Northern Pitch

If you’ve been around here for any length of time you’ll remember Brian Quarstad, who contributed immeasurably to CCN and went on to write the award winning, influential and indispensible Inside Minnesota Soccer site, and Bruce McGuire, an ongoing inspiration in football fandom, blogging, and just in general.  I don’t know that you know much about these fine men but they’ve been very active in the world of Minnesota football for some time.

They’re both kind of a big deal, and I’m delighted to have made their acquaintance. Why would you care about that?  Well, I don’t know, maybe you wouldn’t, but the history and future of football in Minnesota is compelling.

They can tell it better than I but in the last few years their team has evolved considerably: it was the Minnesota Thunder when I first took an interest (hence the Dark Clouds supporters group now) and then the Stars, then United.  They play in the NASL, which is a kind of second tier in the US (there’s no relegation or promotion so it doesn’t quite work that way) and the trick has been that in recent times the team’s future has been somewhat up in the air, not least because the mighty NFL Vikings built a new stadium and threatened to have a soccer element to the site, which would have been annoying on a couple of levels: first, the Vikings could have helped out with soccer in Minnesota many times over the years and haven’t done so, but mainly because this rumoured Minnesota Vikings soccer suggestion would almost certainly have killed off Minnesota United, just as United had started to really be something.

Anyway, you don’t have to care about any of this but there’s a lovely purity to what’s happening in football ‘over there’.  I’m not so naive as to think that it’s really any different to football anywhere else, but Americans tend to do sport well.  So that means amazing stadia, cool logos, and excellent coverage.  No, that’s not what the sport need necessarily be about, but as an armchair fan the ‘product’ (am I even writing this!) tends to be pretty good.  I can get Minnesota United highlights on Youtube pretty damn quickly, for instance.  That counts.

Minnesota United have some great supports, some of whom even put together a Fulham Review style annual last year.  It’s better than anything I ever did, too.

So I dunno.  Lots of Americans have adopted Fulham as their favourite team, so perhaps going the other way we might find it in our hearts to follow Minnesota United.

Oh, I nearly forgot!  The team has just been given notional approval for promotion (agh!) to MLS in the near future.  So the future is secure!

You can read all about this, and much else besides, at Northern Pitch.  I strongly recommend it.

Win Puma trainers

competition-banner

I know our readership extends around the world so perhaps there’s something for everyone here.

To coincide with the launch of the PUMA Trinomic XT1, JD Sports have teamed up with PUMA and five influential magazines for a special competition launching over the next week.

The competition will be operating in five cities: London (18th March), then Bristol, Manchester, LIverpool and New York.

In each city a trainer Krate will be hidden.  Whoever finds it first gets the trainers.  Clues will be given out on the following twitter accounts:

London: @Flavourmag
Bristol: @Wordplaymag
Manchester: @Fluxmagazine
Liverpool: @Halcyonmag
New York: @ComplexMag

So follow the account for your city and get hunting.

http://www.jdsports.co.uk/men/puma-trainers/

To coincide with the launch of the PUMA Trinomic XT1, JD Sports have teamed up with PUMA and five influential magazines for a special competition launching soon.

If you’re the first to find the JD x Puma Krate, snap a selfie and upload it to Twitter, tagging the magazine in your city from the list above, @JDSportsfashion and with the hashtag #JDXPUMA to claim your prize.

Another ramble, this time about Fulham’s lack of attacking purpose

Curiously, I’m going back to the Grantland well.  This is an article I read the other day and is about basketball.  What?  No problem. The point is that in basketball there’s a new emphasis on moving the ball quickly so as to create open three point shots (three point shots being those taken from distance):

NBA teams are increasingly addicted to 3-point shooting. That’s been common knowledge for a while. The feeding of this addiction has changed the way entire offenses are run. Out with the ball-stoppers, in with the ball-movers.

The sneaky thing about NBA 3s is that they demand cooperation. While only 52 percent of the league’s 2-point field goals involve an assist, 84 percent of 3s involve an assist. As the league increases its appetite for long-range shooting, it must also ramp up its passing. Moving the ball has never been more important, and systems that keep the ball in motion effectively have never been more successful.

