A Question of Style

The  pictures I  contemplate painting would  constitute a halfway state, and an attempt to point  out the direction  of the future, without  arriving  there completely. – Jackson Pollack

There’s been much talk on the internet recently about Rangers identity; in the boardroom, in the stands, and increasingly, on the pitch. Some supporters aren’t happy with the team’s performances, line-ups, formations, quality of passing, the long ball…so far, so Rangers support. But in recent weeks I’ve seen more and more the claim that our time in the third division has so far been a missed opportunity for the club to develop its own footballing style, ethos, philosophy, with the strong implication that we don’t currently have one. Not the way Barcelona, Ajax or Swansea do. Conversely, I think we do. I just don’t think it’s one that would be widely accepted by the support.

I would like to assume an air of culture and claim that I’m a devoted acolyte of Jackson Pollock, but in reality, I cribbed the above quote from the liner notes of my favourite album.  And as far as football goes, I’m as cultured as I am with the arts. I’m not much of a tactician, and I’ve never taken any coaching courses. My appreciation of matches technically tends to be non-existent. If a match demands my attention, I have a habit of not paying attention to the ebb and flow of the team’s tactics. However, I have read Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson, and I used to play Football Manager quite a bit, both of which make me an expert on football strategies and qualified to comment on Rangers’ play this season.

Let’s look at the much talked-about formation first. Many teeth have been ground and hairs bristled at the thought Rangers are fetching up against part-time opponents in the third division and only playing one striker. I would contend that isn’t strictly accurate. I think the truth is more complicated than that, with a hybrid formation being favoured by Ally McCoist’s team. While in a defensive mode, the side will probably adopt a 4-5-1; when going forward, it modulates into a 4-3-3 or even a 3-4-3. Only two players don’t moving position noticeably, the holding midfielder and the centre-forward. It’s true that McCoist has gone with one central striker, and that has tended to be one of McCulloch, Kevin Kyle or Fran Sandaza, and to my uneducated eye, the team’s main tactic has been to propel the ball to this point man, who will attempt to hold the ball up before bringing into play the wingers or a midfielder (chiefly Lewis MacLeod in recent matches). This is a somewhat asymmetrical arrangement, with David Templeton moving inside from left-wing, allowing Lee Wallace into the space left behind. On the right hand side, Andy Little ploughs a less elaborate furrow, but more on that later.

What’s more, I think there’s evidence to suggest this is a reasonably long-term club philosophy. Certain archetypes keep reoccurring in the players that have been signed or brought through the youth team in the last five years; the fast or tricky winger, who is comfortable cutting in from the left (Weiss, Templeton, McKay), the midfielder who is comfortable in possession and happy to make simple passes (Davis [arguably], Ness, Hutton, MacLeod, Black), and the strong striker that can play on his own, and yet link well with others (Cousin, Jelavic, Kyle, Sandaza). Many fans lament that McCoist tends to field Andy Little on the right-wing, as the Irishman has scored 13 goals in 15 league starts and ostensibly doesn’t have the skill to be a winger. That’s probably true. But like Steven Naismith before him, Little is expected to help out in defence, and make incisive runs in behind the opponents’ defence when the team has switched to attacking mode, in a similar vein to Dani Alves.

Overall, the game plan appears to involve allowing the opponent to enjoy position, with minimum levels of pressing, in the defensive mode, before launching counter attacks. This isn’t entirely without risk, and appears to put the support ill at ease. Overall, I think this is Rangers’ system, as simple or as over-complicated as it is. I could possibly be giving Ally McCoist and his coaching staff far too much credit, but that’s what they appear to be doing, to me at least. Will such a set up allow for ongoing development of the now crucial young players coming through the ranks? It seems unlikely that a two striker formation will come into footballing fashion at any time in the next three years, so to adopt such a style may be foolish. I don’t think think that players are being shoe-horned into positions either; instead the youth system and transfer policy appear to target players that can function in particular positions, in particular ways. A more fluid approach to formation may well prove to be a better proving ground for both our youngsters and the team.

