Factors of drive and success

Let’s take a break from the normal situation to discuss the World Cup.

What, the World Cup? Why yes – unless you’ve spent the last few weeks hiding in the shadows, distanced from life, you cannot but have helped to have been surrounded by World Cup fever. Ever been around a pub when an England game has been on? You can’t help but notice that the pubs would have been busier than usual, swathed in crowds all huddling around a TV screen, shouting words of encouragement to it, as if their words would have gone through the atmosphere and reached the footballers in Russia and given them positive emotion.

Yes, the World Cup.

Despite England dreams that this might have been the year, at the close of the competition they found themselves in fourth. Oh, the luckless draw of knockout competitions. Had England made it past Croatia, they would have found themselves in the positive situation of being the team that might have won it, with a generation of footballers still in their prime.

Unfortunately they were downed by the Croats in extra time. The Croatians themselves delivered some advice for the English team and media – don’t under-estimate us. A lack of respect can be a powerful motivator, and the Croatians had plenty of those. All they had to do was to print out the footballing discussions from websites such as BBC news or the broadsheets and tabloids, and unfortunately while we were all caught up in the celebrations of nearly making it to the final and singing “Football’s coming home”, the Croatians decided to spoil the party.

You only need to look back on the lessons of history to see how under-estimating the opponent can give them the necessary drive to succeed. Being written off gives one the inner impetus to go against the odds, to dig deeper and find the deeper strength. In the classical music world, there are other circumstances, such as childhood difficulties, expectant roles, lack of opportunity, and technological developments at the right time that have fuelled innovation, the careers of composers, and generated promising piano music.

Many factors influence success. Perhaps not under-estimating the opponent is one of the most important to remember!

The value of not being complacent

If there was a lesson to be learnt from watching the Japan – Belgium game, it was this: never be complacent, concentrate, keep fighting to the end.

You may think I have been talking about the Belgians, for the traits we associate with the Japanese are their will to keep fighting to the very end. Even in the face of defeat, giving up is a lack of honour. Remember World War Two? Dozens of kamikaze pilots crashed to their deaths, flying their planes onto ships to try to sink them. The will to keep fighting is honourable. And wasn’t it the South Koreans who pulled off an upset with Germany by their tenacity and willing to keep chasing the ball and fight, scoring two injury-time goals in the process?

Unfortunately for Japan, it was them that were outfought.

A 2-2 game seemed destined for extra time. In the last minute of play, the Japanese had a corner with forty seconds remaining. Everyone assumed this would be the last forward play of the game, and a corner, if unsuccessful, would result in the referee blowing the whistle. Instead of passing the ball short, the Japanese merely lobbed the ball hopefully into the goal area, where Thibault Courtois caught it easily. You might have thought he would have played it short, moved it forward slowly, or take his time, wait for his players to go up, and then lob one long into the area. Instead he quickly rolled it short to Kevin de Bruyne, and four Belgian players raced ahead to launch a counterattack that resulted in Nacer Chadli scoring an injury-time goal. No need for extra time. Actually, the whole world watching had been out-foxed. No one watching that game would have expected that counterattack with the last play of the game.

What lessons can we take from the game? The first is of course, not to get complacent. If you are like everyone else, you would have merely assumed that extra time would roll along. But the Belgians created their own opportunities, sensing a chance to win. The Japanese team might have thought they would have the last attack of the game, and in all fairness, so did we; but fatigue confuses the mind, and probably the sensory overload of time management and game tactic caused a lap of concentration that paid dearly. This can happen in any area; in fact, a Crouch End piano teacher reckons that one of the problems children face in learning the piano is the overload of work conflicted with the lack of time for self actualisation, that causes a lack of physical activity (in this case, piano practice).

And what a good week for Marouane Fellaini! New Manchester United contract, a goal in the game, an immediate impact as a substitute. Next stop – Brazil! The Belgians are on form at the moment and the operatic Neymar best raise his game!

Creating a post-career legacy

The World Cup has, in the group stages, shown up a few clear signals.

The Spanish hesitation between Andres Iniesta and Sergio Ramos in midfield, allowing Morocco to nip the ball and race it forty yards for a score, demonstrate that both are in the twilight of the careers. Iniesta, long regarded as Mr Football, is off to China for his final payday, while Sergio Ramos merely showed why he had to chicken-wing Mo Salah out of the Champions League final. He no longer has the pace that he had in his early career, racing down the right sideline as right back before he became a centreback by conversion. Ramos realises that he is losing out in terms out physical fitness, and has to rely on guile, experience and deception. In fact, he has realised that for years. In the previous Champions League final against Juventus, he feigned a foul to get Juan Cuadrado sent off and Juve down to ten men.

The sort of play acting that is synonymous with football is spoiling it. It appears to be a Spanish affair, learnt from the Italian leagues in the 80s and 90s – you could barely watch a game without stoppages disrupting the flowing football. Players that play in the Spanish leagues, such as Neymar and Pepe, have all been guilty of trying to con the referee into awarding the other team cards in order to gain a numerical advantage through a sending off.

It is almost as if they realise that physically they cannot match up, so they have to win by other means.

A more graceful thing to do would be to find an avenue where they can still dominate. For players coming up to the end of their careers, now is the time to be thinking about coaching badges, while working with their team and coach to develop coaching experience. In the musical world, the music composer Muzio Clementi became not just a composer, publisher, and conductor, but also moved on to making pianos. Someone like Ramos could learn to coach, be a manager, or become an owner in a minor-league team. Or run a kung-fu academy and develop some business experience.

Mentoring is also an important process. Did you know that as the pianist Carl Czerny was mentored by other composers, and when he became established, he also mentored others, introducing them to other established ones such as the pianist Beethoven? It was somewhat like networking. A footballer in their latter days could help mentor younger players and introduce them to established players who might share their knowledge of the game.

You may argue that trophies and awards are what define winners. Perhaps. But a person’s legacy is far more lasting in the kind of person he was. For now, Ramos will be remembered as the play actor and the bruiser.

No signs of slowing for Cris

If you have not yet watched the thrilling World Cup match between Portugal and Spain then you had best get it on some kind of TV catch up.

Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat trick in the game. Twice Portugal led and Spain were brought back to level terms by the physical play and skill of Diego Costa, but when Portugal trailed in the closing stages and had a free kick outside the Spanish box, there was only one man you knew who would take it.

Up came Ronaldo, curling the ball around the right side of the wall, past Real Madrid team-mate Sergio Ramos (yes, that guy who took out Mo Salah in the Champions League), and past Manchester United keeper David de Gea, who was flatfooted and rooted to the spot. There was nothing he could do about the free kick, because the wall had been placed to his left, but the ball had such bend to it that even de Gea could not have anticipated it would have gone in from that side. He more or less had trusted the wall to protect that side, but even Ramos’ attempt to flick the ball away had no effect.

Spain might have had a chance to win the game had Ramos decided, in the same way he had done Salah, to chicken-wing Ronaldo out of the game by injuring his shoulder ligaments, and taking out the opposing team’s best player, but that would have been a one-way exit out of Madrid for the captain. Don’t put it past him, though. And don’t put it past Ronaldo either. Wasn’t he the guy who got ex-team mate Wayne Rooney sent off in a game, before being caught giving a devilish wink as if to say, yes, I’d intended for him to get sent off?

Say what you like about Ronaldo, though, at age 33 he is still showing no signs of slowing down. Like Ryan Giggs, he still looks like he has a few good years left in him. His technique hasn’t suffered, but is it because of the recent changes in balls that has resulted in him scoring more goals? When the ball technology was improved, many people were ambivalent about them, but that is pretty normal, because new things start from the periphery and end up in the mainstream when accepted or tolerated over time, as this Stroud Green piano teacher tells us, using music as an example. Now kids are buying the balls and wanting to demonstrate skills – such is their popularity. Has Ronaldo drawn more followers to football, or have footballs drawn more followers to Ronaldo? That is one you have to decide for yourself!

