An army of Sheep led by a Lion

As the sunlight settled on the bodies of soldiers and beasts fallen in battle, a wanderer stopped to take in the scene. Celebration was taking place on the brow of a nearby hill, singing carried on the breeze with the heat of the evening still thick. Roving between the corpses was a plunderer; lifting hands to examine rings, letting them fall limply down when the loot was taken. What happened here, asked the wanderer. Hunkered down, the plunderer raised his eyes. A mighty General made his might known, he said, breathing heavily from the weight of his load. What General, asked the wanderer. The plunderer laughed. A tactical mind so renowned you should already know, he said. What is his name, asked the wanderer. The plunderer stopped absentmindedly examining a ring and fixed the wanderer a stare. Alexander the Great, he said.

A slight drizzle played on the wind, a dull glow held the graying sky as darkness entertained the evening. On the horizon, throngs of people wearing a uniform of red were being herded away from a magnificent football arena. Stragglers populated the concourse, vying for position with fluttering food wrappings, abject newspapers and pristine puddles. Shuffling from one pile of litter to the next was a council worker sweeping with a brush. A tourist held up their camera and took a snap of the scene. What happened here, they asked the council worker. Manchester United won again, he replied, not looking up from his work. Who is Uniteds manager these days, queried the tourist. The council worker looked up and laughed. A tactical mind so renowned you should already know, he said. What is his name, ventured the tourist. The council worker stopped sweeping. Alexander the Great, he said.

If there is a child who likes football and is interested in the Barclays Premier League then it is near certain that Alex Ferguson occupies a place of importance in their mind. His status as Manchester United manager allows him to become the reason many kids who support the red half of Manchester get to gloat while in school. For the kids who support other teams he is the figurehead of their inability to revel in their sporting choice, a gum chewing face for the force that inspires such a sentiment as ‘Anyone But United’.

I remember the first time I became aware of that gum-chewing gait of a certain Glaswegian jaw as Liverpool took on United in the FA Cup Final back in 1996. Cantona popped up with a volley that day to take the trophy away from the Anfield cabinet. That was the first Liverpool match I had ever watched on television, my knowledge of the club, and football as a sport, was a blank slate. The authority of the position of manager was lost on my eight-year-old mind and I would not have been surprised to see a different man in the dugout for United the next time I chanced upon a match. How bloody wrong I was.

Fergusons resemblance to Alexander the Great goes beyond a shallow comparison for the title of this article and the fact that they both share a name. Both men ruled their dominion absolutely and share a propensity for winning great tactical battles. In the decades Ferguson has been managing he has achieved many feats. From sating a twenty six year hunger for the title, victory in the Nou Camp one glorious spring night back in the dregs of the last century to continuing to shrewdly upholster his squads to keep them competitive, but his most note worthy may just be around the corner.

“I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.” – Alexander the Great

More apt a quote there is not to describe this current crop of United players. A team of sheep led by the lion in Ferguson, and if he wins the league with them, that is his greatest achievement. Fantastic United squads have graced the game in the past but this one is sorely lacking. If a team can be measured on the strength of its back ups, what replacements can you make to change a game when you’re irreversibly stuck in a nil all rut of a match with Gibson, Obertan, Bebe and Owen on the bench?

The team is still home to the iconic talents of Giggs and Scholes, while Nani is turning into a genuinely inventive footballer that can take a match by the scruff of the neck. That is where the positives end. If Rooney was not English he would have been pilloried in the press by now for playing well only when the national media was not discussing a horrendous revelation about his personal life. Berbatov is a footballer talented in the finer sides of the game, bereft however of the battling scrappy tendencies that makes a title challenge more palatable.

Fergusons task of steering his team to the title is definitely made easier by the running pack. Adversaries pop up and then back down just as fast. Tottenham are ignoring a title attempt in favour of consolidating their top four status. Manchester City seem to have the basis for a concerted effort on the league but are still ironing out the kinks and will properly make their assault next year. Chelsea, so robust, rigorous and routine at the seasons start, are like ice, flourishing in Winter but melting away with the first signs of Summer. Wengers Arsenal are proving to be the only solid challengers, but even they seem to be missing the essential ruthless streak that every title winning team need.

If Ferguson does achieve league success this year he will have ‘knocked Liverpool off their fucking perch’ as he so eloquently put it when asked what his main aim was upon taking the job. To put that in context, if United win they will finally surpass Liverpools record of eighteen league titles. To do it with such a paltry array of playing talent speaks volumes of the power of personality in the sport of football.

Ferguson has become Manchester United. For so many years the club has been home to a great deal of players, it has provided employment for many physiotherapists, assistant coaches, tea ladies, accountants, groundskeepers, stewards, security men, drivers, cleaners, kit men and countless other workers in differing positions. Ferguson has remained. Personifying the club appears to be his second nature. Synonymous with success he is now the driving force for the squad. It has reached the point where the first team could consist of players plucked from an obscure league and they would still get results purely because of Fergusons presence. Ironically I feel the weight of expectation is not upon them because they blindly expect to win and this attitude allows situations regularly to fall into place for that to happen. Just like everything else winning is a habit and Ferguson knows the ins and outs of it off by heart backwards. Happily for Manchester United supporters he knows how to transmit this knowledge to the players.

