England vs USA: my diagnosis

My overall feeling was that there just wasn’t a critical mass of players in that team whose game lends itself to composed possession football. Gerrard and Lampard can’t do it on their own.

So for example, I’m a big fan of Aaron Lennon, and I think he could be an important player for England at this tournament, but he’s not someone who you would immediately associate with patient, methodical build-up play. The same goes for SWP.

I thought the best period of control England had in the friendlies was in the second half of (I think) the Japan game, when Gerrard, Lampard and Joe Cole were all on together; the more of those kinds of players you have on the pitch, the more likely it is that there will be a pass available, the more likely you are to maintain possession.

Not that they have to be midfielders, of course: I think England missed Rio Ferdinand, not for his defending, but for his willingness to carry the ball out of defence and link up with the midfield. And of course Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson can help; so can the forwards, particularly Rooney. But I think the midfield was a problem. Given how well Rooney played alone up front for his club last season, I would have been tempted to play a 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 with Joe Cole taking Heskey’s place. Or just to play Joe Cole on the left wing.

The good news is that Gareth Barry should be back for the next game, which will help.


World Cup food blogging: USA

Well, that was a bit depressing: not so much because of the result, but the tendency to revert to long balls hoofed up the front, the lack of involvement of England’s wingers, the lack of controlled possession in midfield… all the usual England failings, in fact. Not to mention the further undermining of confidence in England’s goalkeepers. Ho hum.

However, World Cup food blogging must carry on. And so, my USA-themed food: cornbread and creole fried shrimp. The cornbread recipe I used was this one. Partially because it’s a British recipe, so I can weigh my ingredients rather than all that measuring quantities by the cup that American recipes do. And partially because it suggests substituting yoghurt for buttermilk, which is what I was planning to do anyway. I cut down the quantity of chillies slightly and cooked it in a pre-heated cast iron frying pan, though. It turned out rather nice, I must say:

The shrimp was a bit of an improvised recipe; I covered the prawns in a homemade creole-type seasoning mix — chopped thyme, dried oregano, paprika, crushed garlic, a dribble of pepper sauce, black pepper — and left for a couple of hours (the duration of the Nigeria-Argentina game, in fact).

Then I basically did the standard flour-egg-breadcrumb thing except with a mixture of cornmeal and cornstarch instead of breadcrumbs, and deep-fried them. Came out looking quite impressive:

But actually, although it tasted OK, the coating was a bit coarse and not very crispy. I don’t do a lot of deep-frying, so I don’t really know why… oil not hot enough? I think if I tried to do a cornmeal based coating again, I would use a wet batter rather than dry cornmeal coating. You live and learn.

I’d definitely do the cornbread again, though. Yummy.

So, roll on Algeria!


Football advertising

As all the sportswear manufacturers unveil their big ad campaigns in the run-up to the World Cup, the one which has been the biggest hit is Nike’s epic Write the Future.

And don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly impressive, if only for the sheer amount of money thrown at the screen. And while it’s conceptually and narratively a bit chaotic, it has some amusing moments and striking images. But it’s all about fame and glory and money and glamour and even more fame. It is the self-importance of football writ large. I miss the days when ads used to make football look, you know, entertaining. Even fun.

So I prefer this one, for Puma:


Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika

So, the World Cup is almost upon us, and inevitably our attention has been narrowed in on the nervy minutiae of squad selections and injury worries and tactical arguments. So before the action starts, can I just take a moment to say how fucking marvellous it is to see the World Cup being hosted in Africa.

I do understand that there are commercial and practical reasons why the USA and Japan both got to host the tournament before an African nation, but it’s not particularly edifying to watch a desparate FIFA trying to break America like some bloated, bombastic Robbie Williams.

How much nicer it is to see the World Cup finally go to the third great heartland of football, somewhere where the locals will be hugely excited to have it. And having seen the ICC manage to host a cricket tournament in the West Indies without any Caribbean atmosphere, let’s hope that the clammy corporate hand of FIFA doesn’t manage to drain all the Africanness out of the experience.


How to reform the FA Cup

My solution to the periodic handwringing about how to make the FA Cup more popular again, and as a bonus, to reform the UEFA Cup as well.

It’s simple: make the UEFA Cup an extension of the FA Cup. The genius of the FA Cup is that the format maximises the chance of shock results. No group stage, no seeding, no ties played over two legs with the away goals rule: just straight knockout competition, winner takes all. It has a similar conceptual purity to the league; in the league, every team plays every other team home and away and you tally up the points. In the FA Cup, you just put all the names into a hat to decide who plays who, and the winner gets to stay in the competition. And whereas the league is set up to decide which is the best team in the country in the fairest, most objective way possible, the FA Cup is just the opposite: it maximises the impact of luck. And that’s a good thing. It provides a counterpoint to the league.

Now there are practical reasons why we can’t have a proper European league running in parallel to the domestic leagues, but the Champion’s League does its best to provide something similar: with a seeded group stage and ties played over two games, it maximises the chances that the big names get through to the later stages. Cynically, you might say that’s because the big names pull the big TV audiences; but it does also mean that whoever wins the competition has a good claim to being the best team in Europe.

What Europe needs to complement this ‘league’ is a proper cup competition: the four semifinalists from every national cup competition in Europe being entered into an unseeded cup which is straightforward knockout football from beginning to end. And if Barcelona gets drawn against Manchester United in the first round, well, that’s the luck of the draw. And if Juventus get knocked out in the first round after a flukey goal and a lung-busting defensive performance by a team in the Polish second division: that’s part of the fun.

Of course for this to work, you would need all the top teams to take part. They’d have to play both in the Champion’s League and the new-format UEFA Cup. And that gives you scheduling problems. But if you could find a way to do it — you could exempt teams in the UEFA Cup from having to play in the League Cup, for a start — it would be such a fab competition. Are you listening, Michel Platini?

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