Tightening up

I mentioned it in passing below, but by my reckoning Costa Rica caught their opponents offside 41 times this World Cup. There was a spell when basically Holland were caught every time they tried to attack. This, to me, really speaks for the value of hard work in defending. It has been noted in the newspapers that individually, the Costa Rica defence aren’t superstars. But they have worked really hard together to become a functional unit. Danny Murphy kept saying in commentary on Saturday that this doesn’t just happen by saying you’re going to be a good defence, you have to work really hard at it. We know all about that, don’t we? (I think the second highest in terms of offsides was Germany with 12).

Thing is, we can guess that this kind of organisation can happen quite quickly. Tony Pulis took over a Crystal Palace side that was full of empty-headed attack and turned that on its head, creating an organised, grizzly Crystal Palace side that became hard to beat quite quickly.

I bring this up again to (again) wonder why Fulham were so slow to fix last year’s problems. The team was so obviously bad that something really had to be done. Rene Meulensteen was effectively a skills coach at Manchester United, wasn’t he? In retrospect it’s hard to understand how he was considered to be the right man to fix Fulham’s issues.

I know this isn’t new but the more you think about last season the worse it gets. In the face of very obvious problems you at least have to have a stab at getting an answer. People moan about statistics but a number of (free) analytical websites pointed out very quickly that Fulham were becoming historically bad defensively. As in the worst in Europe. As in the kind of team that’s going to get relegated without much of a fight, according to Premier League precedents. So now, what’s the story here:

a) Fulham were aware of this information
b) Fulham were not aware of this information
c) It’s more complicated than that, isn’t it?

If a, something clearly had to be done to fix the defence. It wasn’t done. Is this because Fulham were aware of this information but didn’t believe it/felt themselves above this kind of thing, or that Fulham did believe it but assumed it would get better. Either way, it demanded a fix. There was no fix. If you believe Brede Hangeland, there was no attempt at a fix.

If b, you have to ask why not? Even if they don’t ‘like’ statistics – and I know very well that not everyone does – there was ample eyeball evidence that the defensive side of the game was horribly wrong. I hate to think that, like a lot of fans, the powers that be were fixated on the team’s attacking issues (many still believe that Dimitar Berbatov was the main problem).

Or c and perhaps d and all of this known and on the to-do list, but lost in the constant shuffle of managers and coaches?

I don’t know. But Jorge Luis Pinto could presumably have organised this team in no time. Would it have been enough? I think it would, yes.

It’s awfully easy to diagnose things in hindsight with no responsibility isn’t it? But even so.



Kvist on Magath?

I’m not sure of the source, but there’s an interesting line of tweets from a Danish poster on Twitter:

Martin Krag @martinkrag · 22m
“His professional capability and man management is on the lowest level I’ve ever experienced” – William Kvist on Felix Magath.

Martin Krag @martinkrag · 19m
Kvist on Magath: “We never knew what the plan was when we showed up for practice, who was in start XI, and didn’t train tactics before game”

Kvist: “My resistance grew day for day. If I haven’t had a contract I would’ve quit on the spot. No one deserves a coach like Magath”

Kvist: “At one time a teammate got to decide the content of the practice before an important game. Because it was his birthday” #Magath

Ruiz and running

On message boards sometimes people have had a dig at me for using statistics. I do understand the limitations of statistics in football, honestly I do. But I also understand that sometimes they tell us things that we wouldn’t otherwise know. They supplement what we see with our eyes. I understand that most people aren’t after “the truth” and aren’t that bothered that they need to see a statistical counterpoint to their dearly held belief, but while we have all these debates it always seems worth considering a variety of angles. And increasingly that means statistics, too.

