That was no masterclass – it was immature capitulation and tactical suicide

United played with no discipline and defended on their own 18-yard line, the same problems they have had all season. While they got away with it in an unusually toothless Premiership, Barcelona weren’t going to forsake the opportunities presented to them.

Just look at the Guardian football page. Paul Wilson on “Barca’s Messi Masterclass“. Paul Hayward on their “dizzying brilliance“. Richard Williams saw “a triumph of artistry, patience, imagination.” And if you think this was just north London lefties getting on the nostalgic republican bus, think again. Over at the Telegraph,  in Duncan White’s words Barcelona “ascended new heights“. Henry Winter crowns them “kings of the Beautiful Game“. I’m sure somebody wrote something similar at the Mail, but I’m not dignifying their website with clicks.

We know how football journalism has to work: the articles are often written before the game; small changes are made during the match (goalscorers, sendings-off, tactical surprises); and at the final whistle the article is sent to ‘press’ to capitalise on our modern need for an immediate definitive last word on the matter. All those articles have the air of something written in the run-up to the final and they all tell the same story: United were dogged and honest but Barcelona (the clear pre-match favourites) played their trademark beautiful passing game and opened up the United defence, Messi and co. providing moments of brilliance which separated the teams.

Except that wasn’t the game I saw. Not even close. That was probably the game I was expecting to see, but it wasn’t what happened at Wembley last night. Barcelona barely had to break sweat, and they certainly didn’t have to put on a ‘brilliant masterclass’. They merely had to be good; to play their pressing game without playing their beautiful game. Too many things went wrong for United for it to be a truly compelling contest, and it was one-sided in that most disappointing way: when the weaker contender has the hope of holding out gradually diminished through their own flaws. It was frustrating, disappointing and to some extent angering.

Yet, of course, the incentive is for everybody to join in with the media narrative. First, the manager: Ferguson was straight out of the blocks to applaud their brilliance, saying “they are the best team we’ve ever faced“. They weren’t even as good as Barca 2009, in my view. But this is an important meme for Sir Alex to get out there as soon as possible, as it will help cover up what was actually a pretty rotten season for him – full of tactical errors, the usual man-management problems* and a default Premiership victory that is only just working as a sticking plaster.

The fans also benefit from this delusional line: we can say that actually this was a very successful season, reaching the FA Cup semi-final, the Champions’ League final and winning the Premiership. This triumphalism takes the sting out of reality, whereby there is a terrific gloom hanging over next year when (undoubtedly) all our major domestic rivals will be back stronger and fitter, our ageing squad will still have four or five overpaid warm bodies too many, our manager increasingly can’t pick a team to save his life and our debt payments continue to creep ever nearer £50m a year. None of that matters because we are a successful team.

Well, I’m not buying it. United got lucky this year in winning anything at all, and without major restructuring they are going to continue to need huge slices of luck to compete at all. I had hoped the abject display last night would prompt the difficult questions that need asking this summer: should 2011/2 be written off as a title challenge in favour of rebuilding (with an influx of younger players like Eden Hazard, Jack Rodwell, David De Gea etc); or should the team be augmented with a star, a Modric figure? Would a midfield general be the final puzzle piece or a mere stitch in time? Instead we are presented with this numbing anaesthetic of a brilliant Barcelona victory. The opium fug of a season in which we were remarkably close to a treble, instead of the cold water in the face of a trouncing in two competitions from opposition we were too loose to tie down.

So how did Barca win? I refer you back to Richard Williams’ quote at the beginning and I say not through artistry, nor through imagination, but through patience. They played keep-ball, as they do so well, in the top third of the pitch. This should not under ordinary circumstances be enough to beat a great team. United, having aspirations to be best in Europe, should be able to deal with such a simple tactic. Should be able to. Instead, though, they invited Barcelona on, defending along an imaginary line just outside their penalty area in suicidal fashion (as they did in so many hair-raising games this year – no lessons learned by the managerial genius). The abiding image of the game is Barca player X running forward in midfield, at no great speed and with no immediate danger presented, yet being shadowed (and not impeded in the slightest) by a United player jogging backwards as if watching the ball intently equated to defending (in my mind it was always Michael Carrick – it wasn’t, and that’s a bit harsh, but he dithered and faffed often enough to be the abiding villain for me).

