For football fans, when we hear our sport described as “the beautiful game”, it evokes a certain sense of pride.
With the likes of Messi, Ronaldo, Sneijder, Bale, and so many others to dazzle us with feats of stunning skill and athleticism, it’s a well-deserved moniker, but it shouldn’t be taken for granted. There are times when things look a little rough around the edges.
It might seem gratuitous, with this year’s MLS season in its infancy, to ponder things unsightly, but this isn’t limited to the “less sophisticated” parts of the world, as there is certain ugliness in the type of overwhelming lopsidedness that presently persists in La Liga.
Notwithstanding the quasi-heroic effort put on by Almeria in the first 45 at the weekend, being a Barca fan feels somehow tainted of late by the utter inevitability of the outcome, and the tones of El Cant del Barça ring slightly sharp.
At least a typical Real fixture this season still holds the uncertainty of a team that has yet more kinks to work out (what is it with that back line?).
But our part of the footballing world would surely be content if that were the only sort of issue they had – although it often seems that an abundance of fruit have been hanging low for an eternity.
For example, while the product on the pitch in MLS continues to make gains, in a number of cases it’s the pitch itself that detracts from the expected beauty. Venues like Buck Shaw, CommunityAmerica, and RFK have for too long injected an undesirable element of absurdity into the league’s image.
And this has opened the continuously improving North American game to rather underserved ridicule. Of course, this isn’t limited to MLS, as the atmosphere of a typical A-League match-up is lost in the hollows of an Aussie-Rules stadium.
Thankfully, the visual of a patched up baseball field is swiftly moving into the past – we can only hope that the remaining artificial turf will fast follow suit.
Other improvements, while perhaps less obvious, also hold the potential for boosting the league’s image.
For example, enforced standards for TV coverage are badly needed – Saturday’s broadcast of the TFC–San Jose fixture at the tiny high-school-bleacher-clad Buck Shaw wasn’t in any way improved by a director with a ridiculous penchant for ill-timed and pointless replays that seemed to alternate with inexplicably long close-ups of players uninvolved in the play that was quickly moving up the pitch.
And the fix here seems straightforward: a few H1B Visas for some borrowed German or English producers should enable the various broadcasters to get their domestic staff up to speed. But even broadcasts from venues like BMO Field would be significantly improved simply by elevating the camera platforms a few meters to give fans a better sense of the game’s tactical developments.
And it should go without saying that widescreen is the only format appropriate to frame our beautiful game.
CONCACAF also suffers from an acute form of an ailment that does pop up in every part of the world: inept officiating. Wednesday’s Revolution–Whitecaps fixture is a case-in-point, as “Tarjeta-Toledo” did his best to suck the life out of what was otherwise a highly entertaining game – that excludes the red cards, which were all deserved, but the match was otherwise simply not well-managed.
That isn’t to say that all MLS fixtures are poorly officiated, as the TFC–Earthquakes contest stands out as an example of where the tone set by the referee actually went a significant way towards overcoming the evening’s other notable deficiencies.
And to be sure, MLS officiating generally still doesn’t descend to the preposterous lows too frequently seen in other CONCACAF competitions.
In the Champions League and the Gold Cup, the all-too-pervasive play-acting still tends to benefit the cheaters – to the detriment of the game’s beauty.
Surely it’s just a matter of implementing effective and ongoing training for our officials, complemented by an equally effective performance management system, to achieve the desired consistency.
Football’s power-politics tend to make for slow progress on the resolution of issues like the imbalance in Spain, yet things do change – the EPL is certainly more competitive than it has been in some time, and the seemingly disinterested Italian fans have had to cede a Champions League spot to their more enthusiastic German counterparts.
We do have lower-hanging fruit on this side of the pond, though, and we ought to get on with the picking. It would be a shame indeed if easy fixes left unaddressed undid the good work done by forward-leaning ownership groups such as Seattle and now Vancouver.
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Pep 5 Jose 0, you make a number of good points, not the least of which is that, based on performance alone, Benzema probably does deserve to be benched. And I agree that, individually, Ronaldo, Özil, DiMaria, and Kaka, are Madrid’s most potent offensive talent. The challenge, however, given their particular strengths of each, is to devise an effective system that gets the best from all four. None of them excels at holding up the ball, and I would argue that Real are a side that require someone in that role.
While Ronaldo unquestionably has the skills to play CF, what he lacks is the right disposition, which is to say that, on the typical play where he ought to be holding up the ball and bringing the wingers into the play, he is hard-pressed to overcome his tendency to make the turn himself. The problem is that, as the CF, he draws extra attention from the defence, and, starting with his back to goal, he has difficulty breaking through the double-team even with his fanciest footwork – indeed, tends to be unavailable for that type of pass in the first place.
And with respect, I don’t recall Lionel Messi ever lining up somewhere other than on the right wing (granted that there are games I haven’t seen). Even with Barca’s typical 4-3-3, there has historically been somebody in the middle who, in part, is tasked with holding up the ball – it used to be Sami; last year it was Ibra; now it tends to be Pedro. Barca also have the unique advantage of the Xavi-Iniesta duo, which enable them to play a system that is less reliant on CF who plays that role.
