Football

PL Review - Andy Gray's Dinosaur Claims Shows How Far Football Has Come

PL Review - Andy Gray's Dinosaur Claims Shows How Far Football Has Come

Fair to say, then, that the last couple of years have killed this righteous notion that we are all slowly wending on an arc toward betterment and general enlightenment.

However, in this wretched era of what the Germans call Trumpundbrexit, characterised by a profound eejitry and ignorance which has poisoned discourse, undermined progress and thrust guided missiles into the (tiny) hands of misguided men, we may have a template for our collective betterment.

We speak, of course, about the English Premier League. Y'know, the one used by States and corporations to launder their image and in which allegedly discerning men are paid millions to slag off Harry the Hornet.

Stick with us.

For the light at the end of the tunnel isn't the light of an oncoming train, it's the shining, coruscating eyes of one of the few truly earnest men left on the BBC: Martin Keown.

Late on Saturday night, as Match of the Day ticked to a close, a sign of genuine progress fell from Keown's mouth. Everton had conceded yet another goal from a set-piece, and it fell to Keown to point out where they've been going wrong. He pointed out the fact that they have been using Zonal Marking at corners, but rather than dismiss the entire system as another of Johnny Foreigner's follies, Keown actually identified a problem within the system.

Granted, it wasn't exactly explosive insight - Keown twice circled an empty zone and just kind of stopped there - but he didn't go down the route of saying that it should all be thrown out in favour of man-to-man marking as that's what works over here.

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Nope, Keown accepted this European ideal as a system worthy of interrogating and criticising, rather than a fundamentally dumb idea that just doesn't work over here.

Of course, for confirmation of How Far We've Come, it is useful to be reminded of Where We Were.

For this, we turn to Andy Gray on Bein Sports, whose football coverage is broadcast in a gleaming, vaguely antiseptic studio redolent of a suburban optician's. (We're not entirely sure how many fans Keys and Gray have in Qatar - but most of them are used to cool the studio).

Gray, of course, hated Zonal Marking, treating this foreign idea much like a conservative Late Late Show viewer treated artificial contraception in the 1960s. 'Sure, it might work abroad, but it's not for us here, thank you very much. Plus, it gives us nobody to blame'.

Gray was once the voice and face of the future in football, tethered as he was to Sky's launch of the Premier League. His mastery of various on-screen gizmos and gadgets gave some credence to that, although Irish viewers who saw Eamon Dunphy trace the trajectory of Frank Rijkaard's spit at Rudi Voller during Italia '90 realised he was one step behind the true innovators.

He has long since been moored in the past, however, and this weekend's lumberings with his chum Richard Keys showed it.

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Gray had great fun with the recent revelation that Liverpool have hired a throw-in specialist, Thomas Gronnemark. By great fun, we mean, he thought of one joke and repeated it again and again, as if he was writing a script for A League of their Own.

Here he is, working the crowd (that eventually swells to two). Richard Keys, in fairness to him, tried to stoke a bit of a debate, before getting lost in obsequious snigger.

Gray assumes that there is nothing more than can be done to improve the throw-in. Judging by Liverpool's win at Leicester on Saturday, there is much they can learn: in the final minutes of that win, Virgil Van Dijk stood in the penalty area as his teammates played it short before winning another. This they threw long into the penalty area...as Van Dijk headed back to his own goal.

Plus, if Liverpool master the long-throw into the penalty area, it will create space elsewhere: if opposition sides drop into the penalty area, chances are they will leave space for Mo Salah and others on its fringes.

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Tony Pulis' Stoke are the Premier League's throw-in laureates, and early in their first season in the league, when most of the league cowered in fear at this unusual weapon, Hull's Boaz Myhill rushed out of his penalty area to collect a ball, dithered, and decided to kick the ball out for a corner instead of a throw-in.

Given the intensity of Liverpool's pressing, any slight hesitancy by opposition 'keepers or defence could be punished ruthlessly. It's possible that none of this will happen, but surely it's at least worth trying?

In Gray's world, it's not and there is nothing to learn from this throw-in specialist.

The assumption that there is nothing to be learned from experts draws too many easy parallels with the baser elements of public discourse in England, but this general ignorance that all new ideas in football are bad ones has held English football back for decades.

Arsene Wenger has spoken about this, that Britain's 'island' mentality has stunted the influx and mingling of ideas from elsewhere. European football, in contrast, has benefitted greatly from allowing ideas travel smoothly across borders: Barcelona, for example, conquered the world on the principles of a Dutchman.

Those same principles are now held by Pep Guardiola, and the extent of City's dominance encouraged Gareth Southgate to mould an English team in accordance with these new systems and ideas. His England team made it to the semi-finals of the World Cup playing a back three: imagine what Sven's England could have achieved with such tactical flexibility?

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What if England could have had Gerrard and Lampard in the same team, but not the same midfield?

That is all thwarted promise now, but England can only benefit from expertise elsewhere. It is a deep irony that, as England closes itself off from the rest of Europe, its football is opening itself up to the point where xG is a Match of the Day metric.

English football is moving on, and it's left Gray in its wake.

It's fitting that Gray chose the kick-off as his area of expertise: it's a part of the game when the ball doesn't have to go forward.

Stray Observations 

  • Y'know that old chestnut that Emile Heskey improves everyone he is alongside? If you saw Jamie Redknapp beside him on Sky Sports on Saturday lunchtime, you'll know it doesn't extend to punditry.
  • That Alisson Becker mistake would have been a real 'Hey Loris, hold my beer' moment if it wasn't such a certainty that Karius would drop the beer.
  • Things we didn't know until recently: Brendan Rodgers is Jurgen Klopp's landlord. And Steven Gerrard was Rodgers' landlord for a while.
  • BIG SAM RESCUE-O-METER: This is where we judge which side are closest to phoning Sam Allardyce in a principle-cascading panic to avoid relegation. Currently top/bottom of the dial are....West Ham.
  • IRISH PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Matt Doherty. Surely O'Neill should give him his chance?
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Tweets of the Weekend 

 

Gavin Cooney
Article written by
Changed the spelling of his name upon pressure from Michael Owen.

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