The culture of English sport teams
Russell Degnan

"Only an English team could win from there"

So said the commentators last week after Liverpool's win in the Champions League Final. Milan had been equally shaky against PSV, but then they had been outplayed, winning because that's what Italian teams do.

But Liverpool was something else. It reminded me of the duel on Rob Roy. The sharper, nimbler swordsman weathering the haphazard attacks of his opponent and cutting him to ribbons when countering. Kaka was the key there, running the ball out of midfield into the middle of Liverpool's defence. It was awesome stuff and the half-time lead was no more than they deserved.

Somewhere in the English psyche though lurks the passionate anglo-saxon-celt, and even if Liverpool (like Milan and everybody else) is a team of foreigners, for whatever reason the culture remains.

And yet the passionate Englander is a contradiction. Because in England -- more than anywhere else -- sport is taught by teachers. And even if Wellington's comment that "Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton" is apocryphal; at some point, those same teachers recognized that charging at an army like a maniac is likely to get you impaled on the point of a bayonet. And so, the culture of English sport -- team or otherwise -- is not the passionate maniac; nor is it elegant, cultured, dashing or daring. Instead it is precise, technical, and often, boring.

The typical successful English batsman is a Barrington, a Boycott, an Atherton, or of late, a defender par-excellence in Strauss. The typical bowler is a naggingly accurate medium pacer. In tennis, it is Tim Henman; solid, disciplined and utterly lacking in flamboyance. The football team is built on a solid, rigid, disciplined back-four, and more often that not: long balls to a clinical striker. And as for Rugby...

It is not a bad tactic, nor even something I disagree with. You have to admire the persistent pressure a good English side applies. Holding a defensive position yet pushing inexorably forward, waiting for the cracks to appear so they can carefully prise them open.

Australian teams are similar in a way. England is always Australia's great rival, and so every Australian sportsman or woman imbues a culture of inferiority to the English discipline. Australians always play as underdogs; they thrive on the pressure to play above themselves. So while the Australian cricket team is relentless in applying pressure and waiting for their opportunities, they complement that typically English approach, not with a clinical war of attrition, but by going on the attack the first chance they get. The Australian sportsman that get remembered are mentally tough, passionate and aggressive: Alan Border, Steve Waugh, Pat Rafter, Lleyton Hewitt. Eventually, the football (soccer) team will have similar players.

But back to England. As effective as this approach can be, it is boring. And England fans are always passionate. Out of this comes the other side of English sport: the passionate flawed genius. The player who can't be coached, is infuriating, inconsistent and often trouble; yet provides that something extra. The Gascoigne, Botham, or (Irish but playing in England) George Best.

And so each generation, English teams try and get away from their true gift: their ability to slowly crush the opposition with sustained pressure and a sound defence, and place their faith in a new Messiah. Liverpool fans will remember Steven Gerrard for his drive and energy in those seven minutes that won them an extraordinary final, instead of the team's defensive excellence against Chelsea and Juventus that preceded the final. English cricket fans will place their faith in Freddie Flintoff to inspire them this summer, instead of the rest of the top six. And Tim Henman won't win Wimbledon regardless of how he plays. But that is because of Federer rather than poor Tim.

Culture 30th May, 2005 02:21:21   [#] [0 comments] 

Ratings - May 2005
Russell Degnan

West Indies v South Africa
Opening Ratings: WI: 843.49 SAf: 1099.31
1st Test: Drawn
2nd Test: South Africa by 8 wickets.
3rd Test: South Africa by an innings and 86 runs.
4th Test: Drawn
Closing Ratings: WI: 808.01 Saf: 1127.19

South Africa were patchy throughout the series, but picked it up when it counted to get the results. A draw following on in the first test. And Ntini's 13 wickets in the second, and Nel's 10 in the third were decisive. The runfest in the fourth was a dreary end to a series that seemed to lack any real spark. In the batting, the West Indies were inconsistent, registering some big knocks including 2 double centuries, Lara's 196 and a triple. However, take those away and the averages plummet. This inconsistency needs to be addressed. The ratings didn't show any dramatic shifts; both merely consolidated their respective positions in 4th and 8th.

Forthcoming Series:

England (1209.78) v Bangladesh (616.46) - 2 Tests.
Bangladesh will no doubt be thrilled to play at Lord's and England will hope for a competitive game. But there is no doubt this is little more than a warmup for the Ashes series. Bangladesh have improved marginally, but anything other than consecutive innings defeats will be a surprise.

West Indies (808.01) v Pakistan (1065.38) - 2 Tests.
An interesting - if short series. History would suggest the West Indies will win. The ratings would suggest Pakistan. Both sides are rebuilding, and hence their long-term ratings are declining. However, that process has been ongoing in the West Indies squad for enough years that the real question is how low will they go? Pakistan suggested something against India. Expect them to scrape a win.

Australia (1st) 1389.17
India (3rd) 1142.64
Sri Lanka (5th) 1077.85
New Zealand (7th) 1034.08
Zimbabwe (9th) 707.44

Cricket - Ratings - Test 4th May, 2005 20:42:44   [#] [0 comments] 

Chelsea`s Premiership
Russell Degnan

Now that Chelsea has secured their first title for 50 years, the assessments of how good they are can begin. Last week, The Insider was very critical of their performance against Liverpool in the Champions League; highlighting their lack of attackign options and reliance on the midfield to score goals. A closer look at the league table shows he may have a point. Despite having the highest points-per-game of any champion in the last decade, Chelsea have mostly achieved it against the bottom half. An incredible one draw shows a remarkable consistency, and both Chelsea and Arsenal are not just winning, but thrashing sides down the table.

But look at the top half performances and they are less dominant. Despite numerous complaints from Manchester United supporters, their performance against better opposition is comparable, if not superior, to Chelsea's. The problem for Chelsea, especially in light of games against Liverpool and - potentially - Milan in the Champions League, is a lack of goals against decent defence. 15 goals in 16 games puts them a very poor 10th in attacking terms against the top half. Where they have been outstanding in attack it has been on the back of perenially injured midfielders Arjen Robben and Damien Duff, rather than a quality striker.

However, in a league competition, Chelsea's strengths: consistency and a parsimonious defence are sufficient to lift the title. It remains for Arsenal and Manchester United to lift their game in those two areas if they are to challenge next season.

For the remainder though, a more worrying long term trend is emerging. This graph shows the points per season of each league position since the contraction.

At the very bottom it shows a marginal decline in the relegated sides - from high to mid 30s. Given the three sides likely to drop this season are the same three who came up there is something to the argument that the first division and the premier league are getting further apart. It should also be noted that the sides to survive in recent years have also had large supporter bases - such as Birmingham; similarly, it is Sunderland making a return next season.

The midpoint has remained roughly the same, at 50 points per season. However, the big change is occuring right above them as the mid-table gets closer to the European places. Articles lamenting the low quality of potential Champions League participants are correct. They are well placed because the league is so tight, rather than because of any particular quality. While the graph shows clearly how first and second are scoring more highly and more consistently, the graph is less clear on the other places because the fluctuate quite sharply. However, looking at the standard deviation of the points distribution at the top level shows it increasing from around 9 to nearer 13. In short, the top teams are going away even as the rest of the league gets more competitive.

Year on year the number of teams within 25 points of the top has gone: 8, 7, 9, 6, 4, 6, 5, 6, 2 and 2. Perhaps the last few years have been an anomaly, but the ability of mid table teams to challenge seems to be dropping, which is not a positive development. Not every team will get a fairy godmother in the guise of an oil-rich Russian oligarch to buy their way to the top.

Football 2nd May, 2005 01:08:33   [#] [0 comments]