Craven Cottage: a masterpiece of old and new

Fulham fans are probably pulling their hair out reading this. And no, not because they were beaten 2-1 last Saturday after amassing 78% possession, but because we are assessing a ground, their ground, which is only 75% completed. 6819494e-ea41-407a-949e-163575b2e355In March last year, Fulham released the blueprint for their new corporate riverside stand. Renovations began in the summer, leaving the stand unavailable for this season and most likely the next. The wait will be worth it though, with the new stand extending majestically out into the Thames and raising the capacity of Craven Cottage to almost 30,000.

Ignore that temporarily uninhabited part of the ground, however, and you have an absolute peach of a football stadium. Spacious; modern but in no way soulless; and then there’s the famous cottage nestled quaintly in the corner of the ground, the symbol of Fulham football club and it’s 144 year history.  The cottage hosts the dressing rooms, along with a balcony for the owners to spectate from. It is not the only striking aspect of the ground, though. Walk along the Stevenage Road Stand, and -if it weren’t for the sporadic Fulham badge and ticket offices at the end- you wouldn’t have any idea there was a football pitch behind it. Erected in 1905, the stand can easily be mistaken for terrace housing, with it’s red-bricked façade providing another utterly unique aspect to an already mystifying ground.

Much like the San Siro, Craven Cottage manages to fuse old and new. One minute you’re marvelling at the ancient cottage, the next you’ve got a magnetic pint in your hand. The stadium’s concourse beneath the away fans’ stand is a slick, open-air plan, equipped with large TV’s and hot-dog stands that don’t, for once, use horse meat.

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The cottage

It was a welcome break from the grimy, claustrophobic tunnels of the City Ground. True, the old-school grounds are often the more atmospheric, yet Craven Cottage and, in many aspects, the new Tottenham Hotspur stadium, have proved that you can harness both new technology and an intimate spectating experience.

A pet-hate of fans around the world is the misplacement of their stadiums. Location can mean everything. Too often are sacred grounds plopped beside some motorway in the middle of nowhere, away from the heart of the city. It robs the fans. Craven Cottage, though, is famously situated on the banks of the Thames, surrounded by a prosperous housing estate and the lush Bishop’s park stretching on from Putney Bridge. And when I say a prosperous housing estate, I mean a prosperous housing estate. I’m talking millions of pounds for semi-detached houses.

That’s West London for you, and in many ways that’s Fulham for you. With celebrity fans  from Michael Jackson to Richard Osman, Fulham is a real glamour club, and a rich one too. Lest we forget, Shahid Khan- Fulham owner and billionaire- was on the verge of buying Wembley a year or so ago. Of course, they aren’t in the elite bracket- but for a ‘small’ club, Fulham are one of the richest out there.

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5 talking points: Take Us Home, Leeds United

“I started to feel sorry for Leeds for a minute… and then I remembered it was Leeds,” was a tweet that best encapsulated Take Us Home. Amazon Prime, they’ve done it again. Just like Man City’s All Or Nothing series a year or so ago, Amazon prime have once again produced an absolute peach of a documentary, a documentary this time so engaging it turned fans from all across the country into Leeds supporters for at least 45 minutes. Take us homeEven though- as a Forest fan and follower of the Championship- the outcome was a formality before the first episode, you couldn’t help but find yourself attached to the story on a visceral level. 

1.Victor Orta, what a man

 It was entirely unforeseen that the most likeable person in Take Us Home would not be a player, coach, or kitman as it was in the Manchester City documentary. No, in fact, it was the man in the suit, the sporting director Victor Orta. If every sporting director was this much fun, the world be a much better place, that’s for sure. Displaying a refreshing zeal for his job, Orta captured the hearts of viewers with his outpourings of emotion. The Spaniard was in tears after the Daniel James deal fell through, but the abiding image was Orta, there in the executive box, double fist-pumping the air in sheer hysteria at a late Leeds equaliser.

2.Daniel James was nearly Leeds

When Daniel James came of the bench to bag Man Utd’s 4th goal on his Old Trafford debut 12 days ago, all his suffering over the last 6 months at Swansea was well and truly put to bed. But he could, and should have headed an entirely different path. Take Us Home went behind the scenes to reveal a transfer saga that was actually astonishing. James, at the time a Swansea player, was a hair’s breadth away from becoming a Leeds player in January. Daniel JemsonsHaving passed his medical, chosen his squad number, and completed the photoshoots, it seemed only to be a matter of time until the Swansea board gave their nod of consent. But it never came. So, packing his bags up, James began the long, painful drive through the night back to South Wales. The signing would have given Leeds’ promotion credentials an almighty boost. “Daniel James, he wants to be Leeds,” sang the Leeds’ fans on his return to Elland Road with Swansea. But a star performance against Manchester City in the FA cup and the Premier League clubs began to sniff around. And, low and behold, 3 months or so later, James was holding a certain red shirt high and proud on the fields of Old Trafford.

