Friday, 18 September 2009

Everton Show Their UEFA Muscle With Two More Pairs Of Eyes To Enjoy It

New signing Distin gets Everton's second.

Everton showed their strength in the new Europa League with a 4-0 thrashing of AEK Athens. The Greeks, who finished 3rd in their league last year, were no match for an Everton side who utilised their dangerous set piece techniques to provide the first two goals, followed by a thunderbolt from Pienaar, and finished off with a fourth deep into a slow but comfortable second half.

It was the £10million summer signing Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, who will no doubt be known as ‘Billy’ who attracted a lot of eyes, and is a player who on that performance displayed the potential to be as devastating as his Russian counterpart Andrei Arshavin. He had a hand in both of the first two goals, and it was a shame when he had to leave the field injured in the second half. He showed creativity, a desire to win the ball back, and a few David Beckham quality crosses stamping his claim for a permanent place in the team.

Bilyaletdinov isn’t exactly the easiest of household names, but the staff at Everton’s shirt printing office will no doubt have the name memorized for the hoards of young kids who will be queuing up this morning to have his name emblazoned across their kits. It’ll be impressive to see how they fit it all on.

The UEFA Cup had become something of a ‘Mickey Mouse’ cup to many people. A second rate competition with confusing stages and teams entering from various other competitions along the way. A lot of the teams in it would be mid table Championship teams at best, and only once it got to the final 8 or so did interest really start to grow. The last 8 would usually contain teams who had dropped out of the Champions League, or those with a more renowned reputation. Yet even some of the teams themselves didn’t seem to care they were in it, cue Martin O’Neill.

After a re-think over the last year, UEFA have re-branded the competition to the Europa League, introduced a group stage similar to the Champions League, (4 teams, each play home and away) followed by a knockout competition. Teams in the group stages this year include world renowned teams such as Valencia, Lazio, Benfica, Sporting Lisbon, Ajax, Fenerbache and Roma, as well as last years finalists Werder Bremen and winners Shakhtar Donetsk. In England, the competition is still covered on Channel 5 (which is a terrestrial channel we must not forget), whilst in other countries the competition has been picked up by more renowned sporting broadcasters.

However the biggest change by UEFA, has been to introduce two new referees into the game. As the lesser of two European competitions, the newly branded competition is the perfect place to test this new regime, and if all goes well, they can then thrash it out to other competitions. The new referees stand just behind the goal to the goalkeeper’s right, the opposite side of the pitch to the linesman, and are there primarily for those ‘is-the-ball-over-the-line-moments’, but also to analyse potential penalty and diving appeals from a better position, leaving the linesman to focus on his primary job of calling offside and any other offences that occur on his side of the pitch. Ultimately the referees decision is final, but the new referees are there so that those moments that the referee or linesman cannot possibly see, can be seen.

BBC's helpful diagram of how it all works[1]

There are a few potential problems with this system; firstly if the goalkeeper is smothering the ball and it goes over the line, even an assistant right there may not be able to see it, and also there could be a potential conflict between a referee and line-assistants decisions. Referees will have to be trained in these new positions, as well as working in such teams, and the Europa League is a great place to put this training into action. It is without question in my eyes that this change was needed, already this season Crystal Palace have fallen foul over a goal that went over the line but wasn’t given, and we all remember the ‘ghost goal’ at Watford last season, which will without doubt go down in football folk lore and the most bizarre refereeing decision of all time.

Another issue is that the referee could potentially have 5 voices in his ear at once, and those referees who allow rules to be bent to certain degrees in the game will have to become tighter. Last night saw Louis Saha sent off for raising his hand to AEK’s defensive mime artist Juanfran. It had been obvious all game that the defender was going to go down at any possible opportunity, it was embarrassing actually, and David Moyes was right in his post-match interviews that the Premier League, and even more so the Football Leagues do not see play acting of that ridiculousness, despite diving being an obvious issue. In fact I share Moyes’ belief that play acting is often worse than diving, due to the obviousness, because it makes the player look like an embarrassment when the replays are shown. Regardless of Juanfran’s play acting, the law of the game says raising a hand or attacking a player to any degree must result in a red card. Certain referees may be more lenient, but AEK also saw a player sent off for kicking out, and I felt it was good consistent refereeing from the officials to issue Saha the same punishment.

