Welcome to England, Klopp!

Liverpool managed to secure a decent win against their top four rivals Tottenham Hotspur last weekend, thus ending a 10-match run during which their only win came against Plymouth Argyle in the FA Cup. Having lost in the Premiership to Swansea and Hull and drawn with Sunderland, by beating Spurs Liverpool continued a tradition that has been in place at least since I started watching football in the mid-nineties: beating those at the top of the table but struggling against clubs propping up the bottom and fighting relegation.

Despite this victory over Tottenham, I don’t think Liverpool’s troubles are behind them yet. Spurs have been notoriously rubbish against “big” clubs away from home, and Jamie Carragher was on Sky Sports last night making that very point. Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool’s charismatic German manager made his name at Borussia Dortmund where he played a pressing, hassling style of football played high up the pitch that journalists call “gegenpressen”. Under Klopp, Borussia Dortmund won the Bundesliga in 2010-11 and 2011-2012 and made the Champions League final in 2012-13.

The problem with making your name in German football is one that I mentioned in my post about Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola: the competition is dominated by Bayern Munich with the occasional appearance by an also-ran. When Dortmund were managed by Klopp they had two difficult domestic fixtures per season, and they were Bayern Munich home and away. Dortmund finished the Bundesliga in 2011-12 8 points ahead of Munich, and 17 points ahead of 3rd placed Schalke 04. They won the league in 2010-11 by a tighter margin of 7 points but one can hardly call it a hard-fought campaign that went down to the wire. Klopp’s success in the Champions League, particularly when they beat Real Madrid 4-3 on aggregate in the semi-finals, was in my opinion partly due to the fact that nobody had much experience with this gegenpressen style of play outside of Germany.

But as Guardiola is rapidly finding out, the English Premier League is an altogether different arena where you have five or six big, well-funded clubs all vying for the top spots plus another ten or twelve clubs who have plenty of money (thanks to the lucrative TV deals) to employ a squad of fit, motivated, highly-professional players who are paid handsomely. The EPL also seems to have attracted some of the top managers of the era: Mourinho and Guardiola have won several leagues and Champions League trophies between them, Conte and Klopp have won the league in Italy and Germany respectively, Wenger is no idiot and nor is Pochettino and the mid-table teams have solid managers like Koeman at Everton and Ranieri at Leicester. At the risk of repeating a football pundit’s favourite cliché, no game is easy at this level.

Klopp started well at Liverpool, winning 9 of their first 13 games which included beating Arsenal and Chelsea away from home. Burnley beat them in the second game of the season and Man Utd locked them out at Anfield for a 0-0 draw, but for a while Klopp and Liverpool were looking to take the Premier League by storm.

So what happened? I reckon teams simply learned how to play against Klopp’s genenpressen style. At the beginning nobody was familiar with it, but a combination of familiarity and injuries to Liverpool has meant the Premier League’s wily and experienced managers and fit, aggressive players have learned to neutralise it. The best managers adapt their style of play to counter the opposition, and the Wenger-Ferguson head-to-head matches were brilliant for this. It was like a game of rock-paper-scissors where each manager would try to neutralise the other’s game plan and somehow find a weakness so they could get their nose in front. Mourinho is another manager who historically has been able to change his tactics to best counter the threat the opposition poses, even if this has led to him being called boring at times.

By contrast, Klopp is a manager who made his name playing a particular style that proved very effective in a weak league and against strong opposition who were not familiar with it. Now he is up against strong, well-managed opposition who have learned his style and his side is struggling (even taking into account the injuries). If Klopp wants to succeed in the Premier League he is going to have to learn a new trick or two: 38 matches of gegenpressen are not going to cut it. Like his counterpart Pep Guardiola, the rest of this season could define Klopp as a manager.

Welcome to England, Pep!

When I first heard that Pep Guardiola would be taking the manager’s job at Manchester City I speculated that he would be in for a rough ride.  Halfway through his first season his team are sitting 3rd in the table and 7 points off the leaders Chelsea; not a disaster by any means, but the strain is beginning to show.

Guardiola is considered one of the top managers in world football, and there is no doubt that he is very good.  He is tactically aware and likes his teams to play a style of football that is both attractive and wins trophies.  However, he rose to fame as the manager of a Barcelona team in which he inherited Messi, Xabi, Iniesta, and Piqué from the departing Frank Rijkaard.  He also had Puyol, Busquets, and Eto’o at his disposal.  This is not to say Guardiola didn’t have to do anything, but his 2008-2012 reign at Barcelona coincided with the Spanish national side winning the World Cup in 2010 and the European Cup in 2008 and 2012.  Of the players that ran onto the pitch in the 2010 WC final, six were Barcelona players.  Add Messi to that lot and Guardiola had the privilege of managing one of the finest set of players ever assembled.

He departed Barcelona in 2012 and took a sabbatical, returning to football management in 2013 when he joined Bayern Munich.  From 2009 until now the Bundesliga has been won by only two clubs: Bayern Munich and Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund.  Bayern Munich have won the league in 5 of the last 7 seasons, Guardiola winning it for all three seasons he was there.  It has long been my opinion that the Bundesliga is run for the benefit of Bayern Munich and the national football team, whereby anyone who shows a smidgen of talent in the other clubs is snapped up by Bayern Munich who immediately trebles the player’s wages.  Other clubs have almost no chance of competing unless they could stumble upon a few youngsters and assemble a side that could be held together long enough to win before the bigger clubs came and swiped their best players, as Klopp managed to do.  As a method of winning the World Cup it proved successful as Bayern Munich players formed the core of the German team that won in Brazil in 2014, but I am doubtful that it benefit the long term health of German football.  Bayern Munich won the league by 10 points last year, 28 points ahead of the 3rd placed team; they won by much the same margins the year before that; in the 2013-2014 season – Guardiola’s first in charge – they won with 90 points, 19 ahead of their nearest rival and 26 ahead of third place; much the same was true for the season before that.

Bayern Munich are not so much a big fish in a small pond as the only shark in a fish tank at the aquarium.  Their success in the Bundesliga is almost assured before the season begins, which leaves them to concentrate on the big prize: the UEFA Champions League.  Guardiola won it twice with Barcelona in 2009 and 2011, and was expected to do so again when he took the reigns at Bayern Munich, particularly since the German club were the defending champions having beaten their domestic rivals Borussia Dortmund in the final the previous season.  Sadly for Guardiola it was not to be: in his three years at Bayern Munich the trophy went to Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Real Madrid respectively and his side didn’t even make the final in any of them.  An argument could therefore be made that Guardiola’s stint at Bayern Munich was not an altogether successful one.

So when I heard he was coming to the English Premier League I thought he might be in for a shock.  Far from being the one-and-a-half horse race that is the Bundesliga, the Premiership is tightly contested between five or six top-level clubs and yet still a team like Leicester can stroll up and beat the lot of them.  A weekend of football in the Premier League is a lot more competitive than the Bundesliga or La Liga, and with even the smallest clubs stuffed with players who are highly paid and highly motivated it is a fiendishly difficult league to win as you’re going to have to play well almost every match.  I reckoned Guardiola would have little idea what that was like, and he would be going into it with a Manchester City squad that was ageing, prone to injury, and nowhere near the skill level of those he had under him at Barcelona.  If he wanted a challenge, he would find it at Manchester City and now it appears he has.

Jurgen Klopp has fared much better with Liverpool probably because he’s used to working with what he’s got against much bigger and richer clubs, and Antonio Conte is doing splendidly well at Chelsea, perhaps because he inherited a very good squad whose players simply decided they were not going to make the effort for Jose Mourinho last year.  Of the three top-name newcomers to Premier League management, Guardiola has the furthest to fall and seems to be struggling the most.  I suspect that explains his rather odd behaviour in the interview I linked to in my opening paragraph, in which he hints at retirement.  Things can change quickly of course and Man City are still in the Champions League, but Guardiola is likely going to have to work harder in the next five months than he has in his entire managerial career.  Welcome to England, Pep!

