Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Tottenham Hotspur 1 Arsenal 4 (aet)

Arsenal strolled into the fourth round of the Carling Cup this evening, winning away at bitter rivals Spurs after extra time. The game was preceded by a minute's applause for Bobby Smith* which both sets of supporters respected. The away pocket continued to make noise throughout the 120 minutes. This is the loudest I can remember Arsenal - a club reputed for its quiescent support - at White Hart Lane. They cherished tonight's Carling Cup victory and sang, without irony, of going to Wembley. The surrounding home faithful responded to their thrashing in bedlam or tight-lipped shame.

Wenger, serving a touchline ban, went 4-2-3-1 as is now customary for Arsenal. A welcomely aggressive Wilshere continued to impress in a deeply born, darting midfield role next to incomer Denilson; Henri Lansbury, flanked by Rosicky and Nasri, worked higher up the pitch to support Carlos Vela. Of the several no.10s on display in red, Lansbury impressed as the most predatory, by getting on the end of a cross which sped across the face of the Spurs goal - a cross worthy of the chalkboard-messy, passing move it completed.

Harry Redknapp, not as up to speed with the sport as his counterpart, fielded a Venables Christmas tree: 4-3-2-1. Arsenal broke its branches at ease, isolating a Russian angel. Palacios, Jake Livermore and Brazilian debutant Sandro started without discipline (and so the ball) in midfield. They couldn't cope with the coherent haranguing by Densilson and Wilshere among others. Livermore - thankful Parret and Bostock are out on loan - struggled to express himself. Sandro made more of an impact and managed some critical interceptions and wily dribbles. Palacios quickly became Arsenal's best player, a phantom capable of illicit tackling. The whimsical David Bentley and Vela's international teammate Dos Santos were inverse but narrow wingers. Pavlyuchenko, up front, looked very alone. With no other options he fired shots from distance that were skyward or blocked. Arsenal did not have to move up a gear. Despite humiliating Spurs with the ball, the visitors could only force one shot inside the box before the interval. Bassong and Caulker defended resolutely.

1-0 down at half time, Redknapp brought on Aaron Lennon and Robbie Keane - whose determined movement and pressing were rewarded by a goal. An awkward finish - what we have come to expect from the Irishman - pattered from the edge of the box to Fabianski's left. The goalkeeper has a habit of making blunders against Spurs in the Carling Cup and let the ball squirm through his gloves. Shot-stopping is not normally the flaw of an Arsenal goalkeeper: Almunia will know his immediate future is secure. Only recently, Harry Redknapp told us in The Sun that football is 10% tactics, 90% players. Tactless but talented, Spurs dominated approximately 10% of this match. Thirteen minutes after conceding the equaliser Arsenal reimposed their style: Vela came close on the hour but couldn't net with his head. Before the (first) final whistle Vela, Denilson, Wilshere, Djourou, Eboue and substitute Chamakh all threatened Pletikosa's goal. Meanwhile Lennon, put off by a recovering Koscielny, spawned a straightforward opportunity to nobody's surprise.

Niko Kranjcar was withdrawn from the lineup close to kick off, and then perplexingly came on as a substitue for Sandro in extra time when the score was 1-1. This meant that for 90 minutes against a world class passing outfit in a North London derby, Redknapp burdened Sandro with the sole responsibility of playmakership for his first game in England, let alone Europe. The onus was never going to fall on the industrious types, Livermore or Palacios.

In extra time two clumsy challenges - first by Bassong and then three minutes later by Caulker - saw Nasri convert two penalties. After Spurs right back Kyle Naughton conceded a foul and fell asleep, Arshavin was through, into the box and finished with aplomb. Once Nasri had cleared off the line, Fabianski saved a close-range effort by Keane and the game ended 4-1, Arsenal's biggest win at White Hart Lane in 32 years.

Arsenal's familiarity and cohesion meant they were the opposite football team to a raw and miscommunicative Spurs. Arsenal's greater number of first team regulars making appearances also ensured they were comfortable. What won them the match though was a program of passing Spurs were unable to better or rebuff. If an attacking team are drawn in a Cup against Arsenal, then assured and interdependent passers must play. Kick and rush football will not suffice. The two teams shared possession at 50% each. But having shot twice as much as Spurs, shot twice as much on target as Spurs, and having committed half as many fouls, the superiority of Arsenal's passing culture in Tottenham's own half is impossible to get away from. Without Tom Huddlestone, control becomes something of a myth in the Spurs midfield. The absences of Modric and Van der Vaart are explicable but did not help. Tonight for Tottenham, it was a defence and midfield of strangers. And yet without Cesc Fabregas, the enemy is still well-prepared and idiosyncratic, home or away. The gap remains but it would be a lie to say only one team in North London has improved in 2010. Neutrals will savour a Premiership derby if Huddlestone, Modric and Van der Vaart confront Song, Wilshere and Fabregas.