I remember a comment several years ago made my Ian Dowie when he was commentating on Sky’s Saturday show, saying that the biggest problem his players experienced with referees was continuity. In one game a player may commit an unexpected handball and get a yellow card, and in the next game do the same thing and receive a red. Therefore the players never knew what they were going to get from a referee. Sometimes across two games in the same day we see the same type of incident occur but they result in different punishments. With 6 referees (if you count the 4th official) the laws of the game will have to be enforced more to the word. If the new line-judge says “foul in the box, definite penalty, red card”, and the linesman says “foul in the box, definite penalty, but probably only a yellow card”, the referee will have to make up his own decision, but due to the lack of resolve between his assistants will more likely stick to the book. That and a sharper word from UEFA for referees to be more strict will without improve the relationships between players and referees, and with more official eyes around the pitch players will be less likely to try an outright dive. Would Eduardo have gone down against Celtic with an official right there?

I think this new system will be beneficial as fundamentally it will cut down on the million pound ‘ball-over-the-line’ decisions being given incorrectly, but could potentially have the ability to cut down on diving. It is by no means perfect yet, and if it turns out that the new referees cause more confusion than there was before then its time to look at technology, I feel that having two more referees is the middle ground between the ‘no’ and ‘yes’ to goal-line technology, and will also potentially help get those penalty decisions correct. It just needs to be well planned and taught by UEFA, and needs the referees to become more competent and confident of sticking to the law book, unless of course Stuart Atwell is the referee, in which case all hell will break loose… again.


Monday, 14 September 2009

Adebayor Attitude Aggravates Arsenal Fans Further

After an exciting goal-filled weekend of football in the world’s most illustrious football league, the biggest joy came at Vicarage Road where Watford made it four games unbeaten with a brilliant tap-in by Danny Graham to beat bottom of the table Barnsley 1-0.

However this will not be the talking point of the weekend, as once again the headlines are overshadowed by an act of pure stupidity from a Manchester City striker. Two instances in the game between Man City and Arsenal at Eastlands on Saturday will undoubtedly result in Emmanuel Adebayor serving a ban that could last up to six games depending on how the FA treat his attack on former Arsenal strike partner Robin Van Persie.

Adebayor also followed an excellent goal with a celebration Usain Bolt would have been proud of, running 90 meters at blistering pace, sliding on his knees and jeering at the travelling Arsenal support. It is hard to put into decent language how big of an idiot Adebayor made himself look in this game, a game in which he as well as his team mates, played excellently. Man City completely outplayed an Arsenal side who will have to dramatically improve to change many opinions that they will lose their top 4 position this season. The two acts overshadow what was a technically sound game of football, highlighting the strength of a competent City side that should be challenging for honours this season.

It is fair to say that most Arsenal fans were happy to see the back of Adebayor last season. After a good season filling the shoes of Gunners hero Thierry Henry, last season Adebayor seemed to slink back into his former self, a shadow of that excellent player (we all remember the goal against AC Milan and the overwhelming praise he achieved for it) Arsenal fans got a glimpse of for a season. Half baked performances on the pitch combined with an obvious arrogance with his new position in the Arsenal squad gave their fans a lot to be frustrated about. His attitude towards potentially joining AC Milan, telling one news camera that he was staying at Arsenal then immediately telling a Sky Sports camera that he was joining AC Milan and a final decision would be made the following week, did even more to disrupt Arsenal fans and they started to resent the strikers attitude. Towards Henry’s last few months at the Emirates, some fans argued that he thought he was bigger than the club, often opting to sit in the directors area when he was injured and even acting like a coach on the bench along side Wenger. Henry already is, and will most certainly go down as an Arsenal legend, and it appears Adebayor was upset that the Gunners faithful weren’t extending him that same courtesy. Adebayor has said in recent interviews that he feels more appreciated at City, yet his constant comments about wanting to leave Arsenal were never going to do anything else other that aggravate Arsenal fans into showing him the door themselves. Arsenal fans aren’t stupid enough to instantly accept back a player whose loyalty is clearly not there.

