21 February 2018

The art of defending the art of defending

In case you've misplaced your memory in the tumult of football's ninety-minute news cycle, or are simply one of the approximately seven billion people with better things to do, you'll know there were several incidents even more controversial than your weekend Prem norm in the Liverpool-Tottenham game some Sundays ago. One involved a pass by Dele Alli aimed for Harry Kane, who was in an offside position in the Liverpool penalty area. Liverpool's Dejan Lovren tried to cut out the pass by swinging a boot at it, but he only sliced at the underside of the ball, which grazed the top of his foot and ran through to Kane, who then was (or wasn't, according to taste) fouled by keeper Loris Karius. The referee awarded a penalty. He was then called over by his assistant, who informed him that Kane was in an offside position and was therefore offside if Lovren, in his effort to play the ball, had touched it. The ref didn't know whether Lovren had touched the ball, and so had a sneaky word into his microphone to ask the fourth official if he (4th off) had seen, by some dreadful accident, a Lovren touch on some sort of screen that may have been unforgivably placed within eyeshot. Off'l #4 had indeed seen L. t. (whether live or on a monitor is unclear), and the ref confirmed his original decision.

As well as Monitorgate and Ifeltcontactandwentdowngate, there was much discussion about the offside non-call. Why wasn't Kane offside? The rule is pretty clear, once you've stared at it for a while. (That I had to look it up to reacquaint myself with it should be used in evidence against me, not the rule. Whisht.) Applied gist: Kane was not interfering with play, because, essentially, he wasn't receiving the ball from Alli, but from Lovren (whose touch was intentional, not just a rebound or deflection). Nor was Kane deemed to be interfering with Lovren's playing of the ball, because he did not impede Lovren in his attempt by challenging him or otherwise obstructing him. So, by rule, no offside.

But is the rule wrong? Just because it says that Kane was not interfering with play doesn't mean he wasn't. Lovren's attempt to send the ball soaring over the West Riding was surely provoked by a knowledge of the presence of the future former Real Madrid striker behind him. Kane may not have pulled Lovren's shorts down or shouted "TWAT!" into his ear at the critical moment, but by being the intended recipient of the pass, he was unquestionably interfering with play. Should the Laws of the Game [sic] not reflect this obvious fact?

No. Or, to be fair, not necessarily. And here, friends, is where we must wade out into the philosophical soup. See, it's a question of lines, which, as we know, have to be drawn somewhere. 'Interfering with play' is subjective, and must be defined to work as a rule. Behind that definition must be an idea of the kind of game you want, and how this particular aspect of the rules will help bring this into being. You are under no obligation to take a phrase like 'interfering with play' with maximum literality. Take 'offside' itself. It originally meant that it was an offence for a player to be 'off' their side of the ball, i.e. in front of the ball (like in rugby); shortly after the assoc. code was founded, the rule was drastically altered to something akin to what it is today, whereby a player can be in front of the ball in almost any circumstance. So, a player can very much be offside in the most literal sense without committing the offence defined in the rulebook as offside. As with offside, so with interfering with play. The Shanks hand-me-down along the lines of 'if you're not interfering with play, what are you doing on the pitch?' that gets recited whenever there's confusion about the matter can be ignored if desired. You can choose where the line gets drawn. So what kind of game do you want?

That question is the bassline underneath all these debates about the rules and their application. 'You can't tackle anymore' is the refrain when a dubious free or card is doled out by a ref. In kinder, gentler times, a tackler was permitted to heap upon a tacklee a hefty helping of relish and other foul condiments as long as he (tackler) touched the ball or otherwise made it change velocity at some point in the operation. Live butchery being frowned upon in this PC age, changes to rules and attitudes have made life that bit easier for those saps with the ball at their feet. As a result, and especially amongst defenders (current and former), frequently lamented are the injuries done to the 'art of defending', which 'they' (FIFA, probably) are trying to eradicate with their softening ways. The application of current mores is seen as unfairness on a par with piping in distracting ice-cream van sounds over the PA.

