Sunday 22 June 2008

Is It The Championship In Disguise?

I thought I was on a summer sabbatical. But I guess it still isn’t really summer; and one of the prerequisites for doing one of these things, as others are seldom reluctant to point out, is an inability to keep it shut for any length of time. So, here we go. What can we learn from Euro2008? There have to be some messages, given that the tournament itself is rapidly taking on the appearance of The Championship: no outstanding teams, competitive games but not of the highest quality, just about any team capable of winning on the day. I actually wanted a few weeks when I could forget about this sort of football.

It’s not because England aren’t there, or even attributable to the lamentable quality of the match analysis (with in my view some honourable exceptions), but I haven’t really warmed to Euro2008 (which is not to say I haven’t welcomed a ready-made excuse for slobbing out on the sofa watching hours of football or that I won’t miss it when it’s gone). People are generally critical of the last World Cup; but I found that a damn site more exciting. In Italy (then) there was a great side (I did choose them to win in a pre-tournament competition). Best goalkeeper in the world (Buffon), one of the best centre-backs marshalling a defence (Canavaro), an inspired defensive midfielder (Gattuso), and an ability to play 4-5-1 with a tall target man (Toni) because there was the necessary counterpart in a roving forward playing around him (Totti). The Italian team was not boring at all; it was inspired. And the tournament had a real classic (the Germany v Italy semi-final).

So far in Euro2008 only one game has held real interest from start to finish: the Holland v Russia upset. Others have provided drama, moments of excitement, great goals etc, but they have all fallen short, as have the teams (the only real quality so far has come from the referees, who have been outstanding). Nobody seems able to shoot from distance with the ball they are using, or to be able to get any dip for free kicks. No team seems able to defend while the ones that have provided the real entertainment (Holland and Portugal) failed once pressure was applied. Germany are in the semis thanks to a sneaky and cynical foul by Ballack, Russia are there because the Dutch underestimated them and thought they could stroll it, and Turkey are there because .... well god only knows the answer to that one.

Basically I don’t want Russia to win, given that such a success would be used to bolster an unwanted degree of nationalism in what is still a near-dictatorship. I don’t want Spain to win as the racism of their fans was (maybe still is) disgusting. I’d go for Italy, but the team is a shadow of what went before and would be unworthy winners. So I guess I’m going to join forces with a mate and belatedly support Turkey. Surely they can’t make it past Germany given the decimation of their team. Well, any chance they did have just went up in smoke anyway.

I’d like to think that there’s no future for a European national tournament (as opposed to the World Cup, which provides a delight of diversity and contrasting styles). The fact is that none of the national teams would make it past maybe the last eight of the Champions League. The best football is no longer played by national teams. This is all indicative of the (very welcome) drift towards near-irrelevance of national parliaments in Europe – provided of course that European federalism is accompanied by a strengthening of regional institutions. Maybe I’m just bitter at yet another phone-in on the European Union being hijacked by ardent and activist opponents of the entire concept. Just how they can present a ‘no’ vote in Ireland as a victory for democracy and national sovereignty is beyond me when the vote itself was heavily influenced by the electorate being inclined to vote against their domestic politicians.

Enough of the soapbox. What does it all mean for Charlton? Well, the team that reminded me most of us last season was France: disjointed, unable to get the best out of the best players or to find the right combination(s), lacking team spirit, and ultimately failing badly. I should add that I have no wish to suggest that Alan Pardew in any way reminds me of Domenech. Other than that both have of late been selecting two defensive central midfield players. In both cases there are excuses (the availability of alternatives), but please can it not be repeated next season. Message? Holland and Semedo: individually fine, even excellent; together insufficient.

Neither France nor Italy have been able to adapt to the loss of great players: Zidane for France (arguably Henry too), Totti and Canavaro for Italy. France were unable to come up with a new system that would get the best out of what are very good if disparate forwards. Starting a tournament with a front two who had never played together competitvely, then making changes for each of the next two games was just poor planning and management. Italy began against Holland with Toni on his own but nobody to play around him to provide the spark. Message? If the kids are to play a bigger role for us next season than last they need to be given the responsibility early – and the time to improve. Also, unless we sign a Totti, or Ambrose demonstrates he can play in the hole on a regular basis, it’s going to be 4-4-2 for us.

I think there’s less danger next season (compared to last) of us doing a Holland and failing to turn up against a ‘lesser’ team. Having seen off the last two World Cup finalists the Dutch thought they could get past Russia at half-pace. They started slowly and failed to score when the chances came their way. A team with more self-belief and better finishers than Russia would have really demolished them. As it was, one of Russia’s successes, highlighted by the analysts, was two attack-minded full backs. They were effective in pushing back the Dutch wide men and minimising their support for their forwards. Message? Yassin and Youga please, not Halford and Thatcher.

