Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Why clichés could be more dangerous than two-footed tackles

There is a successful Twitter account which brilliantly collates the clichés in football. They are provided by managers, players, pundits and fans alike. From 'come-and-get-me pleas' to 'hijacked' moves, January is a month in which football provides plenty of material for the internet to chuckle about.

It is when the lines between cliché and law become blurred that problems begin to arise. On Sunday afternoon, we saw this in abundance.

There are two offences in football where popular interpretation departs from fact on a regular basis; the forceful tackle and the isolated defender hauling down an attacker on a goalward path.

Laurent Koscielny's dismissal in Sunday's second fixture was entirely correct, as was Howard Webb's decision to give Martin Skrtel a yellow card for halting Danny Welbeck. The concerning thing is that many of the people employed to explain why they were correct did not know how to.

The words of commentary teams and pundits find their way onto the council pitches of the UK with regularity. When a Sunday League footballer (who, as ever, could have made it...) screams the words “he was the last man, ref!”, remember to address your letters of complaint to Niall Quinn.

'The last man' is a notion which comes up regularly, yet has absolutely no place in the football rulebook. It is the clearest example of those around football saying something incorrect so frequently that it begins to carry some weight.

This isn't the greatest problem area though. The 'denial of a clear goalscoring opportunity' is a relatively simple decision to make and it almost always involves more than one official. The presence of a covering defender is a factor, but not the primary justification for a decision either way.

The interpretation of tackling is a far more significant problem in the game. The judgement of a tackle usually falls on the referee alone and in the short moments he has to make his decision, there is a worry that the same clichés that flood from the mouths of onlookers whirl around his head.

The two phrases of concern are 'studs showing' and 'two-footed'. Both are worthy of consideration, but at no point do they figure in the rulebook. When Niall Quinn, Mark Bright or Andy Townsend justifies a referee's dismissal with one of these lines, football as we knew it slips further away.

Vincent Kompany's red card against Arsenal was not the first time that the big defender has been a victim of the fear that now surrounds the strong tackle. Nobody wants to see another Eduardo or Ramsey, but prevention methods should not harm the game.

Strong tackling is not consigned to the archives in the same folder as the legal back-pass or the quarter-tonne boot. The names of players who spent their careers charging into 50/50 challenges before lifting the vanquished foe from the turf have not been gone from the game for too long.

Take Paul Ince and Roy Keane. Modern football would be terrified by their style of play, but did their methods leave opponents with shattered bones each week? Only when they wanted it to.

It is too late to halt the changing nature of our game. The key phrases are already a part of the pundit's vernacular and, if we are to speculate, the officials who are employed to enforce the rules too.

Look at the 'studs showing' line. Where did that come from? It came from challenges like Keane's on Alf-Inge Haaland where the studs sunk into the Manchester City midfielder's knee. It also stems from tackles where a player's challenge goes over the ball and strikes an opponent. Simply, it was a phrase used to differentiate between kicking somebody with the leather of the boot and planting the studs into them. In all of the examples, the ball was rarely a factor.

In today's game, however, the studs are said to be showing a number of times per game. Even when the studs are attached to a boot that is sliding along the grass, they are showing and people react as if Nigel de Jong is kung-fu kicking people again.

If the studs are planted in the ground as you attempt a sliding challenge, two things are true. Firstly, you are not sliding. As a result of the 'not sliding tackle', the chances of suffering injury are greatly increased.

It is possible to perform a strong and safe tackle regardless of what direction your studs are pointing. If we are going to become so offended when a player goes to ground in a head-to-head challenge, we have effectively outlawed it already.

Kompany's red card has been overturned by the FA, but still there are people who are deeply offended by the notion of the two-footed tackle, despite the second foot hardly being involved and the ball being won long before Wilshere arrived at the scene. “But both feet were off the ground,” they say, “so the rules say he had to be sent off.”

They do not. There are three categories of illegal tackle in the rulebook. The 'careless' tackle merits nothing more than the award of a free-kick. A 'reckless' tackle would involve the disregard of another player's safety and should result in a yellow card. Finally, a tackle that uses 'excessive force' can be punished with a red card because it exceeds the level of force that is necessary and is in danger of injuring an opponent.

There are four types of tackle if you include another category; the legal tackle. A tackle which uses both feet could actually fall into any of these categories, yet the majority of fans would immediately place it into the most severe.

'Two-footed tackles' became an official term of criticism due to tackles like Steven Gerrard's on Gary Naysmith in the Merseyside derby. That was a dangerous two-footed tackle. Kompany's was not. It wasn't even close.

Comparisons between football and rugby do not tend to meet with approval from either side, but the oval ball game is far superior in the way it categorises the severity of offences.

In football, a two-footed tackle or one with the studs visible could be anything from legal to dangerous. There is no such room for interpretation in rugby. If you turn an opponent beyond the horizontal, you will be leaving the field of play. While football asks officials to interpret a challenge using particularly vague definitions, we need to stop throwing the ill-informed clichés about.

They have crept into the consciousness of everybody involved in the game and as a result, the strong tackle is a dying breed. Very few people apply the rules to the context of a challenge and search for a precedent instead. No two tackles are identical and to think that the black and white theory of rugby laws can be applied to football is foolish.