What does this have to do with anything?

A lot, I think.  I haven’t seen nearly as much of Fulham as I’d have liked this year, but my abiding image is of Ross McCormack taking stupid shots from miles out, shots which would have limited chances of success even if he had a clear sight of goal, which he generally doesn’t have at the time.  And if we cast our minds back, remember Martin Jol’s 4-2-3-1?  The defining experience as a spectator was to sigh with disbelief as the players’ flexible attacking roles led to widespread confusion and a lack of penetration and cohesion.  Ponderous was another word.

A key part of football is, of course, space.  In defence you need to restrict it; in attack you need to make it.  Fulham have, for some time, not had it in them to counter attack.  Counter-attacks are a good way to find space: draw a team onto you, leaving space behind them, then hit them when they’re on the front foot and kill them before they recover.  (This was the classic Eastern European philosophy in the 1970s and one of the best things I’ve ever read about football was an article in a book by Eric Batty about how the Czechoslovakie team of the 70s learned to counter attack.)

That’s not the greatest example but I wasn’t going to spend ages searching. Red Star Belgrade from 1991….

If you’re not going to counter attack you need to find other ways to create space.  Under Roy Hodgson this was done through cohesive teamwork: lots of balls into Zamora, who would then bounce them into the path of a cutting Damian Duff (hard to defend moves played out with such rapid precision) or clever patterns in wide areas that either freed Konchesky to cross or created pockets of space for a Gera or a Dempsey or even a Davies. Hodgson’s teams made space using pre-rehearsed routines that didn’t find opportunities every attack but which were adaptable enough to be recycled into a second or third phase (Murphy outstanding here) to continue that precise probing.  There was a direction to it, a purpose.

A typical high speed Duff attack (what a player he was)

I mentioned coincidence football the other day and there’s an element of the playground to proceedings.  Players playing off the cuff, improvising, seeing what they can see.  With no pace you’re relying on moment of genius or accidents. Now, clearly not all goals under Hodgson or even under Jol were well crafted acts of beauty, but the trick was a decisiveness and a purpose that is entirely missing.  This is an area where you can absolutely point at the coach.  No, he doesn’t have the Hodgson touch or Jol’s Diarra-Dembele-Murphy-Dempsey-Zamora setup (did that combination play much? It ought to have done), but he can find ways to make more incisive attacks.

Part of this lament relates back to the age old point about balance: if your defence is weak you end up over-compensating by pulling back too many attacking players.  That said, Fulham have uniquely in recent times managed to get neither correct.  This was Martin Jol’s genius, or lack thereof: give the team a more attacking outlook without scoring more goals (but conceding lots more!).  We’ve never got that hard-to-beat vibe back, and are presently in a hapless battle for control of football matches that invariably ends with the team being outshot and outscored.  You don’t conced five goals five times if you can defend, but arguably you don’t concede five goals five times if you can attack, either.

As the initial article pointed out: “systems that keep the ball in motion effectively have never been more successful.”  Fulham have got away from this.

Essential reading

Since I started this site an underlying ethos (!) has been that we really shouldn’t be half as certain about things we see on a football pitch as we are.  I’d get into message board arguments over this kind of thing, people taking positions that I felt couldn’t really be justified with any great certainty.   It’s quite hard to have a discussion along these lines and in retrospect probably fairly pointless (but then isn’t all of this?). In any case, football isn’t nearly as obvious as we like to think it is; people make sense of patterns they see but in reality 99% of us are watching the ball 99% of the time and generally see what they want to see anyway.

This article about Mesut Ozil is a great example of the kinds of things I’ve tried to say.

I really recommend it.

What to make of it all? 19 reasons why it might or might not be Kit Symons fault

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The shadow of Roy Hodgson looms large over each of his successors. Under Hodgson the Fulham fans enjoyed unprecedented success, but also learned about the game, saw what it meant to be organised in defence and to construct attacks carefully through pre-configured movements, attacks in which all players knew where all other players were at all times and so could switch the ball back, forth, left and right, quickly, slowly, but always deliberately.