So, if we were most like France, with a smattering of Italy and Holland, and Euro2008 is The Championship in disguise, who were the rest? Well, Turkey are doing a passable imitation of Hull. It’s a little unfair on West Brom but they have to be Germany, ie probably the best team around. Greece were about as popular as Stoke, but obviously less successful; maybe they will resemble Stoke next season. Poland were the tournament’s Palace. Nobody wanted them there and nobody noticed that they were there. Romania were Scunthorpe or Colchester. Both worthy but ultimately not good enough – except when they played us. Sweden resembled Ipswich, while Austria and Switzerland were the tournament’s Coventry- basically pants.

Friday 13 June 2008

No Scoops Here

A venerable Chinese sage once said (well, by the law of averages one of them must have said at some point) “beware not of the wine in the pub but of the cognac when you get home”. How right he was (or was the proverb meant to be allegorical?). As a result of not heeding this ancient advice any thought of trying to outscoop the other bloggers who attended last night’s meeting with Richard Murray went right out of the window. Suffice to say, as I’m sure others have already done, Murray impressed everyone with his candour and enthusiasm and a great time was had by all (especially given the added pleasure of putting more faces to names when it comes to other bloggers). Even though going to the ground out of season felt a little like sneaking into school during half-term.

The intention, as I understood it, was an embargo on what was said until midday today. That implies we would wish to impart to all and sundry what was said, to ‘scoop the rest’. Information is king? Personally, I prefer to say nothing and to filter through/plagerise what we learnt in future posts, to give the impression of blinding analysis and deep insight rather than being the first to report what somebody else said. If you’ve seen the gap between a journalist’s pay cheque and that of an analyst you’ll appreciate the difference. It’s all in the packaging.

So I’m going to say diddly about what was said last night. A clear head/steady hand and it might have been a different story. Aside that is from stressing if anyone feels that that the need to keep the club financially stable and cutting our cloth accordingly smacks of a lack of ambition on the part of the board let him/her put his/her hand in his/her pocket and provide the necessary readies. It’s an extra incentive for Pardew to ensure the team hits the ground running and for the fans to play their part in making The Valley a fortress next season.

There was one question/issue that was posed before the end but not really answered (by us), namely whether there could be any mutual benefit from ongoing/deeper contact between the club and the bloggers. It’s not that easy to answer, as ‘the bloggers’ are not ‘the fans’ (especially as a number of them can’t get to SE7 for a chat). I think the club is right to pursue a forum setting for feedback from the fans when the fans’ director role disappears and that this forum should not be bloggers (we already have the opportunity to vent our spleen when the mood takes). If there is an answer, from my perspective it has to be that making the gatherings a regular event should happen if they are enjoyable and informative for both parties, ie not just us. Clearly we appreciated and very much enjoyed last night.

For personal reasons (ie self-interest) as well as being a francophile, I am cheering for Les Bleus to win Euro2008. But they obviously didn’t learn anything from us last season about the drawbacks of having two essentially holding/ball-winning players in central midfield. The thinking might well have been that with Ribery, Malouda, Anelka and Benzema you only need to get the ball forward to them and let them get on with it. However, as Romania demonstrated it is much easier to contain a team when no-one is breaking from midfield. So, Holland and Semedo individually fine, just please not together in the centre next season. For France hopefully it will be different tonight with Henry and Vieira returning.

As this is a day for gripes, what is it with football pundits on TV? It’s bad enough having the odd game ruined by the BBC, for some reason totally unknown to me, using Lawrenson. But we had through the Switzerland v Turkey game the commentator and the panel consistently stressing the idea that ‘a point is no good to either team’. Well, as Switzerland lost their first game and had Germany in the final round of games a point was, for them, of limited value. But Turkey? A point would have left them only having to beat the Czech Republic in their last group game to qualify (assuming Switzerland did not beat Germany). If they had lost they would have been out of the tournament. So why do well-paid analysts of the game try to suggest that a point was no use to them? Of course, Turkey won and now to qualify ... have to beat the Czech Republic in the next match. The truth is it was their winner that was of little value. The results left Turkey and the Czech Republic on the same points and with the same number of goals scored and conceded. It would have been good to hear inform us how they are going to work this one out if they draw their final game.

It’s not exactly rocket science is it? But as the final group matches draw near no doubt we will have the pundits saying ‘you need a maths degree to work out the possible combinations for these teams ... ho, ho’. Sorry guys, you don’t. Just a brain cell would be sufficient.