Football is evolving and our constant outrage at the tackle is one of the driving forces. While nobody wants to see players injured, we are likely to eradicate the 50/50 challenge all together unless we stop allowing the clichés to overpower the rules.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Why Jordan Henderson makes Liverpool's midfield work

Those involved in the Gestalt School of Psychology knew little about football, but you suspect the emphasis on the collective would have struck a chord with Brendan Rodgers. The late nineteenth century school is often summarised using a famous Aristotle line: 'The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.' 

For Rodgers, nothing could be more apt.

Liverpool's midfield has been something of a conundrum this season. There are three positions and six able players to fill them. That the midfield three struggled to function with a variety of combinations throughout the first half of the season should have been one of Rodgers' greatest concerns. The need for attacking reinforcements is obvious and the manager has already started to work on constructing a front-line to suit his style.

There will be no strengthening in the midfield for the players are already there. An England captain, a Welshman who understands the system inside out, a Brazilian regular, a 24-year-old Bundesliga 'Player of the Year' and two young England internationals are all Rodgers needs, but the fluency that they should have been able to achieve has not been a permanent feature of the Liverpool midfield. It has been there on occasions, but missing every bit as frequently.

The problems have occurred in transition. The Rodgers mantra demands the ball to be pressed when it is lost. However, all too often this pressing hasn't been done as a group. One or two press, others go halfway to where they need to be and three quick passes can expose Liverpool's back four. Go back through all of the goals that Rodgers' side have conceded this season and the space between midfield and defence will become a recurring theme.

The two fixtures in 2013 have revealed something that may come as a shock. The least fashionable of footballers may be the solution to the problem.

Jordan Henderson is a footballing price-tag. He showed some promise when deployed centrally in the closing weeks of the Dalglish reign and has been building on that under Rodgers, but is constantly compared to the fee Liverpool paid.

There is no disguising that Henderson's first season at Anfield was a torrid one at times. Signed for an inflated fee that he had no control of and asked to play in a position that suits few of his strengths, it is no wonder the 22-year-old looked out of place.

The Jordan Henderson who captains England's U21 side has often been a confusing sight for Liverpool fans. Even during his toughest days at Anfield, England's Henderson flourished. He was at the heart of his team's passing, barked orders at his team-mates and shone as a box-to-box midfielder. He would then go back to the right side of Liverpool's midfield and the timidity would come over him again.

Henderson may have been a potential makeweight for Clint Dempsey in the summer, but his manager would be ill-advised to dispose of him in January.

Liverpool's two games in 2013 have brought 3-0 victories and Henderson has been heavily involved in both. He refused to allow illness to prevent him playing at QPR, before earning a second start in the win against Sunderland. The point of the midfield triangle may not have been where many expected him to make his greatest impact, but Henderson deserves to continue there. He may not have been a young Bundesliga sensation or have Jonjo Shelvey's goalscoring record, but he makes Liverpool's midfield work.

The great traits that Rodgers is associated with are passing and pressing. It is the latter than Henderson does better than anybody at the club.

Henderson has many improvements to make in his game but there is one thing that he can do without fail – run. His work-rate is exceptionally high and has a positive effect on those behind him. Liverpool have often been caught with two of the attacking trio pressing the ball, but with a big gap to the midfield. This allows opponents to play through Liverpool and find themselves with a great expanse of grass to attack.

Henderson is often the player pressing highest up the pitch. He combines with Luis Suarez to cover the central pass and both wide attackers push on to prevent the isolated centre-back from using his full-backs. As such, Liverpool have regained a great deal of cheap possession in the past two games.

The former Sunderland midfield also has the mobility to get around the midfield. He can press the defence and still recover his position in the central three if the resultant clearance falls to an opponent. It comes as no surprise that Steven Gerrard has had two of his best games of the season with Henderson at the head of the midfield. Henderson does the leg work, Lucas or Joe Allen do the scrapping in front of the back four and Gerrard is given a greater freedom. He can play deeper and look to penetrate as he did for Luis Suarez's second against Sunderland in the knowledge that Henderson will not be far away from the front three. Alternatively, Gerrard can make a run beyond the attack in the knowledge that Henderson has the mobility to cover behind him. When Lucas, Allen and Gerrard were playing as a combination, there was always a doubt as to who could cover the ground if needed. With Henderson involved, the midfield functions in transition with far greater comfort.

The other benefit of Henderson's mobility is the increased threat it poses on the counter-attack. Against both QPR and Sunderland there were instances when Liverpool broke from a corner and ended up with at least three players tearing towards the opposition penalty area. Suarez is often the architect, turning a man on halfway and driving forward. Sterling is usually there too, his arms flying all over the place as he makes up the ground. The third player in the attack is usually Henderson. Watch Suarez's first goal against Sunderland. The Uruguayan may take the opportunity without looking for a team-mate, but both Sterling and Henderson are there waiting for a pull-back. If he keeps finding such spaces as Liverpool break clear after regaining possession, it shouldn't be too long before he adds goals to his game.

Liverpool have been working with Dr Steve Peters since Rodgers' arrival at Anfield. Peters was a vital component of British Cycling's success and a host of successful athlete's attribute part of their success to him. It wouldn't surprise me if Henderson had paid him a visit. He has a different demeanour to the character who pulled on the Liverpool shirt last season. He isn't looking to pass responsibility elsewhere anymore. By doing so, Henderson was sacrificing his greatest strengths to avoid making mistakes. With a little self-belief, there is a suggestion both at club and international level that there is a player hiding in there.