Australia Win, England Lose

Having recently drawn attention to the parlous state of Australian cricket and expressed admiration for the England team, it is only fair to point out that Australia have cruised to victory over South Africa in Adelaide, opener Usman Khawaja setting up the win with a magnificent 145 in the first innings.

Meanwhile, England are staring down the barrel of a heavy defeat in the third test against India having already been thumped comprehensively in the second test.  What is costing England is the weakness of their top order – the same thing which has plagued Australia (Khawaja’s latest efforts notwithstanding).  England’s middle order and tail are very strong, but the top order is failing with alarming regularity.  Look at the fall or wicket scores in the past 3 tests:

First Test: 102/3 & 180/1

Second Test: 80/5 & 40/4

Third Test: 87/4 & 78/4

This has been the pattern for as long as I remember: Cook or Root scoring big every 5 matches or so, otherwise it’s the middle order trying to bail out the side and give the bowlers something to defend.  This might save a match or two, but it won’t help win any series.  Cook and Root are brilliant at times and dropping either is out of the question, but they cannot be relied upon to post a hundred every match.  What they need is support from numbers 2 and 4, either to stay with them while they accumulate or contribute themselves.  Finding a decent opening partner for Alistair Cook has been a problem since Andrew Strauss retired; promoting Root solved the long-standing No. 3 problem, but all it’s done is put a question mark over the No. 4 slot.

Andy Flower, England’s previous coach, put heavy emphasis on the ability of the team to bat right down to Nos. 10 or 11, and Trevor Bayliss has continued that policy to the effect that some are tempted to say that England no longer have a tail.  Although some wag pointed out on CricInfo that England do have a tail, they just get sent into bat first.

With bosses like these…

It’s well understood that football players are a bit dense, but those running football clubs are sometimes lacking in grey matter as well:

Paris St-Germain full-back Serge Aurier has been stopped from entering the United Kingdom by authorities before Wednesday’s Champions League match at Arsenal.

The Ivorian, 23, was given a two-month suspended prison sentence in September for assaulting a police officer.

Aurier is appealing his conviction, leading PSG to believe he is entitled to be presumed innocent.

“Paris Saint-Germain strongly regrets that the presumption of innocence has not influenced Britain’s decision,” said the French champions in a statement.

He’s been convicted.  By definition he’s not innocent, and those appealing a conviction are not presumed to be either.

A Tale of Two Cricket Matches

The first is a match between Australia and South Africa played in Hobart.  South Africa won by an innings and 80 runs having skittled their opponents for 85 in the first innings and then knocking up 326 in reply, Quinton de Kock helping himself to his second century of the series.

The second is a match between India and England played at Rajkot.  England scored a wopping 537 in their first innings with Root, Ali, and Stokes all making centuries.  India replied in kind with 488, Vijay and Pujara making centuries.  A batting surface, then.  England piled on 260 in their second innings with Cook making his fifth century in India – a record for a visiting batsman – and debutant Hameed scoring 82.  England declared leaving India chasing 309 in 49 overs on the final day.  Speculation is ongoing as to whether England could have declared earlier to give them more time to bowl India out, but in any case they took 6 wickets and it took a decent, fighting partnership between Kohli and Jadeja to draw the match.

According to Malcom Knox writing in the Sydney Morning Herald (h/t TNA):

While Australia destroy themselves, England destroy the game

England had the position and the opportunity to force a result. But, in what retired Australian Test cricketers would call batting and leadership of unacceptable selfishness, Cook and Hameed strolled on towards a partnership milestone. Once Hameed did open his shoulders and take a risk, he got out for 82. He looked disappointed with his decision when he should have been proud. (If India had imploded, that would not have made Cook a genius. The indisputable fact is that, with batsmen like Joe Root and Ben Stokes in the sheds, England did not maximise their chances of winning. Even after Hameed and Root were out slogging, Cook made sure he nudged his way to his hundred.)

