Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Jogging on shale

 9 March 2013 - Bristol City 2 Middlesbrough 0

Something a bit different this week.  I was going to write a standard blog, but like many City fans at present, my mind is filled with permutations, with considerations of other teams’ results and with the vexed question of when we can stop running to stand still and start running to move somewhere.  Also, I’ve just watched the finale of Dexter series 4 and frankly haven’t much of my mind left for creativity just now.

Everyone watch Dexter.  It’s bloody amazing.

Anyway.  This week, a bit of maths to give me a sense – just a sense – of how the final Championship table might look.  And a few specious conclusions drawn from it.

Basically, I wondered how far our current form might take us. It’s vaguely encouraging – we’re closing the points gap between ourselves and the thin dotted line above us slowly but steadily – but my concern is that time will run out before we can turn it from the present -2 points to 2 or 3 points, and safety.  All the teams around us are giving a solid impression of being on equivalent form.  The teams above, Wolves aside, seem to just about resist being dragged in.  And we keep jogging on shale, unable to make a purchase.

So what I’ve done, purely as an experiment, is see where the teams from 11th down – ie those 9 points and below ahead of us, who one might reasonably consider to be in some danger of relegation – can expect to finish if they perform as well over their remaining 9 (say) games as they did over the 9 before.  I’ve taken the current points total, added to it the points gained over the last x amount of games (where x is the number of games remaining for that team) and worked out how a league table on that basis might look.

So we have:

BURNLEY             Points 48 Games remaining 9 Pts from last 9 6 Total 54
CHARLTON          Points 47 Games remaining 9 Pts from last 9 8 Total 55
BLACKPOOL        Points 46 Games remaining 9 Pts from last 9 12 Total 58
BIRMINGHAM     Points 46 Games remaining 9 Pts from last 9 15 Total 61
DERBY                   Points 45 Games remaining 9 Pts from last 9 7 Total 52
BLACKBURN       Points 45 Games remaining 10 Pts from last 10 9 Total 54
MILLWALL           Points 44 Games remaining 11 Pts from last 11 7 Total 51
HUDDERSFIELD Points 44 Games remaining 9 Pts from last 9 11 Total 55
SHEFF WED         Points 43 Games remaining 10 Pts from last 10 18 Total 61
IPSWICH              Points 43 Games remaining 9 Pts from last 9 11 Total 54
BARNSLEY           Points 41 Games remaining 10 Pts from last 10 20 Total 61
PETERBORO’      Points 39 Games remaining 9 Pts from last 9 13 Total 52
WOLVES               Points 39 Games remaining 9 Pts from last 9 6 Total 45
BRISTOL CITY      Points 39 Games remaining 9 Pts from last 9 14 Total 53

Final table:

11= Birmingham                              61 points
11= Sheffield Wednesday              61 points
11= Barnsley                                    61 points
14. Blackpool                                   58 points
15= Charlton Athletic                       55 points
15= Huddersfield Town                    55 points
17= Burnley                                       54 points
17= Blackburn Rovers                     54 points
17= Ipswich Town                             54 points
20. Bristol City                                  53 points
21= Derby County                            52 points
21= Peterborough United                52 points
23. Millwall                                         51 points
24. Wolverhampton W                      45 points

So.  What have we learnt?

A few things, I reckon.  Bear in mind that this isn’t science, despite using counting and adding.  I’m not saying that these are the final places.  Form will change – Kenny Jackett’s a good manager who may well use Millwall’s Wembley boost to improve their form, whereas conversely Blackpool might not get that many points as the Bloomfield Road surface deteriorates.  There's not a "joint 21st", but frankly I thought that including goal difference would be a shade tenuous even for me.  And I’ve not run this through the BBC Predictor to check whether it’s possible.  But chances are, the final table will look a little like this.

If it is, it would mean that the record high number of points for survival may well need to be equalled, but it won’t be an absurdly large figure that teams are aiming for.  That’s good news for City – our last nine games contained 5 home and 4 away, with those figures being reversed for the run-in, so 53 points (pretty narrow anyway) might be pushing it a little.  It would be nice to think we’re not aiming for 56 or 57.