With Lucas and Joe Allen both requiring injury management through a busy schedule, Henderson should be the constant in the Liverpool midfield. Shelvey and Allen have both played more games than they are used to and in both cases, it appears to have caught up with them a little. Henderson's form allows Shelvey to recover, while Allen and Lucas can alternate playing time as Liverpool negotiate a tricky period.

Liverpool face their greatest tests of the season in the next month. Visits to Old Trafford, the Emirates and the Etihad will be a true measure of how far Rodgers' side have come. Having stumbled upon an advanced midfielder who brings the best out of those in partnership with him, it would be a big call for Rodgers to leave the ever-improving Henderson out.

Henderson now has 50 Liverpool league appearances under his belt. For the first time in that period, he is showing why he could be remembered as more than a transfer fee.  

Monday, 26 November 2012

Why Chelsea's anti-Benitez protest was wrong

There must have been a point before Chelsea's clash with Manchester City that some of the home supporters had a brainwave. They were really irritated by the appointment of Rafael Benitez and they needed to let the world know how they felt.

Protests in football have taken many forms. Street protests outside Anfield against Hicks and Gillett, a chicken on the pitch at Blackburn to suggest that Venky's were better suited to meat processing than football, and a colour-themed anti-Glazer stance at Manchester United. You can now add the A4 print-out protest to the list.

How it made its way through the mental filter should be questioned and there now needs to be a point where Chelsea supporters realise that Sunday's protest made them look utterly daft.

Regardless of the fact that Benitez has been in as many Champions League finals as Chelsea, fans are entitled to their opinions. He is the anti-Mourinho. José is the managerial ultimate at the Bridge and the hiring of the pantomime villain does not sit comfortably. That is understandable. The problem is not that they did not want Rafa Benitez as their manager.

The real issue is the fact that their vitriol was pointed in entirely the wrong direction.

Benitez is a manager whose work at Liverpool is no longer given the recognition it deserves by many due to an ugly downfall, his subsequent failure at Inter Milan and a series of misconceptions that have become facts to those who mention them frequently enough. Rafa the defensive manager, for example. The same defensive manager whose side scored more goals in the Premier League than any other in 2008-9. You get the idea...

This is a manager who wanted a route back into the English game and was offered a six-month audition for redemption by a club with huge resources and a talented squad. Why would he turn it down?

Yet on Sunday afternoon, he was the target of the anger. It was the equivalent of being fired from your job and scratching your keys against the door of your replacement's car, rather than the one owned by the boss who sent you packing. Chelsea fans don't want Benitez. We get that. So why not direct the protests at the man who fired Roberto di Matteo and hired the Spaniard in the first place?

It is simple. He has the money. He has given Chelsea fans success beyond their wildest dreams and without him, life is slightly unnerving. Without the man who sat in his box entirely disinterested by the Microsoft-enhanced handiwork in the stands, Chelsea would not be European champions.

Rather than criticise the man at fault for the turnover of Chelsea managers, a self-defeating protest against a manager who had not yet managed a minute of football took place.

If Chelsea fans really oppose what is happening, they should put Roman Abramovich's name on the paper.

I would advise investing in some A3 paper to do so, just to get the message across.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Why Rafa Benitez is better than some British fans remember

There is something afoot in the Premier League and it all feels a little uncomfortable. 

As many people with 21 years of life experience would choose to, I am going to explain the issue using an analogy about girls.

A little over two years ago you split up with one of the best partners you have ever had. She gave you some of the greatest times of your life and made you feel fantastic when you thought those days were long gone. You were the envy of your mates and everything felt right.

Unfortunately, circumstances changed and the partnership lost the spark. She was the same person, but something was having a negative effect on your relationship. For arguments sake, we'll say that her new bosses were blithering idiots and she could no longer give you the care or attention required.

You agreed to go your separate ways and although it hurt, it was probably for the best.

As we all know, you spent the next two years telling everybody that you were over her and the façade was a convincing one.

Naturally, that all came tumbling down the moment she got a new partner. She's not meant to be his partner. She's your partner and you love her more. Regardless of the fact that you have moved on with a new partner, this is all horribly wrong.

For many, that will be a painfully familiar scenario, but it's the next bit that doesn't play out as it should.

The new man has got the girl, but nobody he knows shares the same excitement. His friends aren't impressed with the way she looks and the family have concerns about the lack of stability in her recent history. The relationship has only just begun, but it feels awkward and the foundations are not solid.

No man would fraternise with the new enemy, but a part of you wants to tell him how great she is. You want to tell him to give things time and it will be OK.

He's got himself a great catch; he just doesn't know it yet.

As Rafa Benitez heads into his first game as the Chelsea 'interim' manager, this is how Liverpool and Chelsea fans are feeling.

I apologise for using you as a poorly veiled character in a tale of romantic woe, Rafa, but you're better than many give you credit for. Chelsea fans should take the little time you may have together to form their own conclusions. Hopefully, then they'll understand why Liverpool still love you.

I'm not going to try to convince fans that Benitez is perfect. He isn't. He makes mistakes, occasionally does strange things and has had a difficult time since the end of the 2008/9 season. 

