New Beginnings

This afternoon the team I manage played its first game of the league season and recorded its first victory. Still new to management and the feelings which coincide with controlling a men’s football side I was hit by a wave of emotions.  Now that the dust has settled I’ve been able to reflect on the day’s proceedings with a more level-headed perspective.

Having managed a men’s team for a brief period during the tail end of last season the planning and selection headaches were nothing new to me. However there was a great difference between the pressure I felt this season in comparison to the last and for obvious reason. This season is my first opportunity to control a team from start to finish and differently to the previous year, I have not adopted a team already moulded by a predecessor. In fact I have been responsible for every facet of creating the team from spotting the players to coaching them and eventually putting them out on the field for their first competitive fixture.

With the new found level of responsibility comes added pressure. Pressure perhaps not caused by fans or rivals but pressure that is both heavy and self-imposed. The excitement of today was sullied by a quiet nervousness and fear of failure; normal feelings for someone about to participate in competitive sport. However what I’ve come to realise is that my pre-match apprehension as a player is much less severe when compared to that which I feel as a manager. I tried to understand why this was.

As a player it’s possible to make a mistake which can lead to the concession of a goal or on the other side of the coin, fail to take a chance to score one. As a player there’s a ninety minute window in which to perform and perhaps for some, that fear of underperforming and losing your place on the field before the game even reaches its end. But as a manager the most influential you can be is on the training ground with the players working on the aspects of the game you deem to be most important. When it comes to match-day it’s time for your team to implement what you’ve been working on and your job to assist as much as possible from pitch side with words of tactical instruction and encouragement.

The role of a manager or coach on the touchline during a match is an important one, as hopefully with the use of a sound understanding of the game as well as the benefit of having a more advantageous viewing position, the manager should be able to positively affect the team. However having had time to consider various reasons for my anxiety today I find myself coming to the conclusion that it is caused by a feeling of helplessness. The knowledge that despite all the effort put into planning and preparation in training and prior to games, your degree of success can still be dictated by bad luck and any number of the twenty three men out on the field that have the capacity to do something you really wish they wouldn’t. (And yes I do mean twenty three)

My team isn’t watched on television by millions across the world and my weekly wage doesn’t allow me to sip the fine wine premier league managers are known to enjoy after a game. If next week’s fixture ends in a loss I won’t have thousands of fans screaming for me to lose my job. Nevertheless I can almost guarantee that on the morning of the game I’ll still wake up with that odd combination of anticipation and angst which will only be relieved by victory and the acquisition of another three points.

Got a taste for it now.

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Man Down

This weekend the Premier League gave us our usual dose of drama and excitement as all twenty teams battled for points ahead of the international break. For those who aren’t representing their countries over the coming days it’s an opportunity to put some extra work in on the training ground and perhaps equally as importantly, a chance to get a bit of rest four weeks into the season. However there are six players who over the course of this weekend ensured that even when the league does resume, they’ll have to wait a little longer than anticipated to regain the action.

There were six red cards in the Premier League this weekend and a comment made by my friend, a football lover and follower of Pitchside Perspective, got my cognitive juices flowing. After being informed that Stoke had had two players sent off in their match up with West Bromwich Albion, he exclaimed “and West Brom only won one nil?!”. This of course was a mistake on his part, knowing that there are few things somebody can say about football that I won’t either contest or elaborate upon. In this instance I did both.

My friend was of the opinion and reasonably so, that a team with eleven men should vastly outperform opponents who have had one or more players removed. In other words West Brom should have wiped the floor with Stoke. This argument does carry weight. More players mean more people on your team who have the potential to either score or create a goal. More players should mean more options for a pass when in possession. More players should mean each player has less ground to cover than your handicapped opponents and therefore more energy to commit to attacking play. This all does make a great deal of sense and is often the case.

However I was more cautious in my condemnation of West Bromwich Albion and put forward my reasons for why it’s not always as easy as it would appear to put a depleted side to the sword. Usually if the scores are level in a game at the point of a team losing a man, the side who’ve witnessed their teammate march sour-faced down the tunnel often make alterations to their playing style.