But if the a. o. d. is a real thing, it is only honoured by the easing skyward of difficulty levels for defenders. Never before has the game so favoured such artists as might lurk amongst the defensive unit. Would-be Maldinis are ever further separated from the kind of clogger for whom 'defending' rhymes only with 'upending' and 'art' with 'still-pumping heart'. There is a greater need to hit upon the blend of subtle skills that are the true essence of defending — things like awareness, patience, synchronicity with teammates, knowing when and how to act individually, and, finally, the judiciousness to know when to go for that tackle and the precision to pull it off. It puts a premium on those who can do these things supremely. Taking away the crutch of the route-one ploughing has ensured that physical force takes its proper place: as part of that blend, a supplement rather than a first port of call. Now defenders can't get away so much with not dealing with that pesky, untrustworthy object that is the ball, which can be made to do devious things by those pampered Crufts contestants who get the balloon doors and vid-king comps. Of course you can still tackle — the difference these days is that you have to do it well.

Back to offside. Under the original rule, it was not something a team could impose on another; you could no more deliberately play an opponent offside than you can in rugby. Even after the drastic change to the rule mentioned several paragraphs north of here, it took half a century for the offside trap to be invented. When that happened, the rule was soon altered to dull the new scheme's effectiveness. But across the Rubicon football had already gone. Before, the rule was a means to keep forwards honest. After, it became weaponised, something that belonged in an Arsenal*. It was now something that could be inflicted.

* Ask your grandfather.

But here's another paragraph beginning with 'But'. When an offside offence occurs, an attack is halted without the defence having to directly engage with the attackers or the ball. This means there is a way available to the defence by which they can deliberately end an attack while avoiding altogether the chore of doing any actual defending: no tackling, no pressing, no shepherding, no clearing, no saving, no fuss, no m-, no nothing. They even get a free kick out of it. What a swizz! For the attacking team to acquire an equivalent privilege, they would have to employ telekinesis or a crack team of star lawyers. (Yes, yes, or dive for a penno — but they still have to get the ball into the goal somehow.)

Now, it should be noted that there's nothing entirely wrong with any of this. It's not illegal, hardly unethical; the Geneva Conventions remain largely unviolated. Moreover, it's an example of the kind of sophisticated development that any game needs to keep it moving in a general forward direction. Without such innovation, a pitch would still be the size of a village and the crossbar industry would be but a pipe dream. The rules, their application, their spirit: feel how fuzzy they are. Fair play to everyone concerned with exploiting them. kutgw

On the rare occasion a Lovrenesque situation occurs, there are always plenty who will say that the rule is too complicated and that we should go back to how it was in Lawro's day. It's telling that this bellyaching only ensues when it is the defending team that has run afoul of a thitherto-ignored legal wrinkle. It shows how accustomed we all — not just the defensively minded — have become to the aggressive use of offside by defences as a norm to be deviated from at the cost of, oh, the game itself (gone though it almost certainly already is).

However, offside was never meant to be used this way, and the rulemakers are under no obligation to facilitate the free unfurling of such ploys. As somebody once said: what kind of game do you want? Whatever else it should be, there are two attributes in particular it should possess. The first is that it should be an opportunity for great players to practice their craft in all its facets (including those that comprise that art of defending) to a high level — preferably all the way to the point where opportunity turns into necessity. The second might seem somewhat at odds with the first, moving as it does from the celebratory to the sadistic. But that's football for you. For what it should also do is continually place the players in peril to see how they try to get themselves out of it. It should jam together the realms of competence and incompetence, of wild glory and dreams shredded and scattered; it should bring the players right up to the front, give them a shove, and see which side they fall on. This century's tweaks to the offside rule — and tweaks are all they are — have brought some extra jeopardy to the invoking of a get-out clause and have thus, in their modest way, done their bit to move football closer to that blessed state of tension.

Hence Lovren. There was not a thing unfair or improper about the predicament he found himself in. He was presented with an escape route from the drudgery of defending: let the ball run through to Kane. But to do this, he would have to have done three things: spot the possibility; judge the probability of success; physically act upon it by playing offside. Or, by accident or design, he could have deviated from this process somewhere along the way and do something else. Try to do something else, anyway. All this in less time than it takes to say 'diving get'. Now there's your art of defending.

P.S. If you fancy petitioning IFAB to stand down and let me take over, their AGM is soon so now would be a good time. Your generous support will be factored into future considerations.


19 October 2016

The Past of Football: Statistics

Continuing our series wherein primo footballologist Prof. Frank Lazarus gets a giant telescope on a mountain in a desert just like in one of those BBC Four documentaries and trains it on the past before joining together the gleanings of history fished therefrom so as the better to illuminate our own bleak age

Statistics was invented in the 1990s by American baseballing legend Barry "Billy" Bonds (not to be confused with West Hammer legend Trevor Brooking). When Bonds was a child, everyone told him what a great baseballer he would be when he grew up. But when he grew up, it turned out he was awful. This crushing blow set Bonds off on his true course in life. Firstly off, he became a manager, his awfulness as a player making him ideally suited. Then, he embarked on a quest to prove with mathematics (or, as the Americans call it, "mathematic") that when you really look into the real reality of things, every baseballer is awful. Thus did he hope to demoralise every player in baseball and allow the team he bought, the Hartford Strepthroats, to win everything. This failed miserably. However, his efforts attracted a shadowy army of acolytes who founded a movement called "cybermetrics" owing to their desire to turn baseballers into robots with a slot on their back that computer paper with loads of stats on it would come out of to save the poor geeks the bother of having to actually watch any baseball. The cybermetricians infiltrated the media and ensured that Bonds's' method-detailing book, How To Win Ball Games Except The Ones That Actually Matter And Influence People Who Secretly Hate Sports And/Or Are Willing To Pay $20,000 For A Presentation On How Everything Is Actually Awful And Here's How You Can Make Loads Of Money Off It, literally became gospel.

Having conquered the world of baseball (basically America and that bit of Canada that looks like it's straining at the membrane of the American border like a spermatozoon politely trying to fertilise an ovum), Bonds looked around to see what other sport he could destroy. He settled on soccer, very much the polo of America. He and some cybermetricians founded statistic company OPTEM (named after the Latin for "eight" which is infinity on its end thus proving the universality of stats). OPTEM came up with a formula that gave every footballer a score out of 1,024, which proved scientifically that the best player in the English Premiership League was actually Julian Dicks. This was called "being counterintuitive". The great soccering public rejected OPTEM's work, mainly because people were still scared of Americans in those days.

The cybermetricians needed a new weapon in their War on Sport(s). For a time, they tried shoving scrunched-up computer paper with stats on it down people's throats, but success was limited. Then someone discovered that you could tell who the better team in a game was because they had more possession of the ball. This worked for a while, but then someone pointed out that there was a game that happened where a team had more possession ... but LOST THE MATCH. Instantly, years of hard cybermetricianalist work was smashed to bits, bytes and so forth. The movement was in disarray until the Whistle Test's Richard "I Don't Believe It, Jeff" Wilson, an expert in tactics (a branch of statistics), wrote in the Guardian those three fateful words:




Cybermetrics was suddenly given fresh impotence. After seeing a doctor, it then got some impetus. Its theories now proven to constitute the only accurate way of looking at football, it spread through the game like Japanese not-weed (which ironically actually is a weed). Three-points-for-a-win was done away with in favour of Expected Goals. Crowds began to admonish and shame spectators who got excited at a bit of skill. Supporters were ejected for celebrating goals. A PA announcement announcing that the outcome of the game had been predicted with 96.7746% accuracy would be warmly applauded. Match magazine replaced their league ladders with regression analysis kits.

Thoroughly widdled off with this spoiling of the purity of the Beautiful, Beautiful Game, comedy terrorist pranksters Jimothy, Hobart & Kedge from E4 satiric banter show Wotcha Shitheads decided to do something about it. They broke into the basement of the home shared by Bonds, Wilson and Zonal Marking, wherein lay the beating heart of the cybermetrics movement: an enormous supercomputer that churned out reams of stats and tactics intended to explain and thus ruin football. JH&K had intended merely to throw stacks of computer paper around, do some swearing, and maybe have a bit of an ol' defecation on a hard drive if they timed it right. However, what they discovered was shocking. The computer vomited out a strip of ticker tape that contained a formula that, if implemented, would finally solve football. Grasping the horrific implications, Jimothy said that this must immediately be destroyed. But Kedge, the silly sausage, had already tweeted out a picture of it along with a meaningless string of emojis. Football was instantly rendered pointless and everyone realised that snooker was in fact the one true sport, which was confirmed in a handover ceremony at the Maracanã (later renamed the Estádio Matthew Stevens).