However, I'm going to have a nibble at the bait. Sky Sports News and BBC Radio have interviewed the socially awkward bunch who stand outside the club shop on a weekday morning and they have riled me. I always say I'll rise above them, but nobody calls Rafa “a joke of a manager” on my watch.

It is clear that Chelsea fans did not want Rafa Benitez to be their new manager. His spell at Inter Milan clearly does inspire confidence and the history between Benitez's Liverpool and Mourinho's Chelsea makes the arrival less welcoming than most. But some say Benitez is a 'joke'? No chance. You don't achieve what Benitez has if you don't know what you are doing.

There are a number of misconceptions about Benitez's previous spell in English football. The sort of statements that have been said so frequently that you find yourself agreeing with it, until you do the necessary research.

Let the sermon begin...


The greatest myth about Benitez is that he is a defensive manager. In some quarters, they said the same about Mourinho while he was Chelsea manager. 

This is the thing with British football. We consider organisation to be defensive, rather than the foundation of a very good football team. We say that Ian Holloway's Blackpool played 'good attacking football'. They attacked, of course. They chucked men into attacks with little consideration for the possibility that they might lose possession. They took their pat on the back from the admiring man in the pub at the time, but he's now forgotten about them as they attempt to climb out of the Championship once more.

Benitez and Mourinho's teams weren't overwhelmingly defensive, but balanced all over the pitch. They considered defending to be a rather important aspect of the game and set about not letting goals in. It was an intelligent theory and one that served both well.

Benitez's achievements at Liverpool are clear and one European venture sticks in the memory. He transformed a Liverpool side containing Messrs Traore, Riise and Smicer (among more obscure players whose presence will only be remembered as part of a trivia question) into a tactically astute European team. The accusations that Liverpool's 2005 victory was a fluke is one of the less perceptive myths that does the rounds from time to time.

Here's one example of why it wasn't a fluke. Benitez used Igor Biscan as a midfield destroyer in Turin and it worked.

This is what Benitez is all about. He studies opponents in obsessive details and creates plans to get the result his team requires. Those plans aren't always conventional, but he ensures his players know what is required of them. The teams Liverpool faced in that campaign were better than them on a player to player basis, but none were more effective as a team.

The fact that Mourinho's excellent Chelsea side were denied potential European domination early in the Roman era by Benitez's team is probably another factor that doesn't help him today. That he thwarted the 'Special One' twice only makes it worse.

Chelsea's current European campaign hangs by a thread but if Benitez's new team were to be fortunate in the final round of group games, they will have the ideal manager to take them forward.

Benitez will bring organisation to Chelsea (David Luiz is currently staring at a tactics board marked with a line labelled 'DO NOT CROSS' in an underground bunker at Cobham with a short Spaniard denying him an exit until it sinks in), but the manner in which he utilises Oscar, Hazard and Mata will be interesting. The link between Torres and Gerrard was wonderfully potent during his time at Liverpool and although the Spanish striker is not the same player he was back then, the trio behind him provide Benitez with plenty of invention. Benitez has played the 4-2-3-1 Chelsea are familiar with for years, but he knows it better than most.

Benitez's 'defensive' Liverpool side of 2008/9 played some excellent football and scored nine goals more than anybody else in the Premier League. If Benitez can reinvigorate Torres even slightly (nobody has ever had him playing better) and maintain the attacking flair of Chelsea's recent acquisitions, maybe this time people may take notice of the reality rather than the old perception.

Torres once revealed that Benitez made him work harder than anybody he had ever worked with, Steven Gerrard said that the manager's advice vastly outweighed his compliments and Didi Hamann called him 'a genius'. His methods may come as a shock to some of the Chelsea players, but they tend to work.


Another major criticism of Benitez was that he was poor in the transfer market. On low value transfers, he had more misses than hits. However, the transformation he oversaw at Liverpool after the 2005 victory was hugely impressive. They may have won the Champions League, but Benitez knew they were not good enough.

Benitez's wanted a lot of players during his Liverpool reign, only to told he couldn't have them. Dani Alves and Stevan Jovetic are two examples of players who were available, but not within the budget Benitez was given. However, this doesn't mean that his eye for a transfer was always suppressed. Reina, Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, Alonso, Mascherano, Kuyt and Torres were all Benitez's signings, not to mention the long-term plans implemented by signing Suso and Sterling. Keane and Aquilani were expensive misses, but his success ratio when shopping in a slightly more luxurious market is better than people remember.

The gross mismanagement by the club's American owners denied Benitez the opportunity to build on the title-challenge of 2009, but his spell up until that point was hugely impressive. At all levels of the club, Liverpool improved. The academy was overhauled (and is now seeing the rewards), the team improved and Liverpool reached two Champions League finals in three years.

His intelligence in the market was also crucial in overtaking Real Madrid and Barcelona to win Valencia's first league title in 31 years. Benitez signed Mista from former club Tenerife to lead his attack. 19 goals later, Valencia won La Liga by 7 points.

He may only have one transfer window at Chelsea, but he shouldn't have similar boardroom opposition. Abramovich has his faults, but a tight control of his pocket money isn't one of them. A lack of funding (and the politics it resulted in) played a large role in his departure from Valencia, Liverpool and Inter Milan. The only thing Benitez won't be able to buy at Chelsea is time. Everything else should be provided.

'Rafa's Rant'

If his style and transfer dealings have been falsely recollected, the greatest misconception must be the effect of 'Rafa's Rant'. Do you remember the press conference that apparently caused Liverpool's season to collapse and Manchester United to claim the title? Have you ever looked at the results after that conference?

There is little doubt that Liverpool should have won the league in the 2008/9 season. Benitez's side did the double over both Chelsea and Manchester United, but points thrown away in home draws to teams such as Hull, Stoke, West Ham and Fulham proved crucial.

Liverpool actually only lost once in the 18 league games after Benitez's press conference, but three draws in the period in which Manchester United played their two games in hand have warped the recollection of that season.

One week shows you what that Liverpool team were capable. In the space of four days, Liverpool beat Real Madrid 4-0 at Anfield, before dismantling Manchester United in a 4-1 at Old Trafford.

Liverpool should have kicked on from that season to mount an even stronger challenge a year later. Chaos in the boardroom dragged the club down and the final season of Benitez's tenure is the one that people tend to remember.

Who else could Chelsea have had? 

There are a host of brilliantly progressive managers who Chelsea fans may have cast glances towards, such as Jürgen Klopp (Dortmund) and Frank de Boer (Ajax), but why would they leave their current clubs? Dortmund sit on top of the toughest group in this year's Champions League, while de Boer is developing his management skills with a fine home-grown crop of Ajax youngsters. These are managers with the greatest of stability in their jobs and they are thriving off it. Having seen Andre Villas-Boas vacate a similarly exciting position, only to be sacked by Chelsea nine months into his first season in England, why would they want to do the same?

Roman Abramovich has brought success to Chelsea, but he has also single-handedly caused significant damage to the club's reputation among other managers.

Having fired a European Cup winning manager, it would be a little strange for Chelsea to opt for a manager without similar pedigree.

The ideal among many would be a man named José, but that isn't going to happen just yet. The other stand-out candidate was Pep Guardiola, currently enjoying his sabbatical in New York. Money can buy a lot of people, but the former Barcelona manager doesn't seem to be one of them.

Another name mentioned by fans is Guus Hiddink. While he is earning unimaginable sums of money at Anzhi, his return was also off the cards.

So which European Cup winning managers could Chelsea have gone for? The list is not very long.

There have been ten European Cup finals since AC Milan defeated Juventus at Old Trafford in 2003. One was Roberto di Matteo, who has just been booted out of the Bridge. Four finals, two each, were won by José Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti. Neither of them are coming back because they have equally lucrative jobs elsewhere in Europe. There are plenty of bridges to be repaired there too. Add in Pep's two victories and seven of the recent winners don't want to know.

Another is Sir Alex Ferguson. He seems rather settled. Two Champions League winning managers left.

A ninth final was won by Frank Rijkaard with Barcelona in 2006. If Benitez's recent moves have been considered poor, Rijkaard is in a different league. After the gradual decline of his reign at Barcelona, the Dutchman headed for a troublesome spell at Galatasaray. He is now managing Saudi Arabia.

So, that brings us to the winner of the tenth Champions League final. His name is Rafael Benitez and he is now the Chelsea manager.

When you have hired and fired some of the most successful managers in European football, you will find that your options are significantly reduced. There may well be a day when Guardiola is Chelsea manager, although Manchester City are making shrewd moves to ensure they are a more suitable fit, but that won't happen just yet.

Until then, the Real Madrid educated, two-time UEFA manager of the year will have to do. Chelsea fans may not like him, but he's a good football manager with proven credentials at the highest level. There aren't many of those left who Chelsea can attract.

Incidentally, Benitez has managed in the same number of European Cup finals as Chelsea FC and has the same number of victories. If Abramovich is prepared to give the Spaniard time, I suspect both totals might just grow.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Why Fernando Torres is running our of time to prove he can be Chelsea's number nine

Making bold claims about the Premier League is a dangerous game at any point of the season and you would have to be really confident in your opinion to claim that a team who are three points off the top of the table have a significant problem before the Christmas lights have been turned on.

However, Chelsea have an issue.

Roberto Di Matteo's men have picked up just two points from the last nine available in the Premier League and have seen their Manchester rivals move ahead of them in the table. With United struggling to solve defensive problems and City yet to hit their stride, Chelsea appeared to be in a strong position to take advantage.

Of the top three sides, Chelsea looked the most cohesive in the early weeks of the season. Although David Luiz's penchant for chaos requires constant management, the defence has been tight. Chelsea's rearguard suffered from the loss of John Terry in recent weeks (and now may continue to do so), but has conceded only one more league goal than the tightest of Premier League defences.

The greatest problem lies at the other end of the field and is wearing the number nine shirt.

It would be wrong to refer to Fernando Torres as the rather expensive elephant in the room. Although he carries a hefty price tag, his struggles have been well documented. He's in the room, but everybody has noticed him and the atmosphere is slightly uncomfortable for his presence.

There have been days where the Spaniard has shown glimpses of the player the Premier League once knew, but they have been and gone without long-term change. The time may be approaching for Chelsea to look for a new spearhead to their attack. If they are to win the Premier League, they may have to.

After a period of regeneration under Roman Abramovic, which one suspects will continue for a few transfer windows yet, Chelsea are not far away from having the qualities needed to get their hands on the league title once more. There will be a time where the superb Thibaut Courtois gives the Chelsea goalkeeper shirt a younger occupant, but this season's mixed-generation defence are not the reason why City and United have moved above the Londoners. Chelsea's 11 goals against is one worse than City, while United have conceded a generous 16. Why is it that a team who have conceded more than Swansea and Sunderland are at the top of the table?

The answer is a simple one; they score goals. Lots of them.

While City have combined a tight defence with a reasonably potent attack, Manchester United are leading the pile because they are compensating for a leaky defence by simply outscoring the opposition. The leaky defence will irritate Sir Alex Ferguson, but it makes little difference when the two conceded are being offset by three going in at the other end.

Chelsea have the third most effective attack in the Premier League this season, but they are not getting the returns required from their £50 million striker. The use of price to measure a player's ability has always annoyed me. If Torres had cost £35 million, we wouldn't shrug off a misplaced pass 'because you only get that if you pay £40 million'. You judge ability with your eyes, rather than by the fee above their head. Good players will always cost big fees, but we shouldn't criticise Torres because he isn't living up to the money that was paid for him. We should criticise him because he isn't providing his team with the return that a player with his ability should be doing.

Fernando Torres couldn't ask for much more from his team-mates. Chelsea's midfield and attack has a good balance to it. Mikel is developing into an intelligent holding midfielder and the astonishingly mobile Ramires provides both defensive protection and the catalyst for the quickest of counter-attacks. Chelsea have enough quality to control the midfield and provide a platform for their attacking quartet to perform.

In Oscar, Mata and Hazard, Chelsea have a phenomenal supply line. There are very few teams in the world who can boast an attack with such a splendid blend of speed, trickery, vision and imagination. The fluidity provided by the trio makes them incredibly difficult to defend against and should provide the perfect platform for a number nine to flourish.

However, Torres isn't. He is being outscored in the Premier League by Kevin Nolan. The West Ham man has always had a great ability to burst forward from midfield to score goals, but when the main striker from a title-chasing team has hit the net fewer times, there is a problem.

The statistics support this view, but the extent to which they question Torres' impact is surprising.

Chelsea have scored six goals fewer than table-topping United and the statistics provide an insight into why this may be. As the title-race looks likely to be contested by three teams, City are also included.

While the Manchester clubs average six shots on target per match, Chelsea are only one behind with five. However, the positions where each team shoots from is interesting. While United take 60% of their shots from inside the penalty area, with City registering 61%, Chelsea only take 54% of their shots from within the penalty area.

Why are Chelsea struggling in this respect? Their attacking players are no more adept at shooting from range than Rooney or Van Persie, yet a significantly higher proportion of their efforts are being fired in from outside the box. In the striker's role in Chelsea's 4-2-3-1 Torres should be providing the focal point to the attack, as he did in his Liverpool days. However, the runs behind defences that the Torres of four years ago would make are rapidly vanishing. He does not test opposition defences in the way that he used to. Watch any compilation video of Torres' goals and see the goals that he used to score. He would stretch defences in the channels and square the defender up, before bursting past him and finishing with ease. To watch the struggles of the current Fernando Torres is sad. Whether it is the mental belief or the physical yard of acceleration that has gone, the absence of the spark that made Torres so special is troublesome.

The Torres of old would have countless efforts within the course of a game, yet he is now averaging just 2.2 shot on goal per game. Both Mata and Hazard strike for goal more frequently and Oscar is only narrowly behind. Di Matteo will be pleased that the three supporting players are getting into the positions to test the goalkeeper, but the fact that Torres isn't leading this statistic is worrying. Torres is failing to get into threatening positions as frequently as he used to and when he is there, he isn't finishing as clinically. While he is getting two opportunities per game, the chances of him rediscovering the clinical touch in front of goal are reduced.

In comparison, Rooney (3.4), Van Persie (3.1), Tevez (3.1), Aguero (2.8) and even Dzeko (2.9), who is so frequently deployed as a substitute, are having more shots. Christian Benteke, who is clearly playing ahead of a far less creative midfield, is averaging 3 shots per game at lowly Aston Villa. However you look at it, Torres is not providing the threat that you would expect from a number nine.

Elsewhere, Chelsea are scoring 61% of their goals from open play, compared to City's 65% and United's 69%. Considering the system Di Matteo deploys, there is no excuse for them to be falling behind their rivals and the struggles of Torres are playing a significant part in Chelsea's struggle.

The primary role of the number nine in the Chelsea 4-2-3-1 is to score goals, but with the goalscoring ability of Mata, Hazard and Oscar behind him, Torres' involvement could be supported if he were linking the play and creating chances for others. However, the statistics in this regard are equally damning.

Torres is yet to register an assist in the Premier League this season and his pass completion rate currently sits at 70.5%. This is the worst pass success statistic of any outfield player at Chelsea and is 8.8% lower than David Luiz, the next lowest. With 29.5% of the Spaniard's passes not finding their target, Torres is giving the ball away far too frequently. Mata, Hazard, Oscar, Sturridge and Moses are all averaging over 84%. At the rival clubs, the most similar attacker is Dzeko. He averages a pass success rate of 72.6%. However, six Premier League goals from his limited game time mean that he is still providing his manager with a solution.

