Peter Schmeichel, Manchester United (vs Rapid Vienna, 16th October 1996)
Peter Schmeichel, Manchester United (vs Rapid Vienna, 16th October 1996)
Vincent Kompany, Manchester City (vs Barcelona, 18th February 2014)
Jerzy Dudek, Liverpool (vs AC Milan, 25th May 2005)
After Manchester United’s 1-1 draw at home against Bayern Munich this past Tuesday, Arjen Robben publicly disparaged United’s defensive approach, likening it to a game of handball. While we at Grüber and Diceman do not claim to be an authority on handball (football but with hands, right? Right???), the implication seems to be that by adopting a defensive mindset from the off and playing on the counter, United were not adhering to the much-vaunted and yet frustratingly vague ‘spirit of the game’.
Certainly Robben is not the only person to make this point with a selection of fans and pundits voicing their disgust that any Manchester United team (‘that’s Busby’s United, Ferguson’s United’, these voices cry) would go into any game at home looking to negate their opponent rather than actively attack themselves. Nevermind United’s current much-publicized weaknesses, nor Bayern’s vintage team who less than a year ago dismantled a Barcelona side considered by many to be the greatest there’s ever been.
Big Sam vs The Hammers
Look southward and similar allegations have been put to Sam Allardyce’s bruising, hoof-centric West Ham United side this season (‘that’s Moore’s West Ham, Brooking’s West Ham, Joey Cole! Joey Cole!’, these cockney voices cry, blowing bubbles of molten vitriol in Big Sam’s general direction). After a turbulent Christmas period, Allardyce has turned The Hammer’s fortunes around and with six games to go they are all but safe thanks to six wins in nine games. And yet the dissenting voices remain infuriatingly vocal for the Premier League’s third longest serving manager (a statistic not as impressive as it sounds). These fans, not unfairly, cling to a romantic history; a reputation for playing football ‘the right way’ that endeared them to other teams and supporters. In this sense this (growing) minority believe Big Sam’s A to B, good-touch-for-a-big-guy, pie-and-mash pragmatism is slowly eroding away the clubs identity.
It’s an interesting way of looking at things and there are certainly fair points on either side of the argument. I, for one, while liking Big Sam, do emphasize with The Hammer’s faithful having, as a Liverpool fan, suffered through the brief, ignominious Hodgson-era; waking up to the newspaper headline ‘Liverpool not too big for relegation battle, says Roy Hodgson’ being a particular highlight of that period. Hodgson’s total misunderstanding of what Liverpool represented and the values it aimed to stand for necessitated an urgent change and there are slight (albeit severely lessened) similarities between this and The Hammer’s supporter’s stance on Allardyce but I digress.
Look back ten years ago to a time in which Allardyce had just taken Bolton Wanders to a League Cup final and an eighth place finish in the Premier League. Along with eventual-victor – the globetrotting pusshound Steve McClaren – Big Sam was considered a strong candidate for the soon-to-be-vacated position of England manager (and not in a faux ironic sense as with the hipster FA’s recent appointment of Hodgson). Sam’s football hasn’t changed, and, for the most part, its effectiveness hasn’t changed, but it’s no longer considered acceptable to play this long-ball game if your team has the means at its disposal to aim higher or a rosy history ardent fanbases are quick to throw in their managers’ faces (with the deadly accuracy of a pro handball player…right? That’s how it works right? They throw the ball …and their hands and…stuff).
The Long and Short of It
So what’s changed? Well obviously Guardiola’s Barcelona happened in tandem with Del Bosque’s Spain. Experiencing those two sides dominate a generation undoubtedly had a cascading effect as tiki-taka’s influence trickled down upon clubs and managers alike, causing mass inspiration and reevaluation. In this analogy Allardyce would be the angry cave troll, stubbornly sheltering himself from the beautiful Spanish waterfall, content that everything he needed to succeed in the game was right in front of him in this dark, lonely cavern. Nigel De Jong too, helped by giving the world a misleadingly clear picture of the two sides of the game; there was the beautiful and the thuggish with no middle ground. Spain’s way was the right way. Any other way was a kung-fu studding in the chest; otherwise known as the wrong way.
Closer to home, where once Sam’s particular brand of football was considered an ugly necessity to staying up in the Premier League, now a raft of fashionable, young managers (Martinez, Rodgers, Pochettino) have shown that not only can you stay up playing easy-on-the-eye football but you can also win things. Not important things; semi-important things like FA cups and respect. Although we still had time for ‘brave’ displays by ‘English lions’ against superior opposition (Chelsea vs Barca, Chelsea vs Bayern, England vs anyone), there was a general consensus that our top clubs should be aiming for better.