With their full quota of players a team will often be adventurous in their hunt for goals and rightly so, the teams are equal and regardless of any differences in quality it is commonly accepted that both teams should make a go of trying to score. However once a team goes a man down, they often abandon their pursuit of three points and opt to settle for the one they currently hold. This creates a problem for their opponents. Stoke are renowned in this country for being a well organised team who dig in, do their jobs and make it difficult for the opposition to play, and that’s when they’re trying to score. But imagine a well organised side who dig in, do their jobs and make it difficult for the opposition to play and whose only concern is to protect the goal at all costs.

Moving away from this game and making the point more generalised, teams often revert from whatever previous formation they had, to two tight banks of four and one striker. Everybody bar one player is a defender in this system and in some instances even that striker is a defender who simply protects the goal from further afield. The ultra-defensive style of play is one which often receives a great deal of criticism but at the end of the day, this so-called negativity can often be the difference between holding on to or losing one point or even three.

With the change of system also comes an alteration of a team’s mentality. Previously concerned with stretching the opposition, now the team is focused entirely on reducing space, eradicating gaps, and slowing down the game. Starting to sound a bit more difficult to score against? When the ten remaining opposition members are this dedicated to shutting you out, it sometimes needs a touch of magic to get that all important goal. Once that goal comes, the defensive team has to open up more; this creates more gaps and more opportunities to attack more successfully.

So all things considered remember these words for the next time your team has a man advantage. Be patient, get behind your team and, if it comes, celebrate the goal like you’ve just won the league!

More to the Game

There were forty-one games played in the Football League yesterday with goals flying in up and down the country. The most notable  was perhaps the fixture between Bournemouth and West Ham, a game which has been called a seven goal thriller. It’s this type of match that makes the few people who aren’t too familiar with our sport have a look and maybe start to understand what all of the fuss is really about. However I must admit a degree of snobbery in my appreciation of a different type of match with a radically dissimilar result.

The 0-0 is a much maligned result in football amongst those fans paying to go and watch their teams week in week out, and those sat in the sofa hoping for a bit of entertainment on a Saturday afternoon. Yesterday amongst the millions, were twelve sets of Football League fans who travelled to stadiums around the country to watch their teams play out goalless games and most of which returned to their homes probably wishing they’d made better use of their day off.

A 0-0 isn’t all doom and gloom. Aside from the somewhat agonising anticipation which grows ever stronger as the minutes progress, games without goals can provide pleasure. This is something I realised when I started to develop a real interest in the game. As fans the desire to see goals should forever be first and foremost, after-all they do determine how successful our teams are come the end of the season. However there are numerous other aspects of our game which shouldn’t be ignored.

In Italy of past years, defending was and to some extent still is considered an art. The ability to shut out an opponent is respected as much as being able to break them down and put the ball in the back of their net. The Italians play a game which many in our culture deem boring and yet it is underpinned by something which is so difficult to master. Hundreds of hours are dedicated defending as a team and establishing control over the opposition when not in possession. We love games in which we see the goalkeepers repeatedly fishing the ball out of their nets and we applaud the quality of the forwards’ passing play and finishing. Whereas while we may occasionally praise a defender for tracking his man and nullifying their opposite number’s attack, we still harbour a frustration because the goal we’ve been waiting for has been denied.

Sometimes a huge factor in the goalless result of a game is a stellar goalkeeping performance. The men between the sticks are paid to keep the ball out and when they do so in heroic fashion, rescuing the ball from a seemingly inevitable goal, it can often be as entertaining as seeing a striker find the net from long distance.

Let us not forget that goals are merely a split second out of a ninety minute match and that there is so much more play to be admired than that which ultimately adds another name to the scoresheet. These highly trained professionals show us breath-taking examples of skill and concentration as well as athleticism and this should be appreciated and enjoyed.

Whether it’s Kazenga Lua Lua’s acrobatic exploits or the famous Shearer keep it simple celebration, we all love to see our favourite players wheel off and enjoy a goal with the fans. But maybe if we try to understand the intricacies of the game a little more, we might find a lot more enjoyment of what we’re privileged enough to be watching.

The Graduate

The Premier League season is finally underway and already we have been subjected to controversy, excitement and the odd moment of brilliance from the teams we’ve been waiting to see all summer. But despite the goals, the fall out and the shock defeats, there has been one man who has offered not only England fans a glimmer of hope for the future, but also every hopeful player looking to make it to the top.

