Monday, 18 November 2013

Power and Psychological Ownership in Football

Ask any player in any team this question: would you rather have possession of the ball or let the other team have it. The answer in most cases (and I can't think of any reasonable explanation to the contrary) is of course I would rather my team have the ball if we could make it so. It is a condition of our game that is set in place at a young age when a child first learns the game. Ask a young child to dribble to the edge of the box and shoot on goal and he will happily do it. Ask the same child to practice making late runs into the box without a ball and he will tire of it very quickly. Why is this? It is a known fact that any player only has possession of the ball for around two minutes during a ninety minute match, so theoretically a player must be used to playing without the ball for the majority of the game. If this is the case, it begs the question why it is less desirable for a team to defend without the ball rather than have it themselves. I believe that ultimately it's related to the psychology of the human mind - specifically, the psychology of power.

If you take a look at history it will keep telling you one thing - people will fight for freedom. Virtually every war or battle in human history are between two groups of people who are fighting for independence or greater control. Whether it be the right to vote, a piece of disputed land, religion, greater control over law/finance/ etc. all battles are over who can control their own lives. Humans by nature want to have control over what they do with their body, where they go, what they do and who they want to be with. It comes as no surprise then that, since the ball is the object of the game, ownership of this central figure in the war between the two teams becomes paramount. It is not so much that either team sees the value in obtaining the ball, rather, that either team feels inferior if the other team has the ball. It is due to a natural human tendency to seek power for oneself and take away power from another.  It is interesting therefore that sometimes the reason for seeking the ball is not with a purpose in mind for its use, rather it can simply be that the action of controlling the ball is the purpose itself.

The psychology behind control and domination is quite an interesting topic of discussion. It is rather intriguing when we think about an outnumbered army that has control of a relatively small amount of land fighting against a much more powerful enemy that seeks to capture this land. Historically, there are many examples where such odds has been overcome by the smaller and disadvantaged army. Perhaps the most famous example is the story of how an outrageously outnumbered Spartan army defeated the greatly more numerous Persian army on a very small piece of land. In comparison, we have such recent football examples as the second leg tie between Barcelona and Chelsea where Fernando Torres scored a memorable goal (not forgetting Ramires' memorable goal too) as the spirit of the Spartans seemingly helped the players in blue score a remarkable victory outnumbered against a superior enemy. This curious phenomena happens not often, but on a consistent basis and can be explained by a concept called psychological ownership.

The peculiar quirk commonly described as psychological ownership is a reflection of how an object or a state of affairs which is seemingly equal and identical in a legal or civil sense may have a disparate moral or emotional state to a particular party due to the perspective of the observation. In simpler words, the way we perceive an object or event can influence our judgement or perceived value of that object or event regardless of what we should logically be expected to feel about it. To state a simple universal example, most people would not care about a toy teddy bear that is old and ruined, where, by contrast, the adult who has owned this teddy bear since childhood would no doubt have a high perceived value of the object due to emotional attachment. The power of this perceived value is powerful enough to change the actions of a person, such as maintaining the toy bear where it would otherwise not be cared for. Now imagine the benefits if this power of psychology can be directed into a positive mindset which produces favourable actions in a football team.

I want to now expand on the phenomena of psychological ownership and examine in closer detail how it actually works in relation to football and to do so I want to focus on three specific points. The first point is that ownership increases our perceived value. This is a pretty simple idea which means that the mere fact of owning something, both tangible or intangible, increases how much we value it due to the emotional connection we develop. We see the effect of this in sport around the whole world, often termed as home field advantage. The simple fact that a team plays at their home ground means that they have an emotional advantage as they perceive that they have an added responsibility to protect their ownership of their home ground via not allowing their opponents to win. It also relates to a sense of self identity and group belonging, a powerful peer led force that is obviously stimulated more playing at ones own home with their fellow kinship supporting from the stands. While certainly not the only factor, it perhaps is the greatest contributory factor in explaining home field advantage.

The second point states that humans place a higher proportionate focus on avoiding loss rather than on gaining. This is important for the timing of goals scored in a game. If we take an inferior team playing against a stronger one, the scoring of the first goal becomes paramount. If the inferior team scores first, this second factor comes into play because the inferior team will now have something to lose which is more motivating to avoid (in theory at least) than gaining a goal for the stronger team. This motivation to hold onto a lead makes sense and can be often used to at least partially explain why we see inferior teams managing to defend with absolute determination and doggedness against all odds and sneak a 1-0 victory. As an added note, scoring the first goal might conceivably increase the belief that the inferior team has a valid right to ownership of the victory, although this is a bit of an abstract and less important thought to consider.

Thirdly, the more we work for something, the greater its value. If a team believes that it has put in a huge amount of effort in training, preparation and energy into a season or a match, it is more likely to perform at a higher level due to the increased value of that season or match. This takes a great team culture and belief in the work and more often than not a great leader to inspire this attitude - in most cases the manager.

So what does this all mean? In my opinion, such psychological concepts is of great significance and advantage for young coaches who are advancing their learning and knowledge. It is no secret that coaches have a holistic role to play in managing a team and that managers who are skillful in the art of manipulation can greatly increase the effectiveness of his messages. An effective coach can shape belief and affect behaviour. It is one thing which I believe to be the single most important thing in being a great coach - the ability to make your players believe in you, your philosophy and methods. Not only that, if you know the reasons why your players have certain responsive traits or behavioural tendencies, you can increase the effectiveness of your communication.

I do not pretend that I am an expert in the field of psychology; these are simply my thoughts on the deeper meanings behind the trends in our game. What I hope you will take away from reading this article is an appreciation that people do not often go deeply into questioning. Sometimes, a short and simplistic answer to an interesting question is not enough. Whether exploring these questions of deeper meanings, certainly in football, is worthwhile is up to you to decide. For myself in any case, I find them quite interesting. Curiosity after all is one of the more beautiful things in life.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

The Art of Effective Pressing

A common phrase when referring to principles of defence is "close down space and time". While this is not in objection, and rightly so, it carries a meaning that has been slightly generalised as a result of the commonality in the use of the phrase. What I propose is to explore the often overlooked tactic of positioning of defending players - not in an attempt to tackle a player in possession - rather, to place himself between opponents in order to intercept the ball. To purposefully seek to gain possession of the ball without having to resort to physically confronting a ball possessor requires a subtle and intelligent approach, not to mention a great appreciation for sophistication. Hence what I will now put forward to you is the idea that defending is not simple - the notion that it is more than just simply tackling. I offer the concept that defending to a large (and overlooked) extent is about positioning - the art of interception.

The whole concept of defending to intercept is only applicable by virtue of intelligence in the players executing the actions. The theoretical advantage of positioning to intercept can be represented and explained through a game which has been around longer than football and perhaps the only other game that can lay claim to being as popular - chess.

Chess pieces are variable in that they have different starting positions, legal movements and special qualities. One could therefore suggest that different pieces have different relevant values to the player. By virtue of common acceptance, it is said that a queen is of greater value to a player than a bishop since a bishop has limited movement compared to a queen. It can also be suggested that two of the same piece can have two different relative values depending on the position of those pieces. For example, a pawn protecting a knight can be said to be of greater value than a pawn that is isolated. Therefore, it is more accurate to suggest that the relative function of a piece, immediate or potential, determines the true value of the piece. Since a queen can engage in many more actions, and therefore can perform many more functions than a pawn, it is more valuable than a pawn, pound for pound.

A further examination can reveal that we can compare the average relative values of each piece.  C.J.S Purdy and G.Koshnitsky's 1998 short paperback Chess Made Easy gives us these values:

  • minor piece (Bishop or Knight) = 3 Pawns
  • Rook = minor piece + 1.5 to 2 Pawns
  • Queen = 2 Rooks, or 3 minors; or Rook, minor and 1.5 Pawns
  • Summary: minor 3(3.5), Rook, Queen 9-10

These values are only proximate but they nonetheless demonstrate the liberalism with which the chess pieces are representative. The conclusion from these set of insights which one can make, is that to gain maximum advantage a player must endeavour to increase the value of each of his pieces in order to maximise the functional capabilities of his whole army. The hidden art of pressing is that every player performs two roles at once, thus increasing the value of every individual to the team.

A football player who acts as fictional pawn would be undesirable compared to a more functional player. The aim is make more players on the team a queen, instead of a pawn. It is a characteristic of the modern game that players are becoming increasingly functional, capable of performing a wider range of roles within the limits of time and space. This functionality is also essential for an effective pressing tactic.

Pressing can simply be described as physically closing down the distance between you and another player who is usually in possession of the ball. By pressing a player, you are vacating the space you just occupied, thereby opening up a potential space in which the ball can arrive. If another opponent manages to occupy that newly formed space, the pressing has been ineffective, since one of the objectives of pressing is to deny space. Therefore, the solution is to press the ball carrier, while at the same time cutting off the passing lane to the space the act of pressing has created. Therefore, the pressing player must perform two roles in the same action: press the ball carrier & cut off the passing lane to the space created. The only way to achieve this dual function is by pressing from the correct angle - approach the ball carrier in a way that you also block off a pass to one of his team-mates. This dual functionality forms the core rationale behind the concept of effective pressing. In effect, this mechanism represents the theory that has been borrowed from chess, that of a focus on improving the relative functionality of an individual piece in order to strengthen the army as a whole.

Take this example from a Champions League game between Bayern Munich and Valencia. Watch Toni Kroos carefully (he is playing in a #10 position) and pay close attention at how he turns his head behind him a few times and then very subtly adjusts his positioning so that he blocks the pass to the nearest Valencia midfielder. The angle of approach is key and this is why he manages to intercept the pass.

Toni Kroos in this example has in effect raised his value to his team in that specific moment because he was essentially screening two opponents at the same time. If he would have positioned himself slightly to the left or the right, he would not have been blocking a passing lane, thereby reducing his value to his team in that instance because he would have only been screening one player. In other words, Kroos was functioning as a relative queen. A step to either side and he would be functioning as a temporary knight. Had Kroos been standing completely still, he would have been functioning as a relative pawn, rendering him completely ineffective. If multiple team mates can also replicate Kroos by pressing a player while simultaneously blocking a passing lane, the effectiveness of the whole team will increase exponentially. In effect, we are essentially outnumbering the opponents since every player is doing the job of two players.

The ultimate objective of every single midfielder and forward is to press your own man while blocking off a passing lane to another opponent. The opponent on the ball should theoretically have no options left except to inevitably lose the ball. As a side note, Toni Kroos is one of the best players I have seen who is exceptional at effective pressing so I encourage you to watch him closely.

These ideas within the tactic of pressing are not new by any means. However, I do believe they are somewhat misunderstood and people tend to generalise the whole concept rather than observe and acknowledge the micro-details. What I have briefly explained is only a part of the wider art of pressing. What I hope to leave anyone who has read this is a sense of the complex intricacies that truly make pressing an art form.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Football Explained in 420 Words

What is Football?

Affection, animation, excitement, feeling, fervour, fire, fit, demonstration, display, drama, event, art, misery, outbreak, jubilant, laughing, light, outburst, spirit, pride, satisfaction, calm, at peace, fear, foreboding,  graceful, grand, handsome, fretfulness, hardship, breathless, breeze-less, cool, pacific, placid, quiescent, reposing, restful, serene, slow, smooth, soothing, still, tranquil, undisturbed, unruffled, afraid, agitated, annoyed, apprehensive, bothered, concerned, distressed, disturbed, edgy, excitable, fidgety, fitful, flustered, fussy, hesitant, hysterical, irritable, jittery, jumpy, nervy, neurotic, on edge, ruffled, sensitive, shaky, shrinking, taut, tense, frenzy, fury, heat, indignation, intensity, joy,  timid, timorous, troubled, twitchy, upset, uptight, luck, blood pressure, occasion, split second, courage, stage, tick, time, twinkle, moment, why is this happening?

Pressure, concern, affliction, aggravation, exposition, extravaganza, marvel, performance, alarm, anguish, annoyance, anxiety, apprehension, bother, burden, consternation, aesthetic, artistic, attractive,doubt, scepticism, unbelief, wonder, weak, spectacular, striking, stupendous, worried, nervous, instant, minute, no time, discomposure, dismay, disquiet, disturbance, encumbrance, exasperation, load, onus, perplexity, pressure, responsibility, solicitude, sorrow, strain, stress, sweat, tribulation, trouble, uneasiness, unhappiness, vexation, woe, worry, anguish, bleakness, broken heart, gratified, joyful, disconsolate, dismal, dispirited, distress, downer, forlornness, harmonious, hushed, low-key, mild, motionless, heartache, heartbreak, heavy heart, hopelessness, let-down, melancholy, misery, mood, mournfulness, mourning, poignancy, sorrow, sorrowful, tribulation, crying, why? grief, angry, sad, happy, blessed, blissful, captivated, cheerful, content, delighted, ecstatic, elated, exultant, glad, gleeful, joyous, lively, looking good, merry, mirthful, on cloud nine, overjoyed, peaceful, playful, pleasant, pleased, sparkling, sunny, thrilled, upbeat, happy, sportsmanship, fairness, forthrightness, gamesmanship, goodness, honesty, honour, principles, righteousness, sincerity, virtue, tired, bleary, exhausted, dedication, passion, eagerness, ecstasy, smart, sparkling, splendid, crippled, dead tired, dead, alive, debilitated, done for, done in, uneasy, unrestful, windless, composure, nerve, drained, enervated, frazzled, had it, limp, prostrated, run-down, sapped, spent, tired out, weak, strong, wearied, worn out, can't take it anymore!

Unbelievable, amazement, gloominess, grief, grieving, experience, expertise, facility, finesse,  astonishing, astounding, awesome, best, breathtaking, cool, extravagant, fantastic, first-class, greatest, legend, experience, new, old, immense, inconceivable, incredible, out-of-this-world, outrageous, phenomenal, prodigious, remarkable, super, superb, terrific, friendship, enemy,  curiosity, phenomenon, play, representation, scene, show, sight, spectacular, wonder, inconsolable, dejection, despondency, genius, ability, date, flash, hour, accomplishment, acumen,  astuteness, brain, brilliance, capability, creativity, expert, flair, grasp, imagination, ingenuity, inspiration, intelligence, inventiveness, mature, originality, power, prodigy, prowess, reach, talent, understanding, virtuoso, wisdom, skill, address, artistry, legendary, marvellous, mind-blowing, out-of-sight, cleverness, clout, spectacle, comedy, command, competence, craft, cunning, deftness, dexterity, ease,  job, profession, proficiency, prowess, quickness, readiness, savvy, skilfulness, smart, technique, beauty,  beautiful, aptitude, aptness, becoming, curious, dainty, dapper, dazzling, delicate, elegant, enchanting, harmonious, lovely, magnificent, natty, neat, not amiss, ornamental, picturesque, pretty, refined, resplendent, rich, sleek, sublime, superb, svelte.

