Conventional Football Wisdom: A Users Guide

Conventional Football Wisdom suggests by it’s very name that it is the common knowledge of football. So often it is applied by smelly old fat men in pubs, the manager of your local football team and professional TV pundits. It’s accepted, you see. It takes a brave person to challenge the accepted conventional football wisdom both inside and outside the game. Woe betide you, should you disagree with the man in the crowd who is shouting abuse because of a team’s zonal marking, as all you shall receive in exchange for your opinion to contrary if you should offer it to him is a volley of abuse.

So let’s start with the classic, the one that launched a well know football blog.

Zonal Marking

Cliche Pundit says:

I don’t like Zonal Marking as it allows players to get a running jump on you and that can often lead to you getting punished from set pieces.

Man in the pub says:

Nooooo, it’s got to be man marking every time. Get tight, stop the runner, that’s how you prevent goals from set plays.

I say:

Care to back up your argument with any kind of statistical evidence? No… I thought not. This also goes hand in hand with the classic “you need two men on the posts for corners” it’s the common place misunderstanding of basic football tactics perpetrated by lazy pundits and lapped up by the masses.

Experience

Cliche Pundit says:

You need a blend of youth and experience, you don’t win anything with kids.

Man in the pub says:

You’ve got to have Premier League experience in your team if you want to stay in the Premier League.

I say:

I’ve fallen into the experience trap before. Especially when trying to predict how Norwich would do this season. Experience makes things easier to predict, so pundits want a team to have experienced players because it makes their job easier. Instead of actually having to offer an opinion on something new, they can fall back on what’s been said before. Experience isn’t an attribute for a footballer, it simply suggests that the player should be stronger in the areas where experience usually counts, such as composure and professionalism. However, so often it’s kids with their lack of experience that provide the catalyst for success in a team. Young players often play without fear, and without the pressure of expectation. A recent example would be Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, or at the top level Michael Owen for England at the 1998 World Cup, replacing the experienced Teddy Sherringham. The phrase that pundits do sometimes use which does ring true is that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough.

Pretty Football

Cliche Pundit says:

You won’t stay in the Premier League playing pretty football. You’ve got to have a plan B, what happens when plan A doesn’t work? You get beat.

Man in the pub says:

I want my team to be competitive, strong in the tackle, don’t fanny around with it at the back playing 20 passes, only to end up losing it and conceding a goal. Stop passing it backwards, get it forwards and put the other team under pressure, no messing about.

I say:

The best form of defence is possession. Passing football works, that’s why teams do it. Playing pretty football doesn’t doom you to relegation, just look at Swansea. Sure Blackpool went down last season playing attractive attacking football. But Birmingham also went down last season and nobody would dare suggest they played pretty football. The truth is it’s not the style that matters it’s how well you do it. Perhaps when you are looking to challenge for trophies and you “don’t have a plan B” then you can fall into an Arsenal style trap, but for most team’s, when their plan A doesn’t work they are going to lose regardless of whether plan A is a long hoof to Peter Crouch or a slick passing move ending with a through-ball to Danny Graham.

4-4-2

Cliche Pundit says:

4-4-2 is the system English players understand best. When foreign coaches come over here and start to use different systems I don’t think they work as well. You’ve got to use a system that your players feel comfortable with.

Man in the pub says:

Keep it nice and solid, 2 banks of 4. Hard to break down, you can’t beat 4-4-2.

I say:

How many teams in the Premier League regularly use a conventional 4-4-2? I’d say 4. Quite often people see the graphics before the start of a game and think that’s how a team will line up regardless, then get confused when players aren’t in the position that they were shown in before the game. There is no better example of this than Garry Birtles, the offensively useless commentator sometimes employed by Sky. Commentating on the Norwich vs. Bolton game, Sky showed Simeon Jackson playing from the left of a 5-man midfield on their graphic before the game, prompting Birtles to call for Norwich to bring on a second striker in the form of Steve Morison from about the 10th minute onwards. Never mind that Morison is out of form, or that Jackson was having a blinder or most importantly that he had been playing upfront with Holt the entire game in a 4-4-2, Birtles would not be deterred and was convinced Norwich needed to play with 2 strikers. The funniest part was when Morison was eventually brought on for Jackson, Birtles felt he had been vindicated by Lambert’s decision, you really couldn’t make it up, the man is an absolute clown.

Big Strong Defenders

Cliche Pundit says:

Look at how big and strong John Terry is, you’d hate to play against him as a centre forward, he’s intimidating.

Man in the pub says:

You’ve got to have height and strength to deal with balls into the box, otherwise you might as well not even bother.

I say:

Javier Mascherano has played at the back for Barcelona, he’s a good defender. Heading isn’t the strong point of his game, but tackling, marking, interceptions, reading of the game, positioning, acceleration and passing are all good points of his. If defending really was all about height and strength Stoke would never concede a goal. As for Terry, how did his strength deal with Manuel Neuer’s goal kick towards Miroslav Klose in the world cup? Team’s that look “weak at the back” often have quick, intelligent defenders, sure they might struggle to win a header against Emile Heskey, but they can stop Wayne Rooney when he drops deep or spins into the channel, I know which I’d prefer to have.

Managers

Cliche Pundit says:

You’ve got to have that experience to manage at the top level. That’s why Sir Alex Ferguson is such a good manger, because he’s got all that experience.

Man in the pub says:

The pub man’s opinion on managers is perfectly summed up by Jonathan Liew.

I say:

Jurgen Klinsmann got Germany to a World Cup semi-final having never managed before. It was a risk to appoint him, because he was unproven, but he did a good job, which has been carried on since by Joachim Löw his assistant. It’s not all about the man at the top, you need the right team.  I would suggest that it’s not experience that has made Alex Ferguson a good manager, although perhaps it has improved him other the years, I would wager he’s always been a good manager, some people just take to it, look at Jose “the translator” Mourinho. Proven vs unproven is always an intrinsically linked with the managers job debate. Conventional football wisdom suggests that you should always go for the proven name, like Ipswich did with Paul Jewell. Going for an unproven option like Paul Lambert is a dangerous risk to take with a football club and should be avoided if at all possible.

Form vs. Reputation

Cliche Pundit says:

You’ve got to find a place for your key players. These players are the ones who will win you games and whether they are in form or not they’ve got to start.

Man in the pub says:

You’ve got the pick the players in form, the lad who plays for us on the right is on fire right now and he deserves his chance, he should keep his place in the side.

I say:

There is no right or wrong answer, some managers play safe and stick with the big names through thick and thin, some take chances on kids, most strike a balance between the two. Trying to pick the right team is complicated, sometimes even if you get it spot on you’ll still get beat and people will try to pick holes where there are none for the sake of it. This is a result of taking something complicated and trying to simplify it enough so you can articulate it in the few minutes you are given between advert breaks. This is known as the pundit’s excuse.  Furthermore often you are not in possession of all the facts. Like if the player in question has been up all night with an ill child, or has a parent in hospital which is playing on their mind. Maybe there was a training ground bust-up or they got caught after going on a drunken bender, there is always more too it than form or reputation, there is always more too it than simply the tactical for and against. It all helps to make football into something unpredictable and spectacular, otherwise why bother watching games at all?

Pace

Cliche Pundit says:

If there’s one thing defenders hate playing against, it’s pace, genuine pace.

Man in the pub says:

You’ve got to have pace in your side, it’s essential, without it you’re vulnerable.

I say:

What is genuine pace? Genuine as opposed to what? Fake pace? He looks quick but he’s not really. Playing against pace is hard, you’ve got to get your positioning right, you’ve got to judge when to get tight and when to stand off because you don’t want to be left exposed. But I tell you what else is hard, playing against Zidane, or Xavi, or Scholes. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that playing against good players is hard. Some good players have pace, others do not. But if you were to ask me who I’d rather mark, a speedy 19 year old winger from Crawley Town or 3 times world footballer of the year and world cup winner Zinedine Zidane, I can assure you I’d opt for pace every time.

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