I don’t really know where to start, because I don’t think there is a good place to begin. Nothing can do what has happened justice, and the shock and sadness everyone will be enduring at the moment cannot be put into words. Mike Boyd’s recent passing is a prime example of just how cruel the world can be.
Me and a good number of the boys I’m friends with got to know Mike during the time we played with Strathaven Dynamos 1999s. We, at a guess, started playing football at the age of seven, and Mike was one of our founding coaches. While a number came and went during our time as a team, he was there until the end.
Obviously, I don’t remember much of the early years. What I do know is that Mike struck up a friendship with my dad, Billy, that transcended their mutual pain of trying to coach us into semi-decent footballers. They were brilliant pals, just as Mike was with plenty of others.
As the years progress, the memories get clearer. It’s only now, at this age, that me and the boys can truly appreciate how much effort our coaches put in to provide us with some of the fondest memories we’ll ever have. They were up at the crack of dawn every Saturday or Sunday morning, no doubt rubbing their eyes as they put the nets in place for us to play. Mike played a big part in that for us.
There were tournaments that took up full weekends. I can only imagine their frustrations as they watched us run about like idiots after taking an 8-0 trouncing. Me and my dad always laugh about Mike’s coincidental disappearances after those defeats, and how he would stroll back to jokefully claim credit whenever we managed to win.
They took us on trips far and wide; the journeys to Scarborough and Preston stand out in particular. In what was one of my last games before leaving Dynamos in 2014, we had reached the final at the Preston Youth Cup. We may have lost to a very good Hamilton Accies side, but that was hopefully some sort of reward for all the hard work Mike and our fellow coaches had put in over the years.
Mike was always prankster, a joker. He would interrupt our set-piece training to teach us how to stand on the opposition’s toes at corner kicks. He would make us laugh whenever he tried to demonstrate a drill. From what I’ve been told, he was a bit of a no-nonsense centre-half back in the day. We could tell.
I remember him telling us to eat jelly beans after training for a sugar boost, and us all sprinting to the vending machine afterwards. We’d probably never moved as fast.
I remember a few of us sitting with him while he bragged to us about his accomplishments on Football Manager. He’d won the Champions League with Celtic and was laughing at us for not being able to do the same with the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid. He told us he’d been given an in-game knighthood – whether that was true or not, I never found out.
Mike, as anyone who knew him will know, was an extremely keen golfer. We all used to have a good laugh at his infamous shouts of ‘OHHH NOOOO’ after a dodgy tee shot. Luckily, there weren’t too many of these the last time I played with him; Mike, my dad, my friend David and I played in a fourball competition in early January 2018 and managed to win. Of course, that was helped by myself and David having ridiculously bad handicaps for our ages at the time. Still, that was a great day.
I hadn’t seen Mike much since then. Those closest to him will be hurting much more than I can even imagine, but I thought it would be nice to look back at some of the great memories he helped us make. Anne, Sean and Emily; I’m sure I speak for the rest of the 99s boys when I say we’re all thinking of you.
We had some great times with him, and I hope he enjoyed them as much as we did. If anything, I hope this look back can provide even a little joy in the most tragic of times.
Mike, you taught us a lot. You were witty, funny, and a great friend to so many. When we look back on our time as young footballers at Strathaven Dynamos, we’ll always think of you. Thank you.
Rest easy, big man. I hope you’ve found a striker’s toes to trod on up there.
Wayne Rooney’s overhead kick. Michael Essien’s long-range piledriver. Sergio Aguero’s last minute title-clincher. Roberto Carlos’ physics-defying dead balls.
Goals like these live long in the memory. The moment they hit the back of the net, the strikes are ingrained into our lives; we talk about them with friends, we try to recreate them, we rewatch them over and over again. Football, after all, is typically at its most memorable during high-scoring thrillers and in games where fantastical goals are scored.
However, that doesn’t mean goals should be treated as absolute royalty. There are a variety of issues that stem from people involved in football, whether they be supporters, pundits or critics, placing too much of a reliance on goals when it comes to formulating their opinions on the game.
Goals are undoubtedly the most important aspect of football. Without them, you can’t hope to win at any level. But they are not the sole key to success, nor are they the only metric we should use to evaluate player and team performances. This is why they are often the most overrated part of football.
Players are considered to have played better if they scored – and worse if they didn’t
The real reason I was inspired to write this article arose during the last international break. Erling Haaland, one of the best young players in the world at the moment, had just played three matches for Norway (a 3-0 win, a 3-0 loss and a 1-0 win) and failed to score in any of them. Across social media, and in particular in posts from the likes of SPORTbible, there were immediate talks of a “dip in form”.
This got me thinking; why are we so quick to say a striker is suffering from poor form if they aren’t scoring? In this scenario, for instance, I highly doubt the contributors at SPORTbible had tuned in to watch Norway take on Gibraltar. They most likely took a look at the result, noted that Haaland failed to score and began to plan for posts regarding his supposedly poor showing. For all they know, he could have been the best player on the park. With no goal to show for it, people automatically assumed he played poorly.
Of course, he wasn’t amazing in this match. He did, however, still manage to accumulate 2.29 Expected Goals (xG) by himself, showing he was creating high quality chances for himself but simply wasn’t able to convert them with his usual ruthless effectiveness. He finished his 62-minute cameo with a 71% pass success rate and 0.15 Expected Assists (xA), which hardly hints at a forgettable performance. With no goal, people assumed it did.
Haaland has also faced criticism following Borussia Dortmund’s Champions League exit at the hands of Premier League leaders Manchester City. This came after he scored five goals in two Last 16 ties against Sevilla. This came despite it being common knowledge the Dortmund side he is part of has become increasingly average this season. And this came despite a high quality assist in the first leg, where he played a perfectly weighted reverse pass for Marco Reus to slot home. Because he didn’t score, fans and pundits tried to assure us he’d played poorly.
Haaland is already suffering from the same problem Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have faced throughout their careers; because he has set his standards so incredibly high, as soon as he dips below them ever so slightly, too many people automatically jump to the conclusion that he is struggling. He’s not. It’s completely unreasonable to expect players like him to score in every single game they play, so we need to start taking more steps when judging overall performances better. Strikers do not necessarily need to score to have played well.
Another player who has fallen victim to this treatment is Paul Pogba. Since returning to Manchester United in 2016, he has been consistently rinsed by the media and rival fans alike for not scoring enough goals. This is where hypocrisy becomes a big issue in football. It is not Pogba’s job to score goals every single week; he is somewhere between a deep-lying playmaker and a box-to-box midfielder, constantly playing the pass before the pass, creating for his teammates.
Presumably after watching highlight reels of his time at Juventus, which are filled to the brim with videos of the Frenchman scoring long-range efforts, English football fans seem to have developed a strange tendency to not admit Pogba has played well unless he scores. If you actually watch Manchester United play, you’ll know without a shadow of a doubt that Pogba is the best player in their team (by some distance). His standards are very high and he actually tends to meet them most weeks. He can have poor showings, just like any other player in the world.
Pogba’s problems are exemplified by the likes of Kevin De Bruyne’s treatment by the same pundits and supporters. If De Bruyne doesn’t score or assist, he is showered with praise over his build-up play and neat passing. If Pogba doesn’t, he is slammed for a lack of end product. We need to watch players like Pogba to fully appreciate their play, not solely basing our opinions on central midfielders based on their goal output. We don’t do it for De Bruyne, and rightly so. Let’s hand out fair treatment across the board.
