A Day at the Races

Pedro Caixinha’s stewardship of Rangers couldn’t have got off to a better start, with a 4-0 thumping of Hamilton, who slipped to bottom of the league as a result. Facing the second-bottom side might not be the toughest challenge the Portuguese will face as Rangers manager, but his side’s efficient dismantling of the Accies will have gone down well with the Ibrox support. Perhaps too well…

Caixinha didn’t change too much for his first game. In terms of personnel, he made one change from the team that started against Celtic. The formation wasn’t much different to the 4-3-3 that Warburton was in thrall to, with Jon Toral playing in holding midfield, and Jason Holt and Emerson Hyndman in front of him. The style of play wasn’t entirely dissimilar to Warburton’s either – I’m not sure if today will be representative of Caixinha’s tactics in the long term, but it perhaps makes sense to introduce new ideas gradually during the transitionary period. Particularly when you’ve only been in the job five days.

What was notably different, however, was the high level of pressing the team employed today. People will tell you that Warburton’s team pressed opponents high and often, at least during the first half of his first season, but other than a 20 minute spell in the 2015 Burnley game, I can’t remember it happening all that much. Warburton, like McCoist before him, seemed to prefer a more passive style of defence, which was an approach adopted to try and encourage the opposition to venture out from their own defensive third, and to try and create some space behind them. It’s a fairly energy intensive tactic, and requires players with good fitness and decent-sized squads, but it seemed to pay dividends for Caixinha today.

Under Mark Warburton, Rangers found it difficult to convert possession and chances into goals, requiring almost ten attempts to score a goal. During Graeme Murty’s short caretaker spell, that metric dropped slightly to a goal every 9 shots. In Caixinha’s first game, Rangers scored every 2.5 shots they made at goal. Warburton also favoured a risk averse style of football, with his side tending to keep possession, and not attempt passes with a high risk of losing the ball, resulting in an average possession figure of 57%. Today Rangers recorded 62% possession.

Looking at those two statistics, it appears that the Rangers that played today were a far more efficient beast than the profligate team we saw under Mark Warburton – Caixinha only has access to the same pool of players as his predecessor remember. This was also the first time this season that Rangers scored more than three goals in a game – it’s almost unheard of to only reach that stage by March. We’ll gradually see the new man impose his own ideas on the team, and bring in his own players, but it’s certainly an encouraging start.

Advertisements

Managing Expecations

On Sunday I covered the Kilmarnock versus Rangers Scottish Youth Cup semi-final for Battle Fever On, a Rangers fan-run news site. I’ve photographed a couple of the development squad games before, but this time I offered to tweet updates of the action, and draft a match report as well. It was thoroughly enjoying, but very challenging. In all honest, it’s a two person job, and difficult to give the words and pictures the attention they each deserve. I re-read my match report later, written in haste after the drive back from Kilmarnock, and I cringed a little. If I’m asked to provide a match report again, I’d prepare something in advance, a template as such with known information and background, where I could drop in the match details at full-time, rather than having to compose something in full, on the fly. Proper journalists prepare like this, don’t they?

I know football fans do. Within seconds of the Scottish Football Association announcing the Scotland squad for the games against Canada and Slovenia, the onslaught began on social media, with tweets reading “Why is X in the squad?”, and “Why isn’t Y in the squad?” Most complainants are unhappy about who’s been included and who’s been omitted. Which is fair enough, to an extent. You’re never going to be able to please everyone. What is interesting is that a lot of people are unhappy about the selection then suggest a player, or a few players, that would improve things tenfold. What I find hilarious is that Gordon Strachan, the Scotland manager, is criticised for picking his favourites, players that aren’t getting a game at club level, and English Championship players, but the alternatives proposed by Scotland fans are their favourites, players that aren’t getting a game at club level, and Scottish Championship players. These players are almost always tremendously guff. I call it Jordan McMillan Syndrome. The eponymous McMillan is a right-back who came through the Rangers youth ranks. At one time, our online fan base considered him to be the greatest thing since sliced bread, and for a period in 2011, angrily insisted he should be starting right-back. He “couldn’t be any worse” than the incumbent, Steven Whittaker. Football fans often seem to think that radical, untested solution can’t be any worse than the status quo, but trust me, it can. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.

