Thought of the Day

Do teams have a duty to play ‘good football’?

Buttner Tackle

Alex Büttner: professional handball player, terrible football player.

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.

Sam Allardyce

Sam Allardyce: destroyer of dreams

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.

Nigel De Jong

‘Total football!’

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.

Tony Pulis

The story of one man and his disgusting hat

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.


Wow this truly was a shock for the ages huh?…I’m asking.

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.




Ranked from Reasonable to Indefensible

The Premier League has given us seven managerial casualties thus far this season with the inevitable promise of more to come. Given the criticism often thrust upon overzealous owners for being too trigger happy, short-termist or downright foolish, we’ve decided to study the  aforementioned ex-gaffers and rank the acrimonious circumstances of their departures from fairest to harshest dismissal.

7) Ian Holloway, Crystal Palace – Left By Mutual Consent 23rd October 2013


Position When Sacked: 19th (5 points from safety after 8 games)

Final Five Games: Man Utd 2 Crystal Palace 0, Crystal Palace 0 Swansea 2, Southampton 2 Crystal Palace 0, Liverpool 3 Crystal Palace 1, Crystal Palace 1 Fulham 4

Reasons For Dismissal: The nature of Hollway’s dismissal is perhaps more complex than other examples on this list. While not an outright resignation the decision to leave was, at least in part, his own, and the term ‘mutual termination’ seems a fair assessment of the Bristolian’s departure rather than a weak attempt to sugarcoat the manager’s removal. Chairman Steve Parish said at the time that ‘”Ian felt that a new approach might help keep us in the division” with Holloway admitting he just didn’t have the energy to steer Palace through a relegation dogfight. In terms of form, the manager departed following five straight defeats and although results betrayed what were some gutsy performances, there was a fear that continuing in this vein would lead to Palace being cut adrift at the foot of the division.

Replacement: Tony Pulis

Verdict: Although we love Holloway it’s hard to argue that his departure wasn’t the right decision for both the club and the man. He seemed to return to the Premiership to discover it was a far different place from the one he had left  two years earlier. Under him, Palace looked severely under-prepared for Premier League survival most apparent when the club embarrassingly had to leave two new signings out of their twenty-five man squad after over-buying during the summer. At times like these Holloway appeared woefully out of his depth and it says a lot about the character of the man that he acknowledged as much himself and sought to do what was best for the club. The excellent appointment of Pulis in his place has only strengthened the belief that Holloway was the wrong fit for The Eagles this season. Here’s hoping that an extended break in the lower leagues with Millwall will reinvigorate the enthusiastic manager and eventually give him another crack in top flight.

Scale of Sacking: Reasonable 

6) Paolo Di Canio, Sunderland – Sacked 22nd September 2013


Position When Sacked: 20th (3 points from safety after 5 games)

Final Five Games: Southampton 1 Sunderland 1, Sunderland 4 MK Dons 2 (League Cup), Crystal Palace 3 Sunderland 1, Sunderland 1 Arsenal 3, West Brom 3 Sunderland 0

Reasons For Dismissal: Di Canio’s gung-ho management style was always likely to attract mass criticism at the first sign of trouble and trouble didn’t take long to find its way to the Stadium of Light. During his short tenure at the club the Italian took exception to almost everyone, routinely criticizing staff, media and his team alike. The squad took the brunt of his ire with Di Canio not shying away from publicly chastising any player who stepped out of line be it Phil Bardsley who was photographed showering himself in £50 notes or John O’Shea’s game-costing red card against Crystal Palace. All of which would be acceptable were it not for the perhaps unsurprising fact that Sunderland just wern’t picking up results.

Replacement: Gus Poyet

Verdict: Clearly a quick-fix solution born out of desperation the previous season, Di Canio’s appointment had never really taken off with the fans (despite a 3-0 Tyne-and-Wear derby win) leaving him little in the way of support when the walls started closing in. The case could be made that five games into a season is hardly enough time to judge a manager, but the damage had been done via the many public fallings-out Di Canio had with his team. The fiery Italian had been vocal about the need to completely revolutionise the club, tearing it apart from the inside out to get rid of the bad practices the Italian manager believed had infested the club. Chairman Ellis Short evidently thought differently and opted to cut his losses with Di Canio while there was still time to turn the season around and who can blame him. 

Scale of Sacking: Fair

5) Martin Jol, Fulham – Sacked 1st December 2013


Position When Sacked: 18th (3 points from safety after 13 games)

Final Five Games: Leicester 4 Fulham 3 (League Cup), Fulham 1 Man Utd 3, Liverpool 4 Fulham 0, Fulham 1 Swansea 2, West Ham 3 Fulham 0

Reasons For Dismissal: Put pure and simply, Fulham’s performances this season haven’t been good enough for a team of their quality. A team including Berbatov, Parker, Bent, Hangeland and Kasami shouldn’t be languishing in the relegation zone as they did under Jol (and have since), but perhaps the Dutchman would have been granted more time had his team not looked so utterly inept and devoid of ideas. It wasn’t the defeats themselves such as the manner in which they reacted to going down. The writing was on the wall the moment Meulensteen took up a coaching role at the club.