This is not the Australian way, but it is the Australian way that is under fire. Australia never play for a draw in India (if they could), always seeking to move the game along, and in striving to win they most often lose. Whether in Hobart or on the subcontinent, Australia’s attack-first mode of cricket is what gets them into trouble. Australia lose matches in India, Sri Lanka, the Emirates, England – and now at home – because their cricketers have lost the patience and temperament to weather difficult conditions and play a full five-day game.

Through their aggression, Australians destroy themselves. Through their defensiveness, England and India destroy a game. Which would you have?

So, while Australia are lambasted for playing their own way, a feckless younger generation putting entertainment ahead of survival, Cook cruises like a stately zeppelin towards his fifth Test century in India, more than any other visitor. As he did so, televisions were switched off across the subcontinent, and left on only in places where the only alternative was to look at the rain.

Oh dear.  Things must be getting rather desperate Down Under if they’re trying to paint an Australian drubbing at home as preferable to a hard-fought draw by England chasing a win in India.

What next?  I think the problem is merely a lack of good old Aussie ticker.  The solution is to make more frequent references to the great teams of the ’90s and ’00s and perhaps get one or two of them to come along and give the current lot a pep talk about what it means to pull on the Baggy Green.  That’ll keep Kyle Abbot and Vernon Philander out.

David Warner: not as tough as he thought he was

I confess, I’ve never liked David Warner.  He’s not a bad batsman, but he’ll never be a great.  He’s just scored 97 against South Africa at the WACA and he had a good knock against them in Adelaide a few years back, but he is useless against sideways movement.

But that’s not why I don’t like him.  It wasn’t even the Joe Root incident that saw him kicked off the 2013 Ashes tour to England, you could pass that off as youthful idiocy and it didn’t seem to bother Root much.  What made me dislike him was his “scared eyes” speech during the first test of the 2013/4 Ashes Series at the ‘Gabba.  What he said may have been true, but his saying it was utterly graceless and classless in a team and series which was in desperately short supply of anything approaching either.  Jonathan Trott had just pulled out of the tour having been mentally shot to pieces by the ferocity of Mitchell Johnson’s pace attack, and he never recovered.  Any opponent with grace or class would have wished him well and not mentioned it again, particularly when at the time of Warner’s speech Australia were in a commanding position in the test.  At the time the Australian team, media, and a good portion of the public thought it was all fair and above board, and the episode demonstrated how these thick-skinned Australians are so much tougher than the cowardly Poms.

Only we were then supposed to buy into the bullshit which occurred not long afterwards when Australia had its “Diana moment” with the death of Philip Hughes.  The nation grieved in harmony with “best mate Davey Warner” as he shed tears over what was a tragic accident.  Crying over the loss of a mate is fine, fella.  But not after you’ve strutted around like the schoolyard bully gobbing off about how tough you are while mocking fellow batsmen whose mind obviously isn’t quite right.

So I don’t like him as a person, despite his efforts to grow up a bit since.  But the bravado of his ‘Gabba speech looks very much like the pride that comes before a fall.  I remarked after that series that Australia is incapable of batting under pressure:

Despite Australia’s success in each match, they found themselves 100/5, 257/5, 143/5, 202/5, and 97/5 in successive first innings.  However, they were fortunate enough to have a remarkably in-form Brad Haddin come to the crease each time, and another middle/late-order batsman – Johnson in Brisbane, Clarke in Adelaide, Smith in Perth and Sydney, and nobody at all in Melbourne – to stick with him to post relatively modest scores (Adelaide excepted) which proved to be far beyond England’s reach.

Despite their success, this team has yet to demonstrate it can follow even a modest first innings total or bat a second innings from behind, and their bowlers have not had to bowl sixth and seventh spells.

