Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Match of the Day ain't broke

There is a lot of rubbish talked about football on television, I am well aware that I make my own regular contributions.

But the day that any television company finds a pundit or presenter or technical gizmo that provides more entertainment than the match action itself, he or she or it will really be earning their money. And the game will be in big trouble.

There is a healthy appetite among television professionals to continually freshen up their act and unveil different approaches to bringing football to your screens. Most of them can be filed under ‘Emperor’s new clothes’, but year by year better technology provides better pictures and analysis, and hopefully better enjoyment and understanding of how the game is played.

Familiarity should not be underrated as a television virtue, though. We can argue all we like as to why many more viewers watch the World Cup final on BBC than ITV, and many more watch the Champions League final on ITV than Sky.

Old habits die harder than you imagine in TV. Two years ago, my dear old dad (a Sky golf addict) inadvertently watched the Chelsea-United final on Sky and asked me next day if I had a cold. Most people just want to see the match.

With the greatest respect to many much admired friends at the Beeb, Peter Odemwingie and Darren Bent were the stars of ‘Match of the Day’ on Saturday.

I’ve read calls this week for the pundits to be given more time for analysis and even for a classic match from the video vaults to adorn the show. Another time, maybe. But ‘Match of the Day’ should do what it says on the tin. The action is the hook.

To harp on about Alan Shearer calling David Silva, David Villa is just silly. The greatest manager he ever served under rarely got a player’s name right and yet Sir Bobby Robson remains the most popular football figure of the modern era.

I got Jack Wilshere and Andrei Arshavin mixed up for the first 10 minutes at Arsenal last week. It happens. I think the issue of (the excellent) Andy Gray laughing off Dedryck Boyata’s cynical checks on Didier Drogba is a far more interesting debating point. When is the ‘professional view’ wrong?

Sound editorial values are important. I have a bee in my bonnet about a manager saying, ‘I haven’t seen the incident yet’ at 10:30 at night on MOD. Show him, then ask him. But the detail of the show must never get in the way of the moments that set the editorial agenda.

The best thing about football is the football. Gary and the boys all wish they were still playing. Their programme usually respects the importance of the action and remains true to its roots. Don’t fix what ain’t broken.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

No fudge for Steven Gerrard please Fabio!

Memo to Fabio: Don't! Do not go there! Do not even think about it! Don’t consider it, evaluate it or discuss it... not even with your interpreter.

James Milner will be suspended for next month’s game against Montenegro, but under no circumstances, on no account, in no way must Steven Gerrard be shoehorned into his position on the left of midfield. Ok?

Don’t get me wrong, if Frank Lampard is fit in time for the match I will be happy to see him back in an England shirt. I am one of the few people that believe he is actually underrated. But Lampard must only play if Gerrard or Gareth Barry cannot.

4-4-2 is still not my favourite ‘arrangement’ because it is essentially a system of square holes. But please, please fill it with square pegs.

England are playing well, certainly well enough to defeat the likes of Bulgaria and a surprisingly poor Switzerland. Fabio Capello has enjoyed a good week. Even some of the negatives may prove positive.

Joe Hart’s little wobble will remind him and everyone else that he is an international novice, a very good one. Wayne Rooney did just begin to indulge himself with some loose passes, as he is prone to do when he gets so much of the ball. We got one or two little reminders without suffering any pain.

Even Theo Walcott’s injury may prove a fateful ‘leg-up’ to Adam Johnson. Both bring something fresh and exciting to the party, but Johnson’s quiet confidence and constant goal threat maybe just give him the edge at the moment. He looks ready.

I don’t think either Johnson or Walcott had done quite enough by May to ‘demand’ a place in the World Cup squad, and missing out on South Africa probably did both (and England) a favour.

Two years ago, Joe Cole’s injury in the second qualifying game allowed a previously injured Gerrard back into the team. For the next match against Kazakhstan in the October, Capello actually fudged a kind of 4-3-3 to accommodate Gerrard, Barry and Lampard, pushing Rooney a little wider out to the left.

The fudge survived until half-time when England were booed off.

Please, please, please... no fudge on the menu this time.

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Monday, September 6, 2010

Wondering about Frank Lampard

I wonder how much Frank Lampard enjoyed watching England’s victory over Bulgaria on Friday?

It is one of the natural laws of football that whenever you are injured, you look a great player if the team loses without you and a disposable player when they win. It may all be different come tomorrow night.

Exactly three years ago, Lampard missed England’s opening qualifier of the season having scored against Germany at Wembley in an August friendly. Gareth Barry was drafted in to partner Steven Gerrard, and England duly reeled off three successive 3-0 wins over Israel, Russia and Estonia. Lampard became an England substitute.

The episode is largely forgotten – partly because England subsequently lost dramatically decisive matches to Russia and Croatia, and partly because all of Steve McClaren’s successes have been selectively wiped from the popular records in a rather Orwellian manner.

Lampard will play many more times for England, but another victory in Basle tomorrow may delay his next appearance for longer than he would like.

Two years ago, England famously won 4-1 in Croatia. The central midfield partnership that night?... Lampard and Barry. Gerrard was injured, and only an injury to Joe Cole let him back into the team.

Readers of this blog will know that both Fabio Capello and 4-4-2 have bigger fans than me. I admit that it was to my surprise that Friday’s variation on the system worked such a treat for the manager.

If the balance of the team can be maintained, it may well be the best formula for qualification. But Lampard should only play if he is replacing Barry or Gerrard.

The biggest conclusion to draw from the World Cup experience could be that you need one ‘team’ to qualify, and another to excel at the finals. Goal-getters like Jermain Defoe and Peter Crouch may fit the bill when you are in need of men to snap up the bountiful chances England should create against lesser-ranked teams.

I think tournament football requires a more grown-up approach to winning games.

If you have ever wondered what there is to my job apart from what you hear from me on the television, or if you have football commentary or sports journalism in mind as a career yourself, please visit: