The Premier League Now: Newcastle’s Plight, the Advantage Rule, and the Apotheosis of Ryan Giggs

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Newcastle’s Plight? Pardew’s Shite!

Newcastle were roundly defeated at the Emirates Stadium on Monday night, 3-0 by an Arsenal side who roamed about the pitch without much impetus, but scrapped decisively in the opposition penalty area, and could ultimately have scored twice as many goals with only a little extra effort. Two points behind Everton with five games of the season remaining, and with Champions League qualification out of their hands, Arsenal are now four points ahead of their rivals and would guarantee fourth place with a win in one of their final two games. That and a victory in the FA Cup final against Hull would mark a pretty good season for the proverbial ‘Gunners’, who are only if habitually two or three players away from an exciting squad able to challenge on all fronts.

Meanwhile Newcastle can look back to 29 December, when they last played Arsenal, and will see that across 18 league games since then – precisely half of their season – they have won 4 games, drawn 1, and lost 13. They have failed to score in 13 of those games, and they have conceded 34 goals. 7 of those defeats have come at St James’ Park, including 0-3 defeats against their local rivals Sunderland and against Everton, and 0-4 defeats versus Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United. After six defeats in a row, the club is on its worst run for 27 years; over those six games, the statistics read 1 goal scored, with 17 goals conceded.

Many of the players have given up, and some have looked tired for several months now, but it has long since been time to recognise Alan Pardew’s absolute failure as a football manager. The statistics alone do not reflect quite how badly Newcastle play: they do not quite manage to convey the utter lack of defensive shape, composure and application, and the total absence of attacking intent. To the press, Pardew often proclaims himself an advocate of proactive, passing football. In his moments of private honesty, he probably thinks of himself as tactically astute, capable of setting up teams to be defensively solid, retaining their shape, and effective on the counter-attack. His coaching staff have previously admitted that, under his guidance, they spend 80% of their week on defensive coaching.

The notion that Pardew possesses any attacking instinct is an absurdity thoroughly disproved across his three-and-a-half years as Newcastle’s manager. He has singularly failed to impose anything resembling an attacking philosophy upon the team. His side play too many long balls; but they aren’t consistently directed, the club does not possess a target-man, and there appears no endeavour towards the midfielders breaking forward to seize on half-won chances. Newcastle have too few wide players; but Pardew prefers anyway to shunt central players out wide and to utilise them, essentially, as defenders, covering a lot of ground and supporting in the central areas and at full-back. The possibility of passing football is negated at the outset because – to the extent that they are coached at all as a unit – the attacking players do not appear to be coached to pass and move, or to move with any pace and ingenuity off the ball.

Pardew’s attacking modus has been to simply rely on his forwards conjuring enough goals, hoping that his side will thereby scrape enough points for barely respectable league finishes. He has been fortunate in that Demba Ba, briefly Papiss Cisse, and now Loic Rémy have provided precisely this – but Ba, an effective yet cheap solution in the summer after Andy Carroll had been sold for £35 million, left for Chelsea a year and a half  later for just £7 million, one of many instances whereby the club’s penny-pinching has in fact cost it considerable income; Cisse has been abysmal for two seasons now; and Rémy is on loan, and unlikely to sign for a club who will match neither his ambition, nor his transfer fee, nor his wages.

What limited success Pardew has achieved at Newcastle has been built on defensive solidity. That success amounts to the 2011-12 season, where Newcastle finished fifth, but only dominated teams and played good football during a spell towards the season’s close, progressing into a 4-3-3 system which was uncomfortably tossed aside at the start of the following campaign; and to the first half of this season, where Newcastle hit upon a strong run of form, impelled by the goalscoring of Rémy and the drive and creativity of Yohan Cabaye, then sold to Paris Saint-Germain. Yet this defensive solidity has always proven frail, incapable of being maintained and susceptible to minor shocks. Pardew is frequently shocked by that which everyone else sees coming, and he is incapable of adapting to meet changing requirements. Newcastle have lost 20 games by three goals or more under his stewardship (twice losing by three goals to Sunderland); and have let in three goals or more on 31 occasions in total.

Impotent when it comes to the attack, managing only a defence which stutters at best, but is now conceding goals at an alarming rate, what is it that Pardew does do? The answer is that he does, in effect, nothing; which is to say he does the same worthless things over and over again, without any care, sensibility or intelligence. His substitutions are throwaway gestures, by rote rather than responding to what is happening on the pitch. Recent absurdities have seen Shola Ameobi brought on with mere seconds to play against Everton and Manchester United, with the side already losing 0-3. The Newcastle fans do not regard Shola’s appearance as a treat which makes the previous ninety minutes of failure worthwhile. Hatem Ben Arfa, rarely allowed to start a game, has made frequent appearances from the bench after sixty minutes of games which are already lost; but his deteriorating relationship with Pardew has now robbed the team and the support entirely of the club’s most talented, most exciting, and only creative attacking player.

Off the pitch the fans are treated with the same contempt. Pardew – always quick to aggrandise himself when things are going well – resorts to platitudes about effort, about luck, about things ‘just not going for us’, while seeking to blame others for his own evils. The national media are typically compliant. The club admits to being disinterested in cup success; while this summer may see the culmination of years of mismanagement of the playing staff. With Loic Rémy to return to Queens Park Rangers before moving on to a bigger club, and with Newcastle’s other loan forward, Luuk de Jong, flat-footed and lacking in vigour, Newcastle will be without a strikeforce; and already require a replacement for Yohan Cabaye and reinforcements out wide. But more, it is difficult to see some of Newcastle’s better talents – Tim Krul, Mathieu Debuchy, Fabricio Coloccini, and Ben Arfa – remaining with the club. The squad will require, but is unlikely to receive, profound and astute investment. A club with Newcastle’s long and short term history, but more a support which continues to provide over 50,000 people at home games – the third best attendance in the country and one of the best in the world – has plenty of reason to expect better.

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The Advantage Rule: Phil Dowd Makes a Pertinent Suggestion

One of the most controversial decisions affecting last weekend’s Premier League fixtures concerned the match between Sunderland and Cardiff. On the stroke of half-time, Phil Dowd chose to award Connor Wickham a penalty, and sent off Juan Cala for pulling him back – only after first allowing Wickham to play on, rounding the keeper and playing the ball across goal, where it was cleared by Cardiff’s defenders. Sunderland’s manager Gus Poyet called the decision to then bring play back the ‘best decision I have seen in my life’; a sentiment broadly echoed by Match of the Day pundits Alan Shearer and Mark Lawrenson. Elsewhere the decision provoked some consternation, both among those who felt that Cala’s foul had taken place outside of the penalty area, and from those who were unused to or disagreed with such a lengthy interpretation of the advantage rule.

The raw essence of the advantage rule in football is easy to grasp, because its nature is explicated by virtue of its name. According to FIFA, the rule ‘allows play to continue when the team against which an offence has been committed will benefit from such an advantage’. That is, according to the rule, upon an infringement, play will be allowed to continue where it may conceivably advantage the non-offending team. Practically, this will usually refer to a team on the attack; but it is possible that an advantage may be played in a transitional moment, where an attacking player commits an offence amid the process of losing the ball, allowing the defending team to seize possession and launch a counter, turning defence into attack. Where there is no possibility for attack there can be no reasonable advantage from play continuing.

In practise, the rule is often ignored or misused. The most flagrant misuse of the rule seems to stem from an ill-conceived, incoherent notion of the very word ‘advantage’. Often when referees indicate that they are playing an advantage – negating their whistle, thrusting both arms in front of them, and continuing to run, often exaggeratedly and with renewed haste, as if to emphasise there will be no pause to proceedings – they are not actually offering an advantage to the non-offending team. Rather, they are simply allowing the game to flow; or worse, they are avoiding having to make a decision. A flowing game may be for the broad benefit of the general viewer, but the rule does not call for a flowing game. If an attacking player is fouled in the process of making a pass, and his teammate still receives the ball, advantage should only be played if that teammate finds himself in an opportune attacking position. If instead he finds himself isolated, without another teammate to pass to, his attacking partner on the floor instead of on the run and available for a return ball, then play should stop and a free-kick ought to be given. In the same vein, if an attacking player is pulled back or has to hurdle a wild challenge, and he remains in possession, but has lost his attacking impetus – slowed, and closed down by other defenders – then he is gaining no sensible advantage by the referee waving play forward.