That’s not to say that the strategy we appear to have adapted will please everyone. In fact, many people will say we don’t have a cohesive, far reaching strategy. There are also questions of aesthetics, of tempo, of what happens at training, at what the players eat, have the coaching staff done enough to adopt new methods of thinking, such as performance analysis? I can’t answer those questions, but I’m still not convinced that the player’s average day consists of laughing at Ally’s jokes before going home at noon for Nando’s/XBox/cocaine. I think there are flaws in the way the team has been set up, particularly the long ball element of the attacking phase (which I wrote about as an appealing tactic to coaches previously), and the passing isn’t snappy enough. To my mind, any player taking more than two or three touches in possession is exasperating.

I suspect if you asked many Rangers fans how they would like to see their team play, they would reference the goal in the video above, a goal scored by a team that cost tens of millions of pounds to assemble. However, the spending around the turn of the last century very nearly contributed to the ruin of the club. I agree that any future transfer policy should compliment the team structure, and the salary structure. But as for a footballing philosophy? I don’t think the question is ‘do we need one?’, I think the question should be ‘how effective is the one we have’?

Addendum. It’s difficult for Rangers managers to introduce radically new ideas; as famously noted, the club is only ever three defeats from a crisis, but is one misplaced pass away from grumbling. Despite claims to the contrary, winning trophies remains the prime objective of the majority of the support, in my opinion. I don’t deny that I’d like to see shorter, more direct passing, as I think the long ball is a misguided tactic, but in the manager’s defence I would observe that we have played some nice football at times this season, only to be let down by an indecisive final ball. I don’t know if that’s unavoidable given our current situation, and the callowness of our team.

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Striker Light

Kris Boyd has cut peripatetic figure these last few years. He’s traversed the planet, from the Northern Wastes of England, to the Orient, to the Wild West of the United States, a goalscorer in search of service. It emerged today that his current club, Portland Timbers, had bought out the remainder of his contract and he was free to leave. It’s been a common occurrence since he left Rangers in the summer of 2010, ostensibly because he wasn’t willing to accept the contract the club had offered him. His stock was high then; 164 goals in nine seasons saw him become the all-time leading goalscorer in the SPL, and although the Scottish Premier League isn’t particularly well-regarded, Gordon Strachan and Middlesbrough saw fit to offer the striker a contract. And it all started to go wrong from then on…

Twenty years ago, almost every team in Britain played with a ‘striker pairing’; this normally consisted of two comically stereotypical opposites. The no. 10 was a big lump who was good in the air and who would terrify defenders and goalkeepers into mistakes. His partner, the generally diminutive no. 9 would hang about, trying to stay onside, and would almost solely be responsible for kicking the ball into the goal. Ally McCoist and Mark Hateley at Rangers in the 90s was almost the embodiment of this trope. (They’re the two strikers that both Boyd and I grew up watching, and so perhaps I empathise with his suffering more than others).

In the early part of this century however, football teams began to play with only one striker.  Then, eventually, the unthinkable happened; Spain and Barcelona lined for hugely important matches without a recognised striker at all. The theory goes that you don’t actually need a striker; the midfielders should move and create space and generate chances just as easily without a useless lump of a striker milling about doing nothing up front, not getting involved in general play.

Counter-intuitively, 4-6-0 and its variants aren’t necessarily overly-defensive line-ups; it depends on how you utilise them. In Britain, the similar 4-5-1 formation tends to be hard-wired into defensive containment and stealing a goal on the break type thinking. Like most fashions, this has caught on, but to play the infamous ‘lone striker’, you need a striker whose physical and mental attributes are suited to doing a lot of hard running without much reward. It’s no longer enough to score goals; instead, you have to work back, run channels, make space for others, and even help out the defence. This is all fair enough. But the problem with making your striker do a lot of running means he tends to be running away from the place he’s of most use to the team. I’ve lost count of the number of times recently a winger or midfielder has dipped his shoulder, beat his man and put a delicious ball right across the face of goal, and there’s been no team-mate there to get on the end of it.

An aside: The number of goals scored per game hasn’t changed much for the reduction of forward numbers in the last 40 years, I confidently declare, despite not having any data. Rangers scored 1.67 goals per game in 1975-76, and 2.02 in 2011-12. Admittedly, you could say that was due to changing dynamics in the Scottish game more than anything to do with formations…

Kris Boyd then is a player out of time, a throwback to the traditional centre-forward; a number nine when false nines and ‘attacking midfielders’ rule the earth.  Perhaps the way punk killed off virtuosity in popular music, football tactics will see off the goalscorer. Boyd and I were inspired by Ally McCoist; who will inspire the next generation? My colleague helps coach his son’s under-10s football team, and he tells me that none of the boys want to play up front because you’re removed from the action. You don’t get as many touches of the ball. That’s a somewhat dispiriting notion, but it does some prevalent in modern football. Goals are less becoming a target in themselves, and more of a by-product of tactics.