And then when they went to South Africa afterwards:

However, crucially they were under no scoreboard pressure at any point, and finally – in the second test at Port Elizabeth – Australia lost the toss, were told to bowl, and subsequently were required to walk out to bat 423 runs behind after bowling 150 overs and watching two South Africans score centuries.  As I expected, Australia lurched to 246 as their top order largely failed – although Warner’s capability surprised me, scoring 70.  Brad Haddin, the batting hero of the Ashes, was bowled for 9.  South Africa piled on another 270 and with an eye on the fifth day weather forecast declared with a lead of 448.  Once again Warner lasted longer than I expected against Steyn with the new ball, although an aggressive 66 was not really what was required under the circumstances.  Rogers, who I always quite liked, went on to score 107 while the rest of the team amassed a whopping 24 runs between the whole lot of them, losing 9 wickets in the final session of the day.  South Africa won by 231 runs.

After our drubbing in 2013/4 I said this:

For Australia, it’s all about whether they can carry this success into the next series against South Africa and beyond.  For that to happen, they need to avoid falling into the same trap that did for England by interpretting resounding victories over weakened and demoralised opposition as evidence of perfection, and dismissing setbacks (i.e. the defeats by Pakistan and South Africa) as mere blips.

Why do I bring all this up now?  Because as I said at the beginning, Australia are playing South Africa at the WACA and bowled out their opponents for 242 before racing to 150 for 0 in reply.  Warner batted well and was on 97 when he threw his wicket away.  But from there Australia collapsed to 244 all out.  And here he is talking to the media again:

David Warner admits that Australia’s batsmen have fallen into a debilitating pattern of middle-order batting collapses that are wasting decent starts, and also says he does not know how the problem will be rectified.

You don’t say?

Having made 97 in an opening stand of 158 with Shaun Marsh, Warner said he was demoralised by watching the loss of all Australia’s 10 wickets for 86, surrendering prime position in the WACA Test to South Africa despite the visiting team’s loss of Dale Steyn to a serious shoulder injury.

Demoralised?  What happened to the legendary Aussie ticker, maaaaate?  Isn’t such mental softness reserved for us Poms?

The passage of play mirrored numerous innings on the recent tour of Sri Lanka despite vastly different conditions, and Warner said he could see the pattern stretching even further back, to the 2015 Ashes tour.

“I feel there has been a trend as well in the last 12 and maybe 18 months that also follows on to when we were in England and we were playing there,” Warner said. “It’s tough to see as an opening batter sometimes when you get off to those starts as a top four and then you sort of fall away that easily.

No, chum.  It goes back a lot further than that.  Had you been paying attention in the 2013/4 Ashes test instead of strutting about in bully-boy mode you’d have seen your top order was bailed out by Brad Haddin and A.N. Other in every match.  For all your disparaging of Trott’s mental strength, where is yours now?  And that of your team mates?

If cliches were runs, Australia – who have allowed South Africa to go from 45 for 2 to 390 for 6 in the second innings by close of Day 3 – would be miles ahead.  Take it away, Davey Boy:

“knuckle down…batting unit…build partnerships…put their hand up…move forward…you have to back yourself as a player…mixed messages…at this level for a reason…gain a bit of momentum…him as an individual.”

Let’s see how he and his pals go in the final innings staring down the barrel of a 400+ run deficit.  With Steyn out injured they might be in with a shot, but if history is any guide they’ll be skittled well short of that.

UPDATE

A decent second innings effort by Australia, underpinned by Khawaja’s 97 and Neville’s 60, but they’ve still lost by 177 runs to a South Africa which was a bowler short through most of the match and also missing Morne Morkel.  And this is at home, too.  The most worrying thing for Australia will be that SA managed to declare their second innings on 540 for 8 even though all their bowlers are fit.  For several years now Australia have relied on very good bowling to make up for poor batting.