Of course, ‘good football’ has always been held in greater regard than negative tactics; Brian Clough’s classic soundbite ‘if God had wanted us to play football in the clouds, he’d have put grass up there’ has long echoed through English football’s corridors but it’s only in the last few years that English fans have gone from desiring a certain standard of football to outright expecting it. Merchants of long-ball tactics are still tolerated but are now sneered at, mocked and treated with general derision. Allardyce will never get near the England job again. Andy Gray’s assertion that ‘Messi would struggle on a wet and windy night in Stoke’ has been misappropriated and used as a stick to beat down anyone who posits a negative opinion against Barcelona’s style.
Meanwhile in the urban pottery jungle that is Stoke, Tony Pulis was quietly moved on after six years because of his inability to implement a more progressive style of football. The physical, aggressive approach of Pulis’ men, memorably described by Arsene Wenger as ‘rugby tactics’, although serving the primary purpose of keeping Stoke in the Premier League hadn’t won the club many admirers. Chairman Peter Coates decided the best way to win over the hearts of football fans around the country was to replace Pulis with the charmless, dead-eyes of Mark Hughes and instigate an altogether more attractive style of play from an admittedly talented squad and Trainspotting‘s Charlie Adam but I digress.
Bland of Football
What I resent in this narrative is the implication that all teams that play within ‘the spirit of the game’ deserve to win; that they are somehow morally justified in their pursuit of victory. Barcelona’s players have a habit of praising smaller teams for playing the correct way before picking said team apart and giving them a beating they won’t soon forget. Likewise David Moyes would have been foolish to attempt to play Bayern at their own game, even at Old Trafford, because the Bavarians have proven themselves the best in the world.
Human think-tank Malcolm Gladwell posits an eye-opening take on the age-old David vs Goliath story in which he asserts (and I’m not doing it justice here) that David wasn’t actually the underdog – he just played to his strengths and Goliath’s apparent weaknesses whilst not entirely adhering to the unspoken rules of combat. Many teams criticised for playing anti-football are just doing similar; of course if you’re playing superior opposition you don’t have to play by their rules. ‘The spirit of the game’ is too often used as an excuse when supposedly superior teams have been unable to break inferior opposition down. In a similar vein, Xavi’s boast that Barcelona dominated possession against Bayern in their 7-0 aggregate defeat was typical of this modern-day mistaken tendency to confuse ‘good football’ with constant, uninterrupted possession. So what if you got in a few more passes Xavi you slug-browed spelling mistake? Possession is not the yardstick by which good football is measured.
Case in point, Spain’s victorious Euro 2012 campaign marked by a mild media backlash; the questions were being asked that if this Spanish team were so amazing then where were the goals? A 1-1 draw with Italy, a 4-0 win over a hilariously inept Ireland side, followed by a drab 1-0 win over Croatia, a dull 2-0 win over France and a stale 0-0 penalty shootout victory over Portugal. None of which would be a problem if Spain hadn’t christened themselves proprietors of this elite brand of football. Effective? Undoubtedly. Deserving of praise? Definitely. But in terms of entertainment value it was even more underwhelming than France’s performance during their shock defeat to Croatia in the 2013 World Men’s Handball Championships…I assume.
Spain starved their opponents of the ball, watching them die a slow and painful death but we too the humble armchair viewers suffered a similarly painful death as we patiently followed the precise lateral passes waiting, praying for something, anything to happen. These opponents wern’t playing anti-football. They didn’t park the bus. Spain just sentenced them to death by possession rather than death by fifty goals as we as an audience would have preferred.
Compare this to Chelsea’s valiant 2-2 with Barcelona at the Camp Nou during their Champions League winning campaign. Chelsea began defensively and when universally adored nice-guy John Terry was sent off for snapping Alexi Sanchez’s spine in half, they ventured out of their half less often than Big Sam would from a cave situated beneath a gigantic, metaphorical, Spanish waterfall. And yet this remains one of the greatest games I’ve ever seen; Cecil B. DeMille would struggle to put on a show half as good as it. Barcelona pushed and probed and tested and teased and battered but Chelsea refused to break, until they did, in the last minute, with Fernando Torres in a square mile to himself. And Valdes waits. And Valdes comes. And Torres skips by. And Gary Neville makes a involuntary noise which is disgusting and yet perfect. And the ball nestles in the net…but I digress.