On Saturday at Eastlands it was clear that this was the moment that Adebayor had been waiting for; a chance to show all those doubters what he was made of, and, had he let his football do the talking, he would have done exactly that. You can argue that players continuously take stick from opposing fans in every game, but 99.9% of the time that is 'pantomime' booing of the 'villain' anyway. Adebayor had none nothing at Arsenal for the fans in his last 18 months there, and thus the respect the player once had had gone, and had he kept his head down, taken his goal and let his inspiration on the pitch be what the game was remembered for he may have been able to recreate some of that respect. An excellently taken headed goal and a world class run past 5 Arsenal defenders to tee up Shaun Wright-Phillips for a near miss displayed those talents that Arsenal fans frustratingly never saw at the Emirates. The ludicrous amount of money spent at City over the summer is clearly producing results, and the football displayed by the home side was a joy to behold, Craig Bellamy in particular had one of those days that puts him up there with the Premier League’s best.

However, the flamboyant striker had other ideas, and after his goal he ran the length of the pitch in a speed that would no doubt have the Togolese athletics team on the phone to his agent asking for a change of career. In front of the Arsenal fans his slid on his knees as a barrage of prawn sandwich crusts and bottles found their way onto the pitch at the outrage of the Arsenal fans. In an interview afterwards Adebayor claimed that emotions got the better of him and he was sorry for his actions. After the deception he displayed to the media with the AC Milan transfer it is not surprising that many Arsenal fans (and all football fans) took his apology with a pinch of salt, and I have no doubt that Adebayor had planned such a celebration since his transfer in July. Had the goal been scored at the away fans’ end this may be a different story, but it was Adebayor’s exaggerated athleticism (that he’s never shown on the pitch, by the way) and targeting of the away fans that makes an emotional overload seem like a weak argument for Adebayor’s revenge against the Arsenal faithful. The resulting crowd reaction left a steward injured, and although you can condemn the crowd for getting over excited themselves, it was 100% spurred on by Adebayor’s attitude. The stewards, whilst expected to stand in the face of an adverse crowd did an excellent job of keeping the irate fans at bay, but they shouldn't have to be put in danger because of the players on the pitch intimidating the fans. Adebayor's current form at City annoys most Gunners anyway, because they knew he had that talent all along and are frustrated that he never displayed his excellent best in a red shirt. All Adebayor has done with his celebration is distance himself from the Arsenal fans even further, made himself look ridiculous to the rest of the football world, and also proved to Arsenal fans that he wasn’t pulling his weight at the Emirates. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets a slightly hostile reception from both home and away fans in his next appearance at Eastlands.

Then there is the issue with Van Persie, who after the game condemned Adebayor’s attack and said he was disappointed in his former strike partner. Missed by the referee due to the play continuing, replay evidence shows Adebayor lashing out at Van Persie’s face, leaving him wounded and bleeding. I notice during the interview Adebayor never said he was sorry to the Dutch striker, nor on the pitch did he offer any condolence to his former team-mate. The evidence, whilst not conclusive, seems to show Adebayor kicking out at the fallen player. This takes Adebayor’s case away from just being a statement to the fans, and now becomes a case about a player wanting serious revenge on his old team. Van Persie’s challenge was worthy of a booking, but Adebayor’s kick is verging on assault, and Man City faithful standing up and defending the player must be biting their lip in trying to find a good argument. This is not an emotional response, it was a determined kick on another player and should be judged appropriately regardless of the context. I hope he gets a ban, I hope he gets the full potential of 6 games, because his antics resemble a spoilt child with a personal vendetta against a situation that he himself created because of his arrogant and disloyal attitude towards his old club.