Ronaldo’s three goals meant he equalled Ferenc Puskas’ record of 84 goals in European competitions. One can surmise he will be going calmly past the mark with a bit more calm and ease.

New World from Old Beginnings

Unless you have been hiding somewhere on a yacht, you will probably have heard about the coaching changes this summer.

Five days after winning the Champions League, Zinedine Zidane quit Real Madrid. He probably had a look at Arsene Wenger’s record at Arsenal, at how he won in his early years before presiding over a prolonged period of decline, and decided that enough was enough – he’d best get out while he remained the only Real Madrid manager to win three consecutive Champions League trophies, and all within two and a half years.

Arsene Wenger? Twenty-two years, zero.

Julen Lopetegui was sensationally sacked as Spain manager after agreeing to fill the void at Real Madrid and in his place stepped up Fernando Hierro. Meanwhile, Wenger’s place at the Emirates will be filled by former Paris Saint Germain manager Unai Emery, who despite spending a fortune on Neymar (did his salary top the GDP of Tonga?) couldn’t win the Champions League.

Lopetegui has never won anything major in his career. Neither has Emery.

And what about the younger class of managers? Steven Gerrard is off to manage Rangers, a great step up for him, while Frank Lampard takes the helm at Derby. Their former international team-mate, Wayne Rooney, is still deciding on his future, whether to head off to DC or not. I tell you what would be fun, though – Rooney off to China.

The hiring of managers who have been successful as players, and managers who have been successful elsewhere, in the hope that they can recreate the success seems to mirror the hope of winning through osmosis. In a way, it is like hoping to create a new world from old beginnings. Assemble winning players as managers, hope for winning teams.

But if you think previous success as a player rubs off, looking no further than Mourinho and Guardiola. Neither were successful players, but realise they could be winners tactically and became managers – the two most successful ones in Spanish history.

Enjoy the World Cup! Who do you think would be topping the charts of football after this is all over?

Near the summer

As we edge towards the World Cup, let us recap on what has happened in the leagues around us:

Arsene Wenger won his last match against Huddersfield. Finally a win! Mikel Arteta is one of those slated to replace him, and it could be a reality, seeing as Arteta has been learning from one of the best in Guardiola. Arteta also fits the bill in getting a young youthful manager to energise the old players, and he also holds some clout in being former Arsenal captain. Of course, it could be because none of the big names like Max Allegri wanted the Arsenal job. Rafael Benitez, in staying with Newcastle these past few years, is really one of the rare big names to stay with a mid-place team.

It has been reported that Arteta has even discussed his pay package and coaching staff and that Santi Carzola could be part of the backroom staff. Carzola, once part of Arsenal’s creative force, has not recovered from the Achilles infection and the Gunners have missed his presence and leadership in midfield.

Are the Gunners management moving towards a trend of ex-players taking over? They may be taking a leaf out of Manchester United’s book, when Ryan Giggs and other ex-players held the fort after David Moyes was sacked as United manager.

Moyes latest entry on his CV would be the “was” West Ham manager after he was dropped for the next season. He did pull the Hammers out of relegation, to his credit, but unfortunately is not seen to be the man to halt the decline since that magical season when Dmitri Payet played for them before he upped sticks to Marseille.

Marseille lost to Atletico Madrid in the Europa League. Payet lasted an hour before he had to be replaced. Was Atletico’s place as champions ever in doubt? I wrote a while ago that the road to Europa glory goes through Atletico, so while Arsenal harboured hopes of making it through, their Spanish conquerors saw them off quite easily.

Returning to Europe, Liverpool have a chance for glory against Real Madrid. While a lot of the focus is on Liverpool, I dare say Madrid have a lot to play for. Lose and they are, by virtue of their third-placed league position, in the Europa League next season? La Decima champions playing in the lower tier? That’s worse than Cristiano Ronaldo getting a zit on his face. Slightly.

The summer is approaching so what does it bring? The World Cup.

Now, if you are slightly overdosed on football as I am already a bit – there are other avenues of distraction. There is the Royal Wedding.