But football fans don’t tend to make a lot of sense when it comes to players and managers. Rangers recently appointed a new manager, Pedro Caixinha, and on Tuesday the club released a video of his first training session with the players. Reaction on the Rangers fansites was glowing. His drills were brilliant, his passion was infectious, the players looked shattered afterwards, which proved they’d been worked hard, and so on. This sort of response occurred when Mark Warburton was appointed, and look how that turned out. Hell, it happens whenever we replace the fitness coach. How anyone, especially people that aren’t professional sports scientists, can claim they can deduce the efficacy and outcomes of a professional football training programme from a 5 minute video, is beyond me. But it happens, because people want to believe.

I read a piece by the football writer Raphael Honigstein in which he observed that many crap managers get away with being crap managers because no-one’s qualified to tell if someone’s a crap manager or not. Or admit it in public, if they are. Because we can’t see what happens at football training grounds on a day-to-day basis, “that leaves the door open for chancers and lazies, especially at clubs without any football expertise above the manager. All they have to do is manage expectations and deliver the required minimum of results in-line with them. And even if they don’t, they might get three or four more jobs because their poor work has not been debunked.”

This was specifically written in relation to Arsene Wenger, but I had a couple of issues with his line of thought. Firstly, does anyone still think Arsene Wenger is a good manager, and that poor results are purely down to the players? Wenger has been in charge at Arsenal for 21 seasons now – in his first ten seasons he won seven major trophies, but in the last eleven seasons he’s managed 2 FA Cups. Results are surely the ultimate key performance indicator of how well a manager is meeting expectations, and those expectations will change depending on the club. 2 trophies in 12 seasons is a pretty poor return for a club of Arsenal’s size, and if it weren’t for Wenger’s reputation, forged in those early years at the Gunners, he’d have been sacked long ago.

Secondly, does anyone think anyone is a good manager anymore? Antonio Conte maybe? A few years ago we seemed to have a crop of charismatic, highly-regarded tacticians, such as Villas-Boas, Guardiola, and Klopp – the former is in China now, and the latter two are in the FA Premier League struggling to keep up with Conte’s Chelsea. Of the four English teams that competed in the Champions League this season, 3 went out before the quarter-finals. The other, Leicester, sacked their manager in February. How do we measure the capability of a manager, if not by results? In short, if what a manager does on a day-to-day basis on the training pitch translates into crap results, then is he a good manager? More pertinently, can football – which is a sport driven by results – ever be seriously judged on such pure criteria, as the level of coaching?

Perhaps I’m reading all this through the lens of being a Rangers fan. We tend to gauge a manager’s ability on how far ahead or behind Celtic we are, despite what some people will tell you, and it remains to be seen if that will ever change. But if we are to be more discerning in how the football world judges managers’ performance, then who watches the watchmen? A director of football? Journalists? That all said, I’m curious to see how the Caixinha experiment works out. We’re at the very start of his honeymoon period, with two months of the season left, and the summer transfer window just over the horizon. A more pragmatic Rangers, that can still play a bit, would do me just fine.

Digression: Italian Football

In June 2016, we spent a week in Berlin, which was something of a watermark for me. I’d been obsessed with Germany for more than a quarter of a century, but had never visited the country, which was laughable. The reason I’d been so fascinated with Germany, I suspect, was because they’d won the 1990 World Cup, one of the defining moments of my childhood. I’d started becoming interested in football a year or so earlier, but my experience with my first real international tournament sealed the deal. The game was important for me at that age; it allowed me to progress from a strange, alienated wallflower with no friends to being a strange, alienated wallflower with no friends that had an interest in common with half the UK’s population.

Those first four years of my interest in the game, bookended by Ally McCoist’s goal for Scotland against Norway in 1989, and his broken leg against Portugal in 1993, were full of an optimism that football can never instil in me again. Scotland reached the final stages of the World Cup in 1990 and the European Championships in 1992. Rangers kept winning championship after championship, and came within a hair’s breadth of…well, doing something with the 1993 European Cup. We matched the eventual winners, Marseille, almost step by step, then they won the damn thing…and were promptly engulfed in a match-fixing scandal. But that was all to come.