Time and again the attack was invited. The ball moved slowly towards the goal with United stupefied, their absurd conviction that defending deep was a suitable tactic against the world’s best team. Time and again Evra, Carrick, Park and Giggs were caught napping, marking with no discipline, not tracking runners off the ball, or tracking the runner on the ball without ever interfering. They played as if they were a training ground opposition. No, that’s not right. They played as if they were watching the game and not taking part in it.**

And who recognised this? The centre backs. Interviewed after the game, Ferdinand (whose position – like Giggs, Scholes, Carrick and [yes, still banging that drum] Ferguson – must, after this season, be under severe threat) noted that “from memory we could have done better with a couple of the goals“. Vidic said “the goals we lost, we didn’t do what we had to do to close their players down.” The game was lost, not won. Barcelona never had to utilise their brilliant passing or individual skills because at the key moments United were half-asleep. Those key moments should never have been allowed of course, only coming about because of the ridiculous deep defence, but when they did, the defence and midfield simply stood off and allowed Pedro to run through unmarked for the first goal, and Messi and Villa to get away unchallenged shots from dangerous, unguarded positions for the second and third.

The fault lies largely with Ferguson, I continue to argue, because his negative tactics have shifted the line of defence so close to the United goal as to invite all sorts of trouble. The conceding of penalties this season has bothered me a lot (the Chelsea league game still rankles) for this reason – it is an unnecessary risk. On top of that, Evra, Carrick, Giggs and Park all played poorly, standing off their markers and leaving a huge amount for the centre-backs and centre-forwards to do (in terms of ball-winning) in their respective areas of the pitch. And Van der Sar graced his exit (after a wonderful season) with a couple of pretty poor positional decisions on the goals. None was his fault precisely, but he could certainly have been more aware on the first and less flat-footed for the other two.

All told it was disappointing. To win last night would have been a huge ask given the disparity in skill between the two teams, but such a disparity can be overcome with discipline – see Fulham under Hodgson, or Stoke this year. United simply didn’t have the defensive discipline to deal with a good attacking side at thirty yards from goal, and thanks to the manager’s negative tactics, they were in that position for far too much of the game. Poor.

*Capped, finally, with the disgraceful omission of Premiership top-scorer Berbatov from the CL squad on the grounds that Michael Owen would be more likely to score. Good god. Not only is Ferguson a tactical dunce, he is also a callous bastard.

**I have only focussed on defending here because that is where the game was lost. In attack United looked nervous and tired themselves out instead of slowing the tempo. Another major problem this season has been the inaccuracy of simple passes and last night was no exception. A second issue specific to last night was the creeping pseudo-4-5-1 which left Hernandez up alone and Rooney on the left wing at many points, meaning there was one person in the Barca box to aim at against four or more defenders. There was no chance of adding to Rooney’s wonderful – but freakish – goal in those circumstances.

Published in: on May 29, 2011 at 9:25 am  Leave a Comment  


In Edinburgh this weekend to take part in the half-marathon, one of about five big races happening as part of the Edinburgh Marathon Festival (an event which attracted more than twenty thousand runners to the city and led to all sorts of accommodation shenanigans). I had been once before, for Hogmanay a decade ago, but had never seen the city by day. This post will suffer, I suspect, from its lack of photographic accompaniment.*

After a smooth drive up via Leeds to pick up my running-mate – the latter part of which was a gloomy but picturesque ride on the inland route from Newcastle to Edinburgh via Jedburgh – we rolled into the Scottish capital in the mid-afternoon, in time for a leisurely stroll up to Salisbury Crags. It’s such an amazing feature of a city to have spectacular natural heights so close to the centre, with the Crags and Arthur’s Seat just behind. The views were breathtaking, from the far western suburbs, around past the heights of the city centre – castle, churches, all in that characteristic (and rather aggressive) yellow-brown stone – across what seem to be defiantly north-European parodies of Rome’s hilly ruins and down to the sea in the east.

Waverley Station is buried in a cleft between two hills, the castle and high street almost impossibly positioned what seems hundreds of feet above the rail valley. The streets are built on multiple levels, criss-crossing one another storeys apart and creating a fascinating three-dimensional labyrinth with undertones of Escher.

