The English Game: Conservatism, Rigidity and Failure

After every international failure, the media in England hold an inquest as to what went wrong. Last Thursday night, on Channel 5, there was a moment that I felt summed up a significant segment of the issues with the country’s footballing psyche. As Aurtenetxe, ostensibly Athletic Club’s right-back, jinxed his way through the Manchester United defence, eventually crafting a goal scoring opportunity for himself, Stan Collymore questioned why a player in his position should find himself in that part of the pitch. Collymore was, sadly, an unwitting participant in an incredibly salient moment in English football. One in which an analyst, supposedly an expert at football, revealed beliefs that had been eradicated almost a generation earlier on the continent.

When Michels introduced totaalvoetbal through his Ajax side in the early part of the 1970s, people heralded a revolution in football thinking. For the two seasons running between 1971 and 1973, Michels’ Ajax did not only not lose a single home game, but achieved total domination, with a record of 46 victories. They were also clearly the best side on a european stage, clinching three European Cups in a row. This innovation, centered around Cruyff’s ability and willingness to move around the pitch, playmaking on behalf of the team, despite his supposed role as a center forward, would eventually become the foundation in ideology for the 1974 Dutch national side, arguably one of the better sides not to have won the World Cup at a given tournament. Coasting past teams such as Argentina and Brazil with great ease, the Dutch were eventually defeated by a West German side who stifled Cruyff’s creativity enough to snatch victory.

What, you may ask, does totaalvoetbal have to do with Athletic Club, English football and Stan Collymore? The answer lies in the very question. Would Bielsa look at the Dutch national side of 1974 and see them as intrinsically linked with his Bilbao side? Probably not. He would see them as an influence on football on the continent, but be well aware of the differences between how his side play football and that of Michels. He would, however, understand why the generation of footballers he manages have amongst their ranks right-backs who break forward and threaten the goal. He would understand the innovations of Michels’ team and the segments of the game which directly derive from their tactics. He would not, as Collymore did, question why a right back would be so close to the goal, in the center of the pitch.

Collymore is, in essence, symptomatic of the issues with English football. This is not to say that he alone is at fault in the world of English punditry. One merely has to look at the manner in which David Luiz has been treated since his arrival on the island. Oft derided for his ability to run with the ball and pose a direct threat to the opposition net, as it does not agree with the stereotype of the center back, Luiz will often find himself blamed for mistakes other defensive team mates have made. When Luiz goes forward, is he not simply attempting to have a hand to play in football’s ultimate aim, which is the scoring of goals to win matches? If he feels confident enough to contribute in this regard, Michels would encourage him to attack. The onus should fall on team mates to cover where gaps have arisen. This positional interchange is one of the key tenets of the totaalvoetbal that arose almost forty years ago. The level of success Luiz often has in these advanced positions should be evidence enough of the reasonability of this sort of play. Yet debate still arises over whether Luiz is not a midfielder, or if he’s a bad defender. The answer is neither, his attacking abilities do not render his defensive abilities null and void. The debate does nothing but symbolise English football’s unwillingness to accept tactical and footballing realities that are simply part of the game elsewhere in the world.

This positional simplicity is compounded by the debate that operates on the other end of the scale. Wayne Rooney is the prime example of this. The number of times commentators have questioned what Wayne Rooney’s ‘best position’ is number in the hundreds by this point, when, to any observer not blinded by the rigid roles ascribed to players in the country, it is quite clear that Rooney’s best position is simply on the pitch. He operates wherever he chooses to down the spine of the team, and that is partly why he is the best player in the country. He is simultaneously creator and goalscorer, operating effectively in both midfield and attack. To do what most pundits seem to desire, and tether him to a rope that allows him to operate within 18 yards of the goalmouth, would be to neuter the nation’s most exciting talent.

As if to symbolize the immense success of innovation, Javi Martinez, ostensibly a central midfielder, has been deployed at the center of defence for Athletic Club this season. This allows play to be built from the back. Another debatably successful side, Barcelona, have done the same, fielding Mascherano in a frequently used three-man defence, providing an immensely deep-lying playmaker. Any attempt to institute this in England would, you feel, be derided. Manchester City’s attempts to play three men in defence earlier this season, without a playmaker, were seen as some sort of tactical deviancy. Over from Italy comes this man, wearing scarves and trying ridiculous things. Three men at the back? Alf Ramsey would not stand for this.