3. The paradox of Elland Road

Leeds United are an absolute giant of a club. Being the only club in the city, and with their success in the late 60’s under Don Revie, league title in 1992 and European exploits in the early 2000’s, the club attract a huge following from all across the world. Amazon Prime were determined to portray this. The series included the incredible story of a man travelling all the way from Malaysia bringing his wife to a match against Sheffield United for their honeymoon, interviews with the avid Scandinavian following known as ‘The Scandinavian Whites”, and a legendary quote from one Leeds fan saying “Leeds come before everything, before family, kids, everything.” Elland Road is never short of noise and support on matchday. But the passion of the faithful can often prove a double-edged sword. Interviews with Luke Ayling and Adam Forshaw revealed the abuse received on social media after a sub-par performance or bad result. “People forget your a person sometimes,” claimed an emotional Forshaw. Ayling elaborated on the unfairness of Twitter hate, “People say ‘oh he’s crap, get him out’, and then you think hold on a minute, at the start of the season I was the best thing since sliced bread!” 

4. Where was the dressing room footage ?

To be quite honest, it was a real disappointment to have no dressing room footage. The prospect of seeing the enigmatic Bielsa’s team talks lured many of us in, but there was nothing of the sort. PepyThe highlights of the Man City documentary took place in the dressing room: Guardiola fuming at his players, “Sit down ! Nobody Talk!”, and Fabian Delph’s row with Yaya Toure at half time in the FA cup against Wigan. But, in retrospect, it is understandable why we weren’t granted that in Take Us Home. Bielsa, the paranoid perfectionist, would not risk giving his tactics away for some futile documentary. A sole blemish in what was, on the whole, a fantastic series.

5. Bielsa: should he tweak his methodology ?

Marcelo Bielsa has two fundamentals: a small squad to work with, and a high-energy style of football. But are his ideas routed in reality ? Can you have both of them ? Take Us Home shed light on the ravaging injuries for Leeds United last season, primarily due to the physical demands set on the players by their manager. The board haven’t exactly bolstered the squad this summer, so will injuries take their toll on another Leeds United campaign ? 

Rating: 8.5/10

 

Tactics explained: modern football’s glamorous 4-3-3

Not since the Black Death some 700 years ago has anything spread across Europe as quickly as possession-based football. As the technical abilities of footballers improved exponentially, and revolutionaries Cruyff, Bielsa and Guardiola inspired with their success, more and more teams have since jumped on the bandwagon. And the 4-3-3 ? It is the go-to system for facilitating this philosophy.

4-3-3 template

The 4-3-3 set up (right). Often in a 4-3-3, the striker drops deep to link up-play, in what is known as a false 9 role.

4-3-3- triangles

The triangle is the second most powerful combination on the pitch (behind the diamond). In a triangle, the player with the ball has more than one option to pass to, forcing defenders to make a choice on which one of those options to shut down, which then creates gaps to be exploited. Although for these triangles to work, there must be movement, or defenders can easily man-mark each option.

The 4-3-3 possesses triangles all across the pitch, meaning the player on the ball almost always has two options, thus reducing the chances of losing the ball and making it easier to build up play on the floor. One of the deadliest examples of a triangle in the 4-3-3 is between the outside midfielder, full-back and winger. When the full-back has the ball, he can either go inside to the midfielder for a one-two or down the line to the winger. Pace is necessary though, so the full-back can evade his marker to either be an option for a one-two for a midfielder, or overlap the winger to get down the line into the space created. At Manchester City, these routines have become almost subconscious, with Walker (full-back), David Silva (outside midfielder) and Mahrez or Bernado Silva (winger). The combination is so seamless because Silva and Mahrez naturally drift inside, leaving space for Walker to overlap with his pace down the flank.

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Midfield dominance

The triangle controlling play, however, is the one in central midfield. Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta. Untouchable. Games are won and lost in the midfield, so it’s no surprise  Barcelona won the treble in 2009 with these three. They had the perfect balance. The deeper, central midfielder Busquets would provide the first link between defence and attack, while also thwarting opposition attacks in between the lines. Xavi was the shuttler, constantly receiving the ball up and down the pitch and passing forward. Iniesta was different, usually the furthest forward, and able to thread passes through the eye of a needle. Yet when options to pass forward were limited, these three could create a dizzying passing triangle. The benefit of the 4-3-3 is that it outnumbers a two man central-midfield, making it easier to keep the ball. Teams would switch to a three to combat this, but Barcelona were one step ahead. A certain Lionel Messi would drop deeper to outnumber the opposition once again.