Goals can cloud our judgement on overall performances
This point is similar to the last, but relates more to players who tend to do most of their work in the defensive third of the pitch.
Have a quick think. How many times have you watched a game live on Sky or BT Sport, seen a defender score in a 1-0 win, before being handed the man of the match award soon after? A few times too many, I’d imagine.
Of course, I’ve talked about the poor quality of current pundits and commentators in the past, so I won’t get into it too much here. Going down this route, however (noting a defender has scored and won a clean sheet, so immediately calling them the best player on the park), is lazy work. It’s too easy an option to take. It surely can’t be that every time a defender scores in a win, they’ve been the standout player.
There are, of course, plenty of occasions where this is the case. But goals on their own don’t make your performances award-worthy. You could score three tap-ins and make two errors leading to goals at the other end – have you therefore been the best player?
A good example I noted was at the tail-end of last year when Manchester United thrashed Leeds United 6-2. Scott McTominay (who, obviously, isn’t a defender) scored twice in the opening few minutes and a lot of post-match discussion proceeded to focus in on his apparently excellent performance. He did play well, but I remember thinking there had been a few games even in the few prior to that win where he had actually played much better – especially when protecting the back four, which tends to be his main role – but hadn’t been afforded this praise. Because he scored a few goals, his performance received more plaudits. It’s amazing just how much goals can influence our thoughts on player performance.
People automatically think games with more goals are higher in quality
Unless it directly benefits our team in some way, we don’t tend to go into football matches praying for a 0-0 draw. In fact, as neutrals, we often hope for the opposite. That doesn’t mean we should be fooled into thinking that goalless draws are bad matches.
On the contrary, 0-0 ties can actually be much better than their high-scoring counterparts. Goals are the most exciting part of football, but there are plenty of other contenders. Missing a guilt-edged chance can make us jump from our seats; a last-ditch tackle can prompt wild celebrations; a wonder save can make our jaws drop.
This is why we need to stop reacting overly negatively to low-scoring matches. Not only does this, more often than not, highlight an individual’s lack of football knowledge, but it is actually an insult to defending. I’ve written recently on the fact that defending is just as important as attacking in football, and moaning at 0-0 draws simply offends the defenders and goalkeepers who have worked so hard to keep clean sheets. If you have a proper eye for the game, that can be just as exciting as a 4-4 thriller (not very often, of course).
Video games don’t help matters
I’m a huge fan of the Football Manager games; they are incredibly realistic, with top-of-the-range engines designed to create a mirror image of the game we know. Even they, however, struggle to dispel the narrative that goals mean a player has performed better.
If you’ve played any of their installments, you’ll know what I mean. A player will be playing exceedingly poorly (with a red rating of ‘5’ next to their name, for example) and you’ll be on the verge of substituting them. All of a sudden, they’ll score a tap in from five yards and their rating will immediately jump to a green ‘7’. It’s probably the only massively unrealistic thing about the game; players aren’t suddenly playing better just because they’ve scored.
By fuelling said narratives, the belief that goals automatically make a player better seeps through into our opinions on real football. Basing our arguments in real life on what happens in video games is always a dangerous and absurd way to go about things, but as a few people I know prove, there will always be individuals who do this. That needs to change.
This is not an article shaming or belittling goals; as I mentioned right at the start, they are the best thing about football. They’re what makes us want to tune in. We just have to get a little smarter with how we use them to evaluate player and team performances.
Not scoring doesn’t mean a striker has played poorly. Converting a single chance doesn’t mean a defender has played well. We need to use more than goalscoring statistics to evaluate certain players’ performances, and start giving low-scoring matches a little more credit when it’s due. The next time you laugh at a player failing to score, make sure you’ve watched them thoroughly first.
Thirty-one minutes had been played of Manchester City’s 5-2 win over Southampton when Alex McCarthy miscontrolled in his own box. City starlet Phil Foden raced on to the ball, nipping it past, and subsequently being caught by, the goalkeeper’s outstretched foot. Foden fell to the ground, but valiantly pulled himself up and tried to finish the chance. Unfortunately, he was unable to do so. In the aftermath, VAR looked back over the incident. This is where things took a ridiculous turn.
It was genuinely baffling when, after a roughly twenty-second long spell, the video referee announced there would be no further action taken. Foden was clearly fouled, and yet no penalty was given. In short, the 20-year-old was punished for trying to stay on his feet – something referees continually say players should do.
This is another example of referees and their assistants failing to stick to their own principles. They say players shouldn’t go to ground too easily, or scream in pain when looking for a foul. Yet when players do this, fouls tend to be given. They say players should try to stay on their feet, exemplifying their honesty. And yet, when Foden did this last night, a penalty wasn’t awarded. The level of hypocrisy is astounding.
Without trying to sound too emotional, the rage this decision brought down on me was off the scale. I sat for five straight minutes with my flatmates, screaming about the dreadful standards both referees and VAR are setting. After my later shouts echoed around the room to no reply (my friends no doubt tiring of my voice), I decided to vent my frustrations via an article. The ease with which I came up with a six-part plan on everything wrong with modern football was overwhelming.
As I’ve already touched on, one of the main problems in football nowadays is players screaming when they are fouled, or looking for a foul. This issue has been further magnified by a lack of fans in stadiums; we can now hear every instance where players shout upon going to ground.
While this issue is reasonably prominent in the English Premier League, it’s a particularly damning experience watching Champions League and Europa League football and listening closely whenever a player ends up lying on the turf. There always seems to be at least one prominent yelp of apparent pain, or of indignation from teammates or coaches.
Burnley manager Sean Dyche has been particularly vocal in his criticism of this aspect within the game, and it’s not hard to see why. Yet, he has tended to be ridiculed whenever he discusses the issue. He is told he is out of touch, that he is is moaning too much about one particular issue. For me, he’s bang on the money.
Football is headed in a dangerous direction if players continue to be rewarded for rolling around the floor screaming. Dyche’s most recent example (Alexandre Lacazette shrieking after a mediocre foul earning a Burnley player a yellow card) is a prime illustration of this issue.
Another case reared its ugly head in Barcelona’s 1-1 draw with Paris Saint-Germain three nights ago. Layvin Kurzawa and Antoine Griezman both went in with high feet for a ball in the PSG box. The former won the ball first, being too quick for the Frenchman. Upon losing out in the battle for the ball, Griezman fell theatrically to the floor, letting out a howl of pain. Falling for the trope, referee Anthony Taylor pointed to the spot (Lionel Messi missed, vindicating Kurzawa).
Of course, this matter wouldn’t be so pressing if referees were brave enough to say no to these players. In the vast majority of cases, they aren’t this strong-minded. They are continually fooled by players’ overexaggerated acting, and fail to reward players who try to stay on their feet despite being fouled.
This, naturally, leads us onto another issue in football; the appalling standard of refereeing. Officiating in football has surely never been at a lower level, and it seems that every match we watch at the moment brings at least one bewildering decision. There are basic mistakes being made game after game at the highest levels of football, and it leaves us fans sitting at home wondering what the differences are between these referees and we common folk. If we can see these decisions are so blatantly wrong, why can’t they?