Poppies

Apparently FIFA is telling the English and Scottish FAs that the two sides cannot wear poppies when they play each other on 11th November.  Both FAs intend to defy the ban and FIFA is warning sanctions will follow.  For me it is a mystery as to why anybody thought to consult with FIFA in the first place: it is usually better to ask for forgiveness than permission or, even better, not even bother doing that.

Personally, I’d rather football and other sports teams didn’t wear the poppy.  I have nothing against people buying and wearing poppies, nor contributing to the Royal British Legion, nor do I think members of the public who wear one are making political statements.  But what I do find a bit annoying is its creeping ubiquity: every newsreader on British television starts wearing one from around 1st November, which is almost certainly something they are told to do.  In fact, pretty much everyone who appears on TV from celebrity chefs to football managers in that period is expected to wear a poppy, and it has got to the point they probably fear they’d be criticised if they don’t.  I’d prefer to see fewer poppies on television and be comforted by the fact that wearing one hasn’t become de facto compulsory, for if that is the case then it will have lost most of its meaning.  Do the English footballers even get a choice?

For example, when you look through the House of Commons you see almost every MP wearing one, even the backbenchers.  Do I believe these self-serving parasites give a stuff about war veterans?  No, I don’t.  For a lot of them wearing a poppy is about virtue-signalling and trying to fit in.

Take a look at what ANZAC day in Australia has become.  The New Australian (now retired) used to write about this, and somebody popped up in the comments to explain that it was slowly losing its significance as the original veterans died off, but then a politician sometime in the 1990s saw an opportunity to bash the patriotic drum by reviving it.  TNA’s personal take on it, and mine is the same, is that as non-Australians it is not really our place to disparage something that obviously means a lot to Aussies and Kiwis…but is turning up to a cenotaph at 7am in rugby kit and getting absolutely shitfaced really the best way to remember the dead?  Woe betide anyone in Australia who asks this question out loud, or frowns upon the crass commercialisation of the whole thing.

In short, I’d rather see the wearing of poppies remain the private decision of individuals rather than be co-opted by politicians, the media, and organisations such as the FA.  Wearing black armbands and the minute’s silence have lost all their former meaning now they have become official policy and barely a weekend goes by without a team mourning the loss of somebody or other.  I hope the poppy doesn’t go the same way.

Bangladesh v England: Second Test

After a long absence TNA pops up in the comments to remind everyone that Bangladesh secured their first ever test match win against England on Sunday.  They came close to doing so in the first match of the series but – in depressingly familiar style – failed to capitalise on a strong position and win the match.  But the second match of the series saw them see off the England attack in the second innings to leave the visitors with a target of 273 to win.  England then raced to a commanding 100 for 0 before – in depressingly familiar style – collapsing to 164 all out.

Alistair cook is blaming “inexperience” for his side’s defeat, but I think this is grossly unfair.  Bangladesh won that match by deploying a very, very good spin attack on a well-prepared pitch* against batsmen – Cook, Root, Stokes, Ali – who had plenty of experience but proved unable to deal with it.  They also batted better, with opener Tamim Iqbal scoring a century in the first innings and their team posting the highest score of the match in the second.

I am not too disappointed by this: England needed some good preparation for their upcoming trip to India, and facing some top-quality spin bowling on an unfriendly pitch will do them no harm whatsoever.  At least it’s allowed them to see that Gary Ballance is unbelievably crap.

So, well done Bangladesh on a thoroughly deserved victory.

(*I have no problem with Bangladesh preparing a spinning pitch.  None at all.)

Manchester United v Liverpool

I wasn’t going to write about this seeing that I’m not sure how many of my readers follow football, but The Old Batsman – who is usually more at home writing about cricket – has touched on it so I have changed my mind.  I’m talking, of course, about Manchester United’s scoreless draw away against Liverpool last Monday evening.

After the match everybody – Liverpool and Man Utd fans alike – panned Jose Mourinho for his “negative” tactics and making the game as boring as hell.  Which surprised me a bit, because I watched the whole 90 minutes and I found it very entertaining.