The point is that this belief in a black and white definition of good and bad football is false. While the ambition of smaller clubs to play progressive football is to be admired some of the best contests come about when two teams have entirely contrasting styles and to pit yourself directly against a team proven to be your better in every department is naive at best, careless at worst. Teams like West Ham, Pulis’ Crystal Palace and the artist formerly known as Stoke help bring variation to the Premier League, offering different propositions and challenges for teams week on week.
So here’s to Big Sam and Tony Pulis; The Pantomime Villains and Perennial Scapegoats. Long may they continue in the top flight, sheltering in their caves, frozen relics in time, offering us a glimpse of ancient days when men were men, and Rory Delap was their king. And while we’re here screw handball, with its hand to ball skills and its aims of putting said ball in or over some kind of net, goal or hoop. And screw Arjen Robben for even putting us in the awkward position of having to fake a basic knowledge of this so-called sport with it’s large European following and hand to ball action…something to do with throwing…I think there’s a D involved somewhere…But I digress.
Javier Hernández, Manchester United (vs Real Sociedad, 5th November 2013)
Premier League (13): 1992–93, 1993–94, 1995–96, 1996–97, 1998–99, 1999–2000, 2000–01, 2002–03, 2006–07, 2007–08, 2008–09, 2010–11, 2012–13
FA Cup (4): 1993–94, 1995–96, 1998–99, 2003–04
Football League Cup (4): 1991–92, 2005–06, 2008–09, 2009–10
FA Community Shield (9): 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2013
UEFA Champions League (2): 1998–99, 2007–08
UEFA Super Cup (1): 1991
Intercontinental Cup (1): 1999
FIFA Club World Cup (1): 2008
PFA Young Player of the Year (2): 1991–92, 1992–93
PFA Team of the Year (6): 1992–93, 1997–98, 2000–01, 2001–02, 2006–07, 2008–09
PFA Team of the Century (1): 1997–2007
PFA Players’ Player of the Year (1): 2008–09
FWA Tribute Award: 2007
Bravo Award (1): 1993
BBC Sports Personality of the Year (1): 2009
BBC Wales Sports Personality of the Year (2): 1996, 2009
GQ Sportsman of the Year (1): 2010
Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year (1): 1997–98
Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year (2): 1990–91, 1991–92
Premier League 10 Seasons Awards (1992–93 to 2001–02): Overall Team of the Decade
Premier League 20 Seasons Awards (1992–93 to 2011–12): Most Player Appearances (596)
UEFA Champions League 10 Seasons Dream Team (1992 to 2002): 2002
Wales Player of the Year Award (2): 1996, 2006
Premier League Player of the Month (3): September 1993, August 2006, February 2007
Goal of the Season (1): 1998–99
English Football Hall of Fame Inductee: 2005
Golden Foot: 2011
OBE for services to football: 2007
Honorary Master of Arts degree from Salford University for contributions to football and charity work in developing countries: 2008
Freedom of the City of Salford: 7 January 2010. He is the 22nd person to receive the Freedom of the City of Salford.
How do you rank tangible moments of not just quality but game-changing quality? How can you measure the significance of one Giggs goal over another or assess the influence he exerted in one match compared to another? It’s an impossible task.
What we’ve endeavored to do instead is find the examples that best represent Giggs’ ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. These five moments, we believe, best summarize the immense influence the one-club man has had on Manchester United and seek to function as the tip of the Giggs iceberg, offering a visual encapsulation of the wonders you’ll find if you dip beneath the surface. If nothing else the following clips offer another chance to bask in the magnificence of the Welsh maverick as he tears opposition defences apart.
The Goal: Just witness how far away Giggs is from the ball when Austin miscontrols it; the mistake doesn’t deserve such brutal punishment. The winger capitalizes on the lapse in a nanosecond, retrieving the ball, bamboozling the covering Jason Cundy before striding past Walker and nonchalantly finishing from a difficult angle. All this at the tender age of 18.
The Significance: The goal is generally credited with announcing a young Ryan Giggs to the world, earning him a reputation for meandering runs and blink-and-you’ll-miss-him pace in the process. This moment perhaps best typifies Giggs’ electric beginnings and the Class of ’92’s rampant domination of the early Premier League era.
The Goal: Sixteen years later and now an United veteran, Giggs works some space in the Wigan penalty area and finishes with an understated coolness, clinching United’s 17th League title in fine fashion.