The only other conclusion is that he really is that stupid….

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Eduardo Dives into a World of Controversy.

“That sort of dive is more suited to the Olympic Pool” – Barry Davies

Only 3 weeks into the new Premier League season and already UEFA have opened a huge can of scandal by ‘victimising’ Eduardo after winning a controversial penalty against Celtic in the Champions League, or so says Eduardo’s manager Arsene Wenger. For once, neither manager has blamed the referee, as it is clear from the replays that he couldn’t have seen whether the goalkeeper and striker collided or not, and could not have seen that Eduardo had dived, and thus it would have been a miracle of a decision had he booked for simulation. Using ‘’ as evidence, it is clear from the replay starting at 0.40 that Eduardo did indeed con the referee into giving a penalty. Arsenal fans claim that Eduardo is not the type of player to dive, and argue that he might have just tripped, or that he ‘anticipated’ a challenge, a bizarre statement that I will judge further on. From the evidence in the video and the photos I fully believe that Eduardo dived; if you fall over or trip over in the street you don’t flail your arms in the air and land on the floor like a Jurgen Klinsmann celebration, followed by just standing up and not even checking to see if you’re actually hurt. It is an obvious dive, and I believe Arsenal fans will have a hard time trying to convince anyone any differently. In fact, it is such an obvious dive that even young Tom Daley might even have the incident on tape to see if he can learn anything.

Many people have argued that Eduardo was ‘anticipating’ the challenge and went down appropriately. Players do undoubtedly run into the box trying to get the goalkeeper to make a rash challenge and being brought down, but falling over before the goalkeeper or defender even gets to you just proves that the player was intending to dive anyway. If the player thought he may get hurt in the challenge then surely the first human instinct is to remove yourself from the perilous situation. Eduardo would anticipate a challenge from a centre back if he was running towards the goal with the ball, but if it had been in the middle of the opposition half I doubt he would have gone down, and instead sought out a pass or tried to take the ball around the player, or indeed have gone into a tackle with the defender, you don’t just fall down because you think he’s going to stick a leg out unless you’ve got a pre-determined idea to con the referee. For me, these ridiculous accusations like ‘anticipating’ the challenge are just futile methods of trying to defend the cheat.

Arsene Wenger is a man who I greatly respect for his views and beliefs on the way football should be played and his brilliance at building young, hungry and incredibly well structured teams. Indeed if Wenger were to be sacked from Arsenal it would be a horrid victory for the financially reckless clubs like Man City over the way Arsenal run their club. He is a man that will always stick up for his players, and even he has had to admit that he didn’t believe it was a penalty, whilst trying to fight Eduardo’s corner joining the Arsenal faithful saying Eduardo’s not that sort of player.

It is no secret that simulation has always been in the game, and that in the last few years the amount of diving, or suspected simulation has increased dramatically. In fact when watching Chelsea’s Champions League game against Barcelona last year, despite the naivety of the referee, several Chelsea fans had their head in their hands over Drogba’s obvious antics. Cristiano Ronaldo too, despite all his technical brilliance will forever be regarded as a player who cons the referee into giving silly free kicks and penalties, and we of course all remember his acting to get Wayne Rooney sent off in the last World Cup. No one likes to see diving and it is embarrassing when your team, regarded as a world class footballing outfit, are seen throwing themselves around the pitch with the smallest bit of contact.
Whilst some may argue that in sport doing anything to win, even if that means bending the rules, highlights a desperate but honourable ambition to succeed, there is much more honour in having won within the rules and unpunished cheating only leads to controversies like the one UEFA currently find themselves in.

