Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Scotland hoping lightening can strike thrice

Spanish defeats to USA and Switzerland the only crumb of inspiration.

It is often said that fortune favours the brave. If this is the case then on Friday night Scotland not only betrayed one of their most fabled characteristics but got exactly what they deserved.

Ironically the only source of bravery emanating from Scotland on Friday came from their manager, Craig Levein. For a man who is so inherently negative that he will now forever by synonymous with football’s first double digit formation, Levein’s decision to so clearly put his head on the block was incredibly ballsy. Before deploying the now infamous 4-6-0 formation he had to have known the unparalleled amount of criticism that was about to come his way. Even in recent times where good results have been few and far between success gained by playing negatively is never looked upon gloriously in Scotland.

Nevertheless had Levein succeeded in achieving his much desired 0-0 in Prague that criticism may have been left to sources outside of Scotland, so desperate is the entire nation to qualify for its first major tournament in 14 years. By going down with the most feeble of whimpers Levein has, in contrast to Petr Cech who described the evening as ‘his quietest as a professional’, had criticism ringing in his ears for the past 72 hours.

The only positive for Scotland to come out of Friday was that Levein displayed at least one characteristic of all the great managers, he took a massive risk. Going against the sway of public opinion is never popular but it often demonstrates the kind of self-belief needed to succeed at this level. It is a feeling Levein’s opposite number on Tuesday night knows all about.

Heading into the biggest game of his managerial career, the World Cup semi-final against Germany, Vicente Del Bosque was left with a massive dilemma. A combination of fitness, form and the Samson affect had left Fernando Torres rudderless, without a goal and without any sign of getting one. It was time for Del Bosque to turn to his array of attacking talent on the bench. The sort of decision that every manager dreams about, yet dreads at the same time. There was a huge amount of experience to call on and creditable arguments to be made for any of Fernando Llorente, Cesc Fabregas, Jesus Navas and David Silva. Yet, instead Del Bosque gave a first competitive start to Pedro Rodriguez, the decision was inspired and the rest as they say is history.

The problem with Levein’s gamble was that it was completely uncalculated. He had rightly said pre-match that the Czech Republic were vulnerable to the counter-attack, Lithuania had shown so with a 1-0 win in Olomouc last month, but you can’t counter-attack when every time you win the ball you have 10 or 11 players in your own half.

Friday’s failed experiment makes Levein’s approach to tomorrow night’s game even more intriguing. It seems impossible to go even more defensive and after admitting that ‘Prague Plan A’ was strictly a one-off there will undoubtedly be a place for Kenny Miller up front, probably ahead of a five-man midfield, although it is likely Miller will seem more like Gerard Pique’s stalker than pose any serious threat to the Spanish goal.

That said there are a few qualifications to the assumption that this will be a walkover for the World Champions. Firstly, Scotland are never an easy out at home with only two defeats in their last ten competitive outings at Hampden and even those defeats to Italy in 2007 and Holland in 2009 came with late goals as Scotland chased the victory they needed to claim a playoff place.

Secondly, for all that many, including Levein, think that this Spanish side may be the best international team ever they do have unexpected momentary collapses. Their last two competitive defeats also came against unfancied, athletic, defensive sides in the form of the U.S.A. (Confederations Cup 2009) and unforgettably Switzerland at this year’s World Cup. Moreover, any team no matter how talented will miss the likes of Xavi Hernandez, Fabregas and Torres. Friday’s 3-1 victory over Lithuania for la selección will also have given Scotland some heart as, without Xavi, Spain failed to create many opportunities of the kind that tiki-taka is famed for. Rather they relied on crosses into the box for their three goals; something that Scotland will be much happier to deal with.

Strangely the key to the game will probably be how Scotland contain the Spanish defence. With the midfield likely to be extremely congested, Miller and Steven Naismith (playing on the left side of midfield) will have to occupy Pique and Sergio Ramos in an attempt to stop them starting the attack. Similarly, on the opposite side, Alan Hutton who can be got at defensively will have to ensure that Joan Capdevilla doesn’t get round the back of the Scottish defence. This may be the tactic most used by the Spanish with either Villa or Silva starting on the left and drifting in, leaving space for Capdevilla to move into and with the supply coming from long-diagonals from Xabi Alonso.

If Scotland can protect themselves down the wings it is possible the Spanish attack may just bottleneck down the centre, particularly without the added creativity of Xavi or Fabregas.

Should Scotland get anything from the game it certainly won’t be pretty. Undoubtedly Marca, AS, El Mundo Deportivo et al will cry foul and ‘anti-football’, and to be fair they will probably be right. But for now any result, achieved by fair means or foul, would help Hampden roar again with some semblance of credibility.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

It’s as easy as 4-2-3-1

In an excellent article written for celticunderground.net during pre-season, Daniel Gillespie analysed that post the World Cup 4-4-2 was on a life support machine. The fluid 4-2-3-1 systems used by Germany, Spain and Holland had highlighted the deficiencies of a rigid 4-4-2. This it was argued was a lesson that Neil Lennon must learn from in preparing for his first full season in management.

At the time most of the comment surrounded how playing a five-man midfield could help improve results away from home in Europe. Alas, two ‘consistent’ (that was the most positive adjective I could find to describe them) performances in Braga and Utrecht have left that debate redundant for another season.

Nevertheless in recent outings Lennon has consistently changed the team’s shape both from game to game and during games and in so doing has displayed both the positive and negative characteristics of the rookie manager.

On the positive side by showing his willingness to change things and, most importantly, make substitutions that have an effect on the game, in contrast to the like for like or just throw on another striker type of changes that have undermined recent mangers, Lennon has shown that (Scott Brown’s selection apart)he is not too stubborn to change and doesn’t have blind spots - even on players he has recently signed.

On the flip side his tendency to switch formations shows that he is yet to concentrate on any particular footballing philosophy and can disrupt the flow of the team as players’ positions are regularly changed.

Which brings me back to the 4-4-2 v 4-2-3-1 debate. In recent weeks Lennon has been forced to switch his formation because he has started with a 4-4-2.

The trend began as far back as the Motherwell game and has persisted up to last weekend. Against Motherwell there were extenuating circumstances with the game coming only three days after the Utrecht debacle. Yet, after starting with a 4-4-2 for the first time in the SPL this season it was only once Samaras was withdrawn (and no it wasn’t just that) and Maloney came inside to play behind Murphy that the pace was upped and chances started to flow. Maloney immediately went close with a few efforts across goal and eventually won the game winning penalty.

Similarly, against Hearts after a shaky first 20 minutes it was only once Stokes went to play wide right of a front three with Murphy down the middle and Forrest on the left that Maloney, now playing in the hole, began to influence the game. By doing so he sent Murphy away to set up the opener and then scored the second of two perfectly onside goals (just in case you’re reading Mr. Jeffries).

The same thing happened against Hibs when our best spell of the game came when Juarez played in the middle, with Stokes going wide, for the last twenty minutes of the first half. After the break Hibs gained momentum in the middle of the park due to the double whammy of Ledley moving to left-back and Juarez strangely being moved back to the right of midfield. Ironically, Juarez nearly killed the game off late in the second half when he hit the bar by coming from a central position.

Lennon’s poorest team selection came against Hamilton last weekend. Defensive errors apart the problem was a complete lack of balance throughout the side. By playing Samaras as an ‘inside-out’ wide-forward on one side and the more defensively orientated Juarez on the other side, Hooper was left isolated up front. Meanwhile, a big gap emerged between Maloney who was trying his best to support Hooper and the other two deeper lying central midfield players. Again, only once Stokes was introduced as another wide-forward on the right did the whole team start to put pressure on the ball higher up the field and force Hamilton into the mistake that led to the third goal.

That was a long-winded ‘Zonal-Markingesque’ way of saying that instead of starting 4-4-2 and changing to a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 combination during the match it is time for Lennon to start that way. As any doctor will tell you prevention is better than cure and we must eliminate the sloppy starts that have caused us problems in the past few weeks, particularly in the upcoming Old Firm game.

We all know Rangers will come with the 5-4-1/4-5-1 system they have used so far in the Champions League. In order to avoid being overrun in midfield a central midfield three is a necessity and, bearing in mind recent injuries, Ledley and Juarez are a must. I’m also a fan of Ki Sung-Yeung but fear that the frenzied environment of an Old Firm game doesn’t suit his skills-set. Instead it might be better to go all out attack with Maloney playing ahead of Juarez and Ledley and behind a front three along the lines of Forrest (if fit), Hooper and Stokes.

Whatever the case may be it’s hard to criticise Lennon’s start. We all knew that hiring an inexperienced manager would have some pitfalls and to date, Utrecht apart, he has negotiated them successfully. The thunder may not have returned just yet but the clouds are on the horizon and hopefully by 3pm on October 24th Celtic Park will be rumbling once again.

Commonwealth Games: Belonging of a previous empire or important sporting entity?

In the 21st Century the idea of a sporting event based on the principles of ‘The Commonwealth’ seems somewhat of an anachronism. It is arguably even more so that, now, for the first time the Commonwealth Games will trudge into India, a country that fought so hard for its independence before its eventual partitioning from the British Empire in 1947.

Even prior to the latest problems surrounding Delhi’s ability to stage the event there have been serious questions as to whether a sports event based on such an antiquated grouping of nations is needed anymore.

The development in global travel and the sponsorship and organisation of sports events means that athletes no longer have to wait four years for the Olympics to show their wares on the international stage. The sporting calendar is riddled with World and Continental Championships, foreign tours and lucrative athletics meetings. Why then is there a need for another championships without sporting superpowers like USA, Russia and China, not to mention all of South and Central America and the majority of Africa and Asia.

The paucity of competition on show is added to by the withdrawal of premier athletes from those countries who do qualify to compete. Even before the latest concerns surrounding accommodation and infrastructure two of Britain’s leading athletes, European Championship double gold-winning distance runner Mo Farah and World and European Champion heptathlete Jessica Ennis had decided to withdraw from the competition. Meanwhile one of the faces of the successful Glasgow 2014 bid, Chris Hoy, has decided to compete in the Cycling World Championships rather than travel to Delhi.

Therefore, if the Commonwealth Games are not worth having then why has Glasgow gone to the hassle, time and expense to host them in 2014?

The truth is that the state of the Commonwealth Games is very similar to that of the Europa League in football. Like the Europa League compared to the Champions League, the Commonwealth Games doesn’t have the same quality, depth of competition, recognisable names or even the glitz and hype of an Olympic Games. However, it is still the third largest multi-sport event in the world. It gives smaller nations the chance to gain recogntition on the international stage, gives all those who compete more ‘Games experience’ and British athletes their only opportunity to represent Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales at an international event.

Moreover, it is the biggest sporting event that we will ever have the opporunity to host in Scotland. Whilst Scotland has proven itself over many years to be capable of hosting large, one-off, single sport events such as the Open Golf Championship and the Chmapions League final, we are simply not big enough nor do we have the capacity in our cities to host an Olympic Games or a World Cup.

Despite the latest concerns surrounding the athlete’s facilties and bridge collapses the Delhi Games will go ahead, too much money has already been invested for it not to. Whether a number of the major nations including the Home Nations, New Zealand and Canada take part will wait to be seen. However, there is one selfish positive for Glasgow to take out of the Delhi debacle. In 2004 Greece bankrupted itself in an attempt to rival the unparalled success of the 2000 Sydney Olympics. At least Glasgow will not have to go to such lengths to appear impressive in 2014.

Europe Expects but America’s Sleeping Tiger is Ready to Pounce

The great and the good of European golf head to Wales’ maiden Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor this weekend with a quiet sense of optimism.

For the past year European golf has been on a high with five players ranked in the world’s top ten players and recent Major Championship victories for Martin Kaymer (USPGA) and Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell (US open). The array of talent on offer to European Captain, Colin Montgomerie, was so strong that he even had the luxury of overlooking world number seven, Paul Casey, for one of his three wild card picks.

However, expectations of a European whitewash should be tempered. Memories of 2008 are still fresh where at Valhalla, Kentucky Europe also started as heavy favourites. Then after a weekend that began with farce, when captain Nick Faldo mistakenly leaked his foursome pairings and ended in disaster, Europe were soundly beaten 16 ½ - 11 ½.

This time round the Americans are on paper slightly stronger than two years ago. They have five of the world’s top ten in their twelve-man squad and have Tiger Woods back after he missed Valhalla due to a knee injury (apparently induced by a wonky swing, although which one we’ll never know).

Woods’ absence from the game following his well publicised crash into a fire hydrant last November, allied to his poor form since his return to the game earlier this year meant that he had to rely on a wildcard pick from American Captain, Corey Pavin, to qualify. Despite his poor form Pavin insists he had no second thoughts on picking the man still officially ranked as the world’s best:

"I have always wanted to have him on the team but I want guys that are playing well and he's starting to play well. I am glad to have him.

"He is the number one player in the world and when Tiger's on his game, he is the best."

There are also a few concerns for the Europeans over the relative inexperience of their side in previous Ryder Cups, with six rookies and only 25 previous appearances in their squad compared to America’s 32, and a recent injury to their leading player Lee Westwood.

However, the most exciting aspect of the Ryder Cup is that all the statistical analysis and conjecture prior to tee-off is normally pretty redundant. The Ryder Cup is full of surprises. For years the USA had a far superior team on paper but Europe always ran them close or even beat them convincingly as in 2002, 2004 and 2006. These results were put down to a better team spirit within the European camp. Yet, last time round with the roles reversed, the Americans won.

It is this mixture of unpredictability, passion and tension that has made the Ryder Cup by far the most watched and anticipated golf tournament. It is where golf not only becomes a team sport but a continental sport. Where a partisan crowd is encouraged. Where any of the 24 players can play horribly for two days but still hold the winning putt on the Sunday. Where for one weekend, We Are All European! And, most importantly, where even non-golf fans watch golf.