You’ll recall that shortly before Hodgson’s time we saw Chris Coleman’s brand of optimistic pragmatism, in which the best players he could find would be inspired into as effective a brand of coincidence football as Coleman could muster. Coincidence football is a mean and derogatory term, but one I think of as referring to teams that don’t really have many ideas, which succeed or fail based on coincidences going their way within a match.  Hodgson’s control frequently took luck out of the equation: Fulham generally beat the teams they were meant to under him (not always, but usually) and failed against the teams they were meant to lose to  (not always but usually), with that calibration gradually nudging upwards as we got used to better and better teams.

Coleman had his moments because football managers given any time in the job will have their moments, but his football was generally unimaginative.

Kit Symons has a bit in common with Coleman, lately in the way his team is playing. The game has moved on since Coleman was managing Fulham and now the team generally tries to ‘play the right way’, but on Friday night’s evidence is doing so without conviction, a plan, or the ability to turn the lack of these into something coherent.  Symons has done so much right since given the job full-time, and I believe that on the whole his team selection has been pretty good (he has picked his strongest team, more or less, with tweaks here and there along the way that seem reasonable enough).

But equally he has had long enough now to have imprinted a style or a philosophy on the team, and frankly it’s not there.  Thing is, he has been at the club since 2009, so would have seen how things operated back then.  It’s not like he doesn’t know what made for a successful side, is it?  Maybe he’s being his own man, doing this his own way?  Maybe you can’t just copy another manager’s style.  But – and I’ve said this over and over – organising a team to defend seems to be a minimal requirement, but we haven’t been able to do this for years.  Why?

Symons’ ascent has been pretty quick.  In late 2009 he said:

“Ever since I left I have kept strong ties here and still had a lot friends at the Club, so it was a natural move for me to come back. Barry Simmonds (Head of Scouting), who I knew from my time at Crystal Palace approached me and asked whether I would be interested in doing some casual scouting for the First Team and I was doing that up until the summer.

This year I’d started to do a little bit more and then in the last month I took the position of Academy Coach, so I’m over-the-moon at the moment. I’m working across the whole of the Academy, although predominantly I’ll be working with the U14s upwards.”

It would be unfair to say that Symons has lucked into this role. Football is full of jobs for the boys appointments and there’s nothing unusual about an old player coming back to work with the younger teams.  Symons obviously performed his tasks pretty well but there’s nothing in his track record to suggest that he ought to be considered a viable candidate for what he’s doing at this moment.  Yes, his audition for the role was going well enough that he seemed the only reasonable (temporary) choice at the time, but he hasn’t done anything really to make us think that his success was much more than “anyone but Magath.”

What should have been achieved?  We know that Symons inherited a squad short on confidence, bemused by its leader.  It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that Magath’s early fitness work is costing us now.  But it also looked like a squad that a canny manager might have used better than Symons has.

Or are we falling into an old trap, here?  Are we evaluating players on what they’ve done before, not what they’re doing now?  Watching Bournemouth last night was a lesson in not judging reputations, after all.  Instead we saw a well coached team playing with confidence. Fulham had a number of players with a big reputation, but nothing to knit them together.

Let’s look more closely:

Bettinelli in goal is a youngster who’s impressed many.  But he’s playing because the club let David Stockdale leave for Brighton. True, Stockdale at Brighton hasn’t been a marriage made in heaven, but this was a problem that didn’t need to happen.

Tim Hoogland played Champions League football recently.

Nikolay Bodurov has played regularly for Bulgaria.

Shaun Hutchinson doesn’t have a pedigree as such but is keeping Dan Burn out of the side, an Burn has Championship experience with Birmingham in which he was generally thought to be playing well.

Fernando Amorebieta has played at a much higher level.

Scott Parker looked dead on his feet in the Premier League, but more effective in the Championship.  My sense is that he’s had an up-and-down season which suggests time running out, and my suspicion remains that the good we see him do is probably outweighed by some of the negative things we don’t really see (I worry that someone with his obvious lack of athleticism can’t really perform in the role he plays).

