THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

8 March ~ Last week was not a good one for Bayern Munich. The reigning German title-holders lost comprehensively at home to champions-in-waiting Borussia Dortmund, were knocked out of the German Cup by Schalke 04 in the same stadium four days later, and then were easily beaten by perennial Bundesliga journeymen Hannover 96, now five points above them in a coveted Champions League position. And Bayern's reserve team, which has historically nurtured the club's young talent, fell on Saturday 4-1 to Saarbrücken to stay rooted to the bottom of the third division without a first-team prospect in sight.

The kindest word you can use to describe Bayern president Uli Hoeness is "impatient", and so yesterday it was announced that coach Louis van Gaal – who last season took Bayern to the domestic double and the Champions League final – would be leaving at the end of the season. This came just two weeks after a famous 1-0 away win in the San Siro against Inter, the team that tactically outsmarted him in the CL final last May.

The English commentator on US-based GolTV at the weekend lamented the absence of the recently transferred Mark van Bommel when watching the replay of Hannover's third goal. As Sergio Pinto dribbled towards the Bayern end before releasing a shot that young goalkeeper Thomas Kraft made a Jackson Pollock canvas out of, it was supposed that Van Bommel would never have allowed such a run. In other words, the Dutchman would have taken Pinto out long before he would have had the chance to shoot.

Later that same day, Van Bommel was playing for his new team AC Milan at Juventus, and doing what he does best – getting a yellow card, remonstrating with the referee and disturbing the rhythm of the Juventus midfield as his side hacked its way to a forgettable 1-0 win, the decisive goal coming from that cultured midfielder Gennaro Gattuso. Now five points clear at the top of Serie A, Milan have gone too long without a scudetto, so they're heading for a title with pros they can rely on to commit the right fouls in the right places. Having Van Bommel, Gattuso and the likes of Kevin Prince-Boateng in your team is a far cry from the days of Gullit, Maldini and Van Basten, but when Inter have won five championships on the trot, anything will do. Limited against Tottenham, but good enough for Italy nowadays.

Bayern's decline, however, has less to do with Van Bommel's departure than it does with other Bundesliga coaches following José Mourinho in working out how to strangle Van Gaal's preferred passing game, and how to isolate the creative wide duo of Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben. The belief that midfield enforcers are necessary to success is facile, and countered by the serial successes of both Barcelona and the Spanish national team in the past few years. That those who believe in football as art in motion are looking forward to Barcelona and Arsenal this evening is partly down to the fact that neither side has an obvious enforcer who will show up to ruin the party by starting a fight.

For some, that's reason enough to criticise Arsenal, as though a hollering six foot six English centre-half or an ankle-kicking defensive midfield pit bull would shake up those tippy-tappy paper men and turn them into battle-scarred, trophy-wielding heroes. It's the type of thinking symbolised by the predictably moronic cheers that greet the scything down of a skilful opponent who "gets what's coming to him" for being good. Apparently that's not violence, it's good old-fashioned professionalism. How tough men used to play in the English mud before namby-pamby flat grass fields were imposed on the game.

However much you may tire of the purists who poetically purr about Barcelona's mesmerising moves, their lack of an obvious hatchet man at least lays to rest the myth that players like Van Bommel are necessary for success. Why reserve a place in your team for someone who's so poor at tackling? Xavi and Andres Iniesta are hardly what you'd call soft players, yet they have three yellow cards between them in 60 combined league appearances this season. Positional sense, off-the-ball industry and fitness will ultimately help your team much more than a two-footed lunge.

But enforcers still survive because we let them. Fans can cultivate a romanticised view of them as passionate and somehow authentic, weak-minded managers view them as easy solutions to a brittle midfield, while referees and the game's authorities have long been way too lenient in dealing with both persistent foul play and violent conduct. But even if you have reservations about the Champions League, or about Arsenal, or about Barcelona (and I do, about all three), it's hard not to anticipate with relish a game where there's every chance that football will triumph over thuggery. Ian Plenderleith

Comments (8)
Comment by Paul Rowland 2011-03-08 15:15:44

As long as the so-called "enforcers" continue to get away with it, they will continue to do what they do. My gut feeling is, we probably need something a bit more sophisticated than waving brightly coloured cards in the air to keep the van Bommels of this world under some semblance of control.

For a start, we need punishments which more closely fit the crime, and which are genuinely perceived as real punishments and not mere slaps on the wrist. Fines are a complete waste of time. And one-game suspensions too - what sort of deterrent is that? I say, lets hit the clubs that condone and even endorse these tactics. And hit them where it hurts: dock them league points, and throw them out of cup competitions. If I was in charge, this is the message I would be sending out: by all means do your enforcing, but always within the laws of the game. Overstep the mark and you will pay - heavily.