Let’s switch sports for a second.  Back in June the England rugby union team played Australia in Melbourne in the second of a three test series.  England went into the match 1-0 up having won the first test, and if they won in Melbourne they would clinch the series.  England prevailed 23-7 but for most of the second half Australia were within a converted try of England and unleashed wave after wave of attacking play which England were forced to defend against.  To somebody watching the match hoping to see plenty of tries it must have been a pretty dull affair: the second half was basically a row of fifteen plus phases of non-stop tackling, mostly around the ruck.  For me, I was just pleased with the result (to see why a Wales supporter would be pleased, read this).  A week later I was sat with a friend of mine in Exeter listening to the third test on the radio.  He asked me what the second test had been like and I said “It was good, but it was mainly just England making tackle after tackle to keep the Australians out.”  My friend, who used to be a pretty handy openside flanker in his youth, said “That’s the kind of rugby I like!  I don’t mind watching that!”

I mention this because it serves to illustrate why I enjoyed the Liverpool v Man Utd match and nobody else did.  If you wanted to see fast, attacking football with lots of goals then yes, it was boring.  But for me it was a fascinating example of what to do when you’re facing a better opponent away from home.  Before the match everyone was speaking as if the result was a foregone conclusion in favour of Liverpool.  They had won their previous four matches 2-1, 5-1, 3-0, 2-1, and 4-1.  They’d scored 16 goals in their last 5 games, conceding 4.  They were a team that was settled and had found form under Jurgen Klopp who played a high-up-the-pitch pressing style which their opponents found hard to deal with.

Manchester United, by contrast, were a side that wasn’t settled: Mourinho didn’t know what his best XI was, Paul Pogba was struggling to justify his hefty price tag, and club favourite Wayne Rooney was looking more and more like losing his first team spot.  They’d drawn against Stoke City and lost to Watford, and had been comprehensively outplayed by Manchester City.

So what was Mourinho supposed to do?  If he’d turned up at Anfield determined to play fast, attacking football Liverpool would have been 3-0 up by half time.  Instead he instructed his players simply to disrupt everything Liverpool did, stop them from playing, and hope somehow they can snatch a goal from somewhere.  Jamie Carragher – no fool he when it comes to football analysis – said before the game on Sky Sports that this is what Mourinho would do because he did the same thing against Liverpool when he was Chelsea manager two years before.  So knowing what to expect, I watched the match unfold and enjoyed it.

Something else annoyed me, though.  Not the Liverpool fans complaining about Manchester United’s tactics: sure, they’d be delighted if Man Utd came to attack and got thumped, that goes without saying.  Mourinho’s job is not to keep Liverpool fans entertained and happy.  It was the Manchester United fans – an unlikeable lot at the best of times, mostly – that irritated me.  The BBC and Twitter feeds were alive with people harking back to the glory days of Alex Ferguson and how he wouldn’t have come to Anfield with this attitude.

Which is bollocks.  I must have watched pretty much every Man Utd v Liverpool match since 1996, with a gap between 2006-2010 when I was in Sakhalin sans television.  At that stage of the season, with the disparity between the sides, and with the previous results as they were Ferguson would have been perfectly satisfied with a 0-0 draw.  Sure his tactics might have been different, but the idea that Ferguson used to take on Liverpool and outplay them to a victory every year is revisionist nonsense.  Between 1996 and 2013, Man Utd played Liverpool 39 times, losing 9 of them and drawing 5.  The 2005/6 season saw Liverpool and Man Utd play out a 0-0 draw at Anfield.  Ferguson might have had success against Liverpool, including at Anfield, but it was never a foregone conclusion and from what I remember it was usually pretty hard work.  And bear in mind that Ferguson’s sides by and large dominated the Premier League and Liverpool rarely did anything in that era.  Yet in 2008/9 Liverpool came to Old Trafford and walked away 4-1 winners.  It was never plain sailing.

In summary, any Man Utd fan who is criticising Mourinho for his tactics last Monday night needs to grow up a bit.