In a link to the first problem, we can also be frustrated by referees continually giving fouls and cards after players roll around on the floor screaming. We could see the most innocuous incident still result in a yellow card if a team appeals loudly enough for it. Referees just seem unable to cope with pressure, seemingly unable to resist reaching for their pockets. On the flip side, they seem unwilling to, or are incapable of, blowing for fouls unless players go to ground.
Of course, these refereeing inadequacies should be ironed out with the help of VAR. Quite contrastingly, the technology is only serving to exasperate them.
When it was first introduced in football, I, along with many others, claimed that VAR would ruin football. To say we have been proven right would be the understatement of the century.
There are so many problems with technology that is literally supposed to “assist” referees. The most glaring issue, of course, is the fact that it still gets decisions wrong even with the use of video and replays.
It is genuinely tormenting to watch a game of football on TV when the use of VAR is called upon. We will sit at home for three straight minutes as a seemingly obvious decision is mulled over for a bloated amount of time, before the wrong call seems to be made. This is no rare occurrence; just as poor refereeing decisions are made on a regular basis, so too are their VAR counterparts. This is embarrassing for the sport. If this technology cannot get simple decisions right upon rewatching them, then what is the point in having it? We would have much more sympathy for wrong refereeing calls if they weren’t further ridiculed by shortcomings with the technology as well.
Another massive problem with modern football, brought about by VAR, is the decreasing value placed on emotional reactions. This sport thrives on emotions, and wouldn’t be the same without them. When a team scores, we want them to celebrate. We want them to run to their fans, screaming with the passion we’ve come to expect. We don’t want them to stop still, high-five their teammates and nervously await the outcome of a VAR review. Unfortunately, the latter is becoming ever so common.
The prime example for me came a few years ago, before VAR was implemented in the Premier League, when Manchester City faced off against Tottenham in the Champions League. Raheem Sterling scored a last minute winner, seemingly sending his side through to the semi-finals. City’s players went wild, their coaches and manager going crazy, running around like headless chickens in their celebrations. Tottenham players collapsed to the floor, defeat staring them in the face. Not one player asked for offside.
VAR intervened, and after a delay, offside was indeed given. All those celebrations, cancelled. Those emotions, wiped out. Tottenham players didn’t know what to do at full-time. They still felt as though they’d lost, but all of a sudden they were victorious. It felt undeserved, even though it wasn’t. City players had victory snatched from under their noses, ruining what would have been one of the great dramatic Champions League knockout wins.
That’s not what football is about. Very, very few people want to see these miniscule decisions fussed over, officials scrambling to dictate every tiny on-pitch ruling. No real football fan wants a team to spend a full minute celebrating a goal, just for it to be chopped off because a player’s pinky finger was offside.
VAR’s obsession with ruling out goals for minute offside or handball decisions is incredibly frustrating. Of course, they do tend to be correct calls. On occasions, however, even these supposedly black and white decisions can be argued with. When Timo Werner had a goal disallowed against Liverpool recently, VAR used two different parts of Werner and Andy Robertson’s arms when drawing their lines. For Werner, it was a part of his arm that, if he used it to score, would most likely be given as handball. There needs to be some sort of consistency, and there is none.
When unnoticeable handballs are awarded after no complaints whatsoever from opposing teams, that’s when we know something is wrong. If no opposing player, no opposing manager, no opposing fan or no official notices a handball, there should be no case for it being awarded.
Yet again, VAR has led us into an era where fans are being denied the thrill of watching goals due to an overarching desire from football’s governing bodies to deprive the game of everything that makes it the best sport in the world. Fulham boss Scott Parker hit the nail on the head recently when he spoke of the apparent need to “control” every little aspect of the game. As he said, it’s ruining the game and taking us in the wrong direction.
This allows us to seamlessly progress to our next problem – the handball rules. It’s difficult to nail down exactly what’s wrong in this case because the rules are changing so frequently, but that’s part of the problem. With rules being chopped and changed on a regular basis, players, referees and fans are struggling to get to grips with things.
Obviously, VAR causes a lot of these issues by picking up handballs that aren’t even noticeable to the naked eye. On the other hand, the fact that the rules dictate some of these handballs be penalised, even with VAR, is laughable.
Let’s look at the rule that states that any handball in an attacking move whatsoever, whether accidental or on purpose, whether striking an elbow or skiffing a pinky finger, will result in a goal being disallowed. The ball could quite literally graze an attacker’s thumb on the halfway line, and a goal in the same phase of play will still be disallowed after a VAR check. This is a ridiculous rule that is sending football into a new dark age.
As if it wasn’t bad enough, this rule is also incredibly biased towards defenders. According to this rule and its implementation so far, defenders can get away with murder in their attempt to prevent the opposition from scoring. There have been countless scenarios where defenders will perform what appear to be blatant handballs that deny attackers clear goalscoring opportunities, but are let away with it because there hand is in what is deemed to be a “natural position”.
Moments later, a forward will score but have his goal disallowed because a defender pushed him into a position where he accidentally shaved the ball with the palm of his hand. If that isn’t a completely backwards rule, what is? Why should a rule favour attackers over defenders?
This will be clear for you to see when you watch football again. Attackers will be penalised for the ball striking their shoulder (supposedly allowed) but defenders get away with it striking their elbow while their arms are above their heads. The double standards are staggering.
Of course, the constant rule changing doesn’t help the pundits and commentators who are paid to discuss them – and that leads us on to our next problem.
A poor standard of commentators and studio pundits has been plaguing our sport for a long time now. There are barely any out there who can genuinely be classed as being ‘very good’ at their job – Gary Neville, Jamie Carragher and Alan Shearer are among that select few. On the other hand, the likes of Jermaine Jenas, Michael Owen, Martin Keown, Danny Murphy and Andy Walker are among the worst in their profession.
It’s not good for our game’s broadcast image to be dominated by so many people who are genuinely clueless when it comes to different aspects of the sport. Keown sounds out of his depth at the best of times (recently stating that Martin Odegaard signing for Arsenal would add direct competition for Granit Xhaka was a particular highlight). Jenas has as much football knowledge as a ten-year-old FIFA player, while Danny Murphy analyses the game in a similar manner. Walker’s greatest talent resides in relaying exactly what has happened on screen in a dramatic voice and taking home a pay package. These men are genuinely stealing a living.
So why are they allowed to do this? Because they’re ex-players, of course. The favouritism with which retired footballers are treated when it comes to attaining media jobs is truly astounding. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of fully trained media staff out there who are highly knowledgeable about football. Do we reward their years of hard study by giving them the jobs they deserve? No, we hand these roles out to ex-players with no media education and a lack of common sense.
Of course, this leads to completely un-educational analysis during half-time and full-time slots. Instead of insightful opinions on styles of play, tactics and player roles, we get heated opinions on whether or not a red card should have been given. Roy Keane and Graeme Souness epitomise this side of punditry; their overly strict personalities can make for entertaining viewing, but require very little nous for the game. At times, it looks like their presence is purely for show; we rarely learn anything from them (unless we are force-fed their overly biased opinions on certain teams and players).
This problem stems from a deeply ingrained obsession our sport has with giving ex-players roles in the game they haven’t fully earned.
This leads us on to the final major problem in modern football; ex-players being appointed as managers solely for that reason. We are witnessing this more and now nowadays, with the decisions rarely being vindicated.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has supposedly done a decent job at Manchester United. However, that’s the problem – decent shouldn’t be tolerated at a club like United, and yet Solskjaer has led us to believe it should. Battling for second place, exiting the Champions League group stages and losing in a League Cup semi-final shouldn’t feel like a successful season for a club of this stature, and yet it somehow does. That’s testament to the lowering of standards which can occur by hiring a sub-par manager.
Frank Lampard was handed the Chelsea job after one full season in management, and while he did well at bringing through a number of young players, he never really looked like taking Chelsea to the next level. Mikel Arteta at least gained some valuable experience working under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, but he has yet to really make a statement in his Arsenal role.
Looking further afield, Andrea Pirlo has struggled in his first season in charge of a Juventus side who had previously won nine league titles in a row. Zinedine Zidane has won every trophy possible at Real Madrid, but there is an argument for that being down to his willingness to let the most talented footballers in the world play an enjoyable game without really implementing a high volume of tactics. Neil Lennon has recently been ousted from the Celtic job after a troubled season in Glasgow.
Now look at these names mentioned above and ask yourself the following question; do you honestly believe any of the managers would have been handed these roles if they hadn’t played for the clubs earlier in their careers?
Solskjaer’s managerial career previously consisted of managing Norweigan side Molde and being relegated with Cardiff City, while Lampard had only coached in the English Championship with Derby. Arteta, Zidane and Pirlo had no first-team coaching experience before being handed their current jobs.
So why does being an ex-player give these men such an unfair advantage? Their CVs are severely lacking compared to other well qualified candidates, as is the case with media staff. A common reason given is their “knowledge of the club”, but that hardly seems to have helped Pirlo or Lampard’s cases. Zidane has vindicated his appointment with a plethora of trophies, but Solskjaer and Arteta have a long way to go in that regard (the latter did win last season’s FA Cup, to be fair).
Now, there have been examples of this type of appointment paying off. Guardiola himself had only managed Barcelona’s ‘B’ team before taking on the mantle of first-team coach, and that risk was obviously rewarded. On the other hand, the Spaniard is clearly a generational genius who has developed a number of genuinely revolutionary tactics – it’s difficult to imagine Solskjaer or Lampard doing the same thing.
Ex-footballers need to do much more if they are to attain big footballing jobs. Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t work his way to the top by being handed a Manchester United job he hadn’t earned. Jose Mourinho climbed the managerial ladder by working as Bobby Robson’s scout before applying for jobs himself. Arsene Wenger managed elsewhere before arriving at Arsenal, developing his coaching style until it was refined enough to take on a bigger challenge.
None of these ex-players have done that. They are being handed luxurious jobs on a silver platter and, without the skillset required, and crumbling under the pressure. They don’t have the experience of these situations to get themselves out of ruts. The sooner this trend is brought to a halt, the better.
Football is the greatest sport in the world, and yet it is heading in a direction many of us feel uncomfortable with. We don’t want officials that appear to be more ignorant to the laws of the game than our drunk friends at the pub. We don’t want VAR using a microscope over every miniscule decision – and still getting them wrong. We don’t want idiotic handball rules, and we certainly don’t want underqualified pundits and managers being given top jobs. It’s giving the sport a bad name.
Hopefully, more people start to see these issues. The more that do, the better, and the sooner proper change can come about. Football is a sport built on emotion, and that is being stripped away celebration by celebration, knee slide by knee slide. Let’s get back to the way football was a few years ago – back when we might have moaned a bit, but at least it was over something worth moaning about.
It was the 85th minute of last night’s Champions League tie between Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain, and the home side were clinging on to what little dignity they had remaining. Finding themselves 3-1 down, they had conceded three away goals and, had fans been allowed in the Camp Nou, would surely have been subject to the kind of widespread whistling that comes hand in hand with discontent at Spain’s biggest clubs.
Ronald Koeman’s side were on the attack, looking for a stroke of inspiration to rejuvenate their hopes going into March 10th’s return leg. Instead, a chain of events were set in motion that epitomise everything wrong with Barcelona at the moment.
A loose ball broke on the edge of the PSG penalty area. Lionel Messi lined up a long range effort, but substitute Julian Draxler nipped in front of him and managed to toe the ball away. Miralem Pjanic darted ten yards up the pitch to confront Draxler, dived in and and allowed Draxler to move the ball on to a teammate. Draxler continued his run, received a return pass and drove half the length of the pitch; he eventually slipped in Kylian Mbappe, who finished stupendously to round off his hat-trick and, effectively, the tie.
While Draxler burst forward, Messi was walking backwards towards the halfway line. When Mbappe fired home, Pjanic (supposedly meant to be Barca’s deepest lying midfielder) wasn’t even in range of the BT Sport cameras. 4-1 was the final score, and what did Koeman do? Smile and hug an opposition player within seconds of the full-time whistle. This could be a new low for Barcelona – and there’s been some serious competition.
So what was this epitomisation? Well, these actions from Messi and Pjanic highlighted a problem which was pinpointed a number of years ago, and has still yet to be effectively addressed; an ageing squad. Messi doesn’t really fall into this category in the way some of his peers do; like Cristiano Ronaldo, his genius is unwavering and he is still among the best players in the world.
Pjanic, however, put his cards on the table for everyone to see. His mobility has severely declined in recent years and so, judging by this ill-timed slide tackle, has his decision making. The attempted tackle was poor in its execution – the Bosnian was a clear second-favourite to win the ball, and backed those odds up as he skidded past the advancing Draxler.
The decision to even go for the tackle in the first place was arguably more worrying, however. Barca were already two goals down, but would have had at least a glimmer of hope heading to Paris. What good did Pjanic think he was doing by diving in so recklessly so high up the pitch? By doing so, he left his defenders woefully exposed and they were punished by PSG’s quality on the counter attack. If Pjanic had remained in his original position, he may have been able to stall the quick break and preserve the scoreline.
A younger Pjanic would surely have decided against this sort of impulse-driven reaction. He’s not the only one who has fallen victim to age, however.
Jordi Alba is 31-years-old, which is hardly the prime age for a darting full back. Gerard Pique, at 34, is still performing admirably but a decline has been noticeable (it is no coincidence he started both last night’s rout and the 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich last season). Sergio Busquets is 32 and his mobility has severely declined; he was easily overrun by PSG’s midfield last night. Messi turns 34 himself in June. The entire spine of Barca’s side have been playing continuously for well over ten years, and their decrease in performance levels have been out there for all to see. Their thrashing last night should have put another nail in their coffin.
There doesn’t seem to be anyone at the club willing to hammer that nail in, however, and that’s down to another factor which has plagued Barca for a while now – an over-reliance on Messi. While stars have come and gone from the Catalan club, the Argentine has remained and performed as well as ever. This seems to have had a negative impact on the rest of the squad’s ability.
In the past when Barca were accused of being too Messi-orientated, these accusations were easily denied. Neymar and Luis Suarez contributed heavily to one of the most feared frontlines in footballing history. Andres Iniesta chipped in with important goals and assists on a regular basis. Supporting strikers such as David Villa, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Samuel Eto’o had starring roles (albeit for varying lengths of time).
Now, however, these accusations are well-founded. When Barca are in trouble, they look to Messi. When they need a goal, they look to Messi. When they need an assist, they look to Messi. It’s an extremely unhealthy coping mechanism, but the main problem is that it usually works. Such is Messi’s alien-like ability, he has pulled more game-winning moments out of the bag than James Bond has pulled Bond girls.