The Significance: If young Giggs was the lungs of his team, marauding past the opposition with frenetic stamina, then old Giggs was the heart of his, controlling the tempo, pumping passes and dictating space. The Welshman, now converted into a deep-lying playmaker role, enjoyed a much vaunted purple patch in his mid-thirties, producing career-best performances and shepherding Fergie’s next generation of superstars into title winners. This goal was a cherry-on-the-cake finish to a resurgent season in which United won their second of three consecutive League titles and Giggs reproved his relevance.
The Goal: A divine mixture of elegance and industry as Giggs races through the Juve backline and threads the ball (with his right-foot no less) past a motionless Buffon. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, it probably qualifies as the second best goal of the player’s career.
The Significance: The goal may not have come at a particularly pivotal juncture in proceedings with United already 1-0 up and looking comfortable, but it came during a period of mixed form for the winger as for the first time there were rumblings of discontent emanating from the Old Trafford crowd. Giggs, it was suggested, was losing his touch; his head had been turned after a period of intense speculation linking him with Inter Milan and it was beginning to show on the pitch. The typical Giggsian response was to remind United’s fans just what he was capable of. There have been no inferences of disloyalty since.
Clip available here <http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xy9f95_1999-april-7-manchester-united-england-1-juventus-italy-1-champions-league_sport&start=117>
The Goal: Often overlooked but undoubtedly crucial, Giggs’ finish against Juventus is visually the least impressive impressive on the list although it still takes fine positional work and admirable composure for the midfielder to rifle the ball into the roof of the net.
The Significance: United’s Champions League campaign in their Treble-winning season is often reduced to three moments; the two snatch-and-grab goals in the Final and the epic comeback away at Juventus inspired by the heroics of Roy Keane. Rarely mentioned is the home leg in which the Italians held a damaging 1-0 lead for seventy-five minutes of the game until Giggs scrambled a last-minute equalizer.
So what you ask? It was in United’s nature to score last gasp goals and even had they lost, the 3-2 win in the return leg would have been enough to see them through. Except the only reason United scored a third was because Juventus were chasing the game. Giggs’ goal wasn’t just vital mathematically but in terms of squad morale it boosted the Devils, substantiating the belief that this was their year and reinvigorating them in preparation for the return leg and their cup match against Arsenal.
In moments such as this the United legend was written, not just domestically but all across Europe, and Giggs was so often the man with the pen. Ingrained in the brain are a litany of interchangeable images of Giggs forcing his team forward in the dying seconds, instigating one final surge down the left wing with a hidden reserve of energy and, inevitably, forcing a last gasp goal. Look no further than the final against Bayern for another example as Giggs lays the ball on a plate (albeit inadvertently) for Teddy Sheringham to greedily gobble up in the dying seconds. It’s a microcosm of the Ferguson ethos that Giggs has embodied for more than twenty years.
The Goal: ‘It’s a rather weary one from Vieira…Giggs…gets past Vieira..past Dixon who comes back it him…it’s a wonderful run from Giggs!…Sensational goal from Ryan Giggs…in the second period of extra time. He’s cut Arsenal to ribbons and the team with ten men go back in front 2-1!’
Martin Tyler’s commentary is etched into this blog’s collective memory. As is everything about that goal. Vieira’s directionless ball, that inexplicable torrent of pace, the debonair weaving that leads to Keown ending up on his backside, that rocket finish into the roof of the net and of course that iconic bare-chested celebration.
The Significance: In the distant future, on the day Ryan Giggs passes away, instead of an epitaph this clip will just be played continuously for weeks on end. The family of Patrick Vieira will complain but no one else will. It’s equisite, superlative, fully deserving of consideration in the same bracket as Maradona vs England or Zidane vs Leverkusen.
And it’s emphatically Giggs. Once again the Welshman performs best when his team’s back is against the wall. Once again (as above against Tottenham and Juve) he capitalizes on a mistake that he has no right to punish with a goal. Once again he reveals hidden depths of resolve and energy he seems to store deep inside him for such occasions.
This was more than just the goal that took Manchester United to the FA Cup final. It was the goal that broke Arsenal, causing The Professor to retreat to his lab and rejig the formula. It was the goal that made that squad (and us) believe indisputably that the impossible was possible, a self-fulfilling prophecy that ignited the players in times of turmoil and drove them to success. It was a goal that gripped you, shook you and reminded you just why you love the beautiful game. You can keep Zlatan’s gravity-defying overhead kicks, Barca’s eye-watering, fifty-pass team goals; we’d take Ryan Giggs running directly at a tired, ageing Arsenal backline any day of the week.