Crap Pitches Win Matches


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Is that a running track they seem to have buried underneath the San Siro? Or just the aftermath of the tractor based chariot racing?

I’ve Got A Cunning Plan

Yes. Like Baldrick in the First World War trenches manufacturing cappuccinos out of mud, guts and phlegm, top football strategists have devised sneaky new schemes to outdo crafty sides that actually like to play the ball and display any kind of skill.

One of the real surprises of the recent round of Champions League games, aside from the presence of Apoel Nicosia (nicely done guys), was the thoroughly reprehensible quality of some of the pitches. Admittedly after Wembley’s initial turf wars, it ill behoves us to moan, but you know, they have sorted that one out and now people barely remember it and one would hope that sports professionals everywhere would have learnt the lessons from Wembley’s initial failure.

So it was  surprise to see the San Siro look like someone had been holding tractor races on it prior to Arsenal’s game there. Yet in some ways it made perfect sense. If Stoke can get around the threat of teams playing down the wings and increase the effectiveness of their tedious long throws by simply narrowing their pitch, then surely the reigning champs of Italy and playthings of Berlosconi AC Milan can get around the effectiveness of Arsenal’s ballplay through the simple expedient of making large chunks of their pitch fundamentally unplayable.

An artist's impression of the pitch quality at Sunderland

Similarly at the Stadium of Light. In addition to physically oppressing Arsenal, why not also play the poor pitch card and prevent either side from playing anything that resembles real football? Obviously as an FA Cup round winning strategy it works, but it really does Sunderland a disservice.

Given the FA has rules requiring Prem teams to have undersoil heating, you would have thought that they’d also have rules requiring a basic level of pitch quality.

No wonder FIFA is looking into the viability of artificial pitches again.

 

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What We Learned From Big Cup Final


Total Final

Sparkly new ball for the final

That was a proper final – not like many of them. This was real football. I don’t think anyone will be moaning about the pitch at Wembley any more. Now when people talk about Wembley, this is what they’ll be talking about.

Tactical Naivity

For all that Barcelona were brilliant, Man U got their tactics oh so wrong. Man U played like Stoke – 4-4-2, far too much long ball and the two banks of 4 defenders playing off their own 18 yard line with Hernandez lurking somewhere offside near Barcelona’s penalty area. Sure they were on top for, oh, 20 minutes in the first half, but they never looked like taking their game to Barcelona. Ironic that Man U’s only good move should be entirely played on the floor in the build up to the Rooney goal. They gave way too much space to Barcelona in between the two banks of four and Messi and co punished them there all night.

Ironically it had vague echoes of the Carling Cup final. Man U seemed to have one attacking tactic – hoof it to Hernandez, only Barcelona seemed more able to cope with it than Arsenal, reducing the little pea to little more than a series of offside decisions. Indeed watching this you can totally see where Wenger and Arsenal are going, although how long it will take them to get there is anyone’s guess.

Man U, who had won the Prem and dominated their Champions League games, just didn’t show up. Their talented players just never asserted themselves. Valencia never came into the game – in contrast to the matches against Schalke where he was a dominant player, Hernandez looked more like Jermaine Defoe than the Premiership poacher he has been, Nani and Scholes were substitutes, Berbatov didn’t even make the bench. You have to wonder whether the marginalisation of Berbatov is due to Rooney deciding he didn’t like working with him and Rooney having his say when he renegotiated his contract?

Barcelona, by contrast, were stuffed full of talent and they didn’t wilt. Messi, Xabi, Iniesta, Abidal, even Busquets and Pedro played outstandingly. Messi, 53 goals in 55 games. Many entire teams in the Prem don’t have such a good strikerate. And boy do Barcelona play fast. Even if they don’t move around much. Lots of movement off the ball. In fact, they seem to run more when the opposition have the ball than when they do. They aren’t afraid to lose possession, they take risks, then make a lot of effort to regain possession. Anyone in their half is fair game. They don’t so much press the man as mark the space. They don’t worry because they know they’re going to get the ball back.

Where Now?

For Man U, there’s a dilemma. It seems that you need two different styles of football to win both the Prem and the Big Cup. It’s almost as if you need two separate squads, playing in two distinct styles. Mixing the two just doesn’t seem to work, just look at Arsenal, whose attempts to play Barcelona-style football in the Prem runs into the barriers, or Man U’s failed attempts to integrate Veron, who was brought in to help win the Big Cup, but ended up helping them struggle in the Prem.

It’s a real gamble because it’s clear that Man U’s style of play will get them so far – winning the Prem and getting to the Big Cup final ain’t no small potatoes – but it’s equally clear that unless they can beat Barcelona they’ll find it hard to win the Big Cup. Man U are in transition, their midfield especially looks anemic and tired, and they need to bring in real, established quality. The real challenge is do they bring in the quality to simply carry on winning the Prem, or do they gamble and bring in the type of players who might win the Big Cup but can’t guarantee the Prem?

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