When it doesn’t work, the results are disastrous. Messi scored a penalty last night, but was otherwise quiet. Without his creative influence, Barca struggled to create many chances of note and were shut out by PSG’s well-marshalled back line. Koeman’s system, like many of his predecessors’, cannot function if Messi isn’t involved. Teammates don’t know what to do without a focal point. Koeman doesn’t know what to change tactically. They don’t normally need an alternative because Messi is so consistent.
It’s quite simple; Barca won’t realise they need to change their style until Messi leaves and they’re required to consistently find answers without him. This will lead them to alter their transfer policy, which is as unorganised and disjointed as their defence are.
Some of the club board’s decisions in recent transfer markets have been baffling. Allowing Suarez to join Atletico Madrid for free, who he has subsequently fired clear at the top of La Liga, was borderline insane. Swapping a 23-year-old Arthur for 30-year-old Miralem Pjanic was strange on paper, and has proven to be just that with the midfielder making just five domestic starts this season. Martin Braithwaite has done himself credit, but surely he isn’t Barcelona standard? Ousmane Dembele had just 92 senior appearances under his belt when they splashed £91.5million on him.
The signing of Philippe Coutinho for £139million has benefitted Liverpool more than Barca themselves, and they have now decided to freeze him out of first team action due to an unwillingness to meet a clause that would require them to pay the English club an extra fee.
The reasons behind Barca continually making these strange transfer dealings are beyond many of us, but it is clear they don’t believe they require a major rebuild at the moment. Finances are reportedly under immense strain, but a huge chunk will be freed up if Messi is allowed to leave and his lucrative contract is brought to an end. That will allow whoever is in charge to get the side back on the right track.
Is the man in charge right for the job, though? Ronald Koeman has done very little to convince critics he is the right man to take the club forward. If you go on social media and listen to board members or fans, however, you’ll find a unanimous opinion a large percentage of them seem to share; no other manager would do any better considering Barca’s circumstances.
There are a number of things to consider here. Off-field matters do tend to have some sort of impact on the pitch, but that doesn’t mean they have to. Koeman’s main two jobs should be distracting his players from the mess upstairs and formulating a cohesive tactical plan. He doesn’t appear to have done either of these things.
The Dutchman has switched regularly between 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 formations this season, finally settling on the latter and beginning to string together stronger (emphasis on the ‘er’) runs of form in a domestic sense. This was the setup he employed last night, however, and Barca were picked apart with ease. Something clearly isn’t right.
Is that really down to Koeman’s hands being tied, however? Is there really no manager out there that could do better with this group of players? If you can look yourself in the eye and say that Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp wouldn’t lead this group of players on a title charge, then I applaud your bravery.
Koeman’s suitability for a role of this size if questionable. He won league titles with Ajax and PSV, but that’s hardly a miracle in the Dutch Eredevisie. He struggled at Valencia and AZ Alkmaar. He was very successful at Southampton, but failed miserably with Everton. He failed to beat Portugal in the 2019 UEFA League Final as Netherlands boss before being appointed at Barca.
Things have been underwhelming to say the least, but Koeman is reportedly being given the benefit of the doubt because he is an ex-player the fans can relate to. Why? What extra qualification does having played for a club get you in the world of football management? Too much leeway these days, apparently. If Koeman hadn’t played for Barcelona in his younger years, he would likely have been sacked by now.
There is a huge to-do list at Barcelona, but ticking off can’t begin until Lionel Messi leaves the club. Only then will the club realise their ageing players are beyond repair. Only then will the hierarchy admit to an over-reliance on the Argentine. Only then will they realise their recruitment policy must improve if they are to compete again. Only then will they realise they require a higher quality of coach.
Letting Messi go clearly won’t be easy for Barca, or even desirable – as shown by last summer’s spat. However, it’s clear that the club must bite the bullet and let go of the best player their side has ever seen.
Leeds United travelled to London for their first game of 2021 and were soundly beaten by a typical Tottenham Hotspur performance; Leeds had the most of the ball and created a roughly equal number of chances, but fell to a 3-0 loss.
Just four days prior, Marcelo Bielsa’s side had romped to a 5-0 win over West Brom (who had drawn 1-1 with Liverpool two days earlier). On December 20th, Leeds conceded six at Old Trafford – a mere four sleeps after putting five past Newcastle.
The exhilarating matches Leeds have been involved in since returning to the Premier League have certainly caught the eye; the above examples only cover those played in the past 17 days. Pundits, writers and fans alike have been swept along with the excitement and have regularly exclaimed their admiration of the bravery with which Bielsa’s men go about their business.
Does this brand of football really deserve such praise, though?
There is no question that we all enjoy watching the great footballing sides of past and present; Guardiola’s City centurions and Barcelona Champions League winners; Klopp’s English champions and Dortmund underdogs; Sir Alex’s free-flowing United sides. We admire them for a reason.
But now think of Mourinho’s great Chelsea and Inter teams and the great Italian club sides of the 1990s; are these clubs’ successes not as admirable simply because they didn’t play as entertaining a style of football? Why, even Leicester City’s incomprehensible title win in 2016 only became a realistic possibility once they’d sorted out their defensive issues a quarter of the way through the season.
Defending and attacking are equally important in football. The fact that most YouTube highlight reels consist of bamboozling skills and streaming offensive moves doesn’t automatically make their perpetrators more important than those whose job it is to defend them. So why do attacking teams receive so much credit, while their defensive counterparts are slated for being ‘boring’?
It’s true that watching a side ‘park the bus’ for eighty minutes of a game can be on the tedious side. At the end of the day, however, it is a manager’s job to win games – and if he and his players’ strengths lie in their defensive third, then why not play to these strengths?
This brings us back to Leeds, who’s unpredictable form could probably justify their team name replacing the word “inconsistent” in the dictionary. This is normal for any promoted side, and sitting 12th in the Premier League table after seventeen games is a satisfactory spot. At the moment, the ends are justifying the means.
Does that mean they should be praised for losing games by such wide margins? After losing 6-2 to Manchester United, Leeds were still being celebrated for the way they went about their business. Why? Should positives really be taken from a game in which your defence is split open time after time and your goal difference decreases by four? If Sean Dyche’s Burnley lost by that scoreline, plenty of football fans would be quick to tell them they deserve it because of their style of play.
The only team to have conceded more goals this season than Leeds are West Brom (highlighting the scale of the task Sam Allardyce has on his hands). The Hawthorns side are also the sole side who have more Expected Goals Against them than Leeds. This kind of defending is typical of a team at the bottom of the table, and the fact that Leeds are conforming to those kinds of trends should not be applauded.
Leeds’ goalscoring exploits are pulling them clear of safety, of course. Their 30 strikes so far are undoubtedly impressive and make for a good spectacle. The argument is over whether or not a team should be commended for losing 4-1 at home to Leicester just because they won by three at Aston Villa a week earlier. Poor defending should not be preached, especially at this level.
Another prime example of “bravery” and “trust in the system” being strangely eulogized came last season with relegated Norwich City – an example of what can go wrong with the Leeds model. Manager Daniel Farke was continually showered with praise for sticking to his principles and refusing to alter his style of play despite his side sitting bottom of the table for the majority of the season. Why? Because his side played with what was commonly perceived as an exciting style.