Given that it appears unlikely that top flight football in Britain will suddenly rediscover their joy of the traditional strike pairing, I’m not sure what the future holds for a player that isn’t yet 30 that seems unwilling or unable to adapt to the modern game, with claims that he’s lazy frequently levelled against him and his weight and desire mocked. (I do find it interesting that it’s mainly strikers that are described as indolent; do lazy people make better centre-forwards, or do centre-forwards appear to not do as much running as everyone else?). Others will probably point out that statistically, Rangers have scored the same number of goals each season since he left, so they obviously don’t miss him.

Of course, it’s very unlikely that someone could play at the level Boyd has without having some sort of ability. There have been a number of footballers noted for their mental gifts rather than their physical abilities, and in possession of an awkward gait, and no the cleanest striker of a ball, the common conceit is that he scored so many goals because he was ‘in the right place at the right time’.  I think in the past, the great number 9s were blessed with anticipation, an intuitive ability to read body language, and crucially weren’t afraid to miss a chance. He’s also very decent in the air, and reasonably two-footed, and that perhaps leads to what I suspect would be a reasonably high shot-to-goal ratio. It’s often said that strikers ‘come alive in the penalty area’, and I think that’s certainly true of Boyd. He seems, or at least seemed, to have a good rapport with his midfielders (particularly Darren Fletcher in their occasional outings together for Scotland) and his strike partner (notably Kenny Miller), and that perhaps contributes to that ephemeral quality of ‘being in the right place at the right time’. If you do source video of some of Boyd’s goals for Scotland, look at how he anticipates Fletcher’s pass, and how Fletcher knows Boyd will make the run.

Many football fans bemoan the very notion of ‘one up front’ as being a negative, or defensive notion, and long for a renaissance of two strikers. If the weight of history is anything to go by, however, it’s more likely that playing without a striker at all will become commonplace over the next twenty to thirty years. I’m not convinced the number of goals-per-game will decrease, and I think we’ll still see plenty of attacking football. What I think is almost certainly more likely to become commonplace is the aforementioned sight of a football rolling tantalisingly across a six-yard box with no-one from the attacking team arriving gleefully to tap the ball into the net.

And Boyd, and a potential reunion with Rangers. Many Rangers fans wouldn’t have Boyd back, for various reasons. He’s fat, he’s lazy, he left for money the first time around. Personally, I’d love to see him back at Ibrox, mainly because of my enduring love affair with the notion of the no. 9. Someone, anyone, to kick the ball into the net would be preferable to seeing the midfielder break through and spoon the ball over the bar yet again. Hitting the bloody target would be an improvement at least! I’m not sure where else he would go, in all honesty.

(And as I’m trying to think of less awful title for this blog, a rumour pops up on Twitter that the two bottom sides in the Scottish Premier League are considering offering Boyd a short term contract…)

The Soundtrack of my 2012

“You get past a certain age and your musical tastes become conservative, unadventurous, and ‘complacent’, as I’ve seen it dubbed on Twitter. I’m not entirely sure that’s fair. It’s certainly more complex than that. I once read Nick Hornby suggest that many professional adults wouldn’t have the resources and energy to dedicate as much time to listening to Radiohead’s Kid A that the record demanded. As I get older and older, I find myself agreeing with that sentiment more. By their early 30s, most people have a full-time job, and a family, and hobbies, and they might not be able to listen to as many records as they’d like. And of course, there’s another distraction, competing with new music for the listener’s ear; old music. As an example, 25% of the albums I bought this year were released before I was born.”

You may have read my previous blog post, where I recounted my escapades during the previous calendar year. You probably haven’t; that’s fine. I wrote briefly about music, and the above paragraph is cribbed from that entry, but a not-entirely successful attempt at creating a ‘Music of 2012’ playlist on Spotify has led me to realise I need to explore the subject in more depth.