English football, is, to a large degree, suffering from this rigid sense of positional play that the rest of the world has long forgotten. It does not even just apply to the obvious, however. Mancini’s attempts to have Manchester City’s defenders zonal mark from corners were oft derided by commentary teams. This despite the level of success the team would achieve from this ploy. City would, by February of this year, only have conceded two goals from corners this season, and beyond this, they had a positive aggregate goals from corner count of +10. Scoring 12, they are clearly aware of frailties to exploit in other team’s corner defending, even when the success of their defence is discounted.

Where does this English deference to rigid positional understandings come from? Jonathan Wilson, in Inverting the Pyramid, clearly reveals a history to a lack of English tactical innovation that belies trends around the world. Long after other nations had begun to abandon the W-M, England rigidly stuck to this formation. This would, of course, lead to the loss against Hungary that revealed England’s no longer dominant position in the footballing world. The man marking used in this game simply did not work, as the center-half had no idea how to deal with a deep-lying Hidegkuti.

Maybe it is a series of failed attempts to depart from this tradition that causes English football to remain so rigid. Admittedly, steps have been taken and a fluid front four is becoming more commonplace in the English game. The conservative nature of the media that surrounds the game, however, does not inspire confidence in this regard. One feels as though the generation of players commenting on the game will be nothing but a hindrance to the innovation necessary for English success on a European and international scale. Criticism comes for anyone attempting anything truly new. Flexibility and fluidity are probably footballing buzz-words on the continent. It is time for English football to accept, adapt and take charge.

Follow Amitai Winehouse on Twitter (@awinehouse1).

Image of Ken Bates

The Delusions of Ken Bates

Image of Ken Bates

Ken Bates is completely sure that what he does at Elland Road is correct. As much as the various outlets that criticize the running of the club disagree with what occurs, that one fact can stand above all others as an undeniable truth. The man in charge is completely, entirely, devoutly convinced that the Ken Bates method for running Leeds United is right. Not only this, it is the only way. The only way that Leeds United can have a future, Ken Bates feels, is through him.

A dictator is defined as “a ruler with total power over a country, typically one who has obtained power by force”. Many people would suggest that equating the chairman of a football team with those who cause strife around the globe as ridiculous. I would probably have agreed a mere seventy-two hours ago. This week, however, was the week in which the extensive nature of Ken Bates’s delusions came to the fore. He, dictating down to one of the various lackeys who crop up in statements that come out of the club, decided to ban the board of the Leeds United Supporter’s Trust (LUST). Clearly, judging by Ken Bates’ weekly interview that occurred a few days ago, this is in response to a group he knows little and cares little about. It must, therefore, have been as part of a giant cull of fans, because otherwise the event would not have occurred.

In doing this, Ken Bates has managed to galvanize the support base. Ideally, he would have hoped it had brought about a fan base united behind himself. He’d finally proven to the world that these were merely ‘morons’ and ‘sickpots’. Even if he hadn’t, at least these people who opposed him would no longer be an intolerable nuisance in the ground he does not own.

There are several fundamental flaws with this concept however. The first stems from the facts the majority of Leeds fans have become well acquainted with. Ken Bates, in his budgeting of Leeds United, spends at most 42% on the playing side of the team. We’ve covered this thoroughly already, but the fact is worth repeating. Football is primarily a game of dreams, a game in which fans should enter a season with hope and dreams about what may have unfolded by the end of the year. Yet Leeds have a set of fans well-adjusted to the notions of a summer of discontent. Last summer alone, Leeds lost several key first team players. It was clear the season was not going to be a positive one. This runs opposed to the very nature of football. Simon Kuper wrote about the almost permanently solvent nature of football clubs in The Blizzard, arguing that football clubs will always exist in one form or another, given the significant demand for them. Leeds fans do not ask for ridiculous debts to be run up, but they do ask for at least some risk, as without this, reward cannot come.