Germany, or West Germany as they were then, were the winners of the 1990 World Cup. Italy were the hosts. Each nation seemed at the forefront of football technology and fashion – West Germany with their classic adidas kit, with the colours of their tricolour flag worked into a bold geographic print across the chest, seemed to pave the way for the explosion in exciting and sometimes over the top kit design that followed in the next few years. For their part, Italy provided the iconic aria that served to introduce many young British people to opera, when the BBC used Luciano Pavarotti’s performance of Nessun Dorma as the theme to their coverage of the tournament – the two would become synonymous in Britain. There were the stylish on-screen graphics for the television pictures, courtesy of the Italian state broadcaster, RAI, and of course there were the refurbished, ultra-modern stadia, the San Siro being one of them. Well, they seemed ultra-modern to a small boy growing up in Britain, where football was suffering from a chronic disease, symptomized by decrepit, crumbling football parks that hadn’t seen any significant investment in 40 years.

Italian football ruled the roost in Europe in the late 80s and early 90s, so it wasn’t a surprise that around 10% of all players at the tournament employed by Italian clubs, with 16 plying their trade in Milan for either Inter or Milan (note the Anglicised spelling) alone. The Milanese clubs have shared the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza for the last seventy years, an arrangement that is as common in Italy where the local council owns the stadia and the clubs are tenants, as it is uncommon almost everywhere else in Europe. The Giuseppe Meazza, or the San Siro as it’s better known as, was refurbished in the late eighties ahead of the World Cup. An extra tier of seating was added to three sides of the ground, and an elaborate, iconic roof was placed atop it, placed on a series of giant bright red girders perched atop four pediments in the corners of the stadium. The renovation was definitely of its time – the early nineties loved its bright colours, and strong geometric shapes.

As for the football itself, Italia 90’s reputation does vary depending on who you ask. For many, it was the apogee of defensive, football, or ‘catenaccio’ as the Italians themselves call it. It was surely no coincidence that two years hence, goalkeepers were prohibited from picking the ball up from pass backs, apparently partly due to the rampant timewasting endemic at Italy 90. For those of my generation, the soon-to-be New Labour voting, Britpop-listening young adults of the late 90s however, it was a big barrel of fun. Cameroon and Roger Milla’s dancing. The kits. Baggio and Matthaus’ goals. Gazza and Platt. New Order. The money men would tap into that revenue streams created by that joy, of course.

In the meantime, the residual goodwill to the World Cup’s host saw Channel 4 start broadcasting a live Serie A match every Sunday for many years, starting from 1992. Their coverage, plus that of its attendant Saturday morning magazine show, became beloved by my generation due in no small part to its theme tune. ‘Go Lazio!’ many of us thought the clip of commentary used as a coda shouted – Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne had just signed for Lazio after all, a driving motivation behind the broadcaster’s interest in Italian football. It was actually ‘golaço’, a Portuguese or possibly Spanish term that meant ‘great goal!’. It would be co-opted by the later wave of football hipsters. But the good times wouldn’t last.

As mentioned, in the 1990s Italian clubs dominated European competition, making up 42% of the finalists of the three European cup competitions. In the 2000s, that number had dropped to 10% (even allowing for the discontinuation of the European Cup Winners Cup,) and in the 2010s, it’s down to 7%. Spain have become the dominant nation in European football, and this is reflected in the UEFA League coefficients, where they’re miles ahead of Germany, and England, with Italy in fourth. In terms of finalists, Portugal have supplied more in the 2010s than Italy. The three best leagues in Europe also have the three highest average attendances. Notably, the top 13 leagues, not including Serie A, have invested handsomely in their facilities over the last 10 years. It’s not to say that building great new stadia guarantees footballing greatness – Spain’s grounds aren’t all great, for instance – but if investing in modern facilities aren’t a cause of success, then they may well be a side-effect. As of 2017, only 3 of the top 40 Italian teams play in modern, football-specific stadia. You could potentially include the San Siro, but apart from having a jet wash and some new seats a few years ago, it’s still essentially the same as it was in 1990. Average attendances in Italy have declined. The number of supporters per head of population have declined. It’s tempting to see the state of the stadia as contributing this decline.