This is football.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Bayern and Borussia: Total Defending and Verticality

Bayern Munich absolutely destroyed Barcelona seven-nil on aggregate on their way to the Champions League crown and it wasn't just the result which simply demonstrated the dominance of one team over the other - it was a symbolic gesture of the type of football that is now needed to succeed in Europe. This type of football can be summed up in one word - balance. Bayern are the modern version of Sacchi's AC Milan in that they have everything any team could ever wish for: attack, defence, transitions, set pieces, fitness. This team are quickly becoming every coach's manual to base their training principles on. However there is one particular aspect of their play which I would like to focus on in this article: their defence.

Total Defending

Total football is a phrase used to describe the movements of players when in the attacking phase of play, that is, when we have the ball. It is based on fluidity of positions, rotations and covering your team mates runs. In this way, players use the movements of their team mates for reference rather than zones on the pitch. However, total football is almost seldom used in reference to the defending phase of play. The reason, because almost every team in Europe plays a zonal based defence, positioning themselves in a particular area of the pitch and rarely moving away from it. I can only remember one team in Europe who have used pure man marking - Bielsa's Athletic Bilbao who used this tactic to great effect on a rainy night in San Mames a few years ago against Barcelona. The problem with this way of defending is that it requires an extreme amount of concentration, discipline, commitment and fitness. Hence, few teams are able to implement it effectively. It should now be clear that any particular team should deploy either zonal or man to man defending, but not both. This is where Bayern come in. I believe that they have quite possibly set a new trend in defending tactics, matching the significance of Sacchi's invention - total defending.

Image from
It is well known that Arrigo Sacchi, who is widely regarded to have mastered the art of zonal marking, is to have said that there should be no more that 25 metres between the strikers and the defenders. The reason for this is to constrict the space in a vertical sense, hence reducing the distances between players and thus making it more difficult for the offensive team to pass or dribble right through the middle of this compacted space. The problem with this tactic (and any other) comes from geometry. Let's take a pitch with dimensions of 100m by 60m - this equates to 6000 square metres in area. If we take the goalkeeper out of the equation, each outfield player would have to cover 600 square metres, or about 25m by 25m in order to cover the whole area of the field. This means that when all players on one team are evenly spaced out, no player is closer than 25 metres to his nearest teammate. Breaking it down this way, it becomes clear just how much space is to be found on a football pitch. So why is all this a problem you may ask? In simple terms it means that it is not possible to defend the whole pitch. Consequently, in theory at least, no defending tactic can reach optimal efficiency. If a team chooses to defend via a high pressing tactic, space will be left behind their block. Alternatively, a tactic of defending in a low and compact block will allow space in front of the block and allow the other team to possess the ball. The logical conclusion to take from the theoretical resultant of these two systems of defending is that the best method to achieve the highest possible efficient way of defending is a hybrid of both low to medium block compact defence and a high pressing defence.

Total defending is a hybrid between zonal and man to man marking used in a clever way. It involves two phases of play: high pressing and low block defending. Bayern have mastered the art of structurally changing the way they defend mid-game. In other words, they interchange between man marking and zonal marking as the situation demands. Against Barca, there were times when Bayern chose to press high up the pitch, using the cue whenever Valdes had the ball. It is important to understand the situation of the game in this phase of play. Both Barca fullbacks are to be found right beside the sideline providing width. Both centre backs have split wide and the midfielders are spread out. Essentially, Barca are opening up the pitch to create as much space as possible. Consequently, the distance between players has increased. What might have been 10 yards is now 30 yards and this affects not only Barca's shape, but Bayern's as well. If Bayern choose to press high when Barca are in this formation, Bayern will essentially be man on man in midfield which is a potentially dangerous situation if Barca can play out of the high pressure. This is where the cleverness of Bayern comes into play. Ribery, Robben and Manzukic will engage the back five of Barca including Valdes, whereas the midfield trio of Kroos, Sweinstiger, and Martinez defend zonally. As soon as a Barca player receives the ball into their midfield zone they will pressure him immediately. Even more clever is the way that Bayern's players can leave their zone to follow his man further away from his own goal and force the play back to Valdes. If this happens, a player that is away from the zone of danger, i.e. far away from the ball, will replace the player who has just left his zone. In this way, the whole team mimics the positional rotation of the Dutch total football, only in defence. The advantage in defending in this very adaptable way is that the best tactic can be used at the best times. If the situation of the game requires a high press they can do it. It is the same with pure zonal or man to man defending.

On a theoretical basis, total defending is the most efficient way of defending. Think about it this way - pretend you are selling paint to artists. If you only have three colours - red, blue and yellow - you can only sell them to painters who want those colours. What happens if an artist asks you for some green paint? If you can only sell the paints individually, you will lose a customer. However, if you have the ability to combine blue and yellow, you can now sell green paint and expand your customer base. In football, the customer base is the other teams in the league and if you have the ability to combine all types of defending, you can play better against a wider range of teams. Certain opponents are better suited to certain ways of defending against. Bayern are the masters of mixing their core colours to create the perfect balance to counteract specific qualities and strengths. While they may never achieve maximum efficiency or be able to cover the whole pitch, they are the closest thing when it comes to defending perfection.


In a period of the game where possession is preached ad nauseum, it is refreshing to watch Borussia Dortmund display a brand of football, while not revolutionary, different to most teams in a subtle but noticeable way. They play with a tactical mechanism called 'verticality'. Heavily influenced by a modern genius in Marcelo Bielsa, verticality is simply a reference to a style of play where the ball is brought from back to front as quickly as possible using short passing combinations. In essence, a slow, possession based build up is discouraged in favour of a more direct and quicker build up where the ball travels forward rather than from side to side.

Modern genius: Marcelo Bielsa
Image from
Bielsa himself explains this philosophy in a nutshell, "once we have the ball, we try and find a way of getting forward as quickly as possible, in a vertical direction if you like. But we don’t get frustrated if we can’t get it forward immediately, we aim to be comfortable on the ball, and if it’s not a case of going forward straight away, we keep it.” Klopp is not as idealistic as Bielsa but his team certainly display a characteristic of Bielsa's teams. Dortmund are much like Bayern in that they can adapt to what is is requited from them. They can keep possession for the sake of it or they can introduce a rapidity into their attack on the transition, which they are deadly at doing. "I support a football more urgent and less patient. Because I'm anxious, and also because I'm Argentine." -Marcelo Bielsa.

