. At its core it makes sense only if there is a best line-up to save. That’s not the case at Liverpool.

Squad rotation also implies that you have a squad to rotate. It doesn't apply if your reserves are terrible. The top 3 in England have reserves that would make most first teams green with envy, but Liverpool suffers from the same kind of delusion as the England team does – "we're right up there" with Arse-nal, Chelski and Man U(re), so we have to rotate our squads just like they do.

But they have the squads to do it, and we don't. For who among us would suffer the slings and arrows of Vronin and Crouch if you had Kallou and Shevchenko at your disposal? Why would you bother with Sissoko if you can have Hargreaves?


There are 3 great teams in England, and none of them are in Liverpool. That illusion went out the window the first time Everton won a Champions League berth. As a supporter of LFC, no matter how envious I am of the top 3, I hate the thought of playing second fiddle to Everton even more. This prospect, more than anything else, has snapped me out of a false sense of superiority.

Even a neutral must admit that Everton are a crap club, with crap players. It used to make me want to vomit every time I saw their name before ours on the table, even if it was just an alphabetical anomaly in the second week of the season. That I'm no longer dry heaving at the sight is my body's way of telling my mind that the party's over: we're no longer head and shoulders above all the “Toffee scum” – now maybe just half a head – and the sooner we play a line-up that reflects that, the better.

All told, Liverpool FC is a great club, with a great history, and frankly, a shitty team. Our Champions League performances have been anomalies, because results in the league, never better than second once in the last 10 years, show the true quality is 45 minutes up the road, and in London. As long as we perpetuate this illusion that we're "right up there" with the true behemoths of English football, we are subject to irrelevant and false assumptions that result in squad rotation, when in reality, they do not apply to us at all. If the best 11 players in the squad can't cut it for say, 2-3 games, nobody will question the decision to make changes. But when the best 11 never feature AND changes are made, the question of whether the club are really doing its best always lingers.

It’s time for Liverpool to admit, once and for all that, until results tell us that our players need a rest and are good enough to be rotated, they shouldn't be. It worked for Kenny Dalglish and the last great Liverpool sides, so why can't it work for this one?