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4-3-3 (squares) outnumber two man-central midfield.

Defensive attributes

4-3-3 is also ideal for a pressing game. When the ball is lost, three players are almost always positioned high up up the pitch, meaning there is less distance to cover to retrieve the ball, thus resulting in less time for the opposition to get comfortable in possession. Liverpool use a 4-3-3, with Mané, Salah and Firmino as the forward pressing trio. Although winning the ball high up the pitch creates goalscoring opportunities, it is also a defensive strategy, preventing the opposition from building up potentially dangerous attacks.

Weaknesses

In your typical 4-3-3, possession-based pressing game, a very high block will be deployed. A high block is where the whole team pushes up the pitch to squeeze the opposition in their own half during the press, but also to maintain possession further up the pitch. Man City deploy a very high block, their defenders taking position near the halfway line. But when the other team win the ball back, and the press isn’t quick enough, the space behind the defence can be exploited with a long-ball towards the pacy attackers.  However Manchester City have quick defenders at their disposal, and a sweeper keeper in Ederson who can rush out and claim the long-balls.

High block

Post script

“No system is sacred,” are the wise words of Ruud Gullit in his book, How To Watch Football. And he’s right, nor is the 4-3-3, it just helps to accommodate a more aesthetically-pleasing style of football than, say, the 4-4-2. For clubs like Ajax and Barcelona, however, the rules seem to be different. The 4-3-3 is inscribed into the clubs’ DNA. A dogma that often pays off- Ajax’s fairytale run to the Champions League semi-final, Barcelona’s 2009 treble- but can also work against them. Specific types of players are needed for specific systems, and without these players tactical flexibility is needed, something which may have been missing at times from these two giants.

 

Kit Review : Loyle Carner FC, the next big thing on the music-football scene

Music and football, believe it or not, are intertwined across many fronts. You wouldn’t have thought it, would you ? Football is far too vulgar and classless for the art that is music, surely ? Cast your mind back to October 12th, 2018. It was Croatia vs England, a group-stage match at the Stadion HNK Rijeka in the inaugural Nations League- with a twist. Sanctioned by UEFA for drawing a swastika on the pitch during a Euro 2016 qualifier against Italy, Croatia were forced to play the match behind closed doors. What once was a fiery encounter with scores to be settled from the World Cup semi-final earlier that year was now a dull, lifeless affair. The game ended, predictably, 0-0. You’d rather have watched paint dry. In fact, no. You’d rather have watched dry paint dry.

 

It was a seminal match though. For arguably the first time ever, we had concrete evidence on the reliance of fans to football. What it also vindicated was the notion that songs, and for that matter music, still had their part to play in modern football. Cheering every now and again at a goal or a bone-crunching tackle can spur a team or player on, but what really creates the atmosphere at football grounds are the songs. The Stone Roses’ Waterfall covers, the Seven Nation Army renditions and a little more close to home, Nottingham Forest’s famous Mull of Kintyre cover. Songs like Mull of Kintyre, say, or Liverpool’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” are part of football folklore. Sung by tens of thousands of fans in tandem, it never fails to make the hairs on the back of you neck stand up.


Yet while Loyle Carner’s slow hip-hop tunes may never make it to the terraces, he certainly plays his part on the music-football scene, in many ways taking the baton from the Gallagher brothers and the 90’s Manchester bands. To commemorate the release of his new album “Not waving, but drowning”, Croydon-born Carner teamed up with Umbro to release his own football shirt- Loyle Carner FC. With only a handful made, to get my hands on one was a blessing. The shirt is a spin-off of the iconic England 2000 kit, arguably the greatest England top of all team, and one of the finest kits Umbro (a budget sportswear company by definition) has ever produced.

If Carner’s not in the studio, he is either watching football- he dedicated a whole song in his new album to England’s world cup heroics- or hunting down retro kits, with the outspoken Liverpool fan known for offering tickets to his gigs in return for a retro shirt he does not already possess. It’s worth it, his music is special.

Ratings

  • Aesthetics: 9.6

  • Comfort: 7.4

  •  Authenticity: 9.0

  • Rarity: 9.5

  • Retro factor: 9.1

  • Overall rating: 9.2/10

 

Don’t expect Forest to come firing out the blocks

2019 summer has felt rather familiar. Take a trip back in time to one year ago, summer 2018. Kieran Trippier smashing in that free-kick in Moscow, pints flying everywhere- only for the nifty Croatians to shatter English hearts (Kane should have squared it to Sterling). It was the beginning of Southgate’s revolution. However, rather more close to home, another revolution was unfolding. “Viva la revolución,” read the banner earlier that year in the Lower Bridgford Stand upon Aitor Karanka’s inauguration as Nottingham Forest manager, simply translating to “Live the revolution”.