It’s quite possible that anyone from Blackpool, at 14th, down could be within 3 points of the drop on the final day.   Since that includes Burnley, currently 11th in the real world, and given that my top 3 may well not in fact hit the heights of their recent form between now and May, I think that it’s “case proven” in terms of including all those teams in the relegation fight.  And I hadn’t realised how awful the run some of them are on is – Derby will want to pull this round pretty quicky, for instance.  Their young players were excellent at Ashton Gate earlier in the season.  But as Aston Villa are finding, a relegation battle (and Derby might soon be in one) is a tough place for an inexperienced squad.

Maybe Derby will be fine.  But if they do win some games, who will the wins come against?  Ipswich?  Blackburn?  Barnsley?  Peterborough?  Us?  It’s becoming the sort of scramble where it will only be possible to escape by pushing somebody else back down.  That’s not bad news for us, already down at the bottom.

But I’m clutching at straws a little.  Even our fine form, extrapolated until May, only saw us survive by a point in this experiment.  One rogue result could change that.  A significantly worse run would surely relegate us.  And given the closeness of the race, we’re unlikely to have pressure-free opposition late on.  Hull will presumably be going for a top-two spot when we play them a fortnight from the end of the season.  It’s hard to see Huddersfield already being more than six points clear when we meet a week later.  And the Valley will be a tough place to go on final day if Powell’s Addicks still need something from the game.

It’s not science.  That won’t be the final table.  It mightn’t be a million miles away though.  It’s going to be tough.  For everything O’Driscoll’s done, it might be unsuccessful.  But blimey, look at City above the line there.  That’s something to cling on to.  We’re bottom of the table.  It might very well get worse at the weekend.  But surely the likelihood that this one will go all the way is something positive to take at this stage.


Friday, 8 March 2013

The little things they make me so happy

23 February 2013 - Bristol City 5 Barnsley 3 (plus bonus England 2 Brazil 1 and Barcelona 3 Real Sociedad 1)

So I thought that after a relatively long absence from this thing, I’d grab your attention with a series of controversial statements.  Prepare to be blown away by the force of my iconoclastic opinions:

-          Over the last five years, Barcelona have been the best team in Europe!
-          Gareth Bale is currently playing at as high a level as anybody else in the Premier League!
-          Jack Wilshere is a fine player who will play many times for England!
-          Bristol City have improved in form since Sean O’Driscoll was appointed!

OK.  Perhaps these don’t quite constitute the blistering sideways-on look at football you expect from your blogs.  They’re all true, though, which is a good start.  And they’re connected, too.  I think that the reason that teams have great spells, that players rise to success, and that poor sides can regain form are actually very simple.  Or, to put it another way: it’s simplicity itself that connects all these points.  Keeping it simple (stupid) is the key to success in each of my examples above, and in football as a whole.

Watching Barcelona last year was one hell of an eye-opener.  Not only because I saw Lionel Messi play (and really, you owe it to yourself to do the same thing), but because what Barcelona were doing was something I’d never really seen before.

Their opponents, Real Sociedad, were playing what I recognised as 11-a-side association football.  I’ve seen it at Ashton Gate and at my local park in Peckham.  I understood the guiding principles  and I could see what they were trying to do.  Their basic plan of attack was to try to score when they had the ball, and try not to concede when they didn’t.  They weren’t bad, either, and gave Barca a few problems.

Barcelona however weren’t following the same strategy.  Or at least they didn’t appear to be.  When they got the ball, they didn’t seem to see scoring a goal as being paramount at all.  They didn’t force the issue, content to move the ball around the back line, probe down one wing, move the ball back through the midfield, start again.  Only when this process lead to a chance too clear not to attempt to score from (or when Messi, content most of the time to jog across Sociedad’s back line knocking the ball into Xavi’s feet, suddenly exploded into a legs-and-pace footballing Tasmanian devil) did they threaten the opposing goal.  And yet you felt that the goals must come, must come inexorably.  They didn’t win the game by scoring goals.  They scored goals by winning the game.

And this utter dominance was achieved, with only a few exceptions, by doing very, very simple things. By moving the ball three, four, five yards at a time and by moving on as soon as the ball had been released.  By closing down their opponents on the rare occasions possession did drop away.  By jogging around and giving the ball to the nearest person.  This was without doubt the most technically adept group of footballers I’ve ever seen in the flesh.  And yet they rarely did anything I didn’t feel that I could do myself.  It was so simple, it looked so easy, that it was hard not to wonder why every team didn’t play this way.

