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Monday, 19 November, 2018

Playing out from the back shows tactics can evolve but some things stay the same

The Thursday column

Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Cech is more comfortable using his hands than his feet
1 of 1

Playing the ball out from the back is one of the key differences between modern football and the version of the game I first fell in love with in the 1970s, and it is one of the hot topics from the opening week of the new season.

Sam Allardyce described the tactic as stupid after Arsenal instructed keeper Petr Cech to pass the ball short against Manchester City on Sunday.

If a keeper had done such a thing in days of old the crowd would have fainted. It was simply unheard of for anyone, keeper or outfield player, to find a colleague in their own third back then, with the ball almost always whacked safely upfield in such situations.

But better-quality pitches and increased levels of trust in professional footballers to execute what are actually fairly simple passes provided there is sufficient off-the-ball movement from teammates mean it is now common for attacking moves to start miles from the opposition goal, and the game is all the better for it.

Manchester City, the kings of playing it out from the back, score more goals by inviting a press, puncturing the first line of defence and then creating chances than they concede when it all goes wrong.

But when fans get jittery because the keeper has not pumped it long players can lose their nerve and it will be interesting to see whether Arsenal persevere with the ploy, which was roughly the only noticeable change of approach in their first game of the post-Wenger era.

Another team who have not changed much in the summer, either in terms of personnel, approach or mood of manager, are Manchester United, who kicked off the season with a 2-1 victory over Leicester.

It was typical United, not remotely flamboyant but reasonably effective, and yet the bookies hated it and an extraordinary drift in their title odds has taken place since the first round of matches was completed.

Jose Mourinho’s side have basically doubled in price, with Hills typifying the drastic lengthening of their odds by easing them from a pre-season 8-1 right out to 16-1, an astonishing move.

They were nothing like as effervescent as Liverpool or City but that’s what you get from United these days, and their opponents look as though they may well have a decent campaign so it is hard to explain the market reaction, albeit the continuing frostiness between Mourinho and Paul Pogba would disconcert even the most optimistic United fan.

I would not have touched United at 8-1 but everything has its price and it is difficult to see why they have suddenly slumped to 16-1.

Here’s another thing that is hard to understand: why Mike Dean gets so much abuse. It’s pathetic, unwarranted and unpleasant.

All referees get far too much criticism but the vitriol that comes Dean’s way is especially unjust. He has been a superb ref for the best part of two decades and continues to officiate in a manner that deserves far more respect.

On Saturday he produced yet another marvellous display, playing a key part in letting the game between Fulham and Crystal Palace flow so beautifully.

It was a terrific contest and Fulham, despite losing 2-0, looked nothing like relegation fodder, with new midfielder Jean Michael Seri giving the impression that he will be a star.

But even though Dean did not put a foot wrong all game, his knockers were out in force afterwards, this time because he wheeled away seemingly in a state of mild self-satisfaction after Palace’s second goal.

If that was indeed how he was feeling he had every right to because, for the umpteenth time that afternoon, he had allowed play to continue when other arbiters might have blown for a foul.

As a consequence Palace defender Aaron Wan-Bissaka went on to feed Wilfried Zaha, who found the net. It was brilliant refereeing that should have been applauded rather than slagged off.


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Hard not to get caught up in euphoria of Harry Kane's heroics


Another thing that has stayed the same but needs to change is the Sky football directors’ increasingly irksome obsession with showing anything but the games themselves.

I am now bellowing “show the f***ing game” at the telly, and unsettling the dog in the process, roughly five times per match as the action is liberally interspersed with meaningless, unwanted shots of new signings sitting impassively in the stands, managers staring at the game (which is exactly what the viewers would like to be doing) or replays being broadcast while the crowd noise tells us something is happening that we are infuriatingly being denied the opportunity to see.

On Sunday Sky failed to show what would have been a spectacular own goal by Cech because they were bringing yet another replay to a lingering halt. Sooner or later they are going to miss a major incident because the director wants to demonstrate how clever he is instead of just allowing viewers to watch the match without these frankly weird interruptions.

And finally, on the subject of things that remain constant throughout the changing seasons, people who are lucky enough to earn a living from football are still trotting out the ludicrous line about how they would pay to watch certain players.

I’m sure they do not intend this as an insult, but they should stop and think how stupid it sounds, given that the vast majority of us pay to watch not just special players but extremely average ones.

If Steve Bruce says he’d pay to watch Jack Grealish, the logical conclusion to draw is that he would not pay to watch Aston Villa without him. It is just as well they did not sell him because if the manager wouldn’t pay to watch the remainder of the squad why should the fans?

Who knows, perhaps if they started playing it out from the back they would be more appealing on the eye.

Spurs fans have no grounds for complaint

Given that it can take three months for a football club to agree terms with a new reserve left-back these days it really shouldn’t have shocked anyone that Tottenham’s plan to demolish their old ground and have a new one built on top of it within 16 months has proved a shade ambitious.

I’m still massively impressed that they are on course to play in front of a full house at the new Lane this side of Christmas but not everyone shares my admiration for the construction effort.

The news this week that another couple of games which had been due to take place at the new ground will have to be played at Wembley sparked a variety of negative headlines involving words such as 'crisis', as well as a wave of anguished tweets from Spurs fans who seem to think the task in hand is barely less complicated than pitching a tent.

The brutal inconvenience of having to go to Wembley, one of the finest sporting venues in the world, for a couple more games does not strike me as something worth whining about, but I’m sure the residents of Yemen’s refugee camps send their sincerest sympathy.

Of course, the slight delay to what would be a monumental piece of engineering follows hot on the heels of the equally enormous scandal of the club not spending the summer squandering tens of millions of pounds on various footballers they do not need.

I find it bizarre that supporters, especially those whose clubs have the small matter of a beautiful new home to fork out for, should be so eager to add personnel to a team that has been performing so well.

Tottenham are benefitting from a settled squad which is improving under the guidance of the brilliant Mauricio Pochettino. They are achieving high placings despite a comparatively small wage bill and have managed to fund a lavish upgrade on the quality of their ground without flirting with financial oblivion.

They possess, as stated, a phenomenal manager and their squad is heaving with stars. If I was a Tottenham fan I would be buzzing right now, and it makes you wonder what more a club have to do to silence the moaners.

Tiger's PGA tilt disappears into TV void 

The good news was that I scaled back my bets because I was not going to be able to watch them and the players I backed finished the US PGA Championship well out of the places.

But the bad news was that TV viewers being denied the chance to watch the Major was every bit as dismal as expected.

Yes, I could have signed up for Elevensports.com’s seven-day free trial, watched it on my laptop, and then forgotten all about it, but I didn’t because I want rights holders to sell their events to Sky or BT and have no desire to encourage the proliferation of companies that want to charge even more to show the sport for which I was already forking out.

When Brooks Koepka was being hunted down by Tiger Woods and Adam Scott, both of whom would have produced a superb story by winning after years out of the limelight, I was gutted I was unable to witness it.

But it was worth missing a week to make a point and hopefully good sense will prevail and Sky Sports Golf will be able to show the 2019 US PGA rather than Paul Broadhurst’s Greatest Moments or whatever else it was with which they filled the void last week.


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Sky failed to show what would have been a spectacular own goal by Petr Cech because they were bringing yet another replay to a lingering halt
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