The question remains, what happens when he moves on, when the gruff Scot relaxes his grip upon the reins and some new force in football takes them? I believe it will be the most thankless job in world football, past even the weight of expectation that comes with the England post. As long as Ferguson is alive the next manager of United will not be allowed any peace. Some acts are hard to follow, and some, well some are just impossible. I will round off with a quote I think will epitomise Fergusons attitude to the situation when he steps down...

“Après moi le deluge (after me the flood)”

– Louis XV of France

Severe Drought in North London


Dirk Kuyt

Gerrard: Anatomy of a Superhero

A superhero enjoys a special kind of stature, beloved by all, yet isolated. Trapped in a cocoon, devoid of sharing things in common with anyone else. We find them unobtainable and alien, icons thrust so high on a pedestal, they are divorced from our reality. These characters are classic examples of the hero cult that seems to be ingrained in the psyche of humans. Every culture from ancient to modern has had examples of it. Soldiers idolised in Ancient Greece known as heroes. Gladiators with particular prowess in battle were exalted in the Coliseum. A rich myth developed with each man, their deeds used by the public as proof they were living links to celestial beings. More than men but not quite Gods, they were icons for the unachievable made possible.

The Greek hero Heracles immortalised

We too must have our heroes. Our society, though very different to ancient Greece and Rome, shares an obvious passion, sport, and the narrative we impose on each match still captivates fans in every country in the world. Association football is the perfect place for modern day heroes. Professional players are deified for their weekly actions on the pitch. Matches that take place in twenty football stadiums in England every Saturday and Sunday hold sway over the attentions of countless millions of fans. However, not all football players are heroes. Just like in ancient armies, not all soldiers are. For a hero to rise he has to be special. His abilities have to so far outshine the rest they appear divine.

“Not the glittering weapon fights the fight, but rather the hero's heart.”

English football has imposed the hero narrative upon Steven Gerrard. He is a bastion of passion, pride and skill, yet all of his attributes combine to become something more. It is the heart with which he plays that captures the imagination of the public and it is the recognition of this public that confirm him as a hero. To describe his exploits in the same way one would discuss Hercules seems apt. He is known for singlehandedly grabbing a football match and directing it in the way he needs it to go. These deeds let him wield immense power in popular culture. A televised football match transcends the meaning of a mere sporting event. It is a three hundred and sixty degree Greek tragedy. There are countless subplots at work. The media construct story lines; they mould player images to fit classic good and bad guy character templates. This process sets up the event. Steven Gerrard is very often the star of the show. Ironically the sporting action itself is a sideshow.

Photographers regularly capture Gerrard in iconic poses
reminiscent of heroes.

It has been his trademark to pull his ailing Liverpool side from the fire, be it with a thunderous first time volley from outside the box (see the Legend of Gerrards FA Cup Final) or with an elegantly rousing header in a European Final. It is often suggested that the hero is a symbolic representation of the person experiencing the story or narrative in which the hero is operating, therefore the relevance the hero has to the individual fan is great.

“The hero is often simply an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances, who, despite the odds being stacked against him or her, typically prevails in the end”

The hero is the perfect vessel for fans vicarious participation in the great mythologies of their day. Regular people can empathise with his plight, which is the crux of why Steven Gerrard is a modern day hero. Facets of his being and upbringing mirror many of those that fans share with him. He comes from a working class background and plays for his hometown team, therefore identifying with the intense love and fierce local pride that is the lifeblood of the fans. Importantly, he himself is a fan.

“You must admit that the genesis of the great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown...before he can remake his society, his society must make him.” - Herbert Spencer

The Liverpool public was crying out for a hero. It had been too long since the days of their last legend, Dalglish. By craving someone of Gerrards stature the fans were unconsciously constructing the very story of Gerrard before his emergence. He was a self-fulfilling prophecy who just happened to tick every box and make aspects of his game seem superhuman at times.

At this stage it is important to point out why Jamie Carragher, himself a beneficiary of local working class upbringing, and crucially making it to be a first team regular in the Liverpool squad, is not exalted to the level Gerrard is. Gerrard occupies that position on the pitch that has the most romance associated with it, attacking midfielder. He is the eye of the storm, the spice in the mix. Midfield means he can stop the opposition with a tackle that is timed to perfection, create goals for his teammates with sublimely weighted passes and also unleash shots with the ferocity of a bolt of lightning. Carragher is lodged in the goalmouth making crucial interceptions that don’t capture the collective imagination to the extent a Gerrard shot that blazes by the goalies helpless hands would. These get the Kop on their feet.

“Trademarks of the hero include an unwavering cause, a costume, superhuman abilities, a supporting cast of recurring characters, a headquarters and a nemesis.”