Italia 90 was nearly 30 years ago now, and the 12 venues selected to host matches are beginning to look more than a little run down. And these are probably still the best dozen grounds in Italy. Viewing aerial imagery of the home stadiums of the country’s 102 professional teams, you’re can see the quandary visually, by how basic and neglected the structures look. As most Italian stadia are municipally owned, they tended to be formatted as ‘multi-use’ facilities. This works well in theory, reducing the requirement for the authorities to construct numerous different stadiums, but it doesn’t always work in practise. Ask the Americans. For a few decades, US cities (the Americans also tend to publicly fund their sports arenas) built what became known as ‘cookie-cutter’ stadiums to house both their gridiron and baseball teams, as well as soccer, boxing, etc. These parks were generally circular, and with football played on a rectangular field, and baseball on a…triangle-shape, I guess, what became apparent was that square pegs don’t fit in round holes. Sight lines were awful. Field dimensions were compromised. Players and fans hated them. The number of these stadia peaked in 1971, at 11. Today, only 2 MLB and NFL teams share a stadium. Seven of those cookie-cutter venues have been demolished completely.

Similar ‘cookie cutter’ stadia abound in Italy – Google Earth reveals dozens of Italian teams playing in ‘multi-use’ reinforced concrete municipal stadiums. They look neglected, awkward, and unloved. They have the dilapidated fabric of 80s British stadia and the broken-down Goldberg machine temporary seating of the Americans – weathered ‘golf-style’ temporary seating areas have been erected over festering athletics tracks, to try and bring the supporters closer to the action. The worst of both worlds. It makes you wonder how often these grounds ever actually see athletics meets. But while the Americans were able to re-diversify their stadia, the Italians seem stuck.

Italy spent billions of Lira preparing for the 1990 World Cup. They overspent in fact, even allowing for the fact that CONI, the Italian Olympic Committee provided grants towards the construction of some of the stadia, on the condition athletics tracks were part of the design. The distance of fans from the pitch didn’t seem to be such a big deal at the time, and for a couple of years Italy had a set of stadia that were the envy of most of Europe. At the same time, Britain was recovering from the latest of four major football disasters over an eighteen year period (Ibrox, Bradford, Heysel, and Hillsborough,) in which 257 people were killed and hundreds more injured. Poorly designed and maintained stadia had played a part in all four tragedies. UK clubs tend to own their own grounds, and by 1990 most of these were approaching 100 years old and were literally falling apart and not fit for use. The Taylor Report of 1990 mandated that all football stadia in England and Wales must be all-seater by the start of the 1994-95 season. More immediately, after the events at Hillsborough, the boundary fences that separated the spectators from the pitch disappeared, almost overnight. There was no longer any appetite to keep fans penned in.

The legislation forced British football to invest in their stadia. The old grounds were swept away, replaced by modern facilities with pillar-free roofs, seats, corporate hospitality and even female toilets, with no piss-corroded terracing anywhere to be seen. In a five year period, British football changed almost beyond recognition – new stadia playing host to thousands of nouveau football fans watching players from all across the planet. As world sport became gentrified, homogenised, and globalised, football clubs realised that their stadia could spin money effectively – maximising the matchday receipts, and not sitting empty for 6 and a half days a week. They started to become more and more like businesses and less like the sports clubs they’d once been. Meanwhile, Italian clubs found that they couldn’t carry out similar renovations to their stadiums as the councils would increase the rents they charge. And the councils wouldn’t carry out the work for the clubs as…well, what would be in it for them? Many Italian teams seem unwilling or unable to buy their way out of these leases, so there’s an impasse. There are some modern facilities in the country however; Juventus bought the 70,000 capacity Delle Alpi, constructed for the World Cup, razed it, and constructed the 40,000 seater Juventus Stadium in its place, to almost universal acclaim. Similarly, Udinese redeveloped 3/4s of their Stadio Friuli home in 2013. What’s notable about both these cases is that both grounds shed their athletics tracks during their renovations, and Udinese don’t actually own the Friuli, so it can be done. The next big club likely to move, at this stage, is Roma, who have approval to build a new ground on the banks of the Tiber…when that will actually be realised remains unclear. Frosinone, Empoli, and Ascoli also have plans afoot to renovate, refurbish, rebuild.