Ryan Tunnicliffe has a pedigree of sorts and is thought to be a reasonable player.

Sean Kavanagh is a youngster making his way in the game.

Bryan Ruiz, Hugo Rodallega and Ross McCormack feel like they should be playing for a team at the top of the table, not at the bottom.

Surely there’s enough talent there to fashion a half-decent side?  Or not: research in the otherwise overrated “The Numbers Game” suggested that football teams are generally about as good as their *weakest* players, not their strongest. So it’s all well and good having 5-6 really good players, but what if you have 4-5 who really aren’t up to it?  You’ll lose a lot of games.  I’m not sure we do have 4-5 who really aren’t up to it, but nor am I confident that this isn’t the case. Equally, the good players might not be as good now as they were when their reputations were established.  In many ways this almost has to be the case: the players listed above are too good to be near the bottom of the championship.

So our diagnosis:

1) a manager who’s probably near enough to the ‘do no harm’ level that he isn’t the biggest problem here.

The chart here shows that the vast majority of premier league managers (including Chris Coleman and Roy Hodgson) win about a third of their games, and this has been Symons’ level too, albeit in the Championship.  So while he’s been slightly frustrating in his inability to make more out of what looks like a talented squad…

2) the squad almost can’t be as good as we’d hoped.  The fringe players haven’t stepped up, the name players aren’t what they were.  It’s a bad combination, and the opposite of what we saw from Bournemouth last night.

3) the latter is perplexing.  Ross McCormack’s track record is so strong that it almost felt he’d be able to get us into the playoffs alone.  But again we are operating with a defence protecting a young goalkeeper (a star in the making perhaps, but a young goalkeeper nevertheless) and protected by a player whose first appeared to have gone at least 18 months ago (a great team man, a wonderful addition in so many ways, but maybe not exactly what’s needed in this team at this time?).  If you can’t defend, nothing much else matters, and Fulham have shown over and over that they can’t defend.  Last night was a perfect example: for one thing, any semi-competent team doesn’t concede five goals in a game, and not several times a season.  The goal when the Bournemouth forward ran from half-way was the embodiment of a machine not operating properly: that simply can’t happen at any level (although it should be noted that Roy Hodgson’s Switzerland suffered against Spain in the 1994 World Cup when a forward played a through ball to himself and scored, so there’s that)

All of which leads me to wonder what Fulham needs to do next. Taking a long, hard look at the back six is a priority, but this season will have damaged the team’s reputation and ability to draw in the kinds of names attracted in the past.  This may not be a bad thing, of course, and perhaps the club can develop a young core as initially expected this season. Who knows?  But we’re really entering the realms of “beats me!” which in turn suggests that either the season was fatally poisoned by Magath (not impossible) or that the team/club is more broken than we realise, and that really we need to rip it up and start again again.

Latest 5 Game Set

Hot off the statistical presses, here’s data for Fulham’s latest 5-game set (Week 35; courtesy of Owain Thomas’ blog The Only Statistic That Matters).

Matchdays Shots for Shots against Corsi/TSR SOT total SOT Against Total
Week 5 77 65 0.542 18 24
Week 10 133 125 0.516 44 44
Week 15 194 206 0.485 68 65
Week 20 272 282 0.491 92 94
Week 25 324 372 0.466 106 118
Week 30 380 470 0.447 127 151
Week 35 451 538 0.456 143 177
Matchdays SOT share Shooting % For Save % PDO
Week 5 0.429 16.66 58.33 74.99
Week 10 0.5 27.27 54.55 81.82
Week 15 0.511 32.36 56.91 89.27
Week 20 0.495 32.61 58.51 91.12
Week 25 0.473 33.01 62.71 95.73
Week 30 0.457 33.85 64.91 98.76
Week 35 0.447 32.15 66.66 98.82

Which results in an increase/decrease of the following:

Matchday Set Shots for Shots against Corsi/TSR SOT total SOT Against Total
Week 30-35 71 68 0.009 16 26
Matchday Set SOT share Shooting % For Save % PDO
Week 30-35 -0.01 -1.7 1.75 .06

Not catastrophic, but not great either. All told, Fulham gained 4 points in their past 5 games. The opponents were: Ipswich (currently 7th), Millwall (23rd), Wolves (8th), Derby (2nd), and Watford (3rd).