The Decline of Australian Sport

Michael Jennings isn’t going to like me pointing this out, but Australian sport appears to be going through a rough patch at the moment.

In 2012 Australia was so confident of whipping Britain in the London Olympics that their sports minister made a wager with ours, which she went on to lose.  But the decline had started earlier, as the following tables show:

Athens 2004

 Overall PositionGoldSilverBronzeTotal
Australia4th17161750
Great Britain10th991230

Beijing 2008

 Overall PositionGoldSilverBronzeTotal
Australia6th14151746
Great Britain4th19131547

London 2012

 Overall PositionGoldSilverBronzeTotal
Australia8th8151235
Great Britain3rd29171965

Rio de Janeiro 2016

 Overall PositionGoldSilverBronzeTotal
Australia10th8111029
Great Britain2nd27231767

As Britain’s success grew, Australia disappeared into the ranks of the also-rans.  My guess would be that Australia pioneered a lot of professional sporting techniques – particularly in swimming where they used to do extremely well – and had world-class coaches who were ahead of their time, plus generous funding for their Olympic sports programmes.  Now that other countries have matched or exceeded the funding and adopted professional training regimes, as well as hire a lot of Australian swimming coaches, the Australians don’t have the edge and their small population isn’t producing enough talent to dominate like they used to.

Australia is also going through a low point in Rugby Union, which I don’t think is a mere blip.  Following a strong showing in the 2015 RWC (where they avoided South Africa and rarely worried the Kiwis in the final), their Super XV franchises did spectacularly badly the following season:

Were it not for the wildcard system that ensures the playoffs are not dominated by the Kiwis, the Brumbies – Australia’s best side – would have finished joint 7th on points and miles adrift of 5 of the 6 New Zealand sides.  The Brumbies got dumped out of the knockout stages in the first round, and that was the Australian effort over for 2016.

But what made it far worse was that halfway through the season England toured Australia for a 3-test series and went back home having whitewashed their hosts.  For Australia to be beaten 3-0 by a Northern Hemisphere touring side was unprecedented, and it was especially perplexing because Australia had comprehensively beaten an England team made up of much the same players on their home ground in the Rugby World Cup the previous year.  Only in the intervening period the English Rugby Union had snaffled the wily Australian coach Eddie Jones who had made few personnel changes but utterly altered the mindset and gameplay to a degree Australia did not appreciate until it was too late.  And it that weren’t bad enough, the next time the Australian national team pulled on their jerseys they received a 42-8 thrashing on their home turf at the hands of an All Black side which seems to only get better with each passing year.

Traditionally Australia can turn to cricket to feel good about themselves sports-wise, but unfortunately they’ve just been beaten 3-0 in a test series in Sri Lanka: up until this tour, Sri Lanka had managed to beat Australia just once in test matches, back in 1999.  What must worry the Australian selectors and fans is not that this record has been broken, but that the players looked utterly clueless against a Sri Lankan side who had been all but written off with the recent retirement of three of their greatest ever players.  Today the news is that Australia’s captain Steven Smith is going home to “rest” with the ODI series sitting at 1-1 with 3 more to play, which is drawing a lot of criticism from fans who have been brought up on stories of Border, Taylor, and Waugh eating barbed wire for breakfast.  There is much discussion in Australian cricket regarding their apparent practice of using fast and bouncy drop-in pitches at home to guarantee success against visiting sides, which is leaving them hopelessly unprepared for swinging conditions in England or the spin of the sub-continent.  By contrast, England’s humiliating exit from the 2015 ICC World Cup resulted in the wholesale firing of the coaching staff and the appointment of the experienced and canny Trevor Bayliss – an Australian – who immediately turned the team’s fortunes around by winning the ODI series against the more fancied New Zealand.

I daresay Australian sport will pull itself out of this hole and start winning things again, but they might find they are going to have to work a lot harder than previously to do so: the rest of the world, particularly England/Great Britain, has caught up by adopting their methods and hiring their coaches.