Replacement: René Meulensteen, then Felix Magath

Verdict: The only reason Jol is not  further up this list is that Fulham’s subsequent lackluster performances with Meulensteen at the helm seem to suggest a far higher level of decline in the ageing team than had previously been thought. Indeed, any manager would perhaps struggle to inspire consistent performances out of a squad solely dependent upon experience and so bereft of youth and vigor (Kasami aside).  That being said Jol did nothing to confront this problem and his post-match interviews towards the end of his reign revealed a man increasingly worn out by the beautiful game albeit one who consistently handled himself with dignity. Shahid Khan had to make a change, although Jol deserved better than the speculative limbo he was placed into when Meulensteen joined his backroom staff.

Scale of Sacking: Fair but flaunting his replacement in his face was a bit of a low-blow

5) René Meulensteen, Fulham – Sacked 14th February 2014

Rene Meulensteen

Position When Sacked: 20th (4 points from safety after 26 games)

Final Five Games: Swansea 2 Fulham 0, Fulham 0 Southampton 3,  Fulham 0 Sheff Utd 1 (FA Cup), Man Utd 2 Fulham 2, Fulham 2 Liverpool 3

Reasons For Dismissal: If Khan was looking for a marked improvement when he ditched Jol and gave the reigns to Meulensteen, he didn’t get it. Performances remained languid and, at times, worryingly apathetic as the Londoners spiraled closer and closer to relegation. Despite attempting to support Meulensteen by giving senior positions to experienced figures Ray Wilkins and Alan Curbishley, at times these appointments seemed to have the opposite effect, undermining the Dutchman by suggesting he lacked the capacity to do the job by himself. In the end, Khan came to a crossroads and made the decision to go for broke with the appointment of Felix Magath.

Replacement: Felix Magath

Verdict: Although thirteen games is undoubtedly too shorter tenure to get the measure of any manager, Fulham simply couldn’t afford to give Meulensteen the time to prove himself. That being said they backed him in the transfer market during January (£12 million was spent on Konstantinos Mitroglou) and encouraging performances against Man Utd and Liverpool had seemed to suggest the Dutchman was slowly steadying the ship. Like Jol, the nature of Meulensteen’s dismissal was graceless although arguments could be made the ex-United coach was appointed in similar circumstances himself so should have known what to expect. Time will tell if Magath’s disciplinarian approach is what the team needs. 

Scale of Sacking: Once again a fair dismissal but to seemingly appoint a replacement before having the good grace to dispense with Meulensteen’s services lacks class

4) Malky Mackay, Cardiff City – Sacked 27th December 2013


Position When Sacked: 16th (1 point above relegation zone after 18 games)

Final Five Games: Stoke 0 Cardiff 0, Crystal Palace 2 Cardiff 0, Cardiff 1 West Brom 0, Liverpool 3 Cardiff 1, Cardiff 0 Southampton 3

Reasons For Dismissal: It’s not quite as clear-cut as it was portrayed at the time. Mackay (or staff working alongside Mackay) spent a lot of money in the summer transfer window with mixed results (Medel seems integral, Cornelius less so). It could be argued that with that amount of money spent, a chairman could expect to see his team reach a certain level of performance. Where this issue clouds is in deciding what degree of the team’s bad form was caused by Vincent Tan undermining his manager and what degree would have occurred regardless of Tan’s input.

Replacement: Ole Gunnar Solskjær

Verdict: Constant speculation into Mackay’s future at Cardiff no doubt hampered his side’s progress and left the Scot in a position where every matchday he wasn’t sure whether that game would be his last. Tan inherited Mackay when he took over the club so one could make the case that since the manager was never officially the his choice, the Malaysian was well within his rights to fire Mackay and bring his own man in. However, the way in which Tan handled the dismissal is unarguably abhorrent as he presumably attempted to make his manager’s position untenable in the hope that Mackay would quit of his own volition and Tan would not have to provide the Scot with a tasty severance package. Let’s hope with his own baby-faced choice in place, Tan now retires from the public eye.

Scale of Sacking: Undeserved although his position had long-since become untenable

3) Steve Clarke, West Bromwich Albion – Sacked 14th December 2013


Position When Sacked: 15th (2 points above relegation zone after 16 games)

Final Five Games: West Brom 2 Aston Villa 2, Newcastle 2 West Brom 1, West Brom 2 Man City 3, West Brom 0 Norwich 2, Cardiff 1 West Brom 0

Reasons For Dismissal: More than any other dismissal on this list, Steve Clarke’s seemed to come out of nowhere, particularly given a much-lauded victory at Old Trafford earlier in the season and a desperately unlucky draw at Chelsea more recently still. However, it was a run of bad results against relegation favourites Cardiff and Norwich that did it in for the erstwhile number two, with the Scot a victim of his own success in The Baggies’ previous campaign. Clearly the board felt a succession of losses against meager opposition represented a significant enough step back to cost Clarke his job.