It’s not just a fanciful notion that Italian teams need to update. Modern stadia requirements and legislation are far more demanding than they were in the second half of the 20th century. Playing in UEFA competition requires clubs to have a venue that complies with the governing body’s Stadium Infrastructure Regulations (2010 edition), for instance, and there are other demanding regulations Europe-wide on the subject of security, disabled facilities, access and egress, restricted views etc. And while current Italian domestic regulations don’t seem to be as stringent as they are in England and Wales, I suspect in the near-future we’ll see the end of the athletics tracks and backless seats in Italian football, if only because money seems to flow from investing in good facilities.

Up until 1978, the grounds of Glasgow’s four league clubs were all oval in shape, the vernacular football architecture of the city eschewing the rectangular ‘English’ style of ground. By 2002 however, 3 had become rectangular in form. The holdout was Hampden; it clung onto the oval layout it was famous for during its 1992-1999 refurbishment, but at a price. It’s generally considered the worst of the three big Glasgow grounds, and that’s mainly due to its appalling sightlines. Throughout Europe, oval shaped stadia are becoming unfashionable. I don’t particularly like them, but I’m not keen on homogeneity either. I’ve watched a few videos of football from the 80s and 90s as research for this blog, and it’s reminded me how different European and British football used to be, before globalisation made the whole world smaller. European football used to be, on the whole, a trip into the unknown for British teams. The goalnets were different. The farther afield you went, the more likely it was that the commentary would be delivered down a crackly phone line. It was different to an away trip to say, Airdrie or Dundee, and I liked that. The concept of watching European football in the future where every variable of a club’s identity, kit, and stadium has to fit within a set of narrow technical parameters in a UEFA manual scare me a little.

Has Europe as a whole become a little homogenous in recent years? It feels like it has to me, 25 years after my first visit to mainland Europe. I read a précis recently that suggested Brexit, Trump, and the almost inevitable Le Pen were protests against globalisation. Perhaps that’s true. Perhaps people uncertain about homogeneity. I used to laugh at Uhura’s line in the Star Trek reboot that she spoke ‘all three dialects’ of Klingon. An entire world only has three dialects? Present day Earth has thousands by comparison. But as I walked along a street in Milan, it occurred to me that Jean-Luc Picard apparently doesn’t speak French as that language has become extinct by the 23rd century. So how many Earth dialects are spoken in the Star Trek universe? One, two or three? That’s a horrible thought.

Despite the San Siro being one of the few football-specific grounds in the country, Inter have been making noises about building their own, privately owned stadium for years, but nothing much seems to be happening. A new Metro station opened a few hundred yards from the ground in 2015, so it’s easy to get to. I’d taken the Metro out, emerging from the station to see those huge red trusses still dominate the skyline after all these years, even allowing for the fog. I was taken back to being a 13 year old boy, watching James Richardson presenting Football Italia, even more so when I found a piece of graffito that read ‘Van Basten Lives Here.’

33116759822_f2d91cca8d_c

33117337621_19ebe997ff_cThe San Siro stadium tour is unlike most other stadium tours I’ve been on, where a club official takes a group of people around, sharing various historical vignettes at various stages. Here, you move at your own pace along a signposted route around the ground, with the odd employee posted to offer information and help if you require. The tour costs €17, and starts with an opportunity to browse the San Siro museum, which is plonked in what appears to be a portakabin outside the west tribune. There’s a collection of match-worn shirts from some of the world’s greatest players, and some information about the stadium. After that, you move inside the stadium proper. The pathway takes in the Milan and Inter dressing rooms (they each have their own, and they’re both tiny,) the tunnel, the technical areas, the lower tier of the main stand, and that’s it. I’m in and out within 30 minutes. I ponder buying a shirt – I have no real attachment to either side, Parma being my Italian team, but new shirts are priced at €90. €90! At the current exchange rate, in pounds, that’s a fucking lot.

33272370295_883e5efaf9_c32401476594_e9f6f0a26d_c33089224142_084490e05c_c33117113691_0a2c1998bf_c

33117096761_6e819100e9_cThe San Siro isn’t in as bad a state of repair as I thought it’d be. It’s a very basic stadium though, far behind what the other European elite teams are moving towards. In fact, in terms of facilities, it might rank bottom of any of the stadia I’ve had a tour of in the last ten years or so. The redevelopment of the Giuseppe Meazza ushered in the modern era of football, bewitching a generation of us into the game, before it was stolen from us and sold back at a vastly increased price. Where next for those iconic girders?