In the evening we met a friend for a delicious Kurdish meal in the shadow of the castle before driving back to our digs in Glenrothes. On Sunday morning the race took us north, downhill fast away from Calton Hill and out towards the sea. The weather changed frequently and instantly, veering between hazy, sticky sun and cold, hard rain. Only in the last mile did the latter win out, but by that stage I was grateful for the cooling effect. We passed through suburbs for which the word charming might have been coined: Portobello’s seafront, Musselburgh’s harbour, Prestonpans’ grassy flats. All the while we were buoyed by the panoramic views across the sea to the ancient kingdom of Fife. Finishing up back in Musselburgh, the consensus was that Edinburgh seemed a unique and spectacular place, and one worthy of future exploration.

*I left my camera in the car on Saturday, and on Sunday I was racing and don’t have, well, a head-cam or whatever…

Published in: on May 23, 2011 at 9:34 am  Comments (1)  

The longest days

Even though I regard myself as an ‘Autumn person’, I have a real fondness for the long May and June evenings and the lovely sunsets they bring. From the attic at the new house there is a particularly pastoral scene of trees, tiled rooftops and a church spire. Behind swells the big north London sky, tonight glowing a peach-pink – not yet one of the spectacular June displays; subtle, warming and lively nonetheless. Tonight we ate the first substantial produce of our plantings – a modest serving of sweet and fresh spinach. Sitting in the office, reading Keith Thomas on landscape and piety, listening to Rossini and sipping tea: these are moments of levity and gratitude, the moments that buck the pessimistic trend and lift the gloom.

Published in: on May 18, 2011 at 8:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

Fluffy Chaps on Chairs

Two naughty cats sitting in my reading area!

Lev is paying attention. Snuffles is rudely turning his back on me.

Published in: on May 10, 2011 at 4:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

Productive Land: April

Far from being the cruellest month, April was sun-drenched, causing the plants to grow at breakneck speed…

First of all, the front garden, which has been through three of its planting phases: the primulas have been and gone, as have the daffodils. Now we are enjoying a bumper display of irises. The soil is still a problem, and we’ll need to enlist the help of a lot of worms to dig in the compost, but it’s great having such a wash of a colour as we come and go.

Meanwhile, in the back garden we assembled the sleepers into two raised beds, with the double-chamber compost above and behind the potato bed. In the latter I planted three rows of King Edwards (maincrop), three of Rocket (first earlies) and two of Charlotte (salads), as well as some raspberry canes.

The second bed has carrots, white onions, red onions, spring onions, leeks and spinach. The grapevine, which is rooted below the potato bed, has grown rapidly; if we get a sunny summer it should be a bumper crop. On top of the compost heap I added a layer of a couple of inches of shop-bought compost and planted beetroot and pumpkin. It seemed like a waste of growing space, so I will be intrigued to see if much comes of it.

Apple blossom

In the mini forest garden the trees continued to flourish with the exception of the poor little nectarine. I removed all the leaf curl and will keep an eye on it but I think there will need to be some sort of intervention (Bordeaux mixture) next winter. The rhubarb and strawberries went in and have really taken off; mint, more raspberries, wildflowers (for bees) and nasturtiums are also doing well. In the pots, the peas thrived (with frequent watering), the runner and broad beans shot upward and more potatoes burst up, growing perhaps a foot in two weeks. The only thing that is going slowly is the corn; I think I will have to sacrifice some potatoes in the pseudo-milpa pots to give the corn enough light.

Signs of life: grapevine in early April

So this is where we were up to at the end of April (below) – lots of greenery surrounding a big flat slab of stony soil. Next up will be the construction of a trellis along the back to facilitate tomato growing along the top of the rear wall, plus finishing levelling the ground so we can being laying the lawn…

The garden at the end of April

Published in: on May 10, 2011 at 1:34 pm  Comments (1)  

Amberley to Arundel

Valedictory walk for a good pal who is off to China and will be greatly missed while away. We started in Amberley, walked up onto the Downs and then descended into the Arun valley at Burpham, before approaching Arundel Castle across the flood plain.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Published in: on May 9, 2011 at 7:43 am  Leave a Comment  

Four Lions and a Bogeyman

Most of the pub quiz team names this week were based on the Osama Bin Laden story rather than the royal wedding, which restores my faith somewhat in the priorities of the British public. Nonetheless, the significance of the assassination of one terrorist shouldn’t be overstated…

On Sunday night I saw the film Four Lions for the first time. I’ve been a huge fan of Chris Morris’ various works for as long as I can remember, but for some reason I hadn’t got around to seeing this (I think I was living abroad when it was in the cinemas, and parsimony meant I waited for the DVD price to come down – it’s a very reasonable fiver at Fopp).