Again, sometimes the rule is misused by referees who would abdicate their responsibilities. As FIFA’s ruling states, the referee ‘penalises the original offence if the anticipated advantage does not ensue at that time’, and he ‘takes disciplinary action against players guilty of cautionable and sending-off offences. He is not obliged to take this action immediately but must do so when the ball next goes out of play’. Often, however, referees will indicate an advantage as a means of ignoring an incident: where they are unsure if a foul has been committed, or where calling a foul would be problematic – perhaps owing to its practitioner already being on a booking – they will often indicate an advantage without calling play back where necessary, and without taking any action at the next stoppage. The rule is thus used to gloss over incidents with which referees would rather not trouble.

Aside from misuses and misinterpretations, there are other uncertainties regarding rule’s application. FIFA’s guidelines are not unambiguous: they call for referees to take into account, when applying the rule, ‘the atmosphere of the match’, as though a hostile crowd or an agitated set of players should imbue a certain degree of caution; and they seem to imply that it may be preferable to deal with serious fouls immediately, punishing cautionable offences without first affording the non-offending team an advantage. FIFA’s rules consider ‘the severity of the offence. If the infringement warrants an expulsion, the referee shall stop play and send the player off unless there is a subsequent opportunity to score a goal’. It is not clear why – cases of injury aside – the criteria for advantage should be stricter the more severe the offence.

Beyond these concerns, it seems that the rule can be applied, properly and with the right motivations, in two subtly distinct ways. The first is reactive, and the second proactive; the first merely utilises the rule in immediate response to events on the pitch, whereas the second would impress the rule in such a way so as to encourage future behaviour. The demarcator between these approaches is the length of time a referee is willing to allow before calling play back. If a referee is willing to allow only a couple of seconds, then his decision making has to be quick and, to an extent, speculative: he has to determine almost instantly whether the non-offending team is in a position to gain an advantage, accepting that he will not always get this decision right. Phil Dowd on Sunday demonstrated a different approach, allowing play to run on for longer, and being willing to call it back once it had broken down.

The great benefit of the second approach is that it is proactive in encouraging players to stay on their feet, and to make the best of their own abilities. If players understand they can make the effort to stay upright, can attempt a dribble, a pass, or a shot, while knowing that they will still receive a free-kick should they be tackled or their pass or shot immediately blocked, then this will surely reduce the numbers who go to ground easily or effectively dive anticipating contact. If players understand instead that the decision to play advantage is more or less final, and that play won’t be called back after more than a second or two, they will remain inclined to go to ground for the relative surety of a free-kick.

The issue becomes one of delineating advantage so that it properly allows for and encourages good attacking play; without offering attackers too much of an advantage, to the point where they effectively receive two bites at an overly-ripened cherry. It becomes inappropriate, for instance, for an attacker to force an excellent save from a goalkeeper, only for that goalkeeper to then have to face a free-kick from a dangerous position once play has been called back for a foul much earlier in the build-up. Phil Dowd got the decision on Sunday right, and used the advantage rule in a way which should suggest its future application – though it is worth noting that his decision was made easier precisely because a penalty kick was at stake. If Wickham had been pulled back ten yards further out, and had still rounded the keeper but failed to score, should the play then have been brought back for a free-kick?

Ryan Giggs, interim manager of Manchester United

The Apotheosis of Ryan Giggs

After the jubilation that met his appointment as Manchester United’s interim manager, Ryan Giggs vindicated utterly, once and for all and remarkably, the impassioned belief all in football have in him as he led Manchester United to a groundbreaking, new-era-defining 4-0 home victory over Norwich City – who are, incidentally, a club in the relegation zone and with six defeats in their last seven games.

David Moyes was a ridiculous figure at Manchester United, blundering from the very start of his reign: fumbling in the transfer market before overpaying for Marouane Fellaini; making uneasy remarks about fixture list corruption in an ill-considered attempt to ape Alex Ferguson; then acceding to Wayne Rooney’s every demand in tying him to a new contract. Still, the media’s response to him and to his departure has been in every way unpalatable: from their early forwarding of him as a reasonable candidate for the post of Manchester United manager; to their perseverance in his favour when foreign managers, such as André Villas-Boas, have been hounded out of clubs for doing much better work; to their bizarre and unwarranted sense of vindication and self-congratulation upon his sacking; to their celebration of Ryan Giggs as the rightful heir to Ferguson’s clammy throne. In the aftermath to Saturday’s game, the BBC’s UK website pushed United’s 4-0 win over Norwich as the third biggest story in world news; and for a couple of days ran as the second headline of their sports page with a vacuous article relating how Anders Lindegaard – the brazenly meaningless Manchester United reserve goalkeeper – has decided within a week that Ryan Giggs resembles, as a manager, Pep Guardiola, under whom Lindegaard has never played.

