Paul Scholes: one of the greats

With Paul Scholes retirement we are invited again to confront the nature of footballing greatness. Over on TiFF someone has made the point that Best and Charlton are legends, not Scholes. But surely this is incorrect.

Footballing history as we know it is based on 120 or so years of competitive play. In that time a handful of great sides have emerged. A list of teams that have been good for at least three seasons might go something like this: Preston, Villa, Sunderland, Newcastle, Huddersfield, Arsenal, Wolves, Liverpool, Liverpool, United, Chelsea.

I’ve missed off a few there, but if you look back there are remarkably few teams who have a) been really good and b) been really good for a long time. The modernish era essentially comes down to Liverpool’s late seventies team, United’s 90s dynasty (still going) and perhaps (albeit briefly) Mourinho’s Chelsea side.  Arsenal had very good teams in the middle of all that (91 and 04) but in historical terms haven’t been able to sustain anything. Liverpool had a good team in the late 80s but didn’t test it in Europe. I don’t know that there’s a strong case to go far beyond this Liverpool and United (which makes sense given their success).

It’s hard (impossible?) to argue that the United side we’ve watched in the last 15 years or so is not among the best club sides this country has seen. You would need to pick out individual teams to go beyond this, but the Ronaldo United sides and the 1999 side (to name two) are surely right up there.

And if they are among the best couple of sides we’ve ever seen, what does that tell us about the players who played in this team from the start of its greatness to the end?

Paul Scholes not a legend? Don’t make me laugh.

Europe next season

So, Europe, eh?

It hit me last night while watching Britain’s Got Talent. The judges came on to the same music we used to play in our Europa games, and I realised what last season had lacked: frightening games.

Sure there were tense matches, games that meant things, but never games that made you feel sick, games that had you wide eyed and awe-struck. Last season’s successful league matches were fun; the unsuccessful matches were not.

Which is not to say that league games are not interesting. They are. Every week we turn up to watch history, for every game is important and part of the game’s and the club’s long-running journey. We’re there for that, watching things develop, watching Fulham edge on and on. This is partly why pre-season friendlies are such a turn-off; they disappear into thin air when they’re over. It’s also partly why I love the players’ “Career Stats” at the back of the matchday programme: our current squad are racking up some numbers now. Not by historical standards, but several of the team are in three figures, which after a period of extraordinarily high player turnover is very much a good thing.

Anyway, Europe is different. The last journey went from happy curiosity (prelims) to outright excitement (Roma! In a competitive game!) to joy (we’re playing Juventus! We’ve beaten Juventus!  Juventus!) to awe (Shakhtar) to raw fright (the German phase – QF/SF/F).

That’s what I’m looking forward to. The worst case scenario is that we lose to a team of part-timers from Iceland or Ireland, and even that would be better than not taking part.

Open up

This year there were 918 shots in games Fulham played, 24 per game.

Last year there were 826, 22 per game.

In 2010/11 home encounters with Man Utd, City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal there were 30, 20, 35, 26, 22 shots (133 in total). Away to these teams we saw 28, 25, 24, 23 and 26 (126).

Last year 26, 24, 16, 16 and 32 at home (114), 41 (33 to 8 for Utd! Ow), 31 , 21, 20, 21 away (134).

Does this show us anything?

Probably not, but I’ll be interested to see where it takes us next year.  If you look at the results under Hodgson and Hughes a position could be taken that under Hodgson we were better against the big teams but not as good against the bad ones.  Under Hughes we have struggled against better teams than us, but beaten those inferior to us.

It’s not hard to take a guess at why this might be.  By closing a game there are fewer chances, fewer opportunities for the best teams to prove their superiority. Think about it: if Fulham play Manchester United in a game lasting two minutes they have a very good chance of getting something from the game. If Fulham play United in a game lasting for five hours then the chances are United will prevail. Equally, if each team has two penalty kicks the weaker has a good chance of taking something; if each team has 500 penalties you’d expect the stronger side to prevail easily.

You can achieve the same effect in a 90 minute game by either playing an open or closed game. Blackpool played a massively open game this year, the effect being (beyond that of surprise) that they were challenging opponents head on: in these games the best team is likely to prevail because there are more goal chances to prove this (had Blackpool stayed up this year I’m convinced they’d have gone down by a spectacular margin next).  In closed games the opposite is true: if there are few chances, the weaker side has a better chance of coming out on top.