It is when a number nine isn't scoring, assisting or maintaining possession in a 4-2-3-1 that the manager would be entitled to question his performances. Considering many have been left questioning the striker since the day he arrived, it is debatable how much longer Torres can command the lead-role in the Chelsea attack.

The Chelsea support are fully aware of the money that their club can invest in the transfer market and following previous anticlimactic transfers, some are all too happy to demand similar expenditure from their owner. This is modern football. It strips the identity from the individuals involved and goes into Football Manager mode. If it isn't working, buy something else.

The alternatives are both luxurious and available. Radamel Falcao is one of the world's hottest goalscoring properties and although his Atletico Madrid side are flying in La Liga, the sides who covet the Columbian may not have to wait too much longer. Alternatively, Edinson Cavani was reportedly considered by Chelsea in the summer.

Both have the credentials to thrive at the head of Chelsea's attacking quartet. While neither are massively better than Torres in terms of pass completion rate (although they are better), they are a totally different proposition in front of goal. Cavani and Falcao both average over 3.5 shot on goal in each game and their goalscoring records reflect their ability to seek out opportunities. Falcao has scored 13 goals in his 11 club games this season, while Cavani has scored 14 from his 14 games (2 were as a substitute).

In the past three seasons, Chelsea have created more chances than any other Premier League side from open play. If Di Matteo is given the option to buy a striker who is going to provide the goals that Chelsea's attacking approach demands, it is going to take something special to stop them from picking up trophies.

It gives me no pleasure in saying it, but if Fernando Torres cannot prove quickly that he has more to offer Chelsea than both performances and statistics suggest, it may be time for Chelsea to purchase a newer model.

All statistics provided by WhoScored?com.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Why the 'outdated' 4-4-2 is working for Oxford in 2012

A little over a year ago, I was asked to write a short article for our friends over at The Boys From Up The Hill. Naturally, I produced a formation-based essay that attempted to solve a debate upon which football management is primarily based.

I like formations that are fluid and make life difficult for the opposition and as such, after looking at the strengths and weaknesses of several formations, I concluded that 4-3-3 was still the best option available to Oxford United at the time.

The comments section at the bottom of the article proved that three people had made it through the entire article, in all likelihood missing numerous family commitments in the process. All three provided intelligent feedback and their own take on the shape which Chris Wilder should be using. However, my favourite was the final one which had been left by 'Anonymous'. Every point made was valid, but could well have been paraphrased as: 'Thanks for the article. Lots of words, but you're wrong. Four-Four-Bloody-Two.' On second viewing, he doesn't actually say thank you.

Well, Mr or Mrs Anonymous, this is the response. I stand by the theory that 4-3-3 was right at the time, but with the squad that Oxford United currently have available, I have to admit something.

4-4-2 is working far better than my preferred system.

A lot has changed since those diagrams were created and it is time to create some more to look at why we are looking far more cohesive in a 4-4-2 than with threes. Two names are vital to this improvement and make the system work; Andy Whing and Tom Craddock.

I like 4-3-3 as a system because when the personnel in a system are interchangeable, it's very difficult to defend against. Individual responsibility is crucial in organising a defence and when players aren't sure whether to close space, track a runner into a different position or pass him on to a team-mate, spaces are made to be exploited.

With Lee Cox providing a more mobile Paul McLaren, it would be possible for United to play as a 4-3-3, but the injury to enforced deployment of Andy Whing at right-back and the return of Tom Craddock (who was unavailable when the initial article was written) has given a system that requires intelligence a chance to flourish.

When a team-sheet is created United are lining up in a typical 4-4-2. There is nothing complicated about it and that is what a lot of fans want to see. Two lines of four, two strikers and none of that modern day rubbish. However, the shape on the right is how I perceive Oxford when in possession of the football.

Although Craddock was absent against Barnet at the weekend, the opposition were so poor that the game provided a nice opportunity to study the mechanisms of the system being executed with relative ease. Jon-Paul Pittman won more in the air than Craddock would and our approach was more direct at times as a result, but he also attempted to collect the ball in the role between the lines that Craddock is marked as on the right-hand side.

When we have the ball, we don't maintain a simple 4-4-2. Such a shape is easy to mark, easily read and relies entirely on individuals beating their man in a one on one battle to create opportunities. It can work and it allows an easy transition when the ball is lost, but it lacks the fluidity that Chris Wilder strives for in his team.

We will often shift to a 4-2-3-1 relatively quickly after winning the ball. This is the shape that gets the best of both worlds. Two men remain relatively deep to protect the defence in case possession is squandered and four mobile attackers create problems for the opposition. This movement is the key element to the success of our 4-4-2.

Craddock is by no means limited to only coming deep to look for the ball, as Steve MacLean was in his spell at the club. At Cheltenham and Wycombe we have seen what he is capable of when he runs beyond Constable and the opposition defence. He has had his critics at times, but Craddock is a very intelligent footballer for this level of the game and chooses his movements well.

The key to any formation when in possession is giving the opposition a problem and challenging their organisation. In the diagram below, I have highlighted the key areas against opponents playing in a 4-4-2 and a 4-5-1, which I am sure we will see plenty of in home fixtures against teams looking for a point.