What?

Just kidding. Summer is the time of traditional beach parties, dancing, enjoying the sun, and music. If outdoor music is not your kind of thing, and you don’t really like the blaring music festivals, you can try something new. A piano teacher in Crouch End, London N8 suggests that you take the time to learn new skills if you have the time. And why not? Playing the piano is something that can give you some sense of joy, when – and this is tongue in cheek – your favourite team is going through a bad patch and losing against lesser teams, or teams are playing defensively and parking the bus, when the game is a dead rubber. Hell, you could even be playing on your keyboard while watching a match. Especially one of those where it is pass forward, pass back, pass side, pass, pass, and there is no decisiveness in the final third. Sounds like a team we know?

Mercifully, Arsene

It is coming to the end of an era.

Arsene Wenger’s second-last game in charge at Leicester ended in the same way as many of his games during his tenure. A defeat to a lower team, a bitter twist in a game the Gunners should have expected to do better.

One could explain away the disappointment by saying the sending only of Mavropanos twenty minutes in the game changed the face of things, but let’s not make excuses for the poor form. The Gunners played against ten-men Atletico Madrid a few weeks ago, at home, for nearly eighty minutes, and still drew. This failure to score, coupled with defensive frailty, remains.

It is slightly worrying that Arsenal have spent so much money importing a strike force of Lacazette, Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan; dismantling the old guard of Walcott and Sanchez, and didn’t do anything to replace an aging backline. Koscielny has been battling with Achilles problems for a long time, and his collapse in the Atletico game denied the Gunners of positive leadership that Callum Chambers and Rob Holding have not really filled.

The transfer market signs are fairly clear – the backline needs a solid leader. The leaders are past their best – Koscielny, Metrsacker – or not mature enough. Nacho Monreal is the only one who has been fairly consistent but his absence when he is injured is telling.

The Gunners have Bellerin and Kolasinac and a good thing to do would be to revert to a 4-men backline. At least this leaves two of the four positions in good hands, and if Monreal could double as a centreback of sorts it would help tighten up the back. All season long the Gunners have hoped to deflect from a centreback deficit but maybe they can sign Jonny Evans now that West Brom are on their way down.

Arsene Wenger walked out to a guard of honour somewbat sheepishly during a 5-0 triumph of Burnley, but that optimism from the game has evaporated and all that remains is the sense that finally, supporters of the club with one of the more-expensive club tickets will no longer have to fuel gliders or light aircraft in the sky to get their message across.

Mercifully Arsene Wenger’s reign is drawing to an end.

For the second successive season, the club have not got into Europe.

And they are still stuck with Mesut Ozil, who really needs to be shifted for his attitude.

Channeling circumstance into victory

Liverpool are on the verge of a Champions League final against Real Madrid, who survived a Bayern Munich draw in their own home stadium to eventually triumph via their 2-1 victory in Munich a fortnight ago. While Real’s progression was never really in doubt, if you believe those who think that they will always find a way to grind it out, Liverpool – despite their 5-2 advantage have still got things to do and are not safe.

Things would have been easier if the Merseyside team had ground a 5-0 win last week but the defence, it seems, had too muchc of an eye on a next game and coasted in the last ten minutes, giving a chance to Roma to snatch two precious away goals. Surely 5-2 must be enough? Don’t forget that this is the Roma team that defeated Barcelona 3-0 away – AWAY! – to progress via away goals, despite losing 4-1 at home. They are a dangerous team, capable of scoring.

And Liverpool are capable of conceding.

It is no surprise that Liverpool’s attacking players have been let down by the defence, and while Virgil van Dijk’s arrival has calmed the ship in its storm, the whole backline is still not rock solid. Lloris Karius has improved but is not consistent, and Simon Mignolet’s fine form that saw Liverpool sign him seems to have evaporated.

Liverpool’s quest is not helped by the fact that many of their fans have chosen to stay away from Roma. A BBC report saw that the “flash stabbing”, a drive by or quick attack, is one famously perpetuated by the ultras that support Roma, and even factions within the fan base almost see that as a badge of courage. Last week a Liverpool fan was stabbed prior to the match in Roma. This week, many fans have decided against visiting the stadium. Some are doing so with security. The team have issued advice that under no conditions should anyone walk to the Stadio Olimpico. And forget about wearing the Red t-shirt; it is a target board.

Will the conditions be a factor? Few home fans, attacking team, hostile atmosphere? Liverpool fans only need to look back at the conditions they created for a Manchester City team when they threw missiles at the visiting team bus. The Premier League Champions suffered a 3-0 defeat after a run of victories. Whether or not it was because they were jaded, or whether or not they suffered because of the conditions at the visiting ground depends on your point of view.

Perhaps Liverpool will use the circumstances to inspire themselves to grind out a draw or victory to allow them to progress to the final without a show of fear. Channelled correctly, hostile cirumstances can inspire artistry. Look at a different field such as music at the composer Ludwig van Beethoven. While he is famous for the Ninth Symphony and Ode to Joy, he famously had to overcome a difficult childhood involving abuse, bullying, health deterioration and rose in spite of it (read more about it here).

Liverpool stand  on the edge of Champions League history. Can they overcome and channel the spirit into victory? They should do, but don’t count against them to concede and make it difficult for themselves!

 

 

French Connection

Ah, Arsene Wenger. Heading into the first leg of the Europa League, having announced his retirement, the Frenchman was living in the praise of the pundits, lauded for revolutionising the English game when he first took over Arsenal having managed in Japan. “Arsene Who?” was Gary Lineker’s reaction at the time. But the pundits, in the run up to the game, as well as the media personnel, just couldn’t get enough of Arsene Wenger. Perhaps it was because it was a quiet day for sports news. So it was Arsene here, Arsene there, Arsene out of every nook and cranny and inch of the woodwork.

I speculated in the last post that the timing of the resignation was perhaps linked to the Europa League and the end of the season, that perhaps it was almost designed to give them an emotional boost heading into the final part of the campaign. So while the journalists were still reproducing the “In Praise of Arsene” articles they had long written, and trying to get the full benefit of them, it was no surprise to me to see a few days later the “Win It for Arsene” cries from individuals such as Per Mertersacker.

The game began rather auspiciously for the home team. Cheered on by a large crowd in Highbury, there were no sign of divisions, as fans of both banners cheered their team on. And when I refer to both sets of fans, I don’t mean the Arsenal and Atletico fans, I mean the Wenger Out and the In Arsene We Trust fans. The manager had at least achieved his aim of eliminating some of the mental distractions for his players. They did not have to play an important game while their own fans fought among themselves.

Further luck was in store when French referee Clement Turpin sent off an Atletico defender with two yellow cards in the space of twelve minutes. Really? In a game of this magnitude? Now, experience tells you that referees try to set the tone of the game at the start, so you try to lay off a hard challenge at the start, no matter how you want to set the tone of the game. Give it ten minutes, let the referee and the emotions of the game settle, then make such challenges. Vrsaljko had obviously not had much experience and naively laid two hard challenges within a short span, believing he was helping his team set a tough tone. Unfortunately he did. He made it tough for his team, alright. Ninety minutes with ten men, away from home.

The visiting team held their ground defensively but withered and it was left to Arsenal’s record signing for a few months, Alexandre Lacazette, another Frenchman, to play his hand and assume his role in the plot. Latching on to a cross from the right, he powered home past Jan Oblak. Both sets of Arsenal fans cheered. Finally the Gunners could score a goal against a team with ten men in their own home ground!

The Europa Cup final in Lyon, Lacazette’s home town. French manager Arsene Wenger’s last campaign. Clement Turpin, French referee, helping to engineer a cup final with Marseille, another French team, in the French suburb of Lyon.

The introduction of former Liverpool and Chelsea striker Fernando Torres threatened to throw a spanner in the works. Was it because it was Torres’ last season at Atletico, as well, and he would be fired up to give his best? Was it because during his time in the Premier League, he had known how to work his magic at Highbury?