It was a frustration under Hodgson that we didn’t open up against weaker sides and give ourselves a better chance of beating them, especially away from home, and I think this has been a big improvement under Hughes. Against that, the open approach against the bigger clubs seems to be ceding the Hodgson advantage, leaving us more or less where we started.

The numbers above don’t necessarily bear out the above as happening, but I think it is, to a degree.

Back to the future

In the latest WSC magazine there’s an article suggesting that, for most fans after they get to about 30, all the great goals have already been scored, all the great albums have already been made, and from there it’s a case of comparing things unfavourably with when you were younger.

I can see this to a point, and it was with great delight that I was reading about Howard Kendall’s mid-80s Everton side this morning. This was the first really good team I can remember, and reading about its accomplishments unlocked some wonderful memories of early football watching (isn’t the human brain great like that?).

The first XI:

Neville Southall – a great goalkeeper
Gary Stevens – a solid right back who could attack and defend
Derek Mountfield – a big man at the back who could score goals
Kevin Ratcliffe – a small man at the back who could not score goals
Pat van den Hauwe – a hard man left back
Trevor Steven – goals from midfield, Steven worked really well with Stevens up and down the pitch
Peter Reid – snappy midfielder
Paul Bracewell – like Reid, Bracewell could tackle, but also had a good range of passing
Kevin Sheedy – the man for whom the term ‘cultured left foot’ was made. Didn’t defend much but scored and made lots of goals
Graeme Sharp – big man up front, capable of scoring all sorts of goals
Gary Lineker/Andy Gray – depends which side of the Cup Winners’ Cup you go: Lineker the pacy, prolific striker who gave Everton so much fun on the break (NB they never won anything with him in the side); Gray the hard as nails centre-forward who gave Everton two big men up top.

There are some parallels with what Fulham have here. Southall and Schwarzer are of comparable quality, and the centre-back pairing is uncannily similar. In centre-midfield Peter Reid is a really nice comp for Steve Sidwell (stylistically at least) and there are some similarities between Murphy and Bracewell. At a push you can compare Sharp and Zamora, at least in the way both are capable of the spectacular. Back then a straight 4-4-2 might have been more successful than today, but the Steven/Sheedy wide pairing is quite like the Dempsey/Duff combo in output if not style. Chris Baird is not as athletic as I remember Gary Stevens being, but can play at a fair level. Finally it’s worth noting that this Everton team was considered a team without stars, a team greater than the sum of its parts. That works too.

The two differences are at left back, where I’d be quite interested in an uncompromising hard man type (the trick here was that the left back needed to be an excellent defender because Sheedy didn’t track back; on the other side Steven/Stevens worked much better as a pair). If Carlos Salcido does go back to Mexico, who might we find here to lend some steel and presence to the defence? Wigan’s Figueroa is a good player but unlikely to be available, otherwise, let’s see what Hughes might scare up.

The other one is at centre-forward, where we can cope but where an international class poacher might add another six points to the team’s total fairly easily. But who?

Here are this year’s Golden Shoe award people:

1. Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid) 40 x 2 = 80
2. Lionel Messi (Barcelona) 31 x 2 = 62
3. Mario Gomez (Bayern Munich) 28 x 2 = 56
Antonio Di Natale (Udinese) 28 x 2 = 56
5. Edinson Cavani (Napoli) 26 x 2 = 52
6. Papiss Cisse (Freiburg) 22 x 2 = 44
Moussa Sow (Lille) 22 x 2 = 44
8. ‘Alex’ de Souza (Fenerbahce) 28 x 1.5 = 42
Dimitar Berbatov (Manchester United) 21 x 2 = 42
Samuel Eto’o (Internazionale) 21 x 2 = 42
Kevin Gameiro (FC Lorient) 21 x 2 = 42
Carlos Tevez (Manchester City) 21 x 2 = 42
13. Sergio Agüero (Atletico Madrid) 20 x 2 = 40
Alessandro Matri (US Cagliari/Juventus) 20 x 2 = 40
Alvaro Negredo (Sevilla FC) 20 x 2 = 40
16. Alexander Frei (FC Basel) 26 x 1.5 = 39
Kenny Miller (Glasgow Rangers/Bursaspor) 26 x 1.5 = 39
18. Marco Di Vaio (AC Bologna) 19 x 2 = 38
19. Garra Dembele (Levski Sofia) 25 x 1.5 = 37.5
Dame N’Doye (FC Kobenhavn) 25 x 1.5 = 37.5
21. Fernando Llorente (Athletic de Bilbao) 18 x 2 = 36
Robin van Persie (Arsenal) 18 x 2 = 36
Giuseppe Rossi (Villarreal) 18 x 2 = 36
Roberto Soldado (Valencia) 18 x 2 = 36
David Villa (Barcelona) 18 x 2 = 36
26. Hulk (Givanildo Vieira de Souza) (FC Porto) 23 x 1.5 = 34.5
Bjorn Vleminckx (NEC) 23 x 1.5 = 34.5
28. Youssef El Arabi Caen) 17 x 2 = 34
Darren Bent (Sunderland/Aston Villa) 17 x 2 = 34
Milivoje Novakovic (Cologne) 17 x 2 = 34
Giampaolo Pazzini (Sampdoria/Internazionale) 17 x 2 = 34
32. Dmitri Bulykin (Den Haag) 22 x 1.5 = 33
Djibril Cisse (Panathinaikos) 22 x 1.5 = 33
Ivan Perisic (Club Brugge) 22 x 1.5 = 33
35. Lucas Barrios (Borussia Dortmund) 16 x 2 = 32
Theofanis Gekas (Eintracht Frankfurt) 16 x 2 = 32
Srdjan Lakic (Kaiserslautern) 16 x 2 = 32
Lisandro Lopez (Lyon) 16 x 2 = 32
39. Milan Mrdakovic (Apollon Limassol) 21 x 1.5 = 31.5
40. Karim Benzema (Real Madrid) 15 x 2 = 30
‘Gervinho’ Yao Kouassi Gervais (Lille) 15 x 2 = 30
Brown Ideye (Sochaux) 15 x 2 = 30
Mads Junker (Roda Kerkrade) 20 x 1.5 = 30
Peter Odemwingie (West Bromwich Albion) 15 x 2 = 30
Gregory Pujol (Valenciennes) 15 x 2 = 30
Andre Schürrle (Mainz 05) 15 x 2 = 30
Francesco Totti (Roma) 15 x 2 = 30
Jelle Vossen (Genk) 20 x 1.5 = 30

Kevin Gameiro of L’Orient in France stands out there. He scored 21 times this season in Europe’s most defensive league (I like this sort of thing as a guide). He has 49 in 107 games there, a good tally, and is described as “a fast, energetic player with good dribbling abilities”. Interesting. Otherwise your guess is as good as mine (the availability of Arsenal’s Bendtner would echo the Sharp/Gray approach perhaps!), but looking at the squad in this way does make me think “centre forward” and “left back”.

A quick look down the league.

In America they have a saying: flags (trophies) fly forever, and surely this applies to Birmingham City. They’ve won a major(ish) trophy and ought to be promoted quite quickly. So on balance I’d say that they had a pretty good season.

Same applies to Blackpool, who had no business going even as close at they did to staying up. They played well but on MOTD last night it was very clear that they’re short of talent in a couple of key areas.

West Ham went down with Green, Upson, Bridge, Parker and Cole. The supporting cast included Hitzlsperger, Demba Ba and Mark Noble. How did they do it?

My goal difference scrutinies always flag Wigan as clear relegation candidates, but this year Roberto Martinez’s side actually improved their GD. No longer liable to be spanked 3/4 times a season, they really do seem to be moving in the right direction. With the likes of Moses (who I think will be a star), N’Zogbia, Rodellega and Figuero well supported by their teammates perhaps the issue will be depth, but having escaped this season I expect Wigan to be half-useful next.

To everyone’s annoyance Wolves stayed up, but credit where it’s due, they fought hard for some impressive points. Also it gives us a nice pantomime villain game next year.

Blackburn could be in trouble next time up. They don’t seem to have a defined approach. They do seem to have an odd side, cobbled together along various lines. If Christopher Samba goes to Arsenal they could disappear a la West Ham.