Gerrards unwavering cause has turned out to be Liverpool fans and the club itself. The attention that was paid to his nearly transfer to Chelsea a few summers ago has transformed the bond he has with the club and fans to a higher calling. If we reinterpret the Liverpool jersey, we can view it as a costume. It is an outfit that is worn when he performs his deeds of footballing wonder. His abilities on the pitch are superhuman when viewed by fans, managers and most other players. The supporting cast of recurring characters is his teammates, manager and any other staff that appear in the newspapers in conjunction with his image. His headquarters must be Melwood, Liverpools high tech top-secret training compound. The nemesis for him has been Chelsea for some time, but the Liverpool Manchester United rivalry goes beyond that. He enhanced his standing in the eyes of his fans by scoring at Old Trafford and kissing a television camera two seasons ago, an act that resonated deeply with all Liverpool fans. These iconic moments are what elevate the game from mere sport to highly compelling drama where he takes centre stage.

A combination of the media, the fans and his sponsors have augmented Gerrards legacy by using elements of his playing career as these trademarks. The method of presenting modern day football to the public exploits this list of trademarks ruthlessly. Papers, television corporations and gossip websites deal in exclusive photos, video clips and sound bites that enhance the sporting personalities and make them distinct from every day people. For example, they are often pictured at their futuristic training complexes in cutting edge training clothing. The ways in which these photos are given to the public exalt the player, his occupation, his methods of work and his surroundings

There are many moments that categorise him as a hero; instigating the unlikeliest of comebacks in Istanbul, scoring two pile driver volleys in the FA Cup final the following year or his awesome hat trick from the bench against Napoli. Arguably the most consumed moment of Gerrard sporting prowess was immortalised by commentator Andy Gray screaming “Awwwww ya beauty! What a hit son, what a hit”

That goal made me suspend disbelief. It was amazing and made sure Liverpool progressed to the next phase of the Champions league. That night the beginning of the dream to win it was born. Gerrard dragged them over the line. Importantly in that video I always notice his position as the ball is being played near the corner flag. He is centre stage, arms outstretched. He knows exactly where he needs to be to ensure his influence over the game. He screams for the ball twice. He hits his shot. The fans delight is biblical. He becomes a superhero. His version of the Superman crest? The Liverbird upon his chest.


Més que un Match

The one thing that was concrete amidst all the hype surrounding this fixture was this; the biggest scalp available in modern football was up for grabs. Could Arsenal win the struggle and impose their footballing artistry over that of Barcelonas?

An essential fact here was that Guardiola, shining managerial talent that he is, is still a rookie compared to the veteran that is Wenger. If the teams switched managers, how would Arsenals chances be viewed? I believe Barcelona would come out of that as supreme favourites.

Wenger has finally seemed to instil that gritty aspect into his squad. Jack Wilshere, the latest English Great Hope, came out speaking about being nasty before the game. Ominous news for Alex Fergsuon is that this Arsenal side might have finally developed that coveted ability to utilise mental strength in tandem with their natural instincts that is intrinsic to all truly indominatable athletes.

Most importantly for the standard bearers of the beautiful game in Britain was to ensure they stepped up and went toe to toe with their Catalan counterparts. If they did this, the match would take on a form in stark contrast to last years meeting where Barca controlled proceedings almost unchallenged.

Encouragingly from the start they used their hunger for respect across Europe to ignore their own for Guardiolas side. Possession was won back within sixteen seconds of kick off. Barcelonas main ability is retaining possession, second to this is pressure. As obvious as it may be, they operate with an attacking philosophy. Their tiki-taka method ensures close proximity traingles of passing which ultimately knit together to ensure gaps in the oposition for a killer ball, the likes of which their attacking players are adept at making with their eyes closed.

Tiki-Taka has many advantages. It is sublime to watch, it brings all players into play, it is great for developing technically proficient players, infact if I were to list the advantages I could write for hours. An aspect of it, if exploited in the right manner, that can be named a disadvantage is exactly the positioning of the players as they partake in their sumptuous passing triangles. Barca are far from a long ball team. The players are close to eachother, always making the angle for the next one touch pass. This leads to players bunching in places, which in turn leaves gaps elsewhere.

This tendency to open up just as many gaps in their own team as their opposition is usually left unexploited in La Liga. The pace of Walcott was seen as an almost specialised weapon with which to get through the gaps left in their high line. Add to those positional gaps the gaping one left by Puyols tendonitis and even more expectation fell onto Walcotts pace. Unsuprisingly Guardiola had identified this and Arsenal made no headway until Walcotts substitution for Nasri in the second half.

First Van Persie combined his recent scintilating form with Valdes obvious positional deficiencies. A tremendous volley from an acutely tight angle. Then Nasri was handed exactly the type of opportunity Walcott had been waiting for all night. He tore down the flank and waited until Arshavin was in sight. The magical Russian swept the ball into the net, aided by Valdes standing directly behind a defender therefore cutting off his line of vision. The Emirates erupted as a stadium of its majesty deserved.

Arsenal have their hands on the scalp, but the dirty work of removing it will take place in Camp Nou. If the nasty streak is indeed present then they won’t hesitate to tear it aloft and proclaim themselves as a force to be feared in European football.