It’s a great film, with all the edgy laughs you would expect from a Morris construction, but it goes far beyond comedy. Not simply into political satire, where the message is perhaps a little obscured by the surreal aspects of the production, but into tragedy. I found it genuinely sad and at times very moving. Riz Ahmed is outstanding as the *serious* Jihadi, Omar, a strangely sympathetic young family man whose wife (Preeya Kalidas) and child are perfectly happy about the idea of his impending martyrdom.

Each of the other main characters was given tragic aspects. Faisal is a crackpot who trains a crow to fly into a tower full of “Jews and slags”; Waj (Fonejacker Kayvan Novak) the hopeless dope obsessed with paradise, or “rubber dinghy rapids” as he prefers to imagine it; Barry (Nigel Lindsay), the presumed convert with the zeal of the neophyte but not the intellect to match; and Hassan (Arsher Ali), the son of a wealthy textiles man who wants to prove himself.

When news of the film’s production first broke there were the usual Morris-related bleatings about inappropriate humour and insensitive subject matter. Yet again – as with the Brass Eye paedophile special – he has proved incredibly adept at revealing the flaws of protagonists and the prejudices of outraged observers alike. Also of note: great cameos from Benedict Cumberbatch, Julia Davis and The Actor Kevin Eldon, among others. And the most important message of the film is, of course, “fuck mini-Babybel!”

The events at the end of the film are predictably and traumatically pathetic. Without giving anything major away (for anyone who still hasn’t seen it, that is), it is mentioned in passing that Omar and Waj had – during their less-than-glorious stint training in Pakistan – accidentally knocked off Osama bin Laden. With that, I went to bed, and woke up to the news that this had actually happened. Well, not exactly, but close enough.

So, the bogeyman then. Joe Glenton’s Ghost. Fisk’s Middle-Aged Nonentity. Blair’s Perpetrator of Violence. Amis’ Product of his Family Background.

I was unpleasantly surprised that, alongside creeps like Don Foster, David Starkey and Nicholas Boles, one-time historian Tristram Hunt was calling the killing of Osama Bin Laden an unequivocally good thing (see Young Voters’ Question Time). Aside from his now-forgotten historical training – we know that there are no unequivocally good things, it’s a ridiculous conceit – this case in particular is as murky as hell. When Rowan Williams has an uncomfortable feeling it’s probably a good idea to break out the metaphorical Alka-Seltzer.

I’m not surprised that Bin Laden was killed rather than captured alive. If he ever stood trial (which, in any discussion of justice, would have been infinitely more preferable), he was bound to reveal all sorts of C.I.A.-related grime. Particularly, it would be no shock to discover that the U.S. was closely involved with the post-Mujahadeen until the very moment of the war in Afghanistan and perhaps beyond.

The dumping of the body is more puzzling, and has led to all manner of conspiracy theories. A rather compelling one is that it was done precisely to encourage such whispers and divert attention from the fact that the U.S. carried out a hit against a criminal in a nominally unrelated (and allied) country. Clearly Pakistan emerges from this debacle with little credit either way.

What has bothered me most is the fog of lies that emerged in the first press conference. It immediately brought to mind the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, who was originally reported to have been running away, wearing a padded jacket with protruding wires. I remember at the pub that night the primary reaction of those I spoke to was “they had to do it”, based solely on those initial reports. And first impressions count. If the U.S. was worried about global reaction to the killing of an unarmed combatant (no matter what he had done in the past*) in dubious circumstances, then there would be somebody preparing a story which prima facie made the Navy Seals out to be the unequivocal (in the Manichean terminology of Tristram Hunt et al) ‘goodies’. They can worry about letting the real story trickle out later.

Like Menezes, like various stories involving the state and its agents in the U.K., like so much else in the news, the message here is not one of good triumphing over evil. It is that you simply cannot trust your elected politicians and unelected agents of the state to present anything like the unvarnished truth.

*Again, why don’t we have to use “allegedly” in this case? He never went to court. Not that I doubt it, but you know, a little consistency would be good…

Published in: on May 5, 2011 at 2:54 pm  Comments (1)  
%d bloggers like this: