Monday, September 19, 2005

They Used to Play Two Strikers in the Old Days You Know!

Erm, that wasn't up to much, was it? One of the Premiership's blue riband fixtures, the clash of the reds, a powderkeg no matter the context, the one the fans look for when the fixture list comes out, the one they save their cruellest and wittiest chants for- was it worth skipping the lie-in?

Following the mind-numbing Chelsea v Arsenal contest a few weeks ago, the newly maligned Premiership cannot now, it seems, even look to its marquee attractions to provide the sort of explosive drama the whole gravy train was built on. Its one thing grumbling at your Sky Sports direct debit after Bolton and Blackburn hasten you to your Sunday afternoon slumber, but when the big four's clashes are similarly somnambulant then you might feel those precious funds would be more thrillingly spent. Like on that new lawnmower you've been eyeing up maybe.

This, of course, is a scenario which the powerbrokers of the English games top echelon- BSkyB and the Premier League- would dread: the slipping away of subscriptions in the face of a deteriorating product.

Now at this stage it is worth making a point. I, like any true football fan, appreciate the less spectacular qualities of the game- a well organised defence, a good tactical battle, the thankless diligence of the defensive midfielder, the telepathy of a flawless offside trap. Things to be admired, and all essential for success.

The problem with the Premiership is the contraction of philosophy that is now prevalent. The reduction of ambition to the most basic kernel of defeat-avoidance. The straight jacket of fear that shackles most of the league. Now this phenomenon is nothing new. 4-5-1 was last season's must-have accoutrement for the more down-at-heel Premiership club, and we didn't really expect much more this season, even though some of those clubs could be said to be in position where they should be "pushing on".

But surely, we thought, in light of the fact that Chelsea had redefined how the Championship had to be competed for- namely that, from the first Saturday, every three points was a prisoner, for the simple reason that there looked so few fixtures in which Chelsea might fail to win- the top teams would chase every victory like Soviet-era Muscovites after a loaf.

Which makes Sunday's tentative encounter all the more surprising. Both Alex Ferguson and Rafa Benitez are substantially wilier gentlemen than myself, and perhaps felt that a point is always a good result against each other, especially as both have yet to play Chelsea, but imagine the statement a victory yesterday would have made for either team? Imagine the momentum? Might even have given Jose Mourinho, who calmly perched himself on the advertising hoardings on Saturday as his team extracted with precision another three points from the Valley, something to worry about.

Now having said all that stuff about philosophy and fear, there is another point to make about Manchester United and Liverpool. Both look extremely well-organised defensively these days, good goalkeepers, settled defences. But, frankly, neither look to have a clue what they're doing up front. United, you could argue, haven't done so since they evolved from the simpler, all-conquering days of 4-4-2 with flying wide men and exocet crosses etc. Liverpool are still a work in progress, but it looks like they will remain so until they find a natural goalscorer, to which the recent disappointment of their fans at missing out on Michael Owen was testament.

Both sides appear patternless in their attacks, and a sense of improvisation pervades their attempts to score, a tactic that generally only works if you learned your craft in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paolo.

It was with some sense of refreshment that I watched the Bulgarian Martin Petrov's performance for Atletico Madrid in their defeat of Barcelona last night, specifically his driving run down the left and whipped cross from the byline onto the head of Fernando Torres for Atletico's first.

Its a simple game, as a wise man once said.

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The above stuff about negative gameplans and 4-5-1 has been put into glorious relief by West Ham's start to the season and the mentality behind it. I haven't enjoyed a Premiership match as much as their 4-0 thrashing of Aston Villa last week for a long time and their declared intention to attack, and by definition play for victories, is in keeping with the club's tradition and a ray of sunshine in the dank grimness that is the world of McClaren, Big Sam and Steve Bruce.

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