The reality? Norwich scored just 26 goals all season, and let in 75. They attained a mere 21 points and were well adrift by the time the league drew to an overdue ending. Is this so-called ‘excitement’ really worth it, or should Norwich have switched up their tactics to accommodate more resilient characteristics? Farke is still in charge and his side sit top of the Championship table, so if they are promoted we will see if he has learned from his mistakes.
So who provides the blueprint for a side of Leeds’ stature going about their business with riveting attacking moves and strong defensive foundations while still achieving good results? The answer is simple; Southampton.
It took Ralph Hasenhuttl a while to get his ideas across, but after last night’s win against Liverpool his side are back up to sixth in the table and are continuing to bear fruit. They’ve done it by combining clever attacking with solid defending and pressing, as well. However, the attacking doesn’t need to be as “all-out” as Leeds’ often is. The Saints’ xG so far this season is 17.55, which is the smallest by far among teams in the top half of the table (the second lowest in West Ham’s 22.86). However, they have actually scored 26 – just four less than Leeds.
The big difference is the defence. Southampton have conceded just 19 goals (20.43 xGA) while Leeds have shipped 33. That’s the difference a good defence can make to a team who are clinical in front of goal. Leeds may have scored three against Liverpool earlier this season, but they let in four. Southampton only converted one last night, but didn’t concede and got an extra three points for their troubles. That’s why they sit sixth while Leeds are in twelfth.
Brighton are another side who warrant a quick mention in this article; Graham Potter receives a plethora of plaudits for his nice style of play and you rarely hear any negativity surrounding his team’s performances, but the fact remains that they have won only two of their seventeen games so far this season. The ends do not justify the means.
There is no problem with playing free-flowing, attacking football. I’ve already mentioned some of the great sides who have flourished by doing so. Just have a think the next time you bemoan a 1-0 Tottenham win and clean sheet, while you praise Leeds for a 5-3 loss. At the end of the day, points are what matter in football – and goals alone don’t get you them.
According to WhoScored.com, Manchester United’s style of play is characterised by “attacking down the left”. This has become a well-documented phenomenon over the previous few months; why do a team with a such a wealth of offensive talent focus their efforts so heavily down one side of the park?
Is it a deliberate choice from the manager? Unlikely. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has displayed a limited amount of tactical nous throughout his time in charge at Old Trafford, so it’s far-fetched to believe he is behind the decision. If it was his idea, surely things would have changed as inconsistent results piled up?
So it must be the players. United have attackers that typically prefer playing on the left hand side of the park – Marcus Rashford likes to hug the left touchline before cutting in onto his favoured right foot, Anthony Martial drifts left when he plays through the middle and star-man Bruno Fernandes creates the majority of his chances from the left third of the pitch. Even Paul Pogba (allegedly) enjoys playing on the left of a midfield three.
So if these players prefer to play on the left, what’s the issue? Well, problems with one-dimensional attacking are bad enough. If teams know where United are going to attack from, it’s easier to defend against. Why else would they struggle to break the opposition down until later in games, when they tire? Let’s take a look at some of United’s recent league fixtures.
These are the positions that United shot from in their 3-1 victory against West Ham. Not a single one came from the right third of the pitch; they’re all from central or left positions. But where were the chances created from? Perhaps the build-up play came from the right? Alas, no. The picture below illustrates that of United’s fourteen chances created, only two came directly from the right wing.
It was the same in the previous comeback win over Southampton. Ten chances created. Again, a mere two came from the right. United had 15 shots in this game, and only one came from a position right of the six yard box. This is a damningly one-sided approach to football.
However, this isn’t actually predicament in itself. The single greatest issue United create for themselves is that of isolating Mason Greenwood on the right wing.
Now, Greenwood is a terrific asset. The fact he is both two-footed and extremely clever for a player his age means he can come inside and join build-up play which is taking place on the left. That isn’t a problem. He isn’t a focal point for attacks, though, and that is a problem. I’ve said for a number of months now that Marcus Rashford would be a better option from the bench, and his recent performance are proving this point. He continues to start, however, and continues to have attacks directed through his position. His continual errors and poor decision making are costing United goals and points.
Greenwood is a smarter player than Rashford despite being a number of years his junior. He doesn’t make as many errors, is more clinical in front of goal and doesn’t give away idiotic fouls every other minute. And yet, with play focused so heavily down the left, Rashford gets more of the ball.
Greenwood is forced to come much further inside than would be desirable in order to get involved. The dilemma isn’t that he himself can’t handle the positional change; he played as an out-and-out striker throughout his youth career and it is hoped that will be his long-term position at United. The problem is that this crowds the left side of the pitch. With Rashford, Martial, Fernandes and Greenwood all operating in the same space, it’s easier for opposing defenders to shut them out and force them away from goal.
Greenwood needs to be given more of a key role. He has proven himself to be a reliable and consistent performer despite his age, and his ability shines through on a much more regular basis than Rashford’s. If the ball is on the other side of the park, though, Greenwood can’t have as much of an impact as necessary.
So United need to come up with a solution. In short, they need to find a way of spreading out their attacks. I doubt this will happen under Solskjaer, as he simply doesn’t have the footballing brain to devise a counter-plan. A new manager may be needed before these problems are solved, and that time can’t come soon enough for United.
Perhaps Fernandes needs to mix things up more? Greenwood and Rashford could switch wings during games to give each an ample opportunity to impress? Or someone could give the coaches a manual on making a football team less predictable? Whatever the answer, United need to find it fast if they are to salvage a season thrown into turmoil by their Champions League exit.
Manchester United managers need to be built a certain way. Taking charge of one of the most highly scrutinised clubs in the world is no mean feat; pressure from fans is intense, criticism from the media is a given and success is a must.
With the way Ole Gunnar Solskjaer handles his press appearances, however, you wouldn’t think this was the case.
Solskjaer’s reign at Old Trafford so far has been underwhelming to say the least; personally, I’d describe it as having been mind-numbingly devout of progress.
Results have been almost as inconsistent as they could have been. Purple patches have been followed by barren spells, the board looks unwilling to take the club to another level and players look lost without a discernible style of play. Solskjaer has looked out of depth throughout the last two years.
These problems have been showcased through his lack of nous in the press box. There have been a number of strange quotes which have caught the eye for all the wrong reasons, and serve to show that United can’t expect to return to the top of the game while the Norweigan is at the helm. His comments breed inadequacy.
It all started off with some misleading information regarding the future of flop-signing Alexis Sanchez. Solskjaer exclaimed that United fans could expect to see a lot more of the Chilean as the season progressed – before proceeding to send him out on loan a matter of days later.
Then came the infamous Carabao Cup tie against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. The tie itself was relatively drama free; City won the first leg and kept a spirited United comeback at bay in the second. What drew the most attention was United’s managers’s comments after the game.
“When you play Man City in the Carabao Cup and they put their strongest team out, you know you’ve gone places because that means they respect us,” he announced.
Did he think he was still in charge at Cardiff City? This is Manchester United we’re talking about; one of the biggest clubs in the world. Taking pride in a team putting out a strong eleven against you is for lower league sides, surely? Let’s not forget that Sergio Aguero and Ederson were both rested for this tie as well.
Another cup tie, this time against Rochdale, brought another bamboozling statement.