Perhaps my use of “man” was incorrect given the age of the person to which I’m referring. However over the course of the weekend, this young player has shown himself to have the mental, physical and technical qualities of someone far beyond his years. If you’ve been keeping abreast of current footballing events you’ll of course have realised that this post is about Reece Oxford.

The 16 year old Edmonton born centre back was employed as a holding central midfielder in West Ham’s first game of the season, a two nil victory over Arsenal. This made him the youngest player ever to represent West Ham at senior level. Making a debut in a London derby to kick off the league season is something most players would dream of, but also something which a great many players would struggle to handle. However Oxford took all the pressure and expectation in his stride and was a stand-out performer helping to shut out an Arsenal side containing the likes of Santi Cazorla, Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey.

Oxford’s performance speaks for itself and his dealings with the media after the game are glowing testament to the character of the young professional. What should be mentioned however is West Ham’s belief in the player. Their confidence to throw him into such a high profile game from the start is something perhaps lacking in other teams. I could be wrong and perhaps Oxford is purely one of the very, very rare young players talented enough to make the Premier League grade and there’s nothing more to it than that. However it got me wondering how many other players would be able to step up in such a way and perform when the real pressure is on.

Such little trust seems to be given to the players who in theory should understand what is expected of them by the club more than any other player. A signing coming in from afar, be it abroad or merely from another team in the Premier League will often immediately be trusted because they’ve performed elsewhere. Meanwhile young players who have been at the club for years, training under the tutelage of club coaches and often training with the club’s first team players are not deemed experienced enough to make the step up. They’re a risk.

Academy players may not have been around the block in professional football and they may be at the start of their careers; but when it comes to wanting to do their utmost for the team’s success who wants that more than those who have grown up with the club? A recent example of a club trying to buy experience and proven quality in the hope of success would be Queen’s Park Rangers of the 2014-2015 season. Players coming in on large wage deals and no real desire to see the club succeed lead to awful performances lacking in commitment and effort, the first two things professional athletes are expected to show.

Youngsters will make mistakes and Oxford is no exception to that rule. But any loyal young players willing to do anything to make careers for themselves at the clubs they’ve grown to love and respect should be given every opportunity to do so.

How many more Reece Oxford’s are out there, hidden amongst the youth sides, sat on the bench or loaned out to other clubs? The sixteen year old has been applauded from every angle and we can only hope that this his performance is a sign of impending change in the Premier League.

The future is red white and blue?!

Since the early days of football, the USA has been a country very much on the fringes of the mainstream. With heavily successful participation in various other sports, football, or ‘soccer’ as it is frustratingly called in the United States has until now been a sport which has been overlooked by American and Canadian sports fans. As a result, since its inception in 1993 the MLS (Major League Soccer) has struggled to really take off as a franchise around the world to any degree like the Premier League, its English counterpart.

After early difficulties however those who have invested time, effort and resources into top flight American soccer are finally beginning to reap real rewards. Whilst soccer has been played on a national scale in the US for many years, participated in by the young and old; it has never been supported in the way as it is currently. Average attendance rises year upon year and now it’s reached a point where one of the most popular teams, the Seattle Sounders regularly exceeds attendances of 40000 fans. Soccer’s popularity is steadily increasing.

But what has caused the rise in attendance? Amongst other marketing factors and the league’s willingness to show the sport via numerous broadcasting stations, the biggest draw of attendance comes from the new and exciting talent which the league is now gathering.

The financial rules in the MLS are much stricter than those in Europe. The most important rule regarding wage structuring is the salary cap which limits the amount clubs can actually pay their players. This cap is designed to ensure that the financial issues which crippled American soccer in the past don’t arise again.

Despite the salary cap, player pay is actually part of the reason the league is now gathering more attention. The designated player rule which brought David Beckham to LA Galaxy in 2007 is one which allows clubs to sign a limited amount of players with uncapped salaries. Year on year this has made it possible for seasoned European and South American stars to join MLS outfits; the likes of David Villa, Sebastian Giovinco and Kaka to name a few. These players who have bought into the American culture and seen an opportunity to prolong their careers in an exciting and developing league are heralded as heroes in the cities they represent and are responsible for the growing interest in the sport.