Arsenal would have won the game anyway, but fundamentally Eduardo cheated and this is why UEFA have seized what they think is the ultimate opportunity to stamp down on simulation, and this is what has annoyed Wenger. Wenger will be asking why UEFA have chosen this incident to stamp down on diving and it is true that, as he says, UEFA have now created a huge problem in that if they fine one player for diving, they will have to start issuing out punishments to the hundreds of cases that they will find landing on their desks from every club accusing another player of simulation. From UEFA’s point of view, I can see why they have stepped in. The incident was in a high profile game shown around the world involving two well supported clubs in European football’s top competition. As the simulation was so obvious, and so influential on the game, it would make them seem like a weak authority had UEFA not stepped in on the issue. It is a signal of intent from UEFA that they are clamping down on diving, and in truth this incident is an excellent place to start as it will make headlines around the world. Seeing one player get fined may cause other players to think about attempting to con the referees, (except Eboue, who decided to leave his brains at home and dive against Man Utd on Saturday and indeed made himself look ridiculous, good on Wenger for instantly subbing him) and by treating this one case in such a dramatic manner has definitely made the football world aware that UEFA’s eyes are open on the situation. Of course, like in this case, simulation cannot always be identified by the referee and it is often considered a very bold move when a referee books a player for diving when he can’t have seen if there was contact or not. Yet I believe that football fans, including myself, are fed up of seeing such obvious antics on the pitch, and now that we have such intricate and detailed photography provided from the dozens of TV cameras in every stadium, it seems logical that when millions of TV viewers see an obvious example of simulation that it should be allowed to be reviewed by the authorities and if the player is found guilty, the player should be punished following the game.

Undoubtedly, every incident that one manager deems as being foul play will be argued over, and some managers and clubs will start abusing the privilege and accusing every silly little free kick of being simulation. This is the situation that Arsene Wenger sees arising, and it is true that UEFA will open the door to such occurrences if they fine Eduardo, and I’m not sure what UEFA could do to ensure that such mayhem doesn’t arise. However I still feel that even if the floodgates do open, after a few cases such as the Eduardo one it would definitely make players think twice about diving. Neil Warnock has proposed today that a player who gets sent off for diving, or is found to have ‘got away with it’ on the day but is proved guilty by photographic evidence, gets banned for 6 games, which I think is a good idea. However the problem UEFA will have is deciding what constitutes a dive, because often players get accused of going down too easily with minimal contact. It is also using exaggeration to con the referee, but how does UEFA judge it?
Of course Wenger will feel aggrieved, and his blasting of the referee for not booking Darren Fletcher in Arsenal’s controversial loss to Man Utd undoubtedly contains some angst from this situation, and it does appear that the dark clouds of refereeing hang over the Emirates at the moment. He’s also just lost (who I consider) the Premier League’s best player at the moment, Andrey Arshavin to injury, so he does have the right to be feeling sorry for himself, although I’m sure he’ll be feeling better when Arsenal have their best season for the last few this year (a mini prediction).

It is clear that UEFA have got to be very careful in how they deal with this situation, but it is pleasing to the football fan to see action taken against play-acting and players who attempt to make fools of everyone in the stadium. It is boring to see players continuously diving and getting away with it, it tarnishes the excitement of seeing two teams slog it out to prove they are the better team. People will always find ways to cheat, but I believe it is good to see UEFA take a stance on this issue and if Eduardo is punished, it will send shockwaves through the football world that this type of ridiculous cheating is being stamped out, and I’m all for it.