“We’re better in shootouts than in games,” the coach claimed. The jury is out on whether he was boasting or joking, but the fact is that both are unacceptable. Limping to victory after penalty kicks against lower league opposition is nothing to joke about at Manchester United; instead of ill-placed comments, Solskjaer should have taken some time to criticise his players and ensured them that their places were under threat. Perhaps that would inspire them to provide some consistent performances?
Recently, United’s manager has been attempting to bolster his side’s confidence by saying that “when we have the right attitude and work as a team out there we’re hard to beat”.
Let that sink in: “hard to beat”. Manchester United should not be ‘hard to beat’ – it should be other teams with that mentality when they travel to Old Trafford. Quotes like this will hardly strike fear into the hearts of opponents, and that’s exactly what the aim of Solskjaer’s press conferences should be.
In the past week came more confusion surrounding Paul Pogba. Solskjaer said he was thoroughly pleased that the Frenchman had completed three 90 minutes over the international break, and he was excited to have him back in Manchester. Just days later, and he was nowhere to be seen in the matchday squad. What’s the need in the confusion? Why can’t the manager just be honest about these things?
There are rumours of Solskjaer being merely a puppet in the Glazer family’s wider scheme, and his interviews certainly point to an answer in that direction. It appears that he is actively trying to downplay expectations at the club; does he know his managerial ability can take them no further, and so he tries to hoodwink fans into belief in progress? Or is he being spoonfed press tips by the boardroom?
One thing is for sure; Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s press conferences are instilling expectations of mediocrity at Manchester United that don’t look like going away while he is in charge.
“We have some competition for places but I would have to say that there is nobody who I think is challenging seriously at the moment to push him out of that position.”
This view on Jordan Pickford’s England status must surely have come from an uneducated fan on Twitter? An under-qualified pundit, perhaps? Or a devout Everton fan sticking up for his goalkeeper?
Unfortunately for England fans, none of the above answers are correct. This strange opinion actually came from the national manager himself, Gareth Southgate.
Southgate’s popularity has certainly declined in recent months. His insistence on employing negative tactics (despite the wealth of attacking talent at his disposal), some poor in-game decision making and his apparent antipathy towards Jack Grealish have raised plenty of questions among a fanbase who, until recently, went as far as bringing about a waistcoat revolution in his honour.
Perhaps even more baffling, however, is the manager’s downright refusal to speak ill of Jordan Pickford. It has become somewhat of a mystery; what does the 26-year-old have to do to get dropped from the England starting eleven? Nick Pope of Burnley and Manchester United’s Dean Henderson have been knocking on the door for a significant period of time, yet Southgate says there is “nobody” who comes close to the ex-Sunderland man’s shirt.
Southgate may simply prefer Pickford, but this statement is an abomination. Taking a simple look at the numbers instantly dispels his beliefs and may even call his sanity into question.
Let’s take a look at last season’s Premier League stats, where Pickford, Pope and Henderson were all regular starters for their club sides.
In the 2019/20 season, Nick Pope helped Burnley reach 15 clean sheets – a number which missed out on a Golden Glove award by a mere one shutout. Henderson achieved just two less with 13, but Pickford was significantly worse off with nine. Straightaway, Pickford falls behind when it comes to the most revered of goalkeeper stats.
Clean sheets aren’t just down to Pickford though, are they? Everton’s defence may not have been providing adequate protection, after all.
So what about errors leading to goals? This is a category Pickford does excel in – last season, he made four mistakes that cost his side goals. Pope, on the other hand, made just two; Henderson was even sturdier, with just one such costly mistake. This highlights Pickford’s erratic nature and the likelihood of him costing his team in the future (whether that be Everton or England). He has already made another error leading to a goal this season, and it certainly won’t come as a surprise when he does it again.
Am even deeper look into last season’s goalkeeping stats show Southgate’s defence of Pickford to be weak.
England’s ‘number one’ made 94 saves in the Premier League last year. Henderson edged him in this category with 97, and Pope blew both competitors out of the water with a massive 120 stops.
Pope also made an impressive 94 high claims last year, again streets ahead of Pickford’s 24 and Henderson’s 20. When it came to successful punches away, Henderson’s 16 comfortably seen off the others – both of whom made 11.
These trends have all continued into this season (barring Henderson’s, who finds himself behind David De Gea in the Manchester United pecking order). Pickford hasn’t made any significant improvements, and if anything is looking shakier than ever.
These stats prove that both of Pickford’s direct competitors have been performing both better and more consistently than him. So why does Southgate believe there are no serious challengers?
It’s fairly obvious that he refuses to drop Pickford because he hasn’t made these kinds of mistakes for England, but there are a number of reasons as to why this makes Southgate’s decision making incredibly inept.
International games offer a very small sample size. Just because Pickford hasn’t made a notable mistake for his country so far doesn’t mean he won’t in the future; errors will naturally come with more games.
Answer me this; what other player, in any position, can get away with playing consistently poorly for their club and still walk into their national team – especially when there are a wealth of suitable alternatives? At best it shows narrow-sightedness and a refusal to accept being in the wrong; at worst, blatant favouritism.
Whatever the reason, Pickford’s role seems to be safe for the time being. The question for Pope and Henderson, however, is simple – what else are they supposed to do? Henderson can at least blame a lack of game time this season for his exclusion, but Pope has been outperforming Pickford for a long time now and barely gets a look in.
Southgate’s managerial ability may be lacking, but surely even he can’t be blind to the serious challengers for the England goalkeeper shirt?
There is no question that last week was one of Celtic’s worst in recent memory. After going out with a whimper in a 2-0 home defeat to Glasgow rivals Rangers, a 3-1 Europa League loss to AC Milan was promptly followed by more dropped points away at Aberdeen. Talk of pressure on Hoops boss Neil Lennon has rocketed and pundits across the country have been in discussion over whether the champions’ season is petering out.
It’s worth remembering, however, that prior to these results, Celtic had won seven league games on the bounce. While two league games without a win is hardly desirable, it was only the second and third times respectively that they have dropped points so far this season – so is it really fair to speak of a so-called crisis?
The real questions marks raised haven’t just surrounded the results, though, but the performances too. So what was different last week to the seven wins before that? I took a look at the numbers to find out.
In Celtic’s seven league fixtures before their game with Rangers (against Dundee United, Motherwell, Ross County, St Mirren, Livingston, Hibernian and St Johnstone respectively), they averaged 67.5% of ball possession. Against Rangers, this number dropped to 57% and at Pittodrie it was 62%. In both matches they had less of the ball than they’ve become accustomed to, so could this have had an impact on the outcome?
It’s hard to say. In games against opponents closer to Celtic’s level, it’s only natural that they will have less of the ball and they will have surely planned for this. High possession statistics aren’t necessarily a metric that lead to positive results, either; when Celtic were put out of Champions League qualifying by Ferencvaros, they had 71% of the ball and still lost 2-1.
A more relevant stat could be the numbers of attempts Celtic are having on their opponent’s goal. In their seven-game winning streak, they averaged 18.7 shots per game – from which an average of 7.4 were on target. Throughout these matches, they mustered an average of 2.7 goals every ninety minutes.
Come the Old Firm and Celtic managed only five efforts, and zero on target. This wasn’t just a drop; it was a mighty fall and it could hint at one reason for their poor performance. So what led to this dramatic decline?