For all the fanfare about Coyle’s approach, Bolton didn’t really impress me.  I like Kevin Davies but I don’t see a lot here that will concern Fulham next season. Outisde relegation candidates perhaps.

Stoke, on the other hand, have built on their survival and ought to do what they do well enough to stick around. Their cup final defeat will have disappointed, but I suspect they’re moving in the right direction, with Pulis seemingly cast as the Sam Allardyce of his time (not really fair on Allardyce, who was brilliant at putting sides together cheaply and winning with them).

Newcastle ummed and arred and don’t seem to really have much about them, do they? A team that could go either way depending on recruitment over the summer. Their midfield of Nolan, Barton and Tiote might be as good as anyone’s, but they lack a forward of quality and this will stop them pushing on, I suspect.

WBA will probably follow Fulham’s footsteps quite neatly. Hodgson arguably has a better squad to work with than he inherited here and unless he makes some mistakes ought to be able to solidify his team in the top division. Sharp signing by the West Brom board, harsh on Di Matteo as it may have been.

Sunderland… pass. Seriously, what on earth is going on? Spent a lot of money but now Bruce wants to overhaul it all again. Injury concerns are harsh, but my suspicion is that these things are not always random, and if one side has half a team or more on the sidelines then they’ve either bought fragile players (staying fit is a valuable skill) or aren’t treating the squad very well.  I have nothing to back this up, of course! Selling Darren Bent obviously cost them dearly, but they had enough points to get by. Next season? Should be fine, but another team that needs to get its act together. (or is this a primacy and recency illusion: Fulham finish strong so we assume all is well; Sunderland finish badly so we assume all is not. In reality it could just be the expected fluctuations of a team of this quality, and a fresh start will see both at about the same level.)

Villa are the same but different. With the underrated Downing conceivably following the well-rated Young out of the club they’ll have a new look next year, and perhaps that’s for the best. With Darren Bent around they’re almost certain to score goals anyway, so perhaps it’s time to bring in some new faces (which will surely happen if Houllier isn’t retained). A strange season.

Fulham essentially came second in our little league, behind Everton but ahead of other comparable XIs. In the weekend’s programme both Hughes and Murphy suggest that changes are not likely, so it’ll probably be a case of a left back here, a centre-forward there, rather than anything too dramatic.

Everton did well in the end, from a distance appearing to have the season they always have. Not rich enough to compete with the big clubs, too good for the middle clubs, here they stand, 7th. It’s the right place for them.

Liverpool and Spurs are grouped together here as I’m not a huge fan of either and don’t have a great deal to say about either. Liverpool looked awesome at the Cottage, Spurs just seem a bit strange, unbalanced, unfun. More of the same next year I assume.

Arsenal, as I’ve said before, would surely have won the league with Hangeland and Schwarzer at the back this season. Wenger could have paid £20m to make it happen, we assume, but didn’t, and instead watched a perfectly catchable United side win the division by nine points, and lead Arsenal by 12. That’s a big gap.

City probably should win the whole shebang next year. I like Mancini’s approach, I like the players he’s signed, and I think he’ll be very successful soon.

I thought Carlo Ancelotti was unlucky to be fired, but we must also note that his team did lose nine league games. That’s partly a function of the way the league was played this year – more teams seemed inclined to ‘have a go’ – but equally it suggests that something came unstuck that shouldn’t have. Ray Wilkins’ departure (unlikely as it may seem) does look to have destabilised the side, and Fernando Torres’ arrival may not have helped (especially given the strength Chelsea have in that position relative to others). But unless Abramovich has Guus Hiddink lined up this seems like a rash move.

United won because they were unstoppable at home and, as has been noted in many places, really did find ways to win when it mattered. The season, as Birmingham have found out, is decided on the smallest of margins, and United worked those margins so well for so long that they ended up clear and deserved winners. I don’t really buy into the Giggs hype, but do believe that the Vidic/Ferdinand partnership is as good as we’re likely to see, and that Rooney and Hernandez were a lovely throwback partnership akin perhaps to the old Dalglish/Rush or Beardsley/Aldridge combinations of the 80s (not like-for-like, obviously, but certainly in approach and success there’s something there).  I doubt they’ll win it again next season, but immense credit to Ferguson for putting together a young side capable of this. Final note: well done, Chris Smalling.