I also charted our shot locations by player. As if you didn’t already know it’s the Hugo & Ross show around here…

More data to come later, but there’s a match in about 45mins.

Until then, enjoy!

Dark Sad Eyes: Bryan Ruiz and Franz Kafka

I wrote this the other day at my new place for writing longer-form things. Hope you like. Big ask I appreciate…

Ruiz and Kafka

Cutting to the chase, I was drawn to Bryan Ruiz by an air of vulnerability that you don’t often find in footballers. It is, I think, generally accepted that to get to the top in the game you need any softer edges to be bashed aside pdq, lest these edges be exploited by Neanderthal defenders, and so it is that players who look like they might have a sensitive side are few and far between at the very top level.

Ruiz, who was brought up by his mother, is different.  Here is a man who perhaps made it in football despite himself, a man whose elemental talent levels are so extraordinary that they must have superseded the usual intangibles that scouts presumably look for.  Naturally none of this fooled the wise old men of Craven Cottage, many of whom have been watching football for more years than Ruiz has been alive and so know their minds and the game very well; no, when they see that soft edge they know Bryan Ruiz does not, and will not, be there for their team when the going gets tough.

Those of us entranced by the poetry of his left foot (frequently bad poetry, but poetry nevertheless) don’t care about any lack of steel – it’s not like the Premier League overall lacks for steel, does it?  No, what you want are the players who bring something different to the party.  Like Bryan Ruiz.  Who brought poetry.  To the party.  Anyway.

Bryan had a good World Cup (interestingly, as one of his big boosters, I didn’t think his World Cup was as good as widely perceived) and all of a sudden our man was kind of respected again.  With Fulham’s relegation and persistence with hard-man coach Felix Magath, there seemed to be little room for Bryan’s brand of graceful clumsiness, so we all agreed that we had, sadly, seen the last of our flawed genius.

Bryan thought so too, and was open about this: he wanted to play at the top level, which had been why he’d joined Fulham. He’d had that good World Cup, he thought he deserved to play at the top level, he expected to leave, and badly wanted to leave.  He had played well for Fulham but had been booed at the first sign of a bad game (that softer edge was something of a red rag to the crowd’s bull: football fans smell vulnerability instinctively – it helps them know who to be angry with).

But he could not leave.

This came up on twitter last night, and it was pointed out (by Alex Locatelli) that Ruiz is/was inhabiting something of a Kafka-esque world. The first thought was that his life had turned into The Trial, but it became clear that his situation was not unlike The Castle and, well, why not then the Metamorphosis too?   What?

I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I know Kafka inside out, but I have read the major works, albeit a long time ago. So let’s just work from back covers to begin with.

First, the Castle:

This is the story of K and his arrival in a village where he is never accepted, and his relentless, unavailing struggle with authority in order to gain acceptance to the castle that seems to rule it. K’s isolation and perplexity, his begging for the approval of elusive and anonymous powers, epitomises Kafka’s vision of twentieth century alienation and anxiety.

It’s almost as if Bryan Ruiz is a Kafka creation, isn’t it?   He arrives in the village (Fulham) where he struggles for acceptance.  The castle here is a metaphor for the Fulham fans, whose “elusive and anonymous powers” hold far more influence than ought to be the case.   More literally, Ruiz arrives at Fulham, plays well, but his tragedy is that the good things he does are ignored because people can only see the bad things.  More literally still – he gets caught on the ball four times a game, which leads to four big groans from the castle, but creates a bevy of chances that are more useful than anything anyone else not named Clint Dempsey is accomplishing, but absolutely nothing changes.