13 June 2016

How to pronounce Irish footballers' names

We Irish have long had to suffer the indignity of our names being twisted, rolled and inaccurately gobbed out by mean, unworthy tongues. It's almost as if the names were artificially converted from one language to another and rendered in an unsuitable orthography or something. If you possess such a tongue and wish to atone for the offence it's caused all those Morans, Keowns, McGraths, Cahills, Dohertys, Costellos, Kinsellas, Gallaghers, O'Rrarcis and Kellys, here is a guide to the pronunciation of the names of players and key staff of the Republic of Ireland European Championship squad. (I believe Northern Ireland also have a team and good for them.)

O'Shea: oh-shee-AH

McCarthy: mack-ur-TEE

Quinn: Keane

Keogh: kyuck

Duffy: doo-FAY

McGeady: mack-a-DEE-dee

Ciarán: see-air-AAAAAAAAAAN

Coleman: first syllable is actually pronounced 'coal'

Randolph: was originally Ralph until he added a silent 'ndo' in honour of Cameroon's finest

Cyrus Christie: Chris Christ

Robbie Keane: BOB-let KANE

Long: lung (from the Irish Mac Long, son of Boatface)

Shay Given: oh fuck, Ralph's holding his hamstring

Jonathan: FRANK-and

Wes Hoolahan: Wes

Hendrick: Hendrix

Daryl Murphy: WUR-fee (the 'M' is an upside-down 'W' in Irish (except for exceptions)); 'Daryl' contains one-and-a-half syllables

Westwood: o-ho, Given's holding his hamstring

Glenn Whelan: Glenn "Leave 'Em Bealin'" Whelan

Robbie Brady: Dead-Ball Specialist OR Dead-Ball Specialist Me Arse

Stephen Ward: Stephenward (hence "the winger's headed Stephenwardward")

James McClean: on-a-YELL-oh

David Meyler: Ireland's Unlikely Hero

Martin O'Neill: Michael O'Neill, I mean Martin O'Neill

Roy Keane: Distraction?

Athenry: ath-HEN-ree, definitely ath-HEN-ree


12 June 2016

Fur, fox, ache (or: Perfection is everywhere)

They, the fools, say that perfection is impossible. That's because they set their standards too high.

Take two incidents from the France-Romania game. The first came in the opening ten minutes, when this kitten:


was threatened by this fox:

Fox — note how the image is magnified, making it grainy and bringing to mind a picture in a newspaper of a gangster or paedophile

The kitten's mother (I can't afford the image rights) got herself between the fox and the kitten, seemingly dissuading the fox from its evil scheme. But the fox had merely skulked away under the hedge to next door's, no doubt waiting for its opportunity to ... well, one daren't say. But the mother is a tough, rural cat, as opposed to the glorified draft excluders that populate city dwellings. She's dealt with worse in her time. She briskly walked to the hedge to keep watch. The fox would move along the hedge; the cat would move with it. Back and forth they went. Eventually the fox realised it had lost, and stayed away.

Meanwhile, I tended to the kitten:

Sleeve supplied by photographer

Now, certainly, this scene could have been improved — had, say, the cat mauled the fox, reached into its ribcage and grabbed the beating heart to take back to the kitten for something to play with. Which she could have done, if she'd fancied it. But what is she: a dog? Away and shite witcha. And anyway, just because it could have been improved doesn't mean it could have been made any better. It was perfect as it was. The cat's control of the situation was masterful, and I got to spend some quality time with the kitten. Nothing more was necessary. Anything more would have been wasted embellishment: a ribbon that falls off and gets kicked aside unnoticed.