It occurred to me near the end of last year that contemporary music and I probably went our separate ways sometime in the early part of 2002. By that time I’d been introduced to the Fellowship of the Rings soundtrack, and Doves’ second album The Last Broadcast had just been released*, two works that would set a high watermark in terms of what I expect music to do me physically and mentally. I don’t think my taste in music crystallised as such at that point, but I do think that those parts of my brain that respond to music require greater stimulation than the likes of the Strokes or the Killers are ever likely to provide.  That’s not a dig at those bands, as such, more an observation. The fashion of popular music changed (as it is wont to do) around the turn of the century, embracing more straight-forward musical ideas and lo-fi production ideals, while a more ornate manner of singing became popular.

I can’t say any of that appeals to me and so for the last decade or so I’ve found myself a musical itinerant, taking solace in whichever piece bold melodies, harmony and instrumental virtuosity can still be found. Straight-forward pop rock doesn’t hold quite the same appeal as scores now do. I love orchestral works; perhaps not so much classical, baroque or romantic, but modern material, and much of my favourite music of recent times has come via the big and small screens of Hollywood. While my own attempts at composition once involved me fumbling with a guitar, I now find myself more often than not doodling in minor keys at the piano. I come from a line of composers and organists on my father’s side; perhaps its inevitable that instrument holds my attention more than any other. I started to attempt to write my own novels when I found the books in the local library didn’t hold my attention. Has something similar happened with music? Have my own efforts with the piano led me to listen to more complicated works by other artists, or has less-than-interesting contemporary music driven my misadventures at the keyboard, attempting to fashion widescreen music from four chords?

The assertion from Nick Hornby that you need to listen to some albums more than others in order to ‘get’ them is probably fair. We’ve always been told that some music is more accessible, or commercial, and some is more challenging, and will growing on the listener with each play. How many times do you listen to a new album before making a judgement? How often do music critics listen to a new record before they write their review? Is it enough times for to take in every idea and flavour the LP has to offer? I had to stop writing for a music website a couple of years ago when I found myself unable to write anything about an album I’d been asked to review. I’d played each song 3-4 times each and yet I couldn’t remember a single hook or lyric once the next track had started. A half-written college assignment was also demanding my attention, and the review was never written. I may have even written a frazzled email to the editor of the website, tendering my resignation. Perhaps I just don’t have the time and the patience to carefully listen to new music as much as it needs. Maybe as my tastes and the zeitgeist drift ever slowly further apart, and the amount of published music increases, I’ll increasingly find instant gratification in the sounds of the past. Maybe that’s just the way things have to be.

So, do I need to find more time to dedicate to listening to new music? I have the sneaking suspicion that this post is turning into an attempt to justify my neophobia, because I must confess it took repeated listening (in some cases over a number of years) for me to fall in love with some of the music I’ve mentioned here, but perhaps I was younger then. And what is our definition of ‘new music’? I continue to buy and download new records, and while I only enjoy a small percentage of it, I feel I’m still trying. I’m not locking myself in a room, listening to the same stuff I did when I was 17. Of course, it’s important to remember that not all music from the past will thrill me either. I have to take what I can get.

I have bought a fair number of new albums this year. At least one was a debut. I can’t say any of them got my heart thumping or my brain analysing or my hips moving, aside from maybe the Godspeed You! Black Emperor album. But music I discovered elsewhere did. It might not have been contemporary, but it was new to me. The following is a list of songs that gripped me this year, for one reason or another. Some are songs I heard for the first time. A couple are songs I only listened to properly for the first time.

Avengers Assemble Main Theme – Alan Silvestri

Alan Silvestri wrote one of my favourite musical pieces of all time, the Back to the Future theme. I was obsessed, and still am, with the soaring orchestral piece, and I think subconsciously at least it’s informed the sort of music I like to listen to today.

Shoot to Thrill – AC/DC

I first bought this song’s parent album about ten years ago, yet it appears to surrender its charms slowly. I started to go through a heavy hard rock phase in 2011, and while I listened to this song a lot then, it was its use in a particularly effective piece of mise-en-scene in the aforementioned Avengers film that tipped my appreciation of it over into adoration.

Ramble On – Led Zeppelin

Like AC/DC, I’m growing to love Led Zep more the older I get. I bought Mothership, a compilation album, for a few pounds in a supermarket to have something to listen to in the car, and within a few months I’d bought all the early Zeppelin albums I didn’t already own. I enjoy this track particularly, for reasons I can’t explain.