Begging for approval?  I think so.  Bryan just wants acceptance.  That acceptance has been with-held on grounds he doesn’t really understand, so he has withdrawn into himself further. This is a typical vicious circle in Ruiz’s world: the main one would be, of course, his tendency towards carelessness in possession – take a player who is playing with nerves, boo him when he gets the ball, see how that affects said nerves and his ability to play good football.  Yes, exactly.  It’s perverse.

bryan34

For The Trial things are simpler.  In this book, K (again) is arrested (the famous opening lines: “Somebody must have laid false information against Josef K, for he was arrested one morning without having done anything wrong”) and faces trial (he doesn’t know what for).   K must continue his work for a bank, but with the undercurrent of the unknowable trial gnawing away at him. Various people question K’s attitude to the trial, suggesting that he isn’t taking things seriously enough, but really, what is he supposed to do?   At the end (from Wikipedia):

On the eve of K.’s thirty-first birthday, two men arrive at his apartment. He has been waiting for them, and he offers little resistance – indeed the two men take direction from K. as they walk through town. K. leads them to a quarry where the two men place K’s head on a discarded block. One of the men produces a double-edged butcher knife, and as the two men pass it back and forth between them, the narrator tells us that “K. knew then precisely, that it would have been his duty to take the knife…and thrust it into himself.” He does not take the knife. One of the men holds his shoulder and pulls him up and the other man stabs him in the heart and twists the knife twice. K.’s last words are: “Like a dog!”

I think what we’re seeing here is Ruiz’s time at Fulham likened to a trial.  He didn’t know what he was getting himself in for, some men just summonsed him (from Holland) that morning, he went, he thought it would probably be okay, it wasn’t, then he could never leave.

fk5This is of course still happening for Bryan – he has been in and out of the team, injuries, a (blessed) loan back to Holland, a time in Felix Magath’s loading bay awaiting transit to parts elsewhere (nothing), then a pause as he is rehabilitated by Kit Symons, but still he wants to get this off his back, to get away,  but in spite of everything NOTHING CAN BE DONE.  And so he stays at Fulham.  A loan move in the transfer window seems likely, but even that collapses.  When the end comes it will be welcome.  But will it come?

The loan move is where things really get interesting though.  Back to The Castle:

The administrative machine it represents is depicted in similarly contradictory fashion. Despite several claims made for the castle administration, we see instances of ludicrously inefficient bureaucracy: letters go astray, only to be answered years later; one official’s office is characterised by the sound of columns of files continually crashing down; the distribution of dossiers to officials is shown to be hopelessly confused.

From here, notes by David Whiting.

And what are Levante saying about the collapse of Ruiz’s loan move?

“The transfer was going ahead in the evening [of deadline day] when the player requested the move but the paperwork didn’t arrive in a timely manner,” he told Marca. “Fulham didn’t realise that the deadline was Friday because they thought it was Monday. We must abide by and respect the decision of FIFA, but I just don’t understand it, although the rules are well established. I have little else to say.

Pushed on whether a move was deliberately sabotaged, Catalan added: “Neither do I want, nor can I think about that. It wouldn’t be fair to the player or Levante. I’d be doing a disservice to football. [Fulham] didn’t manage their time well. There’s little or no argument from us. Basically we didn’t adhere to the deadline and 12.01am [on January 31] was too late.

“It’s nothing we didn’t know already, but there’s the feeling of powerlessness and misunderstanding, though we respect the logic [of the decision]. Money wasn’t a problem, I wish it was one. Fulham regarded Bryan as a key player. If there’s a delay of one minute, it’s because the documentation wasn’t submitted in time. The player’s conduct has been excellent, for him it was a dream to play in Spain.”

Goodness me.  Kit Symons, Fulham manager, said:

“It’s a tough knock for him but he’s a great character and loves his football, so I know he’ll just want to get on and play.”

And so it continues.

Franz-Kafka-Picture-Quotes-5

Fulham’s Offensive Woes in One Chart

Perhaps Bryan Ruiz staying is a blessing in disguise, and Matt Smith returning at the end of the month might be the catalyst Fulham need, because currently they are extremely over-reliant on two players, and two players alone:


(image courtesy of @stats_snakeoil and his great http://statsandsnakeoil.wordpress.com/ blog)

Oy vey.

The “Emergency Loan Window” runs until mid-March right? Might need to do some dumpster diving…