I did miss a good part of the opening quarter of the actual football, though*. Thankfully, good old (29) Dimitri Payet waited until late to score a goal you've probably seen by now**. It was perfect. It wasn't perfect if "perfect" is taken to mean an ideal form of a goal, an unsurpassable standard all other goals can only fail to match. Such a goal is inconceivable, and a century and a half of football has failed to deliver it in practice. There are too many ways to score to allow it, and appreciation of such things in football is so subjective anyway — so open to taste, whim, perversity, fetish, and the unsolvable mysteries of the mind — that a consensus is impossible. Even a run-of-the-mill goal-of-the-month problem has about four plausible solutions (apart from when an Arsenal goal is involved, as Gooner vote riggers have so competently proved).


** If not, you'll have to go picking through the leftovers from UEFA's copyright trawling by yourself. Tell me if you find a good copy of Aiden McGeady's goal against Georgia while you're at it.

Let's play God, albeit a God who hasn't blown His post-production budget by splurging on the pyrotechnics. How can Payet's goal be improved? How can we make it sparkle? We could have him dribble past a player beforehand. But why stop at one? Or two, or ten? Is he only going to beat each player once? Could we have him flick it over the head of a defender, Gazza-style? Blanco hop? Some kind of Gazzablanco combo? There we are! Visionary! Needs work, though. Also, there's not enough of a team element to the goal. Can't we have them, you know, weave patterns or some shit? Shouldn't a great goal have a few dozen passes beforehand? There we are. Cracking. No, a few dozen more. No... Och, we'll come back to that. Now, let's move the shot back a few yards: twenty-five yards out, thirty, forty... How far out's the halfway line at that point? Can we have him nutmeg the keeper at some stage as well...

Payet's strike, made at a moment of high tension, was as pure as a strike can get. Or so it appears. It probably could have been improved — but by unimaginably minute degrees only a cruel, cruel bastard could enforce. It was already as good as it could be. It could have been improved, but not made better. No universal perfection being possible, the goal created its own perfection. It temporarily obliterated all other considerations, striking you with full force there and then***. You take such moments when you can find them****.

*** Thus leaving behind the "ache" in the title of the post. Such rare craft!


(Asleep, in case you were wondering)


09 June 2016

Just a moment, please

There's John O'Shea scoring an equaliser in the European Championship qualifier away to Germany with the last touch of the game (bar the resulting kick-off). And there's Shane Long scoring the only goal in the return a year or so later. Although the goals weren't scored by him, they made you feel like Robbie Keane: they gave you the urge to perform cartwheels even though you have no clue how to do them.

It's the type of thing you'll often hear said is what football's all about, a belief only tenable in the grip of the buzz, or while enviously witnessing others as they so buzz. In reality, football is mostly about things like learning geography from league tables, nurturing a healthy lust for floodlight pylons, musing about pitch mowing patterns, going wheeeeeyyyyy when the opposition keeper slices a clearance out of play, and the conversation as you pass the time while crossing long pontoons of nothing happening — or worse than nothing. Never trust anyone who tells you that football is all about any one thing.

But that sober advice can go to hell when the narcotic hope looks like it might actually deliver a favourable payoff*. While the Euro finals tournament will be full of delightful details incidental to fattened narrative, even in its newly distended 24-team form (man, John) it dispenses with the steady beat of the season and shortens the distance between the peaks and the troughs. Everyone will get squeezed into bottlenecks: some will be crushed and some will be sent soaring. The tournament fizzes with the certainty that some people are going to get loaded**.

All I hope is that Ireland have a moment like that in the Euros. The benighted Euro 2012 campaign had some dreary, duly-noted landmarks. Once the immediate pleasure of qualification waned, it felt like an adminstrative mistake by UEFA: like an ATM erroneously paying out tenfold, the episode discovered and repayment demanded the following June. Let's instead have some pure sensation, something that can't be revised downwards after the inevitable anti-climax of elimination, something that creates a memory that stays live and lights itself rather than relying on the dim, coloured bulb of nostalgia, something you watch over and over until you've convinced yourself Long meant to control the ball with his knee in exactly the way he did. The qualifiers gave us a few moments like that, and asking for more might be greedy, but look: we're here now.

Let it not be total shite, is what I'm saying.


* Not to be confused with a favourable playoff, which it also rarely delivers.

** Not in the sense embodied by the "we've come here to get langered" crowd, may God preserve their internal organs before the drink does.


07 June 2016

Chriiiiiiiiis Waddlllllllllle




  ©Template by Dicas Blogger.