Perhaps the roots of the concept of verticality came from the father of modern statistical analysis, English coach Charles Reep, who was famous for his unwavering belief that teams should adopt a direct ball approach since, according to his statistics, most goals resulted in moves of three passes or fewer. He argued that the quicker the ball was moved into the opponents' penalty box, the greater the chance of scoring. In simple terms, Reep was a believer of long ball football. While Dortmund are certainly not a long ball team, they possess an adeptability for Bielsa's vertical approach. In fact, Klopp is a known admirer of Bielsa. The Argentine coach believes that vertical penetration using quick passing combinations brings about winning football. In this way it is a pragmatic concept as well as an idealistic one.

Much like total defending where many modes of defence combine to create a model as close to perfect as possible, the combination of possession and counter attack work in much the same way. The problem with possession is that, while having the ball is certainly more desirable than not having it, you force the other team into sitting deep in a low block defence. This is the bane of possession orientated teams such as Barcelona. In order to overcome this incessant and repetitive obstacle, the possession team must provoke the opponent with the ball either during a rapid counter attacking transition or during the build up phase. Andre Villas-Boas explains the concept of provoking the opponent with the ball using verticality:
There are more spaces in football than people think. Even if you play against a low block team, you immediately get half of the pitch. And after that, in attacking midfield, you can provoke the opponent with the ball, provoke him to move forward or sideways and open up a space. But many players can’t understand the game. Top teams nowadays don’t look to vertical penetration from their midfielders because the coach prefers them to stand in position (horizontally) and then use the movement of the wingers as the main source to create chances.

So, you, as a coach, have to know exactly what kind of players you have and analyse the squad to decide how you want to organise your team offensively. And then, there are maybe some players more important than others. For instance, many teams play with defensive pivots, small defensive midfielders. And, except Andrea Pirlo and Xabi Alonso, and maybe Esteban Cambiasso and one or two more, they are players that are limited to the horizontal part of the game: they keep passing the ball from one side to another, left or right, without any kind of vertical penetration. Can’t you use your defensive midfielder to introduce a surprise factor in the match? Let’s say, first he passes horizontally and then, suddenly, vertical penetration?

Barcelona play horizontally only after a vertical pass. See how the centre backs go out with ball, how they construct the play. They open up (moving wider), so that the right or left-back can join the midfield line. Guardiola has talked about it: the centre backs provoke the opponent, invite them forward then, if the opponent applies quick pressure the ball goes to the other central defender, and this one makes a vertical pass. Not to the midfielders, who have their back turned to the ball, but to those moving between lines, Andres Iniesta or Lionel Messi, or even directly to the striker.

At this time of ultra-low defensive block teams, you will have to learn how to provoke them with the ball. It’s the ball they want, so you have to defy them using the ball as a carrot. Louis Van Gaal’s idea is one of continuous circulation, one side to the other, until the moment that, when you change direction, an space opens up inside and you go through it. So, he provokes the opponent with horizontal circulation of the ball, until the moment that the opponent will start to pressure out of despair. What I believe in is to challenge the rival by driving the ball into him.
                                                                                                    Andre Villas-Boas 2009

In order to create space when a team is defending in a compact block, it is necessary to play the ball vertically, bypassing opposition players and making them turn towards their own goal. Now the attacking team has the advantage because the opposition midfielders are no longer shifting laterally - rather, they are running back towards their own goal which is a much less comfortable and organised way of defending. Defenders will get sucked infield, towards the ball and leave themselves open to passes to the flanks where the players have just left this space to contend with the threat of the vertical ball centrally. Klopp has masterminded a team which is deadly when they regain possession and the other team is not organised to defend as a group. Within one or two passes the ball has travelled forward and seized the space before the opponents have had sufficient time to close up. This is the key to Borussia Dortmund's game and it is a glimpse into the growing part that verticality has to play in modern football.

What Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund have shown us this season is that balance is still a key factor in a successful team. The ability to interchange between systems mid game has come back into focus when the Barcelona model had previously shown us that only one system was needed, if implemented well enough, to be successful. The true success has been total defending and verticality.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Cruyff's Paradox: Is Tiki-taka Simple or Complex?

Image from
"Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is."
                                                                                           Johan Cruyff
"To make something look simple, you have to master the complex." I would say that this quote (I made it up) goes a long way towards explaining the philosophical reasoning behind the way that Barcelona play football. It has always fascinated me how many observers make the conclusion that their style of play, and the reason that it's successful, is very simple, done very well. In my mind and in my experience with observing and studying Barcelona I cannot comprehend how people can come to that particular conclusion. A team which has revolutionised modern football since I started to follow the sport and that have broken so many boundaries of what was considered as the traditional norm surely does not play a simple brand of football. How can it achieve so much by playing so simply? Or perhaps there is more to this than first viewed. The man who can potentially answer this question is a legend of the game, or more appropriately, a legend of Barcelona - Johan Cruyff.

Perhaps Pele and Maradona can lay claim to being better players than Cruyff, but Cruyff has arguably had a bigger impact on the game itself. None more so than at Barcelona whom he played and coached, but more importantly, changed the whole philosophy and structure of the club. The most important idea he introduced was a concept of ball orientated football - to keep the ball when you have it and get it back quickly when you don't.

The original Dream Team coached by Cruyff
Image from

Cruyff often speaks about simplicity - to play with excess contradicts what passing was supposed to achieve - simplicity. Cruyff once criticised a goal that was scored because he claimed that the goal should have been scored earlier in the play. The extra passes were unnecessary and increased the chances that a mistake would happen. Simplicity increases efficiency and effectiveness. Think of Arsenal and how many times they overelaborate a goalscoring opportunity. According to Cruyff, a team should take a shot on goal at the earliest possible opportunity in order to increase the chances of scoring. To Cruyff, the perfect goal would be one which is scored with minimal effort, no unnecessary risks taken, and maximum efficiency.

"To play well, you need good players, but a good player almost always has the problem of a lack of efficiency. He always wants to do things prettier than strictly necessary."
                                                                                                       Johan Cruyff

Simplicity is an intangible concept which is falsely described by numbers and statistics. It is a concept invented by the human mind and is a quality which is vary hard to explain, much like creativity. However one defines simplicity, it ultimately reflects our perception of if it and more importantly, our understanding. To a physicist, the laws of physics make perfect sense because it follows certain laws. To a less learned person, it would make no sense whatsoever. The two different perspectives doesn't change the reality. The laws of physics is what it is. It remains the same no matter how we think of it. In applying this to football, Barca's football is what it is. It is the constant. The audience is the variable. This is why it is hard to definitively judge the complexity of Barca's style of play. To some it is an intricate web of movements and chain reactions - a systems version of football that is reliant upon every sub-system to function in order to make the whole system work and flourish. To others, tactics and details are overstated and that specific choreography has nothing to do with their style - it is the talent of the players and the way they simply pass the ball to the nearest team mate until someone can take advantage of an opposition defensive error.

I wrote an article stating that your opinion of what makes an entertaining game depends on three things: your knowledge of the game, the reason you are watching, and your expectation of the game. I believe that these three things also shape your view of the simplicity of Barca's football. In a way, your personal philosophy shapes the way you view football. You don't need to be a coach to have a philosophy, your philosophy is simply an aggregate of your past experiences and your personality. This goes some way towards explaining why some people would describe Barca's football as complex, and other people, simple.