The most recent and most popular MLS recruits are none other than Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, all of which are winners of multiple trophies at the highest level. Regardless of which clubs these players join, they are contributing to the creation of an extremely watchable league.

I must admit despite being a fan of football at all levels I like many others around the world failed to show any interest in MLS until recent years. But the influx of foreign, world-class talent has got me watching more and more fixtures, despite the somewhat awkward viewing times. And with the coverage now provided by UK broadcasters the football in the US has become hugely more accessible to the overseas viewer.

So far the most exciting MLS game I’ve had the pleasure of watching was that between Toronto FC and New York City FC. Starved of my usual top-flight English and Spanish football in the European off-season I turned to the US for my fix. I was not left disappointed. Four penalties and eight goals coupled with an electric atmosphere provided me with more excitement that I could have ever imagined; so much so that for the next few days I pestered anyone with even the vaguest interest in football with stories of what I’d seen.

With the stars already out there and the ones sure to follow, things are looking up for the future of soccer in the USA and also in Canada from where three of the twenty league teams hail. However along with this excitement and superstardom it will be very interesting to see how the Americans tap into their enormous bank of potential players over the coming years. Could this be the catalyst for an era of American footballing dominance? England fans will hope not. Surely the last thing we need is another nation getting the better of us.

The Media. Friend or foe?

The media is an omnipresent entity affecting us all every day and in some of the most important aspects of our lives. The media has the power to change public opinion in whichever way those involved deem appropriate. This is no more evident than in football. There are some in the game who say that the media’s influence on football is contributing to the sport’s downfall and arguably they do have very valid grounds to believe this.

Before beginning to explain some of the reasons behind some people’s distrust of the media, time should be taken to mention the benefits that all types of media provide. Television, radio, internet streams, newspapers, news apps and magazines are all concepts which are encompassed under the umbrella term “media”. Without having the access or ability to sit in the stands and support your team week in week out, these media outlets allow us all to stay in touch with our teams every day of the year. Constantly replenished with fresher and more current stories every second of the day the stream of information we are provided with as football fans is endless. This allows us to feel connected and in the know regarding all things football which is extremely valuable to the fans worldwide who can’t get enough of the game. It sounds like a divine gift doesn’t it.

If what you’ve just read shows the light side of media’s coverage of football, what you’re about to read must of course refer to its darker counterpart. As with all good things in this world, the media has a tendency to be subjected to abuse. As such an influential aspect of our lives, those who have the knowledge and the guile to use it to their advantage often do so to extremely lucrative effect.

Agents are part and parcel of professional football and a great number of players have one. On the face of it the role of an agent is to look after the interests of their client (the player). This can come in the form of getting the most lucrative contract possible for the player, ensuring their needs are met by the clubs they are contracted or due to be contracted to, and also to protect said client from financial and social harm. However it would appear that an agent’s job description is further extended to dealing with the press. More and more we see comments from agents referring to their players via various media outlets, usually in order to get them a big transfer to another club. Whilst the topic of agent’s and what they bring to the table is one which could be elaborated and will be at a later date, I should return the focus to the media.

Comments made by agents, players or just about anybody in football can have a lasting effect on others. The issue Liverpool F.C currently have with their prized asset Raheem Sterling is one in which the media is heavily involved. The content of talks allegedly held between the player and his manager Brendan Rodgers in recent days have been leaked to the press. The story says that Sterling’s reason for wanting to leave Liverpool Football Club is that he no longer wishes to play for the Northern Irishman. Regardless of whether this is true or not, this information is extremely harmful to the reputation of the club and the manager who is trying to build a successful career in his profession. It is highly probable that this information was released by sources close to the player in order to counteract the conception (previously formed with the help of the media I should add) that all the he is interested in is money. By publicly offering up an alternative reason for him to seek to go elsewhere, this may help to improve the opinion people have of him. In the process however it’s likely to be having the adverse effect on the club which is greatly responsible for his current status in world football.

The media pumps millions of pounds into the game and does bring the world closer and closer to the pitch and the locker rooms. But with Sterling just one of the many players using it for their own benefit, it does seem as though what some see as a godsend can also be used as a weapon, or at the very least a tool for personal gain.