Monday, 20 July 2009

City’s Spending Will Only Tarnish Success

With the signing of former Gunner Emmanuel Adebayor, Manchester City have now spent about £80million on players this summer, including the capture of Roque Santa Cruz, Argentine Carlos Tevez and England’s Gareth Barry. These are impressive signings and definitely signal the intention that Man City’s new owners mean business in their threat to storm the Premier League this season. This is not the end of the spending either, as executive chairman at the City of Manchester has already said that City will keep spending until manager Mark Hughes is happy with his squad. A bid for Everton and England defender Joleon Lescott has been rejected, and it has been made very clear by Hughes and the rest of the club that Chelsea captain and fan-favourite John Terry is their primary transfer target. On the arrival of the new billionaire owners their ambitions were made very clear, instantly putting in a £30million bid for Torres, and trying to snatch Dimitar Berbatov from their red rivals in a last ditch offer on the final day of the transfer window last summer. In these financially insecure times it is clear that Man City are willing to flex their financial muscles and cash in on collecting a Premier League winning team. However the question I wish to ask about all this big money spending and ambition is this… If Man City were to win the Premier League this season, or to finish in the top 4, will the footballing talent and achievement of the players be tainted by the obvious kamikaze financial process that brought them all together?

We have seen something similar to this before, in the arrival of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich to Chelsea before the 2003/4 season. In that first summer they spent over £100million, including the signing of Inter Milan’s prized forward Hernan Crespo for £17m, Damien Duff from Blackburn for £17m, Adrian Mutu for £15m, Veron, a somewhat failure at Man Utd for £15m, as well as Joe Cole, Wayne Bridge and Claude Makelele amongst a host of other players. The following summer, after the first wild summer of spending only achieved 2nd (despite only being beaten by an unbeaten Arsenal) and once Mourinho was installed that next summer saw Drogba bought for £24m, Carvalho and Ferreira for £35m between them, and Robben and goalkeeper Petr Cech cost another £20m. After 2 seasons at the club and nearly £200m spent Chelsea finally won back to back Premier League titles, playing some excellent football and scoring some stunning goals, in the 04/5 and 05/6 seasons. Make no mistake, despite the ludicrous money spent Chelsea became the team that everyone wanted to beat. In an interview Man United’s John O’Shea said that Chelsea had become the ‘new team to hate’ taking Man United’s crown. Yet whilst Chelsea had achieved such success the financial basis on which this team was built lead many people to say they had ‘bought’ the title. This of course can be challenged by saying that it was the excellent football played by the team and managerial talent of Mourinho that allowed all these big-money egos to co-exist as a Premiership winning force and to a certain degree this is true, but quite simply without the huge sums of money spent on the players transfer fees, their wages and also the manager, Chelsea would not have been able to win the league. Winning the title a second time with relatively few additions in 05/6 helped subdue the opposing claims, and also with an English backbone of Lampard, Terry, Joe Cole, Glen Johnson and Scott Parker, fans had a reasonable amount of time for Chelsea even with the money.

Manchester City will find themselves in this position, however I feel the pound-note coloured taint on the Premier League trophy will be even more visible if City were to lift it this year, and any tactical or technical brilliance on the pitch will no doubt be smothered by the obvious notion that Man City will have bought the title. With the £100m bid for the Brazilian Kaka in January Man City proved that they were willing to spend ridiculous amounts of money for success. No matter how good a player, £100million pounds is obscene. In perspective, that amount of money spread to every team in the Coca-Cola Leagues two (tier 4) would bring 6 clubs out of administration and allow all 24 to survive with a green numbered balance at the end of each year for the next 20. The reported £500k per week wage he was offered could pay for all of those 24 clubs players wages for several months. Manchester City have the advantage that they can go to any struggling club in Europe (for example Valencia), offer them a stupid £40m offer for a player, and the other club would have to accept them because it will keep them in business for a few years. £40m is nothing to City, and thus could acquire the best players in the world by dealing with these cash-strapped clubs.
This move for Kaka also sent out a message to other clubs and players that City are willing to shell out stupid money to achieve their success, and thus Arsenal receive a bid of £22m for Adebayor (even Arsenal’s faithful will tell you he’s not worth that), who is now one of 9 strikers at the club. As much as these players want to play regular first team football, you’re not going to argue with £100k a week while you’re waiting your turn. Thus, despite the obvious ambition of the owners and the exceptional calibre of players they are bringing to the club, every player who goes there will get tagged with Benitez’ ‘Money, money, money’ label that he placed on Barry. For both Barry and Adebayor, who (Barry in particular) could have easily gone to play for any of the “big 4”, Man City seems like a step backwards.

The difference between Man City and Chelsea not only lies in the complete insanity of the money City are paying opposed to Chelsea who paid just over the asking price of the players they brought in, but also if you look at where both clubs were in terms of rankings before their respective owners were brought in.
Despite Chelsea’s last winning of the English title before 04/5 being in 1955, since the creation of the Premiership have never been relegated, and since 1997 have never finished below 6th. Their style of football had always been inviting, colourful and always had a sting in the tale, they were able to acquire world stars such as Zola, Gullit, Di Matteo and Vialli, and were always regarded as one of the top sides in the league.
10 years ago Man City were in the then ‘Division 1’ (now the Championship), having just been promoted from the division below in the worst period in the club’s history. The blue side of Manchester was almost lost underneath the metropolis being built by the red side. (A red side who, I might add, have won the Premier League 11 times and have not once been regarded as having ‘bought’ the title, and whilst people may slam Sir Alex for his alleged manipulation of referees or the fixture list or whatever, no one can reject that his teams show more determination to win the league, and play appropriate football for doing so.) Whilst Chelsea have been a stable, successful Premier League team in the last 15 years, Manchester City have been up and down the divisions, and never finished above 8th in the Premier League since their return in 2002/3. Chelsea were already heading in a positive direction when Abramovich took over, and already had Lampard and Terry, yet City have had nothing better than mid-table obscurity, which is why a sudden rush to the top of the division would no doubt been singularly looked at as an achievement of the financial muscle of the billionaires, not of the players or the staff (which is a shame). Even if City don’t win the League and perhaps win a Cup, or achieve a Champions League spot, they have put themselves in a position where any success will be void of any credibility, and the brilliance of the players will be overlooked and instead people will instantly remark about the money.

Despite all I have said, I still do not believe Man City’s team is better than Chelsea, Man United or Liverpool, and I do not believe that they will waltz to the top of the league. However I think that should they prove me wrong, it will be purely because of the obscene hoards of money they’ve thrown at players that will have bought them success, and it will be to the detriment of all the teams who genuinely work hard to train youth players, scout foreign teams for hard earned signings and graft and fight to become the best in the business. Man City claim their new players will be exciting for the Premier League. A title that has been clearly ‘bought’ instead of ‘earned’, exciting?… I think not.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Ponting Delivers Class in Leadership.

So the anxiously anticipated 1st Ashes test is over and England come out with a result that still leaves us with hope that overall victory is achievable, and has no doubt made the entire squad realise that they need to up their game to avoid another ‘escape’, a result that I believe we should not be cheering. Indeed the cheers from the River Taff crowd were more of relief that the golden light of the Ashes championship still glows after England’s flame was close to being extinguished. To have to come from a game behind to win the competition would have been a feat too great for an England side who, as the first test would suggest, are second best to the Australians. The result not only highlighted the willingness and desire of the tail end of batting line up, and the experienced mind of an excellent Paul Collingwood, but also the weaknesses in the English top end batsmen, and our under-estimation of the Australian team.

A lot of time was clearly spent analysing the Australian bowlers, and a huge sigh of relief was expressed by England’s faithful when the Aussies 90mph powerhouse Brett Lee pulled out injured, but what was barely talked about on panel shows and websites was the sturdiness and stubbornness of the Australian batsmen. Ricky Ponting in particular demonstrated the Australian batting tactics in his play, and that was not to be reckless but instead just defend until the right bowl came in which was whisked away for a boundary. A comparison can be made between the Australian batting mentality and a five-a-side football match. In the football match one team goes three goals in the lead, and instead of pressing for another goal, the team simply pass, and pass, and pass, and aggravate the other team into making rash tackles and becoming impatient. You could see the impatience in Stuart Broad’s bowling once Ponting and Katich had got to their centuries. Calm, calculated, observant and malicious was the Australian attack, not worrying about time, making few rash decisions and rarely breaking from a stable continuity. Ponting in particular, took every ball in its stride, he hit nothing he knew would be risky, and instead took the runs when the right opportunity arose, and with the bowlers, in particularly Broad and Swann, becoming more frustrated the chances eventually opened up for some big hits. Ponting had clearly had this gameplan from the start, as the unlucky Hughes, and century winners Haddin and North displayed the same stubbornness in their time at the crease. It was made more clear from his awareness of the fielding positions, and the rare mistake that Ponting made in setting up the field when England were batting that Ponting is a master tactician, and you could see when a (rare) mistake was made his anguish and determination to put things right. Ponting has a rare ability to judge the flow of the game, and analyse where the balls from each bowler are likely to be hit, and whilst he can never be 100% certain, and also whilst there are of course other players and managers who can also judge, Ponting’s calmness and willingness to maybe lose a four, but in doing so learn to put a man in a position that prevents such a play from occurring again. There is no doubt that Ponting’s abilities are an inspiration on the teams, and is probably a huge reason why the Aussie bowlers, who will forever be living in the shadow of the world’s greatest spin bowler, also showed no fear and were willing to test the English batsmen to their fullest. Hilfenhaus and Hauritz both showed excellent accounts of themselves and Johnson was incredibly solid.

So I’ve praised the enemy, controversial maybe but they deserve it as even our captain described the draw in Cardiff as an ‘escape’. I think unfortunately the best word to describe England is ‘obvious’. Of course our tail-enders saved us, but we can’t be hoping for a ‘park the bus in front of the stumps’ performance from Panesar and Anderson in every game. I say ‘obvious’ because there was nothing exceptional or out of the ordinary from our players, except the clever tactical performance from Collingwood. Panesar has always been criticised for being too 1-dimensional, and it was true of his bowling in this test, similarly Cook’s attack play in both innings was interpretable. Strauss and Cook both looked panicky in the 1st innings. Of course they were nervous, but they should expect the Aussies to be looking to take extreme strides to get them out early to make themselves comfortable in test cricket back on English soil. Cook in particular’s shots were rushed, and it can be seen by his measly 16 runs over two innings that he was not prepared, physically or mentally for his task of defending the opening assault barrage from the invaders. Cook’s form of late for both country and county has been poor, and he would be the first person I would look to replace for the next match at Lords. Strauss, although a much younger captain than the experienced master of Ponting, also displayed a certain panic that he would not have shown in his pre-captain years, and almost seemed too eager to get runs on the board. These two should be looking to bat, regardless of run-rate, for at least ¾ of the first day, so even if one of them gets stumped that opening defending mentality will exist instead of having a debutant like Bopara or a mid-order batsman like Pietersen having to push England over the 100 run mark. Batsmen one, two and three’s job is to make life easier for those further down the order when the Australian bowling arms and minds get more tired. Of course resisting some excellent Australian bowling, and even more so when Lee returns, is no easy feet, and for an armchair pundit to be saying all this could perhaps be left by the wayside. Yet all England have to do is look at the mentality Hughes, Ponting and Katich displayed, and with some more diverse bowling techniques could perhaps throw a few destructive spanners into a tightly constructed Australian foundation.

Lords is up next on Thursday, and England need to be looking to the fire and ambition shown by the tail-enders in bat for the test. Graham Onions in particular needs to be looked at, after a stunning performance against the West Indies earlier in the year he has proved that his bowling has the character to upset the Australian defence, and also I believe a recall for Harmison to hurl some balls at Australian throats would do well to remove the monotonous, predictable bowling of Broad and Panesar. However changing the bowling should not be the main concern, instead a few days practice of defensive shots and calmness under pressure for our key batters, of which I think Ian Bell should be one, replacing the almost woeful Cook, would do wonders in keeping England in bat and more comfortable against an Australian side who will be more eager than ever, after the injustice they believe happened on Sunday in Cardiff, to upset the English.