Friday, 21 November 2008

A good week for English football

For the first time in over a decade, I'm actually starting to enjoy watching England. Capello has achieved what I thought impossible - he has converted England into a team who can keep the ball, even under pressure. The days of kick-and-rush, where "passion" came before any semblance of technical ability are behind us.

In many ways, the performance on Wednesday night was the most accomplished yet by England. Germany weren't great, admittedly, but the fact that England were a constant threat and Germany never looked like scoring throughout the entire 90 minutes tells its own story. The crazy mix-up between Terry and the hapless Carson meant that the scoreline flattered Germany. Had England been able to field better players than Wright-Phillips and Defoe in attacking positions, things could have been a lot worse for the Germans. Absences in attack had their benefits though. Agbonlahor made a fine debut - his record in big games is excellent at Villa and he seems capable of taking that into the international arena, and Downing gave by far his best performance in an England shirt. Both will make good options from the bench in future.

The most impressive area was in the midfield, where Carrick and Barry gave us another possible answer to the Gerrard-Lampard conundrum. Play neither. As someone who has watched almost all of Michael Carrick's games for over 2 years, his performance did not surprise me. It is easy to underestimate Carrick if you don't watch him often. He is not as quick as Hargreaves and cannot tackle as well, nor does he have the exceptional technique and range of Paul Scholes, the dynamism of Gerrard or the goalscoring threat of Lampard. But as an overall package he's excellent, and he is fortunate that his game is ideally suited to the demands of a modern central midfielder. Barry is similar, a player that impresses me the more I see him.

Many teams at international level play with three players in the centre of midfield, and virtually none play with more than 2 or 3 out and out attackers. Capello's England side plays with a striker supported by 3 flair players (usually Rooney, Joe Cole and Walcott), making 4 out and out attackers. Although all 4 work hard, tracking back and dropping into the centre to help out in the engine room are pretty low down on their list of priorities. This makes it doubly important that the central midfielders are disciplined and maintain possession otherwise the team risks being overrun by sheer numbers. There is little room for flair in the centre of midfield, although of course the passing should be incisive at times rather than cautious. Lampard has shown signs recently that he is able to adapt his game to a more disciplined role (at Chelsea he plays in front of two holding players so he is not required to be as disciplined with his positioning), but I would question whether he is as good in that position as either Carrick or Barry, though his set-pieces are excellent.

From what I have seen, Gerrard is patently not able to adapt his game. His positional sense is average at best, and I regularly lose count of the times that he leaves acres of space behind him having embarked on a forward run. Though his range of passing is superb, his discipline is again very average. He is incapable of playing any more than 3 or 4 simple passes before attempting something hugely ambitious. Game in, game out his pass completion rate is around the 75% mark, which is nowhere near good enough in an international midfield. Gerrard has scored 14 goals and made 8 assists for England. This amounts to a major contribution every 3 or 4 games. If Gerrard doesn't score or set up goals (i.e. one of his "Hollywood" passes comes off) his performance in the centre of midfield will never be anything better than average. Against top quality opposition you may not get the ball back for 5 minutes if you give it away. If you give it away every 4 passes as Gerrard does in a position where keeping the ball is vital, your team is going to spend a long time chasing shadows. Rafa Benitez has seen this at Liverpool, which is why Gerrard is played either behind the striker or on the right in all their big games.

England fans still cling to this anachronistic notion that all midfielders have to be either big tacklers or goalscorers. Ever since David Platt, our midfielders have been judged by their goals. Around the turn of the millenium I watched many games where Paul Scholes would play nearly twice as many passes as anyone else, completing around 90% of them, yet he would still get slaughtered because of his "goal drought". No wonder he retired from international football. He's a midfielder, for Christ's sake! Forwards are supposed to score you goals, and while it's great if your midfield can chip in from time to time that should not be the criteria for selection. Kevin Nolan scores a few goals, but I can promise you he's among the worst midfielders in the Premiership. Tackling is less important now, what with referees penalising even the most mild challenges nowadays. Tackling has been replaced by holding your position and "getting your foot in".