The Million Pound Market. Worth the hassle?

A recent SkySports article written by Adam Bate got me thinking. Twice a year as football fans we base our team’s potential success on the club’s performance in the transfer market. We hope that when the clock finally winds down at the end of this summer that our starting eleven will have at least one if not multiple new faces.

On the other side of the coin we are forced to cope with constant rumours which link the players we value most with other clubs. Every season throughout this period there are major stories which go hot and cold as the weeks roll by; finally coming to a conclusion either when a deal is done, or when the window shuts and is locked firmly for another few months.

But how important are signings? Why is it that every year even the highly successful feel the need to spend in order to improve? Surely a team like Barcelona which has won all there is to win in top flight football doesn’t need to step into the market and spend millions. Surely at some point Florentino Perez will run out of Galacticos to swoop for and his pantheon will finally be complete. It doesn’t seem to be as simple as that.

Despite success in the previous season clubs are perpetually looking for their next acquisition. It could be somebody who plays in the team’s weakest position. It could be somebody who perhaps the other players had to carry to success. It could be that maybe the team suffered with injuries to players in a certain position and the manager therefore wishes to find are more consistent and trustworthy replacement. It might even be that some players are coming towards the end of their career and are deemed to have reached their peak.

Whilst there are several potential reasons why a club would deem it necessary to go into the market in search of new blood, it could be argued that a much cheaper and equally effective alternative would be to use what has brought them success in the past. A classic example of this is that of John Terry. The much-maligned individual off the pitch is a warrior on it and a skilled craftsman at the back. He (as many players have been) was cast aside due to age or fear of declining performance by Rafa Benitez during his time at the Chelsea helm. However he has come back to play what some are describing as the best football his career. Helping to steer his side to a league and cup double in the season just gone.

Most shockingly is that despite the millions spent on incoming players, after a poor spell of performances the rumour mill begins to turn and churn out stories of their imminent exit. Without being narrow-minded to the possibility that maybe (as was probably most evident with Fernando Torres), some players will never be able to regain the scintillating form which lead to their big money moves, I do believe that players need to be given time to shine. A season to adjust for some players isn’t enough and they need longer to find a way of adapting their style of play to a new environment.

As for those players who have been successful in the previous season and still have time on their sides, it may not be necessary for replacements to be called. In order to boost competition for places and to keep them hungry, it could be time to call upon the most hungry of all, the young and enthusiastic. By trusting the academy and allowing its products to learn from the experienced first team players, they could be brought on and turned into your new top performers and eventually take on the roles of the current leading acts.

I understand the desire and the need in certain circumstances for transfer activity among clubs, especially those who haven’t achieved the success they were hoping for in the previous season. But I do think that building the solidarity of a group and trusting not only the players who delivered in the past, but also the ones who are craving for their first taste of victory, can go a long way to realising your club’s goals.

Why do we do it?

Whilst tentatively lowering myself onto my bed this evening, I tried to understand my love for the game. It should be noted at this point that my passion is never in question. However the pain I’m feeling two sessions into pre-season has got me wondering what it is about football that makes me so happy to undergo such rigorous training.

As a regular gym goer and all round sport-loving guy, I’m no stranger to exercise. But though I claim to give my all in gym sessions, the effort I go to is far outweighed by that which I give on the football field. This is visible across all levels amongst people of various abilities. Players who couldn’t think of anything worse than running long distances and carrying out repetitive exercises find themselves clocking up mile after mile when they step onto a football pitch.

Personally one of the things I love most about the sport is its ability to instil self-motivation in those who participate. It’s almost as if the pain of such intense physical exertion drifts to the back of our minds when the ball’s in our sights. At that point nothing matters but winning it for our teams and we’ll force ourselves to run harder and harder to stop our opponents getting the upper hand.

Despite all of this, during pre-season it can be easy to lose sight of why it is that we’re going to so much effort. Perhaps when there isn’t a ball to chase or a competitive game to win, it’s much more difficult to push oneself to the limit. However one thing that all players need to remember is that the work put in at this early stage is what sets you up for when that ball really is between you and your opposite number. Not being ready when the season comes is an even more painful experience than the training itself. Knowing you’re capable of more in games but not being fit enough to produce it is a hugely frustrating feeling.