The 4-4-2 on the left is the easier of the two to play through and the large yellow areas shows the key focus of our passing. Leven and Chapman are constantly looking to play a neat pass into this area for Constable and Rigg, or more commonly Potter and Craddock. The right pass can take the opposition midfield out of the game and leave a situation where our attacking four have exposed four defenders. Too much is often made of statistics in football, but this is a simple one. The more times you can create a situation where a number of attackers are running at the same number of defenders, or (as can happen when a full-back is caught up the field and nobody has covered him) fewer defenders, the higher your likelihood of scoring goals.

The crucial elements to the theory are picking the right pass to get through the midfield and when between the lines on the other side, making clever runs and picking the correct option to open up the defence. When put like this, football sounds ridiculously simple but the best teams are those who can execute the simplest of things with the greatest precision. Have a look at Barcelona. We all know that Lionel Messi has the ability to perform the miraculous, but the movements that create Barcelona goals are very simple. They are just executed with such precision, speed and conviction that it becomes very difficult to prevent.

The shining light since changing to 4-4-2 has been the relationship between James Constable and Craddock in the final third. While Craddock does drop deeper at times, the distance beyond the pair is never too vast. Beano clearly enjoys having a partner in close proximity and they both possess the qualities to give defences problems. Craddock is deceptive in his movement, while Constable has returned to his rampaging former-self. Both can pick a pass for a team-mate and they are more than capable of scoring goals in League Two. The relationship is still developing, but the signs are promising. The best striking relationships are between players who possess different qualities. When the formations article was first published, the two available were Deane Smalley and Constable. That would be a front two who would head the ball, barge people out of the way and rely on their power, but would lack the guile of a partnership that includes Craddock. For 4-4-2 to continue to be successful, the presence of the former-Middlesbrough striker feels crucial.

Although victory was easily gained at Barnet, the performance wasn't quite at the level of the Craddock-aided win at Wycombe. Pittman got himself into good positions between the lines at times, but the effectiveness with his feet wasn't quite the same as his ability in the air. Constable struggled to get on the end of the flick-ons but there was evidence that Pittman can provide something a little different with the phenomenal spring that he possesses in his legs, when such tactics are needed.

Without the neat play on the edge of the area, another asset of 4-4-2 became clear. Although he frustrates at times, I am a Batt fan. There aren't too many full-backs at this level who provide the outlet that he does and the award he picked up from League Two opponents tells you all you need to know about how much they enjoy playing against him. However, as with any attacking full-back, he has to leave spaces behind him as he charges forward and he will never be able to be the defensively unbeatable yet overlapping player that some seem to think he should be. The advances of Batt were often brilliantly covered by McLaren in the 4-3-3, but with only two central midfielders, it becomes far more problematic when a defender is caught in the opponents' final third.

Saturday's fixture made the work of our full-backs in the system very clear. Both Tony Capaldi and Andy Whing are intelligent players, but the bond between Potter and Whing meant that our right-hand side was an effective means of attack all afternoon.

Barnet had major problems with defensive organisation when Potter and Pittman dropped deep. As we will advance with Craddock dropping deep as Pittman tried to on Saturday, I have included him in the diagram below.

Although Barnet attempted to deploy a defensive midfielder in Clovis Kamdjo, he was rarely in the right position to pick up Pittman as he dropped into the Craddock role between the lines. This meant that one of the centre-backs had to come across to cover Pittman's movement. The winger on that side of the field would then pull inside. This was most frequently Potter, although Rigg also gave the Barnet defence this problem.

As a full-back, what do you do? Do you mark the space out wide or do you follow your winger to prevent him picking up the ball? 90% of full-backs will follow their winger, leaving the flank vacant. Andy Whing doesn't get forward with the frequency of Batt, but he is very good at picking the right opportunities to do so. When Potter dragged his man inside (often with a hapless Barnet centre-half vacating even more space to track the deep-lying striker), Whing made his move to charge up the touchline. He put the ball into great areas too.

After the game, Edgar Davids said the following: "The difference was the other team was much, much better. They were much more organised."

The Dutchman has seen some organised teams in his time and the compliment should not be undervalued. Oxford's 4-4-2 provides a solid defensive base, with two midfielders who are usually excellent in possession. Importantly, they also have the vision to find the right pass between the lines to open the game up.

With two mobile wingers and a blossoming partnership at the top of the field, 4-4-2 is the way for Oxford United to go forward this season. It means that Damian Batt, Jake Forster-Caskey, Lee Cox and Deane Smalley are going to have to force their way back into the side, but that is how good squads work.

When writing back in 2011 I said that the greatest strength of 4-4-2 is the partnerships that it creates, as shown below. If these partnerships are to be broken, it will have to be by players who are performing at a higher standard than those who currently possess the shirt. I hope the players who currently occupy the bench can rise to the challenge.

There will be occasions when we need to alter our system. If we come up against an attacking 4-3-3, we may need to match up with them in midfield and allow Lee Cox to do what he does best.

I don't like a rigid 4-4-2 and credit should go to the coaching staff for creating a team who are comfortable mixing their roles in the system with the freedom to pose problems for opposition defences.

So there it is, Anonymous. Unless you come back to me with the confession that you have switched allegiance to the 3-6-0 of Euro 2012 winning Spain, you are right. 4-4-2 can work and although it will need to keep doing so for a lot longer if we are to be successful, we look like a better team for it.