Secondly, as much as Ken Bates seems unwilling to accept this fact, there are laws governing the island on which his football team resides. Aside from the potentially repeated violations of the Data Protection Act in his weekly address, Ken seems convinced that denying LUST an outlet in the stadium is to deny them any outlet at all. Sadly for Kenneth, the ‘wishy-washy BBC watching liberals’ in charge incorporated the European Convention into UK law in 1998. This guarantees freedom of speech under the Human Rights Act. So, where Ken publishes only the positive through his various outlets, the various publications that people turn to for Leeds United news will continue to report the realities of the situation at Elland Road. This one incident alone has swelled the ranks of the Supporter’s Trust by a ‘mere’ thousand members. This is not Noel Lloyd. Ken is not the dictator of a secluded paradise. The outcry can, and may well lay siege to Bates’ regime at Elland Road.

Finally, Ken doesn’t seem to understand the movements football governance is taking. The Supporter’s Trust movement is backed by no less than the current Con-Dem Coalition, ideologically most likely to support anything that leaves business alone. For them to show this sort of opposition to the politics of football shows how far in the wrong direction it has travelled. English football is finally making moves towards the German model of ownership. Should Ken not rectify his relationship with the Supporter’s Trust, he may soon find himself permanently attached to a very hostile 51% co-owner.

Ken should therefore genuinely rethink his actions at Elland Road. Whether it is merely the output of his media outlets, or the actions he takes with regards to the fans, or if he does a proper rethink of the club’s policies, now is the time, ahead of next season, with mild positivity in the air, to really take advantage. Football is, by its very nature, for the fans. The fans are beginning to seriously demand change at Leeds United, and as LUST say, Ken Bates can easily be part of that. Alternatively, he can become an eternally decried figure in the annals of the club.

Amitai Winehouse is followable on Twitter @awinehouse1. Read his article, ‘The Gwynterview’ in the latest issue of The Square Ball, available now.

Why Lee Clark’s Sacking Is Justifiable

The sacking of Lee Clark at Huddersfield Town has sent shockwaves across the world of football, with observers from Henry Winter to Wayne Rooney expressing their shock and dismay at the decision. To the uninformed spectator the decision may seem bizarre, however Huddersfield fans have been far from disappointed at the decision, and some have actively welcomed it. How did a man with only 3 defeats in 55 games come to be sacked? And why have so few fans been unhappy with the news?

At the start of Lee Clark’s tenure there was a positive vibe among the fans, after an encouraging end to the 2008-09 season. The feeling of positivity was matched by the performances on the pitch over the following year. Clark assembled a talented young squad which played a genuine brand of free-flowing attacking football and would eventually finish 6th in the table, racking up 82 goals in the process. Nevertheless, Huddersfield’s soft underbelly and lack of experience would be cruelly exposed by a resilient Milwall side in the play-offs.

The defeat against Milwall would have a terminal effect on the style of play Lee Clark would adopt for the rest of his tenure. Huddersfield clearly needed experience and graft to accompany the undoubtedly talented youngsters at the club. This was reflected by Clark’s signings before the 2010-11 season, with the arrivals of Ian Bennett, Gary Naysmith, Damien Johnson, Joey Gudjonsson and Alan Lee all examples of the experience Clark felt necessary. On paper these signings looked to be exactly what the club needed. However as the season progressed it was clear that some of Clark’s signings were over the hill and simply happy to collect one final pay-packet. This left Town with a squad of youngsters and has-beens with very few players at the peak of their footballing ability.

Despite a promising start to the new campaign Town’s football would become increasingly negative as the season went on. The final blow to Clark’s attacking football would come after a 4-1 mauling at promotion rivals Southampton in late December. This result led Clark to implement a 4-5-1 system for the remainder of the season. Town would subsequently go unbeaten for the rest of the season, and were admittedly unlucky that they were competing against as talented a side as Southampton for the second automatic promotion place. The problem with 4-5-1 was the negativity that accompanied it. Between January 1st and the end of the season, Town won only five games by more than 1 goal and became the divisions draw specialists. Four games at the end of February where Town picked up just 4 points from a possible 12 seriously dented their promotion chances and meant that Town lost too much ground on Southampton to recover.

The play-off final against Peterborough was arguably the crippling blow from which Lee Clark would never really recover. His decision to play 4-5-1 with the 18 year old Benik Afobe as the lone striker ahead of Jordan Rhodes perplexed many fans, even if Rhodes’s form had not been as mercurial at this point. Clark’s tactical shortcomings in this game were not the only thing that annoyed Town fans though. The Peterborough squad had been assembled on a fraction of the budget that Lee Clark had to spend and highlighted just how much money Lee Clark had squandered on players. Clark’s transfer record was a real mixed bag with the signings of Jordan Rhodes, Anthony Pilkington and Lee Peltier seemingly showing he had an eye for a player. However, Clark would sign enough players to have four separate teams in his time at Huddersfield but never one good enough to secure promotion. Signings like Dominik Werling, Alan Lee and Robbie Simpson have been monumental flops in their time at Huddersfield. In addition Clark has never been able to address Huddersfield’s problem area of central midfield, despite a host of signings aimed at addressing the issue.

Clark was rarely able to re-create the feel good factor around the club in the 2011-12 season as fans struggled to recover from the play-off final defeat. There was a growing sense of apathy around the club due to the prospect of another season in League One, with empty stadiums and long ball football. Again, Huddersfield were victim to drawing too many games and sacrificing winning positions and there was a growing feeling that this was down to Clark’s tactical shortcomings. Despite Town still riding high in the table fans were disillusioned with the brand of football they were being made to watch. At the end of the day, football is a form of entertainment and in a time where fans are, more than ever, struggling to justify the high prices of going to watch football, Huddersfield have simply not played an attractive enough brand of football to warrant extortionately high ticket prices.

Furthermore Clark’s man-management skills have come under scrutiny and generally been found wanting. Donal McDermott and Anton Robinson had both impressed for Bournemouth, but were never able to show their ability under Clark. Indeed, as the season wore on, it appeared that some players were scared of playing for Lee Clark. This was in part due to Clark’s increasingly strange team selections, which prevented players from gaining confidence. From one week to the next it was as if the selection was random. Players would go from not even being in the squad for months on end to suddenly being plunged into the starting eleven, Danny Cadamarteri for instance. This scattergun policy to selection prevented Huddersfield from gaining any real consistency and confidence, and this is reflected in the quality of football and entertainment towards the end of Clark’s regime.

Despite all this Clark would probably have kept his job until the end of the season if he had handled his public relations and the media better. At the beginning of his stint as manager Clark talked a good game and his handling of the media helped to raise the club’s profile. However, the 2011-12 season in particular, has seen a markedly different media handling style adopted by Clark. His post-match interviews have been increasingly bullish and have alienated the media and supporters. His refusal to rule himself out of the running for the Leicester job left a sour taste in the mouth for all concerned, and potentially soured the relationship with the board. Poor performances after Christmas combined with him again refusing to rule himself out of vacant managerial positions led to growing disillusionment among the fans. This alienation of supporters led to a lack of confidence in Lee Clark’s ability, and it is this deterioration of trust, more than the results on the pitch, which led to Clark’s position becoming untenable.

Lee Clark should be praised for his 100% commitment and enthusiasm to the cause. Nevertheless Clark has been heavily backed by an ambitious owner and has ultimately failed in his remit of getting Huddersfield to the Championship. The major gripe among Town fans was how much the quality of football has decreased since the beginning of his reign. Though the sacking came as a surprise to many pundits, those who have followed Clark and Huddersfield this season understand the sacking was justified. His comments to the media have made him seem, at times, deluded and desperate – especially in the wake of the defeat to Sheffield United. Dour football combined with a deteriorating media relationship have meant that, bizarrely, despite a 43 game unbeaten run, Clark’s sacking is understandable. Despite the claims of footballing contemporaries Lee Clark’s sacking is not an example of ‘football gone mad’ and the actions of an egotistical chairman, but instead the actions of a man well within his rights to call time on a failing regime.

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