So hang in there. Because when it’s late in the match and you’ve still got the ability to get to the ball first and dominate the game, you’ll look back at the tough periods and thank yourself for every shuttle, every sprint and every burpee you completed.

“Bring your trainers boys!”

For amateurs, pros and everybody in between the pre-season training period has begun. A time to dust off the boots of last season, unveil the latest shiny purchase for the new term, or if you’re anything like myself, stare tearfully at your unworn moulds from afar and pray you’ll get a chance to kick a ball before the session’s end.

For football lovers all over the land, now is a period of emotional confusion. The summer wait is over and you finally return to the plush green grass. But what we’ve really waiting for is still weeks if not months away. The chance to get kitted up and turn your summer dreams into reality is still not upon you. Before that time comes, everyone expecting to don a playing shirt is required to put in the time and rack up the miles.

Time trials, shuttle runs and beast sessions are part and parcel of preparation for a new season and deemed necessary to shake off the relaxed and more sedentary lifestyle a great deal of players have in the off season. I agree with the need for running and I agree with the need for heavy physical exertion as this is conducive to reaching the right level of fitness. However I’d advise all coaches out there at all levels of the game not to use pre-season training merely for strength and conditioning. This time can offer more than that.

The hard work involved in pre-season training is something which brings out the best in some players and the worst in others. This type of training can show a lot about the character of a player. Those who are always looking to shirk the workload in sessions could perhaps be the first ones to throw in the towel at times when things don’t go to plan in the season. Likewise those who work and concentrate on getting the tasks done could be the ones who dig in and clamber on through a rocky run of results.

From a coach’s perspective it is during this period where you will spend the least amount of tactical intervention time with the players. This gives you the opportunity to step back and observe them with a more psychological hat on. It’s important to motivate and encourage. However sometimes it might be worth keeping an eye out for the ones who do that job for you, without being prompted. The ones who encourage and lead the team through words and behaviour as well as performance. These are the characters you need when the referee gets it wrong. Or when your rivals get one over on you. Or even in times a success and complacency starts to creep in.

My message to coaches is not to waste the precious time you’ve got before that first whistle goes.

My message to players? Put one foot in front of the other and try to keep your dinner down.

200 Million Euros….

Second day of PitchsidePerspective and given the most popular story in the world of football today is a transfer one this seems like a good footing on which to base a second post.

It’s been heavily reported today that Manchester United are interested in signing Real Madrid centre back Sergio Ramos. However according to experts over in Spain, in order to do this the north west club would have to fork out the release clause of 200m euros to get their man. Whilst I can’t see this transfer happening and it does seem like a scheme on behalf of Ramos and his representatives to get a better contract in Spain, the release clause fee got me thinking about the numbers thrown about in the transfer market these days.

Football is a hugely successful and progressive industry financially and long may that continue. My only issue with this is that despite the ludicrous figures being quoted for players, top flight clubs are still ignoring their young hopefuls. In the early stages of the Premier league season just gone, only 13.9% of players were classed as homegrown. This means that there is a huge amount of players who aren’t being given the chance to break through to the first team. Football commends players like Steven Gerrard and Ryan Giggs for staying with a club for most if not their entire careers, but this is something which now is becoming near impossible.

The England u21s managed to remain in the Euros yesterday with a 1-0 win over Sweden and they do have a chance of reaching the final over in the Czech Republic. However you’d struggle to name even 5 players from yesterday’s squad who you could confidently say will go on to have long careers with their clubs.

Though as a country we may not be blessed with the talent that countries such as Spain and Germany possess (we’ll save why that is for another day), we still have British quality within the ranks of our clubs. I’m by no means saying that all players in the team you support should be homegrown. I too enjoy visiting my many sports news apps to find out that my club has signed a new superstar from afar, but to me there is a worrying lack of trust in our youth despite all the efforts the FA seem to be going to. If this trend continues we may find long term that the game we all love to play and watch may end up being a second choice sport for children who actually have the potential to be the superstars we covet so much. To me that would be a great shame. And even more of a shame for the likes of Roy Hodgson and those who will go on to take his place in the future.