U23 friendly vs Mansfield Town at the One Call Stadium ( s***hole)

Cause for optimism was in abundance. Aitor Karanka was a proven promotion-winning manager, far above the level Forest had had to contend with in recent years ; and then there was Evangelos Marinakis. Unlike certain previous owners, the Greek shipping merchant was not afraid to splash the cash, and brought an unforeseen ambition and drive to the club.

A summer of transfer activity ensued that Forest fans couldn’t have dreamed of. Taking a leaf out of Wolves’ Portuguese-inspired, promotion-winning campaign the season prior, Forest scooped up three promising, young Portuguese talents. Namely, Gil Dias, Diogo Gonçalves and our record, £13m signing Joao Carvalho, with the former two on loan. These three, along with the signing of proven Championship goalscorer Lewis Grabban, a renewed loan for Jack Colback and the addition of the classy centre-half Tobias Figueriedo had many Forest fans setting their eyes on promotion already. After all, Forest had spent a colossal £25m on transfers. But football doesn’t, and didn’t work like that.

In this stat-driven era of football, we often dismiss ‘soft’ aspects of the game, like the time for foreign players, particularly those taking their baby steps in their footballing career, to acclimatise to the intensity of the English leagues. We turn our noses up at intangible notions such as chemistry, a value that may have been missing in that Forest squad with 14 new faces added to the dressing room that summer. Top 10 was a reasonable, more measured goal- but try convincing an entire fanbase that they’re misguided, and try convincing a brash billionaire owner that has been through 12 managers in 7 years at Olympiacos to allow Karanka more time. Forest finished the season in 9th, not disastrous by any means, but choked a relatively easy chance to sneak into the play-offs under the second manager of the season, Martin O’Neill. And- yes, this is a naff perspective- but come on, should Aitor have remained at the helm, would Forest have finished as low as 9th? Deep down, every Forest fan knows the answer to that, but it hurts to admit it.

So we have to learn our lessons this time around. Sabri Lamouchi’s early moves have been a sweet refresh from the grey clouds of O’Neill’s reign, but what O’Neill had was experience under his belt, and experience in this league, something which Lamouchi does not have, and something he may pay for. Does he know how to combat your Cardiffs, your Prestons and your Blackburns ? Not many teams play this direct and compact in France. As a fan, though, you can’t help but get excited with these new signings. Tiago Silva is like a turbo-charged Carvalho, Adomah’s pace on those flanks could cause all sorts of problems, Aro Muric is arguably the best goalkeeper in the league and while we haven’t seen much yet of Yuri Ribeiro and Alfa Semedo both are very highly rated from their days at Benfica, with the latter valued at £25m and striking uncanny similarities with Paul Pogba. And we can’t forget Joe Lolley. On paper, Forest have one of the best, if not the best squad in the league behind Fulham probably. It will, however, take time for it all to gel together so please, please don’t call for Sabri’s head if results are wayward early on.

Pre season+transfer report

Pre-season has been, on the whole, positive. A superb victory against Atromitos on our tour of Greece was capped off by another thunderbolt from that wand of a left-foot of Joe Lolley’s, while Tiago Silva dazzled under the City Ground lights in the 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace. However, on a more sour note, talisman Joao Carvalho picked up a serious injury against Alfreton Town, ruling him out for the first couple of months of the season along with Tendayi Darikwa, who was at the forefront of Sabri Lamouchi’s plans at right-back. Lamouchi has been lining up in a 4-2-3-1, though not necessarily a Karanka style 4-2-3-1. Karanka’s system was more about shutting the opposition out and counter-attacking, whereas Lamouchi has shown clear intentions to play out from the back. As we build up, the wing-backs push very high, almost to the halfway line, and Watson has dropped back to make it three at the back so we can outnumber the opposing attackers as we build up. Our press has been intense, holding a very high line. So no place for Dawson in the defence, unless we purposefully want to lose. In terms of transfers, the rest of the window should be focused on shifting players out. The likes of Murphy, Bridcutt and Hefele are lingering like bad smells. Get them off the wage bill.

Strong attendance in 1-0 win over Crystal Palace

Recommended team to face WBA

(4-2-3-1) Muric, Cash, Milosevic, Worrall, Robinson, Yacob, Semedo, Tiago Silva, Lolley (RM), Adomah (LM), Grabban

Top six predictions

  1. Leeds United
  2. West Brom
  3. Bristol City
  4. Fulham
  5. Nottingham Forest
  6. Stoke City