It ought to be remembered that, aside from being an adulterer, a bully and an abuser of the courts, Ryan Giggs has been one of the worst cheats the game of football has seen over the last twenty years. He had it all, in so far as he would dive, make cynical challenges, but most of all routinely lead the charge of Manchester United players as they surrounded, harangued and abused referees. Now not only he, but his partners in crime, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt, have all been embraced as great coaches – regardless of the fact that they have never coached.

I recall Scholes and Butt as dullards: Scholes a thug who would lunge recklessly at opponents game after game without censure; Butt one of the worst players I have seen in a Newcastle shirt, always shirking responsibility on the ball, whether aimlessly chipping it forward or hammering it into his teammates’ shins. It would be remarkable that the players appear to be embracing Giggs and company; but Ferguson’s twenty years of success at United showed the virtue of an eminently stupid playing staff, who will buy into your siege mentality in spite of all the material odds, and invariably the referees too, being in your favour. For those of us who despise and would like to go on despising Manchester United, the prospect of the likeable Louis van Gaal’s appointment is eminently less enticing than Ryan Giggs continuing, and hopefully failing miserably, in the role.

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Additional Thoughts: Brendan Rodgers, the Relegation Battle, José Mourinho and Champions League Defeat

• Many are too quick to dismiss the notion that success in football may be ‘deserved’ independent of actual outcomes. While there is much to dislike about the club, its supporters, and its overwhelming presence in the media via a horde of inane former-players-turned-banalysts, still Brendan Rodgers has done a magnificent job across two years as Liverpool’s manager, and his team do deserve the Premier League title based upon their achievements to this point and their enticing, entertaining style of play.

Though not all of his acquisitions have proven successful, the signings of Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho in January 2013 turned Liverpool around, and represented significant vision and risk-taking: it was far from clear that Liverpool required two physically slight, quick, and versatile forwards to partner Luis Suárez, at a time when many thought they needed instead a central striker off whom Suárez could play. This season, Rodgers has also drawn a lot out of Jordan Henderson, while encouraging Stephen Gerrard to (mostly) thrive playing a deeper role. Manchester City may still beat Liverpool to the title, and they have also shown themselves capable of superb attacking football – and in Manuel Pellegrini have one of the most engaging and dignified managers about – but they have also been exceedingly fortunate with some refereeing decisions in several close games.

• There is little between those Premier League teams from 20th up to Swansea and Hull in 12th and 13th; and arguably, in quality if not in points, all the way up to Newcastle who lie currently in 9th. Pepe Mel deserves a lot of credit for West Brom’s recent run of form; while an awful couple of months at West Ham have put Sam Allardyce increasingly under pressure. Both sides should be safe; with Aston Villa thereabouts. Norwich would seem destined for relegation given their two final games are against Chelsea and Arsenal; Sunderland have some momentum, but both they and Fulham may fancy their chances with two winnable fixtures remaining apiece.

• José Mourinho, obliged by the English media, has sought to identify a solid but unspectacular save by Thibaut Courtois – Atlético Madrid’s goalkeeper, on loan from Chelsea – as the decisive moment in Chelsea’s 1-3 Champions League semi-final defeat. So Mourinho and the English media continue a mutually beneficial but vapid and self-absorbed relationship: one which here seeks to assert English football as the centre of the known world, after a night during which Sky’s commentators repeatedly linked Diego Simeone and other successful Champions League managers to a relatively unappealing, unfulfilling, and irrelevant post which would restore Manchester United to the top of the sport.

Chelsea’s defeat was not, in sum, the product of one player who they happen to own anyway. It was the result of them being thoroughly outclassed by a much better side, stronger in defence, more courageous and clinical in attack, and superior at keeping hold of the football. José Mourinho’s manner on and off the pitch demands constant success in terms of trophies, and as Chelsea appear to have attained none this season, his first year back at the club can be considered nothing but a failure.

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FIFA’s guidelines governing the advantage rule: http://www.fifa.com/mm/document/afdeveloping/refereeing/law_5_the_referee_en_47411.pdf