As various books tell us (most famously now, Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking: Fast and Slow”) the human brain is actually pretty bad at evaluating a lot of things. It takes shortcuts all the time, which is important in so far as it helped man evolve into what it is today, but which can lead to evaluative issues. We all make snap judgements about footballers, and if we get it in our minds that “Ruiz is always losing it” our brains get excited when we see this happen in a game. So while Ruiz might only get caught on the ball twice in a match, that’s what we’ll take away because it conforms to our “Ruiz code”. our dominant image of Ruiz’s contribution will be him getting caught on the ball. So the other night I saw Ruiz probing and attempting lots of forward passes; another poster on TiFF said that he and his friends had noted how frequently Ruiz passed up the opportunity to play forwards. We were both looking at the same thing, but both looking *for* different things.

And for another thing, there’s really so much going on on a football pitch that we simply can’t keep up. I mentioned in passing yesterday that Bryan Ruiz, in contrast to popular perceptions, had run as far as anyone in Costa Rica’s games. We’ve been here before: I noticed in an away defeat at Southampton that, contrary to a lot of observers’ reports, Ruiz, while not involved, was hardly standing still. He was doing the exact opposite, making long and circular runs that were more or less useless. He wasn’t not trying; he just wasn’t making very intelligent attempts to get involved. Or put another way, he was probably trying too hard.

Which is why statistics can help. In this World Cup, FIFA is making available all kinds of information. So we know how far Bryan ran, and, despite Spigs’ challenge, we actually know that he wasn’t going at 5mph while running all this way. We also know that Ruiz passed forward and backwards, and that against Greece, for example, he found Joel Campbell 11 times, twice as often as anyone else did.


Little things

One of the issues I have with all the hand-wringing about England (although much of it is justified) is the dividing lines between success and failure in these tournaments.

Simply put, tiny variations in how the match played out could have had massive implications on the overall narrative.  So if that long Uruguayan goal kick had gone 10cm higher or 10cm lower or 10cm right or 10cm left there would have been a different headed contact and Suarez wouldn’t have been clean through, the game would have finished 1-1 and England would have been playing Costa Rica with everything to play for.  Sure, ifs and buts, but equally, it’s true!

By way of example:

1966 saw England triumph, and of course we know that this was due in big part because of Geoff Hurst’s goal.

That came at 2-2. It didn’t cross the line.  Had it not been allowed the game would still have been at 2-2, so Hurst’s hat-trick goal would not have happened.  West Germany might easily have won.

1970 was even more down to luck, this time against England.

Here, I think, we may have had a stronger overall team, but Gordon Banks went down with food poisoning on the eve of the the first knockout round with West Germany (it really is always them). Nevertheless, England, playing beautifully, moved out to a 2-0 lead.  But then two things happened: first Franz Beckenbauer got his side back into the game with a horribly soft goal, an angled drive that slipped under Bonetti’s arms and in.   Then Bobby Charlton was substituted, a move Beckenbauer was stunned by and exploited to the full as the game completely changed in momentum. (Beckenbauer had been marking Charlton and had been quiet).   Uwe Seeler scored in the 82nd minute to make it 2-2 and Gerd Muller won it in Extra Time.

England were cruising, and without the mysterious Banks incident (someone put something in his drink, I have read) the game would surely have taken a completely different course.  Even then, Bonetti was a good goalkeeper, but his inexplicable lapse let the Germans back into it.  Without these tiny massive moments England would have had a semi-final against Italy, and then the opportunity to meet Brazil in the final.

1986 Never mind that England lost 1-0 to Portugal, drew 0-0 with Morocco, and only then saved face with the trouncing of Poland.  The big news here is how they lost to Argentina.  Diego Maradona scored the opener with his hand.

Now, England might have lost this one anyway, but had the goal been disallowed (or had Steve Hodge cleared the ball with any sort of competence) then the game would still have been 0-0.  Anything might have happened.  That was as good an England team as we’ve seen in recent years, and victory there would have set up a semi-final against Belgium, then perhaps a final against West Germany.  The finest of margins, folks.

1990 is retrospectively regarded as a triumph, but for a time England were awful. We drew with Ireland, then with Holland, and only a Mark Wright header beat Egypt.  This set up a knockout against Belgium, and on 119 minutes, e.g. a minute before penalties, David Platt struck a wonder goal to win it.

This is just stupidly difficult. Without that single moment we’re looking at a penalty shootout.

And against Cameroon in the QF England needed an 83rd minute penalty to force extra time.

In the semi-final defeat to West Germany England went behind to an outrageous deflection from Andreas Brehme.

1994 saw England not even qualify.  This was in no small part because of a qualifier in Holland in which Ronald Koeman was first not sent off when he very clearly should have been, then scored with a twice-taken free kick which wouldn’t have been a possibility had he been in the shower.

You get the idea.  The narratives upon which success and failure are built largely depend on isolated moments of fortune.  True, the good teams tend to prevail, but with most international teams of roughly equal quality, often it is the odd moment of fortune that determines who gets the positive narrative and who’s the failure on 17 now blindingly obvious to anyone who’s ever watched a game levels.   The ball goes here, not there; the ref does this, not that; the player does something odd.   A huge part of tournament football is luck.  It really is.



This is interesting, on Dino Islamovic, via Harry Fremantle’s twitter.  It’s only one side of the story, of course, but even so.

In addition to this we have Brede Hangeland’s discussions with journalist Jacqui Oatley about the shambles that was Fulham recent era.  It looks like Oatley may have deleted these tweets but among other things was Hangeland saying that there had been no defensive training sessions all year (which is no surprise, really, is it?).



A few thoughts on England

So much for all that. Expectations may have been lowered, but we did expect more than that.

My view is that we’ve mainly seen the usual randomness inherent in football in action. There seem to be 4-5 good teams, 4-5 bad ones, and everyone else is largely in the lap of the gods. We do like to shape our narrative based on endings, but if you’d been shown both England games with the goal incidents removed I’m not sure you’d have been desperately angry overall.

This misses the point, of course: England did concede four goals, and did so in a very soft manner. We Fulham fans are experts in spotting soft underbellies, and here is was for all to see: lack of pressure around the D; players in wide areas given lots of time; forwards peeling off to the back post; calamitous mistakes. Everything England did, Fulham had done many times this season.

This said, if we started from scratch and played the games again I’m not at all convinced England would lose both. You can’t judge anything in two games between evenly matched teams, not really.

But it did highlight flaws in our thinking and our current approach to player development. What English talent that does break through all seems to be the rampaging bulldog kind: Wilshire, Rooney, Barkley, Shaw. All terrific athletes who don’t half give it something. Less obvious are the thinkers, the glue players who make their teammates look better.

In this sense, England’s back four and shield was an embarrassment. Glen Johnson has his moments as a forward but his form in the World Cup was basically awful. Jagielka and Cahill both seem like junior partners to a better centre-back we don’t have. Leighton Baines has that lovely left foot, but Ashley Cole shuts down his flank.

Gerrard and Henderson feels like 2/3 of a good idea, but as others have mentioned, probably needed an extra man to work effectively. We don’t have that extra man.

Further forward we looked alright, I thought. Rooney was shackled by opponents for obvious reasons and generally did his bit. He’s not the star we had perhaps dreamed he might become, but he is very, very good, and in that sense Wayne Rooney is the least of England’s worries. Sturridge is a fabulous player who needed more help. Sterling impressed me. I don’t mind Danny Welbeck, although perhaps Adam Lallana might have brought a little more guile.

So there we are. Hodgson’s heroes were not to be. They came, they saw, they went home early.

Roy Hodgson biography: paperbacks are in


So we got the paperbacks yesterday and will be posting them out today and tomorrow. Thanks so much to all who ordered.

The initial run of 50 sold out so I’ve ordered another 50.

This raises the possibility of me being stuck with 50 Roy Hodgson books, but hopefully there is some untapped demand still out there.

If you’d like one please do head over to www.godsfoot.com - you should get it early next week.

If anyone can think of any channels by which I might be able to interest England or general football fans please do let me know.

Thanks again