Of course the answer is that every team can’t – this is deceptively tough stuff.  It takes skill, coaching, perseverance.  It takes confidence to keep doing it even when things aren’t going well (such as right now, for instance).  But for all that it’s difficult, the fundamentals are nevertheless the simplest skills in football.
Gareth Bale’s another good example.  This typically excellent article from our friend the Secret Footballer is strong on the little things he’s improved in his game in order to hit his current, destructive level of form.  They’re all simple things – they’re all things one feels could be mastered by a player of even moderate quality with practice alone.  But moderate players don’t put in that practice.  Gareth Bale’s done so and it’s given him a fighting chance of achieving genuine greatness.

Much the same strikes me about Jack Wilshere.  He’s not currently at the same level of form as Bale, sure, but he’s a fine young player who’s come back from a pretty awful injury in better fettle than anyone might reasonably have expected.

I was at the England-Brazil game at Wembley last month.  It was my international debut – I was there with a guest of the sponsors, the Teenage Cancer Trust.  While I wasn’t marvelling at my luck at getting a genuinely enjoyable England friendly (that’s got to be, what, 15-1 against?) I was very much enjoying the contribution Wilshere made, particularly in comparison with the much-vaunted Neymar.

Neymar seemed to spend the entire game forcing the issue.  He tried to do everything – move the ball around at the heart of attack, take on multiple defenders, shoot, tackle – the lot.  All under that ridiculous haircut.  And he didn’t impress – partly perhaps because in the first half Ronaldinho was also trying to turn the game into a personal display, but still.  His colleague Oscar, slightly less extravagantly talented perhaps (and certainly less extravagantly barneted) was the pick of the Brazil side.  He was technically very able, sure, but he also knew when to test the defender and when to move the ball to someone better placed.  Simple things.

Jack Wilshere seemed to get all of his decisions absolutely right.  He didn’t demand the ball all match, but given his central position he saw a lot of it.  And he didn’t feel personally obliged to change the game with every touch he had.  A great deal of what he did was about keeping position or moving an attack through the phases.  His performance was subsumed to England’s; the midfield was exactly as good as he was, so vital was he to the team’s strategy on the night.  And when he did go for the (calculatedly) risky passes he set up the chance that led to the first goal.  It was the type of performance we rarely see from young English players and it was immensely encouraging.

Bristol City have improved by doing exactly the same things.  Concentrating on the simple things – defensive organisation, keeping possession, preparing to win the ball back from a throw-in or from a goal-kick.  Rocket science this is not – but a group of players very low on confidence (unsurprisingly; O’Driscoll took over a side seven points from safety having just been destroyed 4-0 at home) have been given simple, clear tasks to do.  They’ve had the pressure of results taken away and it’s working.

When you’re feeling low, when you’re feeling as though work isn’t going well, you don’t want to be presenting at a Board meeting.  You want something nice and simple to do – a spot of filing, an audit of your emails, a catch-up with a friendly colleague.  City’s players have been given the equivalent.  Don’t worry about trying to change the world, trying to force the issue of getting out of the relegation zone.  Just worry about your own job.  Get that right and everything else will come.

It’s the hardest thing in the world to stick to, to believe that this is the right method.  If we need to win on the final day at Charlton, and if it’s 0-0 with 10 minutes remaining, to keep passing the ball, to keep in control of the match, to resist the temptation to hit 35-yard efforts will be difficult for players and manager alike.  But we absolutely must.  We criticise Barcelona sometimes for their “lack of a plan B”, and yes their style is one that should be more flexible – there’s no need always to press, to constrict the game, to allow one’s opponents to keep 10 behind the ball.  But their belief in their philosophy is absolutely right.  Their amusing draw with Chelsea a few years ago came about partly because of some baffling refereeing decisions, partly because of a standard Andres Iniesta piece of brilliance, but partly because they kept playing their football in order that Iniesta could have the shooting opportunity in the first place.  They were injury time away from a semi-final Champions League elimination and they continued to believe totally in their system.  That was impressive.   They went on, of course, to win the tournament.  Had they abandoned the simple things in a desperate chase for a “result”  gained by mad headless football as opposed to calm, controlled stuff, they would plainly not have done so.

City may or may not go down.  It’s hard to say.  But if we stay up we’ll do so by sticking to the simple principles espoused by Sean O’Driscoll.  The idea that we should react to reaching the most important moments of the season by doing anything other than what’s working is madness.  We’ll keep it simple, we’ll trust the system, and we’ll have a real chance.