The joint absence of Ryan Christie and Odsonne Edouard may go a long way to explaining this. Of the players who started for Celtic at Parkhead, only Patryk Klimala has higher goal contributions per 90 minutes this season (Christie with 0.88 goals and assists per 90 minutes and Edouard with 0.69). Two of Celtic’s chief goal-makers were missing and their creativity was sorely missed.
It’s surely no coincidence that with Christie back in the side against Aberdeen, Celtic’s attempts on goal rose to 14 and they converted three of these chances (Christie got a goal himself, albeit from the penalty spot).
The problem against the Dons clearly wasn’t scoring goals. The main issue (which also reared its ugly head against Rangers) was keeping them out. Celtic had only let in three goals in their seven domestic games prior to the Glasgow derby (an average of 0.4 per game) but went on to concede five in two straight league matches.
There are two main factors to consider when analysing this decrease in defensive solidarity. The Old Firm result is perhaps easier to look at in this instance; two players with barely any Scottish Premiership experience were included in the starting lineup. Stephen Welsh made only his second league appearance for the side in Lennon’s chosen back three, while Diego Laxalt was a SPFL debutant at wing back. A first Celtic appearance is never an easy task, but being thrown in at the deep end like this was a particularly bold choice from Lennon.
He was forced into these changes, of course. Hatem Abd Elhamed (who had started in defence in three of Celtic’s four previous games) was out, and so was Christopher Jullien. It was a makeshift back five with a limited number of competitive minutes between it, so it was no surprise that Rangers were able to exploit it.
The Aberdeen contest brought an interesting change of tactics from Lennon. Having started with three central defenders in Celtic’s eight previous competitive matches (including the Old Firm) he reverted to a back four for the clash with Derek McInnes’ side. Had the manager lost faith in the system after falling to consecutive defeats using it? Whatever the reason, the tweak certainly didn’t pay off as Celtic shipped three goals.
Make no mistake – a crisis for Celtic is not the same as a crisis for other Scottish clubs. Win their game in hand and they’ll still be within three points of Rangers at the top of the table, and they have a Scottish Cup semi-final to look forward to this weekend. Depending on the way things go, Celtic could once again be favourites for the title within a few weeks.
However, deeper underlying issues can be found when looking at the stats. A decrease in possession and shots on goal, as well as an increase in attempts on their own goal, three games in a row suggests Lennon isn’t sure how to set his team up in big games.
New creative outlets must be found for instances where Christie and Edouard are unavailable. A lack of cutting edge up front, mixed with shortcomings at the back in terms of ability and personnel, means the Hoops have their work cut out if they want to achieve ten titles in a row.
The numbers only tell part of the story in football, but those from Celtic’s week from hell will ring alarm bells in the ears of even the most devoted of Hoops fans.
Marcus Rashford’s heart is definitely in the right place. There is a lot more to the debate surrounding his free school meals campaign than the majority of people realise, but you can’t deny that the Manchester United star is trying to make things better for a younger generation.
Rashford is receiving plaudits from left, right and centre at the moment, but the problem is that this seems to have made him invincible in the sporting media. When was the last time you read a credible journalist or pundit criticise his form?
This wouldn’t be a problem if Rashford was playing well. Unfortunately, however, he is not, and he hasn’t been for a while now. Ever since his return from injury during post-lockdown Premier League football, he has looked a shadow of his confident former self – and he isn’t being pulled up for it.
There are a number of reasons as to why the 22-year-old is being consistently showered with praise, but the overpowering factor at the moment is his political activities. This, however, needs to be separated from what is, at the end of the day, his job. Just because he does a lot of good in one area of his life doesn’t mean he can get away with below-par footballing performances.
He also tends to produce a flash of brilliance once every five games or so that bail him out of poor showings. Take United’s recent 2-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain, for example. Rashford played dreadfully throughout this game (I’ll touch more on this later) but secured the win late on with a stunning finish. Cut to the studio, and Rio Ferdinand is raving about Rashford being on the same level as Kylian Mbappe.
It’s lazy punditry at best, but it also sums up the problem with Rashford at the moment. He is being let off the hook too easily.
Having watched Rashford a lot over the past few months, I’ve realised he’s doing a lot wrong in a lot of different games. His decision making plays a big part in that.There are a variety of problems with his game (which he’ll hopefully iron out; he’s still very young, after all) but his decision making in big moments needs to be significantly improved.
Take a look back at the PSG match once more. I’m sure you all remember the moment where Rashford found himself dashing through on goal in a 2v1 situation in United’s favour. Instead of sprinting through and finishing himself, or running far enough to drag the only PSG defender on hand towards him to make a pass easier, he tried an audacious pass straightaway. Fans watching from home must have been in uproar as the chance went begging.
He makes mistakes like this a lot, and it’s usually pretty infuriating to watch. It throws away chances for United and makes games where they are forced to break down teams playing with a low block even tougher. Rashford could do with taking a leaf out of teammate Mason Greenwood’s book; at such a young age, you very rarely see Greenwood make a poor decision with the ball at his feet. Rashford needs to add this tool to his arsenal.
Rashford’s poor decision making also leads to him making a ridiculous number of needless fouls. While this isn’t as glaring a flaw as others, it is still a tedious one – especially when United are chasing goals and don’t want to disrupt the flow of the game.
The number of times where Rashford clatters into the back of an opponent who is looking for a foul is ridiculous. Force them into a tight area? Press them into making a mistake? Show them onto their weaker foot? Not for me, says Marcus Rashford. Those aren’t options for a player who’s only defensive agenda seems to be gifting free kicks to the other team!
The England striker also needs to work on his consistency. As I’ve said already, a long-range strike every few games isn’t enough to paper over the cracks of one poor performance after another. He needs to stop with the fancy flicks, stop with the audacious shots and passes when there are easier options available, and work on achieving 7/10 performances every week at least.
It’s the dirty work and the unattractive goals that transform good players into great players. Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo epitomised this at Old Trafford; while they too were capable of scoring spectacular goals, they consistently delivered the less than glamorous strikes. That’s what made them so successful.
Rashford just doesn’t seem capable of doing that at the moment, and yet he still isn’t criticised in the media for it. If he plays poorly, he is ignored. If he plays poorly and scores a long range effort, he is called the best thing since sliced bread. Perhaps a bit of constructive criticism would go a long way to improving his game.
All of these flaws combine to create what seems to be a poor footballing brain. Rashford just doesn’t look like a natural thinker on the pitch. Of course, this isn’t quite as much as a necessity for a winger or striker as it is for a creative midfielder or playmaker. It does make a big difference, however, and this is showing in his performances.
Good decision making is necessary if a player like Rashford wants to be efficient in front goal (in terms of goals and assists) and he isn’t contributing nearly as much as he should be. There are too many stray passes and too many wayward shots. Too many ball losses and not enough end product.
It is difficult to drop Rashford at the moment. The signing of Jadon Sancho would have made it easier, but I have a horrible feeling that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would have happily dropped Greenwood before Rashford. We each have our own opinions, but it doesn’t take a genius to see that the younger player is the more reliable option right now.
Perhaps the signing of Edison Cavani will spur Rashford on to greater heights; his place in the team is now no longer a certainty like it was when he was up against the lousy competition of Daniel James, Jesse Lingard and Odion Ighalo.
What Marcus Rashford does need is a bit more pressure from the media. None of this dancing around his shortcomings because of his good deeds in the political world. He might deserve praise off the pitch, but he still warrants criticism on it.