Both Barry and Carrick fit the bill perfectly. Both are positionally aware. Both are accurate and incisive passers of the ball. Both are strong and can get their foot in. For all my criticism of Gerrard, he is still a fabulous footballer when given the licence to thrill. He would certainly fill one of the three "flair" positions, probably on the right with Walcott dropping to the bench. As for Lampard - he's a terrific player, but he may just have to settle for a place on the bench.

Whatever your personal view (and this is just my own take on things), it's great to see England with such an embarrassment of riches. Right back and goalkeeper are still not settled, but Wes Brown and James are adequate for now and are unlikely to let the team down.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

More on the BNP

This is interesting, and may give a valuable insight into the origins of the BNP's support. It may also cause those of you who wrongly assume that the BNP is a "Far Right" party to think again, but more on that later.

As the map I linked to demonstrates, it is Labour who are most threatened by the rise of the BNP, with almost their entire membership based right in the Labour heartlands in the cities and the industrial North of England. This should not come as a huge surprise. In my last post I stated that the BNP stands for mass nationalisation and state control - these are exactly the policies that were favoured by Old Labour, especially going back over 20 years. The anti-European and nationalist side of things bears less of a resemblence, but if you go back to the 1970s and early 1980s the political landscape was the reverse of what it is today, with the Tories generally favouring greater integration into Europe, and (old) Labour generally being resistant. The ties may not be as strong here, but again there are parallels with Old Labour. Most people who voted for the old Labour Party came from the working class, and (if we can attempt to take the BNP's agenda seriously for a second, I know it's difficult) it is the working class who have most to fear from the influx of foreign workers taking the lower-paid jobs.

It is no secret that people who hold the old Labour Party close to their hearts feel disenfranchised nowadays. Despite its authoritarian tendencies, New Labour offers a very watered-down version of socialism compared to Old Labour. It favours big business and privatisation, which to some dyed-in-the-wool socialists means that it has sold its soul to the devil. Add to that the change in attitude towards Europe and you see the picture emerging. The BNP has become a natural home for these disenfranchised Old Labourites, albeit a home with a rather more sinister edge to it. Hence the fact that it is Labour votes that are going to the BNP, and hence it is Labour that feel more threatened by the BNP.

Were the BNP truly a right-wing party, it would surely be the Conservatives who would be losing voters. And since when did mass nationalisation and increased state control pass as right-wing objectives? The problem is that Nationalism tends to be classed as far-right, and seeing it is this which has captured all the headlines, the party has also been labelled as far-right. If you can stomach looking at the BNP site, you will, however, find that the vast majority of their objectives are unequivocally very left wing. I've never been a fan of characterising politics as simply a matter of right and left, as it's so often misleading.

The Political Compass is a far more useful tool, with left, right, authoritarian and libertarian forming the West, East, North and South poles on the compass respectively. Incidentally, I am comfortably to the South of centre, but only very slightly to the right. The BNP are so far to the North that whether they are left or right wing really isn't that relevant anyway.

I may not like what you believe....

I abhor the BNP and everything it stands for. It is a nasty, authoritarian organisation with more than a whiff of the Nazi Party about it. The BNP stands for mass nationalisation, state control, politicisation of the Police, and an insular Nationalism that borders on racism. Yes, I believe that many of its members are probably racist. For someone who believes in a minimal state, individual and private enterprise, an independent Police force free from Government interference and a sensible immigration policy that attracts the great and good from all over the world, the BNP doesn't hold much appeal for me. The only area that I can share any form of agreement with the BNP is their desire to exit the E.U., and even then their reasoning is entirely the opposite of mine. While Griffin and his chums want rid of the E.U. because of their racist nationalism, I just object to having most of my laws made by faceless bureaucrats who have neither been elected by the British people nor have Britain's best interests at heart.

I do worry where this data leak is going to lead though. As the article I linked to suggests, many members on that list risk losing their jobs, especially those who work in the public sector. The Police have explicitly banned officers from being party members, and the supposed racism within the party means that many other professions - for example, teachers - will regard membership of the BNP as incompatible with their career.

I say supposed racism because there is no proof of racism in the BNP. People have tried and failed to expose racism and have the party made illegal. I believe that the BNP are racist, everyone may believe they are racist but as things stand the BNP is a perfectly legitimate political party. As such - assuming we are serious about living in a free and fair society - its membership should be free to go about their day-to-day business without fear of their political affiliation costing them their livelihood.