This is normally where the Tony Pulis apologists come in and remind us: "as a matter of fact, Arsenal have a worse disciplinary record than Stoke" The intention of such commentators is presumably to vindicate Stoke City's methods and to denigrate Arsenal's. Sorry, but that doesn't wash with me. As far as I'm concerned, the fact that Arsenal picks up more red and yellow cards than Stoke merely emphasises the sport's failure to find a workable balance between accommodating the artisan and protecting the artist.

Comment by BlueStu365 2011-03-08 17:05:22

Arsenal have no midfield enforcer? Song seems to be picked solely for his ability to make "tactical" fouls.

Comment by Lincoln 2011-03-08 23:11:53

Paul your measures will ultimately lead to a non contact sport as teams won't want to risk going out of cups or throwing the league away. Football is a physical game and that is part of the attraction. How do you judge it as well? The team you talk about, Arsenal, have a bad discipline record and so should be docked points or do we judge how bad the challenges are based on how good their football is in the other parts of the game? In which case we will see lower league teams drop out the cup like flies, which I guess would be preferable for the premier league at any rate.

Comment by jameswba 2011-03-09 06:30:07

Yes, part of me wholeheartedly agrees with the article, especially this ; 'positional sense, off-the-ball industry and fitness will ultimately help your team much more than a two-footed lunge'. I wonder if the evolution of 'ball-winners' into 'defensive' or 'holding' midfielders is a hopeful sign that the game as a whole recognises this. Or do I read too much Zonal Marking?

But the article, to a lesser extent, and Paul Rowlands to a greater one, don't really acknowledge the vast grey areas between the extreme artistry of sides like Barcelona and the thuggery of the likes of Van Bommel. It is also a footballing art to meet a technically better team and use your own strengths to overcome them, both within the laws and in a way that's good to watch. WBA and Birmingham have both done it against Arsenal this season, for example.

Also, and I feel mildly apologetic for saying this with the benefit of hindsight, these Arsenal-Barca games have not been a season highlight for me because. Last night's was so one-sided it was embarrassing. Arsenal didn't need

Comment by jameswba 2011-03-09 06:33:22

Sorry, submitted that prematurely. I wanted to say Arsenal didn't need a 'hollering' centre-half or an 'ankle-tapper', they did need a bit more recognition that they are not yet Barca's equals and that a little more pragmatism was needed.

Comment by Dalef65 2011-03-09 06:47:05

Paul Rowland seems to be just using this issue to ressurect the absurd Arsenal/Stoke vendetta that seems to have developed in the past couple of seasons.

The illogicallity and hypocrisy of his statements are there in black and white for all to see.....
He says teams should be allowed to do their enforcing but "only within the laws of the game".And that if they overstep the mark they should be made to pay "heavily".
Red and yellow cards are those laws,are they not....?
That is the workable balance isnt it..........?

He then goes on to critisise Stoke and Tony Pulis,whilst simultaneously admitting that Arsenal are worse offenders.....?
So by his measure Arsenal would be docked more points than Stoke,and/or thrown out of more cup competitions than Tony Pulis side.
Talk about undermining your own argument.....!
Or is he simply just expressing a wish for eveybody else to stand back and let Arsenal win,while admiring their pretty football.?

Thats what it sounds like to me...

Comment by PRB 2011-03-09 17:02:41

I can't really agree with this article. I don't see anything wrong with tough tackling in the game and for me a good physical match can at times be as fun to watch as a game of 5 yard maximum distance passing.

Don't get me wrong, Barcelona and Arsenal are the two best teams to watch in the game, but the beauty of football is that various forms of it can all appeal to the same person. Ideally I want a good attacking game but I'd like a good battle in it as well.

The thing is, if every team was to drop physical players from their team and try play like Barcelona it is far from any guarantee of success. Barcelona make it work because they have some of the best players on the planet on their team. If most other teams tried to play that way and that way only, it would be a disaster for them.

I can't accept that Arsenal would still be trophyless over six years if they had a Tony Adams type in their defence and/or a Patrick Viera sort in their midfield. No doubt about it for me it's that kind of player that is at times costing them.

Still, an interesting article which raises a good debate.

Comment by imp 2011-03-10 16:29:43

PRB, don't get me wrong - I've absolutely nothing against tough players and tackling. But I hate violent play and persistent fouling. For me, there's insufficient discrimination between hard play and illegal play. A player like van Bommel is reckless and often pre-meditatedly violent, but he somehow gets away with it, and in that way becomes useful to a team because the punishments from referees and footballing authorities are not properly applied. But if football was properly administrated, he'd be an outcast. Holland should be banned from international competition for five years their World Cup final performance. Likewise Milan from the CL for their first leg endeavours against Spurs (and see on Wednesday in the second leg how they actually can play - notably without Gattuso and van Bommel).

A good team has to be 'physical' to be successful - of course, it's a physical game, as we're told over and over by the hoary ex-pros in the gantry. The great Dutch and Ajax teams were physical, but that meant pressure and timely tackles, not ugly tackles, endless niggly fouls and intimidating referees.

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