Player Ratings

Pletikosa - 6
Naughton - 3
Caulker - 6
Bassong - 6
Assou Ekotto - 5
Palacios - 4
Livermore - 4 (Lennon - 6)
Sandro - 7 (Kranjcar - 5)
Dos Santos - 6 (Keane - 7)
Bentley - 5
Pavlyuchenko - 6

Fabianski - 5
Eboue - 7
Squillaci - 7
Koscielny - 7
Gibbs - 8 (Clichy - 6)
Denilson - 8
Wilshere - 9
Rosicky - 7 (Arshavin - 8)
Lansbury - 8
Nasri - 8
Vela - 6 (Chamakh - 7)

*Smith, a conventional no.9, top scored in Tottenham Hostspur's greatest ever team, the 'Double' winners of 1960/61.

The achievment might have been repeated the following year had it not been for the distraction of Europe and Alf Ramsey's ruthless Ipswisch Town. Spurs were knocked out in the semi finals of the '62 European Cup by Benfica, but Smith scored in both legs. He also scored in both of the FA Cup finals he played in when Spurs triumphed in '61 and '64. In '62 he became a Cup Winners Cup champion. He also represented Chelsea and Brighton & Hove Albion, retiring from professional football with an admirable goalscoring record: 218 in 376 club appearances; 13 in 15 for England. Bobby Smith passed away yesterday, aged 77.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Going South West

In the headlights of an old banger, signs for Sussex are seldom, and strips of white are all the time peeling and unpeeling before my eyes. I stick to my lane. The A23 is swallowing me toward a stomach. Here I will trade boringness for butterflies. I am slipping into Brighton; job hunting, reading, writing. It gives me great pleasure to say “the hope of this journey is filling in for gravity.” The Viking horn of impatient Land Rovers, the Sat Nav magnate, the dickheads on my tail: none of you shall stop me from moving on with my life slowly. My reason is inexpensive but hardworking. Haven’t you noticed the sweat high up on my face, or coruscating on bristles where my chest used to heave as if I were wretched? Man-made superstition and His pamphleteers gave it their best shot. Have you ever been cursed by superstition? Billions live this way. The billionaires, the broke.

The dawn is done. Here I cross football fields to shop for groceries. If sea air is the thing, I don’t go so far.

I carry on down the motorway’s throat, accelerating a little until my iPod shuffles too far to the left and ‘Karma Police’ is ready and waiting for drums, and Radiohead really mean it this time. I'm driving in a scene eerily resembling the music video for this same song, and it’s a matter of minutes before I have to wind down the volume and inundate entire lyrics. THIS IS WHAT YOU GET. This Is What You Get. This is what you get when you.... Disturbed by silence I turn the volume up too soon, ‘Karma Police’ hasn’t finished. I have to pull over, take a sip of Mountain Dew, check my complexion in the head mirror, deselect Shuffle and play something by The Searchers because Thom Yorke’s vocals are kites repeating their billows, inventorying my past: I lost myself. For a minute there, I lost myself. At the scene's end, the photography is awesome. I burn up in influence, my ashes reek of anxiety.

Dusk is over. Here I cross football fields to find love or something. And when I find the rubbery switch on my torch, I wrist-flick another headlight in swirls around the centre-circle and then I stretch my arm downwards, like a detective, rolling a lambency all across the halfway line. (A child trying to draw a circle, a man interested in diameter.) Sea air is the thing tonight. I imagine a congregation of women and men on the stony beaches. A thinning snare when high heels come off and the drunk find a rhythm to swash to. Everybody smells their fingers in the morning, has lost loose change, is looking roughly into the future.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

2010/11 Premiership Year: some Essaying, some Crude Predictions (Vol. III. Manchester United)

Manchester United's gianthood in the Football League is renowned whether you're fascinated by the sport or unlettered in the offside rule. 1990/91 was the last time a Sir Alex Ferguson team finished outside of the top three. Two decades of dominance include two Champions League titles, eleven League titles, seven Cup and four League Cup wins.

In an era where tactics can be described and analysed by using graphs and statistics, but where managers are still steretoyped as Wengerian romantics or Allardycian wrestlers, Sir Alex Ferguson's flexibility is undertalked. His success can be loosely divided into three tactical epochs: first came the support-striker, Eric Cantona, as the centre of the universe, then the two bags of four (the glory midfield) where British width shone, and later and now, the ball-winner and the five-a-side team in front, topped by a talisman. In each system, there existed a flat back four. Even Dennis Irwin and Patrice Evra, for all their productivity up the pitch, were faithful to shape and line. Now this defence is neither a long term nor a work-in-progress unit. It consists of raw (the Da Silva brothers) and retiring (Neville) full backs, unfit or out-of-sort centrebacks (Ferdinand / Vidic / Evans / Brown) and, sometimes, central midfielders filling in there. Selling, voluntarily or not, the now most valuable centre back in world football - the 23-year old Gerard Pique - is worth crying over. Further up the pitch, the midfield is a non-veteran, world class talent short of being taken seriously alongside Barca, Inter, Bayern, Real and, at least on paper, four Premiership rivals. For this reason, the new season will be yet another test of Ferguson's resolve who, perhaps worryingly, is turning sixty-nine in December. It would be charitable to describe the near future of boardroom, players and customers as precarious.

If Ferguson inspires reverence and confidence in his squad, the same can be said of one of the modern game’s great goalkeepers, Edwin Van der Sar. The Dutch stopper turns forty next month. He's one trivial injury or serious mistake from his last game. In the small margins of a thirty-eight game campaign, in-goal is where Manchester United have been evidently stronger than their title rivals in recent seasons. Certainly since Chelsea’s Petr Cech suffered that horrific head injury, and the grossly underrated sweeper Jens Lehmann was released by Arsenal. In midfield, Scholes and Giggs, still match winners, must wane. Carrick's confidence comes and goes but having not found a replacement for Paul Scholes’s playmakership, the veteran is still the only trusted registra in the big games: meticulous on the ball, his work of leathering the long pass and watercolouring the short lends to Pirlo, the new Spaniards, or for want of a home-grown analogy, well, perhaps only a blushing Tom Huddlestone is beginning to show signs. Here is where the imagination of competitors like Fabregas, Denilson, Modric, Van der Vaart and Huddlestone could punish United over the distance of the fixture list. It's not just the killer ball, but the one into space to begin an attack, which matters. This is where Chelsea have excelled, which is no surprise considering Carlo Ancelotti was himself the pivot of Arrigo Sacchi's AC Milan: Gli Immortali.

There is a pattern emerging here. Like a racing car preparing to pit stop, those most intrigued - or most involved emotionally - are wondering when, even if it feels like never. United are dependant on several playing and non-playing staff who can no longer be considered as anything other than short term assets. Less of a serious concern, but no less of an encumbering bereavement, is captain Gary Neville, the outstanding right-sided defender in England since the dissolution of the half back and, later, the wing back. But in 2010 he finds his career in full circle; just a brave boy amongst men, slow and small and ordinary, Neville would be considered a stultification were it not for his infectious courage. Might then Rafael learn to concentrate in a flat back four and avoid season-suicidal mistakes such as his red-card foul in April against Bayern? Will Wes Brown be healthy? Can John O’Shea perform for a whole season in one position? Having to ask a total of three questions - this before Ferdinand’s fitness, Evra’s recovery from disgrace, Vidic’s form and Jonny Evans’s naivety - is petrifying for the United fan. Manchester United are, as with any serious team, most vulnerable when unfamiliarity disharmonizes the defence. Losing Bruce & Pallister and later Stam & Johnsen took time and pushed trophies away. So too did the varying absences of Van der Sar, Ferdinand and Vidic last season.

Then there’s Michael Owen, a player who, if not on legs, is at least running on a pair of reputations - the crocked has-been or the worldly goalscorer. Neither of these are really truths: Owen has never reached twenty league goals in a season and, thirty years old, his patriotic off-the-last-shoulder act is a modern defender’s dream. In each twenty-five man squad, shoulders are stronger, feet are faster, and players who are weak as well as unimaginative stand little chance. In his masterpiece of football scholarship, Inverting The Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson argues - to my judgement, correctly - that the game played at the highest level has left behind this one-dimensional species of striker. The book has been available for two years and three Premierships seasons, in which time, and for much longer, Michael Owen has neither proved a no.10 nor a no.7 worthy of a world famous football club.

It is because of the arrogance of the new Chelsea idolaters, and also the hegemony of articles and TV shows where hucksters pat one another on the back for announcing cliches as dumb as The Makelele Role: It was Makelele who invented that role, sitting in front of the back four, winning the ball, that the professional defensive midfielder has been misunderstood in recent years, or maybe forever on these shores. Darren Fletcher possesses the stamina, medals and whiny guile that deserve comparison with Makelele but are in truth closer to a more disciplined but less gifted Souness or McKay. Working in their favour in the final third (better put for Manchester United as the counter-attacking length of the pitch) Ferguson is blessed by the improvisational genius of Nani, a player capable of winning any match on the planet on his day. Moving on, it would be unfair to curtail praise for Park and Valencia to work rate: Valencia rivals Walcott and Lennon for any of talent, directness or end-product, and as we saw in Group B at the World Cup, when space and the ball and the South Korean skipper are at one, spectators should get up off their seats.

