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Champions League final 2016

Real Madrid 1-1 Atletico Madrid (Real win 5-4 on penalties)

Miguel Delaney, San Siro

 

Normal service is resumed, on the most elevated of stages.

After a season of so many shocks, the Champions League is claimed by the club that is both the most successful in its history and the wealthiest in the world. Real Madrid win a record 11th trophy, after winning a penalty shoot-out. Cristiano Ronaldo is the hero after Juanfran’s missed penalty gave him the chance to make up for a poor personal game, and Zinedine Zidane becomes an even more legendary figure in the club’s history.

The French coach – who came in for the sacked Rafa Benitez mid-season – is the seventh person in football to have won the trophy as a player and manager.

Simeone and Atletico are meanwhile still waiting for their deliverance, and the manner of this defeat would make you forgive them for wondering whether it will ever come.

They were not just beaten by their great rivals on the greatest stage again. They also had their emotions toyed with – a Sergio Ramos goal, a missed penalty, a comeback, and then psychodrama of a penalty shoot-out. That only emphasised how Real were far from at their best, but they have still won the greatest of prizes.

Right through the first half, it was as if the stage got to Atletico and they suddenly remembered that they have always been Madrid’s second club.

Simeone’s side stopped doing the things that have helped changed the club’s identity under him, and resorted to the kind of calamitous traits that used to so often scupper them. They were just so loose and error-strewn, and nothing like the compact and impressively abrasive side that had beaten Bayern Munich and Barcelona to get here.

They were still aggressively fouling Real players, but they seemed symptomatic of how the game had got to them rather than a sign of a more cynical plan. It also meant they gave up free-kicks – and chances. That was perhaps the biggest alarm of all that something wasn’t right.

Atletico are normally so tightly drilled that they barely give up any chances from set-pieces but, here, they offered up two in the space of 15 minutes.

For the first, Casemiro forced one of the saves of the game from Jan Oblak, as the Slovenian showed sensational reactions to turn the diverted ball away.

That should have been the warning. It was not heeded. On 15 minutes, Toni Kroos powered a ball at goal for Ramos to turn the ball in.

It seemed like they’re might have been a foul and an offside but that just seemed to sum up Atletico’s luck. They needed to change it.

Antoine Griezmann did more than anyone to try and force that, as his runs back began to inject a bit more energy into Atletico, while his willingness to shoot improved their impetus.

It was almost unfair, then, that it was the French player that missed the penalty. Atletico did come out with much more urgency in the second half – doubtless from a frenzied Simeone team talk – and almost instantly won a penalty. Griezmann played in a cute pass, with Fernando Torres then using Pepe’s inherent aggressiveness against him, going down for Mark Clattenburg to point to the spot. Griezmann, however, could only hit the bar.

The oddity was that Real weren’t hitting anything like the heights they should. Bale apart, their attackers were very quiet, and Cristiano Ronaldo clearly wasn’t fit. It would have been easy to forget he was playing until Karim Benzema failed to square to him on 70 minutes and then he when he attempted a self-indulgent step-over finish.

That should have been the winner.

It was instead another turning point – but one that ended up giving the match more dramatic weight.

Within 52 seconds of that Oblak save, Atletico were level, as substitute Yannick Carrasco thundered home Juanfran’s sweeping cross.

Belief coursed through Atletico again. They were a different team. Ronaldo wasn’t any different in terms of fitness, though. He could have won the game on 95 minutes, only to meekly head the ball at Oblak.

A further problem was that Zidane had by that point made all his substitutions. It left a big question as to why he left Ronaldo on, so it needed a big moment.

It went down to the most distilled of moments: a penalty.

Juanfran missed his – allowing Ronaldo to deliver for the ultimate redemption.

Normal service had been resumed.

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Champions League final 2015

Juventus 1-3 Barcelona

Miguel Delaney, Olympiastadion Berlin

After Barcelona had yet again proven themselves the best, Gerard Pique put it best.

“It’s unique,” the centre-half gushed.

That is really the only way to describe a generation of players who have ensured the Catalans are the first club ever to win two trebles. This is a historic group in football, and their delight was only deepened by the fact they also provided a historic image for Camp Nou, as man-of-the-match Andres Iniesta enthused.

“The picture of Xavi leaving with the Champions League is the most beautiful one for a player like him.”

The Catalan legend eventually left the Olympiastadion – and the club, given this was his last game – carrying the great trophy out along with his other long-time midfield partner, Sergio Busquets.

That was not just the perfect ending, to the perfect season, in which Barca won every trophy possible. The 3-1 win over Juventus was the perfect illustration of [open itals] why [close] they have won so much, given the variety of ways they undid the Italian champions, and how their elite attacking trio displayed the deep new dilemma they present to every opposition.

It started, however, with a glorious vignette of vintage Barcelona. All 10 outfield players were involved in the type of passing move that the club has seen as their ideal since Johan Cruyff first set a certain philosophy at Camp Nou in 1988, resulting in Ivan Rakitic prodding the ball past Gigi Buffon for a fourth-minute opener. Appropriately, given the nature of the team right now, there were also individual sparks of excellence within that collective brilliance. The peerless Leo Messi played the glorious arched ball that really got the attack moving, before Neymar so impressively improvised with a swift sideways pass that nobody expected except Andres Iniesta.

It is rare that a game as tense as a final offers such a fitting signature goal, and it seemed to set Barcelona up for a signature performance in the style of Real Madrid’s 7-3 win over Eintracht Frankfurt in 1960.

That didn’t quite come in that sense. Barcelona got a little too casual, and apparently a little too confident in their own ability. Iniesta admitted as much. “At 1-0 we had the chances to kill them off but we didn’t.”

Claudio Marchisio suddenly injected life into the contest with that 55th-minute back heel, Barca were caught out of step, and Alvaro Morata stepped up to score.

For a time, the Catalans looked frozen by the thought they might have blown it.

“We had 10-15 minutes when we were screwed,” Pique said. Instead, it only summed up why they are so good, and so hard to beat.

The dilemma for every single other team is that it’s so difficult to strike a balance between devoting the required players to trying to control Messi and the rest of that frontline, but also have enough over to attack themselves. Juventus got caught out by this, as they got emotionally swept along by their own equaliser. Messi finally had the space to do real damage, driving forward with the angry run that resulted in Luis Suarez winning the game. That is the grand difficulty.

Juve manager Max Allegri summed it up. “When you play against great players, you think you have things under control and then one of them gets away from you. At a time when we were about to score, I think.”

Neymar then added the ribbon to the trophy with with the last kick of the game to make it 3-1, but the wonder was whether this was also the last kick of the Luis Enrique regime.

It was the big question after the game, and the Barca manager refused to confirm he would remain as manager. Iniesta said he “hoped” Luis Enrique would stay, while Pique felt that would be the case.

It is a curious situation for a treble-winning coach, but one that is reflective of the criticism he received earlier this season, and the politics of the club. Joan Laporta may return as president this summer, and it is known that Luis Enrique does not totally tally with his preferences.

At the same time, it is hard not to think that the identity of the coach only matters to a certain degree with a group of players like this, even if that does seem harsh. As Franz Beckenbauer once put it about his great Bayern Munich of the 1970s, a squad that good really only needed a good psychologist, rather than a genius manager.

It is much the same with Barca. Although all of the players were careful to praise Luis Enrique, they couldn’t help going back to something deeper when explaining this success – the pool of talent.

“We were talking in the dressing room that this is one of the best generations we’ve had in the history of this club, and that they have the most talent,” Piquesaid.

They have the most trophies too. Six of the players who appeared in Saturday’s final also played in the 2009 showpiece that delivered the first treble, and eight played in the 2011 win. That has brought Barca four Champions Leagues in 10 years, which is a rate of success unparalleled in this era.

It isn’t a stretch to say the Catalans own the modern Champions League in the way they’re great rivals at Real Madrid owned the old European Cup.

“Really, it raises the hairs on your neck when you think back and see how lucky you have been to be at this club and win everything you have won,” Iniesta said.

“Six years ago, we thought to win the treble again was unrepeatable.”

They have done that. Now, the wonder is whether can claim a repeat Champions League win, and offer another crowning achievement – becoming the first club to retain the trophy since 1990.

In the modern game, that would also be unique.

Juventus (4-4-2): Buffon 7; Lichsteiner 5, Bonucci 6, Barzagli 6, Evra 6 (Coman 89); Pirlo 6, Marchisio 7, Vidal 4 (Pereyra 79), Pogba 7; Tevez 6, Morata 7 (Llorente 85)

Barcelona (4-3-3): Ter Stegen 6; Alves 7, Pique 9, Mascherano 7, Alba 7; Busquets 9, Rakitic 9 (Mathieu 90), Iniesta 9 (Xavi 78); Suarez 7 (Pedro 90), Messi 9, Neymar 8

Marcel Desailly, June 2016

(This article originally appeared in the Sunday Independent on 5 June 2016)

 

After the semi-finals of France’s last major football tournament, as the country’s whole population belatedly got behind their ethnically diverse 1998 World Cup team, Marcel Desailly felt relief and even elation – but not for the reasons that might be expected.
“I remember when the Dutch got eliminated by Brazil in the semi-final, we were happy,” the 47-year-old explains, his voice rising in excitement at the memory. “Everyone had been watching in their rooms and suddenly we were all in the corridor, discussing it. We were happy. Brazil were one of the three top teams… but the Dutch. They had a tactical set-up that could cause us problems.”
In other words, the French were far more fearful of the Netherlands than they were “the phenomenon” of the Brazilian Ronaldo. The story of how the 21-year-old sensation suffered a seizure but still played in the 1998 final has come to dominate all memories of that greatly resonant World Cup, but he never dominated the minds of that French team in the same way. Once the Dutch were out, Desailly and his team fully believed they could claim a World Cup win many thought would be a transformative moment for the country’s uncomfortable relationship with race.
The little anecdote is far from the only time over the course of a 45-minute interview that Desailly punctures perceptions, or puts a more complex and nuanced perspective on things – and not just football or Euro 2016. The former world and European champion is an easy man to talk to, so often laughing and joking, but he does not settle for easy answers. Take when the conversation naturally moves towards the context of this summer’s tournament, and whether France actually needs victory amid so many recurring racial politics and the awful terrorist attacks in Paris last November. Many footballers would take the easy option and offer a platitude to get out of the discussion. Not Desailly. As a migrant born in Ghana, he feels such issues are important to properly engage with, and a lengthy answer on French racial integration ends with a statement of real impact.
“It will bring a positive environment at that moment,” he says of a potential Euro 2016 victory, “but it will not last.”
Desailly knows this too well. France’s 1998 win didn’t change the country. Eighteen years on, the political issues that clouded that World Cup have grown even more complex. Euro 2016 comes at an even more challenging time.
There is obvious excitement and hope for a joyous international party in a perfect setting for a tournament, but every aspect of it – right down to whether the hosts can actually succeed the 1998-2000 team and end up champions – is under-layered with significant debate. Having led the team from centre-half through that golden era, Desailly is the perfect man to speak on the build-up, and notices many parallels with 1998: a highly talented team expected to end over a decade of acrimony, a difficult climate around it, and a country getting to grips with both. It makes it even odder France is not a ‘football nation’ in the way somewhere like Brazil was for 2014. That is something else that hasn’t changed. Ireland will be going to a big party where only part of the nation are interested.
“In France, we say the football is [open itals] populaire [close]: the working class and middle like it, but the wealthy class? It’s not like in Spain, Germany or Italy, where every single one loves the games. It’s changing a little bit because the wealthy class discover football through business… but it’s not that high, so we need time in France to build up the hope and the craziness around our team.”
That was precisely what happened in 1998 but, in a strange way, the relative apathy from some areas deepens the tension around the team.
“We don’t know how the French players will handle the pressure,” Desailly says of his 2016 successors. “In 1998, the training session before the first game was terrible – terrible. Everyone was under pressure. It locked us up, and was the same for the game. Luckily, we were much better than South Africa.”
France won that 3-0, with a soft group stage then allowing them to harden, and cohere. It became the classic story of how a team grows with a tournament, as Desailly explains.
“It was similar to what is happening now. The team was not fully ready, the tactical set-up strange. Everyone would have loved to have seen the French team from the beginning believing they could win but it took very long, probably from the quarter-final. The key element is getting luck. So we have South Africa first, then [Zinedine] Zidane got the red card [against Saudi Arabia], Thierry Henry takes over and it still works, Laurent Blanc scores the golden goal against Paraguay to make the difference, Italy on penalties, [Lilian] Thuram never scores and he suddenly comes from nowhere to score two against Croatia. The same for the final, Zidane – who did not appear – then bang, brings the extra. Every single player has been able to be at his best.”
It also brought out the best in the country. The team was fully embraced and individual players put forward as symbols of successful integration, with much talk of “a new France”. It didn’t take long to return to old debates.
Eric Cantona detonated one again last week when he suggested Karim Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa may have been left out of the French squad due to political pressure because “their origins are north African”, despite the Real Madrid striker being embroiled in a blackmail scandal. The many strands to the story illustrate the complexity. Desailly defends the decision of manager Didier Deschamps, who he says is still a good friend, insisting “it pains him to leave out Benzema”.
Even aside from the rights or wrongs of that case, does it disappoint Desailly that France 98 did not erode such discussions?
“No,” he says, pausing before offering a longer answer he has evidently pondered a lot. “We know that, for a long-term positive change, it’s just not possible for football to do this. For a moment, yes. When you see someone of African origin or a North African guy taking the French flag, it’s a real moment of communion… but after?”
“France is advanced in terms of social protection – health care, workers’ rights – but the [structure] makes it very hard for people coming from outside to succeed and build up that social respect. You cannot succeed by your motivation alone. There are more barriers.
“In England, we have difficult areas but you still have a little bit of respect throughout the immigrant community. Why? Because many have succeeded and, socially, they’ve brought some kind of respect [for immigrants] into the system. We don’t have this in France and, if we have it, the level is very small.
“It’s not easy for French people to be fully positive towards immigrants because of the lack of integration, by the type of administration we have.
“That’s why immigrants did not have the opportunity to show they have talent and through talent they gain respect so it has not really changed… football cannot resolve that.”
A Euro 2016 victory can help, though?
“It brings a positive attitude, hope, energy, motivation… but it will not last.”
He also feels it’s far too simplistic to place any attempt to win the competition in the context of the November attacks. In any case, putting that expectation on players can be counter-productive. It turns into an enlightening answer on the nature of sports psychology and concentration.
“Through the perception outside, through your friends and family, the crowd, you build up your responsibility. But, as a player, as soon as you put on that responsibility, you put on pressure. When your brain is starting to go into that responsibility, we wash away. We try every time to kill it, to be able to concentrate on ourselves and get into our bubble to perform.
“Sometimes the journalists asks you questions, ‘you must feel this’. It’s different for us. In France, we had a big polemic, asking why the footballers are not singing the Marseillaise. They took the example of the rugby man. The rugby man, they grab [each other], ready to die, there eyes are there… but we are not the same. The rugby man needs to build up energy and aggression to be able to perform. We don’t need that. We have to keep calm, think about what we have to do, we cannot build up that energy.
“I could have been like the rugby guy and at the beginning of the game I would have gone crazy, tackled everyone, so I have to reject that emotional part. I have to kill it to be able to deliver my performance.
“It’s very difficult to explain.”
That is like much with France and these Euros. Desailly has successfully done his best. Now, his successors in the team just need to follow suit. France could do with a similar festival as 1998 – even the effects are not as lasting as will be pronounced.

Striking out: Wenger and a broken line of forwards

RVPHenry
If it remains so confusing why Arsene Wenger did not sign a proper goalscorer this summer, there’s one story that indicates he still really knows what actually produces a proper goalscorer. It makes Arsenal’s struggles in the position all the more confounding.
Early on in Olivier Giroud’s time at the club, the French manager noticed something about the forward. Rather than place his finishes, the former Montpellier striker tended to power them.
So, at London Colney one day, Wenger called Giroud over and gave him a little instruction. He pointed out that, when you watch all the great goalscorers like Thierry Henry, they very rarely blast their efforts. They place them, Wenger enthused, with a composure that comes after hours of honing.
It should barely need to be pointed out this is exactly the type of finish Anthony Martial already seems to have mastered at a mere 19 years of age. Three of his four goals for Manchester United have displayed this dead-eyed ruthlessness, and it is what Arsenal must stop today at the Emirates. The bigger question is why they’re not starting Martial, or at least someone like him.
The young French striker’s sensational early United form has been another cudgel with which to beat Wenger, especially given everything Martial represents and the past players he resembles, but there are a few very relevant issues it throws up beyond the obvious.
For one, the 19-year-old used to be exactly the kind of young forward signing that Wenger once made one of his unique selling points. Two, Martial shows there is more in the general market than the genuine thoroughbreds like Karim Benzema that Wenger was apparently insistent on exclusively signing. Three, it’s quite a while since the Arsenal manager either developed or bought a big-game big goalscorer.
The manager whose teams used to be defined by sleek strikers has struck out.
It is over three years since any Arsenal player hit more than 16 goals in the league and that in a period when every champion has had at least one player reaching 20. In 35 matches in that time against England’s other Champions League qualifiers or elite Champions League teams, meanwhile, their top scorer is Giroud with eight but four of those goals were meaningless efforts after a tie or match was already lost. Only one of those strikes from the 29-year-old was a proper key goal at a crucial stage of a game, and that was Arenal’s second in the 2-2 draw away to Liverpool last December. There’s no more training that can move Giroud onto the level that the side need.
That isn’t what Arsenal had grown accustomed to. In that regard, a distinctive line ended with the 2012 sale of Van Persie to today’s opponents United, and it goes right back to Wenger’s first months at the club. The Arsenal manager signed Nicolas Anelka as a mere 17-year-old in February 1997, recognising the raw talent that saw Real Madrid buy the youngster for big money in the summer of 1999. Wenger responded to that by immediately bringing in a 21-year-old Henry, then a misfiring winger. By the time he had left for Barcelona in 2007 as Arsenal’s record goalscorer, 2004 signing Van Persie was almost ready to take his place as the focal forward.
There’s a common strand to these players beyond the fact Wenger bought them before the age of 22 and that they were Premier League golden-boot winners by 31. None necessarily started their careers as prolific scorers and all could roam all over the front line. It is why Wenger’s comments about Martial being “more of a winger than a striker” are so eyebrow-raising.
This is the talent he used to be able to identify and then transform, and makes the recent lack of an elite scorer all the more pronounced. Somewhat ironically, if someway justifiably, Wenger has put the lack of strikers down to the midfield-oriented modern European youth coaching. His comments on how only South America produces battle-ready number-nines have been well repeated, but there are a few other points worth bearing there.
Wenger was asked on Friday whether he has ever done a deal with agent Jorge Mendes.
“Nearly,” the Arsenal manager said. “It was [Cristiano] Ronaldo. Since then, never. He goes to different directions, you know, special clubs.”
This is key because Mendes has such a dominance over the South American market, and is also adept at spotting those young forwards from there. Sources who know the Arsenal boss also state he has suffered from the decline of French domestic football, which was always the market he knew best. He’s lost a distinctive advantage there, although there are still questions why he didn’t act earlier in some cases there. He has admitted to being “surprised” that a cash-strapped Lyon sold their youth jewel Martial to Monaco for just £5m in 2013.
Now, Wenger argues they can compensate with goals coming from other areas, and how mature wide players like Theo Walcott and the otherwise brilliant Alexis Sanchez can fill in up front. It used to be so different. Those wide players didn’t fill in. They grew in to the position.
It is one big reason why this Arsenal have not yet grown as a team.

House of Cards series 3

For a show almost entirely built on the mischievously seductive evil of its main character, House of Cards’ third season had one serious flaw: it was often very difficult to actually respect President Frank Underwood.

You could see why his approval ratings were so low, and it subsequently became hard to get enthused about whether he’d actually get elected back into the role. It was hard to buy into him. Basically, Underwood seemed much more in control when he was striving for power, rather than when he was wielding it.

That may have been part of some facile point being made about the reality of the American presidency, but it was to the high cost of a show that has been mostly succeeded in selling us unreality.

It also involved quite a break from character.

In the previous two seasons, House of Cards’ primary strength and driving force was how Underwood would so scrupulously execute long-term plans, and eventually out-wit all his opponents in ways that barely seemed imaginable given the predicament he was in. Even the show’s biggest shock so far, the death of Zoe Barnes, involved some vintage manipulation with the way Frank casually walked off first.

Here, there was none of that nuance.

There were two extremes.

Underwood was either so oddly meek – as in his dealings with his party, his cabinet, his election campaign and Russian President Victor Petrov – or too viciously angry, such as when he told rival Catherine Dunbar that he would put her “in her fucking grave” or to “go fuck” herself.

These may have been two vintage pay-off moments, but they both basically amounted to the supposed shock value of the president of the United States cursing. That was pretty simplistic, and not just for the juvenile thrill of the moments.

Previously, there’s been so much more in between about Underwood’s attempts to force his will on situations. It wasn’t just appeasement jumping to opprobrium. It was calculation and manipulation. That craft actually made his displays of ire all the more shocking – and convincing. They were earned.

Here, it seemed like it was his only recourse when his bizarre initial meekness didn’t work.

There was none of the mischief. None of the seduction. As Junior Soprano put it about Richie Aprile, “he couldn’t sell it”.

It was no surprise then that jumping to the most aggressive anger possible was his only solution to the season’s single main story, the dissolving Underwood marriage.

It didn’t work, and we’re not just talking about Frank’s attempts to bend Claire to his will.

Just as it was hard to respect President Underwood, it was hard to respect what the show was trying to do with the Underwood relationship. It tried to humanise the inhuman, to clumsily add emotion when the strength had been the total absence of emotion, or at least anything like human emotion.

These were a couple who the show had successfully sold as two people wilfully and intentionally entering into something closer to a business transaction than a marriage. They had traded in blackmail and murder, and both fully new the deal. You could see it most glaringly in the scenes after Barnes’ slaying, in which Claire so distantly told Frank she’d opened a bottle of wine, and he so formally responded he’d be down in a minute.

They didn’t seem like intimate partners. They seemed like unfeeling robots, and the scenes weren’t unlike the Agents interacting in the first Matrix film.

That may have been intentional, but it made the sudden introduction of any semblance of emotion or guilt into the relationship impossible to buy. How could Claire realistically go from that to this? Her long night of the soul was too brief and bright.

It did lead to Frank indirectly getting it absolutely right, for once in this series. He angrily informed Claire that “without me, you are nothing”. It rings true for everything about House of Cards.

Without Frank being classically Frank, it is nothing.

Everything revolves around him and his charm, far more than any other drama dominated by a male anti-hero. House of Cards simply hasn’t invested enough time or substance to any other part of the show to make it buyable when Underwood isn’t himself at his best.

This is the problem with a show that from the start was always about one man’s rise, to the exclusion of almost anything else. It is also why trying to introduce other dramatic tropes, to move away from the narrative clarity of that rise, causes the show to feel so weighty and duller.

The issue is not that it is trying to be deeper. The issue is the clumsy way they have suddenly changed tack.

There’s not enough built up.

There was also not much to top it off.

What actually happened by the end of this series? Claire finally walked out on Frank again, a poor girl was run over, and Underwood defeated Dunbar in a political race that had been by then stripped of all tension and excitement.

That latter strand reflects how badly the third series fumbled some of its key strengths.

By the fourth episode, after all, it had seemed like they might be setting up some of the thrilling plot movements and battles of wills that have so defined and driven the show.

Underwood had been discarded by the Democratic leadership as a nominee given his unpopularity as a president, and – for a moment that was all too brief – it was genuinely enticing to wonder how he could think himself out of this one; how he could outmanoeuvre a party that didn’t want him. There was fresh narrative drive.

It was the same with Petrov, who was such a thin veneer of Vladimir Putin, but also mercifully represented a wider scope and allowed the show to move away from the limits of American party politics.

The face-offs between the two leaders were the most energised part of the seasons. Just like with the presidential nomination, though, these dynamics were allowed drift. Worse, so did Underwood’s sharpness. This was where he was most difficult to respect. He couldn’t seem to rise to the challenges.

The only storyline that came close to classic House of Cards was Doug Stamper’s attempts to get back into the political game. It was often genuinely hard to see which way he was thinking, what he was plotting, whose side he would end up on.

It was played beautifully. It was reminiscent of Frank himself. It was joyous.

In that regard, there was also far fewer of the joyous moments that really made the show, the giddy displays of evil and mischief.

Sure, there were obviously stand-out scenes: Frank pissing on his father’s grave, the scene with the shattered statue of Jesus, some glorious asides and, in an especially troubling moment, the president finally turning to the audience and asking “what are you looking at?”

In general, though, it says an awful lot that House of Cards really suffered for the infrequency of those interactions with Frank; that we did miss him. 

It didn’t just mean he was harder to identify with as president and to get behind him. It meant it was hard to identify and get behind anybody.

This is the other problem of the show’s previous drive, and when the main character is not on his best: every other character is a cipher, someone there as a pawn for one ultimate purpose. They are not just there as a pawn that Frank himself can notionally manipulate but also that the show’s makers can manipulate for the sole objective of serving Frank’s story. The secondary characters are at best marginal.

Look at Dunbar. She was right about everything she said regarding Frank. She would have been a far more palatable and moral president than Frank. And yet it was virtually impossible to actually get behind her. The show hadn’t made her earn it.

Likewise the Remi and Jackie story. It was hard to care.

The show doesn’t make you care enough in general. There’s nothing really to think about it. What is its primary theme? How power corrupts, how corruption is actually needed for power? Either way, it’s a bit simplistic.

There are, admittedly, two caveats here. House of Cards probably does have something to say about both sexuality and gender equality, and both are related to the Underwood marriage.

For one, there is Frank’s own sexuality, and the questions about the psychological effects of his self-repression. You only had to consider the scene with his erstwhile biographer, Tom Yates.

Secondly, there was the theme of one genuinely electrifying set-piece, the Democratic nominees’ debate, and the accusations of sexism and who made them, as well as Claire’s season-long attempts to be on an equal footing to Frank.

This is what the show was building up to, this may be its main thematic point, and it may end up hugely distinctive for it.

There is one lingering issue with that, however; one potential big problem.

weThe strongest move Claire and the show could make is walking away from Frank, striking out on her own, even going up against him.

And yet, the entire premise dictates that they must get back together.

It wouldn’t be the first time that “reset” has simply been pressed on their relationship. It already happened so many times in this season alone.

It was just one other reason why this season sagged so much.

There were obviously individual moments of over-arching brilliance, but it was generally so underwhelming.

Like President Underwood, it was harder to respect.

Wenger’s obsession

This originally appeared on ESPN FC on 15 February 2012

For all Arsene Wenger’s reputation as a continental football master, one of the anomalies of his career is that he’s never quite mastered continental football.
In fact, he’s never won any of its competitions but been bridesmaid in all of them.
In 1992, his Monaco team lost the Cup Winners Cup final to Werder Bremen. In 2000, his Arsenal lost the Uefa Cup final to Galatasaray and, most recently in 2006, he saw the Champions League slip away against Barcelona.
The strong likelihood this season, of course, is that the wait will go on. Possibly indefinitely.
Indeed, such has been the scale of Arsenal’s issues in this campaign that it almost seems preposterous to be talking about them as potential champions of Europe any time soon; particularly in the current context of the competition.
After a period in the mid-2000s when a series of teams who finished third, fourth and fifth in their domestic leagues illustrated how open and random cup football can be by lifting Europe’s most prestigious trophy, the Champions League appears to have reclaimed its status as the continent’s ultimate barometer of brilliance. In the last four years, all of its winners – Manchester United, Barcelona and Inter – have also claimed their domestic title in the same season. And, even more impressively, all of those victories were part of extended rallies of trophies.
That hardly gives hope to a team who haven’t lifted any silverware in seven years and are desperately fighting to even qualify for the Champions League.
Worse, Arsenal’s last two appearances illustrated just how far away they are from the competition’s elite end as they were eliminated twice by Barcelona in relatively emphatic fashion.
As such, you would imagine Wenger has a little bit too much on his mind to be looking so far ahead. However, that would also involve discounting just how much the Champions League dominates his thinking.
Over the last two decades, much has been made of Alex Ferguson’s “obsession” with the competition. But Wenger’s is arguably equal to it and has never received anywhere near the same attention or examination.
Sources close to him testify that he sees it as a “gaping hole in his CV” and an objective more pressing than reclaiming the league title. He publicly hinted this himself a few years ago.
“I want to win the Champions League but it’s step by step. And to win not once but two or three times, to go into the history of European football.”
Step by step is one thing though. One of the many idiosyncratic problems with Wenger’s Arsenal is that they’ve never walked any kind of steady line in Europe. They’ve never shown the progression or learning curve that, say, Ferguson’s Manchester United sides did between 1996-1999 or 2006-2008.
Indeed, perfectly illustrating Wenger’s peculiar relationship with the competition, Arsenal have got to the final one season only to exit at the last 16 the next; or dismantled a European giant in one round before being eliminated by a smaller fish in the following.
His very first campaign arguably set the tone: in 1988-89, Monaco absolutely annihilated a very competent Club Brugge only to immediately fall to a mediocre Galatasaray.
And, if you do go back that far, his entire record is revealing. In a total of 15 completed seasons in the European Cup/Champions League, Wenger has reached the final once, the semi-finals twice, the quarter-finals and last 16 five times each and gone out at the first hurdle twice.
With Arsenal, his average round of elimination has been the last 16: exactly where he finds himself now.
Hardly encouraging or edifying. And, for a style that seems so suited to European football, also hard to explain.
But then perhaps his Champions League record also reflects exactly why Wenger’s career trophy cabinet isn’t as glittering as it perhaps should be. Because, as his title-winning sides of 1998, 2002 and 2004 perfectly illustrated, Wenger’s style of management and football both work best when his teams are at full confidence; when the new-age football comes off so naturally that they don’t even have to think about it.
When that confidence is broken, however, it seems to take Wenger a long time to rebuild. And, not only might that explain why he’s never retained a league title but also the oscillating European seasons. In short, his teams seem to find it difficult to overcome a poor domestic run to deliver continental results. The eliminations to Bayern Munich in 2005 and PSV Eindhoven in 2007 would appear perfect cases in point.
What’s more, Wenger has never quite proven himself as tactically pragmatic in Europe as Ferguson or Rafa Benitez – England’s last two champions. Both, for example, evolved and adapted. Wenger hasn’t other than the run to the final in 2006; a run that was also built on Martin Keown’s defensive work.
As such, a lot will depend on his side’s confidence. But that’s also what now makes this tie with Milan so interesting.
Had Arsenal not won at Sunderland on Saturday then you could have been genuinely worried for them. Instead, they claimed the sort of late, electrifying victory against awkward opposition that can change mentalities and seasons. It may well prove their most significant result of the campaign.
But just as significant might be the exact make-up of this Champions League. In contrast to previous years, two of the best sides in Europe – Manchester City and Manchester United – are already out. Meanwhile, the continent’s very best – Barcelona – seem to be struggling with complacency and conditioning. Should they meet Real Madrid early on, too, a path could well be cleared.
All of a sudden, we may end up with one of the most open Champions League seasons since 2007.
It was around that period, of course, that Arsenal enjoyed their best ever performance in the competition.
And it seems it’s going to take something similar if Wenger is ever to master that obsession.

Alex Ferguson’s Champions League legacy

Alex Ferguson was, really, just being Alex Ferguson. Drenched by rain but also the sensation of success after Manchester United had finally lifted the European Cup again in the early hours of 23 May 2008, he still wasn’t satisfied.

“I’m proud of winning it because, as I’ve said many times, we should have won it more.”

In repeating a customary speech of his, Ferguson was illustrating the kind of drive that kept him at the top for so long. He was also, however, fortifying the one single remaining criticism of his managerial career: his overall Champions League record is rather underwhelming. Two trophies in about two decades.

There are, however, two sides to the argument.

The first side is that he should have gone a lot further a lot more frequently and thereby won more Champions League titles by simple virtue of the resources and platform he enjoyed at United. Two trophies and two other runners-up spots are not, apparently, enough for 18 seasons in the competition with the club. What’s more, Ferguson’s most regular round of elimination has been the quarter-finals. He’s been knocked out of the competition at the last 16 as often as he’s got to the semi-finals. United have also failed to get past the group stage more often than they’ve won the tournament. Just as damningly, his team only won a solitary knock-out tie between May 1999 and February 2007. In 25 two-legged eliminators overall, Ferguson has successfully navigated a small majority of 14 (56%).

That side of the argument certainly involves a fair amount of negative stats.

The other, more favourable side, however, has a few stats of its own and offers a lot more context.

Ferguson’s debut season with United in the Champions League was 1993-94, when the remodelled and restructured competition first began to announce itself as a marking behemoth. Famously, the competition has never been retained since then. There’s been an era of variety and competitiveness among champions that is unprecedented in European Cup history.

The role-call of winners in his time is revelatory. From 1993 to 2013, it reads:

3 – Barcelona, Real Madrid, AC Milan

2 – Manchester United, Bayern Munich

1 – Marseille, Ajax, Juventus, Borussia Dortmund, FC Porto, Liverpool, Inter Milan, Chelsea

So, really, only three teams have won as much as, or more than, United in that time.

When it comes to managers in that period, meanwhile, Ferguson has no superior:

2 – Ottmar Hitzfeld, Vicente Del Bosque, Carlo Ancelotti, Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, Jupp Heynckes

1 – Raymond Goethals, Fabio Capello, Louis van Gaal, Marcello Lippi, Rafa Benitez, Frank Rijkaard, Pep Guardiola.

Indeed, the only manager to have lifted more European Cups than Ferguson at the time of his retirement was the great Bob Paisley. The legendary Liverpool boss, however, never had to truly build his own empire. He made Bill Shankly’s regular winners into relentless winners, but didn’t have to put the same structures in place. In a time when repeat victories were characteristic of the tournament rather than rare, Paisley maximised the effect of the Liverpool trophy-accumulating machine. For that, he obviously deserves huge credit, but the dimensions of his spell in charge are not really comparable to Ferguson’s.

In fact, part of the problem with properly analysing Ferguson’s European record is that, really, there is no other manager who has stayed in the competition for so long with such a prominent club to actually provide fair comparison.

The only coaches that otherwise come close – at the point of 2013 – are Arsene Wenger at Arsenal (14 seasons), Miguel Munoz at Real Madrid (12 seasons), Jock Stein at Celtic (nine seasons) and Giovanni Trapattoni at Juventus (six seasons).

Their records read as follows:

1) Munoz at Real Madrid – 2 victories, 2 finals, 2 semi-finals, 2 quarter-finals, 3 second rounds, 1 first round

2) Wenger at Arsenal – 1 final, 1 semi-final, 4 quarter-finals, 6 last 16, 2 group stages

3) Stein at Celtic – 1 victory, 1 final, 2 semi-finals, 2 quarter-finals, 1 second round, 2 first rounds

4) Trapattoni at Juventus – 1 victory, 1 final, 1 semi-final, 1 second round, 1 first round.

Wenger, evidently, barely compares. The other three, who are all considered in Ferguson’s tier of legendary managers, actually have similar, mixed records and went out early a surprising amount of times. Even Paisley saw Liverpool go out in the first round twice.

This undoubtedly has a lot to do with the United manager’s theory that “a four-year cycle is probably the most you can achieve in terms of success”.

The relevance is that it’s very difficult to reach the latter rounds of the competition relentlessly because teams go through necessary periods of refreshment of refreshment and transition. There will be lulls.

Of course, the counter-argument to that might be that certain Ferguson cycles should then have seen more success; particularly, 1992-95, 1995-98 and 2001-06.

The exact length of Ferguson’s career, however, means that there are naturally a number of caveats to all this. He encompassed too much history.

For a start, his first few forays into the European Cup came in the aftermath of the Heysel ban. As English clubs endured a difficult isolation between 1985 and 1990, football in the rest of the continent enjoyed a quantum leap, mostly due to events in Milan. On the pitch, Arrigo Sacchi’s pressing game altered the way sides approached matches. Off it, Silvio Berlusconi’s business model completely altered the way clubs approached marketing.

After almost four decades in which the European Cup had enjoyed different eras of domination by different individual teams – Real 1955-60, Inter 1962-66, Ajax 1970-73, Bayern Munich 1973-76, Liverpool 1976-85 – and in which Milan actually became the first side to win the trophy again after more than a six-year gap, the era of the monolithic super clubs was upon us.

English teams suddenly had an awful lot of catching-up to do. Among some of the more embarrassing results in this period were Leeds United getting torn apart by PSV Eindhoven, Aston Villa being eliminated by Trabzonspur, Liverpool going out of the Uefa Cup to Brondby and – most comically – Blackburn Rovers’ frustrations leading to David Batty and Graeme Le Saux turning on each other at Spartak Moscow.

Ferguson, of course, suffered his own humiliations. There was the unsavoury elimination to Galatasaray when Turkish football was still weak, the evisceration away at IFK Gothenburg, the Uefa Cup exit to Rotor Volgograd and the three 1-0 home defeats in 1996-97 that saw United’s cherished unbeaten home record in Europe ended.