Carry On Wayward Son – Kansas

A few friends and I tried to form a band earlier this year. The bassist suggested we learn this. The drummer agreed. It was a ludicrous idea. Bloody good song though.

Survival – Muse

I have to admit to finding Muse a little hit and miss, but when they’re on form, they remain one of the few contemporary bands that produce songs I genuinely enjoy listening to. They’re faintly ridiculous, but I think that’s a good thing in a sea of bands with identical haircuts.

Day 2 – Explosions in the Sky

I seemed to find my way into post-rock a little more this year. This song is taken from something of a concept album the band have made available for download on their website.

We Drift Like Worried Fire – Godspeed You! Black Emperor

I’m not sure there’s an artist that sums up my fascination with pretentious, cinematic, atmospheric music as much as GY!BE. Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, released in October, was the first album I’d actually bought. I’d fallen in love with Dead Flag Blues, but it seems remarkably difficult to pick up any of their records on the high street. Twenty minute long songs might be a bit over-the-top, but the movement where the song coalesces into a piledriving beat was both unexpected and exhilarating.

What Makes a Good Man – The Heavy

Indulging my interest in heavy rock (and because I wanted the Orange Micro Amp that came free with the subscription), I signed up to Classic Rock magazine. Each issue comes with a free CD, and this song was on one of them. I was intrigued the first time I heard it, mainly because I was sure I’d heard it before, or it sampled another track. I still haven’t got to the bottom of that particular matter, but it remains a cracking listen.

Shake Your Blood – Probot

I have @juffery on Twitter to thank for this one. Despite generally enjoying Dave Grohl’s Foo Fighters output, I’d never listened to anything from this heavier side project. That was a mistake.

Cut Me Some Slack – McCartney.Grohl.Novoselic.Smear

Most people like Nirvana and loathe Paul McCartney, so this song met with much disdain. However, I dislike Nirvana and love Paul McCartney, so I rather enjoyed it. It sounds like four people having fun.

Jack of All Trades – Bruce Springsteen

I have to confess that the lead single from the Boss’s new album didn’t really grab me, and so I put off buying the record. I’m still not convinced I like it, but the string and horn arrangements are particularly luxurious. Unusually for me, the lyrics of this song speak more to me than the music.

The God of Loneliness – Emmy the Great

Emma-Lee Moss’s second album appears to have grown on me over the year, almost by osmosis. I was swithering about buying it (waiting as usual for it to come down in price) until I stumbled across this song, included as a bonus track on the special edition CD. It’s simply wonderful, bed-sit beauty.

Motorcycle Emptiness – Manic Street Preachers

A 20th Anniversary edition of Generation Terrorists was released this year. I simply couldn’t include this track, the song that tempered my love of the band.

The Shape of Things To Come – Bear McCreary

A thousand frakking miles behind the loop, I find myself listening to the reimagining of Battlestar Galactica nearly ten years after everyone else. Watching the episode ‘Kobol’s Last Gleaming, Part II’, I almost literally sat bolt-upright, such was my immediate connection to this piece. I think this was the first time I’d had something drop in my lap and announce itself as being divine.

The Breaking of the Fellowship/In Dreams – Howard Shore

It was the cinema release of the Hobbit adaptation that led me to re-listening to the Lord of the Rings film scores. I don’t think there are many pieces of music I love more than this suite. Melodically, and harmonically, its almost peerless. I often find myself singing it to myself, inside my own head, trying to recreate the passes of the strings and the brass, the fanfares, and that fragile, piercing vocal solo.

Bonus Track

Marshmallow World – Emmy the Great and Tim Wheeler

Christmas albums? Bah humbug. This is really great though.

*Around the time of release of their 2009 album Kingdom of Rust, guitarist Jez Williams stated in an interview ““let’s make it sound as filmic as possible”. Key themes were ‘futuristic’, ‘mysterious’ and ‘escapist’. We’ve always been mad film music heads…”. And in another interview, the singer Jimi spoke about the band wanting to score a film: “When asked about their reasons for wanting to write a soundtrack, Goodwin replied: “We just always have…Hopefully you can hear it in our music. Everything is very filmic…” Suddenly, my love of the band made perfect sense. In their albums, the first two of which are nigh perfect as far as I’m concerned, they too were striving to achieve the sound I heard in my own head.