So True

This was posted earlier on Dizzy Thinks:

The ironic thing is that the same people who support the notion that "an enemy of the West is a friend of mine" are the same ones who berate the West for employing the same realpolitik in foreign affairs.

The stoppers are quite happy to side with murderous jihadists that wish to destroy the West in an alliance of convenience, but when the west happened to support Saddam against what they considered was the greater threat of Iran in the 80s, they're accused of hypocrisy.

It seems that one can then be hypocritical about being hypocritical.
I couldn't agree more.

Yes, you can blame the Manager

Danny Finkelstein has an interesting take on the importance of managers in sport. A recent study has been carried out by economist David Berri, who analysed the contributions made by a variety of basketball players when managed by different coaches.

The study concluded that:

"The majority of the coaches we looked at did not have a statistically significant impact on player performance. And some of these coaches are ranked among the all-time greats.

Such findings suggest that the outcomes we observe for teams are mostly about the players, not the coaches. So teams that wish to improve should focus on the people in the uniforms, not the people wearing suits on the sidelines."

This clearly is something Finkelstein has long suspected, and he uses his own comparison of the records of Jose Mourinho and Avram Grant at Chelsea.
"The Fink Tank hasn't done a directly comparable study, but last year we crawled all over the figures for the tenure of the celebrated Jose Mourinho and the generally dismissed Avram Grant. The result? That Avram Grant did slightly better.

I do not think this was because Avram Grant had hidden ability. I think Grant's success simply shows that managers don't make as much difference to team performance as coverage suggests."

I am sure that this is largely correct - few can argue that the press are prone to exaggeration when it comes to a manager's abilities. The Grant/Mourinho comparison holds water too, but I can't help feel that Grant's demise was driven by factors other than his managerial record. Mourinho is a good-looking bastard with a penchant for being obnoxious and a stratospheric self-regard; despite this, the fans and press fell in love with him (and despite my description of him, I love him as well). Grant, on the other hand, makes John Major look like Mr Exciting. As Chelsea were pipped to the Premiership and the Champions' League by an exceptional Manchester United team, Bruce Buck and that slimeball Kenyon bought into the Mourinho myth and Grant was history. Should Big Phil equal Grant's achievements this season, I think we can be fairly sure he'll still have a job at the end of it.

The importance of a manager may be overstated, but to dismiss it altogether is absurd. After all, it is the manager who chooses who to buy, the manager who chooses who to play and where to play them. It is the manager who most influences the style of football that the team plays. Take Spurs for example. Juande Ramos used Bentley at right-back and left midfield, but never in his best position on the right wing or as a withdrawn striker. He made the exceptionally gifted attacking playmaker Luca Modric play as a tough-tackling holding midfielder, and he made the exceptionally ungifted centre midfielder Didier Zokora play left-back. Small wonder Spurs underachieved. Now under 'Arry, Bentley's back on the right, Modric is in a position where he can display his attacking talents and Spurs are winning again.

It is the manager who influences the development of young players. Would Arsenal's brilliant young players be as accomplished were it not for Arsene Wenger? Would Cristiano Ronaldo have become the player he had if he had been bought by Alan Curbishley rather than Alex Ferguson? (The answer to that, as you should already know is "no". Curbishley would have refused to put him in the team because he frowns upon flair and unpredictability, and because he is the most miserable depressing man in the world, ever. Hayden Mullins would have played instead).

The life of an international manager is very similar to the situation engineered by Berri in his research. They effectively have a collection of players put in front of them. They can't buy players, they don't have enough time to coach them technically, and they are not required to act as a father figure.

So, according to Finkelstein and Berri, we may as well have stuck with Schteve McClaren, because Capello can't make much of a difference. After all, Capello's picked pretty much the same players as McClaren. Anyone who's watched England over the past couple of years would surely agree that the new manager HAS made a pretty big difference, not the players.

I think it's a bit ridiculous when you see clubs sacking managers every time they have a few bad games in a row, but to suggest that the manager's role is not of great importance is lunacy.