At the end of that campaign, Ferguson tried to make a move for the kind of players that could genuinely transform United. He went for Gabrial Batistuta, only to find that the marketing of both the club and the Premier League couldn’t yet quite match the expenditure elsewhere. All the shirt sales hadn’t yet turned them into one of the mega-clubs.

As Ferguson later said, “my hands were tied because Manchester United’s policy on salaries gave me no chance of providing the financial package required to secure those great players’ contracts. I think the restrictions applied to wages prevented us from being the power in European football that we could have been in the ’90s.”

At that point, United’s top wage was £23,000 a week. When the club were offered Ronaldo by the player’s agent before he went to Barcelona in 1996, they were told they would have to start at £50,000 and likely go higher.

Ferguson laid out the case. “The club has got to get to grips with what actually makes a winning club in Europe. It is not anywhere near that. It is not Barcelona, it is not an AC Milan, it is not a Juventus, it’s not a Real Madrid.”

Nevertheless, in that 1996-97 season, United still reached the semi-finals for the first time in 28 years. It was evidence that every season in the Champions League was sharpening both the team and the manager. They were growing with the experience of initially painful defeats to the likes of Juventus. As Gianluca Vialli told La Republicca in 2011, “Sir Alex told me he learnt a lot from the games against Italian opponents in the ’90s. He changed his style.”

All of that actually makes the victory of 1999 an even more remarkable feat. Unlike Aston Villa in 1982 or even arguably Nottingham Forest in 1979 and 1980, Ferguson didn’t win the European Cup from an existing elevated platform of English dominance. In the early ’80s, the English league was undoubtedly Europe’s strongest and it is highly plausible that the risen tide eased those two provincial sides to titles.

To win the 1999 trophy, however, Ferguson had to lift United from much lower down.

He does deserve criticism for failing to build on the treble success. That 1998-2001 side, most identified by a core of Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Jaap Stam, David Beckham and Roy Keane at his best, never won another knock-out tie. In the next two seasons, they went out at the quarter-final stage. It was the first of those eliminations that laid bare Ferguson’s most obvious continental failings.

In 2000, a three-man Real Madrid central midfield – driven by Fernando Redondo – comprehensively outmanoeuvred Ferguson’s relatively flat 4-4-2. One of the main problems was that Ferguson, although a somewhat underrated tactical strategist, wasn’t at that point an innovator. On the whole, he has generally responded to tactical trends rather than led them.

Henning Berg, who was United’s back-up centre-half, outlined this superbly in his autobiography. There are very few coaches, Berg said, “as good at practical tactics as [Kenny] Dalglish and Ferguson. There’s nobody as concrete as them before and during a match. Nobody that better exploits the opponent’s weaknesses. Inside any system there are lots of variables that chance from one game to another. Small details. Dalglish and Ferguson know this better than most. ‘They play like this, so we’ll play like that.’ ‘He plays like this, so you’ll play like that.’ They don’t wrap it in. They tell us what to do and, if we do it, we win.”

Up to that point, as Berg transparently shows, Ferguson’s main strengths had been spotting the smaller tactical elements in each game and building up huge reserves of both momentum and mentality in order to maximise that knowledge. By doing so, he was never going to truly stay ahead of the pack. He was only ever going to occasionally get his nose in front. Ultimately, United were prone to being outthought by some outlandish tactical variation, as happened in 1999-2000.

It was this that led to both the appointment of Carlos Queiroz and, in many games, a conservatism and defensiveness never previously associated with Ferguson. As Patrice Evra has stated, “tactically, Quieroz brought something important to Man United.”

It did all take time to have an effect though.

First, Ferguson’s retirement plans unsettled the team and resulted in the great missed opportunity of 2002. A league was delivered the following year thanks to Ruud van Nistelrooy’s goals but Ferguson still realised he needed to restructure. The team endured a prolonged period of transition as the manager introduced a new core, with the ructions of the Glazer takeover hardly helping.

From all that, it’s no coincidence that the period between 2006 and 2009 was United’s greatest in their European Cup history. A number of important elements finally came together: Ferguson’s own inherent abilities and experience; a new tactical nous developed from so many long nights of the soul in Europe and, finally, the newly elevated platform of the exceedingly rich Premier League.

With three of the best forwards in the world in Carlos Tevez, Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, Ferguson and Queiroz honed a revolutionary strikerless formation in which the trio would interchange and exchange gloriously.

That only got them so far though. It shouldn’t be forgotten United only scored two goals in the last three games of the victorious 2008 campaign. As such, the difference was a defence that was, statistically, the best in the club’s history. Ferguson had added a canny resolve to his old sense of romance. Indeed, the tense semi-final victory over Barcelona in the 2007-08 semi-final was the polar opposite of the rampaging comeback against Juventus at the same stage in 1998-99.

As Evra also said, ‘I remember the semi-final against Barcelona away when [Quieroz] was speaking with everybody before the second half. The tactic was to have the team very compact and to let Barcelona play with the ball. He said possession didn’t matter.”

That new balance resulted in a three-year sequence of semi-final (2007), victory (2008) and final (2009), as well as another final again in 2011. In short, it was the sort of true competitiveness in Europe that many had for so long expected from Ferguson’s United.

The only problem was that, in the meantime, United’s 2008 semi-final opponents made one of the starkest quantum leaps in the game yet. Responding to Barca’s evolution was beyond Ferguson.

Ferguson is then far from beyond criticism for his European record, but there is an argument he is being judged by unfair historical standards, rather than for just being Alex Ferguson.