Replacement: Pepe Mel

Verdict: There is an argument to be made that Clarke’s initial success was the anomaly and this season’s form accurately represented his true managerial abilities. It is also true that West Brom had only won 7 of their 34 games played in 2013 suggesting that despite this still being relatively early in Clarke’s tenancy his team had reached a point of stagnation. However the results against United and Chelsea implied there was still life in the old Brom yet and, with the team in no real danger of relegation (then anyway), the least Clarke deserved was another full season to attempt to rectify the situation. Add to this the fact that successor Pepe Mel wasn’t appointed until 26 days after Clarke’s departure and it seems pertinent to question The Baggies’ urgency in sacking their coach with no planned replacement in place.

Scale of Sacking: Very harsh

2) Michael Laudrup, Swansea City – Sacked 14th February 2014


Position When Sacked: 12th (2 points from relegation zone after 24 games)

Final Five Games: Man Utd 2 Swansea 0, Swansea 1 Tottenham 3, Birmingham 1 Swansea 2 (FA Cup) , Swansea 2 Fulham 0, West Ham 2 Swansea 0

Reasons For Dismissal: Much like Steve Clarke, Laudrup seems to fall into the category of managers damned by their own success. Laudrup’s debut campaign for The Swans was a dream as the Welsh club won the League Cup in style and finished an impressive 9th in the league. Cue a unanimous raising of expectations which the manager couldn’t possibly fulfill and less than a year after his famous cup win the Dane has been shown the door.  In defence of the decision, Laudrup’s future has always been a sketchy subject with rumours filtering in and out during the summer that the manager was on the verge of resigning (swiftly denied) and The Swans’ recent league form had seen just one win in ten. Even taking all this in however, the decision still seems incredible.

Replacement: Garry Monk

Verdict: Analysing the club’s recent form (which seems to be the primary reason for Laudrup’s dismissal) shows that among the teams played over the last ten games were Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham and Everton. Slipped inbetween these results was an impressive cup win over that very same Manchester United. While this year’s campaign hasn’t come close to eclipsing the heavy heights of the last, Swansea have had to factor the Europa League into an already busy fixture list and have wracked up multiple injuries to integral players over the course of the season (Michu and Vorm crucially). Laudrup’s summer buys are yet to truly deliver (Bony aside) but one would have hoped last seasons heroics would have earned the Dane enough good faith for the Swans to spend the season hovering comfortably in midtable and testing themselves in European competition. Undoubtedly Huw Jenkins thought differently.

Scale of Sacking: Ridiculous bordering on unjustifiable

1) Andre Villas-Boas, Tottenham Hotspur – Sacked 16th December 2013


Position When Sacked: 7th (5 points from Champions League places after 16 games)

Final Five Games: Tottenham 2 Man Utd 2, Fulham 1 Tottenham 2, Sunderland 1 Tottenham 2, Tottenham 4 Anzhi 1 (Europa League), Tottenham 0 Liverpool 5

Reasons For Dismissal: Mutual termination was the official terminology given to the parting of ways between Villas-Boas and Tottenham however it seems clear to all that the Portuguese manager was sacked after an abject humiliation at home to Liverpool. This result combined with a 6-0 thrashing at the hands of City a few weeks earlier was too much for Daniel Levy who demanded more from the £100 million Spurs spent over the summer.

Replacement: Tim Sherwood 

Verdict: Although we’ve been loath to judge the fairness of a sacking based on managerial replacements thus far Tim Sherwood’s appointment is essential to the structure of our verdict. AVB, throughout his Tottenham tenure, made constant references to ‘the project’ he was building at White Hart Line; a long-term vision to advance the club until they were capable of consistently competing with the best. As Brendan Rodgers has shown at Liverpool projects take time, both to implement a new style and integrate new players; especially when you have so many new, senior players in the case of Tottenham, all of whom are expecting significant game time. This new team cannot be expected to instantly click; they must learn the system, understand their teammates, understand the league. What Levy essentially expected was for Villas-Boas to produce a title winning team with a wholly new untried and untested squad.

Putting this to one side for a moment and recognizing that, like Vincent Tan, an owner or chairman has a right to see a certain amount of progress after parting with a considerable outlay, one can fully understand anger after two repugnant displays in the space of a month against teams that should be title rivals .  However, what doesn’t make sense in this narrative is to fire Villas-Boas  and replace him with youth coach Tim Sherwood . This is not a criticism of Sherwood who by all accounts is a fine coach, but even he must clearly see himself as a buffer between coaches and projects (hence why he refused to accept a six-month contract). The sacking of Villas-Boas wasn’t an inconceivable decision because of the manager’s ability (although undoubtedly he deserved more time) or Sherwood’s inexperience, it’s a ridiculous decision because it essentially turns its back on the £100 million outlay four months into the season, writing it off as a loss as can be seen in Tottenham’s attempt to instantly sell-on several of their new recruits in the January transfer window. It’s short-termism at its most apparent. It’s the footballing equivalent of cutting off your nose to spite your face. It is, without doubt, the stupidest sacking of a Premier League season so far characterised by stupid sackings.

Scale of Sacking: A fucking travesty


Bookmaker’s Current Favourite For The Sack: Chris Hughton