No, silly. It’s because in a game riddled with French connections, Torres is Spanish.

It was left to French centre back Laurent Koscielny, for so many years under the wing of veteran Metersacker and now leader of the defence, to put his hat in the game. Letting an innocuous pass get by him, it was picked up by Antoine Griezmann who with one of Atletico’s few chances managed to get the advantage for the second leg. Griezmann, in case you have not noticed, is also French.

So. One Frenchman’s bid to make it to a final in France in his last managerial season, aided by a French referee and French striker, foiled by a French defender and opposing French striker.

Laurent Koscielny revealed that during a team meeting he had broken down when his children asked why the Arsenal team were so bad.

Wonder what he has to say now?

FArewell

So what’s been going on this week?

Unless you have been hiding in a cave somewhere without electricity, you would have already known that this evening Manchester United beat Tottenham 2-1. The Spurs have now drawn one and lost one game since that game where Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane claimed the same goal, Kane one that had a dubious brush off his shoulder obscured by a goal post. The Spurs’ poor run of form since that game can really be attibuted to slightly strange statistics; a breakdown of team spirit caused by Harry Kane doing his team mate in, in a quest to become the top scorer of the Premier League (give it up Harry, because Mo Salah will ensure it never happens), as well as – slightly odd – a team wanting Harry to do it, and hence threading every ball to him in the hope that he can bolster his tally. The problem with statistics, as every player who has been on one can tell you, is that you become so focussed on the numbers it alters and eventually ruins your game. You try too hard and end up losing the natural form of your game that gave you the attention and recognition in the first place.

In the National Basketball Association (NBA), one player was so desperate to continue his streak of getting double-figure rebounds (that is, ten or more), that he deliberately shot at his own team’s basket and missed in order to get the tally!

But the story of the week is not Tottenham Hotspur, nor is it Manchester United, who on balance, will be meeting Mourinho Old. That’s right, I predict a Manchester vs Chelsea FA Cup Final. Mourinho vs Conte. Lukaku vs his old team – one of them anyway. But that’s not the story of the weekend.

The main story is that Arsene Wenger is retiring. And what a way to announce it. On the eve of the FA Cup semi-final, which in itself for so many years had been the saving grace of the losing Arsene regime, the Gunners revealed that he would be leaving at the end of the season.

But while most waxed lyrical about how Wenger revolutionised things in England with his approach, one should not get too caught up in the plaudits. Instead, Wenger leaving Arsenal is like the deathly end to a terminal disease. You are sad, but you are also relieved because the pain and suffering can finally be over.

And let’s be cynical. Why did the Gunners choose such a time to announce this decision? Let’s play devil’s advocate here.

Wenger and Mourinho have never got on well. The latter calls him a specialist in failure, and Wenger famously shoved the Portuguese on the touchline in a game against Chelsea. Announcing it on the eve of a semi-final, where Mourinho would likely advance (and he did), would be like stealing Mourinho’s thunder. The fact that it was Spurs playing as well would be a way of undercutting their neighbours, the Gunners overshadowing the build up to Saturday.

This coming Thursday and next Thursday Arsenal play Atletico Madrid over two legs. The first is at the Emirates this Thursday. Deciding the manager’s future and publicly declaring it means that players go into Thursday’s game wanting to do their best for the manager, wanting to win one big competition for him, and the fans can be united behind the team, because whether you like him or not, there will be no more Wenger Out banners, no light aircraft, do battle lines among the fans.

They will need that against Atletico Madrid; I’ve said before, the road to Europa League glory goes through Atletico Madrid.

Wenger’s announcement is a way of leaving on his own terms. He will not let the result against Atletico be seen as influential in him leaving, had he decided to announce it later. He’s set it out, now he hopes the team can rise to the occasion by beating Atletico, however hard it may be.

Either way, it’s the end of an era. Question is, if Arsenal lose over two legs to Atletico, would it make any difference to you if Wenger had stayed or whether he had left?