When Cruyff speaks about football he often speaks about the entertainment value of the game, that there is more to it than winning. He believes in a certain style of play which has the power to put a smile on the people's faces as he described it. As such, he was a believer in his own philosophy, of a beautiful way of playing:

               "It's better to go down with your own vision than with someone else's."                
                                                                                                         Johan Cruyff

He would rather lose playing good football than winning playing ugly football. He said of the 1974 world cup final against West Germany that losing that final made the Netherlands more famous than it otherwise would have. To say that it was better to lose than to win because it left a better legacy speaks volumes about the mindset of Cruyff - quite romantic and idealist. It is therefore quite mysterious why Cruyff often speaks quite pragmatically. In a video on Dutch television Cruyff said that he never likes playing with two men in midfield because they could get exposed too easily. Instead, he always plays with three in midfield, explaining that "I am much more defensive than people think." Following on from this admission of pragmatism, he quoted this famous line:

                                "If you can't win, make sure you don't lose."
                                                                                                       Johan Cruyff

This evidence contradicts the common stereotype that Cruyff is the ultimate priest of tiki-taka and total football hell bent on entertaining the masses. He clearly does not like losing but he won't settle for playing a rugged and prehistoric style of football. This paradox in mentality is reflected on the pitch.

The concept that simplicity is the best form of playing football is all well and fine - it makes sense, certainly on a theoretical level. Put in practice however, it's a different story. Stoke City play with simplicity in theory because they do not overelaborate their build up play from the back. Compared to most Champions League teams, they play the most direct football because of their comparatively aerial style. Overall, it can be said that Stoke City play with simplicity. On the other hand, Barcelona have an opposite style of play compared to Stoke - a more indirect and slower buildup from back to front. It involves a greater amount of passes and more patience. What does this mean - is it an indication that Barca do not play simply enough? 

The spirit of Catalonia resembles the football of its team
Image from 

Take the example from the most recent Clasico game in the league at the Bernabeu. At one stage of the match, Messi and Iniesta exchanged several passes between them in the absence of any defensive pressure from the Madrid midfield players. It got them nowhere and it achieved nothing - no progression and no objective accomplished. It was a display in excess and indulgence - we can pass the ball all day, you see! It was like a scene straight from The Simpsons. It was akin of the analogy of the Arab sheikh living within his enormous mansion; living in it for show and prestige, but not for practicality. Has Barca become the Arab sheikh in a way? It seems as though tiki-taka has outgrown its initial purpose - to control the game with minimal effort and exertion. It's as if the club has become so entrenched in this way of playing to the point that passing has outgrown its existence as merely a mechanism to win football matches. It has instead become the objective itself, to keep the ball. In this case, possession is no longer merely a means to an end - but the end in itself. In this context, tiki-taka possession football is no longer useful for Cruyff.

"Every solution to every problem is simple. It's the distance between the two where the mystery lies."
                                                                                                 Derek Landy.

The system is one thing but the players who play within it can corrupt the theory behind it. The 4-3-3 system is one that was designed to give maximum options to any player in possession of the ball. In this way it is saying to the players When you have the ball, pass it to the nearest team mate and then move. Keep it simple - pass and move, pass and move. In theory, the 4-3-3 optimises spacing of players in order to help the players follow the short passing philosophy. In practice, the players became masters of this style after many years learning it in the academy. Over time, merely passing the ball in order to create chances to score goals became pointless in a way. It became too easy. If we can keep the ball, why must we give it away so easily. The concept of passing started as an idea to score goals but it has since morphed into a total theory of football - of attack, defence and control. The cause of this metamorphosis is the talent of the current generation of players. No other team are as adept at rondos than Barcelona. No other team has the best player in the world of the last four years. How can a philosophy of simplicity be justified when simplicity is the enemy of extraordinary minds? Messi's skills are too elaborate for such a dimwitted system of play and Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets are too smart. It is in fact the very simplicity of the system that has allowed the foundation for layers of complexity to be added. 

What started as simply another way of playing the game has grown and grown. Today it has become the philosophy of a whole club and is becoming it in many others. Who would have thought that the arrival of Cruyff to Barcelona as a player would mark the beginning of something special. The supporters saw a glimpse of a whole team in one player. Years later, that one man gave his insight to a whole team. The reason why Cruyff has been such an influential and celebrated figure in the game was that he was different. He gave the world something new and unique. No matter your opinion of the actual style of play, it is undeniable that it has left a legacy to football.

                                     "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."
                                                                                                     Leonardo da Vinci

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

My Top 5 International Matches in the Past Twelve Months

1. Argentina vs Brazil (4-3) Friendly 9 June 2012

The most entertaining and pure game of football I have watched in the past twelve months without a doubt.  Brazil played with typical flair and samba, while Messi scored an absolutely ridiculous hat-trick. Not being a competitive match allowed both sets of players to play with freedom - resulting in spectacular football in front of a huge crowd at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.

2. Spain vs Italy (4-0) European Championship Final 1 July 2012

This game confirmed the status of Spain being the best national team ever. Having been met with a stubborn Italian side in the group stage, Spain simply demolished Italy in the final and blew away critics of their "boring" style of play by playing mesmerising football. Pirlo, Italy's best player, was left helpless as the world watched Spain's pass masters put on a show in spectacular fashion.

3. Germany vs Sweden (4-4) World Cup Qualifier 16 October 2012

A game that will be remembered by the result more so than the actual football. Germany went 3-0 up at half-time and also scored a fourth shortly after the break after cutting open a poor Swedish defence. When the winner of the match seemed settled, up stepped Zlatan Ibrahimovic to inspire Sweden to a miraculous comeback, culminating in a 93rd minute equaliser leaving Angela Merkel stunned as well as the whole stadium.

4. Argentina vs Uruguay (3-0) World Cup Qualifier 12 October 2012

Argentina in 2012 have been fabulous to watch as Alejandro Sabella figured out how best to use Messi in the national team. Perhaps their best game was a WC qualifier against enemies Uruguay who featured the attcking trio of Suarez, Cavani and Forlan. Simply put, Argentina completely dominated this game, putting on a masterclass of fluid attacking play while easily defending against Uruguay's star forwards. Messi was brilliant in this game, providing viewers with a satisfied feeling when the match was over.

5. Zambia vs Cote d'Ivoire (0-0) Africa Cup of Nations Final 12 February 2012

The worst game on this list in terms of quality, but the best story without doubt. Zambia were heavy underdogs against the golden generation of Africa's best national team and no-one expected them to beat the Elephants. After a tense scoreless draw after 120 minutes, the match was to be decided on penalties. After a marathon shootout, Gervinho's miss allowed Stophira Sunzu to score the winning goal which sparked memorable scenes of celebration including Zambia coach Herve Renard carrying the injured Joseph Musonda to celebrate with his team mates.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Communism and Capitalism of Football

The Cold War lasted forty-six years from 1945 to 1991. The war was not a physical one. It was not a financial one. It was not geographical, not religious and not even political. It was a war of ideology. It was a war between two superpower nations who had polar opposite views as to how humans should be organised to live in their society. It was a war of theory. It was a war between two nations who disagreed with how a human should live. It was a war about how each thought about the universe. To say it was a "cold" war is somewhat misleading. It wasn't played out because of any legitimate reason. It was played out simply because each wanted to prove that they were right. After forty-six years of conflict and verbal squabbling, the Soviet Union fell and with it, the war. Or did it?

The essence of communism was that it valued the collective over the individual. Every member in a society was equal to the person next to him. Every member of society had an equal input into the functioning of the society and each one was expected to contribute. The whole philosophy was based on the fact that the sum of the parts were greater than the whole - that if everyone contributed, the whole community would function more efficiently and no person was left disadvantaged. It wasn't just a matter of economic or social policy, communism was a matter of principle, that it was the correct ideology simply because it was believed that it was.

Capitalism on the other hand, valued the individual freedom to be able to express the very best a man could be. Freedom of expression, invention and competition are key values. It goes without saying that capitalism allow the best to rise to the top and the mediocre to sink to the bottom. The disadvantage is that conflict always arises between the top and bottom of society. The people at the top are defensive and seek to hold onto their status while the people at the bottom rebel and seek to displace the men at the top.

The Cold War has of course ended, but in football, it has reached a crescendo.  The war between collective football and individual football. Throughout the history of football a struggle has existed between those who believe that players should be given the freedom to play, and those who believe that players must work within a system. Two of the greatest national sides were 1970's Brazil and 1970's Netherlands. These two great teams existed at about the same time and yet had opposite ideas on how the game should be played. If we disregard specific tactics, Brazil represented the individualism of capitalism while the total football of the Netherlands were based on the principles of co-ordinated team work of communism. Brazil scored goals goals through dribbling, the Dutch through passing. Brazil were a team full of excellent players, while the Netherlands were an excellent team. Both national teams will be remembered as two of the greatest teams to have ever played the game, but they were different to each other. The battle of individual vs collective has always marked football and it will continue to do so.


Barcelona is the perfect example of what the Soviet Union had epitomised. It is the gold standard and the philosophical Mount Everest of collectivism - communism. Barcelona display all the trademarks of being a communist club, without quite reaching it. The resemblance is so close in fact, that the grey area between imitating, and being, is almost abolished, and the two ideas merge into one.

Barcelona's system of play relies on the transfer of the ball via the mode of passing. So much is Barca's reliance on passing the ball that a word is used to describe it - tiki taka. To pass the ball, an individual must be willing to sacrifice possession of the ball in order to give it to someone else. To hold onto it is selfish. It is an admission of weakness of thought, that one cannot rid himself of the temptation to keep the ball for himself. It is an admission that one does not believe in his team-mates and does not trust them. Guardiola once said of his team: "This team will respect a philosophy." The philosophy is all encompassing and it filters through every level of the club, right down to the kids and parents.

Guardiola is a smart man and he thought deeply about how to make his team even better. Realising that he could add more variety in his attack, he bought Zlatan Ibrahimovic from Inter Milan. In bringing in the tall Swedish striker, Guardiola was making a huge statement - he was bringing in a player who was different from the players he already had. The likes of Messi, Xavi, Pedro, Iniesta, Busquets were all brought up - schooled - to follow the doctrine of collective football and sacrifice. In Ibrahimovic, Guardiola was bringing in a man who was the star in every team he had played for and was not the equal to his team mates. Zlatan had been to several clubs and thus was not as receptive to learning a whole new religion from the very beginning. Guardiola had bought an individualist - who believed that he was different - to a club that condemned such personalities - it was why Ronaldinho was booted out as well. Ultimately, this particular transfer would end in failure, but the fact that Guardiola chose to spend such a huge amount of money on a rebel was suggestive of a slight doubt he had in Barca's philosophy.

Just like the people of the Soviet Union during weak economic times, lack of infrastructural development, food shortages and lack of progress - people start to question how their country is being run and whether communism is working. When the United States became the number one country in the world under Ronald Reagan, surpassing the Soviet Union, the Russian people started to doubt their own country and sought prosperity like the Americans. It was this shift in attitude which led to uprisings against the Soviet government and ultimately bringing about the downfall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The difference between the Soviet Union and Barcelona is that the latter is currently prospering and all is harmonious within it's walls. However, the Soviet Union also prospered before it collapsed.

There were signs last season when Real Madrid out powered all opposition towards winning the league, while Barcelona were struggling to beat opponents who had become used to their patterns of play. Some observers criticised Barca's reliance on the collective, remarking that they were passing it for the sake of passing it and that their tiki taka philosophy had become a cult like religion, instead of a mere philosophy. People had started to grow tired of possession and some called for flair and dribbling to be brought back to the team for the sake of results. To quash the uprisings, Barcelona changed the leader - a common practice to give a renewed sense of hope back to the people. It was a smart move too as Vilanova brought enthusiasm and motivation back to the team and the people who grew tired by hearing one message over and over. Vilanova preached the same message, yet he inspired the doubters that possession was still the best answer to football. Communist football had remained and had resurged under a fresh leader. To this day, Barcelona are as deeply entrenched in the philosophy of collective football as it has ever been. Until the next day arrives when people start to grow jealous of another more successful philosophy, Barcelona will remain a communist club.

Valeriy Lobanovskyi

Even more so than Barcelona, Soviet football in the 1970s and 1980s paralleled the political climate of the time. During a time of forced technological advances during the space race, Soviet football was also heading in the direction of the scientific and the methodical. One coach of this era epitomised and symbolised communist philosophy - the legendary Ukranian Valeriy Lobanovskyi. As a player, he was a dashing winger, full of trickery and invention but his is coaching would contradict his style as a player. As a coach he revolutionised how sports science and statistics were to be used to maximise the talents of the players.

In him was acted out the great struggle between individuality and system: the player in him wanted to dribble, to invent tricks and to embarrass his opponents, and yet, as he later admitted, his training at the Polytechnic Institute drove him to a systematic approach, to break down football into its component tasks. Football, he explained, eventually became for him a system of twenty-two elements - two sub-systems of eleven elements - moving within a defined area (the pitch) and subject to a series of restrictions (the laws of the game). If the two sub-systems were equal, the outcome would be a draw. If one were stronger, it would win.
                                                              Jonathan Wilson - Inverting the Pyramid

Lobanovskyi was fascinated that these sub-systems had the characteristic of being greater than the sum of the individuals. In other words, smaller but more numerous factions of players working together could outperform bigger but less numerous factions of players. When all of the factions were operating at optimal efficiency, the product (the team) would perform at maximum efficiency, and should theoretically win 100% of games. Communist Soviet Union had similar factions of communities organised into what were called kolkhoz or communes. These were communities of farmers who would work together to farm crops on a large scale and subsequently donate all that was grown to the state for redistribution.The theory was that communities working together would create economies of scale. An economic term, economies of scale basically states that as operations of production increase in scale, the cost per unit decreases due to the greater efficiency of producing a single unit. In other words, the larger the scale of operation, the less it costs to produce a single unit, which reduces costs overall. Subsequently, a business can produce more products at the same cost as before or even lower. For Lobanovskyi, the result of the economies of scale within his team would be - as he termed it - universality. The notion that defenders would attack, and attackers defend - to create eleven efficient players who all contribute equally no matter where they played on the pitch. Now opponents had to deal with eleven players to defend against, and eleven players stopping them from scoring. In Lobanovskyi's mind, this was much better than having only the defenders defending and the forwards attacking.

Arrigo Sacchi

Arrigo Sacchi's Milan was constructed with the same principles with Lobanovskyi's Dynamo Kiev, perhaps without going to the extremes that Lobanovskyi did. Sacchi was famous for his 'shadow play' training methods, a method which famously bemused spies from other teams in the league. Sacchi had engrained the concept of teamwork and of the collective in his players. For zonal marking to work, it needed every player to be working in unison. One player out of position would mean the delicate balance of the state of play would crumble. While this works in theory, reality is different. The reality for Sacchi was that he had two flamboyant Dutchmen in his team when he first took charge. Van Basten and Gullit were exceptional players, their talents surpassing those who sought to defend against them. The trouble was that they thrived on being given the trust to express themselves as individuals within the system. They showed creativity which could not be restricted by any sane coach. Sacchi was facing a dilemma - whether to allow the Dutchmen to play outside of his system, or to reign them in and force them to play within the confines of the system. Sacchi chose to do something else.

He brought in a third Dutchman - Frank Rijkaard - another flamboyent (less so than Van Basten or Gullit) player. Sacchi had chosen pragmatism and sacrificed his theoretical utopia of how football should be played. It was still a structured and collective orientated style of play, it just had a few restrictions lifted of the system. In essence, it can be said Sacchi was more of a socialist than a communist. He never reached the final version of his philosophy. Reality had rendered it redundant and it was simply impractical beyond the point of trying.

Jose Mourinho

Real Madrid under Jose Mourinho is the modern version of Sacchi's Milan. Mourinho is famous for his tactical organisation and attention to detail. He often talks about how the team needs to work as a unit in order to be successful. Samuel Eto'o is symbolic of his influence, playing on the wing instead of his preferred position as a striker in order to suit the team shape and tactics. At Madrid however, Mourinho had the most talented group of players he has ever coached, and subsequently encountered the same dilemma Sacchi faced two decades ago. Cristiano Ronaldo, Angel di Maria, Mesut Ozil - these were the modern day equivalent of the Dutch trio - highly skilful players who needed the freedom to express their creativity. Upon his appointment, the main concern expressed by people and media was that Mourinho would have difficulty successfully integrating these special players into a working system. Mind you, the pressure to play in a stylish manner was there from the beginning and added further complexities to Mourinho's dilemma. Much like Sacchi, the practicality of the situation meant that Mourinho opted to allow the positional freedom to Ronaldo and others by putting in place 'compensation mechanisms' as Andre Villas-Boas put it. To give freedom to a part of a team means that you must take away freedom in other parts in order to compensate and balance. Otherwise, you end up with a team who will become too imbalanced - usually over balanced in the attacking phase. One such coach who exhibits traits for failing to strike the balance between allowing individuals freedom and organising an efficient collectivised system, is Zdenek Zeman.

Zdenek Zeman

Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa has a nickname - El Loco - The Madman. It pretty much sums up his whole career as a coach - unique, intense, weird. You could literally replace Bielsa's name with Zeman's and El Loco would describe this gentlemen perfectly. Like Bielsa, Zeman has built up a reputation for his beliefs of the game, training methods and his quixotic philosophies. His teams play in a brilliant but flawed way: with wild abandon, highly attacking and forward thinking way which produces very attractive football. Imagine being in the middle of Pamplona during the Running of the Bulls festival - that is virtually how Roma play today. The logic is to play in a manner that is so intense, direct and fast, that no matter how many goals the opponents score, they will simply concede more. The problem with Zeman's love of attacking football is that it relies on the players to play, not the coach - but players are emotional. If you let the bulls run free, they will act irrationally and without reason. It's easier to set a bull free than to tame a cat. Sometimes the players will perform, but other times they will fail badly and the result is inconsistency - Roma this season have been inconsistent. They have scored 47 goals - the most goals in the league, one ahead of Juventus. However, they have also conceded 38 goals - joint third most conceded. Roma are currently in 7th position. These numbers sum up the predicament of Roma under Zeman this season.

Zeman really is a dreamer - always the same football, always the same defeats, and yet he never takes a step back.
                                                                       Massimo Mauro, former Juventus player

To be labelled as pragmatic and practical is insulting to Zeman. He would rather leave a memorable legacy, than a successful one. To play attacking football is like living with freedom and independence  To place restrictions would be to deny fulfilment of potential. Consistency is sacrificed for the sake of owning your talent. Games involving Roma resemble a free market economy, where a player has full ownership of their decisions, skills and decisions. They are not bound to playing under restrictions -  they can decide how to play without the state governing how to do so. Even though Zeman is a capitalist at heart, he is bounded by the rules of reality. Like Sacchi and Mourinho and even Guardiola, some form of governance must exist if only to avoid total chaos. In a similar way to many economies around the world, there is some form of state ownership involved - state capitalism. Only the essentials like healthcare, education, transport etc are owned and operated by the state. Zeman still coaches tactical concepts like a high press, positional play and ball possession, but does not govern every little concept in detail like Bielsa or Mourinho would. Only the essentials are imprinted in the players, but the individuality is still left quite open to expression.

Harry Redknaap

Mention Harry Redknaap and tactics in the same sentence and people would look at you in a funny way. Old Harry is known for being a dinosaur tactician when compared to modern coaches like Andre Villas-Boas, Brendan Rodgers and Michael Laudrup. On the flip-side  he is well known for being a fabulous man manager who has that ability to extract good performances from his players.

There are no long and boring speeches about tactics, like I was used to at Real Madrid. There is a clipboard in our dressing room, but Harry doesn't write anything on it. It's not that we do nothing - but it's close to that.
                                                                                                  Rafael van der Vaart

His coaching style relies on empowering and liberating his players - to give them encouragement to exploit their talents as they see fit. It is not so much a policy, it's more of a natural way of thinking. Perhaps being an Englishman who grew up during the Cold War made him suspicious of politics in Soviet Union, China and Soviet-led East Germany. Of course, England have always been allies with the United States and it is quite common to agree on most issues with your friends, and disagree with your enemies. Perhaps it's just that Redknaap believes in the individual making his own decisions, rather than it being dictated by someone else. Out of all the coaches in the current day, Redknaap is one of the most liberal and wild at heart.

Juanma Lillo

Juanma Lillo is one of the most theoretical coaches out there. A fanatical supporter of the phrase "there is no 'I' in team", Lillo is like Karl Marx in his insistence that every action on a field by a player is only caused by, and affects, other players around him.

‘If a player gets the ball in his own area, the opposition players all sit down on the turf and he runs the whole length of the pitch, dribbling round them and scores a goal…that’s still not an individual act because if they don’t sit down, he can’t do that. What the other guy does is what imposes upon you this decision or that one. People talk about ‘individual actions’, but there are not individual actions.’
                                                                                                        Juanma Lillo

This is an example of communist ideology taken to the extreme - the last team Lillo managed was Almeria which got relegated under his leadership. Lillo's last game in charge was an 8-0 drubbing by Guardiola's Barca. The irony is that, alongside Marcelo Bielsa, Lillo mentored and advised Guardiola when he was in charge of Barca B. Lillo is a symbol that theory alone will not be successful. Adaptation and realism play an important part in success.

Barcelona, Dynamo Kiev, AC Milan, Brazil, Netherlands, Roma and Real Madrid in some shape or form have all been at war - an often silent war - between two ideologies. Players, managers, directors, supporters and media have all been soldiers in this war, trying to win everyone over everyone else with their arguments and speeches. It is a symptom of a perfect game - one open to interpretation and argument. Just like the Cold War was a battle of ideologies, football is at at war with itself to determine which is the best way to play the game. Unlike the Cold War, an answer will never be found. The Cold War in football is an endless war.

Published with permission from Sportskeeda

Sunday, 13 January 2013

The Football Media Circus

The good old days of journalism
Image from
I hate football media.

Well, most of them.

You see, an unhealthy culture has developed within the mainstream media in their reporting of football. When the product of discussion is supposed to take place on the field of play, there is an alarming trend developing whereby off-field incidents are sensationalised to the extent of mirroring the gossip and truly disgusting culture that is found in the celebrity gossip and paparazzi world. Such celebrity websites can be truly horrific in the content that they post, often creating completely fake rumours just to stir up some conversation. Such outrageous and completely low acts of desperation have no regard to the people who are the victims of blind accusations, rumours and false information. Sadly, this culture is entering football and it is demeaning the action on the pitch, which has become merely a sideshow in many cases.

One can take a very relevant and current example of the English media campaign against Luis Suarez. Before I go on I want to make this very clear - I very much admire and sympathise with Suarez. While I do not condone such actions that he has found himself paying for such as the incident with Patrice Evra last season, there are so many minor incidents, which do not deserve to be mentioned in any newspaper, let alone the front page. I am referring to countless accusations of diving and claims of cheating levelled against Suarez by the English media.

This is a completely biased form of opinion, one which is only seemingly made without rational consideration and aimed at providing journalists the content with which to fill their days.

I can recall a stonewall penalty that Suarez should have had against Norwich earlier this season which was not given by the referee. The media chose to ignore this incident, presumably because this injustice was not worth reporting. Against Stoke City, Suarez was involved with a few altercations with a few Stoke City players and was battling with the referee, pleading to be given legitimate fouls committed on numerous occasions by the Stoke City defenders. At the conclusion of the game and quite unsurprisingly, the media focused on the behaviour of Suarez towards the referee and his attempts at gaining free-kicks by "going down easily". The media chose to ignore the harsh tackles and approach from the Stoke players while lambasting Suarez for his constant attempts at manipulating the referee and trying to get the Stoke players booked.

Furthermore, when Everton hosted Liverpool at home Phil Neville was booked for a dive by the referee. Once again there was minimal, if not zero coverage of this truly hideous crime committed by the captain of Everton. Perhaps it was because he is English. The most recent example and perhaps the most clear indication that there is a bias against Suarez is the almost universal condemnation levelled at Suarez for his handball against Mansfield Town. What strikes me most is how the media have portrayed Suarez to have not only cheated by deliberately hand-balling, but also how he bragged about it and goaded the Mansfield Town supporters by pointing to the hand which made contact with the ball. This is one of the most ridiculous things I have ever heard because any slightly reasonable football supporter would know that Suarez has a tattoo of his daughter's name on his wrist which he kisses after every goal he scores. He also kisses his wedding ring every time he scores. Using a man's love for his family against him to stoke the fires of a witch hunt is reprehensible.

 In addition to these biased accusations, the commentator of the game uttered the words "work of a cheat" when describing the goal. Not only is this an unfair and biased statement, it is unprofessional bordering on insulting. The most ridiculous thing of all is that the media chastised Suarez for not admitting that he handled the ball. That is like accusing a player of not admitting the ball came off his shin for a corner which leads to a goal for his team.

Image from @LFCphoto Twitter

If you visit a celebrity website or read a celebrity magazine, you will inevitably come across pictures of a close up shot of a celebrity woman's stomach. The editor/publisher will add an arrow to indicate where we should look on the photograph and amazingly there seems to be an irregularity in the lines of the shirt she is wearing. "PREGNANT!" the caption would declare, and with that fan-sites start speculating whether it is a boy or a girl. Nine months later and the celebrity woman in question is secretly photographed on a beach wearing a swimsuit and seemingly as thin as she was nine months previous. You might as well invent such stories if there are idiots who read them and buy your magazines. This sad state of affairs can be adapted with an almost frightening similarity to football's fastest rising source of lazy journalism - the transfer market.

It is within this world that journalism standards hits the depths of mediocrity-as if it follows a cycle like the tides follow the moon. Metaphorically, it is as if the plague sweeps the world of journalism every European summer and January and then suddenly leaves the world to rest for a few months. If you still think that journalists don't make up rumours, I would like to point out a recent rumour started by @TAngleFootball and @th14renato in order to expose lazy journalism. The fake rumour was that Eduardo Vargas of Napoli was to join Arsenal this January transfer window. The rumour was started on Twitter and included fake quotes from the player and fake details about the transfer. The result of this experiment was astonishing. The rumour appeared on the following mainstream media outlets:

  • MirrorFootball
  • ESPN Brazil
  • Gazzetta Dello Sport
  • Rai Sport
  • Daily Mail
These are just a sample of the media outlets that have published the Vargas to Arsenal rumours started up by two people on Twitter. In an even more embarrassing twist in the uncovering of lazy journalism, the author of the story published on the Mirror, John Cross, claimed that the first he heard of the Vargas rumour was after the story had been published under his name. One must wonder how much little journalists actually know when they write transfer stories and more worryingly how much of it is taken from Twitter. As one Twitter user asked, "Don't you read your 'own' articles before they are published?" It is a legitimate question and it puts into question how much content published in newspapers and online news sites are actually the work of the authors that wrote them. It also highlights how much content is just copied and pasted from other sites, with no research or enquiry as to the source of the information or it's legitimacy. Take all this in as you please, but I for one have lost faith in football media transfer news.

Proof of fake Eduardo Vargas rumour
Apart from my ramblings about the media, it seems that on a general level, that the media focuses too much on the negatives and not enough on the positives. Every time a team have lost a few games in a row, the media speculates the future of the manager. Every little training ground bust up is caught on camera and treated as the total and utter destruction of the dressing room. A player not passing to a team mate can be viewed as a sign that they don't like each other. If a player dives, he is a diver. If a player is from Brazil, he is too lightweight to play in the Premier League. The John Terry/Anton Ferdinand saga should have been played out in private but it didn't. Even the recent 'scandal' surrounding Pep Guardiola's refusal to shake the hand of Cristiano Ronaldo crept under my skin. Just today, as I am writing this article, one journalist asked Rafael Benitez at the pre-match press conference whether David Luiz's haircut would affect his form.

Yes, football media has become like the paparazzi and it has grown into a gossip monster, incapable of resisting the urge to seek and piece together poor quality content to gain as many readers as possible. Where being a sports journalist was previously looked upon by many teenagers as the ultimate career, it now more or less resembles a career working for a circus.

The media could well improve by focusing on the true stories in football - the ones that take place on the pitch. Maybe that way, the mainstream media could return to being more positive and actually make people happy to read about football. As George Costanza from Seinfeld says, "Why dwell on these negatives themes?"

Published with permission from Sportskeeda