It would also be inadvisable to read too much into the Barca-Almeria score-line, as that particular result came just as the Catalans had begun to hit their stride with three previous impressive results against stronger opponents – beginning with five unanswered against Seville. For Almeria’s part, while their previous results failed to yield much in the way of points, with a win and six draws, they had by no means suffered anything close to this type of blow-out, as their worst loss was by a mere two goals. And subsequently they even managed to take a convincing three points away to Sevilla.
Similarly, the unconvincing 1-0 at Atletico is hardly evidence that Real are better without a natural CF leading the line. No, while the Almeria game would likely have gone Mourinho’s way if the likes of Di Maria, Marcelo, and Khedira had played better, the risk was always there, and the argument can be made that the change in the system contributed to the overall poor play.
Indeed, all of Mourinho’s manoeuvring and verbal sparring adds up to strong evidence that he too believes that he needs somebody other than Ronaldo to lead the line.
Home . . .
Not unlike some other notable managers, Jose Mourinho endeavours to shift media scrutiny from his players onto himself, and it’s a skill he’s developed to a ridiculous level of mastery. From time to time, however, the scrutiny belongs squarely focused on him in the first place – this is certainly the case following Sunday’s disaster at bottom Almeria.
To be fair, this was the headline I had intended for last week’s aborted write-up: “Villarreal 2 – Mourinho 4.” That solid performance seemed a good occasion to re-examine what I had previously laid out as the task at hand for Mourinho to transform Real Madrid into a side that can legitimately hope to take three points from the Barcelona juggernaut in April – that task being to strip his superstars of their self-serving tendencies.
While the Villarreal result provided more evidence that he is in fact doing this (notwithstanding Ronaldo’s razzle-dazzle-give-aways), the convincing reversal of the early double-deficit also was almost entirely the wages of Mourinho’s tactical manoeuvring.
That Sunday’s goal-fest seemed to mark a point of departure for the type of football Real had been playing last year. It was also the emergence of something rather resembling character and perseverance for the team as a whole.
Without question, Mourinho’s still-questionable back-line, along with Alonso, absolutely fell asleep on Cani’s goal. But while Real’s leveller did come from its superstar-in-chief, it was also a flawless example of a team-goal: Benzema not just holding up the ball, but getting it to Özil, who befuddled the defence by continuing the exchange before giving Ronaldo one of his easier markers.
Of course, the Real defence promptly demonstrated that it doesn’t quite have the concept of the trap sorted out. But the Whites very much knuckled down after that, and Alonso’s superb serve to Ronaldo’s head for a sharp finish set the tone for what was to come in the second half.
After correctly sizing up the Submarine’s performance during the first half, as well as the effectiveness of his own tactical adjustments (like getting his defenders to be much more disciplined in the second half), Mourinho leveraged his side’s growing domination of the tiring visitors’ midfield by going offensive.
First he stabilized his own midfield by replacing the ineffectual-if-energetic Diarra with a more judicious Khedira, which enabled him to add Kaka’s creativity to the leading edge.
A two-goal lead firmly in hand, Mourinho promptly slammed shut the crack in the backdoor with Gago. So, while the perseverance of a team finding its stride is what kept the score level up to that point, it was this tactical master-stroke that earns Mourinho the credit for the convincing victory.
And Away . . .
Now, whereas the Special One is due his credit for the fine home performance, he is equally, if not more so, due the blame for needlessly dropping the two points vs. Almeria.
In fact, starting Benzema on the bench was such an obvious blunder that it rather smells of a managerial power move much more than an earnest attempt to take all three points from the cellar-dwellers.
Other not-insignificant managers have, to equally disappointing effect, attempted to use Ronaldo to lead the line—and typically out of necessity instead of a less than subtle dislike of the other available personnel—so it’s exceedingly doubtful that Mourinho was unaware of the risks involved in such a move.
No, whatever the legitimate criticisms of Benzema as a finisher, his presence on the pitch is critical to creating the space necessary for the likes of Özil, Di Maria, and now Kaka, but especially Ronaldo to operate.
Goals may have been lacking, but Benzema has relatively consistently delivered the goods in terms of holding up the ball, and more recently he’s even learned how to release it to good effect, with Ronaldo and Özil certainly having benefited.
We’ll probably never know what Mourinho was truly thinking in making his selections, but it’s reasonable to infer that his primary motivation was to compel some action from Valdano and Perez in the transfer market, by sneaking three points the bottom team without his striker in the line-up.
Almeria, of course, had other ideas, and Mourinho’s scheming was fully foiled by what had to be Di Maria’s worst day at the park this season, while Marcelo had relapsed into his give-away phase. Even the Germans were no help, and that’s not counting Sami’s momentary lapse of reason.
By the time Mourinho conceded to reality, the Real defence was set to disappoint once again, which it did at minute-60. Worse yet for his scheming, the goal that saved a point was capably set up, albeit not scored, by Benzema.
Still, the risk of this tactical approach must have been apparent to a manager of Mourinho’s stature, so he must have accounted for it in his overall strategy. It is, however, challenging to see how his league calculus comes together – at this point, even if he gets the striker of is choice, he seems to be counting on injuries creeping into the bigger of the Catalan sides as the season wears on.
With Mallorca missing some key personnel, and Santander not about to present a problem for Barca, this weekend is unlikely to shed much additional light on how things will turn out, but whatever the outcome at season’s end, Mourinho cannot now say that it wasn’t of his own making.
And in the wake of Almeria, the media spotlight shouldn’t trouble his players too much for their remaining fixtures.