Wayne Rooney also plays for Manchester United. It may be said that the club's season - future even - depends on his fitness and goal return.

For those whose only religious experiences are located in football, then the true story of Ferguson and his disciples (or apostles or sheep) is certainly one of the more sickeningly addictive. Here are logical, determined footballers who will stand, move and do exactly where and what a logical and determined manager demands of them. Leading this pack are old or damaged legs for whom the bell is readying to toll. How long can this keep on? It’s suspicion and not superstition that Old Trafford Saturdays are becoming threatened by. The chapter is approaching its final paragraph - a time when nervous officials and dugout barbarism will matter no more. It will take considerable fortune - in both senses of the word - to win that dreamy twentieth league title.

Predicted finish: 4th - a habit of twenty years broken, but who is to say Rooney won't score United back to major trophies?

Best signing: Javier Hernandez - 22, £6-8 million wisely paid for before a World Cup where he showed tremendous promise and now boasts an international record of ten goals in eighteen games

Youtubed / Football Manager wonderkid: Federico Macheda is still only nineteen years of age. Hernandez has to adapt, Berbatov has to be unreliable and Owen is obsolete. The Italian shouldn't be forgotten

Flop: Neil Young once wrote "It's better to burn out than to fade away". I see Van der Sar fading away

Player of the Season: The BBC and Sky will make annual love to Ryan Giggs in the Spring, but Darren Fletcher in an increasingly dull United team is a more just proposition

Wednesday, 1 September 2010


I'm in trunks, bearded, on a sun bed a metre from the deep end, facing it, when a freckled British toddler points and says "Mummy, that man has a book." He might be five, six. He holds his mother's hand, a paw. She - youngish, hot - smiles in big sunglasses. "Yes, George, well done." The afternoon and the pool are both clear: I can make out sand and sunken jewellery ready for somebody. George and his mother are approaching the tiles where a Peroni is in danger. The mother, upbeat in her role as my stranger, asks "So what is he reading then George?" And the boy is afraid to look because he know that I'm just as curious as he is, and he glances embarrssedly at the cover and his answer is incorrect. "The Santa Verses." We each laugh politely, for different reasons. But the mood changes when the boy, not quite out of earshot, asks "Mummy, why is the man not with anyone?" This is the moment it gets hard for me because I'm reminded of what is really happening on this holiday.

I go in when the sun goes in, a Disney towel over my shoulder, flip flops on and pair of goggles remembered - elastic rubber over a wrist, lenses in a palm. When I enter my bedroom - a single or double depending on solitude or bed size - I whirl round and lock the door and when I undress and step into a cubicle and shower it hurts. The faucet points and powers, finding sunburn. I apply old hotel-stolen lotions - shower gel, shampoo, conditioner - preparing but not hoping for somebody, and I think about what went on here four years ago when I was eighteen. A lyric receives song in my brain, smothers me, gets me thinking Is my timing that flawed?

At night we (this incomplete family) go out where it's very happening for a while. Wearing a bowler hat I'm hiding my hair in, I make an excuse after mains and leave for another friendly bar where I drink Peroni and smoke down Camels without company. A cover artist is covering Baby Can I Hold You Tonight? for a clumsy teenage couple: a blonde boy twirls a blonde girl in rainbow beams of spotlight which forgive them their flaws, make them famous, bind them. Watching on, some mothers are pushing prams back and forth. Everybody is dancing enough.

The morning is beginning when I stumble out of a cab and into the villa, possibly waking up my parents. They shouldn't be disturbed at dawn. In my room the air con is breathing but so is somebody else because there are two perfumes under the sheets. An ex of mine is speaking slowly, telling me I've gone blind, that I've become a monster:

"Your eye sockets have wasted, sealed over. They look and taste like cream, the cream of this villa, the off milk I told you not to drink, the yoghurt you eat opposite your mother at lunch when you don't have a job and she does."

Burning starts. I can feel lenses in my palm, eyesight in the wrong body part. In my makeshift leg there is a pain I don't want to describe or maybe it's that I can't. And if I have lost sight, somewhere along the way, how then can I picture fully the persons and the fires bringing me to blog? I look down the bed or I imagine looking down the bed at this ex of mine: she is pregnant with a boy who will be ashamed of his genes. And as I move a hand and leave it draped over a bump, we are still under the sheets, this incomplete family. The last thing I remember her doing is kissing my mouth, biting her bottom lip and saying "Sssshhh. Close your eyes. Close the book. Close your eyes. Sssshhh."